Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “On the Interchangeability Between Different Models of the Trinitarian formula”

b57780a431bd921dc7b5f12113c4b482[1].jpgThe Trinity is a fascinating doctrine. It is important to always keep divine simplicity squarely in view when pondering the Trinity, in order to avoid slipping into idolatry.

I recently realised that the classic “Father, Son, Spirit” presentation of the Trinity is not the only possible way to speak of this divine mystery. In fact, this divine drama of the three and the one impresses itself upon our intellects in a wide variety of modes. In this post I will attempt to list as many of them as I can think of.

  1. The Scriptural presentation: The Father, the Son and the Spirit.
  2. The Relational model: The Lover, the Loved, and the Love.
  3. The Creational model: The uncreated creator, the one who is begotten, and the act of begetting/creating itself.
  4. The Salvific understanding: The saviour, the one who is saved, and the act of salvation itself.
  5. The Incarnational approach: The hidden and transcendent incarnator, the manifest and immanent incarnation, and the act by which this incarnation comes about.
  6. The Eternal Progressions view: the Static, simple immutable past; the dynamic, mutable future; and the lively freedom of the present moment.
  7. The Abstract/Concrete dichotomy: Being itself; an actual, specific being; and the divine movement by which Being itself gives rise to individual being.
  8. The Essence-Energies distinction: The concealed Essence, the revealed Energies, and the act of emanation by which Essence gives rise to Energy.
  9. The Eastern Wisdom formulation: Infinite Consciousness, Infinite Being, and the Infinite Bliss that is the act of Infinite Consciousness beholding Infinite Being.
  10. The Divine Vocalisation approach: The one who speaks, the eternal word who is spoken, and the act of speaking.

The fascinating thing about all of these is that due to divine simplicity the terms of the formulas are interchangeable: The Father is the lover is the saviour is the hidden incarnator is Being itself is Infinite Consciousness is the concealed Essence is the one who speaks. etc

In fact, you need only take the following generic Trinitarian dogmatic formula, and substitute in the words provided in the above list and in every case you will arrive at a statement of profound, deep truth about God.

  1. Hypostasis 1 is God.
  2. Hypostasis 2 is God.
  3. Hypostasis 3 is God.
  4. Hypostasis 1 is not Hypostasis 2.
  5. Hypostasis 2 is not Hypostasis 3.
  6. Hypostasis 3 is not Hypostasis 1.
  7. There is only one God.

To take but a single example:

  1. Consciousness is God.
  2. Being is God.
  3. Bliss is God.
  4. Consciousness is not Being.
  5. Being is not Bliss.
  6. Bliss is not Consciousness.
  7. There is only one God.

The father is infinite consciousness, the son is infinite being, the spirit is the infinite bliss of the infinite consciousness as it contemplates the infinite being.

I do not claim to have exhaustively enumerated all the different ways of conceiving of the Trinitarian dogma, and it is fascinating to attempt to take in all of these conceptions all at once. I find that I arrive at a place where words simply fail me and all I can do is worship in profound silence. The Trinity is a perfect object of meditation in which there bubbles up a fountain of ineffable Truth.

To pick another of the conceptions arbitrarily and elaborate upon it: The father is the hidden, simple, transcendent essence of divinity, while the son is the manifest, manifold, immanent energies, and the spirit is the act of the energies emanating from the essence. We participate in the energies (that is to say, Christ), and by participating in the energies we truly participate in the fullness of Divinity. The essence-energies distinction is therefore simply another way of framing the Trinitarian relationship of plurality in unity within God. Due to divine simplicity, the emanation is God, the energy is God, and the essence is God. We participate in the emanation and the essence, but only through participating in the energy.

10134_2[1].jpgTo take another example: The father is the static, immutable, eternal past, the son is the dynamic, lively, unknown, temporal future with all of its possibilities, the spirit is the free movement of creating and giving birth of past to future, that is to say, the present. In the present moment we behold the Trinitarian relationship directly: by reflecting on our freedom and the creation that surrounds us, we are witnessing the hidden, immutable father freely creating the lively and dynamic son in whom we live and move and have our being, and this living and moving and having our being just is the Spirit. In this way the present moment represents a window into the dramatic, divine life of God: Just as it is only through Christ that we come to know the father, so too it is only through the present that we are able to know the past and anticipate the future.

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Simplicity and Trinitarianism

1b06a2abe5efbf6f82da06140e8f59c2[1].jpgIn the previous post, we saw how pure reason, unaided by revelation, is able to arrive at an understanding of God which approximates the classical Christian presentation of the Trinity. In that article I used the words “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” to refer to the three hypostases out of habit, however this was something of a premature move, and perhaps I should have referred to the hypostases simply as “Loved”, “Lover” and “Love”, or “God A”, “God B” and “God C”, or even “God One”, “God Prime” and “God A”. The classically Trinitarian “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” terminology is incredibly loaded. In the previous article I simply wanted to demonstrate that within the ocean of being, consciousness and bliss that is God, there is both Unity and Plurality, Infinity and Simplicity, and that this coalesces into a divine relationship of love between distinct individuals.

However now I propose to turn to the actual, revealed Christian Trinitarian doctrine, and see what we can make of it in light of divine simplicity and the other concerns of classical theism.

Speculations on Loving, Creating and Begetting

slide-12-creator-god[1].jpgTraditional Trinitarian doctrine states that the Father is eternally unbegotten, and that he eternally begets the Son, who is in turn spoken of as being eternally begotten. Let us immediately invoke the principle of Divine simplicity: The Son is fully God, and the Father is fully God, and therefore anything that can be predicated of the Father or the Son can also be predicated of depersonalised divinity (that is to say, “God”). Notice that we immediately end up with a baffling paradox: God is simultaneously eternally unbegotten, eternally begotten, and the eternal act of begetting. Any devout Muslims reading this are probably having a seizure.

Surah Al-Ikhlas 112

قُلْ هُوَ اللَّهُ أَحَدٌ اللَّهُ الصَّمَدُ لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ

Say, “He is Allah, who is One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is begotten, Nor is there to Him any equal.”

Now, traditionally Christian theology has said that God is free to create or not to create, and this would not compromise his nature as creator. However, God needs to create something in order to be a creator; so if not the cosmos, then what? If God could have not created creation and yet remained the creator, he must have created something within himself, so what is it that he is eternally creating?

Substitute the word “beget” and its relevant conjugations for the word “create”, and we come up with an answer: Divinity creates itself, as God begets God. God is himself the principle of his own existence. God is simultaneously created and uncreated, begotten and unbegotten. His essence is his existence; he both eternally creates himself and is eternally uncreated. God is an ocean of paradox.

In order to make sense of this paradox, the doctrine of infinite plurality in unity comes into play: there are separate and distinct individuals in God, all playing their individual roles. The Father is the source and principle of the Godhead, the eternally uncreated and unbegotten. But the Son is the Fathers knowledge of himself, eternally created and begotten as another distinct divine hypostasis. The Spirit is the relationship between the Father and the Son, and of course, the relationship in question is one of infinite love; the father eternally loving the son into existence.

But here’s the crucial point. As mentioned towards the end of the previous post, the exact actors in the divine equation do not matter – they are interchangeable. God is the lover, the loved and the love itself. All of the hypostases are purely actual and divinely simple and therefore any of the hypostases can stand in for any of the other hypostases in this equation. The crucial thing to realise, is that within the equation itself, there are distinct roles. To make the point clear, let me restate the Trinitarian dogma in more abstract terms:

1. The Lover is God.
2. The Loved is God.
3. The Love is God.
4. The Lover is not the Loved.
5. The Loved is not the Love.
6. The Love is not the Lover.
7. There is only one God.

passionate-kiss-red-tan-peach-love-abstract-by-chakramoon-belinda-capol[1].jpgTo talk in Anthropomorphic terms, any of the infinite persons of God could occupy the role “Lover” at one moment, “Loved” at the next, and “Love” at the moment after that. You can imagine these three roles as “boxes”, and the infinite persons of God as ghostly apparitions which float in and out of these boxes, and migrate between them at will.

However, regardless of “which divine person” is currently occupying the different boxes, the fact remains that the boxes themselves are rigidly defined in relationship to one another: namely, the first box is the eternally uncreated source of the love, the second box is the object of this eternally uncreated love, eternally loved into creation by the first box, and the third box represents the eternal act of love itself. So while divine personhood itself is fluid, and can flow back and forth between the different boxes, the boxes themselves are rigidly defined in a very specific relationship to one another.

Now, all we need to do is tweak the terminology we are using, and the doctrine of the Trinity immediately falls out: The three boxes are the three “hypostases” of God. The first box we call the Father, the second box we call the Son, and the third box we call the Spirit. Suddenly the Trinitarian dogma makes so much sense: The Father hypostasis is not, and simply could not be, the Son hypostasis. And yet by divine simplicity the infinite God who “currently occupies” the Father hypostasis is very the same infinite God that “currently occupies” the Son hypostasis (using language loosely in the mode of condescension to make a point)

Divine simplicity also sheds light on the internal relationships of the Trinity in another way in that in God, to create is to love and to love is to create. So saying that the Father loves the Son, is to say that the Father “creates” the Son, and the Holy Spirit just is that act of creating. And so God is from eternity simultaneously created, uncreated and the free act of creating itself. I suspect that the church fathers adopted the language of “begetting” in order to distinguish this “eternal creation” relationship from the relationship of creation that exists between God and the contingently created cosmos which we occupy.

An East/West Controversy

hqdefault[1].jpgNow we can turn to that most controversial of words: the filioque. The Father begets the Son, and the Spirit proceeds…. from who? The Father alone? Or both the Father and the Son?

Well, the uncreated ground and source of the love between the father and the son is the father, so in that sense, the Spirit proceeds from the father alone. However, the actual act of love between father and son is given and received and reciprocated in both directions: The son loves the father just as the father loves the son. This is a throwback to the idea mentioned earlier that it does not matter which exact divine person sits in which “relationship box”. At the end of the day, God loves God and God is the love. So the Divine person occupying the father box loves the Divine person occupying the son box., and these two divine persons could swap positions and this formula of love would remain true. In other words, the son could take the position of the father and the father could take the position of the son, and the relationship would hold true. If this interchangeability were not possible, it would represent a violation of divine simplicity, because the three hypostases would become three segregated, separate and distinguishable parts of a single divinity. So so long as we are unhooking the infinite divine personhood of God from the individual Trinitarian hypostases, we are free to say that the Spirit proceeds not only from the Father and the Son, but also from the Spirit itself! Because really what we are saying is that God begets God and God proceeds from God.

Of course, if we were being pedantic by abstracting away the infinite divine fluidity of personhood and instead focusing on the concrete relationships between the concrete hypostases, then of course the spirit proceeds from the father alone, because it makes perfect sense to say that the uncreated (Subject: Father) creates (Verb: Spirit) the created (Object: Son), but it makes absolutely no sense to reverse the terms of the sentence and say that the created (Son) creates (Spirit) the uncreated (Father). This is absurd, illogical and incoherent. The Father hypostasis is the ground and source of divine being and the other hypostases, and therefore the Spirit proceeds from him alone.

So the west is correct to note the fluidity of personhood that results from divine simplicity, infinity and plurality: God loves God and God is the love. However the east is correct to insist upon the precise definition of the relationship between the hypostases: The lover is not the loved, the loved is not the love, and the love is not the lover.

To Create is to Love and to Love is to Save

Jesus+-+Touch+me+and+see[1].jpgGod is not merely a creator and a lover, he is also a saviour. But how could God be a saviour if there were nothing to save?

I’m now about to tread onto extremely speculative ground. So far we have seen two ways in which God manifests as a “Subject Verb Object” Trinity: 1. The Father loves the Son. 2. The Father creates the Son. Due to the doctrine of Simplicity, these two formulations, and the terms of these formulations are all entirely interchangeable. I propose to introduce one further Trinitarian formulation: From all eternity, the Father is the saviour of the Son.

The doctrine of the incarnation comes into play at this point. From all eternity, the son assumed fallen human nature, and took onto himself all of our sins and bore the consequences of those sins, namely – damnation, rejection, Hell, non-existence, death. The son willingly embraced this state of damnation on our behalf. But, someone who is in such a state of damnation requires a saviour; someone to deliver them from the darkness. This saviour is the father. So from eternity by his incarnation the son embraces death and non-existence and plunges into it, and from eternity the father rescues him from the Tartaran depths, resurrects him and raises him up to new life and eternal glory.

And so the divine paradoxes continue to proliferate: God is both living and dead, both unity and plurality, both simplicity and complexity, both existing and non-existing, both being and non-being, both light and darkness, both created and uncreated. God takes everything that is opposed to him up into himself and in doing so defeats it and glorifies it.

Incarnation as Trinitarian Identity

Incarnation[1].jpgThe incarnation itself can be expressed as a Trinitarian relationship: The Father (Subject) eternally incarnates (Verb) the Son (Object). The Father is inaccessible, eternally hidden, entirely transcendent, out of reach of our intellect. The Son is accessible, perfectly revealed, completely immanent, and able to relate to us as an equal. The Spirit is the act of the taking on of flesh. All three terms of the equation are equally Divine.

And due to divine simplicity, this Trinitarian relationship is equal to the others. In some analogical way, to create is to love and to love is to create, to love is to save and to save is to love, to save is to incarnate and to incarnate is to save etc etc etc.

