Defending Creation

AthanasiusWe are already behind in my Orthodoxy class, but this was a foreseen inevitability. It is one of the reasons I despise so-called course objectives, with their demonstrable and measurable outcomes: how do you measure the mind altering confrontation a student has with St. Athanasius or even with Origen, a confrontation which all-too-often must consume more than a week of class? You can’t, and thus these items are so much cant that has been imposed on us by the most illiberal flatulence of what I would say is a misuse of the social sciences. A good antidote in this regard, on the birth of the social sciences, is Hayek’s The Counter-Revolution of Science. The first part is a dense philosophical essay on the nature of scientific inquiry, its methods and it limits. In the second part Hayek is in high dudgeon laying out the career and mania of Henri comte Saint-Simon and his various attempts to skewer the liberal arts (in this he was simpatico with Napoleon and Descartes) and bolster the polytechniques. One of Saint-Simon’s students and secretaries was August Comte. I highly recommend the book if you want a glimpse at what stands behind so much modern hubris about social planning. I am not saying social science has no place, not at all, but I see it as a descriptive set of disciplines, and not at all predictive.

AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH. That felt better, now back to Origen and St. Athanasius. As I will be laying out before my students, so much of Orthodox Theology arises from problems stumbled upon by Origen, and then rectified by St. Athanasius. Origen of course was a brilliant mind, whose contributions to the Faith should not be minimized, even though he held very problematical views. The main one, as far as class is concerned is his misapplication to the Divine nature a distinction between the actual and the potential. God must be only actual, reasoned Origen, and in this way Origen defended the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. The Father was never without his Son, for in God there is no unrealized potential. But by this same token, in looking at the title of God, Pantokrator, there could never be a time when God was not All -powerful, and thus there must be something against which God’s might stood, and this was the created world, i.e., for Origen the world is eternal. Myriad problems arise from this, including his notions about what constitutes the Fall. More on this anon when the class gets to St. Maximus the Confessor.

For now I want to point out that the genius of St. Athanasius rests not so much with his defense of Trinitarianism, though indeed this was his life’s great work, but in his clear explication of what constituted creation. For St. Athanasius it cannot be admitted that there is no distinction in God in the Divine life; but that this divine life, while beyond our comprehension, beyond our ability to think on, let alone to speak of, in this demonstrates a great distinction. We must admit of the distinction, for this is how creation arises. Creation, as an act of God’s will, is an act of nature, and an act undertaken by all who partook of the Divine Nature, meaning of the Holy Trinity. We are wholly other than God, for the Divine Life is complete within the Divine Trinity who need nothing from Their creation, and indeed we can bring God nothing. As such, we see the distinction for we were created out of nothing, and our whole existence is completely contingent. We do not come from the Divine nature, but from an act of His will. We are a consequence of the will, which remains in God, intact. We do not possess, as the Stoics would have it, divine seminal words within us that link us to God. We do indeed have the logoi of our existence, and we are patterned after the very Word of God, the icon of the invisible God, but these logoi are not themselves the eternal Word or eternal words of God, but are instead patterned on them.

And it is these that show us the great graciousness of God. The whole world would collapse back into nothing were it not for the Logos of God at all times and in all place (everywhere present and filling all things), through the Divine Spirit, upholding and giving life to all. Since we are created out of nothing, were God to remove his Spirit, we would collapse back into the void. It is no wonder, and this is another whole essay, that the world in its forgetfulness of God, worships the void (it’s exhausting). Thus by grace we can attain to the life in God, but only by first the grace of creation, that we are made by the Word of God and in His image, but then in the reconciliation of the world, when the Son at lasts puts upon himself our flesh to bring us into the Divine life. This culminates creation, as we move then from having death in ourselves – – in that having been created from nothing, we without Christ must revert to this state – – to life in God. Christ said “I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

In his defense then of creation, St. Athanasius was defending not only the aseity of God, but also the distinction between creation and generation. Generation was the Father naturally giving life to the Son. St. Athanasius used Origen’s thought that the Father as eternal Father, had an eternal Son, eternally begotten. Begetting was an act of nature, whether in the divine paternity, or in earthly paternity, for nature comes from nature. This was different than an artisan crafting a table or a pair of shoes, for their the artisan is employing his craft to make another whole thing. But in begetting, the Father “produces” His Son from His own substance, from His own nature. And thus the Divine life is wholly complete unto itself: the Father is logically prior to the Son, but in no sense temporally prior, for temporality is only of creation, only of time. But the Holy Trinity exists outside of time, and thus of any sort of temporal priority.

