Monthly Archives: August 2014

The epistemic status of most theology

Just as various arguments about finer points in the Gospels are at best probabilistic arguments (did Jesus have siblings? what exactly did Jesus mean by such-and-such? and so on) that are debated because they are debatable, similarly much of theology is debated because it is debatable – it is quite often accurately classified as speculation (despite various proponents’ stern admonitions that they’ve figured it all out). The theology in question might be necessary, but if so it should be treated appropriately – as a best guess, something more like (better understood as) a heuristic than can propel useful practices or inquiry.

Why is it usually speculation? Because it is very difficult to test it. One of the things we’ve learnt in the last while is that people such as Plato and Aquinas over-estimated human reason. (Even Aristotle did this, despite his attempts to get better forms of reasoning.) Reason is better thought of as part of a larger whole. Another part of this whole is verification. For example, “How do I test this reasoning?” Indeed, this question is probably more important than the questions that prompt the reasoning in the first place.

So, it is easy to think too much about various theology for some people – especially theologians – as various theological theories are usually very difficult to test. Barring such tests, it is best to demote the theories to a secondary epistemological status (which is not to say they don’t have important implications in day-to-day practice).

If one is having excess difficulties squaring implications of certain theology, this is just to say that the theology is likely wrong. Yet, one has to have (in some sense) some theology, so adopt the one that seems most sensible – that is, because of their epistemic status, theologies are probably more usefully thought of as a part of directing and creating useful practices. Saying “We don’t know” is a good answer quite often when it comes to theology (followed by “but here’s a best provisional guess” or “but here are some options that seem to have virtues to them”).

(Of course, theologizing itself is a kind of practice, and can have a direct impact in an everyday sense. I think that, as long as one remembers these are best guesses, and so on, it can be quite useful.)

We are probably very far from an adequate understanding of the universe or the correlate of phenomena attributable to the Christian God. If various theologies are best guesses, then it probably makes sense to focus more instead on everyday practices. What works? How? How can we improve these practices? And so how can we create (improvisational, perhaps constantly changing) theologies that amplify or create these?

A simple proof for the physicality of God

One proof for the physicality of God is

1. If to be physical is to be in cause and effect relationships with the paradigmatically physical universe, and God is in such a relationship, then God is physical.

2. To be physical is to be in cause and effect relationships with the paradigmatically physical universe.

3. God is in such a relationship.

4. Therefore, God is physical.

What are the objections?

Some might object to 2., but the argument for this is historical. ‘Physical’ has changed meanings many times, but in retrospect we can see that whatever comes to be understood to be standing in this sort of relationship comes to be termed ‘physical’. Consider electromagnetism, for example.

Classical Christian theology denies 3. God is perfectly simple, and non-changing. He might change the universe, but the universe doesn’t change Him (prayers, for example, don’t actually affect God according to classical Christian theology).

(This is also why most Christians don’t believe in the classical conception of the Christian God.)

Process theology, on the other hand, accepts 3. So, given the above, process theology posits a ‘physical’ God. This is not to say that therefore we understand how God works, or that He works like other categories of ‘physical’ things we talk about.

Having your theological cake and eating it too

A basic argument used against the existence of the Christian God is the problem of evil, and in particular natural evil (resulting not from a person’s choice but natural forces). If God could stop these things, why wouldn’t He?

One conclusion from this problem is to say that God doesn’t exist. Therefore, there’s no seeming contradiction that requires explanation between a benevolent, omnipotent God and the existence of natural evil.

A second conclusion is to say that natural evil doesn’t (really) exist, but rather what seems sub-optimal is actually ’the best of possible worlds’ (the Panglossian response).

A third conclusion is to say that we simply don’t understand how to reconcile these because we don’t understand things well enough, but in the end an omnipotent-in-the-classical-sense, benevolent God can be reconciled with natural evil (perhaps by considerations following from the introduction of indeterminacy into the universe, related to the good of free will).

The obvious response to the third conclusion is that it is mysterianism – not an answer but a shrug.

The obvious response to the second conclusion is that it’s banal.