And this is where theology becomes Gospel. Because of the doctrine of incarnation, creation has been united to divinity. And so God loves Adam just as much as he loves Jesus, because Adam has been absorbed into the infinite ocean of living love that is God. All creation lives and moves and has its being in Christ, the incarnation of God. The infinite act of creation that flows from Father to Son, now also flows to us. The infinite act of love that flows from the Father to the Son, now also flows to us. The infinite act of Salvation that flows from the Father to the Son, now also flows to us. And the infinite act of incarnating glorification that flows from Father to the Son, now also flows to us. God creates us, loves us, saves us and deifies us, because he has drawn all of us up into his inner divine life where this beautiful theodrama eternally plays out.

Final Implications of Trinitarian Theology

I return now to the question which launched this series: Did God need to create the cosmos? Could the cosmos not have been?

As we have seen in this post, God could have not created us, and yet still remained a creator. God could have not loved us, and yet still remained a lover, God could have not saved us, and yet still remained a saviour. So not only are God’s acts of Creation, Love and Salvation completely and entirely free, gratuitous and uncoerced, but it is within the realm of reasonable possibility that God may have chosen to do otherwise without compromising his nature. But, could God have chosen not to become incarnate?

Incarnation is the bridge where necessity and contingency meet and it is the road where Divinity and Creation collide. Is it necessary that the Father eternally love the Son into being? No, the Father’s act of love towards the Son is completely uncoerced, unforced, free, gratuitous. However if it were not the case that the Father loved the son, then God would not be God. The incarnation brings all of creation into this equation. Is it necessary that God eternally loves creation into existence? No, God’s act of love towards creation is completely uncoerced, unforced, free, gratuitous. However because of the incarnation, if it were not the case that the Father loved creation, then God would not be God.

BeholdTheThrone[1].jpgThis same trick can be repeated for the other Trinitarian relations: Creation, Love, Salvation. The incarnation assumes us up into the divine life of the Trinity, a life where there is no necessity and no compulsion, only freedom. And yet it is also a life of perfect Creation, Love, and Salvation, gracefully bestowed as freely offered, freely accepted gifts between one person and another. By the incarnation, we are taken up to experience the uncoerced necessity of God’s free choice to save us. God chooses to save us, and it no longer makes any sense to speak of him as doing otherwise, because we have been assumed into the divine life itself, where the boundary between freedom and necessity has melted away and God can do nothing but love us with all of the infinite freedom that this love implies.

But, all of this is predicated on the necessity of the incarnation. And so the question becomes pressing, could God have chosen not to incarnate?

Let’s once more invoke divine simplicity: If the Father freely and gratuitously loves the Son, and yet it does not make any reasonable sense to imagine the Father not freely and gratuitously loving the Son, then we must imagine the incarnation in the same way. The Father freely and gratuitously incarnates the Son, and it does not make any reasonable sense to imagine things happening any other way.

In this way, the conclusion of the first post hasn’t changed: God does not create out of some sort of necessity or out of obedience to some higher principle, but if he didn’t create, he would not be God, and it is therefore nonsensical to imagine that the cosmos might not have been. However the crucial point here is the incarnation: if not for the fact that divinity eternally united itself to creation, creation very well might not have been, because God contains everything within himself and is completely self-sufficient. But because of the incarnation, created reality is assumed into the divine life, and the so the necessary freedom of God has become applicable.

And once more we finish on a note of Gospel: We have been assumed into the divine drama. If within this drama the Father would not abandon the Son to Hell and everlasting torments, instead resurrecting him to new life and glory, then how much more will he save his creation; perfectly uniting us to Christ by faith, sacrament and theosis? Could God leave anyone or anything behind? Only if God could abandon himself, for he has united himself to the creation and everything in it. But we know that he will not abandon himself, and so we know that he will not abandon any of us. All creation, and everything and everyone within creation are destined for glory and beatitude. I leave the final word to God himself:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies;who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Return to first article)

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Divine Plurality For Non-Trinitarians (Specifically Muslims and Jews)

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Jews and Muslims stand united in their rejection of the Trinity. To them, the doctrine seems to compromise the divine unity; it seems to directly violate the Shema and the Shahada, which clearly state that there is only one God:

Deuteronomy 6:4, The Shema Yisrael

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord

The Shahada

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.

However – as we shall see in this post – it is possible to come to a doctrine of “Divine plurality”, even if not a full doctrine of the Trinity, merely by depending upon reason, logic and the common “classical theistic” grounding that is shared equally by the more sophisticated strands of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim intellectual traditions.

God as Pure Actuality – The First Way

220px-Carlo_Crivelli_007[1].jpgTo get the ball rolling, it is helpful to rehash one of the classic proofs of God that has traditionally been put forward in some form or other by big name thinkers from all three Abrahamic traditions. In point form:

  1. We invariably observe change in our everyday experience of life.
    • Change is defined as the actualisation of a potential, or a “movement” from potential to actual.
      • For example a match has the potential to be lit, but this potential is not actualised until the match is struck, at which point the match becomes actually lit.
      • Another example would be a ball placed on top of a desk. The ball has the potential to roll off the edge of the desk, but this potential is not actualised until something bumps the ball and causes it to actually roll off the table and therefore actually be on the ground. Prior to this bump, the ball is only potentially on the ground.
  2. It seems to be a fair assumption that no change can bring itself about, which is to say no potential can actualise itself. An implication of this principle is that in order for some given potential to be actualised, something which is already actualised has to operate upon the potential.
    • An example would again be the match. The match cannot just randomly and spontaneously combust (abstracting away quantum theory for the sake of argument). Instead, a human agent – who is already in some combination of various potential and actual states – has to come along, pick up the match and strike it. This picking up of the match and striking it is an example of actuality working upon potential to bring about further actuality.
  3. We observe chains of causality between agents. One thing actualises potential in another, this thing too actualises potential in some further thing, and this further thing goes on to actualise potential in something else.
    • It is helpful to draw a distinction between two types of causal series: Causal series ordered per esse and causal series ordered per accidens.
      • A causal series ordered per accidens in one which stretches backwards and forwards in time. This sort of causal series is the sort that most people think of when debating the beginnings of the universe and the existence of God. “What was before the big bang?” the apologist asks; “What caused the big bang?”. “God” responds the Christian. “Nothing” responds the Atheist. A biblical example of this sort of series is “Abraham begets Isaac, Isaac begets Jacob”. There is no intrinsic necessity tying the two actions together: Abraham need not continue to be around and exercise his causal power in order for Jacob to get about the business of begetting Jacob. Similarly, arguments for the existence of God that proceed from a “What was before the big bang?” platform inevitably are going to come up short: God may have created the universe and then immediately ceased to exist on this account, which would make him all but irrelevant to our lives today.
      • A casual series ordered per esse is a different sort of beast. It is a causal series in which the relationship between the agent doing the actualising and the potential being actualised is simultaneous. That is, in an essentially ordered series, time has been abstracted out of the equation. It’s not that the brick first hits the window, and subsequently the window shatters; instead the brick hitting the window and the window shattering are conceived of as simultaneous events. A classic example of a per esse series, is that of a hand holding a long stick and using this long stick to push a rock into a loaf of bread. In this case the actuality flows through the chain of potentiality like electricity through a wire: the stick has the potential to move the rock, the rock has the potential to sink into the bread, the bread has the potential to mould itself around the shape of the rock. However until the hand actually applies itself to the stick, the entire chain is devoid of movement. The question becomes, “What is acting upon the bread?” is it the rock, or is it the hand? The answer is “both, but in different senses”. The rock is the next link in the causal chain, but it is the hand which is the source of power and actuality for the entire chain. If not for the hand, nothing would happen.
  4. It is a reasonable principle that such causal chains must necessarily have either a first actualised element, or some external agent which can bestow actuality upon the entire chain.
    • Consider an infinite chain of potentials. Unless there is some first element of the chain which itself is in a state of actuality, then by point two this infinite chain of potential interactions must remain inert and immobile.
    • Alternatively, consider an infinite chain of potential interactions with no “first element”. In this case, the source of actuality must come from somewhere outside of the chain.
  5. It is this “First element of the chain” or “External agent which bestows actuality upon the chain” which everyone refers to by the word “God”.
  6. A variety of properties of God are immediately implied. To name a few: Pure Actuality, Immutability, Omnipotence.
    • One of the properties of God which immediately falls out is that God cannot itself have any potential, because if it did then some explanation would be required for how that potential is being actualised, and as established by point 2, no potential can actualise itself. In this way, God is actus purus – pure Act. He could also be referred to as an unmoved mover or an unchanged changer, for it is the principle which actualises all potential while it itself requires no such actualiser.
    • Seeing as God is infinite actuality and completely devoid of potentiality, he is immutable. God cannot change, because the ability to change implies some sort of unactualised potential.
    • If power is defined as the ability to bring about actuality from potentiality, and if God is the ultimate source of all observed actualisation, and is himself pure actuality, then this implies that he is omnipotent. All things that actually are actualised are actualised by the power of God.

And so in 6 precisely defined steps, we logically move from the observation of change to the existence of an immutable, omnipotent, purely actual God.

Divine Simplicity

shutterstock_313063250-jpgoriginal[1].jpegIt is helpful here to quickly import the concept of divine simplicity, which is one that can be proven by a variety of methods but for the sake of brevity we are just going to take it on faith. Divine simplicity – simply stated – is the idea that God is not composite; that God has no components or parts. Combining this with Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is essential to have any hope of comprehending it. In God, love, mercy, grace, existence, being, justice, willing, action, freedom and all other attributes; are in reality one and the same thing – God himself. However we cannot understand all these words in a univocal sense (ie, in exactly the same way that we understand them normally) because otherwise we run into absurdity: for example in our everyday experience of life wrath is totally different to love, justice is totally opposed to mercy. The key point is that when we apply these terms to God and say that in him, they are all one and the same thing, we are speaking analogically. It is important to remember that Analogy does not mean Equivocity; when we apply these words to God we are saying something intelligible and meaningful. However we do not know precisely what we mean when we call God these things, and instead have to rely on the ineffable movements of divinity within our intellects and intuitions to bring us to a wordless apprehension of the Truth of the analogical situation.

In summary, in God all attributes are univocally equal, whereas with us, they are all equivocally unequal. The relationship between these attributes as they apply to us and the attributes as they apply to God is one of analogy: In us, justice and mercy are different but in God, they are the same. The relationship of our justice to Gods justice, and our mercy to Gods mercy, is the relationship of analogy.

Implications of Pure Actuality and Divine Simplicity

heider[1].jpgSo, we have a God who is simple, and purely actual, devoid of potential. Certain classical theists (Most notably, Edward Feser), argue that because God has these properties, there can only be one God. The reason why is easy to see: If there were two Gods, there would have to be some way to tell them apart, but this would imply some potential which is actualised in one God and not the other, or some component in one God which the other God lacks. But this is absurd, because as we have already established, God has no potential and God has no parts. Therefore, there can only be one God.

The logic is sound but the conclusion is faulty. What such classical theists have discovered is not some sort of logically necessary “numerical monotheism”. Instead, what they have discovered is God’s divine and uncountable infinity. As Aquinas says, “There is no number in God”. It does not make sense to count God, for divinity is uncountable. Lets for the sake of argument say that we had three purely actual, completely simple Gods: How on earth would we even begin to count them? There would be no way to tell them apart! You would point your finger at one of them in order to start audibly counting “one, two, three”, but the moment you point your finger at one of them, you have pointed your finger at all of them! And this is the crucial point: it makes no more sense to say that there is one God than to say that there are three Gods. In fact, we may as well say that there are an infinitude of Gods! Once you start trying to count the uncountable, you find yourself counting up to infinity!

These reflections might sound familiar to those who are well versed in deeper Trinitarian thought such as the doctrine of perichoresis and the apophatic doctrine of “stupid arithmetic”. We could easily imagine three purely actual beings and arbitrarily call them the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It would be immediately noted that these three beings could not be separated one from the other, and it would not be possible to even clearly distinguish between them or count them. Combine this with a couple of bible verses and the liturgical tradition of the churcha couple of bible verses and the liturgical tradition of the church, and we would be well on our way to developing a robust doctrine of the Trinity.

This is the point where we can extend an ecumenical bridge to our Jewish and Muslim brethren. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all equally humbled before the mystery of an uncountable divine infinity, which subsists as a purely simple and actual plurality in unity. It makes just as much sense to say “one”, “none”, “three” and “infinity”, because in God there is no way of distinguishing between these numerical designations.

Divine Plurality

6dd734196c30266fdf6fdf422fb3b4c1[1].jpgWhat are some further implications of divine infinity?

Well, for one thing, it becomes possible for God to relate to God as one relates to another. Thoughtful readers will have the Trinitarian dogma hovering at the back of their minds:

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Spirit is God.
  4. The Father is not the Son.
  5. The Son is not the Spirit.
  6. The Spirit is not the Father.
  7. There is only one God.

The Father loving the Son and the Son loving the Father in return; this is simply God loving God. However the crucial point is that due to the divine infinity, God loving God does not take on a schizophrenic, selfish character, as if it were one person “loving himself”. Instead, due to the divine infinity, Divinity is able to relate to divinity “as one relates to another”. To put it bluntly, when Jesus prays to the Father, this is not an example of divine schizophrenia; Jesus is not talking to himself. There is indeed a conversation going on within God, but God is not confusedly muttering to himself. Jesus is not the father, and yet they are both the same infinite reality that we call “God”.

maxresdefault[1].jpgLet us conceive of God as an infinite ocean of pure bliss, unspeakable love, ineffable consciousness. In this case, God relating to God takes on the character of this infinite ocean folding back upon itself, and simultaneously taking on the roles of the lover, the loved and the love itself. A Plurality spontaneously arises from this wonderful infinitude of unity. A true relationship, “as one to another” naturally emerges from this boundless ocean of bliss and love.

