Dropping like flies…

There was a story going around a little while ago, along these lines:- A father says to his daughter “Could I have a newspaper, please?”. The daughter says “Oh, dad, you’re so 20th century – here, have my iPad”.

Result: Dead fly, broken iPad, crying daughter.

Going through week four of Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course, which has a set of “masters of suspicion”, including Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (plus Joe Hill and Emma Goldman), I’m struck by that story. Clearly, to us, the iPad is not designed to swat flies, but to the father in the story, who knows what he wants the newspaper for, it will definitely serve the purpose.

I’ve also noted this recent article. The thesis of it is essentially the same as that of F.C. Happold in his book “Mysticism, a Study and Anthology”, namely that religions tend to start with mystics around whom a group grows who find the statements of the mystic interesting and stimulating; some of them go on to commentating, putting forward theories about what the mystic really meant by what he said, and before long you have a religion (or at least a cult) with a fixed theology, an hierarchy and rules as to who is in and who is out. I have myself written in the past “The whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the words of mystics”, and while that is an extreme statement not indended to be taken entirely seriously, there is a considerable amount of truth in it. I fancy there is some truth in it if you remove the word “Christian” as well. In point of fact, some of the mystics start doing the job themselves; Paul was clearly a Christ-mystic following the greatest mystic of the age, Jesus, but was also the first Christian theologian. Many of the Church Fathers in the East had a strong mystical streak in them as well; it is unfortunate that they then felt compelled to try to rationalise their visions beyond the point which the visions could legitimately support. However, in general, I think it clear that the mysticism comes first.

That is, of course, a very different story from that told by Feuerbach, who wrote “Man first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this God (Religion) consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image.” In that he is reversing the tongue in cheek wording of Voltaire, who wrote “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man, being a gentleman, has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” Feuerbach is an adherent of the “God of the gaps” idea, that God is, in effect, an hypothesis as to the cause of all the things we cannot readily explain by finding a naturalistic explanation for them.

Of course, Feuerbach is right in that God (and supernatural entities in general) have been used as explanations for the otherwise unexplainable since very early times. He and Voltaire are both right that man has been constructing anthropomorphic concepts of God from the beginning (or at least, almost so), and in the case of Feuerbach that those God-concepts then go on to shape the thinking of mankind. In effect, Marx just follows on from Feuerbach’s criticism, but expands his thinking to providing societal hope. He might also have noted that religion has historically formed one of the “glues” which societies (at the most fundamental level tribes) need to remain cohesive.

Freud looks at religions as vehicles to assuage anxieties, also accepting Feuerbach’s conclusion as being common knowledge, and in another of the week’s readings (in this case actually a song) by Joe Hill, one of the religious claims which most commonly assuages anxieties, namely reliance on an afterlife to correct unfairnesses in life, is viciously skewered (and quite rightly so, in my opinion).

So, we can quite reasonably say that God has in fact been used as a kind of description of mankind, as a tool of social control or social cohesion, as a therapeutic invention, as a correction for the incredibly conterfactual instinct in humanity that life should be fair, and as an explanation of last resort for otherwise unexplained events. We could also say that God has been used as an ultimate source of meaning in life or a guarantor of a system of morality.

But are these things what God-concepts are “designed to do”, or is God, in effect, being used as a fly swatter?

The mystic in me is inclined to respond that, so far as we can see historically, some concept of God is first a response to a particular species of human experience which appears in all ages and cultures, albeit historically in a small minority of individuals. For the mystic, some God-concept is necessary. Granted, it probably does not look much like the God concepts which are produced by non-mystic theologians, and that is a possible flaw. However, what mysticism tends to do in practice is to produce non-violent, compassionate, generous people invested in the care of creation (and I could cite examples like Richard Rohr or the Dalai Lama), and inasmuch as some God-concept is necessary to their formation, that is not any of the things criticised by the “masters of suspicion”. Indeed, most mystics would tend to criticise the use of God-concepts in those spheres, just as I would criticise the use of an iPad as a fly swatter.

Dear Sigmund – sometimes a God is just a God…

There is a problem in this line of thinking, however, and that is that mystics using God-concepts to aid their non-violence, compassion, generosity and creation-care have historically been a fairly small minority, and one could readily argue that in fact the less beneficial uses of God-concepts have historically been far more prominent. Several of the “New Atheists” have done just that, notably Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Good”. I cannot say with confidence that the balance has historically been favourable, nor can I say with confidence that even if something is designed for good, the fact that it is usually used for bad may justify its general disuse.

