Engaging Clark Pinnock’s Open and Relational Theology

At the point of writing, there is an Open and Relational Theology reading group ongoing, under the guidance of Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity and Tom Oord, author (inter alia) of “The Uncontrolling Love of God” (a book which I heartily recommend). In week 1, we are engaging with a couple of essays by Clark Pinnock; “Evangelical Theology After Darwin” from “Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science” and “Constrained by Love: Divine Self-Restraint According to Open Theism” from the Journal of the NAPBR.

The group is a “pay what you want” group, so is well within anyone’s grasp!

It was on listening to Tripp and Tom discussing these articles when I realised most forcibly that Pinnock comes from an Evangelical background, and his work here represents a significant movement away from his original stance, which seems to have been fairly much the inerrantist, biblical-literalist position I’m used to from those claiming the “Evangelical” label.  I give him credit; he moved a long way from that position. However, he’d have to have moved at least as far again to get to where I find myself.

I am, for the most part, a scientific materialist. I have a degree in Physics, and I do occasional part-time work in experimental Chemistry with a small Industrial Chemistry R&D company. I am therefore definitely a methodological naturalist, in that I expect to find (given enough time and application) a naturalistic explanation for everything. Tacked (perhaps uncomfortably) on to that is a contemplative mystic; I had a peak mystical experience aged 14, and have spent a large amount of time since then seeking repeat mystical experiences. As a result of that, I am a panentheist; I hold that everything that is, is God, but that everything that is does not exhaust that-which-is-God (if it did, that would be pantheism – I’m not adamant that pantheism is defective, but have a strong sense of “something more”). There is considerable affinity between panentheism and Open and Relational theology, but my overall stance is that Open and Relational theology does not go nearly far enough – even in the case of Tom Oord, who is a pan-experientialist, I regard O&R as “panentheism lite”.

Pinnock is, happily, confident that the Theory of Evolution is broadly correct, and correctly determines that any doctrine of God has to be reconsidered in that light. He considers, for instance, that Creation is still happening, with which I would unhesitatingly agree. He also rejects the picture of God as having to tinker with aspects of creation to “get it to go in the right direction”, which to me suggests clinging to the idea of a designer, but admitting the incompetence of the design. I find his description at the end of his first section “These three items create the evolutionary process: lawfulness, contingency, and deep time, which are themselves unexplained. The fundamental character of reality seems to be relational with entities being inter-related at all levels” very satisfactory, albeit he goes on to introduce Trinitarian concepts which I have reservations about.

I also like his comment “Although we would like to know how God is involved, we cannot pin God down to the details. If we could, God would just another force in the world”. We can, of course, work out many of the forces at work, and evolutionary biologists continue to make great strides in that respect. However, I worry about “Evolution is compatible with a kenotic model of providence, in which God decides to self-limit for the sake of love”. I like the concept of kenosis (although not as much as I like another theological concept to apply), but here, Pinnock is suggesting that God could intervene at any point to change the way things are, but refrains purely out of love for beings within creation and the desire to allow them free will. I don’t think that is a tenable position, if we are to preserve the concept of God as being characterised above all else by love; I will unhesitatingly act against my loved ones’ freedom of will if by so doing I can avoid them suffering major pain (although I may not act if the pain is minor). I think a loving God who preserved any kind of interventionary power at all would intervene in a massive number of situations despite the fact that that would reduce people’s freedom a little, and in any case I have a very strong suspicion that free will is an illusion, and thus not something which is worth preserving at the cost of any suffering beyond the trivial.

