Classical art, classical music, classical literature — yeah. Classical God?

G CIEL 1_025As you may have guessed by now, we’re interested here at An Open Orthodoxy in exposing and examining our deepest view of God and what consequences follow from it. To that end, we thought it would be helpful to describe what we have in mind when we speak of these different views of God (and the larger worldviews that form around them). We’ll start with the most popular and traditional Christian view of God, a view we’ve already referred to as “classical” theism. You’ll hear open theists and Process theists use the term and criticize the view incessantly. We’ll get into those criticisms later. For now let us state simply what we believe to be at the heart of this “classical” view of God.

Classical theism is a constellation of beliefs about God, but there is at its center the single and fundamental belief that God is actus purus or “pure act” (“pure actuality” if you like). Now, actus purus is Latin, and that places us in the Western or Catholic (Latin speaking) tradition, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox. So the question arises, Do the Orthodox also believe God is actus purus? And the answer would seem to be yes. More later.

[Detour. By the way, it can be frustrating to follow a conversation in English when Latin and Greek terms are tossed about. There are several bad reasons why theologians throw these terms around, the worst of which is to appear smarter than they are. We’re guessing the only good reason for using such terms is to situate oneself properly in a conversation that is many hundreds of years old and which was (and is) carried on in Latin and Greek. It would be igorant to know of this conversation and choose to ignore it, which is why so many Evangelicals are ignorant. But for the record, we use the Latin or Greek terms only as GPS coordinates for those who wish to explore more a conversation whose topography for more than a millennium was (and still is) mapped in Latin and Greek. We’re not trying to impress anybody. Neither of us knows Latin.]

What does God’s being “pure act” mean, then? It means, as Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart reminds us, there is no potentiality in God. Write it in bold and in a font size that will stretch its truth from one end of the universe to the other — no unfulfilled potentialities/possibilities in God. God is always all God can be — every possibility actualized, every potential always already fulfilled. Other “classical” attributes that attend this belief (with respect to time, providence, evil, foreknowledge or what have you) all revolve at different distances around this one truth like planets under the gravitational pull of the Sun. All divine attributes incline in their orbits, their momentums, and their placement around this first and fundamental truth — God is pure act, void of all potentiality. That is the heart and soul of “classical theism.”

Consequences follow from this. For example, there is no ‘temporal succession’ in God, no “before and after” and thus no memory of things past and no anticipation of things future; nor are there any changes in states of mind, i.e. no thinking one thought after another and consequently no ‘coming to know’ what ‘comes to be’ as it comes to be. These consequences can all be gathered together underneath what theologians call ‘immutability’. In the case of “classical” theism, that immutability is absolute.

Isn’t God unchanging in any respect? Yes, he certainly must be. But do the senses in which God must be unchanging or immutable preclude the possibility of his being open to change in other senses? Interestingly, when the Orthodox explain why it’s important that God not be thought of as possessing any unrealized/unactualized potential, we (Dwayne and I) find ourselves agreeing with the values that motivate the Orthodox. That is, we agree that what it is the Orthodox wish to protect regarding God ought to be protected and maintained — whether it’s the unimprovable and undiminishable fullness of God’s life, his absolute freedom from Creation, his imperturbable triune delight, even his transcendence of time. In all these senses God is actus purus, pure actuality with no potentiality whatsoever. At this point some may be wondering how it is we are open theists at all. And you will find we disagree with many of our open theist colleagues in how we integrate divine transcendence with our open theism. But as we hope to show (and as we think Greg Boyd does show in Trinity and Process), God would suffer neither loss nor diminishment in any of the required senses were God also to experience the world in its temporal flow, be open to its contributions, and know its future as open.

(Picture from here.)

The beauty that is thine in us

trashIf you haven’t yet beheld what beauty, what joyful beauty, the destitute children of Paraguay’s barrios are creating, no wonder you’re having difficulty understanding the Orthodox doctrine of apatheia. When you get a chance, check out the miracle, and as you weep and laugh at the same time, thank God for opening your heart to the undefeatable music of beauty. And while you’re still here on this page, and if the heavy lifting of comments from two posts ago has you worn out, enjoy some more poetry!

