Empathic Open Theism Revisited

In 2014 I wrote a provocative theological piece about a view I called "empathic open theism." That post has continued to attract attention and shares on social media.

To be clear, empathic open theism is probably heretical. It's sort of a open/process theology mashup. That said, I recently read David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God, so classical theists will be encouraged to know that Hart has given me a lot to think about, making me rethink my process and open theology leanings.

Interestingly, though, Hart's discussions about consciousness in The Experience of God are similar to a lot of what I share below. It's interesting to see how consciousness has become a common conversation point for both classical and process theism.

Regardless, I'm just experimenting in posts like these. I never hold any of my ideas very tightly or strongly.

Mostly, empathic open theism is a creative reflection on the meaning of Hebrews 4.15--"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin."--that fuses science, epistemology, consciousness, and theology.


I'd like to sketch out a view I've been kicking around regarding open theology. This view is, I think, I unique view, a relational view of God that seems to stand somewhere between open and process theology.

In general, I really like open theism. Mainly because it preserves a real and robust relational view of God as opposed to the faux-relationalism found in the deterministic vision of Calvinism.

To summarize quickly, open theism is, at root, a belief about the nature of the future. Open theism is not, as open theists repeatedly point out, a belief about God's omniscience. Crudely stated, according to open theism God does not know the future because the future does not yet exist. This does not limit God's omniscience because if the future does not exist then there is nothing for God to know. In short, the future is "yet to be," the future is "open" and unfolding.

The openness of the future in open theism is generally rooted in a libertarian account of human free will. Because humans have free will God does not know what exact future will unfold in the face of human choices. Thus, open theism is described as a relational view of God as God is waiting upon and responsive toward the free choices of individuals. God, being infinitely powerful and resourceful, will bring about God's purposes for the world, but how exactly that future will unfold is to be determined. God is playing, so the metaphor goes, a chess game with humanity. God will win the game, that outcome is "predetermined," but the exact course of the game is an unfolding and relational process given the moves humans will make and how God opts to respond as a consequence.

That's a quick and crude sketch of open theism. And at this point there are a variety of objections to open theism and some standard rebuttals to those objections. But for this post I'd like to point out where I demur from open theism and then describe the view I've constructed to take its place in an attempt to keep a relational view of God firmly in view.

Because, for me at least, that's the great attraction of open theism, its dynamic and relational view of God and humanity. I want to keep that vision. But I don't agree with how open theism gets us there.

Specifically, as stated, the mechanism of open theism is libertarian free will. That's the lynch pin. The trouble is that, as a psychologist, I find libertarian visions of free will to be psychologically implausible. I'm just not sure how free will would operate psychologically. Of course, I'm willing to admit that I might be wrong in this instance, and I'm open to being persuaded on this point, but as things stand today I've had to build a different sort of model to create a different sort of open theism, a vision that doesn't rely upon libertarian versions of free will.

So, what is this new view I've been experimenting with?

The vision I have in mind is one that is rooted in the disjoint between consciousness and science, what has been called "the hard problem of consciousness."

Specifically, science relies upon a third-person, publicly-adjudicated, and objective methodology. Consciousness, however, is a first-person, privately-experienced, and subjective phenomenon. Thus, there is an ontological and epistemological disjoint between the data (subjective experience) and the method (science). Simplistically stated, I can study, in an objective way, the way your brain acts when you smell apple pie. But the subjective experience of the smell of apple pie can never be captured on a brain scan. The phenomenon under investigation cannot be captured by the methods of science.

In short, as many others have argued before me, consciousness cannot be reduced to a scientific account. Let's call this the non-reductionism hypothesis.

We can go further.

It's not just that consciousness can't be reduced to physics. Consciousness has causal potency. We move away from things because they create the conscious experience of pain. We move toward things because they create the conscious experience of pleasure. The conscious experiences of pleasure and pain are causal forces in the world. Let's call this the causation hypothesis.

Now, if you combine the non-reductionism and the causation hypotheses you reach a pretty bold conclusion. Specifically, a reductive scientific account of the cosmos is impossible, because there will always be aspects of causation in the cosmos--those related to conscious experience--that can never be captured, accounted for, explained, or reduced to physical, material or scientific accounts. To be sure, science has and will continue to explain much within the cosmos. But science will never be able to explain everything. The causes and effects related to consciousness will always remain a non-reductive residual to any scientific account of the world.

This argument is not new to me. If you'd like to read a good account of this position I recommend Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. David Bentley Hart also makes this argument in The Experience of God.

Let me continue by articulating two more hypotheses to bring my theory fully into view.

If consciousness cannot be known from the "outside" then it can only be known subjectively, from the "inside." That is, knowledge of consciousness is experiential and participatory. And when you cannot experience things first-hand you have to proceed empathically. As the saying goes, to understand what it feels like to be you I have to walk a mile in your moccasins. Let us call this the experiential epistemology hypothesis, that knowledge of consciousness can only be gained experientially (directly) or empathically (approximately and/or imaginatively).

Combining all three hypotheses--the non-reductionism, causation and experiential epistemology hypotheses--what we have is this: I cannot know or predict what any given human being will do unless I have perfect knowledge of his or her subjective experience. And since I can only know any given person's subjective experience approximately--that is to say, empathically or imaginatively--I can only make imperfect predictions about what any given person may or may not do.