While I worry when Pinnock “cannot rule out a demonic dimension”, which gives me pictures of people obsessed with being the focus of a spiritual warfare which has no reality beyond their own minds (and which can give rise to all sorts of mental illness), and I tend to regard a too-easy invocation of demonic forces as a cop-out in a quest for a viable theodicy, I also cannot rule out the idea that there can be more-than-human but less-than-divine forces at work in the world. I have only to contemplate (for instance) the concept of “Britain” or “the Church” or “Democracy” or “The Free Market”, and I instantly accept that there are such forces – and most of them can be regarded as at least somewhat demonic (in this I follow Walter Wink’s thinking in his “Powers” trilogy). However, I suspect Pinnock was really thinking of supernatural powers, and none of those I accept as existing are supernatural in any real sense. I would dearly love there to be actual supernatural powers, to be honest – I’m a sucker for fantasy novels, and love reading about imagined worlds which work on different principles to the ones we see, but having spent a lot of time searching for real supernatural events, have come to the conclusion that there aren’t any. He does, to be fair, dismiss creation-in-an-instant as a magic trick, unworthy of being regarded as something serious when compared with the vast scope of evolution, but I think there’s still more than a hint of disembodied “spiritual” forces going on there.

On my first reading, it was when Pinnock got to Original Sin that I thought “He’s done something similar to installing a new operating system, and is now checking to see which of his programs will still run under it, and what upgrades he needs to make to them” (a simile I attribute to Tripp Fuller, talking of adopting a Process perspective). He’s not a million miles from my own thinking (which has also tended towards a “what doctrines can I still manage, given my panentheism?”), which I outline in this blog post.

He continues in this line when he talks of Christian Hope in the last section of the “Evolution” article. At this point, however, I think he surrenders to a lingering hope that God will at some time abrogate all of this “Open and Relational” stuff and intervene decisively (possibly in a “second coming” beloved of evangelicals), in finding a teleology in evolution. I don’t see any sign of a teleology myself, and if there is to be movement toward a Kingdom of Heaven on earth, I’m quite confident that it will need to be on the basis of Teresa de Ávila’s famous statement that Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” I think he needed a program upgrade there, because I don’t think a grand plan survives adopting open and relational principles.

Moving on to the second essay, Pinnock amplifies the thinking he sketched in the first. He doubles down on the idea that God restrains himself from acting, and that this is voluntary. He regards this as kenotic. Frankly, I do not think that mere restraint qualifies as kenotic; real kenosis would be to irrevocably give away the power to act, and my position would definitely be that God can’t (as the title of Tom Ooord’s recent book states). He is, in my eyes, desperate to clink on to divine omnipotence, whereas I’m very much with Charles Hartshorne in his short book “Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes”. The chief “omnis” which Harsthorne demolishes in that book are omnipotence and omniscience, but there are swipes at others as well. Personally, the only “omni” I take to be valid is omnipresence, because I’m a mystic, and (like most mystics, if not all) that’s what I experience God as being. Inasmuch as scripture would seem to justify other claims to infinity of some characteristic, I’m strongly of the opinion that this is something between the excusable human tendency when faces with something inconceivably large to regard it as infinite (even the universe is not unequivocally infinite) and the equally human tendency to “big up” someone whom you hold in high regard.

The first area which Pinnock picks on as an area of “restraint” is in Creation. He is clinging here to the concept that God must be creator in the normal sense of the term. Granted, in the first essay he has already dismissed the idea that this was an instantaneous “magic trick” (or even one stretching over six days), and he accepts a 14.5 billion year approximate age of the universe, but he has failed to appreciate the findings of cosmology. You cannot talk of a “creator” for the “big bang”. If the maths is correct (and there is absolutely no reason to think that it is flawed in any serious way), the point of the “big bang” represents a limit to time and space as well as matter. There was no “before” to the big bang. There was no “elsewhere” either, but “before” is the crucial factor – the concept of creating something demands that that something not exist and then exist, which is a time-dependent concept. “Creator” is thus an incoherent concept, like talking about the colour of silence, or a square circle. So, incidentally, is the idea that God is in some way “outside” the universe (no “elsewhere”). Trust me on this, I’ve done the maths in the course of a Physics degree. I balk at Pinnock’s “God created cosmic time”, slightly later in the essay.

