11 March 2010

Dr. Begbie, continued

Dr. Begbie, continued

Here at last is my report on the second of Dr. Begbie’s events that I attended at Biblical Theological Seminary. You can read the first report here.

This event was an evening lecture recital. After Dr. Dunbar’s introduction, Dr. Begbie entered, sat down at the gorgeous concert grand piano, and played the opening of a Bach Two-Part Invention. Then he stood up and began to talk about theology through the arts. This concept, of learning what art can teach us about theology, is one of his unique platforms. Everyone else I’ve heard on the topic takes it the other way around: Learning about the arts via theology, or learning what doctrine can teach us about the arts. Indeed, I have mostly thought about how my faith informs my making of and teaching about the arts. Do you see the difference? Rather than saying something like, oh, I don’t know, “Because God is a God of order, we make orderly systems and consistent secondary worlds in our fantasy writing” or something like than. Dr. Begbie is approaching it the other way around. Instead, he is, for instance, thinking about the improvisatory nature of Baroque performance practice (what he calls “The jazz factor”) and what it can teach us about human freedom within the structure of God’s will, about human creativity as images of God, and so on. Isn’t that a fascinating perspective? Instead of judging a book on its content, for instance, I could examine its techniques and draw spiritual parallels.

So as soon as he got up from the piano and started talking about the two-part counterpoint of that piece by Bach, I knew where he was going. He was going to talk about how the apparent contradiction of man’s free will vs. God’s predestination works like a two-part invention. And indeed he did. He spent the next hour delighting, shocking, astonishing and educating us on just that. His major premise was that “Western” thought is held captive by an image and that European and American Christians, as a result, are in the habit of thinking visually and using visual metaphors as the way of understanding the world to the point that we have excluded other conceptions of theology. So he put a diagram on the overhead. There was one circle representing “Me” and one circle representing “God.” The “God” circle was outside of the “me” circle: this is deism. God is outside of human experience watching the world run without interfering. I make my own choices, I determine my own existence, but in a lonely spiritual isolation from communion with the divine. If, however, the “God” circle invades the “Me” circle, you’ve got a problem. Such coexistence defies the laws of physics: two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. So if you invite God into your life, as it were, then you are abdicating your own personhood and giving up all claim to self-determination. You are overtaken by deity and lose your self. You cease to decide, to act, to exist. Hence the virulent objections to Christianity by many non-religious people; hence the bitter hatred of Calvinism by many Christians.

However, Dr. Begbie went on to show how that paradox dissolves when examined through an aural, rather than a visual, metaphor. He demonstrated that two notes can exist simultaneously, can occupy the same airspace, as it were, without losing their individual identity. When middle C and the G above it, for example, are both played on the piano, you can hear both of them—and it could also be argued that you hear something more than is neither of them but is created by their coexistence. The Trinity is an example of this mutual indwelling or perichoresis. A similar theological principle is Christ’s simultaneous possession of two distinct natures, God and Man, known as the hypostatic union. And finally, when human beings practice their mutual interrelationships, they are acting upon the coinherence, or mutual indwelling and interdependence. All three of these principles, related to the simultaneous action of free will and predestination, are better modeled by music than by pictures.

1 comment:

Annelise Holwerda said...

That illustration is so good! It demonstrates the flaw of sensate metaphor for things that are bigger than it, as well as how wonderful it is; in itself, it's a wonderful image, and plays nicely with the spatial realm and its links to another one. I'll be thinking about this now, especially imaginatively.

But I guess we also have to think about whether it's aptly applied. It says something is possible; does that solve the problem of whether it is? I'd rather have seemingly incompatible/abstract statements, which I can still clasp at as real in all the practical situations I'm in, than have a comfortable or coherent image that I can't find real authority for.

I don't know what to make of predestination, for example. Both extremes find opposition, I find (whether comfortable or not, I can settle in neither while reading the Bible); but it's also difficult to say 'it's in-between, or both'. Is that the truth about this tension, or just an easy solution? There are also very important things wrapped up in people's defense of each side, so, it's risky to just stand by and not think it out, too. You know the train of thought, it's a common one.

So it seems this beautiful illustration of simultaneity (whether or not it works here, it's genuinely wonderful... Certainly in other examples you mentioned) is choosing the 'both' option, and illustrating how it can be. How my will can be truly given to me, while among God's sovereignty, and coming from under it. I do believe he can make people in his image of real capacity to choose and to relate; I know some things are outside my understanding. I know for example that he can choose, even though he is who he's always been; equally so in what he can create, though coming from himself. So for me, it's not philosophical possibility as much as "What is the Bible really saying"? The 'how?' implications come in after, where it's hard to imagine how a lack of (essential) free will (not going into semantics) fits with a God who is actually, definably good, and who loves. I've struggled with this. I think this particular illustration lends a lot to the conversation, but it must continue also with the old considerations.

Anyway :) As to being ourselves when we choose to run in his will, I love this:
"I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free... Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight... Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands." (Ps 119)