Experimental Open Theism?—Part 2

Man-Carving-19-inch-5I’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.
, 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.

(Pictures here and here.)

11 comments on “Experimental Open Theism?—Part 2

  1. Richard Beck says:

    Thanks so much for the feedback and conversation.

    There is a lot here to process, let me respond to what I take to be the main objection:

    From the post:

    [W]hen 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.” 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’.

    Two responses.

    I don’t think it logically follows that if someone attains my first-person subjective state and, thus, can “predict” what I will do, that the system becomes “closed.” For a few reasons.

    To begin, the prediction here is first-person. It’s just simply being me, from the inside. Consequently, it’s no longer really prediction. Which is why I use a lot of scare quotes. Prediction is more metaphor here. Existing as my perfect subjectivity is less prediction than simply just living from my point of view. You’ll know what I’ll do the same way I do: by doing it, living it.

    We have to keep in mind how different consciousness is and how it changes the way open theists talk about open versus closed. Knowing life from “the inside” isn’t like knowing what closed system of billiard balls governed by Newtonian physics is going to do. Experience doesn’t unfold via computation. The whole notion of “prediction” is radically different.

    My second point here is that we don’t know how, exactly, consciousness has casual potency. It’s entirely possible that consciousness is the source of free will. If so, getting inside my experience might just mean getting into the nexus of my freedom.

    All that to say, I don’t think it follows that if someone (e.g., God) attains to my perfect subjectivity that the system closes. Any “prediction” from this location is radically different from a third-party making a prediction of a physical system. The prediction is more like sympathy or synchrony than computational simulation.

    A part I’d like to add to my original post, perhaps as a 5th hypothesis to the original four, is that the vision I have in mind here is that of theosis and perichoretic union.

    Let’s call this the perichoretic freedom hypothesis.

    Specifically, what I’m trying to describe isn’t just God “getting on the inside.” What I’m trying to describe is the “interpenetration” of the human and the divine experiences. Empathy is a really bad word for that. Perichoresis is better.

    All that to say, when God and the human person begin the process of perichoretic union moving toward theosis the future, due to our increasing participation with the divine nature, begins to open up.

    In short, the view I’m trying to describe isn’t just about God getting on the inside of us so that God can predict the future with better precision. The view is about God getting on the inside, via the indwelling Spirit, to begin the process of perichoretic union allowing us to participate in the expansive freedom and future of the Triune God.

    In short, the perichoretic union is what opens the future and makes us free.


    • yieldedone says:

      Hey, Richard. Dwayne here. 🙂
      With respect to #1, if what you are saying is that familiarity in intimacy allows each to “see through the eyes” of the other, taking on their perspective and the possibilities with that perspective…I think we’d all agree on that. What an open theist wouldnt say is that such perspective taking renders all actions exhaustively forknown with 100% accuracy or reduces all possibilities of the taken on perspective to one option, in functional determinism. What we mean in saying “the system closes” is precisely that.

      On #2. A hearty amen! The type of relational, dynamic, Intimacy-enhancing Holy Spirit/human spirit perichoresis that you describe is described in great detail by the late Dr. James Loder, a theologian and psychologist, in his works including “The Transforming Moment” and “The Knight’s Move” (Both are *extremely* recommended!!) The issue is one of assymetry in the relationship: God knows himself and us perfectly, we know neither God nor ourselves adquately without divine aid. It seems that what you had said, Richard, was that God was “learning” us as much as we were “learning” God in the relational intimacy. That’s our problem. We come to know *as we are fully known* by the self-communication of Divine Perspective by the Holy Spirit. In short, we have no psychological/emotional/volitional “private space” in some blindspot of Divine Presence…but that is not a violation of any kind, it is the empowerment of our inner life by God himself. Does God respond to us? Yes. Does God force our self-giving to Him? No. But none of this means that God has to move from ignorance to knowledge about us to 1) predict our behavior and 2) enhance intimacy with us.


