Developing a Systematic Theology “From Scratch”

I’ve alluded to the method I used in developing a non-traditional theology in other posts.  However, I wanted to offer a more comprehensive treatment of the process. Here it is.  As always, I welcome comments and particularly criticisms.

Developing a Systematic Theology “From Scratch”


The Science and God Phobias

Phobia: an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.  Extreme fear can make people react in ways they normally wouldn’t.  It taints judgement and bias thinking. I think we see this in both the scientific and religious communities. And it takes different forms.

In science it can be the kiss of death for a scientist to invoke God in the unfolding of the universe.  There have been a brave few who have and often they are labeled as charlatans or non-scientific hacks. I was watching a video on with Robert Wright and Brian Greene and at one point it really highlighted this.  Now Brian Greene is a well known scientist and popularizer.   I really like how he explains science, particularly fundamental science.  He knows how to make it accessible to the average person. But I think he has a phobia about the possibility that God may be active in the universe.  As an example, he may not think much of the idea that we live in a simulation  but even though it is similar to the God of idealism, he’s ok with it since it doesn’t invoke God (check the link above).   Now I’ve watched Robert Wright’s videos and read some of his articles.  He is a special case, in my view.  He is very knowledgeable in science, particularly evolution. I think he really gets it that if we live in an autonomic world (mechanistic even with some chance thrown in), that creates a serious problem for humanity.  Things like free will and morality are basically nonsense.  However, he is also very careful.  He gingerly pushes the envelope a bit but also tries very hard not to get too “wooy” which basically means getting too much outside the scientific realm and into some sort of spiritual or mystical domain.  I think Wright would really like to broach the theological subject more but is afraid that it will delegitimize him within the scientific community.  If you want to be part of the “in crowd” among the scientific establishment you just don’t go there.  You will be marginalized.

There could be many reasons for this aversion to God talk but I’ll make a psychological speculation. What’s the psychology of a scientist?  First, the putative scientific method requires predictability,  testability, and falsifiability.  So perhaps most people who go into science will embrace that wholeheartedly.   So, what if there is an unpredictable ultimate mind (God) fundamental to the unfolding of reality.  Big problem. For those who long for a theory of everything or even a comprehensive predictability to all things this is a major road block. Many just can’t go there. This can result in a very emotional response to the issue.  This is not surprising. After all, religion has put forth a lot of nonsense in the past that doesn’t seem reasonable even to non-scientists today who have studied science and take it’s findings seriously.  So, what we have are scientists who have a disdain for anything that suggests that God is a fundamental cause in how the universe unfolds.

Now, per se, I don’t consider this necessarily bad; as long as scientists refrain from theological speculations.  Too readily invoking God into science can short circuit deeper probes into the nature of reality. This does no good for science or theology.  After all, if theology wants to understand and characterize God and God’s relationship with the world then science is an invaluable resource.  “You can know something about the artisan from the artifact”.  Science examines the artifacts of fundamental reality and theology can learn a lot from that. In fact, I think science is an essential resource for theology.

Now this is not to say that there are no scientists who are theistic and try to keep a foot planted in both science and religion.  There certainly are. So far so good. Unfortunately, I think most do a great disservice to theology.  As I see it, they fall into two camps.

One camp affirms science but claims that God, from time to time, intervenes into natural order for some purpose.  This is supernaturalism and experimentally would be outside the realm of science to explore.  In other words, normally things go along according to the laws of nature but from time to time God steps in and subverts that order for some reason. Everything is determined by necessity (law) and chance (indeterminism) except when God forces something different.   All the major traditions have narratives of these supernatural events occurring. Science can do its thing but God can also.  While supernaturalism is logically possible, is it reasonable or theologically optimal?  I don’t think so (see Divine Action )

The other theological camp is more confused and, in my view, also very damaging. In this camp, God is more like a superintendent in an apartment building. God keeps the heat on and the water flowing but does nothing else.  God sustains the order of nature but doesn’t really act beyond that. I’ve seen American Episcopal documents that essentially espouse this view.  Seems to me this is a ham-handed attempt to attain scientific legitimacy but at what cost?  Prayers of supplication become a non-starter; at most a psychological mechanism.  Teleology is also an empty term because we live in a mechanistic universe.  What this really presents is a deistic God with an added maintenance function.  Unfortunately, those who take this position don’t seem to follow it to its logical conclusions and instead think they are being scientific in their theology.

