Nevertheless, God…

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

Mystic reflections on a book about Panenthism

I couldn’t resist the title of “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being” by Clayton & Peacock, not least because it had a title I wanted for my own writing, once I’ve dragooned that into something book shaped, rather than oversized blog posts. “Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World” looked good as well.

It didn’t disappoint, save for a couple of niggles, one of them admittedly a fairly big niggle. It’s a book for the student rather than the general reader, it seems to me, but is at the accessible end of that spectrum. It contains a set of essays by various extremely qualified authors, setting out a variety of views of how panentheism can be combined with a varyingly orthodox Christianity and in some cases with some features of modern science, in particular emergence theory; there are sections from an Eastern Orthodox point of view and from a more Western one, showing that the Orthodox tradition has far less trouble with panentheism than do the Western (Catholic and Protestant) streams of thought. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

My smaller niggle came from the piece by Celia E. Deane-Drummond, linking panentheism to the Wisdom tradition (and in particular the creation account in Proverbs 8:22-31). She rightly links this with the language of the preamble to the Fourth Gospel, equating Wisdom (Sophia) with Word (Logos) but fails to advert to what I consider the glaringly obvious connection between the two in the work of Philo of Alexandria, who so far as I can see made this leap sometime in the first 40 years of the first century, i.e. before any of the texts of the New Testament were written, even taking the earliest fancied dates of conservative scholars. Instead, she quotes a number of scholars who also do not seem to have made this connection. I would love to be able to point to a popular level discussion of Philo’s work, but I do not know of one.

My larger niggle is that nowhere in the book is a link made with mysticism, and indeed Philip Clayton expresses concern in his overview which ends the book that the use of panentheistic concepts should be grounded solidly in the believable rather than being understood as a philosophical flight of fancy (his own words are rather less florid). What he did not say was that panentheistic expressions flow extremely frequently from the particular mode of spiritual experience called “mysticism”. It is, in that context, not surprising that the Orthodox tradition is easier to harmonise with panentheism, as a substantial number of the major Eastern theologians are also identifiably mystics, including both St. Gregory Palamas and St. Maximus the Confessor, both of whom are discussed at length in the book.

Indeed, it is my contention, following Happold, that the mystical experience is of a fundamentally panentheistic nature, even if it does not always result in clearly panentheistic statements from the mystics. On this point, the discussions in “In Whom We Live…” around the issue of harmonising panentheism with the Western tradition are extremely instructive; the West took, early on, a number of theological positions which are fundamentally at odds with a panentheistic experience of God, notably stressing divine omnipotence and omniscience, transcendence at the expense of immanence, divine impassibility (i.e. God is not changed or even moved by occurrences in the world) and a spirit-matter dualism of an extremely strong nature.

All of these flow from a philosophical treatment of the concept of God largely drawn from the pre-Christian Greek philosophers. Now, I do not even think that the God-concept of the philosophers is truly harmonisable with the God described in the Hebrew scriptures, and I have my doubts about the God-concept described in much of the New Testament being truly in line with the God of the philosophers as well. If it is also not harmonisable with the actual experience of God granted by mystical experience, then I suggest that the philosophers have got it wrong, and have produced exactly the philosophical flight of fancy which I referred to earlier.

I appreciate that the mystical experience is a minority one among Christians (I think this is a pity, but the only reasonably tried and tested praxis available within the Christian tradition proper is ascetic contemplation taking rather a lot of time, absent a “bolt from the blue”, and few these days seem disposed to put in the hours and endure the discomfort of doing this – and I can hardly blame them, given that even then a majority seem never to achieve anything like a peak experience). However, it is well documented, and occurs throughout the history of the religion, including in Happold’s view SS. John and Paul and, if the Gospel of Thomas is thought authentic, Jesus himself. Needless to say, I agree with Happold on this.

I have something of a beef with theologians who ignore the characteristics of the mystic’s experience of God (particularly as it can be plausibly ascribed to the three most important voices in the formation of Christianity), but doubly so when those theologians are discussing a concept of God which flows so naturally from it.

The new pharisees?

Jesus is presented throughout the gospels as a healer, but some of his most controversial healings (such as those in Luke 5:20 and Luke 7:48) involve him stating that someone’s sins are forgiven.

Now, my scientific rationalist head tells me that this is a wonderful way of healing an illness which is psychosomatic. As can be seen in, for instance, John 9:3, the thinking of the day, at least among the religious conservatives, was that any ailment was a divine punishment for some transgression, either of the individual or his forbears. This can be seen at length in the book of Job, where Job’s friends go to great lengths to try to work out how Job absolutely must have deserved all the ills with which he was being showered; of course, in the last portion of the book God is seen very explicitly to tell his friends that they are mistaken. However, Job goes against the grain of much of the Hebrew scriptures (as do Ezekiel 18  and substantial portions of Ecclesiastes, for instance Ecc. 8:14 in which the wicked prosper and the good suffer). It is hardly surprising that some of the conservatives of the day ignored these few scriptures in favour of a philosophy whereby you got only what you deserved.