What can I therefore say in conclusion? Mystics are going to continue to exist (in fact, I’ve been very encouraged by some polls indicating that nearly half of the people interviewed have had some kind of mystical experience, a massive increase from, say, 50 years ago when the percentage was more like ten) and they will most definitely have God-concepts, even if those are couched in such abstruse philosophical terms that they don’t look much like God-concepts any more. Buddhists, I’m looking at you here… and possibly also Pete Rollins “Pyrotheology”.

The thing is, things which are operationally God-concepts (and operate in the less beneficial ways outlined) are also going to continue to exist. Money. The State. The people. The proletariat. The Church. “Our team”. The list could go on for a long time. All of those are, for some of us, as Paul Tillich puts it “matters of ultimate concern”.

We will have Gods. We should strive to become conscious of the nature of those Gods, and if they are not worthy of our devotion, we should find others. Then, perhaps, we can ask not (as all the writers this week are doing) “What can your God do for you?” but “What can you do for your God?”.

Confusions of the Philosophers

Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course has reached its third week; after the introductory stuff and the atheist week, we’ve arrived at the mystics, and in general I have nothing to say about the mystics beyond “I wish I’d been able to write that well”.

However, he spends significant time in his talk introducing this week talking about Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God.

The first thing which occurred to me during the talk (and on re-reading the argument itself) was that I hold to my general principle that, when talking with a philosopher, you should never accept that philosopher’s premises (and if you feel really compelled to grant them some validity, you should not accept that they are universally true; at the most, they may apply in every case you’ve encountered). Unless you’re a philosopher yourself, of course, in which case you’re actually going to enjoy the ensuing argument. I’m not a philosopher. I’ve learned by bitter experience that any time I do accept some such premise, I’m going to end up confused (hence the title).

So, when Anselm opens by saying the God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, I immediately say “No, that’s not what I mean by the word”. Similarly, in ploughing through Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs of God, I kept finding the refrain “…and this all men call God”, to which my response was “No, Tommy-boy, I’m a man and that’s not something I call God”. Actually, even if I hadn’t formulated my general principle, I’d still say that in response to Anselm and Aquinas.

For me, “God” is a term which explains (or, perhaps more accurately, describes) an aspect of my experience, namely the peak mystical experience, and although this indicates that where mystics talk of God, there’s a very good chance (at least) that I’ll resonate with their descriptive language, it does not mean that I have any particular certainty about most aspects of what it is that I experience. Far from it, in fact; the experience is fiendishly difficult to describe in human language, and almost all attempts result in the verdict that yes, it’s something like that, but not exactly. It’s for that reason that apophatic language, saying something by negating it, as with Dionysus the pseudo-Areopagite’s “It is not soul of mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech of understanding” is so attractive – yes, it’s something like all of those, but not quite.

[In passing, I note that love is similarly very difficult to describe anything like adequately; in both cases, those with poetic abilities seem to do best.]

Thus, I can say of the mystical experience that it is supremely unitive (there appears to be no boundary between the self and the other) but not feel the need to state unequivocally that that unity extends to everything there is (merely everything I have so far been able to perceive), and I can say that it is of a reality which is immeasurably large without saying that it is infinite and that it is something astonishingly powerful without saying that it is omnipotent.

In point of fact, claims of infinity of any sort are ones which I treat extremely sceptically; I do not make any general rule of this, but there is a very strong tendency in any area of science for theories to break down (as the underlying mathematics tends to break down) when any variable tends towards infinity. Many also break down when a variable tends to zero, something which you can replicate on a calculator by trying to divide by zero, so I have an equal aversion to claims that anything is truly zero.

This all points up a problem which I think has been endemic in Christian theology since the New Testament writers started to put down their ideas in Greek (actually, the problem dates back a little further, to the intertestamental period, during which Greek became the dominant language of the Middle East). Greek (as with any other language) is not just a vocabulary and grammar, it comes with a set of embedded concepts, and in the case of the Greek of the first century, this was Platonic and Aristotelean philosophy. Neither philosophy works well with the concepts of Judaism to that date. Judaism is extremely experiential (even materialist) in it’s approach; it does not, for example, think in terms of qualities or forces which can be separated from actual instantiation in a situation. After all, the whole basis of Judaism is that the Jews are God’s chosen people, a particular instantiation of the divine-human relationship. Judaism holds, for instance, that if you save one person, you save the world, but with the corollary that unless you save at least one person, you save nothing. Perhaps the only absolute claim that Judaism makes about God is that there is one, and not two, three or myriads.

Thus I tend to look at philosophical Theologians and think of much of what they say “well, that’s cute, but it’s just messing around with concepts which have no necessary relationship to anything in reality”. Sometimes it can be read as a form of poetry, and at that point might have some traction, but there is no necessity there.

