“There you are!”

o-GRACE-KELLY-LEGACY-facebookUltimately, the theme here is ‘grace’, which when googled gave me the unforgettable Grace Kelly. Nice, but not exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking of something far more unforgettable that came forcefully to mind with this morning’s Sunday message entitled “There you are!” It centered on Jesus’ amazing capacity to see and recognize others and attend to their needs in truly disinterested fashion. In contrast, we can all think of the sort of person who walks into a room with a demeanor that announces, “Here I am!” But hopefully we also know a person or two of the sort who walk into a room with a presence that says, “There you are!” It’s a bit like that story about a guy on a first date who can’t stop talking about himself — what he’s done, what he likes, who he knows, etc. When he finally manages to let his date speak, he does so with “Well, enough about me. Let’s talk about you! What do you think about me?” Even when attending to others he’s really just attending to himself. He doesn’t really see others. He only sees himself in others.

A human being is a ‘search for identity’. Each one of us is his/her own question mark. Who am I really? Why am I here? What difference will my having existed at all make to the world? We’re hardwired with these questions, and so we find the answers ‘ecstatically’ by moving outside ourselves. That’s what ‘relational theologians’ harp on, namely, that we inevitably seek the fulfillment of our existence as personal beings by moving ‘outward’ (ecstatically) into relationship with others in the world around us and, most fulfillingly, with God.

In the Recovery program I direct, I point to four fundamental human needs that drive this ecstatic, outward movement: our need for acceptance, for identity, for security and for purpose. To be a human being is just to have these needs, and a fulfilled or successful life is just the experience of their fulfillment. Problem is, the same is true of everybody and everything else in the world. We are all this search for an acceptance which is unconditional, an identity which is unique and unrepeatable, a security that provides for our enduring permanence, and a purpose to contribute and partner in ways that make a difference.

In the Christian story, God is different — and this difference is why the gospel is a word of ‘grace’. God doesn’t need us in the ways we’ve just considered. The fullness of his being and existence isn’t a cooperative achievement he realizes through moving outside Godself and into relationship with the world. The world is not the stage upon which God achieves existential self-actualization. And this is why when God does create, he is able to walk into it and say, “There you are!” rather than “Here I am” (to stick with this morning’s sermon).

This gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. It’s the gratuity, the utter contingency of there being any creation at all, which points the searching heart beyond the abyss of its own nothingness to the voice of God inside the room saying, “There you are!” And God can say this because he’s free from needing anything at all from us. He shows up not to ‘get’, to self-actualize, to restore his equilibrium, to redeem a meaning for himself in this or that outcome, but to give, to fill up, to overflow. And this is precisely why we are freed. But you only get that kind of absolute gratutity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full.

This is hard to hear. It doesn’t come across as ‘good news’ for many. Turns out grace is not so easy. It’s hard to hear that God is so immeasurably complete and fulfilled as not to need us to complete him in any conceivable sense. We want to be needed. Not just wanted, but needed, because the only kind of wanting that we know (as the despairing creatures we are) is that wanting which is needing. Part of this fallen dysfunction, this lie that beguiles us, is our belief that our redemption flows out of and fulfills our perceived need to be needed. If my neighbor needs me, fine. If the governor needs me, better! If my country needs me, fantastic. Why stop? Why not have God need me as well? What kind of existential rush would follow from its being true that my existence fulfills God? And so we weave our narratives of salvation around this fiction, that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, and ultimately completed and glorified by our homecoming. The entire drama of creation, fall, redemption and final glorification are the stage upon which God achieves his final and fullest self-actualization.

It can be an unexpected stumbling block that grace should be gracious in every conceivable moment, and that the gift of our existence is enjoyed fully only on the other side of embracing the our utter contingency and finitude, namely, our nothingness. But in the recognition that God is an unsurpassable delight we can neither diminish nor improve whose love of us both designs and fulfills our four fundamental needs, our own self-serving dysfunctions and narratives are deconstructed and in their ruin we experience “his joy [not his pain] as our strength,” (Neh. 8.10) and we come to possess ourselves in “an unspeakable and glorious joy,” as Peter wrote (1Pet. 1.8), “receiving the salvation of our souls.” We are saved when God’s own peace and repose become the truest thing about us and not until then. But when we are there, then we are in a position to truly see others. Greg Boyd, in Trinity & Process, elaborates:

“…a person need not sacrifice their self-love, their contentment with who they are, their own internal ‘fullness of life’ in order to genuinely enter into the sufferings of another. Indeed, it seems that the person who enters into the sufferings of others with a sense of internal fullness is in a better position to genuinely enter into these sufferings than one who lacks such ‘fullness’.

“To speak more specifically, a person who suffers for another because she needs the other — e.g., needs this other to make her “feel good” about herself, to feel loved and needed, etc.—is more inclined to yet have herself as the object of concern, and thus more inclined to be, to that extent, shut off to the real needs of the other. In contrast, one who enters into solidarity with a sufferer but who is self-content, who loves herself, who possesses an internal fullness which is not destroyed [or diminished] by the suffering, is free to have the sufferer as the sole object of her concern. She is free, in a sense, to “forget herself” in devotion to another…

“There are, of course, millions of humans who hold to a superficial form of self-contentment to the exclusion of, or even at the expense of, others’ happiness. In fact, the instances of an opposite disposition are unfortunately rare. The prevalence of this attitude, especially in first world countries, is no doubt one of the reasons why we have such difficulty in seeing God as being both eternally self-satisfied and also temporally self-abased. But, as we have argued, there is no necessary connection between self-contentment and insensitivity.”

