2013-11-24

Divine Infinity and Human Epektasis

Jacob's Ladder: A common symbol for the ascent into God's Infinity (epektasis)

If God is infinite, how can we relate to such a God? How does the infinity of God relate to our ultimate growth and development as sentient beings "made in God's image"? Does the infinity of God, the boundless depths of Divine Love, open for us any surprising developments for our own spiritual progress? If God is in some sense a field of infinite potential that invites us ever-deeper, what implication does this have for spiritual projects that stress the "unchanging" nature of God and spiritual truth? Can one hold any "unchanging" ideas about God and still embrace a universe that is characterized by change and flow and evolution?

All of these questions have been swirling around my head for a couple of years now. And I want try and connect the Triune God, Divine Infinity, Change and Development, Cosmic Evolution, and Epektasis (the continual pursuit of God by the human soul). The following essay will seek to elucidate a systemic connection between these ideas based upon material in Scripture and Christian Theology, while touching upon certain themes in philosophy, biology, and physics. And we shall start by postulating that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is Infinite:

THE NATURE OF THE INFINITY OF GOD

Scripture uses various terms which imply that God is infinite and not capable of being bounded in terms of strength, time, presence, or any other concept. This infinity is a complete absence of limitation, and is a logical implication of the "holiness" or complete set-apartness of God. And so holiness can be a kind of synonym for God's infinity. The Infinite God is thus "unlimited, unbounded, unconfined, unsearchable, immeasurable, beyond ultimate comprehension" [bunyanministries.org, attributes chap. 10].
  • 1Kings 8.27 But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 
  • Psalms 145.3 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.   
  • Psalms 147.4–5 God determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit. [cf. Isa 40.28]
  • Job 11.7-9 Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven: what can you do?   Deeper than Sheol: what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. [cf. Psa 139.7-10; Job 5.8-9; 9.10] 
  • Isaiah 55.8–9 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
  • Romans 11.33–36 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”  “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. [cf. 1Co 2:9]
  • Ephesians 3:16-19  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. [cf. Eph 2:7; 3.8-9]

Another near synonym for infinity can be God's "eternity" or "eternal nature". If eternity is considered as an unending depth, or unceasing succession of moments, then God's eternity implies an infinity of time. Of course, eternity and infinity can be conceived of differently, as the endless number of points between two other points, or the endless number of divisions between two different times. So eternity and infinity can also represent not only the infinite "extension" of Godself, but also the infinite "depth" of any particular moment or place in God's life.
  • Isa 57:15 For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:  I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit...
  • Rom. 1:20 Ever since the creation of the world God's eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. 
  • 1Tim. 6:16 It is God alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 
  • See also: Genesis 21:33; Exodus 3:15; 15:18; Deuteronomy 32:40; 33:27; 1 Chronicles 16:36; 29:10; Nehemiah 9:5; Job 36:26; Psalm 9:7; 33:11; 41:13; 55:19; 68:33; 90:1, 2, 4; 92:8; 93:2; 102:12, 24-27; 104:31; 111:3; 135:13; 145:13; 146:10; Proverbs 8:23-25; Isaiah 26:4; 40:28; 41:4; 43:13; 44:6; 46:4; 48:12; 57:15; 63:16; Jeremiah 10:10; 17:12; Lamentations 5:19; Daniel 4:3, 34; Micah 5:2; Habakkuk 1:12; 3:6; Romans 1:20; 16:26; Ephesians 3:21; 1Timothy 1:17; 6:15, 16; Hebrews 1:8; 9:14; 2 Peter 3:8; 1John 2:13; Revelation 1:4, 6; 4:8-10; 5:14; 10:6; 11:17; 15:7; 16:5

Thus God's eternal infinity can be said to have two complimentary aspects:
  • Infinite extension: God's infinity represents boundless overcoming and overflowing beyond any conceivable constraints of number, space, time, strength, knowledge, or conceptuality because God transcends any and all other realities. 
  • Infinite depth: God's infinity comprehends the endless sub-division of any reality into ever smaller segments, dimensions, facets, or modes of analysis.