In both of these, the theologian tries to have his cake and eat it too. “Sure, there seems like an obvious contradiction in what I’m saying, but we can just shuffle along, and ignore it.” I hope that modernity, and especially an invigorated religious marketplace of ideas (that includes atheism), doesn’t allow this response to continue.

This is because the obvious response to the first (atheistic) conclusion is that it’s overreach. What is shown, rather, is that God isn’t omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent in the classical sense of these words.

I think the appropriate response to the problem of natural evil is to say that, whatever God’s omnipotence is, what people see in the everyday world, or in the Biblical stories for that matter, is a God who works through things, people, and time in order to achieve results. He is a designer who doesn’t ‘wave a magic wand’, but rather crafts a vessel – He works with the material of the universe.

What is important here for Christians is that the argument from natural evil isn’t about the existence of God unless they make it so! This, the premier atheistic argument, is really a self-inflicted theological wound on the part of Christian theologians, because the argument is so obvious and the responses are almost always weak.

So, this leads us back a step. Why have Christians posited an omnipotent-in-the-classical-sense God in the first place? It doesn’t seem to do with everyday experience, or with the Bible (unless you count a few occurrences of a term translated as ‘almighty’, which is not the same as saying God is omnipotent in the classical sense).

The answer is that it comes from ancient Greek philosophy, which in turn seems to rely on a certain kind of line of reasoning. I want to suggest that the reasoning in question is weak, and indeed one of the chief weaknesses of ancient philosophers in the Platonic Greek mould was an in-appreciation of how tenuous human reasoning is. Even Aristotle, who sought to reform the practice of logic because he could see how often it went astray, underestimated its weakness (as some of his results show). Aquinas also underestimated it.

What can we do instead of basing our conception of God on a tenuous line of philosophical reasoning? The obvious answer is to build a conception of God’s omnipotence up out of everyday experience. From the Christian perspective, we know He has an incredible (literally, ‘miraculous’) power to coordinate events on an everyday basis. We can get a better idea of this by simply observing how things work. This is the same idea that motivated many scientists, who thought they could better understand God by observing how the universe worked.

There are some who say anything less than an omnipotent God in the classical sense isn’t worthy of worship. I don’t think these people understand what worship is supposed to do in a Christian context. The goal of Christianity is friendship and prince-ship (as sons or daughters of God – if God is a ‘King’ and you are a spiritual son of God, that makes you a Prince). The point of ‘worship’ is to establish a relationship with God, start to become more like Him, and (if we so choose) to love Him. There’s nothing about the classical concept of omnipotence that is required for this.

Having said this, there is something to the third response outlined above. We don’t know everything about God, so it’s probably a good idea to have some humility about how it all works, and have as our first response an openness to the evidence which can inform it. In other words, we’re probably closer to the beginning of our knowledge about the universe and God, than near the end – i.e., there is probably much to learn, and do.

Spirituality is everyday, concrete, and widely applicable

Spirituality is everyday, concrete, and widely applicable.

It’s about developing will-power to overcome short-term behaviour (i.e., the point of asceticism). It’s about the habit of breathing deeply, say. It’s about experiences related to being in nature. It’s the habit of asking ‘How can I make this a bit better?’ Of getting closer to habitually treating others as you would like to be treated. Of tending to focus on beauty, truth, and goodness.

These aren’t esoteric or ‘airy-fairy’ – or, at least, they don’t need to be. Spiritual practices have obvious, everyday results – or, they should.

In Christianity, cultivating these practices is part of what’s known as ‘theosis’, which on the Christian understanding is to become more Godlike (theo-, God-, which is to say, the Good).

Similarly, the societal goal for Christians is the ‘Kingdom of God.’ This isn’t an airy-fairy, disembodied state. Rather, it’s a highly-functioning society with humans who are physical, who are engaging in (real) relationships with other humans.

It is obvious to see how ‘spiritual’ practices such as listed above (and many more) can contribute to this state of affairs.

My impression is that some Christians think spiritual practice is equivalent to going to a Church service for an hour or two a day a week. Rather, it is better to think of this as the cherry, on top of the icing, on top of the cake.

Put another way, ideally, something like a weekly Church service is a lever, that can help as one way to catalyze further spiritual growth. The growing, learning, and so on can often be done or catalyzed in the other 110 hours, not just the 2 hours when one is in a Church – and there are many other potential catalysts.

