4 Attempts at Approaching God

Over Christmas my brother-in-law, who is a fellow pastor, wanted to have a conversation about approaches to God – specifically as it related to epistemology.

Although we both went to the same Bible college more then 20 years ago, our paths have headed in different directions and our hope was to compare notes and see where some common ground might be found for future conversations about ministry and christian spirituality.

 I thought it would be fun to throw out my initial schematic here and ask for some help in refining / overhauling it. 

I started with 4 basic historic approaches and then added a layer where each of the 4 approaches had 2 directions. Each approach has the possibility of starting with the notion of ‘god’ and then working out to the concept or starting with the concept and working toward the notion of god.


 4 Approaches pic

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    Ethics has been a popular approach in the past. It is not as popular after the events of the 20th century (WWII, global pluralism and post-modern theory being 3 reasons why).

The problem here seems to be that starting with ‘god’ does not inherently result in clear ethics. In fact, those who have attempted to take the ethics approach often run into the problem that the two don’t necessarily equate. It is obvious that those who believe in ‘god’ are not more ethical than those who don’t believe in that same god or any god for that matter.

To make matters worse, starting with ethics (the outside-in direction) has a tough time getting all the way to ‘god’ by trying to equate ethics with evidence that there is a god. While you can see that the ethics and belief in god may have some overlap, it is not the most efficient of effective approach and thus it has fallen out of favor.

  • Revelation is a tried-and-true approach historically. Protestants of almost every stripe love this approach. From fundamentalist to thoughtful Barthians and even the Radical Orthodox crowd feast on a steady diet of the revelation approach.

That God reveals god’s-self in creation, in history, in scripture and in experience is a staple of the christian religion. The problem is that there is often a gap. If you start with what is revealed you might not make it all the way to God… and likewise, if you start with God it can be tough to make it all the way out to what is revealed. The problems come in things like Biblical (historic) criticism, modern science and the pesky pluralism of the post-colonial era.

  • Reductive approaches are perhaps the post problematic. We are haunted in late modernity by this shadow of foundationalism. As we are all aware, the scientific reductionism of the New Atheists is just the flip-side of the coin from fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell. If you start out there, you never make it in to God. If you start with God, you never make it all the way out there.

This approach has left us with a nasty enlightenment hangover and many (if not most) people are weary of the contentious and often combative result of this attempt of making your way in the world.

  • Linguistic approaches (I include the hermeneutical crowd in this) seem to me the most promising in the 21st century. The problem, however, is that they can often be so different from classic or historic approaches that the uninitiated have a difficult time even recognizing them as the same christianity one is trying to engage.

Take for instance the much debated sentences of Jack Caputo. What does it even mean that God does not exist but that God insists? Is god just a concept of our highest good? And how does one fend off the Feuerbach critique that religion is nothing more than a human projection by talking about ‘language games’?

Does god ontologically exist or not? Is the linguistic approach just a fancy way of skirting the question of metaphysics? Most importantly, for the epistemology question that we were originally attempting to get setup, how do you even more forward if linguistics/hermeneutics are your preferred entry point?

So that is my “4 Approaches – 2 Directions” schematic. It lead to a fruitful conversation even while it clearly needed some adjustments.

I would welcome your thoughts, questions, concerns, revisions, suggestions and innovations. 

p.s. I’m going to start linking to the Kindle version of Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms at the bottom every post. It is only $5 and it is so helpful new readers of this blog.

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A Newbie Response to Roger Olson

Roger Olson blogged about why he is not a Process Theologian.  Since I am a newbie to Process Thought, I thought it would be fun to respond to the post point-by-point.  My responses are in bold.

In the days to come, people who do this for a living (instead of a hobby) will respond more deeply and more accurately than I have here. 

 

First … let me say that many, many people I know who think they believe in process theology really don’t. Like many theological labels and categories, over time, “process theology” has been stretched to cover much, much more than it originally covered. Many people who claim to believe in it simply don’t know what it is, historically-theologically, or what it entails logically.

I am up for the challenge. I might be who you are talking about. Let’s see how this goes. 

When I talk about “process theology” I mean the type of (so-called) Christian theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (sometimes as modified by Charles Hartshorne) and expressed above all, prototypically, by John Cobb, David Griffin, Norman Pittenger, Delwin Brown, et al.

Good so far – that is what I thought it was.  

In other words, “process theology” is not just any relational theology. It is a type of relational theology, but not the only one. And, I would add, not the best one. (For example, Jürgen Moltmann’s is a relational theology and, in my opinion, much better than process theology.)

Sure. We know plenty of people who prefer Moltmann or the Open Theology of someone like Greg Boyd. No worries there. 

Many people have taken a course that included a little process theology or have read a book by a process thinker or just heard about process theology and jumped on the bandwagon without really knowing all that it involves. So—just because you call yourself “process” doesn’t mean you are.