In defending the distinction between creation and generation, St. Athanasius was protecting not merely the Catholic and Apostolic doctrine of the Trinity, but was also protecting salvation, in that, as he says in On the Incarnation of the Word, that the basis of creation and redemption should be by the self-same word. As the Word of the Father, the Son knows the Father, and is thus able to reveal him to us. Why, for we are made in His image and likeness. Even though we are wholly contingent beings, products of the divine will, having been created in the Image and after the Likeness of God, we are able to have communion, now effectively perfected in the Incarnation, with the Holy Trinity. This was something the Arians could not say, for the Son, as just another creature, could never bring us to the divine life.

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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7 Responses to Defending Creation

  1. Great thoughts, as always.

  2. Athanasia says:

    🙂 I love my patron for the exact reasons you outline. Awesome guy he is!

  3. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  4. David Fraser says:

    Well, as now described as “flatulence of the so-called social sciences” I appreciate even more the ignorance of the “liberal arts” folks. Saint-Simon and Comte hoped to create a “social physics” but it did not work. What has arisen is something less than their positivist vision of science and something more than the vague speculations of poetry and literature. Social science is more than descriptive but less than predictive. It works in the strange arena of the probabilistic. It is easy to criticize the 150 year old fantasies of Saint-Simon and Comte, and much more difficult to do so for the modern social sciences (which, being a historical sociologist myself means I have more affinity with the humanities oriented wing than the more quantitative/science oriented wing, though I see even its value and practice its arts). Economics, political science, anthropology, psychology, social psychology, sociology — none of them really deserves the sort of contempt expressed here. (Nor do the liberal arts deserve some of the contempt some “scientists” aim at all knowledge but there own. The inferiority complex is not just found in the dethroned liberal arts.)

    But one thing is right. One cannot “measure” the life-altering transformation that happen in a particular moment in education. One can measure whether one is fluent in Latin or in statistics or in the facts, dates and personalities of the French Revolution. One cannot measure whether one will use Latin to deceive, statistics to defraud, or historical knowledge to achieve understanding of how to be a successful dictator resisting a revolution — or whether any of these learning processes really changed the learner.

    There are many things that cannot be “measured.” But still historians give grades to student papers (hopefully on the basis of some sense of excellent, good and poor performance along a number of lines such as composition, accuracy, argument, insight, use of sources etc. — some rubric that has validity and isn’t simply the subjective whim of the professor). We measure all the time. It simply is bunk to say we cannot state what it is we are looking for in high performance in our discipline by students at a given level in a given course. It may not be as precise in philosophy as it is in chemistry — and some of it is simply stupid with too much precision asked for by the technocrats about too many minute learning goals. If one doesn’t have goals for student learning, one is simply not practicing the craft of teaching. How and when and where one states those goals and how then one evaluates what has been accomplished are critical matters.

