Processing – end of run.

In the first post in this series, I talked about how classical philosophical ideas didn’t cope well with modern science, and suggested that the same might hold with theology. In the second, I talked a bit about Process Theology and why I’d avoided it to date. In the third, I outlined some concepts in classical theology and three problems which that gives rise to. In the fourth, I explored two less than fortunate consequences of the dualism of classical Greek philosophy; this post deals with more.

To amplify further, classical philosophy dealt, by and large, with metaphysics, that which lay beyond physics. The “physics of the day” was more advanced in many respects than it had any right to be, considering that it had almost no conception of scientific method and was drawn almost entirely from musing on data drawn from everyday experience. I say “more advanced” because it had, for instance, the concept of the “atom”, the a-tomos, the undivisible minute building block of all matter, the concepts of force, power and potential, even, arguably, the concept of the field. These concepts took physics a very long way, indeed up to the point at which Einstein proposed matter-energy equivalence, special and general relativity, quanta and wave-particle duality (and various other scientists were proposing other equally revolutionary breaks with anything which could be sensibly described by the physics of the day).

The classical metaphysics followed the same lines, and used the same concepts as its building blocks.

The snag is that we now have a better understanding of the material world in which concepts such as “essence”, “the material”, even “spirit” do not have anything like the same basis as they did in the classical world (and we need to remember that the thinking of the classical world was effectively the only way to think until at the earliest the nineteenth century, although some philosophers and theologians had been delving beyond that as early as the seventeenth century). Some of them are, in truth, incoherent in the eyes of a Physicist (and I used to be one).

The sixth (and for the moment the last) problem is the failure of classical philosophical ideas to deal with continua and with enmeshed and interdependent phenomena, which are a significant feature of modern physics. This leads, in theology, inter alia to a tendency to create binary opposites; that dealt with in the last post (spirit and matter), heaven and hell, good and evil, God and Satan, sinful and justified (or redeemed, or forgiven), orthodoxy and heresy as some of many instances.

Callid Keefe-Perry puts things this way:- “One of the struggles that I believe we face is that even the language we use to talk about talking about God is marred with the marks of a Hellenization that does not well suit the numinous.  When we postulate that God may be too transcendent, we seem to be articulating a vision of God that is somehow fixed “out there,” something akin a quasi-Platonic Form of Divinity.  Indeed, Plato’s description of the Form of Beauty seems not too far removed from how many talk about God: “It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself” (The Symposium, 211b).  That is, the transcendent Form is so far removed from our world and our experience of the world that the best we can hope to do is experience some lesser reproduction of the thing.  The result of this thinking then, is that the best we can do when attempting to articulate something transcendent is hope to name some flawed copy of the thing we actually sought to speak.  I reject this construction.”

Now, process doesn’t really suffer from this dualism, as it stresses interconnectedness and relationship over hard and fast boundaries. It tends more to see things as centered on some point, but as attenuating from that point and not being really “bounded”, if indeed it sees things as “things” at all – there is more of a tendency to talk of “events” and, of course, “processes”. In addition, at the level of human beings as biological entities, we are, in terms of modern concepts of biology, not discrete entities – we are, for instance, dependent for our functioning on a host of bacteria (as many Yoghurt adverts will tell you); we are not on the level of groups of us truly independent, as most models of social structure will say. As such, process-relational thinking is a far better fit to what we now know about the most basic mechanisms of the universe.

It is also, however, a better fit with scripture. The bulk of scripture is the Hebrew Scriptures, which were by and large not written with a classical Greek philosophical framework. The result is that concepts such as omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, impassibility and even incorporeality, transcendence and simplicity are at best underdetermined by the texts and at worst flatly contradicted by some. Yes, you can find proof texts which state something about God which is along each of these lines, but you can find other texts which cannot be sensibly understood if you attribute to God these characteristics.

The result is that in the writings of, for instance, Bruce Epperley and John Cobb, process theology starts looking very promising as an alternative way of looking at theology to replace the Platonism or Aristotelianism of traditional theology.

Bo Sanders says of Process-Relational theology:- “This is not a simple tweak of the existing system (like Open theology). This is not a program that you just download and install into your already in place operating system. It is not a patch that employ to get rid of the bugs and kinks in the classical program. Relational thought is a different operating system (to use the fun Mac v. Microsoft Windows analogy).” He also remarks:- “When someone looks into Process (or many other schools) and wades into the explanation against substance/matter and its replacement with packets of time/moments/actualities – it is just too much jabber-talkie and vocabulary.”

