Wrong question…

January 13th, 2019
by Chris

A comment on a facebook thread got me thinking. The commentator said that she had been approached in the street by a total stranger, who asked “Are you a Christian?”. In her case, she instinctively answered “no” before starting to dwell on how many times she’d been told she would be damned to hell for denying Jesus, which she commented was equivalent to not being a Christian – and that gave her an answer.

It’s a while since anyone has done that to me. I think the last time it happened, I said “It depends what you mean by ‘Christian'”. A discussion followed…

I think, though, that my reply would now have to be “Wrong question” and, if they followed up with the alternative “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?” to repeat “Wrong question”.

The right question is “Do you follow Jesus?”, to which my answer is “Yes”, or more accurately “Yes, but not very well”. “Christian” generally carries the subtext of “are you an evangelical?” and so exactly the same as “have you accepted Jesus…?”, but it’s hugely problematic. (I’ve heard people say several times in response to the question “what were you before you became a Christian?” that they were Anglican, or Catholic, or Methodist…) Do I want to identify myself with a movement which wants to deny women and homosexuals (plus, plus) equal rights and inclusion? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which seems to make a habit of excusing pedophilia in its leaders? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which currently seems to give Donald Trump unquestioning support? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which believes that the only sensible issue on which to cast their vote is abortion, and that the entire recorded sayings of Jesus can be ignored in favour of that one issue? No. Do I wish to identify myself with a movement which considers care for the environment irrelevant because God is about to destroy everything anyhow? Absolutely not. Do I wish to identify myself with a movement which considers that most of humanity is both irretrievably depraved, no matter what they actually do, but is also destined for an eternity of conscious torment? Hell, no.

I’m not very happy with the movement which tends to self-identify as just “Christian” as it is at the moment. However, even when I was casting around for a faith community 50 years ago, which was before the first four of those became hot topics, I didn’t want to identify myself with the historical persecution of Jews (and any group of other Christians who had a slightly different conception of Jesus or God than did the mainstream), I didn’t want to identify myself with forced conversions and the dismissal of native peoples all over the world as not being worthy of consideration as “they were not Christians”, I didn’t want to identify myself with massacres, pogroms, witch burnings, the crusades (particularly the Fourth and Albigensian) and the attitude which would kill or main people over whether there should be another “i” in the word “homoousion”.

How about “accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and saviour?”. Well, all Jesus seems to have asked is that we follow him. That might, I suppose, mean accepting him as Lord – certainly, I’m happy to identify him as more “Lord” than anyone carrying that title (or a higher one, or indeed any title) these days. “Saviour” is a different matter. I have never thought that the biblical witness requires us to believe a particular account of Jesus’ significance, granted that (for instance) John and Paul are both confident that Jesus saved them, and extend that to humanity generally, though I could with some effort say that Jesus has saved me and may well save me again – I just wouldn’t mean by that what most Christians mean by it. It is sufficient for me that Jesus said “follow me” and that I attempt to do that. His disciples weren’t all that good at following him either, which gives me significant comfort!

And, of course, the formula is so identified with evangelical (meaning fundamentalist) Christianity that I would fight shy of it anyhow.

The trouble is, even though I hear the question as something like “are you a pedophile?” or, in England these days “are you a credulous fool?”, I cannot do what the writer of the facebook comment did and say “No”. With considerable reluctance, I have to accept that I am somewhere in the general mass of what has historically been called “Christianity”, even if that does not mean to me what someone asking me the question means by it. But then, I have to accept that I’m British, too, and that comes with a historical baggage which makes it an admission rather than a boast to a large proportion of the world population.

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There will be roombas in heaven…

January 9th, 2019
by Chris

On James McGrath’s “Religion Prof” podcast is an interview with Douglas Estes, which talks of the intersection of technology with Christian belief (my link is to the second part).

Estes is more conservative than McGrath, and definitely far more conservative than I am. He talks, when discussing Revelation, of interpreting scripture in many ways, including metaphorical and symbolic, but when it comes to resurrection and the “New Jerusalem” plumps for a literal answer. This leads to the conclusion that, as on this view we will have new material bodies and will be living in the New Jerusalem which is located on earth (albeit, one assumes, a remade earth), we will also have technology. Including smart phones and roombas…

I find that a ludicrous image. I grant that if you accept Estes’ presuppositions, it’s a logical consequence of this view of the resurrection, and it’s a fascinating play with concepts – but to me, it means that at least one of the ideas on which the logic is based is wrong, and I strongly suspect that taking the passage literally is the best candidate. It’s a kind of reductio ad absurdum – the absurdity of the conclusion means that the premises of the argument are false.

Even before hearing this podcast, I was quite confident that the scripture (Revelation 21:9–27) was a visionary experience, and thus will have involved a substantial usage of symbols from the mind of the person who experienced it. As is probably appropriate, given Prof. McGrath’s interest in the intersection of Christianity and science fiction, it is best regarded as a vision of utopia. Estes’ vision of utopia, were he to construct one today, would probably include smart phones and roombas. Personally, I can’t construct a vision of utopia in which I can have any real belief  – not only am I confident that, as technology advances, the concept will change radically, but I am also extremely sceptical that any embodiment which might occur would be in a body which is anything remotely like the one I currently occupy (or, probably more accurately, a body which I am). Indeed, I recoil at trying to constuct any vision of utopia – too often, if you push the conception far enough, our utopias turn out to be dystopias…

It is fairly probable that the visionary in question was Jewish, and will therefore have been working with Jewish conceptions of what is possible – and the Jewish mind of the time (unlike the Greek) regarded non-material entities as needing to be embodied (Walter Wink gives an extended argument for this in “Naming the Powers”). Any conception of post-mortem existence will thus have had to be in a physical form, and the writer will not have had available to him various forms of technology in which we can now envisage the essence of “that which is us” being preserved, such as those who expect in due course that we will upload ourselves into the cloud. A similar line of thinking leads to the Jewish insistence that the particular is important, indeed often more important than the general, resulting in the Talmudic statement “He who saves one person, saves the world”.

