Is God Unique? a response to Tony Jones

Tony Jones posted a question on his blog about the uniqueness of the process god.

As you may know, I responded to Roger Olson earlier this week and I have been talking about how much appreciate ‘al‘s -setting-sun

  • relation-al
  • incarnation-al
  • mission-al
  • practic-al
  • radic-al

I would add pentecost-al

So as someone who is newly converasation-al with process thought, here is my response to Tony’s question.

I would love your feedback – or, if you feel like it, go over and post on Tony’s blog. He is going to respond Friday and Tripp and I are recording the Process/Olsen TNT podcast response.

______

I am continually surprised that this misunderstanding seems to be the sticking point for those who are theologically educated!

For the person in the pew the contentious issue is the nature of God’s power. For the theologian, it is God’s uniqueness.

Let me just say un-categorically that the answer to this question is “Yes. God is unique.”

Process affirms that, both ontologically and in the incarnated revelation of Jesus. God is unique and Jesus is a unique expression that.

Here is how process gets there:

  • God is not an exception to the way the world works  but it’s highest exemplification.
  • God both affects and is affected  by the world.
  • While the world (and all that exists) is contained within God,  God is not completely contained or explained by it. The relationship is not symmetrical.

So in just those three simple points it is clear that God is unique!  Also, God unlike other actual entities does not expire.  This fourth point is perhaps the greatest distinction of uniqueness.

I really don’t know how it could be any clearer that the process God is both unique and distinct! There is no reason that this should be a sticking point for Christian theologians.

I confess that I am baffled as to why this continues to be a last-ditch objection to adopt a process thought as a conversation partner in the theological endeavor.  from the very first moment God is unique–the Alpha and the Omega–it is just that the Omega is different from the Alpha  in that the experiences of the world have impacted the real and  living God.

Someone is going to have to explain to me how this picture of God is NOT unique.

 

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36 comments
David Miller
David Miller

Bo, could you comment on the following, from Whitehead's Process and Reality?  It seems that some of what you ascribe to God as unique, Whitehead also ascribes to the World.  Thanks.


"It is as true to say that God is permanent and the World fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent.

"It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many.

"It is as true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently.

"It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World.

"It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God.

"It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.

"God and the World are contrasted opposites in terms of which Creativity achieves its supreme task of transforming disjoined multiplicity, with its diversities in opposition, in concrescent unity, with its diversities in contrast."


http://bit.ly/Whiteheadquote



David

thesilentrising
thesilentrising

I would just like to say that all of this talk about process thought and its myriad philosophical implications makes me want to study at Claremont. I came to process thought by way of developmental psychology (and its underlying philosophies) and I can't get it out of my head, nor do I want to.


Thanks for your diligent work Bo. 

sean muldowney
sean muldowney

Unless uniqueness is a specific philosophical category that I am not catching onto, I would resonate more with a conversation about 'distinctiveness' (Bo you use both terms in the post; are you using these terms interchangeably?)

The creation stories show the creator making tangible distinctions between chaos & order, earth & sea, light & dark, animal & human, man & woman. The biblical narratives account for a god that is distinct among other ANE gods in their wills and relations with humans.

Israel was called to walk distinctively after God among the nations.

Jesus calls disciples *into* distinctiveness "salt of the earth," "fishers of men," etc.

Even Jung argued that people succumbing to the ideals of the 'masses' & losing their distinctiveness is harmful to the collective psyche of society.

So it would seem that we have to acknowledge that distinctions/uniqueness/boundaries are important to God, and it is up to us to flesh out the "how so?" (Unity vs. uniformity) What do you think?

CindyBourgeois
CindyBourgeois


I think some folks don't think process affirms the uniqueness of God because there is confusion about difference between pantheism and panentheism, which may be part of a commitment to substance metaphysics. There seems to be a need to affirm the "separate-ness" of God.

jeffinanutshell
jeffinanutshell

Bo, it is always frustrating to feel misread, but I think that the heart of this matter is that God is not unique in the way that some interlocutors would like for God to be unique. Instead of saying as much, those working from a different framework instead claim that God as described by process theology is not unique—period. To be charitable, from a different framework, this claim can be read as true.


