In my column last month, I pointed out that Richard Rice’s latest book The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities, reminds us that our understanding of God is pivotal for determining the way we live, more than what we usually believe. Our theological premises concerning God, in an implicit and structural way (i.e. unconsciously), model and drastically determine what we are and what we do. And they do even more because we naively take them as being transparent and direct images of God. We confuse and overlap our understanding of God with God himself. Between these two realities there are coincidences but also big differences. God himself is holy while our confessional understanding of him is noble, respectful and eventually helpful. But certainly not holy and even less definitive.
We are constantly required to revisit and update our understanding of God, for two reasons. First, any idea of God easily gets old and obsolete, just as ideas we might have of other people do. Humans, as much as God himself, are historical beings and for this reason can’t be grasped within a static image or idea. Second, any ideas of God – particularly those which are true – are necessarily unilateral. In this sense ideas about God are potentially false because they are structurally static. Thus our understanding of God always has a fragile status, even though it also represents the hard core of any religious experience. This paradoxical situation should push us, on one side, to be more humble about our own confessional certainties; and on the other side, more tolerant towards other’s people convictions. Healthy religious experiences don’t just include conviction, coherence and even militancy, but should also allow space for reflection, flexibility and a beneficial (and necessary) dose of doubt.
Richard Rice reminds us, particularly in the second part of his book, of the “top down” effect of going from our ideas of God, to church life and personal experience. He is, however, less attentive to the strong “bottom up” effects of social and cultural life, regarding the ideas we have of God.
So let’s briefly focus on these two effects.
1) “Top down” perspective: Open theism offers an important contribution for grounding the church in a broader perspective. The nature and meaning of the Church is one of the topics Rice analyzes for building our understanding of God. He does this in his latest book but has also considered it previously in: Believing, Behaving, Belonging. Finding New Love for the Church. The church was considered because our thinking of God is never abstract, and ought not to be detached from current human experience. So the relationship between “Theology” (God) and “Ecclesiology” (Church) is not external or purely applicative. The church is a strong formative theological topos (space) for understanding God. Rice uses four arguments to describe this.
a) The Spirit-created unity between Christ’s followers is always preceded by the union that the Spirit creates between the Father and Son, within the Trinity, as an open model which subsequently includes humanity. Christian communities are not founded by God as a simple divine, transcendent and vertical guarantee, but by God as a “Trinitarian community” – a horizontal, open model. It is the “communal open God” (trinity) alone who guarantees and makes possible the “communal human consciousness” at the base of any Christian community.
b) The readiness to serve others, even at the risk of jeopardizing their own well-being, was unknown to Greek and Roman paganism. It is in the Christian community, founded in God’s open asymmetric love (agape) for the diverse and the different, that we find such service. This is not the reassuring symmetric love (phileo), which is limited to what is familiar, that we find in Greek ethics and culture. Christian love for others is not only an ethical virtue but more fundamentally a theological way of being and acting. Because it’s founded in God himself as an open being.
c) The Church is not incidental to the experience of Salvation but belongs at its very center. The salvation process doesn’t stop in Jesus or in the believer, but takes full shape only in community as the embodiment of the open love of God. Nobody can be saved, in the full sense of the word, without experiencing a communitarian involvement. Community is an extension and epiphany of an open God who includes it as part of the salvation process.
d) The centrality of the Church and the “communal consciousness” in the religious experience doesn’t cancel the importance of individuality. There is no church without serious consideration of individualities. But “individuality” doesn’t mean “individualism.” Individualism is a typical contemporary ideology and cultural deformation that starts from an atomistic concept of humanity. This prevents true relationships and structurally undermines any attempt to build up consistent communities.
2) “Bottom-up” perspective: Rice’s proposal risks being theologically insufficient and culturally naïve. Because, if it’s true that our ideas of God (open theism) heavily influence the way we act, the opposite is also true. Our ideas of God (open theism included) are heavily influenced by our being moderns and post-moderns. Our ideas of God are not neutral –neither biblically or culturally – and that’s as valid for open theism as for any other theological proposal. There are four critical considerations:
a) “Contemporary individualism,” severely criticized by Rice, is on one side less perverse, and on the other side more diffuse and structural, than what he asserts. In one sense open theism itself represents an extension of modern social individualism applied to God. De facto, “individualism” and not a generic attention to “individuality,” it is the founding category of our contemporary world. And as such, it is a unique social configuration that never existed before. Its latent unilateralism and reductionism doesn’t invalidate it, even though it invites us to assume a constant critical consideration and assessment of its effects. Individualism is not a subsequent application of the modern worldview, but rather represents its very premise and presupposition. Ahead of corporative institutions and systems, typical of pre-modern systems which considered the individual as subordinate to the group, modern individualism affirms a radical new change. Events, processes, institutions, modern State, modern religion, all presuppose individualism as the inescapable starting point. The medieval and classic understanding, coming from Aristotle, that man is a “zoon politikon” (political animal), is radically overthrown. It gives way to an atomistic understanding of society, visible already in Descartes’ rational philosophy or in Hobbes’s contractual understanding of the modern state. Only acknowledgment of this strong individual (individualism) makes it possible to understand the birth and the essence of this new age, modernity.
b) The strong attention to the individual is not present in the Bible. What the biblical world does is to increase and emphasize, unusually for that historical period, the importance and value of individuality in a context that remained corporative, patriarchal and vertical. Similarly, the full respect of women, children or slaves – as exists today in our modern judicial systems – doesn’t exist in the Bible. And the same is true regarding full respect of individuality. But that’s not a problem, because the Bible doesn’t necessarily mention situations that would emerge only in our time, like surrogate motherhood, in vitro fertilization or heart transplants. Individualism, with its strengths and weaknesses, is not a biblical phenomenon, but a modern one. As such, it can’t be treated with biblical parameters but requires a larger and deep cultural reflection, one that can consider some biblical ingredients, but certainly does not limit itself to that.
c) Our idea of God, open theism included, is less biblical than it appears to be. It projects our individualistic culture into the Bible and elevates it to a theological paradigm for God himself. God in his mercy is not offended by that because, as much as he has accepted the biased images of other historical periods as ways of salvation, he also accepts ours as imperfect but necessary ways to grasp him. All modern theologies of God are structurally biased because they project onto God our typical cultural individualism without which we would be unable to process our reality.
And what characterizes our modern mindset is the transition from an understanding of God as “supreme substance,” typical of pre-modern theologies, to an understanding of God as an “absolute subject,” typical of modern and post-modern theologies.
d) No theological or cultural reading of God is neutral. Certainly not ours. Consequently open theism is only one contemporary expression of this constructivist approach to life and to God, which is characterized by this open understanding of reality. And precisely because this openness is cultural, not just theological, it intersects all dimensions of our contemporary world. “Open theism” is therefore parallel and concomitant to other current concepts such as “open anthropology,” “open society,” “open science” or “open ethics.” If we don’t notice it that much, it’s simply due to the fact we are only partially conscious of all cultural process.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez
Image Credit: Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School
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