Confronting the Absolute
God and man are both on an extended journey. It is a journey toward the relationships that constitute true human personhood. On one hand, in a process called “kenosis” (self-emptying condescension),1 God is moving from his pre-Creation “Being” toward personhood. On the other hand, through God’s intervention, man (male and female) is moving from primitive animality toward personhood. Neither journey has reached its destination. Neither God nor man has attained the goal of eternal human personhood yet to be manifest at the Parousia (Christ’s appearing or Second Coming)2 and which, by its very nature, will never cease to progress. Despite this journey of eternal “becoming,” we often make the mistake of imagining the realities of God and man in terms of absolutes. For example, I frequently catch myself saying, “Absolutely!” “Absolutely correct!” “Absolutely not!”
In everyday speech the word absolute refers to that which is “perfect in quality or nature; complete . . . not mixed; pure, unadulterated . . . not limited by restrictions or exceptions; unconditional . . . unqualified in extent or degree; total . . . unrelated to and independent of anything else . . . not to be doubted or questioned; positive; certain.”3 In philosophy the term absolute also is used to define
the concept of that which is complete in itself and includes everything within itself — the unconditioned, ultimate reality. The absolute is reducible or referable to nothing other than itself, and all things are manifestations or determinations of it. . . .
It is in Hegel that the concept of the absolute as Geist (mind or spirit) assumes its most compelling form. According to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind (1807), the unity of the temporal and the eternal, the one and the many, subject and object can be realized only as spirit. . . .
In the United States, Josiah Royce, especially in the “Supplementary Essay” to The World and the Individual (1901), conceived the absolute as an infinite self-consciousness whose ”knowing” and “willing” embraced all of time past, present, and future at once.4
Finally, absolute has long been used to refer to divinity, variously defined but generally understood to be “whatever does not depend on anything else for its existence.”5 Not only has God himself been defined as the ultimate Absolute, but his attributes also have been absolutized. For example, God has traditionally been described as omniscient (having absolute knowledge), omnipotent (having absolute power), and omnipresent (having absolute presence).
Absolute Holiness, Absolute Spirit and Absolute Law
In Scripture and other religious writings, God likewise has had the attribute of absolute holiness. The Hebrew word for holiness — kaddosh — “has nothing to do with morality as such but means ‘otherness,’ a radical separation.”6 Kaddosh is “the absolute otherness of God; the radical separation of the divine from the profane world.”7 Holiness further means “‘separation from everything unclean.’ Holiness thus meant the same as purity.”8 In effect, separation from worldly impurity and filth demanded God’s absolute absence from the created universe.
On the other hand, absolute Deity has long had the attribute of “spirit,” by which God is everywhere present. Absolute spirit has been variously identified as the self-manifestation of life-force, mind, soul, consciousness or reason. Fundamentally, however, “spirit” refers to divine presence.
Deity’s two attributes of holiness and spirit therefore present the contradiction of divine absence and divine presence. How can God be absent and present at the same time? Theologians have given various answers to this question. For example, some contend that the one God consists of distinct entities. One (God the Father) is absent, while another (God the Spirit) is present. Others view the contradiction between absence and presence as a dialectic of opposites known as “thesis” and “antithesis.” In this concept the paradox of God’s simultaneous absence from the world and presence in the world is resolved through a process of “synthesis” — making the two opposites one new reality.
Traditionally, the contradiction between God’s holiness (absence) and God’s spirit (presence) are both established and resolved through the exercise of absolute law:
1. Law establishes prohibitions — purity laws — that exclude the unclean from God’s presence. For example, when the Lawgiver descended upon Mount Sinai in the Old Testament story, Moses was told to place barriers around the foot of the mountain to exclude the profane Israelites. This was to assure God’s holiness — his otherness, separation and purity — as well as to preserve the profane multitude.
2. Law also is an instrument of judgment that removes and utterly destroys the created world in all its uncleanness. Once the world, which intervenes between God’s “absence” and God’s “presence,” is removed and destroyed, God’s spirit (mind, soul, consciousness, reason) can return to its original cosmic “oneness.” Absolute law can therefore effect “at-one-ment” between divine absence and presence so that Mind or Consciousness can again return to itself.