You have made a clear and simple case that God is unique within the process system, however, I don't think that this will be satisfactory for someone from whom the criteria of "uniqueness" is substantially different. This is particularly true for a system which has the distinction between a changeless God and a changing creation as a core criterion of divine singularity.


As such, I think someone could coherently argue that the process God is not *truly* unique while you offer similarly coherent rebuttals, but in the end the central disagreement is on the criterion for the category of uniqueness. Changing hearts/minds on these criterion will not be easy, but I think naming it will help prevent some of the "talking past" one another that happens in this discussion.

DouglasHagler
DouglasHagler

I sort of don't understand why the question is important. My wife is not 'ontologically unique from the rest of creation' (which means...?), but that in no way makes my life with her less rewarding. My intuition here is that it is an ego thing - that particular Christians would feel let down if God was not ontologically unique.


It also strikes me that we cannot possibly answer the question of whether God exists apart from creation. None of our ideas or perceptions or intuitions can exist apart from creation, nor can our words. So, can you characterize why this might be an important question to ask?

Patrick Frownfelter
Patrick Frownfelter

Well, here's my question then:  God may be unique, but you called Jesus a unique EXPRESSION of God.  Where, then, does that leave Jesus over against, say, the Buddha?  Does God express Godself through other religions "equally" (as in with as much truth and validity) as God does in Jesus?


If the answer is yes, perhaps that is the real hang-up here?

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@thesilentrising Wow. Thank you.   and YES you should wander (and wonder) on down to Claremont ... it is pretty fun to be able to add/supplement you main course of study with stuff offered by the Center for Process Studies and Process & Faith.   Glad to have a fellow traveler :)  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@sean muldowney Well... I want to make it simpler not more complicated... so let's do it this way 


  1. Is god the same as the world? No
  2. God is a actual entity that does not expire. That alone makes God unique. 
  3. Is god distinct from the world? Yes. 


That really is all I am trying to say. 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@CindyBourgeois That is a great point of clarification. I intentionally avoided using the P word because it really whigs some our ... and because technically that was not the questions ;p 


Is God unique / distinct is a simple yes!  God is not fully contained by the world. They are not identical.   

But you make a great point. and yes, that is the next logical sticking point.  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@jeffinanutshell Alright. I think that I am with you.  

I just want to be clear on one thing - I just want to make sure that YOU don't feel misread. 

You are speaking for those who you feel might see things this way?  

I will proceed as if this is correct. Please correct me if I am wrong. 


Yes.   God is unique in universe. God is unique in the world. God is unique FROM the world. 

While the world is IN God , God is more than the world. 


Let's work on your second paragraph: 

  1. Anytime you use 'substance' or 'substantial' we are going to run into problems. You know this right?  Not trying to fight, just wanting to clarify 
  2. God is the Alpha & the Omega - but they are not the same . The Omega has been impacted by the experience of the world. The real and living God is neither immutable or impassible. This is a major point of departure from classic (roman) theism. No? 
  3. NONE of this means that God is not unique. 

Please write in and tell me how I have not accounted for the argument that you are making. I know that I am missing something and am open to the help :)  -Bo

p.s. LOVE your continued  contribution 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@DouglasHagler 1) LOVEEEEEEE the opening comment. SO funny.   


are you telling me that you would not love your wife if she was not ontologically unique ? 


2) Holy Wittgenstein Batman!   

Patrick Frownfelter
Patrick Frownfelter

@DouglasHagler I think you answered it with your ego hunch.  The idea for guys like Olson and for anyone to the right of him theologically is that God HAS to be ontologically unique, because if God shares God's ontology with Creation, then God is just like Creation, not above it or superior to it, and therefore couldn't possibly be God.  Somewhere along the line, someone decided God had to be bigger and better than Creation in order to get Creation started and keep it going (I blame Aristotle).

