God is All Sweetness and Light — NOT

Ok, this is a bit of a rant. But sometimes theologies of God really irritate me. There is a strain of theology that bothers me to no end. It is found in Process Theology as well as its cousin Open and Relational Theology. It presents a picture of God as all “sweetness and light” or pure love. Sounds good doesn’t it? Not to me. Here’s why. In this view, God is ontologically distinct from this reality but somehow also engaged in what happens. Usually, this engagement is expressed in terms of “lure”. Supposedly, God is distinct from this reality but “lures” it towards the good. Since God is ontologically distinct, God is untainted by the flaws of life. God “feels” our pain, “suffers in absentia”, and tries to lure the world to a better place.

Now, I have no problem with God-as-transcendent trying to shape the world such that the good and beautiful become manifest. How this might happen is a subtle and complex issue but what I find irritating about these ontological views of God is that God is too good to “be in the trenches” with any ontological risk, or ontologically fighting for what is noble, courageous, good, and true. Why should we care about such a pure, impotent, distant God? This God can’t be interested in prayers of supplication because God can’t do anything ontologically active about them. God is constrained (by who knows what), relegated to a persuader trying passive-aggressively to influence what happens. Strikingly, this persuasion-only God isn’t very good at persuasion. Just look at the horrors this God failed to dissuade. An addict can get more benefit from a skillful therapist or a proactive friend orchestrating an intervention than praying to this God.

The God of Process Theology and Open and Relational Theology is an impotent “goody-two-shoes”. Sorry, I told you this was a rant.

No! The God envisioned in the ontology offered on this website is a God who chose to live in all its aspects both good and evil. God-as-living is ontologically at risk. Every life must deal with the struggles of finitude. Every life has the divine within, with forceful impetuses toward divine goals. This impetus is not some passive persuasion but rather an active powerful force like a magnet or gravity that can intensify as needed while still honoring the free-will of God-as-living. Even what we consider the most despicable individuals have this depth and with it that “still small voice” calling to embrace it. In some, this impetus fails and we get horrid evils. Such is the nature of free-will. For most, however, this impetus toward divine goals has an effect, even if partial and ambiguous. It has an effect because the God “in the trenches” is a living aspect (God-as-living ) of God-as-transcendent.

God isn’t just for the fortunate or powerful. God is particularly for those who are the weakest and most fragile among us. They pray for help and God answers powerfully. Their suffering may not end but they are not alone. That is because God is suffering as them. The strength of God within means they can endure and even thrive in spite if their trials. This can offer a peace “that surpasses all understanding.” It means that they, even in their suffering and trials are part of something profound and meaningful. Their lives and how they respond to it have a deep impact on the communion of all things. They contribute to the eternal creation of love, courage, beauty, and meaning. The God of my belief is not some distant, pure being as depicted in these theologies, but one who is “in the trenches” striving to be noble and brave, to love and create beauty, and reveling in the meaningfulness of life both with its joys and sorrows.

Analogies for Idealism

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This is a response to an article in Scientific American by Bernardo Kastrup, Adam Crabtree, and Edward F. Kelly, idealism proponents, where they claim that an analogy with dissociation (as Kastrup discusses) like that found in the dissociative identity disorder (DID) can offer a solution to “a critical problem in our current understanding of the nature of reality”.  That problem being the combination problem in panpsychism where the question is, as David Chalmers briefly puts it — “how do the experiences of fundamental physical entities such as quarks and photons combine to yield the familiar sort of human conscious experience that we know and love.”  The authors of the article respond to the problem with an alternative view:

The obvious way around the combination problem is to posit that, although consciousness is indeed fundamental in nature, it isn’t fragmented like matter. The idea is to extend consciousness to the entire fabric of spacetime, as opposed to limiting it to the boundaries of individual subatomic particles. This view—called “cosmopsychism” in modern philosophy, although our preferred formulation of it boils down to what has classically been called “idealism”—is that there is only one, universal, consciousness. The physical universe as a whole is the extrinsic appearance of universal inner life, just as a living brain and body are the extrinsic appearance of a person’s inner life.

However, the authors also recognize a potential problem:

You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize the obvious problem with this idea: people have private, separate fields of experience. We can’t normally read your thoughts and, presumably, neither can you read ours. Moreover, we are not normally aware of what’s going on across the universe and, presumably, neither are you. So, for idealism to be tenable, one must explain—at least in principle—how one universal consciousness gives rise to multiple, private but concurrently conscious centers of cognition, each with a distinct personality and sense of identity.