In my own rather simplistic philosophical stance, I am inclined to something much like the Jewish position – for me, there is “stuff” and there is “pattern”. We don’t have access, ultimately to the “stuff”, although at a higher level we can distinguish between (for instance) a chair made of metal and one made of wood – there is no chair there absent the metal or the wood, but neither material is essential to there being a chair. If there is, post-mortem, something which can legitimately be called “me”, it will need to be the “me-pattern” expressed in some kind of stuff. At the moment, the “me pattern” is a biological entity, whereas if one day I could be uploaded to the cloud, the “me pattern” would need to be expressed in patterns of electrons. Personally, I question whether that would capture enough pattern to be regarded properly as “me”, but I could be surprised.

The concept of a set of patterns of humans resident in some way in a distributed sense over a lot of computers is, of course, a concept which I in the 21st century can just about get my head round, but would be totally inconceivable to a first century Jew. And similarly, what (if anything) awaits me post mortem is very likely to be as inconceivable to me now as the cloud (or, for that matter, a roomba) was to John of Patmos. But the scriptural picture we have which is supposed to represent that is in 1st century concepts… update it at your peril!

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Tim Minchin thanks God…

January 6th, 2019
by Chris

There has been some discussion in a group I belong to on facebook about this video from Tim Minchin, including quite a bit of suggestion that Minchin was being arrogant and bullying.

Oh dear. Let me preface this by saying that I’d dearly like divine healing to work, and I do pray for it on occasion. But I don’t believe it does, at least not in the simplistic sense which Minchin’s Sam was clearly suggesting. Even trying the conventional “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief”.

I have seen a few apparent cures myself (all for relatively minor ailments), but *massively* more cases of no cure at all. Notably, perhaps, none for anyone in my family or who I care about deeply.

There are, of course, all the factors Minchin mentions which can skew reports of cures, but above and beyond that, in order to say “God caused this to happen” we would need to see something at least approaching correlation, and we don’t. The results of attempts by scientists to demonstrate a statistically significant correlation are, to say the least, disappointing.

At best, one might say that perhaps, just perhaps, God might work *with* some other factor or factors, and without that (or them), nothing will happen. That is probably not, so far as I can see, the level of belief of the person cured or of those praying – I’ve seen too many cases of rock-solid belief producing nothing, and a few of at best lukewarm belief apparently producing a cure to accept that – and I don’t like that explanation for practical purposes, because it tends to end up with blaming the victim. (I will mention that a reasonably positive outlook of the sufferer does seem to have some effect in recuperation rates and perhaps on illnesses with a track record of remission, to be fair).

There is, of course, the possibility that what is needed is one or more human beings with a healing talent (possibly in combination). Some of my friends, mostly in the past, have been entirely convinced that this occurs (and some of those haven’t believed that prayer is of any assistance, but still report some positive results – or, of course, pray to “the wrong God”). I can’t say I’m convinced by that either, but if there is to be an effect at all, and if God is remotely reliable, some combination of people seems the only possible route.

Otherwise, if cures *are* the result of divine intervention, God is totally capricious and arbitrary. This is not what I understand God to be, but it may be that that is what is effectively being said. Were that to be the case, I would have to re-examine Gnosticism, and probably conclude that the interventionary God was the demiurge and so a created usurper of God’s position.

Back to Mr. Minchin. Yes, he comes over as somewhat arrogant, I suspect because “Sam” is not one incident but many – but what of “Sam”? He expects Minchin to be convinced of the existence of God on the basis of one hearsay report, assuming, possibly (and if so with little regard to knowledge of him), that Minchin is too polite to suggest that he may be mistaken or worse. And extremely ill-informed and/or gullible.

I’ve had a number of “Sams” talk to me in similar terms, and have some difficulty not giving them a piece of my mind, and I actually believe in God (for some value of the term, not including a supernatural theist one). What I actually do is concentrate on the positive; it’s great that X has been cured, let’s thank God for that (not sarcastically, like Minchin, but genuinely). And move on.

Back in my atheist days, I’d probably have been a LOT ruder than Minchin… but that was before a mystical experience left me with a compassion overload and over 50 years to mellow a bit.

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Coming down the mountain

December 19th, 2018
by Chris

A conversation on facebook prompts me to recall a couple of TV programmes I’ve watched in the past (and I don’t remember enough details of either to provide a link, or even a title). Both involved someone from the UK exploring other forms of spirituality.

In the first, the presenter was in India, and found a holy man who was prepared to talk, and who claimed to have achieved enlightenment. The presenter was fairly impressed by some of this man’s statements, and asked if he could teach him more – and the holy man refused, saying that in order to teach, he would risk losing his lack of attachment to the world. In the second, the presenter was trying out the life of a Desert hermit in the tradition of the Desert saints of early Christianity. His guide and mentor for that had been living in a cave partway up a mountain for years, and expected to continue doing that. He said that his function was to pray for the world without interruption (a version, I suppose, of the “say one for me” statement which often accompanies me leaving for a church service when others in the house are staying at home). He wouldn’t normally have accepted anyone else to teach unless they were intending to be a long-term hermit themselves.

