The disappearing open theist

disappear-from-search-enginesOK, look, I embrace the open view of the future. Let me get that out of the way. I embrace it because I think it makes best sense of things existentially, philosophically, and yes, overall biblically speaking. But I gotta tell ya, I don’t think any of the biblical authors were open theists in the sense that they held to the sine qua non of the view today, that is, divine epistemic openness (regarding future contingencies). Let’s abbreviate that as DEO to save me typing.

When I say there’s biblical evidence for the open view, I mean I think there are examples of biblical authors conceiving of the future in open terms, that is, they believed human beings were responsibly free, faced genuine options, weren’t victims of fate, and that their lives, choices and prayers made a genuine difference to the course the world took. And they believed God truly related to them and engaged the world in such terms, all convictions which form the basis upon which modern-day open theists argue for DEO. And yes, I do agree that DEO makes better sense of these convictions, just the way I think the doctrines of the Trinity (later conceived) and of Christ’s two-natures (later conceived) best explain the Bible’s overall narratives.

But the more I ponder things, the idea that the biblical authors, Old or New Testament, actually espoused DEO seems nearly impossible to imagine. In the end I think they were all substantially Arminian (obviously an older term, but let me use it here) on these questions. That is, they believed in pre-recorded open theism, you might say. They affirmed the freedom and contingency as well as the genuine relatedness of God and the world and the consequential nature of prayer that motivate open theists to adopt their unique view in the first place.

Yes, the biblical texts do sometimes describe God as contemplating an open future. I don’t at all think these are explainable either as God accommodating himself to our ignorance by presenting himself as contemplating an open future or as human authors presenting God in such terms while actually believing otherwise. If biblical authors very occasionally stumbled into a way of thinking about God’s knowledge and engagement of creaturely affairs in terms of DEO (and I can hardly imagine it) it is far from being the established “biblical” view of things. I simply think the biblical authors never reflected philosophically along the lines of the particular questions (compatibilism/incompatibilism) that overwhelm the conversation today.

If cornered on the specific question of DEO, I think Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul or any other biblical figures would’ve said, “Well, of course God knows what’s going to happen.” Perhaps—perhaps—Paul, given some of his arguments and his philosophical training and disposition, might have cared enough about the matter to contemplate the problem and grant a certain sense to DEO.

Here’s the thing. I simply don’t know how to account for the absolute disappearance of DEO from biblical faith on the assumption that it was an intentional, studied, contemplated belief of biblical authors. If as open theist authors have argued, the Old Testament authors, and Jesus, and all the Apostles and the Apostolic church all held to the core open view doctrine of DEO, then the obvious question is ‘What happened?’ because in no time at all the Church and its leading thinkers had no abiding commitment to such a belief, not even the memory of anything like DEO having been the belief of former generations. Irenaeus (disciple of Polycarp who was a disciples of St. John himself) holds to the traditional (Arminian) view and never even hints that St. John taught DEO to Polycarp. Come on. That doesn’t seem remotely suspicious to my open theist friends? True, by Origen’s day the question of prayer’s relevancy in light of divine foreknowledge had become enough of a philosophical-existential issue that Origen wrote a book on it. But he shows zero awareness that anything like DEO was ever believed by any Christian, anywhere, of any generation. There’s just no good explanation for the disappearance of DEO on the assumption that the Apostles and their churches explicitly held such a belief.

disappearing-cycleway2It will be claimed (by Greg Boyd and other key open theist writers) that Hellenism is to blame, that in virtually no time at all pagan Greek philosophy corrupted biblical faith and DEO was among the first beliefs to go. All this damage occurred, at least in Asia Minor, within St. John’s lifetime (it never makes it to Irenaeus, not even as an academic interest in what former generations believed), and the effect of Greek philosophy was so thorough and universal that not a single mention by any Christian thinker of even the memory of previous Christians having held a different view managed to survive especially when the subject of foreknowledge does appear, and it appear early. It strains credibility.

