Empathic Open Theism

I've been reading some open theism posts the last week or so (see Greg Boyd's posts here and here and the ongoing discussions at the An Open Orthodoxy blog).

I'd like to use this post to sketch out my views regarding open theology. My 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 of mine?

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.

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 subject 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-two 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 will 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 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. If you've encountered this theory before please let me know.

In meantime, let me 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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83 thoughts on “Empathic Open Theism”

  1. Great post Dr. Beck. Your views are closer to process than you might think, actually. Process thinkers affirm self-determination but not “free will.” It's an important distinction.To quote John Cobb:

    "Process theologians...understand the psyche to be a succession of occasions of experience. Each occasion derives from God an aim that guides its integration of its past. But the aim is also adjusted during this process. The exact outcome is not determined until it happens…In Whitehead’s view everything about the outcome is then determined. But there are multiple determinants. Much of it is determined by the past occasions that are synthesized. This is the causality studied by scientists."

    You'd probably enjoy the rest of Cobb's essay.

  2. Thanks! I might be closer to process. Which perfectly cool with me. I'm not really sure what sort of theory this is or if it can stand up to critical scrutiny. The view is very experimental.

  3. Yeah, open theism was my entry into process thought. I think of open theism now as process theology's less philosophical, biblical cousin :-)

    Speaking of philosophical theologies, Process and Orthodox Theologies are both philosophical theologies, and have much in common. Another Cobb essay coming your way: http://processandfaith.org/writings/ask-dr-cobb/2006-03/eastern-orthodox-process

  4. 'Empathic Gap' is a nice turn of phrase - much more elegant than my crude characterization of 'G*d's ham-fisted attempt to direct humanity through edict' I made recently in a discussion with someone regarding how you might think about the Jewish scriptures through the lens of the Christian. I think I will use 'empathic gap' in polite company going forward....

    The chess game analogy might be problematic since a chess game can be won through non-empathic calculation. (Big Blue) Perhaps something like Poker would be more apt? In a complete non sequitur (or maybe not), I was at a conference recently and the speaker, Nate Silver, told the story of when Kasparov met Big Blue in the 1997 rematch. Kasparov wins the first game, but the 44th move by the computer so baffled him that he thought the computer had 'superior intellignce' and, according to Silver, it resulted in Kasparov losing the second game. It turned out that the move was a bug in the program that caused the computer to execute a fail safe 'any legal move' rather than go into an endless loop and lose on time.

  5. I'm attracted to 'Open Theism' for the same reason that I'm wary of it: It implies an increased necessity of one's relationality with God. I like this, I feel empowered by this, but it causes an increased anxiety. I'd prefer to think that the Kingdom of God will be doing just fine if I choose to ignore it. 'Open Theism' gives the answer of God's infinite power, as you said, "God will win the game, that outcome is predetermined". But your 'Empathic Open Theism' seems to get to similar limitations of God's omniscience... This may speak more to my ignorance of the libertarian free will ideas that you're trying to avoid. But would the answer from 'Empathic Open Theism' to the question of anxieties caused by the increased emphasis on relationality with God be any different from that of 'Open Theism'?

  6. Richard,

    I am beginning to think that you articulate Wesleyan convictions better than those of us within the tradition! You have totally reframed pneumatology for me with this post. Thank you! Have you seen the work of Tom Oord, professor of philosophy at Northwest Nazarene Univ? I think you might like his work on open and process theology. His blog can be found at: http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/.

  7. I think you could answer that all sorts of ways. If we shift away from omniscience to omnipotence then I think you can create a perfectly anxiety-free scenario, as God had do anything God wants to do.

    The perspective of the view I'm trying to sketch has less to do with God's power than intimacy with God, which speaks to the ways humans and God can befuddle each other, God getting frustrated with humans or how we can grieve the Holy Spirit. So, to be clear, this isn't a view that describes the entirety of what God is up to or how God goes about God's work in bringing the Kingdom. It simply is a particular account of the dynamics of divine and human intimacy.

  8. Thanks Ron!

    This whole line of argument might, in the end, fall apart. But I agree that there are some intriguing impliactions for pneumatology and contemplative theology. The idea I have in mind here is that, in the act of creation, God "withdraws" but that the drama of salvation is God relationally and non-coersively "re-entering" our space to form the union of theosis and perichoresis. And given that God is attempting to "re-enter" our space in a loving and non-coercive way this process is dynamically relational and, thus, fraught with risk, frustration, confusion and, well, the highs and lows of achieving intimacy.

  9. Thanks so much for this wonderful post. I truly appreciate good meaty stuff that makes me have to take my time. The other comments are well worth the attention also.