Agreed. We try to say this all the time. Of course we say from a purist sort of qualification and you mean as as dis-qualification – but so far so good. 

So what are the essentials of process theology? My description will be of an “ideal type” based on the consensus of the most noted and influential process theologians (some of whom are mentioned above).

Let’s do this! 

First, process theology assumes that to be is to be in relation. It is a relational, organic worldview.

Yep. In fact, I would ask, “what was the other option?” 

Second, process theology avers that God is not an exception to basic ontological rules but is their chief exemplification.

This is a major distinction and one that I find very attractive. But you are right – it is a significant departure. This is why I talk about Process Thought as a not just a new program to download but a new operating system that reformats ones’ theological hard-drive.

Third, process theology asserts that omnipotence is a theological mistake; God is not and cannot be omnipotent. God’s only power is the power of influence (persuasion).

Right. The nature of God’s power is not coercive but persuasive. God’s power is not unilateral but seductive.  No problem so far. Hand_ofGod2

Fourth, process theology is a form of theistic naturalism; it does not have room for the supernatural or for divine interventions (miracles).

Umm … yes and no. This is true to the degree that the super-natural is based in a pathetically antiquated metaphysics and a three-tiered universe. But ‘no’ in the sense that there is room for the miraculous – especially as testified to in the Gospel accounts. So we are 4 in and we start to get a little shaky. 

Fifth, process theology denies creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, and affirms classical panentheism—God and the world are mutually interdependent. There is a sense in which God is dependent on the world (beyond self-limitation).

Ya – read the two creation accounts in Genesis. There is no creation ex nihilo. Read church history. No Jewish person, including Jesus,  would have believed ex nihilo until two centuries after Christ. It is a greco-roman reading imported and imposed on the Jewish text. 

Sixth, process theology refers to God as “dipolar”—having two “poles” or “natures”—one primordial and one consequent. God’s primordial pole is potential only and consists of ideals. God’s consequent pole is actual and consists of God’s experience. The world contributes experience to God. God has no primordial experience. (Theologian Austin Farrer referred to this as process theology’s lack of “prior actuality in God.”)

Right. And doesn’t a classic Trinitarian understanding speak of the immanent and the economic Trinity? Am I wrong on this? If I am someone will tell me … 

Seventh, process theology regards God as radically temporal; God learns as history unfolds and how history unfolds is ultimately up to creatures (actual occasions). (“God proposes but man disposes.”)

Umm … isn’t there evidence of this in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments? I mean, it’s not completely unprecedented. I mean, you can go the Openess route and say that it is a ‘self-limitation’ or you can go the Process route and say that it just the way it is (God’s nature / the nature of reality).  

Eighth, process theology reduces God’s creative activity to bringing about order and harmony insofar as possible. God is not the actual creator of the world or any actual occasion (the basic building blocks of reality). God can only create, however, with creaturely cooperation.

Right – the interventionist notion of God is shed. This will become important as we move through the 20th century (let alone the 21st). 

Ninth, process theology views Jesus Christ as different in degree but not in kind from other creatures. His “divinity” consists of his embodying the self-expressive activity of God (“Logos”) which is “creative transformation.” He is not God incarnate in any absolutely unique sense that no other creature could be.

Ugh. This is overstated. I would venture to say that the last sentence is not well represented. If one listens to the latest Barrel Aged Podcast with John Cobb on Advent, you will hear a more nuanced and ‘orthodox’ presentation of this concept of incarnation. Jesus IS unique. 

I   would go as far as to say that Olsen gets this one wrong. 

Tenth, process theology denies any guaranteed ultimate victory of God or good over evil. The future is “more of the same” so far as we know. Ultimately, that is up to us, not God. God always does God’s best, but he cannot guarantee anything.

Half Right. Is the future guaranteed? No. It is 100% up to us? No – there is still a God in the universe. Does God work with us to bring about a preferable set of possibilities and open up options yet unseen? Yes. 

Now, if that is an accurate brief summary of the essential points of process theology, which I believe it is (allowing that there are people who call themselves “process” who may disagree with one or two points and who may add to it something others would not), here is why I think it is not a form of Christian theology.

I would give it a 90% – but let’s see where this goes. 

First, process theology’s ultimate authority for belief is not divine revelation but philosophy and, in particular, Whitehead’s organic metaphysic (sometimes as altered by Hartshorne). That becomes the “Procrustean bed” on which revelation must fit. It is not merely influenced by or integrated with that philosophy; that philosophy is its very soul and foundation.

Dr. Olson, you have to know that all of Christian theology is both in concert with and based on some set of philosophical frameworks. That is part & parcel of every theological project through the centuries. Process’ explicit reliance on this is not a disqualifying admittance. In fact, it is better than the implicit nature of other historical expressions. 

Second, process theology’s Jesus Christ is not God and Savior in any recognizable sense. Its Christology tends to be either adoptionistic or Nestorian (as in the case of Norman Pittenger).

