God as Figment of Our Imagination

In my last post I introduced Zizek’s radical interpretation of the incarnation. This view could be summarized by saying that the the death of Jesus on the cross represented the death of God as a transcendent other and the event which allowed for the subsequent coming of the Spirit, signaling God’s move to fully empty himself into the world. This emptying of God’s self or kenosis means that now God exists only as a subjective presupposition for those who believe in him and act accordingly. In other words, God has so fully emptied himself into the world that he has no being outside the material world. In a lot of ways I find this reading pretty compelling. Perhaps it’s just the season of life I find myself in, one that’s been characterized by more than enough existential angst and a preoccupation with the fact that I’m going to die and that everything I do in my life will more than likely be forgotten in less than a few generations, but I’ve come to find that God, however we imagine him/her/it, may only exist as a figment of my imagination. However, I want to quickly qualify that statement by saying that I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Think of one of the examples that Zizek gives in the quote from my last post: Nation. The concept of Nation is one that is so deeply ingrained in our imaginations that it’s difficult to imagine what the world would be like without nations. We sing songs about our nations and learn our nation’s history. We vote and take part in other civic duties that insure the maintenance and continued existence of our nations. We enlist and fight in wars to defend our nation’s inviolable borders. Given the way we enact our allegiance to and make sacrifices for the ideological cause of Nation it’s easy to begin to think that we’re dealing withing something eternal or something God-given. But we’re not. The whole idea of the modern nation-state is a product of the Enlightenment. We made it up. Humans developed this idea, this ideological cause of Nation and it has since captured our imaginations. What’s more, what we call a nation is nothing more than an incredibly complex system of organization, a group of people who share a territory and a desire for unity under a government. In other words, “Nation” describes a certain type of behavior, a certain way of living in the world. Without this certain collective behavior, there is no Nation.

But here’s the kicker: just because the concept of Nation is a man made concept, it doesn’t make its effect on our world any less profound.

Could we not, then, imagine God in the same way? What we call “God” has no actual, ontological existence outside the minds of human beings who talk or think about God. God, as the anthropologists tell us, is a human construct, something we have made up. To use’s Zizek’s language, God has become so fully incarnate in the world that he has no substantial existence outside of it. This doesn’t negate, however, the profound ways in which God (that is, the concept of God as it exists in our imagination) affects our world. One doesn’t need to look far to see the important role that religious devotion plays for the majority of humans living in today’s world.

Just as Nation as a concept represents a certain kind of collective behavior in the world, so God is a symbol that represents our deepest desires concerning our world, desires having to do with peace and justice and companionship and love. All of these desires are summed up in the word ‘God’ and to believe in God is then to orient oneself towards the coming of a future in which these values are more imminently present among us. To believe in God is thus a certain mode of being in the world.

I follow Zizek here because it’s difficult for me to imagine what it would mean to say that God exists in some other-worldly reality. I suppose you could say that I’m a materialist who, in the words of John Caputo, believes that the only metaphysics we’re going to get is what physics itself gives us. I don’t think anything exists but material reality so if God exists then he must do so within the matrix of material reality. Zizek’s idea that God exists only as a subjective presupposition in the minds of humans gives us a way to talk about what it might mean for God to “exist” within material reality, a way that helps us avoid having to resort to metaphysical speculation about a divine realm alongside this earthly realm or any other kind of spiritual obscurantism.

Advertisements

The Mind of God: POB pt. 2

In light of the five reasons for doubt that Clayton and Knapp presented in chapter one of The Predicament of Belief (POB), the authors attempt to move forward and present a view of Christian theism that is both plausible for the modern believer and faithful to the tradition’s core commitments. This is what makes Clayton and Knapp’s approach different from most of what could be considered Christian apologetics: instead of attempting to explain away the reasons for doubt that they present, they presuppose them and attempt to formulate a view of Christianity that makes sense in light of them.