My only slight reservation there is the feature of mystical experience which has been described as “the timeless moment”. In peak mystical experiences, it is typical for the subjective perception of time to be severely altered, and I would be tempted to say that those were a glimpse into atemporality. If they are, there may be a way in which God is in some way atemporal – it’s just that we have no conceptual apparatus capable of thinking about atemporality. However, I tentatively hypothesise that this might be experience of a timelike dimension normally inaccessible to us (as there is subjective time but no, very little or far too much duration in the “normal” time dimension).

I am, however, broadly in agreement when Pinnock characterises God as being essentially loving. Whether I would go as far as “omnibenevolence” is less certain. That is the position of Tom Oord in “The Uncontrolling Love of God”, and I significantly prefer Tom’s approach to that of Pinnock, while leaving some reservations in my mind.

I’m far more aligned with Pinnock, however, when he stresses that God “inhabits space like a kind of body” (though, of course, not so much with his idea that God created space – see above). Other Open and Relational thinkers talk of God withdrawing so as to provide a space for creation, and my mystical experience negates any possibility that that could be the case for me.

“Kenosis of omniscience” seems to me again a clinging to the name “omniscience” while abandoning any real sense in which it could be true. I completely agree that the future is not yet knowable (otherwise there would be absolute mechanical predestination, which is wholly at odds with an universe which, so far as modern physics is concerned, is all movement and interaction and has no fixed things at all, at least at its most fundamental level). I’m not at all certain (despite psalm 139) that God knows, as such, everything that there is to know at the moment, either – one has merely to consider the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment to imagine a situation in which God could not possibly know which state the cat was in, as then there would be no wave-function any more. I could, perhaps, envisage that God is capable of knowing anything to which he turns his attention (as it is all within the body of God…) without actually having his attention on all things at once.

While I appreciate Pinnock’s pointing out that “creation ex nihilo” is not actually supported by the wording of Genesis 1, I don’t think I can go as far as him in positing countervailing spiritual forces independent of and preceding creation. This seems to me an attempt to retain a concept of Satan and/or demons along standard lines. There does seem to me some traction to regarding God as creating order out of chaos (certainly, life appears fundamentally anti-entropic), but then again, a balance between order and chaos seems necessary for life and, in particular, novelty, so I am reluctant to identify God purely with order.

It is when Pinnock reaches Incarnation that I perhaps agree with him and diverge from him most. To me, the radical omnipresence of God makes the idea of the universe as “God’s body” a very congenial one, and I don’t stop at kenosis to conceive of this. After all, kenosis as first expressed in Philippians was an incidence of incarnation rather than a feature in and of itself, and a concept of “original incarnation” seems to me entirely reasonable, not, as Pinnock suggests, as an individual human but as all creation. I add to that that God becoming incarnate in the universe as a whole entails not that he refrain from using power, but that, to a great if not complete extent, that power is permanently divested and inheres in creation. It remains the power of God, it is just delegated to and exercised exclusively by creation.

On that basis, I do not see a need for independent spiritual entities having nothing to do with God in the first place, as does Pinnock; delegation of power to individuals (and, of course, to inanimate matter) is sufficient, particularly as emergent properties lead to “powers and principalities” such as nations and the church (as Walter Wink suggests).

Of course, this being the case, God suffers with all parts of creation because all suffering is perforce God’s suffering. Where Pinnock does not go but I do is in considering this as God crucified from the beginning on and in creation. As Jesus refers to in Matthew 25:31-46, “as you did to the least of these, you did to me”; God is not crucified once in approximately 30 CE, he is crucified in the whole of history, past and to come.

Where Pinnock concludes with the hope of all coming together in an all-encompassing theosis driven by teleology, mine concludes with the absolute necessity of our minimising suffering wherever and to whatever life form it may occur. We may not be able to prevent Christ being crucified continually, but we can abstain from knocking in any more nails.

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