What?  Oh my. Really? Oh no. We are going to have to do a TNT on this one.  The beauty of  ‘christology from below’ the subtle way that Cobb does it in the pod on Advent is masterful. 

Third, process theology has very little, if any, room for the Trinity. Attempts by process theologians to include the Trinity in their theology have been weak and mostly modalistic. (Catholic process theologian Joseph Bracken has attempted to develop a trinitarian process theology, but I’m not convinced it works.)

Now you are swinging wildly. Would you say this about the parichoretic view? 

Fourth, process theology denies miracles including the bodily resurrection/empty tomb of Jesus Christ.

Not exactly. 

Fifth, process theology constitutes radical accommodation to secular modernity.

Because Evangelicalism has made no accommodation to modernity or changed anything since the Apostles?

Sixth, process theology denies the efficacy of petitionary prayer.

There is no interventionist God in Process. 

Seventh, process theology has no realistic eschatology.

Realistic? Did you mean that? Did you mean ‘real’? Otherwise you will have to show me a ‘realistic’ one. 

Eighth, process theology makes God dependent on the world and not as a matter of voluntary self-limitation (as in the case of Moltmann, for example).

God’s nature versus decision –  a slight distinction. Certainly doesn’t need to be a matter of disqualification.  

Ninth, process theology reduces salvation to actualization of God’s “initial aim” and thereby falls into a kind of Pelagianism (except that for most process theologians everyone is or will be “saved” in the traditional sense of reconciled with God).

Now this is an interesting point – one worth fleshing out in throwdown. Having said that, I hope you are prepared to have your view of salvation scrutinized. 

Tenth, process theology is so esoteric as to be impossible for most people to understand. It uses conventional Christian language but means something so different that only people steeped in process philosophy could possibly guess at its meaning. The meanings bear little resemblance, if any, to orthodox Christianity.

Oh come on! Is that a real accusation? You just said esoteric. Big words and new concepts are not a problem. People learn new words all time: “I’ll have a venti Caffè macchiato barista”. 

Added:  This happens when people join denominations of change expression of church.  You can not become Lutheran, Episcopal, Wesleyan, Methodist, Catholic, charismatic, Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox , non-denominational  any other from without learning new words.

Sanctification, liturgy, vestry, sacrament, diocese, cruciform, stole, christen, laity … it just goes on and on.

SO the learning of  new words and concept thing is not a big deal. We do the same thing when we go seminary: soteriology, annotation, attribution, attestation, primary source, ontology, Turabian.

None of that is prohibitive. People do this all time when it A) benefits them (barista) and B) they enjoy it/ feel it is necessary.

If you talk to someone in the military, medical or legal fields … it is ubiquitous – then it come to religion and ‘Oh NOO! the average person in the pew has to understand EVERYthing  immediately’.   Why is that?

Is there anything redeemable in process theology? Not that I cannot find elsewhere.

Nothing redeemable? Is that a play on words because of the salvation thing earlier? 

Why is process theology so popular? I think it’s because it seems to solve the theodicy question. If process theology is true, there is no theodicy question. Evil exists because God is not omnipotent and creatures, having free will and some degree of self-centeredness, often resist God’s initial aim for them. I’m not sure that begins to explain evils such as the holocaust.

  1. It’s popular?  Nice. 
  2. You are right about the theodicy question. 

But process theology solves the theodicy issue at too high a cost. The God of process theology is hardly worshipful. In order to be worshipful God must be both great and good (but not one at the expense of the other). The God of process theology is not great enough to be worshipful. He/she/it is great enough to be admirable but not worshipful.

No. Wrong.  You sound like the person who says “Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th? Christmas isn’t even worth celebrating!”  Just because it isn’t the way you were taught it or previously understood it – doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. You should walk in the woods or come to church with me sometime.

A better solution to the theodicy issue may be found in God’s self-limitation in creation. This is the alternative presented by Moltmann, among others. I highly recommend Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame? for those attracted to process theology but wanting a more orthodox alternative. (For those who object that Boyd is an open theist, this particular book does not depend on that.)

This should get interesting. 

 
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Constructivist or Critical Theorist (part 2 of 3)

Yesterday I admitted to social construction being my philosophical orientation within my chosen field of Practical Theology (PT). A constructivist view is important in (at least) two ways:

  1. It is an admission that we are all subjects of a constructed reality who are both actors and those who are acted upon within a larger structure of expectations, attitudes and behaviors that we have a) inherited b) been formed by and c) reinforced by our actions and participation.
  2. It is an acknowledgement that no one is a object to be studied nor are we objective – but that we are all subject who are acted upon and who act in accordance to our position within the given structures and our possibilities given our location within that greater culture.

