Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Predicament of Belief: Ultimate Reality (pt.3)

In chapter two of "The Predicament of Belief", Clayton and Knapp (C&K) make their case for theism - not as Christians, but more broadly as rational enquirers, or better, metaphysicians. As far as metaphysics go, C&K are minimalists.  Their goal is to articulate the most plausible version of theism. While they respect those who would argue for a more robust form, their goal is more modest and their audience is different: "...those who are uncertain that any form of distinctively Christian belief in God is still plausible in an age of science and religious pluralism."

Like the great metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead, C&K argue that scientists do have certain metaphysical assumptions. There is no getting around this fact, so achieving some metaphysical clarity - however difficult - is a necessary, reasonable task.  To avoid metaphysics is itself a metaphysical position.  It is to fall into self-contradiction.

C&K argue that the 'fine-tuning' argument is not meant to be evaluated on a scientific but philosophical basis. As such, they affirm its relevance to metaphysics. But what about a possibile multiverse (a typical counter-argument to fine tuning)? They question the coherence of the multiverse theory and push back that even if it is true, it does not defeat the argument for an Ultimate Reality along theistic lines. A multiverse requires, in order to be a scientific theory at all, the assumption of certain lawlike relations that hold across every universe. But such trans-universal laws do not apparently depend on any particular physical reality. Before any universe existed, they must have been purely possibilities. But if possibilities are not physical, what (and in what) are they in reality? This leads to their argument for the 'ultimacy of mind': these possibilities are ideas, and as such, must reside in something like a Mind.  Mind is thus the primary reality, not matter.

To summarize: the ordering principles of our universe (or multiverse) must be non-physical ideas contained in something like a mind.

But C&K go further and argue for an intential, purposeful UR: "We believe that this is the most justified position, the one that can best stand up to objections by those who are experts both in the relevant sciences and in the metaphysical debates..." They pull back from seeing the UR as a ‘person’ but argue that it has person-like qualities alongside impersonal qualities (e.g., Whitehead or Schelling's dipolar theism).  Additionally, they argue that it is logical to assume that the UR is infinitely powerful.

At this point they haven't affirmed that the UR does anything other than merely contain nonphysical ideas to be actualized (somehow) in the world. What about things like agency, values, benevolence, providence, etc? Unless more can be said, theistic religions have nothing to work with.

Fortunately, more can be said. C&K argue that it is most reasonable to affirm that the UR created the uni/multi-verse for no other reason than to bring others into existence. As infinite, it did not apparently need others. And in order to allow finite beings to exist, infinite reality must limit itself.  An infinite UR that brings finite beings into existence with the necessary self-limitation looks very much like self-giving love: agape.  This leads C&K to an argument for what they call the 'divine lure' (which I will not detail): the UR lures human conscience in the direction of particular values.  As such, the UR is more like a person than an impersonal force - or as C&K put it, the UR is "not less than personal."

To summarize: the mindlike, purposeful UR is characterized by self-giving love and motivated by something like values and intentions.

This UR is beginning to look very much like the God of Abrahamic traditions - but note that there is no justification for any religion at this point.  The next chapter will deal with divine action and the problem of evil.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

20 Books Post-Evangelicals Should Read

A lot of these lists have been going around because of a recently published book called 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.  It's a nice list, and worth checking out.  But if you know me, you know I'm a big fan of lists - so how could I resist from making my own?  My list will only focus on more recent books, while most other lists have gone deeper into the tradition, from Irenaeus on up.  Furthermore, my list is a bit shorter and these books are significant for me within a particular context - or theological trajectory, if you will.

The list includes a number of books that have been significant on my spiritual journey, including some that I don't fully resonate with anymore but continue to be grateful that I encountered them when I did.  Other books on this list I simply consider essential reading, and a handful of these books even represent some of my favorite books that I came across at grad school.  But let me be clear: while some of these books would be in my 'favorite books of all-time' list, certainly not all of them would.  I begin with more evangelical texts and increasingly move more progressive.  As such, these are not arranged in order of importance.
  1. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis (1946)
  2. The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, et al. (1994)
  3. The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott (1999)
  4. The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder (1972)
  5. Just Peacemaking edited by Glen Stassen (1992)
  6. Theology and the Kingdom of God by Wolfhart Pannenberg (1969)
  7. A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren (2004)
  8. The Way of Jesus Christ by Jurgen Moltmann (1989)
  9. The Nature of Love: A Theology by Thomas Jay Oord (2010)
  10. Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion by S. Mark Heim (1995)
  11. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright (1999)
  12. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evoluton by John Haught (2000)
  13. Jesus the Liberator by Jon Sobrino (1994)
  14. She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson (1992)
  15. How (Not) To Speak of God by Peter Rollins (2006)
  16. The Predicament of Belief by Philip Clayton & Steven Knapp (2011)
  17. Christ in a Pluralistic Age by John B. Cobb, Jr. (1975)
  18. The Powers That Be by Walter Wink (1999) 
  19. The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology by Marjorie Suchocki (1995)
  20. God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan (2007)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Predicament of Belief: Reasons for Doubt (pt.2)

