408. transaction theology part 3 — the process/open theism alternative
New Year’s is my favorite holiday of the year. I love the feeling of a new beginning — as if a cosmic reset button just got pushed. I love that it’s a time to take up new decisions. That said, New Year’s Resolutions have never worked for me and I think it’s because taking on a new project/commitment for an entire year is too big of an ask.
This year, I’m going to try something different. Instead of making a new year’s resolution, I’m going to try on monthly resolutions. It feels less daunting and I’m able to scale or change the commitment as needed.
All that to say, my resolution for January is to get back into blogging. And I intend to begin by finishing up a bunch of old multi-part blog post series that I never closed out. They include:
- rethinking sin and salvation (part 1)
- language is fuzzy (part 6) – how do we read the Bible?
- 388 the spiritual lottery (part 2)
I plan to go in reverse cronological order so this week, I’ll be finishing a post I started almost five years ago about the problematic nature of what I called “transaction theology.”
Happy New Year, y’all and to paraphrase one of my favorite songs, “it was a long December but there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”
I began this series talking about something I called transaction theology — the idea that God works in a quid pro quo fashion. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z. This is a dynamic often seen in the way some Christian leaders talk about tithing. If you tithe then God will bring blessing into your life.1
In the next post, I showed how this theology sometimes leads to an unfortunate cycle:
The pastor lives a certain way and begins to see all the good things in their life as a result of this faithful living. And so they teach their congregation that if they will only live the same way that God will bless them as well. And then when they hear congregant stories that fit this pattern, they get to share their testimony or get mentioned in sermon illustrations.
And the people who keep waiting for the blessings keep wondering what’s wrong. They think maybe they’re wrong or that God doesn’t love them or that the church is full of shit. And so they leave. And then back at church, maybe the pastor points to these people who don’t attend anymore as examples of people who were unfaithful and who would never see blessings.
And the fortunate ones nod their heads in agreement while the (still) waiting ones cower in fear, shame, and expectation.
So if transaction theology is unhelpful, if not outright harmful, then what’s the alternative? This question, I think, points to the root question: how is it that God is at work in the world and how do we fit into that?
Thus, the problem with transition theology is that it’s a grossly inadequate response to the question of how God is at work in the world and our part in that. Transaction theology suggests that God is at work in the world as a merchant trading our good actions for good blessings. And if the blessings aren’t coming then something must be wrong with what you’re offering up.
But again, what’s the alternative?
Near the end of my time in grad school, I found something called Process Theology which is a subset of something called Open Theism.2 The basic (and highly controversial) distinction between more traditional theology and open theism has to do with the relationship between God’s omniscience and the future. Open theism agrees that God is omniscient in that God does know all that can be known. However, because the future hasn’t happened yet, it’s not with the realm of what can be known and likewise is something that God cannot know.
In other words, God knows all there is to know about what has happened in the past and knows all there is to know about what’s happening in the present, but as for what lies in the future, that’s outside the realm of God’s knowledge because it hasn’t happened yet. Because the future is open.
This is a radical (some might say heretical) reworking of the idea of God’s omniscience, but it brings with it some real strengths and, of course, some (admittedly significant) weaknesses. And some of these strengths/weaknesses are related.
For example, one of the strengths of this theology is that it gets us around the problem of free will. In traditional understandings of God’s omniscience, God knows everything including the future. And that means God must know each and every action we will take before we make it. But if God knows what we’re going to do when how can we have free will? How can our choices be our own when God knows what they will be?
In contrast, open theism believes that because the future is not something that God knows (because it hasn’t happened yet) so our free will is real. Our choices really are our own and not in any way predetermined.
One of the big problems though is that if God doesn’t know the future, then how can we know that God is moving us towards a better one? How do we know that the loving, just, peaceful, reconciled world that the book of Revelation (and other parts of the Bible) suggests is what God wants for creation will actually come about?
And yeah, that’s a pretty big problem, but again, I point back to the strength of the open theism: our choices matter.
A theology where the future is guaranteed is one that we technically don’t have to participate in. God’s future will happen whether we participate in it or not. We might do our best to make good choices and to live as examples of God’s promised future, but that future would happen even if we didn’t.
But in a theological framework where such a future is not fore-known (and therefore not guaranteed), our choices are of grave consequence. We do our best to live as examples of God’s proposed future because that’s how it comes about. If we don’t participate with God in living out and striving towards God’s future, that’s one less resource that God can use to bring it about. Thus, our role in God’s creation truly maters!
Here’s the thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with this Openness/Process Theology stuff and, as I’ve pointed out, there are lots of troubling aspects to it but also many promising bits. I don’t have the space to unpack all of that here and as I wrote in the preface, there are other hanging blog post series that I want to finish. Writing about God’s omniscience and the promise/problems of open theism is deeply nerdy and, I suspect, uninteresting to most people. And I want to focus my writing on matters that people are actually interested in.
That said, if I’m wrong about people’s interest in this topic, if there are people who are curious about and have questions about open theism, ask in the comments and I’ll respond as best as I can.
Funny thing though. While I do want to move away from nerdy, inside baseball writing, the next blog series I intend to finish is almost as geeky. It’s about the fuzziness of language and the effect that has on how we talk about God.
- Which suggests the idea that if God isn’t bringing blessing into your life then maybe you’re not tithing enough. ↩
- As I understand it, the basic distinction between process theology and open theism has to do with how/why it is that the future is open and unknown to God. Some open theists believe that God can know all, including the future, but God somehow chooses not to know. This is a way of holding on to the traditional notion of omniscience while making room for the openness bit. In contrast, process theology teaches that God isn’t somehow limiting God’s omniscience through will, God simply can’t know the future. ↩