Admittedly, this is not an easy position to take. It is a commitment. One must commit to exploring the world this way philosophically, experientially and intellectually.Boy at Cockflight_3

Here are 3 ways that this commitment plays out: 

Last week we released another installment of Mimetic theory (an early blog is here – another pod is to come this Fall). Girard and those who follow his line of reasoning say that we humans, even as babies, learn what to desire my mimicking (thus mimetic) those who care for us. We learn even what to desire (like what foods) by imitating them. Think of this as the outer edge of the ‘learned behavior’ line of reasoning.

Social Construction says that we are not individuals first. There is no access to a  pre-social self. We are formed, groomed and socialized into our families, tribes, societies and cultures and the we occupy and possess within that larger structure a place as subject. This subjective position means that we are actors – but not before we are acted upon. We are not objective in our perspective nor are we simply objects of study. We are subjects who have been subjected.

If you have read the above 2 paragraphs you will see why I put up such a stink this Summer about my approach not being ‘liberal’. I do not believe in the autonomous, selective nor the pre-institutional self. I am a social constructivist who believes that we are socialized, groomed and conditioned from day 1.  (more on this tomorrow)

 

This next section in admittedly technical but I think that is a fascinating snapshot of a larger landscape. 

I read an amazing article by Lynn Schofield Clark about the incremental difference between Critical Theory and Constructivism as it relates to qualitative research (which is what PT does). Critical Theory is something that I am very interested in employing in my research and that is why Clark’s clarification about how it impacts research is so important.

Both ‘crtitcal’ and ‘constructivist’ approaches desire to “confront injustices in society”. They also both recognize the limitations of people’s opportunities and imaginations for changing unjust social systems due to due the inherent constraints of being a subject within that very system.

Both approaches have an achilles’ heel. Critical theory has to try and get away from it’s Marxist origin which can overly reductive and materially deterministic. Constructivism (which is more humanistic) can be limited by attempting to validate its findings with claims inherited from the natural sciences. Critical researches are not concerned with seeking validation from the sciences because they are working more on the meta-theoretical.

While both approaches share a large amount of overlap, one glaring concern about Critical researches is:

 its tendency toward elitism. With its proponents’ commitment to the idea that research can bring about a better and more equitable world, critics charge that critical theorists tend to assume that they are not only more capable of analyzing a situation than most; they are better equipped to offer a proscriptive plan of action…

Further, critics charge that critical theorists can be unwilling to listen to the experiences of those most adversely effected by current policies and the status quo, as they tend to focus their analyses on persons and institutions in positions of power and authority. This, critics note, causes critical theorists to be out of touch with the very persons they purport to be most interested in helping.

This concern has given me pause to consider my approach.

The last thing I wanted to pass on is a great line from the Clark article about validity:

The research is valid to the extent that the analysis provides insight into the systems of oppression and domination that limit human freedoms, and on a secondary level, in its usefulness in countering such systems.

 

Tomorrow I want to talk about “when good isn’t enough” and why my post-colonial concern propels me beyond the liberal label.

 

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I’m Into Practical Theology (part 1 of 3)

Philosophy is a hobby for me. I blog about it here a lot because I really enjoy the dialogue and I learn tons in the exchange of ideas. I have had to cut back on blogging as I am now preparing for my qualifying exams.  While I am getting a PhD in Practical Theology,  the inescapable fact is that the ‘Ph’ in PhD is philosophy.church-300x199

I often hear the old line that ‘we can’t believe our way into new ways of acting - but that we act our way into new ways of believing’. While I understand the direction behind the challenge, I am suspicious of it’s accuracy for two reasons:

  1. I have been deeply impacted by my studies and this has led to my behaving differently.
  2. I fundamentally object to the binary of belief and action as if they are two different things.

Believing something is an activity and we actively believe something. My mentor, Randy Woodley, is fond of saying ‘you don’t have to tell me what you believe. I know exactly what you believe – I can see it in what you do’. He says this in reference to a Native elder watching the perennial arrival of white missionaries come to the reservation.

I’m afraid that even my earnest desire to be what Donald Schon calls a ‘reflective practitioner’ betrays an underlying binary.

In my Master’s thesis on contextual theology – in a section highlighting the work of Paulo Freire – I wrested with this tension.

More than the believing of propositional truth, the praxis model invites encounters of “doing the truth” quoting Gustavo Gutierrez as saying “contemplation and practice together make up a first act; theologizing is a second act”.

This expectation both comes from and puts forward an understanding of epistemology that is significantly different than theoretical or speculative theologies.  It challenges theologies that are too general and assumed to be universal by questioning the very nature of knowing. Truth is not out there to be brought in; the truth is in here to be brought out.

That is how I got into Practical Theology. 

Rarely a day goes by without someone I meet, even check-out clerks at the grocery store, joking with me that theology isn’t practical.  I must have heard that 500 times in the past 5 years.

I don’t blame people for the misunderstanding. The field might better be called ‘the practice of theology’.  The truth is that the field of PT has changed radically in the past 30 years (more on this tomorrow). It used to be attached to things like homiletics (the art of preaching) or liturgy or pastoral counseling. It is no longer a ‘how to’ kind of field.