To begin this endeavor the authors defend their desire to want to even ask about an ultimate reality. In short, they contend that there are some things that science simply cannot answer. Behind the natural laws of the universe that science seeks to better understand one could always ask, “Why these laws, rather than other laws?” Of course, at this point one leaves the realm of scientific inquiry and enters into the realm of philosophical musing. It is often unrecognized by many that the narrative that modern science constructs concerning the purpose and meaning (or lack there of) of the universe is founded on assumptions and presuppositions that simply cannot be proven on scientific grounds alone. I explored some of these assumptions in a previous post.

Snowflakes forming complex symmetrical patterns is an example of emergence in a physical system.

So despite the fact that modern science, aided by theories of evolutionary emergence, can explain how beings like us could have evolved in a universe initially characterized by physical forces alone, the question that still remains is as follows: why do these most fundamental physical processes exist at all? Again, one cannot answer this metaphysical question by scientific means alone. Clayton and Knapp go on to conclude the following:

It is not at all inconsistent, consequently, for someone who accepts contemprary physics and biology to grant the power of these sciences to explain how particular phenomena arose from the processes of the natural universe and yet still maintain that the ultimate explanation of those phenomena lies outisde the scope of those theories. Given the universe we have, the natural and social sciences can explain how phenomena like life and mind evolved within that universe. But they do not explain why a universe in which those phenomena are possible should exist in the first place.   – POB pg. 29

Thus, it would seem that the fine tuning of the universe that we find ourselves in suggests the existence of an ultimate reality capable of intentional action. Many would object to this, however. The formulation of multiverse theory, or the belief that there is indeed more than a single universe (i.e., the one that we are currently experiencing), would suggest that, given the vast array of possible outcomes among the various universes, the fact that life has emerged in one of them is not necessarily improbable.

In response to this, however, Clayton and Knapp aptly point out that such a response merely shifts the focus of our question (“Why does a natural order capable of supporting the evolution of life and mind even exist?”) from this particular universe to the total ensemble of universes that may exist. It could still be asked, “Why were the conditions correct for life to exist in even one of the many universes that could potentially exist?” Again, the authors explain:

All multiverse theories implicitly accept the possibility of making assertions that are true of the entire (presumably infinite) ensemble of existing universes. In particular, these theories require us to postulate that certain basic conditions hold across all these universes, for if there were no shared lawlike relations, no such theory would qualify as a scientific theory. – POB pg. 32

The fact that, if multiverse theory actually is true, there are a number of set physical laws that transcend the total number of universes suggests that these laws, in a sense, preceded all universes but, as Clayton and Knapp point out, “not as descriptions of physical regularities.”

Before any universe existed, the laws of multiverse physics–the laws that multiverse theory needs if it is to be physics–were not yet “instantiated.” There was as yet nothing that existed to instantiate them; they were pure potentials, pure possibilities. They were not physical things but the principles by which physical things belonging to each of the many universes would be “governed.” But if they were not physical things, what kind of thing were they? And in what did they “reside” if not in a physical universe? – POB pgs. 32-33.

Of course, the answer must be that these laws existed in the “mind” of an ultimate reality:

To say that the laws of physics hold apart from the existence of any particular physical universe is to say that physical laws are more like concepts than they are like physical things. And where might (something like) a concept reside if not in (something like) a mind? – POB pg. 33

Thus, Clayton and Knapp argue that whether one accepts the notion that there is one universe or the notion that there are multiple universes, the likelihood that there is  a mindlike ultimate reality behind all that exists is more probable than either the idea that there is no ultimate reality at all or that the ultimate reality can be described in strictly physical terms.

The Predicament of Belief: Part 1

Summer is well under way and that means one thing for me: more time to read awesome theology books. I’m currently in the middle of Philip Clayton and Steve Knapp’s The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith as well as a big time blogging slump. I thought I would solve the latter by writing about the former. In the coming days (or, more likely, weeks) I will attempt to summarize each chapter and add my own thoughts where appropriate. My hope is that you can join the conversation as we go along.

Clayton and Knapp begin their work by highlighting what they call the five main reasons for doubting the ancient claims of the Christian tradition. It would seem that as time progresses and history unfolds it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to some sort of belief in an ultimate reality (or “God” as many are more familiar with). The five reasons for doubting the claims of Christianity that the authors highlight are as follows:

  • Science – This reason is rather self-explanatory and very likely familiar to most. As modern science continues to provide more and more answers in terms of the way the world works, there seems to be less and less room for God. In the words of Clayton and Knapp:

The upshot of [scientific discoveries] is that the natural world–that is the universe as explained in terms of the laws discovered by the natural sciences–increasingly looks like a completely closed and self-explanatory system.