Erich Przywara: Analogia Entis

erichReading through an introduction to Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis: Metaphysics (1932), I had to post a couple of paragraphs. Przywara (of German-Polish decent) was a Jesuit priest and scholar who exerted profound influence upon his contemporaries, an influence that looks to grow through a recent English translation of his Analogia Entis.

The quote is part of John Betz’s introduction to Przywara’s book, and I’d like to include Betz’s opening paragraph:

“As he [Przywara] puts it, recalling the theme of divine infinity in Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, ‘Even if we were to have the most sublime experience of mystical union, would we then have any right to come to a stopping point and dream of having finally attained a state of ‘immediacy’ or a state of ‘maximal knowledge’ or a state of ‘ultimate proximity’?’ He answers with a single paradoxical phrase from Augustine: Invenitur quaerendus! [‘He is found in order to be sought!’] In other words, with respect to God, ‘Even the greatest finding is but the beginning of a new searching’. Przywara beautifully makes the same point a few years later in a lecture from 1926:

Thus all our wandering in Him and to Him is itself a tension between an ineffable proximity and an ineffable distance. Every living thing…everything that happens, is full of His presence. ‘He is not far from us; for in Him we live and move and have our being’. But we grow in our sense of His fullness only in the measure that we do not equate Him with any created thing or circumstance, that is, in the measure that we stand at an ultimate distance from every particular shining of His face. He is the one who lights up before us when we stand at a distance, and who lights up before us to urge us on. He is the infinite light that becomes ever more distant the closer we come to Him. Every finding is the beginning of a new searching. His blessed intimacy is the experience of His infinite transcendence. No morning of mystical marriage is a definitive embrace of His fullness; no mystical night of despair a detachment from His presence….He compels us into all the riches and changes of world and life in order that we might experience Him anew and more richly as beyond this world and life. And, ultimately, this indissoluble tension of proximity and distance to Him is but the innermost revelation of His own primal mystery, by which He is in us and beyond us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, such that we love him as proximity itself, and, yet again, farther away from us than any other distance, such that we revere Him with trembling as distance itself. God in us and God beyond us.

Here again we see the basic point of the analogia entis, which Przywara reiterates throughout his early work: there is no genuine natural or supernatural experience of God that does not give way to reverent distance and silent adoration…As he puts it in 1927, What is meant by analogia entis is precisely this: that in the very same act in which the human being comes to intimate God in the likeness of the creature, he also comes to intimate Him as the one who is beyond all likeness.”

Whatcha reading? 7

0801027780Last week a friend shared Craig Allert’s A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. Allert is an associate professor at Trinity Western University in BC and his book one of four volumes (thus far) in the Evangelical Ressourcement Series edited by D. H. Willilams, Professor of Religion in Patristics and Historical Theology at Baylor.

“Ressourcement” is a French neologism for “return to the sources” or “renewal through the re-appropriation of sources.” It was coined to describe a renewal of Thomas’ thought by early 20th century Catholic thinkers. The phrase has been picked up by others, Reformed and Evangelical, to describe the same recovery within the context of patristics. From the back cover:

The Evangelical Ressourcement series is grounded in the belief that there is a wealth of theological, exegetical, and spiritual resources from the patristic era that is relevant for the Christian church today and into the future. Amid the current resurgence in interest in the early church, this series aims to help church thinkers and leaders reappropriate these ancient understandings of Christian belief and practice and apply them to ministry in the twenty-first century.

Matthew Milliner has (Dec 2011) a nice review of theological ‘ressourcement’ efforts of this type over at Books and Culture (where he reviews Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry). Vox Nova reviews things nicely too. Other such re-appropriations include Robert Webber’s four-volume Ancient-Future Collection (intent on integrating a broad range of traditions views — Orthodox, Catholic & Protestant — with postmodern and away from modernity), and of course Tom Oden’s (as general editor) of IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture project. It’ll come as no surprise to our readers that Dwayne and I think these efforts a good thing. As open theists press farther back to ground their convictions historically and theologically, hopefully more and more of them will make other important discoveries. By the way, my daughter married an Oden (Thomas Oden is brother to my son-in-law’s grandfather Talmadge Oden). So hey, don’t mess with me!

I enjoyed Allert’s volume and am looking forward to reading the others. As you can guess from the title, Allert is concerned to explore how the formation of the NT canon ought to inform our doctrine of Scripture. He doesn’t finally offer any easy answers, but his emphasis upon canon formation as integral to understanding Scripture and inspiration (and related issues) is spot on. From the Postscript:

Foundational to this whole enterprise is the understanding that a high view of Scripture should be just as concerned with how the New Testament came to exist in the form we have it as with what is says. What the Bible says is certainly important, but a knowledge of what the Bible says in intimately related to where the Bible grew — in the church—and how it grew. Another way of stating this would be that the church certainly has something to say about what the Bible says because the Bible is the church’s book. Any examination of the history of the formation of the New Testament canon cannot miss the vital role played by the church and its leaders. This does not deprecate the role of the Holy Spirit in this formation, but rather acknowledges the face that the Spirit was a work throughout the entire process of sifting, including, excluding, and interpreting these documents. The early fathers understood the Spirit to be active not only through the writing that eventually came to be included in the canon, but also in the broader context of all the ecclesial canons. Yes, all were measured by these writings, but the Spirit was seen as living and active in the entire community.