PT is really more sociology done with a theological lens – we use qualitative methods (vs. quantitative methods like statistics) to access ground level experiences and practices. Philosopher-types would  lump it in to phenomenology. The main focus of PT is to examine how a given issue of study is actually lived out in real contexts (locations and congregations). We use interviews, case studies, ethnographies and other qualitative methods to do our research.

Here is where the philosophy stuff comes in! When doing PT you must locate your particular approach within 4 generally recognizable categories. The  4 Philosophical Orientations are:

  • Postpositivism
  • Constructivism
  • Advocacy/Participation
  • Pragmatism

Postpositivism is mostly for those who want to report their qualitative findings in more quantitative terms (like for medical studies where stats are valued).

Constructivism is my orientation. It focuses on social and historical constructions and allows one to formulate critical theories about underlying issues.

Advocacy/Participation is the favorite of feminist approaches (among others) because it a) actually advocates for tangible change and b) it ensures that the group being studies is not exploited for the researches privilege.

Pragmatism is an approach that is problem-centered and is more willing to utilize different methods depending on the desired outcome of the research.

 

I hope you see now why I am into Practical Theology. I thought it would be good to introduce the HBC crowd to the discipline for 3 simple reasons:

  1. my blog style and topic selection is going to have to shift slightly as I prepare for these qualifying exams.
  2. Callid has begun his PhD in PT at Boston. So 2 out of the 3 theology nerds are in PT (and Micky Jones may be soon to follow). That is a lot of practical theology.
  3. Callid and I were talking and it dawned on us that even our friends don’t really know what it is that we do.

Over the next two days I want to build a bridge to what I will be doing and clarify a couple of things that are still left over from this eventful Summer.

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Emergence, Panenthesim, Science & Process Theology with Joseph Bracken S.J.

Bracken_JosephJesuit Philosopher and Theologian Joseph Bracken is our guest this week on the podcast.  He recently retired from Xavier University & was honored with an amazing tribute – Seeking Common Ground – which includes articles from John Cobb, Catherine Keller, and more.  In this episode we take a tour through Bracken’s influential career working toward common ground between religion & science, Aquinas & Whitehead, and Religious Pluralism.  I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading and talking with Father Joe.  Off the mic he is one of the most amazing nerds I have met & in conversation he has a quick & sensitive intellect.

On top of all the nerdiness you even get to hear a little inside Jesuit scoop about the new Pope Francis I.

Check out Bracken’s previous visits to the podcast where we talk Trinity & Process and then my favorite – Christology!  I am sure you are headed to Amazon to get a Bracken book.

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TNT: Quaker Cast with Callid Keefe-Perry

Welcome the newest Theology Nerd to the Homebrewed Team! Callid Keefe-Perry is a long-time friend of the podcast and a self-identified Hyper-Theist.

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He is famous for his The Image of Fish blog and one of the ring-leaders of the Theopoetics working group at AAR.

Bo and Callid take a tour of Quaker history, the theological Anabaptist landscape, what the deal is with “Communal Discernment,” and whether or not Rob Bell is doing something bad by not having it.
They also wax poetic about why Practical Theology is the discipline that both he and Bo find a home in with the Academy.

 

You can hear Callid’s earlier appearance on the podcast from last year’s Wild Goose East Festival.

 

More stuff from Callid about Friends is over at the Jewels of Quakerism Project.

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The New Materialism with Jeffrey Robbins

Brace yourself!    Jeffrey Robbins is all about the New Materialism and he is going to knock your socks off! ContentImage-63-220729-ContentImage63163974CrockettRobbins2

Tripp gets to chat with the co-author of the book “Religion, Politics and the Earth” (along with pod favorite Clayton Crockett) that is making its way around the inter-webs in preparation for the Subverting the Norm Conference – April 5 & 6 in Springfield, Missouri.

We will be linking here to all of the posts from the New Materialism blog-tour.

 

This episode is sponsored by the Subverting the Norm Conference 2 in Springfield Missouri April 5th and 6th. Thanks to both Drury University and Phillips Theological Seminary for sponsoring the conference and making it the most affordable two-day event of the year.

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What Is Integral Philosophy?

 

By Steve McIntosh

Integral philosophy has been receiving a good deal of attention within the progressive Christian community recently. And because I’m both a “progressive follower of Jesus” and an integral philosopher, Tripp Fuller asked me to write a brief blog post on the subject to accompany the podcast discussion between he and I that will appear on the Home Brewed Christianity website. So what follows is a simplified description of the emerging integral perspective as I understand it.