I could have gone in one of those directions around 40 years ago. I’d had my initial peak mystical experience, I’d sampled a stack of spiritual practices which promised to produce something like a repeat of that, and I’d developed my own praxis to the point where I could almost completely reliably drop into a non-dual consciousness with, in effect, a mere thought. OK, it wasn’t quite the mountain top of the original experience, but it was close enough for my purposes (and, in complete honesty, lacked the feeling that whatever it was that was “me” would be snuffed out, never to return, which is, to say the least, scary).

I did consider the possibility of joining some contemplative group and taking myself off to a mountain somewhere (and a close friend of mine at the time who had a similar consciousness did, as far as I know, eventually do that with a Zen monastery in Japan). I also considered the possibility of taking on students – there were certainly some people who were hanging on my every word at the time, and who regarded me as some kind of guru. That second path I rejected fairly easily; I did not feel that I had a praxis which I could guarantee would produce the same results as it did in me for others, so would be taking on students in bad faith, added to which the position of teacher was calling to my ego, which I felt was a bad thing. Shades there of the Indian holy man I mentioned… (In fact, I now look at those who teach contemplation and non-dual thinking, and in many cases think I detect people with a problem with ego – I’m glad I didn’t go that way, as I have quite enough problems with my ego without others puffing it up for me).

The first was, however, very attractive. If I devoted myself single mindedly to a contemplative practice, I could reasonably expect to be spending a lot more time “on the mountain top”, and if I lacked ties to the world outside, it would not matter if I died while in a state of ego-death. The trouble was, the initial experience had also given me an overdose of empathy and compassion, and withdrawing from the world seemed as if it would be cutting that off. I will grant that the amount of empathy I was feeling was positively painful, particularly as in most cases I was not in a position to alleviate the suffering I was feeling in others – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” was a fine sentiment, but the things I could not change were damaging that serenity badly, so again, like the Indian holy man, non-involvement was a possible way out.

The thing is, withdrawing from the world utterly failed to follow up on “The courage to change the things I can” – not that I was at the time yet significantly aware of the Serenity prayer, but its sentiments were definitely in my thinking and, above all, feeling. So I decided not to, and to go ahead and do the things which were pretty much expected of me, but with a somewhat different consciousness of my place in the world. T.S. Eliot wrote We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”, and I had, in a way, arrived at the place where I started.

OK, I didn’t go in quite the same direction as I might have done if uninformed by mystical experience. I went into Law on the basis that that way, I could work at something which would give me an adequate income but would at the same time help others, and I later went into local politics on the same basis.

One day, perhaps, I will look at devoting myself single-mindedly to going back to the top of the mountain and staying there. In the meantime, however, I have taken on, quite deliberately, a set of attachments (which would probably horrify the Buddhists among my readers) and am content to live with those.

And, just maybe, I’ve found “the wisdom to know the difference”.

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere – The Alpha and the Omega

December 9th, 2018
by Chris

This is technically the fourteenth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is at the point of writing the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over around four weeks. My first post deals with the first chapter/essay, which is by Philip Clayton, one of the editors of the book and includes my introduction of myself to the group; there are altogether twelve chapters which I have reflected on, plus one excursion prompted by some of the discussions I was having in the facebook group.

The other editor, Andrew M. Davis, provided the introduction and conclusion; hence, in part, “Alpha and Omega”. Alpha and Omega being all encompassing, I will start by saying that I really loved this book (as witness 14 blog posts!) and that it got me thinking in directions I haven’t previously considered very much. As Davis says, it is a journey, and one very much worth taking in my eyes, especially for those with an interest in mysticism, those who are drawn to panentheism and for process theologians and open theists.

Interest need not be limited to those categories, though – in discussing religion with very many atheists and agnostics over the course of the last 20 years, I have often heard them say something along the lines of “If I were going to believe in God, it would be something like the God that Chris talks about” – and that is the panentheist God-concept. So when Davis quotes Whitehead saying “The modern world has lost God and is seeking him”, indeed my best prescription for the kind of God-concept would be panentheism. He then goes on to talk of Nietzsche and the “death of God” which has founded much radical theology, and asks “Is there a way of returning to God after God, of (re) discovering a new God rising from the ashes of a dead one?”.

Well, insofar as what Nietzsche’s madman was talking about was the supernatural theist God-concept, yes, I think there is such a way, and so far as concepts go, panentheism (or possibly process if that can be fully separated from panentheism in practice) is that concept. However, if we are talking of the more radical sense of the death of God which founds, for example, the late Thomas J.J. Altizer and Peter Rollins’ work, I worry that the introduction promises something which the book does not deliver, namely a way in which to see panentheism through the eyes of radical theology or vice versa. There is no essay by a theologian from the radical tradition here, and I think that is a pity. That said, I don’t think either Altizer or Rollins connects with the panentheist god-concept at all (and I’ve been following Rollins work for some time). Those are theologians (if theologian is the right word) perched on the vertiginous brink of nihilism, for whom God is dead in all senses of the term. Perhaps the only radical theologian I can think of who could have perhaps usefully engaged with panentheism for this volume would have been John Caputo, whose concepts of “weakness of God” and “folly of God” would, I think, have found resonance.

I particularly like the stress in this volume on personal testimony, which is a thread running through all the essays; as Davis says “It is one thing to ask what these prominent contributors imagine of the divine in the 21st century, but quite another to ask how they have found their way”. Where that involves a description of their thinking process (as, for instance, Keith Ward) it is possible to criticise that, but no-one can criticise a personal testimony, only say “I didn’t relate to this”.