Beautiful. So beautiful—
Where ‘ere I look I choose to see
the beauty that exists
in spite of evil that resists
like shadows ‘gainst the rising Son;
they are not real,
no substance have,
are no ‘thing’
and nothing mean.

All that is real on thee depends
and from thy breath of love extends;
With thee infused all is
to thee alone all sends
its praise back.
Beautiful. You are so beautiful,
in all things. I see you in their eyes
and deep within their depths I find
eternal surprise after surprise.

Who can have a fear, fully rested here,
where endless fields are laid before
and all I love with me above;
each one by name in thee restored?
No dream can touch
nor can song match
nor craft enshrine
the beauty that is thine
in us.

(Tom Belt, Iraq, 2008)
(Picture from here.)

What if we were meant to be trees?

(For Ashley, on the occasion of her drawing a tree and asking the question.)


What if we were meant to be trees?
Meant to give life instead of take it?
To stare at the stars until
They were freckles on our faces naked?
Meant not to fake it?
I wonder.
What if we are trees but don’t yet know it?
Because we don’t yet know how to show it?
How to raise our limbs to the sunlight’s call,
Drink in its life, breathe it out for all.
Maybe all things living are at heart one and the same,
Leaning on and leaned upon,
Your sunset someone else’s dawn,
Reaching out explore myself,
See in others my own wealth—
In whom we live and move,
In whom we have our being,
Whose voice in every voice is heard,
And whose face is every face we’re seeing.

(Tom Belt)
(Picture from here.)

The “stuff” out of which God is made?

trinityI’d like to share a quick thought regarding a recent ReKnew video blog of Greg Boyd’s. It deals with a Christological issue that we’d prefer to postpone until we’ve outlined his Trinity and Process. But his addressing the question of whether or not the Son was separated from the Father on the Cross provides us with an opportunity to highlight some important differences. Greg concludes that the eternal Son (the Logos) is separated from the Father on the cross. At 3:50 he begins to conclude with, “The love that unites the triune God is greater than their own enjoyment of that unity” and moments later “The separation of God from God on the Cross represents the perfect unity of God with God.”

This, we think, is a miscalculation with wide ranging implications. When we outline Trinity and Process, we’ll show how Greg’s present position amounts to an abandonment of his views in Trinity and Process in which he argues that the relations between Father, Son, and Spirit are essential and necessary and as such can’t be broken, ruptured or vacated by any experience of the world. For example, he says (Trinity and Process, p. 381, n. 64):

“The metaphysical necessity of God’s self-relationality means, I believe, that it is not possible to conceive of the death of the Son as anything other than an expression of the intense love of God’s inner life. This paradox shall be discussed shortly, but it presently needs to be said that this means that all talk about a ‘breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity’ such as we find (for example) in Moltmann is, if taken literally, strictly impossible….”

That’s a mouthful, but what Greg is expressing here is the Orthodox belief in the indissoluble relations of Father, Son and Spirit. The triune relations are eternal and necessary and thus are not world-dependent. What they are essentially can’t be emptied or vacated at will. But it certainly looks from Greg’s recent video blog that he now believes the eternal Son vacates his experience of loving relationship with the Father. The Son is ‘separated from’ the Father. The question becomes, Is what Greg’s saying now an abandonment of his views in Trinity and Process? We think so. Is it an implicit abandonment of God’s essential triune actuality? We think so. Greg will surely insist that God is essentially triune and can never become otherwise, but nevertheless the Son is actually separated from the Father. This leads to his conclusion that the actual separation of the Son from the Father must be in some mysterious way their actual unity. Does this work? We think not.