The conclusions reached are also not intended to undermine the authority of Scripture, nor should they. The bottom line in ancient and contemporary appropriations of the canon is that it is the foundational and primary source against which any reflection of God’s revelation must be measured. It is thus canonical in the sense of being a standard of measurement. But it could not and did not function in the early church as the only standard for texts. For roughly the first four hundred years of its existence, the church had no closed canon, so the Bible could not have functioned as the sole criterion. This is what makes the distinction between the terms “Scripture” and “canon” so important. Failure to distinguish between them could lead to some significant distortions of the patristic age and its understanding of the nature of canon.

We must also remember that both before and after the church managed to have a closed canon, the necessity of properly interpreting these texts remained. The closing of the canon does not obviate the fact that proper interpretation is key for the Bible to inform the church’s faith and life. Simply closing the canon wold have done little to counter the Gnostics, for example, because in many cases they were offering differing interpretations of the same material. Even today the canon requires interpretation. We cannot escape from this need because we are located in a particular context, with many different influences, and thus we come to the text with different lenses. All this necessitates some sort of standard against which we may measure interpretation.

One may ask, however, if I am denying the principle of the perspicuity of Scripture by saying that the proper interpretation of Scripture is not always apparent. But the clarity of Scripture cannot be uprooted from its context. Protestants from Luther to Wesley found the perspicuity of Scripture as an effective banner to unfurl when attacking Catholics, but always a bit troublesome when common people began taking the teaching to certain conclusions.

For the Reformers, popular translations of the Bible did not imply that the people were to understand the Scriptures apart from ministerial guidance. So, when dealing with a scholar like Erasmus, Martin Luther could champion the perspicuity of Scripture by stating, “Who will maintain that the public fountain does not stand in the light, because some people in the back alley cannot see it, when every boy in the marketplace sees it quite plainly?” But when Luther was confronted with those he called sectarians, he admitted the danger of proving anything from Scripture: “I learn now that it is enough to throw many passages together helter-skelter, whether they are fit or not. If this be the way, then I can easily prove from the Scriptures that beer is better than wine.” Calvin’s understanding was similar: “I acknowledge that Scripture is the most rich and inexhaustible fount of all wisdom. But I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it at his pleasure.”

I am not here denying the authority and sufficiency of Scripture; I affirm both of these. I affirm that in the Bible God has given us all truths necessary for salvation. It is the final authority. But the Bible is not self-explanatory. And the very canonical construction of the New Testament as Scripture was a patristic accomplishment. The history of Christian doctrine is not just the story of repeating scriptural statements. Throughout doctrinal history we see the authors of heresies invariable taking their stand on Scripture, often claiming to recognize this as the sole court of appeal. These authors were not subsequently accused of being unscriptural, but rather they were accused of misusing Scripture. Thus, the point was not contended simply by appealing to the authority of Scripture, but the real battle was won on the interpretation of the Bible…

Appeal to the Bible as authority is essential, but not without a similar appeal to the proper lens of interpretation. That proper lens of interpretation has been the ecclesial canons of the church in which the Bible grew. In the early church a high view of Scripture was not one that necessitated a text that functioned authoritatively outside of the church.

God the silent ‘e’ at the end of life

silent e pictureI’ve taught Arabic language for years. One of the things students appreciate about Arabic is that the pronunciation of any text follows exactly from the pronunciation of the letters in front of you. No wasted letters, and no surprises. Whatever is on the page gets pronounced, every letter of it. No ‘ph’ is sometimes pronounced ‘f’ as in ‘telephone’. Why not just use an ‘f’? And no silent ‘e’ at the end of words either. Everything that is present is said and always said the same way.

I was trying to explain the silent ‘e’ to an Arab friend who had just started studying English. “Why use letters you don’t say?” he asked, “It doesn’t make sense.” I totally appreciate his frustration. In the end I had to agree and suggest he just memorize the weirdness and live with it. From his perspective, though, letters are meant to be spoken, pronounced, said. That’s what they’re there for.

I don’t know why thinking about this led me to a meditation upon divine transcendence and apophaticism. I think it was the concept of the ‘silence’ involved in that final ‘e’. There it is, but unspoken. It is present in its silence, a silence which is presence, not absence. Somehow that got me wondering about the silent ‘e’ as an analogy of apophatic silence. Remember — this is just an analogy. Try to enjoy it a bit before dismembering it. I know God is not a letter, and not just one thing in an inventory of things that comprise the whole. Still, part of the job of analogies is that they, hopefully, simulate the unknown and unfamiliar in terms we can conceive; here, a kind of appreciation for that transcendence which is ineffable or speechless though its effects are everywhere evident and felt by virtue of its presence, not its absence — like the silent ‘e’ at the end of a word.