    If you don't mind, I would simply add that the Christianity of Greek influence has been too much a "seeking of information" and not enough a religion of EXPERIENCE; a zealous adventure of "What can I find out?" rather than a seeking the daily oneness with God. Believe me, with my legalistic back ground, I confess, "Been there...done that", and it nearly drove me insane. Yet, It is the experience with God that reveals the hidden.

    Again, I have come to understand this misguided adventure to have stemmed from our preoccupation with the Greek philosophers and not enough time with the prophets of Israel. I do not think it a coincidence that I came to the conviction of "All things in God and God in all things" around the same time that I became enthralled with the prophets.

  10. This post reminds me of a quote from Groundhog Day:

    "Well maybe the real God uses tricks, you know? Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything."

    Not exactly the same thing, but just an association I had.

  11. Thank you, Richard. I like the way you take some of the insights of Open Theism – and there are some real insights there – but then plough your own furrow. However, I have to confess to having some issues with the direction it finally takes. Basically …

    The application of your “experiential epistemology hypothesis” to God, your idea of an “empathic gap”, God’s inability “to know exactly what it feels like to be me, privately, subjectively and experientially” – can this be right? It certainly doesn’t necessarily follow from God’s self-limitation (kenosis) and the incarnation as such. I think it only follows if one refers to God’s “knowing” in a univocal (rather than analogical) way. But God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8); God is closer to us than we are to ourselves (Augustine); God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139). You refer to I Corinthians 13:12: “in that [eschatological] moment I will both know and be fully known.” But that’s not quite accurate: not and be fully known. but “as I have been fully known”.

    Another way of putting my problem is to say that God’s knowledge of me does not compete with my knowledge of myself and God, rather God’s knowledge of me is the very basis of my knowledge of myself and God. The inimitable Herbert McCabe makes the same point about divine causality (and you could add divine foreknowledge) and human freedom – a point which Open Theists don’t seem to get, viz.: “The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the
    world. We see an ascending scale of powerful causes. The more powerful the cause, the more difference it makes. And we are inclined to locate God at the top of the scale, and to imagine that he makes the most difference of all. But God does not make the most difference. He makes, if you like, all the difference- which is the same as making no difference at all.”

    I’d say something about divine “timelessness” – Open Theists have a beef about it, me too, but for altogether different reasons – but discussions about time make me giddy. I’ll only add: full marks for most Open Theism, unlike Process Theology, affirming the creatio ex nihilo (its rejection is both fashionable and theologically fatal), but a Theology Fail for its Arminianism (Calvinists, of course, also get a Fail on “free will”). (You yourself, if I remember correctly, have blogged some fantastic stuff on free will in the context of treating universalism.)

    Finally, essential reading: Bruce McCormack, "The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism" in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (2008), ed. Bruce McCormack.

  12. I definitely think the "empathy gap" is the most controversial aspect of the theory.

    First quick point, I think 1 Cor. 13.12 can be interpreted in different ways. For example, the human comprehension of the divine should "lag" behind God's comprehension of the human. God's comprehension of me will come before my comprehesnion of God. Still, I see your point.

    And a clarification. The term "empathy gap" may be a really bad metaphor. It suggests that God lacks empathy and then gets it. Perhaps it would be better to say that God's empathy deepens, intensifies or participates after the Incarnation.

    Because clearly God is loving and deeply, deeply empathic "before" the Incarnation. But here's a thought:

    The Exodus event and the cross are the two paradigmatic salvation events in the bible. In the Exodus God "hears the cries" of the Israelites. That's empathy. But still from the "outside" as it were. God "hears." But on the cross Jesus "cries out," that's empathy from the "inside." God not "hearing" cries, but himself crying out. Both are empathic, both trigger salvation events, both are God loving and saving us. But I do think the outside vs. inside contrast suggests a particular deepening and participating that affected God in some profound and lasting way.

    God was hurt on the cross. Greek theology be damned. :-)

  13. Let me add this to the discussion.

    Open theism is often associated with God taking "risks" with humanity. I agree, but my view changes this a bit.

    Specifically, in my view the "risk" God takes less about prediction than Otherness. That is, what makes the human/divine interaction a relationship isn't God being unable to predict what a free agent will do. That's not what makes for a relationship. What makes for a relationship is a sort of "unknowing" that exists between two people, an "unknowing" that both partners work to overcome in the act of deepening relational intimacy. True, when you don't know someone well they are "unpredictable" to you, but the deeper issue is the lack of intimacy rather than the other person having free will.

    So what I'm suggesting is that when God created humanity God gave us experiential space that was uniquely our own. And by giving us this space we became, to some degree, "strangers" to God. That was the risk God took, granting us that relational autonomy, to enter into a relationship with some "unknowns." To allow us to start off, to some degree, as "strangers."

