I’ve rewritten this Part 2 several times trying to track with the ongoing conversation with Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology regarding open theism. Most recently he and Dwayne have made headway regarding weak vs strong voluntarism. Beck seems to have (incorrectly) believed the latter to be the kind of freedom open theism required. With that correction in place, we can exchange much of what we were ready to post in the way of criticism for some reflections and observations of a more general nature.
There are aspects of Beck’s “Empathetic Open Theism” we definitely want to affirm:
- that consciousness is not reducible to physical states or scientific accounts,
- that the first-person subjective is unique and irreducible,
- that consciousness has causal power,
- that knowledge is gained experientially,
- that via incarnation the Son comes into novel personal experiences of the world,
- and in general that Beck is right on about what ‘open theism’ is; especially that libertarian freedom need not entail strong voluntarism.
There are other aspects of his original post and earlier comments that render his view not discernibly “open theistic” (because it commits Beck to indifference regarding freedom and future contingency). That being said, if Beck’s most recent conversation with Dwayne suggests an embrace of weak voluntarism and the objective nature of future contingency, then his view is discernibly ‘open theism’ and we can go from there. So in the hope of clarifying the issues, we offer the following observations.
First, we’d still argue that what’s “open” about the future cannot simply describe a merely phenomenological openness (i.e., the experience of the future as open because one is ignorant of the manner in which it is in fact closed). The dynamic-relational aspect open theism advocates for rests in the claim that openness is the truth about the way the world is. To deny this much and to be indifferent on the objective reality of future contingency would undermine the very dynamic we believe exists.
Second, when Beck does discuss foreknowledge, he grounds the inability to predict someone’s future in the failure to indwell their perspective intimately/emphathetically. God doesn’t know what we shall do because he doesn’t sufficiently know us. Likewise, he says, if one knew another well enough and emphathized with them intimately enough, their future choices would be predictable.
This remains a problem because it actually entails a “closed” future. Our future choices are in this case causally entailed in antecedent states. We simply don’t know those states intimately enough. Hence we experience the future as ‘open’ which it in fact is not. But in this case openness is just ignorance of what is in fact closed. Beck didn’t find this a problem (at first):
“I don’t have an opinion about if the future is open or closed, if there is free will or not. I’m agnostic about all those questions…My view leaves that question open. Basically, if you want to tack on free will to this vision please feel free. It doesn’t change anything.”
But how can Beck not have an opinion on whether the future is open or closed or whether there is free will or not if, as he says, he set out to develop his view precisely because he does not believe in LFW and wants a way to affirm the same relational dynamic without having to embrace LFW? He also has a position on whether the future is open or closed (viz., it’s ‘closed’) since the future of our choosing is predictable (on the basis of a perfect knowledge of past states). However, if what Beck wants to maintain (and perhaps thinks he cannot maintain within an open theism’s libertarian freedom and future indeterminacy) is a weak rather than a strong voluntarism, then he doesn’t need to construct an alternative model that jettisons freedom and contingency. Freedom and contingency can be ‘weak’; that is, libertarian freedom need not be conceived as freedom from all contextual constraints or the history of socializing events or the relative brain chemistry. All these define the constraints within which we are free and there is no choosing one’s way out of them. At the same time, however, they don’t reduce our future to their history. More on this below.
Third, initially Beck supposed that a person’s future choices are predictable through a sufficiently empathetic apprehension of that person. It would be interesting to know if accommodating himself to a weak voluntarism helps him along this line, because Beck already argued the predictability of the future based on increasing knowledge of another. Where personal-empathetic intimacy increases, predictability increases. The more intimate we become, the more causal entailment is apprehended and the closed nature of the future revealed. But this just means that one isn’t free in an ‘open’ or ‘contingent’ sense at all. Weak voluntarism aside, the belief that the future is causally contained in present states entails a closed future. That would be a problem.