Here is the real problem: although in the writings of process theologians (as opposed to process philosophers) Process is very attractive, there is a really major shift in how you need to start viewing the universe as a whole, not just how you view theology. I’ve already confessed to a certain degree of blind spot towards philosophy generally, although I also feel a need to be as solidly based as it’s possible for me to be. That said, for upwards of 40 years I’ve looked at the universe at its most basic level as not being composed of “things”, not being best described by a substance/matter kind of description, and I’m happy to carry on with that.

However, I also learn from that background that it isn’t on the whole useful to expand that way of looking at things to a more general context. I may, for instance, know that both myself and the wall next to me are composed of emptiness with some widely spaced vibrations going on (and as a result of mystical experience be entirely confident that the boundary between myself and these things is not a true boundary at all), but that does not mean I can get up and walk through the wall (as direct collision of the vibrations could in theory be avoided). I am sitting on a chair; I do not fall through it, despite it being composed mostly of empty space. It is far more practical for me to regard the wall, the chair and myself as distinct objects occupying discrete amounts of space. A really good comprehensive theology should reflect that, as well as the basic fact of my being a set of vibrations.

However, as the universe is clearly (from physics) a set of vibrations, of events and processes, rather than a set discrete entities (or a single entity), and as at the biological and social levels I am not truly single, separated and discrete, a really good comprehensive theology should reflect that as well. That may not be “process” as such, but it has to be relational.


Some more problems (Processing, please wait 4)

In the first post in this series, I talked about how classical philosophical ideas didn’t cope well with modern science, and suggested that the same might hold with theology. In the second, I talked a bit about Process Theology and why I’d avoided it to date. In the third, I outlined some concepts in classical theology and three problems which that gives rise to.

The fourth problem rests in the mind (or spirit) versus body dualism of Greek thought. The thinking of the Hebrew Scriptures was not, by and large, influenced by this concept; Jewish thought did not see the spirit as being something which temporarily inhabited a material body, but saw people as material beings which were made alive by the divine spark, the breath of God, but only vivified by that, not “inhabited by” a separate spirit. Greek thought, and that of some of the very late Hebrew Scriptures, the Intertestamentals and the New Testament, did see the essence of the person as being something separable from the body. Isa. 26:19, Dan 12:2 and Hos. 6:2 are examples of this Jewish thinking.

[As an aside, I am reasonably convinced that the insistence in certain of the resurrection accounts that the resurrected Christ was tangible was a concession to this Jewish belief that a person was inherently material, and that there could be no resurrection without a body. Paul’s early account of resurrection appearances, which is the earliest, is fairly clear that he is not talking about a revivification of a dead body, but of an appearance, possibly but not definitely cloaked in a tangible form; I suspect that this was not acceptable to non-Hellenised Jews and there was therefore a need for something more like the conventional view of resurrection. It may be, however, that the expectations of certain of the disciples that there could not be an appearance of the resurrected Christ without his original body gave rise to the subjective experience of real substance. ]

This combines with an individualism which was not the dominant theme of the Hebrew Scriptures; these dominantly regard salvation as relating to a people rather than to individuals, and individual behaviour as being important to preserve ones place within an already to-be-saved people of Israel. This is a concept labelled by scholars in the “New Perspective on Paul” as “covenantal nomism” (these scholars include E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright).

Of course, in terms of modern science, the concept of a separable spirit or soul is now generally regarded as untenable; although mind (or spirit) is given importance as a concept, it is as  an epiphenomenon of  consciousness, which is itself an epiphenomenon of life. That is to say that mind, spirit or soul arise from the fact that we have brains capable of conscious thought, and brains capable of conscious thought arise from the fact that we are fairly complex living beings. Granted, science fiction has frequently played with the concept of conscious thought in machines or other forms which would not be regarded as “living” by most, but to date in order for there to be conscious thought, it has been found to be necessary for there to be a brain. Similarly, it is extremely probable (by extension) that in order for there to be a mind, spirit or soul, there must be conscious thought. Mind (or spirit, or soul) is not separable from the material body.