All that being said, I’ve long observed that when the likes of Anselm and Aquinas delve into their philosophies in search of something which, perhaps, “all philosophers call (or at least used to call) God”, what they are talking about is, to me, something more akin to a “theory of everything”. It’s certainly not personal or relational in any sensible way (and thus the problems with Christology and with the apparent void between immanence and transcendence which plagued the early church and to some extent are still with us), and it is entirely reasonable to consider it to be impassible and immutable, and in all probability to possess aseity. But that’s something like natural law.

Although I have some misgivings about his method, which in my view rests on something including itself with remainder, which I consider dubious,
Gödel’s incompleteness theorems could be regarded as stating that no system of thinking can be absolutely complete (his proof is for a mathematical system, but as science rests on mathematics, the generalisation seems valid). There will always be truths which cannot be proved from within a system, and no system can ever demonstrate itself to be consistent. It seems to me that Anselm’s proof, which Pete uses to suggest that we cannot really conceive of that-which-is-God, is actually talking along the same lines as the incompleteness theorems. I’m speaking poetically, not necessarily philosophically there, and in much the same way, it seems to me that Derrida’s concept of différance, in which meaning is forever based on difference but is also forever deferred to be further explained later is, in fact, talking about the same thing.

In general terms, of course. I know better than to make an absolute claim.

None of those concepts, however, are talking about what I call God…

O&R Theology reading group -Suchocki

Week 2 of the Homebrewed Open & Relational Theology reading group involves two essays by Marjorie Suckocki, a very well known process theologian. The first of those is “The Trouble with Sin: Original Sin Revisited” from Sewanee Theological Review 35:1 (1991).

I have written myself on the subject; “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin” is my basic thesis, founded on a close (and nonstandard) reading of Genesis 1-3, in which I develop the idea that the real basis of sin is self-centeredness, and “Rather Different Answers in Genesis”, in which I riff off the parable of the Prodigal Son and end up with original kenosis and original incarnation. I’m a mystic, and (I would argue) therefore a panentheist. Where Suchocki sees existence as fundamentally relational (the process view), I see existence as fundamentally unitive (and so relational).

So, I agree with very much of what Suckocki writes. I actually think that sin is inborn rather than just imposed by the structures of consciousness with which we are inevitably indoctrinated from birth onwards (though I completely agree with her than we are so indoctrinated); Augustine had something right there, even as I disagree with most of his Original Sin concept; we have evolved so as to gain, at an early age, a keen sense of self. Peter Rollins suggests that this engenders a sense of lack in us which is illusory, as this Lacanian “mirror phase” constitutes a self which did not previously exist, so that self cannot be said to “lack” what it has never, as self, experienced.

That would be a fine way of looking at things were it not for the fact that mystical experiences typically involve the dissolution of the sense of self and actual experience of “oceanic oneness”, a radical immanence of the divine. In the way of such experiences, one is paradoxically at the same time a self tending to nothingness and a self which is one with the All. Once you have experienced that, the lack is very definitely a real one, and very many mystics (including myself) have gone to extreme lengths to get it back. Judaism talks of the “yetzer ha ra” and the “yetzer ha tov”, the good and evil inclinations, and considers both to be “original”; in my conception not only are both original, but they are constituted by the same psychological event, the “mirror phase”. Christianity in general has tended to underplay this “original blessing”, it seems to me.

Suchocki does write of the co-experiencing of all things by God, and uses that as a basis, inter alia, to suggest that indulging in behaviour harmful to the self (such as smoking, avoidance of exercise or overeating) are damaging to God as well as the individual, and that did bring me up short (as a smoker who doesn’t exercise nearly enough and is somewhat overweight). My focus in the “Genesis” piece was entirely on my relationships with others, and I’m grateful (in a rather grudging way, as I don’t like making changes to my habits any more than the next self) for her pointing this out. As I light another cigarette, it seems, I am really “making the baby Jesus cry.”

Am I really likely to change that? Well, Suchocki then goes into the “infinite regress” of reasons why people behave the way they do, which she puts down to their upbringing (and so their parents). Particularly in the case of parental abuse, it seems that the sins of the fathers actually are visited on the children not just unto the third and fourth generation, but more or less indefinitely. What she notably fails to do at this point is question the very concept of free will. Many people have skewered this concept, including Sam Harris. (The clip is a compendium, but manages to get his argument without listening to over an hour of video…) I must admit to being fairly convinced by this line of reasoning, and it has profound implications for any concept of sin – because it means there is a major problem in ascribing responsibility to anyone. (It actually starts looking attractive to blame it all on a mythical Adam and Eve!).

