God asleep in the storm

In this fourth and last of our introductory series we’d like to describe the path along which a conversation between open theism and Orthodoxy might be fruitfully pursued. It’s a tough gig, getting someone like Jazz pianist Mark Kramer in a conversation with the classical master Mozart (you should listen to Kramer’s CD Mozart Jazz Symphony — pretty awesome). Can the themes and melodies of Orthodoxy be honorably played by Jazz theologians? That’s part of what An Open Orthodoxy exists to explore.

RembrandtThere is in our view a fundamental theological question that stands behind all the popular disagreements that pop up between open theism and Orthodoxy. Some of those popular disagreements include God’s relationship to time, his immutability, his impassibility, etc. It seems to us that these and other disagreements turn upon the more fundamental question of divine transcendence, and not just what its proper sense is, but more importantly why a proper sense of transcendence matters. For the Orthodox, the what and the why of transcendence are the same. This gets lost on open theists who have argued — rather simplistically we think — that the Fathers were steeped in the Hellenistic philosophical notion that necessary existence is absolutely unchanging, and so they were essentially Neo-Platonist philosophers who married their philosophical assumptions to the Christian faith and the latter got largely corrupted.

The more we (Dwayne and I) listen to Orthodoxy, however, the more we perceive relevant difference between the Fathers and Neo-Platonists, and the more we hear the Fathers talk about why transcendence matters, what values they are attempting to express and promote when they describe God as above or beyond time or as apathos (which despite it etymology does not mean unfeeling), the more those values seem to us to be good and right. And though we’ll postpone to future posts the details of these questions, for now we can say that

…the fundamental theological question which stands behind all the relevant standard disagreements between open theism and Orthodoxy has to do with one’s understanding of and motivation for embracing or rejecting the reality one believes is named by the word “transcendence.”

To ask a question using David Hart’s phrasing (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 294), Do God and the world constitute between them a single order of content and explication? Is there an overarching category of ‘being’ underneath which both God and creation are subsumed? Orthodoxy’s answer is clearly no. Process theology on the other hand does hold that God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication. Whitehead and Hartshorne held that God should not be thought of as the exception to our metaphysical principles, but as the chief exemplification of those principles.

Here’s the thing. This is at the heart of the conversation between open theists, who intentionally or not, informed or not, stand within the Process answer to this question, and the Orthodox. Even open theists who don’t like Process theism share this Process belief in a single and univocal ontology, a single ‘being’, that embraces and explains both divine and human being, and we suspect this drives open theists’ mistrust of words like ‘mystery’ and ‘transcendence’ when attributed to God. We know this because we were the poster boys for these very suspicions! But today

…we believe one can share a sufficiently Orthodox view on transcendence — that is, one can agree with Hart that God and world do not constitute between them a single order of ‘being’ — and still be an open theist.

And we think this because — give us a drum roll — in Trinity and Process Greg Boyd arrives as an open theist at just such a conception of divine transcendence. So the paths along which open theists and Orthodoxy might profitably pursue a conversation all begin and end in the what and the why of transcendence.

1363717251651_cachedA final word about the painting that accompanies this post, Rembrandt’s ‘The Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ (1633). His only seascape. It depicts Christ being awakened by his disciples (one of whom is the artist, a self-portrait) in the middle of a life-threatening storm. Matthew and Mark both mention the peculiar fact that Jesus was sleeping during the storm. Mark even tells us where Jesus was sleeping—in the stern on a cushion. Ah, shades of transcendence. God at rest in the storm. God at peace, untroubled and undefined by the storms of Creation. It’s hard to miss.

Unfortunately this Rembrandt and twelve other beautiful works (totaling 500M in losses, the biggest art theft in history) were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990 and have yet to be recovered. The empty frames you see are those of the missing paintings and still hang in their original places in the Museum — waiting, hoping to be recovered.

There’s a poetry to enjoy here. We’re suggesting that in some respects open theism is an empty frame hanging beautifully on the wall. Truth about God is comprehended, contained, even “framed” you might say. But you sense something is missing. What’s missing, we believe, is a concept and a language for expressing the createdness of the world and the consequent transcendence of God. Open theism came into existence partly as a protest to a package of divine attributes that include ‘transcendence’ and ‘mystery’, and open theists continue to be suspicious. But we hope this conversation will be a new and safe place to explore the options.

(Rembrandt photo from here and Joshua Reynolds empty frames pic from here.)

7 comments on “God asleep in the storm

  1. Jacob says:

    Hey Tom. This is Jacob from the facebook group. I’m wondering if you’ve read James Anderson’s “Paradox in Christian Theology.”


    • tgbelt says:

      Hi Jacob. I have not read his book yet, but I want to. It’s on my to-read list. Didn’t you bring it up on FB? To Alan?


      • Jacob says:

        Hey, Tom. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I thought I’d get an email of your response. Anyways…

        Yeah… I mentioned the book in a post a while back. I think his theory of transcendence it pretty awesome. He thinks the posit would lead us to expect (merely) apparent contradictions in our theology, and I think that’s too strong, but otherwise it’s a pretty beautiful theory. I’d love to see you interact with it.

        I’m also curious how much the simple idea of the “ineffable” would go to give us a sense of the transcendent. I’ve been finding the concept helpful when communicating about things that put me at a “loss for words.” So we could say that God’s love is ineffably great, in an analagous way to how we could say that the sight of Niagra Falls ineffably sublime.

        I’ve come to agree with you since we had that discussion about the transcendent a while back, so it’s been on my mind too. The challenge is, of course, to think about God’s transcendence in a way that doesn’t lead principally to a global scepticism. I’m curious how much Anderson’s theory goes to protect us from this, but I think the ineffable idea is obviously pretty safe. Curious what you think.



      • tgbelt says:

        Great thoughts Jacob. Yes, the challenge is to think about transcendence in a way that doesn’t land us in absolute skepticism. I’m with ya!


    • tgbelt says:

      Just ran across this story from a few days ago on the art theft!


  2. Open Theists should not fall in the trap of denying God’s transcendence. 🙂


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