[Below I continue blogging through Clayton and Knapp's new book The Predicament of Belief.  It's awesome.  It's theology that reads like a detective novel or thriller of some sort.  Go buy it on amazon and read along with me.]

Clayton and Knapp (C&K) use chapter one to explain the five primary reasons for doubting Christian claims today: 

1) Science - modern science has unquestionably made many traditional Christian claims more challenging to accept as it has continued to naturally explain the world in ways that religions, including Christianity, once explained supernaturally.  It has problematized miracles and arguments for God's existence.

2) The problem of evil - how can one still affirm an all-powerful, good God when there is so much innocent suffering in the world?

3) Religious pluralism - how does one choose a religion in the light of our intensifying awareness of so many religious options?  We seem to be born into a tradition rather than genuinely choosing a tradition.  Also, why does it seem to be so difficult for God to more clearly communicate religious truth?  We seem to be stuck in a state of confusion and conflict about the truth of religions.

4) Historical evidence/Biblical criticism - in my own words, while the Bible might be a beautiful mess, it is nevertheless a mess from the perspective of the historian and textual critic.  There are contradictions, 'lost gospels' and other problems throughout the Bible and Christian history that make a theological reading of the text more challenging than we have ever realized.

5) The central claim of Jesus' resurrection - the relevant but often differing accounts in the biblical texts make understanding this controversial claim even harder to believe.  Plus the problem of evil forces one to ask: if God intervened for the resurrection of Jesus, why not other times for the innocent who suffer?

In the light of these challenges, C&K ask whether it might just be more honest to be agnostic.  They reject this option and advocate for what they call "Christian minimalism."  This is the position that sides with theism in general and modified Christian truth claims, but also admits that the evidence that tips the scale in the Christian theistic direction for C&K is only minimally more likely to be true.  Taking the 5 reasons for doubt seriously forces us into such a position, the authors contend.  Yet they do not believe one needs to be "maximally minimalist" (they point to certain liberal biblical scholars like Robert Funk, for example). 

But isn't this 'Christian minimalism' on the verge of agnosticism?  C&K argue that agnosticism claims that one cannot make progress in considering the truth of religions.  They differentiate themselves from 'Christian agnostics' (while admitting some questions may be impossible to answer), affirming the possibility of making progress in evaluating religious truth claims in general and the religious responsibility of doing so.  They firmly reject the agnostic position that it is always wrong to hold or form beliefs that may not convince a neutral observer.  But they also differentiate themselves from 'Christian fideists' who think we can just take everything on leaps of faith.  The fideist and agnostic are equally dogmatic in their claims.  

C&K intend to move forward in their arguments with two phases: the first argues in a more general way for claims about ultimate reality (metaphysics) that are not tied to specific religious claims; the second argues for specific Christian claims in the light of the metaphysics developed in the first phase.  The first phase is intended to convince rational persons of good will (although they admit plenty will not agree, especially those who assume a physicalist/materialist position).  The second is aimed at those within the Christian tradition and will not resonate with as broad of an audience.  But both phases take seriously the five reasons for doubt.  The resulting Christian positions aim at plausibility as well as serious engagement with the bible and tradition.  Even so, not all claims will have the same degree of justification.  The way in which C&K evaluate the degree of plausibility of their arguments is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, as we will see in future posts.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Predicament of Belief: Preface


Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp have written a powerful book about science, doubt, philosophy, and faith that I hope to show is well worth a read.  The Predicament of Belief is currently available through the publisher at Oxford University Press, but it will also be released on Amazon within a few days - so go get yourself a copy and read along with my posts!  I'll be blogging through each chapter over the coming weeks if all goes as planned.  This first short post will cover the preface to get us into the major sections of the book.