The upside here is that the more and more intimate I get with a person--the greater and greater my ability to understand and empathize with him or her--the greater my predictive knowledge.

For example, I've gotten better over twenty-six years of marriage at buying gifts for my wife. I've gotten better at predicting Jana's future--for example, that Jana will love a particular gift--because of my improving empathic capacities--listening to and watching Jana over the years, getting a better and better sense of what it's like to "be Jana." Still, given that I'm a human being I will never know Jana fully and completely. Sometimes I predict wrong and the gift isn't so perfect. So you always have to keep listening and learning.

In short, it's this connection between knowledge and empathy that creates the relational dynamic.

Which brings us to the final of our four hypotheses.

My last hypothesis is this: the experiential epistemology hypothesis applies to God. Specifically, God cannot know what it feels like to be me from "the outside." If this is so, God cannot "compute" or "simulate" the future the way a super-computer might run an infinite number of simulations for a physical system. Because consciousness has causal effects all possible futures of the cosmos cannot be simulated in this way. No brute force calculation, even those of an Infinite Mind, can make perfect predictions of the cosmos. Due to consciousness the cosmos will not unfold like a chess game. Chess pieces don't scream "Ouch!"

Ouch does not compute.

This means that God can only gain predictive knowledge of the future the same way your or I do: with experiential participation and/or empathic imagination. That is to say, God can only know or come to predict the future through relationality.

God's full knowledge of the cosmos, particularly where humans are concerned, must be--necessarily and inherently--relational, experiential, empathic and participatory.

Stepping back, all open/relational views of God have to, in some way, limit God's omniscience. This is why they are so controversial. Openness views, as we noted above, tend to handle this by adopting a theory about the future, that the future doesn't actually exist and, thus, God not knowing a non-existent future puts no limit on God's omniscience. God can't be expected to know stuff that doesn't exist.

By contrast, in the view I'm presenting here I am arguing that God's knowledge is limited by an empathic gap. God's ability to know and predict my future is limited by God's ability (or inability) to know exactly what it feels like to be me, privately, subjectively and experientially.

I am arguing that God is limited in this way. Now, just why God is empathically limited in this way I cannot say. Perhaps, following someone like Moltmann, the empathic gap between God and humanity is due to the self-limiting withdrawal that God had to preform to "make room" for the creation. God's self-limiting in the creative act created a vacuum, a space in which I could exist. Perhaps that vacuum experientially externalized God to some degree, creating an experiential "gap"  between God and humanity.

Of course, that gap can be overcome. And should be. That is the drama of salvation. And it appears that God chooses to overcome this gap in a relational and non-coercive manner. Just like with any intimate human relationship. God has vacated my internal experiential space, and I must invite God back into that space. So that I can both know God and be known by God.

All that is just speculation about how the empathy gap was created. But that an empathy gap existed I believe is the clear testimony of Scripture. Specifically, in Hebrews we read:
Hebrews 4.14-16
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. 
If we read this text in a straightforward way, it seems to argue that the Incarnational participation in the human experience increased the empathic capacities of God. Because of the Incarnation God comes to understand the human experience "from the inside." The Incarnation ushers in a new, more empathic relationship between God and humanity.

Let us, then, call the fourth and final hypothesis the Incarnational empathy hypothesis, the hypothesis that the Incarnation--God's participation in the human experience--increased the empathic capacities of God.

Now it's here where my view dips into process theology a bit. I'm positing that the Incarnation changed God in some way, that God "learned" something in the Incarnation. Specifically, God "learned" about the human experience through participation in the Incarnation. And because of the Incarnation God is better able to empathize with us.

And if I may be still more bold, let me add this last bit of speculation.

I'd argue that, because the Incarnation was, well, incarnated, God's experience of humanity was limited in certain ways. Jesus was, for example, a man. Jesus never gave birth. Jesus never faced Alzheimer's. Jesus was never married. And so on.

Thus, I'd argue that even after the Incarnation God's empathic capacities were limited in certain ways. We might say that the Incarnation created the capacity for a generalized empathy but that, after the Incarnation, there remained the need for particular empathy, the narrowing of the empathy gap between God's Jesus-experience and your particular life experience.

Narrowing that gap, it seems to me, is a story by story, biography by biography process. This is where I think we insert a pneumological account, how the Spirit of God takes up residence within us so that God's Spirit and our own can do the particular individualized work of relational intimacy. Similar to my example above about intimacy with Jana. This will be a love story that plays out between each person and God in unique and individualized ways. The goal of which is the contemplative, experiential, participatory "union" between God and the individual.

Right now God and I see each other but dimly, as in a mirror. One day we will see each other face to face. And in that moment I will both know and be fully known.

The experiential gap will be fully overcome in the process of uniting the human with the divine. I am describing here theosis and perichoresis.

But right now, today, I am well short of those marks. I am not fully known. There are parts of me that remained blocked off from both myself and God, hidden by my sin. I can grieve the Holy Spirit indwelling me.

Thus the ebb and flow of ongoing relationship, surrender and intimacy.

So this, then, is my theory.

As best I can tell, though I have borrowed all the bits and pieces from others, I can't recall coming across this particular viewpoint anywhere else.

So lets tentatively name this view "Empathic Open Theism," an account that roots the relationally open dynamics of the human/divine relationship in an empathic gap between God and humanity where each partner works to overcome that gap in deepening intimacy until "perfect knowledge" is achieved in the union of theosis and perichoresis.

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