I have read debates between atheists and theists about whether or not God can count to infinity. One side upholds God's ability to count forever. The other side makes the case this is an absurd concept, because an endless counter would count endlessly. Both are wrong. For if God has to count, it is not God doing the counting. God does not need to count. Rather, God is the infinity that is being counted.

Both of them are wrong because they are doing what is called "ontotheology". Ontotheology is the assumption that God, if God "exists", is a Being among other beings. Maybe God is a super-being, possessing more power, knowledge, or size than any other being. But God is still a being. This is a category mistake. God is not A being, but rather Being itself. God is the very predicate of existence that is the ground for all other entities. God does not exist. God is existence. Thus God does not count. Rather God is the Reality that makes that which is counted real.

Both of them are right in assuming there is such a potential entity as "Infinity". If an atheist has just posited a hypothetical-- or potential-- infinity as a postulate to do an equation, then she has just posited God. For this is one definition of God: The infinity of potentiality that makes all actuality possible.

INFINITE POTENTIALITY REALIZED INCREMENTALLY

Thus, another way of thinking of God is in terms of potentiality and actuality. God is infinite potential. God is the infinite extension of potential, as time and space unfold into the unknowing future that is God. God is also the infinite depth of potential that lies within the hearts and minds of sentient beings, inspiring their imaginations and moving their will when they are choosing an act that fulfills their potential in new and creative ways.

But did not Thomas Aquinas define God as "pure actuality" or "actus purus"? If God is not fully and totally "actual" does this not make God something LESS than perfect and infinite? We know that our universe does not actualize everything it could be at any given moment. There are always potentialities it does not realize, probabilities that remain unrealized, events that could have been another way from the sub-atomic level to the cosmic level [cf. Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory]. So, where does this potential reside? Is this potential something real, or un-real?

There is an infinite field of possibilities that any event, any universe, only partly realizes. It is from this Pleroma-- this fullness of potential reality-- that actual reality is drawn. This Pleroma or Fullness of Reality is another term for God [cf. John 1.16; 1Co 10.26; Eph 1.23; 3.19; Col 1.19; 2.9-10]. The field of potential serves as the Ground or Basis or Fabric that all actualities are born from. In this sense the Infinity of God creates-- provides the very being of-- all other realities. Within Godself, all potentiality is actual to the Divine Mind. This is because the Mind of God, the Logos [John 1.1-18], contains all potential realities in any possible universe as something like "thoughts" or "imaginations" that are actual or real to Godself. It is in this sense-- in Godself-- that God's infinite potentiality is "actus purus".

However, when viewed from outside of Godself-- that is, from the perspective of the created order-- the potentiality of God remains only partly realized by the events of the universe and the free choices of sentient actors within it. Yet God remains infinite perfection because actual events in the universe only exist by sharing in the fullness (Pleroma) of Godself.

Why then does God not just actualize everything all at once? If God is perfect infinity without defect, why would God leave ANY potential unrealized? It may be that God HAS actualized all potential across an infinity of universes, and has given us the "illusion" of time in order to experience it all unfold. Or it may be that God has made us as real persons, with real transcendent selves, and has given us time and freedom to participate with God (or not!) in actualizing the potential in Godself, all for the purpose of sharing Love with us. Or it may be both of these explanations are true from the perspective of eternity. Either way, as Infinite Potentiality, God is "actus purus" within Godself, and the very "Ground of Being" within the created order [cf. Paul Tillich].

GOD AS CHANGE AND ABYSS

Yet another way of thinking of God's infinity is to think of God AS Change itself. This is a paradox, not unlike God as "actus purus", because God is said to be unchanging and eternal. And it is true that God is unchanging. So how could God be Change? Change means for an entity or event to pass from potentiality to actuality. A change happens when something could do or could become something else, and then it does. However, if change itself changed, it would no longer be change. The only change that change could make is to be un-change, which would eliminate change from the universe.

So, in order for change to be a real mode of being, there must be an infinite number of possible changes that could happen, so that change itself is never exhausted and there are always new possibilities of change available. Thus an infinite field of potential forms the very basis of change itself, the very Ground or Fabric that allows change to be change without ever becoming un-change. And again, another name for this Infinite field of potential is God. Thus, if the "only thing that never changes is change itself", we see why. Change itself is the unchanging God whose Infinity allows for a never ending interplay of change and development across any possible universe.