    And more, in creating this situation God knew that the only way to fully and finally "know us" God would have to enter into and participate in the fullness of human experience "from the inside." Which meant that to fully know us God knew God had to suffer. Thus the love song of the Incarnation, God's ultimate act of "coming near" to close the gap.

    In sum, God's risk wasn't the risk of unpredictability--"What will they do?"--but the risk of intimacy--"Here am I. Who are you?"

  14. An interesting article, thank you; but I find myself in vigorous disagreement. I respectfully suggest that the God you are proposing here is but an anthropomorphic-therapeutic projection. It is not the infinite, radically transcendent and radically immanent God whom Christians came to confess during the patristic period and subsequently: http://goo.gl/5sNwB8. None of what you are proposing is necessary to the achievement of personhood in Jesus Christ.

  15. God was hurt on the cross. Greek theology be damned. :-)

    Yeah, I'm with you there, mate. But false witness is often borne against the Fathers. Indeed no less an an Open Theist than John Sanders observes that by impassibility they "did not mean that God was apathetic, distant, or lacked compassion.... The word functioned in a couple of ways. First, it was a way of qualifying the distinction between creator and creatures... Also, we are prone to be overwhelmed by emotions, particularly the negative ones, but God is not. Hence, it was used to safeguard divine transcendence (aseity) rather than deny psychological emotions to God. Second, it functioned to distance the Christian God from the gods of polytheism... Hence, it is clear that when the fathers said God was impassible they did not intend to rule out that he had emotions or that he is affected by and respond to us."

    Still, for some of us, when it comes to the cross, the ancient witness, perhaps over-encumbered by classical metaphysics, doesn't go the full ten yards Golgotha. I like Bruce McCormack's take (yes, I'm a big fan of McCormack!) on the subject: he affirms God's immutability but denies God's impassibility, declaring that God is "immutably determined for suffering". You might say that's trying to square the circle, but I like it, I think it's about right, not least because it's a statement that both upholds God's aseity (Greek theology be praised!) and honours the biblical witness about the deep pathos of Yahweh.

  16. I appreciate that.

    Personally, I don't overly concern myself with the patristic fathers and do tend toward the heterical as the need arises. So I'm wiling to agree to diagree about how much we should honor and care about the patristic witness. I will give them short shrift.

  17. Can you give a place to read about take from McCormack? I'd like to read more about that.

    I think that's the issue--aseity and pathos. You have all these theories (or an appeal to apopathic mystery, probably the best approach) trying to "square the circle." I don't think this little thought balloon of mine is going to fare any better. Like every view is view with have its own suite of theological and hermeneutical issues.

    Again, I don't want to say that God is unemphatic, just that the Incarnation deepens that empathy by incorporating the human experience into the Godhead. In the Incarnation God got on the "inside," and by doing so Jesus becomes a "more perfect" mediator who is able to "empathize" with us. Which really sort of begs the question: Why does the Godhead even need a mediator? Let alone a better one?

    Also, as I try to account for it, any "gap" created between the human and the divine was an act of love and hospitality, God "making room" for us in creation. That is Act One. Creation. Salvation is the story of Act Two, God increasingly closing that gap in the priestly action of Christ and the ongoing intersession of the Holy Spirit.

  18. 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.".... It's not just that consciousness can't be reduced to physics. Consciousness has causal potency.

    Your re-framing of Open Theology (in terms of Otherness and overcoming the gaps of unknowing in relationships towards intimacy) is just fascinating. Can you please say what you might think of subconsciousness or unconscious knowing or implicit bias? I'm thinking of the research / theorizing of Mahzarin R. Banaji and her work "Blindspot" (and the site implicit.harvard.edu). Also there's the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, who ask why smart people don't know themselves well enough always to make smart decisions (in relation to other people and to groups, but also in relation to themselves). Or the relatively older research and theory of Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (aka Johari window); and that of Paul Tournier, M.D. (on Secrets and on Personas); and that of Sigmund Freud; and that of sociolinguist Wallace E. Lambert (with his Matched Guise technique -- which is how I became interested in hidden consciousnesses variously manifested in social language acts).

    Since you talk of God as having relationality and consciousness this way, would you imagine God also having blindspots? If not, then is God a kind of superbeing in relation to God's creations, us human beings who do have unconsciousness or subconscious bias towards one another?

    My questions are really not at all meant to be read as leading or as cynical. If Jesus is in all his humanity understood as God, then the God-who-never-sleeps did sleep. The God who never gets tired even if God did rest did need bodily rest. The God who may be completely relational and have consciousness may, in Jesus, have the sorts of unconsciousness and subconsciousness that the social scientists I've named research.

    Why this seems very critical is that much of our mere human social interactions - the questions of intimacy, the constructs of the Other - seem deeply below the surface of what we understand as consciousness. I'm just interested in how far into theology this might go? And how helpful a lens might it be? In questions of loving our enemies and ourselves and our neighbors?

