Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Open-Ended

One discovery that continues to surprise me is how many of the Christian beliefs I was taught growing up are ultimately based on assumptions that aren't necessarily as biblical as everyone assumes them to be. In this case the assumption is that God, being eternal, exists outside of time and therefore has already witnessed all of history, past, present and future. Although there are a number of biblical passages that can be used to support that belief, there are even more that seem to suggest otherwise. At its core it's a doctrine whose roots lie in Greek philosophy (Plato in particular) and not necessarily in the worldviews of the biblical authors.

This belief requires that we allegorize or otherwise explain away the many times in the Bible that God changes his mind or expresses emotions like surprise, regret and hope. Proponents of the traditional view most commonly assert that God was speaking in such terms purely for the benefit of his audience, even though there's little discernible benefit in such a practice unless God is, in fact, being honest about his feelings.

I'm currently reading Gregory Boyd's God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, which makes a strong case for Open Theism - an alternative interpretation of these types of passages that doesn't in any way diminish God's sovereignty (though it may at first glance seem to).

According to the Platonic view that influenced early church theologians, time is an illusion, an element of the physical universe which itself is an illusion. In modern terms we most commonly view time as a dimension of the physical universe, along with length, width and height. Therefore, for God to be all-knowing and all-powerful, he would necessarily exist outside of time and be able to simultaneously view all of history from the moment of creation to the moment the universe ceases to be.

But what if time isn't a dimension as we define it, but merely our acknowledgment of the linear progression of events that is a necessary element of existence? Steeped as I am in a modern scientific mindset that has been heavily influenced by ancient Greek thought, that's a difficult concept to absorb. Under this alternative definition of time, however, God would not be diminished by not knowing every detail of what lies in the future, since the future does not yet exist. An omniscient being knows everything about that which exists, but logically does not know that which doesn't exist. An omniscient being would envision all future possibilities, but since the future exists only in terms of possibilities, such a being could still be genuinely surprised by which of those possibilities actually come to pass.

In fact, once I stop viewing time as a created 'thing,' I begin to see how much sense it makes that God would experience the passage of time as well - not because God is inferior to time, but because a being whose existence did not include any sort of linear progression would be completely static and unable to engage in relationship with other beings in any meaningful way.

Furthermore, it arguably enhances God's greatness if he can be confident in his future plans despite not having prior knowledge of every last detail of what is to come. God, who knows the laws of physics, biology and human nature far better than we could ever hope to, can direct the broader path of human history by setting certain events in motion, and simultaneously leave each of us fully free to determine our roles in those events. He can know generally what is going to happen without knowing what each of us will individually choose.

And how else could free will truly exist? If God knew everything that would ever happen in our lives before we were even born, then in reality we're completely helpless to alter our destiny for better or for worse. Even if God technically didn't decide who would ultimately go to hell, why would he create people that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt were going to make the choices that would ultimately lead them there?

We can either end our explorations at this point and conclude that, since God tells us he is loving and just, that such actions are in fact loving and just even though every God-given instinct in our bodies screams out that there is nothing even remotely loving or just about such a scenario, or we can step back and reevaluate some of our assumptions. Adherents of the traditional view would tell us that we simply cannot understand the full answer (it's true that there are things our finite minds can't fully comprehend), and that we should not let our fallible human reasoning skills take priority over the words of God - and yet the traditional view itself is based more on human reasoning than it is on what God has actually said to his people.

Although there are passages in the Bible that describe God as eternal and perfect, it is one thing to be immortal and unchanging in character and quite another to be completely unable to change in any way. Everyone faces situations where they must reconsider a course of action if they don't want to compromise their integrity, and by allowing each of us to freely choose how to conduct our lives, God must necessarily adapt his plans (at least on individual levels) according to the choices that we make.

There's a lot more that could be argued in both directions on this issue, and short of reproducing the entire book I couldn't touch on all of the relevant biblical passages. Having only read this one book on the subject I'm not ready to declare the issue settled, but I do find that Open Theism resonates with me on a deeper level than the traditional view ever did. It's one thing to give intellectual assent to an idea, as most Christians do with the traditional view, and quite another to truly believe it in the depths of one's being.