The idea that God as absolute holiness and absolute spirit is brought together by means of absolute law has had important consequences for human existence. Mankind has long seen itself as the imago dei — the image of God — and thus existing to reflect the attributes of God. Since God is holy, his chosen people also must be holy — “other,” separate, pure. Since God is spirit, his chosen people also must possess the spirit — all-knowing mind, soul, consciousness, reason. Although holiness as “absence” and spirit as “presence” are contradictory in man as well as in God, in both cases these attributes are eventually reunited by the exercise of sovereign law. Again, this “at-one-ment” is accomplished through the exclusion, removal and death of the uncleanness and filth that constitute the material, created world. Eventually, therefore, the self-manifestations of holiness and spirit in man return to the cosmic oneness of Deity. This understanding of the nature and destiny of man and God has repeatedly appeared throughout history.
The Absolute Deception
We now turn to confront the absolute in light of the marvelous journey of both God and man toward the relationships of true human personhood. In view of this relational destiny, it is clear that the problem is not a recognition of either God or man as “other'” in the sense of distinct and separate individuals. The problem is the existence of the absolute “Other,” who is ultimately absent from all created reality. The problem is not a recognition of God as spirit, mind, consciousness or life-force. The problem is the existence of one absolute Mind, who is present to absorb or possess all reality. The problem is not the existence of law to establish relationships in the created order. The problem is an absolute law, which excludes, removes and annihilates all relationships and returns God to his original, cosmic unity.
To press this matter further, the ultimate problem of absolutism is that it is a deceptive projection of mankind’s predatory animality. Because man is loathe to leave this animality to enter the relationships of human personhood, he has invented a predatory God in whose image he can fashion himself. In his predatory drives man is capable of going to any extremity to annihilate his relational “rivals,” including God, his fellow man, and even the created universe. Man has thus attempted to distort all reality into an illusion. He has reduced all individual beings and entities to cosmic oneness. He has reduced both Creator and creature to final nothingness. He has excluded all human personhood — all true relationships, individual freedom, responsibility, meaning, value, will, purpose and personal destiny.
Moreover, man has proceeded to incorporate the Christ event into his deception. In this view the “historical Jesus” is portrayed as the consummate “spirit person.” Through his baptism and possession of the “spirit,” Jesus became the self-manifestation of Deity in the material universe. In Jesus, absolute Deity, who is wholly “other,” holy and absent, became “present.” By virtue of spirit, mind or conscious presence in Jesus, absolute Deity occupied the natural universe. Then, by fulfilling absolute law in the death of Jesus, spirit could return to itself in the oneness of absolute spirit, mind or consciousness. Furthermore, because Jesus inaugurated the spirit-possession of mankind, other individuals likewise can become “spirit persons” — self-manifestations of holy Deity. Through such possession they, too, can overcome the contaminating natural world and by death be restored to the “immediacy” of one universal, absolute mind and consciousness — unrestrained by time or space or by dependence upon or relationship to any other reality. This interpretation of Jesus as a man who became the inaugural “spirit person” represents a culminating deception.
The Triumph of Human Compassion
The only lasting solution to these historic lies is the revelation of Truth. In the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4) the triune deception of absolute holiness and purity, absolute spirit and consciousness, and absolute sovereign law and power converged around man’s false vision of Absolute Deity and Chosen People. It was at that great axial point in world history that God himself appeared as the incarnate Jesus. He appeared, as One with us,9 to confront the triune absolutes — absence, presence and law — with a radically egalitarian message and lifestyle known as compassion. Without respect for exclusionary legal distinctions between the “profane” and “holy,” Jesus’ love embraced all equally. He reveled in disregarding the inhuman barriers of religion, race, class and gender erected by absolute law. He violated his opponents’ vision of God and absolute holiness by his unrestricted fellowship with the impure and his healing touch for the unclean. He cast aside the stifling presence of absolute spirit by inaugurating the relational presence10 of true human personhood and compassion.
In Hebrew (as well as in Aramaic), the word usually translated as “compassion” is the plural of a noun that in its singular form means “womb.” . . .
