TDLC Theology in a Nutshell

The theology you’ll find on this website is an alternative systematic theology from that found in the major religious traditions.  Now, it’s a legitimate question as to why an alternative might be needed? To understand my motive for pursuing this, I’ll touch a bit on my personal story.

Background

I was raised Christian and maintained belief in that tradition for many years. I received a degree in engineering and went to work in that field for several years. However, since I had always been interested in religion and the deep questions of life, I wondered if I might be suited to be a pastor and find that more fulfilling than engineering. Accordingly, my wife and I left Texas and moved to Iowa so I could study theology at a Lutheran seminary.  I did that for two years. However, after two years of intensive immersion in the best theological thinking of the time, I discovered that my beliefs had changed so much that I had little in common with the beliefs found in the grassroots churches.  That was going to be a big problem if I became a pastor. So, I left seminary and went back into engineering for the rest of my career. Still, my belief in God remained but over a few years, at one point, I realized that I no longer found Christian theology that compelling. So I decided to cast my metaphysical net more broadly to see if I could find something to accept.  So, I read a lot about other theologies and metaphysical systems both in the West and the East.  Eventually, all the systems I studied had some serious fundamental problems I couldn’t get past.  It wasn’t that they didn’t have great insights, but taken systematically the problems I found were deal breakers for me.  I talk about this in more detail throughout the site, and how I approach systematic theology including addressing these problems here.  So, at one point I decided to see if I could develop a theology that I could feel comfortable believing in.  The Divine Life Communion theology represents the culmination of that journey.

So, with that background, I’d like to offer what TDLC theology is about in a nutshell.   Since my dissatisfaction with existing religious systems stemmed from problems I perceived within them, that was a primary focus of the development.  Was there a way to think about God and God’s relationship to creation that offered more satisfactory answers to the significant problems and questions about life that theology and religious philosophy try to address?  But it was more than just trying to find a metaphysical system that answered better, but one that also honored the religious intuitions I and others had about the depth of life.  Here again, much more is said on this elsewhere on the site.

To find better answers, for me being an engineer, not just any ole hodgepodge of ideas strung together haphazardly would do.  It had to be systematic with everything fitting together well including defining the issues, determining a criterion, and making the systems worked.

So, what were the problems I was seeking to answer better?  These are the primary problems/issues I sought to address better:

  • The question of meaning and purpose
  • The problem of evil (this is a massive one)
  • Teleology (divine activity and science)
  • Free will
  • Morality
  • Prayer
  • Consciousness (subjective experience)

However, in order to find legitimate answers to these, there needed to be a criterion established. These were the criteria I chose:

  • Verisimilitude (a reasonable likelihood it’s true)
  • Be reasonable (given our sense of reality)
  • Take seriously religious intuitions (tries to avoid just an academic exercise)
  • Be systematic
  • Be science-friendly
  • Better address problems
  • Be world affirming

Then as I said, it had to be systematic. Which for me means:

  • Logically sound (this means following the rules of logic)
  • Coherent (makes sense, nothing obscure)
  • Consistent (no self-contradictions)
  • Rigorous (details matter)
  • Complete (doesn’t leave out anything pertinent)
  • Elegant (no contrivances to overcome a problem)

Now, that’s a lot to consider but, at least for me, nothing less rigorous would do.

Asking and Answering

The great Christian theologian, Paul Tillich said that theology should be an answering theology. For him, you start with the deep issues of the time (existential issues) and then look for the answers found within the tradition. He called this “the method of correlation”.  This creates a theology that is meaningful for people and cultures.  I think this is right and also has implications for both doing theology and how the religious traditions came about in the first place.  Life has many mysteries and even early hominids tried to puzzle through those mysteries and develop ideas that addressed them. So, early on hominids ascribed features like their own to everything.  This has been called animism — the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.  These early humans sought answers to why things happened and behaved the way they did.

As human thought developed, so did the intuitions and ideas about the mysteries of life. Then there was a very seminal period in history, roughly starting from the 8th century BCE through to the first century AD.  It was during that time that most of the major religious traditions took shape — Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc.. There was enormous metaphysical speculation throughout both the East and West.    Also, during this time certain seminal figures emerged to offer their take on the answers — Moses, Siddartha Gautama, Mohammed, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, etc.

As these great religious leaders took up the challenge of puzzling through the questions of life and existence, they focused on certain key questions. For instance, for Siddartha Gautama, the dominant issue was suffering.  In Judaism and Christianity, the main focus seemed to be on justice, how to describe our sinful nature, find atonement, and balance the scales of right and wrong.  These thinkers focused on certain issues and examined the ideas within their culture. These ideas included those that might be called empirical — looking to observations to make sense of what is going on. But, they also drew from the metaphysical concepts and ideas that were also available at that time.  In other words, they examined all the resources available to them, added their insight, and came up with answers to those deep problems/issues they considered important. Eventually, the insights of these seminal figures became codified in the scriptures and wisdom literature that formed the central core of the traditions. Problems and issues were the starting point for the process of providing answers.

