Chasing white rabbits down the rabbit hole

untitledIn the second and third posts of our opening series, we’d like to briefly describe the history of our attraction to Orthodoxy and what we find appealing about it. We don’t want folks to get the idea that we’re only ever going to discuss open theism in terms of its points of agreement or disagreement with Orthodoxy. Those points of comparison and contrast are a unique passion of ours, yes. But we still have all the same interests in open theism generally that other open theists have. (Image from here.)

Starting out we thought it would be best to explain what is unique about this site — our interest in Orthodoxy and our conviction that there are some Orthodox doctrines and aspects of Orthodox spirituality which open theists have as a rule rejected but which (we think) do not threaten the convictions and values at the heart of open theism. On the contrary, our own vision and experience of God has been deepened through a careful appropriation of key Orthodox doctrines usually dismissed by open theism as part of the baggage of “classical theism.”

As we’ve already admitted, we don’t at all pretend we are admissibly Orthodox. For us it’s been about following the arguments where they lead and trying to get at as honest and healing an experience and expression of the gospel as we can. And what we’re finding is that there’s a healing and wholeness in aspects of Orthodoxy that open theists have till now insisted were incompatible with open theism but which we’ve managed to enjoy as open theists.

So how’d we end up here?

TomTom’s up first.
I met Christ as a teenager and was discipled in an Evangelical tradition (Pentecostalism) that had (and still has) no appreciation for or awareness of Orthodoxy or the Fathers. If ‘tradition’ ever came up in the conversation, it stood for what was wrong with the Church between the Apostles and the Reformers, when earlier believers abandoned and corrupted the gospel of the New Testament Church. The Fathers were stuffy old men who were concerned only with maintaining ecclesial power or keeping the Word of God out of the hands of parishoners. The excesses of Luther’s Catholicism were uniformly attributed to the entire history of the Church back to St. John’s dying breath at the close of the Apostolic age. It was pretty much all shot full of ecclesial abuse and theological corruption.

This attitude didn’t change when I attended Bible School at my tradition’s oldest theological institution—Central Bible College. From the beginning to the end of my bachelor studies in Bible/Theology, I was never required to read anything older than the Reformation. That’s when the Church began. No Aquinas, no Augustine, none of the Cappadocians, no Origen, no Athanasius, and no Cyril of Alexandria. No one of the Creeds was ever mentioned in a theology class.

When I became an open theist in the late ‘90s I understood why this general disregard, even disdain, for the Fathers was a good thing—Hellenism! Greek philosophy seduced the early Church. Its leaders (native Greek speakers raised in Hellenism’s philosophical straightjacket) were virtually intoxicated with the philosophical assumptions and worldview of secular Greek philosophy. The Reformers recovered key essential doctrines from this 1,500 year failed marriage. But it wasn’t until open theism emerged that the fullness of God’s relational nature and love shone brightest.

I eventually took my first steps toward an interest in Orthodoxy when I read—you better sit down for this—Greg Boyd’s doctoral work Trinity and Process (Princeton Theological Seminary, 1992) on Process philosopher and theologian Charles Hartshorne (pronounced “hearts-horn”). In this best kept secret of open theist/process studies, Greg critiqued Hartshorne’s Process theology and laid out what he felt combined the best of both Process and — remain seated please — Orthodox Christianity. We’ll have plenty of time to unpack the arguments of Trinity and Process and to discuss just what it was Greg was attempting to do. But it was while reading through Trinity and Process that I first thought, “This sounds like some of the stuff open theists have rejected regarding God, but here Greg is offering a revised version of those classical doctrines. This makes sense. I wonder if…” and I haven’t stopped.

I later found Tom Hopko’s PhD dissertation (Fordham 1982) critiquing Process theology in light of Orthodoxy. I couldn’t count, to my surprise, the number of times Hopko agreed with Process criticisms of “classical theism.” And Thomas Hopko is an Orthodox priest and theologian, formerly Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in NY. What did Hopko believe as an Orthodox theologian if he was agreeing with Process theology’s criticisms of classical theism?

