A quick thank you to friends and family who have supported Anita and me in our recent move from Minnesota to California. I’m settling into a new job which promises to be a wonderful experience as general manager for an Arabic language non-prof dedicated to translating and publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. More on that latter perhaps.
Moving to California hasn’t left me time for blogging, but I’d like to get back in the saddle. To begin with I’m here offering Part 2 of my reflections on Tom Oord (see Part 1). I also have simmering some thoughts on a couple of Greg Boyd’s latest posts (Cross Shaped Transcendence and The Cross and the Trinity) that address topics of special interest to me.
For now, let’s return to Tom Oord’s work on God’s essential kenosis. I see John Sanders has posted a second reply to Oord in their exchange over whether the way Oord unpacks this essential kenosis solves the problems Oord claims it does or whether it creates other insurmountable problems. (See John’s first post here and Oord’s reply here).
I’d like to approach an aspect of Oord’s views that perhaps isn’t discussed much. Those unfamiliar with Process theology might find this post a bit tedious. I apologize. It’s important, however, because it brings us round to the fundamental importance of the question of the necessity vs the contingency of God’s creating which is bound up in the traditional doctrine of creation from nothing (the rejection of which is a cornerstone of Oord’s project). I shared these thoughts in email conversations and other online venues, but I’m dusting them off here in light of Sanders and Oord’s conversations.
Those familiar with Tom Oord will know he qualifies the standard Process belief that God is essentially related to the world. Supposing there to be a single world as such presents problems which Oord wishes to avoid by holding that God eternally creates world after world after world, an infinite series of contingent creations, each of which is created out of the previous. God alone, Oord agrees, is that eternal, necessary self-sufficient reality unlike every individual world in the infinite series of worlds. It may be that some entities survive in several of these worlds, but only God inhabits them all.
What I’d wish to show here is that in the end there’s no real departure from or advantage over Process here because given Oord’s metaphysics, his infinite series of worlds reduces to a single world order in process and circles Oord round to the standard Process view he wishes to avoid on this point. Why think his worlds all collapse into a single world?
First, keep in mind Oord’s process (or quasi-process, whatever is more accurate) metaphysics on this point: God and the world, essentially related and in process, creatively bring about novel states in a mutual process of becoming. God supplies “initial aims” to created entities for their becoming, and the world creatively synthesizes past, objectified data in freely determining what it becomes next. Whatever the world (any world) becomes is always a creative achievement between God and the world, given antecedent data and divine subjective aims informing the present. Keep that in mind.
Second, then, consider Oord’s infinite series of worlds, each created out of the previous. Each world in the series is supposed to be sufficiently distinct from preceding worlds such that the entire series doesn’t constitute a single world or world order. But there’s nothing in Oord’s metaphysics to secure this distinction between worlds and stop it from collapsing into a single world order in process. Some time ago I suggested to Oord that if each world is made out of the previous world, as he claims, then given his metaphysics (i.e., the process doctrine of actual occasions being the concrescence of antecedent data that form new occasions, and so forth), his infinite series must constitute a single world order because each world is ontologically continuous with the previous world. There must be, I said, some abiding “material substrate” that is continuous throughout the series. Oord said this wasn’t the case. The example he gave was the distinction between the material which is my body today and the material which made up my body ten years ago. They’re not the same material. So there’s no material substrate throughout.
Quite right. So let me concede that there’s no “material” substrate throughout Oord’s infinite series and make my point in different terms. I grant that my body today isn’t the “same material” as my body ten years ago. But this example establishes my essential point that Oord’s infinite series of worlds (each made out of the previous) constitutes a single, indivisible world-process. What constitutes the collapse of the series in to a single world is simply the continuity of the worlds (and the transitions between them) defined and governed by Oord’s (Process) metaphysics.
How so? Given that governing metaphysics (no ex nihilo creation, no unilateral divine action, only joint God-World creative synthesis occurring as actual occasions), none of Oord’s worlds is any more distinct from its previous world than one actual occasion is from its antecedent actual occasions within a single world. The metaphysics…
…forbids the kind of distinction between his successive worlds that he needs in order for the series to advance his project beyond standard Process cosmologies at this point. Oord’s worlds are just consecutive, novel moments within a single process of becoming governed by unifrom laws that define and guide that process.
We can divide this eternal process of becoming by assigning different names (world-a, world-b, world-c) to each division, but there’s nothing new metaphysically speaking in this. We’re not naming a distinction between worlds that isn’t just convertible with the distinction between actual occasions within any one world. So Oord’s infinite multiplicity of worlds, each created out of the previous and all governed by the abiding laws of (quasi-)Process metaphysics, reduces to a single world, a single process of becoming that defines the series throughout.
Third, we could suppose that each of Oord’s distinct worlds in the series begins as a novel reconfiguration of all non-divine reality on a grand universal scale. But it would still the case that this change, as universal as it would be, follows the same Process laws of becoming (i.e., actual occasions as the concrescence of antecedent data creatively synthesized). Such grand reconfigurations would not be sufficiently distinct from previous stages/process of becoming. The entirety of a world’s process of becoming would swell in scope or consequence as a kind of universal, epochal event, but metaphysically speaking we still have a single, seamless continuum of process in which antecedent (past) data and divine subjective aims inform creative synthesis (present) and the concrescence of new occasions. “New” in Oord’s “new worlds” cannot mean anything essentially different than “new” understood on the level of a single new occasion within any one world. So we’re talking about a single world in the end.
