A Goldilocks God?

Draft version: not for citation or quotation. Published version: “A Goldilocks God: Open Theism as a Feuerbachian Alternative?” Coauthored with J. Aaron Simmons. Element 6, no. 2 (fall 2015): 35-55.

I.

In contemporary philosophy of religion (and philosophical theology), abstract, indeterminate, and largely continental, discourse about God’s absence is sometimes placed in stark opposition to concrete, overly determinate, and largely analytic, discourse about God’s presence. In this paper we argue that this recent trend, which appears to force a decision between extremes, misses the importance of living in the space between—where one’s God-talk would be characterized by epistemic humility and also theological determinacy. Somewhere between the temptations toward apophatic indeterminacy and kataphatic arrogance is where existence happens as we try to live before God and with others in our historical context. Drawing on Ludwig Feuerbach’s rejection of positive theology as anthropocentric arrogance and negative theology as cowardice, we suggest that Open Theism productively maintains the tension between absence and presence that is required of us as existing individuals.[1]

 

II.

Though certainly well known for his critique of the arrogance that attends the positive anthropocentric and anthropomorphic claims to know God, Ludwig Feuerbach also challenges negative alternatives. [2] We will briefly look at both of his criticisms as a way of setting the stage for a consideration of contemporary trends.

Feuerbach’s critique of religion is well-known and in the third of his Lectures on the Essence of Religion he claims that “this doctrine of mine is briefly as follows”:

Theology is anthropology: in other words, the object of religion, which in Greek we call theos and in our language God, expresses nothing other than the essence of man; man’s God is nothing other than the deified essence of man, so that the history of religion or, what amounts to the same thing, of God—for the gods are as varied as the religions, and the religions are as varied as mankind—is nothing other than the history of man.[3]

Just as the “pagan god . . . is merely an object of pagan religion,” the “Christian God is merely an object of the Christian religion and consequently only a characteristic expression of the spirit and disposition of Christian man.”[4] As such, neither the pagan gods nor the Christian God exists in objective reality, but is instead “a being who exists only in the faith and imagination” of the members of the specific religious community.[5] “Just like the pagan gods,” Feuerbach writes, “the Christian God originated in man. If He differs from the pagan gods, it is only because Christian man is different from pagan man.”[6] When understood as anthropology, theology does not tell us anything about God, but our God-talk says a lot about us. When theologians become anthropologists, Feuerbach argues that they will also find religious discourse as fundamentally arrogant insofar as particular communities universalize their local perspectives as objective truth.

According to Feuerbach, considering one’s own, or one’s community’s, account of God to be the only plausible, or most rational, account—as some working within analytic philosophy of religion such as William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne sometimes seem to do— is to forget the origin of religion itself: historical human existence and the natural world in which this existence is situated. In this way, Feuerbach’s critique of religion, and especially of Christianity, displays both an epistemic (read anthropological) dimension in that it encourages a robust humility in light of the contingent plurality of discourses, and also a moral (read socio-political) dimension in that it encourages a patient and invitational relationship to alternative views. In contrast to the arrogance and exclusivism of determinate theology, Feuerbach understands atheism to be “positive and affirmative,” such that it:

gives back to nature and mankind the dignity of which theism has despoiled them; it restores life to nature and mankind, which theism had drained of their best powers. God, as we have seen, is jealous of nature and man; He wants man to honor, love, and serve Him alone; He wants everything else to be nothing and Himself alone to be something; in other words, theism is jealous of man and the world and begrudges them any good. Envy, ill will, and jealousy are destructive, negative passions. Atheism, on the other hand, is liberal, openhanded, open-minded; an atheist acknowledges every being’s will and talent; his heart delights in the beauty of nature and the virtue of man: joy and love do not destroy, they are life-giving, affirmative.[7]

Although he was surely no friend of determinate religious belief and identity, Feuerbach was also skeptical of those “religious” gestures that would abandon such belief in favor of indeterminacy. We might say, then, that Feuerbach would be just as critical of theological liberalism as he is of classical theism. For Feuerbach, the generally negative strategy of apophatic theology is just as problematic as positive theology because it, too, turns away from “nature and man” in favor of something beyond the “concrete historical material” from which everything is drawn and to which everything refers.[8] Though Feuerbach considers all theology to be essentially anthropomorphic and something that we would do well to abandon, he is frequently critical of the way in which God-talk fails to be determinate enough to meet the real needs of the people looking for solace in religion.[9] Feuerbach claims that denying “all the qualities of a being is equivalent to denying the being himself.”[10] His reason is that “a being without qualities is one which cannot become an object to the mind, and such a being is virtually non-existent.”[11] In what could be read as a direct critique of deconstructive proposals of “religion without religion” by such thinkers as Jacques Derrida and John D. Caputo,[12] Feuerbach suggests that:

To the truly religious man, God is not a being without qualities, because to him he is a positive, real being. The theory that God cannot be defined, and consequently cannot be known by man, is therefore the offspring of recent times, a product of modern unbelief.[13]

To use Caputo’s language, we might say that for Feuerbach, all “weak theologies”[14] that stress the indeterminacy of God and the translatability of all divine names into other names, are simply contemporary versions of classical atheism:

The denial of determinate, positive predicates concerning the divine nature is nothing else than a denial of religion, with, however, an appearance of religion in its favour, so that it is not recognized as a denial; it is simply a subtle, disguised atheism. The alleged religious horror of limiting God by positive predicates is only the irreligious wish to know nothing more of God, to banish God from the mind. Dread of limitation is dread of existence.[15]

Removing all ambiguity on this front, and decidedly demonstrating the mistake it would be to consider him only a critic of kataphatic determinacy, Feuerbach concludes his thought on this matter by claiming that “A God who is injured by determinate qualities has not the courage and the strength to exist.”[16]

Though we do not find Feuerbach’s own prescription for how to avoid the problems associated with religion to be of much use, namely, the recommendation that we simply abandon religion altogether and instead focus on the way anthropology can tell us about the “essence” of human existence, we do think he is exceptionally helpful for diagnosing the condition with which contemporary philosophy of religion must deal. In sum, Feuerbach illuminates both the temptation to arrogance that can accompany extremes in both positive and negative directions: arrogance and indeterminacy, respectively.

 

III.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s notion of being an “extremist for justice,” notwithstanding, it is usually a good idea to avoid extremes. As any child will learn from the story of Goldilocks, the porridge’s being too hot or too cold is good reason to keep looking for other bowls of porridge. This childhood lesson is something that contemporary philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians would do well to remember. Classically, the distinction between positive and negative theology is more a matter of the adequacy of human discourse in relation to the divine, than it is a concern about God’s presence (or absence).[17] While certainly drawing heavily upon these traditional disagreements, contemporary philosophy of religion has frequently shifted the debate over linguistic expression to a debate about theological ontology. In other words, traditional disputes between apophatic and kataphatic alternatives, seem to be more about who God is (or is not, or may be) and less about who we are as existing individuals trying to speak about God. Discussions about the limits of language have seemingly become debates about the (im)possibility of God. Although surely the linguistic and ontological dimensions are intimately connected (as we have learned from Heidegger and Derrida as well as from Austin and Davidson), we think that Feuerbach’s dual critique helps us to understand that it is important not to confuse human ability with divine reality.

Within the contemporary literature, some thinkers articulate a notion of God that is “more radical” than other accounts because it allows God to signify non-ontologically and beyond any historical expression or articulation. However, some thinkers resist the “relativistic” and “deconstructive” tendencies of postmodernism by remaining firm proponents of the God of classical theism as understood internal to a framework of metaphysical realism. Though these debates often get cashed out as matter of terminology and poetics, they tend to reflect entrenched orthodoxies: both apophatic and also kataphatic, depending on the particular tradition in which one is working.

IV.

In much of the continental tradition, it frequently seems that the goal of philosophy of religion is to push “God-talk” to its vanishing point. This sort of view can be found in the work of those thinkers who appropriate the structure of religious experience and practice, but are critical of the doxastic content accompanying such structures and the traditional formulations in which it has been articulated and expressed. In general, then, much of the God-talk in the deconstructive tradition is focused on the significance of God’s absence rather than the manifestation of God’s presence. Consider, for instance, Emmanuel Levinas’s claim that God must be thought of as “transcendent to the point of absence,”[18] Derrida’s idea of a “messianism without a messiah,”[19] and Caputo’s suggestion that the “name of God” signals “something familiar, even commonplace, yet bottomless, always on the tip of our tongue yet incomprehensible.”[20]

Though it might be tempting to describe continental philosophy of religion as exemplified by Levinas, Derrida, and Caputo, among others,[21] as engaging in something bearing a striking resemblance to negative theology, all of these thinkers contend that it would be wrong to understand their work in this way.[22] They do so, in part, because they worry that even though negative theology stresses the inadequacy of human language about the divine, it seems to leave the ontological categories of classical theism in place. Operating in more of a phenomenological trajectory, these continental philosophers of religion attempt to relocate the focus of God-talk from the nature of the divine to the way in which such God-talk operates in human discourse and social praxis. Accordingly, one might worry that there is just not much God in this God-talk, at least not insofar as “God” has been traditionally understood by the majority of the proponents of the world’s religions.[23] For ease of reference, we will label this general perspective as a theology of absence.[24]

As a way of making sense of the theology of absence as found in deconstructive “religion without religion,” consider Caputo’s definitions of ‘deconstruction’ and ‘religion’:

Deconstruction is a passion and a prayer for the impossible, a defense of the impossible against its critics, a plea for/to the experience of the impossible, which is the only real experience, stirring with religious passion. By religion I mean a pact with the impossible, a covenant with the unrepresentable, a promise made by the tout autre with its people, where we are all the people of the tout autre, the people of the promise, promised over to the promise.[25]

Here we can see the structural appropriation of religious terminology without a commitment to any determinate religious tradition.[26] The ‘God’ of a theology of absence is the “tout autre” (i.e., the absolutely other) not Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, for such names are already too determinate, too constrained, and too final. Accordingly, deconstructive religion is presented as a religion of the “without” (sans) rather than of the “with.” “Deconstruction regularly,” Caputo says,

rhythmically repeats this religiousness, sans the concrete, historical religions; it repeats nondogmatically the religious structure of experience, the category of the religious. It repeats the passion for the messianic promise and messianic expectation, sans the concrete messianisms of the positive religions that wage endless war and spill the blood of the other, and that, anointing themselves God’s chosen people, are consummately dangerous to everyone else who is not so chosen; . . . . it repeats the movements of faith, of expecting what we cannot know but only believe . . . of the blindness of faith sans savoir, sans avoir, sans voir . . . in the impossible, but without the dogmas of the positive religious faiths.[27]

