Theology from Scratch -- The Divine Life Communion
Something like 70-80% of the people on the planet believe in some form of God. Now
this could be explained as some type of extrapolation from the evolutionary development
of purposeful recognition to the ultimate, or it could actually mean there is something
to it. If there might be something to it, how would one proceed in exploring this
So, I’d like to couch this exploration within the confines of a certain type of
person that would entertain the thought that there might be some ultimate personal
basis of reality. Obviously, there are many people who accept this proposition uncritically
but that’s not the type of person I’m interested in. The type of person I’m focusing
on has a healthy degree of skepticism, has a friendly relationship with all forms
of human interest including philosophy, science, religion, the arts, etc. This type
of person will not accept something uncritically or because some establishment promotes
Now most people are exposed to some sort of religious culture as they grow up and
often adopt that framework. Sometimes, however, there is a falling out with that
culture at some point, for some reason, and that can clean the slate, religiously
speaking. So where to go from there?
The first question to ask is, does this person feel compelled to explore the question
of a divine presence in reality? If not the story ends, at least for the moment.
If they are compelled, then there are a few options. First, they can do a survey
of current religious sentiment to see if something resonates with them. This is
a common approach. If they find something that meets their needs, all well and good
for them. However, sometimes nothing suits this personality type I’m focusing on.
Current religious systems have many artifacts dating back to the axial age that
do not suit the modern mind. They are fraught with elements that offend a person
friendly with philosophical reasoning and empirical sensibilities. So what to do?
Another option is to start from scratch, as far as one can. I would suggest that
the only starting place is an intuition about reality. This might correlate to Michael
Polyani’s tacit mode, “we know more than we can say”. Is there an intuition that
there is an ultimate purposefulness to reality and this may not be a spurious artifact
of evolutionary developments? If there is then Polanyi’s explicit mode may proceed
from there, that may or may not satisfy this person I’m describing. The following
attempts to explicate a theology based on this intuition.
The first step in a systematic theology is an epistemology. This is a bit tricky
because it seems to me that any epistemological assertion is also an ontological
one. And ontology will be the foundation from which many assertions flow.
Now if one accepts the reasonableness of an intuition of a purposeful divine, then
the question becomes, where does this come from? One answer comes from Calvin, a
sensus divinitatis. Tillich called this the mystical a priori. This part of Tillich’s
epistemology also says that “to know is to participate in” i.e. there is some sort
of unity of the knowing subject and that which is known. Now clearly, this is an
ontological statement as well as an epistemological one. I don’t know if this circularity
is a deal killer but I also don’t know of another way to proceed.
Now before I discuss epistemology, let me say something about method. Every systematic
theology proceeds according to some method whether it is explicit or not. Tillich
called his “the method of correlation” where existential questions are asked and
then revelation explored for answers to those questions. This method works well
when there are established revelatory resources, but won’t work when starting from
scratch. This is because those revelatory resources are not given a priori authority.
In a “starting from scratch” theology, the revelatory slate starts clean.
The first aspect of the method I will employ is minimalism. Since this is a metaphysical
system, it can be tempting to go hog wild with all sorts of metaphysical assertions.
We see this often in religious systems, particularly those rooted in ancient times.
Since metaphysical assertions are tentative anyway, I think it is neither necessary
nor wise to go beyond only what is needed to form an actionable theology. Others
may extrapolate beyond the system but that’s their personal choice.
Now in every system there are decision points that shape the rest of the system.
Once a choice is made, other avenues are excluded. So in this system there will
be points where a decision on which way to go will have to be made. How those decisions
are made is rooted in the epistemology in conjunction with anything that can be
brought to bear on the issue.
This system utilizes what I call “an informed intuition”. By intuition I mean something
like a sensus divinitatis, or to be more precise, a sense of reality as
it ultimately is. How ever they may be fleshed out, I belief religious systems start
out with this sense. Now intuitions can be ill defined and by themselves often turn
out to be wrong. But intuitions that are informed may have a better chance of being
valid. Reality itself has a powerful way of informing intuitions, often in painful
ways. So in this system any available resource is welcome to inform this sense of
ultimate reality. This means personal experience, philosophy, science, art, moral
sensibility, wisdom literature, or anything else that can be brought to bear.
Granted, this type of epistemology has no authority beyond what is granted to it
by the individual. It is fallible and open to revision but, in my view, there is
no other foundational resource available.