Integral philosophy is a spiritual philosophy of evolution that emphasizes the evolution of consciousness and culture as a central factor in the process of evolution overall. Integral philosophy itself has evolved over the last century through the work of Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ken Wilber, and others. This philosophy also draws on the discoveries of developmental psychology and other social sciences, and it has been influenced by related forms of social philosophy, such as the widely respected work of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Although these founders of integral philosophy differ on many points, they have all recognized that a greater understanding of consciousness is the key to a more complete conception of reality.Palouse2TreeSunsetFusion2_2

While the concept of consciousness is easier to illustrate than define, a common sense definition of human consciousness includes a person’s thoughts, feelings, intentions, values, memories, and sense of self. Consciousness can be understood as the inside of human experience, what it is like to be and know ourselves; and this sentient personality, this original identity, is also the unique subjective presence through which others know us.

What makes integral philosophy compelling and important is its demonstration of the connection between the personal development of each person’s values and character, and the larger development of human history overall. Through its insights into the evolution of consciousness and culture, integral philosophy offers realistic and pragmatic solutions to the growing global problems that are increasingly threatening human civilization. That is, from the perspective of this philosophy, every problem in the world can be understood, at least partially, as a problem of consciousness. So it follows that the solutions to seemingly intractable problems, such as environmental degradation and climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism, hunger and overpopulation, unregulated globalization and gross inequality, can all be effectively ameliorated by raising or changing the consciousness that is continuing to create (or failing to prevent) these problems.

Human consciousness can evolve in a wide variety of ways. It can be raised or evolved by increasing empathy and compassion, by cultivating knowledge, understanding and forgiveness, and by building political will and the determination to achieve social and environmental justice. Consciousness can also be raised by enlarging people’s estimates of their own self-interest, by expanding their notions of what constitutes “the good life,” and by persuading them to appreciate new forms of beauty and truth. The developed world’s relatively recent acceptance of women as the social equals of men provides a good example of how the human condition can be improved through the evolution of consciousness.

According to integral philosophy, however, the evolution of consciousness is largely dependent on the evolution of human culture. When humans evolve their culture through new agreements or new forms of organization, this results in a corresponding growth in human consciousness. Through the “network effect” of cultural transmission, when one person has a conceptual breakthrough or new realization, this advance can be shared with others. And as new discoveries or new skills are adopted within a larger cultural context, such advances become refined and reinforced. Consciousness and culture—the individual and the group—thus co-evolve together.

This understanding of the co-evolution of consciousness and culture leads to another central tenet of integral philosophy, which recognizes the sequential emergence of values-based stages of human cultural development. That is, integral philosophy’s view of cultural evolution sees history as unfolding according to a clearly identifiable developmental logic or cross-cultural pattern that influences the growth of human society. This developmental logic need not be construed as a “deterministic law of history,” or as implying a strictly unidirectional course of cultural development, but it does reveal a recurring theme in humanity’s narrative story. The unfolding of this theme or pattern results in a dialectical structure of conflict and resolution, which is created by the interaction of specific worldview stages or levels of historical development.

Integral philosophy’s insights into the evolution of consciousness and culture may be of particular interest to progressive Christians because of the light this new perspective sheds on the unique historical challenges now faced by Christianity. Tripp and I begin to unpack the relevance of integral thinking for progressive Christianity in the podcast that will accompany this blog (in the next 2 weeks), and I hope we will be able to continue our discussion in the time ahead.

 

STEVE MCINTOSH J.D. is a leader in the integral philosophy movement and author of the new book, Evolution’s Purpose, as well as the acclaimed 2007 book, Integral Consciousness. He is also a co-founder of the new think tank: The Institute for Cultural Evolution. In addition to the think tank and his work in philosophy, McIntosh has had a variety of other successful careers, including founding the consumer products company Now & Zen, practicing law with one of America’s largest firms, working as an executive with Celestial Seasonings Tea Company, and Olympic-class bicycle racing. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School and the University of Southern California Business School, and now lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife and two sons. For more on his work, visit: www.stevemcintosh.com

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Our Theology Starts 100 Years Ago: an experiment

I want to throw something out and see if it has legs. I will be playing a character today – feel free to play along! 

My great-grandmother was born into a world that no longer exists in many ways.

I’m preparing a presentation for the Subverting the Norm Conference. I have been reviewing a book called Modern Christian Thought and I am haunted by the reality that there is something significant about the late 19th and early 20th. One-Room Schoolhouse

The world changed 100 years ago. The changes weren’t just technological and societal. The changes were in areas that deeply impact the realms of belief and the way that we live out faith in community.

As a constructive theologian who is getting ready to present to a group of radical theologians, I keep circling around this idea:

 

The way that we think about theology and engage our faith has been fundamentally altered in the last 100 years.  

I am tempted to say that we would be far better off if we just started theology at the turn of the 20th century.  In some ways, the way that we all approach the christian faith begins about 100 years ago.