The introduction closes with a brief description of panentheism, and rightly, I think, stresses most the immanence and relational nature of God “And this relationship is often described in mutual ways: not only is God immanent in the becoming of the world, but the world is also immanent in the becoming of God – affecting God, sharing its own reality with that of the divine”.

What is not evident from either his introduction or conclusion is the fact that, according to his initial interview for the reading group, Davis is not himself a mystic or contemplative. It is, in my experience, rare to find a non-mystic theologian taking mysticism really seriously, and I commend him for that. I’m not unused to finding theologians completely dismissing mystical experience as a source of insight (including one who “didn’t believe in mysticism”, which I found incredible); it’s mostly for those that I reserve the comment “The whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the sayings of mystics”. I write that only slightly tongue-in cheek…

Having said that, the conclusion deals largely with the philosophical and (to a lesser extent) theological threads which he discerns in the essays, and not significantly with the experiential aspects. I might have liked to see a volume where threads of personal testimony were drawn together and shown to evidence a single root experience and then argue that the best explanation for the experience attested to was panentheism, as I am by original formation a scientist. However, as it turns out, the personal aspects of the essays do not lend themselves to that, but do lend themselves to extracting a set of theological and philosophical benefits of a panentheist conception of God. In point of fact, however, my confidence in my own sanity was much aided shortly after my first mystical experience by finding F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology” which does take that approach to a selected set of writings of historical mystics from multiple religions, and reaches the conclusion that panentheism is the best explanation, so to have done this would in a way merely have brought Happold’s work up to date. As Ian Marra pointed out in the discussion group, this starts to feel like apologetics for a panentheist view, and while I have absolutely no problem with this (and I’ve done a lot of arguing for it in the past), that is different from the thread of personal testimony.

I think in the early parts of the conclusion that Davis is effectively setting up a conception of God as an imaginative human construction (which Feuerbach, with whom he opens, would probably have agreed with). Via Howard van Till (inter alia) he presents some conceptions of transcendence as an experiential reality, but then goes on to the “Masters of Suspicion”, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud). I might have liked here to find a Philip Clayton style rider that God is “not less than” an imaginative human construction, given that all the writers of the essays seem to consider God to be an experiential reality about whom we make our imaginative human constructions.

To me, the Masters of Suspicion mistake function for reality (or telos for ontos); they point to the various uses to which the god-concept of supernatural theism has been put  and say that those uses are all that there is there. This is a little like pointing out that they have noticed me using my screwdriver as a hammer, as a paperweight and as a measuring stick and saying that that is all there is to the screwdriver (and that there are better hammers, paperweights and measuring sticks); not only is there potentially (as in the case of the screwdriver actually) another function or functions unexplored, but this does not really adequately describe the screwdriver. I experience the screwdriver quite independently of its function; just so I experience something which I most conveniently call “God”, and I experience that as first and foremost something radically immanent, unitive and all-inclusive. I may well then use my conception of that experience in just the ways that Marx et. al. wrote of, but that does not explain the experience. Atheists are quite keen on quoting Galileo’s famous “Eppur si  muove” (nevertheless it moves), and my ultimate response to them is nearly the same quotation – nevertheless I experience it.

However, of course, the radically immanent God I experience is not the supernatural theist god entirely separate from creation but occasionally intervening in it; as Davis comments, this notion of God is effectively dead (and we have killed him, as Nietzsche’s madman said).

David then proceeds to take us on a journey through anatheism, quoting T.S. Elliot’s “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (which is so good a line that I cannot resist repeating it) to a restatement of panentheism at greater length, bringing in quotations from many other theologians and philosophers, with a nod to Eastern traditions. He quotes Marcus Borg (who is the only theologian of recent times who I have not, so far, found any reason to want to raise quibbles about), saying “[Panentheism] does genuinely resolve much of the intellectual difficulty posed by supernatural theism. For the most part, modern skepticism and atheism are a rejection of supernatural theism, but if God is not thought of as a supernatural being separate from the univerrse, the persuasive force of much of modern atheism vanishes. The resolution of this intellectual difficulty about God is no small matter, for it means that the ‘God question’ becomes and open rather than a closed one”. Just so.

His answer to “what is the lure of panentheism”, however, ends up identifying seven areas which have resulted in a “panentheistic turn”, and I am disappointed that this does not include (perhaps as a central circle overlapping all of the surrounding circles in his graphic) the directly experiential. After all, I got to panentheism myself without having any theological of philosophical argument, just experience and knowledge of the experience of others; the theology came later. Perhaps, though, this forms an element in the “Religiously more viable” circle? If so, perhaps that could have been more explicit. Inasmuch as I see a surge in spirituality (as opposed to religion) going on at the moment, I do find that a panentheistic god-concept is far more attractive to the “spiritual but not religious” than is any other (such as, for instance, supernatural theism or “imaginative construction”). Maybe this group could have been targetted more directly? On the other hand, I suspect that his group are probably not going to be buying many theology books…

I have, therefore, mixed feelings about the conclusion. On the one hand, it is an integral part of a book I will unhesitatingly recommend to a lot of people (the book needed a conclusion), and I enjoyed reading it and wrestling with the accounts in it hugely. On the other, it just slightly missed a mark which I would very much have liked it to hit.

 

 

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (XI)

November 28th, 2018
by Chris

This is the eleventh in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next week or so. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The eleventh essay is by Richard Rohr, who probably needs no introduction, but is a Franciscan friar who writes, talks and teaches prolifically about spirituality (and particularly mystical spirituality), and founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation. He has co-authored with Mike Morrell (one of the facilitators of the group) the book “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” which I will admit to not having yet read. I have, however, listened to Fr. Rohr talking about it.