‘Sin’ and ‘Sine’ (in trigonometry). ‘Cap’ and ‘Cape’. ‘Cub’ and ‘Cube’. You’re reading these words so you’re visualizing them. The analogy doesn’t work in that mode. Think ‘audibly’. Say the words. It’s then that you experience the felt effects of silence. A silence which is present in its effects. There the ‘e’ is the whole time, unspoken but yet said in everything else that is said. Even the very meaningfulness of what is said is shaped by this silence. We know this ‘e’ is present from how we say what is said, not in saying it (viz., the ‘e’). It is present in the pronunciation of all else. Analogously, apophatic silence in theology is the silence of that which cannot be said in and of itself but which does not on account of this silence become the negation of what is said. Rather, it becomes the rule of the meaningfulness of all that is said. This is a different way of saying what we alluded to in reference to Marion’s “saturated phenomenon.” It’s a bit like saying God is the silent ‘e’ at the end of life itself. Not at the end of our life in the sense of our death, but in the sense that lifis properly said (lived, enjoyed and known) through what cannot itself be reduced to speech.

(Picture here.)

God—going it alone?

One of our passions here at Open Orthodoxy is to explore how open theism might integrate with other core Orthodox beliefs, or, we’d argue, how it already implies these beliefs. Recent debates have clarified just what’s at the heart of open theism, so I’ll toss this out again just to have in front of us:

– Monotheism
– Divine benevolence
– Creation ex nihilo
– Causal openness grounded in creaturely freedom
– Divine epistemic openness

Open theism is at least this. Simply (and more colloquially) put:

God who is love creates freely and unnecessarily and in love intends all he creates to participate in and reflect in its own measured way his divine goodness, and to this end God endows human beings with the freedom to determine themselves relative to the excellencies of their unique God-given purpose or telos. And so far as creation is free to self-determine, the future is open (‘causally open’) and this openness would be reflected in God’s knowledge of the world as well (thus ‘divine epistemic openness’ or ‘dynamic omniscience’). That much is just open theism—explicitly stated.

To say this much is both to end and to start a conversation. Brought to an end are those debates over what open theism is and the vision it promotes. That conversation has come to an end, however much we might need to revisit it. Hopefully not much. But having said this, another conversation has just begun, for this narrow ‘open theistic’ proposition is an invitation to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, to go where no…

…Sorry, got carried away there. These five propositions don’t drop out of sky in self-contained packages. They all have their own arguments and entailments. In this sense open theism is a journey, and exploration, and its map, you might say, is just P1-5. But the map isn’t the territory. Actually visiting these locations reveals more as you approach the details of each landmark.

Creation ex nihilo, for example, has to mean the perfections of divine being/existence do not require a created order of any kind. This is commonly called divine aseity. But what might these perfections be? What is it about God’s self-sufficient fullness that requires nothing of or from any kind of created order but yet remains free to fully enter into the world’s becoming as its ground and telos? In what sense are we to understand God, free from the world in his self-sufficiency, to be love? What is it to posit ‘divine benevolence’ — a core conviction of open theism — within the context of divine aseity and the absence of the world’s contributions?

This lands us in a discussion of divine transcendence as that sense in which the beauties and perfections of divine being as divine goodness and love are not constituted by creation and can’t be voided by anything in creation. At the same time, this ‘freedom from creation’ can hardly mean that the divine beauties and perfections — whatever they are — survive alongside creation by being shut out of the ebb and flow of creation’s becoming, as if it were the case that were God to ‘experience the world’ he’d be contaminated by it. Transcendence cannot be avoidance and thus absence. Rather, it is the truth of the abiding fullness of God’s goodness and love in his experience of the world. Google ‘self-sufficiency’ (as I did) and you’ll see that ‘self-sufficiency’ in the negative sense as survival via shutting out the world and locking oneself in, excluding some slice of what exists from one’s experience; the successful dodging of this or that threat. As one housing model puts it: “Going it alone.” But this is not the model of God’s relationship to the world at the heart of open theism’s vision (nor, I should say, at the heart of Orthodoxy).

I think the first major landmark of five on the open theist’s map which open theists should convene to discuss, if only because it’s assumed at a deeper level in our worldview than other points on the map and because it has great power to shape one’s thinking on other matters, is what it implies about God as love to say he creates ex nihilo.

Just a thought.

(Picture here.)

Tying up loose ends—Part 2

exhaustedIt’s been a bit exhausting, but hang in there. We ended our previous post with expanding/qualifying Alan Rhoda’s propositions defining ‘open theism’ to include:


        P1 Monotheism
        P2 Causal openness (grounded in a multiplicity of causal agents)
        P3 Divine epistemic openness (DEO)
        P4 Creation ex nihilo (CEN)

Surely we’re done now, right? Unfortunately no.

Let me offer one last unacceptable theistic model which is in no way compatible with ‘open theism’ even though it can affirm P1-4. It’s possible to argue that God is not unqualifiedly benevolent. P1-4 is arguably compatible with divine malevolence. There’s no obvious logical contradiction generated by supposing that a malevolent (unloving, spiteful) deity created ex nihilo, granted us freedom to determine ourselves (and so faces a partly open future), but is not motivated by unconditional love in all that he does. He might just work against us and will our harm within the constraints of P1-4. This is of course utterly incompatible with the intent and vision of the authors of The Openness of God and other open theist authors and philosophers.