Without knowing, without having, without seeing. In the theology of absence, ‘God’ is no longer an existing being in a distinct relation to the world, but a name that we humans give to an experience of (a relation to and a way of life in response to) the absolutely other. The “sans” is meant to allow for alterity to signify as such and, accordingly, a theology of absence is stringently opposed to what has been termed “onto-theo-logy.” Following Heidegger, we might say that ‘God’ should be heard as an inadequate attempt to relate to an event that can’t be adequately understood, and not as a proper name describing the highest being.[28]

Though there are substantive, and often legitimate, replies that could be offered by defenders of deconstructive approaches to God-talk regarding the ethical problems of ontology (Levinas), the limits and interruptions of human discourse (Derrida), and the tendencies toward violence of strong theologies (Caputo), the core of Feuerbach’s challenge to negative strategies remains: in quite sensibly and admirably trying to preserve the transcendence, the alterity, the distance, the holiness of what we name ‘God’, we come close to making a hash out of God-talk altogether because it can seem to disconnect such talk from the living traditions in which it has been given shape. For Feuerbach, the appropriation of religious structure without determinate content amounts to practical atheism. B. Keith Putt suggests something similar in his critique of Caputo’s weak theology of the event: “In so assiduously avoiding connecting God with Being or with Super-Essential Personhood, Caputo may well undermine his own poetics of a loving, suffering God of justice by positing a God functionally indistinguishable from Aristotle’s nous noetikos.”[29] Moving further in this direction, Kevin Hart even suggests that Caputo comes close to deploying something like a theologically modernist account of religious pluralism:

The only religion one can plausibly endorse is one that is not committed to an exclusive religion. Once again, we see the Enlightenment model: religion is a genus of which the positive religions are the species. And once again we can see how “religion without religion” follows the Enlightenment program of passing from the positive religions to a universal religiosity that has remained pure because it has always abided in the realm of possibility.[30]

Accordingly, the distance that emerges in such passages between Feuerbach and the defenders of “religion without religion” might plausibly be cashed out in at least two ways. On the one hand, it could be claimed that Feuerbach’s naturalism is more uncompromising and, on the other hand, it could be claimed that his abandonment of God-talk is more consistent. While Derrida and Caputo, say, are quite resistant to the “supernatural,” as it were, they are not naturalists in the way that Feuerbach is. Surely the impossibility of justice, the event, the call of the other, etc., are all not necessarily reducible to what might be termed “natural” phenomena. Moreover, though Derrida and Caputo share Feuerbach’s frustration with the possible arrogance and violence that can accompany determinate theisms, they are still willing to deploy God-talk as something that contributes to a better world.[31]

V.

In contrast to the broadly negative trajectory of deconstructive philosophy of religion, in the more mainstream, and generally more analytic, approach, the goal appears to be the maintenance of a particular account of (usually, specifically) Christian orthodoxy (whether affirmatively as in “Christian philosophy” or negatively as in the prominent atheistic voices challenging such notions). According to this approach one should speak of God rather than ‘God’—that is, the real divine life is the object of inquiry and not merely a word in a natural language, or some impossible event that detaches theo-poetics from ontological status. This perspective is perhaps best represented by those philosophers of religion who engage in classically oriented “apologetic” enterprises, especially in an offensive mode and not merely a defensive one, e.g., consider Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig. Since this philosophical trajectory is one that attempts to give rational proofs of the truth of determinate religious beliefs concerning God’s existence and divine nature, we will refer to this perspective as a theology of presence.[32]

Even within the theology of presence, very few philosophers still think that the existence of God can be deductively demonstrated. Nonetheless, many contend that the belief in the existence of God can be given strong inductive support. For example, Craig explicitly claims that certainty is not available in rational argumentation regarding Christianity:

Now some Christian believers might be troubled by the notion that one’s apologetic case for Christianity yields only probability rather than certainty. But the fact that Christianity can only be shown to be probably true need not be troubling . . . To demand logically demonstrative proofs as a pre-condition for making a religious commitment is . . . just being unreasonable.[33]

Nonetheless, even stressing the broadly inductive approach to Christian apologetics before going into the various arguments for God’s existence and nature that could be supplied, Craig ultimately concludes: “Hence, amazing as it may seem, the most plausible answer to the question of why something exists rather than nothing is that God exists.”[34] While this is definitely a plausible answer, and maybe even the most plausible considering the range of possibilities accepted by a particular community of discourse, how is one to understand Craig other than as saying that if one, therefore, denies the existence of God then that person is irrational insofar as s/he chooses to believe without a concern for the logical plausibility of the arguments for God? In this case, the nonbeliever might have true belief, but without proper warrant and so, would remain irrational. Even though warning that requiring explicit arguments for religious belief would “consign most believers to irrationality,”[35] Craig eventually seems to suggest that all atheists would be irrational, given the weight of the arguments for God’s existence.