  5. Cyril Jenkins says:

    David, I don’t essentially disagree with a word you have said, for I was not condemning social science as a discipline per se (for I could just as easily have gone on about the flatulence of the liberal arts and humanities, or what passes for them these days: hmmmm Laramie), nor did I write that social sciences are a flatulence, but rather the abuse that people have made of them in imposing curriculum on other disciplines. As for the failure of Comte and Saint-Simon, scientific socialism was alive and well at least as an idea until 1989, ant Terry Eagleton is still out hawking it. So, please David, please don’t read into my words what isn’t there. I have enough to worry and fret about without getting those I admire in the social sciences mad at me. I do know that you read my blog, and while I may disagree with you over a great many things, I’m not out to insult you. But back to your points. I love the study of economics and sociology, but with them it has been the corruption of them, as with the corruption of the arts, all arising from a non-Christian anthropology, that has tended to corruption in the whole academy. I perhaps as penance for you should give my full-throated invective against Hayek, whose descriptions of pricing mechanisms and his basic insight on “the fatal conceit” I find wonderful, but his complete failure to understand virtue apart from “keeping contracts” is a recipe for the very decadence he so often eschews in other places. Yes, we do measure in Latin class, and in history, but History is not facts, nor is Latin the memorization of vocabulary and forms. Information is necessary for thought, and the more info one has the better one can enter into the world of thought (I commend to you a wonderful book by the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, Why Students don’t like School, for the need for broad knowledge as the presupposition for the difficult task of thought). But ultimately both Latin and History are to be studied not for the accumulation of facts in themselves, but for acquiring the grammar, the logic, and then lastly the rhetoric of virtue, that is, to be a virtuous before God, within ones family, and as a citizen of the polis. They are the aptitudes of the free citizen, and if you would, the prerequisites of wisdom, education’s true end. To be honest, I don’t know a rubric that will help me measure wisdom, the fear of the Lord, inter alia, but as an educator I seek to move students away from the simple answer – – amo, amare, amavi, amatus; 1066, 1517, 1588, 1776, 1789 – – to asking the questions that will lead them to the next questions. In the end, David, I have actually despaired of the whole concept of assigning grades, as opposed to just at the end of the class making one judgement (and I know a grade is a judgement) of how one comes out having been weighed in the balance of whether they imagination is functioning yet as it should. I had a student whom I never gave more than a B to in his entire time at Eastern University. He was quite upset with me at the time. He got into UPenn (his father was a graduate and a good alumnus), but there his efforts paid off, if you would. He went from MA in History there to an M.Litt at St. Andrews, and is now finishing his PhD for the University of Geneva (yes the one in Switzerland) on how Neo-con foreign policy is a betrayal of the old Russll Kirk/Robert Taft conservatism that was the provenance of what have been called the Paleo-cons. I gave this guy outstanding recommendations wherever he went (and he always asked me for them), because he was never satisfied with merely getting by, and he worked hard. You don’t grade that, and alas, he cannot be put on a chart or graph, or made a metric. The “B” was there because I thought that this is what he should have gotten. Now I would rather tell him “This is where you have to focus your energies to improve as a writer, as a thinker, as human.” Let us say my B was the descriptive measurable, or as close as I thought (for I still thought in those terms at that time) as to what he “deserved.”

    Hope you are well and prospering and growing in grace. Christ’s peace.

  6. David Fraser says:

    Thanks for your comments on mine. I think we need to be more “liberal” with each other’s disciplines and not suppose (as one of our philosophy professors we know does) that it is social science that is the major actor in the outcomes movement in education. We do agree on what “education” means — and the challenge to have not just competence but character formation as integral to that process. Secularization has eviscerated a lot of what education needs to be about.

    At the same time, I’ve seen curricula and effective teaching transformed by the process of getting clear on what we are actually wanting at the end of the education game: what competencies, character traits, sensibilities, habits do we want from our students after 4 years of “education”? Not all outcomes have to be precise, narrow, focused. Many cannot be “tested” with multiple choice standardized tests (though the Graduate Record Exam is one good data point to see whether majors are actually learning the content they need to know to be good practitioners — I certainly hope my Medical Doctors know an awful lot of facts along with having the wisdom to know how to persuade me what is in my best interest).

    You articulate many “outcomes” above that I believe in and should be stated as outcomes of the major. If we can’t infect our students with the passion that drives us to the sacrifice of time, energy and devotion to probe more deeply, explore more widely, develop our personhood more fully as integral to our discipline, then what are we about? But to say that is to raise the question: how does that happen efficiently and effectively within the carapace of university education? Then we need to get on with it. Wikipedia will always have more facts than I can master!

    I was in one program (at Stetson University — a pre-college summer) where there were no “grades” but there were descriptors and accompanying them a written paragraph describing the qualities and progress made in each area of study. A much better feedback than a letter grade — but one I suspect most Professors are too “busy” and too “not involved with students but with their own career and research writing” to bother doing for each student.

    I always appreciated your qualitative approach and quality work with your faculty when you were engaged in that task. We need something similar with students, but alas, the economics of the matter give us too many students/classes– and the reality of family life means most of us cannot constitute the sort of life on life time that mentoring/life-sharing needs, such as what happens in more monastic settings.

  7. So much truth in what you write. I personally have found Philosophy and Anthropology useful in my spiritual journey to Orthodoxy, but have found little value in psychology, even the pastoral psych. I was required to take in seminary.

    I am glad that you are still blogging!

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