More thinking through feeling

We thought Alan’s piece on (im)passibilism (mentioned a couple of posts back) worth summarizing and engaging here. Truth be told, blogging (for us at least) is very like journaling. The process is formative before and whether or not it’s influential for anyone else. In addition, Alan’s work has been such a model of unprejudiced and irenic handling of the issues involved in this debate, and we so respect his voice, that we thought we’d like to think out loud through his attempt at a rapprochement (among open theists) between passibilists and qualified impassibilists such as Dwayne and me.

I say “qualified impassibilism” because impassibilism as held to by the Orthodox is believed to entail other commitments Dwayne and I don’t embrace. We’re not under any illusions about how alone we are on this issue. We can count on one hand the open theists who share a similar view of God’s beatitude/delight. Since we believe God’s experience of the temporal world is a temporal experience that involves changing states of mind, including divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, we don’t fit among the Orthodox on the sine qua non of classical theism, viz., actus purus. But we also enjoy an awkward fit among virtually all open theists (but not all) on account of our belief in divine transcendence as God’s unimprovable and imperturbable aesthetic satisfaction. Open theists, virtually without exception (Richard Creel comes to mind as one such exception), espouse a strong convinction in God’s fully passible experience of the world in all its suffering.

We don’t really care what technical theological term is used to describe what we hold to constitute this divine fullness; apatheia (impassibility) is the ‘classical’ term. But since our version isn’t legitimately Orthodox and the same term is so unliked by open theists, if that word is bad fit, fine. We don’t require a ‘word’. As open theism becomes increasingly Moltmannian in its belief in a ‘Suffering God’ involve the cessation of the triune relations, such a vision of divine vulnerability may define beliefs like ours “out of bounds.”

Oh the irony of it all! But enough sociology already. In this post we want just to summarize Alan’s argument. Hopefully we’ll get it right. It’s main point against impassibilism is fairly simple.

By (im)passibility Alan is speaking strictly of (im)passibility of feeling, not (im)mutability with respect to any other change. There’s no debate among open theists regarding divine change with respect to God’s knowledge of the world in its temporal becoming. Alan also defines (im)passibility of feeling as just being that “difference” which we make to God, pure and simple. Impassibility amounts to a “no difference” thesis while passibility is a “some difference” thesis. In addition, the passibilist’s “some difference” thesis makes no explicit claim as to how great a difference we make to God. God’s emotional response to our suffering may be in Alan’s words “infinitesimal,” a “drop of disappointment in a sea of joy,” or a passibilist may hold that difference to be immeasurably great. Point is, it is some actual effect upon the felt quality of God’s experience, for that aesthetic effect (disappointment or satisfaction) just is the “difference” we make to God. Lastly, whatever disappointment God experiences on account of us, there can be no corresponding effect upon God’s “competence.” God is not “functionally impaired” on account of whatever disappointment or grief God experiences on our account. God’s (immutable) competence, it follows (though Alan doesn’t make this explicit), is unrelated to the (mutable) felt quality of his experience.

In the course of laying out his conclusion, Alan grants several key preliminary assumptions.

  • The Anselmian intuition that God is necessarily and essentially the greatest possible being (“maximally excellent”).
  • CEN (creation ex nihilo).
  • God’s intra-Trinitarian experience prior to creation as one of perfect unallowed beatitude.
  • That God is “impassible in nature but passible in knowledge.” This awkward and poorly worded phrase (for Tom) is Richard Creel’s. What Creel means is to distinguish four kinds of (im)mutability (not, as he words it, ‘impassibility’ which by definition has only to do with the passions): nature, will, knowledge and feeling. Among other points, Creel argues God is mutable in knowledge (since his knowledge of the worlds’ changing actuality is an experience of the world’s changing actuality) but that God is immutable in feeling. Creel (2005) is an open theist who holds that God is impassible (in feeling). Dwayne and I welcome the company.
  • Lastly, that God has differential preferences (from among those causally possible futures he foreknows). God prefers some possibilities over others. This differential preference thesis becomes the basis upon which Alan argues the world be understood as “making a difference” to God.

