Has Tom Oord solved the problem of evil?—Part 2

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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.

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, and that overall Oord’s view is fatal to Christian faith as regards Christianity’s claims regarding any ‘final’ closure and consummation to God’s creative work.

But first, 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 arising out of the previous) constitutes a single, indivisible world-process. What constitutes the collapse of the series into 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 (joint God-World creative synthesis as an unending process of becoming), 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 uniform laws that define and guide that process.

turtlesWe can divide this eternal process of becoming by assigning different names (world-a, world-b, world-c) to divisions we have reason to impose upon the process, 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. 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, i.e., 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 be the case that this change, however universal and inclusive, 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 reconfigurations within a single process of becoming. The entirety of a world’s process of becoming would swell in scope and consequence as a kind of universal, epochal-social 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.

God only creates (or rather co-creates) a new world via Process through antecedent data provided by previous occasions and in cooperation with the creative dispositions of existing entities. 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 so-called distinct worlds as well as the becoming that defines each world’s emergence “out of” its previous world as Oord maintains. 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 from world to world? The cosmology becomes dicey and extremely troublesome at this point and is, I confess, difficult to describe as a “Christian” view of creation and consummation at all. Will we endure forever subjectively in relationship to God as this world, redeemed and consummated? Does Oord hold to a doctrine of objective immortality – the belief that we do not permanently endure subjectively-personally but only persist as objectified in the divine mind?

Why is this 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 more than troubling. I’d be willing to give up a lot to purchase a final solution to the problem of evil, but at such a cost?

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 positing this infinite multiplicity of worlds. But 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 and loved are we supposed to feel? What is it about an infinite series of worlds that makes Oord feel that God’s love for us secures our destiny if we believe we will be eventually recycled in the production of a new world order to arise from the reconfiguration of our own? 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, is supposed to ground our confidence in our own enduring enjoyment of his love? This is nonsensical.

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Christianity has 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 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 – and we shall endure forever as embodied persons loving God and others.

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)

Classical theism

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On and offline I’ve been following discussions for and against classical theism. Some of these discussions proceed without having established precisely what counts as classical theism. Some make the wild claim that Dwayne and I are classical theists. So if it helps those interested in the question, I’d like to clarify. It’s not that difficult a vision of God to state.

Back a while ago I stated (hear and hear are examples) what seemed to me to be the sine qua non of “classical” theism, and engaging the questions surrounding this has only confirmed things as we’ve focused on understanding and appreciating the classical tradition as best we could. The fundamental conviction of classical theism is:

  • God is actus purus (“pure act,” by which is meant, among other things, that there is no conceivable unrealized potential in God).

Certain things follow from this, most importantly:

  • God is simple (that God is not composed of parts, spatial, temporal, or metaphysical, which any attempt at qualifying would need to be expressed with extreme caution, since no sane theist can suppose God to be assembled from more fundamental parts).

From these of course other traditional affirmations follow:

  • God is absolutely immutable (unchanging in every conceivable way, possessing no accidents).
  • God is impassible (which for the Orthodox, by whom I mean the tradition that produced the Creeds and Fathers, means firstly that God is never passive with respect to knowledge or emotion in relation to the world; i.e. he is never acted upon or determined by creation in any conceivable sense. Typically debates about divine passibility/impassibility proceed as if what is at stake is whether or not God has feelings or emotions at all, but the issue is bigger than that.)

More could be said (about omniscience, essential benevolence, etc.) but not much that a non-classical theist need disagree with. As one pushes beyond these to what is thought to be implied by them the opinions become diverse. But at classical theism’s defining center is the commitment to God as actus purus, admitting no accidents, no experience of temporal sequence whatsoever, and never in any conceivable way being acted upon or determined by creation.

To any working intelligence, Dwayne and I aren’t classical theists. We deny actus purus and its entailments as classically held.