God thus faces us as an Infinite Abyss, or Chasm of potential, lying open before us (cf. Gen 1.1-3). This Abyss stretches out before us as an Infinite horizon, always inviting us to ever new and creative embodiments of the potential that is God. Nietzsche once wrote of staring into the primal Abyss, and the Abyss stared back. To stare into the Abyss, and have the Abyss stare back into us, can elicit two authentic responses, and one dishonest response. The dishonest response is the half-human, who stares blankly, cow-like, into the Abyss and sees it as mundane. Only an anesthetized person, medicated beyond the ability to grasp their true human nature, can perform such a feat of disinterest.

The two authentic human responses to standing before the Infinite Chasm of God's eternal potentiality are either faith, or fear, or a bit of both. On one hand, we can be confronted with all the pain and tragedy and risk and loss that such potential represents if we squander our potential, if we piss away our opportunities. Such a response must truly be fear, horror, and dread at the thought of the loss that diving into such an Abyss of potential represents.

On the other hand, we can be filled with commitment, with a faith that grasps the Abyss of God as a Gift of sheer grace, offering us unlimited opportunities to grow and develop and actualize the promise given to us by the sheer fact of our existence as sentient beings. God as the Infinite Abyss beckons us to realize the divine image God has placed in us, actualizing our potential by growing into God's infinite extension of potentiality, and the infinite depth of each possibility.

But more than likely the experience of staring honestly into the Abyss and understanding what God's infinity truly represents before us will elicit both responses: Perhaps simultaneously, perhaps alternating as we experience the chances and changes of mortal life. It is the very experience of falling through the Abyss into the arms of a loving God. And it is a horrifying, exhilarating, awe-inspiring experience that inspires both fear and faith, dread and hope.

EPEKTASIS: ENDLESS GROWTH GODWARD

Since God is infinite, unfathomable, and uncircumscribable in God's own Being, God is thus always capable of being known at deeper and deeper levels throughout eternity (as per Gregory of Nyssa). We literally "fall in Love" as we fall into the depths of the Abyss of God's infinity, because God IS Love. As we fall deeper and deeper into Love with God, we find that there will always be opportunities to grow, and endless ways we can develop the Divine potential given to us as "children of God".

Thus, the Infinite God of Love "draws us" ever deeper into Godself in a process that Gregory of Nyssa call "epektasis". Epektasis may be defined as "the perpetual striving Godward into Christ's likeness". It is an ongoing, perpetual process of growth into God, which never ends, never terminates, never quits. This is because God is infinite, and no matter how far we have come, or how far we have pursued Christ, there will still be more to discover, and greater heights to ascend. Thus, our journey with Jesus is infinitely deep, infinitely fulfilling, and infinitely challenging. The originating Scriptural basis for epektasis is found here:

Philippians 3.12–14 [12] Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and striving toward [ἐπεκτεινόμενος, epekteinomenos - the participle from which the noun epektasis comes] what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. [see also Mat 7.7-8; Luke 11:9-10; 1Co 9:24-27, 12:31; 1Ti 6.11; Heb 12:1-2]

Saint Gregory further illuminates the process of epektasis:

"If nothing comes from above to hinder its upward thrust (for the nature of the Good attracts to itself those who look to it), the soul rises ever higher and will always make its flight yet higher - by its desire of the heavenly things "straining ahead for what is still to come", as the Apostle says. Made to desire and not to abandon the transcendent height by the things already attained, it makes its way upward without ceasing, ever through its prior accomplishments renewing its intensity for the flight. Activity directed towards virtue causes its capacity to grow through exertion; this kind of activity alone does not slacken its intensity by the effort, but increases it." [Life of Moses 2.225-30]

The modern mystical scholar and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, also offers the following insights on the ancient idea of epektasis and the infinity of God:

"If the Christian life is a journey into God, it is a journey into infinity – not an abstract ‘absoluteness’ but an infinity of what Gregory simply calls ‘goodness’, an infinite resource of mercy, help and delight. And because of its limitless nature, this journey is always marked by desire, by hope and longing, never coming to possess or control its object. This is perhaps Gregory’s most vivid way of expressing the Christian conviction of God’ s transcendent freedom and objectivity: faith is always, not only in this life, a longing and trust directed away from itself towards an object to which it will never be adequate, which it will never comprehend. God is what we have not yet understood, the sign of a strange and unpredictable future." [The Wound of Knowledge, 1990, pp. 57-8]