We are not saying that Craig does suggest this, but the fact that it is plausible to read him in this way remains problematic given the lived contexts in which humans engage in philosophical speculation and theological reflection. In this sense, Feuerbach might claim that Craig does not attend carefully enough to his own historical location within a particular tradition. Indeed, Craig himself recognizes significant limits to philosophical discourse in the final chapter of Reasonable Faith when he claims that the “ultimate apologetic involves two relationships: your relationship with God and your relationships with others.”[36] Stressing the lived dimension of human existence, one might think that Craig would be more receptive to theories of truth that do not reduce to the relationship of a proposition to a state of affairs, but instead allows for what Caputo might term an “eventful” or “narratival” dimension within a Feuerbachian anthropological appreciation of the dynamic plurality of contexts.

In light of the distinctions between the theology of absence and the theology of presence, we want to stress that drawing such lines between these two perspectives does not mean that all continental philosophy or all analytic philosophy divides so neatly. The space between these two extremes of absence and presence, is inhabited by both continental philosophers and also analytic philosophers (i.e., there are many theologically determinate continental philosophers of religion (e.g., Merold Westphal) and many epistemically humble analytic philosophers of religion (e.g., Nicholas Wolterstorff)). While it is important to avoid compromise just for the sake of compromise, we believe that the theology of absence and the theology of presence are rightly understood as extremes that should be resisted rather than as exclusive options between which we must choose. Our suggestion is that the questions, “Either presence or absence?” and “Either continental philosophy or analytic philosophy?” are much too stark of dichotomies to be of significant use in lived religious existence and productive philosophical inquiry. As such, we hope that thinking between such extremes will open spaces for not only a more theologically sustainable perspective (given the contextual realities of human existence), but also a more philosophically promising practice that will continue to erode the impermeable wall that is sometimes understood to stand between analytic and continental approaches.

VI.

Importantly, it is not immediately clear what would lie in the middle of these extremes of presence and absence. In order to take seriously this in-between, as it were, it is crucial that we not simply try to overcome these extremes by quickly rejecting them outright. Resistance need not mean dismissal or disregard. We can only productively resist these extremes (and open a space for standing between them) by taking them both seriously as each getting certain things quite right. Namely, the theology of absence correctly understands the importance of emphasizing the contingency and contextualism of all human discourse and the importance of viewing religious belief and practice as a risky investment made by existing individuals. This contextual reality of all religious existence is something such existential thinkers as Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Heidegger all understood quite well. Importantly, there are both epistemic and ontological components to such contextualism. These dual aspects can be seen in Caputo’s resistance to “strong theology.” As Putt convincingly argues, Caputo agrees with Jean-Luc Marion that “onto-centric language [of classical theism] often tempts individuals toward committing ‘conceptual idolatry,’ specifically the idolatry of power, prestige, and absolute knowledge.”[37] Instead of a God of self-sufficiency, the theology of absence talks about a God who vulnerably loves. “Along with the risk inherent in love itself,” Putt claims, “Caputo also recognizes an epistemic risk that remains within the structure of his weak theology.”[38] Divine vulnerability and epistemic humility are, thus, key components of this perspective. These “postmodern” aspects, should not be abandoned in a move to the middle, but should be appropriated in such a way that God-talk does not reduce to an arrogant (and, hence, self-forgetting) anthropomorphic anthropocentrism.

Moving in the opposite direction, the theology of presence correctly understands the importance of standing within historical traditions of determinate religious belief and practice. From this perspective, talk of a deconstructive “religion without religion”[39] can miss something crucial about human existence precisely because of the role that local narratives play in the stories in which we find ourselves. Indeed, forgetting such location can lead to the arrogance that their positions are ostensibly constructed to avoid. The task that confronts contemporary continental philosophy of religion, and Caputo himself admits this, is to remember that “religion without religion” can itself quickly become another determinate tradition alongside a postmodern Christianity, a postmodern Islam, or a postmodern Hinduism, for example.[40] Moreover, the theology of presence allows for our discourse potentially to get some things right about God and expresses this possibility in its concern for logical argument, entailments of accepted premises, adequacy to historical theology, and perhaps even in its attention to ecclesial and scriptural authorities. Importantly, though it might appear that the theology of presence tends toward certainty and seems to assume universal assent from rational persons, in no way does this assume epistemic infallibilism. But, it is one thing to say that “of course we could be wrong about X” and another thing to make this integral to the way one engages in philosophical inquiry.

In summary, then, while the theology of absence rightly stresses the importance of attending to God’s distance (as expressed by the “sans” and the “tout autre”), the theology of presence rightly stresses the importance of attending to God’s proximity (as revealed in the incarnation, scripture, and revelation, say). We contend that we must take both of these trajectories seriously while also recognizing that they can both give rise to problematic extremes on a spectrum of possible options.