Far on the other end of the theistic spectrum of beliefs is Process theism. If classical theism’s defining center is actus purus (pure act), Process theism can be reduced to the opposite metaphysical claim, namely, that God is processu operis (a “work in progress”). God is “temporal becoming” par excellence. He is the One whose existence and perfections are without remainder historicized, constituted in and as the ever-changing process of ongoing relations with creation, relations which are as consequential and self-constituting for God as they are for the world.

There are theists in both these camps who see these two options as jointly exhaustive of the theistic options. But the vision and burden of this site is to challenge the claim that our theological options are exhausted by these two visions and to suggest that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute God’s freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity, are absolutely to be maintained, but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se (if carefully stated), but then also to suggest that these traditional perfections needn’t per se threaten or undermine the sense in which open theists view God as knowing and engaging the temporal world.

It’s all Process, Baby, all the way down

180px-Whitehead_anHaving located the center of “classical” theism as the belief that God is actus purus, that is, the belief that there is no potentiality in God, now would be a fitting time to race to the other end of the spectrum and try to find the center of that theism most unlike the classical view. That opposing view is Process theism.

Process theology grew out of the Process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) whose views are explained in his Process and Reality (1929), though when you read it you might prefer “encrypted” to “explained.” Whitehead’s cosmology was further developed and expanded by Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Today there exists a good deal of diversity among Process theists, but it’s safe to say that in essentials they all agree. And while it is always risky to boil down something as sophisticated and intricate as Process metaphysics to a few key points, as we move forward our conversation will require us to have on hand the belief or beliefs that form the center around which other Process convictions revolve.

Process theology has been experiencing somewhat of a revival. There are many online summaries and several book surveys that are far more user-friendly than Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Bob Cornwall has a nice brief summary here. Check out all you can. And in the meantime, allow us to post a short summary of our own:

Points of Process —

  • The most fundamental thing about reality is that it is a process of becoming, a process the smallest constituents of which (called “actual occasions”) are events (or “drops”) of experience.
  • Every “actual occasion” is in some minimal sense free, creative and self-determining.
  • God’s role in the process of the world’s becoming is to define the optimal outcome for every actual occasion with an initial aim. This aim is that occasion’s highest value, its most beautiful version of itself possible in that particular moment.
  • God “lures” or “persuades” (never coercing or determining) every occasion toward this aim.
  • God, like all existing entities, is in a process of becoming. God takes into his experience all the process of the universe, defining the aims and perfection of all entities and assimilating the increasing diversity of the world’s becoming. Thus God’s actuality (his actual experience) is co-constituted with the world and is improved upon (i.e., made more ‘valuable’, for value grows with increasing diversity) as God harmonizes the world’s growing complexity.
  • The God-world relation is a necessary and essential one. The material universe (or some universe[s]) exists eternally in God.

duchampdescendingThere is much more to Process that we cannot here discuss. But perhaps we could boil this down with a famous comment of Whitehead’s that reveals what we think is as good a candidate for being the defining center of Process as actus purus is for classical theism. Whitehead commented, “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse; he is their chief exemplification.” In other words, God and world together constitute a single ontology between them, a single “order of content and explication.” No ontological distinction between divine and created being per se, no categorical transcendence of creation, no “analogical moment” for David Hart. There is instead only a singular ‘being’ possessed by both God and the world.

If “classical” theism’s center is actus purus, a view which holds God’s self-constituting perfections to be utterly free and independent of creation, a God in whom there is no unfulfilled potential and thus no “process” whatsoever to speak of, we can say Process theism makes the opposite claim — that God’s existence and perfections are thoroughly historicized, constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe, a relationship which is as consequential for God as it is for the world.

Consequences follow from such a view just as inevitably as from classical theism, chiefly regarding the triune nature of God (Process doesn’t require a trinity and struggles to account for its necessity where it is affirmed), Christology, and eschatology. But these points will require more attention as the discussion moves on..

(Pictures here and here.)