Eucatastrophe as Deus ex Fabula

In a passage developing his thesis that the God of the Bible is principally identified not as an abstract ontological principle standing “behind” the narrative events of redemptive history, but precisely by and within those narrative events of redemptive history, Robert Jenson makes several remarks that elucidate both the literary and the metaphysical significance of Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe:

Since the biblical God can truly be identified by narrative, his hypostatic being, his self-identity, is constituted in dramatic coherence. The classic definition of this sort of coherence is provided by Aristotle, who noticed that a good story is one in which events occur “unexpectedly but on account of each other” [Poetics 1452a3], so that before each decisive event we cannot predict it, but afterwards see it was just what had to happen. Aristotle himself regarded liability to historical contingency as an ontological deficit and therefore drew no metaphysical profit from his observation. But since God himself is identified by contingencies, Aristotle’s prejudice need not hinder us. Why should commitment in a history not be instead an ontological perfection? We are free to say that even–or, rather, especially–God is one with himself just by the dramatic coherence of his eventful actuality. (The Triune God 64)

The first response is that Jenson’s passage helps point to an important difference between Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe on the one hand and its cheap counterpart of the deus ex machina on the other. Whereas the deus ex machina is defined as an event–sometimes of literal divine intervention–which unexpectedly and incredibly saves the plot from an otherwise insoluble problem, eucatastrophe, by contrast, while an “unlooked for” and “sudden turn” in the plot, is one that nevertheless displays a “dramatic coherence” with the story as a whole. Speaking of the eucatastrophe of the Gospels in particular, Tolkien mentions their “perfect, self-contained significance” and how

This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.

Thus, while eucatastrophe, similar to the deus ex machina, involves (ultimately) divine intervention, it is nevertheless an event whose possibility and hence meaning is only brought into being in and through the events it is the eucatastrophe of. To use Aristotle’s phrase, a eucatastrophe is the climactic event among a series of events which occur “unexpectedly but on account of each other.” Seen in this light, eucatastrophe is less a matter of deus ex machina–a god acting within an artificial, contrived “machine”–than it is a matter of deus ex fabula, a god who works within the parameters of a narrative that is both ultimately and always of his own telling. For those readers who have been following my reflections on the theology of the possible, the application is this: in deus ex machina we have a metaphor for a theology that is voluntarist and hence possibilist, whereas in eucatastrophe we have a model of a theology that is sub-creative and actualist.

(To be continued….)

The Naming and Narrative of Treebeard and Yahweh

In a well-known passage, Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin the Entish philosophy of naming:

For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

In other words, the name of a thing is its narrative: things are identified by their temporal eventfulness. According to Robert Jenson (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: The Triune God), what is true of Treebeard is likewise true of the God of the Old and New Testaments.

God… is uniquely described by the narrative of the Exodus-event, and the one so described has a personal proper name, JHWH. The description and the name in their interplay determine Israel’s relationship to her God. Asked who God is, Israel’s answer is, “Whoever rescued us from Egypt.” Asked about her access to this God, Israel’s answer is, “We are permitted to call on him by name”… In [the Decalogue], the name and the narrative description are side by side, to make one identification: “I am JHWH your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.”…

To the question “Who is God?” the New Testament has one new descriptively identifying answer: “Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.” Identification by the Resurrection neither replaces nor is simply added to identification by the Exodus; the new identifying description verifies its paradigmatic predecessor…. Thus the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is simultaneously a very compressed telling of the total narrative by which Scripture identifies God and a personal name for the God so specified; in it, name and narrative description only appear together, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but are identical.

In Treebeard’s terms, accordingly, Yahweh’s name is a “real name” first, because it “tells you the story of the thing” it names, and secondly, because like any other living thing, it is “growing all the time.”

Could the Father or Spirit Have Become Incarnate?

In his Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Triune God, Robert Jenson critiques the Augustinian legacy in Western theology that tends to flatten out the differences between the respective agencies of the persons of the godhead. For Augustine, Jenson says, “there is no difference at all between the agencies of Father, Son, and Spirit. Either, he thinks, Father, Son, and Spirit must simply do the same thing, or simply different things” (and Augustine rejects the latter) (111). One of the most “disastrous” applications of this principle, in Jenson’s view, was Augustine’s teaching (in the words of Peter Lombard) that “As the Son was made man, so the Father or the Holy Spirit could have been and could be now” (Sent. 3.1.3). If the agency among the divine persons, in other words, is univocal among them, then it stands to reason that the act of incarnation cannot be proper or unique to any one of the persons, but must be shared by each. Against this view Jenson pits the “authentically Nicene analysis” of John of Damascus, who wrote that “It was the Son of God who became the son of man, so that his individuating property might be preserved. As he is Son of God he became a son of man…” (Expositio fidei 77.5-8). As Jenson summarizes the problem with the Augustinian position, the

supposition that there is no necessary connection between what differentiates the triune identities in God and the structure of God’s work in time bankrupts the doctrine of Trinity cognitively, for it detaches language about the triune identities from the only thing that made such language meaningful in the first place: the biblical narrative. (112)

My response: the conflict might also be viewed in terms of the theistic possibilism-actualism debate I have been developing here of late. On the Augustinian view, the “possibility of Incarnation” seems at some risk of becoming an abstract, uncreated possibility simply given to or for God, not simply as Creator, but now more specifically as a Trinity of divine persons. According to the doctrine of divine ideas, God’s will ranges over all the possibilities that are his with respect to creation. On the Augustinian view of the univocal agency of the divine persons, the classic Augustinian voluntarism and possibilism receive an even further, deeper, more problematic application, as the divine will is here allowed to range over possibilities that reference not only created being per se, but also how the persons of the Trinity in particular may (or may not) relate to that created being. (Consistent with this position is the later “personal properties” debate of the high and late Middle Ages, which was waged over whether it was the property of relation (the Dominican position) or the property of emanation (the Franciscan position) that was primarily responsible for constituting the persons in their distinct personhood. Either way, this is to posit a prior ontic framework that afterward makes the Trinitarian persons “possible.”)

As for the Damascene position tying the possibility of Incarnation to the Son only, while this conclusion could be drawn as the result of an even more limiting possibilism (i.e., the possibilities for Incarnation are still viewed as prior to and determinative of all Trinitarian action, as per the Augustinian position, it’s just that the range of available options have now been narrowed from three to one), the thrust of Jenson’s discussion, as I understand him, would seem to be to see the divine Son simply as God’s own possibility of Incarnation. If the Father or the Spirit are able to become Incarnate, the Son is that possibility for them. The possibility of Incarnation is not, accordingly, something that precedes or co-exists eternally with the persons of the Trinity, distinguishing them (or not, as the case may be) from each other; rather it is the prior actuality and givenness (and giftedness) of the divine persons for each other that afterwards determines the character of the possibility of their givenness for creation.