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@Patrick Frownfelter Patrick two things: 1) this is THE best follow up questions in the world!!!  2) but you see what you have done, right? 


I answered what seems to be THE big hangup and immediately there is a subsequent implication! 

THIS is why I try to warn people that process is not just new app that you download on your existing operating system (OS) ... it is a different OS that reformats your hard-drive.  People buck me all the time on this but ... ya see?  ;) 


OK - let's do this. 


If you listen to the the most recent Barrel Aged Podcast with John Cobb on Advent (http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2013/12/04/have-yourself-a-john-cobb-advent-faniac/) you will here something like the following: 


Jesus was as open to and as faithful to the will of God as Buddha was to be Buddha, Mother Theresa was to her calling, Francis of Assisi was to being Francis ... That is not what makes Jesus unique. 

WHAT makes Jesus unique is WHAT God called Jesus to. It is possible that all of these people were equally open & available to god as Jesus was. The difference is what God called Jesus to. 


Jesus played a unique role in human history. No has ever - or will ever - play that role. What God did in Jesus has impacted all of humanity. Jesus is unique. 


NOW having said that ... the art of following Jesus is being open to and available to the presence of God the way that Jesus was open to available to the will of God is Jesus' life. 

Being like Jesus is not doing what Jesus did (cross & resurrection) but being available to God the way the Jesus was available to God.   This is discipleship. 


PLEASE give me feedback on this :)   -Bo 



sean muldowney
sean muldowney

Yeah... that is simpler alright. I guess I was trying to get ahead of whatever the pushback might be.

archambt
archambt

@BoSanders@jeffinanutshell"This is a major point of departure from classic (roman) theism. No?"


This is merely a terminological quibble, perhaps, but I suspect the Eastern church (especially the work done in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Cappadocian regions) would object, slightly, to God's immutability being strictly a Roman sort of theism.

Of course, God's uniqueness here is less of a problem to me than God's mutability and passability.  But then, I'm unclear what you're talking about when you talk about "God".  Admittedly, this comes from being unfamiliar with PT, working mainly with the 2nd to 4th century.

jeffinanutshell
jeffinanutshell

Yes, I suppose I was speaking for those who see things this way, even though I am not there myself. I would place myself closer to process theology than classical, if they were on a scale (though your operating system analogy suggests that they might not be). I do not feel at home in process theology myself because I do not feel it is eschatologically open enough, but that is a whole different conversation.

That said, I feel you heard me. I had to use the language of substance to get at the gulf between you an your interlocutors. The difference is more than semantics or even content. It is about the very essentials of an orientation to life and to God. That is what I mean by 'substantial'.

My point is exactly that process theology is a major departure from 'classical' theism, such a departure that you can't simply argue that God is unique. If you intend to engage in this debate, I feel it would be more fruitful to say from the beginning that it is unlikely that you and your interlocutor will agree on this matter because you will disagree on what qualifies as unique (or unique enough to earn the title of God). You can make your best argument and not be heard on this point (Hartahorne certainly did in Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, and we are still here), because in a more classical system, your description of God does not qualify as unique. It is frustrating, but viewed from the point of your interlocutor, it is true.

I guess what I am really trying to say is thst you should decide what will qualify as a fruitful discussion before entering into it, and don't make a recognition of the uniqueness of God in the process view a criterion of that fruitfulness. A lot of other, more fundamental discussions will need to take place first.

DouglasHagler
DouglasHagler

@BoSanders @DouglasHagler No, it's that my wife is not ontologically unique from the cosmos, and it doesn't have the slightest bearing on her, me, or our relationship.