      • yieldedone says:

        Again with #2. Loder says that this interaction frees the human ego from unconscious and conscious conditioning and dysfunctional ego defensive meaning-making, allowing us to make choices filled with genuine spontaneity and freedom leading to a more healthy apprehension of reality (including God). I am pretty sure that’s what you have in mind too, yes?


      • yieldedone says:

        What Tom and I want to say, Richard, is this: the most adequate description for the type of reality sufficient for the fulness of the “perichoretic freedom” in theosis we ALL want to articulate…is found in open theism with an Uncreated Tri-Hypostatic Subjectivity (the One Triune Creator who *is* Love itself). It wont fly in any *ultimately* deterministic system.


  2. Richard Beck says:

    Another issue to wrestle with.

    Over at my blog Dwayne suggested that open theism was compatible with weak volitional accounts. And I said if that’s the case then I’m on board.

    However, reading this post I might need to take that back as it seems that we are working with different understandings of weak volionalism.

    Specifically, I coined the terms “weak volitionalism” and “strong volitionalism” as terms of agnosticism regarding “free will” and “determinism.” But it seems you are not using the term weak volitionalism as a term of agnosticism but, rather, using it as a sort of Trojan Horse to smuggle in a little bit of “freedom.”

    What you seem to mean by the term weak volitionalism is that certain constraints have been placed on our range of “choices.” I agree with that, weak volitionalism is pointing to a reduction of volitional capacities or “range.”

    But from there—choices have been narrowed—you insert an account of “free will.” That is, maybe you don’t have ten choices but only two, but at least those two choices are “free.”

    Let me just say, this doesn’t solve the problem. That is not weak volitionalism as I posit it. I’m agnostic about if any of the choices—ten or two—are “free.” A psychologically coherent notion of freedom must still be provided no matter how many choices there are. And that account, I’m arguing, just can’t be provided. In short, you’re using the label weak volionalism but you’ve not, by adopting that label, real addressed the problems I’m raising.

    Let me give you one quick example.

    You use the labels “self-determination” and “free will” as if they are the same thing. The trouble is, these are, in fact, the exact opposites. Free will undermines self-determination. That’s why they call it “determination” after all.

    To illustrate. Say I have weak volition: I face only two choices, A or B. For the choice to be self-determined I need to feel that the choice I make flows out of my selfhood, that this choice has a coherent connection with my prior self. That’s where the sense of authorship and ownership come from.

    By contrast, if the choice is a radical break from my prior self we enter into psychopathology. Symptoms of disassociation and depersonalization, even hallucination. The self and the choice, in these instances, are not harmonious but strange and alien.

    This is why free will undermines self-determination. Self-determination has the current choosing self coherently connected to the prior self. These selves are not “free” from each other.

    Now, does a “coherent connection” between my choosing and prior self mean that the prior self causally “determines” the choices of the choosing self? Again, I have no idea. All I know is that, when I look back upon my choices I see reasons and goals and aspirations and motivations for my choices that flowed out of my prior self “determining” why I did what I did. I can, after my choice, give an account for my choices, an explanation rooted in my prior self, my biography. That is the psychological nature of self-determination.

    Libertarian accounts of free will—even if limited to only two choices—undermine this entire account. To be very, very clear, I’m not saying this means we are determined or that the system is closed. Again, I’m agnostic about all that. What I’m saying—please here this—is that libertarian free will is incoherent.

    Where that leaves us, I don’t know. But that’s where I’m at. The category “freedom” is meaningless when applied to human decision making can cannot be used as theological data. Even if smuggled in under the label weak volitionalism.

    This is why I’m trying to work toward an openness view without using “free will” as a building block. That may, in the end, be impossible. But I’m trying.


    • Jeff says:

      Richard: Now, does a “coherent connection” between my choosing and prior self mean that the prior self causally “determines” the choices of the choosing self? Again, I have no idea.

      J: By prior self, Richard, do you mean the “self” as a being with causal capacity and other capacities that has existential persistence over time, or something else? If the former, the answer to your question for me would be “yes.” That “connection” is just the persistent existence of said self over time during which that self’s libertarian causal capacity and its continued self-understanding of its sentient/mental nature and an extra-self rational order imply different logically possible futures –possibilities that depend on how that self “allocates” its conscious attention, since distinct conscious states are believed by such a self to be causal of distinct effects.