Points 4-6 of the Trinitarian dogma as stated above serve to secure the “as one to another” aspect of this divine love. If the father were the son, then we would indeed have a case of divine schizophrenia, as the father/son would be talking to himself. However by pinning down the fact that the father is not the son, and the son is not the spirit, we lay hold of this beautiful doctrine of a God who is both the love between distinct individuals and the individuals themselves.

God is love, but love demands both a subject and an object. And of course due to divine simplicity God is both the Subject, the Object, and the love itself. Some readers may find this sort of talk familiar to traditional Trinitarian presentations of divinity. The Father begets the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is just that love that exists between them, and all terms of the equation are divine.

It is interesting to note that Christians often hurl an accusation at Muslims and Jews, that their God is not “love by nature” because he is a single numerical personality and therefore requires his creation in order to have an object to love. However an astute Jew or Muslim, after reading this post should be able to articulate why this is not the case, even if they don’t go as far as the full Trinitarian dogma. God does not require his creation in order to be loving, because within the infinitude of God and flowing from his perfect simplicity, there is a divine plurality in which God loves God as one loves another. Whether you call the one “Son”, the another “Father”, and the act of love that exists between them “Spirit” is by-the-by. The fact of the matter is that just as one loves another, God loves God, and God is love. I guess that’s a Trinity of sorts.

The Divine Dance of Love

image_291[1].jpegA question comes to me as I reflect on these things: If the son is not the father, what is it that distinguishes one from the other? If there is something that distinguishes one from the other, then doesn’t this violate divine simplicity and pure actuality? Doesn’t it imply some sort of actualised potential which the son possesses and the father lacks? How else could we identify them as father and son? The doctrine of perichoresis states that all that the father has and is, the son also has and is, such that if you were to take the son, you would get the father too, and vice versa. And yet in theological discourse, we say that the son became incarnate, and not the father. What do we mean by this? Surely we can’t mean that only part of God became incarnate? God has no parts; if the son became incarnate then surely this implies that the entirety of God became incarnate, father and spirit too?

Perhaps the Son is different to the Father only in the act of loving – there is no actual difference between them besides the roles they assume in the Subject Verb Object formula, and as such they are completely interchangeable. The one doing the loving could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, the one being loved could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, and the love itself could equally well be the father, the son or the spirit. The crucial point is that so long as it is the father who is doing the loving, it is necessarily either the Son or the Spirit who is being loved. Similarly so long as it is the Son doing the loving, it is either the Father or the Spirit being loved. In this way the differences between the hypostases of the Trinity only arise in the context of their assuming different roles in the relationship of love. And yet due to divine simplicity and pure actuality, in a sort of divine dance the hypostases of the trinity assume all of the roles all at once.

But these are ponderings for another time.

(Go to “Simplicity and Trinitarianism”)

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Divine Freedom and Necessity; Contradictions, Square Circles and Rocks that Can’t be lifted

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I have been reading a brilliant series by Father Aiden Kimel over on his “Eclectic Orthodoxy” blog about psuedo-Dionysius and his deep, profound reflections on divinity. I had to pause to worship and set my thoughts down. As I paced around my room churning it all over in my mind I felt as if I had a series of breakthroughs and insights. Here is my attempt to set them down. Such exciting theological discoveries are typically hard to capture with human language, but here is my attempt regardless.

Did God Have to Create? Is Creation Necessary?

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  • Yes, in the sense that God would not be God if he did otherwise than what he does. God needs a creation in order to be a creator.
  • No, in the sense that God’s act of creation is completely uncoerced, unforced. It is a completely free, gratuitous and voluntary act. There is no necessitating principle which requires him to create in order for him to be who he is, or if there is such a principle, it is absorbed into the divine simplicity along with everything else, such that God IS both the principle and that which it demands.

So,

Is God forced to create?
Is God forced to love?
Is God forced to save?
Is God forced to be omnipotent?

No. For this would imply some sort of superior principle determining God’s nature and actions. God is completely free of all such restraint.

But,

Could God have not created?
Could God have not loved?
Could God have not saved?
Could God have not been omnipotent?

No. For if he were not creator, lover, saviour and omnipotent, he would not be God.

The Internal Life of the Trinity

Call-to-Love-Learning-Journey[1].jpgThere is no necessity within God, imposing upon his nature that it must be such and such a way, for example loving, or omnipotent, or just. Instead, there is an invitation extended from God to God: the invitation to be loving, the invitation to be merciful, the invitation to be omnipresent, the invitation to be omnipotent, the invitation to be creator, the invitation to be saviour. God always fully and freely accepts this invitation which in his infinity is made from God to God as from one to another. Due to divine simplicity, God is both the one making the invitation and the one accepting the invitation, God is what the invitation offers, he is the act of inviting itself, and he is the act of accepting the invitation.

Whereas if there were necessity within God, this would imply a sort of dissonant violence within divinity: God commands God to be loving by necessity, and there is tension as God obeys this inevitable command, perhaps against his will. God commands God to be saviour, and there is rebellion and struggle as God begrudgingly accepts the pain that is involved. God commands God to be omnipotent, and God throws this infinite power back in God’s face by creating square circles and rocks that can’t be lifted.

Anthropomorphism at Fault Again

high-resolution-2048x2048-abstract-yin-yang-hd-arena[1].jpgThe problem comes from imagining freedom in a creaturely way. In our every day experience, we commonly deliberate between multiple distinct and contrary options, and we locate our freedom in the selection of one of these options. Whereas for God this cannot be the case. There is no deliberation between options in God and – more starkly still – there is no “choice” in God. God does not “choose” to create; he simply creates. God does not choose to love; he simply loves. But the crucial thing here is that whenever we attach a verb to God, the adverb “freely” is always implied, and the adverb “freely” itself implies an action that is completely uncoerced, completely unforced, and entirely gratuitous. So God does not simply love; he freely loves. God does not simply create; he freely creates. God is not simply who he is; he freely is who he is. God is not omnipotent out of some necessity that he be omnipotent in order to be who he is, instead, God freely embraces omnipotence. The definition of God as omnipotent flows from his free act to embrace omnipotence, rather than his act of being omnipotent flowing from some predetermined, and necessary definition which is superior to God.

Of course, as I have elaborated on elsewhere on this blog, it is possible to embrace dualism and anthropomorphism and conceive of God as choosing between two polar opposite alternatives: Good and Evil, Being and nothingness. The choice to love, to save, to create, to be omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, to be free; in short, to be God – this represents the choice for good. The choice to hate, to damn, to destroy, to be powerless, to be illogical, to be nowhere, nothing, non-existent, enslaved; this represents the choice for evil. But really, when put in such stark terms, how could we imagine God choosing anything but the first option? If he didn’t, he would not be God.

Can God Actualise Irrational Potentials?

large-boulder[1]These considerations also directly bear on the age old problem of rocks that can’t be lifted and the possibility of square circles. Could God have actualised these strange and irrational potentials? No, because if he were to do that, he would not be God – he would be either greater than he currently is, in which case the God we worship is not truly God; or he would be less than he currently is, in which case he would not be worthy of the title “God”.

At this point the principle of non-contradiction comes into the spotlight and is sometimes invoked as a superior principle which even God is bound to follow. However it is important to remember that God is not bound by this principle as something over and above him, but he freely chooses to embrace order over disorder, structure over chaos, logic over irrationality. The principle of non-contradiction lies at the heart of logic, reason and rationality, and therefore God freely embraces this principle as part of his nature, just as he embraces omnipotence, omniscience, love, justice, mercy etc. Could he have done otherwise? Yes he could, but then he would be some other God, and some other God is no God at all, which in the end is just another way of saying no he could not have. This implies that there is a certain divinity inherent in the principle of non-contradiction; it is one of very few clear windows into the character of the mysterious and ineffable God whom we worship.

So, is there any external principle which prevents God from creating rocks that can’t be lifted or square circles? Again, no. God’s choice not to create these things is completely free and gratuitous, just as free and gratuitous as his act of creating the world, or being omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipresent.

But could he create them? Yes, but then he would not really be God, which is just another way of saying no. This does not represent some external principle, regulating and restricting his freedom and limiting his power. It simply represents the fact that God freely is who he is, and if he were otherwise he would not be God.

Calvinism, Sovereignty and Freedom

solar-system-11188_1280-e1505503768960[1].jpgGod freely embraces love, he freely embraces omnipotence, he freely embraces justice. But due to divine simplicity, he freely embraces everything else about himself too: he freely embraces transcendence, he freely embraces simplicity, he freely embraces infinitude, he freely embraces both unity and plurality. Most bafflingly of all, he even freely embraces freedom itself!

This sheds a little bit of light on the Calvinist obsession with the attribute of Sovereignty: God’s infinite freedom means that he freely embraces love, justice, mercy, grace, power. Where the Calvinists tend to go wrong is when they conceive of this freedom in anthropomorphic terms; as the choice between two options, either of which God could deign to choose. In this way the Calvinists tend to imagine a God who is free to save or to damn, to create or not to create, to love us or to hate us, to save us or damn us. But this is going about it all wrong, for the God who does not choose to love, to create and to save is not the true and eternal God. God is who he is and he is what he does and if he did any different he would not truly be God. Divine freedom and sovereignty is not a choice between two options; it is the infinite, free, overflowing bubbling fountain of love and salvation that is God himself. God is not forced to create us, love us, or save us; but he could not do otherwise and remain God.

Final Thoughts

Hakim_Art%20(1)[1].jpgAnd so finally we come to the most pressing question of all:

Must God save everyone?

No, for nothing can compel God to do anything.

But will God save everyone?

Of course! For if God did not save everyone, he would not be the true God, he would be some other god, and “some other god” is no God at all.

To he who resides in the impenetrably immanent depths of infinitude, bliss, being, love; to he who transcendently loves the cosmos into existence; to he who enters into the divine silence of the most holy inner sanctuary and freely offers himself to himself as one to another; to he who died for our sins and rose again for our salvation; to him be all praise, glory, honour, worship, devotion and love, in saecula saeculorum, αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων

Amen.

(Go to “Divine Plurality for Non-Trinitarians”)

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “God is Perfectly and Entirely Free, and yet he can not Do Other than what he Does: Create us, Love us, Save us.”

Hi Father,

I’ve finally got around to reading the Dionysian ponderings series on your blog. I’ve been saving it for some months until I could find a time to properly settle into the armchair by the fireplace with the pipe and cheese and appreciate it. It was well worth the wait.

I’m currently up to the part about whether or not God was forced to create the world (or whether he could have not created the world). I want to try and summarise my understanding of what you’ve written in a few sentences and send it off to you for marking:

  1. God had to create necessarily, in the sense that if he did not create he would not be “creator” and therefore would be some other God. However the notion of “some other God” is incoherent because there is only one true God, which is the God revealed to us in this reality and therefore “some other God” is really no God at all.
  2. Despite the fact that God had to create, this necessity of creation is not necessity in the sense that God is “compelled” or “forced” to create. Instead, God made an 100% libertarian uncompelled “free” choice to create. In this way, creation remains 100% contingent upon Gods free choice and in that sense, creation “need not have been”
  3. Divine simplicity helps to frame the issue: God is what God does. Therefore God is both the one who creates and the free choice (to create) itself. If the choice had been different, we would be dealing with a different God. But as already mentioned, this is incoherent.
  4. Divine freedom should not be construed in the same way that we conceive of creaturely freedom, ie, as a deliberation and selection between multiple alternatives. Instead we should think of divine freedom as a movement of will which is completely uncoerced, uncompelled, unconstrained, unforced etc. in this way, there was only ever “one” possible “alternative” for God to “select”, but the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “choice” is completely and entirely free; completely and entirely uncoerced.
  5. So Could God have decided not to create? No. Does this mean that there is some necessity imposed on his will? Also no. The only necessity that it is reasonable to speak of here is the necessity that God be as God is, and this necessity encapsulates a perfect and infinite divine freedom; the total transcendence of all restrictions and constraints. God is perfectly and entirely free, and yet he can not do other than what he does: create us, love us, save us.
  6. Side point, often with creaturely freedom our choices are entirely compelled and coerced, even when there are multiple options on offer: for example when presented with a large variety of icecream flavours, I will always choose the mint choc; I simply don’t have the “free will power” to branch out and sample the other flavours on offer. Whereas God has only a single option: to create. And the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “option” is the most free movement of will conceivable

Thank you as always for your wonderful writings. Such a joy and source of edification in my life over the past four years. While I never pray as much as I should, I do try to keep you and your family in mind as you’ve been such a large influence in my spiritual journey despite the fact that we’ve never properly met.

Stay strong in Christ, with infinite joy and invincible hope,

Alex Herlihy

Hell, Damnation, Salvation, Freedom, Omnipotence, Sovereignty and Goodness: Tough Apologetics Questions for the Non-Universalist

Apologetics Question 1. Does God love the people in Hell?

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If they say No:

So he doesn’t love the people in Hell? How can you call him a loving God? Doesn’t this contradict scripture, tradition, the church? How could you worship such a monster?