Also, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the question, is God ontologically unique with regard to the cosmos, is nonsense. Nothing we can possibly experience or know could persuade us either way. What sense organ would I use to perceive something ontologically unique from the cosmos? So for me, the statement isn't about God at all, but about the person making the statement. How is it not "my God is bigger than your God" dressed up in theological drag?


I don't think it is important whether God is ontologically unique. 


Or, put another way, if I say "God is not ontologically unique", how would you demonstrate otherwise?


Edit: Feel free to ignore this, I know it is a diversion from what you actually are wanting to talk about.

DouglasHagler
DouglasHagler

@Patrick Frownfelter @DouglasHagler and here's my problem with that - if true, then that is just code for those specific Christians needing to be unique and superior. I mean, it isn't God that needs the publicity, you know?

Patrick Frownfelter
Patrick Frownfelter

@BoSanders One more thing: We've been walking our youth group through the idea of discipleship, and I might just use this.  Gently, of course. :)

Patrick Frownfelter
Patrick Frownfelter

@BoSanders  I'm gonna have to run that episode over again.  I CLEARLY missed a lot of good stuff.  :)


I guess where I'm kind of torn here is looking at the Gospels and the things God called Jesus to, and how Jesus responded so faithfully to those things.  It might be debatable whether or not Jesus actually made claims to divinity, but there are times where Jesus seems to get really "exclusive," I guess (and I don't mean John 14:6 :)).  No other religion (aside from a few new religious movements) has a leader making that claim.   I don't have a way to articulate this (you REALLY blew my mind with that comment), but I feel as if you're going to say that you're "one with the Father" and you have the capacity to do all the things God does on Earth (and that, through You, so can your followers), that's pretty stinkin' unique if you ask me.  


Maybe those are just all the things that make Jesus unique, then.  It looks so incredibly different from how the Buddha opened himself up to God, which, I assume, is what God wants.  Perhaps my aversion is exactly what @DouglasHagler is talking about: ego and a need for superiority.


Geez, excuse me while I go have an existential awakening. :)

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@sean muldowney OH!  I see now...   Yes -  let's make a deal: if pushback comes I will send them your way :)    

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@archambt @BoSanders SWEET!  Thanks for the notes - I really am interested in your insights and I will endeavor to be more clear about attributing everything to the Romans :)  


thanks again  -Bo 

archambt
archambt

@BoSanders Apologies: My initial post was just a clarification, and then a question on how "God" is defined in process theology, as it relates to mutability and passability.  I get hung up on attributing everything to Roman theology, when the sources are so varied.

In any case, I appreciate the nuance.  I'll be sure not to play any false trump cards. ;)

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@archambt @BoSanders it is not that I don't appreciate your contribution, broad knowledge or intensity ... I do


I just want to point out that none of what you have added here invalidates my initial point. It is all good stuff ... just don't act like it is a refutation.  At best it is a clarification (which I appreciate) 


The immutability and passibility of god still stands as major point of departure and for many that goes back to the frameworks employed in the early centuries of creedal era from which a large portion of the Western church has inherited it. 


Look, I need good conversation partners and you seem like one - just drop the thing where a technicality is treated like a trump card and I will meet you half-way by being more nuanced when I can :)   

-Bo 

archambt
archambt

@BoSanders Which strand of Protestantism?  I agree: the tradition for many strands came through Roman influence, though that still ignores the fact it was developed in the East.  At the same time, that does ignore the influence of Orthodox theology upon the Caroline Divines, and other reformers within the Anglican Communion, as they attempted to construct a concept of "catholicity" independent of Rome, which influence bleeds into the Episcopal and Methodist traditions (though perhaps more so in the Anglo-Catholic tradition).

I should have noted that my foray in Patristic theology has led through the Middle Ages to nouvelle theologie, with occasional breaths of air from more modern folks like Sarah Coakley.  It's like a buffet: my problem isn't focus, there's just too much to eat.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@archambt @BoSanders @jeffinanutshell See this is the thing about being too narrow in your focus ... no offense. 