Alan’s strategy for rapprochement is to agree that two views on (im)passibility are false, leaving a third workable solution. The two that don’t work are left and right of center. First, “strong passibilism” is set aside. Strong passibilism is the view that God is so adversely affected by the world’s evils and suffering that he is functionally impaired. He can’t do his job and God needs time to “process” before he can move on. Second, “impassibility” — the belief that “God’s emotions cannot be perturbed at all” and that “God’s intra-Trinitarian bliss is maintained in perfect equanimity regardless of creaturely actions” — is also set aside as incompatible with (a) a benevolent God’s having differential preferences regarding the world’s open possibilities and with (b) our actualized (dis)preferred possibilities “making a difference” to God.

Alan’s third, preferred understanding lands between these two rejected alternatives. God is neither perturbed to the point of functional impairment (on the one hand) nor is he free of all perturbation (on the other). On Alan’s view “the mere fact that God has differential preferences regarding creaturely outcomes requires that God be able to feel disappointment, in some sense, when things go contrary to God’s preferences, and be pleased, in some sense, when things go according to God’s preferences.” Hence, Alan prefers a “weak passibilist” view which holds that God’s emotions can be perturbed but that the degree of perturbation is such that God can never be functionally impaired. Alan doesn’t get into the extent or depth to which the felt quality of God’s experience is affected by us; he only argues that we “make a difference” to God and this difference is our affect upon him. This difference may be infinitesimal, a “drop of disappointment in a sea of joy.” But it is a difference nonetheless. And lastly, Alan doesn’t describe this “difference” we make to God as equivalent to our “meaning” to God, but I think he’d agree they’re synonymous. That is, the ultimate meaning of our existence/experience in the world is the difference we make to God and that difference is a difference in the felt quality of God’s experience.

What of God’s intra-Trinitarian unallowed bliss prior to creation? We must conclude “not that God’s pre-creational bliss cannot be perturbed, but that it cannot be perturbed apart from God’s choice.” Hence, God’s inner tranquility is not essentially independent of the world. God can freely make himself vulnerable to disappointment should he wish to do so.

I trust we’ve stated Alan’s position accurately.

(Picture here.)

Is the ETS still a factor 10 years after the vote?

Jeff Robinson from The Gospel Coalition has some reflections on open theism that are interesting. The title of his piece — “Is Open Theism Still a Factor 10 Years After ETS Vote?” — is a question he never actually answers, and after reading it I think a question that better expresses his piece would be “Is the ETS Still a Factor 10 Years After ETS Vote?” I offer a few reflections on his article:

(1) If open theism is truly not a factor, why is Robinson taking the time to write on it at all and with such a sense of urgency?

(2) If inerrancy was finally settled in 2006 by the ETS, what significance ought we to give to the fact that just last year the ETS dedicated its annual meeting to debating inerrancy — again? Exactly how “safeguarded” (Robinson) did the ETS make itself in 2006 if they need to devote an entire annual session to the issue in 2013?

(3) Of course a small minority advocated open theism in the 90’s, but membership voted not to dismiss open theists Pinnock and Sanders. Isn’t that the point of the vote?

(4) Schreiner is right, discussion of open theism in the ETS died down because people got tired of debating it. But I rather think that reflects the way it was debated, not conversation per se. Conversation pro/con open theism is going on all over the place. It’s the ETS that took itself out of the conversation, which prompts a better question than the one Robinson asks, namely, Is the ETS still a factor 10 years after its vote?

(5) Robinson’s summary of open theism is why debate ended — viz., those opposing open theism couldn’t articulate it in a way that didn’t already reflect their criticisms of it.

(6) Robinson: “Many Reformed scholars argue that open theism represents a reconfiguring of the God of historic Christian orthodoxy.” I wonder how many of those same scholars are kenoticists and does Robinson have any idea what a complete reconfiguring of the God of historical Christian orthodoxy kenoticism is (since he’s passionate about Orthodoxy)?

(7) Robinson: “You will not find papers in defense of open theism being read in seminars at ETS today.” What’s this supposed to mean but that the ETS is either incapable or unwilling to have a conversation about something they admit “remains alive and growing within evangelicalism”?

(8) Ware: “I receive emails on occasion from college students who tell me of their theology or philosophy professors at their Christian colleges who teach open theism as their own view….” Doesn’t this constitute evidence that after 10 years open theism is still a factor?

