I Want Your Psycho, Your Vertigo Schtick–Lady Gaga, Open Theology, and My 1500th Post!


Because I’ve been thinking it’s been way too long since we’ve had some Gaga here–and how better to celebrate my 1500th post?

I’m writing this as a standalone, though it has some relevance to some of my other posts on religion.  In speaking of God, one has to remember that one is always talking in terms of analogy.  However, given that we can’t help using language, we have to use analogy whether we like it or not.  The danger, of course, is too much anthropomorphism.  We have to steer between the Scylla of not being able to talk about God at all and the Charybdis of making Him appear too much like one of us.  There are different ways of plotting this course, and the one I want to talk about here is one that began a couple of decades or so ago:  open theism.

Before we can talk about open theism, we have to lay a bit of background.  The foundational religions of the West are the Abrahamic religions; and the foundational text for all of them, to one degree or another, is the Old Testament (known to Jews as the Tanakh, or often in English as the Hebrew Bible).  One of the most prominent aspects of the Old Testament is the way it portrays God.  The OT, by and large, is extremely anthropomorphic in its description of God.  He is described as having various bodily parts, and Moses is granted the favor of actually seeing Him from behind (Exodus 33:18-23).  He is depicted as having limited knowledge (Genesis 18:21) and as apparently forgetting things (Genesis 8:8, where He is implied to have suddenly remembered Noah after having forgotten about the Flood for the last forty days).  He is depicted as changing His mind back and forth (Exodus 32:8-14).  According to the Old Testament, God orders genocide with little compunction (Joshua, all throughout) and smites His own people, including innocents, for totally capricious reasons (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21).  Examples could be multiplied, but hopefully these are enough to get the picture of a God who is rather disturbing, who is–well, psycho.  This, for anyone past the barbarian tribesman phase, is a problem.

The Greeks actually had a considerable head start on this.  About the same time that Genesis and Exodus were being composed in the form we have them (6th Century BC), the Greek philosopher Xenophanes was taking a long hard look at anthropomorphism, famously concluding:

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

From this he concluded that human portrayal of the gods was inaccurate, both physically and in what was told of them, and that there was actually only “One god, greatest among gods and humans, like mortals neither in form nor in thought.”  Some two centuries later, Plato, in his Republic, criticized the poets for writing unworthily of the gods, attributing scandalous behavior to them, when such behavior was characteristic of humans, not the Divine.  He argued for banishing poets from his ideal city-state for this reason.  Throughout almost the entire course of Greek philosophy, the Greeks rejected the crude and often raunchily human behavior of their gods in favor of a tradition of allegorizing the old stories.

There is some recognition of the problem in the OT itself–for example Numbers 23:19, Psalm 103:11, parts of the prophetic books, and the majestic coda to Job.  Still, there is no consistent rejection of the violent, capricious, and very human view of God that appears throughout much of the Hebrew Bible.  Later theologians developed methods such as midrash and the writings that later became the Talmud which mitigated the anthropomorphism to a degree and let God slightly off the hook for some of the nasty things for which He is supposed to have been responsible.  Still, it took the Greeks to iron all this out completely.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 3rd Century BC, Israel, along with much of the known world, came under the sway of Greek culture.  Within a hundred years, in fact, the largest population of Jews in the world was not in Israel but in Alexandria, Egypt, and they spoke not Hebrew, but Greek.  As religious Jews came into contact with Greek philosophy, they began to make use of Greek categories of thought as a way of reinterpreting their own tradition.  As the Christian era began, most of the early Jewish Christians were at least partly Hellenized; and they were soon vastly outnumbered by Greeks or heavily Hellenized Gentiles.  Thus Christianity from its very beginning was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy–some would say to the point of syncretism.  It was in this context that so-called “classical theism” developed.