  19. I mean to acknowledge some of what you do in your book "Unclean" (the disgust psychology that Darwin began exploring in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals). Seems to me that there's something there to consider with regard not just to consciousness. (In Jesus, a least in the extant gospel accounts, there is the portrayal by the writers of him showing some irritation and / or indignation in certain contexts with others. Is God like that? Is there something unknown there, something that Open Theology, the way you're experimenting with it here, can better get at for the sake of us humans?)

  20. Those are fascinating questions. To be honest I haven't through through how the unconscious relates to causality and how all that relates to intimacy. This post coalesced in my mind yesterday, though parts of it have been on the blog for many years, so the edges and implications are still being worked out.

    But the questions your raise are really interesting. You've got me thinking...

  21. I appreciate the post, and the fact that you're open to new thoughts about how to think about God and the God-world relationship. Many are so afraid of being marginalized by more conservative folks that they are unwilling to think so freely.

    On the note of libertarianism, you are correct that it is fundamental to open theism. It is also fundamental to process theism, but either way... I'd like to direct your attention to the following article about how to think about libertarianism in scientific terms. I've benefitted greatly from it. It's by a philosopher named Mark Balaguer who is in quite intimate contact with the scientific data on the issue. Hope you benefit as much as I have from it:



  22. On a similar line...
    I have always reacted against the "what would Jesus do" fad that would have us all turn into little clones acting, behaving, reacting, believing the same way.
    I turn the question into "what would Jesus do IF HE WERE ME". My thoughts, feelings, experiences, hurts, joys, likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, knowledge, ignorance- overlaid with the divine.
    Somewhat unpredictable, and certainly unique. The future expands in possibility and colour rather than becoming more confined and grey.

  23. I want to point out that my post was not meant as critical. I love the movie and this blog; it just made me think of that particular line. I feel popular song and movie writers often don't get the credit they deserve for engaging deep philosophical issues with wit and conciseness, so I thought I'd share.

  24. 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.

    I think I should warn you that you might get knocked for the bit I've block-quoted: a male experience, in a particular place and time, would not lead to "generalized empathy" but, rather, to a "particular empathy" for a certain kind of man. You'll get knocked for it because it implies that male experience is the default experience. This is something which men have unwittingly implied for a very long time, thereby marking female experiences as other or as variations from the norm, when female experiences are no more or less particular than male experiences.

    Now, I presume you did not mean to imply any of this, but that doesn't mean the implication isn't there and isn't a problem.

  25. I can see that, how the tags should be switched. By generalized I was thinking of the components of consciousness that are common to every human--hunger, pain, death, etc--and then how those experiences are particularized in personal biographies.

  26. Richard, McCormack’s piece (Ch. 10 in ‘Engaging the Doctrine of God’) isn’t online line anywhere that I have found. I posted a 13-page summary of his 58-page chapter over on AnOpenOrthodoxy that should get
    you on the inside of his view:

    Intro: http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2014/04/19/mccormack-barth-and-open-theism/

    Then we explore it in:

    Part 1: http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/mccormacks-barth-open-theism-part-1/
    Part 2: http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/mccormacks-barth-open-theism-part-2/
    Part 3: http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2014/05/03/mccormacks-barth-open-theism-part-3/

  27. Perhaps God is also deepening his ability to communicate or that the deepening of empathy increases ones ability to communicate better?? I'm not sure how to put this...but it just seems crazy that God would have this complex 1900 page book about all these difficult to interpret things that boils down to, "Okay, I want more intimacy with your unique subjective experience that I only see dimly as God." Well, alright...why don't you just say that then?

    I think my experience on this planet may just help deepen God's empathy as it comes to withholding secrets about what the hell is going on when we meet face to face and I'm like...I love you, this is awesome we finally get to meet...but what the hell is going on like for realz.

  28. Hi Mike, I actually think that "God seeks relationship/intimacy with us" could be the whole theme of the bible. So why is the bible so long? Because it's a love story rather than a theological treatise.

  29. Beautiful! I recognize the theological pieces, but you have put them into a new, beautiful pattern. That is actually a good criterion of theology: creating beautiful patterns.

  30. I wish I knew what "God seeks relationship/intimacy with us" is like subjectively. The love story through the lens of my personal experience is more shrouded in mystery, hypothesis, paradox, plurality of interpretations, etc...not like the clear communication of love that is needed for all my human relationships to function. If I related to them by imitating my experience with God, I would be divorced. I just can't show up for season with clear demonstrations of love to my wife and then disappear for a year. IDK...seems a little bass ackwards sometimes with God...which lends itself in the "off seasons" to wondering if my relationship with God is more like the pursuit of psycho-social anthropology.