Clayton and Knapp (hereafter abbreviated C&K) begin by pointing out the difficulties for religious persons who are also committed to science today.  The New Atheists (Dennett, Dawkins, etc) have inspired a new generation of aggressive atheists.  Secular scientists and philosophers often argue for a meaningless universe.  On the other side are conservative religious persons who are content with their faith, more-or-less trying to ignore the philosophical and scientific challenges of our day.  The space between these two extremes often gives birth to agnosticism from those who disagree with both sides.  Such agnostics may still be spiritual in some vague sense, opting for radical apophaticism combined with ethical and practical emphases.  

C&K seek to move beyond these options, but they plan to do so by honestly and rigorously working through the most challenging arguments against religious belief rather than merely providing an apologetic defense of faith.  What beliefs must be rejected in the light of what we know, taking full account of the best knowledge of our day, and what beliefs might be kept?  To what degree of certainty can we still hold to certain religious beliefs?

They also seek to go beyond the typical liberal responses that too quickly jettison major beliefs of the Christian faith in favor of slippery mystical language about "new being" and substituting dogmatic commitments to liberal politics for dogmatic commitments to orthodoxy.  Such liberal religious persons tend to leave out any close critical scrutiny of the basic assumptions that lead them to such a position.  C&K seek to investigate those assumptions, as we will see.

The predicament of belief then refers to all of these types of factors that challenge religious persons today.  The grounds for doubt today they confess "are deep and serious."  Theologians ought to be able to respond to such reasons for doubt - and be willing to do major restructuring of theological positions if necessary.  While orthodoxy may serve as a guideline for such restructuring, it will probably need to be challenged as well.

All of this seems like bad news to many Christians, but C&K are convinced that there are compelling reasons to affirm certain Christian beliefs about God and the Christ-event, even if they must now be transformed to some extent.

They conclude by admitting that hard skeptics and conservatives will probably not be persuaded by their arguments.  But this is not their intended audience: "Our arguments are not aimed at those who are happy to remain at either extreme, but are offered as guidance for those who wish to go where reason and experience may lead."  The book is the result of over two decades of research from the authors, so be prepared to wrestle with some serious theological challenges. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: Experience, Expression, & Metaphysics (part 3)

 [This is the third and last post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's little book, Religion in the Making.  It presents his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.]

Rational religious consciousness begins with the individual but necessarily expands to the universal. This is crucial for Whitehead’s theory of religion: it is not only individual solitariness - “Religion is world loyalty…equally individual and general…”

The rational religions had to re-evaluate the relation between religious experience and dogma. Just as the dogmas of science attempt to express the truths disclosed in sense-perception, so the dogmas of religion attempt to express religious experience.  All rational religions are based on “the concurrence of three allied concepts in one moment of self-consciousness”: first, the value of individuals; second, the value of all individuals for each other; and third, the value of the objective universe as a whole, which provides the content for the intuition of values.

All religious experience involves the intuition of an impersonal “character of permanent rightness” that is inherent to reality.  Evil is present in the world to the degree that conformity to this character is incomplete, for it “functions as a condition, a critic, and an ideal."

Whitehead then argues that to use language and to speak about anything necessitates metaphysics. Historians, scientists, and religious persons require metaphysical clarity – although religion has a greater need because of its claims to universal, permanent relevance. He defines metaphysics as: “the science which seeks to discover the general ideas which are indispensably relevant to the analysis of everything that happens.” A starting point for Whitehead’s metaphysics is that the universe is totally interdependent, yet every individual within the whole has its own value and experience. This connects to his definition of religion as solitariness and worldliness: “The world is a scene of solitariness in community…The topic of religion is individuality in community.”

We jump to the final chapter where Whitehead argues that religious dogmas must provide an adequate interpretation of life if they are to be maintained: “Religion starts from the generalization of final truths first perceived as exemplified in particular instances. These truths are amplified into a coherent system and applied to the interpretation of life. They stand or fall – like other truths – by their success in this interpretation. The peculiar character of religious truth is that it explicitly deals with values. It brings into consciousness that permanent idea of the universe which we can care for. It thereby provides a meaning, in terms of value, for our own existence, a meaning which flows from the nature of things."

Whitehead thus points to the importance of metaphysics in the formulation of religious knowledge or dogmas, which only have meaning within a metaphysical system. As such, the truth of dogmas are dependent on the truth of the metaphysical sphere of thought in which it arose.

Whitehead then argues that religious experience must be expressed into a common medium of sense experience within a religious community: action, words, and art, for example. Religious dogmas, or any other kind of expression, are necessary because they increase “vividness of apprehension” of general truths – but “a dogma which fails to evoke any response in immediate apprehension stifles the religious life."