Thus, if an illness were to some extent psychosomatic, with the sufferer convinced that they were being punished for some sin, being told their sins were forgiven could produce an immediate cure. At least, it could if it were believed. Jesus must have spoken with colossal authority and charisma in order for this to work.

Of course, we have little difficulty in accepting that Jesus must have spoken in just this manner, and can remember that he was said not to have performed healings when he went home to Nazareth (Mark 6:4) – it is always more difficult speaking with authority to people who remember you as a child!

However, this was met with howls of protest from the religious conservatives (labelled Scribes and Pharisees in the gospels, although it would be a mistake to consider that this conservative attitude actually typified the Pharisees of the day, still less those of later times), ostensibly because only God had the power to forgive sins. To my mind, however, the protest stemmed from the privilege of the conservatives, who were well off and respected, and saw their position as justified by their exemplary character. What could be more threatening to them than to be told that their wealth and social position was not justified by relieving the suffering of those on whom they smugly looked down?

And yet, this was a thread running through Jesus’ entire ministry. The first were to be last and the last first, the preferred companions were publicans and sinners, even the occasional prostitute or adultress, who were more worthy of heaven than the overtly religious.

Christian theology has tried repeatedly to get a grip on this principle, and has regularly failed. Conventionally, we are justified through faith alone rather than works (although James reminds us that faith without works is dead), but for the most part this has come to mean that we much have the correct intellectual appreciation of how we are, in fact, smugly justified (i.e. we must adhere to a creed or another statement of faith). And, of course, our works show that for all to appreciate…

Which leads me to contemplating the case of Rob Bell. Rob is a hugely gifted communicator, who became a “star” by founding and growing to mecachurch status the Mars Hill congregation in Grandville, Michigan, being much sought after as a visiting preacher and teacher. His “Covered in the Dust of the Rabbi” talk illustrates this . He could preach a two hour sermon to me any day (as reference to the videos I link to here and below indicates he’s very able at), and I doubt I’d look at my watch once. I pointed a Jewish friend of mine at that talk a while ago, and he responded with “boy, is he charismatic!”. Granted, he is not really a theologian, and as I agreed with my friend, the image he paints in that talk is almost certainly not authentic to the period in which Jesus was teaching, as the system of pupils of Rabbis didn’t really develop in the form he talks of until significantly later, so far as documents can reveal. However, the message of the talk is not in the slightest impaired by the fact that it probably isn’t actually historically accurate.

Incidentally, it’s probably worth pointing out that Rob may well be naturally gifted and turbo-charged by the Holy Spirit, but he also puts a huge amount of work into his craft, as another set of videos shows.

Over the last two or three years, however, Rob has been regularly vilified by the evangelical establishment for whom he was once a shining star. The reason, originally, was his book “Love Wins”, in which he has the temerity to suggest that God might actually be powerful and loving enough to not condemn significant numbers of people to endless torment. (I don’t necessarily recommend the book for reading, as it isn’t theologically rigorous and reads like one of Rob’s talks – it would be better read aloud – but there is an audiobook).

Since then, he’s compounded the felony by suggesting that homosexuality is not, in fact, a sin over and above all other sins (which is a picture I tend to get from many evangelical commentators) but an expression of one person’s love for another which should be at the very least accepted. This too is beyond the pale, as we clearly need a new category of publicans and sinners on whom to look down.

This regular condemnation has recently had a resurgence, as Rob now has a prime-time programme on Oprah’s TV network in the
States. As the link I include indicates, whereas most evangelical preachers would cut off their left arm for such an opportunity in (relatively) mainstream TV, rather than the “preaching to the choir” outlets of the regular televangelists, the fact that it is Rob who is doing this is just unacceptable.

I think I see a parallel here (although Rob would probably be uncomfortable at favourable comparison with Jesus). “Love Wins” is actually saying that everyone’s sins will be forgiven (if, indeed, they aren’t already), and his stance on homosexuality is reminiscent of Jesus’ in relation to (for instance) tax collectors. The religious conservatives are again up in arms when a charismatic and authoritative preacher suggests that God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, extends to everyone, and not just the elect few. In this case the complaints are from the increasingly Calvinistic spokesmen for “evangelistic Christianity” rather than the gospel’s “Scribes and Pharisees”.

The Pharisees, it seems, will always be with us, much like the poor.

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.