He opens by making a case for why Christians tend to decry pantheism (which panentheism is often mistaken for), finding the problem in the insistence on an absolute divide between God and man, between transcendence (God) and immanence (presence in the world, and not God). So far, so good – but he then goes straight to asserting that early Christians found God in “two other manifestations of the Godhead”, namely the Christ and the Spirit, and we’re into Trinity. Actually, early Christians found God in more than three manifestations, particularly including Logos and Wisdom, but that slips by…

Panentheism does (as I alluded to in my response to Philip Clayton’s essay, the first of these reflections) make it necessary to re-evaluate the historical doctrines of the Church, and this is more or less easy depending on which doctrine you’re talking of. Having been wrestling with doctrines and whether I can legitimately assent to them as a panentheist for some years, I can say that Trinity is one of the most difficult. With panentheism comes the overwhelming conviction of unity, but of unity as seen in limitless multiplicity, and so trinity offends by being more than one, and by being absurdly limited compared with an infinity of manifestation. However, Fr. Rohr proceeds to try to make a case for Trinity as flowing out of a panentheistic (or perhaps pantheist) consciousness alongside his otherwise excellent trip through the experiences of the more mystically inclined Christians of the past.

Now, panentheism does solve the gap between a transcendent God and earthly creation by insisting on the radical immanence as well as the transcendence of God, and Fr. Rohr spends some time criticising (rightly, in my eyes) the effects of the historical insistence on God as wholly other, and commending the long chain of mystics who saw God as immanent, quoting for instance Catherine of Genoa as saying “My deepest me is God” and the Eastern Orthodox belief (which I think may stem from the fact that mystics have always been far more central in Orthodoxy) in theosis. Do we get to Trinity, as Fr. Rohr suggests, via Jesus’ seeing God in a third person perspective “God as him”, a second person perspective “God as Abba” and a first person perspective “God as me”? Well, no, and not just because this falls smartly into one of “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies”. You don’t arrive at Trinity by looking at the relationship between two individuals (or a part and the whole) in three ways.

Do you, however, arrive at Trinity by thinking of God in terms of action or activity rather than something more static, as the essentially static “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” might indicate? Can you, indeed, get there via mystics thinking in terms not so much of identity with God, but of “interbeing between God and the soul”? This is, of course, the basis of the concept of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, which is a favorite of recent writers on Trinity, but one which Fr. Rohr only touches on briefly here (but in much more detail in “The Divine Dance”). Again, if you start with two, I don’t think you get there. Other writers in this book have talked of the love between two individuals inevitably producing a third entity – but short of actually conceiving a child, I cannot see this as a “third person”, even if you regard, for instance “Chris and Nel” as being a person distinct from myself, my wife or the mere addition of the two. Again, the general concept of mutual indwelling is very amenable to a panentheist – but has nothing in particular to do with threeness. In her talk (although not in her essay) Ilia Delio remarks that three is the lowest number which avoids binary dualism – if you like, the gateway to multiplicity, and that is, I think, about as close as any of the writers get to an argument for a threefold interpretative lens – but that is still not “one essence, three persons”.

And yet, in his penultimate section, headed “The Ultimate Template for All Orthodoxy”, Fr. Rohr says “…the ultimate Christian source and model for panentheism is the central doctrine of the Trinity itself”. I don’t think he has remotely succeded in showing that. On the other hand, he also says “Divine union is not uniformity but precisely diversity loved and overcome! Only the contemplative, non-dual mind can process this, not the rational dualistic mind”. With that, I can agree wholeheartedly.

Fr. Rohr is plainly a contemplative and a mystic, and as such I am confident the most natural god-concept for him will always be panentheism, and he makes a decent case for this. However, he is also a Catholic priest, and more even than people in the other confessional denominations will have the catechism, and thus a fairly full description of Trinity, ingrained in his mind as a primary necessity for Christian belief. He doesn’t do a bad job of reconciling that with panentheism, and he plainly takes great intellectual joy in the concept. However, there is no way in my mind that he has demonstrated that it is, for the panentheist, more than one among many interpretative lenses which can be employed.

 

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (X)

November 25th, 2018
by Chris

This is the tenth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The tenth essay is by Marjorie Suhocki, who is a process theologian. What most struck me about her chapter was her personal story. She falls about halfway between me and my late mother, and her story of being expected to go out to work rather than pursue an academic career mirrors my mother’s – she had a place to read Music at Durham University (where I eventually got my BSc), but had to go to work to support the family when her father fell ill; like Suhocki, she returned to study later in life, although whereas Suhocki managed this in her 30’s (with three young children and an alcoholic husband, no mean feat), my mother waited until her 60s, and was content with a BA from the Open University. Suhocki’s achievement in doing the coursework aspects of a PhD in one year particularly belies her early thought that “I don’t have enough brains”. I am filled with admiration, and left with the feeling that possibly I don’t have enough brains to understand process adequately, whereas she clearly does…

I love her statement that “Theology is provisional; God is not” and her later quote of an article “On the other hand, this may not be the case at all” which she adds as a silent rider to all her work. Those very much sum up my own attitude to theology, and I will not doubt borrow them in the future. I’m also with her in rejection of two out of the three “omnis”, namely omnipotence and omniscience. She and I both cannot abandon omnipresence, which she talks of experiencing as do I; I like the fact that she differentiates this from the idea of a King’s rule pervading his kingdom, which is absolutely not the way the average mystic experiences it.