Fourth, viewing God as “outside” us, as observing us “from outside,” looks to us to be a typical two-storied worldview. But God, we’ve argued at length here, cannot be thought of as “an observer” among observers, watching us as one observing subjectivity among others. Pneumatology is a good place to explore this. God is fully present to subjects as the ground and precondition of their own interiority. As Augustine says, “God is higher than my utmost, more inward than my inmost” (cf. Paul’s Mars Hill speech in Acts 17). It might be that Beck fails to understand his “I” as continually gifted directly by the Spirit as part of the Creator-created relationship itself. He may imagine that our inmost self can be hidden from God. But as deeply as one can plunge into the reality of one’s own personal subjectivity—God as subject is already there waiting for us to receive us and to make the moment even possible. You might say that while God never adopts are first-person perspectives as definitive of his own (which would be impossible), it remains the case that God’s subjectivity is the space where we may know ourselves as subjects.
Fifth, we agree that the incarnation introduces novelty into God’s experience of the world. If the person of the Son is truly united to created existence, we can’t suppose this brings no new knowledge to the Son, no personal knowledge of the human experience, of what it’s like to be tempted, hungry, thirsty, tired, etc. Hebrews 4 says as much. But where our Orthodox friends may feel that saying this compromises the needed sense in which we need to say God is immutable and free from the world, it’s our vision here to argue this fear is unwarranted. God can indeed be transcendently and immutably full, essentially and necessarily, and thus be actually free from the world (and experience this God-defining freedom without cessation) while also being engaged in the temporal processes of the world as a contingent expression of who he is.
Sixth, Dwayne and I will be alone in agreeing with the spirit of Fr Aidan’s comment on Beck’s post. Fr Aidan writes:
“I respectfully suggest that the God you are proposing here is but an anthropomorphic-therapeutic projection. It is not the infinite, radically transcendent and radically immanent God whom Christians came to confess during the patristic period and subsequently. None of what you are proposing is necessary to the achievement of personhood in Jesus Christ.”
It would take several posts to express the sense in which we agree with Fr Aidan. But no doubt about it, very much of Protestant, evangelical doctrine of God is mere projection onto God of what we believe we need. Much of the reasoning behind divine passibilism amounts to no more than such projection. That doesn’t mean a view is entirely false because it reflects what’s going on in us or what we in our finitude think we need God to be. We’re just agreeing that it would be naive in the extreme for us to pretend such projection never occurs or that we’re immune to it (which begs a very legitimate question—Just how do we spot the illegitimate projection onto God of our experience and categories? This is not a question to which open theists have generally given much though). We here are on the record as believing that open theism doesn’t really know what to do with divine transcendence and, perhaps more disconcerting, doesn’t seem that concerned (at least not for a concept of transcendence which is anything more than God just being immeasurably more of what we’re already decided he is or, more to the point, just immeasurably more of what we are). In short, to Beck we’d say, be prepared for some surprises; that dynamic-relational and healing way of living that you want to advocate? More of it is in Orthodoxy than you know.
Lastly, to return to a weak vs a strong voluntarism, we’ve already gone on record here as agreeing with Marilyn McCord-Adams’ on the inevitability of horrors within the human condition, and volition is part of the fallen human condition. So we want to avoid the impression that we think the will isn’t shaped, contextualized, even trapped to a great degree within the fallen conditions of human socialization with its embodied context (i.e., the brain). The question is whether or not there remains within all human beings, however fallen, however contextualized, a place of freedom, however minimal in its scope, where trapped people remain free to yield themselves to God via the Spirit, free to take ‘some measure’ of a step in God’s direction and in that step increase the scope of their options.
“Wherever the Spirit is, there is freedom.” (2Cor 3.17) This is no mere policy for Pentecostal management of the gifts. Rather, it’s that about God which makes giftedness and growth and grace an irrevocable constituent of all human relationality. In the end, its simply not possible for personal subjectivity to become irrevocably closed in by, or reduced without remainder to, the constraints of fallen contexts because God as subject is what makes all of subjective experience possible. In other words, all created “I”’s are already the God-given grace of self-reflection and personal meaning. We cannot socialize our way out of that, however contextualized or damaged we may be. And this is why, in our view, increasing union with God really does increase the ‘openness’ of the future in terms of widening the scope of possible choices we may make. God as love is the greatest conceivably creative expressiveness. To be one with God is to step into a host of possible choices which all equally express love’s passion.