Emerging minds

I got into a philosophical discussion last night, thanks to Catherine (from this time’s Alpha, which ended yesterday), and was probably horribly overmatched. No, strike the “probably”; I was definitely carrying a sword to a gunfight there.

However, it was hugely interesting and stimulating, and I hope such conversations continue outside Alpha.
One topic which came up was as to whether there was something more than the material, the physical. Now, I am at least 99% scientific-rationalist-materialist, and was saying that we had no effective way of demonstrating that there was. Catherine, it seems, is a fan of Plato. There were bound to be fireworks! Where we didn’t finish was on an illustration of being put in a room with a set of instructions. Into the room came sets of chinese characters (and it is determined, rightly, that I don’t know Chinese); you then follow the instructions and send a different set of chinese characters out to the person outside – and, lo and behold, it looks to the person outside as if you are speaking Chinese.

The question is, are you? You have no comprehension of the individual characters. Can it be said that you “speak chinese”? (my brain throws up a side note – could the Apostles at pentecost be said to be speaking in other languages, on this analysis?).

This is obviously a derivation of a Turing test machine, slotting you into the mechanism.

I was attempting to work via the concept of emergence. It seemed to me that the mechanism was too simple; I used the analogy of simultaneous translators, who frequently have no idea what they’ve just translated as the translation process seems not to occur in the stream of conscious thought (and I can testify that for me, it’s a lot easier to speak in French if I think in French in the first place. Translation is much more difficult for me, and simultaneous translation impossible – I know, I’ve been asked to do it in the past). I suggested that with a few feedback loops (and it does seem to me that consciousness operates a bit like one or several feedback loops) things might be different – though I suspect, having had time to sleep on it, that however many feedback loops were contained in the room, myself as the operator would still be serenely unaware of what was actually happening unless one of them happened to include a Chinese-English dictionary).

But I definitely buy in to the emergence concept, where chemistry is an emergent property of physics, biology is an emergent property of chemistry, psychology is an emergent property of biology (perhaps with neurology slotted in between). And possibly God is an emergent property of psychology. I at least entertain the concept, although I have no idea how you would go about demonstrating that it was correct (I suspect it’s impossible, being a higher order emergent property than our consciousnesses) and it doesn’t work for me as a working theory – panentheism still does that job better than anything else I can come up with.

Our ideas of God are certainly something which emerges from our psychology, and perhaps that is the clue here. I tend to criticise Plato as reifying intangibles, thinking of derivative concepts (such as good, truth and beauty) as being more real than the things which exemplify those qualities, whereas from where I stand they are derived concepts without any external reality, in much the same way as you don’t get the psychology without first having the neurology, the biology, the chemistry and the physics. These things only have reality inasmuch as they are embodied.

Or, as the case may be, incarnated…

Non solum sed insuper

On Sunday, I congratulated the preacher after the service, and he commented that he enjoyed my facial expressions during his sermons. He singled out two items, firstly any time he mentions Lewis’ trilemma, secondly any time he mentions “the word of God”. Apparently I’m unable to prevent myself wincing. OK, frankly, I don’t try to prevent myself wincing at any mention of Lewis or any occasion when “the word of God” is accompanies by waving a bible in the air, and it was the second of those which had attracted his attention.

In the interests of full disclosure, previous winces during the same sermon included when a graphic appeared behind him in which the word “ressurection” appeared. Yes, that is how it was spelled – and despite the fact that it was correctly spelled “resurrection” further down the same graphic, but sadly in a less prominent position and typography. Clearly, blessed are they who do not proofread as part of their occupation! There were also a few winces associated with the four repetitions of the words “and finally” spread over some ten minutes.

However, my biggest wince was definitely the transition to waving the Bible and proclaiming it as “the word of God”, exacerbated by the fact that this had no sensible connection with the rest of the sermon and therefore engaging my inner editor.

There is a collossal baggage associated with the proclamation that the waved tome is the word of God (and I should probably capitalise “word” in order to show the stress). Mostly, it involves inerrantism (there can be no error of any kind in “the word of God”, quite clearly) and literalism (the term is far too solemn no admit of there being fictional stories, poetics, exaggerations and metaphor in there), but also the concept that you can proof-text, lifting any text out of context and having it function independently of the rest. After all, if the text is perfect, it must be perfect in every particular, no?

Well, no.I reject all of those pieces of baggage.

The text isn’t perfect, for a start. There are a host of textual variations, and while most of them are fairly subtle, some of them make a considerable difference when the words are taken in small doses as being propositional theology. We read in translation, unless we have the facility to read Koine Greek and Hebrew, and translation can make a huge difference. Textual analysis has revealed that most of the contents have been revised, extended, chopped about and thus moved in unknowable directions from whatever the original texts said – and we have no original manuscripts of any biblical text. We read those texts which a combination of popularity within the early Christian community and authoritative decisions by major church figures, often based on spurious claims as to the origin of the texts, has left us – and this has varied between different Christian communities and still does – the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for instance, has quite a few more books in the New Testament than do we in the Protestant descendants of the Western Church, and the Catholics have the apocrypha, including ten additional books and additions to two others. Which of these is “the word of God”, we may reasonably ask?

