Praying the open view: providential contours

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In addition to embracing a pragmatic/practical approach to evaluating ‘adequacy claims’, open theists also construct their understanding of prayer upon three core theological convictions:

  • love with respect to purpose
  • freedom with respect to agency
  • risk with respect to outcomes

One can see almost immediately how these would inform why and how open theists pray. And since they have been defended at length by open theists elsewhere, I only briefly summarize them here so we have them in mind as we move on to consider their effects upon our understanding of petitionary prayer. In addition to these convictions, I’ve commented on three additional commitments I believe they imply.

(1) Love: The divine purpose for creation
All open theists share the conviction that “God is love” constrains both our understanding of God’s being and self-relatedness on the one hand of the nature of creation and God’s purposes on the other. Whatever else open theists might go on to conclude about the God-world relationship, it proceeds from the fundamental conviction that God is love and that God’s relationship to creation is defined, motivated, and directed by love. We are created to be and live as one in him, knowing and reflecting the triune love.

(2) Freedom: the necessary context for creaturely love
It is the metaphysics of our becoming loving persons which necessitates libertarian freedom. Very much has been said (philosophically and theologically) on the possibility of libertarian free will. Once God determines to purpose us for loving relations with God and others, endowing us with an appropriate capacity to determine ourselves is the metaphysical price-tag. We must freely become what we are purposed by God to be. Again, this is not the place to defend arguments already popular. I’m exploring only how these core convictions shape an open theist’s understanding and practice of petitionary prayer.

(3) Risk: The implications of freedom
If love requires freedom, what does freedom entail? It entails ‘risk’. And so the reality of ‘risk’ becomes the third in a trinity of convictions that inform open theism’s view on prayer. The existence of creaturely freedom has important consequences for the God-world relation — for the world because freedom constitutes the indeterminacy which open theists argue is incompatible with exhaustively definite foreknowledge, and for God because such freedom is also incompatible with it being the case that God can always guarantee that his will is fulfilled.

However, divine risk is a complex issue and is not understood and applied uniformly by open theists. All agree that there is genuine ‘risk’ in the sense that the fulfillment of divine purposes is sometime conditional upon the free agency of creatures. Certainly there are grave risks. But not all risks, arguably, can apply to God who by definition cannot take metaphysical risks. And open theists are not all in agreement on what counts as the sort of metaphysical risks God cannot take. What Dwayne and I understand by ‘divine risk-taking’ is simply the conditionality of the fulfillment of God’s purposes. That is, we may be at some risk, and the fulfillment of many of God’s purposes may be at risk. But God cannot be at risk. Differences among open theists on these points, however, do not (we think) affect our understanding of petitionary prayer as a means by which open theists freely partner with God in shaping themselves and the world as God desires.

The belief that divine providence is compatible with divine risk-taking even in the minimal sense just noted, however, does have serious consequences for our approach to prayer. There may be occasions when we pray as we ought and God responds to secure some end, and still the desired outcome may fail to actualize because of factors outside the determination of God and those praying. The shock which this claim alone has had upon objectors to open theism is well-documented, and yet there is no getting around it. On the open view, God does not get everything God wants or aims to achieve even when we pray and intercede as faithfully as we may and God acts in the interest of achieving some end, and yet this does not empty prayer as a meaningful and effective means by which God brings his will to pass. What possible factors outside our prayers and God’s response would combine to make this the case? The answer open theists have given is that there are more factors determining outcomes than just our praying and God’s favorably responding.

(4) Rules of engagement: the creational variables
What sort of conditions would obtain if the world is in fact the sort of place where God can act with a view to bringing about some desired state and that state fail to obtain? And does this not decimate any hope that prayer is efficacious? Boyd begins his answer by appealing to the multifaceted nature of the conditions or “creational variables” under which we live and pray. We might say these constitute “rules of engagement” sovereignly established by God to see the world through to its fulfilled end.

What interfaces between a predictably loving God and the complexities of an unpredictable and fallen world that might account for the occasional failure of God’s will? Boyd represents open theists in general when he suggests that we understand God’s sustaining presence within creation to be guided by conditions God freely set in place when he created, the integrity of which he honors in the bringing of creation to its fulfilled purpose. The entire project of creation is thus providentially governed in its becoming from beginning to end by overarching loving purposes and a corresponding free and risky context appropriate to their fulfillment. These creational variables are this context, including our natural capacities, the integrity of our freedom and its consequences, the capacities of the physical universe to behave freely, angelic wills which may be, and other factors we may have no understanding of. Several of these can be known by us, but there’s no reason to think we have an exhaustive understanding of all the relevant variables. However, one creational variable, open theists believe, is prayer. Prayer (or the lack of it) is one of the influencing factors which constitute the totality of relations that determine outcomes on any specific occasion, but it is not the only factor. This is at the heart of what makes faith and prayer both comforting and frustrating.

(5) Consequent ambiguity: letting go the need to know
Once we posit a universe of intersecting and sometimes competing divine, angelic, and human wills, together with genuine risk and warfare under a myriad of creational factors we cannot comprehend, we have an entirely different approach to the problem of an evil world and our place in it. We can know that for any given evil, God, being perfectly loving, always does all God can do to maximize good and minimize evil, but we also know that given the metaphysics of freedom and risk, how much good God is able to actualize on any given occasion is conditioned by these creational factors. Thus, we can never know enough about the complexities of creation and the contributing factors that determine specific outcomes to judge precisely which variables played which determining roles. Consequently the world presents us with a good deal of ambiguity, not with respect to the divine character or intention (which open theists insist is loving and good), but with respect to the intersecting creational variables.

Open theists generally admit that God can and does on occasion guarantee outcomes. They also generally admit that God can and does on occasion make compatibilistic use of evil. Consequently, given our ignorance of the complexities and the hidden variables, we are consigned to ambiguity regarding specifics. We can never know whether some specific evil was opposed by God as such, given all the variables that are part of any event in the world, or whether God was specifically permitting or making use of agents in their evil intentions in a larger attempt to minimize evil and maximize good in the world. We must wean ourselves of the need to know and therefore of our tendency to judge.

(6) Consequent assurances: learning to rest
This ambiguity just considered relates to creation, however, and not to God’s character or his loving purposes. We can never comprehend the totality of divine and creational influences under the rules of engagement established by God, but we may, Boyd encourages, enjoy profound assurances. First, we may know that God always does all God can do given his purposes and the context in which God finds himself, to maximize good and minimize evil in the world. Here “all God can do” does not equal something like “flex all the muscle God has” or “exercise all the power God possesses.” It rather means God always exhausts all the available avenues for achieving his highest glory and the good and perfection of creation within the constraints he freely put in place to achieve the desired relationship with creation. Within this context, God does all he can to maximize good and minimize evil. That is his nature.

A second assurance is that however grave may be our suffering, however at a loss for an adequate explanation of the place our prayers have in shaping things, we rest in the confidence that God is resourceful enough to redeem our circumstances when we cooperate with him (Rm. 8.28-29). There is no horror so great that God cannot redeem good and beauty from it. God is always redemptively engaged in every occasion seeking to bring about the highest good and most loving state of affairs.

A third assurance we have in a risk-filled world is in the entrusting of our souls to God. With respect to our final state and our eternal enjoyment of God’s presence, we have an unconditional divine guarantee that those who trust God cannot possibly be disappointed whatever else may occur in this life.

With these convictions in mind, we’ll try to move on to what open theists have said about the what, why and how of petitionary prayer.

(Picture here.)

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.