The archetype of Romans 1 : 20-32

In response to a comment I made a Strange Notions, a commenter referred to Romans 1: 20-32 as a “homophobic rant”. While I’d concede this so far as Paul’s language is polemical, I think Paul is describing an archetype which, if it were simply described another way, would be agreed to by more or less everyone.

Paul describes a four-step process:

1.) The wise stop seeing the universe as a sign or indication of God’s eternal power and divinity.

2.) Men practice idolatry.

3.) There is a loosening of sexual mores, culminating in an approval of homosexuality.

4.) All vices become widespread.

Since idolatry is imputing divine characteristics to nature and to human art, we can replace this definition with the word. Put this way, the first three steps are well known:

1.) Secularization/ humanism / disenchantment.

2.) Naturalism and Mechanism.  (i.e. only the universe and its “laws” exist of themselves and are eternal, but the universe is at the same time a machine that is capable of being perfectly re-created by human art.)

3.) The Sexual Revolution.

We have no general name for the last stage, but it would manifest itself in the glorification of gangsters, in tales of heroes who can’t be tied down by moral codes, in a widespread belief that all claims to living a holy or moral life are hypocrisy and sanctimony, in the gradual replacement of moral criteria with other ways of evaluating actions (is it healthy? is it American? this is just business, right?) in a widespread malaise over the idea that any sort of moral progress is possible, etc. Again, we have no general name for this, but if we did it would be no more polemical or offensive than the names in the first three steps. In fact, many would take pride in the name, and see it as describing something true to the point of being obvious.

Though I concretized the archetype with examples that would be familiar, this is an archetype, and so has played out in different ways in all societies.* If one doesn’t see the universe as existing for God, he starts seeing it as existing both for itself and for human use. But this idea will get quickly and inevitably extended to that part of nature which concerns what we most desire, i.e. the objects of erotic desire. These desires then become the paradigm cases of what is both divine-eternal and yet merely for human use, thus making sexual imperatives simultaneously the voice of God and yet only the commands of “my body”. Like anything tied up with the reward system of the brain, however, if we try to make it infinite it leads to a ratcheting-up effect that demands greater and greater novelty, though this novelty becomes difficult to find without transgression of the boundaries of behaviors that were once kept off limits. At this point, the human person becomes simply a transgression machine, seeing in the infinite possibility of spirit only the limitless boundaries to destroy.

*For example, once one isolates the elements in Paul’s account, the fact that he is alluding to the apostasy of Israel is unmistakable: in the face of the eternal power of God (the theophany of Mt. Zion) the wise (Aaron) create idols, and the people consecrate the idol with an orgy to Baal, and the whole action culminates with the destruction of the whole of the law (Moses breaking the tablets).

Truth (pt. 3)

-Truth is verified most fully in two ways: the proposition-imperative and in that which is the best object of mind. For us, these are not the same thing, but if there is a highest truth it must somehow unify these two. For such a mind, the “fiat” will, also constitute an object of speculative knowledge. The fiat that makes the world (Gen. 1) is not opposed to its being a reflection of Logos (Jn 1).

-The Euthyphro dilemma reduces to this division in our understanding of the truth.

-Science is an attempt to transcend this division in our notion of truth. We seek to understand things so far as they conform to models made by us.

-Science, like all knowledge, presents us with the question whether we will see the knowledge as a replacement for God or an approach to him. The decision divided the angels before it divided us – the whole of our history is a playing out of a division that happened for them in an instant. In another sense, however, it also played out for us in an instant, which is what the Genesis myth is gesturing at.

-We have a suggestion of the way in which truth and goodness are transcended in the beautiful.

-A thing cannot be modeled unless its essence differs from its existence.

-For us, the primary division in knowledge is into the practical and speculative, i.e. into knowledge that terminates in a product or a proposition. This is a division in ratio or the account we give of an object and not the object itself: a movie is an object of practical knowledge for the producer and of speculative knowledge for the Auteur / film buff. There is no reason why the same intellect can’t relate to an object in both ways – in fact, the simplest resolution to the Euthyphro problem might be just to say this.

