Participation and Theological Challenges

In my essay on developing a systematic theology “from scratch” at one point, I affirm an assumption.  The reason I make that assumption is that a theology “from scratch” should, I think, provide better answers to theological problems. However, in order to be compelling, the answers offered should have some level of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude means “the appearance of being true or real”. In metaphysics, I think that is the best we can do. So, how would one evaluate the verisimilitude for something in theological or metaphysical speculation? This is how I see it. The assumption I’m making is that the reason we may not feel comfortable with certain characterizations of God or God’s relationship with the world is that our participation in God suggests to us there is something wrong with them.  Philosophers have said that “to know is to participate in”.  What I mean by “participate” is both being ontologically “part of” and yet also distinct in some sense. To participate implies both a distinctness as well as a commonality.

Let me try some analogies to explain what I mean.  In science, how can we claim to know something about how reality is constituted?  We can because we are part of that reality. We are made up of the same atoms and forces as the rest of the universe.  We participate in the universe so we can make observations, postulate theories, and test them. If the world was vastly different from us then what language would we use to characterize it? To participate is to “be” in that reality.

Now, we do have certain constraints imposed on us. Our minds evolved in certain ways such that our perceptions and cognitive abilities do have limits and are shaped in certain ways.  The concepts and language we have to utilize reflect this. So, there is a constant struggle where we try to modify and expand our language where appropriate.  For science, mathematics is an example of this.

But, what happens as we try to probe deeper and deeper into why things are the way they are?  How far down the rabbit hole can we go?  In science, we seem to bump into limits beyond which we may not be able to go. Still, as we have seen in science, this limit is not fixed and can be extended to some extent with new techniques.  However, there do seem to be roadblocks beyond which it may not be possible to breach. How small can we take a measurement?  Also, what is going on with emergence where new properties emerge when there are collectives?  Now, this is not some polemic against scientific explanations. Absolutely not.  It just recognizes that our empirical investigations may be limited. Then, what we often get are metaphysical speculations (“beyond the physics”) from scientists and philosophers.

So the question is, do we somehow participate in reality such that looking for a deeper understanding is possible?  I think there is, and this is where the assumption comes in.  Where does the understanding end?  Is it in some “physical” fact, or is there “something more” that is beyond this reality that grounds it?  If there is some transcendent ground to being then how could we possibly perceive it?  If we participate in that source of being then perhaps we can, within our limits, also get some sense of that transcendent ground or to use the term I prefer, God.

Now, as I have talked about in various places, one way to characterize life is as constrained being.  Those constraints shape both how life happens and how we perceive it.   I think, however, there is also something deeply embedded within our being that also informs us.  If we participate in the divine then there is an imprint of the divine within us that speaks to us.  The apostle Paul said, “Now we see in the mirror dimly”. There is an image within us of the divine, albeit dimly. Similar sentiments are found in other religious systems. If we are parts or aspects of the Divine Mind, then there is a divine transcendent depth within us. Though often subtle and unclear, it can inform us.  Then, if there is a distorted picture of reality, either immanent or transcendent, perhaps it leaves us with an uncomfortable feeling about it.  It doesn’t fit with that deeply embedded image of God and God’s relationship with the world.

Here’s another analogy.  If you go to a carnival they may have a mirror room with mirrors that distort your image.  It’s fun.  You recognized yourself but your image is distorted.  There is something wrong with the image you see. It’s not really you. In this analogy, the image of the divine may also be distorted to some degree because of our limitations.  However, there is a nagging feeling that something is wrong with it.  If as we think about how to characterize God and God’s relationship with this world, something doesn’t seem right about it then maybe it isn’t and we should rethink it.  Are there answers to existential issues within much of theology today that just don’t seem right? I think there are. As an example, the traditional religious systems that emerge during what religious scholar Robert Bellah called the “historic period” and continue today are world-rejecting.  If we look at the major traditions they still posit some eschatology where things will be “fixed”.  What image does this offer of God as the artisan of creation? After all, the artisan is ultimately responsible for the artifact.  Does this seem right to us now? Perhaps not.

So, there are issues in theology that may not seem right to many today. This is reflected in the constant ongoing attempt to reframe or modify parts of traditional theology. I talk about Marcus Borg’s approach here. It’s an open question whether or not these will be sufficient for future generations to accept or if there are fundamental issues that will thwart those efforts.  Since all theologians have their own personal histories, biases, and commitments, I think many voices are needed to rise up and see if there are other ways to discover an image of the divine that seems better and less distorted — one that offers better answers to the theological challenges.

Since life is constrained, this picture will never become totally complete or clear because the divine is infinite. However, since we participate in the divine, if we try to probe our divine transcendent depth, maybe it will become clearer and we can try to align ourselves with it in this life.