At least in my view, one of the things that distinguishes theism from other religious
forms is that it represents the ultimate as intentional and possibly personal. If
the ultimate is personal then a relationship may be possible. But how can this ultimate
intentionality, personhood, and relatedness be described? This is where ontology
To me ontology is a dicey concept. Since it deals with the concept of being itself,
it opens up difficult definitions and issues to navigate. However, ontology is extremely
important for a systematic theology. Historically there have been numerous ontologies
offered in theology and religious philosophy. Often they are labeled with terms
like monism (non-dual), dualism, or pluralism. In the East, monism (non-dual) seems
to be more prevalent (i.e. Buddhism, Hindu philosophies) although there are examples
of dualism and pluralism. In the West, strains of both monism and dualism can be
found in Abrahamic religions.
One way to approach the issue of ontology for a systematic theology could be to
somehow characterize distinctions between God and “the world”. Is there a strong
distinction between God and the world or not? This is obviously a huge topic but
let me try to distill it down within my understanding of it.
In dualism there are strong distinctions between God and the world. These could
be metaphorized as some sort of divide between the divine and the mundane where
delineation of being or engagement/detachment of God with the world is an important
issue. Often there seems to be a need to shield God from the “evil” found in the
world. So God is “perfect” and the world is “imperfect”. Or there is an essential
nature and an existential nature.
In a monism (non-dual) there is only the One where if there are distinctions they
are about aspects or qualities of the One. There is no stark divide within the One.
An example in the East of an ontology with distinctions is Vishishtadvaita Vedanta.
Its ontology is a qualified monism. In the West there are strains of pantheism and
From a theological perspective, the terms themselves (dualism, monism, pantheism,
etc.) are not as important as how they are reflected in the religious sentiment
that emerges from a chosen ontology. For a systematic theology, ontology is the
stepping off point for much of what follows. So, this is one of those decision points
that must be made.
Now an intuition concerning the ontology of reality could go lots of ways. This
is where informing intuitions may be helpful. While our investigations into the
structure of reality relate to our reality, they may offer hints as well into the
structure of reality, ultimately. This may be a stretch but I think this is what
metaphysics often does, draw from our experience of this reality and extrapolate
to the meta level.
So how can we characterize ontological distinctions within our reality? At first
blush, it’s tempting to see sharp distinctions of being as we look around at “beings”.
But this can be misleading. If we just look at ourselves, we are a conglomerate
of many beings, i.e. cells, each having its own being. Also biology has shown that
we are also a host for many other beings like viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
Some are even essential to our health.
Some other examples to ponder:
Psychologically somehow a self emerges from the myriad of beings and processes within
the body and mind.
Economics emerges from the actions of billions of individuals around the world.
Sociologically, somehow groups, organizations, and countries emerge from the actions
and interactions of many.
In physics there is this strange phenomenon of quantum entanglement where particles
no matter how far apart spatially they are somehow show the same measurement at
the same time. So even the entire universe appears holistic.
Also in physics and biology there are emergent properties that arise from the collective
that can’t seem to be explained through reductionism.
Then there are controversial psi experiments that may indicate some sort of consciousness
All this taken together seems to support the intuition that there is a relational
whole (one thing) and that all things are aspects of it. Aspects affect themselves,
other aspects, and the whole. If this is the case then it may be reasonable to expect
all of reality to be “one thing” i.e. the One. I call this ontology an aspect monism.
This is the first crossroad decision for the system.
So, with this decision made, a theology can begin to be fleshed out as follows.
An aspect monism says that God is the One and that all things are aspects of the
One. This has several consequences. First it means that God has a Life. Our lives
and that of all things are aspects of God’s Life. It also says there is a communion
of all things within the One.
A metaphor I use to describe this is Author/Story. As an author creates a narrative
in her mind, she creates environments, characters, and situations. These are within
the author’s mind (aspects) but they also seem to have a life unto themselves. As
authors will tell you, sometimes as the narrative unfolds the characters will surprise
the author with what they do and how they develop. They seem to have a level of
freedom to emerge. Freewill?
So with this ontology in tow, there are several things to deal with like the structure
of life, the problem of evil, divine action, practical and moral implications, etc.
