408. transaction theology part 3 — the process/open theism alternative

[PREFACE]

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:

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.”

[END PREFACE]

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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?

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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.

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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!

[POSTSCRIPT]

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.


  1. Which suggests the idea that if God isn’t bringing blessing into your life then maybe you’re not tithing enough.  
  2. 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.  
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388. the spiritual lottery (part 2)

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Photo by: John Carleton

A Brief Review

In the last post, I talked about how when it came to dating, the church taught people that if (subtext: “and only if”) they kept themselves pure then God would bless them with an awesome marriage. Unfortunately,very few relationships happened the way they described it. The stories they shared, the stories that got air time? Those were exceptions that were carefully selected in order to support the narrative they were preaching.

The fact of the matter is:

A 2005 survey of 12,000 adolescents found that those who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage were more likely have oral and anal sex than other teens, less likely to use condoms, and just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases as their unapologetically non-abstinent peers. The study found that 88 percent of those who pledged abstinence admitted to failing to keep their pledge.1

We never got to hear the stories of couples who had sex before they were married and still wound up with thriving, healthy relationships. On the flip side, we never got to hear stories (like mine) of people who had remained pure and ended up losing desire altogether. In fact, for some couples, even after getting married, they still found sex to be problematic because of the desire-denying teachings of purity culture.

And when it came to tithing, we were taught that if we tithed then God would bless.

But we never got to hear the stories of people who stepped out in faith, tithed when they couldn’t afford to, and then wound up going into debt. Those stories never made it into sermon illustrations.

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[Don’t] Ask [Difficult] Questions

It took me a long time to see this pattern, primarily because questioning the obedience/faith/reward narrative meant questioning (their interpretation of) the Bible which meant questioning (their understanding of) God which meant I was a bad Christian (in their eyes). And really, there was no room to question because the only stories that got shared were ones that fit the narrative – those people who did A, B, and C and as a result saw God do X, Y, and Z. We never heard the stories of people who did A, B, and C but didn’t see God doing anything so they kept pressing on to do D, E, and F. And when they talked to their pastor about why God wasn’t showing up, maybe they were encouraged to try G, H, and I (or to go back to A, B, and C only with more gusto and sincerity).

In short, we never heard the stories of people for whom X, Y, and Z never happened – the stories of people (like me) who did all the right things in regards to dating (not lusting, not dating, etc.) and still wound up single, or people who faithfully tithed even when they couldn’t afford to and then wound up bankrupt (financially and spiritually).

And we probably never heard these stories because the people who were living them eventually stopped going to church. Or at best, they never got the chance to share.

The Lottery Cycle

And here’s the most insidious bit. The pastors who preached this formulaic version of Christianity? Many times they were also people for whom the formula had worked, Sometimes the fact that God came through for them was a large part of the reason they chose to become pastors – so they could show people how awesome (their view/understanding of) God was.

Because if it had worked for them so well, why wouldn’t they want to help others to experience the same?

And then this creates 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.

These people? The ones who stay, who remain faithful to the teachings and yet continue to await blessings? I was one of them for far too long. And all these years later, I’ve met with many friends who were also faithful and waiting. Many of them don’t go to church anymore. Some of them don’t believe in God anymore – and why should they? Can you blame them?

Me? To be honest, I think I’d say that I still believe in God, but barely.

And why do I believe? And what sort of God do I believe in, if not this transactional God-machine/lotery?

I’ll get to that in the next post.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you resonate with any of this, I’d love to hear your story in the comments section below.

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Photo by: mendolus shank

387. the spiritual lottery (part 1) – the transaction

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Photo by: Marcin Wichary

Transaction Theology

For a long time, I was confused about something. The pastors and ministers in my life would tell these stories about how because they lived life a certain way, God brought blessings into their lives – like maybe they left a lucrative job to plant a church and at first they were worried but now they’re super stoked about it. And then they would share stories from other people’s lives about how something similar thing happened. These examples were supposed to illustrate a truth from the Bible – that God will make X, Y, and Z happen when Christians do A, B, and C.

Let me give you a concrete example of this. In my earlier years in church, I got a lot of this sort of formulaic theology in regards to dating. I once described their teaching this way:

IF you set aside your filthy, carnal urges; IF you worry less about finding the right person and worry more about being the right person; IF you spend diligent, consistent, considerable time in prayer and study of God’s word THEN (and only then) God will bring an amazing woman into your life. Just like that. Happily ever after.

Of course that sounds ridiculous now, but here’s the thing. At the time, the people who were teaching me this had lived what they preached. They had lived sexually pure lives, they focused on being the right person, and they devoted considerable time to prayer and Bible study. And then, as they put it, God brought someone amazing into their life.

Back then, I was a scrawny, geeky kid who had no idea how to date. I was fascinated by women and desperately wanted a relationship but I had no idea how to approach or talk to them, let alone ask them out. And so here were these Christian leaders talking about how they (and other Christians that they spoke about) had met their significant others and so I took note and believed the same would happen in my own life.

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Tithing and Transactions

Dating is just one example of this selective way of talking about the Christian life. Another common example is tithing. Often, in sermons that talked about tithing, I’d hear the idea that according to Malachi 3:10, God seems to be saying, “test me on this – if you tithe, I will bless you.” See how that works? If you do this thing (tithe) then God will do this other thing (bless). It gets preached as a transaction and it’s supposed to be bulletproof, a sure thing, quid pro quo.

Whenever I heard these sermons, the preacher would go on to share miraculous stories about how people in the congregation had decided to begin tithing to the church at a time when they couldn’t afford to do so. Their story would often go something like, “we looked at our finances and knew that we couldn’t afford to tithe because there just wasn’t enough room in our budget. But we decided to step out in faith anyway and give, knowing that at the end of the month, we wouldn’t have enough to pay all of our bills. But then the end of the month came and some how, we ended up with a surplus!” Sometimes this surplus came in the form of a rebate check they had forgotten about or a refund from a utility that had over billed them or sometimes just from another congregant (“God told me that you needed this money”). So the message was, everyone needs to tithe because when you do, God blesses you. Always. And the proof of this was in the personal testimonies they shared.

Dating and tithing are just two examples, but this sort of message was pretty common. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z.

Unfortunately, these were all another example of false church narratives (or at best, highly selective church narratives). The truth of the matter was far more complicated.

The God Machine

Let me close by saying a bit about the theology underlying this message. Whether they mean to or not (they probably don’t), messages like this paint God out to be nothing more than a machine – one that gives out based on what you put in. Seen from the other end, it’s a machine where if you don’t put in, you won’t get out.

But here’s the thing. God really does seem to come through for some people – they do receive the blessings they prayed/worked/gave for. However, for others, the hoped for blessing never appears, and this can be devastating. This formulaic theology can paint God as a cosmic lottery. People plug in various inputs (more purity, more tithing, more prayer, more Bible study, etc.) and hope for the promised blessing. And the bigger the buy in, the bigger the hoped for pay off. And when the church keeps putting forward stories from people who “won,” it perpetuates the belief that the “losers” need to just keep being faithful, keep doing their part.

And that can lead to tremendous disappointment and harm.

…and I’ll get to that bit in the next post