But has not Alan Rhoda specifically qualified the sort of ‘broad classical theism’ he has in mind for open theism to rule out such malevolence? Perhaps. In the classical (Anselmian) theism he argues from, God “essentially possesses a maximally excellent compossible set of great-making attributes, including maximal power, knowledge, and goodness.” And must not this ‘goodness’ in question be viewed as the sort of ‘essential unconditional divine benevolence to all’ that open theists have in mind? Arguably yes. But if so, then Alan and we would have to concede that Calvinists are not “classical theists” in the “broad sense” and that would be a hard sell indeed. It’s arguable that such benevolence toward all is the best conceivable great-making property, but is it so obvious as to preclude Calvinists’ from being classical theists? I’ll leave that for another time. In the end, we agree that such unfailing benevolence is definitive of the sort of theism we’re talking about. And since Alan’s interest is to naming those explicit beliefs definitive of open theism, let us make one last explicit qualification:

   P5 Divine benevolence (i.e., God unfailingly wills & pursues the final, highest good of all created things).

Sanders is clear that P5 implies a certain divine receptivity to the world. Not only is God ‘receptive’ in the sense that his knowledge of a changing temporal world is derived from that world (in which case God is in some sense “open to” the world). Sanders insists upon a certain ‘relational receptivity’ whereby God permits his purposes and desires for relationship with us to be rejected by us and whereby this rejection (indeed, all creaturely self-determination) is of consequence to God. This is what Sanders takes divine benevolence to mean. And there’s no doubt that Boyd and others agree. God is the unconditional love which both grants our freedom and runs the risks entailed in such freedom and yet pursues us unconditionally and without fail, intent upon our relationship to him as our highest good. This constitutes the ‘risky’ sort of providential venture which Sanders understands open theism to be.

This clarity gives us something to move forward with, and I hope all the debating parties will agree. If we list P1-5 in order of primacy, then “open theism” is defined (at least) as:

– Monotheism
– Unconditional divine benevolence
– Creation ex nihilo
– Causal openness (grounded in a multiplicity of causal agents)
– Divine epistemic openness

totally-exhausted-athletesNow, we may be wrong, but it appears to Dwayne and me that if we’re positing this kind of God (one who loves and relates to the world and its contingencies in unconditional love and who is himself the summum bonum and perfected goodness the participation in which is the highest good of all created things), there are no theistic traditions on the horizon we can see that fit this bill other than Christianity. If there are some other monotheistic faiths out there that affirm P1-5, what are they? If there are none, then what are we arguing about? Christianity is the only existing faith tradition in which all the claims and theological values/convictions of P1-5 are in fact the case. It is arguable that Judaism has the conceptual and religious wherewithal to express itself in such terms, and perhaps Rabbi Harold Kushner would be an example. We’re down with that! But an open theism grounded solely in the Jewish Scriptures simply is the root of the Christian understanding itself. It’s not a fundamentally different faith tradition per se. And if we want to agree that the Mu’tazila (8th—10th century school of thought in Islamic theology) were proto-open theists, cool.

Let me close. Sanders begins his summary of open theism as follows:

“According to openness theology, the triune God of love has, in almighty power, created all that is and is sovereign over all. In freedom God decided to create beings capable of experiencing his love. In creating us the divine intention was that we would come to experience the triune love and respond to it with love of our own and freely come to collaborate with God towards the achievement of his goals. We believe love is the primary characteristic of God because the triune Godhead has eternally loved even prior to any creation.”

In private correspondence he wouldn’t mind my sharing (because it restates points he’s already published), Greg clarifies:

“I don’t think the ‘open view of the future’ is a distinctly Christian thing. You find it among some pre-Christian and early AD Hellenistic philosophers (Epicureans and several Middle Platonists). And today you find it espoused by many non-Christians. But I do see ‘Open Theism’ as a distinctly Christian thing, for (a) it was birthed by Christians, (b) we have some distinctly Christian reasons for espousing the open view of the future, and (c) we have a distinctly Christian way in which we tweak the openness of the future. Unfortunately, most use ‘open theism’ and ‘the open view of the future’ interchangeably.”

What about the Trinity? Are we going to insist upon it? It’s admittedly difficult to hear trinitarians argue for its exclusion, but I’ll only point out that Sanders doesn’t get six words into his opening definition of “open theism” before mentioning the Trinity, and he couldn’t get through his first paragraph without three mentions of it. Dwayne and I aren’t in a position to resolve it, but “open theism,” even conceived as just a conversation starter, was nevertheless endowed with an intent, vision and a sense of mission biblically informed by the ’94 authors. We may have to live with the tension of having to revisit on a regular basis the distinction between those purely philosophical commitments involved in an “open view of the future” (which anyone might agree to and which only imply trinity and incarnation as Alan says) on the one hand, and that vision of a uniquely Christian fulfillment of this worldview described as “open theism” as envisioned and intended by those who started this conversation under that same name on the other hand. But whatever finally happens in terms of branding and name ownership, Dwayne and I are interested in one thing — an articulation of open theism solely in terms of the Christian gospel and the trinitarian hope it proffers. That’s where we’re coming from.

(Pictures here and here.)

