Systematic theologies are by nature complex. They deal with lots of issues like epistemology, ontology, eschatology, soteriology, practice, prayer, etc. plus addressing existential problems. Also since everything in a system is supposed to fit together well, understanding a particular theology is somewhat nonlinear, requiring broad reading to make sense of it all. However, since that can be involved and time-consuming, I think for those who might be interested in a theology, taking a look at a snapshot of where things are going can help make a decision whether or not proceed to more depth. So, what I’ll try to do here is offer a brief summary of the system with links to more in-depth treatments of specific topics.
The impetus for me in trying to develop a systematic theology “from scratch” was both a discomfort with my own religious tradition (Christianity) and an inability to find another tradition that I could find compelling. In all the systems I looked at there was some “deal killer” that I couldn’t get past. I talk more about my criteria here. So, I set out to see if I could develop a theology that worked for me. Now, the thought that I might be able to do this might sound arrogant but I had a couple of things going for me where I felt I might be able to do it.
First, I studied theology in seminary for two years at a Lutheran seminary and embraced that best theological minds of the time. After those two years, I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor partly because of my introverted nature but more because after two years my beliefs were so a odds with those at the grassroots level that I just couldn’t see it working. However, I was still very interested in theology and philosophy so I kept on reading and thinking about it. That broadened my knowledge and conceptual breath, so I could step back from theology and think in more of meta-level about it.
Second, in my career, I was a design engineer. I was used to designing machines and systems that were complex and challenging. I felt the same tools and processes I used in my work could also be brought to bear in developing a theology. So, I took up the task. It took several years with many false starts and unsatisfactory results but eventually, I settled on something that I could accept. However, that’s just about my journey and my personal framework. It works for me but may not work for others. My hope is that many more people and theologians would also jump into the breach and give developing a theology outside the traditions a shot.
Since I couldn’t find a religious or spiritual tradition that I found compelling, I realized that looking at the problems I found could be a good place to start. Now if there are problems within a theological system, one way to deal with that is to see if some slight modifications will do the trick. This has often been done in theological circles. The question becomes, does it work? In some cases it may, but what if the problems are so deeply rooted and so fundamental that finding a solution either becomes a contrivance or the resulting system bears so little resemblance to the tradition that why bother? So, if something doesn’t work then perhaps there are better “solutions” that could be found within a new approach. And so, this theological system is in large part about solving theological and existential problems within the milieu of today’s sensibilities be they about our current knowledge about the world that science offers, the philosophical rigor that has been outlined for millennia, as well as the existential issues that are prominent today. The bottom line for me was to see if there could be a reasonable way to think about God and God’s relationship to the world that also seemed to fit in well with my religious intuitions. Is it possible to have a theological system that takes seriously what science says about the world and also takes seriously what our deeply religious intuitions also say? I think so, and this system is an attempt to find that.
Now, since I wanted to develop a systematic theology this requires some structure. If the goal is to develop a theological system that is not derived from a particular tradition then although that structure will have similarities to other systematic approaches it will also be different in some respects. Instead of looking to a scripture or tradition as the primary resource, it will draw from all the resources available and evaluate them to see what aspects of those resources can be brought to bear on the task. So, the structure I chose includes (I cover this in detail here):
- Set Goal (a reasonable theology)
- Determine criterion for at least entertaining certain ideas
- Be reasonable
- Take seriously religious intuitions
- Be systematic
- Be science-friendly
- Better address problems
- Be world affirming
- Determine the Theology Method
- Start with problems/issues
- Accept the nonlinearity of the process
- Go for minimalism in metaphysical speculation
- Determine Resources
- Religious intuition
- The wisdom of the ages
- Religious traditions
- Moral sensibilities
- Proceeding with the process, starting with epistemology/ontology
Often in philosophical explorations, epistemology and ontology are the starting points. Epistemology is about knowing (and often how to justify some knowledge) and ontology is about being. There is, however, a blurry line between the two. To know something implies an ontology so certain ontological positions are posited in the epistemology. Since theology is, in large part, about metaphysical speculations a presupposition is that we can know something about God. What this says ontologically is that we are, in some way, in touch with the divine and the divine nature. Essentially, the claim is that our being participates in the divine and that participation offers glimpses of God and God’s relationship to creation. The creature can know something about the creator because there is a unity in some way. So, the issue for theology is to explore what that knowing is about and how it can occur. This is a complex topic because it touches on the entire realm of human knowing, including both what Michael Polanyi called the tacit and explicate knowing. Explicit knowing is about knowledge that can be readily explicated with symbols like in language and mathematics. It can be formulated in structural manners. In large part, science, engineering, economics, etc. are examples of this. Tacit knowing resists explication. As Polanyi says, “We know more than we can say”. Examples might be knowing how to dance, play jazz, or we just seem to know something about an issue or situation but now exactly how. I call this an intuition.
