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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 topic?

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 it.

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.

Epistemology.

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.

Ontology.

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 comes in.

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 panentheism.

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 interconnectivity.

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.

Divine Action

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 reductionism.

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 be welcome.

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 scientists.

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 of events.

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.

Implications.

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: stevegp@hotmail.com

Steve Petermann