Life and the Problem of Evil
What is life? This is a controversial question. Does life require metabolism, replication,
use of energy, etc? From a theological perspective, however, I would like to focus
on a broad feature, constrained being. How ever life may be defined, it occurs within
constraints. There is a structure to the universe and it is within that structure
that beings exist. There are fundamental constrains like polarities: positive/negative,
perhaps energy/dark energy as well as things described as heat, entropy, space and
time, etc. The bottom line is that these constraints make life, as we know it, possible.
They allow for dynamic processes to occur that support things like energy flow,
information transfer, and stability as well as change. The processes both create
and destroy. There is growth and decay. Evolution itself shows how complexity can
be created and destroyed but so far life moves on.
Now, an ever present issue in theology and religious philosophy has been the problem
of evil. From a moral sensibility standpoint bad stuff happens. So the metaphysical
issue is how to deal with this perceived problem. A common approach to resolving
this problem has been to seek some resolution in an alternate existence or the dissolution
of existence itself. In the East one solution is to move beyond the life/death cycle.
In the West the solution is often some alternative being where evil is not present.
Now in theism since God is the creator of all things as well as the good, this presents
a problem for theology to resolve. A common sentiment is that somehow God must be
shielded from evil and there must also be some sort of eventual purging of evil
from existence. So buffers are contrived. In the Abrahamic traditions a dualism
is set up to shield God from evil. A sharp ontological divide is in play. God is
perfect even though the world is imperfect. Also since God is the creator of all
things a rationale must be devised to mitigate this. The rationale is usually found
in free will. So creatures may act in discord with the perfect divine, but this
created situation is worth it. Then a resolution is in the offing where the free
creatures who made the right choice are rewarded with an evil-free existence. Now
it is, I think, fair that some rationale is needed to mitigate the presence of evil,
but since this whole scheme is based on only one possible ontology is there another
way to deal with the problem of evil reasonably? I think a viable mitigating factor
is life itself.
The very same structures that make life possible also make what we call evil possible.
As said before, these structures both create and destroy. An example is growth.
What came before is destroyed to some extent and the new takes its place. Even things
like learning both create and destroy. Hence, both the good and the evil participate
in these same processes. If this is the case, then life requires the potential for
evil to exist. Without the structures and processes that make evil possible, life
would not be possible either.
So the question is, is life worth the potential for evil to exist? What would be
an acceptable alternative? Enter heaven. To resolve the problem of evil, some sort
of ultimate bliss is postulated. No evil, no pain, etc. At first blush this might
sound appealing but would it really be? I think not. If there is no possibility
of failure, would there be any satisfaction in success? Could there be any joy without
the opposite of pain? Without tension where is the satisfaction of release. There
would also be no joy in learning where the old is destroyed and the new created.
I think if one thinks long enough about an existence without possible negatives
there would be no appeal. Perhaps then having life is worth having evil.
So, in this scenario is it necessary to shield God from evil and is a resolution
to evil necessary? If the structure of life (and with it the potential for evil)
is actually a worthwhile thing, then God as creator needs no defense. In fact praise
might be in order. But wouldn’t it be unfair that although creation with evil present
is a good thing, God in God’s perfection doesn’t have to deal with evil? Only if
there is no evil within God. In an aspect monism this isn’t the case. God is a living
God, God has a Life. If there is only the One then evil resides in the One and,
in fact, is created by the One. But such is life, and if there is a Divine Life
then the divine also includes evil. From a moral point of view, since aspects in
God both create and experience evil, so does God. The Author is responsible for
both life and the evil within it. So is a resolution to the issue of evil necessary
or even wanted? No evil, no life. If life is worth having the potential for evil,
then a resolution is neither needed nor wanted.
Now, this scenario doesn’t suggest complacency toward evil. To the contrary. Intuitional
revelation as encoded in wisdom literature resoundingly calls for a struggle against
evil. So apparently the Divine Life entails a struggle for good over evil and if
there is no resolution in the offing then this struggle is eternal.
One of the most controversial aspects of theism is the postulate that God acts in
the world. This is controversial because over against a view that reality emerges
intentionally, there are models that dispute that.
In philosophy, a non-intentional view may have been first introduced by the Carvakan
school of thought around the sixth century BCE in what is now known as India. These
philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they
postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature.
In other words, matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today
this self-nature is thought of as properties such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently
this line of thinking made its way into early Greek thought probably through the
Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later the concept of materialistic
atomism appears. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos,
small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined
in various ways produce what we see. This particular characterization of reality
caught on in the West and eventually led to be a dominant view in science.