Suddenly prayer has an importance that it never truly had when I viewed God as being outside of time. No matter how many different ways theologians come up with to try to convince us of the importance of prayer, none of them really ring true in a universe where every outcome has already taken place. If the matter has been eternally settled since before the beginning of time, what's the point in trying to change it?

But if the matter isn't yet settled, if the future hasn't yet been fully decided, if we are, in fact, participants with God in the creation of what is to come, then we have both an incredible freedom and a tremendous responsibility to work toward making this world a better place.

Yes, God will prevail in the end, but what that means for me and those around me depends in part on my actions. Christian theology has always assumed as much, even though that assumption contradicts our long-standing view of the nature of God and time.

If that's heresy, then may the church find a way to make orthodox beliefs even half as inspiring.

4 comments:

DErifter said...

Hey, E-
...or is it Eugene?
I absolutely LOVE thinking about time and space, I think because of how they both elude us. "It must be, but it can't be." That sort of thing.

Anyway, some cool thoughts you've put down here. I wish I was so articulate. Greg Boyd is an amazing guy to listen to and/or read. Or even to watch- He's insane! My wife just spotted that book at our church bookstore on Monday and she wants it bad. We've talked some about predestination and free will in the past, but I've usually had a better handle on my position than she has on hers. (I hold the more traditional view you mentioned.) She often ends up frustrated, and hasn't really landed anywhere yet that she likes, but I think she really likes the sound of Open Theism. It might be like a gathering place for the group of thoughts she's been struggling to organize.

If it turns out that way, it might make for even more interesting discussions in the future (if there really IS such a thing as the future...)

Peace, man.

Anonymous said...

HI Eugene. I'm Greg Boyd, the author of the book you reviewed in your recent blog (God of the Possible). A friend told me about your blog so I checked it out.

Dude, you nailed it! I've rarely seen my view expressed so simply and eloquently. I am delighted and honored that my work has impacted you in a postive way. And I think you should become a theologian. (Actually, you clearly already ARE.) My view is often misunderstood and misrepresented, so I REALLY appreciate it when someone GETS IT RIGHT. Thank you!

If you don't mind me taking up some blog space, I'd like to add one small nuance -- one that I've adopted to my position since the time I wrote God of the Possible six years ago. I think its important.

You mention that since the future is partly comprised of possibilities, God could be "surprised" at what comes to pass. This is what I said in God of the Possible, but I now see that this needs to be nuanced, for there's a sense in which it IS true, but also a sense in which it is not. I think this IS true in the sense that even an omniscient being like God would be "surprised" when highly improbable events come to pass. (This is clearly what's happening, for example, in Jeremiah 3 when God says "I thought you'd call me Father, but instead you turned from me." ). But its NOT true to say God is "surprised" if one thinks this implies that God is in any sense "caught off gaurd."

Since writing God of the Possible, I've learned that many people assume that a God who faces a partly open future must be less prepared for all that may come to pass than he would be if he faced a future that was completely certain. So they think that events can happen for which God does not have a planned response. God thus can't promise to bring good out of evil. And this understandable freaks some people out.

In reality, the only reason people assume this is that they (unwittingly) bring God down to a human level. We humans can't anticipate and prepare for possibilities as effectively as we can certainties. But this is because we only have a FINITE amount of intelligence. Consequently, the more possibilities we face, the thinner we have to spread our intelligence to cover them.

But if God has INFINITE intelligence, then God doesn't have to spread his intelligence thin to cover possibilities. You can't fraction infinity. In fact, God could anticipate each and every one of a gazillion gazillion possibilites as though EACH ONE were an absolute certainty! So, an infinitely intelligent God who faced an open future is JUST AS PREPARED for whatever MAY come to pass as he would be if he faced a certain future in which he knew all that WILL CERTAINLY come to pass. For a God of infinte intelligence, in other words, there's virtually no functional difference between a possibility and a certainty. Only a God of limited intelligence would gain any providential advantage by virtue of facing a future of certainties instead of a future partly comprised of possibilities. (Hence, people who think God needs to face an pre-settled future in order to be "sovereign" thereby reveal that they have a limited view of God's intelligence.)