  31. Can you give a place to read about take from McCormack? I'd like to read more about that.

    I wish I could but I can't. I've transcribed a passage onto the back page of his book Orthodox and Moderns: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, but for the life of me I can't remember where I took it from. Sorry.

  32. I'm running off to the prison so two quick things.

    First, I don't have an opinion about if the future is open or closed, if there is free will or not. I'm agnostic about all those questions. So if a person had, for example, perfect subjective knowledge of another would that mean the future of that person is "closed"? Not necessarily. My view leaves that question open. Basically, if you want to tack on free will to this vision please feel free. It doesn't change anything.

    Second, even if there system were "closed" from the human side the prospect of the deepening divine union introduces a future that is open. So even if a person didn't want to tack on free will there is a route toward freedom in the model.

  33. Thank your very much for this. I wanted to try to "create" something interesting and different and, yes, beautiful.

    To be sure, this pattern might have some fatal flaw, but it's is nice to have someone notice the creative effort and the aesthetic play of the post.

    So thank you very, very much!

  34. I totally get that. I'm not sure the post has any particular answers to those questions, but that doesn't make the questions any less important.

  35. It's my pleasure. I'm a preacher in the Church of Sweden, and your blog is one of my main sources of inspiration. Thanks a lot!

  36. There is also the ethnicity issue. Dr. Beck's view implicity leads to Jewish superiority because God became a Jew. One would have to say that on some level, God's intimacy with non-Jewish people groups is less than with Jews because Jesus was Jewish. Same as the male issue Christian mentioned above. See that?

  37. You totally lost me with this last comment. Why would you call your post Empathetic Open Theism if you have no opinion about the openness of the future or are at best agnostic about it? indeed what was the point of your post? you said you wanted to root Open Theism or the openness of the future in something other than libertarian free will and then you went on to explain your ideas. I don't mean to sound critical but did I just totally miss something?

  38. I have to say that, while you made exceedingly good arguments, emotionally I find this difficult to think about--painful, even. The idea that God knows me perfectly, which I cannot do and no other created being can ever do, has been all that got me through life sometimes. If God cannot/does not know me, then what is the point of even existing? If your conclusion is true, then we are eternally alone inside our own heads, and frankly, I don't want to live in a world where there might not be some chance of relief from that terrible ache of isolation, something that works on a level beyond what we finite humans can bring to the table.

    I suppose I'm interested in whether you have any thoughts on how, if ever, that knowing and being known can become perfect between us and God. If it can't, then I must either reject this view or reject any hope of ever being truly known; it if it can... then I'll be thinking about this some more.

  39. Nice. I have to confess I have been secretly hoping you'd dive into and post a little on open theism. Its been exercising an increasingly heavy influence on me during the last 3 years or so. Part of my love for it is that it allows for much smoother interpretations of a lot of Biblical texts than classical theology, which is so heavily influenced by the Platonic worldview.

    I love your workaround on the libertine/free will issue, which is what we all knew would be the biggest hurdle for you. To be honest, it is the easiest part of it for me, but my work tends to to have a lot of paradigmatic assumptions about free will built into it, and I'm sure I am consciously and unconsciously shaped by those assumptions.

    One last thing: I think a true sense of divine joy and appreciation of beauty is not possible within a strict, deterministic viewpoint of God. I think God revels in the beauty of sunsets and really good art and advances in neurosurgery and (yes) even a well-crafted theory of human psychology. Without the unexpected, however, authentic experiences of those things isn't possible. Things aren't unique and wondrous. They are only what they are *supposed* to be.


  40. 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.

    Romans 8.11, 15b-17
    And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

    And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

  41. Sorry, I was rushing off.

    First, the name is bad. Like I mentioned in the post, the view might be more process than open.

    The reason I went with open is this. At its heart open theism isn't about the openness of the future. It's about a relational view of God. Free will and the "open future" are just the mechanisms. But if you can get to the same relational place in a different way those mechanisms are less important. So you can take them or leave them. Your call.

    Like I said in the post, my interests in open theism aren't about speculating about free will or the ontological status of the future but about a relational view of God:

    "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."

    Because if, at the end of the day, open theism is really just a debate about free will or the nature of the future then, well, it's not really theology. It just the free will/determinism debate dressed up in other clothing. Lipstick on a pig you might say.

    So, though perhaps poorly and confusingly named, I kept the word "open" to be indicative of "relational," the theological heart of open theism. My view is a version of that relational view positing a different mechanism, intimacy rather than predictability.

  42. You know, that is exactly right, it is a workaround. Well put, Sir.

    Pondering some more, I think all theology is a sort of a workaround. I've always felt that theology was a form of coping. A tool. People debate if theology is true. I ask: does it work? I'm a pragmatist at heart.