GROWTH, GRACE, AND FREEDOM

This process of constant striving for Christlikeness, to grow into the infinity of God, is also shown in a number of other Scriptures. These passages use metaphors of growth in Love, progress in faith, being filled with the fullness of God, and being progressively sanctified, or set apart, to reflect Christ.
  • Philippians 1.25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith... [cf. 1Ti 4.15]
  • 2Peter 3.18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. [cf. John 3.30; 1Co 3.6-7; Eph 4.13-16; Col 1.9-10; 1Pe 2.2]
  • Colossians 1.6 [The Gospel] bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. [Growth compared to trees bearing fruit: Matt 7.14–20; John 15:2-8; Phil 1:11; Gal 5.22-23; Col 1:10]
  • Ephesians 3.19 [I pray you may] know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. [cf. Mat 5:6; John 1:14-16, 10:10; Eph 1.23, 4.13, 5.18; Col 1.9-10, 2.9-10]
  • 1 Thessalonians 5.23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Rom 7:14-25; Gal 5:16-18; 1Jo 1:8-9; Psa 19:12; 65:3; Ecc 7:20; Jam 3:2]
  • 2Cor. 3.18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. 
  • 1John 3:2-3 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 

The "effort" or "work" which animates epektasis has two dimensions, both empowered by God's grace shown in Christ. First, from the Divine side, God is like a magnet of Love, drawing all Love to Godself, in those who are indwelt by God's Love in the Holy Spirit. Thus, epektasis is initiated and sustained by God. On the human side, epektasis is a constant striving, climbing, pursuit, and effort put forth by those who are empowered by God's grace. It is a human-divine synergy, entered into freely by both sides, for the purpose of growth in Love.
  • Philippians 2.12–13 Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
  • Colossians 1:29 For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me. 
  • 2 Peter 1.3–7 [3] His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life... [4] Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature... [5] For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; [6] and to knowledge, self–control; and to self–control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; [7] and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
  • 1 Corinthians 12.4–6 [4] Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; [5] and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; [6] and there are varieties of energies, but it is the same God who energizes all of them in everyone. 
  • God’s people must make efforts to grow spiritually: Phil 2:12; 2Pe 1:5-9; Ro 6:19; 2Co 7:1; Gal 5:16-25; Eph 5:15-16; 6:11-13; 1Ti 4:7; 6:11-12; 2Ti 1:6; 2Pe 3:14; 1Jn 3:3; Jude 20
  • God supplies the resources for spiritual growth: Phil 2:13; 2Pe 1:3; John 1:16; 4:14; 15:2-5; 1Co 10:13; 2Co 3:18; 9:10; Gal 5:22-23; Php 1:6; Col 2:19; Jas 1:17; 4:6; Jude 1.24

EVOLUTION AS COSMIC EPEKTASIS

It will be clear by reading the Scriptures that describe the process of epektasis that this is not just an individual phenomenon. It is also a social phenomenon, in which the entire Body of Christ-- and every member in it separated by time and space-- strives toward God's Love and grows into Christ's likeness. And not only is it an individual and a social phenomenon, it is a cosmic phenomenon. All of creation is on a journey of epektasis. The entire universe is being drawn into Christlikeness and united in Christ's Body, as the mystical hymn of the Cosmic Christ puts it:

Colossians 1.15–20 [15] Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; [16] for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. [17] He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [18] He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. [19] For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, [20] and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. [cf. Phil 2.5-11; 1Co 15.20-28]

