According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Monday, July 24, 2017

Roger Olson - Is God Infinite or Personal? The Rise of Boston Personalism as Foundation to (but different from) Process Theology and Revival in Open and Relational Theology

Is God Finite?

by Roger Olson
July 23, 2017

Most Christians in the middle or to the “right” of the middle of the Christian theological spectrum will automatically recoil at the question “Is God finite?” The knee-jerk reaction even I feel is “No, of course not. What a silly question.” On the other hand, when asked to explain God’s infinity many such Christians (middle to right of the theological spectrum) have some difficulty. “Unlimited?” “Eternal?” “Omnipotent?” All are answers one hears as attempts to pin down what “infinite” means in relation to God.

To the best of my knowledge, however, nobody thinks or can show that the Bible itself actually says God is “infinite.” The word itself simply means “not finite.” But what does “finite” mean?

This became a divisive issue among European Christians especially during the so-called “Atheismusstreit” (atheism controversy) that broke out in German universities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The person who launched it was philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte who argued that God can either be infinite or personal but not both. Fichte’s claim possibly cloaked an atheistic intention; it’s somewhat difficult to tell as atheism was illegal at that time and place.

Perhaps the most important legacy of Fichte was G. W. F. Hegel who, after Fichte, tried to “fix” the problems Fichte and others raised about God and defined God as “Absolute Spirit” and the “wahrhaft Unendliche” (“true infinite”) that includes the finite in itself.

Now jump to the early 20th century. One of the nearly forgotten but very influential Christian philosophers of religion throughout the early and middle 20th century was Edgar Sheffield Brightman (d. 1953) who taught at Methodist-related Boston University. Brightman was very interested in theology and sought to reconstruct the Christian idea of God to make it fit the facts of experience more adequately. He launched a brief movement called “Boston Personalism” that was eventually replaced, for most liberal-leaning Protestants in the U.S., by Process Theology. (Here it might be helpful to note that Brightman was Martin Luther King’s mentor at BU during his doctoral studies there.)

Over the years I have heard of Brightman and Boston Personalism and read some secondary sources (book chapters, journal articles) about him and it. But I never, until recently, actually dipped into a primary source. Because of a recent challenge to do so, by a philosopher of religion influenced by Brightman and Boston Personalism, I bought the “classic” of Boston Personalism at a used bookstore and read it. The book is The Problem of God by Brightman published by Abingdon Press (the Methodist publishing house) in 1930.

Here I do not have space to go into all the “ins” and “outs” of Brightman’s (and Boston Personalism’s) idea of God. I will just mention a few points I found interesting and say that I found them interesting partly because I think they left a lasting impression that is not directly connected with Process Theology. (Most scholars of modern theology seem to think that Brightman laid the foundation for Process Theology’s later rise and replacement of Boston Personalism as the “theology of choice” among liberal-learning Protestants in America.) In other words, I “hear” and read echoes of Brightman’s view of God as “finite” elsewhere—not only among Process theologians and those influenced by A. N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

In The Problem of God Brightman argues at some length, but in winsome style (the book is really very easy to read), that throughout the history of thought about God (especially but not only Christian) there has been a back and forth tendency that he calls “expansion” and “contraction.” The expansion tendency has been to think of God as so different from humanity as to make God useless for human religious need. (And Brightman does argue that God is necessary for humanity and includes in the book some strong arguments against atheism in all its forms including secular humanism.) One notable example of that, he argues, is the attribution to God of “infinity” which does lead, as Fichte argued, toward a de-personalizing of God. Pushed to its logical conclusion, “infinity” is incompatible with personality and we need a personal God because our basic religious need is for God to deal with suffering. (I will leave that there and challenge doubters to read the book which is available on line through Amazon and other re-sellers of out-of-print books.)

The contraction tendency has been to think of God as so similar to humanity, so anthropomorphic, as to be also useless religiously. Another human religious need is to have someone to worship and be powerful enough to bring value out of evil.

In true Hegelian style (although Fichte actually said this before Hegel), Brightman’s thinking is about “thesis” and “antithesis” searching for “synthesis.” The “thesis” would be the expansion tendency and the antithesis would be the contraction tendency. So what is the “synthesis?” That God is finite and personal but supreme above all other finite and personal beings.

So, in what sense is God “finite” for Brightman (and his Boston Personalism followers—a few of which are still around)? And why do I care?