    At the end of the day, I just simply believe, as a matter of faith, in a relational view of God, a relationship full of pathos. How that pathos comes to be, be it free will or some other way (see: this post), is so much speculation. A potpourri of workarounds.

  43. Like you said, Richard, the name doesn't work. Open theism is simply not indifferent to the future's being open. Same is true for process theism.

    Everybody advocates for a personal, dynamic God--Piper, Bill Craig and your traditinal Arminians included. If advocating for a personal, dynamic God is what makes one an "open" theist, then we're all open theists. But that won't work. After all, Piper feels he can "get to the same relational place in a different way." Is he an open theist? In other words, determinism, open theism, process, etc., all claim to be ways to get to that relational space. But that can't mean we can be indifferent or agnostic about the distinctions between the ways.

  44. Yes. That's how I see it. i.e. - I don't think that pathos-laden relationship can happen in a cosmos that is experienced as a series of pre-determined, known-from-the-outset events. How you "get" God (and us) there is less important than the viewpoint to which it leads. That end-point perspective, I think, has some ring of authenticity (truth?) to it, but I don't wring my hands if - when the time comes to "show your work" - someone else gets there using different series of equations.

  45. I don't think Piper gets tho the say place in a different way. It's a way different view. Can God be surprised by humanity in Piper's view? No. Can God "repent"? No.

    Can God be surprised by humanity in open theism and in my view? Yes. "Repent" in both views? Yes.

    It's this changing tacks by God that makes the future dynamic, open and relational in both views.

    I agree there are distinctions, but I don't think the contrasts you are making here (or lack of contrasts) is paying attention to the family resemblances.

  46. The problem with this is that divine surprise on your view and on open theism simply aren't the same thing. You're deriving 'relational' mileage, so to speak, out of the *mere* experience of surprise on God's part without consideration for what accounts for such surprise. The difference is that in open theism God's surprise is grounded in a knowledge of the world's real indeterminacy where on your view (or let us say on a 'closed-future' model of your view) surprise is grounded in God's ignorance of what was antecedently entailed and knowable, but God just couldn't know because he wasn't intimate enough with the relevant players. You have divine surprise in both cases, but not the same relational dynamic at play. This distinction may be, as you say, indifferent to you, but it has not been so among open theists who have all argued that divine relationality with the world be grounded upon the truth of the world the way the world is, not ignorance about how it is. Open theism can't be indifferent to the ontological status of freedom and future indeterminacy.

    Having said that, why couldn't a determinist maintain that God is surprised? You've already admitted that your view is compatible with a "closed" future anyhow. All that's needed to ground divine surprise would be God's ignorance about what's in fact closed, and I don't see why a determinist couldn't just agree that God's ignorant of the causal closedness of the world. It's not a typical determinist move, but it doesn't generate any contradiction that I can see.

  47. Typo. Sorry. *have all argued that divine relationality with the world be grounded on the truth of the way the world is...

  48. Let me quote from this An Open Orthodoxy post (emphasis added): http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/defining-claim-and-core-convictions/

    The conclusion that God doesn’t eternally foreknow in every conceivable
    detail precisely how the world’s possibilities will unfold (which claim
    has received all the attention) is — to put it surprisingly but perhaps
    more accurately — the most uninteresting thing about the view. For us
    it’s not particularly about foreknowledge; it’s about freely becoming what God purposed us to be. It’s about theosis. The foreknowledge piece turns out to be just the most consistent way we know to express it.

    That's what I'm trying to say! The whole issue isn't really about foreknowledge. It's about theosis.

  49. Following up on Kim's point and his invocation of McCabe: God is never outside or external to his creatures. He knows us from the inside-out precisely because he is continuously creating us and keep us in existence. Nothing can be hidden from him. Even our most hidden thoughts, dreams, and feelings are known to him, because he wills and maintains them in existence. He knows us better than we know ourselves. There can be no empathy gap, nor does he need to become incarnate in order to understand us better, as if God is scratching his head up on Mt Olympus thinking, "These humans are absolutely mystifying. Maybe I would undertstand them better if I could walk in their shoes for a little while. Perhaps even get myself crucified." This all sounds like projection and transference of the crudest kind.

  50. I appreciate the post, especially your willingness to think outside of the box. I would keep in mind that process also has libertarianism as an essential element. Also... I don't know if you've read the following essay, but it's by a very scientifically informed philosopher who has a scientifically respectable form of libertarianism:


  51. Hi Richard,

    I appreciate your post. I did not yet read the replies, so I apologize if I duplicate other replies.

    I'm also an open theist. In my case, I believe that God knows all reality, which I suppose is typical among open theists. This implies that *divine omniscience* means that God knows all reality.

    For better or worse, your view rejects that God knows all reality. For example, I suppose your view implies that God does not completely know any creature's present reality. Please correct me if I misunderstand you.