A third and almost violent nudge toward Orthodoxy was David Bentley Hart’s little book The Doors of the Sea (1985) wherein he expressed every sentiment I had come to appreciate open theism for regarding divine love, human freedom, and a risky providence in the face of the problem of evil. That was when I first thought, “I wonder if we open theists could learn something from a conversation with Orthodoxy.”

Later there was Paul Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought and some time spent with him, John Sanders’ response to Gavrilyuk’s book, some of the Fathers themselves, an ongoing email conversation with the very generous Fr John Behr of St. Vladimir’s, and other influences. We’ll get to it all in good time. But overall, Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process continues to be for me the best middle ground position between ‘classical’ and Process theisms.

Dwayne is up next.

Defining claim and core convictions

Ask ten people what open theism is and you’re likely to get ten slightly different answers. That’s not an encouraging fact. A lot gets associated with open theism that isn’t properly essential to it, and it’s not uncommon to find those who think open theists all share the same views regarding divine vulnerability and suffering, non-violence and pacifism, theories regarding the atonement, inspiration and inerrancy, universalism, and more. But there is no unique ‘open theist’ view on any of these issues. There are a few key theological commitments behind the claim that God foreknows a partly open future, but it’s not the case that open theism entails its own unique perspective on every doctrinal question.

In this first of a series of posts we’d like to summarize open theism’s defining claim and core convictions. In a second (Tom’s) and a third (Dwayne’s) we’ll summarize our interest in Orthodoxy and what we find especially appealing about it. And in a fourth we’ll lay out what we think are the paths along which a conversation between the two could profitably be pursued and ways in which we think open theists could deepen and enrich their own theological vision.

Darts_in_a_dartboardOpen Theism’s defining claim: divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents.
The defining claim of open theism is pretty simple: divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents. Now, that’s a mouthful, so break it down. Some aspects of the future are presently ‘settled’; that is, given everything at present which has anything to do with influencing or bringing about the future, some things about the future are determined to be. The causes and influences (divine and created) that presently exist limit the future to a single possibility with respect to some particular event.

To say the future is ‘open’, on the other hand, is to say that some things about the future are contingent, which we take here to mean that what occurs freely or contingently isn’t inevitable or otherwise determined or entailed by the past. It’s rather to say that some event ‘might and might not’ happen. One way to imagine this is to think of the future in terms of a tree that branches out as you move up the trunk. We’re essentially saying there are a number of ways the future could turn out. Where the future is closed we face a single branch or path the future will take in some respect. Where the future is open we face multiple paths any one of which the future might and might not take.

Saying the future is partly open and partly closed isn’t itself a uniquely open theist claim or an especially controversial claim. Non-open theists of the free-will or Arminian persuasion (even the Orthodox) would agree the future is open in this sense. The controversial claim we open theists make is our insisting that God’s knowledge of the future reflects this openness, i.e., God knows the truth regarding the future’s being closed or open (whichever the case might be).

What doesn’t often get explained is that this defining claim is the conclusion and not the premise of a set of core convictions which open theists share. That is, we don’t start with God’s knowing a partly open future. We end there. Where we start is with three core convictions that we believe lead to the conclusion of divine epistemic openness regarding future free acts. Let’s take a look at these.

Core Conviction One: Love with respect to divine purpose.
First, it’s no exaggeration to say that at the heart of open theists’ understanding of God is the belief that God is love. He doesn’t love sometimes and not others. He ‘is’ love. Open theists have been severely criticized for this belief, but as we’ll see, viewing the triune God as love (in the sense open theists need to maintain) is hardly modern or unorthodox.

We might say that all the distinct attributes of God we discuss (truthfulness, justice, holiness, etc.) are merely the ‘differentiated truth of love’. Like the colors of light that are split into an observable spectrum when dispersed through a prism, so the attributes of God are essentially just the observable acts of a single reality at work in the world and that reality is ‘love’. The triune God is essentially (i.e., apart from any created order whatsoever) the eternal act of self-giving-and-receiving love the fullness of which is the fullness of God’s own being and existence, and it is this God who has purposed us to know and reflect his love in the fullness of our created capacities.