Tying up loose ends

imagesWe don’t intend to visit this again if we can avoid it, now that the dust seems to have settled on the battle front and triage units are packing up their gear and moving on after the latest rounds of impassioned debate among Facebook friends over what beliefs and convictions constitute ‘open theism’. Our past three posts reviewed the positions and the frustrations behind open theists at the popular level. Dwayne and I felt that a final resolution would require the authors of The Openness of God (1994) and other pioneer figures (like Greg Boyd) to chime in. A bit of that came a few days ago with Greg Boyd’s ReKnew Post on the differences between process and open theisms. No uncertainty there about the distinction. And John Sanders also weighed in toward the end of our Facebook debate to clarify his understanding. So in this and the next post Dwayne and I would like to summarize where we stand, for what it’s worth.

Some of the debate centered on a Faith & Philosophy piece (2006) by Christian philosopher Alan Rhoda (co-authored by Boyd and yours truly). In that piece we boiled open theism down to a three-fold proposition:

    P1 Monotheism (hard to have an ‘open theism’ without a ‘theism’)
    P2 Causal openness (viz., a causally open future).
    P3 Divine epistemic openness (DEO) regarding that future.

Given P1-3 one might argue that process theists are open theists. But as Alan has qualified it, the P1-monotheism he has in mind precludes process theism because open theists have always agreed with classical theism’s belief in God’s essential freedom from creation. God creates freely and unnecessarily. His being and perfections do not require a non-divine created order. Sanders is clear on this as well, as is Greg Boyd (and Richard Rice, Bill Hasker, and David Basinger).

With the reader’s permission I’d like to make creation ex nihilo (CEN) explicit for the sake of clarity, though Alan includes it in his P1.

    P4 CEN (or ‘creation ex nihilo’).

Done? Not yet. It may surprise some that P1-4 are perfectly consistent with God’s exhaustive and unconditional determination of all things. How so? Don’t determinists (like Calvinists) argue that God decrees/determines the entire timeline of the created order in every particular prior to his creative activity? Yes. That would rule out DEO since the world would be ‘causally closed’ from the get-go and God would know what he eternally decreed should happen. But it’s at least conceivable that determinism as such could proceed in ‘open’ fashion. All one would need to suppose is that God did not eternally determine the entire timeline prior to his first creative act. God would simply make up his mind as he moved along, deciding on a moment by moment (or day by day or what have you) basis precisely how he wanted to determine things. We would have a genuinely open future so far as God had not yet made up his mind on which possibilities he would unconditionally settled upon. So P1-4 are compatible with the divine determination of all things. Not exactly ‘open theism’ is it? No.

One could seek to rule out determinism (of this ‘open’ sort I’m imagining) by arguing that since DEO is dependent upon ‘causal openness’, you only have DEO if you have ‘future contingents’ and such contingency or ‘causal openness’ regarding future creaturely actions can only be grounded in creaturely freedom. Thus determinism is ruled out by causal openness per se.

Not so fast. Future creaturely actions are no less ‘causally open’ if it be the case that God has not yet decided how he wishes to determine them than if God had endowed creatures with freedom to determine themselves. Determinism per se doesn’t itself preclude genuine ‘causal openness’ if God has not yet freely chosen how to determine things (because he’s determining them incrementally). God’s will would be the determining cause of all things (and thus ‘determinism’), but if his will for some future was at any given moment undecided, we’d have genuine ‘causal openness’ and thus ‘future contingents’. The causal openness would not be distributed among a multiplicity of agents, true, but that would not render the openness other than causal. It would just limit the causes to one — God’s will. Thus, nothing about P1-4 explicitly requires the ‘causal openness’ in question be distributed over a multiplicity of non-divine, self-determining agents (or causes). We’ll have to make this explicit, and the best way to do that is to qualify P2 to ground causal opening is a multiplicity of non-divine, self-determining causal agents.

    P2 Causal openness (grounded in a multiplicity of self-determining causal agents).

To be continued…

(Billboard here.)

Exhausted open theists tend to their wounded

triageYesterday was the first day of Spring and things couldn’t be gloomier for many of us open theists. Besides my struggles with how open theism is developing, TC Moore has also expressed his own frustrations, and I certainly appreciate what he has to say, though I’d like the opportunity to correct one thing he laments regarding Dwayne and me. After describing having encountered a fundamentalist strain within open theism, TC expresses some frustration with Dwayne and me as well:

“The next [faction] to demand their views be accepted by all Open theists were those who affirm the early Creeds of the church in addition to the Bible as authoritative. All this time I thought Open theists wanted to be a ‘big tent’, they actually wanted to be an exclusive club!”

Dwayne and I are the principle (maybe the only) ones in view here. And I’m sorry TC sees it this way, but I can appreciate where he’s coming from. He’s devoted as much time and energy as anyone I know into encouraging and organizing open theists for dialogue and conversation. And he’s been making these investments with the belief that open theism is in fact what he understood it to be, and also with a dream for what it was to become. I imagine others are as grateful as I am for all TC’s done to unite and bring us together. Last April’s OPEN Conference in St. Paul would never have occurred without TC. I’ve also put in a few hours over the years talking, writing, connecting, encouraging and debating in the hopes that open theism as I understood it to be would grow and expand. The surprise of this past week for TC and Dwayne and me is that we’ve just discovered that we’ve been working and hoping for two different dreams, two different open theisms.