    I cannot prove that God completely understands present reality, but I don't feel comforted by the idea that God might misunderstand and likewise might misunderstand what is best for me.


  52. The problem is *NOT* that God doesnt know us well enough. It is that we dont know God well enough...which leads us to misapprehend all other relationships, including self-relationship. Our salvation is, in part, from God's self-communciation by the Spirit, which empowers us to see things "from God's perspective". This helps us see things clearly, opening the way for "knowing even as we are fully known."

  53. What if we also said that the relative autonomy we are continually gifted by God is not for personal privacy from God (so as to be strangers to God)...but as a space for consciously self-chosen *self-offering* to God and others. The "space" is for us to authentically and freely offer ourselves to the One who constantly gives all to us, even our very being. It is how God gives us the capacity to be self-giving like God.

  54. Creaturely free self-giving to God (and receiving God the same way) like I am describing is impossible if it is the case that all actions of the self are exhaustively determined by previous states of reality. Just noting.

  55. The more I think about this the more I think this might be the better direction to go. "Empathy gap" makes it seems that God doesn't or can't care about us. Which isn't what I'm trying to say.

    But the idea of God making room or space for us so that authentic and spontaneous relationality can emerge seems to get us everything we want. I think the hard theological part would be to say that when God makes this space it is a form of loving self-limitation or divine condescension where God forgoes "knowing" us in a way that precludes surprise and disappointment. That is, God "could" know exactly what we are going to do but chooses to not to in order to descend into the flux and risk of relationship (self-limitation or divine condescension).

    Is that a better way to frame it?

  56. That is a better way to frame it...and that is exactly how open theism (ala Greg Boyd, John Sanders, etc) frames it. What they also say is that some level of self-determination for creatures *has* to be involved. Otherwise, it just ends up with God effectively talking to himself...just using created things to do it. An ontologically open future is a necessary, but not sufficient aspect of such a view of the world.

  57. But to ask a question. My sense is that this is not how many open theists do frame it. As I'm framing it, the "unknowing" is a divine initiative, an act of loving self-limitation. By contrast, many open theists posit that the "unknowing" is due to an intrinsic feature of human agents (free will).

    Let me phrase it this way: Is the "unknowing" an act of divine self-limitation (God could know if God wanted to) or due to an anthropological characteristic/endowment that puts a limit on God?

    I think these are different things.

  58. I'll say this: open theism is compatible with your (and Marilyn McCord Adams' ) view of weak voluntarism. Tom and I read your posts on her work on "horrors" and thought both of you were on point. (Tom actually read her book on the subject). One does *not* need to be a strong voluntarist to be an open theist. So, your valid sensibilites about human freedom, psychologically, can be maintained with integrity. :-)

  59. Sure thing, brother! Thanks for being so open and engagingIn this conversation. Ot speaks volumes about you. Salut! (does a brief happy dance) :-D

  60. Uh...it's in the mail? LOL! ;-)

    Seriously though, welcome aboard! I know that Tom and others would love to share different resources with you about open theism, if you so desire. And we got some good links on our blogsite. However, we can be helpful, we are at your service. :-D

    Heh. What a cool day.

  61. I also suppose that two persons can possess in-depth knowledge of each other and still hate each other. For example, God merely knowing all about our present reality would not necessitate an intimate relationship.

  62. Yes, that's the view I'm positing, that God's knowledge is limited in a certain way. So that's the hard piece for any committed strongly to the "omni-" positions. I'm not all that committed to them.

    For what it's worth, the vision I describe in the post isn't imposed upon God. It's a act of loving self-limitation or divine condescension.

  63. All that you’ve said here appears to ring true and smoothly fits like a beautiful isomer into the chain of our spiritual DNA. However, as seeming functional and organically credible as an “Incarnational hypothesis” would be, Jesus doesn’t say to Peter - “ I don’t know what it feels like to be you, but it could be that in the near future, you possibly will deny three times”. – No, he’s quite clear about it!

    Knowing the outcome of creaturely freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that he is mediating or micromanaging our actions or thoughts. He has decreed the essential longitude of our spiritual state through The Cross, but not the degree of human latitudes that will eventually approach his thrown. His “self-limiting withdraw” in that sense, operates in a kind of counter flow system where his will slowly replaces our own fallen nature through our redemptive and sanctification process. In his most recent message, Boyd states that our consciousness or self- awareness is not merely “subjective” but rather “relational” and that we really get to know ourselves through our relationships with others. Being stuck in one’s skull only further enmeshes your reality into a recursive monologue. A "relational conception of self" however, now that’s a concept that is truly more “perichoresistic”.