I’m open to seeing the evidence for the universal disappearance of DEO and its very memory from Christian thought by the opening of the 2nd century under the influence of pagan Greek philosophy, but this better by good (Greg). My own sense is that DEO does cohere best with the biblical themes of personal freedom, responsibility, the efficacy of petitionary prayer, divine-human synergy, etc., but that it simply was not explicitly held to by any biblical authors, though their texts make perfect sense in light of DEO. They were less than consistent. So what? But—to anticipate a certain reply—wouldn’t the actual beliefs of biblical authors be normative for us today? The short answer, for me anyhow, is ‘No’. I think it’s obvious that their beliefs—as they held them—are not automatically normative for us simply because those beliefs, or their influence, appear in the text. But that’s another subject.

Just to be clear, and to forestall misunderstandings—I do hold to DEO, and I do believe it makes best sense of things. But I don’t believe any biblical author held to it. That is, I don’t think any biblical author was an ‘open theist’.

Love let the world be

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Love let the world be,
     Gave space and voice for thought and choice,
     Primal desire and hearts on fire
To know, to love, to see.

Passio essendi, the Latins say,
     To be is to be given, to breathe to be driven,
     Before all else we are gifted this,
We choose the script but not the play.

Conatus essendi, the struggle ongoing
     To face the Void and not be destroyed,
     To embrace it all and hear Love’s call
In the desiring and the knowing.

Love let the world be,
     Gave space and voice for thought and choice,
     Primal desire and hearts on fire
To know, to love, to see.

No shadow of turning

shadows

James makes an interesting comment about God in the middle of a paragraph about God being the trustworthy source of all good gifts, God who is bringing forth in us his life as truth. The curious phrase, not altogether simple, comes as the second half of v. 17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (NIV) The curious claim that God “does not change like shifting shadows” invites us to imagine a picture of it, shadows that is. Objects outdoors on a sunny day cast shadows. As the sun moves (or as the Earth rotates, the difference is of little consequence), objects cast a changing, shifting shadow. The relevant point is made from the perspective of the objects as measured with respect to the Sun. Objects cast a changing, shifting shadow.

The phrase is variously translated:

NLT: “He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.”
ESV: “…with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
NASB: “…with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
RSV: “…with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
RSVn: “with whom there is no variation due to a shadow of turning.”

David Bentley Hart has a wonderful meditation (“No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol. XI, No. 2) based on James’ description. And while the general point of the paragraph is clear enough (viz., God is the unchanging source of every good gift, preeminently the gift of new life to which he has birthed us), I’d like to reflect on this from a slightly different perspective.

I’d like to suggest that the point of the illustration is to make it clear that God is unlike objects which cast a shadow when held to the light of the sun in that God cannot conceivably be thought to stand in the light of any reality or truth other than himself. Objects cast shadows because they are passive in relation to a source of light outside themselves which they reflect and according to which they cast a shadow, revealing their form. The only thing that can cast a shadow is that object whose substance reflects light cast upon it from a source outside itself, and its shadow is the outline of its reflected form. Its shadow shifts and changes as light strikes it at various angles. Everything on earth reflects the sun’s light in this way.

To say God “casts no shifting shadow” or that God is he “in whom there is no variation of shifting shadow” is to say that God does not stand in the light of some measurement, that God’s reality and substance cast no shadow because there is no reality outside God whose light or presence or truth God can be said to reflect and in reflecting reveal his form or substance, that God’s gifts do not reflect a goodness other than God.

God cannot be objectified in the light of anything.

He reflects no light, reflects no image, casts no shadow in light of any truth or reality outside himself. This is the point of saying every good and perfect gift comes from God who created the lights that cast our shadows. The point, it seems to me, is that God is the Source (of life, of light, of truth, of beauty, of goodness), and as Source he can stand next to nothing as compared or contrasted “in the light of” ______ (fill in the blank with whatever best, most virtuous thought, source, or standard other than God you wish to imagine).

