A note on my (eventually, theological) thinking process

Not long ago I was asked by a friend about how I think theologically. i.e. Where does my thinking start? What modes of thinking and disciplines are important to me?

If I had to use a phrase to describe where I begin it would be, “from the ground up.” In this sense, the disciplines I value for evaluating and (re)considering my theological position and thoughts, include

  • Historical criticism of the Bible
  • Scientific method (e.g. evolutionary biology and quantum sciences)
  • Philosophical reflection (perhaps particular emphasis on phenomenology and various materialist and/or naturalist perspectives)

Accepting the sheer explanatory weight of all the above is, for me, critical. The accounts they provide locate (and reign in) any conversation into the natural and material field. When this becomes our frame of reference cheap, short-circuit thinking becomes unacceptable. (Peter Enns sums the problem up well for me, in a recent post, referencing the tradition from which I have come: “The scandal of the Evangelical mind is that doctrine determines academic conclusions.” I find positions such as this utterly objectionable and have little time for them.)

It is my prerogative that re-coursing to the supernatural, to the unknown something “out there,” quickly focuses conversation on abstract possibilities of little relevance. The interruptions of a God from somewhere else, to here, are the noise of a deus ex machina. In building “from the ground up” I refuse to start my theological thought with unverifiable (in the terms above) doctrinal and confessional commitments/beliefs. So often, we have no need of them.

By way of example, Steven Shaviro, in Without Criteria, elaborates on the sort of behaviour I find problematic, as he then goes on to outline a manner of thinking that I will implicitly (and hopefully explicitly) affirm in this post – Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy.

Whitehead seeks to produce a metaphysics that is nonanthropomorphic and nonanthropocentric. This means that he is a secular and naturalistic thinker, but one of a very special sort. He rejects supernatural explanations, holding to what he calls the ontological principle: the claim ” that actual entities are the only reasons,” that “the search for a reason is always the search for an actual fact which is the vehicle of that reason.” For “there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere. Everything in the actual world is referable to some actual entity.” This means that empiricism is ultimately correct: all our knowledge comes from experience, and there is nothing outside experience, or beyond it. Even the concept of God needs to be secularized, explained in empirical terms, and located within phenomenal experience.

Additionally, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for me, sums up the reasons this trajectory is valid when he noted, in his Letters and Papers From Prison, how in political, economic, philosophical and scientific disciplines and environments, humanity has been learning to operate “etsi deus non daretur (as if there were no God).” As such, any theological thoughts need be aware of the utterly superfluous ways ‘God’ has been conceptualised and utilised in relation to said disciplines.

We should be willing to allow the disciplines I mentioned earlier and any connected to them to be pushed fully to their limit. If the contours of something like theological reflection seem called for (and I happen to think they are – Whitehead is a prime example of this and I’ll outline this presently), let them begin.

At this point an (extremely cursory) example/overview, which shows how such a qualified naturalism can in turn lead to theological conclusions, may be helpful.

Alfred North Whitehead (to labour and advance my use of the man a little more – please bear in mind the lengthy quote above) did just this in his great philosophical project of panexperiential metaphysics. Whitehead found, in enquiring into “Why there is always something new?,” that without, what he came to name as, “God,” novelty was impossible.

This need for God wasn’t a cheap and perhaps economic decision to conveniently blu-tac something in place. God, for Whitehead, was the “chief exemplification” of all of which Whitehead spoke. Everything he describes occurs in God. God is “the poet of the world” – the great lure that invites and persuades (never coerces) the world toward beauty, goodness, and zest. (In Whitehead-ese God is the bearer of ‘eternal objects’ that ‘actual entities’ can utilise or discard as they choose between them in their advance into/create the future – this future is defined by its frightening openness to radically contingent, creative possibility. For Whitehead, without the ‘eternal objects’ nothing new is possible.)

Whitehead arrived at such a theological conclusion because his utterly rigorous philosophical and scientific analysis demanded such, not because doctrine or religion had pre-established his position – Whitehead began his project as an atheist, and never identified himself with any established religion as such.

What is unique about Whitehead is that he made metaphysics his own by naturalising it and establishing it on analysis of experience. Shaviro notes, Whitehead

does metaphysics in his own way, inventing his own categories and working through his own problems. He thereby makes metaphysics speak what it has usually denied and rejected: the body, emotions, inconstancy and change, the radical contingency of all perspectives and all formulations.

Given this implicit dynamism and contingency Whitehead was ever aware of the potential for change in, and the ultimate provisionality of, his own project. Hence why it would pass that statements about the world came to include statements about God – reflection upon the world, as such, demanded the conclusion. God, for Whitehead, ultimately, was not an abstract, über, being elsewhere, but fully immanent and connected to the ongoing, verifiable, workings of universal experience.

In the tradition of Whitehead, I wish to locate any conclusions I may make about God in the natural and material, and thus, conversely, potentially speak of the natural and material as fully in God. In this way, what I am suggesting is, eventually, more inclined to something that has been called “natural theology”  – with a panentheistic twist – that attempts to cease theological antagonism toward e.g. historical and scientific method etc. by naming those as avenues of enquiry that inform us in regards what we can know and any possible theological conclusions, within the terms that define those disciplines.

Endorsing qualified material- and natural-isms, under the banner of a panentheistic theological possibility, shifts thought to such a degree that what we discover may lead to possible and provisional statements re. (a) God.

For the most part I am of the opinion that when various doctrinal/confessional theologies form the basis of theological thought, we have a problem.  Namely, they can be very easily accounted for in alternative, i.e. sociological and historical, terms – that is to say, these theologies arise within the world. They are always a part, never an acceptable, self-evident, sole foundation of theological thought.

I find that, in building “from the ground up,” theological conclusions are possible vis-a-vis certain material- and/or natural-isms. It then seems to me that something, at the very least, panentheistic has the necessary scope and girth to be meaningful – that is to say, God can be conceptualised as fully immanent in the universe and thus the universe fully immanent in God.

At this point, and with this basis, reference to the Christian tradition can then happen – What are its claims and conclusions? How does scientific, historical etc. analysis affect the tradition? Within our theological conclusion, what effect do comparative religious and pluralism studies have?

It is my inclination then that, for example, when the historical critical method limits the more fanciful beliefs and conclusions of confessional theologies – locating events and statements in natural, political, and totally social and semantic circumstances of a time and place – this is not a loss to theological thought, it is its great clarification. Which is to say, as we name what in all likelihood happened in x biblical circumstance we discern what (may have) actually happened “in God,” or – to borrow a phrase I like from Jürgen Moltmann (which I suspect is Hegelian) – names events that take place in the (for me, fully panentheistic and naturalistic) “history of God.”

I’ll perhaps return to some of the trajectories this post is taking us. I’ve attempted to outline where I begin – “from the ground up.” I believe the ground inclines enough to take us to a place where theological thought proves useful. Again, I may return for I’ve said little re. the characteristics and content of the God my panentheism is into, how that jives explicitly with the Christian tradition, and in turn the question of pluralism.