Regarding process, let me just quote her “I do not know if process theology has it right. Its intricate metaphysical system, in its attempt to describe the world, may or may not concur with contemporary scientific understandings of the world… What matters for me us that its relational analysis of the world is consistent with the way the world is in a metaphorical way. Its metaphysics provide not a road map, but a metaphor for the fundamental nature of reality. And that fundamental naure is relational, through and through.”. Equally, I do not know if process has it right; those who are following my set of responses will already know that I have particular difficulty getting my brain round proces metaphysics. However, once they leave Whitehead behind, I tend to find process theologians coming up with statements which I can readily agree – it works as a metaphor, in other words.

It is just as well. Her earlier statement “Whitehead’s conception of God as a singular actual entity with a reversed polar structure necessitated that the world be taken into God at all moments of its multitudinous entities’ completions…” goes straight over my head. Maybe, however, a less concentrated, more expansive account might break through my wall of incomprehension? I hope so – I have her “God, Church, World” on order now.

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (the God of Entropy)

November 22nd, 2018
by Chris

I’ve been reading and blogging about “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

This is not part of the chapter-by chapter reactions, however. It’s the result of one of those things – coincidence, synchronicity, divine providence – I don’t know – whereby I will be talking about a subject in one place on the internet, and in an unconnected place, I see something which puts things in a new light. In this case, in a post in the Partially Examined Life facebook group, John Shannon posted a link to an article in “Wired” about the work of Karl Friston. The article is headlined as being about the “key to real AI”. In the comments following that, Wilson Alexander posted a link to a paper in “Physics of Life” about free energy and the Schroedinger Equation. (The first of those is very readable and I strongly suggest that you go and read it; the second is really very technical… but John Shannon posted a set of very brief and excellent outlines of many of the technical bits, which he’s kindly let me steal).

So, what do those have to do with discussions about panentheism? Well, after I posted some of my earlier reactions to some of the chapters, I got into discussions with a few people (notably Paul Gideon Dann and Bryce Haymond) in the book group about idealism and panspychism. Keith Ward is an idealist; Rupert Sheldrake is a panpsychist. Several of the authors are process theologians, and process certainly seems to me at least to tend in the direction of panpsychism.

I’m definitely not an idealist; I’d definitely a methodological naturalist (in that I expect to find naturalistic explanations for things, i.e. explanations which are rational and scientifically testable), and I tend to lean towards thinking that if there is one most fundamental “stuff” of the universe, it’s material (which would make me a materialist), and that phenomena such as mind and consciousness can probably eventually be reduced to being emergent properties or epiphenomena of matter. That is very much the direction of Karl Friston’s thinking, which leans heavily on the Free Energy Principle.

So what is that all about? Friston considers that the hallmark of life is that it involves prediction of what is going to happen, and that it acts to reduce “the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs”, i.e. to reduce free energy. The main other key concept referred to in the article is that of the Markov Blanket, which Christopher Frith describes (as quoted in the article) as “a cognitive version of a cell membrane, shielding states inside the blanket from states outside.” Friston’s thinking is then described as follows:- “Each of us has a Markov blanket that keeps us apart from what is not us. And within us are blankets separating organs, which contain blankets separating cells, which contain blankets separating their organelles. The blankets define how biological things exist over time and behave distinctly from one another.”

Again, “When the brain makes a prediction that isn’t immediately borne out by what the senses relay back, Friston believes, it can minimize free energy in one of two ways: It can revise its prediction—absorb the surprise, concede the error, update its model of the world—or it can act to make the prediction true. “ In other words, there must be a feedback loop (or, more likely, several) which operate to minimise the difference between prediction and actuality by acting or by revising the prediction (and as an aside, I think this will link with the work of Douglas Hofstadter).

Moving on to the second article, John Shannon’s precis version is here in red, parts of the original which he quotes are in brown, bits I’ve added are in black, to aid those who find the original article hard going:-
1. Survival by minimizing energy expenditures through good guessing.
2. Wiggle room for mistakes is mitigated by accuracy in forming a good idea of what’s “out there”
3. “All biological systems exhibit a specific form of self-organisation, which has been sculpted by natural selection to allow them to actively maintain their integrity…” – Survival bubbles, cells
4. “…All other self-organising systems, from snowflakes to solar systems, follow an inevitable and irreversible path to disorder.”  – No internal world-in-itself. No emulation of importance if you will. No “being-for-itself” as Sartre would put it. And no feedback loops.
5. Attracting states = “…extended phenotype of the organism—its morphology, physiology, behavioural patterns, cultural patterns, and designer environments…” – Creature habits, probably including rest!
6. “The implications of this are profound. It means that all biotic agents move, systematically, towards attracting states […] -This means living systems are effectively self-evidencing—they move to maximise the evidence of their existence…” – Retreat to habits of regularity and regulation, as if seeking comfort in its niche. I picture something snapping back into some kind of neutral ground in order to save energy  – perhaps including the consideration that thought consumes energy.
7. “…all biological systems maintain their integrity by actively reducing the disorder or dispersion (i.e., entropy) of their sensory and physiological states by minimising their variational free energy…” -Don’t work hard, work smart… though a thermostat might be thought to do that
8. “Thus, an organism’s distal imperative of survival and maintaining functional states within physiological bounds (i.e., homeostasis and allostasis) translates into a proximal avoidance of surprise…” -Intelligence (I might argue that intelligence as we understand it might need another feedback loop, but possibly no more than that).
9. “…this propensity to minimise surprise is the result of natural selection (that itself can be seen as a free energy minimising process; see below)—self-organising systems that are able to avoid entropic, internal phase-transitions have been selected over those that could not…” – Natural selection breeds in this necessary perpetuating propensity
10. “…one needs to differentiate between the system and its environment—those states that constitute or are intrinsic to the system and those that are not. To do this, we have to introduce a third set of states that separates internal from external states. This is known as a Markov blanket. Markov blankets establish a conditional independence between internal and external states that renders the inside open to the outside, but only in a conditional sense…” – Membranes as world-makers, emulators… They also act as curbs on the more extreme conceptions of relationality found in Process Thought.
11. “The Markov blanket can be further divided into ‘sensory’ and ‘active’ states that are distinguished in the following way: internal states cannot influence sensory states, while external states cannot influence active states. With these conditional independencies in place, we now have a well-defined (statistical) separation between the internal and external states of any system. A Markov blanket can be thought of as the surface of a cell, the states of our sensory epithelia, or carefully chosen nodes of the World Wide Web surrounding a particular province.” -Division of labor and also boundaries between levels in emergence.
12. “…free energy is a function of probabilistic beliefs, encoded by internal states about external states (i.e., expectations about the probable causes of sensory input).” – The need of communication
13. “then, how do Markov blankets relate to the FEP (free energy principle)? The FEP tells us how the quantities that define Markov blankets change as the system moves towards its variational free energy minimum (following Hamilton’s principle of least action) … In other words, an organism does not just encode a model of the world, it *is* a model of the world—a physical transcription of causal regularities in its eco-niche that has been sculpted by reciprocal interactions between self-organisation and selection over time…” – Heidegger’s “being-in-the-world” comes to mind here… I also note that those regularities (patterns) can be in an extremely simplified form – indeed, science tends to the simplest explanation which is consistent with the facts, and even to the simplest explanation which is sufficiently consistent with the facts for the purposes of prediction. I could regard this as an energy minimising process, the energy in question being thinking time.