Now, with Tillich’s method of correlation, he looked primarily for the answers within the Christian tradition. However, if no particular tradition is given de facto authority, then the answers can come from any resource. This means that even if the answers of a particular tradition are not completely adequate, they may also have great insights that can be evaluated and brought to bear on the theological task.

So, if the starting point is to identify the existential problems/issues the life presents, then the question is how to approach the problems?  Now, if a particular emphasis is placed on certain questions/problems then the answers will be shaped by those questions. This can be problematic from the standpoint of a system.  One of the criteria for a system, to me, is being complete. So, if a particular issue is the primary focus (say suffering, or sin) then this may not give proper due to other issues. This can lead to an incompleteness in the system or the creation of contrivances to deal with inconsistencies or problems.  For instance, in Christianity, the problem of evil finds its origin in the free choice of Adam and Eve in the garden.  Of course, given what we know about evolution, this is problematic from the start. But it is also problematic in dealing with the free choice of subsequent individuals.  Why wouldn’t there be individuals who freely choose not to sin? Enter original sin.  I see this as a contrivance. Of course, this approach also doesn’t deal with “natural evil”.

Buddhism could be a case of incompleteness.  It is said that the Buddha wasn’t that interested in metaphysical questions.  He focused on practices to minimize suffering. But, this leaves many metaphysical issues unaddressed like where did the law of karma come from or why adopt certain values over against others.  Since Buddhism is at its roots nontheistic the question of ultimate purpose and the basis for value might seem problematic.

If a religious system is to be systematic — complete and coherent, then it must deal with all the questions/problems at the same time. If something is left unattended to then it could become problematic and lead to contrivances.  So, the approach for a TDLC theology is to address all the problems together, leaving no serious issue out.

TDLC Answers

Again, here’s a list of the problems to be answered, at the same time:

  • The question of meaning and purpose
  • The problem of evil (this is a massive one)
  • Teleology (divine activity and science)
  • Free will
  • Morality
  • Prayer
  • Consciousness (subjective experience)

So the challenge is to answer all these in a systematic way that may be better than is found elsewhere.  Some of these problems can be answered more easily than others.  For instance, answering the question of meaning and purpose flows more easily just from positing a creator who has a purpose in mind and that purpose is accessible to creatures, within the constraints and limits of being in life. The question of morality also fits in this category.  If there is an ultimate “good” grounded in the divine, then being moral amounts to trying to discover that good in each context and instantiating it.

Other problems are more difficult. The problem of evil is an enormous one and one that probably more than others has led many to reject the idea of God.  This problem focuses on theology — a theology of God and God’s relationship to creation.

Others like teleology, free will, prayer, and consciousness (subjective experience) present their own unique challenges and addressing those may require engaging with empirical theories and data that science offers.  If a theology is to be considered reasonable to the contemporary mind, then it must take seriously what science tells us about how reality is constituted and see if there is a way to think about how those findings could fit in with answers to those problems.

So, in tackling all those problems, it seems that there are two fundamental ontological propositions that may offer better answers.  For the TDLC theology, these are a divine idealism and an aspect monism.

Divine Idealism

A divine idealism means that reality is constituted in and by the mind of God.  Everything is mind.  In other words, reality is imagined and created by God much like how an author imagines worlds, characters, events, etc. in a narrative.  I use the metaphor Author/Story as an example.  When we use the term “matter” we are not talking about something mindless that just does what it does because of some intrinsic properties but as a word to describe something like a thought in the mind of God.  Quantum physics has shown that matter as some sort of enduring “stuff” is incorrect.  Current thinking is that elementary particles don’t endure, they pop in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum.  In some interpretations of quantum physics, potentials described by the wavefunction are more like imagined futures that may or may not actualize and why one does is not known.

So, how would a divine idealism help provide better answers?  First, there is no mind/body problem (which relates to consciousness) because everything is mind. Phenomenal consciousness (subject experience) is not something ontologically different from the body, but rather something that is an inherent feature of mind.  Consciousness is the experience of what the mind creates.

A divine idealism also leads to a monistic view of reality.  One of the perennial issues of philosophy dating back millennia was how to think about the “One and the Many”.  If everything is constituted in the mind of God then the many are part or an aspect of the One Mind.  This leads to the second fundamental assertion of TDLC theology — an aspect monism.

Aspect Monism

Part of the TDLC ontology utilizes the phrase, aspect monism. This ontological description means that everything is an aspect of the One (God). Just as all the characters, things, environments, places, and events are part (an aspect) of an author’s mind, so each entity in our world is part of the One Mind. This includes everything from what we call fundamental particles, air, water, rocks, bacteria, plants, and other organisms all the way to human beings.  All these could be thought of as discrete aspects within God’s mind and the narrative that God creates. They each have their own traits, distinctiveness, and constraints but they are part of the whole.

This ontology offers many opportunities for providing better answers to the problems.