All this is unfortunate because I think what science may be telling us now is that God has created a universe where life can exist and still evolve according to God’s purpose without some subversive activity.  In Newton’s day, supernaturalism was an understandable caveat to the mechanistic view of the world. It still offered God an “in” for divine purpose.  Today with the advances in science knowledge, I don’t think supernaturalism is either needed or theologically helpful.  Why would God create a universe where God needed to “jump in” from time to time to get things right? Is this a picture of a competent creator God?  Seems a bit ad hoc to me.

So what has science discovered that might be more a reasonable view of God’s activity in this reality? This is where things get a bit fuzzy.  There are several theories about the fundamental nature of reality.  The equations of the standard model in quantum physics have been remarkably accurate in experiments (albeit only their probabilities).  I don’t think there are many scientists who reject this model, even though most think it is incomplete.  So, what does quantum physics tell us?  From the Newtonian perspective, so many “weird” things: Is the mind of the experimenter responsible for the actualization of reality as in the Copenhagen interpretation?  Are different universes created with each quantum event (Many Worlds interpretation)? How can one particle affect another across the universe instantaneously (non-locality)?  Or is everything deterministic guided by a hidden pilot wave (Bohmian interpretation). All these theories and others boggle our minds.   So far there is no resolution to the dilemma of these contradictory theories.

While all these theories are tentative there are legitimate models that represent reality in a non-mechanistic way, even some that are amenable to some ultimate mind at the fundamental level.  I talk more about this here.

Given the history of the conflict of science and religion, the aversion to injecting religious sentiment into scientific explorations is understandable. But perhaps it is time to change.  What are the alternatives?  If we live in a world that is ultimately meaningless and autonomic, with everything coming about due to necessity and chance then why bother with anything. It’s all bullshit ultimately. In this case it’s just the universe doing its inevitable thing, tricking us psychologically to think we are free and there is a purpose to our lives.  In this scenario, if one really embraces it, reality is so grim.  Given that grim alternative, why not explore legitimate possibilities where there is true meaning, purpose, free will, moral ultimates, etc.  Why not attenuate our fears and entertain alternatives that may be reasonable?

The Evolution of the Divine Life

I have argued here that we shouldn’t think that there is some sort of ultimate culmination of history in a perfect, blissful state.  My view is that the Divine Life is eternally a struggle with the vicissitudes of life, trying to embrace the divine depth and instantiate that depth in this life.  Also see this essay on The Life of God.

So if there isn’t some eschaton that represents a final “solution” to life, then an interesting question is where is the Divine Life headed?  How is it evolving? Now, the term God is usually associated with terms like “infinite”, “eternal”, or the “omini’s”.  Terms like infinity and eternity stretch our cognition to the limit, boggling our minds.  But they also address the great mystery of life.  So perhaps, while they speak to our cognitive limits, they may be all we have.

If the Divine Life is eternal then God chooses to live eternally.  There must be something very important for God to want to take on the constraints of life to live. Perhaps this shouldn’t seem so strange.  Most people cherish life.  There is something about living, even with all its troubles that we really love.  Even with all the struggles there are times of great joy and fulfillment that seem to make it all worthwhile. Perfection is stagnant and sterile.  It is only in the complex negotiation of life that meaning can find a footing. So, perhaps like us, God finds living so important as well.

So where is the Divine Life headed?  Who knows.  If the purpose of life is the eternal creation of love, beauty, and meaning then who knows what lies ahead. No doubt there will be remarkable times when love, beauty, and meaning appear with great force as they have in the past.  Perhaps they will be somewhat “different” in how they become manifest in the future but also remain part of the ongoing processes of embracing the divine depth and making it happen in the moment.