We want to argue that in order for Greg to maintain this, he has to abandon a ‘relational’ metaphysic (a view of God’s essential divine nature as irreducibly relational) for a ‘substance’ metaphysic, something he explicitly advises us not to do in the same video blog. Greg is now (unknowingly) committed to a ‘substance’ understanding of divine reality because he no longer views God’s triune actuality as the actual, conscious, experience of shared loving identity between Father, Son and Spirit. On the contrary, Greg now holds that the Son ceases to share in and be constituted by this experience, and this is only possible if something other than actual, experienced relations accounts for God’s unity. It is now this “something” and not the actual experience of divine persons-in-relation which bears the necessary attributes of God and constitutes his unity. What might that something be? Whatever it is, it isn’t ‘personal relations’ (i.e., the actual experienced enjoyment of the begetting, receiving and sharing of loving personhood). It can only be some divine “substance” or “stuff” out of which God might be said to be made and which is more fundamental to God and God’s unity than the actual enjoyment of loving relations, something more fundamental than conscious experience itself. Grounding God’s unity in this “something” (other than the actual experienced enjoyment of the Three) is what seems now to have transformed Greg’s view of God from an essentially ‘relational’ to an essentially ‘substance’ view. God is essentially something other than the conscious, experienced enjoyment of triune love.

Not good news.

How happy is God?

Golden buddha handsWe’d like to focus our admiration of Orthodoxy on what is believed by open theists to be perhaps the most egregious disfigurement of the biblical portrayal of God, the Orthodox doctrine of apatheia (pronounced [ap-uh-thee-uh], from the negating a- [“without”] + pathos [“passion”] and most often translated into English with ‘impassibility’). Open theists all (with the exception of this blog and perhaps John Sanders) understand apatheia to be the denial of emotions in God. “After all,” one prominent open theist told me, “That’s what the word means—‘a’ negates ‘pathos’. No feeling. No emotions in God.”

We’d like to go on record as saying that if the Orthodox doctrine means what open theists generally understand it to mean, namely, that God is void of all emotion, bereft of all enjoyment whatsoever, then we won’t be defending Orthodoxy on this point. But our understanding is that by apatheia the Orthodox do not refer in any simplistic sense to a denial of emotion in God. Things really are a bit more complicated and nuanced than that. Our suspicions that apatheia may not be contrary to open theism’s core convictions as open theists assume were confirmed when we read open theist John Sanders’ clarification on his own understanding of the Fathers on apatheia. John writes:

“…it is clear that when the fathers said God was impassible they did not intend to rule out that he has emotions or that he is affected by and responds to us.”

Sanders feels this is good news, for “it enhances the degree to which the openness model agrees with more of the tradition.” We’d like to explore the nature and extent of that agreement in this and future posts.
Our conviction is that the Orthodox doctrine of apatheia is far better understood as “equanimity.” But it’s not difficult to understand why the Fathers, given their challenges would want to express this in negative terms as a- followed by the dysfunction or abuse they wished to dissociate with God. But a wider reading of these same Fathers (which we’ll have occasion to review in future posts) shows they attributed emotions to God with great conviction and consolation.

Open theism has built its case (rightly) on the view that God is love — fundamentally and essentially. But what this entails involves us in some disagreement. Open theists virtually all agree that as ‘love’ God is believed to be emotionally open or ‘vulnerable’ to a suffering world. So God’s—if you’ll permit us to use the phrase—‘emotional life’ is in a state of constant flux between fulfillment and diminishment depending partly upon the well-being of the world. God’s overall “aesthetic satisfaction” (to borrow a phrase from Greg Boyd which we’ll use a lot here) is understood to be the difference of an equation involving both God and world; that is, reasons God has to be joyful and ecstatic minus reasons God has to be sad or diminished. To open theists (with virtually no exceptions) then, ‘vulnerability’ essentially means we get to decide how happy God is. In our view, however, open theism need not adopt this understanding of divine love, and there are good reasons to urge open theists not to move in this direction.

To anticipate many posts to come, let us say that we believe Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process describes a balanced approach to the excesses of Process theism on the one hand and objectionable aspects of traditional “classical” theism on the other. Take for example a few statements from Trinity and Process (italics ours):

“God experiences Godself with an intensity of aesthetic satisfaction which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon.”

“…this God-defining zenith of aesthetic intensity has been constituted in the triune sociality of God from eternity. This is necessary, and as such it is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of the world.”