-We seek to unify the speculative and practical. So far as this approaches the speculative, it will be the best thing our mind can know; but so far as it approaches the practical, it will be of the lowest sorts of things our mind can know. This is because we can only model what is repeatable and therefore replaceable, but the highest goods in nature are irreplaceable, since these are the things we have the highest love for. I can’t merely love my kids or spouse as a sort of thing, or for having a list of goods that might just as well belong to another.

-Science is not of particulars, but the highest goods we desire are. This division is overcome only in the knowledge of the blessed.

The wisdom of the world

From Vatican I to the recent proclamations about marriage, the magisterial power of the Church has declared that some things are knowable by reason without stating exactly the argument by which reason knows them. There are Scriptural precedents for this: Romans 1 speaks of God being clearly seen by the things he has made without giving details of this inference. One could have a cynical response to this (if these things are so reasonable, why not just give the reasons?) but it is all as it should be. Things known by revelation are known by taking part in the knowledge of God and the saints and not by puzzling them out. The Church can declare various philosophical ideas wrong without doing the philosophy that yields the conclusion. Plantinga argues that something like this is true even in human knowledge: one could have an immese amount of evidence that I committed some crime, which would be powerless to persuade me if I knew for a fact that I didn’t commit the crime. I would know your whole case is wrong even without being able to say why it was. In fact, my own knowledge is more certain than the complex and evident case one might make against it. I don’t need to refute it to know where it is false, and if the magisterium of the Church is right about where its knowledge comes from, it’s clear that they don’t need to make refutations either.

But these declarations about the power of reason is not only compatible with but even seems to require a good amount of skepticism about the power of reason to form the very conclusions that Church says reason can form. St. Thomas claims that one of the reasons we need revelation is because only very few persons can know these things by reason, and that they can know them only after a long time and as mixed up with many errors. In fact, Romans 1: 19-21 is not only the charter for a Christian philosophy but also a testimony that within the world we actually live most of the wise will be lined up firmly against Christian wisdom, and even reason itself.

As much as a Christian might take solace in the fact that he is speaking with reason, it’s hard to stay unruffled when he knows that the case against him is going to be made by the wise of the world, i.e. by guys who might well outmatch him by decades of IQ points, be able to bury and blindside all comers with facts and the command of language, and who, in the end, will continue to be seen as “the wise of this world”. Paul’s speech at the Aeropagus was met with polite indifference, i.e. they seemed to think that it was a case not even worth refuting. Paul hoped for a fight and got only shrugs.

Truth (pt. 2, the basic problem)

Truth therefore is most fully verified in an act of the mind that is at once judgment and declaration, both indicative and imperative. What we mean by truth is more found in the pet owner saying “His name is rover” or the teacher saying “The assignment is to read pages 88-95″. That said, the same analysis that gave us this conclusion showed that truth is a mind-good, and it’s not all clear how this sort of truth is what our mind most desires. Thus truth presents a problem to the mind about what to do about the division in the thing it is desiring.

Truth (pt. 1)

Basic given: when two minds get into conflict, they generally judge the one with more truth to be better off. So truth is a mind-good, just as gas or maintenance is a car-good.*

The opposite of the true is the false, but “false” means both incorrect and the fake (cf. false opinion, false teeth). Though we wight be tempted to take the first sense of true-false as the one the mind is looking for, it cannot be separated from the second. For the basic fact we are starting with is the conflict between minds, and two minds would not come into conflict unless at least one of them had an apparent truth. And so our notion of truth has an intrinsic opposition to the false as both fake and incorrect. In fact, the true-fake binary has more explanatory power with respect to the conflict than the true-incorrect binary, and so should be spoken of first when explaining truth.

What is true-fake is relative to an intelligence. Take three identical-looking Mona Lisa’s: the original, a replica, and a forgery. Make the appearance as identical as you please, down to the last molecule. Both the original and the replica are true in different ways (the first by being the true Mona Lisa, the second by not being a fake), but what is the difference between the forgery and the replica? They differ by different judgments, and so true-fake is formally a sort of judgment, specifically, one that can be correct or incorrect.