“But those people deserve to be punished”

Isn’t the Christian message that we all deserve to be punished? And isn’t the gospel of grace a message that God gratuitously rescues us from this punishment? Why would he only rescue some people and not rescue everyone? He has the power to rescue everyone; so what’s stopping him?

“We should be happy that God even rescues a single one of us. He is under no obligation to rescue anyone at all, let alone everyone”

Nonsense. Once I had a Calvinist friend use an analogy to justify God’s condemning people to Hell that went something like this: “Imagine a backstreet where 10 homeless people live, and then imagine that a rich man comes along and chooses one of them to take into his home; washing, cleaning, feeding and generally taking care of him. This rich man has done a good thing, and cannot be blamed for failing to rescue all 10 of the hobos who reside in the backstreet, let alone all the hobos in the world.” This analogy fails: If God is the rich man, he is a rich man who has infinite money and material wealth. If this is the case then the rich man has a moral obligation to use his money to rescue all of the hobos. If he does not use his limitless financial power to save all the hobos, he is culpably negligent and malevolent. So it is with God, salvation, and us: God has the power to save everyone; he suffers from no limitations whatsoever, and saving everyone would not detract from him or his glory in any way, so he is morally obligated to save us.

“But God can not be obligated to do anything”

If he is a perfect father, then yes, he can. Parents are obligated to care for, raise, and will the good of their children, and if they fail to do so they have failed as parents. If God truly is our perfect father in heaven, then he is obligated to care for us as his children and prevent us from irreparably harming ourselves (ie, entering into eternal damnation). He will not sit idly by while we commit spiritual suicide: he will intervene, like a good parent should. Sometimes he rewards us and sometimes he punishes us, but the punishment is always remedial and with the purpose of correcting us and helping us grow into the creations we were meant to be, in divine union with him. This is the entire purpose of Hell: to drive home to those rebellious souls who refuse to listen that they are living a life that leads to destruction: God lets us experience that destruction in Hell, so as to teach us a lesson that will bring us back to repentance and union with him.

If they say yes:

In what sick world is “everlasting conscious torment” compatible with or an expression of love?

“God loves the people in Hell, but he loves them differently”

Does this not compromise divine simplicity? Why is it that God chooses to love the people in heaven in such a way that they are saved, while he chooses to love the people in Hell in such a way that they experience infinite tortures for all eternity? It seems completely arbitrary. Do you even know what you’re talking about? At the point where “love” can hold the definition “brutal torture forever and ever”, the word has simply lost all meaning.

Apologetics Question 2. Can God’s will be defeated?

God-Religious-Facebook-Status-17581[1]

If they say yes:

Why would you want to worship such a weak and pathetic God? Isn’t God supposed to be sovereign? Doesn’t God get what he wants? If God wills something to happen, what on earth could prevent it? Isn’t he omnipotent?

“God has two wills: his ordaining will and his permissive will. He desires the salvation of all via his ordaining will, but he allows the damnation of some via his permissive will”

This makes God sound like a schizophrenic, and certainly not the omnipotent sovereign lord of all reality. I accept the distinction between ordaining will and permissive will, as a solution to the problem of evil in the present time. However I do not accept that the permissive will can remain out of sync with the ordaining will forever. In the end times, in the eschaton, the permissive will and the ordaining will will coincide perfectly, because there will be no evil: everything that God will permit to happen will be exactly what God wants to happen. This is not the case now – in the present age – because we still have to contend with evil, which God does not desire. However in the eschaton all tears will be wiped away, the lion will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more sickness, suffering or death. Everything will be perfect. God will no longer need to “permit” anything because everything that happens will be perfectly in line with his ordaining will.

If they say no:

If God’s will can’t be defeated, then how the heck do people end up in Hell? Doesn’t it clearly state in the bible that God wills the salvation of everyone?

“God wants those people to be damned, he doesn’t really will the salvation of all”

So how can he be a loving God? It sounds like he hates some/most people and takes pleasure in torturing them forever.

“God doesn’t damn us: we choose to be damned. We damn ourselves”

And why would God allow us to do that? Wouldn’t it make him a terrible parent? What parent would not seek help for a suicidal child? Who on earth would simply “accept” their child’s attempts at suicide? So it is with us and God: If he really is God, he’s not just going to “put up” with our attempts to damn ourselves; he’s going to use his omnipotence to rescue us. What parent gives total autonomy to their baby? What parent waits for consent to change a baby’s nappy? The parents are the ones who decide what’s going to happen; not the children. In the same way, God decides who will be saved, not us, and as he has clearly spelt out in many places in sacred scripture, he has decided to save everyone, so that’s damn well what’s going to happen. If this is the argument you’re going to make, then you’re essentially saying that the children have veto power over the parents: God can say that he’s going to save everyone, but we have the power to thwart this plan of his and damn ourselves forever.

Apologetics Question 3. How do the people in Heaven feel about the people in Hell? Do they feel sad?

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If they say yes:

How can you say that they are sad? If they are in Heaven, then nothing could possibly detract from their joy. Otherwise it simply wouldn’t be heaven. Either they are not sad, or they are not really in heaven, and therefore not really saved.

Furthermore, if they are sad, then why don’t they do something about it? Why don’t they go down to Hell and evangelise the poor souls who are trapped there? Why don’t they storm God’s throne with prayers to save these people?

“These people are frozen in their rejection. They can no longer repent”

Bollocks. There is a strong tradition of afterlife repentance in Apostolic Christianity. In the east, there is the efficacious prayers for the dead, which assist those in hades to move from there to paradise. In the west, there is the doctrine of afterlife sanctification in purgatory; presumably this sanctification involves repentance in both life and afterlife. Furthermore the eastern understanding of the Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday provides precedent for afterlife repentance: Jesus descended into Hell and preached the Gospel to the souls who were imprisoned there, giving them the opportunity to repent and accept the good news. If Jesus was willing and able to do that, we should too. Furthermore, there is a Marian devotion which says that Mary visits the souls in purgatory once a year; if Mary can do it, we can too.

If they say no:

They don’t feel sad to witness their families burning in Hell? Well, how on earth do they feel?

“They are so enthralled by God’s goodness and beauty that they simply cease to be aware of the damned”

I like to call this the “Heroin addiction” view of Heaven: The saved are so high on God that they simply cease to care about what else is going on in creation. The fact that their parents, children, brothers and sisters are suffering unspeakable agonies does not concern this soul; he simply doesn’t care. I ask you; in what strange world is this the perfection of Christian charity? Surely so long as there is a single soul outside heaven, the saints cannot be truly happy and satisfied until that soul is saved? Heaven is not heaven unless everyone is there.

“The people in Heaven rejoice in the sufferings of the damned, because nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, and the joy of heaven can only be increased by created things”

Does this really need any comment in order to highlight how sickening and contrary to Christian love it is? Lets spell it out: A mother loses her baby, the baby goes to Hell and the mother goes to heaven. The mother peers over the clouds of heaven in order to take a look at those who are suffering in Hell. She sees her baby burning in the infernal flames and cries tears of ecstatic joy, praising God for his most glorious display of justice, and beseeching him to increase the degree of torment even more, revelling in the brutal torture of her child. Aren’t the saved supposed to be perfected in Christian charity? Aren’t they supposed to have empathy and compassion for those who are stuck walking in darkness? If this is what it means to be saved, I want nothing of it. I would rather go and be with my family in Hell, because there is more love down there with them than with your evil vindictive God and his bloodthirsty, sadistic saints.

 

Salvation is Both Necessary and Gratuitous – Father God Loves All People Without Exception: On the Impossibility of a World Without the Cross

imageI often hear Protestants talk about the cross as if it were a gift which God could just as easily have withheld from us. They talk about Grace and Salvation as if it is all some supererogatory gift on Gods part which he could have just as easily chosen not to bestow upon us. I completely deny this. God is first and foremost the perfect, loving father: it is in God’s nature to save his wayward children, just as it is in the nature of any parent to save their children from irreparable harm. What parent, when confronted with their drowning child, would refuse to dive into the water and rescue the helpless infant? If we broken and imperfect humans are able to act with such decision, then how much more will the God of infinite love and mercy dive into the strangling depths of Hell to rescue us! If God didn’t save us, he would be going against his nature and this is something which he can never do. He is not only a God of Justice, content to punish sin: Before all else he is a God of love, who must save us from that sin.

To say that God will refuse or fail to save someone is a great and abominable blasphemy. Those who speak such horrible words understand neither Grace nor Love, neither Mercy nor Justice. Such people are entirely ignorant of the things of God and are completely unacquainted with the glorious gospel of our Lord’s victory over sin, death, Hell and The demonic powers.

Pray for the salvation of all and eagerly await the advent of the eschaton, wherein all without exception will dance a dance of love around the throne of God, singing praises and hymns to the sovereign, kind and merciful lord of the universe, to the ages of ages, amen.

Mormonism and Orthodoxy – Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism (Latter Day Saints) respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

Latter Day SaintsHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons (Latter Day Saints), because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the Latter Day Saints church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons (Latter Day Saints) get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

Testimony – Catholic to Universalist

(Go to Part 1: “Agnostic to Christian”)

Clashing with my Past

It was mid-2014. After my realisation that I was already a Catholic, I begun to do a total practical transition from Protestantism to Catholicism: I stopped attending church at St Barnabas, convinced that it was all false teaching. I slowly stopped attending Credo events and disentangled myself from Credo people. I was still friendly with many of the wonderful people I had met in Credo, for example Poya, Luke Simpson and Timothy Ho, but I did not go out of my way to hang out with them.

During this time I was still on the leadership team of the FOCUS ministry. I began to second guess myself. Should I really be on this team if I am a Catholic? If I believe that the FOCUS team is spreading false teaching and teaching a counterfeit gospel, am I really comfortable contributing to that?

61UgA-K7sDL._UY395_[1]One day I brought some rosary beads along to a FOCUS event, and was showing them to people and talking about how they help you to pray. I did not actually know how to pray the rosary at the time, but I was just looking for some way to affirm my identity as a Catholic. This caught the attention of Helen Yim, who recognised the rosary beads as a typically Catholic accessory, even though she didn’t understand their significance or what they are used for. She was completely unimpressed.

She sent me a text message saying “Alex, you can’t bring those ‘rose beads’ to FOCUS again. If you do, I will have to take you off the leadership team. Salvation is found IN CHRIST ALONE” I responded with “Of course salvation is found in Christ alone. What has that got to do with Catholicism or rosary beads? Catholics are in complete agreement. Besides, I’m resigning from my position anyway; I don’t feel comfortable serving alongside people who believe in heresy any more.” Helen clearly was a victim of the anti-Catholic indoctrination and propaganda that is so rampant among Evangelicals. She was probably convinced that I was flirting with heresy and my salvation was in question.

Early Catholic Days

I signed up to the UTS Catholic society and integrated myself into one of their small groups. I found the Catholic small groups to be an intriguing contrast to the Credo bible studies. The Catholic society really was much smaller and more incognito than Credo, with almost no noticeable presence on Campus. During the small groups, we would discuss saints and church documents, rather than reading the bible. This was in direct contrast to Credo, which had a singular focus on the scriptural text in both small groups and public talks. At first I found this very jarring, as my evangelical formation had indoctrinated me into the erroneous idea that Christianity is primarily about studying the bible. I later found out that Catholics place much more emphasis on Liturgical participation and the multi-faceted life of prayer.

I started going to Sunday mass at St Benedict’s, Broadway; a Catholic church only a few steps away from St Barnabas. I was introduced to what seemed at the time to be an intriguing quirk of the Catholic religion: daily mass. Every now and then I attended daily mass and confession. I quickly wrangled with the idea that there is a “Sunday Obligation” and that the acceptable times to fulfil this obligation are any time on a Sunday or the Saturday night vigil.

high-mass[1].jpgFor about the first two years of being a Catholic, mass was entirely cryptic and impenetrable to me. I had not memorised the structure or the responses, and the language employed in the prayers was so high and lofty that it may as well have been Latin, even though it was English. Some times it actually was Latin.

The Sunday service really didn’t appeal to me as much as the old protestant services did. The homilies were cryptic and not at all evangelical. The Priest never actually explained the bible readings, and would instead focus on moral exhortation. The sense of community in the parish was practically non-existent. At St Benedict’s there was a super evangelical Singaporean girl called Priscilla Liem who managed to hold together a basic sense of fellowship among some of the students and young workers, but it really was nothing compared to the spontaneous and naturally loving community that I had experienced in my time hanging out with Protestants. The parish really seemed dead: most people would just stay for the liturgy, receive communion and go straight home. Some people would even leave before the final blessing or during the communion hymn.

This was not something that I had anticipated during my internet research into Catholicism. I began to feel isolated and disillusioned, and started to have doubts about whether I had made the right decision to return to Catholicism and renounce Protestantism. However I decided to stick it out and keep going to mass and confession because Catholicism simply made so much sense on paper.