So, the point of spiritual practices is to create habits that have impact on everyday happenings, both personally and societally. Spirituality is all about implementation.

Pain and process

If God created the universe in some relevant sense, then He created a world with pain. Couldn’t this have been avoided?

What is the point of pain? It seems fairly obvious – pain is designed to keep organisms away from things that will harm them, and so allow them to survive and thrive. So, it’s obvious that – to an extent – it has some functional role, that it’s important in allowing mammals (and so on) to do what they do as well as they do it. In other words, the possibility of pain is part of being a ‘well-designed’ (by nature) animal in at least some cases. I think this is a first key to understanding pain.

That is to say, pain is a functional part of a process. Similarly, one notion that causes problems in a theodicy is the idea of God’s omnipotence as being like a ‘magic wand’, that He can wave at any time to bring anything about. If that’s the case, then one can rightly wonder why there is pain in the world, and why this is to a significant extent ‘natural’, i.e., not the result of human decisions in some sort of natural history.

Yet, it seems God’s power (however omnipotence is to be understood) manifests in His guiding us or events towards the Kingdom of God, i.e., His actions occur through time and natural processes – according to Christianity. In other words, God is bringing something about (which also involves our actions), and we are in the process of that. One part of understanding pain and God is probably something to do with that context. This is a second key.

However, people can become so tied up in an idea of an Edenic original situation and how a ‘fall’ is the cause of bad things (a theory that doesn’t fit with what we know about anthropology, evolutionary biology, and so on) that they focus on the past instead of the future when trying to contextualize things like pain.

When we eliminate a parasite that’s harmful to humans, say, this is a step towards the ‘Kingdom of God’. When we cure a disease, that’s a step towards the Kingdom of God. When we say hello to someone and make their day a bit better, that’s a step. And so on.

The point is not a Panglossian theodicy but the possibility that we can move towards a kind of future, i.e., a highly functioning society consisting of physical humans, i.e., the Kingdom of God or ‘Heaven’. I.e., Christianity is centrally about the future, not ‘apologies’ for the present or past. This is a third key.

A better concept than ‘worship’

I think a better phrase than ‘worship’ could be something like ‘love, reverance, and awe’ – which to a significant extent is what worship means, anyway, but makes it more fresh and relevant to a typical, contemporary English speaker’s ear.

Worship

Etymologically, ‘worship’ seems to come from Old English ‘condition of being worthy’, and to worship God is to recognize something of value. This makes some sense of the first commandment, to have no gods before God. I.e., to not value other things (such as money or power) more than you value your relationship with God. This makes sense if God exists, because God is good for you, according to Christianity.

You can think about it like this: things are potential goods. They are tools that, to create good in one’s life, require skillful use. Money, for example, can do great good, but it can also damage someone. Being aligned with God is like being aligned with a master craftsman, who can then guide you in using (or disregarding) those other potential goods to add to your life (and your society’s).

Love

The Christian God is the god of a kind of love (which is captured by the idea of willing the good of the other for the sake of the other), and so the major decision in Christianity is to love God back, and then let that love from and to God flow through one to other aspects of the universe (other people, primarily, but also the environment and ultimately the entire universe, which according to Christianity it is our role to steward, guided by a divine wisdom, i.e., the living Christ).

Reverance

To revere something flows fairly simply from valuing it. You can revere your parent, for example, which is to say you care about them and want to honour them.

Awe

Awe flows naturally from the nature of God – when you realize He has coordinated some outcome that seems unfathomable, say, this naturally leads to awe. If you view the starry sky, and believe God is tied up in the creation of it, this naturally leads to awe. And so on.

Listening

Added to love, reverence, and awe could be ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ (both understood spiritually), which seems like a central aspect of understanding God (i.e., guidance, discernment, and so on).

These four aspects are associated with the Christian idea of God as a spiritual Father, or ‘Abba’.

So, if the word ‘worship’ gets in the way of building a relationship with God, you can instead think of love, reverence, awe, and speaking-listening. More simply, instead of ‘worshipping’ you can say ‘valuing’.