Our suggestion is that we need some sort of Postmodern Kataphaticism[41] that would understand these two extremes as temptations to which we are always drawn and of which we must constantly be cautious. However, it is by recognizing these extremes as tempting that we can see why the productive space between these two perspectives insists upon a constant tension between the extremes themselves and not a final choice of one over the other. When we begin to slide too far toward anthropocentric arrogance (whether expressed as an epistemological or theological claim) we must be pulled back toward the inescapability of our existential location in-a-world (as both Martin Heidegger and Nicholas Wolterstorff would say). When we begin to slide too far toward a notion of God-talk that requires us to abandon the tradition we are attempting to deconstructively rethink, then we must be pulled back toward the historical commitments regarding the specificity of the divine life that have defined the tradition itself. A deconstructive, and yet orthodox, approach need not be seen as a contradictory notion, even if it should be seen as a risky one. Postmodern Kataphaticism can legitimately be postmodern and legitimately be kataphatic. Some risks are well worth taking and we think that this is one such risk.[42]  

It is important to realize that the two extremes that we are discussing do not simply stand as endpoints on an easily continuous line.[43] Though the two perspectives differ on what notions of God remain philosophically and theologically viable, they do so by focusing on different dimensions of religious existence. Accordingly, modeling the space between the two extremes requires a bit more complicated structure than simply a line with two discrete end-points. We propose the following: A four-quadrant grid where the x-axis tracks ontological determinacy and the y-axis tracks epistemological humility. On this grid, the theology of absence will score high on the y-axis and low on the x-axis, while the theology of presence will likely score high on the x-axis and low on the y-axis.[44] As such, if the theology of absence gets placed in the upper left quadrant and the theology of presence gets placed in the lower right quadrant, then there is a diagonal line that can be drawn connecting the two points such that they are in a direct relationship (see chart below).

However, given the range of options in the philosophy of religion and the variety of approaches one might take to such options, we propose that the goal is not to move to the center of this line, but to move toward the upper-right quadrant so far as possible, which is defined by both ontological (and historical) determinacy and also epistemic humility. Interestingly, both of these components are a result of one’s context, we believe. In such a move, there are likely new lines that will be drawn such that the relation of the alternatives to the extremes is slightly different in each case. When plotted this way, the two accounts are legitimately understood as tempting extremes relative to which a middle-ground could be found (albeit when understood in a radial way)—a middle-ground that is both existentially aware (and, hence, epistemically humble) and also theologically determinate (and, hence, historically, traditionally, and liturgically attentive).

 

VII.

Although there is surely a wide variety of alternatives that would appropriately occupy a middle-ground between theologies of absence and theologies of presence, we will look at one model in particular as especially promising: Open theism as propounded by such thinkers as William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, and Dean Zimmerman, among others.[45] The openness model of God was developed by analytic philosophers of religion and theologians situated in the evangelical tradition. The piety and particularly the prayer life of evangelical Christians require a deity who cares about and responds to the prayers and tears of people. Evangelical theologians and philosophers are definitely on the side of theologies of presence since their God has definite properties. In addition, they are confident they “know” what God is like via biblical and philosophical claims. Unfortunately, though, it is common for evangelical philosophers and theologians to sound exceedingly confident about their philosophical arguments and the virtual certainty of their theological positions. As Nancey Murphy has argued, this is because evangelicals have largely accepted the Enlightenment project of strong foundationalism, language as referential, and a stringent version of evidentialism.[46]

Despite such problematic excesses within evangelical theology, open theism arises out of the evangelical tradition and understands itself as part of a determinate religious community. Consequently, open theists affirm that God possesses determinate characteristics and so definitely has the courage and strength to exist. Yet, proponents of the openness of God have, from the start, emphasized a commitment to epistemic and theological humility. In the book, The Openness of God, the authors state in the preface that “We do not claim that the open view is the only model with biblical or philosophical support. . . .We know that our arguments are open to question, and we welcome the discussion we hope they will generate.”[47] The authors rejected the strong foundationalism and quest for epistemic certainty endemic to much evangelical thought. Pinnock, for example, pointed to a key change in thinking when he finally became aware that theologians are “fallible and historically situated creatures” and, importantly, he actually applied these ideas to himself and began to see how much he needed to learn from others.[48] He says he changed from possessing a “fortress mentality” to one of going on a “theological pilgrimage.” Open theist philosopher David Basinger says “while I do not doubt there is objective religious truth . . . the way I conceptualize such truth is simply one way in which this truth can be understood. . .”[49] There seems to be an inherent call for humility in open theism given its determinate understanding of God as one who listens to creaturely input and often makes decisions based upon it.

Hence, proponents of open theism combine epistemic humility with historically determinate religious beliefs and practices. Their communities have shaped the forms of piety as well as biblical notions to which they appeal in making their case for the openness of God. What we find to be especially promising about open theism is that it inhabits the in-between of the extremes of presence and absence in a way that illustrates the importance of one’s contextual location and personal history when considering how to respond to the particular temptation with which one is faced. For example, some open theists might be more seduced by the temptation toward an epistemic extreme of over-confidence (we should remember that Richard Swinburne is an open theist) while other open theists might be more seduced by the temptation toward a theological extreme of indeterminancy.