During this time I still had the thought hovering over my head that perhaps the Orthodox church is the true church rather than the Catholic church. However as time went by I began to ponder the role of the Papacy. It became clear to me that Jesus appointed Peter as the leader of the apostles and the church, and therefore whoever succeeds Peter inherits that position as leader. I realised that the way to identify the one true church was first to look for the Pope, and then to look for the bishops who are in communion with that Pope. Once I understood this principle, I begin to intellectually feel much more comfortable in my choice of Catholicism over Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I retained a great respect for Eastern theology and it had a large influence over my thinking in the subsequent months.

reformation-conference[1].jpgUnfortunately it was around about this time that I had a minor falling out with Alex Macdonald, and we fell out of regular contact for some time. I had massive respect for Alex Macdonald, and he had somewhat mentored me through my post-cult early Christian days. He had lent me books and been extremely generous with his time, reading the bible with me and having deep and meaningful chats. Naturally I wanted to share my Catholic journey with him. When I met up with him, we ended up getting into violent debates. Alex was obviously very concerned at my movement towards Catholicism. I suspect he felt as though he had invested a lot in me and was a tad distraught that I was drifting away towards something he didn’t really understand or agree with. Our arguments were passionate, as we both shared our core convictions with each other. Alex was convinced that the Catholic church had gone astray in the middle ages and that the reformation had got the church “Back on track”. I was convinced that sacred tradition and an infallible magisterium were essential components of the one true church and it would be inappropriate and catastrophic to dispense with them.

Me and Alex went our separate ways, and I haven’t been in regular contact with him ever since. I catch up with him sporadically and he has since mellowed out and accepts me as the Catholic that I am. I of course still have tremendous respect for him and wish him nothing but the best.

Relationship Adventures

virgin1[1].jpgDuring this time, I had also been maintaining a long distance relationship with Mindy. We had incredibly long chats on facebook messenger, and sent very long emails to each other. We were incredibly open and honest with each other. Perhaps a little too honest. Mindy revealed some truly shocking things about her past and I was totally open about my virginity and insecurities surrounding sex. She didn’t realise I was a virgin. I had been pulling the Chinese girls off their boyfriends left right and centre during China mission so she obviously just assumed I had a lot of sexual experience in my pre-Christian days. Admittedly I had tried to cultivate this misconception in a spirit of “fake it till you make it” – a remnant of my pick up artist days. But I figured honesty was the best policy. I thought to myself, “If she thinks I’m going to be a God in the sack and we end up getting married, how disappointed is she going to be when she finds out that I’m an inexperienced virgin?” With this thought in mind, I decided to drop the “Virgin” bombshell on her. She took it extremely well, although admitted that she was surprised and that I had successfully fooled her into thinking otherwise. She reassured me that it was nothing to worry about.

Eventually, Mindy managed to get me to swap out my old Nokia 3315 for a slightly better model which had the capacity to run Whatsapp. This was a crazy learning experience for me. My relationship failures from my high school days had taught me to distrust internet chat software, so I had some psychological barriers to overcome in order to engage with favicon[1]Mindy in this way. Whatsapp was on 24/7 from then on out, and I was receiving a constant stream of messages from Mindy. This was unknown territory for me: as an introvert who generally shunned technology, being connected in this way was a somewhat scary prospect which would take some time to adjust to. I was used to spending most of my waking hours alone, in the company of myself, enjoying being with my own thoughts. But all of a sudden I was having to put up with this constant barrage of messages from Hong Kong. But of course, I was in love, so I was willing to give it a go in order to keep some fire in a long distance relationship.

During our many facebook and email sessions, I dropped the “Catholic” bombshell on her as well. I informed her that I was thinking of converting to Catholicism and attempted to explain some of the reasons why. I assured her that the prospect of converting does not appeal to me because I am quite happy as an Evangelical, nevertheless I feel compelled to investigate the Catholic claims. I was secretly hoping that she would come along for the ride and investigate Catholicism with me, by my side. I was hoping that she would have an open mind, like me, and be able to overcome her prejudices and entrenched bias against Catholicism. Unfortunately this was not the case, and this fundamental difference in personality and outlook led to relationship disaster further down the line.

Mindy had some reservations about my becoming Catholic. She didn’t actually understand what Catholicism was all about: It was a scary and foreign concept to her. The only things she knew about Catholicism were what she had learned at CBS and what her Evangelical ministers had told her, and this was obviously not going to be a friendly assessment of the faith. I ended up hiding just how Catholic I had become since she had last seen me. It was an easy thing to hide in the context of a long distance relationship: I just simply had to avoid talking about my conversion.

Mindy Returns to Sydney

10404324_10153064836764813_5048957769984912660_n[1].jpgEventually December rolled around again. Mindy was scheduled to return to Sydney for her graduation ceremony at UNSW. She brought her whole family, complete with Godparents. I had not seen her since China Mission six months ago, and was incredibly excited to meet her face to face again. We organised to meet up at the AFES headquarters near UNSW just prior to her graduation ceremony. When I finally got to see her in person again, I had forgotten how much shorter than me she was and it sort of threw me off. Nevertheless she looked gorgeous and I was so happy to finally see her in person.

I sat with Mindy’s family and watched her graduation ceremony, and then afterwards her family left us alone and we went to dinner with some of Mindy’s friends from UNSW. The following few days I spent hanging out with Mindy and her family. We went to the fish markets, I visited the flat they were staying in at Zetland and brought an entire lobster in my backpack for dinner, we visited the opera house. I invited Mindy to an evening art exhibition put on by some friends from UTS housing. It was great to finally see her and be in each other’s presence.

Mindy’s family went back to China, but Mindy remained in Sydney on holiday. NTE 2014 was rapidly approaching and both me and Mindy had signed up and were looking forward to it. I recall when it finally arrived. All of Mindy’s friends were advising her not to get into a relationship with me seeing as I was flirting with Catholicism so much. Mindy had a catch up with Helen Yim, and I can’t help but speculate that Helen told her in extremely strong words to break up and stay away from me. There was a moment during free time when we were sitting outside on some grass. It was a great opportunity to kick back and relax in each other’s presence, but Mindy had other plans.

hail-mary1[1].jpgShe started interrogating me about my Catholicism, asking me why I’m not satisfied with the Bible and why I need to become Catholic. Why couldn’t I just stay as an evangelical? The discussion slowly heated up and eventually both of us were feeling high strung and emotional. It finally got to a point where Mindy strongly implied that Catholics are not Christians and it was the final straw and ultimate insult for me. I stomped off in exasperation and sorrow. The next session was starting, but I didn’t go. I just sat at the edge of the oval, praying. It was at this time that I prayed my first Hail Mary as an act of spiritual defiance against the bigoted and ignorant Protestants who surrounded me. This was a crucial turning point in my Catholic journey.: I had finally opened my heart to beloved Mary, even if in a spirit of defiance and martyrdom rather than love and devotion.

Following NTE there was a short mission trip. I went to Sadlier in western Sydney with some of the Credo UTS crew, while Mindy went up to Port Macquarie with all the people from the Cantonese FOCUS church at UNSW. We stayed in communication during our respective missions, and Mindy invited me to come and visit Port Macquarie once my mission was complete. I caught the train up the coast and arrived at Port Macquarie, where Mindy’s lovely host family picked me up in their big car and drove me to their big house. This turned into a nice little holiday spent with Mindy and her host family, who were incredibly hospitable.

The Holy Grail

We returned to Sydney, and it turned out that Mindy had nowhere concrete lined up where she could stay. She got in contact with Ai, a Japanese girl from UTS FOCUS who lived in one of the other UTS Housing complexes – Bulga Ngurra. Ai was happy to welcome her into her flat, providing a mattress and bedroom in which she could sleep.

However that’s not exactly how things played out. Mindy would spend every second night in my flat staying up late chatting with me and my flatmates. As the clock ticked away, she would propose that it’s far too late to disturb Ai and can’t she just stay with me? It seemed like the easiest thing to do, so I agreed. And of course I still suffered from a desire to be intimate with a girl and was secretly hoping that she would stay.

Naturally, we started to indulge in some serious fornicating. At first I just let her sleep in my bed while I slept on the floor. But one night while we were chatting in the dim light of my red lava lamp, she suddenly rolled off the bed, landed on my chest and started making out with me. This was a pretty exciting and new experience for me and I let myself enjoy it. Things quickly turned extremely sensual, sexual and erotic, without us technically having sex.

Things carried on this way as the days rolled by, and I would sometimes spend all day in my bed with Mindy, just rolling around with her; we were tickling each other, kissing each other all over and physically playing with each other. It was all very fun, but of course there was this terrible guilt gnawing away at me. I intuitively knew I shouldn’t be doing this.

131122232657-sex-couple-feet-bed-super-tease[1].jpgOne day I finally arrived at the destination I had been craving prior to my experimentation with psychedelics: I had sexual intercourse. This was a very strange experience. It was over incredibly quickly and I felt somewhat confused about it afterwards. I had a chat to my psychologist at EIPS the next day in order to attempt to integrate the experience. It really all felt somewhat anticlimactic, and it was honestly nothing like what I had been expecting all these years (Of course, I had a totally warped view of sex thanks to my prior porn addiction; this probably contributed to the emotions I was feeling). I also had a whole bunch of religious guilt getting in the way. It seemed clear to me that I had seriously sinned and I really should have saved this experience for marriage, when I could have properly appreciated it.

The Arguments Begin

During this time spent in my bedroom, we got talking about matters of faith. She still was concerned about my Catholicism, and I was unimpressed with her Protestantism. It was at this time that we had our second serious fight. She was trying to convince me that the bible is the word of God, but the way she was going about it was entirely irrational. She was completely unable to account for the canon, the source of the bible’s authority and so on. I accused her of having blind faith. She accused me of being a “young Christian” and belittled my serious reservations by calling them “young Christian questions”. Her pride was manifest: she thought she was a better Christian than me just because she had grown up in a Christian family and therefore had technically been one longer than I had. This fight was a total yelling match and I’m sure the rest of the people in my flat could hear every detail.

But we were in love, so we were able to push past this fight and continue fornicating, and hanging out during the day. At one stage, when I was dropping her off at Ai’s house in a futile attempt to regain some moral cleanliness in my life, she stopped me and started talking to me in an extremely emotional yet serious tone.

hqdefault[3]“Promise that you will move to Hong Kong after you graduate” she pouted. “Promise me that you will never leave me”: She was threatening to call off the relationship if I don’t move to Hong Kong to be with her ASAP. I was willing, but I didn’t want to commit to such a drastic life change without thinking about it first. But Mindy was relentless: She pulled every string she could think of in order to try and get me to make this crazy promise. She put on as much pressure as she could. Eventually I caved and made the promise. She was satisfied.

Long Distance Again

Mindy’s holiday came to an end and she flew back to Hong Kong. 2015 had arrived.

I had spoken to Helen Yim about my plans for the future and she advised me to enrol in TESOL and learn to teach English. My degree up to that point had been in Information Technology and I absolutely hated it, so I was looking for some sort of exit strategy. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.

crazy-party[1].jpgI begun to talk to Mindy every night on facetime. As well as talking to her non-stop throughout the day on whatsapp. We would call and catch up for hours, which severely interfered with my sleep and had a fatal effect on my mood stability. At the same time, somehow during this semester our flat had been designated as the party flat. Every night until midnight – and sometimes longer – there would be crazy Europeans partying like animals right outside my bedroom door. Half of the flat was keen on the situation, and half of the flat absolutely hated it. It was keeping me up well past a healthy bed time and I had to invest in some uncomfortable ear plugs just to sleep through the night.

During the mid semester break I made a trip to Hong Kong to visit Mindy. Her Grandma was kind enough to let me stay with them in their already overcrowded flat. Naturally, we continued our fornication and intercourse at every opportunity. I was slowly gaining more experience with sex, which made me feel good. But at the same time I was overwhelmed with a crushing guilt, knowing that I really shouldn’t be doing this. I was also terrified at the prospect that Mindy might get pregnant: We never used contraception.

We continued to argue and fight over theological matters during this trip. On the day before I was to return to Sydney, Mindy looked at me with an overcast face and said “I’m not happy with this relationship”, clearly implying that she wanted to break up. I wasn’t having it, and managed to convince her that it’s not all bad and things will work out: A Catholic and a Protestant getting married is totally possible and feasible.

Wedding-Proposal-1c-T-Shirts[1].jpgAt the airport on the day of my departure, I got down on one knee and proposed to her. This wasn’t really as big a deal as it sounds. We were practically already engaged, seeing as we had started the relationship under the proviso that we would be married within two years.

I returned to Sydney and continued studying my diploma in TESOL. News of our “Official” engagement leaked to facebook and all sorts of people who I didn’t even know came up to me and congratulated me.

As the semester came to an end and the mid year break approached, Mindy brought up the promise I had made to her when I was in Sydney. She started putting pressure on me to move to Hong Kong. My doctors, family and psychologist were doing everything they could to convince me that this was a bad idea: In Hong Kong I would be completely cut off from every single support network that I have; no more doctors; no more friends; no more family; no more medicare; no more cheap drugs.

But I wanted to remain a virtuous person who keeps his promises, and so against my better judgement, I gave in to Mindy’s nagging and got ready to depart for Hong Kong. In retrospect, it was incredibly manipulative of Mindy to have made me make this promise in the first place. I was not prepared at all to start a new life in Hong Kong.

The Big Move

My bags were packed. I had a suitcase full of drugs that would last me for months, and another bag loaded with clothes and some books. When I arrived in Hong Kong I had no job and nowhere to live. Mindy’s minister kindly let me stay at his house for a few days while I found my feet.

hongkong[1].jpg

I found myself living in a “Tong Fong” at Tin Shui Wai run by an incredibly dodgy landlord. A Tong Fong is basically a house that has been artificially subdivided into a series of smaller rooms, which are then rented out to poor suckers like me. In my particular Tong Fong, I was living in the kitchen of the flat. My flatmates had to step over me while I was sleeping in order to get their breakfast out of the fridge.

caged-homes[1].jpgYou might be surprised to learn that Tong Fongs are not even the lowest rung on the ladder of Hong Kong housing options. I was spared the fate of living in a “Cage house”: this is basically just a bed in a cage, with a box for you to throw your wallet and passport in while you sleep.

