Friday, June 11, 2010

An Open Letter to Open Theists

I've just finished my first year of seminary at Claremont School of Theology. Claremont is known for being a locus of Process Theology/Thought. There are two centers devoted to it and many faculty who prescribe or are very sympathetic to it. From what I have been exposed to it, I find many facets appealing. I also have several questions.  So here is my experiment: I will post a series of questions centered on process theology and invite people to respond. Perhaps other students wiser than I, maybe some of our fine PhD candidates, or even faculty will weigh in. I welcome the input from wherever it comes.

True Autonomy
I just posted this question on the excellent blog: Ponderings on a Faith Journey.
But I will restate. To what extent does Process Theology advocate a free will? Process theology advocates an openness to both God and the future. However, is the best most creative imaginative off the wall thought a person could ever have, an actualized potentiality offered by the divine? If so - is it really that creative? Is it free? It doesn't really feel that free if the best we can be is already in the mind of the divine.

A corollary question: Is it only human sin, that is, humanity's tendency to not choose to live in accordance to what God's will that creates the openness of reality? In other words, IF all humans and all created beings were to choose to be fully in accordance to the divine lure would the future, in a sense be determined? Is it theoretically possible to "fast track it" to God's ultimate vision of reality?

Diminishing Returns
If each moment is open to influence by all past moments and also by a novel divine lure, does the quantitative power of that novel lure have to increase? Or do past moments diminish or disintegrate over time? This is to say, if the force of past moments do not diminish then as time moves forward all past moments will accumulate and grow larger and larger with each passing moment. Thus their force will grow by (+1) after every moment. Given an infinite amount of moments their force will have to be or will be (depending on one's conception of the origin of time) infinite. If this is the case, then any novelty suggested by the divine must also increase in force or appeal to have the capacity to overcome the weight of past moments. But can anything be bigger than infinity?  So it must be the case that past moments deteriorate in their force, if true novelty is a possibility at every instance.  This is obviously a more technical question, but I raise it because--correct me if I'm wrong--I've heard it said that past moments don't go away in process thought.  What say you?

A Logical God and the Role of Faith
Up to this point in my life there has always been a characteristic in my faith life that I learned to live with.  It is summarized in the great dictum by Anselm, "Faith seeking understanding."  To me this has meant that faith precedes understanding (which is why it is faith) and the task of theology is to seek to understand.  There is not promise that one will ever get there, to total understanding.  But the finer point is that faith precedes understanding.  For this reason any metaphysics that explains God in such a way as to seamlessly integrate into science, reason, and everything else we know about the world seems too good to be true.  What's the use of faith at that point?

Neo Neo Platonism
Is there a qualitative difference between a divine lure and a platonic form? If so please explain.

Hopefully this is enough to get some conversation going. Thanks for your consideration.


paul said...

I am certainly not an expert on process theology, so my comments may involve some misconceptions, so correct me if this is the case. If process theology wants us to be open to the future agenda of God, my question is, open to what? How do we know which agendas are divinely inspired and which are the product of human sin? How do we test new revelations of God’s will? Christians (which is what I am) have often assumed that the agenda of Christians must necessarily be the agenda of God. And yet history provides countless examples of atrocities committed by Christians. The only light I see in such a history is that had these people taken Jesus (as presented in scripture) more seriously, they probably could not have justified their acts of injustice. My issue with Process Theology is that it seems to flip this partnership, as it proposes that we take our own intuition about God’s agenda more seriously than we take Jesus’ presentation of God’s agenda (as present in Scripture). I don’t mean to say that our understanding of God’s agenda does not change overtime, I’m only asking who (generally) has the trump card in understanding God, Scripture or human reason/intuition?

Wildflower said...

Lots of good questions! It might take me a bit to construct responses to each question, we'll see. I also will openly admit that I am a bit heterodox within the process theology community, so by no means do my responses speak for the whole community of process theology.

