Options for Resurrection: POB pt. 5

At this point in their argument Clayton and Knapp begin to move in a different direction. Up to this point their evidence for what they have called “minimally personalistic theism” (MPT) has been drawn from human experience in general. Now they begin examining the specific claims made by the Christian tradition in particular. Their focus is on the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. In essence they are attempting to make sense of this claim in light of their own view of divine action that they have been developing in the first half of their book.

The authors admit from the outset that the belief that Jesus rose physically from the dead (of course, this could mean many things but what I mean now is the idea that the resurrection could have been photographed) is impossible given their commitment to MPT. Causing a dead person to come back to life again would of course count as a firm break in the laws of nature.

So in what ways can a Christian who affirms Clayton and Knapp’s view of divine action also affirm the resurrection? There are a few options:

The Symbolic View: This view says that the disciples continued to experience the truth of Jesus’ life and teaching after his death and, because of their Jewish context, appropriated the notion of the bodily resurrection from the dead to make sense of their profound experience of Jesus’ postmortem presence. According to this view, what the disciples experienced after Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the actual person of Jesus but rather the with the disciples own interpretation of Jesus’ life and death.

The Exemplary View: This view is very similar to the symbolic view but goes beyond it by saying that Jesus was not merely remembered by his disciples but also served as an example for them in their own life and faith. Thus, Jesus lives on in those who choose to embody his teachings.

Both of these views are on the minimalist side of the spectrum because of the fact that they provide no role for God in the event of the resurrection. In other words, God didn’t actually do anything in this event but rather, the disciples merely realized something to be true about God in light of the life of Jesus. It is for this reason that neither of these views are satisfying for me. I want to be able to say that in the resurrection event God actually acted. Are there options available in which this affirmation can be made? Clayton and Knapp do indeed provide one:

The Participatory View: In this view “the disciples, after Jesus’ death, found themselves participating in a new reality in which their relationship with the ultimate reality (UR) had been transformed by the divine grace and freedom they had encountered in the teachings, the acts, and indeed the personal presence of Jesus.”

It’s easiest to let Clayton and Knapp explain at length:

What the life and death of Jesus accomplished, then, on this participatory account was the creation of a new possibility of interaction between God and human beings. Human beings share the “Spirit of Christ” insofar as they enter into the same relationship with God that was embodied in Jesus’ self-surrender to the one he called his “Father.” The heart of this theory, in other words, is that, in the event that came to be known as Jesus’ resurrection, his self-surrendering engagement with God became newly available, through the agency of the divine Spirit, to his followers, then and since, as the form, model, and condition of their own engagement with the divine. The event of Jesus’ self surrender somehow became central to “the mutual participation of divine and human agency” that we introduced in Chapter 3…. Through this event, the disciples saw themselves not only as experiencing a new human insight into the nature of God (the symbolic view), but also, somehow, as participating in God through their role as Jesus’ disciples.

Thus, this view does more than the first two theories in that it provides a role for both God and humanity (In other words, God actually did something in the resurrection event.) while avoiding the problems that come with saying that God made Jesus’ dead body come back to life again.

What are your thoughts?

Post Script:

I offer you the following video as a reminder of the fact that it is the way our beliefs function in our day to day lives (rather than the beliefs themselves) that is most important. I understand that resurrection talk can, because of the weightiness of the Christian claim of Christ’s resurrection, easily become polarizing and divisive.




How Does God Act in the World? – POB pt. 4

In our series on Clayton and Knapp’s The Predicament of Belief we have been left with the following question: if God doesn’t actually act in such a way that involves intervening and breaking the laws of nature then how does he act?

Clayton and Knapp offer an interesting answer to this question: God acts through the minds of his creatures.

Let me explain:

Scholars have observed that the behavior of individual creatures becomes increasingly difficult to predict as the particular creature under examination becomes more complex. In other words, the behavior of a single cell organism is easier to predict than that of an ant. Despite being somewhat predictable, the behavior of an ant is less lawlike than that of a single cell organism. In the same way, human behavior is even less lawlike given the fact that we are more complex than simpler organisms. This idea could be cited as evidence for the theory of emergence that I referenced in one of my earlier posts. In essence, the lawlike universe can, if given enough time, yield creatures that are so complex and individual that they act in non-lawlike ways given their mental capacity and complexity. Understanding the behavior of complex creatures requires more complex explanations that cannot be reduced to references to basic natural laws.