Core Conviction Two: Freedom with respect to creation.
Second, God has created us to become loving participants in God’s life and responsible partners in fulfilling his intentions for the universe. We become so through the free and responsible exercise of our will. With a view to our becoming persons who love unfailingly, then, God endowed us with the capacity to determine ourselves through responsible choice.

Core Conviction Three: Risk with respect to providence.
By ‘providence’ we mean God’s administration and maintenance of the universe in the pursuit of his purposes. This is where things get complicated because though many will agree that ‘God is love’ and that because God has purposed us for loving ends he gave us the capacity to decide whether or not we conform to such ends, only open theists embrace the conviction that in endowing us with such freedom God takes a certain ‘risk’, namely, that we would misuse our freedom and corrupt ourselves in ways God neither decreed nor especially permits. Traditional views of providence are ‘risk-free’ in the sense that whatever evils occur they are precisely what God decided (by ordaining or specifically permitting) in order to bring about some good God is after.

It is reimagining the world to be in some respects a ‘risky’ venture (risky even for God in terms of his always getting the outcomes he wants) which is perhaps the thing that makes open theism most unlike the traditional understanding of God we Protestants grew up with. It means essentially that God doesn’t always get what God wants, nor is it the case that every particular evil represents the ‘necessary means’ to some specific good that God wills.

Once we accept that our universe is a sometimes risky place of intersecting and often competing divine, angelic, and human wills where much of the good God desires to achieve is by God’s own loving plans conditional upon our partnering with God, we gain a new and sobering appreciation for all those acts of devotion and obedience to which we are called by God and by which we partner with God in bringing the universe to consummation.

To summarize, then. God is love, and he creates for benevolent purposes which include creation’s coming to participate in and reflect the love that he is. This glorifies God, and this glory is the end for which all things are created. To fulfill this end, God endowed us with a certain freedom, and this freedom in turn entails certain risks. Open theists reason from these three core convictions — divine love and a free and risky creation — to the conclusion that God knows the open future as a branching out of possible ways or paths the world might and might not take. But from the open theist’s point of view, these core convictions are the heart and soul of the view. The conclusion that God doesn’t eternally foreknow in every conceivable detail precisely how the world’s possibilities will unfold (which claim has received all the attention) is — to put it surprisingly but perhaps more accurately — the most uninteresting thing about the view. For us it’s not particularly about foreknowledge; it’s about freely becoming what God purposed us to be. It’s about theosis. The foreknowledge piece turns out to be just the most consistent way we know to express it.

In search of an Open Orthodoxy

418gAnctRQL__SL500_AA280_Interpreting Mozart as Jazz? That’s what the musicians Manhart, Sapotnik, and Lachotta do with their CD Nightsteps. Does it work? Would Mozart approve? That’s hard to say. But we know how they feel, for it is with a peculiar joy and some apprehension that Dwayne and I inaugurate An Open Orthodoxy, a conversation in pursuit of the ancient and the new, the traditional and the novel, the orthodox and the open. We are both open theists who worship within an Evangelical setting but have over the past few years found ourselves beholden to a good deal of what we find in Eastern Orthodoxy. We have also been a part of the ongoing debate among Evangelicals regarding open theism and continue to work to clarify and promote its theological values and convictions. Just what those values and convictions are will be much discussed here.

We have sensed for some time now that open theists are missing something, something beautiful and valuable, something—to anticipate many posts to come — transcendent, even healing, about which Orthodoxy has something to say. This always comes as a bit of a surprise to our open theist friends. “You what? You read the Fathers? You like the doctrine of apatheia? How’s that possible?” For open theists there’s virtually nothing worth saving about “classical” theism (which for open theists includes all expressions of Christian theism prior to the Protestant Reformation and most Protestant expressions of the faith up until 1994 with the publishing of The Openness of God).

Dwayne and I both joined other open theists in this nearly wholesale rejection of Christian tradition. But then we started to explore the Fathers and to experience what it is we think they were describing. We (pun intended) ‘opened’ ourselves up to a more serious conversation with Orthodoxy. We are by no means admissibly Orthodox. We suspect our Orthodox friends will dismiss us for being insufficiently Orthodox. At the same time we suspect many of our open theist friends will dismiss us for being too “classical.” And yet, here we are — in search of an open orthodoxy.

Wish us luck!