“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.

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6 comments on ““The thrill is gone,” B.B. King

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Maybe, Tom, just maybe, open theism never took off as a movement because it really doesn’t have anything evangelistically and spiritually compelling to say. I can see why some have found it liberating over against the hard predestinarianism (read: fatalism) of some forms of Calvinism; but for the rest of us, it’s irrelevant. Open Theism appears to us to be merely a speculative (almost trivial) position. Let the philosophical theologians argue about it in their journals.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Thanks Al. I appreciate where the Orthodox are coming from on this. Here’s my take on it.

      For open theists, the same reasoning that motivated them to look for something beyond the strong determinism you agree is erroneous also motivates them to look for something beyond classical theism’s (strong) actus purus (i.e., God in whom there is no unrealized potentiality). It’s pretty much that simple. I don’t think open theists want to suggest they have something utterly and uniquely evangelistic to say, as if their evangelistic/spiritual appeal has to come from something unique to open theism. The core appeal will always be the love of God incarnate in Christ on our behalf and available in the Spirit’s transforming power. Open theists aren’t attempting to add to that. From my personal perspective at least, it’s just about finding as consistently coherent and compelling an understanding of that as possible.

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      • trueanglican says:

        I think we are throwing dirt on this movement much to early. What we need are people who are willing to take the message of “God with us” to the outside world . Remember everyone at some level is an open theist. When you pray, you are acknowledging wanting someone to respond. That’s our in. We have a god that really responds

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      • tgbelt says:

        Thanks Omar. Appreciate the comments. I’d be interested in knowing exactly what dirt it is I’m throwing. What specifically did I say that you think is inaccurate or untrue? I’m happy to correct anything, though I’m not sure 20 years doesn’t give us sufficient time for a true reading of open theism’s chance at being a renewal movement. But like I said, I hope I’m wrong.

        Other than that, I totally agree on taking ‘God with us’ to the world and that on important levels all Christians demonstrate an assumption that the future is open and that God responds. But I certainly hope all this remains true whether or not open theism is successful “as a movement.”

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  2. nelsonct says:

    I think what trueanglican meant is that it’s too early to declare the demise of open theism as a movement — like throwing dirt on a casket, not obfuscating.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Ah, good point. Thanks. I wasn’t thinking of grave dirt. In that case, I hope Omar is right and open theism still *(re?)emerges as a movement.

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