My own position is, I suppose, that if we regard people as systems whose behaviour is determined by their history and current influences, those current influences are going to include the idea of right and wrong, of sin, in other words. The very fact that we call something a sin is one of the factors which will determine their actions (as, of course, will be whether they regard themselves as a pure individual, a part of a large system in which some part of their sense of self is invested such as a family, a tribe or gang, a nation or, just perhaps, humanity as a whole). Perhaps they have had a mystical experience and have had their sense of self simultaneously annihilated and increased to all-that-is… All these things will be reasons why they do something in the future.

Suchocki adverts to such groups of interconnected individuals without taking the further step of saying that a part of the sense of self of the individual becomes invested in them. Mere connectedness relies, I think, on a well-developed compassion, whereas the realisation that you are damaging a part of yourself in some way is possibly a stronger motivation.

Of course, investing part of your sense of self in a group of people inevitably produces the evils of tribalism, of in-group and out-group thinking, and in particular of seeing other humans as just “things”. In many years experience representing people accused of crimes, the one thing which most strikes me is that the most appalling behaviour becomes easily conceivable as soon as someone stops thinking of another person as a person and starts thinking of them as a “thing” (a mindset typical of sociopaths, but unfortunately also of, for instance, soldiers to whom “the enemy” is not really human, a tendency made far easier to fall into when killing is possible at huge distances).

We can, I think, be cautiously optimistic that humanity is moving towards more inclusive ways of viewing the self, if only because surveys show a far greater proportion of people saying they had had some mystical experience than was the case 50 years ago, and I think that mysticism is a guaranteed way in which consciousness expands to greater inclusivity – at least, that’s one of the things it did for me!

Generally, I like everything Suckocki says, even if I feel moved to expand on some points (as above). But while her answers may solve the problem of theodicy for human-to-human interactions, they do nothing to deal with the problem of “natural evil”. If our problem is in squaring the declaration in Genesis 1 “and God saw that it was good” with the state of the world now, it is not just the deliberate or reckless actions of other humans which make it a place full of pain and suffering, it is also the fact that “nature red in tooth and claw” is a pretty good description of the natural world outside the small section of it which has a developed sense of self (and of guilt or shame), and beyond that, volcanoes erupt, tsunamis wipe out communities, weather fluctuations cause famine or flood even without any anthropogenic climate change, and on the widest possible scale, it appears that the universe as a whole is headed inexorably for heat-death, but that nothing on earth will get to anything near that time-frame as eventually the sun will explode.

Surely, I think, a Creator God could have so designed the universe in general and the earth in particular to be less inimical to the life-forms we know of? (I will flag up that I think the concept of a Creator-God is a problematic one, and one which Open and Relational theologies may need to rethink).

Well, I’m not sure that is the case. There has been a vogue in recent years of pointing out that the universe appears fine-tuned for producing life. Many people have advanced that as a reason to believe in a Creator God, in a form of Intelligent Design, if only at a vast scale; personally I treat those arguments with a huge pinch of salt, as I do all arguments which say that what is actually the case is incredibly improbable. In point of fact, the probability of anything which actually is the case being so is 1, i.e. completely certain.

However, it certainly is the case that if any of the physical constants were slightly different then we can see that, for instance, there would never have been a long-lived universe at all, or it would not have produced stars, or planets, or those planets would not have had the mix of elements necessary for life as we know it. If, therefore, God can be said in any real sense to have created, he did not have any other choice than to do it this way. (I’m on firmer ground with the cosmological than the evolutionary, having a Physics degree, but I can conceive that the process of evolution which has produced humanity similarly may not have had other alternatives).

So, to answer the question “can God be thought to have been able to produce an universe and an earth markedly different from the one we see”, I can tentatively borrow the title of Tom Oord’s latest book and say no, “God Can’t”.

Fow what we have, I thank God – because it actually exists. Could it be better? Yes, of course it could – and we have increasing power to realise how it could be and to make that happen. As Teresa de Avila said “Christ has no body now but yours”. Neither does God.

The meanings of Jesus

Jacob M. Wright writes on facebook:- “Someone asked me again why Christ died, since I reject the idea that Christ died to satisfy Gods wrathful demand of justice. As if an ancient torture device devised in the deranged sadomasochistic minds of barbaric Romans is Gods perfect ideal of justice. Here is my answer:

Christ died as the “second Adam” to undo the fall, to take into himself the brokenness of all humanity, in the loving power of his Father, and thus defeat sin, death, and the devil, resurrecting with the new creation.”