Another way to express the experience of this is Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the “saturated phenomenon,” that is, experiencing “an excess of presencing that so overtakes and overwhelms the knower that she cannot objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it within her cognitive grasp.” Nothing other than God can cast the light of its truth upon God and see reflected back its own truth and in the transaction thus reveal the form of God. God casts no shadow because he stands in the truth of nothing outside himself.

Just a thought.

Blissfully blind, blindly blissful

5765096345_840be04e46_bAs we approach the end of April, I realize that this month completes our third year here at AnOpenOrthodoxy. We took a break of several months last year but are happy to back (as time permits).

Dwayne and I have been traveling partners on this road to—to what? I don’t even know what to call it—enlightenment, wholeness, theosis, apatheia, peace in Christ, and more. Thanks for being there, Bro. I know you know. You know I know. That’ll have to be enough for us, however crazy or mistaken those on either side may hold us to be. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. That’s true before anything else is true.

To commemorate six years of learning to say and unsay, to walk into the Cloud, to embrace the Void and find our true self on the other side, and then to call back to tell others its safe to step through, I thought John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) telling of the Eastern legend about the blind men and the elephant would be a fun birthday present.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! But the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! What have we here?
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘tis mighty clear
This wonder of an elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain, “quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Wise and foolish builders

MAIN-xlargeSome parables need explaining. They might be difficult to understand because of some strange cultural practice of Jesus’ day that’s completely foreign to us. Other passages are impossible to misunderstand. Their point is clear and you have to work hard to miss it or turn it into something it isn’t.

The parable of the wise and foolish builders (Luke 6.46-49) is the impossible-to-misunderstand kind. It’s not at all complicated. There are no strange foreign customs to get lost in. No difficult grammar to hide behind. No hard to understand theological terms to confuse or disorient. Here we just have Jesus in simple language making himself the absolute center of our destiny and confronting us with the challenge of what to do with him. Jesus asks:

Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.

With parables like this, the best thing a preacher/teacher can do is get out of the way as quickly as possible. That’s what I’d like to do, just as soon as I point a few things out.

First, this parable is Jesus’ conclusion to his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (either the abbreviate form of it in Luke or the longer version in Matthew). Christ has addressed a swath of concerns (more in Matthew than in Luke)—spiritual poverty, humility, peace-making, judging others, divorce and remarriage, lust, anger, what the Sabbath is for, praying, fasting, giving in the offering, doing religious duties, being anxious about tomorrow, trusting God, loving our enemies—all things that Jesus regularly taught about in public. All of these are what? They are what life in the Kingdom in a fallen world looks like. The conclusion makes Jesus’ single point: To be in the kingdom is to live its life, to do these things, to be spiritually broken, to mourn one’s sin, to make peace in the world, to not objectify women through lust, to be faithful in marriage, to not judge others, to love your neighbor, to build your life on Christ—this is what it looks like to be the Kingdom in the present world.

I confess. I’m prone to forget it. It’s easier to make something else, something other than Jesus, what it’s all about—holding to correct doctrine, going through the routine of religious devotion void of spiritual brokenness and hunger for righteousness, busying one’s self with the care and service of others (add whatever you do if you’re in vocational ministry). There are always good things we can lose ourselves in and miss the point. So I have to come back to this point, back to Jesus’ conclusion, and ask myself, “Am I giving my whole heart to living this life?”

Second, parables invite us to use our imagination. We are meant to imagine ourselves into the story, to play each part, and perhaps find the part that is most like us, or most unlike us, and in the difference hear God speak to us. What’s the parable mean? In the end comes down to where you find yourself in the story? That’s what it means.