This could not go on for long: my mental state was already pretty shaky, and living in a Tong Fong was not doing anything to help the situation.

I begun to look for a job. I went to an online Hong Kong jobs database and began browsing. I typed “English Teacher” into the search bar and set the category to “Information Technology”. I was incredibly surprised when this actually resulted in a hit: Some English school called “Butterfly milk” was looking for a programmer to come and help them start up a course aimed at teaching technological concepts to children. I thought to myself “This sounds good” and applied for an interview.

The next day I trekked the two stations down the line to Yuen Long, and made my way to this school. In 20 minutes I had conquered the interview and the owner of the school – the half South African, half Cantonese Aaron Mo – was willing to hire me on the spot. I had obviously managed to muster up enough passion for Technology to convince Aaron that I was the real deal.

1200px-YOHO_Town_Phase_1_2011[1].jpgOne of the perks of the job was that it came with relatively comfortable accommodation if I needed it. Aaron’s beautiful girlfriend and assistant, Samantha, took me up for a tour of the flat. The complex was called “YOHO Town”. It was incredibly cramped by Sydney standards, but I could instantly tell that by Hong Kong standards it was luxury living. I asked for the rental price and found out that I would get a great deal: The English school would subsidise over half of the rent because Aaron was planning to use the living room of the flat as a combination office and workshop. I signed up immediately.

When I returned to Tin Shui Wai and attempted to cancel my lease with the owner of the Tong Fong, he wasn’t willing to budge. He wanted to hold onto my bond and two weeks rent and didn’t want to cancel the contract. Mindy got on the phone with him and went into full crazy bitch mode, which freaked him out and forced him to relent and hand over the money.

Life in Hong Kong

I fell into a daily grind: every now and then I would teach English in the school. Most days I would spend programming and building robots up in the flat with another foreign employee – the gorgeous Annika Neumeister from Germany. At the end of the day I would travel on the MTR through the mountains between the New Territories of Hong Kong and Kowloon, so as to meet up with Mindy and go on dates. This happened literally every day, week in and week out. I felt as if I had no time to myself.

Ss._Peter_and_Paul_Church_(Hong_Kong)[1].jpgDuring this time I attended Sunday mass at the local Catholic Church: St Peter and Paul’s, Yuen Long. The congregation consisted almost entirely of Filipino maids and Nigerian workers. It was during my time at this church that I first began to fall in love with Catholic liturgy. The music and singing were heavenly and sublime. The prayers of the mass began to come alive for me and resonate deep within my heart. The prayer of the centurion filled me with zeal and conviction as I repeated it every Sunday: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. I could relate to this prayer on the deepest level: I knew I was a sinner in need of healing, and as I repeated the formula I was always shaking with a strange combination of hope and despair: I thought to myself “I know you can heal me Lord; please, do it!”

Despite the fact that I was friendly with the priests at this church, I didn’t form any relationships with the congregation. We simply couldn’t relate to each other. I was a supposedly “rich” gwai lo, whereas they were all “lower class”.

In contrast to this, each Sunday evening me and Mindy were coming together to visit an English Anglican church on Nathan Road – St Andrews Kowloon. The people at this church were typical Protestant Evangelicals: incredibly warm, friendly and loving. The leadership had all studied in Sydney at Moore College, so the services they delivered felt very familiar and reminded me of my Evangelical days. Despite this warm welcome, I felt a bit unnerved: I was starved for Catholic companionship. I did not want to hang out with heretics. You become the company you keep, and I deeply desired to form some Catholic friendships. These happy Protestants were not what I needed. I became incredibly resistant to attend this church and did not feel happy going to the bible studies that they organised.

10671306_978063365591543_847585719953331907_n[1]As time went by, I really struggled to be productive in my work. I enjoyed teaching English most, and got a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement from this aspect of the job. Whereas when I was stuck behind a computer screen trying to code, my ADHD kicked in and I was simply unable to progress. My personality is also not conducive to “real life” sort of work: I am a very theoretical and academic person; I like to play with ideas and deep concepts; I do not enjoy getting my hands dirty. I reflected upon my work history up to this date and saw the same pattern repeating itself: Even during my time at Cargowise and Macquarie bank, I had struggled to complete the tasks put before me. I simply lacked the interest, passion and competency required to perform in these jobs.

Descent Into Hatred

Now that I was living in Hong Kong, there was not much stopping Mindy from staying at my flat and getting frisky with me on a regular basis. Mindy would often sleep over at my house and we would almost always have sex. At the time I felt guilty and as if it were my fault, but in retrospect I feel comfortable placing the blame entirely on her: I really was trying to stop this sinful behaviour; I was doing my best to prevent Mindy from staying at my flat too late. However whenever I would try to put pressure on her to leave and go home, she would go into pout mode and I would feel guilty and relent, letting her stay and hoping to God that we wouldn’t slip up again. She would basically rape me: She would wait until I had taken my sleeping pills and collapsed on the bed, and then snuggle up close to me and start the kissing. I would just reflexively kiss her back, half asleep. Before you know it our clothes were off and I was pounding her into the headboard while she moaned in ecstasy.

I don’t understand what the appeal was for her: I was practically a zombie while under the influence of these antipsychotic pills. Every time, all I really wanted was for it to be over so that I could go back to sleep. It was painful to stay awake, and yet my carnal sex drive kept me awake enough to perform.

sex-stock100[1].jpgSometimes she would seduce me before I took my pills, and we would engage in wild, extended lovemaking sessions, with lots of sweating, screaming, moaning, spanking and whatever else. It finally got to the point where I was having “Good sex”. Compared to my first time – which was over in seconds and very anticlimactic – this sex was amazing. We would go at it for up to an hour at a time.

I finally had my old wish fulfilled: I had sex on tap. But ironically, I no longer wanted it. I honestly wanted to remain chaste and celibate until marriage. Every time after we slipped up, my trust for Mindy died a little more, and my love started to dissipate. I began to hate her and resent her. I wished she would just piss off and leave me be, rather than constantly engineering situations in which we were going to slip up and fuck.

Every time we slipped up, I would be filled with overwhelming guilt, despair and fear of Hell. Premarital sex has been clearly defined as a mortal sin by the Catholic church: I knew my faith well enough to realise what I was doing. I had to awkwardly drag myself to face to face confession Sunday after Sunday to confess this relentless sin. My relief at being back in the state of grace was only temporary, as it would not be long before me and Mindy were rooting again.

1[1].jpgI suspect that our sexual sins directly lead to a disintegration of the relationship, as I no longer trusted her and found it nearly impossible to love her. Every now and then I would skype Jaison back in Sydney: When he asked how I was going with my porn addiction and other sexual sins, I straight up confessed to him what was happening. He was very concerned and advised me to break up with Mindy. I was extremely resistant to the idea, fooling myself into thinking that we could work things out and it would all be better once we were married. In retrospect, I really should have followed his advice. Perhaps if I had threatened to leave Mindy earlier, she would have made more of an effort to stop screwing me and things would have turned out alright.

A Defiant Gesture

Some time during my Hong Kong stay, we had got in contact with the lead pastor of St Andrew’s – Alex McCoy – and asked if he could help us do some pre-marriage counselling. He readily agreed and we set a date for our first appointment.

Bp_Greg[1].jpgPrior to our appointment, we had been visiting the St Andrew’s Sunday evening service regularly for quite some time. At one of these services, Alex McCoy was performing the Anglican communion rite. He invited everyone to come up and receive the bread and wine with the usual Protestant disclaimer: “If you do not trust Jesus to forgive your sins and save you then please remain in your seat”. As a Catholic I understood that it is inappropriate to receive communion outside of a Catholic liturgy, so I remained in my seat. This action caught the eye of Alex McCoy. After the service had officially concluded, he made a beeline straight to where me and Mindy were sitting and said hi.

With a concerned look on his face, Alex immediately asked me why I hadn’t gone up to receive communion. For the first time I revealed my Catholicism to him. He gave me a puzzled and bemused look and said “But you’re not a real Catholic are you? I thought you went to Barneys back in Sydney?” Mindy had been trying to hide my Catholicism from friends and new acquaintances, as it was an awkward thing for her to explain why she was dating someone from another religion. As such, when I had first met Alex McCoy and he had asked what church I went to back home in Sydney, Mindy immediately jumped in and said “St Barnabas Broadway” before I could say anything. Alex quickly responded to this with “Ah, such a great church; I know lots of the guys who go there” and the conversation flowed on.

It felt good to finally own my faith publicly, so I insisted “No I’m a legit Catholic: I go to mass every Sunday, regular confession; the lot!” Alex McCoy looked a tad concerned, and the conversation moved on to other topics.

The Anti-Catholic Challenge

After one Sunday evening service, when everyone goes and has dinner together, I found myself in a food court dedicated to ramen noodles and sitting next to Alex McCoy. “So tell me about this Catholicism of yours” he said with a big grin, and a friendly and inquisitive look on his face. Rather than doing that, I just told him the story of how I became a Christian (Part 1 of this series). He listened politely, and at the end of the story asked “But what about that Catholic stuff? What do you think about Papal infallibility?” I responded that I don’t see how the church can possibly function without it and he leaned back in his chair and scoffed.

good-works[1].jpgAlex revealed that he himself had grown up in the Catholic church and came to reject it when he started reading the bible for himself. I internally rolled my eyes: this was such a typical ex-Catholic testimony. I had heard it a million times before during my time in Credo. When he says “I started reading the bible for myself”, what he really is saying is “Some friendly evangelicals sat down and indoctrinated me into their heresy by quoting the bible at me apart from it’s Catholic context.” I was unimpressed. Alex started to talk about how Catholicism teaches that you have to merit your salvation by works (which is total bullshit) and how he had to reject such a clearly heretical theological system after reading Ephesians 2:8-9, which claims that we are saved by grace through faith.

He continued to rattle off his objections to Catholicism, all of which were entirely inaccurate misconceptions. I tried to remain polite and composed, but I felt helpless in the face of this baffling display of ignorance and bigotry. How is it that someone could grow up in the Catholic church and come away with such erroneous notions as this? Did he not bother to investigate what the church actually teaches? It seemed clear to me that he had simply been taken in by the friendly demeanour of the Evangelicals who had approached him during his university days and soaked up whatever lies and nonsense they fed to him about Catholicism. I had seen it happen many times already and I was totally confident that it was exactly the same story with Alex.

“Marriage Counselling”

st-andrew-church-kowloon-hong-kong_001[1].jpgEventually the date for our “Marriage counselling” rolled around and me and Mindy made the trek to the St Andrews administrative office next to the church. “Marriage counselling” basically ended up being Alex McCoy trying to convince Mindy not to marry me, whilst trying to get me to apostatise from Catholicism and return to the Protestant heresy. He had somehow got it into his head that the best and most pastoral way to approach me was to launch an all out assault on my faith. He seemed to have made it his mission to convert me back to Protestantism.

The only reason I tolerated this attack is because I really enjoy talking about theology, and in Hong Kong I was incredibly lonely and starved for someone to talk to about this topic, which I love and is dear to my heart. A theological argument like this was better than the banal crap that I had been talking about with everyone else I met in Hong Kong, even if it was a high stakes, stressful conversation.

saved_stamp.GIFI remember at one point Alex McCoy was saying “If you say works contribute to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross”. I tried to respond but he just kept saying that same thing over and over again like a mantra. Eventually something clicked within me and I totally lost it. I responded firmly with “If you say faith contributes to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross.” He sneered at me and accused me of being facetious. I was unnerved and said that maybe I was, just a little. He backed down and moved onto other topics. But I wasn’t being facetious, I was dead serious: This was a light bulb moment that has stuck with me to this day. It suddenly became clear to me that “Faith alone” is nonsense if you believe that faith has the power to objectively justify you: The cross is objectively sufficient. I realised then and there that salvation does not depend on me in any way whatsoever, and this includes faith. I had encountered my first inkling of the Lutheran theology of salvation as unconditional promise. Later on this theology would fully take form in my mind and capture my imagination, developing into a robust doctrine of universal salvation. I had Alex McCoy to thank for it, at least in part.

He began to bash me over the head with “assurance”. He was leaning in and imploring me “but don’t you want assurance of salvation?” trying to entice me over to his tribe with baseless promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. What he utterly failed to realise is that an assurance of salvation is completely meaningless without first having an assurance of truth. If your church is fallible then whatever assurance you have with regards to your salvation is also entirely fallible and untrustworthy. I tried to convey this to him but he just refused to hear it and moved on to his next perceived pet peeve with Catholicism.

512R6DPg3LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgHe pulled out some anti-catholic books which he recommended that I read, giving particular attention to “Nothing in my hand I bring” by Ray Galea. I responded that Mindy had already given them to me and I had already read them and found them entirely unconvincing for a variety of reasons. He was obviously frustrated at this point and stuck for what to say next.

Our first “Marriage counselling” session ended on a dissonant note, with Alex McCoy closing with a prayer that went something along the lines of “I don’t know how we can pray to you tonight Lord, considering not all of us here actually worship you…” Classic. Pastoral and ecumenical brownie points to you Mr McCoy.