He goes on to say “Second, this drama was to expose victimization and scapegoating and end the dehumanization of the principalities and powers, making a public spectacle of them”, “Christ also died to reveal the self-giving, cosuffering nature of God which casts out fear, and casts down the accuser” and “Christ is a sacrifice in that God sacrifices himself to make peace with us, offers us his body and blood. Not the other way around where we offer a sacrifice to God to appease him and offer him the body and blood. “

I’ve answered the question “Why did Jesus die”, asked in the first session of every Alpha course the same way every time I’ve been present, which I think makes around a dozen times, and my answer is considered contoversial. Jesus died, I say, because he pissed off the Romans (the occupying power – think of the Germans in France in the early 1940s) and to a far lesser extent because he also pissed off the religious authorities. It would also be true to say that Jesus died because he was human, and all human beings die sooner or later. Incidentally, no, I do not think that human beings die only because of sin – I’ve written about this previously.

Everything else we say about why Jesus died stems from a need to find meaning in what was, in essence, a death like many others. Yes, it was very violent, but so were many thousands of other deaths under the Roman occupation. Yes, it was before time (“The Last Temptation of Christ” portrays a might-have-been scenario where Jesus marries, has children and lives to a ripe old age, and was similarly horribly contoversial when it came out).

In and of itself, however, it had only what meaning we place on it – OK, arguably it had what meaning God placed on it, but I am extremely sceptical that anyone ever knew God’s mind on the subject, if “mind” is an appropriate word – and I include in “anyone” particularly the four evangelists and Paul.

But it was the death of someone in whom a significant number of people had invested a huge amount of hope and in whom they had found meaning.

Turning for a moment to historical Jesus scholarship, it has very often been commented (including by Harnack and Schweizer) that people looking for the historical Jesus tend to find something much like themselves – liberals find a liberal Jesus, conservatives find a conservative Jesus. This is extended to particular scholars – Crossan finds a “Mediterranean Jewish Peasant”, a social reformer; Borg finds a mystic; Aslan finds a zealot; others find a cynic philosopher or a pure religious reformer uninterested in politics. Personally I’m entirely confident that Borg is right, and that Jesus was indeed a mystic, but that doesn’t preclude him being a social and a religious reformer, though it does probably make it a little unlikely that he was an enthusiast for the extremely violent zealots. If Jesus was human (and Christians generally accept that he was, whatever else he may also have been) he was probably complicated, because humans are complicated. Of course, my saying that Jesus was both mystic and social and religions reformer is, I suppose, to say that Jesus resembles an idealised version of me…

The thing is, this tendency to see Jesus as many things is not a new phenomenon. The early church were remarkable in preserving four entirely different viewpoints on Jesus in the Gospels and a fifth in Paul (well, at least a fifth, but possibly also a sixth and seventh). Granted, they may not have had much choice, as there is evidence that different communities preferred different gospels. Mark is radical (both religiously and socially, per John Vincent “Radical Jesus”), sees Jesus as a paradoxical kingly messiah, and is conventionally thought to be targetted at Roman citizens. Matthew is clearly targetting Jews, sees Jesus as a prophet/messiah and is aiming largely at religious reform. Luke is probably targetting Greeks (although this term could include a lot of Romans – the eastern Mediterranean tended to see most people who spoke Greek as “Graeci”), and is particularly socially radical (see, for instance, the Magnificat). John is mystical (the writer is clearly a Christ-mystic, experiencing what he identifies as Jesus in the way in which I experience what I identify as God) and at the very least sees Jesus as a mystic who is divinised.

Paul – well, it is difficult to ascribe a single clear viewpoint to Paul, but he would probably agree with John in viewing Jesus as divinised, though in Paul’s case not from the moment of creation (as in John 1) but from the resurrection (Romans 1:4). Some of Paul’s words seem to display that he was himself a mystic (like John, a Christ-mystic), some come from other modes of thinking. If we attempt to view all the epistles attributed to him as genuinely his work, we also see someone conflicted about the position of Jews, of women and of slaves.

And about what exactly is the importance of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Paul writes that this is reconciliation with God in Romans 5:10; ransom in 1 Timothy 2:6; substitution (for sin) in 2 Corinthians 5:21; an example of righteousness in Romans 5:18; self-sacrifice in Ephesians 5:2; redemption by blood in Ephesians 1:7 and, if you believe Paul wrote Hebrews (which I don’t), an atoning blood sacrifice (9:22), though one in which Jesus was himself the officiating priest (and so the one doing the sacrificing) (9:11).

[OK, I have friends who will say that Penal Substitutionary Atonement takes into account all those passages and fits them perfectly. I don’t agree that it does – just try reading through them a few times and see if the concepts do actually fit together, but in any event I shy away from PSA because of the libel on the character of God which it represents – there, I agree wholly with Jacob’s words quoted earlier.]

And, of course, possibly the most quoted piece of them all, Romans 3:25-26 “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”.