In response to your question, Paul, there are a few things I can note that might be helpful. First, many (read: most) process theologians take scripture VERY seriously as revealing/supporting the theological constructions of process theology. Marjorie Suchocki is a good example of a process theologian who I would consider very traditionally scriptural. Obviously, scripture is pretty clear that God does suffer, change and live in relationship. I think a more orthodox theologian (than me) would probably claim that it is not an either/or scripture/intuition dilemma - they work in tandem. In the theological project, one must take scripture as bedrock, even while allowing the stories to speak to new times and in new ways. Open up humanity to the Spirit, so to speak. So ulimately, it is not as though process theology is extra-scriptural, and other theologies are scriptural - Christian process theologies begin with a concept of divine revelation as well. Of course, one might dispute that process theologian misinterpret scripture, but that is another question (and a complicated one) entirely.

I might push a bit farther (particularly because of my distaste for Barth) and point out that the whole opposition between human reason and scripture is rather problematic. If you are familiar with hermeneutics, the fact of the matter is, even within our approach to scripture, we cannot avoid the fact that we have human lenses. We interpret scripture humanly, so to speak. I think it is a mistake (for any theology) to play around with epistemological foundationalism - in the end, it just suffers from too many problems, even if it might be rhetorically convenient. Process theology is not alone in the fact that it is, at least in part, anthropomorphic. One can only hope that God's revelation can break through such, or in a completely different direction, one might take hope in the concept of the imago dei. Either way, the only way to escape the anthropomorphic problem is to live completely in negative theology, and ultimately if you just say what God is not, such a theology is rather dull and not-all-too-helpful. Yes, we should take our human constructions with a grain of salt, but that doesn't mean we should reject them completely. That is true of process theology, but that is equally true of every theology.

Wildflower said...


You have some great questions. Let me try to answer them (incompletely). Let us go in reverse order, shall we?

Neo Neo Platonism -
Some process theologians will confess they are thoroughly Platonic, and the platonic influence on Whitehead is certainly present and, at times, obvious. One might make several differentiations, although I think the folk more knee-deep in process/Platonic metaphysics would be more of help. I can point to a few places where I imagine one could make a distinction between the two, if one wished.

1) From what I recall, Plato's epistemological account is recollection - i.e. each soul once knew the forms completely, and only came to forget. In Whitehead, discerning the divine lures is not a matter of recollecting what one has forgotten, but rather is a novel event with novel information for each actual occasion. So, the epistemological account is fairly different

2)While Plato (and certainly later Neo-Platonists) typically seems to affirm a strong binary of matter/the forms, and a hierarchy (the forms over matter) within that binary, the relationship between the eternal objects (through God's lure) and material reality is not hierarchical. Instead, one could say that the eternal objects and material reality are mutually dependent.

There are certainly similarities, some of which Whitehead himself was explicit about recognizing in Plato. For example, both process theology and Plato talked about the persuasive (non-coercive) power of the Forms/the divine lure. So, perhaps, one could say that Whitehead, and later process theologians, borrowed significantly from Plato even while constructing a fairly novel theological framework.

I'll defer to the Plato scholars on this one though - while I feel fairly comfortable with Whitehead, I could devote a life to studying Plato and still feel ignorant. Did you have a particular point in mind Wes of how the similarities might worry you? Or how possible differences would make your uncomfortable?

Wildflower said...

Faith -

Tricky question(s)! I feel like there are two (related) questions here - what is the role of faith in process theology, and does process theology claim to be systematic?

The latter question, actually, is a definitive 'no.' Whitehead was clear that his constructed system was open to revision, and, so, in no way is it closed. While science might be a fairly reliable method for knowledge-discernment, it too is an open system, and because of such, the place of mystery is inescapable - simply put, in science or in theology (if one might make such a problematic distinction), mystery in any given open system must remain. If you are connecting faith to mystery, then faith in mystery is an essential part of process theology, because process theology is never fully constructed - it, too, is in process.

The faith question is a bit trickier. From a Lutheran perspective, I am very sympathetic with your desire to maintain the notion that faith comes before understanding. Such, however, is not foreign to process theology. Recall that the divine lure, in some sense, precedes every actual occasion, in some sense, defines every actual occasion - it opens up the possibility of the future and any future understanding in every actual occasion. As such, one could say that, within process theology, faith always precedes understanding, as it opens up the very possibility of understanding. Part of this is the freedom of every actual occasion, particularly in relation to the mystery intrinsic to the divine lure (which is, to some degree always imperfectly knowable).