However, this “svabhava” view was not without its detractors. There were those both
in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East the Buddhist philosopher
Nagarjuna developed his sunyata concept or “emptiness” saying that nothing has an
essential independent nature but only a conditional or relational existence. The
term for this is “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. In early Greek thought
the rejection of non-intentional atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject
atomism, per se, but claimed that what animated atoms was not a self-nature but
nous or mind.
Perhaps the most forceful attack on the svabhavan atomism came later with the idealism
schools of thought in Germany and England. Some maintained that what constituted
reality was, in fact, mind or perception. George Berkeley as one of its leading
proponents famously said, “To be is to be perceived or to perceive”. Berkeley and
his “subjective idealism” fell under considerable criticism for being unable to
account for common experience, and later became more of an absolute idealist by
attributing our perceptions to God.
Another strain of criticism also came from forms of panpsychism that date back to
early Greek thought, Heraclitus for one. Most notable among modern proponents is
the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead. Whitehead was a contemporary of Einstein and
even developed his own physical theories. Later in his life he forged off into speculative
metaphysics and founded process philosophy. Whitehead claimed that reality is constituted
by occasions (events) of experience. Like the quote below from Stapp, Whitehead
rejected the enduring substance view of reality in favor of an event model of becoming.
There continue to be critics of a svabhavan materialism, but materialistic atomism
has maintained its prominence among many thinkers because it has proved a helpful
framework within which to do science. It has offered many achievements by utilizing
So, for a reasonable, science friendly person who at least entertains a teleological
view of reality, how are these opposing views to be adjudicated? Has an intentional
constituting element or process (teleology) been definitively refuted? I would say
no, but the teleological view has also not been definitively affirmed. To me, the
landscape is very muddled. Now I haven’t kept up with all the latest in fundamental
science but I’ll offer my perspective. If someone has new information, that would
At some level, science has been very successful in making predictions and predictability
might be a path to ruling out teleology. But there are and have been limits to this
predictability. Under a Newtonian model, the limits of predictability originate
from the lack of data. But with the advent of quantum mechanics the limits of predictability
are not epistemological but rather ontological. For instance, the collapse of the
wave packet can be characterized through probability but exactly when and why the
collapse occurs is indeterminate. Events occur within a statistical model but a
particular event has an unpredictability to it.
Then there is the issue of consciousness or mind in experiments. Berkeley Physicist,
Henry Stapp put it this way:
An important characteristic of this quantum conceptualization is that the substantive
matter-like aspects, have dropped out. The theory is about: (1) abrupt events, each
of which is tied to an experiential increment in knowledge; and (2) potentialities
for such events to occur. Events are not substances, which, by definition, endure.
And the potentialities have an “idea-like” character because they are like an “imagined”
idea of what the future events might be, and they change abruptly when a new event
occurs. Thus neither the events nor the potentialities have the ontological character
the substantive matter of classical physics. Yet the predictions of quantum mechanics
encompass all of the known successes of classical mechanics.
Another apparent kink in predictability arises with emergence. Nobel laureate physicist
Robert Laughlin’s book “A Difference Universe” offers examples where collective
behavior seems to create properties that aren’t amenable to reductionist explanations.
He even speculates that space/time may be emergent. I haven’t followed emergence
research closely but if the collective has a powerful effect on how reality is constituted
that would present an enormous challenge for science because the efficacy of the
reductionist approach relies on minimizing parameters.
So, if a thoroughgoing predictability is not currently in the offing, where does
that leave a discerning, metaphysically seeking individual? Probably back to an
informed intuition. Reality certainly appears to have some level of purpose i.e.
intentionality. If that intuition is reasonable, and I think it is, then where does
intentionality come from? Since we usually approach things from a cascading cause-and-effect
perspective, this raises the possibility of an ultimate intentionality as the source.
Enter divine action.
Historically there is a wide spectrum of ideas on divine action. In theistic, dualistic
systems divine action is often characterized as supernatural interventions. In this
view, our reality pretty much runs on its own but from time to time the divine intervenes
and overrules the normal order of things to accomplish some end. In milder forms
the divine just maintains the order of the world and doesn’t step in at any point
to affect some difference. Both of these are predicated on the perception that there
is a definite order to the universe and it may not exist by itself or be intransigent
without some outside activity. Examples of both of these positions can be found
in the Abrahamic traditions like fundamentalist Christianity and theistic evolutionism.