You make a valid point, BUT it does not undo the fact that for Protestantism in N. America it came to us through the 'roman' stream.  SO while you point is a help clarification or interesting addition ... in the end it is just that and does not invalidate the initial point that was made. 

jeffinanutshell
jeffinanutshell

@BoSanders @jeffinanutshell


Thank you for the thorough responses and the chance to finally spit out what it was that I wanted to say. If anyone can give a "thick" description of what process theology is all about, I would count on you.


Just curious, have you read Bernard Loomer? He was the one who really drew me into process theology. His idea of "power as the capacity to sustain a relationship" is partly how I frame my understanding of God's "unchanging faithfulness." 



BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@jeffinanutshell @BoSanders


1) thank you for the note and the affirmation


2) I'm going to give you the 'Comment of the Month' award - based mostly on the beauty and clarity of this line 

" Not because I eschewed logic, but because it is truly a different kind of logic, one I could not see." 


3) your follow up notes are amazing. Thank for engaging so deeply.    -Bo 

jeffinanutshell
jeffinanutshell

@BoSanders


I hear you, I have had a very similar theological journey and it is the reason that I appreciate your work. I am not so much saying that uniqueness is a moving target, though I understand how it could be read that way. What I am trying to say is that it is a target that I do not expect to be hit through a theological debate. The matter runs very deeply in a person's faith, and I feel that a useful discussion is going to be more pastoral than logical. In my opinion, this is the reason there continues to be a talking past one another on this issue (it was the same for the debate on divine power between open theists and Bruce Ware). 


Seeing God as described by process theology as unique requires something akin to a conversion. Yes, you may be able to logically prove that God qualifies as unique , but unless you can speak to the heart of someone who firmly believes that God cannot change, the "Process theology's God is not unique!" refrain will continue.


My own conversion took place when confronted with a real example of the damage done by theodicy. It could not have been otherwise; I could not have budged on the uniqueness of God before that experience, no matter what argument I encountered. Not because I eschewed logic, but because it is truly a different kind of logic, one I could not see. Your operating system analogy works well at this point. Some people would argue that philosophy would be able to serve as a neutral 'conversion software' between the two systems, but I disagree. It does not reach deeply enough.


What I think you can hope to do is plant seeds that await such moments of conversion. Until then, I think the theological arguments on this point are going to continue to be less than satisfying for all parties. 


Happy planting. :)



BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@jeffinanutshell So glad you are in the conversation! Here are some responses.


- My Operating System analogy is my opinion. Clayton's response used a spectrum.  I am just trying to say that Process is not a add-on to classic theism, it is a challenge. 


- You might be over-thinking this a bit.  With all due respect, your approach to 'uniqueness' seems like a moving target (or maybe you are saying that it is).  

My point is that the process God is unique IN the universe and distinct (not contained BY it). That should satisfy the question. 


- Now if someone comes back and says "Yes but the classic God is MORE distinct - ultimately distinct." we would then be talking about degrees. But technically the process view of God qualifies.  


- Keep in mind that I am newly conversant with Process thought. I grew up with and went to school under the 3-Omni 2-Im classic view of God. I am originally ordained in an Evangelical denomination. I am not unfamiliar with the conservative-fundamentalist-evangelical or charismatic concerns about Process.  It's not like I am a dreamy-eyed liberal raised mainline who doesn't know why people just can't get it ;)  


please write back.  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@Patrick Frownfelter @BoSanders Here is a message that youth can hear and embrace :)


Being like Jesus - following Jesus - doesn't mean walking on water and multiplying bread and fish. You wont do what Jesus did, God already accomplished that in Jesus. 

No - being like Jesus is being open & available to be used by God and available to God's presence like Jesus was. 


The difference is in degree not type. 

_________________


What makes Jesus unique is that (according to Cobb) Jesus' identity was uniquely comprised by his relatedness. 


have fun :) 

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