There are different theories in science on what the future holds for this universe. It may end in a cold death. It may recycle itself but what we do know is that the earth will eventually perish and if there are inhabitants on it then, they will too.  Other civilizations throughout the universe will probably eventually succumb to a similar fate. Does that mean the Divine Life ends?  Certainly not.  The Life of God is not just about sentient beings.  God lives in everything from the quark, rock, plants, animals, and sentient beings. God’s lives a constrained being in all things.  And one shouldn’t necessarily think that the life of God is constrained only to this universe.  There may be many, many narratives created by God where God lives.  Just as an author may create many stories, with characters, environments, and situations so God may also.  Each will have its own constraints or parameters within which life navigates. Each “character” will have its own constraints and challenges. Each will have its divine depth to probe as the pull of divine purpose is ever present.

The Divine Life will evolve in ways that are particular to what has come before and the struggle of the divine communion in everything to embrace the divine depth and make it a reality.  Certainly there will fits and starts in the eternal process to create love, beauty, and meaning but perhaps that is as it should be.  We can be thrilled and excited when those come to fruition and gird our loins when they do not to make it happen again.

What would it be Like?

Often the problem of evil is brought up as a drop dead argument against God.  It goes something like this: If there is an all knowing, all powerful, all beneficent God then why is there evil in the world.  After all, there are and have been horrendous event and acts, both natural and intentional things that have occurred.  This argument, however, presumes that there could be something better if God is the creator.  Okay, but what would that be like?

So, first what is the cause of evil?  The potential for evil seems to be built into the fundamental fabric of the universe. There are fundamental forces, properties, entities, “laws”, etc. that science has discovered.  There is an incredible fine tuning of these things that make life possible.  Some say there are at least a couple of dozen parameters that are incredibly fine tuned to offer the possibility of life, as we know it.  Now there are theories (scientific?) that explain this by positing a multiverse where there are perhaps an infinite number of universes such that we just happen to be in one where life can exist.  But, that aside, in our universe these fine tuned parameters can cause both what we call good and evil.  The very same parameters and processes are responsible for both.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.  If you are reading this then you must like ideas and perhaps learning.  But what does learning do?  It both destroys and creates. To some extent the old is destroyed and the new is created. Misconceptions are destroyed and replaced by a better understanding.  In evolution the less fit are destroyed and the more fit move into the next generation.  When muscles are stressed, parts are destroyed so that the new and stronger can replace it.  The list could go on and on. Change and growth depend on the same forces and processes, and depending on the perspective what could be called good and evil.  So the very same properties and processes that create the good also create the evil.

So for those who use the problem of evil to rebut the idea of God then I think it is a valid question, okay, what would it be like to have a life without the potential for evil?  Would it be a life that anyone would want?  Would it be as some have described heaven, I life without tears? No pain? No suffering?  No stress?  No struggle?  If one thinks about that, would that really be a life worth having?  To me that sounds more like an opium stupor that something vibrant and meaningful.  I think life is meaningful precisely because of the struggle.  The failures can push us on and  the victories give us a sense of accomplishment. It all can give us a passion and vibrance to get up each day even in the face of life’s vicissitudes.  The alternative is stasis in perfection.

Now, this is not to discount evil.  But, evil is part of what it means to live.  It is to be fought with all the energy we have.  If life is worth having, evil will be an eternal problem to fight.  It will also be an eternal process to determine what is evil (what thwarts the good) and what is just part of the process that is necessary.  These are the challenges that living creatures face and will always face.  The problem of evil does not mean that God is either incompetent or doesn’t exist. It means that God chose to live in all things and that life is important enough and meaningful enough that it is worth that evil is possible.

On Svabhava

I’ve talked about this in other areas but as I’ve been reading and listening to modern thinkers lately I’ve been struck by how persistent and pervasive the idea of the physicalism is.  One can hardly image someone addressing the deep questions of reality without using the term “physical”.  And then there is also the pervasive distinctions raised in philosophy of mind discussions between the physical and the mental.  As the story goes, there is the physical brain and then there is the mind.  How these two can become congruent is a constant topic?  So what is behind all this physicalism that remains intransigently embedded in our cultures?  Let’s look at some history.