At that point, John’s interests diverge from those which I’m following in this post. The article goes on to put forward a concept of the Hierarchically Mechanistic Mind (figure 4 in the article) which, it seems to me, does not require the panpsychist’s concept of “mind all the way down” (as opposed to turtles), and definitely does not make any form of idealism look attractive – indeed, the whole article describes a system in which ideas are effectively no more than guesses.

Backtracking in the article to just before it introduces the Markov Blanket concept (End of section 2.1), I find this:- “Thus, an organism’s distal imperative of survival and maintaining functional states within physiological bounds (i.e., homeostasis and allostasis) translates into a proximal avoidance of surprise . Although surprise itself cannot be evaluated, since free energy imposes an upper bound on surprise, biological systems can minimise surprise by minimising their variational free energy. From the point of view of a physicist, surprise corresponds to thermodynamic potential energy , such that minimising (the average) variational free energy entails the minimisation of thermodynamic entropy.” (I have left in the hyperlinks which are in the original).

This, I think, is where we get to Process. Process theologians have a tendency to talk of God as continually introducing novelty, new experience, new possibilities. Or, if you like, surprise. And surprise is now another way of talking of entropy, which is arguably the most powerful principle in the universe. So far, so good (we may have a formulation of “God is Entropy”), but the whole line of argument through these two articles is demonstrating that life is profoundly surprise-reducing, and anti-entropic.

So, are we (as life forms and so devoted to reducing surprise, and thus entropy) fundamentally set in opposition to the Entropic God?

I think back to Genesis 1, with the earth being without form and void (chaotic) and the spirit of God moving over the waters and establishing some kind of order, and wonder whether the God of Order or the God of Entropy is being considered here. On balance, and taking into consideration that the Ruach Elohim is both the spirit of God and the breath of life, I would incline towards God being the God of life, and of order, if forced to make a choice.

But maybe, just maybe, God is both? For we panentheists, “there is nothing that is not God” is a meaningful statement; for mystics, the coincidence of opposites is something we tend to just have to live with.

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (XII)

November 19th, 2018
by Chris

This is the twelfth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

Those who are following these as they come out will notice that I haven’t yet posted my tenth and eleventh reactions. As with the ninth on Matthew Fox, the schedule of sessions with the authors demands that I try to post this before Tuesday evening. The others will come eventually!

The twelfth and last essay is by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. Tripp Fuller has sometimes referred to Brad Artson as “his rabbi”, and insofar as a Christian can have a rabbi, I share his feeling. I read and listen to R. Artson’s work with fascination. He is a (possibly “the”) Jewish process theologian.

Reading his essay, however, does not deal very much with how process interacts with Judaism; among a set of personal reflections, his strikes me as perhaps the most personal of all. Like me, he was an atheist at an early age (though he was largely brought up as such whereas I rejected the religious teaching I was thrust into) and like me he had a transformative experience. His, however, was extremely specific; he felt and saw himself as present at the Exodus (“The vision was visual, clear and experiential”), whereas mine was definitely of the “what on earth was THAT?” type, requiring a huge amount of later processing (and repetition) in order to make sense of it. The image of a return is something which permeates the essay.

I see there something extremely Jewish – the insistence on the particular, which has to precede the general. The Talmud states, after all, “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” I’ll come back to that, which isn’t something R. Artson quotes, but note that I think this is a principle which Christianity could do to pay more attention to.

He then immerses himself in practice, at the suggestion of R. Gold, which is again the Jewish approach, and again something I feel is undervalued in Christianity; Judaism is overwhelmingly interested in orthopraxy and not very much in orthodoxy, whereas we have “sola fide” running through our theologies. We ignore at our peril the well established psychological mechanism which is summed up as “Act as if” – what you do consistently will eventually affect your thinking and your belief. Following that, he turns from politics to rabbinical studies, and I think of Hillel’s statement “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” I spent a lot of time in politics myself, albeit at a local level, which for me was, I’m sure his own involvement was for R. Artson, intended as a means of being rather more positive about the Golden Rule, and doing good things for others. I then turned to study later; he made that transition much earlier in life.