  • Evil -This argument is age old and yet carries a special significance in light of the many atrocities of the last century. Why would an all powerful and benevolent God allow famine, disease, murder, etc. to exist?
  • Religious plurality – Again, Clayton and Knapp explain:
…if other people believe other things with equal convictions and, as far as we can tell, with equally good spiritual and moral effects, what makes anyone think that her religion is preferable to theirs? Indeed, is any one of the major world religions more likely to be truer than any of the others?
  • The state of the historical evidence – What are we to make of the lack of historical evidence for biblical events like the exodus and the conquest of Palestine? And what about the inconsistencies in the gospels concerning the major events in the life of Christ?
  • The claim of resurrection – Of course, this reason is closely connected to the first. How do we make sense of the claim that Jesus came back to life three days after he died. Additionally, if God has the power to raise the dead why has he not chosen the same outcome for the countless other innocents who have died in history? Why only one 2,000 years ago?

I commend Clayton and Knapp for staring these reasons directly in the face. This book cannot be accused of skirting the difficult issues. In the face of such issues the authors tackle another important question: Why not be agnostic? In the words of Clayton and Knapp:

We will argue that it makes sense even for non-Christians to regard belief in at least some Christian claims–those that Christianity shares with other theistic religions–as rationally preferable to their rejection; that it is intellectually better, consequently, to affirm those claims than to deny them; better also than to refuse to affirm them. And we will also argue that it makes sense for those who find themselves engaging ultimate reality in and through their participation in the Christian tradition to have a similar attitude toward certain claims that are particular to that tradition and are not shared by others. Here again, we think it is better for those so situated to affirm the claims than to deny them. Better–but not beyond all shadow of doubt. Because we judge the reasons to affirm Christian claims, even for those who find themseles “inside” the tradition, to be only somewhat stronger than the reasons not to affirm them, we regard our position as a kind of Christian minimalism.

The authors’ Christian minimalism separates them from Christian agnostics in that they assert that progress in assessing Christian claims can be made and indeed should be pursued.
What follows in the rest of this work is Clayton and Knapp’s attempt to make a minimalist affirmation of Christianity over against the compelling reasons for doubt as well as the option of agnosticism.

The Absence of God: Reflections on Matthew 27:45-50

“From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, ‘He’s calling Elijah.’ Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.’ And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” – Matthew 27:45-50

This passage has come to mean quite a lot to me the more I have grown as a disciple. I love it because in it we find raw and passionate emotion. In his hour of desperation we find Jesus addressing God in a way that is honest and real, even if his words weren’t “theologically correct.” The text does not actually tell us that God forsook Jesus. It simply communicates, given his cry on the cross, that Jesus perceived God to be absent. As the nails were driven through his hands and his vision became increasingly blurred from the blood running off of his brow, in a moment of excruciating pain and suffering, Jesus experienced the absence of God.

This is an experience that is familiar to me. Sometimes it seems that God is absent. Sometimes it seems that he doesn’t hear or see me. There are times when my perception and experience seem to indicate that he is distant and uninvolved. Perhaps you could relate. I would argue that our experience of God forsakenness is most definitely perceived, however, the experience, much like Jesus’, is still very real.

It is my contention that Jesus’ own experience of the absence of God legitimates our own experience. If Jesus is our model when it comes to living life as a fully human being then we ought to expect at least some degree of the experience of God-forsakenness. Let me be clear. I do not think that the experience of the absence of God should remain a constant in the life of the believer. Our experience of the cross, that is, our experience of God’s absence is always followed by the resurrection—the experience of God’s miraculous inbreaking. The order is important, though. Easter follows Good Friday. The resurrection follows the cross. Jesus’ vindication in his new life came after his experience of God’s absence. Our celebration of Sunday is cheapened when we don’t acknowledge the darkness of Friday.