Obviously, this is just a gesture, but a grace/process theology could certainly be further developed. Process theology does not claim to be exhaustive, all-knowing, or even to be a (solely) construction of human understanding. In fact, I would say, process theology takes the fact of grace/revelation (every instant) most seriously. In some sense, it is very similar to Luther's desire to maintain irresistible grace and free will - from one perspective, every actual occasion can resist the revelation/grace of God by not following the lures of God. And yet, on the other hand, since it is the divine lure that allows for the very possibility of the future for every actual occasion, grace, at least from one perspective, in irresistible, or perhaps one could say, the bedrock of existence.

Wildflower said...

Past -

The influence of the past in process metaphysics is not simple addition - it is not as though each moment is equally influential in the present. While the influence of any past event can never fully disappear, in some sense, because of its lack of immediacy and even its lack of strong relationships to present actual occasions, past event can fade in their influence on present actual occasions. Also, remember, that some past events can be more influential on some present actual occasions than others.

For the most part, however, the influence of past events just develops over the course of time. This seems intuitively obvious - while what a Roman ate for breakfast 2000 years ago might still influence me in some vague way, it certainly is not as influential, as say, when the Roman went to speak (later that day) and his stomach gurgled.

From as far as I can tell, it seems like you answered your own question with your intuitions - this makes me think you must have a deeper worry beneath this. It doesn't seem to me as though a constantly diminishing-in-influence past seems to be particularly problematic.

Of course, you rightly point out that the influence of the past can be very great. Anyone who has been an addict, or knows one can attest to such. Even God's lure can appear to be just a drop of water against a tidal wave from time to time. I, however, take hope in the fact that God refuses to give up, and because of the freedom of every actual occasion, there is always room for real hope for a real future. There is also a great deal of hope (and another talk of the continuance of the past) in God's consequent nature - to continue the metaphor, even if the tidal wave continues its direction, the drop of hope of God's lure has felt the wave and remembers each drop of water in the wave. God then adjusts the contours of the next lures from how God "feels" the past - and in this way, through God's lures, the past, as remembered by God, is always remembered, always informing the present - but not as the dreadful influence of the past (that you allude to), but instead, the radical hope of God's promise of the future.

Wildflower said...

Autonomy -

Another VERY tricky question, in fact a question I share with you Wes, and one that my own response makes me rather heterodox in the process community.

First, the orthodox process answer - process theology maintains a strong free will - every actual occasion is free to decide what it will (in the context of its possibilities), and cannot be coerced by God. I would say, in comparison to most theologies, this is a very strong free will.

If I could reword your point, however, it is basically - can we surprise God? Obviously, we can surprise God in that God cannot know future outcomes, because they haven't occured yet. However, can we surprise God in creating something novel that God could not even have anticipated? An orthodox process theologian has to say no - every eternal object (as possibility) anticipates its creation. In that sense, you are right, there is no actual novel creation, besides its actualization. Let me point out, however, that this is no more limiting than any orthodox Christian theology. As long as one wants to maintain any normal sense of divine omniscience, God has to have known (and created) every possibility before any creation could actualize it, and as such, God cannot really be surprised in any orthodox theology. As such, the limit you point out goes WELL beyond the constraints of process theology.

Second, my more heterodox answer -
I want to be able to talk about creative novelty - REAL creative novelty, just like you. Otherwise, why the creative experiment, i.e. why did God create free creatures that seemingly have the ability to create. I do like to believe that God can take joy in the novel creations of creation, even creations that God could not anticipate, just as a parent cannot anticipate the artistic creations of her children. As such, I either want to be able to talk about new/emergent eternal objects, or adjust process theology in another way so one can talk about actually novel events/creations. I haven't completely worked such out, but I think Bracken is on the right track by rejecting the standard philosophy of time in process theology (that the past/future are ontologically real) and instead talk about the present as constantly refolding past/future. I can really only point to such here - basically, I believe, if one limits the eternal objects to the eternal objects relative to each moment, as each moment shifts into a new future, one could talk about novel possibilities that would arise with novel realities. In other words, it is not as though the possibilities of the world are static, and the reality changes (boo Platonism!) but rather, reality and possibilities emerge, relate, and develop together as a complex web.