(9) Ware: “…he said, ‘I have not heard of these people, and they haven’t published their views (to my knowledge), but they simply view open theism as a viable alternative. I feared this taking place back during the days of hot debate on this issue, and this is one reason I argued in my 2001 plenary address at ETS that open theism should not be considered a viable evangelical position.” So let me get this straight. According to Robinson and Ware, the ETS concluded that open theism isn’t a viable evangelical position, no publishing venue within the scope of ETS’s influence is publishing open theist material and no professional peer reviews engage it (which isn’t true, but let’s assume it is)—and yet open theism “remains alive and growing” and Christian professors advocate it on campuses.

(10) “Wherever open theism is found today, whether in the academy or blogosphere, this much is clear: evangelicals must continue to defend the classical doctrine of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and meticulous providence as the view that coheres most closely to God’s Word.” So open theism is by Robinson’s estimation alive and growing, is advocated for on Christian campuses and is discussed widely on a popular level with the exception of the ETS. I’m pretty sure this means the ETS isn’t a factor.

(Picture here.)

Thinking through feeling

Philosopher Alan Rhoda chimes in on the (im)passibility debate among open theists:

Open Theism and Impassibility in Feeling
By Alan Rhoda | November 18, 2014

Among open theists there has been a running in-house debate between what I will call the “passibilist” and “impassibilist” camps. T. C. Moore has lately been leading the charge on behalf of the passibilists, while Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk have been leading the charge for the impassibilists. (As noted below, by “passibilism” and “impassibilism” here I’m speaking strictly with respect to passibility in feeling.)

I find myself genuinely sympathetic to both sides because it seems to me that both sides genuinely want to affirm something valuable about God and want to avoid certain deeply problematic extremes. My hope is that with some careful definitions and distinctions we can find room for at least a partial rapprochement…

Please check out the rest at Alan’s blog.

“I am” Sam


“There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that the superficial ‘I’ is not our real self. It is our ‘individuality’ and our ‘empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes his own reactions and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we are dead. Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual, far from it. This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney.” — Thomas Merton

Horseman Sam Harris discusses the illusory nature of our personality amalgams-constructs as well and his take on what it means to transcend them through meditation. Check out the interview on his website: Meditation and the Nature of the Self.

Dwayne is particularly interested in this. He writes:

“An implication of inner discovery via meditation is simply this: Our present conscious experience is not exhaustively limited to our sense of individuality and personality traits. We confuse consciousness and the power of self-relationality for the contents of those things, thereby making an optical illusion of sorts and so we self-separate and believe that we actually are separate from the universe of which we are integrally a part. In my view this also separates us from the present reality of God’s constant presence, causing even further removal from reality. When we realize that we are more than our personality amalgams of thoughts, feelings, memories, and imagination, we are more able to tap into human perception that is always available. When we are trapped in thinking without awareness, we are not truly experiencing all the freedom and peace allowable to us at any given time. We often become little more than walking billboards for our families, ethnicities, nationalities, religious traditions, etc., rather than genuinely freely choosing beings experiencing the joy and freedom of being. Many different wisdom traditions come to this same truth.”

right_from_wrong_11_04There’s a genuine point of agreement between Merton and Harris regarding the illusory nature of the ‘self’ as a mental construct. But they’re quite different on what ‘self-transcendence’ means. As a materialist, Harris’ ‘transcendence’ is just the truth of the deepest possible illusion, another construct, like other constructs, whose truth is merely a more fundamental repetition of the same search for transcendence, for however deeply one perceives, materialism remains. Every self is merely a mental construct for Harris, no matter how appreciative it is of its present well-being within the truth of the connectedness of all things. All materialism can hope for is a transcendence of constructs that are partial and limited by a more inclusive construct which in the end is simply the sum of all the others. All that is transcended is the claim by more limited constructs to be the whole truth of the self or even the most important truth of its existence. Transcendence for Harris is the totalizing summation of a tautology, the transcendent truth of the material unity of all illusory constructs. This is materialism’s mysticism. In the end transcendence isn’t “Waking Up,” it’s just “Expanding the Dream.”