What Jesus’ prayer on the cross teaches us is that it’s okay to be honest and real with God when we are experiencing his absence. Jesus, when praying this prayer, is actually quoting Psalm 22 and, in doing so, participating in Israel’s long held tradition of directing their pain towards God in the form of lament. If the Psalms teach us anything it is that God can handle our tough questions. God is okay with our raw emotion. It’s okay to cry if things aren’t going well.

Lamenting is an acknowledgment of the fact that the world is not as it should be. In a world ravaged with war, hunger, poverty, isolation, loneliness and depression, the church dares to cry out to the Creator of all in the belief that he listens.

I commend to you the following song because I think it is true to the tradition of Israel’s lament and takes seriously the absence of God that Jesus experienced on the cross and that we experience from time to time. It’s a song that is honest and raw and doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions of life.

Thoughts on Process Theology Pt. 2

In my last blog I layed down a few of the positive implications coming out of a process-relational theology. I also promised in that blog that I would follow it up with a few of my reservations about process theology. This is me doing just that.

A quick preface is needed before I get started: Over the past couple of years I’ve moved in a more open direction with my theology, a move inspired mostly by books like Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible as well as Jerry Paul’s Old Testament Theology course here at Columbia. When I heard about process as another option in terms of an open perspective on God, clearly I was excited. The reality is, however, that I still don’t know a lot about it. It makes sense, then, that the following “reservations” are really questions that have yet to be answered for me surrounding process theology.

With that having been said, let me dive into a few of these questions. One of the things that was so attractive to me about open theism over against classical theism, that is, the notion that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable (or unchanging) and, in some cases, impassible (or without emotion), was that it seemed to take the biblical narrative more seriously. What I mean is that when classical theists read passages about God changing his mind or getting angry or feeling sorry that he ever made humanity, these things are usually excused as anthropomorphisms (which, in my view doesn’t actually get rid of the problem because the anthropomorphism is still communicating something about the nature of God). Strict classical theists who hold to the notion that God has predetermined everything would say that he can’t actually be changing his mind. There is, then, an a priori commitment to the philosphical presuppositions of classical theism rather than the biblical text itself. Open theists, on the other hand, affirm what the text says at face value. If the text says that God changed his mind then God must have actually changed his mind. This attempt at doing theology bibically instead of philosophically is admittedly very attractive to me.

Here’s where process theology enters the picture. It, like classical theism, is an attempt at doing theology philosophically rather than biblically. Clark Pinnock, in his book The Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, says it well:

“Process theology is a natural theology based on the metaphysics of Whitehead, where as openness is a biblical theology not obliged to a developed philosophical schema. Process theology is a philosophical theology that explicitly draws its way of speaking about God from Whitehead and Hartshorne (cf. core doctrines such as naturalistic theism, the idea of spontaneity rooted deep down in the universe and a non-sensationist doctrine of perception). The openness model, on the other hand, is more revelation based and less dependent on philosophy” (144).

My question, then, is this: what is the advantage of doing theology philosophically rather than biblically?  Marjorie Suchocki makes clear (and, I think, rightly) that “it is not a matter of whether philosophy will be used, but which philosophy will be used.” I agree, then, that it is beneficial to have a relational philosophy while reading  a text that discloses an inherently relational God. However, the philosophical presuppositions of Open Theism are also relational in nature. It becomes clear at this point that my real question is this: what are the inherent advantages of having a process philosophy rather than just an open one?

My second question has to do with the nature of Christ’s crucifixion. I’ll quote Suchockie again:

“Abelard, living in the twelfth century, argued  that God saves us by revealing through Jesus Christ both God’s nature and that which human nature is called to be. This revelation is healing and empowering for us, and Christ becomes our teacher. Process thinkers tend to side with Abelard. Jesus reveals who God is to us and for us. The cross does not represent vicarious sacrifice, but the revelation that God is with us even in our deepest pain.”

