Experimental Open Theism?—Part 1

It’s great to see Richard Beck of Experimental Theology talking about open theism and related topics. He articulates what he describes as an “empathetic open theism” and invites constructive critique. Beck agrees that the attraction of open theism is “its dynamic and relational view of God and humanity” and wants to keep that vision but “doesn’t agree with how open theism gets us there” (i.e., libertarian freedom). We’d like to explore Beck’s points and argue that what he describes cannot be a version of “open theism” since Beck is in the end quite indifferent to the realities of freedom and future openness.

Beck’s objection to how open theists articulate their relational/dynamic view of God has to do with their embrace of a libertarian view of free will (LFW). He “finds libertarian visions of free will to be psychologically implausible” and isn’t sure “how free will would operate psychologically.” In light of that, he has in mind to “build a different sort of model to create a different sort of open theism” (i.e., one that doesn’t rely upon LFW). And he goes on to begin building this new model “on the disjoint between consciousness and science,” that is, on the observation that knowledge/data is irreducibly subjective and that consciousness cannot be reduced to a scientific account (his non-reductionism hypothesis).

Upon this foundation come a few other building blocks:

  • The non-reductionism hypothesis (stating that consciousness is not reducible to a scientific account).
  • The causation hypothesis (stating that consciousness is not only not reducible to physics, but it has causal potency), from which it follows that “a reductive scientific account of the cosmos is impossible.”
  • The experiential-epistemology hypothesis (stating that knowledge of consciousness can only be gained experientially [directly] or empathetically [imaginatively]).
  • The incarnational hypothesis (i.e., the experiential-epistemology hypothesis applies to God).

Based on these hypotheses, Beck concludes that we “cannot know or predict what any given human being will do unless I have perfect knowledge of his or her subject experience” and that since “we can only know any given person’s subjective experience approximately (empathically or imaginatively), [we] can only make imperfect predictions about what any given person may or may not do.” The counterpart, he argues, is also true: “the more…intimate I get with a person, the greater… my ability to understand and empathize with him or her… the greater my predictive knowledge.”

Given the incarnational hypothesis, God cannot know “what it feels like to be me ‘from the outside’” and thus “cannot compute or simulate the future.” God can only gain predictive knowledge of the future the way we do—i.e., by experiential participation and/or emphathetic imagination. Thus Beck grounds an unknown future in the limitations of the “empathic gap.” “God’s ability to know and predict my future is limited by God’s ability (or inability) to know exactly what it feels like to be me, privately, subjectively and experientially).”

The incarnation, however, increases God’s empathetic capacities via participation in the human experience (Heb 4.14-16), though “even after the Incarnation God’s empathic capacities [are] limited in certain ways.” God was incarnate as a Jewish man (and thus cannot know what it’s like to be a woman, for example). The incarnation created the capacity for a generalized empathy but after the Incarnation there remained the need for particular empathy, i.e., the narrowing of the empathy gap between God’s Jesus-experience and your particular life experience. How is this gap closed? Pneumatologically, via the Spirit’s presence in us who believe (men and women), God can “do the particular individualized work of relational intimacy.” At present, Beck says, God and I see each other but dimly, as in a mirror, but one day we will see each other face to face, at which time the experiential gap will be finally and fully overcome in the process of uniting the human and the divine.

(Picture here.)

5 comments on “Experimental Open Theism?—Part 1

  1. […] over at An Open Orthodoxy have started a series engaging Beck: Beck on Empathic Open Theism and Experimental Open Theism Part 1, even bringing some questiosn to Beck’s own questions of libertarian free […]


  2. Richard Beck says:

    Looking forward to your observations.

    Not to be preemptive with this, but I agree that what I articulate might not be a version of open theism. Regardless, showing why this is the case is an important exercise.

    But let me float this. Is open theism a monolithic theory with various gate-keeping issues? Or can it be envisioned as a bigger tent where various relational views of God can hang together?

    Finally, let me explain my “indifference” about free will.

    My indifference is due to the fact that I think the construct of “free will” is muddled and incoherent. To say nothing about it being perennially contested and controversial. And yet, we find many theologians building enormous theological edifices of great sophistication upon this, a controversial anthropological abstraction, a contested doctrine of man. Is this not a house built upon sand?

    To be clear, I’m not saying I don’t believe in free will. What I’m saying is that when you build your theology upon anthropology you’re begging for trouble.


  3. Richard Beck says:

    Some other thoughts about the similarities and differences between open theism and whatever-the-hell-it-is I’m proposing. 🙂

    I think we agree on all this:

    1. Human make choices.
    2. Those choices appear to take God by “surprise.”
    3. God responds, moving the future into a new direction.

    As I see it, #2 and #3 are endorsed by views that might be called “relational views.” Open theism being one such view. Mine, perhaps, a different sort of view. Such relational views are distinct from Calvinistic or Neo-Reformed views which would deny #2 and #3.

    I’d argue that #3 is what makes any view earn the label “open.” You can debate that.

    The main difference between my “open” view and yours is the purported mechanism underneath #2. I think the mechanism isn’t relevant as long as we get #2. You can debate that. The mechanism might be integral.

    BTW, I really appreciate your engagement and push-back. I’m feeling really challenged by you in all the best ways. I wish we could be doing this over coffee or pints. That would be great fun.


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