But judgments can be correct in two ways. Say I buy a puppy that his owner called Max. I can judge (a) He is a lab and (b) he is named Charlie. What’s interesting about the second judgment is that the judgment itself makes itself true. No matter what the breeder called the puppy, when I buy him I can name him whatever I want.  So some judgments are true and cannot be incorrect while others are not. But this needs to be sharpened up a bit: for it’s certainly the case that the (a) statement “can’t be incorrect” if it actually is the case; and that the (b) statement can be false if made by someone other than myself (e.g. if someone thinks the dogs name is Carly). When we say some judgments can’t be incorrect we mean the truth of some judgments has its origin in the very mind making the judgment. This sense of “truth” has to be taken as truth in the fullest sense, for it is not only opposed to the fake but rules out incorrectness as even a logical possibility.

*You could contest this, of course, and then our minds would be in conflict, and you’d seek to convince me you were better off because…

Knowing the future

-The desire to know the future is powerful and largely pre-conscious. Before we can even question the idea, we already find ourselves assuming that it’s out there like some space that we are continually walking into.

-In discussing time, Aristotle mentions that before and after are first said of space* and then of time. This strikes many first time readers as odd (sure, we while on a trip through So-Cal we might ask “Is Ventura before Santa Barbara?” but is this really the first sense of “before” we think of?) but the point is very good – we spontaneously think of time as a space, but not space as a time. The past is “back there” and the future is “in front”

-Taken as a space-walked-into, we’ve never actually verified that there is any such future. As Ruyer points out, we can dive into the other car, but not into the accident.

-There are occasional hints of a future “out there” in phenomena like déjà vu or the testimonies of religious witnesses. All of these have a dream-like character, however, and are usually only clarified after the fact. The point of prophesy is not to give bullet-point predictions but to testify to various transcendent (and not merely timeless) realities.

-True, one timeless reality is the plan of God, but “plan” here is simply “the divine idea of temporal creation”. As such, it is a transcendent reality and cause that, like all such things, unifies what is diverse in what it transcends. This unifies time, but it also unifies the necessary and contingent, the free and the determined. Eternity is a timeless and unchanging “now”, but it is also one that brings together total fixity and determination along with the total positive indetermination of freedom. Neville is faithful to St. Thomas’s idea of transcendence when he describes God’s “eternal now” as having all the perfection of the fixity of the past, the conscious awareness and givenness of the future, and the possibility/indeterminacy/ openness to freedom of the future. Obviously, this problemitizes any simple idea of a “divine plan” that has scripted out the future “in advance”.

-Science doesn’t make predictions, it makes claims about what is invariant in time and so will be true any time it is tested. Einstein’s claim about light bending around the sun in an eclipse didn’t have to wait till 1919 to be true. In fact, it’s precisely because we can’t predict that the prediction is useful in science – we can’t be biased by the future because we can’t know it.

-You might as well say that the claim “cats are mammals” is a prediction that we can verify by going out and finding one nursing its young. The point of science is not to know future events but to know what things are, and what a thing is is in invariant in time. This is why nouns have no tenses.

-We want to understand time as the score when it is the music itself. The score exists all at once and we merely read through it while the music has to be bracketed by non-existence in order to be at all. We might see all the notes on the score at once, but to hear them all at once would not be the music.

-From Parmenides to Einstein, all block universes are committed to the idea that what we see is real but what we hear is “subjective” or doxa. What we see is just “there” but what we hear requires memory and so is dependent on us. But the error here is obvious. Of course we hear “what’s there”, and of course there are auditory structures just as there are visible ones (and sight depends on memory too – you wouldn’t actually see something move without remembering where it was) We can’t give perfect objectivity to sight and then just deny it to hearing, even if we try to distinguish primary and secondary qualities.

-The problem of the future reduces to the problem we have in unifying vision and hearing. Vision requires that all exist at once, hearing requires that all does not exist at once. This reduces further to the finite object of our cognitive powers, which both is something and can only be so by not being something else. This reduces further to the first principle of our thought, which only understands what things are by comparing them to what they are not and cannot be (i.e. the principle of contradiction.)