The idea of materialism often called physicalism today probably first arose around the 600 BCE in the Indus Valley of what is now known as India.  At that time there was a Charvakan school of thought. 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 to early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later materialist, atomistic thought emerged most notably by Democritus. 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 the variety we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to the predominant view in science and culture.

Now if we think about these early pre-scientific thinkers this line of thinking probably makes sense.  Just think about observations.  A rock is some discrete form but can be crushed into small pieces (atomos in Greek).  However, each of the small pieces still behaves like a rock.  So, there must be some svabhava, intrinsic properties of what it means to be a rock and these don’t seem to be dependent on anything else. A rock just behaves like a rock in whatever situation it finds itself in.

But what about combinations.  You take a rock and crush it down to a dirt like consistency and then add some water (which has its own svabhava: flowing) and what you get is mud.  Now mud seems to be a combination of properties.  It flows but not very well.  It has the positional intransigence of a rock but it also flows somewhat like water.  An obvious intuition would be that more complex combinations of things incorporated the svabhava of the constituent parts but also exhibits new properties. So what the Charvakan thinkers must have postulated was that everything was made up of atomos that when combined create everything we see with its own combination of svabhava.

Now today, this line of thinking still dominates discourse.  But why? It’s not because there weren’t and aren’t challenges to it.  Even early on in Greek thought there we those who challenged the svabhava model. They were 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 often “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. (To me this has are remarkable similarity to quantum theory concepts of nonlocality and emergence) In early Greek thought the rejection of atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what ordered and animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind. Anaxagoras is considered by some to be the first panpsychist. Plotinus also posited the primacy of mind, “For there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”.

Then of course there has been a constant rebellion against svabhava thought throughout history.  Most notably were the idealists like George Berkeley who posited that mind created reality (“to be is to be perceived”).  There were also many strains of idealism ranging from the epistemological idealism of  Kant and the ontological idealism of Hegel.  All of these posited that, in some sense, mind was an inescapable factor in reality either how its is or how it is perceived.  Even so the term physical remain part of the discourse.

Now, all this remained in the realm of speculative metaphysics until the twentieth century.  Enter quantum mechanics.  The advent of quantum mechanics created a disturbing prospect for some, that mind had a crucial role in what constituted reality.  Early on in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics how reality is constituted depended on the mind of the observer.  If the observer decided to look for a wave in an experiment, that’s what they got.  If they looked for a particle, that’s what they got. Their conscious decision effected how reality what was actualized.  In quantum physics this is called the wave-particle duality.  A remarkable turn of events in the history of science.

Then  Erwin Schrödinger came up with the famous Schrödinger wave function equation that said that a quantum actualization was only one among many probabilities.  Only the probabilities could be could be calculated, not the actualized event.  For some this seemed to represent a idea like paradigm.  Here’s how Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp states it:

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.

There has been much debated about this interpretation of quantum physics but the Copenhagen interpretation is still supported by many in physics. There have been other interpretations like the Bohm’s pilot-wave, many worlds, and decoherence theories, but they haven’t ruled out the Copenhagen interpretation so far maybe because they have either have hidden variables or probably can’t be verified empirically.

Still, even with all that the physicalist terminology persists.  Attempts have been made to eliminate mental talk either by semantic strategies or promissory notes on how some day science will finish up with a physicalist explanation.  But even besides quantum mechanics there is another sticky issue, subjective experience.  How can physicalism account for phenomenal consciousness, “what it’s like”.  Renowned philosopher David Chalmer’s and other’s have presented powerful arguments that physicalism may be powerless to explain our subjective experience.

So why is there such a de facto deference to physical talk? I think there are several reasons.  One is probably “the path of least difficulty”.  Mind is notoriously difficult to define and translated in to testable scientific language.  Just the fact that we have a term “mind” shows its power as part of explanations.  But how can they be brought to bear in a scientific explanation. Very difficult.  Perhaps it’s easier to ignore it or redefine it away, as some chose to do.   I think another factor is religion.  If mind is fundamental to reality then that may imply a cosmic mind.  When another towering figure in quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, asked Schrödinger if there was a universe before there were observers to collapse the wavefunction, he speculated there must a cosmic mind to do the observing.  Schrödinger also found a form of Vedantic thought appealing with its idealistic tendencies.