Read that very carefully. God is putting forward a propitiation by his own blood (i.e. that of Jesus) to demonstrate his own righteousness. Not to save us from death, not to save us from sin, not to ransom us from the Devil, not to perform some peculiar sacrifice of himself to himself, not to assuage his own wrath, but to show that he is righteous. “As if”, I hear you think “we had any doubt that God was righteous…”. Well, obviously Paul thought that we had the wrong idea about God, presumably in this case that he was arbitrary and sometimes forgave and sometimes didn’t, in an inconsistent and unpredictable way. After all, didn’t the books of Job and Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Scriptures wrestle with just this problem (and come to no satisfactory conclusion?

Let me belabour the point. We, humanity (or at least some sizeable subset of us) had made a meaning out of what we experienced (just as the NT writers were doing about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus), and Paul was saying that this interpretation of Jesus’ death corrected that meaning. He was making a counter-meaning. OK, we could also read that as God ordaining the death of his Son on the cross to correct a human misconception, but most people will find that at least vaguely scandalous as regards the character of God (as do I).

That means, of course, that there was no vast cosmic change in God’s relationship to humanity as a result of Jesus’ death (which I expect some people will find equally scandalous). Paul was extracting from the events a meaning which corrected an error about God which itself was part of a human meaning-making enterprise. Paul’s statement of this was “an event” in the parlance of post-modernity.

In point of fact, being a panentheist, the conventional atonement theories make no sense to me, but this reading emphatically does; my own view can be found at the end of this post, which is mostly a reaction to Clark Pinnock. It is, of course, another piece of human making of meaning…

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.

Nil combustibus…

I don’t come from a church which has a particular “down” on smokers, but I do note that some do, particularly in the States. I’m a smoker; I don’t regard it as a commendable thing – certainly it damages me physically, and I have COPD as a result, and would very much like to be relieved of the compulsion to keep on smoking (I’ll freely admit to being an addict in that respect) but I’ve never really regarded it as “a sin”, i.e. something scripturally forbidden.

I noted in a Patheos article today the statement “What about the command to treat your body as a temple, Christian smokers?” (the article was largely about Christians singling out homosexuality to be the “sin” they condemn, to the exclusion of all the sins which are more unequivocally prohibited in scripture, a position with which I entirely agree), and my immediate thought was “How do they work that one out?”.

Most temples I’ve come across burn incense – indeed, most churches do, if you include the Catholics (by far the majority Christian denomination) and the Orthodox. Can I regard myself as burning incense, perhaps? Add to that the fact that “the Temple” in our scriptures is a place where animal sacrifices including very many burned offerings were made, and I think of the complex hydrocarbons given off by the burning of meat, and anything I inhale when smoking rather pales into insignificance…

That said, I don’t think those who regard smoking as a sin and guilt those Christians who do smoke as doing a particularly bad thing – it would definitely be a good thing if no-one took up smoking in the first place (or at least, smoking tobacco), and I rather reluctantly approve the climate which has grown up in my country which makes smokers into social pariahs, despite being one of those pariahs myself, and would that they focus more on smoking than they do on homosexuality!

But I don’t think it can legitimately be put forward as something Biblically condemned…

This land is my land…

I recently followed a link to a TED talk by a native American, which deals largely with the question of land ownership. It is very much worth viewing, particularly for anyone from North America, Australia or New Zealand. One issue about it which wasn’t made much of in the talk was that the Native American concept of ownership (inasmuch as it’s a concept of ownership at all) is of communal ownership – the tribe is owner, individuals aren’t, whereas the immigrant/European/Enlightenment concept is of individual land ownership, with (perhaps) a concession to communality in federally owned land, which seems to be against the fudamental principles of the American right. Clearly, it’s somewhat easier to talk of very long term land ownership when it’s a people rather than a succession of individuals who are “owners”. I use inverted commas there, because I think the concept of ownership with respect to land is a vexed one. Some Native American thinking might be along the lines of those friends I mention in the linked post who feel more that their property owns them rather than that they own the property – they are custodians or trustees of the land rather than owners who can do with it what they will, but even then it is a communal custodianship. The early Hebrew conception seems to have been similar – at Jubilee, land had to be returned to the tribe (one of the 12) to whom it was originally allotted; it is less clear that it had to be returned to an individual or individuals within that tribe. Yes, the strict wording talks of the individual there, but the year of Jubilee was only once every 50 years, while life expectancy was more like 30 or 40 years, so it was definitely not aimed at individuals, at best family groups.

