Praying the open view: adequacy claims

smoke“The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” (Rev 8.4)

It’s no secret that Dwayne and I like conversations that wade out into the speculative and the theoretical. But that can get a bit wearisome (can I get an ‘Amen’?). A less speculative aspect of the debate over open theism has to do with its practical effects, something both open theists and objectors use to argue their respective positions. My graduate studies took me in this direction and I ended up proposing a thesis toward an open theistic theology of petitionary prayer. It’s less accessible than your average blog post, so I’d like to break down a few of the more important points.

Prayer is the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Given the open theist’s core claims, how are we to understand the purposes and place of petitionary prayer? If one cannot divorce the question of what God is like from the question of how we pray, then open theism’s proffered revision of aspects of the traditional view of God is most relevant and deserves continued and rigorous consideration. In focusing on the implications which open theism has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical every-day concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential case for open theism.

Open theists have claimed that their views of the God-world relationship provide a religiously adequate basis upon which to live life, more specifically that the open view makes best sense of petitionary prayer as an act by which believers freely participate in fulfilling God’s purposes through shaping themselves and the world. Treating the ‘practical’ or ‘existential’ pros and cons of believing in something is not a simple task. There are several moving pieces. In this first in a series on petitionary prayer, I’d like to reflect upon the nature and difficulty of adequacy claims.

People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? is ultimately the question believers put to theological issues. And where believers fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, etc., they fail to engage those issues for any length of time. Opponents of open theism have claimed that the effects of the open view are ruinous and will inevitably shipwreck faith in God for those who embrace it (concrete examples in upcoming posts). Open theists on the other hand have argued precisely the opposite, that their views make better sense of our existential intuitions, provide a better existential fit, and that of all the available views of providence on the market, that espoused by open theists is already assumed in practice by the manner in which Christian believers actually live their lives.

Adequacy claims reducible to personal preference?
The underlying question regards the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’, i.e., how we relate what we believe about God and the God-world relationship to the practical concerns of daily life. Theology matters, so all theists seem to agree, and open theists have confidently made ‘adequacy claims’ about the practical advantages of their beliefs. At the same time, opponents equally object to the open view on existential grounds, insisting that the view undermines one’s confidence and trust in God, God’s word, and God’s ability to achieve his purposes. The existential matrix (the inter-relating intuitions, a priori beliefs about the world, experiences, decision-making processes, etc.) by which we evaluate the truth of a claim is a complex and fallible guide.

Think about what sort of question we are dealing with. When one argues that a belief is best believed to be true (or not) because of the practical effects of believing it, a particular sort of claim is being made, one that is notoriously difficult to evaluate. Professor of religion Christopher Heard has attempted to assess the evidentiary status of the effects that follow from believing or disbelieving in open theism, a form of argumentation he calls an appeal to outcomes or argument from affect.(1) After reviewing the debate, Heard concludes that God’s defining attributes are independent of human desires and opinions. Simply put, “God is what God is, whether humans like it or not.” Heard argues that outcome oriented arguments reduce to arguing one’s “personal preference” and thus are ultimately useless in determining truth. He writes:

This points to one of the weaknesses of outcomes-oriented argumentation: the larger debate lacks an objective, consensual framework within which individual outcomes can be assessed as relatively worse or better than other possible outcomes. Because outcome-oriented arguments are inextricably linked to human preferences, and because human preferences differ, outcome-oriented arguments will typically succeed only with those who already agree with the arguer’s implicit value system which allows the arguer to categorize certain outcomes as good or bad, beneficial or harmful, and so on. Even if such an objective, consensual framework were available, however, outcome-oriented arguments would still suffer from a fatal flaw, in that human preferences do not determine the divine reality.(2)

Even if it is true that God is responsive in the sense of adapting to us, Heard says, it would still not be the case that “we can reshape the reality of God simply by proclaiming one theological alternative ‘better’ than another and assuming that God conforms to what (some!) humans consider to be ‘better’.”(3) Agreement or disagreement on which divine attributes are “better” than others, Heard argues:

…would not prove that those attributes actually characterize God. If God’s foreknowledge is in fact exhaustive, then it is exhaustive, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to be better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs; and if God’s foreknowledge is in fact limited or probabilistic, then it is so, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs. God is who God is, and human beings do not enjoy the privilege of defining what God ‘must’ be and assuming that God lives up to that definition.(4)

Heard suggests that the principle “God is what God is, regardless of human value judgments about the quality of the divine nature” undermines the evidentiary force of existential arguments proposed in the debate over open theism. At best, such arguments can show what practical implications a particular theological approach on this question may have.

The difficulty with adequacy claims
Three observations in response to Heard seem appropriate. First, perhaps, we should note that neither side in the debate suggests that our views of God actually “shape the divine reality.” God doesn’t turn into what we believe he is. And open theists agree that God’s self-determining existence and nature are prior to and independent of all non-God actualities. Undermining belief in God’s aseity is not what existential arguments for (or against) open theism are about. What such arguments are believed to do is offer a kind of argument from design. That is, assuming God has purposed and designed us for truth, it is at least safe to reason from our experience of ourselves and the world at least to the plausible truth or falsity of those beliefs responsible for life’s functioning as it does. So although outcome oriented arguments involve a subjective element that makes them difficult to assess, they simply cannot be dismissed given our assumptions regarding the unity of truth and its role in our properly relating to God and the world.