      From there, it seems, that self either does or doesn’t have the capacity to freely choose a particular state of conscious attention. And I can see how one could be agnostic about that. But I don’t see what it means to say an intelligible, posited capacity is incoherent. It would make more sense to me to say that a posited capacity can’t be conceived of intelligibly–i.e, that the conception involves incompatible elements, like, e.g., saying a being is 3-D-extended, spherical and has zero volume. But I’m not seeing what the incompatible elements would be in the case of a capacity of a being to allocate causal conscious attention in specific ways apart from compulsion.


      • Jeff says:

        J1: “imply different logically possible futures ”

        J2: I suppose it’s clearer, but more painful, to say “imply different logically-possible and putatively-really-possible futures.” For one need not commit to the view that logical possibilities are real possibilities. There’s an infinite set of logically possible histories if you include histories with uncaused events and/or histories unconstrained by analogical relationships.


    • yieldedone says:

      Over at my blog Dwayne suggested that open theism was compatible with weak volitional accounts. And I said if that’s the case then I’m on board.”

      Tom and I are weak volitionists (as you have defined it). Tom and I are also open theists. So, he and I seem to be prima facie evidence that the two are compatible. So…are you still down? Just wonderin’. 😉


  3. yieldedone says:

    Hey, brother Richard!

    Let me show you something. This is where we got your idea of weak vs strong volitionalism. From your “What I Would Ask Greg Boyd and Rob Bell” blogpage:

    “So I like to frame the debate around two less extreme models of human volition: Weak versus strong volitionalism. My take is that Greg and people like Rob Bell would be, at the very least, a strong volitionists. That is, human volitional capacities are so robust and strong that they can override all genetic, sociological, behavioral, and biological factors. That is, you can choose yourself clear of the causal flux. Your innate personality traits, the fact that you’ve had a bad night’s rest, the fact that you were raised a Muslim in Iran, all your childhood experiences…all of it. You can just “choose” and break free from it all. That is a strong view of human volitional capacities.

    By contrast, weak volitionists, like myself, see human volitional capacities as, well, more modest. We make choices but these choices struggle mightily to escape the orbit of genes, learning history, cultural context, and even your blood sugar level. It’s just very unlikely (empirically and philosophically) to think that you could choose your way out of all this.

    and back on your “Christ and Horrors, Part 2: Horror Defeat, God’s Burden, and Weak Volitionalism” blogpost…

    “If you are a regular reader of this blog you know I pound away on free will models in theology. It is not that I deny that in some ways we might be free, it is just that I see, as a psychologist, our will, our volition, as highly contingent. (I call this vision weak volitionalism as opposed to the strong volitionalism of free will models. For more, see my posts about Preparing for the Cartesian Storm.) In short, as finite, biological creatures we are not radically free. Our volitional range and scope is a humble and fragile affair. And I’ve argued that this realistic appraisal of human volitional capacity has important, if largely ignored, implications for theology and ministry.

    Well, happily, Adams takes a weak volitional approach in Christ and Horrors. Thus, my admiration from last post continues as Adams adopts and works with a realistic model of human agency. As a psychologist I can pay a theologian no higher compliment.”

    The “realistic appraisal” that you talked about was JUST THE POSITION that Tom and I agreed with you (and Adams!) on; on that score, Tom and I are weak volitionalists. And the strong volitionalism is EXACTLY what I thought it was: “It says that “human volitional capacities are so robust and strong that they can override all genetic, sociological, behavioral, and biological factors.” Tom and I absolutely DENY this.

    It’s simply the case that such a view of freedom IS compatible with open theism. Tom and I are open theists and we “weak volitionalists”. I guess that’s why I told you what I told you on your blog. There was no attempt to smuggle anything, I assure you. 😉

    Sooooo…just for clarity. There’s a forthcoming post that will address some other things.

    LOVING the conversation and engagement! Thanks so much, Richard! 🙂


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