In other words, I am suggesting here that in this respect first century Jewish thinking was more conducive to modern scientific and philosophical ideas than was first century Greek thinking, resting on the Greek philosophical tradition which continued in the West unchallenged until at least the early stages of the Enlightenment.

This is, of course, not to say that there cannot be some survival of mind or spirit; using the analogy of computer software and hardware, a computer program and its associated stored memory can be separated from the hardware on which it runs (and can run on other hardware), but it is not functional in the absence of the hardware. In much the same way, it seems extremely probable that mind or spirit cannot function in the absence of a material matrix, but could conceivably continue in a form of existence given some storage medium, and similarly could be “resurrected” into a new matrix.

This mind-body dualism links with two other potential problems, the first of which is that the unseen, immaterial, “spiritual” is seen as “higher” and more perfect than the material, and so what really matters is not the whole person or the material body but only the spirit, and secondly that the spiritual (and God) is seen as being of infinite duration, so the infinity of time to come after death matters far more than does our current life. The result is a focus on survival after death to the exclusion of living today. Of course, if my analogy of the computer program has any validity, an infinity of storage on a floppy disk is probably not preferable to actual functioning…

This leads me neatly to the fifth problem, which is that as the immaterial, mental and spiritual is seen as higher, better and more perfect than the material, it is also seen as more fundamental, more real. In other words, the immaterial creates the material, usually in a rather poor imitation of the immaterial ideal. Plato’s “cave” image is one way of putting this: the world as we see it is a series of distorted images of what is more real, more perfect and more fundamental but which we cannot see directly.

I am not here attacking Idealist philosophies generally; for a start, some idealist philosophies lend themselves to panentheism, and I experience God in a way which is for me massively best described by panentheism. There is no problem in terms of science in the concept that our concepts can only approximate to the reality beyond “the cave”, indeed this is very much the way philosophy of science tends to see things, and the state of modern physics tends to underline this in that there appears to be a substrate of reality which is irretrievably uncertain, where Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and chaos theory reign.

The problem comes when this couples itself with revealed religion and we think that our concepts are “higher, better, more real, more fundamental and more perfect” than what is actually experienced, because that is what has been revealed to us. I have to be very careful with this aspect myself, as the bones of panentheism represent to me something “revealed” directly to me, and there is an inevitable temptation to say that that is what must be so irrespective of any material evidence to the contrary. It would, of course, be a mistake for me, and it is a mistake for theology generally. Whatever else can be said about revelation, it has passed through at least one individual human consciousness before reaching us, and that must give the basis for error. Paul recognised this in 1 Cor. 13:12: “Now we see through a glass, darkly…”

Process recognises that things change, that things are interdependent, and as such is antagonistic to concepts such as perfection but very conducive to the idea of “better approximations” which develop with time.

Number 6 is giving me difficulties, so there may be a delay!


The classical position and some problems with it (Processing, please wait 3)

In the first post in this series, I talked about how classical philosophical ideas didn’t cope well with modern science, and suggested that the same might hold with theology. In the second, I talked a bit about Process Theology and why I’d avoided it to date. I’m now going to look at some concepts in classical theology and see how they might be problematic.

Classical theology stresses the transcendence of God; God is wholly other. This is linked with the concept of God as being “holy”, but is not equivalent to it.

It also stresses the perfections of God; in the classical mould, God is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), not bound by time (eternal), creator of all things, perfectly just but also perfectly merciful and loving (omnibenevolent). It isn’t difficult to find proof texts for each of these statements about God in the Bible.

However, it is also not difficult to find texts which don’t read as if God possesses any one of these characteristics.

Thomas Aquinas (perhaps the most influential Christian theologian after St. Paul) also derived some further statements about God. He is the unmoved mover, the origin of motion; the uncaused first cause of all things; the fount and origin of all order. (These are three of the quinque viae, Aquinas’ “proofs of God”; the others are perfection and necessary existence).

Quoting the Wikipedia article, Aquinas determined there were five basic things which could be said of God:

  1. God is simple, without composition of parts, such as body and soul, or matter and form.
  2. God is perfect, lacking nothing. That is, God is distinguished from other beings on account of God’s complete actuality.Thomas defined God as the ‘Ipse Actus Essendi subsistens,’ subsisting act of being.
  3. God is infinite. That is, God is not finite in the ways that created beings are physically, intellectually, and emotionally limited. This infinity is to be distinguished from infinity of size and infinity of number.
  4. God is immutable, incapable of change on the levels of God’s essence and character.
  5. God is one, without diversification within God’s self. The unity of God is such that God’s essence is the same as God’s existence. In Thomas’s words, “in itself the proposition ‘God exists’ is necessarily true, for in it subject and predicate are the same.”