Second, if the best outcome based arguments can legitimately do is establish what the practical implications of a view are, and if these practical implications have no part in determining the truth of the view in question, as Heard appears to claim, then one wonders whether or how the implications matter at all. Surely what is ‘legitimate’ about the implications of a belief is their contributing something to the determining of the truth of the claim. Heard, however, appears to affirm the importance of a belief’s implications while denying that the implications impinge on the truth-value of the belief in question.

Lastly, with Heard we can agree that it is a weak argument which claims simplistically that since believing some claim seems at the moment to meet a perceived need, the claim is therefore true. On the other hand, Christian believers will hardly want to deny the intuition that what is true about God and the God-world relationship will best explain our experience and best enable our existing in the world with and for God. Truth is, on a Christian account of things, intended to enable, enrich, and verify our living for God. This conviction grounds the usefulness of outcome based arguments or adequacy claims. Doctrine must prove itself by demonstrating its power to transform life. It is a kind of living that God is after. So the truth about God and the world, I shall assume, ought to secure belief states that enable our living our lives in the honor and enjoyment of God.

481The relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’
We can agree with Heard, then, that existential arguments are difficult to evaluate. But we disagree that the lines of influence travel in only one direction — from doctrine to how we live. Theological truth cannot be determined independently of pragmatic concerns. We simply do not function this way. The lines of influence move in both directions — from doctrine to how we live as well as from how we live to verifying what is true.

Heard argues that both sides in the open theism debate should spend less time on existential arguments and return to the role of Scripture in revealing truths about God. To learn what God is like, Heard suggests that we “move from biblical statements about God to theological statements about God” and then undertake the “careful exegetical and theological studies necessary to elucidate God’s character as revealed in the Bible.”(5) In response, I submit that while Scripture is of primary importance, it is at the same time the case that Scripture’s truth is a truth designed for our living and to which our living best conforms. Thus the practical/existential dimension informs our interpreting and theological systematizing by limiting the set of possible interpretations or claims to existentially meaningful ones.

Finally, while outcome based arguments are somewhat subjective, they can be more than mere arguments from “personal preference.” The ‘praxis’ for and from which open theists argue is that of shared experience. An individual experience that remains the experience of a single person can hardly be the grounds upon which a community understands and expresses itself. But shared human experience cannot but be the basis upon which a community understands and expresses itself. And it is a shared human experience that open theists offer as the basis of the existential fit of their views.

We have good reasons, then, to conclude that outcome based, or existential, arguments, while limited and fallible by virtue of their individual subjectivity, can be useful in determining truth by grounding meaningfulness in the shared experience of a community. This is a fundamental pragmatic insight. The point of existential arguments is not to say that whatever I find ‘convenient’ is therefore ‘true’, but rather to say that (a) whatever are the natural consequences of a belief, those consequences are that belief’s meaning for us, and that (b) whatever beliefs are true (theologically in our case), they will make possible a truly livable existence on the assumption that God has designed us to function best in truth. In the end, all of us conclude the truth or falsity of claims based on the difference that believing or not believing makes.

Granted, we are finite and fallible. With Heard we can agree that our experience itself can neither determine the divine reality (aseity) nor alone establish truth for a community. But these are not necessary to existential arguments per se. The usefulness of such arguments does not require an infallible individual subjectivity that makes individual experience an absolute judge of truth. Rather, as suggested here, we best look to the shared experience of a community to tell us what a belief ‘means’ and then admit this into whatever other arguments (exegetical, biblical/theological, traditional) are at play in order to determine theological truth-value. We do not, with Heard, first establish truth on grounds that admit no influence from shared experience and then seek to accommodate ourselves to it.

Four guidelines
To conclude our survey of issues related to the nature of adequacy claims, I offer the following four guidelines for evaluating such claims. First, the pragmatic maxim grounds the meaning of a belief in the practical effects that belief has and so makes it impossible to determine the truth-value of claims apart from their practical effects. Second, the practical effects must constitute the shared experience of a community before they can be admitted into the hermeneutical process by which that community understands and expresses its identity and mission. No one individual’s experience should be elevated to the status of being the measure by which the community is defined. Third, Scripture possesses a God-given authority that makes it an ultimate judge of human beliefs and experience, not visa versa, and this conviction must guide our reading of experience. This is easier said than done, however, for by our first guideline above, the practical effects a belief has in our life are what that belief can be said to ‘mean’. We are bound to live in the tension of this dialectic. Lastly, adequacy claims are still subject to the rules of logic and meaningful argumentation. No ‘experience’ in itself constitutes an ‘argument’. It remains for us to argue the place that some shared experience has in our larger theological framework in a coherent manner.

(Picture here and here.)

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(1) R. Christopher Heard, “‘I AM WHAT I AM’: Inputs, Outcomes, and the Open Theism Debate,” Christian Scholars Conference, Malibu, California, presented July 22, 2005.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.

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