This brings Whitehead back to his theory of religion as solitariness: if religious experience is individual solitariness, “Expression, and in particular expression by dogma, is the return from solitariness to society. There is no such thing as absolute solitariness.”  Thus, religious intuitions gain their universal relevance as they are expressed and verified in communities. Yet Whitehead cautions that all religious dogmas and metaphysical systems are usually incomplete in their grasp of full truth. Religions must proceed with humility, always willing to “amplify, recast, generalize, and adapt, so as to absorb into one system all sources of experience.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: The Evolution of Religion (part 2)

 [This is the second post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's little book, Religion in the Making.  It presents his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.]

Whitehead’s process theory of religion emphasizes the historical evolution of religion: religion is involved in the flux of history like everything else. Whitehead also adopts a view of religion that is basically progressive – in other words, religion generally developed on an upward trajectory towards ‘higher expressions.’ He calls this process the “ascent of man."

Whitehead provides his major definitions of religion early in the book, which are worth quoting at length: “Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts…A religion, on its doctrinal side, can thus be defined as a system of general truths which have the effect of transforming character when they are sincerely held and vividly apprehended…Religion is the art and the theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself and on what is permanent in the nature of things. This doctrine is the direct negation of the theory that religion is primarily a social fact…Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness…thus religion is solitariness…” What he means will become clear as we move on to discuss the evolution of religion from being a social phenomenon based on necessity and instinct with a tribal concern, to an individual phenomenon based on rationality with a universal concern.

Religion developed in four stages: ritual, emotion, belief, and finally rationalization. These develop in order towards greater religious importance, and different periods of religious history are characterized by varying degrees of emphasis on these four factors.

Ritual was the most primitive stage of religious evolution, which are types of organized behavior that are not directly related to survival. They also generate emotions, and in turn ritual and emotion reinforce one another. Whitehead writes, “In this primitive phase of religion, dominated by ritual and emotion, we are dealing with essentially social phenomena…a collective ritual and a collective emotion take their places as one of the binding forces of savage tribes. They represent the first faint glimmerings of the life of the spirit raised beyond concentration upon the task of supplying animal necessities.”

At the level of ritual and emotion, there was an “incipient rationality” that eventually generated myths, which primarily served to explain ritual and emotion. This third stage of belief formation was significant: “For just as ritual encouraged emotion beyond the mere response to practical necessities, so religion in this further stage begets thoughts divorced from the mere battling with the pressure of circumstances.”  However, at this stage, religion remained a social phenomenon.

The final stage emerged slowly as myths were historically and rationally evaluated, re-organized, and turned into beliefs with universal relevance. The result was rational religion, which required a more complex stage in the development of human consciousness. The age of rationalism over the last six thousand years finally introduced solitariness into religion. The various great religions of the world are a result of transforming pre-existing traditions through rational reflection, special intuition, metaphysics, and ethics.

Rational religions moved away from communal towards individualistic forms. While communal forms of religion had fostered social unity, they had lost their ability to stimulate progress and had to gave way to individual forms of religion.

Especially through travel, humans developed the ability to think beyond their local context. An individualized world-consciousness was thus facilitated over a social consciousness. The latter is more concerned with preservation, while the former is more disengaged, and thus, rational. Whitehead explains: “The great rational religions are the outcome of the emergence of a religious consciousness which is universal, as distinguished from tribal, or even social. Because it is universal, it introduces the note of solitariness…The reason of this connection between universality and solitariness is that universality is a disconnection from immediate surroundings. It is an endeavor to find something permanent and intelligible by which to interpret the confusion of immediate detail.”

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Whitehead on Religion: Introduction (part 1)

[This is the first post in a series in which I blog through Whitehead's excellent little book, Religion in the Making.  The book is his theory of religion, tracing the evolution of religion in relation to his metaphysical system.  Keep in mind that this book was written in 1926 - there are traces of Eurocentrism and colonialism present here, but overall I think his ideas are nevertheless fascinating.]

We will begin with a brief biographical overview of Whitehead and summary of his historical significance before diving into the text for today. The British mathematician, logician, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was born in 1861 in the seaside town of Ramsgate, England. His family was rooted in the Church of England, although before WWI Whitehead generally considered himself agnostic. However, after WWI, he considered himself religious and a theist, but did not align himself with a particular tradition. He developed interests in physics as well as theology and read widely in these areas.