So you see,whatever comes to pass, an open theist can say as confidently as a traditional Christian that God was FROM ALL ETERNITY preparing a response for THIS VERY EVENT. Its just that the open theist is so confident of God's intelligence that she doesn't think God had to be certain this event would come to pass in order to be perfectly prepared for it. Many other things could have happened, and if they had, she'd be saying the EXACT SAME THING about THAT event.

So yes, God is "suprised" when highly improbable events happen -- but he's no less prepared for the highly improbable than he is the absolutely certain. In THIS sense God's never "surprised."

Again Eugene, great job summarizing my views for a popular audience.

Be blessed, keep growing, keep reading, and KEEP BLOGGING.

Greg

Anonymous said...

HI Eugene. I'm Greg Boyd, the author of the book you reviewed in your recent blog (God of the Possible). A friend told me about your blog so I checked it out.

Dude, you nailed it! I've rarely seen my view expressed so simply and eloquently. I am delighted and honored that my work has impacted you in a postive way. And I think you should become a theologian. (Actually, you clearly already ARE.) My view is often misunderstood and misrepresented, so I REALLY appreciate it when someone GETS IT RIGHT. Thank you!

If you don't mind me taking up some blog space, I'd like to add one small nuance -- one that I've adopted to my position since the time I wrote God of the Possible six years ago. I think its important.

You mention that since the future is partly comprised of possibilities, God could be "surprised" at what comes to pass. This is what I said in God of the Possible, but I now see that this needs to be nuanced, for there's a sense in which it IS true, but also a sense in which it is not. I think this IS true in the sense that even an omniscient being like God would be "surprised" when highly improbable events come to pass. (This is clearly what's happening, for example, in Jeremiah 3 when God says "I thought you'd call me Father, but instead you turned from me." ). But its NOT true to say God is "surprised" if one thinks this implies that God is in any sense "caught off gaurd."

Since writing God of the Possible, I've learned that many people assume that a God who faces a partly open future must be less prepared for all that may come to pass than he would be if he faced a future that was completely certain. So they think that events can happen for which God does not have a planned response. God thus can't promise to bring good out of evil. And this understandable freaks some people out.

In reality, the only reason people assume this is that they (unwittingly) bring God down to a human level. We humans can't anticipate and prepare for possibilities as effectively as we can certainties. But this is because we only have a FINITE amount of intelligence. Consequently, the more possibilities we face, the thinner we have to spread our intelligence to cover them.

But if God has INFINITE intelligence, then God doesn't have to spread his intelligence thin to cover possibilities. You can't fraction infinity. In fact, God could anticipate each and every one of a gazillion gazillion possibilites as though EACH ONE were an absolute certainty! So, an infinitely intelligent God who faced an open future is JUST AS PREPARED for whatever MAY come to pass as he would be if he faced a certain future in which he knew all that WILL CERTAINLY come to pass. For a God of infinte intelligence, in other words, there's virtually no functional difference between a possibility and a certainty. Only a God of limited intelligence would gain any providential advantage by virtue of facing a future of certainties instead of a future partly comprised of possibilities. (Hence, people who think God needs to face an pre-settled future in order to be "sovereign" thereby reveal that they have a limited view of God's intelligence.)

So you see,whatever comes to pass, an open theist can say as confidently as a traditional Christian that God was FROM ALL ETERNITY preparing a response for THIS VERY EVENT. Its just that the open theist is so confident of God's intelligence that she doesn't think God had to be certain this event would come to pass in order to be perfectly prepared for it. Many other things could have happened, and if they had, she'd be saying the EXACT SAME THING about THAT event.

So yes, God is "suprised" when highly improbable events happen -- but he's no less prepared for the highly improbable than he is the absolutely certain. In THIS sense God's never "surprised."

Again Eugene, great job summarizing my views for a popular audience.

Be blessed, keep growing, keep reading, and KEEP BLOGGING.

Greg

E said...

Wow, I didn't expect to draw the attention of the book's author! Thanks for the encouragement, and for taking the time to stop by.

And thanks for the clarification. I hadn't been entirely comfortable with the word 'surprised,' but couldn't think of a better one to use in its place.