Self-transcendence for Merton is quite different. Merton agrees with Harris (or rather Harris agrees with Merton, for the illusory nature of the self was known to religious mystics long before neuroscience) on the illusory nature of the ‘self’ as the personality amalgam, but by this Merton means the existential futility of any understanding of ourselves within terms of the givens of the created order. So long as the ‘self’ seeks its truest identity in terms of any narrative (partial or all-inclusive) of the material order, frustration and failure reign, for everything in that order, including the order in its entirety—i.e., ‘that’ it is at all—seeks the same explanation every conscious subject within it seeks, and you can’t derive a personal transcendence from that which, like you, seeks its own transcendence; the whole can’t tell any part or member within it ‘who’ or ‘why’ it is since the whole stands in need of explanation as much as any part of it. But this is precisely where Harris’ meditations deposit us, in a transcendence which is no transcendence at all. Merton’s point is that one only possesses one’s truest ‘self’ transcendently when one is possessed of/in/by an uncreated, personal, conscious benevolence which is present to/in the created order (present in our own seeking) but which is not that order nor any part of it.

(Pictures here and here.)

“The thrill is gone,” B.B. King

B.B. King 68197-19aI’ve been reflecting on my spiritual journey, particularly how the theological landscape of my perspectives has changed over the past twenty years or so since The Openness of God (1994) and other key publications (Boyd’s God of the Possible and Sanders’ The God Who Risks) came out launching open theism in earnest.

I came to faith in an Evangelical Pentecostal tradition, the same tradition I was trained in and in which I continue to serve as a minister. As a Pentecostal, I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the manifest presence of the Spirit, whether the more traditionally Pentecostal aspects associated with revival meetings or their famed missionary zeal (having spent more than twenty years as a missionary in the Middle East).

Eventually I came to appreciate that underneath this Pentecostal fervor was a more fundamental ‘realist’ spirituality. God—not some mediating force or agency—is known and experienced by us. So when I happened upon John Sanders’ The God Who Risks (my first introduction to open theism), I immediately connected to the vision John was sharing. It expressed things I had pondered and presupposed for years.

Since then open theism has been front and center. I don’t think a day has gone by the last twenty years that I haven’t committed time to read and reflect on the claim (and implications) that the future is open and that’s how God knows it. Little else has occupied my intellectual interests since stumbling into The God Who Risks. It’s pretty much been a non-stop obsession (as my wife calls it) for debate and conversation on and off-line. So it was a particular joy to have had a share in seeing pastors and lay-leaders from across the country gather in St. Paul for OPEN 2013.

Back in the day the only online resource for such conversation was a CoolBoard discussion site Greg Boyd started. That venue connected people and facilitated the dissemination of open theism at a popular level. It later transformed into the Open Theism Board which, though a ghost town of a site today, was for several years the Grand Central Station of conversation among open theists. Lots of very interesting history there. Other sites eventually emerged, and today there are nearly two dozen open theist blogs and online resource sites as well as several Facebook pages dedicated to discussing open theism.

I’m no sociologist. I don’t have any hard science to back this up, and I might be 180 degrees off the mark, but I’d like to share a couple of conclusions I seem to be coming to regarding open theism as a movement. I’d like to be wrong. It’s just that my own hopes and expectations have changed and I have peculiar doubts about the coherence of open theism’s identity and future.

Early on I believed open theism was poised to be a major renewal movement within the Church. Maybe we just created that impression in our own minds, and maybe that was unfair. I’m not sure. But at one point the atmosphere among open theists was pretty excited by the conviction that God was raising open theism up to be a major voice and renewal movement for the Church worldwide. That’s why I was putting time into promoting and networking it, as were others. I still think something T. C. Moore said a few years ago is spot on, namely, that the future of open theism is in church planting. Take the ACTS 29 Network for example. What a great dissemination strategy for Reformed theology. What started as a conversation among academians and philosophers (which is where and how open theism was conceived and birthed) could come to define the theological vision of pastors, church planters and missionaries far and wide. That was why I suggested to Greg Boyd that it was time for an open theism national conference and that ReKnew ought to sponsor it. OPEN 2013 was the result.

However, stress fractures started to show up before OPEN 2013, and they grew into more significant differences that led to what can only be called a ‘split’ (even if those who ‘left’ didn’t number that many). Before OPEN 2013 the heat started to rise on Facebook conversations among open theists regarding positions that some considered to be crucial and non-negotiable but which other open theists simply didn’t buy. The primary dividing issue was, of course, biblical inerrancy (and to a lesser degree evolution). I remember one woman at OPEN 2013 standing up during a Q&A time and asking about evolution. You could see the surprise on her face when she (a committed open theist) realized that the conference speakers and other key facilitators were all proponents of evolution. But this didn’t compare to the disagreements over inerrancy. Eventually there was an understood split (I don’t know what else to call it) that resulted in the formation of new Facebook pages dedicated to “pure” (i.e., inerrant) open theism. One example of the fragmentation of the group into sub-groups is the Facebook group (gotta love the name): “Trinitarian Divinely Open Moral Government Theism.”