Such is obviously an incomplete gesture, but I do truly believe that a process theology can be constructed that allows for real and truly novel surprise. Although, as I openly admit, I'm certainly not with the majority of process theologians on that one.

Your aside-
For all process theologians, there is never just one best possibility and a bunch of lesser ones - in fact, God's lures are always complex, like a tapestry or topographic map. As such, even if every actual occasion (and please keep in mind, that does not just mean humanity - 'freedom' exists for every actual occasion - followed the divine lure, freedom would still exist because there would still be a multitude of possibilities (even within each moment) for creative actualization even within God's will. There is also no absolute end in process theology, as well, of course, so no actualization can be final. The biggest takeaway here, however, is that freedom does not necessarily just mean sin in process theology - even within the freedom of actualization, there is the possibility for choices among many beneficial options. Or, to put it another way, God's lures are not linear - they are open calls to the joys of creation through the grace of God.

paul said...

Thanks Drew for your insights, they are helpful for someone who has not formally studied process theology. I think you are right to point out that Process Theology does not aim to be extra-scriptural nor are reason/Scripture necessarily a dichotomy. But I would push back a little as to whether faith (at least Christian) can truly be free of some degree epistemological foundationalism.

In secular rational terms, I think you are right that epistemological foundationalism does not work, (though neither is any other epistemological system full-proof if you really follow the rabbit down the hole.) But I’m not sure that faith is primarily a matter of epistemology, because though faith involves rationale, it is not a rational system. That is to say that faith is not based on knowing facts about God, but trust in God- which in turn is usually based upon some sort of revelation. What other reason does a person really have to believe in Jesus other than trusting in a 2000-year-old revelation despite the fact that there are plenty of reasonable grounds to doubt it. For this reason I think that faith does involve a sort of foundationalism. This is what I meant when I talked about beginning with Scripture rather than reason.

You’re right that trusting in Scripture as revelation does not automatically ensure a singular interpretation, as we still have hermeneutics to deal with, which explains the diversity of theology from Borg to Barth. But to me, because the basis of the revelation is so epistemologically suspect, faith begins with a certain suspension of reason. Certainly once this faith emerges; theology provides plenty of great opportunities to utilize reason. But it is my experience that Christians who are devoted to making belief in Christ completely rational either fall into the camp of a fundamentalist throwing around dubious proofs of God’s existence, or come to reject most substantial claims of orthodox faith when they learn that they aren’t exactly historically substantiated.

Wesley Menke said...

Thank you for your responses Paul and Drew. This gives me much to think about, a welcome opportunity in the summer.

I see the epistemological distinction now between Plato and Whitehead. Thank you. I raised the issue in the first place because Plato is often slammed for having a transcendent view of God. Process prides itself as having a more immanent, and therefore, affirming view of creation. But if all moments are ontologically distinct from the possibilities offered to them, then they are not quite up to the height of God. That's not an immanent view of God.

Yes, now I see how actual occasions can be grasped and lived into before understanding, thus affirming grace and faith. The problem I was having was more about the desire to construct a metaphysical explanation for God in the first place. Process criticizes western substantive metaphysics because God has no place. This displacement of God I have grown accustomed to. To adhere to a metaphysics that actually has space for the real influence of God seems like believing in magic. Perhaps this attitude of mine is more of my attachment to western philosophical thinking. Not sure though.

The past. Drew, you said, "the influence of any past event can never fully disappear." If all past events are something, and if they are infinitely compiled wouldn't that be insurmountable? An infinite stack of extremely thin papers would still be infinitely tall, no? The only way around this is to say that past events become infinitely small. My question is: if something is infinitely small can it even be considered to exert any non-trivial force? My concern is that it is logically untenable to say that every moment is influenced by all past events (no matter how diminished). Plus how could one empirically justify this?

Autonomy - I like your heterodox position. Also your comment on the aside is almost good enough for my concern. So long as their are multiple "good" possibilities I feel like there is real freedom. That's good.

Paul's closing comments also ring true for me and tie back to my concern about metaphysics. I suspect to rationalize faith is a dubious task. And rationally sound metaphysics that have a neat space and place for God, I fear, is too good to be true. But again, maybe this is just an internal bias.