A key motivation for the development of open theism was the recognition of an incongruity between particular forms of evangelical piety and the classical theist model of God propounded by many evangelical thinkers. A God responsive to prayer is taken for granted in evangelical piety but the God of classical theism is strongly immutable and impassible such that it is logically impossible for God to respond to creatures. Open theists have reformed some of these ideas in order to help people live as Christians, to offer a better explanation of the biblical portrayal of God, and to be more theologically and philosophically coherent. Open theists emphasize that God is open to what creatures do and that the future is open in that there is more than one possible future (like a create your own story book). God enters into genuine give-and-receive relations with creatures. God responds to contingencies and adjusts divine plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of free creatures. God employs flexible strategies when working with creatures. The divine-human interaction is more like playing jazz together than algorithmically following a blueprint. Though the divine love and faithfulness remain constant, God is affected by what creatures do and the divine life experiences changes as God interacts in various relationships. Also, due to creaturely freedom, it is possible for them to thwart particular divine aspirations and bring about evil states of affairs. Since God is affected by what creatures do, open theists claim that even God has a history.

For open theists this implies that there is no fixed blueprint for the future. The future is not set in stone so God knows what we call “the” future not as a finished necessity, but as a host of possibilities. Open theists affirm that God possesses “dynamic omniscience” according to which God has exhaustive knowledge of the past and present and knows the future as possibilities and probabilities.[50] Even the exact nature of the eschaton is not settled because it depends not only upon God but also upon what creatures do. If God employs flexible strategies and utilizes multiple routes in the attempt to achieve divine ends then we need to be circumspect about our assurance of the Spirit’s leading. The biblical writers depict quite a few episodes in which the people of God were surprised at the direction God had taken. Nobody, for instance, anticipated the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God apart from Sabbath observance, dietary regulations, and male circumcision. Acts 15 records the contentious debate about this issue in the early Christian community. Through prayer and dialogue most of the early Jewish Christians concluded that God wanted to include Gentiles into the people of God without requiring them to convert to Judaism first. They decided that this was the direction of the Holy Spirit. This was a turning point in the history of the Jesus movement but not all Jewish followers of Jesus accepted this conclusion. The New Testament evidences a number of debates about what God wanted them do (e. g. marriage, festivals, foods, etc.) and it is clear from the texts that the early Christian community did not always agree on the leading of the Spirit. One reason for this is that divine guidance is not over powering which means that God takes risks by relying on humans.

However, for open theists, religious disagreement may not always be due to our failure to listen to God. For many aspects of life God does not have a blueprint for us to follow, rather, God is interested what we want to do. On many occasions the divine chef does not have a recipe for our lives but, instead, works with us as we create a recipe. God is open to the great diversity among human cultures as well as between individuals so we should not be surprised that God is pleased with a fair amount of diversity in worship and theology. This does not mean that God approves of everything we do since we can be quite creative when it comes to evil. But in matters that are not evil God may not always have a particular preference. By metaphorically describing the Christian community as engaged in playing jazz with God, we are able to say that it is likely that, just as in an improvisational jam-session, the person taking the lead will shift throughout the session. So, we might say that God sometimes takes the lead and we will fill in the background notes and at other times God expects us to lead while God takes delight in what we develop (at least for some of our activities). According to open theism, uniformity in religious belief and practice should not be expected nor desired. Though God likely wants us to agree on some important practices, values, and beliefs it will always be the case that the gospel must be indigenized in the lives of groups and individuals. This is a theological point that yields ethical, political, and epistemic results: if God is vulnerable and open to our input we should be vulnerable and open to what others have to say.[51]

Another reason for dialogical and epistemic humility is that the theological and philosophical proponents of open theism reject strong foundationalism and the idea that there is a universal rationality, neutrally oriented and externally located beyond all social communities. They affirm that our interpretations of biblical passages do not arrive at finality and that even perfect being theology depends upon differing notions of perfection which arise out of the values of particular communities. Our theological formulations are finite, grounded in particular discourses of faith, such that our understanding is always partial and not the final word.

Given that open theists affirm that God is open to the input of creatures, that our theological reflections are finite and fallible, and that all theological proposals arise out of determinate religious communities, epistemic humility with its requisite hermeneutic charity to the input of others is entailed in this theological model. On the other hand, because of the particular Christian community out of which open theism arises, open theists are also going to affirm determinate religious beliefs and practices. Open theists agree with Feuerbach that for Christians God is a personal agent not a cipher. Proponents of openness are worried that the “God” of many of the deconstructionists has been eviscerated of any meaning and thus renders a reciprocal relationship with God impossible—with Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology in mind, we should realize that one cannot sing songs to or dance with Khora any more readily than one sings to and dances with Causa Sui. Open theists think that what is offered in place of a personal God cannot nourish a religious life and they fear that the Derridean conception of God as impossible event may be nothing more than Feuerbach’s “subtle, disguised atheism.” The absence of God, for open theists, is framed in the biblical sense of the human cry for divine help when worshippers call on God (“How long will you hide your face from me?” Psalm 13:1) not in the deconstructionist sense that there is no being (an entity) upon whom one may call.[52] “In him we live and move and have our being” said the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:28). It is a personal agent who calls us to participate in the divine narrative whom we worship and sing to and invoke for assistance, not Khora, the indeterminate realm of pure potentiality which cannot be directly invoked and is seemingly oblivious to our songs because it lacks personhood.

