Thursday, 16 October 2014

Time-locked language (Part 1)








In today's post, I am going to somewhat vaguely, air something of a theological frustration of mine. This frustration is more felt against theologians than God, and more aimed at ancient theologians than recent ones, which should be a big clue to me to go and do some more homework. The frustration is based on:

a. the way causing works in most (if not all) instances in human languages - I argue it is semantically time-locked, or if not completely time-locked, limited to general non-specific effects, and effects which are inherently about change.
b. the way in which the tenses shift from scripture to doctrine (i.e. Jesus was begotten by the Father in scripture, and the Father begets [eternally generates] the Son, in doctrinal parlance).

Because a. took me longer to write than I initially thought, I will post b. separately.

A Time-locked causation

When we try, sometimes I get the impression of "try desperately", to make the doctrinal ideas fit Scripture and the Scripture the doctrinal ideas (Church fathers), or indeed to make the Scriptures agree with one another within the model of the doctrine (Holmes), we forget, or we forgot, something that is very basic indeed. The above words (cause, generate, beget, etc.) cannot be used, or only very rarely used, in describing the eternal or permanent. In my two languages of English and French, these words are inseparable from the notions of time and movement. Of course, that may not be the case in Greek, I need to check, but needless to say, I anticipate issues there also for the simple reason that we have chosen these words as apt and suited for translation purposes. This is why my questions to a fictive, English-speaking, 4th-century pro-Nicene theologian might be: "what does it mean to cause something that has always existed?" "What is there left in the word 'cause' once you remove time from its very essence?" 
And finally: "Please, would you stop misreading (Holmes' word, not mine) Isaiah 53:8?!"

As Christians, we do not believe that any human language is divine, in the sense, for example, that Muslims believe the Arabic language comes directly from Allah. Greek is just Greek, and so on, developed necessarily by humans to express and comprehend their needs and lives. When rain falls and the sun shines and the seeds are sown, and the gods smile, the crops grow. They were not, and now they are. Causation. There is little in causing-vocabulary that lends itself to describing an eternal or permanent action.

This said, I would first like to take a moment to try very hard and disprove my own objection to be sure. Look at two natural examples with me that may seem to create "mind space" for this kind of perpetual causation, examples that would be valid for people back then as they area now: first the moon, then the sun.

1. The moon's gravitational effect

We cannot be sure what people presumed about the phenomena of tides, but for the sake of this article let us assume that some kind of causal connection was made between the location of the moon the tide. Does the moon perpetually cause tides? Yes I think for the sake of this counter-argument, we could say it does. But let us be clear here, we are not saying that one huge lump of water is produced or removed over and over, all we can say is that this phenomenon is perpetually caused by the position of the moon. A permanent effect. So the moon's gravity on our oceans helps us provide a little leg-room on the perpetual side, while still absolutely being locked into movement.

2. Heat from the sun

Let's keep it astral. So does the sun's steady warmth (leaving aside seasons, weather fluctuations, day and night and everything else) provide us with more linguistic head space? Unlike the moon's gravitational effects on the ocean's movements, the heat we sense does not change, and yet this warmth is caused continuously, without it, we would freeze to death in an instant.
Here we certainly can discount 1st or 4th century notions of vibrating molecules, and their movement, besides that would just be getting a bit too theoretical! Well, what is warmth? Warmth is a sensation I feel after I have been feeling cold. So while there is change and time-lockedness there, we could move on to simply say the warmth of the sun is essential to life. The warmth of the sun (in combination with other factors), causes life. Continuously.

So having identified some room for this notion of perpetual causation from natural phenomena, we should note the following key points: 1) permanent causation examples seem fewer and are theoretical, i.e. no two actual tides are identical even in the same location, 2) the only permanent cause examples seem to be phenomenal change-inducing effects, i.e. the warmth of the sun helps cause the crops to grow. There is no specific thing or creature or person that is perpetually begotten or caused in our human languages.

So, as mentioned in the intro, I argue that causing is semantically time-locked, and where not completely time-locked, limited to general non-specific effects, and effects which represent change.

Update: Note that Zizioulas (Holmes, QFT, p13) strongly emphasises the Father's causing of the Trinity. Holmes qualifies this causation as something "free and personal, not something mechanical and fixed." The question and challenge raised for this article on time-locked language, is now to find something that is "free and personal" that can be caused in a non-time-dependant way. Can you think of anything?

I think I finally see a way through here in looking back at the Greek word, αἰτία, an old theological principle to which Zizioulas wants to remain loyal. In Strong's Greek NT 156 we have indeed something less mechanical. Here we speak of "guilt", responsibility, accusation, fault, grounds, reason. I cannot deny that this opens a quite different discussion in terms of NT authors' perspective around causation, however, it really must not be forgotten that this word is not used prior to the patristic period, that is hundreds of years AFTER the scriptures were written (it would seem particularly around the debates surrounding the Filioque clause, St Maximus the Confessor, and the 15th Century Council of Florence).

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