Thus, growth and development permeates the entirety of the created order, from the smallest, most individual level, to the most corporate, cosmic level, starting from the beginning of time, and continuing into the infinite eternity of God. We can see epektasis in the following types of continual growth and development:
  • It seems at the cosmic level that even galaxies, solar systems, and planets follow a predictable pattern of growth and change. 
  • A human life (indeed ANY biological life!) undergoes a process of growth and development that recapitulates every stage of social and biological development leading up to their species. In the womb, humans go through developmental stages from single celled life, to less developed forms of vertebrates, to become fully human. 
  • Once out of the womb, unless cut short, a human will go through stages of physical, mental, and social growth into full maturity, until their "final birth" into God's presence at death.
  • If we look across cultures and societies, we will see an ongoing pattern of intellectual, institutional, aesthetic, and technological growth.
  • Biologically, it seems that organisms grow and develop and adapt to their environments. As they do this, species change to take advantage of new potentialities, and new species emerge that are better adapted. Over time, organisms emerge that are more complex, creative, conscious, and cooperative (with cells working together to form bodies, and individuals working together to form societies).

Evolution is ultimately the cosmic expression of epektasis. It seems that the entire purpose of creation is to bring about sentient creatures-- creatures capable of consciousness, creativity, communication, and community-- who can continually grow into all the fullness of God's infinite nature. As sentient beings evolve who are "made in the image of God", we actualize our divine potential in ever greater and deeper ways as we grow into God.

It may even be fair to say that the only unchanging constant in the universe is Change itself. And this is predicated on God's infinity. If God is the infinity of potential that provides the basis for all actual events, then all change and growth is the result of proceeding ever deeper into the infinite field of potential that is God. Thus God is the basis for all change, the unchanging constant of Change itself. All change happens because it actualizes the potential held within the Mind-- the Logos-- of God [cf. John 1.1-18]. Epektasis is then positive change, that is, change which leads to ever increasing potentiality for sentient beings. The opposite of epektasis is entropy, or change which leads to ever decreasing potentiality for sentient beings, resulting in death (which is zero potential).

GOD AS PROMISE AND INVITATION TO EPEKTASIS

The process of human epektasis and the Infinity of God thus present a unique picture of God as "Promise". God no longer stands behind us in the past, as some sort of "Super Being", who is a Guarantee of the stability of an unchanging order. This type of God and this kind of spirituality breeds complacency, and the self-righteousness that comes from having everything defined and all the check boxes checked. This complacency and self-righteousness is in fact spiritual entropy, the opposite of epektasis, and the companion of death.

So if God is not a Guarantee in the past, assuring us stability, how should we conceive God? God stands as a "Promise" in the future, an "Open Invitation" drawing us into the infinity of divine potential, beckoning us to journey ever deeper into the depths of God's unfathomable Love. The spirituality that results from viewing God as Promise and Open Invitation is ever growing, ever developing, ever actualizing the potential inherent in Jesus Christ who is the Logos of God incarnate. As we follow the pattern of Jesus Christ, the one who taught Love, who died as a gift of Love, and who rose again in a gift of Life, we will continually unfold into ever deeper levels of growth and development.

And so, epektasis presents us with a question: What or who shall we pursue with the life that God has given us? Shall we choose complacency and self-righteousness, seeking after an eternally stable world order that never changes and never surprises? Or shall we join with Jesus on a never ending journey into the depths of God's infinite Love? As Catholic Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us: "What you are is God's gift to you, what you become is your gift to God."

A POETIC EPILOGUE

I would like to end this essay liturgically, with a poem called "Credo: God Is" by Jim Burklo. As a statement of systemic theology, I think this poem lacks certain dimensions: A focus of God's transcendence, on the Incarnation of God in Christ, and on the Triune nature of God as Love. For a more balanced liturgical poem, I would offer my own Prayermap. Nevertheless, to get across some of the themes of this essay, this poem does a pretty good job. Enjoy.

God is all without being any thing
while being the all in every thing.
God is the perhaps at the edge
of every moment of choosing.

God does nothing
but nothing does
without God.

God is the freedom to do
and the urge to act.

God does not exist
because God is existence.

God is change,
God is flow,
God is relationship:
In, with, and through.

God is love:
silently attracting,
never compelling.

God does not have power
because God is power.

God is the unforced force
coursing through all events.

God is the potential
for transformation
in all relationships.

To be God’s friend
is to pay attention
to the flow in all things…
even those that seem to stay still.

It is to savor what is behind and within
all appearances, events, relations.
It is to feel the allure of what could be,
latent in the wonder of what is.

Amen.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.