  • Radio was becoming a technology for mass communication. Somewhere between 1909 and 1920 the medium emerged. 1920 sees the first public stations.
  • TV didn’t exist yet.
  •  Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.
  • 100 years ago – World War 1 had not started.
  • The Great Depression is almost 2 decades away. That is important because it wrecked 2 things that ruled up until that point in the American psyche: 1) the myth of perpetual growth & prosperity 2) the illusion of independence and not be inter-connected with other nations.
  • The 1906 Pentecostal Revival at Azusa Street was on the move.
  • 100 years the large of majority of American churches were preaching ‘post-millennial’ theology: that we would usher in the kingdom of God through societal improvement. 100 years later almost no one believes that.
  • In 1914 Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic and was arrested. A decade later she would do it again with success since venereal disease had become a reality for soldiers in WWI. By the 1930s legal victories would make contraception normative.
  • 1903 the Wright brother famously took flight. 1909 air travel began to go commercial.
  • 100 years ago the psychology of Sigmund Freud was starting to be popularized.
  • Movies were still a few years away.
  • Vatican II, Nuclear War, and the Internet were not even shadows to be hinted at – and those three have perhaps impacted the greatest number of humans as anything else on the list.

One Downside: 

In fact, there is only reason that I am hesitant to say that we would be far better off to just start theology at the turn of the 20th century. The reason for my hesitation is that matters of racism and the colonial legacy might be lost.

I would argue, however, that these concerns are accounted for in my 100 Year proposal because the implications of African slavery, First Nations genocide, and other historic legacies are so deeply embedded in the current structures that they show up continuously. *

Huge Upside:

It seems to me that those who are most into things from the 13th century (Aquinas) or 16th century (Calvin) or even the 19th (revivalism and holiness) are most prone to the ‘silo mentality’ that has then focused on ‘in house’ matters to the apparent neglect of the culture around them. I know that it is dangerous (and ill-advised) to paint with such a broad stroke but …

There is something self-satisfying when we get fascinated with a historical expression that tends to pull one into a more … I don’t know how to say it … internal place?

It’s not a lot different than when people get really into quilting, or tying flies, or video games. That becomes their big things, takes much of their thought energy and time. But in the end … it is just another thing. Like collecting Precious Moments figurines – it’s not harmful – it’s just not worthy to be the thing.   Like a kid so enthralled with playing in the sandbox being totally oblivious to world around.

It doesn’t pass the ‘so what’ test.

Conclusion:

Because the gospel is about incarnation, we are supposed to be the body of christ fully embodied in our time and place. That is how I read it.  So much has changed over the past 100 years that to not put all our energy into the world in which we live is the equivalent of  – at best fantasizing/day dreaming … and at worst to live in denial and prefer the fantasy.

I am growing suspicious that it is that stark.
The consequences are that dire.
The realities of our century are that severe.

It is why I’m growing suspicious that Radical Political Theology may be far more faithful an endeavor than attempts to recover a romanticized notion of something lost.

I don’t want to talk about Aristotle and neo-Platonism one more time. I don’t care about the Greek polis. It doesn’t matter how pre-moderns conceived of substance and essence. I don’t care how the Reformers argued about communion and baptism. It’s time to move on.

 

* There is no greater danger in them being lost anymore than they are now, nor is there much progress being made by our current approach which is white-washed simply by ‘look, I didn’t own any slaves and I didn’t steal any land – that has nothing to do with me.’ So I’m not sure how much the 17th 18th and 19th century are really helping us in matters of justice. 

 

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5 Biggest Changes for Pastors in the Last 50 Years

I’m preparing to facilitate a conversation with some colleagues in the new year about ministry and honoring tradition. I want to begin – and thus frame – the conversation with the changing culture that we are products of, interact with and attempt to minister to.

It is a different way to approach the topic of tradition, admittedly, but my thought is that we start where we are and then trace threads into the past to uncover their significance. I almost always find it unhelpful to start in the past – say at the Protest Reformation – and then slowly work our way up. It is simply too limiting (in scope) and cumbersome (in process) for the contemporary expectations of ministry.

I have been reading a little Gordon Kaufman. He has me thinking about the ‘nuclear age’ and how deeply that shift, from the end of WWII, has impacted us sociologically, psychologically, and spiritually. I take this as my launching off point.

 So here are my Big 5 – in no particular order. I wanted to throw them out here and see what others who are older, or wiser, or more insightful might add to the list or modify.

 Pervasive Pop Psychology  - My dad tells a story about interviewing retired pastors 30 years ago. He asked them when things seemed to change. All of them, without exception, pointed to the window from 1968-1970. They talked about Woodstock, Vietnam, and Nixon among other things.

Many of them also talked about people’s awareness and pop psychology. I will always remember the story of a son who came home from college to visit his folks on the farm. He tried to talk to his dad about his feelings, motivations, childhood memories, his subconscious, etc.  His dad responded, ‘Son, what the hell are going on about?’ He just had no frame of reference for it. Similar stories were repeated, in differing configurations, over and over by  the ministers.