Be that as it may, his comments about Dwayne and me are false. Dwayne and I have never demanded that our views be accepted by all open theists. In fact, we’ve never demanded anyone to believe anything. We only make demands of ourselves. We always assumed open theism was what we thought it was. And recently we’ve been arguing what that understanding was, namely, that open theism from the beginning was both essentially Christian (and trinitarian), neither of which TC says he’s ever thought open theism entailed. Now, whatever else we have done in attempting to persuade others our understanding is closer to the truth, we’ve not demanded it of anyone. Under pain of what would we demand such a thing? What threat could we make to enforce our will upon all open theists? The thought is absurd.

We're OpenAs for the Creeds, Dwayne and I are wholeheartedly Nicene (we’re trinitarians who believe Christ is God incarnate) and Chalcedonian, which for the purposes of this conversation just means we’re not kenoticists. (We don’t think God gave up anything to take up being a man.) But we’ve nowhere ever demanded that open theism include no kenoticists. We don’t agree with kenoticism, and we entirely integrate our openness with our agreement on the Creeds, but we don’t have any pretensions about open theists all agreeing with Chalcedon against kenoticism. We’ve taken Greg Boyd to tasks for his kenoticism, sure, but not because we think it’s a betrayal of open theism. We only ever challenged his kenoticism because he sells it on the market as a fuller more consistent version of his published views in Trinity & Process and because, frankly, he is very influential. A lot of people will imbibe what he says uncritically, and we don’t want his readers thinking for one moment that open theism entails kenoticism (which Greg has effectively said). If it weren’t for Dwayne and me driving everybody insane with our rants, most everyone would drink Greg’s Kool-Aid and associate open theism with kenoticism.

That aside, we have always believed that open theism was minimally Christian, and intended by the ’94 authors to be so. This, and nothing more, is TC’s beef with us. For this crime we plead guilty. And we plead guilty also to believing that Christianity minimally involves belief in the trinity and divine incarnation (which I believe TC agrees with). That doesn’t seem too outrageously beholden to the Creeds to me.

We may be wrong in believing open theism to have been originally understood by the ’94 authors as non-negotiably Christian (i.e., trinitarian and incarnational), but we don’t go around anathematizing people out of open theism if they disagree. It would be nice if the patriarchs of the movement would speak up and say something about all this to the movement they gave birth to, but I think TC and we understand that at this point that wouldn’t achieve much. Whatever open theism was intended by them to be, it’s not that today, and neither Dwayne nor I “demand” otherwise. Incidentally, I don’t think now the ’94 authors intended anything more than to write a book and go back to their jobs. I don’t think they intended to start a renewal movement in anything like what we think open theism is or ought to be today.

As for “big tents,” we have one. It’s called the gospel. I know TC agrees that’s the main deal. But saying it may mean something to us it doesn’t mean to TC. The gospel — what it simply means and what it profoundly offers — is all the tent I need. I don’t want that to be a cliche. For Dwayne and me it really is the beginning and end and middle of how we try to see things. If some movement’s theme or some particular view, like what we thought open theism was, can embody or articulate the gospel in better terms for today, then count us in. But if open theism is just an interfaith monotheistic tent of dialogue, I’m happy for it and wish it well. We just want TC to know that we’re not uninterested in a generic open theism because it’s too large a tent. We’re uninterested because it’s too small a tent.

Diagnosing our disagreements

Open theism at 20—pathology and treatment.
I confess that I’ve struggled with a bit of — what’s the word? — ill will, maybe even resentment, toward the 1994 pioneers of open theism (authors of The Openness of God) as I’ve watched open theism fragment into the several contrary visions our previous post refers to: fundamentalists who want to own the term, mainstream trinitarians who feel open theism ought to be identified as at least Christian and trinitarian, and others who see open theism as an interfaith theology intended to promote human freedom and indeterminacy among monotheists in general. Throw into that mix others of a more process inclined cosmology who nevertheless self-identify as open theists.

We suggested in our last post that part of what characterizes, perhaps even explains, this fragmentation today is the absence of leadership. From my perspective at least, Clark Pinnock, even if unintentionally, was a kind of theological center of gravity around which the developing conversation called “open theism” revolved and took shape. The center of gravity, it seems to me, was at the very least Christian and trinitarian. Pinnock crossed a lot of lines to engage other communities, including process theists and even Mormons, asking how we’re really different and how we’re alike. I don’t object to this kind of dialogue. Love it. But some seem to think that open theism simply is this dialogue. Others of us see open theism as a distinctly Christian theology in dialogue with others. There’s difference. Today open theism has no distinctly Christian theological center of gravity. That is what some of us are objecting too. Presently, however, the most we can say for sure is that open theism’s center of gravity is ‘monotheism’ — generically understood. (Come to think of it, though, why should a polytheist who believes in this openness and integrates it into his entire pantheon not be called an “open theist”?).

My feeling for some time has been that Clark Pinnock and the other 1994 authors bear the responsibility for pastoring/parenting this thing. After all, The Openness of God was a full-throttled launch of a fundamentally new paradigm. My assumption was that they had also agreed to stick with the results, that is, pastor this conversation to make sure it moved and matured theologically in a direction consistent with their original vision. But since Pinnock’s death none of the 1994 authors has stepped forward in this way. That bothered me for some time, perhaps in large part because I put a lot of hope into it. It seems to me that positions which are broad enough to be considered ‘shared interfaith beliefs’ typically don’t generate a lot of reformational heat.