To say that God is compassionate is to say that God is “like a womb,” is “womblike,” or, to coin a word that captures the flavor of the original Hebrew, “wombish.” . . . Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us — the mother who gives birth to us. As a mother loves the children of her womb and feels for the children of her womb, so God loves us and feels for us, for all of her children. In its sense of “like a womb,” compassionate has nuances of giving life, nourishing, caring, perhaps embracing and encompassing. For Jesus, this is what God is like.
And, to complete the imitatio dei [image of God], to “be compassionate as God is compassionate” is to be like a womb as God is like a womb. It is to feel as God feels and to act as God acts: in a life-giving and nourishing way.11
Like a womb, compassion relationally embraces all others with oneself in egalitarian, life-giving, life-receiving, nourishing, healing, emerging transformation. Compassion is the womb in which human personhood is conceived, in which and into which personhood develops. The great dialectic (contradictory opposites) of history is not divine absence and divine presence. It is man, the predatory animal, and man, the human person. The central issue of history is the tension between the “now” of man’s animality, with its deceptive predatory holiness, world-consciousness and law, and the “not yet” of man’s true humanity, which abides in faith, hope and compassion (see 1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 13:13). Man cannot resolve this contradiction alone. Neither can the Creator.
The revelation of truth in Jesus as compassionate love is the ultimate threat to exclusionary and predatory holiness. It is the ultimate threat to possessive and arrogant consciousness and to imperious and rapacious law. When conscious holiness and holy consciousness once armed themselves with sovereign law, they ferociously attacked the womb of compassion. They were determined to destroy the inaugural emergence of human personhood in Jesus. So it was that Incarnate Compassion suffered and died — but rose triumphant. Now that “Womb” of Compassion is again present to mediatorially nurture human compassion among all mankind (Matthew 28:20).12
At the end of the millennium, our world again faces the combined forces of religious exclusivity. Social, ethnic and religious cleansing are rampant. The combined forces of charismatic and new-age “consciousness” pretend to represent the self-manifestation of absolute Deity. The fundamentalistic fervor of religious and political sovereignty, armed with legal absolutism, would even dare to annihilate all nature and the universe. These forces are again preparing to attack and destroy human compassion wherever it appears. But despite all this, compassion will triumph. God will finally achieve his goal of eternal human personhood with man. And man, the animal, will finally be transformed to eternally reflect the image of his Maker. Therefore,
Who shall separate us from the compassion of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who had compassion on us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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 compassion of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. — Cf. Romans 8:35-39, NRSV.
- The Greek word for self-emptying is kenosis. The understanding of God’s kenosis as “self-emptying condescension” is found in Philippians 2:5-8: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who . . . made himself of no reputation [kenoo] . . . humbled himself, and became obedient unto death . . . ” (KJV). “ . . . God is considered as absolute letting-be, as self-giving, as self-spending. Kenosis [Greek, kenosis = self-emptying] is understood as the way God relates to the world; creation is a work of love, of self-giving.” — Lucien Richard, Christ: The Self-Emptying of God (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 94. (go back)
- The Greek word parousia, translated, means both “presence” and “coming.” See Wikipedia — The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Second Coming, Terminology” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Coming#Terminology. See also James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 2006: “Parousia is an ancient Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or official visit” (p. 299). (go back)
- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “absolute.” (go back)
- Encyclopedia Americana, s.v. “absolute.” (go back)
- Roy A. Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), p. 19. (go back)
- Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and lslam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), p. 41. (go back)
- Ibid., p. 403. (go back)
- Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 50. (go back)
- Cf. Matthew 1 :23. Rather than a nonrelational, immediate presence, in which we absorb the Transcendent (“God in us”) or are absorbed by the Transcendent (“us in God”), the evidence indicates that the Risen Christ mediates his presence with us in history. That is, he reaches us through our neighbors. We reach him through each other. We reach each other and our own objective selves through him. This relational “reaching” may therefore be referred to as Christ’s “intermediatorial” presence, which is defined by the gifts of faith, hope and compassionate love. See “The End of Human Alienation,” subhead “The True Resolution of Human Alienation,” Outlook (Prequel 1994.7). (go back)
- See note 9. (go back)
- Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pp. 47-49. (go back)
- See note 9. (go back)
This article was originally published September 1995 under the Destiny imprint.