This is the word of – well – someone

I attend an Anglican Church, and the words “this is the Word of the Lord” float past me following any reading from the Bible apart from the gospels, in which case the formula is “this is the Gospel of Christ”. But in what way can this conceivably be true for me, a panentheist? This question arises from a private response to my two previous posts.

Well, I assuredly do not think that a separate and personified God dictated the words to the various writers of sections of the Bible, nor do I think that inspiration from whatever source is guaranteed to be rendered by any writer in a form which is correct, sufficient and complete.

That is, except insofar as any words, just as any actions whatsoever, emanate from a part of the whole which is God. Although that could possibly be an adequate piece of mental gymnastics for someone, I need more than that.

I hear the words, and would sometimes really like to substitute (for instance) “this is the word of Paul”, or “this is the word of an unknown psalmist”. In an extreme case, I might want to say “this is the word traditionally ascribed to Moses but actually of an unknown redactor of around the third century BC working on material of the Yahwist source“. I am reasonably convinced by the Biblical scholars who have reached such conclusions; I’m certainly in no position to argue against them, except perhaps in some details of method which don’t impact on the general conclusion.

But I do actually have more than that. For most purposes, I treat scripture as something of fundamental authority in a way in which I assuredly don’t treat (say) the words of the editorial writers of “The Times”, which of course also qualifies to me as words emanating from a part of the whole which is God. If I swallow really hard, I equally have to include the words in “Hello”magazine, thus indicating the limits of usefulness of systematic theology.

This emanates from tradition. In the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience, the fact that the Bible as we know it is scripture is a matter of tradition. Various works which might well have been in the Bible, such as the Epistle to the Laodiceans, the Didache or the Gospel of Thomas don’t appear in current versions; Luther questioned whether Hebrews and Revelation should actually be part of the Bible, but eventually bowed to the pressure of tradition.

A sizeable amount of the impact of that tradition, to me, is the fact that I was brought up with scripture. It was the tradition of my family, the tradition of my early schools, the tradition of what was then a sizeable proportion of the population where I grew up. It is a part of my thinking at a very deep level (which the contents of “Hello” are definitely not!). (A level, indeed, sufficiently deep that I have some suspicions that at some emotional level I may be verging on being a five point Calvinist – but I’m working on that; I don’t find it a particularly healthy emotional stance). In the sense that it forms that imbedded tradition, therefore, I consider “this is the Word of the Lord” to be accurate.

What I do not do is consider this in any absolute sense. I don’t really do absolutes, as witness part of my “Childish Thoughts” post; I consider taking things to extremes to be the best way of causing any system of thinking to break down. It is, however, the bedrock on which the praxis of most of my spiritual life is based, including making the response “thanks be to God” after the declaration in the service. It really isn’t helpful to be thinking “well, actually it’s the word of someone traditionally thought to be Paul but actually writing some years after his death in the context of a theology which had developed somewhat beyond Paul’s actual position”. So I try not to do that any more.

What’s not wrong with Panentheism

Roger Olson blogs “What’s wrong with Panentheism” at Patheos.

He starts with saying that it’s the “kiss of death” to admit to it if you want to teach at an evangelical college, which I might be inclined to think was therefore the most important point.

It does seem to me that exclusion from teaching at an evangelical institution is no justification at all for a theological position being “wrong”; to some, it might be a strong reccomendation!

But then, I don’t subscribe in the slightest to the concept that the be all and end all is conformity with all aspects of received dogma; the be all and end all to me is conformity with my and others experience of God. Does this concept allow me to talk about my experience more easily, to be better understood by others when I do so, and does it give me the ability to expand on that experience and draw conclusions for my future actions and future interpretations of experience? If so, it’s an useful concept. Note, not “right” in opposition to “wrong” but “useful” in opposition to “not useful”. Panentheism in it’s broadest form does that for me.

In contrast, Olson criticises panentheism for denying “creatio ex nihilo”. I struggle to understand how the concept of creatio ex nihilo is spiritually useful to anyone, including evangelical theologians, quite apart from being confident that it’s a derived concept rather than one directly supported by scripture (at least, by Old Testament scripture). It’s useful to physicists, and more specifically cosmologists, in a sense, though the modified sense in which it is currently useful to them is not very like the classical theological concept any more. Whether or not there actually was a creatio ex nihilo, it was a very long time ago, and unless you’re interested in explaining the distribution of matter in the universe, background radiation in space and/or the way in which gravitation and other fundamental forces interact, I can’t see the relevance.