    So could we purpose then, that rather than “Consciousness” [and I’m speaking more of a spiritual
    consciousness here] being “a first-person, privately-experienced, and subjective phenomenon” as you’ve stated earlier
    as being a prerequisite understanding/awareness to this “Incarnational hypothesis”, could we not say then
    that the “gap” is only to be filled in an ultimate sense, by our self-sacrificial love for one another as exemplified by what was achieved on Calvary?

  64. Other open theists posit that God limits his own knowledge. But I do not see how that has any advantage for God or free-will creatures.

    For example, I suppose God can have perfect knowledge of a free-will creature and still mantain an intimate relationship with the creature or the intimate relationship would end once perfect knowledge is obtained. Do you agree or disagree?

    Also, why would God limit his knowledge about free-will creatures while making providential decisions about them? How is that in anybody's best interest?

  65. Hi Richard. Love the conversation. Glad Dwayne jumped in!


  66. I also want to clarify that God knowing all present reality does not necessitate that God definitely foreknows how free-will creatures will respond to any given circumstance. For example, I suppose that humans are mostly but not completely predictable, which is along the lines of Peter van Inwagen's model of restrictivist free will.

  67. Just a last comment or two…

    As your reading of Boyd’s blog over at ReKnew and then us at AnOpenOrthodoxy, there’s no way you would have missed how very different we are. Open theists are a pretty diverse bunch. Dwayne and I are pretty passionate about integrating (as far as possible) our open theism with Orthodox theological values and core commitments. So for example, as you saw from visiting both sites, our Christology is Chalcedonian. Greg’s is not. We’re very
    comfortable with apatheia, divine transcendence, apophaticism, etc. Greg is not.

    My sense, Richard, is that if you land in open theism (i.e., real objective openness of the future and real contingency as opposed to just calling the empathetic God-World relations “open” because God’s ignorance of what is in fact ‘closed’ provides the relational features you require) you may end up on the process end of things. Indeed, I’m not sure why you’d prefer openness over process (unless you’re committed to ex nihilo, which is a very classical and Orthodox understanding of the God-World relation inextricably linked to a strong sense of transcendence—neither of which are tradiaional beliefs of process theists). You can have a very feeling, creaturely-defined, determined and
    conditioned deity in process—‘relational’ to the hilt! But as you know from our site, there are biblical, philosophical and traditional problems with that. Dwayne and I will do what we can to coax you into a more Orthodox view of
    things! :o)

    Look forward to more great, thought-provoking stuff. Thanks again!

  68. Well, I did not develop my thoughts with that, Let me start again, if I may.

    God can have exhaustive knowledge about somebody without a reciprocal loving relationship while God ultimately desires a reciprocal loving relationship with each human.

  69. The eschatological doesn't lie in some future realm, but, rather, the eternal realm, which already reigns, and even sometimes interrupts our temporal existence via our proleptic realizations, which anticipate an utter fullness. There's "enough" divine omnipathy, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, all suitably nuanced from our existential perspective, and so on, to effect the divine will, even if none of those attributes are otherwise absolute from some ideal, unlimited, essentialistic perspective. Reality is true enough, free enough, beautiful enough, good enough, just enough. God is, then, omnipathic enough, soteriologically and sophiologically, to, at bottom, save us and relate to us, even if our final degree of cooperation with grace and place in the firmament both remain a tad open.

  70. THAT we'll enjoy relationship(s), soteriologically, seems probably (almost certainly) accomplished to me, only to WHAT DEGREE seems open, as well as HOW that will uniquely play out for each in relationship, sophiologically, - not only to god, but - to self, others and cosmos vis a vis diversity, plurality, uniqueness and such, which are highly valued when it comes to realizations of freedom, love. Simply, God knows enough of how we feel to inform his purposes and effect His designs, justly, but we are otherwise free enough to realize all values and gifts both in a manner and to an extent (degree) that will delight and surprise even the Trinity!

  71. By suitably nuanced, I think, for example, of Griffin's anselmian adaptation, which qualifies such attributes as presenting only to that degree "greater than which would otherwise be inconsistent" with that authentic human freedom (not absolute freedom but certainly free enough to realize our most cherished values) required for our love of self, other, cosmos and God). We needn't know either what the full extent or degree of God's beauty, feeling or power might be or how it gets effected, but can rest assured that the divine will probably, even if not necessarily, will get real-ized to that extent necessary and sufficient to save all, even while allowing for a vast range of probabilities vis a vis both the degree (e.g. holiness) and nature (diversity of ministry w/in unity of mission) of creaturely responsivity. In simpler terms, all may, can and will be well, and we can know that all manner of things shall probably, even if not necessarily, be well, even if we can't specify how.

  72. Even the creation of scripture is relational for God. The idea that God chose to create it together with dozens of human beings over hundreds of years in two languages then intimately copied and preserved over several millenia shows the relational character of God and his desire for human interaction.. Scripture could have been created alone by God, but it wasn't..

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