I found the entire experience to be completely traumatic, as his relentless assault against Catholicism had put me in a hyper-defensive state of mind. Unfortunately the trauma didn’t end with his closing prayer, because Mindy continued to argue with me after we left his office and headed home. She was just as bigoted and anti-catholic as he was, and ten times as ignorant! I really began to hate and despise her for her pigheadedness and theological stupidity. Was I really going to marry this utter idiot?

Our second “marriage counselling” session went down in much the same way as the first. Alex pulled out all stops and fired all canons in an attempt to take me down. We argued about the sacrificial nature of the mass, transubstantiation, indulgences, Mary and everything else. Whenever I made an attempt to respond to his objections he would immediately cut in with “Where is that in the bible?” Every time he did this I would just roll my eyes. “Why does it have to be in the bible? I don’t care if it’s in the bible or not: The tradition of the church is sufficient to prove the doctrine’s validity.” After a couple of Alex[1].pngthese exchanges Alex caught on to the fact that I was a died in the wool papist and was not going to fall for his Fundamentalist sophistries.

Alex leaned back in his chair and exhaled a loud sigh of exasperation. He didn’t know where to go from here: I was obviously committed to my Catholic faith and would not budge from my position solely based on his bullshit misconceptions and lies about Catholicism, which I had encountered a million times before during my days amongst the apostate ex-Catholics in Credo.

Descent to Depression

When I wasn’t fucking her, I was constantly fighting with Mindy. Here was the woman I was intending to marry and share my life and journey with, and yet I couldn’t even talk about my passions without it turning into a massive theological debate and then blowing up into a massive conflict. Mindy was constantly accusing me of being a Pharisee. Ironically I later realised that the label fits her far better, because she believes that “faith” is a condition of salvation and she is convinced that she has met this condition, thus puffing herself up with pride and elitism as she considers the poor plebs who don’t happen to share her faith and will therefore “rightly” burn in Hell for all eternity. It eventually got to the point where we simply avoided talking about theological topics completely.

I started to have serious doubts about whether a marriage between us was going to work out: We would be going to separate churches, and refusing to talk about that which was most dear to us – our relationship with God. We would be fighting over how to raise our children. No one should be going into a marriage expecting this level of turmoil. A couple of arguments here and there are to be expected, but this was next level.

I felt surrounded by enemies in Hong Kong. The only friends I had were the Protestants from St Andrew’s, and even though they were incredibly friendly, the fact was they were not Catholic, and this fact bubbled to the surface during bible studies. Whenever I went to bible studies with these people I always had to bite my tongue and not say anything, because I regularly found myself disagreeing on points that the entire group agreed on. This made me feel like a failed witness to my faith, and was incredibly discouraging and disheartening.

39571064_ml-ml0y0tb5jx377t8wn84fjif9oq67auyh3rcfkqp5fc[1].jpgI remember one bible study I worked up the courage to actually openly question the consensus of the group concerning this idea of total depravity/total inability. It seemed clear to me that God does not give commandments unless he knows we are able to meet them. The group disagreed, they were convinced that we were doomed to be sinners until Jesus comes back. Whereas Catholic doctrine teaches that it is within our power to be perfect, provided that we depend upon the grace of God. The group naturally jumped on me and we ended up going in circles based on different assumptions between Catholics and Protestants. This was stressful, as it was me on my own trying to stand up to 10 other people. Naturally after the bible study I ended up in a fight with Mindy. She said “I’m happy you finally contributed something, but you really are way too optimistic”. So much for Protestant joy.

As a response to the onslaught of Alex McCoy, the arguments with Mindy, and the heresy that I was being bombarded with in the heathen bible studies; I ended up reading theology and apologetics 24/7. When I was supposed to be working; I would be reading theology. When I was supposed to be sleeping; I would be reading theology. When I was travelling home on the train; I would be reading theology on my phone. It was during this time that I became more and more familiar with the eclectic orthodoxy blog, as well as universalist theology in general. I also got entirely hung up on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura: It seemed like such nonsense to me, but I was determined to understand it. I ended up going in mental circles on this issue for over a year.

I really wanted to reclaim some time for myself. I felt entirely overwhelmed after hanging out with Mindy so often. I began staying up all night and watching star trek until the wee hours of the morning. I would set my alarm for 10am and end up going to bed at 4am every night. This was not psychologically healthy at all.

I felt like I had no time to myself and was sacrificing everything for Mindy and getting nothing in return. I felt like I had given up so much for this relationship but she hadn’t given up anything at all. I felt like I was putting in all the effort on the religious front; attending those cursed bible studies and Sunday services in an ecumenical spirit, whereas she wanted nothing to do with my Catholic faith at all. I felt ripped off.

Yelling-AdobeStock_70020912-copy[1].jpgI was constantly fighting with Mindy, and not just about theological matters. I was always the one saying sorry, and she would never admit that she was wrong or had any part to play in the conflict. She was constantly threatening to break up with me.

I began to feel incredibly depressed as I considered the prospect of having to endure this for my entire life after I had locking myself into this relationship via marriage. I felt as if I was locked into an entirely depressing path: I was stuck working a job for which I was totally incompetent, and engaged to a fiancée who was utterly unable to see eye to eye with me on important issues.

I was completely terrified at the prospect of having children with Mindy: How were we supposed to bring them up? Which church would we go to? I insisted that we were going to attend both Catholic and Protestant church every Sunday, but Mindy didn’t want to play ball and complained about this to no end.

Furthermore, actually getting to the point of marriage felt nigh impossible: there were so many hoops to jump through. Mindy was refusing to have a Catholic ceremony, which meant that I had to get a special dispensation from the Sydney Archbishop to both have a Protestant service as well as marry a Protestant at all. We also had to do some compulsory catholic marriage prep course. Mindy was obsessing over finding the perfect wedding dress while I was trying to organise a logistical nightmare and track down an appropriate church and minister to perform the wedding in Sydney.

I felt an incredible sense of injustice, as I had spent so much time and energy investigating Protestantism and trying to make sense of it, but Mindy had not reciprocated. She had invested exactly zero effort in trying to understand my faith. I felt completely ripped off, and the trust in our relationship continued to break down.

I was coming home every night incredibly late. I would take my sedatives and board the MTR from Mei Foo to Yuen Long nearly every night. I had to endure the hellish tunnel that runs beneath the mountains between Mei Foo and Yuen Long, falling asleep on my feet. As I disembarked the train and begun walking back to my flat, I was full to exploding point with anger, frustration, resentment, rage and hatred for myself, Mindy, my situation, God, and life in general.

I was feeling utterly terrified of hell for most of my waking hours. I felt incredibly awkward asking for confession (my church at Yuen Long did not have regular confession times and you had to make a special request) and confessing the same old sin every bloody time.

In between my confessions I was struggling to muster up perfect contrition and utterly failing to do so. At the time I was unaware of the unconditional promises of God, and I was therefore unable to place my faith in them. I was spiritually walking in darkness, despite my deep, profound and prayerful relationship with God.

suicide-jump[1].jpgI was incredibly stressed and depressed, and I began to think about suicide all the time. I didn’t actually have any intentions of going ahead with it, but I was just constantly pondering it. I remember always glancing out at my balcony and thinking to myself “Gee that’s high, I could so easily jump off there and kill myself if I wanted to”

A Holiday to Sydney

During Christmas of 2015, while me and Mindy were walking through Mei Foo to Mindy’s house, I totally broke down crying. I missed my family so much. Pretty soon after this incident, Mindy organised a trip to Sydney for my 2016 birthday.

Once we had arrived in Sydney, I just wanted to be with my family, but Mindy had other plans: She wanted to travel to the blue mountains and attend the LIFT (Looking Into Full Time Ministry) conference that was organised by the UNSW Evangelical society. I felt obliged to accompany her, and so for four precious days that I could have spent with my family, I left and trekked to the blue mountains with Mindy.

The LIFT conference was hell. The preacher was Joshua Ng, another Hongkie. Josh launched into a vitriolic rant against the “evil and depraved catholic church who teach a false gospel of salvation by works”. My blood was boiling over and I want to get up out of my seat and walk out of the room, but I ended up sitting still and fuming. Mindy realised how awkward the situation was and started fumbling in her bag for something to distract me with.

PodcastPicBlueBack-400x400[1].pngLater on during LIFT conference, we were walking from one session to another, and Mindy was chatting to yet another ex-Catholic. This guy was saying the most offensive things about Catholicism: Claiming that his Catholic parents were not Christian and are most certainly going to burn in Hell. He shared a brief testimony of his conversion out of Catholicism, and as usual it was the same old predictable nonsense that every other ex-Catholic says: “I read the bible and realised that it contradicts Catholicism so I left”. I was holding hands with Mindy as we walked with this guy and I suddenly just wanted to get away. I wanted to toss her hand away and just escape this depressing existence.

When we returned to Sydney, Mum totally refused to cooperate with my wedding plans. She kept complaining that she “hates weddings” and “wouldn’t even go to her own wedding if she had the choice”. This frustrated me and depressed me even more. Marriage was supposed to be one of the most important events in my life and I wanted my family to be there, which was the entire reason we were going to have the ceremony in Sydney. Mum kept saying “Just invite your father” and I was like “are you freaking kidding? I want my immediate family to be there!”

Mindy managed to cut my time with my family short by another two days. She dragged me down to Melbourne to have “dinner” with her extended family. She was expecting me to have a perfect understanding of all the nuances of Chinese culture and behave like a Chinese gentleman, even though I don’t understand the language. During the actual dinner her family were incredibly rude and inhospitable to me and generally tried to ignore me. I was not accepted by these people at all. After the utter failure of a dinner I immediately headed to Melbourne’s “The Croft” bar and started pounding back shots while chatting with the bar staff. I spent 100 dollars on “Syringe shots”, and had my first hot alcoholic beverage.

crazy.PNGI knew that I was incredibly depressed at this point, but I was unable to discern just how bad and dangerous the situation was. Luckily, I had scheduled a check up with the team at EIPS. I reported that I was thinking about killing myself a lot, and my psychologist – Alexandra Goymour – was incredibly concerned. She asked me a series of questions in order to work out exactly how bad a place I was in. At the conclusion of her questions, it was completely obvious to her that the situation was balancing on a knifes edge. She exhorted me to return to Sydney ASAP. I figured, “Doctors orders” and so agreed to do it. However Mindy was a big concern: she was very manipulative and had managed to thoroughly get me under her thumb. Obviously she was going to be very resistant to the idea of my returning to Sydney.

We concluded the holiday and returned to Hong Kong. I was only intending to come back for a month, so that I could tie up loose ends, pack up my possessions and then fly back to Sydney. Mindy had been alerted to the recommendation of my psychologist that I return to Sydney, and she was already doing her best to stamp the idea out of my mind. I just went along with it and pretended to relent, but secretly I had every intention of escaping Hong Kong for good by the end of April.

Finally Seeing the Light

One night during my final month in Hong Kong, I was going about my usual business: binge on star trek; pound back a couple of Tsing Taos; read theology articles at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Around about 4am I finally slammed my laptop shut and attempted to fall asleep. As I was rolling around in bed, many theological ideas and concepts that I had encountered over the past 24 months were floating around in my mind.

Alex McCoy’s words came back to me: The Sufficiency of the Cross. The beautiful eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov was flooding my mind’s eye: A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ. The visionary words of St Isaac hovered in my consciousness: Those in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. I was seriously pondering the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who I claimed to worship: If God wants to save me, is it really possible that he could fail in the attempt?

And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all made sense. I realised that I believed in the greater hope. I realised that I believed in universal salvation.

Omnipotent[1].jpgI sat up straight in bed, gasped and covered my mouth with my hand in shock. I begun laughing to myself and was full of wonder – I actually understand all this stuff, it really does make sense, and I actually believe it! There is no need to fear damnation, for either myself or my friends and family. I can rest assured in the confident hope that all of us will arrive safely in Heaven. Salvation does not depend on us in any way, it depends entirely on God. There is nothing that can stop him or stand in his way. Not even death, sin, unrepentance or Hell can thwart his salvific will. God can and will conquer everyone and everything. What can we do but rejoice?

I had finally discovered the good news of Christianity. After 4 years of being an active Christian, I had finally understood the Gospel.

(Go to “Testimony: Universalist to Priest”)

The Binding of Isaac, The Agony of Job, and The Dark Night of the Soul

The Hatred of Christ

Luke 14:25-26 RSV-CE:

25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:

37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 

gulag+vorkuta[1].jpgThese are harsh words from our lord and saviour. What could he possibly mean? We have to hate our families in order to follow Jesus to heaven? Doesn’t this contradict his commands (found elsewhere) to love our neighbour?

I have encountered certain bible commentaries in my time which have attempted to take the edge off of these passages. The Greek word translated “hate”, they say, really shouldn’t be understood as meaning “hate”; it should instead be understood as preferring one thing over another. So we shouldn’t actually hate our families; we should simply prefer God over them. Maybe there’s some truth to this exegesis, but honestly just taking the English at face value: “hate” is far different in nature to a simple preference of one thing over another.

We will return to these passages later, but for now I want to propose that rather than being too strong a choice of words, the word “hate” is in actual fact not strong enough to convey what Jesus was actually saying. We should not merely hate our families; we should be willing to see them cast headlong into everlasting damnation if that is what God wills. We should be willing to lovingly and devotedly follow Gods commands wherever they may lead, even if those commands make us uncomfortable and apparently contradict the love that God has poured into our hearts.