To give him his due, he does distinguish types of panentheist thinking, rightly identifying a few passages which resonate well with panentheists, and his attack is on certain derived philosophical positions, and not on the concept more generally. However, the tenor of his writing seems to me along the lines of the argument “some Muslims are suicide bombers, which is a bad thing: therefore Islam is a bad thing”

It isn’t necessarily part of my particular panentheist stance that “God is dependent on the world”. He might be, he might not be; I’m not clear how the concept is useful. I’ve concluded that the concepts that God is immutable and impassible are wrong in any absolute sense, but this isn’t central to my understanding. I find process theology and open theology useful in stressing that God is changed by his interaction with humanity; a relationship with something which doesn’t and can’t change is a relationship I can’t understand.

But Olson criticises this for denying grace. I don’t see that. Even in the case where certain philosophers have suggested that God is dependent on there being an universe, he is not dependent on there being THIS universe. Except in the sense that, this universe being in existence, he is dependent on it. I do not see how that creates difficulties with grace. We would not exist as we are had we not developed with God being the God he is, and God would not be the God he is had he not been in interaction with us. If that last seems dubious, we may consider that scripture amply attests that God is faithful to his covenants and faithful to his people. I think that this rather negates the idea proposed by Olson that God freely chooses to include the world in his life; if he ceased to do so he would not be faithful to his covenants or to his people. We could say that he freely chose this, perhaps, but having chosen, he is faithful.

But then, Olson is a theologian, and believes that what is needed is “a biblically and theologically sound doctrine”. I disagree. What is needed is a continuing relationship with God, for a Christian mediated by Jesus Christ. We are saved by grace, by faith, possibly even by works, but not by having an intellectually watertight concept of God.

Childish thoughts.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

By the age of 10, I was to all intents and purposes an evangelical atheist in the Richard Dawkins mould. I had been attending Sunday School for some years at this point, as befitted the son of a Methodist Lay Preacher, and was a precocious brat. None of the stories I learned in Sunday School were anything more than stories to me; it was becoming clear that the world just didn’t work in the way depicted.

Not only that, but the set of doctrines about God’s nature and abilities didn’t seem to me to be logically consistent. It was clear to the 10 year old me that this was all a fiction, somewhat inferior to the adult SF and fantasy which I’d recently shifted to after exhausting the children’s section of the local library, and the thought of basing my whole life on a fiction was ridiculous, and more than that, repugnant. Not only that, but clearly it was my mission in life to save other people from that fate by convincing them that this was all complete rubbish. How much of a tribulation this was to my poor father, he never admitted to me, but Sunday School and myself parted company around that time to our mutual relief.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways”, as Paul put it in 1 Cor. 13:11. Aged 14, I had a life-changing experience which demanded that I find some framework in which to set it. By that time, however, I was well down the route which later took me to a degree in Physics (Theoretical option), and it was impossible for me to abandon the vast structure of science which I was in the process of discovering, and which was so powerful a tool for explaining and predicting what happened around me. Indeed, my first thought to explain my experience was something medical. That, however, failed; there were no environmental factors which could have triggered such an event, I had not ingested anything which could remotely have been mind-altering, I was not hungry or sleep-deprived and I was not suffering from any of the various medical or psychological maladies which might have produced radically altered perception. Somehow a “brain fart” (as an atheist friend has subsequently described it as his best explanation) was not remotely adequate.

What was more adequate, however, was the words of various people labelled “Mystics” by F.C. Happold, whose seminal work “Mysticism” I happened on shortly afterwards. From various faith backgrounds or none, the words these people had used to describe their own experiences resonated with me to some degree. These were at least an approach to being able to talk sensibly about my experience. However, the writers were operating within a variety of different and often completely incompatible faith structures; how could they all be correct?

My early view was that there was a kernel of truth within a sizeable amount of untruth in each of these cases. I was, however, still thinking somewhat childishly. Some years of learning, debate, discussion and adoption of various personal practices (“Praxes”) for a time convinced me that while a “cafeteria” approach worked as far as praxes were concerned, they didn’t work as far as conceptual structures ( you may read “belief structures”) were concerned. All the religions which had produced the frameworks which mystics used to talk about their experience were conceptually adequate, and sufficiently self-consistent to satisfy the writers. You could work within any of them, but could not take bits of several without a major effort of harmonisation or reinterpretation.  I found I lacked the ability, or the patience, or the arrogance, required to achieve that – perhaps all of them.

Many religions, including Christianity, are to some extent syncretic. Usually the work of effecting the syncretism is spread over many people and many years, though a few are very largely the work of one outstanding individual. I decided I was not that individual, despite at one time having a small group of people who treated me as a sort of guru, and clearly wanted me to expound some new scheme of understanding in detail.