Now, I don’t think there is a sharp demarcation between the explicit and intuitive knowing. Explications have intuitive components and intuitions can be informed by empirical observations and language. However, I think it can be helpful to examine these with some level of distinction. And so, with this subtlety in place, I think it is important to talk about the distinctions between what I call religious intuition and empirically based knowing. After all, religious intuitions often speak to metaphysical concepts that may not be totally approachable by empirical investigations. However, we can look at empirical data and get what I call “informed intuitions”. As before a more detailed treatment of these can be found here.
The great theologian Paul Tillich adopted what he called “the method of correlation” in creating his systematic theology. In that method, the first thing to determine is what the essential problems/issues are for the day. Then. in his theology, answers to those problems/issues are sought within the tradition (Christianity for him). His was an answering theology. This works well if the particular tradition or scripture is granted a revelatory authority. But what if a de facto authority is not granted in the first place? In that case, answers to the problems/issues can be sought in a much broader scope, seeking answers from the whole gamut of human experience, wisdom literature, science, philosophy, all religious traditions, religious intuition, and on and on. This means that if the concepts or ideas in a particular tradition are problematic then concepts and ideas from this full gamut may be evaluated to see if they provide less problematic answers. It also means that the final system can include a multitude of answers outside any particular tradition or thought system.
The problems/issues that I felt were essential to address better are:
- The question of meaning and purpose
- The problem of evil (this is a massive one)
- Teleology (divine activity and science)
- Free will
- Consciousness (subjective experience)
So the task is to see if a systematic theology could be formulated to address all these where the answers are less problematic. This requires a starting point and I think the starting point is necessarily ontology.
Ontology and Problems/Issues
Since ontology impinges on addressing all the existential issues, the question becomes, is there an ontology that offers the best opportunity to find reasonably acceptable “solutions” to all the issues. I stress “all” because if something is left out or minimized in a formulation, this will often come back to bite the system or lead to contrivances later. It’s necessary to “solve” all the problems/issues at the same time in order to avoid contrivances or holes in the system that eventually raise concerns.
The Divine Life Communion Answers
So this brings us to the meat of the TDLC theology. It starts with looking for an ontology that provides promising answers to these deep questions and issues. So first, the process is to examine what ontologies are available for evaluation. Now, throughout history, there have been enumerable ontologies offered. However, I think most can be simplified somewhat by determining how strong the distinctions are drawn between God and our reality.
For example, a strong distinction would be that God is “wholly other”, no comparison can be made. This can lead to a stark dualism of being. There is a sharp “break” between God and the world. Among others, it can lead to deistic theologies where God may have created the world but then left it to its own devices.
At the opposite end of the spectrum would be something like pantheism. Pantheism essentially equates God with the universe. There is no distinction made.
Then there is a myriad of ontologies where the distinctions are not so strident. In the West we have concepts like panentheism – God is in all things, but also more. In the East, we have all the variations of the relationship of Brahman (ultimate reality) and Atman (this reality).
So, the question becomes what sort of ontology might be the most promising to provide reasonably satisfactory answers to the pressing issues/problems. For TDLC the most promising is an ontology I call an aspect monism. In an aspect monism, there is no sharp distinction drawn between God and the world. Instead, there is a porous gradient between this world and God. This needs considerable unpacking. First, this ontology acknowledges what has been called God’s abysmal character. This is similar to panentheism in that it posits that there is an unfathomable depth to God, beyond this reality and our comprehension. However, it also affirms that there is a “part” of God that lives. This life of God is the reality we experience. To put it colloquially, God has a life. Thus, the first part of the title, “The Divine Life”.
To illustrate, let me offer a metaphor – Author/Story. Since our epistemology is grounded in our own type of being and the language available to us, metaphors can give a “picture” of the concepts that may be easily understood. Now some might say this is anthropomorphizing concepts of God, but as finite beings that is what we have to work with. This metaphor also alludes to another part of the ontology and that is an ultimate idealism where reality is essentially a construct of God’s “mind”.
So, think about how a story or narrative is created. The author imagines a world, environments, settings, and characters. That imagining is in the mind of the author. It’s all the author but also somewhat distinct from the author’s normal life. It’s a creation. The author has an idea about the plot and what will happen broadly but as the author writes, the story unfolds often in ways the author didn’t expect in the beginning. Now, a key point here is that all the characters are part of the author – an aspect. In the narrative, the author “becomes” each character, taking on their attributes and limitations. In essence, the author adopts the role of that character. Like role-playing games. The author sheds their own particular knowledge, proclivities, personality, etc. to become that role, acting out that role within the givens of that being. In other words, the author lives that life, with all its constraints, limitations, flaws, and problems. Again, the author lives that life. Now, this doesn’t just apply to human characters. It applies to everything – the environment, elementary components, bacteria, plants, insects, mammals, all along the chain of being to humans. Each has its own constraints and levels of sentience. Some aspects of the Divine Life behave stereotypically like chemical elements, cells, plants, etc. with very limited complexity whereas in others there is great complexity and more options available.
So, why choose this ontology? The question is whether this ontology offers more promising “solutions” to the problems/issues listed earlier. I think it does. For instance