-Any non-divine intelligence or cognitive power depends upon what a thing is not to understand what it is. Vision needs negative space to know definitions, our minds need the principle of contradiction, and angels need some multitude of concepts to know any one concept. The problem of time is a logical implication of this. Even angels presumably have some analogous puzzle about it.


*though he calls it “magnitude” and not space, and the two are quite different. Space is a hypothetical container of magnitudes, which Aristotle thinks can’t exist.


1.) Event A happens, which was predicted by almost no one (except sometimes when its immediate antecedents were given, and even then…)

2.) Predictions pour in that B will follow from A somewhere down the line, though not as an immediate consequence. B is some marvelous Utopia or apocalyptic hellhole. The arguments for B are all logical, the parallel cases to what happened the last time are airtight and convincing. The experts are enthusiastic and/or solemn.

3.) We become concerned and anxious, consume news media and watch more ads, don’t realize that we’re buying more shampoo. Resisting this while it happens is as impossible as not being unnerved by finding a giant spider in the bathroom.

4.) We muddle along, move on to the next shiny event A prime, the world stays the same as it ever was.

5.)  Goods and evils arise out of the actual event A in complex, muddled, largely unforeseen ways. Historians looking back at A find it far more difficult to trace out lines of causality than those who had the infinitely harder task of figuring out where the lines of causality would go before they happened.

The theology of gifts

Grace is a gift. But a gift has an interesting nature that is set apart from both fruits of labor (like wages, our children, or things we make in our shop) and from other goods that we get in a purely arbitrary manner (like lottery prizes, etc.)

Compare and contrast: (a) a wage, (b) a lottery payout, and (c) a gift. We’ve normed all three examples to be goods given from another, but the contrasts are more interesting.

Ways in which (a) and (b) are set apart from (c).  We’ll call the first two X and the gift G

1.) X is a matter of justice, G isn’t. This is why X, as a rule, is given according to preset rules and G is not.

2.) X resolves or takes away debts while G seems more to cause them.

3.) X is a largely impersonal exchange, which does not regard the person as such. Wages are usually given just for tasks, and lottery winnings are given with absolutely no regard for the person at all. G is never given like this. Even purely pseudo gifts are made with the pretense of recognizing something valuable in the person (Congratuations, Joe Blow, you’ve been pre-approved for a Amex Platinum card!).

Given this, here are some ways in which the ontology of gifts might solve some theological problems:

1.) The general Euthypho problem. The general Euthyphro problem is about the intrinsic goodness of things (usually moral actions) in relation to the divine will. If God loves them out of justice, then the goods must be independent of his act of will; if they have no such goodness, then God wills them to be good purely arbitrarilyBut the ontology of gifts suggests a middle course – things have an intrinsic goodness, but not one that can be conceived of as an antecedent claim on the divine will. On the other hand, the fact that the goods have no antecedent claim on the divine will does not mean that they are called good purely arbitrarily. This last mistake confuses a gift with a lottery winning.

2.) The Volunatarist/Fransciscan vs. Intellectualist/Dominican problem of grace. Along with a not unrelated problem of God’s antecedent will, this is the intellectual antecedent of the Reformation, and so lies at the heart of modern Christianity (for a very good brief treatment, read McGrath’s The intellectual origins of the Reformation, esp. p 80-81). Does grace reduce to justice, i.e. does God set us some system that allows us to perform actions in expectation of some reward (it would be, to be sure, a “supernatural” system), or is grace given apart from any system, and so in a more or less arbitrary manner? Clearly, once one has recognized the ontology of gifts the false dilemma becomes immediately apparent.

Grace is an entirely personal interaction (so far, the Reformers were right) but it is not purely extrinsic imputation or arbitrarily assigned righteousness. Again, Trent’s basic point was that grace was divine adoption, i.e. it was a gift not of something impersonal but of the most intimate of personal relations, namely a familial bond. Even on the natural level, so far as adoption is a gift it’s hard to imagine a gift that enters more intimately into a person.

While what we call grace is normally set apart from nature, it might be better to also see grace as the paradigm case of a divine gift, while nature is a less clear and less perfect instance of a gift.

