Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Signature and Worship

The ‘flying spaghetti monster,’ the marginalization of religion and faith in secular society, contemporary atheism and scientism, and the horrors of this world conspire against believers of the Word. Accused of childishness and other forms of psychological immaturity, believers are on the defensive to prove they are not mad, and to earn once again a place at the table of reasonable human discourse. The triumph of science as the standard by which all things human are measured and judged has limited all human knowledge to what can be accessed by the scientific method: humans can know only one way, and knowing in any other way is falsehood and a danger to the current world order. So, then, what  justification can believers give before the bar of science and empiricism for what they have judged to be knowledge of God? Aquinas was able to say that there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses, but the angelic doctor admitted  that the intellect is capable of knowing beyond experimentation. Today’s atheists want to the know how God can be concluded from the evidence, how claims made for God are formulated, and how ‘worship’ is the response proper to the reality of God. They are unmoved by the analysis of Christian realism, and as such, cannot connect things human to divinity, nor are they disposed to recognize the categories of theology and psychology as compelling avenues to a God that creates nature but  exists outside it.

The problem of immanence and transcendence in Christian thought does not dissolve in the discourse of postmodernism. Perhaps the problem becomes even more acute as this binary opposition resists any kind of satisfactory synthesis in theological statements about God: there is no peace in thoughts such as ‘the hidden presence of God,’ ‘immanence in transcendence,’ “God is everywhere.” Indeed, the corollaries of such statements would seem to be, respectively, the hidden absence of God, transcendent immanence, and God is nowhere. Indeed, uncertainty is at work here. God cannot be located in space because, among other reasons, God is not physical. God is not in the universe, and does not answer to the laws of physics; nor is God contained in celestial bodies, taking a free ride courtesy of the laws of physics. As the creator of the universe, God is already not in creation; but this creation is, in effect, God’s signature.

We can illuminate the relation between God and creation with the analogy of a simple signature at the bottom of a letter, business document, rent check and the artist and her painting, with or without her signature at the bottom. Signatures confer originator status, authority and authenticity in the absence of the signer. Sometimes the signer exhibits an idiosyncratic appearance in his written signature, which confers its own kind of authority, authenticity and even security in the fact that the signature is 'real.' Idiosyncrasy in style or manner is not required: a bank teller will cash a check with a signature it has not seen before, even if it has a policy of keeping a 'signature on file' of its own members. Regardless, the signature empowers a transaction, authenticates a document, in the absence of the agent authorizing, authenticating, etc. The signature in a painting is interesting because painters, through the very nature of art, imbue their work with characteristics that are familiar to viewers: mannerisms, techniques, color patterns, etc., that are so closely tied to a particular painter that they identify, authorize and authenticate even in the absence of a signature at the bottom of a painting. When a painter signs her work, that signature certainly functions as a regular signature, but sometimes it is a marker of a built-in redundancy. Musical art can have similar effects: we can 'recognize' the authenticity of a work by a composer via a signature that is 'heard', even if we never heard the work before, or if the work was just discovered and performed for the first time.

These observations summarize several aspects of signatures that are familiar to us. The effects and consequences of signatures are conventionally understood, even when a signature is figurative. We expect authority, authenticity and guarantees of origin. These notions of the guarantee, authenticity and authority breed a kind of 'faith' in signatures, and in the reality governed by them. When we speak about God's signature, we are not speaking simply about matters of immanence and transcendence; we must transition to another problematic, albeit familiar, binary pairing: nature and grace. On the one hand, we can stipulate that nature is all that is good yet anterior to grace; on the other hand we can admit that nature is already poised to be graced, on the verge of grace, built to receive grace. Grace then is the freely given self-communication of the divine, imprinted, as it were, on a template already positioned to receive it. When we speak specifically of the rational subject as human person, ‘grace’ is the name of the divine signature within the human soul, the human psyche. God remains radically absent,  but grace inheres in the human person.

Creation—the natural world/universe--then, is imbued with the presence of its creator, who vacates each passing microsecond of the creative act. This presence is either simply hidden (traditional concept of grace), or truly absent yet authenticated by a signature pointing to the divine/creative authority/authenticity/bona fide-security of origin. If nature is intelligible, it is intelligible as signature, and as signature points to the rationality of the signer. I am not suggesting that such an intelligence is immanent in intelligibility, or the only possible outcome of the comprehensibility of nature. Instead, I am suggesting that nature bears a signature which authorizes and authenticates it, even as the signer remains both transcendent( 'absence') and in an immanence of ‘already’ been there, only the familiar signature remaining.

Nature is not so other that we see it as purely divine, and therefore outside the conceptual space of inquiry: to the contrary, nature's very intelligibility subjects it to human inquiry and reason. The signature itself is not open to the scientific method, which lacks the tools for proper inquiry and whose existing tools obscure rather than discover; and we must therefore  be careful not to confuse the apprehension of the intelligibility of nature with crass notions of 'intelligent design’ (the pseudoscientific theory of creationism). Metaphysics and physics cannot be synthesized in this or any other application. We can admit, however, that intelligibility's trajectory is the rational intelligence of the signer: the logos. The signature within the intelligibility of the natural world is the grace through which the logos is made known (I realize I have not been making the classical distinction between the universe as natural world and human nature (properly so called), but I do this not only at my own peril, but to underscore the fundamental connection between the human subject and the natural world; simply stated, human beings and the fundamental particles of the universe are made of the same stuff and share a common origin. As such the physical universe and human nature receive grace in a similar and gratuitous way).

God’s self-communication is given to us through the logos, in all its forms, even in revelation through the divine signature, grace. At creation, the signature is written throughout the universe; in revelation through human history, first in the theophany on Mt. Sinai, and finally and definitively in the incarnation of the logos itself: the signer itself appears in history in the flesh. For Christians, the Christ-event is the aperture on the truth of God. It is difficult to see much past the aperture, so the focus is on the in-breaking of God into creation---the second person of the trinity incarnate and historical. This is the historical moment that corresponds to psychological moment of the experience of being fully human and fully alive. It is the experience of God within us, yet not a part of us, even as he became one of us.

God's signature then is more than his hidden presence, which is tied more to grace than to ill-conceived ideas of God-in- nature, God ‘localized’ in nature. God is radically absent from the universe. Because God is radically absent, existing apart from creation, in eternity outside time, space and other physical, measurable entities, we become aware of him by his signature. In this sense signature is a sacramental, but not limited to the sacramental. But that we are predisposed to recognize his signature, suggests that we share that negative capability of nature to receive such self-communication.

That self-communication in and of grace opens us to the horizon of worship. What is worship if not the honor due the creator by the created. Poised always to seek our origin, we are oriented toward God through the signature. Believers honor the signature as anyone might honor a signature on a check or letter. We act in response, though, to the signer. Give a check to the bank teller and he disburses cash in response to the authority---the ‘worth-ship’---in the signature. Believers do that too, but in proportion to the profundity of the nature of that particular signer. They honor all the predicates of God not as abstractions but as the truth of God. This action in response to the  truth of God is worship. And though God did not create a perfect world, he did create an imperfect one for us in which we are responsible for cooperating in its perfection. Could God have created a finished world free of every evil? The answer is obvious. It would appear that he chose to create this world, and chose to partner with us in the work of finishing. Responding to the call to cooperate in the on-going creation of the world is also worship, and faith in action.

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