But sometimes we don’t like the options and want to change the story. With this particular story we have the opportunity to pick one of two options: I’m either a wise or a foolish builder. Now I’ll be honest. I don’t like such stark either/or options. I think Jesus is being too polarizing. Sometimes things aren’t so black and white. Sometimes people aren’t just ‘this’ or ‘that’. Sometimes we’re a mixture. I think Jesus isn’t being very accommodating to struggling people (comme moi). And so I say to Christ in prayer, “Jesus, let’s recognize a third option over here: those who build unwisely but on the rock. That work for you, Jesus?” Jesus is silent. I know the answer.

We’re meant to find ourselves, something about ourselves, in these parable as they’re given, not as edited by us to accommodate ourselves. The healing truth about us begins in identifying of ourselves within the constrains of the parables. And that’s hard to do.

Third, forget the wise builders for a moment. Consider the foolish builders. They’re more interesting. What do they do?

  • They name Jesus as their “Lord” (v. 46) Lord = Master.
  • They “come to Jesus” and “hear” or attend to what he says. That is, they know the teachings of Jesus. They are where Jesus is, listening and agreeing.
  • They are not ignorant of who he is (Lord) or of what he commands and they agree to the rightness of what he teaches. That is,  they build their lives on hearing, knowing and agreeing to Jesus’ teachings and they call him ‘Lord’.

And these are the foolish builders.

Gulp.

What don’t they do? They don’t actually put Jesus’ words/teachings into practice. They hear, they know and understand, and they agree (because they’re calling Jesus “Lord”). But they do not do what Jesus says.

CM_SpringTrendGuide201610A 2014 story in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Yoga Poseurs: Athletic Gear Soars, Outpacing Sport Itself” laments the disparity between those who spend good money to purchase and don athletic wear but who don’t actually work out. The byline reads “Customers Snap Up Stretchy Tees and Leggings, Boosting Growth for ‘Athleisure’ Apparel.” We’ve created a new term: “Atheleisure.” People wear the garb and talk the talk enough to be associated with a group, but they never live the life those clothes or that language or those associations represent. They wear hiking boots but never hike. They don yoga leggings but do no exercises. They spend money on specialty running shorts, but never jog. They invest in the gear and want to be seen in it. They just don’t do with their bodies what the gear is designed to support them in doing.

If only Dallas Willard were still around.

Early last fall I was on campus at a local university for a class I teach. Walking across campus, I noticed two men with tanks on the backs. The tanks had short hoses attached to them with spray nozzles at the end. The men were painting the lawns green. The previous month or so had been especially dry, so our campus lawns were admittedly brown and ugly. So what I thought? But it was a day or two before “Campus Days” when high schoolers are invited to visit for a few days, attend a few classes, and check out programs. It’s all part of convincing prospective students to attend after they graduate. You want the campus and grounds to look smart and clean, but the grass was an ugly brown. I get it. I was just surprised. Paint it green? It just struck me as an example of so much of our religious life in general. OK, my religious life. Fine.

What kind of builder am I? Wise or foolish? Can I be a third option, something in between? No. I can’t.

Do I give myself to doing what Jesus did? Or do I just give myself (attentively!) to hearing and agreeing with what he said while never doing it? Do I buy hiking boots and wear them but never hike? Do I fertilize and water and tend to the health of my soil? Or do I spray paint my dead grass green so that it looks healthy?

Living outside the box

blogpost1-300x300A David Benner thought got me to thinking about the role of imagination in what we call “thinking outside the box.” When someone invites us to think outside the box we set aside our normal way of being ‘realistic’. When we do this we access our core, Spirit-given creativity and as a result see all kinds of new possibilities. But we typically surrender this imaginative mode of cognitive exploration and return to realistic ways of thinking when we’re done brain-storming.

But is this return to realistic modes of thought as our primary framework for life really necessary? What if instead of infrequently tapping into our imagination as a service to realistic thinking, we turned the tables and saw ourselves as tapping into realistic modes of thought in the service of imaginative living? Is that imaginable? What if we lived outside the box, so to speak, in a perpetual imaginative-creative framework and only thought inside the box (realistically) when needed?

Just a thought.