But for whatever reason, pastoring the movement born out of the conversation they began wasn’t part of the agenda for the remaining ’94 authors. That’s OK. And maybe I’m over-analyzing things. If so, then open theism really is just an interfaith platform for discussing human freedom and indeterminacy within monotheism. Cool. I wish that project well. It’s not something I see myself investing a lot of energy in, but if that’s where open theism is going, that’s where it’s going. Where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know.

(Picture here.)

Superman sees the shrink

It didn’t take long, but here we are. Open theism — under that particular name — is 20 years old this year, dating from the 1994 publication of The Openness of God (Pinnock et. al.). We just got our driver’s license and next year we’ll be able to drink. We’re still young. But already open theism is suffering the confusion and crises typical of middle-aged men in their 40’s, debating who they really are, what they really believe, and what the meaning and purpose of their existence is. In fact, this week I’ve been discussing these very questions with a group of open theist friends. What and who are we? Movement, interpretive tool, full-fledged worldview, ontology, gestalt, what?

I don’t speak as an outside observer either. I’m an open theist, or at least what I thought an open theist was. I loved the promise of open theism in 1994. And I still think the future is open and God knows it as such. In The Openness of God (1994) and The God Who Risks (1998) I saw a focused promise of renewal within the Church that captured my heart and mind. I took me time. I studied and engaged the pro’s and con’s prayerfully. When I was finally in, I was in for keeps. But what was I in? Today, I’m not sure.

It didn’t take him long, but Superman has found his way to the psychiatrist’s couch. Today we’re in counseling trying to figure things out. On the popular level we debate, well, pretty much everything, most embarrassingly we fight over what open theism is and what beliefs it holds to. Twenty years old and there’s no real agreement. I’m not making this up. Today there are open theisms in the plural. Just Google us or drop in any of our Facebook sites, some of which were formed in protest to other open theism Facebook sites because they weren’t conservative enough, or liberal enough, or whatever. You’ll see what I mean.

As I speak, the promise of a major unified voice of renewal within the Church is today a fragmented roomful of siblings fighting over who inherits the family name. In one corner you have fundamentalist open theists (imagine that!) who will burn you at the stake for disagreeing with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, some who will anathematize you for being an Old Earther, and others who think Greg Boyd is the Devil. In the opposite corner you have open theists who deeply value diversity for whom “theism” in “open theism” is just a generic theism, like the “theism” in “monotheism” but qualified by “open.” For these, open theists are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and some Hindus who also happen to believe the future is open. In this corner open theism is just an interfaith dialogue about human freedom and indeterminacy. Still for others (like Dwayne and me) open theism was a movement within orthodox (small ‘o’) Christianity. The 1994 authors of The Openness of God were Christian trinitarians, and their trinitarianism wasn’t incidental to their open theism. For these original five (Pinnock and Co.) at least, ‘open theism’ was ‘open trinitariansm’.

In those days clarity came from the pioneers of this conversation. Clark Pinnock was a kind of patriarch and pastor (by default or intention, it doesn’t really matter). In 1994 when he and others published The Openness of God their project was an expression of Christian trinitarian faith, or so some of us think. Open theism was clearly differentiated from, say, process theology. It was also differentiated from what was termed “classical” theism (whether of the determinist or Arminian type). But it was not differentiated from the assumption of trinitarianism, or even creation ex nihilo for that matter. Both were distinguishing features of the view — back in the day.

If any of the original five still around who might stumble into reading this want to correct me, I’d love to hear your take on it. But here’s what I think has happened. The original five in 1994 were academians, not pastors. Pinnock seems to have had more foresight than the rest, but none of them really anticipated what their book would ignite or that the conversations and debates it would precipitate would coalesce into a movement that would still be going 20 years later. Without blaming any of them either for not having the insight to anticipate what would come or for not having the time or willingness to pastor/parent it, the fact is that today we are a pretty fragmented bunch.

There are voices to be sure, but there are no fathers; none who want to pull Excalibur from Pinnock’s headstone. We are adrift in a cacophony of competing narratives. Thirty minutes Googling us will reveal that what I’m saying is true. Don’t believe me. Ask any three random open theists. You’ll get three different answers. You might meet a trinitarian. You might meet a Unitarian. You might meet somebody who believes Jesus is God Incarnate. You might meet somebody who thinks Jesus just embodies qualities and goodness reflective of God in some supreme way but not divine. You might meet somebody who thinks Christ was risen from the dead. You might meet somebody who thinks Jesus’ resurrection appearances are just visionary experiences. Every person who self-identifies as an open theist knows who he/she is as an open theist. But WE don’t know who WE are as open theists. At present, open theism is a kind of conversation starter at best, a theological doily that grabs your attention. Those things have their use I suppose.

From here on out, we’ll keep on as “Open Orthodoxy.” The “open” is a point of reference for the open theism of our backgrounds. But you won’t hear us defending anything called “open theism” for the simple reason that we don’t know what that means. There doesn’t seem to be agreement on what ‘open theism’ essentially is (even if there was for a brief honeymoon in 1994). We still believe the future is open and contingent in some respects and that God really can contemplate these contingencies as such. We’ll defend that. But we’re not calling this belief ‘open theism’ or anything else, not until Superman finishes his counseling and figures himself out.

(Picture here).