I do not live in any of the areas settled by Europeans against the interests of indigenous populations; the last time Yorkshire was settled against the interests of the indigenous population was in 1066 onwards, with the Norman conquest. In point of fact, the house in which I now live can be traced back to around 1815, at which point it seems to have been built by the then Lord of the Manor, the Earl of Londesborough, a member of the Darcy family. There’s a significant probability that at some time before that, the Darcys appropriated it from local peasants under one of the Inclosure Acts, but that would have been a legal action, though not one I would regard as wholly ethical (a point to which I’ll return). There’s a very high probability that the Darcys or their (legal) predecessors acquired the Manor from the Crown at the time of the conquest. The Crown will have acquired it by conquest, as shortly after the conquest, the North rose up against the Norman invaders and was very harshly dealt with, but Selby and Brayton don’t appear in the Domesday Book, so there’s no record of that.

And, sometime before that, the Saxon (or Anglian) owners will have acquired the land by conquest from British people (probably the Parisi), who probably owned the land in common, much as the native Americans used to. The Saxon or Anglian owners may have owned it in common themselves, but land ownership under the Saxons did become more individual. It may have passed through the hands of some Vikings from the Kingdom of Yorvik (modern York) and at various times seems to have formed part of the British Kingdom of Elmet and the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria. Each took the land by conquest.

The point I make here is that even in a country with settled land occupation for over 1000 years, somewhere in the past of any piece of land is likely to have been an occasion when it was taken by force from someone else. There are, however, no British, Saxon or Anglian tribes with an existing identity and a history going back to those times to claim the land back from me.

Of course, at the time they lost what eventually became my house, it was a small corner of a field or wood, and worth very little; now it has a substantial house on it, and is served by roads, gas, electricity, mains drainage and telephone lines. The mains drainage and gas supply were laid at the expense of my family, and the house would have been a ruin by now were it not for a substantial amount of money we’ve spent on it. Actually, the house would almost certainly not exist – 10 years ago, we explored the possibility of selling it, as we were at the time in a horrible financial situation, and the only offers were from developers who wanted to tear it down. As of today, it’s definitely worth more with the house as it now is.

So we can claim that we’ve improved the land (and that its value has been improved by other factors which my family can’t lay claim to, such as good roads, other infrastructure, the growth of the town giving it a desirable location, the fact that this area is zoned for residential use and the general land shortage in the UK). I say “claim” because, if you want to use it as, say, agricultural land, the value is negative – it would cost more to demolish the house and return the plot to usable agricultural land than the resulting land would be worth (I was once put off buying a very characterful but derelict house by a surveyor on the basis that the demolition costs would be more than the site value…). This is important, because claims that land has been improved are often raised as a reason why previous owners who have been dispossessed should have been dispossessed.

That said, I think there is some merit in the idea that land has been occupied and used. For a house or flat up to a small farm, it seems reasonable to me that the person who (or whose family) has actually been using and occupying the land for many years has a claim to it. Certainly that agrees with the instinctive reaction of people who have been doing that, that “this is my land”. People seem to vary in how long they need to live somewhere before it becomes “theirs” – some people I know who move from flat to flat on a regular basis get no such sense, but then again some move into a property and immediately feel it to be “home”. There is, however, a problem with this which goes back to and beyond Biblical times, the conflict between the farmer and the herdsman (Cain and Abel, or the pastoralist Israelites versus the agricultural Canaanites) and which forms part of the plot of many Westerns (the cowboy is in conflict with the farmer who doesn’t want herds of cows driven over his crops). The cowboys, the Native Americans and all hunter-gatherer cultures have the disadvantage of needing wide open unenclosed spaces which tend to appear empty and unclaimed to the farmer.

I mentioned the Inclosure Acts earlier. These days, a landlord would frequently not be able to appropriate land to their own use, and certainly couldn’t do that with land which had been in common use for a long time (though the law as it stands doesn’t envisage creation of any new commons), but government entities can expropriate fairly easily, giving compensation (in the UK, Compulsory Purchase, in the US Eminent Domain). In a sense, that does (generally extremely briefly) return land to common ownership. We don’t, however, look kindly on people taking land without adequate compensation, whether it be governments or private landlords redeveloping a site. The Inclosure Acts were no exception as far as land specifically allocated to individuals was concerned, but didn’t compensate for loss of commons or the use of “waste” (but occupied) land at all adequately – and, sitting in the 21st century, I think that was wrong. At the very least, generous compensation should be given to people who are actually occupying and using land – and that’s another place where I think Compulsory Purchase and Eminent Domain fall down.

They also, to my mind, fall down when used to assemble land and put it in the hands of another private individual or corporation. Libertarians are typically incensed by any use of those powers, but I can envisage them being justified where there is an overpowering public good being served – for instance the construction of a new transport link. Where the end result is another supermarket or commercial development, however, I am less happy. Typically, this is government using its powers in the service of the economically strong at the expense of the economically weak.