Pop psychology has permeated every facet of society. From Oprah on daytime TV to Self-Help books – it impacts what people expect from a pastor and what they want from things like premarital counseling.
In my first 10 years of ministry, I often said that I would have more prepared for the actual way I spent my week if I had gotten a degree in psychology  rather than in Bible.

Biblical Scholarship - speaking of the Bible, I am shocked as to how much different those conversations go than they did 20 years ago when I was trained in Apologetics/Evangelism.  Between the Jesus Seminar, the Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman popularizing the stuff many pastors knew from seminary but were not allowed to say in the pulpit, it is a very different playing field.

It is an odd split: people often know little of the Bible – because they know so much stuff about the Bible. We can’t assume even a Sunday School understanding or a surface devotional reading. But at the same time, the culture wide awareness of critical Biblical scholarship is shocking. That was not true 50 years ago.

The Internet - The Internet changes everything. From the way people spend time to the way that they shop for a church. Facebook has changed how people connect to each other. Google has changed the way people access information. It is impossible to overstate how big of an impact the Internet has had on Western society. If you are still doing church the way you did 50 years ago – and think that it will have the same effect – you are fooling yourself. You may have the same seed, but the soil itself has changed. It will not grow the same crop or produce the same fruit.

Two little examples: When kids who grew up in your church come home from college and sit in on Sunday school (for example). They will assume that they get to share their opinion. They don’t sit quietly and honor the elders by talking last. They will raise their hands and talk first. Is it that they are over empowered? No. It is that they assume that they get to help shape the discussion and their opinion is valid. They don’t sit quietly and try to get up to speed or catch up on what they have missed.

  • This is the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  A church website is 1.0 – the staff puts out the information that it wants people to see. You read it like a newspaper. It is not interactive. Facebook is 2.0 – it creates the environment but does not generate the content. Young people live in 2.0

Doug Paggitt talks of ‘the pastor as Google’. I love this. People don’t go to Google for Google. It is not a destination. It helps people get to their destination. If it does this well, people trust Google and go it often. Pastor used to be like encyclopedias. They were a resource, a destination for information. Now, the pastor’s office is not a destination, the art of pastoring is help people find theirs. If we do that well, they trust us and come back the next time they need direction.

Pastor as encyclopedia is a repository of information. Pastor as Google is a resource that knows how to find the information.

24 Hour News & Christian Media -  Cable news and Christian radio probably have a bigger impact on the people who fill the pews that any pastor can be expected to have in a 30 minute sermon once a week.  There is no other way to say it, the narrative that is being put out on media outlets like Fox News (Clash of Civilizations) or Christian Radio (the 6 Line Narrative) is so pervasive and so monolithic that it can feel as if your parishioners are being pastored far more by their TV and car radio that you will ever be able to.

This is also part of why our country and culture have become so:

  1. polarized
  2. adversarial

I am horrified by this trend more than all the others combined. I think that it hurts the heart of God and I know that it hurts our Christian witness.

Fractured Globalism  and PostModernity - People have great troubles conceptualizing and articulating how fractured, dislocated, overwhelmed and powerless they feel in the global marketplace. Things are not simple now. Things have never been more complex and overwhelming. Look at the food on your table? Do you know where it comes from? Think about your Thanksgiving dinner last week and imagine how many miles and from how many countries those ingredients were trucked to end up on your table. You might be shocked.

Think about your car. Was it all made and assembled at the same plant? Or even in the same country. The automotive industry was fairly straight forward 50 years ago. Now it is an example of inter-national, multi-corporation conglomerates. We have been de-centered, and people feel it. The way we conceptualize ourselves, our connection to family, the way we picture the world working, the universe and thus God. The best book I have read on the subject is “Identity, Culture, and the Postmodern World” by Madan Sarup.

The PostModern Turn - speaking of PostModern, this may be the biggest of the 5 changes. It is funny to me that some christians still want to debate if the category is real just because it can not be succinctly or universally defined (how very modern!)  Look, call it what you want: late-modernity, hyper-modernity, high-modernity, or some other thing – what can not be denied is that something big and deep has shifted. Blame it on the philosophers (Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, etc) if you want. Make up a new name for it if you must. But please stop pretending that what we are looking at is nothing radical or unexpected. Even the ostrich thinks that it is time to pull your head out of the sand!

One interesting reaction, and this applies to denominations, is the counter-modern responses that want to go back to an imagined past and reclaim a romantic pre-shift relationship between the Christian religion and

  • society
  • the economy
  • science
  • other religions

You can see this in counter-modern responses like Radical Orthodoxy (retreating to the hills of Thomism), Post-Liberal thought, Hyper-Calvinism and the Tea-Party in politics. Even if you pastor with an established denomination (and many don’t) you have to contend with these fractious groups that will impact your congregation.

Those are my 5 Big changes for Pastors over the past 50 years. I would love your thoughts!  What would you take out and what would you add?

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