Classical theism applied Greek philosophy to inquiry about the God of the Jews and the Christians.  By the early Middle Ages this process was largely complete (though it was elaborated later), and the following things were considered true of God by most theologians:

1.  He is a necessary being (i.e. He must exist); moreover, He is the absolutely metaphysically ultimate being, and as pure Being Himself is the source of all being.  Another way this is phrased is that He has the property of aseity–that is, He requires no cause for His own existence, as He exists in and of Himself.

2.  He is all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient).  These characteristics are limited by logical necessity, though, as even God could not create a married bachelor, for example.  He is also all-good (omnibenevolent).

3.  He is completely transcendent.  As such, any terms applied to Him must be understood as analogies, as mentioned above.

4.  He is incorporeal (no body–pure spirit), immutable (unchanging), impassible (incapable of suffering), and atemporal (outside of time).

This, with minor modifications here and there, has been the standard view of God held by most theologians, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, since the Patristic Age.  The laity has by and large mainly held a much more anthropomorphic view of God.  There have also been complaints about the Hellenization of Christianity even in ancient times.  Still classical theism has been the theological standard for the vast majority of Christian history.   It has been, that is, until recently.

The gradual movement away from classical theism began in the 19th Century, partly as a result of forces I’ve discussed here and here.  As a more dualistic worldview began to wane, there was less need seen for classical theism, with its strongly transcendent bent.  Still, the changing theological outlook remained mainly in the academy, and mainly among the so-called mainline Protestant churches.  As they began to decline in numbers and influence in the post World War II era, and especially after the 60’s, their theology seemed to become increasingly irrelevant.  Then, starting in the 80’s and gathering steam in the 90’s, a new theological movement began in the much more robust Evangelical community–“open” theism.

The basic motivations of open theism and its proponents were as follows:

1.  A feeling that the God of the philosophers was rather abstract and “cold”.

2.  A concern that God’s omniscience precludes human free will.

3.  A concern that God’s omniscience implicates Him in evil (He presumably knows ahead of time all the bad things that will happen to us and does nothing to stop it, in this world).

4.  A distaste for Hellenism and Greek philosophy.

5.  Concern that classical theism is un-Biblical, i.e. that it has no Scriptural basis.

In a sense, open theologians were in the position of the protagonist of Vertigo, who was faced with a woman who might have been his long-lost love or perhaps an imposter.  Looking at the differences between the God of the Bible and the god of the philosophers, they began to wonder if the latter were a clever imposter, a mere double, and not the real thing.

Different open theologians have differing perspectives, but broadly open theism could be characterized by:

A.  The assertion that God does not know our future free actions with certainty.  This is said to be necessary to preserve human free will.  It is from this that the adjective “open” in “open theism” comes from, referring to the future being open–that is, God doesn’t know it for certain, so it’s not closed or determined.

B.  As a corollary of A, God is not omniscient, since there are things that are intrinsically unknowable before they happen.  Some would further argue from this that God is not atemporal (otherwise he could know the future).

More controversially (in general and among open theologians themselves):

C.  The assertion that God is not omnipotent, even in the classical sense.  That is, not only can He not do things that are logically impossible (no one can do that); there are even some logically possible things He can’t do.  This argument is made in order to solve the problem of evil, as it asserts that evil is not God’s fault, since He can’t yet control it.

D.  The assertion that God is not impassible.  He can, in other words, suffer in some sense.

E.  The assertion, said to be in better conformity to Scripture, that God actually does change His mind at times.

Open theism has never gained wide acceptance in the Evangelical community, and has not been widely noticed in Mainline Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox circles.  Nevertheless, it has had relatively high visibility, especially in the 90’s, and has had a certain amount of influence.  How are we to evaluate it?

First, it’s worth pointing out that in many ways, especially in some of its more speculative forms, open theism is very similar to the older process theology.  Like process theology, open theism views God as not omniscient or omnipotent, and as not knowing the future.  Process theology is different in that it tends to view God Himself as evolving, sometimes nearly to the point of pantheism; but some open theologians, too, posit growth and change in God.  A  major difference is that whereas process theology tends more towards a philosophical approach to God, open theism emphasizes Scripture more, asserting that the open view of God is more faithful to Scripture.  On the whole, there would be a certain fairness in saying that open theism is an Evangelical version of process theology.