Well, first of all—to why I care. I long ago rejected the notion that God is “infinite.” I rejected it when I first heard it articulated which was probably in some seminary class. I immediately thought that the concept itself was beyond comprehension (except perhaps in mathematics) and that attributing it to God led away from thinking of God as personal, present, involved, loving and able to be affected by us. With Brightman (who I only learned about later) I thought of that attribute of God in traditional theology as an inappropriate expansion of the concept of God brought into Christian thought through philosophy, not the Bible.

On the other hand, I have never felt comfortable with saying that God is finite. That “feels” to me like too much of a contraction of God. So I have preferred to think of God as not infinite but also not finite—insofar as the latter implies a God who is limited in knowledge and power. I have long, perhaps always, preferred to think of God as self-limiting in relation to the world he created. I kept looking for some serious discussion of that concept in Brightman’s book but did not find it. That is interesting because, around the time Brightman wrote The Problem of God the great Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong was advocating (or had been advocating) the solution (to the same problems Brightman identifies) as “God’s Self-Limitations.” (I do not know the exact date of that essay; it is included in a volume of Strong’s essays published by Judson Press in 1899.) I can’t believe Brightman knew nothing about Strong’s alternative and I wish he had responded to it. Perhaps he did in another publication.

Anyway, my preferred alternative to the problem Brightman identified in historical Western thinking about God—going back to the Greeks—is God’s self-limitations. That, of course, has become one of the major themes of non-Process Christian theologians such as Emil Brunner and Jürgen Moltmann.

So what did Brightman mean by God’s finitude? A careful reading of The Problem of God reveals that he did not mean that God is pathetic, or “evolving,” or powerless. He did mean, however, that there is inherent in God’s eternal being “the Given” which is a particular nature that governs what God can and cannot do. Clearly Brightman was no nominalist/voluntarist! He was a realist with regard to God. He believed God has a specific nature and it includes certain limitations that are not voluntary on God’s part. Among those limitations are that God cannot know the future insofar as it contains events not yet knowable because they will be determined by free will beings other than God and that God cannot coerce free creatures to do his will. According to Brightman, these denials/affirmations about God are necessary “contractions” apart from which the “expansion” would make God religiously unavailable if not irrelevant.

Well, it should be obvious to all readers who pay any serious attention to conversations about God taking place in even evangelical Christian theology how Brightman’s influence may have “trickled down”—even where his name is not known.

Here are a few things about which I agree with Brightman—after reading The Problem of God:

  1. First, he was not afraid to think about God metaphysically.
  2. Second, he recognized and articulated one of the main problems in Western theism including much traditional Christian thinking about God—the problem of the continual alternation between expansion and contraction.
  3. Third, he affirmed that God’s personhood is primary for religion. An impersonal God is of no religious interest or use.

Here are a few things about which I disagree with Brightman—after reading The Problem of God:

  1. First, I would not go so far as to call God “finite.” I think that at least strongly hints at too much contraction in the doctrine of God.
  2. Second, I think all the problems he identifies can be solved by replacing “the Given”—as he thinks of it—with God’s loving self-limitation in relation to creation.
  3. Third, as a philosopher, not a theologian, Brightman relied too heavily on reason and experience to the neglect of revelation and tradition (the four parts of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral).

In some ways my recent book Essentials of Christian Thought turns out to be an alternative to The Problem of God although not entirely in disagreement with the latter.

I found reading Brightman’s The Problem of God a satisfying exercise even as I found myself disagreeing with many of its point. One quandary left over from reading the book is whether Brightman believed in an eventual triumph of good over evil. I find hints in the book that he did, but I’m not sure how his “finite God” could bring that about.

One thought I had was more of a “wonder,” a question, whether my friend Thomas Jay Oord ever read the book or any of the writings of the Boston Personalists and whether he was influenced by them. I think I see certain real points of congeniality there—especially Oord’s basic idea that God cannot coerce free will beings. Tom does not seem to me to “fit” into the category of Process Theology (even though he studied with Cobb at Claremont). Might his theology “fit” more closely into the category of Boston Personalism?

I know of one other theologian who is working to revive Boston Personalism—Gary Dorrien who teaches theology at Union Theological Seminary. (Which is not to say Dorrien follows Brightman or anyone else slavishly; I have just heard him say publicly that he feels a special affinity for Boston Personalism and wishes to breathe new life into it as a live option for liberal Protestant theology.)

By no means do I intend this question as a criticism of Tom Oord or Gary Dorrien; as a historical theologian who focuses especially on modern theology I’m always curious about connections—especially ones not known or recognized. I believe there can be connections, strings of influence, that are not conscious or even known. This is what I call my “trickle down theory” of historical theology. Thinkers like Brightman can “release,” as it were, ideas into the theological “atmosphere” that later re-appear even where he is not known or his influence recognized.

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