The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness

Dark Night of the Soul

St John of the Cross is a western saint and mystic who is probably most remembered as the man who formulated the theology that has since been referred to by the shorthand “Dark night of the soul”. I will briefly outline the essence of this unique idea.

God is a good, kind, and loving God who enjoys lavishing good gifts upon us. He does this to everyone: young and old, believer and non-believer, Christians, Atheists, Muslims; everyone. Such gifts include good, tasty food and drink, good health, success in study, sport and romance, a bed to sleep in each night, clean water, breathable air, rain and sun to grow crops, familial love, friendship and so on. The Calvinists like to call this aspect of God’s loving disposition “Common Grace”, because these are gifts that are lavished upon all people without exception or distinction. Even a starving African child can detect such gifts from God in their life.

Now, when someone initially comes to faith in God, these gifts will seem to multiply exponentially: All of a sudden the soul is full of supreme and invincible joy as it contemplates the salvation that has been won for it in Christ through the cross. The soul seems to overflow with a pleasurable love for God and neighbour. The soul will seem so completely happy and content. Life will suddenly be full of purpose and meaning. The world seems far more colourful than it ever did before. Smiles and laughter will surround this soul.

But in a short time, the trials and tests will arrive thick and fast. The Christian is warned to expect persecution and suffering; how will they respond when it actually arrives? This is where the Dark night of the soul begins: some people are plunged deep into the dark night; most only experience a taste of it, presumably because God in his wisdom has decided that they are not strong enough to handle further trials.

What happens at this point, is that God progressively withdraws his gifts. Where before the soul was overflowing with joy and enjoying the wonderful gifts that God was bestowing on them, now the soul is receiving fewer and fewer gifts. The soul is being plunged into a darkness of sorts: most particularly, the soul experiences an “absence of God”. With the eyes of faith, the soul may know that God is indeed still there, but nevertheless he is unable to “feel” this presence. The words of the psalmist become apt to describe the experience:

Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:

1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
    How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Why does God withdraw his gifts? It is to test us. God is peering into the depths of our heart and asking: “Do you truly love me? Or do you only love my gifts? If I withdraw my gifts, will you still love me?” So God progressively withdraws more and more of his gifts, and the Darkest night possible is when he withdraws all of his gifts: Your family hates you, your friends have abandoned you, you are starving, you are sick, you are dying and the question God is asking is, “Despite all this hardship, do you still love me?”

The good news is that this testing does come to an end. The end of the dark night of the soul is the bright dawn of salvation. Once the dark and fiery trials have concluded, God lavishes his gifts upon the soul to an even greater degree than before the dark night had begun. And in the case of a ascetic mystic who has walked the path of darkness to the very end, the ultimate and final gift of God is bestowed: The fullness of salvation: Theosis. The soul becomes perfectly united with God, such that it is hard to distinguish between them.

The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith

The Binding of Isaac

One biblical figure who experienced this dark night of the soul is the father of faith: Abraham. The Dark night of the Soul is clearly manifest in the story of the Binding of Isaac.

To establish some context: Abraham and Sarah have been praying and hoping for a child for most of their adult life. Even when they arrive at old age and still have not yet had a baby, they continue to hope and await the fulfilment of God’s promises to them that they will have a child. The day finally arrives, and despite Sarah’s old age and barrenness, Isaac is miraculously born. In Abraham’s time, children were considered one of the highest blessings and most wonderful gifts of God, and a son (rather than a daughter) was an even more special reason to rejoice. So Isaac would be considered one of the most precious, if not the most precious gift that God had given to Abraham. Now with this in mind, consider the following passage:

Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE

22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.

After many years of painful waiting, God finally bestows Abraham with his heart’s deepest desire: a son to carry on the family legacy. Abraham and Sarah would have rejoiced and been full to exploding point with happiness when Isaac finally arrived, praising God and thanking him for his overwhelming goodness.

But behold; Abrahams personal dark night arrives. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering”. God is commanding Abraham to renounce his greatest wordly attachment: his love for his son. God is testing Abraham, just like he tests everyone who goes through the dark night of the soul. God is asking Abraham “Do you really love me? Or do you only love my gifts? Would you still love me if those gifts were taken away? Are you willing to sacrifice that which you hold dear? Are you willing to kill your son if I command you to?” And amazingly, Abraham essentially responds with “Thy will be done lord. If you command me to kill my son, this will I do. I love you above all else. I trust you. My faith is unwavering.”

The scene is tense, Abraham practically has the knife against Isaacs throat. Imagine what is going through his mind and his heart. Sometimes I think we imagine saints and biblical figures as being superhuman, not feeling emotions the same way that we do, but this is inaccurate: Abraham was most likely suffering the full force of a particularly violent dark night; he was probably wiping away tears of agony and anguish as he approached the alter; he was willing to follow Gods commands whatever they may be, but he would have been crying out in anger, confusion and despair. He is thinking that he is about to lose his son forever, his most treasured relationship on earth, the son he had waited for for all of his life, moreover he has already accepted this fact and is already dealing with life in those terms: Isaac is already dead to him. Abraham is already mourning the death.

And right as he is about to perform the fatal blow, a messenger from God swoops in and says “Stop!!! You have proved your faith: God does not ask any more of you than this, you are willing to sacrifice your son, and for this reason you do not have to.” This is followed up with one of the most important promises in all of scripture:

I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

This narrative contains all the elements of an intense dark night of the soul: the initial gifts (The birth of Isaac), the purification in the darkness (The sacrifice of Isaac) and the final gift (The rescue of Isaac and an eshatological salvific promise)

The Agonising Trial of Job

Trial of Job

Another biblical figure who suffered a particular profound dark night of the soul is Job. The prologue to the book of Job reveals that God had lavished many gifts upon him. Job was practically swimming in Common Grace. He had it all: A large, devoted family, health, wealth, property, servants, land etc. Furthermore Job responds to this love with love: he is a purely righteous soul who never sins and always does what is right.

Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.

But God decides to test Job. Scripture reveals that Satan makes a wager with God that he is able to tempt Job towards sin if God would only plunge Job into a dark night. God permits Satan to drag Job into the darkness and see whether or not he cracks under the pressure:

Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 14 and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them; 15 and the Sabe′ans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chalde′ans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

But despite being plunged head first into a dark night, and having all his good gifts taken away from him; Job remains faithful and does not crack:

Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE

20 Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

Satan returns to the heavenly assembly and God quizzes him, saying “See? Despite withdrawing all my gifts from Job, he still loves me.” Satan responds with “That is because you have not harmed his body. So long as he has his good health, he will continue to love you, but take away this, and he will hate and despise you. He will renounce you.”

 Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE

1 Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordAnd the Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Jobs wife comes up to him and expresses her astonishment that Job continues to love and worship a God who is so clearly callous and evil. But Job remains steadfast in his faith and refuses to renounce his good lord:

 Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The rest of the book is brilliant poetry, in which Job and his three friends dialogue on matters of sin, justice, punishment, salvation, mystery, goodness. Job wonders out loud why God has allowed this misfortune to befall him: he is particularly confused because he knows in his heart that he has not sinned in any way. He wonders why it is that the righteous suffer and the unrighteous are able to get away with iniquity unpunished. The truth of the matter is that God has plunged Job into a particularly dark night of the soul in order to purify him into a shining, glorious saint. God has taken away all of these gifts so as to test Job’s love. Amazingly, Job remains steadfast in his faith through the entire ordeal: he questions God, and cries out for God to provide some sort of explanation for the suffering he has had to endure, but at no point does he curse God or renounce his love for his creator.

And just as in any dark night of the soul, when Job emerges out the other side God bestows even more gifts and grace upon him than he had in the first place!

Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. 12 And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first Jemi′mah; and the name of the second Kezi′ah; and the name of the third Ker′en-hap′puch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. 16 And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17 And Job died, an old man, and full of days.

So once again we have a classic case of a dark night of the soul: The initial gifts (Job’s great wealth, health and love), the plunging into darkness (The testing by Satan and loss of Job’s entire fortune), and the emergence from the darkness as a purified, tested, victorious saint (Job’s restoration of health, wealth and love as well as his long life and happy death)

Caritas Ex Nihilo

darknight.jpg

Lets put all of this together. Each of us is called to enter the dark night at some point of our lives. God is going to test every single one of us, just as he tested Job and Abraham. He is going to refine us with suffering until we are able to love him even in the absence of his gifts. But lets consider just how difficult this is going to be and what this is going to involve. Consider again the words of Christ, quoted at the beginning of this post:

“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”

When Jesus says “Hate”, he really does mean hate. If we desire to love him, we must be willing to trust him and follow his commands even when they contradict the love for our families that God has already gifted us with. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, we too must be willing to see our families sacrificed if that is what God commands. We have to be willing to truly hate our families and desire their eternal, everlasting torture in the endless ocean of fire that is Hell if this is what God asks of us. God does not ask us to enjoy this prospect, he does not ask us to be happy about doing this, he does not ask us to take sadistic pleasure in the torture of our families, however he does ask us to have a rock solid faith in him and a perfect obedience to his commandments. Just as Abraham was crying as he ascended the mountain to the altar and pressed his knife against his sons throat, so too we are permitted to grieve at the eternal loss of our families, but nevertheless; we must be willing to accept this loss, all for the sake of the love of God. As Jesus says: Whoever loses his life will save it. We must renounce ALL worldly attachments and cast them into the dark flame, and this includes our closest relationships: Husband, Wife, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter. We must be willing to see everyone in our life damned, all for the sake of loving God.

The darkest night of the soul is pitch black: bleak like the trial of Job. All of Gods gifts are removed and he demands that we sacrifice everything for his sake. If this was the end of the story, it would be incredibly depressing and entirely bittersweet: we gain God, but at what cost?

Thankfully this is not the grand finalé to the tale. Recall how the narrative of the dark night of the soul always plays out. First of all there are the abundant gifts of God – in this particular case the amazing unconditional love that is found within a family. Second, there is the removal of these gifts, as a testing of darkness and a refining of fire – in this case, this consists of a renouncing of familial love in order to pursue the greater love of God. It consists of hating your family to the point where you are willing to see them damned if that is what God decrees. But there is always a happy ending. Finally, the dark night of the soul always ends in joy: the gifts are returned a thousandfold more than they were in the beginning. In this case, our families are not actually damned for God desires all people to be saved. Just as it was revealed to Abraham that he didn’t really have to kill Isaac, and just as Job had all of his wealth, health and loving relationships returned to him, so too we will see those whom we love come to salvation: we never really had to be sad at the prospect that God would damn them, because this is not on his heart. The good news of the Gospel is that God desires the salvation of all and he has the power to bring this about.

John Piper and the horror of Calvinism

61P45+ToLrL._UX250_[1]John Piper is a famous Calvinist teacher and preacher, living today. I find his views and theology to be shocking and disgusting for the most part. He believes that God desires the damnation of multitudes and that this somehow gives God “Glory”. He is happy to worship a God who would damn members of his family. For the longest time I found this to be completely weird and skewed, but after the reflections I have set down in this post concerning the dark night of the soul, I suppose I have uncovered a window into how people like him think.

In the end it is true that John Piper has an amazing, invincible faith and trust in God, just like Abraham did: He is willing to see his sons burn in Hell for eternity if that is what God commands. He does not revel at the thought; he does not take pleasure in the prospect, but nevertheless he has come to an acceptance that “if this is what God wants, this is what I will do”. The following quote is representative of his thinking:

“I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.

But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”

I used to read this and be completely appalled. How could he be so unloving towards his sons? And yet… now I see where he is coming from. He is just like Abraham, standing on the mountain with the knife raised above his head; ready to bring it down and plunge it into Isaac’s heart if only God would give the order. He is not happy about this. He does not take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the sacrifice of his sons. Nevertheless he is willing to follow God anywhere. It is a sobering faith, but it is nevertheless a strong and true faith.

What John Piper does not seem to realise, however, is that the Gospel is “Good news” and as such there is always a happy ending to the tale. While he is to be commended on his strong and invincible faith in the face of the prospect of God sending his children to damnation, he does not have to fear this as if it were a live possibility. God always wants the best for everyone, John Pipers children included. It is admirable to be willing to sacrifice your sons, but it is even more admirable to rest in the confident Gospel Hope that you will never have to do this, for the dark night of the soul always concludes with happiness and joy, and not a bitter-sweet victory of tears, sighing and sadness.

“The night is darkest before the dawn, but the dawn is entirely glorious”

dawn-dusk[1]

In summary, we have to be willing to see our closest loved ones eternally damned for the sake of the love of God, however we do not have to fear that God will ever truly demand this of us. We know that there is always a happy ending: no matter how tense it gets; no matter how dark things seem; there will always be an angel swooping in at the last minute to stop us from slitting our sons throats, just as it was with Abraham. God’s demands are intense and exhausting, but Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light: we can always trust that God has our best interests at heart, as well of those of everyone we love; our friends; our families; and even our enemies! God loves everyone without distinction and without exception. This is what we have to keep in mind at all times, for this is the faith that will carry us through the dark night of the soul. When everything seems dark and Satan is tempting us to give up Hope and wallow in despair: remember the unlimited, unconditional salvific will of God and remain steadfast in faith. The reward at the other end of the tunnel is theosis: supreme Joy, the fullness of salvation and eternal satisfaction. Press on for this prize. We have to be prepared to pass through Hell on the way to Heaven; pray that God would give us strength, faith and resolve for the journey. All praise be to Christ the victorious redeemer, who has saved the world, is saving the world, and promises to save the world to come. Amen