Open theists affirm that God has determinate characteristics and believe that those attributes are best disclosed in the life of Jesus. This may strike some as sliding right back into a Feuerbachian trap of anthropocentric and exclusivist arrogance but the claim is that this is the way that open theists, in their finitude, understand reality, not that this is the only rational way for humans to understand reality. They believe that there is a God and that they know something about the lead player of their jazz band; even if this knowledge is dependent upon finite formulations of particular religious communities and is potentially fallible. For open theists, God has the courage and strength to allow their names to accompany God’s own on the marquee. To change metaphors and return to Goldilocks, open theists maintain that the porridge is not too hot (they do not know with certainty) nor is it too cold (they are not simply negative). It may not be “just right” but it is warm and edible enough to be both inviting to the hungry and nourishing to the weak.

 

VIII.

Open theism allows for productively moving forward in contemporary philosophy of religion and philosophical theology as embodied, historical, finite, existing individuals-in-community without requiring that we finally decide in favor of absence over presence, or vice-versa. Even though open theism, as a whole, might likely err more on the side of presence than on the side of absence, it attempts to stress the distance and proximity of God. For open theists, God can be rightly described as “tout autre” and also the loving savior of the world; affirming the one need not eliminate the possibility of affirming the other. Since human existence requires standing between the temptations to theological extremes, we should not expect the practice of philosophy of religion to be any different. While our discourse about God is unlikely to turn out to ever be “just right,” as was Golidlocks’ third bowl of porridge, we should still seek to provide a Postmodern Kataphatic discourse about a Goldilocks God—one that lies between extremes and yet in the midst of existential tension. Open theism is an approach that helps us to do just that, though, again, it is surely not the only one. Importantly, though, some themes are likely to be displayed in all such approaches: the importance of divine and human risk, the stress on love instead of power, the emphasis on interaction and relationship rather than self-sufficiency, and the intimacy between theology and justice. Indeed, Putt suggests that open theism and the “theopassionism” of Caputo may have quite a bit more in common than is often recognized (by either Caputo or open theists). The “emphasis upon love and vulnerability,” Putt suggests, “associates Caputo directly with open theists, such as Richard Rice, John Sanders, and Clark Pinnock, all of whom adopt a similar position [to Caputo] relative to the centrality of divine love and risk.”[53]

While there is substantial work yet to be done exploring such possible connections and expanding on the ways in which these alternative traditions might be viewed as resources for each other, minimally we hope that this essay has outlined possible temptations of which philosophers of religion should be aware and in light of which they should work. We want to stress, again, that we are not accusing any particular thinkers of having actually given in to either of the two extremes of absence or presence, though it is likely that some have. However, even if we are entirely mistaken to suggest that, in general, analytic philosophy of religion is tempted by the excesses of presence and continental philosophy of religion is tempted by the excesses of absence, the fact that such misinterpretations are not entirely closed off by the thinkers working in the different traditions should invite us all to be more attentive to how our work is being received by interlocutors in alternative philosophical communities. The burden for the continentalists is to be more forthcoming about the metaphysical, ontological, or ethical claims operative in their work (we view such continental philosophers of religion as Merold Westphal, Richard Kearney, and Kevin Hart as examples of how to do this). The burden for the analytic philosophers is to be more responsive to the perception of hyper-rationalism and a lack of existential awareness (as examples for how to do this, we suggest such thinkers as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Clark Pinnock). Stereotypes are always dangerous, but they are also invitations to think critically about how to avoid such misunderstandings in the future.


[1] On this point we are implicitly drawing on Søren Kierkegaard, a thinker who also successfully walked the line between presence and absence in his philosophy of religion.

[2] For an excellent consideration of Feuerbach’s thought, see Van A. Harvey, Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 17.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid., 283.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] There is clearly a difference for Feuerbach between something’s being important relative to some existential need and something’s being true relative to the way things are. For example, in the twentieth of his Lectures on the Essence of Religion, Feuerbach claims that “religion demands of images . . . that they be useful to man, that they help him in distress; and for this reason it endows its images with life—for only living beings can help—and, specifically, human life, not only with the appearance, the outer form of life as the artist does, but also with actual life, with human feeling, human needs and passions, and even offers them food and drink (183-84).

[10] Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1957), 14.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997).

[13] Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 14.

[14] Caputo differentiates “strong theologies,” which attribute a specific name to God, from “weak theologies,” which recognize that all names are inadequate to the “event.” “In a strong theology,” Caputo writes, “the name of God has historical determinacy and specificity—it is Christian or Jewish or Islamic, for example—whereas a weak theology, weakened by the flux of undecidability and translatability, is more open-ended” (The Weakness of God, 9).

[15] Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 15.

[16] Ibid., emphasis added.

[17] Which is not to say that all discourse is equally inadequate; see, for example, William Franke, ed., On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

[18] Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 219-24.

[19] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994). For other texts in which Derrida offers sustained considerations of religion see, John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 19-28; Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York and London: Routledge Press, 2002); Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995); Jacques Derrida, Circumfession: Fifty-Nine Periods and Periphrases, in Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[20] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 7.

[21] There are many more varieties of continental philosophy of religion, but in this essay we will focus on this phenomenological trajectory occurring in the wake of Derrida. That said, the God-talk occurring in these other trajectories is still often about God’s absence rather than God’s presence, albeit in a number of different ways. See, for example the work of Slavoj Žižek, Gianni Vattimo, Alain Badiou, and Giles Deleuze.