The Inclosure Acts were, however, generally thought of as being a progressive move at the time. They enabled agriculture to be conducted on a much larger scale, with the removal of the mediaeval strip fields, and contributed to a massive gain in agricultural productivity. But they destroyed a more communal way of growing food, and contributed to the end of village life as it had previously been, and no serious thought was given to repairing either of those damages. Nonetheless, they were not considered to be major breaches of general principles by the majority of people.

Indeed, at the time they occurred, none of the transfers of ownership by conquest which I outlined will have been generally thought of as breaches of general principle. The right of conquest was a well-established principle at least until the Nuremberg trials and possibly until the UN resolved against it as late as 1974 (I was actually rather suprised to find that it was so late – that does mean, among other things, that the German offensives of 1939 onwards could not unreasonably have been thought of as legitimate conquest until Nuremberg decided otherwise retrospectively, though only really for Europe).

So where does that leave me? I instinctively sympathise with the speaker in the TED talk from my 21st century, post UN resolution perspective, but the expropriations he talks of were carried out before the world decided that “right of conquest” was outdated and conquest should no longer be condoned (with the caveat that native lands are still, to some extent, being expropriated in the States and elsewhere, just on a much smaller scale and using, for instance, Eminent Domain). However, most of the former Native American land has been in the hands of others for well over 100 years now, longer than the memory of anyone now living stretches. I would also instinctively sympathise with anyone who had in good faith bought land which was formerly Native American and had occupied and used it as their own for many years, possibly even for a short period. There has to be some kind of balance to be established. Certainly I have major misgivings about retrospective laws (there is something deeply wrong about declaring something to be the case when none of those involved at the time thought it was, most notably where something is made a crime after the event).

Indeed, perhaps we should consider that rights in land are extinguished after some period of time has passed without effective action having been taken to enforce them, even where there was such a disparity in power that no effective action could ever be taken. I’d certainly tend to take that view were any Parisii, Romans, Angles, Vikings or Saxons to come along and suggest either that I should return the land to them or pay them compensation for having been dispossessed of it; my claim ultimately rests on the Norman conquest in 1066 onwards (specifically the campaign to subdue the North in 1069), and I’m inclined to think that nearly 1000 years should be sufficient. There are, in any case, no surviving nations of any of those, assuming that the Italians, Danes, Norwegians and Germans don’t claim for their former colonists! (The Parisii vanished without trace into the general population, and indeed actually so did all the other actual colonists, even though their home countries can be thought of as surviving in a sense, and given that my ancestors have been in this general area for the last 750 years at least, I probably share the genetics of all of them).

In the case of personal claims, English law does prescribe a limitation period; 12 years. If you’ve taken no action to try to recover land within that period, you can’t sue later (though there’s an exception while you’re “under a disability”, such as being insane or too young). Indeed, if you’ve been in exclusive possession for 12 years, you can actually claim title. It’s more difficult to claim in either direction when rights over land are involved, as they tend to be only occasionally exercised – 20 years in the case of a claim to a right of way, for instance (it’s far more difficult to extinguish a right of way once granted). That, of course, assumes the existence of a court (and a higher authority) to enforce rights, and it’s worth mentioning that in the case of losing land by limitation, it’s specifically a court application which counts – going onto the land and trying to take it back by force doesn’t… Personally I incline to thinking that the 12 year period is a bit short, but possibly there’s a nod there towards the “use” concept of ownership – if you aren’t using it, you arguably can’t really be said to own it. Opinions vary, and I’ve heard people argue that loss of land should be something you can recover as long as those dispossessed are still alive, including any who were under age at the time of the dispossession. Rarely, however, have I heard people argue that personal claims should extend to future generations.

Of course, with the kind of situations the TED talk deals with, there was no higher authority available, no court to ask for redress.

In addition, there’s the issue of a different conception of ownership when an individual and a group (for instance a tribe or nation) are involved. Almost nobody, I think, would suggest that a nation should lose land merely because it had been occupied for 12 years by someone else. At least, not in the 21st century.

But that leads to the question of “How long?”. I’ve suggested that 1000 years is too long (although Israel might be regarded as a counter-example). Is 100 years too short? Certainly, many Native Americans (and indigenous peoples of other colonised lands) think it is. I wonder if there’s a “right” perspective. Some balance between the rights of a dispossessed people and those who have (arguably entirely innocently) been actually in occupation of the land for quite a few years? Should such rights steadily reduce over the years, or should they continue unabated where the dispossessed have no means of asserting them? I don’t know. But I do know that land law could get very interesting were such rights to be recognised!