He was then faced with a problem in theodicy in the very particular case of his son Jacob, who is autistic, and found a solution in process theology. “What process theology offers me in addition to extended community is a way to make sense of my son’t struggles and triumphs. It allows me to affirm that Jacob isn’t being judged or tested, that he in fact is like all of us, living with the random workings out of a natural order, and that meaning isd to be fashioned by his response to life, not by happenstance. I realise that since God is self-surpassing and engaged in everything, every instant, every moment, that Jacob also can be self-surpassing. Indeed, he is!”. He writes in lyrical terms about how this concept of God allows him to delight in existence; indeed, I could see there that it lets him love God again (which I inevitably link with Hillel’s statement, having learned something like it as the second part of the Great Commandments), having written of his two years not talking to God. “All life is a mixture of delight and suffering, and consciousness itself brings about the capacity to delight and the capacity to mourn”.

We see there both the return which is the overriding theme of the essay and the insistence on the particular; it is through this specific experience that he loves life and loves God. I am uplifted by his words – and thank him for referring to Christianity as the “younger nephew” of Torah. I am always ready to learn from what I suppose must be our auntie.

 

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (VIII)

November 18th, 2018
by Chris

This is the eighth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The eighth essay is by Loreliai Biernacki, and is – well – different. She titles it “Panentheism and Technology: The Immanence of Rage”, and rage is not an emotion which I naturally associate with an overpowering sense of immanence. Granted, at times when I focus on the natural world at the moment, I get a strong feeling that “all creation is groaning”, and can contemplate for a few moments that humanity is looking more like an infestation which needs eradicating than like the summit of evolution – before compassion swings back into the centre of my thinking. That, however, is not what she is talking of.

She paints a picture of an augmented humanity, with the boundary between man and machine blurring and the possibility arising that we may create an AI which surpasses humanity and renders us redundant – “God is not so much dead in modernity, but rather, not quite yet born”. She sees this as a future in the making of which we are losing touch with our embodiment as individual humans. Our lives become more ruled by virtual reality and the internet, substituting real human contact, and we dream of uploading our consciousnesses into computers and living forever in a disembodied state. This, of course, resonates with the longstanding Christian view that the objective is to transcend the material and achieve a safe space as a disembodied spirit.

Against this, she talks of “…the intelligence of the body itself, the intelligence of earth as growing plants and animal species” and of “preternatural instincts” telling us to turn this corner rather than that. I can resonate with that to some extent – the idea of disembodied spirits is one which the New Testament imports from the Greeks, and has no part in the earlier Biblical narrative, in which everything in order to exist at all must have physical form (I think of Walter Wink’s analysis in his “Powers” trilogy there). And yet, I don’t see as big a divide as she does. An augmented humanity is still embodied, just not entirely in biological form; the blurring of boundaries is very much part of the panentheistic experience. Even if I were uploaded to the cloud, I would still be embodied, just not in the same way as now. OK, as things stand, there would be a serious deficiency in the bodily mechanisms which produce emotion, which would result in a pale shadow of embodied existence, but that is not necessarily always going to be the case.

She goes on to ground the rest of the essay in Tantra. Using the thought of Utpaladeva, she criticises vikalpa, the kind of imagination which chops reality into small pieces and rearranges them into, for example, and elephant with two trunks and a hundred tusks, proposing instead vimarsa, the transformative peace gained from self-reflection, and bhavana, meditative visualisation. Again, this resonates with the panentheistic blurring of boundaries – if all boundaries are illusory, cutting things up into small bits makes no sense, as something is inevitably lost.

The step which I worry about most is that she thinks this concentration on vikalpa rather than vimarsa is part of the foundation for a pervasive sense of rage which she detects in society, over and above the rage engendered by economics; she suggests that fundamentalisms are “connected to a plea to bring back groundedness, the security of time-worn religious traditions to an ungrounded technological world”. Actually, I see rage in society very differently than she does – I see simmering discontent at economic opression which I fear may erupt into widespread violence, and I see huge fear at the pace of change (and fear engenders rage); it is the second of those which I think undergirds religious fundamentalisms. She does say that it is tied to a sense of being ungrounded, however, and that is certainly an aspect of living in a rapidly changing society.

However, I do not think that the secularisation process which she criticises involves any departure from embodiment. On the contrary, most secularists are confirmed materialists, and that is about as embodied a philosophy as you can get.

She writes “The rage of fundamentalist religion is, I suspect, a plea to call back a way of being that remembers embodiment in a greater scheme of life”, and I demur. I don’t think it “remembers embodiment”, I think it looks back to a day when ones identity was fixed, when there was a clear map of the ways in which to behave, where there was an authority beyond the individual prescribing most of the template of your life (this lust for submitting to authority, to me, explains why there is such a resurgence in charismatic and authoritarian leaders in the world). Modernity has delivered us choice, and choice is scary. Yes, it is a “greater scheme of life”, but not particularly an embodied one. The old schemes of meaning involved far more non-material concepts than you need in modernity, after all, and the rise in “spiritual but not religious” indicates to me a strong sense of embodied spirituality severed from non-material concepts like church and, perhaps, God.

Her later stories from the Tantric tradition, therefore, do not really connect with me, apart from in thinking that the idea of a raging god is one which we perhaps abandon to the fundamentalists at our peril, and the idea of a drunken god is one which we could do not to lose completely. Both are pictures of lack of inhibition, and I for one am far too inhibited for my own good.

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