Remember too that God only creates (co-creates) a new world via Process through antecedent data provided by previous occasions and in cooperation with the creative dispositions of existing entities. So whatever comes to be is the creative achievement of both God and whatever state of process God is in relation with. This holds for every moment within worlds as well as the becoming that defines each world’s emergence “out of” its previous world. So there’s no way any “new world” in Oord’s model is uniquely distinct from its previous world any more than one actual occasion is distinct from its own antecedent occasion in any single world of the series. There might be other arguments Oord can make that set his view apart from Process in this regard, but positing an infinite series of worlds doesn’t achieve it.
Lastly, the eschatological consequences are fatal. As I understand this cosmology, no discrete entity within any world survives permanently, or, at least, there’s no assurance that any individual member in a world will endure permanently into the future. That’s a significant consequence of Oord’s model that I think ought to be discussed much more, because it exacerbates the problem of evil.
If each world is created “out of” its previous world in a universal reorganization so radical as to constitute a “new world,” the relative question is ‘What does endure?’ The cosmology becomes dicey and extremely troublesome at this point and is, I confess, difficult to describe as a “Christian” view of creation at all. Will we endure forever subjectively in relationship to God as this world, redeemed and consummated? When Oord was asked this by a conversation partner some time ago, I didn’t get the feeling that Oord did not in fact hold to the Process doctrine of objective immortality – the belief that we do not permanently endure subjectively-personally but only persist objectified in the divine mind. Our permanent existence is thus our contribution to enriching the divine life. I’m unsure what Oord’s specific eschatology is on this crucial point, and I’d be happy to understand it better, but the problem is inherent in his project as one can see here.
Why is it a problem? Because it would apply to Christ and his Church and so the entirety of the New Testament’s eschatological vision. Oord has made it clear when pressed on the eschatological question that he could not affirm with any confidence that the risen Christ or any other created being from our present world shall endure permanently. This is troubling. I’d be willing to give up a lot to purchase a final solution to the problem of evil, but the cost here is too extravagant.
Tradition and orthodoxy aside, what are we getting in exchange for the price paid? The essential reason Oord develops this model is to ground our confidence that God will not cease loving us. It is one of Oord’s main complaints against God’s creating gratuitously “out of nothing” that God ends up being as free to stop loving us and begin hating us as he is free to create and not create. God’s love would be arbitrary, Oord maintains, were he to create gratuitously ex nihilo.
I’ll leave for another post the logical question of whether that last conclusion follows (it doesn’t) and simply ask whether Oord’s model on its own terms secures the confidence he seeks. It’s fair to ask: What happened to the infinite number of previous worlds in Oord’s series? They existed as expressions of God’s essential love too, just like ours does. Indeed, Oord argues we cannot consistently say “God is love” apart from this infinite multiplicity of worlds. Where are those worlds now?
The whole infinite series is recognized, Oord holds, so that we can know for certain that God loves us and will never cease to love us. But nothing of any of the infinite number of worlds that preceded our own has endured. Just how safe or loved, then, are we supposed to feel? What about an infinite series of worlds makes Oord feel that God’s love for us secures our destiny if we believe we may also be eventually recycled in the production of a new world? An infinite number of worlds created out of love by God and no particular from a single one of them endures into our present world, and yet the mere fact that God co-creates this infinite series out of love and will continue to co-create a world out of ours to succeed our own — this is supposed to ground our confidence in our own enduring enjoyment of his love? The math doesn’t work.
The Scriptures I think have a different answer to the worry about what grounds our confidence in the unchanging nature of God’s love. One thing: the Incarnation, God’s own irrevocable assumption of human nature, the union of divine and created being in the God-Man. Humanity is now forever united to God in the victory of God’s own incarnate life and resurrection. That tells us what God thinks of what he creates. The Incarnation assures us that God will love us as unfailingly as he loves himself. Positing an eternal infinite series of worlds nothing in any one of which we can be assured will endure forever cannot tell us that we shall never be separated from the love of God. Only God’s own incarnation can do that. Nothing shall ever separate us, St. Paul assures us, from the love of God “in Christ.” You have to finish the sentence. Once we have that, we don’t need an infinite multiplicity of worlds. We have God’s own infinite life personally present in the Incarnate One who embodies the permanence and so the assurance that God will never cease loving us.
I could close with St. Paul, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, or any of the Cappadocians, but let me end with open theist (irony of ironies) Clark Pinnock:
By his resurrection, Christ pre-actualized the consummation of the world. Its transformation is anticipated, and all things are sure to be made new. The Risen One is the vanguard and embodiment of the new order. Jesus prefigures what will be true for us also in the new creation. It is the seminal event, the seed from which the new reality grows.
The Lord’s human body was not discarded but shared in resurrection, pointing to the salvation of the whole person…The incarnation is an event within history pointing to the goal and moving humanity toward union with God. In Christ, the world has entered its final phase, and its redemption in that sense is clear. In Karl Rahner’s words, the incarnation and resurrection enacted “the irreversible beginning of the coming of God as the absolute future of the world.” As the first-fruits of the new humanity, Jesus says, “Because I live, you also will live” (JN 14:19). (Flame of Love)