As to open theism itself, I can sympathize with its goals of making God less remote and preserving human freedom.  However, I think it does this by cherry picking Scripture to get the kind of God desired.  A non-omniscient, non-omnipotent, “vulnerable” God may be off the hook for evils He can’t prevent or encroachment on our freedom; but the very same Scripture that seems to imply limited power and knowledge of God, and Divine vulnerability also presents the same God as violent, tumultuous, and capricious.  You can’t really have your cake and eat it, too.  You can’t try to do away with philosophical abstraction and return to Scripture, but then take only the nice aspects of a limited God from that Scripture, while tossing the nasty bits.  Of course, one could say that the nasty parts aren’t really representative of God; but then you’re back to allegorizing out what you don’t like, and are coming back to philosophy by the back door.

Of course, I’d say that open theism, as well as many other flavors of Protestantism, has too high a view of Scripture, anyway.  I don’t mean that in the sense of saying that Scripture isn’t inspired, or of encouraging a “low” view of it.  Rather, I mean the tendency to take it more or less as is without looking at context or the philosophical implications.  I’ve read essays by open theologians in which they’ve gone so far as to say that if the theology or philosophy says one thing, and Scripture says another, then Scripture must be preferred, even if it seems to paint God in peculiar ways (e.g. limited knowledge, changing His mind, etc.).  By that logic we’d have to jettison the value of pi!

On a personal note, when I first heard of open theology in the late 90’s, I was quite taken by it, and read and re-read the collection of essays on open theism, The Openness of God.  I have long wrestled with the problem of evil and the interaction of God’s omniscience with human free will–I wrote a college paper on the latter topic way back in 1982.  Also, at that time I was going through a period in which I felt a lack of God’s presence and thought that I needed a greater affective feeling in regard to Him.  All these factors made open theism look very attractive to me at the time.

As the years passed my perspective changed.  Though I knew it intellectually, I came to know more experientially that God’s actions and one’s faith and relationship with Him are not really grounded in how one feels.  The last forty years of Mother Theresa’s life were a period of darkness and lack of any perception of God, and yet she continued to live a saintly life and is on the way towards canonization now.  I hardly put myself in her league, but the point is that I have come to realize that we can put much too much emphasis on emotions and feelings.  Not that we should be Vulcans; but emotivism has the danger of making religion into a feel-good (or feel-bad) ego trip that’s all about one’s own emotions, and not about God.  Moreover, we’re all different.  Some of us are more emotional, more affective–more bhakti, if you will.  Others are more philosophical, more intellectual, less emotional–more jñāna, as it were.  I’ve decided that being jñānin is just fine.

More broadly, I’ve come to reaffirm my inclination towards the Hellenistic and the philosophical aspects of the Christian tradition.  They’re not all there is about the faith; but they’re a huge part of it that can’t be removed without causing great damage.  The god of the philosophers isn’t a full description of God, but it’s an important and necessary beginning, and a guard against viewing Him as an angry tribal storm god.  As I discussed in the first part of this essay, there’s a reason that Greek philosophy and its allegorical reading of Scripture came into play in the first place.  Open theologians were well-intentioned, and they did have a point about excessive use of philosophy in Christianity; but their solution, by tending towards too much emotivism (a good antidote to which is here), an unbalanced reading of Scripture, and tossing out Hellenism more or less tout court, caused more problems than it solved.  In a sense, open theism was a Vertigo schtick, in that it turned out that the god of the philosophers–and the pagans!–was not an imposter, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus all along.

Part of the series The Lady Gaga Project

Also part of the series “Religious Miscellany

Posted on 24/01/2014, in Christianity, metaphysics, music, philosophy, pop, religion, rock, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

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