Later more in-house debate erupted when (after OPEN 2013) we began to take theological inventory so to speak and ask ourselves what the “essentials” of open theism really are. It didn’t go well. Those few months were filled with misunderstanding and name-calling. Whatever angst remains today derives, I suspect, from those few months of heated disagreement. I’ve narrated my experience of it in the following posts (all in March 2014):

Superman sees the shrink
Diagnosing our disagreements
Exhausted open theists tend to their wounded
Tying up loose ends—Part 1
Tying up loose ends—Part 2
God going it alone

I continue to wonder who we as open theists really are ‘as a movement’ if indeed we’re a ‘movement’ at all. Part of the problem is knowing where to go to answer that question. Who’s qualified to say? In view of my own frustrations, then, I thought I’d share some thoughts I’ve been pondering.

First, I’d say open theism’s academic future is bright. I don’t think there’s any way to dislodge open theism as a respectable philosophical (and biblically-informed) position. Here I mean the simple philosophical proposition of the combined truth of theism, presentism and divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents. But beyond this simple proposition there is no agreed upon ‘open theology’. It’s all contested. We disagree over the Trinity, creation, atonement, Christology, providence, theodicy, epistemology, hermeneutics, violence, liberation theology, gender issues, the morality of sexual orientation, how the Cross functions normatively to determine theology, the nature of divine aseity and divine suffering, and on and on. In terms of its most reduced philosophical commitments, open theism has a bright future. It’ll always enjoy a spot at the academic table.

security-guards-protect-funeralsBut (secondly) in terms of its having enough shared belief-content to fuel a movement, open theism is, I think, already dead (if indeed it was ever intended to become a “movement” at all). Perhaps in the end this post is just me catching up to a truth I never quite got; i.e., that open theism at best was only ever a conversation starter, not the vision of a sustained worldview. To be sure, open theism continues to renew individuals and make faith more accessible to many. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue to do so. I’m not disputing that. But theological disagreements outside the bare minimum (generic theism + presentism + divine epistemic openness) prevent it from occupying enough of a shared landscape to constitute a “movement.” If I’m unclear about what sort of “movement” I have in mind, forgive me. It’s become a bit unclear to me as well.

I wonder if part of the reason for open theism’s early success is that it attracted people disappointed with the prevailing options (Calvinism and traditional Arminianism). By far the greatest enemy was theological determinism. A lot of energy was expended engaging that debate. As is known, having a common enemy can unite people who otherwise don’t have a lot in common. I don’t mean to suggest that open theism didn’t also from the start advocate a positive agenda. It certainly did. But I don’t think anyone would doubt that confronting determinism exercised a good deal of influence in uniting open theists.

When the main apologetic work was done and the dust of debate settled, we open theists were able to explore just who it is we were and what we wanted to become as a movement, and it was then that the stress fractures started to show. As I said earlier this year, open theism had become largely leaderless/fatherless. None of the original authors of The Openness of God has, since Pinnock’s passing, taken anything like a leadership or pastoral role over the shape and development of the “movement.” Arguably Nazarene scholar Tom Oord has done more over the years to promote open theism than anyone in spite the fact that whether his quasi-Process worldview was compatible with open theism was part of our post-OPEN 2013 disagreements; and I have huge respect for what Tom has done to promote open theism. Greg Boyd admittedly is hugely active as well. My point is that the simple thesis of an ‘open future’ isn’t a big enough idea to empower a movement. You have to have more at the center. But this is where our disagreements took over. Open theism, in its core thesis, hasn’t proved to be a community-creating theological worldview, at least not enough for what some of us had in mind.

I may be way off on this analysis. Like I said, I’m no sociologist. Nobody has any hard science to explore these dynamics. I just wanted to share my limited perspective and say, as I reflect upon my own journey, that I’m thankful I picked up Sanders’ book twenty years ago, thankful for the personal transformation it inspired, and grateful to have grown in friendships. Does open theism have a future? Well, it definitely has an academic future as a proposition (on campuses, in journals, at conferences), and that’s wonderful. But socially-ecclesially, as a cohesive “movement” open theism may have already passed into the footnotes.

Sing it B.B.