I also learned that a particular praxis works better for not having major conceptual misgivings about the structure, the faith, which gave rise to it. What started as an effort of suspension of disbelief became something more than that, an ability to see several different and mutually incompatible concept structures as each having a form of truth. This was less bizarre as a concept than it may seem; I already had to accomodate the idea that light was both a particle and a wave, for instance, and any attempt I saw at harmonising the two incompatible concepts seemed to me to fall short. I was comfortable with matter being largely empty space, despite the fact that for most practical purposes outside laboratories treating it as that is a major error.

I also became familiar with the fact that scientific ideas can change radically with the advent of some new piece of evidence; however, in every case a previous theory which had adequately explained the facts would still explain those facts. Usually, this was because the old theory became a “special case” of the new one, but Ptolemaic spheres would still let you compute the positions of planets (for the most part), despite the fact that their theory is now demonstrably not the case. In the case of Ptolemaic spheres, there is a much less complicated mathematics, so they aren’t actually used any more, but Newtonian mathematics in it’s turn was displaced by Einsteinian relativity, but for many situations is still used, as relativistic maths makes computation far more difficult but makes an imperceptible difference to the result (granted, you need to know when that is not going to be the case!).

So where does this leave me with Christianity? I need an explanatory structure for my experience; to dismiss it as “just one of those things” and move on with a purely scientific-rationalist point of view seems to me cowardly. I could have adopted Buddhism as a primary conceptual structure, or Hinduism, or Taoism; all of those are somewhat more amenable from the point of view of the essentially panentheistic base understanding which I am forced to by my experience. One of the most evocative writings of a mystic I have encountered was written by Baba Kuhi of Shiraz, a Sufi (and therefore Islamic): “In the market, in the cloister – only God I saw. In the valley and on the mountain – only God I saw” ending with “I passed away into nothingness, I vanished, and lo, I was the All-living – only God I saw”.

However, several years of Sunday School left me with a base knowledge of Christian scripture to which I have since added, I have lived and worked all my life in places where various denominations of Christianity were the main and sometimes the only choice of having a group of believers (and I feel an emotional need for such a group) and finally my upbringing by Methodist parents has implanted at a very deep level indeed a lot of values which sit easier with Christianity than with any other concept structure. I do not believe that any other basic structure is more “correct” than that of any widespread religion I might choose as a result of my studies. Thus, as evidenced by the quotations above, I operate within Christianity, in a broad sense of the word.

However, I am impatient of claims that Christianity (or any particular group within it) has a monopoly on truth, or even on the best available language of description of mystical (or spiritual) experience. I’m equally impatient of dyed in the wool scientific rationalists, who seem to me to think the same (save that they have no satisfactory language of description of mystical experience at all). “His thoughts are not our thoughts, his ways are not our ways”, whether “his thoughts” refers to a God concept or to a theoretical description of mechanisms underlying our environment and experience of that, and whether “his ways” refers to the actions of an intervening deity or to the things which actually happen in the world and in our experience of it.

It seems to me that Godel has sufficiently demonstrated that any consistent system cannot be complete, and that it’s axioms cannot be proved from within any system. I grant that he deals with mathematically computable systems, and we may be talking of something more extensive than that. I think the extension is justifiable. This will apply to a theology (which ideally is a self-consistent logical system) as well as to science itself. Science typically falls down when you look closely at limit conditions (such as the instant of the”Big Bang” or the smallest extent of matter or space), theologies fall down most readily when you look at their limit conditions, such as concepts of omnipotence or omniscience, which Charles Hartshorne has written so persuasively of, particularly in “Omnipotence and other theological mistakes”.

Thus, while I am encouraged by developments in Christian thinking such as process theology, open theism or creation spirituality, (in particular as they are more congenial to panentheism than classical theology) I cannot think that any of them is complete, or that it can ever be perfectly satisfactory. Just as occasionally one needs to think of light as photons and sometimes as a waveform, sometimes the idea of God as, essentially, a good and loving person with massive power, massive knowledge and massive longevity is actually more useful than is that of the All of which we are all part and in which all that is, was or will be is included. With the Eastern Orthodox theologians who arrived at “apophatic theology” (in which you proceed by denying concepts rather than by affirming them) and with the Cappadocian Fathers who determined that the Trinity was ultimately a “holy mystery” in that it was not susceptible to futher logical enquiry, I end with something better stated in Taoism than anywhere else I know; “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao”. The God who can be described is not the true God. The Universe which can be described is not the true Universe. His thoughts are not our thoughts.

And yet, the effort of description is not useless – nothing like useless, in my eyes. In the vast scheme of things, I am probably still speaking like a child, reasoning like a child, even though it is perhaps somewhat less childish than my 10 year old thinking. However, Matthew reports Jesus as saying “Truly I say unto you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Appreciating that a way of thinking is still childish, inadequate, even in some ways “wrong” should not prevent me from seeing it’s value.