Sunday, March 19, 2006

THEOLOGIC I: Invitation to Theological Entrepreneurs

Remember AM radio before Rush Limbaugh? You’d be hard pressed to find a sleepier enterprise. But the Rush Man made the giant stir. Now, his imitators fill the air with their own brands of vitriol and polemic. Did anyone predict this revival of AM?

Meanwhile, to the Left of Rush another entrepreneur blew the dust off of another snoozing enterprise. Michael Moore took the documentary film off life support and remade it in his own image. Like Rush with AM, Moore snatched the documentary from the yawning jaws of obscurity and made it lucrative.

Or—one last example to make the point—what about that glorious enterprise, the circus? As a business, the circus must have topped the endangered species list. But then along comes Cirque de Soleil, and you can forget the bearded lady and the dozen clowns tumbling out of a Volkswagen. The brains behind Cirque morphed the circus into a high-brow performance art. If an industry as cobwebby as the circus can crawl out of bed, anything can.

Even theology.

Like the other enterprises, before their rescuers arrived, theology languishes. Its stodgy executives have let it grow flabby, with seeming indifference. And why not? Where's the competition?

When executives grow complacent, they are prone to be slow on the uptake and easy to usurp. The popular, complacent theologies of mainstream America need competition. What innovations have the populist preachers introduced to the enterprise of theology? None. They operate purely by habit. Under their management, theology coasts on autopilot. Their conservatism renders theology ripe for a commandeering. There are huge opportunities these days for theological entrepreneurs to exploit decades of neglect.

The opportunities are evident: When is the last time anybody asked Falwell or Dobson a pointed theological question? There are plenty that go begging:

What is God’s relationship to this world? Is any particular relationship necessary? Does God partake of this world at all? If so, is God affected by events in this world? Or is God utterly immutable? If the latter, then how can anything in this world matter -- if God cannot be moved by anything that happens?

Do Robertson, Kennedy, et al., have coherent answers to these questions? God’s supposed omniscience and omnipotence generate all kinds of logical absurdities. Can those who claim to speak for God unravel the complexities of perfection and explain their resolutions to the rest of us? If God knows the future, then how can we act freely, since our actions are necessarily pre-determined by God’s foreknowledge? But if we don’t have free will, then we can't be held accountable for our actions.

And what about the conundrum of evil? If God detests evil, then why doesn’t he destroy Satan and eliminate the source of evil? We could still exercise free will, our choices would just be limited to those that are virtuous to varying degrees or morally neutral—just as we can exercise free will in the movement of our bodies, but the range of our bodily freedom is not unlimited. It is subject to the constraints of physical law.

What about the soul—what is its motivation in taking on a human existence? Does it benefit from the experiences of the body? Is it in any way affected by its bodily adventures? And when does the soul enter the body? —clearly it cannot enter the body. A metaphysical object cannot have a physical location. Or? If my soul is in my body, what happens if I lose a finger? Do I lose part of my soul?

Listen to the fundamentalists, and it becomes obvious that in the fundamentalist reality tunnel fundamental questions are unwelcome. The theological quacks of the air are not going to offer satisfying—or even passable—answers to fundamental questions.

God needs new management. He needs a good consultant. His self-appointed underlings have sold Him out—and are actually defaming Him. The commonweal is polluted by theological quackery.

What I’m suggesting is that the mumbo-jumbo of the fundamentalists be hauled into the messy forum of the marketplace of ideas, where the transparency of the preachers’ olde clothes will become inescapably evident. The continuing task of The Enlightenment might not necessarily require dismissing the received understanding of God, at least not primarily; it might suffice just to upstage the authority of popular theological dogmas.

As for an alternative system, my own theological sense points toward some integration of Whitehead's process theology, quantum physics, and the Platonic doctrines of the soul. I don’t have definitive answers to the fundamental questions, but these sources provide the outline of a theology that doesn't include fantastic beliefs. A postmodern theology.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system is the foundation. It overcomes the dualism of subjectivity and objectivity by granting subjectivity a role in selecting, from the set of nature’s possible events, those that actually occur. (This is in distinction to Hume’s causality, in which effects are determined solely by antecedent physical—objective—causes. Modern science is built on the Humean view.) The process of quantum collapse is an intentional process. It precipitates out of decisions. Feelings, Whitehead tells us, are what we’ll find when we get to the fundaments of the actual.

With its ontological subjectivity, Whitehead’s system constitutes a radical casting back, a retrieval of the most primitive conceptions of the natural order. And that primitiveness carries the potential to do great good. Whitehead’s process theology is compatible with empirical science, Eastern mysticism, the most archaic animisms and shamanisms, and even the factions of Western monotheism, insofar as they understand perfection to be dynamic and are willing to jettison scriptural literalism/inerrancy. The Whiteheadian model is nonsectarian, nondenominational, and inclusive.

Whitehead’s system is theistic. God influences the world continually. But not by coercion. God works His miracles through persuasion.

Dovetailing with the tenets of process theology is the ontology of quantum mechanics. There’s no lack of New Age claptrap built up around quantum this and that, and for good reason. The world as redefined by quantum mechanics isn’t the Cartesian/Newtonian world of pieces of material colliding in the void, sometimes sticking and sometimes bouncing or breaking, but always deterministically. It’s instead a world that is re-made every instant, as the range of quantum potential collapses into the world of actual events. Click. Click. Click. Instant by instant the universe is remade.

But the result is not entirely predictable. The perfect mechanical causality of the Newtonian world is gone, revealed to have been a dogma itself. There’s wiggle room at the quantum level for nondeterministic inputs.

Whitehead conceived of God as humankind’s fellow traveler, feeling what the world feels, preserving all experiences in His memory, and coaxing the world along His preferred path. This relates directly to the Penrose-Hameroff OrchOR model, in which each instance of subjectivity is also an instance of objectivity—when the quantum superposition collapses into an empirical event. The subjectivity of the process is an agency that contains feelings imparted by God, in addition to its own intrinsic feelings. The sum of feelings is an influential, but not determinative factor, in the outcome of the process of quantum collapse. The outcome is also influenced by previous collapses. These constitute objective data for the prehension of the subjectivity.

The Platonic, and particularly NeoPlatonic, doctrines of the soul provide the personalized, existential dimension of this theological outline. Why do souls descend into the mud? The Neoplatonic view is that souls have desires; they crave the experiences of the body. Being a discarnate soul is fulfilling—to a point. You exist but you can’t experience much outside of your own being. In other words, the body is a thrill drug that the soul takes out of boredom. The beauty of the Neoplatonic doctrine is that the soul’s sensual and emotional experiences in the body constitute its education. The body is a drug that actually edifies. The soul discarnate is somewhat naïve, spoiled, but it learns about the nature of corporeal being—of bliss and loss, of fun and fear, of dread and longing—through the medium of the body, and it grows wiser.

The soul doesn't need an external redeemer. It redeems itself thorugh its own natural growth to maturity.

So, there is a start anyway, toward an alternative theology.