They think the solution can be found in an analogy with dissociative identity disorder:

And here is where dissociation comes in. We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours. As such, we may all be alters—dissociated personalities—of universal consciousness.

This would seem to satisfy the conceivability requirement in philosophy of mind proposals and suggest some details about what is happening, but at what cost?  There is a negative connotation associated with DID.  It is considered a disorder, perhaps stemming from pathological inabilities to cope with life as a unified personality.  F. C. S. Schiller in his 1906 paper, “Idealism and the Dissociation of Personality” affirms that this analogy does solve some problems for idealism but also recognizes that it carries a negative connotation for the absolute:

Moreover, (2) if the absolute is to include the whole of
a world which contains madness, it is clear that, anyhow, it must, in
a sense, be mad. The appearance, that is, which is judged by us to
be madness must be essential to the absolute’s perfection. All that
the analogy suggested does is to ascribe a somewhat higher degree
of reality to the madness in the absolute

While I appreciate the intent of the dissociative analogy to address a problem, if analogies can offer some credence to idealism, then perhaps there are other real-world analogies that are reasonable but do not carry the negative connotations. So, I’ll offer a couple of analogies here that might also be viable but are positive and affirming for why the diversity in the cosmos came about and do not imply a dysfunction within the Divine Mind. Instead, they imagine a God who embraces taking on constrained being even with all its difficulties and challenges. Given all the problems and evils within life, this must mean there is something so very important and valuable about life itself.

Actor/Role Analogy
It is well known that many actors relish taking on challenging roles. It helps them grow as actors and, perhaps on a personal level, presents unique opportunities to plunge deeper into the human psyche, both theirs and others. So, they research the role, often talk to those whom they will portray, and try to create that role in their mind.  Then in the scenes, they shift gears from their normal selves to that role even if that role is diametrically opposite to their normal self.  They compartmentalize the role within themselves and act within that compartment, but they still have a unitary self, unlike dissociated personalities. Then when the scene is over, they shift back to their normal selves but they may also experience some change because of the experience of “the other self” in the role. This could represent God-as-transcendent, being changed by God-as-living in each aspect of the Divine Life. What this analogy suggests is that God seeks out the challenge of living perhaps because it evokes the most admirable qualities — courage, resolve, grace in the face of adversity, altruistic love, concern for both self and others, progressive action, growth, etc. In other words, God taking on somewhat distinct lives is not out of dysfunction but rather because God saw something so wonderful and valuable about living within constraints.

MMORPGs Analogy
MMORPGs is an acronym for — Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.  These are online games where multiple players take on certain character types and play those roles as the game dynamically emerges.  Those roles can vary dramatically just as personalities can. There can be noble, evil, good, childlike, magical, non-human, conflicted, etc. roles, each with its own personality, characteristics, powers, frailties, and histories.  There is also the environment within which the RPG is played. It could be realistic or fanciful. In essence, it is an imagined world with imagined characters that navigate the dynamics of a certain broad narrative.  Each player adopts a role and suspends their own self as much a possible to play that role, often within a team of other role-players. It is a simulation of life with all the intricacies of psychology, sociology, culture, and challenge.  Why do people seek out and participate in these games? Similar to the Actor/Role analogy, because it offers opportunities to embrace the multidimensions of life in an alternate reality that is both fun, interesting, and satisfies our need to be challenged, grow, be social, and reach out beyond the limitations of our ordinary life.

So, what’s the analogy? The analogy is that whereas in online role-playing games there are many separate people playing the roles, in the Divine Life, God is playing all the roles including the role of the environment. Each of us and everything else is an aspect of the Divine Life, created (imagined) in the Mind of God.  We are in God’s unitary mind but also distinct and somewhat independent, living our lives within the grand divine narrative where we also must make choices whether or not to embrace the transcendent divine transcendent depth within and actualize the divine vision for how life can be.

Now, the limitations of using analogies toward metaphysics should be recognized.  They come from within our limited, constrained being and, as such, shouldn’t be taken too literally.  Perhaps they can be accepted as metaphors — while of limited literal value perhaps they also point to some deep truths.

Here are some other posts on analogies/metaphors:
Author/Story
Actor/Role
Role Play Games
Venn Diagrams
Divine Action and a Juggler

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 transcendent 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 transcendent 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 transcendent 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 transcendent 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.