[22] See, Levinas, God, Death and Time, 138; Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 1-28. See also, Howard Coward and Toby Foshay, eds., Derrida and Negative Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992).

[23] For a good consideration of the relation of positive and negative theology, see Jean-Luc Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, Trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner and others (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), chapter 6.

[24] One might term this a “metaphysics of absence,” but given the complicated relationship between continental philosophy and the idea of metaphysics, we have chosen to use “theology,” here. As an example of this complicated relationship, see Levinas who explicitly advocates a return to “metaphysics,” but in so doing he redefines it not as a speculative and systematic philosophical enterprise, but as the desire for the invisible. See, Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), section I, A. See also, Edith Wyschogrod, Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000); and Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak, Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997), 231-33.

[25] Caputo, Prayers and Tears, xx.

[26] And perhaps with the rejection of all such traditions, but we will leave this issue aside here.

[27] Caputo, Prayers and Tears, xxi.

[28] See Heidegger, “The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics” and “Philosophy and Theology,” both included in John D. Caputo, ed., The Religious (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002); and “Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead,” in Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 53-112. For more on Heidegger’s relation to Christian theology see, John Macquarrie, Heidegger and Christianity (New York: Continuum Press, 1994); John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought (New York: Fordham University Press, 1978).

[29] B. Keith Putt, “Risking Love and the Divine “Perhaps”: Postmodern Poetics of a Vulnerable God,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 34, no.2 (Summer 2007): 193-214, 205.

[30] Kevin Hart, “Without,” in Zlomislić and DeRoo, eds., Cross and Khôra: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 80-108, 95.

[31] We are content to leave it as an open question whether this willingness signifies an improvement over Feuerbach’s account, or a failure to own up to the implications of their own premises.

[32] This phrase might be productively considered in relation to Derrida’s notion of the “metaphysics of presence.” Of course, for Derrida, the metaphysics of presence is meant to address far more than an issue in the philosophy of religion, but instead the very way of conceptualizing the world internal to linguistic structures. Nonetheless, for Derrida logocentrism and ontotheology are not unconnected.

[33] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 40.

[34] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 121-22.

[35] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 37.

[36] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 299. See also the person relative accounts of justification, e.g., George Mavrodes, Belief in God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion (Random House, 1970), chap. 2. See also, Michael Polyani, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

[37] Putt, “Risking Love,” 198. The passage from Marion quoted by Caputo is from Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 16-17.

[38] Putt, “Risking Love,” 196.

[39] Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida.

[40] Importantly, Caputo and Derrida are both very cognizant of this issue, though they tend to approach it as something to be wary of rather than something to embrace. See, J. Aaron Simmons, “Continuing to Look for God in France: On the Relationship Between Phenomenology and Theology,” in Words of Life: New Theological Turns in French Phenomenology, ed. Bruce Ellis Benson and Norman Wirzba (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 15-29.

[41] See J. Aaron Simmons, “Postmodern Kataphaticism?” in The Other Journal: Church and Postmodern Culture Blog, 2012. Available online: http://theotherjournal.com/churchandpomo/2012/08/27/postmodern-kataphaticism/

[42] James K.A. Smith claims that there is often nothing more heterodox in continental philosophy of religion as orthodoxy (“Continental Philosophy of Religion: Prescriptions for a Healthy Subdiscipline,” Faith and Philosophy 26, no.4 (October 2009): 440-48). In his more positive moments, which should definitely be read together with his more negative gestures, John Caputo can be read as saying something similar. See, for example, John D Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007); Philosophy and Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006).

[43] We are grateful to William Abraham for helping us to work out this point.

[44] Of course, many proponents of religion without religion seem pretty certain of their perspective.

[45] There are other analytic philosophers of religion, Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, who have defended dynamic omniscience (which will be discussed below), but have stopped short of explicitly identifying themselves as open theists.

[46] Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996).

[47] Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: a Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9-10.

[48] Pinnock, “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology” in Pinnock, ed., The Grace of God, The Will of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989), 16. It is common for evangelical theologians to say they are finite and potentially fallible but they rarely apply this to their own theologizing.

[49] Basinger, “Religious Belief Formation: A Kantian Perspective Informed by Science,” in William Hasker, Thomas Jay Oord, and Dean Zimmerman eds., God in an Open Universe: Science, Metaphysics, and Open Theism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), 66.

[50] John Sanders coined the term dynamic omniscience. See his The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, revised edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 15, 206-209.

[51] It is surely possible that an open theist could be epistemically arrogant about the claim that God is open, but to do so is to risk inconsistency internal to the open perspective itself.

[52] See the discussion of the absence and presence of God in Sanders, The God Who Risks, 68-70.

[53] Putt, “Risking Love,” 196. Resonate with our argument here, Putt suggests that open theism might have closer ties to the work of Richard Kearney who allows a closer connection between theological discourse and philosophical ontology than does Caputo. In the vocabulary of the present essay, this suggestion might be understood to indicate that those postmodern philosophers who remain open to determinate religious beliefs and practices regarding the divine and positive religious traditions (i.e., epistemological postmodernists) are likely to be more compatible with theological perspectives that claim risk and love to describe God’s relation to the world and not merely a poetics of human discourse in relation to an unnamable non-ontological alterity (i.e., metaphysical postmodernists).

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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