The authors explain:

Of course, generalizations still can be drawn across many instances of human behavior or across many behaviors of a given individual. Thus we speak of character, dispositions, patterns of behavior, and distinct tendencties manifested by particular groups, societies, and cultures. But there are no grounds for concluding that human behaviors (or, for that matter, behaviors of nonhuman intelligent beings, if any such exist) are merely instantiations of some underlying set of mental or physical laws.

Thus, Clayton and Knapp conclude that human actions, despite being somewhat lawlike, are not determined by the operation of natural laws or regularities.

Establishing this helps the authors articulate how God could then act in the world:

Suppose that, above the level of the mental, there is a yet higher type of property; call it the spiritual. If the emergentist account of mental causation is correct, then it is possible to apply the same logic to this new level. Just as no natural laws are broken when one explains the behavior of human beings in terms of their thoughts and intentions, so also no laws are broken when one explains human behavior in terms that include the causal influence of spiritual properties on their thinking and consequent actions….[Thus], an emergentist theory of mind opens up the possibility of divine influence at the mental or spiritual level that does not require an exception to any natural laws.

The fact that God acts by means of the mind does not require one to conceive of God’s communication with rational agents in terms of a clean and polished set of ideals that everyone everywhere is being called to abide by. Instead, God’s action could be said to come in the form of a lure, albeit a highly differentiated lure that looks different depending on the creature’s personality, context, etc. God’s lure “becomes a definite message as it is interpreted and formulated by each recipient.” Therefore, there is no easy way to separate the divine from the human contributions to any particular instance of divine-human interaction. We are dealing with a highly complex relationship at this point.

This view of divine action can be related to a number of other posts I have written in the past that have to do with God’s power. If God does indeed act coercively then intervening in order to bend the laws of nature would be no problem. Of course, Clayton and Knapp have shown why this would be problematic. The notion of God having persuasive power, on the other hand, is absolutely compatible with the theory of divine action that I have been describing here. If God acts by means of the mind then it makes sense to say that he  persuades creatures to act in a certain way depending on the situation. Whether or not God’s lure is heeded remains the choice of the autonomous agent.

While I’m thinking about it, here’s a really interesting, semi-related video on the topic of God’s power and action in the world:

Divine Action and the Problem of Evil: POB pt. 3

…it is impossible not to notice how close the concept of the UR at which we have arrived stands to what the theistic traditions have meant by the notion of God. Theists conceive ultimate reality as an infinite personal reality, a reality that has no intrinsic need of the others whom it freely and lovingly creates. We seem then to have arrived at, or close to, a theistic view of UR. Indeed, this theism or almost-theism might also be said to have a “christological tinge,” insofar as it conceives the UR as intrinsically involving the compassionate and self-giving relation to others that is associated in Christian thought, with the character and actions of a particular human being. – Clayton and Knapp pg. 42

This is where Clayton and Knapp have landed after their first two chapters. It could be said that these two chapters serve as a response to the first of five reasons for doubt that the authors raised at the beginning of their book, namely science. Indeed, the author’s arrival at a view of the ultimate reality as a mindlike, personal and benevolent (non)being has come by means of a scientific, or more specifically, a cosmological examination of the universe we find ourselves in.

What about the problem of evil? Does the reality of suffering in the world serve as a barrier to theism? How do Clayton and Knapp deal with this problem?

To answer this question the authors lay out an argument for divine action that is essential to the rest of their argument throughout the remainder of the book. Essentially, it could be summarized as follows:  The purpose (or at least one of the purposes) God created our universe was to bring about the existence of finite rational agents capable of entering into communion with God’s self. It would seem that God has achieved that purpose by creating a universe in which events are consistently governed by the laws of nature. It is hard to imagine how beings with rational agency could evolve in a world without such regularities and laws or, in other words, in a world in which God could intervene and break the laws of nature whenever God pleases.

Let us assume for a second that God can and does break the laws of nature in order to bring about the greater good. For example, let us say that God intervened in order to stop the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 from ever happening. It must be asked: if God has this type of power why does he not use it more often? Indeed, it would seem that such an action would then require God to act in order to alleviate suffering in any and all instances. Of course, if God did indeed intervene in all instances then we are faced with our first problem once more: a universe without the regularities of natural laws cannot yield rationally autonomous creatures like ourselves.

To summarize: God cannot act in such a way as to break the laws of nature. If he did it once he would be obligated to do it every time and if he did it every time then we would be left with a lawless universe unable to allow for the evolution of rationally autonomous creatures.

If not in this way then how does God act? This will be the topic of my next post.

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.