I’m fine with process theology’s critique of penal-substitutionary atonement (which Suchocki tackles just prior to this quote in her article) and I’m fine with saying that the cross was a revelation of the nature of God as well as his commitment to be with us in our deepest pain. I don’t like, however, process theology’s reduction of the cross to merely revelation. Process theology posits that Christ merely suffered because of sin instead of dying for sin. There seems to be too much biblical evidence that would suggest otherwise (cf. pretty much all of Paul). Herein lies my question: how does process theology get around passages that discuss Jesus dying for sin (a specific example would be 1 John 2:2). This is where process theology seems to be more committed to its philosophical presuppositions before it is committed to the text which, at this point, I am uncomfortable with.

Those are my thoughts for now. It’s very possible that, upon further reflection, a pt. 3 to this reflection may occur.

Thoughts on Process Theology Pt. 1

Because most of my classes have been less than riveting this semester I’ve had to satisfy my hunger for good theology by exploring the vast expanse of the interwebs. Thanks to Dalton I was introduced to the sweetest theological podcast on the net a few months ago, Homebrewed Christianity. Process theology is a common discussion topic on the podcast and I recently began to do a bit more reading on it because I liked what I was hearing on the podcast. For those who are unfamiliar with Process theology, here’s a sweet little introduction to it by Marjorie Suchocki, a process theologian from Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. There are a number of positive things that emerge out of a process-relational theology as well as a few things that I have reservations about (which I’m eventually going to explore in another post).

First, I like that process theology takes evolution seriously. For too long has the church held to the notion that Genesis 1 is incompatible with evolutionary thought. There have been far too many young Christians who, upon their discovery of the overwhelming evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, have been forced to choose between either the faith or the facts.  It needs to be made clear that this is an unnecessary choice. Process theology emphasizes the fact that to exist is to be in relation with. To imagine a time when God existed without another to relate to is inconceivable in process thought. God has always been creating and continues to do so. Moreover, Genesis 1 presupposes a world ruled by the primordial chaos prior to God’s creative action. Creation ex nihilo falls by the wayside at this point. I’ve already explored the implications of God creating out of the “stuff of chaos” in a previous blog.

Additionally, process theology holds to a panentheistic understanding of God’s relationship to his creation. What’s attractive to me about panentheism is that it is a happy middle ground between deism and pantheism. God is neither the absentee landlord who is utterly transcendent nor is he limited to or synonymous with his creation. Instead, he is both intimately connected with his creation as well as greater than the created order. A panentheistic understanding of God’s relationship to the cosmos allows us to affirm both the natural laws that govern our world as well as God’s divine creativity in everything and, what’s more, the universe’s dependence on his continued creative activity.

Thirdly, I love process theology’s emphasis on God as primarily a relational being. Rather than being a totalitarian god who predetermines everything in history, process theology holds to the notion that God has granted us free will and remains open to the different possibilities that can emerge out of an ultimately free creation. The pastoral implications of this are huge. Prayer becomes a necessary part of our devotion because God actually listens to and moves in response to the prayers of his people. He is not the impassible being that classical theism has made him into. Instead, he is the always vulnerable, responsive, and open God that we find revealed in the biblical narrative. The notion that God is affected by the decisions we make–that is, he feels the pain that we feel and experience, cries when we cry, is saddened when we disobey–makes him, in my view, more worthy of worship than the utterly transcendent, Stoic god of traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Fourthly, process theology understands sin as violence. This idea puts words to something that I have already begun to believe over the last few years. The commands of Jesus are not arbitrary commands. In other words, God does not exhort us to refrain from certain behavior, for example, because there are some things that break an arbitrary law that God has made. Rather, we are exhorted to refrain from certain behaviors because they are harmful to our neighbor.

Anywho, those are my thoughts. More are coming in terms of my reservations but for now I’ll suffice it to say that I’m currently enjoying all the possibilities that emerge from such an outlook on God and the world. This changes everything!

A Jubilee Celebration

In Shane Claiborne’s most recent post on God’s Politics he tells a story that I thought was especially relevant and thought stirring. He touches on the concept of Jubilee, a Biblical celebration discussed in Leviticus 25 in which there is a redistribution of land and cancellation of debts. It’s a celebration that is had for the marginalized of a given society; a chance for people to be freed from their financial bondage and remember that ultimately, YHWH is the owner of all earthy possessions. This video is a glimpse of what it may look like today: