United Methodist theologian and writer Thomas Oden holding my grandson (and his great-nephew, or grandnephew if you’re Bri’ish) Tommy Oden. Talk about surprises.
Friend and philosopher Alan Rhoda has been responding to a critique by Bill Craig and David Hunt of a Faith & Philosophy article Alan published (with Boyd and me) back in 2006 advocating for open theism. Alan has gone on to advance the philosophical debate in great ways.
Warning for readers: Our original article and Alan’s replies to Craig/Hunt aren’t the most accessible reading. Eggheads will enjoy them. Others might struggle. You’ve been warned!
You’ll find links to the 2006 F&P article there as well.
Great job Alan!
Sarah Coakley leads an extraordinary reflection upon trinitarianism in God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, 2013). There are several angles from which she approaches trinitarian thought, but in her first chapter she offers a reconception of the task of [systematic] theology which she describes as “founded not in secular rationality but in spiritual practices of attention that mysteriously challenge and expand the range of rationality, and simultaneously darken and break one’s hold on previous certainties,” an “ascetic, contemplative, proposal for [what] theology actually entails.” I thought it worthwhile. Enjoy!
The first resistance to systematic theology resides in the philosophical critique of so-called ‘onto-theology’: it claims that systematic theology falsely, and idolatrously, turns God into an object of human knowledge…
That systematic theology should be perceived as necessarily engaged in a false reification of God, first, is the accusation made when systematics is seen as a form of ‘onto-theology’. But what exactly does this accusation mean? The charge goes back to the claim that Greek philosophical metaphysics was already engaged in a hubristic and inappropriate attempt to explain the divine, the ultimate Cause, and so to extend metaphysics beyond its proper reach; and, further, that classical and scholastic Christian theology, in its dependence on Greek metaphysics, unthinkingly extended such a trait into its projects of philosophical and systematic theology. Even Thomas Aquinas has been (falsely) accused of such an ‘onto-theological’ error.
But the mistake in the charge itself is that it has failed to understand the proper place of the apophatic dimensions of classical Christian thought (as already briefly discussed in the Prelude). Once there is a full and ready acknowledgement that to make claims about God involves a fundamental submission to mystery and unknowing, a form of unknowing more fundamental even than the positive accession of contentful revelation, the ‘onto-theological’ charge loses its edge. Indeed, one might say it becomes a mere shadow-boxing. For ‘God’, by definition, cannot be an extra item in the universe (a very big one) to be known, and so controlled, by human intellect, will, or imagination. God is, rather, that without which there would be nothing at all; God is the source and sustainer of all being, and, as such, the dizzying mystery encountered in the act of contemplation as precisely the ‘blanking’ of the human ambition to knowledge, control, and mastery. To know God is unlike any other knowledge; indeed, it is more truly to be known, and so transformed.
So, if the ‘onto-theological’ charge misses its mark, is its accusation simply ‘much ado about nothing’? Not exactly; for its concerns rightly chide those forms of theology which show an inadequate awareness of the sui generis nature of the divine, and of the ever-present dangers of idolatry. In short, systematic theology without appropriately apophatic sensibilities is still potentially subject to its criticism. The question then presses: what constitutes such an ‘appropriately apophatic sensibility’? Can this be gained simply by taking thought (or, rather, by taking thought and then negating it)? Or is it that this first accusation against systematic theology has rightly isolated a deeper problem than that of mere intellectual or semantic hygiene – that is, the modern problem of the dissociation of theology from practices of un-mastery?
It is here that one of the key dimensions of my proposed theological method becomes crucial. As I have already argued, systematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practice comes with the danger of rending itself void; for theology in its proper sense is always implicitly in via as practitional. It comes, that is, with the urge, the fundamental desire, to seek God’s ‘face’ and yet to have that seeking constantly checked, corrected, and purged. The mere intellectual acknowledgement of human finitude is not enough (and in any case is all too easily forgotten); the false humility of a theological ‘liberalism’ which remakes God as it wishes under the guise of a Kantian nescience is equally unsatisfactory; it is the actual practice of contemplation that is the condition of a new ‘knowing in unknowing’. It must involve the stuff of learned bodily enactment, sweated out painfully over months and years, in duress, in discomfort, in bewilderment, as well as in joy and dawning recognition. Apophatic theology, in its proper sense, then, can never be mere verbal play, deferral of meaning, or the simple addition of negatives to positive (‘cataphatic’) claims. Nor, on the other hand, can it be satisfied with the dogmatic ‘liberal’ denial that God in Godself can be known at all: it is not ‘mysterious’ in this sense. For contemplation is the unique, and wholly sui generis, task of seeking to know, and speak of God, unknowingly; as Christian contemplation, it is also the necessarily bodily practice of dispossession, humility, and effacement which, in the Spirit, causes us to learn incarnationally, and only so, the royal way of the Son to the Father.
The first, ‘onto-theological’, objection to systematics therefore does still have continuing point, even as one answers it. It serves as a reminder that the problem of idolatry is an enduring one, and that it can never be dealt with by mere mental fiat or a false sense of intellectual control. It draws attention, too, to the fact that not all theology adequately reflects on its apophatic duties: insofar as it fails in them, it is indeed implicated in ‘onto-theological’ temptation. Finally, it hints therefore also at the need to make important distinctions between different levels, or types, of approach to doctrinal truth….That is, there are different ways in which doctrines can be purveyed, whether by symbolic power, indirect allusion, or analytic clarity; but even when these are judiciously combined, there can be no intrinsic guarantee of an effective apophatic reminder in any attempt to speak truly of God – unless such reminders are practised. One of the rightful requirements of systematic theology, then, is for it to indicate what sorts of different ‘forms’ of expression it is using, and for what purpose, and how such forms relate to intentional practices of un-mastery. Only thus can one consciously guard against the ‘onto-theological’ danger.
What, then, is distinctive about the idea of theology that this book proposes? The central theme…is that the task of theology is always, if implicitly, a recommendation for life. The vision it sets before one invites ongoing – and sometimes disorienting – response and change, both personal and political, in relation to God. One may call theology from this perspective an ascetical exercise – one that demands bodily practice and transformation, both individual and social…
Such deepening of vision will eventually also involve at some point a profound sense of the mind’s darkening, and of a disconcerting reorientation of the senses – these being inescapable fallouts from the commitment to prayer that sustains such a view of the theological enterprise. The willingness to endure a form of naked dispossession before God; the willingness to surrender control (not to any human power, but solely to God’s power); the willingness to accept the arid vacancy of a simple waiting on God in prayer; the willingness at the same time to accept disconcerting bombardments from the realm of the ‘unconscious’: all these are the ascetical tests of contemplation without which no epistemic or spiritual deepening can start to occur.
Bahraini intellectual Dhiyaa Al-Musawi. Heard him years ago, lost track of this recording but have been searching for him since. Thanks to a friend in Beirut who tracked it down. Not something you hear every day from Muslim thinkers. May his tribe increase — quickly — before it’s too late.
If you haven’t yet discovered Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s wonderful resource at Closer to Truth, let me be the first to encourage you to explore the site. He has done us all a great service. The interviews are excellent and there’s no shortage of topics and views.
I’ve listened to dozens, many of them repeatedly. Not sure how I missed her before, but this week I listened to Sarah Coakley for the first time. She is an Anglican theologian/philosopher, priest and deputy chair of the School of Arts and Humanities at Cambridge. I could listen to her all day. Below are a few suggestions. The first interview the Trinity is simply wonderful. The last one on the list is beyond delightful. If God were incarnate as a woman, she’d be Sarah Coakley.
The Tango is a violently passionate exchange, a storm of desire, of invitation and response, a give and take, a request whose granting is increased desire. If the divine-human relationship is a ‘dance’ (as so many like to express it), then surely it’s a Tango — frustrating, unpredictable, dizzying and passionate, both answering and creating questions as it moves along, both fulfilling and enticing, exhausting all the powers of concentration and fueled by fulfilled and ever-expanding enjoyment and desire. And of course what would it be if the furniture wasn’t also kicked over. If that’s the life of faith, the divine-human relationship, then a life of prayer isn’t going to be any different. My reason for examining in this series of posts a bit of the meaning of petitionary prayer within an open worldview has not been to produce a neat list of theorems that tame the Tango and turn it into a Waltz by removing its infuriating ambiguity and passion. It has been to try to express these different aspects of our conversation with God and to discourage any disconnected speculation or abstraction that isn’t done while dancing.