The first problem this raises for me is that it takes insufficient account of the immanence of God, his presence in all things (omnipresence). There are also plenty of proof texts for God’s omnipresence, such as Psalm 139:7-12. Yes, classical theology will stipulate the omnipresence of God, but in practice we will see time and again the suggestion that God is “other”, that there is a great gulf fixed between us and God, that being sinful we cannot be in the presence of or accepted by the holy and perfect God. This is probably the most vital problem for me, given that my experience is overwhelmingly of an immanent God, a God present in all things.

Classical theism will also say, however, that God is spirit, and that spirit can indeed permeate everything, but is something distinct from the material. Except insofar as we are acknowledged to be in part spirit ourselves, this also emphasises the “otherness” of God; we are material, God is spiritual and never the twain shall meet, with the exception of the incarnation and, possibly, the Holy Spirit. However, the presence of the Holy Spirit is something which is not always there; the presence of God is in effect rationed. There is, of course, also the sacrament of communion in which God is commonly thought to be particularly present – and passed out in very small bits by a gatekeeper, thus even more rationed. However, spirit-body dualism is a problem area in its own right, which I mention later.

This theology does not, frankly, lend itself well to the evangelical thinking of “relationship with Jesus” either; a tension is created with the distant, unapproachable God.

Process thinking does not draw rigid boundaries, and sees God as intimately involved with the world on every level and needing the participation of humanity in order to bring about his purposes.

The second problem, and the one which is perhaps most important for those who do not have a compelling consciousness of omnipresence, is that of theodicy, i.e. why bad things happen to good people. Put very simply, if you propose:-
1. God is all-powerful
2. God is all-knowing and
3. God is omnibenevolent (i.e. wishes the best for each and every one of us)
the mere observation of the world tells us that bad things are happening daily, hourly, minute by minute and second by second to millions of reasonably good people. Thus not all of these statements can be correct; either God is unable to correct these evils, he does not know of them (or does not know of them in advance so as to be able to prevent them) or he is not a good God.

A large number of “work-rounds” have been proposed for this problem. If there is a countervailing force of evil, God is not really all-powerful. If God withdraws (kenosis), God is not in practice all-powerful. If God witholds action in order to permit free will, God is not in practice all-powerful. Those are the common answers.

In fact, a prominent process theologian, Charles Hartshorne, wrote a book called “Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes”, which argues very cogently that neither omnipotence nor omniscience can actually be the case as a matter of philosophy, and, of course, Process Theology holds that God’s power and knowledge are in fact both limited, albeit very great. However, God’s power is expressed cooperatively and relationally rather than unilaterally. Theodicy is not a major problem to a Process Theologian.

The third problem is that God is thought of as perfect and therefore unchangeable and unmoved by emotion (“impassible”). This is not easy to provide proof texts for, and is in fact a deduction drawn from Platonic and Aristotelean philosophy; indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures are full of instances in which God is seen to be wrathful, jealous, merciful, loving and downright emotional. There are also several instances of God changing his mind – the sparing of the Ninevites after their wholesale repentance in the story of Jonah springs to mind. A particularly good account of this is found in Jack Miles’ book “God, A Biography”, which treats the Hebrew Scriptures as a work of literature in which God is the main character (as far as I know an unique approach) and seeks to plot his character development.

The fact that unchangeability and impassibility is not well supported by scripture is only the start of it; if we are to talk about having a relationship with God, or indeed loving God, how is this possible in a situation where no emotion is returned? In fact, the God of the Greek philosophers is distant, unapproachable and indifferent, an attitude summed up by Shakespeare in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport”. It is unsurprising that development of this train of thinking led to the Enlightenment Deists, who were content with a God who set things in motion but was uninvolved thereafter, and was certainly nothing that one could love or have a relationship with, or, really, worship.

Process sees god not as the “unmoved mover”, as classical philosophy would have it, but as the “most moved mover”, intimately involved in every aspect of creation.

I’ll continue in the next post with some further problems.


A new look, a new system (Processing, please wait 2)