No church currently includes the Gospel of Thomas within its scripture, nor the Didache, though both of these are accepted by a massive swathe of biblical scholars as among the earliest texts we have (the Ethiopian Church does have the Didascalia, which incorporates a substantial amount of the Didache, much amended, however). 1 Clement, similarly early, is now only accepted by the Coptic and Ethiopic churches, despite having clearly been canonical in many other places as late as the fifth century. There are many other works which might potentially have been included, but are not, and some of them we now know only by mention in other writers, as no copy of the full texts is now known to exist (though Biblical scholars continue to live in hope!).

In addition, if I stoop to proof-texting for a moment, John 1 does contain a definition of “the Word” (of God): “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” and “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. Jesus was and is “the Word of God”, and forgive me for this, but Jesus is not a collection of old books. Jesus is not something you can wave in the air during a sermon.

What at least the gospels in the New Testament are is a written understanding of what Jesus said and did during and shortly after his lifetime; most of the remainder of the New Testament as we know it records the understandings of various followers of Jesus (mostly Paul or attributed to Paul) written sometime after his death. The generality of biblical scholarship does not think that any of these books were written by someone who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life (the attributions to Matthew, Mark and John are traditional, but the probable dating of them and their contents do not admit of them having been written by direct followers, and Luke is admittedly a secondary source; Paul’s authority rests on post-crucifixion ecstatic experience). What they are is therefore in part tradition, in part early rationalising of the impact of Jesus.

That leads me on to the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. A very interesting article by John Cobb discusses this in the context of process theology, and I agree his tentative privileging of experience. Let’s face it, tradition is experience, it’s the accumulated experience of other people, and as such extremely valuable to guide us and let us see where we may be mistaken or on which we can build the better to understand our experience (and, if current psychological thinking is correct, which I strongly believe it is, the better to be able to have experience). As I think I’ve shown, scripture is also tradition, albeit very early tradition (plus some reason), and is thus also experience.

I need here to counteract any impression that in stating the limits of scripture, I am seeking to negate its importance. It is the nearest we can come to the actual teaching of Jesus and our earliest tradition of experience of the risen Christ; the Hebrew scriptures form the basis for the New Testament writings and give a large amount of the context for those (as, incidentally, do at least ten of those books which are not now part of our canon, what we call “scripture”). It is therefore extremely important and very authoritative, just not of ultimate importance or authority (although the social gospel of Jesus comes very close to that status in my thinking).

To quote Cobb:- “The second pole is the Bible. The Christian tradition as a whole judges itself in light of the normative account of its origins. Although it prizes the Hebrew scriptures along with the New Testament, it reads the Bible as a whole in light of Jesus’ message,actions, death, and resurrection and of the early church’s interpretation of this. That there are four different accounts of Jesus blocks the attempt to absolutize any single picture of him. The fact that the epistles interpret the Jesus event diversely inhibits any claim to finality of doctrine about him. Thus there is no fixed reference for the tradition. From the beginning it was multifold and developed through interaction among various communities that sought to live from this event. To be a Christian, therefore, is to live in a fluid context, seeking to be faithful to God as one has come to know the God of Israel in the Christi event, informed by the many achievements of the tradition, but critical of every attempt to treat any of these as fixed or final”

This very much illustrates the resulting attitude. There are no simple pat answers. There is a tradition, but that tradition continues to develop, expand and accommodate new developments in thought and fresh experience; it is not a fixed and inviolate answer to everything, but it is part of the route towards better answers. This is entirely in keeping with my view of science; science does not give us truth, it gives us new approximations to truth which are a little closer to accurately and fully describing what is happening and what is out there. I do not expect theology and bible study to be able to do more than can science – indeed, in a sense, it is itself a scientific process, using much the same rational principles to move forward. Granted, it is perhaps short on the experimental, but I would not expect it to be short on the experiential.

In fact, without the experiential, there is no point in any of this endeavour. I would not be thinking about these subjects and writing about them now had I not had personal experience, personal convicting experience. For me, therefore, experience comes first. I then apply reason, and then call in aid scripture and tradition in order better to understand and explain the experience, and in order better to have future experience. My four legged stool, my quadrilateral, is therefore experience, reason, scripture and tradition.


(The title can be translated “Not only but also”, but refers mostly to doctrines such as “sola scriptura” “sola gratia” and “sola fide”)

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)