So let me close this series with a few concluding guidelines — some suggested dance steps if you will — arising from the preceding considerations of open theism’s understanding of petitionary prayer within the larger providential framework noted. Some of these points reproduce material taken from my summary of open theist contributions mentioned earlier.
(1) Prayer is that interpersonal communication necessary to the establishing and flourishing of loving relationships in which God achieves his purposes for creation in covenant partnership with us; it is our God-given capacity for responsible partnership with God wherein we shape ourselves and the world through the prodding, asking, pleading, yielding and offering of ourselves in conversation with God.
(2) Prayer is only one of many variables that determine what we and the world become, and much about the complexities of these variables escapes our comprehension. Consequently, we must acknowledge a good deal of ambiguity that characterizes the world and prevents us from being in a position to judge why things happen as they do, why they do not always happen as they might in spite of our faithful and fervent prayers, and where precisely God (and we, or others, or our prayers) can be firmly located on the map of our explanations.
(3) God is love and does all God can do given the contextual variables of every given circumstance to maximize good. He always and everywhere ‘supervenes’ upon/through/in creation, bringing all the influence that he can bring to bear in each circumstance within the creational constraints he sovereignly established to achieve the most lovingly relational state of affairs possible. I suggest this is all the explanation we should require. It’s a fully sufficient ground for ‘trusting’ as opposed to ‘explaining’.
(4) The ‘good’ God seeks in creation is the beauty of loving synergy flowing from our being united with him. Outcomes achieved synergistically represent a greater good than outcomes unilaterally achieved. This provides us with a divine rationale for God’s making his meeting our needs contingent upon our petitions and the petitions of others. Why pray to an omnipotent, omniscient, all good God? Because the beauty and love for which we and others were created is achievable through an interdependence of both divine-human and human-human relations, and that interdependence is free and risky. This means that finite goods (good as experienced by us or those we and others pray for) are co-implicated in their fulfillment, which in turn means that when the greater good of cooperatively achieved outcomes fails on account of a lack of prayer, God does not as a matter of policy settle for the next best thing, viz., bringing about the same outcomes unilaterally and thus somewhat less beautifully. We obviously do not that sort of world. Rather, it is to say the freedom of such partnership has an integrity to it which precludes God’s being able to guarantee the same outcomes minus the cooperative component.
Given (3), God is always maximally involved in seeking to redeem every occasion in the cosmos and to maximize its potential for loving relationality. But given (4), the nature of loving relationality limits both God and humans to a fundamental interdependence that links the ‘good’ of individuals to the larger ‘good’ of creation. Petitionary prayer’s logic is an affirmation of the interdependence of these two upon each other.
(5) The efficacy of petitionary prayer is grounded in the interdependence of God’s purposes for us and the metaphysical constraints those purposes place on the God-world relationship. God is ‘functionally’ finite in some respects with regard to achieving desired outcomes, and the God-world relationship possesses an integrity that cannot be undermined by unilateral divine (or human) action without destroying the very synergy by which God’s aims are to be achieved.
(6) The urgency and motivation for petitionary prayer are grounded in the worth and beauty of God which God created us to reflect.
(7) Prayer involves offering ourselves in answer to our prayers by committing actively to engage the fallen and conflicted structures in which we live. One petitions God honestly when one offers oneself to become the answer to one’s prayers however God may desire.
(8) Lastly, what open theists may justifiably petition God for is limited (as it would be in any approach) by the constraints of their view of God, his purposes, and the nature of divine providence. In open theism God cannot guarantee the morally responsible behavior of free agents. A request to God to “Save Uncle Frank’s soul!” motivated by a belief that Uncle Frank’s choice for God is something God can entirely determine, is not a consistent request). I can think of conversations I’ve had with other open theists precisely about ‘how’ to pray. On the one hand open theists make much of open theism’s giving them a new appreciation for and sense of urgency about prayer because now one can see concretely how prayer ‘makes a difference’. And that’s true. But on the other hand some open theists become a bit paralyzed, not knowing ‘how’ actually to petition God. So much of our prayers and petitions concern the world outside our own relationship with God, a free and risky world, a world God doesn’t exhaustively determine. So exactly how is one to word one’s petition regarding outcomes we know are contingent upon factors God does not determine? How does one petition God with respect to the well-being of free agents? I’ll leave things open-ended right there.
Enjoy your Tango.
As noted earlier by Basinger, placing divine love at the center of our understanding of God and his actions in the world leads to a basic tenet of open theism: “God always desires and pursues the highest good and well-being of his creation.” Basinger expands upon this conviction: “An omnibenevolent God is obligated to maximize the quality of life for those beings he chooses to create.” Consequently, Basinger argues, “God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one person’s life simply because someone else has failed to request that he do so.” This leads to the problem Roy notes(1) and which both Sanders and Boyd address.
For Basinger, the belief that ‘God always seeks to maximize good and minimize evil’ entails the notion that ‘God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one’s life simply because someone else failed to request that God do so’. But is the latter entailed in the former?(2) One might respond to this as Keith Ward does:
It is not sensible to complain that if I fail to pull my neighbor out of a ditch when I could easily do so, God is responsible for leaving him there. It is no more sensible to complain that if I fail to pray for my neighbor when I could easily do so, God is responsible for not doing what my prayer might have effected.(3)
Good point. But we may need more. Suppose a second neighbor is aware of my first neighbor’s plight in the ditch and has the resources to help but refrains from doing so unless I ask him. Who would excuse this second neighbor for refraining from helping simply because I had not asked him to do so? What possible constraints could my requesting my second neighbor to help place upon him that would excuse him while implicating me? An articulation of a rationale for such constraints, freely entered into by my second neighbor, is what Basinger is after and which Ward’s analogy doesn’t address.
We’ve noted responses to this impasse by Sanders and Boyd. Boyd affirms that God as love entails God’s always doing all God can do — given the creational variables he sovereignly established — to maximize good. Limiting certain outcomes to the petitions of believers is simply part of the morally responsible “say-so” believers must possess and exercise if they are to grow into responsible partnership with God. This growth into partnership would be undermined if God automatically and directly maximized good and minimized evil in all cases without the participation of human cooperation. The ‘partnership’ in question is precisely about the accomplishing of such ends. This implicates (at least to some measure) the good God wishes to achieve and the evil he wishes to prevent in the free participation of others. Sanders adds that if the good we suppose God pursues as a matter of character includes a personal relationship with us, then God is properly speaking incapable of unilaterally achieving it independently.
Basinger is unconvinced. He does “not believe that a perfectly good God could justifiably refrain from granting any believer’s essential needs, even if she has consciously decided not to request God’s help.”(4) In his response, Michael Murray argues Basinger’s position is problematic. Murray:
If Basinger means to adopt this as a general principal which follows from the conceptions of God’s obligations he endorses, then serious trouble looms. And the reason is simply that if (a) God exists, and (b) the principal is true, it would follow that (c) no believers would ever die from starvation, exposure, or, presumably, death on a cross. Since they do, we have an argument against not only efficacious petitionary prayer, but theism itself!(5)
Basinger’s claim does seem excessive. It makes it difficult to affirm with James that believers “have not because they ask not” or any number of other essential goods we know God is desirous to grant but for which we are told to petition God. Basinger objects that none of the rationales offered thus far describe the sort of goods that would justify a divine policy of making provision of essential needs sometimes dependent on our petitioning God for them.
I submit that Basinger’s concern is based on a sound conviction but that he has failed to take relevant possibilities into consideration. That is, let us view God as ‘maximally involved’ at all times, in all circumstances, seeking to bring about the most good possible given the variables that define each circumstance. Thus, it is never the case that God “refrains” from doing or achieving some desired good simply because he was not petitioned. Where I believe Basinger is mistaken is in limiting the “good” that an omnibenevolent creator would pursue to the good of “the individual” understood independently of other considerations. I suggest that there is a “good” to be had in synergistically achieved aims that cannot be achieved by unilateral divine action, that such good is that for which the cosmos has been designed, and that our individual ‘goods’ are implicated in the interdependence necessary to achieving this consummate “good,” which is simply the consequent beauty of loving relationality, the relational (divine-human and human-human) synergy reflected in outcomes cooperatively achieved. As noted in our last post, some good G achieved synergistically is essentially different than G achieved unilaterally. The cooperation of freely offered petitions shapes the identity of outcomes and makes them more aesthetically pleasing or beautiful to God.
Consider the accomplishing of any task a person may want to undertake and introduce personal relations into the context, so that the task is transcended by the relations. An example from my personal experience may help. Some years ago I moved with my wife and children into a new home, and my daughter’s room needed painting. My daughter (then 12 years old) loved art and wanted to paint the room, or at least be a part of painting the room. But I was pressed for time and preferred to do the job myself. I knew I could get the room done quicker, more efficiently, and more neatly if I did not have to accommodate my daughter. I knew involving her would mean greater risk of spillage and a less professionally looking job. But I also loved my daughter and valued relationship more. So painting the room with her and not just for her or through her, allowing her to hold the brush in her hand and not determine its every movement to insure a neater job, would (a) accomplish something between us that could not be gotten were I to paint the room in any other way, and (b) give definition to the room that reflects this relational intimacy.
This analogy suggests a way of understanding how nurturing the divine-human relationship as the ultimate task at hand transcends the specific creational contexts and limitations in which that relationship is pursued. If God’s purposes and agency in the world prevent us from understanding individual goods independently of ‘how’ they’re achieved (unilaterally vs synergistically), synergy must be sought. It increases the beauty and thus the value of the outcome. This just is the good which open theists ought to insist God necessarily pursues.
It is not as if God “refrains from intervening beneficially” when we fail to petition God. God is doing all God can do given the failure of prayer, so there is no “refraining” from doing what perfect love by definition does, viz., seek the highest possible good in every circumstance. Nor is “intervention” an appropriate description of God’s part of the divine-human venture we call prayer. That assumes that God is sometimes not fully engaged until we petition him. On the contrary, however, God doesn’t ‘intervene’ in this sense. God ‘supervenes’ as it were. He actively ‘inhabits’ every occasion and is thus always maximally involved, seeking to bring about the most beautiful state possible given what he has to work with. But that’s just the point — how much maximal divine involvement is able to achieve depends upon a synergy that includes creaturely freedom. As noted earlier, Boyd’s and Sanders’ essential point is that our petitions create avenues, “space” (to use Fretheim’s word), wherein “all that God does” in that instance is able to achieve more, not less, good. But this means that on occasion “the most that God can do” fails to achieve what it might have had we prayed. But this is not to say God “refrained” from anything.
In conclusion then, Stephen Roy’s objection that open theism provides an inadequate basis upon which to engage meaningfully in petitionary prayer because open theists affirm a notion of divine love that is incompatible with God’s making the provision of a person’s ‘good’ depend upon the prayers of others proves to be false. We have noted that there are conceivable circumstances and conceivable goods that justify God’s making his involvement in securing these goods sometimes dependent upon his being petitioned to act.
(1) The problem has been around at least since Origen, who writes of some who refused prayer claiming “What need is there to send up prayer to him who knows what we need even before we pray?…And it is fitting that he…who loves all…should order in safety all that has to do with each one, even without prayer.”
(2) This debate goes back to Eleanor Stump’s “Petitionary Prayer,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 81-91. It is developed in Basinger, “Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good God?” Religious Studies 19 (1983): 25-41; Joshua Hoffman, “On Petitionary Prayer,” Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985): 21-29; Michael Murray and Kurt Meyers, “Ask and It Will Be Given to You,” Religious Studies 30 (1994): 311-330; and Basinger, “Petitionary Prayer: A Response to Murray and Meyers,” Religious Studies 31 (1995): 475-484. See also Keith Ward, Divine Action (San Francisco: Torch Publications, 1991), 156-158.
(3) Ward, Divine Action.
(4) Basinger, “God Does Not Necessarily Respond to Prayer,” in Michael Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 264.
(5) Michael Murray, “Reply to Basinger,” in Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, 265.