In monistic systems where divine action is postulated, divine action occurs not
across some divide but integral to reality. This approach also acknowledges the
importance of order but may attribute that order to God. I don’t know if the following
represents a dualistic or monistic approach but it states one way to view divine
action and the regularity in the universe from a physicist’s perspective.
In Measurements and time reversal in objective quantum theory, Purdue physicist
F. J. Belinfante:
If elementary systems do not “possess” quantitatively determinate properties, apparently
God determines these properties as we measure them. We also observe the fact, unexplainable
but experimentally well established, that God in His decisions about the outcomes
of our experiments shows habits so regular that we can express them in the form
of statistical laws of nature….this apparent determinism in macroscopic nature has
hidden God and His personal influence on the universe from the eyes of many outstanding
The key point, in this view, is that God has made a commitment to the regular habits
found in the structure of reality. The result of which would explain predictability,
at least in the macroscopic realm. From the “life” perspective of my previous section
this means that God respects that order is a necessary requirement for life. And
even more than that, as Belinfante claims, the order we see is not svabhavan i.e.
intrinsic but rather intentionally created event by event. What this also says is
that order is not mechanistic but rather a teleological complex of events that are
purposeful, somehow embedded in and represented by both the predictability and unpredictability
Now since there is flow of events in order, this may also mean that stark disruptions
in order could have significant, cascading negative effects on life. This suggests
that supernaturalism not only discounts the adequacy of God’s creation but also
God’s faithfulness to the life giving order that is needed.
So, all this taken together represents another decision point for the theological
system. Is divine action a forceful, overriding intervention or an organic process?
An aspect monism would opt for the later. If the divine has a life and we are aspects
of it, then the divine is not an outside influence but rather within the Life itself
that proceeds according to divine purpose. Also if a fundamental feature of life
is constraint, then it isn’t unreasonable to view divine action as constrained action
as well. And intentionality can operate comfortably within those constraints.
If this theological system is accepted, there are several implications.
Eschatology. In this system, life is important and valuable. But
the structure of life includes constraints and with them a yin and yang of complimentary
opposites. This interplay of opposites makes life possible but it also makes evil
possible. The importance of life itself mitigates the potential for evil. As Leibnitz
says, “This is the best of all possible words”.
The implication of this is that there is no ultimate resolution to this struggle
and one is neither needed nor desired. Accordingly, people should not look to some
“heavenly” realm as a solution, but instead passionately engage in the eternal struggle
against evil and for the good.
Teleology. The narrative of the divine life proceeds according
to divine intent. One of the primary purposes of this intent is life itself. Accordingly,
the evolution of life is teleological. However, that telos in evolution occurs within
the life giving constraints, created and honored by God. Accordingly life will evolve
within the limits of those constraints.
Communion. In an aspect monism there is a unity in the One. This
means that individual actions affect God and all other aspects of God. This should
promote a more global solidarity that is inclusive and concerned both with the individual
and the whole.
Revelation. Revelation concerning ultimate reality is not something
interjected across some divide but inherent in the depth of reality. As such, since
God is present in every aspect and event, every event is a religious experience
i.e. saying something about ultimate reality. Now these experiences need not be
dramatic but dramatic experiences often heighten our sense of the divine depth.
Accordingly, as Paul Tillich says there are people, places, events, texts, etc.
that are particularly transparent to the divine. It’s all a matter of looking and
being open to that depth.
Morality. For those who avail themselves to the dimension of depth,
glimpses of divine preferences and telos may be sensed. However, as these intuitions
have a contextual and subjective element, they are best tested with every possible
resource, i.e. intuitions of others, wisdom literature, history, results, etc.
Prayer. Prayer is not an attempt to breach some divide but rather
an attempt to fathom the divine depth found in all things. As such, each prayer
looks to the depth within that also reaches to the Author, the One. Prayers of supplication
should also honor God’s commitment to constraint. Life requires constraints and
because of this, the intent of supplications should not be for God to violate those
constraints but to work within them.
Afterlife. Life proceeds according to a systematic process. When
that process is sufficiently disrupted, that life terminates. What follows after
that is unknown. However, at the least, an individual life is eternally present
in the mind of God.
If you are interested in discussing this, you can email me at: email@example.com