So if this talk of God or a cosmic observer is in the offing, it is often abhorrent to many scientific minded individuals.  For them, perhaps it is better to ignore it despite the evidence and forge ahead with physicalism hoping that someday it will win the day.  Also there is a real price to pay for those who entertain the idea of a cosmic mind instantiating reality. There is such a negative bias against religion in science that even hinting at the God scenario would signal the death knell of one’s credibility and career.  It’s only the brave few that even breach the possibility that there is a God and God’s mind is what constitutes reality.

Now let me say this.  It is understandable that many find God talk or religious formulations abhorrent. There has been so much magical thinking, unsystematic, and unreasonable claims made by many religious thinkers such that no wonder the modern mind rebels.  But that is a Sunday school mentality. It doesn’t spend time to research and examine the depth of theology and religious philosophy. There have been so many profound religious and metaphysical thinkers throughout history that have taken the difficulties seriously and tried to come up with systems that are both rigorous, reasonable, and systematic.  It may be easier to stick with a Sunday school mentality than resist deep biases against religion than to look further.

Often thinkers spout the axiom, “Follow the evidence where it leads”. However, because of confirmation bias, this is not always the case. However, perhaps in the future as more evidence arises that supports the idea of a cosmic mind, like the simulation concept that many non-religious thinkers are beginning to embrace, things will change.



Divine Action and a Juggler Metaphor

Sometimes dry philosophical arguments can be hard to understand. That’s why I think metaphors can be helpful even for those who are familiar with metaphysics.  So, here’s another concerning the activity of God (Divine Action) in this world — the juggler.

There is an essay on how reality is constituted here where I argue that science, especially quantum mechanics, has strongly suggested that the way reality is constituted looks more like Mind at work than some sort of physicalist model.  The crucial role of the observer (in the Copenhagen interpretation) says that a conscious mind is inextricably linked to how reality actualizes. And since presumably the universe existed before minds could observe it, then that suggests that there is a universal mind at work. One of the seminal figures in quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger suggested just that. Continue reading

God and an RPG Metaphor

Sometimes a metaphor can more powerfully illustrate a concept than a philosophical argument.  In the Divine Life Communion, everything in this life is an aspect of God’s life. This includes humans, animals, bacteria, rocks, elementary particles, etc.  Each exists with its constraints.  While there is an abysmal aspect of God that Tillich called “the God above the God of theism”, for some reason God chose to live.  In Christianity and other religious systems this represents an emptying or taking on constraints to live. In Christianity this is called kenosis where Christ shed the divine nature in some respects to become incarnated in human form.

Now it is important to remember that each aspect is part of God’s life but each with its own particular constraints. So, one metaphor that might illustrate this is a type of game called role playing game.  In these games the player takes on the role of some type of character. That character has certain attributes: personality, strengths, weakness, powers, moral character, attitudes, etc.  It might be a knight, a thief, a priest, a noble, a scoundrel, a healer, etc.  Now the key to how good the gamer is, is how well they take on that role and behave according to the attributes of that character.  They must suspend their own personal attributes and take on the role, even if it is contrary to how they would normally think or behave.  A similar analogy is found in acting where the actor takes on a role that may be very different from how they are themselves.

While these metaphors are not perfect, perhaps they can partially illustrated how God takes on an aspect in life.  Each aspect has its attributes, limitations, strengths, etc.  For some reason God wanted to experience life in all these different “roles”, to embrace the limitations, struggle with challenges and experience both the positive and negative consequences of that constrained being.  And just like in an RPG game it is not only the individual role that is important but also how all the characters act towards each other and how the community fares in their adventure together.  God’s aspects do not occur in isolation.  They occur within the communion of all God’s aspects, each playing its part in the unfolding of God’s purposes in living. Each has its own identity but that identity is also in communion with all the others.  They all also participate in the divine depth that guides and navigates all the vicissitudes and challenges that life has to offer.