After graduating in 1884 at Trinity College, a constituent college of University of Cambridge, he became a fellow at the school, teaching and writing mathematics there until 1910. Although he wrote a number of significant books on math, his most important was the three-volume Principia Mathematica (1910, 1st edition), co-written with his former pupil Bertrand Russell. This work is widely read and considered to be the most important works of mathematical logic and philosophy since Aristotle’s Organon. It should also be mentioned that Whitehead’s other most famous student was the widely influential economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynes and Whitehead mutually influenced each other’s work, with Keynes largely agreeing with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

A second significant period of Whitehead’s life was from 1910-1924 at University College of London where he worked on physics, philosophy of science, and philosophy of education. His third major period was his time at Harvard University where he taught philosophy from 1924 until his retirement in1937. It was during this time that he fully developed his metaphysical system that he had been working on since 1920, which he called the “philosophy of organism” but which has become more widely known as “process philosophy.” His philosophy is heavily influenced by Plato, Henri Bergson, and William James. Especially through his assistant at Harvard, Charles Hartshorne, who taught at University of Chicago, process philosophy stimulated the development of process theology. This was particularly important amongst Christian liberal theologians in America like John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki (all former professors at CST/CGU). But process philosophy has also attracted some Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu philosophers and theologians. Furthermore, process philosophy has also been increasingly influential in sections of the European scientific community and amongst Chinese philosophers.

Based on the Lowell Lectures in 1926, Religion in the Making was published between two of Whitehead’s more widely read texts, Science in the Modern World (1925), and his magnum opus based on the famous Gifford Lectures in 1929, Process and Reality. How consistent Whitehead’s thought is between these three texts, especially in the area metaphysics and his doctrine of God, is debated by Whiteheadian scholars to this day. Regardless of the perfect consistency between the three, my sense is that they are largely get at a very similar metaphysical vision, though elements may be lacking here and there. In the preface to RM, Whitehead links it closely to SMW in his general “train of thought.” In other words, he applies his same philosophical analysis first to the history of science in SMW and then to the history of religion in RM. He later did the same in 1933 with Adventures of Ideas for society, politics, economics, and culture. In the next post we will move on to discuss Whitehead’s RM.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Teilhard de Chardin on Divine Immanence

While reading Whitehead I am also reading some of the works of the French Jesuit theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  The two thinkers are very similar in many ways, emphasizing becoming over being, types of nondualism, evolutionary panentheism, panexperientialism, and (ecological) internal relatedness. Yet Teilhard conceives of God in more explicitly Christian terms, and thus has a very christocentric theology (a cosmic Christology) along with a more radical eschatology where the universe is moving towards a final Omega point (the 'Christification' of the cosmos).  God is understood, with theologians of hope like Moltmann and Pannenberg, as the 'power of the future.'  There are serious philosophical/theological/scientific questions about his eschatology, although it does provide a very powerful, distinctly Christian theological vision.  Here is a nice passage from his book "The Divine Milieu" about divine immanence: 

"God reveals himself everywhere, beneath our groping efforts, as a universal milieu, only because he is the ultimate point upon which all realities converge...It follows that all created things, every one of them, cannot be looked at, in their nature and actions, without the same reality being found in their innermost being - like sunlight in the fragments of a broken mirror - one beneath its multiplicity, unattainable beneath its proximity, and spiritual beneath its materiality.  No object can influence us by its essence without our being touched by the radiance of the focus of the universe.  Our minds are incapable of grasping a reality, our hearts and hands of seizing the essentially desirable in it, without our being compelled by the very structure of things to go back to the first source of perfections.  This focus, this source, is thus everywhere.  It is precisely because he is the center that he fills the whole sphere." -Teilhard de Chardin (Teilhard: Selected Writings, 72)


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Whitehead on Freedom

I have been (half) joking lately with my friend Justin, a PhD student in process studies at CST, to put together a collection of the sayings of the brilliant and poetic philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead.  If you have never had the pleasure of reading one of Whitehead's more profound passages, today is your lucky day.  I have been working through his major works this fall and have recently been studying his book, "Adventures of Ideas."  This passage especially captured my attention in his fascinating discussion of freedom:

"There is a freedom lying beyond circumstance, derived from the direct intuition that life can be grounded upon its absorption in what is changeless amid change.  This is the freedom at which Plato was groping, the freedom which Stoics and Christians obtained as the gift of Hellenism.  It is the freedom of that virtue directly derived from the source of all harmony.  For it is conditioned only by its adequacy of understanding.  And understanding has this quality that, however it be led up to, it issues in the soul freely conforming its nature to the supremacy of insight.  It is the reconciliation of freedom with the compulsion of the truth.  In this sense the captive can be free, taking as his own supreme insight, the indwelling persuasion towards harmony which is the height of existence." (Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p.67-68)