Two Eschatologies

The end of the world must either be an interruption in human life or an event that occurs after the race has passed away. There are suggestions of the first in Scripture (Mt. 24:40) and in the creed (“judge the living and the dead”), but these ultimately turn out to be ambiguous (“living and dead” seem better understood as speaking of the saved and damned, for example, which is what judgment is about.)

The second interpretation is the better choice. The two judgments have distinct objects and so are not muddled together, and so just as God gives a private judgment to those who have run the course of their life and meet their end either by nature or man, the general judgment happens in the same way. Death is the price to be paid by human life in all its forms, not just by individuals but by the merely human collectives that they form.

The judgment is therefore not coming to save us. It won’t interrupt social evils or break in upon them before they run their course, or leap in front of nature before it finds the keys to making human life just the food source for some other sort of life (like bacteria). We’re in this to its bitter end.

The One, Trinity, and Incarnation

Higher ways of causing or existing unify what is diverse in lower ways. 

Examples: We can understand something through its opposite, but we can’t sense a thing through its opposite (except perhaps as an illusion or mistake). What the general or CEO gives as a single command requires a multitude of subordinate actions. The higher and more ultimate a goal is, the more it can explain diverse actions with proper goals that are unrelated or incompatible. When you understand what X is, you unify all of X’s, whether actual or possible. Rows and rows of carpentry tools, each with their own limited operation, would have no reason to exist apart from the hand (ditto for the dependence that other tools have on the eye). Higher friendships provide goods that would take a multitude of lower friendships to provide.

Sometimes this higher way of causing or existing is specialized in the lower ways (like the hand tools, the architect, CEO). Sometimes the higher mode in some way depends on the lower one (sense and reason). Sometimes the higher mode gives a sort of dignity to the lower (sense and reason again, a great leader and is subordinates). But these are not always necessary. In the case of friendships, for example, the higher neither specialize, depend on, or give any dignity to merely lower ones; and the nature of a thing doesn’t relate in any of these ways to what takes part in it. There’s no reason why all friendships might not be of the higher sort, and there just is nothing in the formal order other than what the thing is. So each of these qualifications is not essential to being a higher and lower cause or existent. But the unification of what is diverse in lower causes is always necessary.

At the limit of causality and existence, all that causes or exists in any way is unified in The One. To call it The One does not preclude, but in fact requires, that it be described both as one and as many. Again, it does not preclude it being other but requires that it both be self and other. Finally, it does not preclude it being both concrete and abstract, or as individual and intelligible nature. So far as it is “The One”, we speak of ourselves as monotheists, but this speaks precisely of the transcendent unity of one and many, and so our monotheism allows for a multitude in divinity. Again, so far as The One is both self and other, we must understand it as a knower and so a logos, and this self-logos binary is itself spoken of by the same one-many binary. Finally, this self is both a concrete subsistence in the self-logos and also an abstraction. Moltmann was therefore wrong to say that the Augustinian account of the spirit was false because it spoke of the Spirit as “The love between two persons”, and so gave us a “binity” and not a Trinity. This “love” is an abstraction from two concrete beings, to be sure, but this does not give us a “binity” but is a gesture in the direction of how The One is both abstract and concrete. The unity of self-logos, which can only be understood by an act of loving, is not precluded from being God and a self by being an abstraction from concrete selves.

While The One is both self one and many, self-other and concrete-abstract, this does not mean it is any or every other and any multitude, for it cannot be the other an multitude that it causes. Understood as cause, it must always be absolutely and sharply divided from its effects. Still, we can’t help but see causality as a gift of existence, and so if there is to be the gift of existence at all, there must be some unification of created and uncreated existence. At the limit of this unification we must have Incarnation.

But doesn’t all this rationalism violate the necessity of revelation and mystery? Not at all. The One must always be understood as behind the diverse curtains of one-many; self-logos; and abstract-concrete. Any attempt we make to push behind these curtains in fact only uses one curtain to cover the other, while it continues to cover The One. We can call The One “a cause” of both curtains, but this does not allow us to see it-him as one as excluding many, or a self as excluding logos, or a concrete being as excluding abstraction. So far as we limit all possibility to what is one to the exclusion of many, etc., we also judge that The One is (or are) impossible.

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