“…this aesthetic satisfaction is the same whether or not there is a non-divine world for God to enjoy. God is no ‘greater’ for fellowshipping with the world, for it is God’s fellowship with Godself, not the world, which constitutes and characterizes the necessary unsurpassability of God’s aesthetic satisfaction. God’s gracious fellowship with the non-divine world simply expresses this primordial eternal fellowship.”

We suspect some will find this surprising given recent statements by Greg (preached and published in various forms) regarding God’s suffering love. The most recent summary of his views are expressed in a ReKnew video blog where at minute 3:50 he says, “The love that unites the triune God is greater than their own enjoyment of that unity” and moments later “The separation of God from God on the Cross represents the perfect unity of God with God.” We hope to show why this ought not to be our view of love.

Obviously there are contexts that qualify everything one says, and in our upcoming treatment of Greg’s work in Trinity and Process we’ll be careful to examine Boyd both then and now, but for now it should be clear that his present position and views on the Trinity (with respect to divine suffering in/with the world) are not what they were when he authored Trinity and Process.

Stay tuned!
(Pictures from here and here.)

God our hope

Some people think that God being their hope
Means God will make things work out
Take all the broken stuff
Fix it,
Then give it back.
God, our cosmic repair man.
And so we hope in God
To do, and fix,
Provide, supply.

But what if God being our hope
Means God remains all we have
When all the stuff is broken and gone
What if having God as our hope
Means having God instead of all else,
Knowing God won’t break
Or rust
Or divorce us
Or leave us?
What if hoping in God means wanting God
And not other things because God alone
Cannot die
Cannot lie
Cannot fail
Will not bail
Doesn’t break or wear out?
What if in the end God doesn’t fix broken things,
But just replaces them?
What if we don’t get things back repaired,
We just get God?

(Tom Belt)

Whatcha reading? 1

9780521538459A couple of weeks ago I ran across Chris Emerick’s (Strayer University) paper (presented at the 42nd annual meeting of the Society of Pentecostal Studies last month in Seattle) titled “Conversation, Being, and Trinity: Toward a Trinitarian Hermeneutical Linguistic Ontology.” I know I know. Titles. Wow. What would Freud say, right? Anyhow, it was a great paper. And in it Emerick appropriates Oliver Davies’ work in The Creativity of God: Word, Eucharist, Reason (Cambridge, 2004) which I ordered and am just into. I thought I’d share a bit from his introduction that leads me to suspect he’ll have something helpful to say regarding God’s transcendence of the world. Can’t wait.

The second element in this middle section of the book is the use of a theory of the text in order to conceptualise the relations between the divine speaking and the world. The world stands to the divine originary breath/speaking as a written text does to the voice of its author(s). This parallel has a double value. In the first place it offers a model of the coinherence of God and the world which reproduces many aspects of the medieval system of analogy without, however, employing the Aristotelian model of causality which postulates a similarity between cause and effect. And secondly, while a theory of the cosmic text is not explicitly present in Scripture, it is deeply consonant with a scriptural account of the world. Texts, like bodies, are voice-bearing, and when the author entrusts their voice to a text, it undergoes a kind of alienation as the context of the speech passes from an intimate, oral medium to one that is objectified in the visibility of the written word. The text itself thus becomes a modality of embodiedness: a voice-bearing corpus of deferred, or replicated, presence. The author now knows that from now on their voice can only be received through an extensive act of interpretation. The authorial voice remains in the text, to be heard and understood, but only indirectly and through the interpretive imagination of others. The world is much like this in its relations to God. It demands to be understood and known by a community of human interpreters. Most fundamentally, the divine voice (and will) can be and frequently is entirely misunderstood and abused by its human interpreters. The divine voice, or breath, which is entrusted to the text of the world becomes estranged within the medium of the text. It is this that leads to the second cycle of divine creativity, which is the repristination of the text of the world. In this section of the book, I develop a pneumatology which understands the Holy Spirit to be the continuing presence of the divine breath/voice in the world—the world-text’s memory of its origin in God—and the Son to be the redemptive and sacrificial sounding again of the divine speaking within the text, as the retrieval of the world-text back into the flux of originary Trinitarian speech.