Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

[link to CV]


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Lexington Theological Quarterly Vol. 28, No. 3, 1993, 201-22.  For the table of contents of this lecture series, go here.

Postmodern Theology for the Church

David Ray Griffin

1. Liberal But Not Modern: Overcoming the Liberal-Conservative Antithesis



Many believe that the modern liberal church is dying.  Whether or not this is true, it is obvious that modern liberal churches have been in decline in both numbers and influence for some time.  This fact has recently received terminological recognition in the change from “mainline” to “oldline” to refer to these churches.  Various analyses have been offered to explain this decline.  Conservative theologians offer a theological analysis, saying that the liberal churches are in decline because their theology is vacuous.  I believe that this analysis is essentially correct.  Religion is based upon the perennial human desire to be in harmony with the supreme power of the universe, but modern liberal theology has had trouble speaking of the world as God’s creation and of God as providentially active in the world in any significant sense.  It has generally redefined God—indeed, if it speaks of God at all—so that God is not portrayed as the supreme power of the universe, if it attributes any power at all to what it calls God.  Religion is based upon hope for salvation, but modern liberal theology has not provided a realistic basis for hope, either for individuals or the world as a whole.  Vital religion usually involves not only hope for the future but also present religious experience that is salvific in itself, and yet modern liberal theology has little if any room for such experience.  The Christian Church when it has been on the move has had a clear sense of its mission as God’s agent to bring from the power of the demonic, but modern liberal has been able to articulate no such sense of mission.  A religious movement thrives when it offers a message that seems both true and important, but modern liberal theology has not been able convincingly to portray its message as either true or important.  Conservative theologians say that modern liberal theology provides little more than a religious gloss on an essentially nonreligious worldview; that criticism, I am saying, is largely correct.

My agreement with the conservative diagnosis of modern liberal theology’s ills, however, does not mean that I agree with its prescription, which is to return to a classical form of Christian faith, be it called conservative, fundamentalist, or evangelical.  Although churches with such an orientation are generally growing faster than liberal churches in most parts of the world, they cannot—to make a sociological observation—appeal to people in whom a critical consciousness about religion has been developed; and they do not—to make a theological point—serve the cause of God in the world today any better than do the liberal churches.  I believe that we need a form of theology that goes beyond the liberal-conservative antithesis that has existed for the past 300 years. Although the terms “modern” and “liberal” are often used synonymously, so that the phrase “modern liberal” may seem redundant, I distinguish the two terms, arguing that our theology should be liberal but not modern.  And by rejecting modern in favor of postmodern assumptions, I suggest, we can recover robust doctrines of God, salvation, and the church’s mission, the preservation of which, I believe, has always laid at the heart of conservative Christianity.  In this way we can have a conservative liberalism—a form of theology that combines the best of the theologies that have historically been opposed as liberal and conservative.  This union of liberal and conservative interests will be possible because the liberal Christian impulse will be freed from its confinement within the modern framework, while the conservative Christian impulse will be freed from its confinement within the classical framework.  This theology will be liberal, not classical; but because it will be postmodern rather than modern, it can also be conservative.

To explain what I mean, I will begin with the distinction between the liberal and classical approaches to theology, which involves a contrast on the interrelated points of method and worldview.  Classical Christian theology, as I am using the term uses the method of authority, according to which the question truth is settled by appeal to the authority of scripture, or scripture and tradition.  This authoritari-an method presupposes a supernatural-istic worldview, according to which the supreme power of the universe is an omnipotent being outside the universe with the power to interrupt the normal causal relations within the universe.  This kind of supernatural divine causation is presupposed in the notions of infallible revelation and inerrant inspiration, which lie behind the method of authority.

Liberal Christian theology, by contrast, rejects the method of authority.  It may take Scripture and tradition very seriously, but it bases its claims for the truth of its doctrines not on their alleged roots, but on their fruits.  This appeal to fruits may take the form of arguing that Christian faith provides the basis for a worldview at is adequate to human experience as well as self-consistent.  This appeal to experience would include the experiences that are reflected in the Bible, and these may be taken to be especially revelatory, but it does not suppose that the biblical writings or the events reported in them were based on divine causation that was qualitatively different from whatever divine influence is involved in other events, at least in such a way as to guarantee the truth of any or all of the statements contained in the Bible.  Liberal theology’s method, in other words, is based on a naturalistic view, in which there is never any supernatural interruption of normal cause-effect relations.  To call a worldview naturalistic not, I hasten to stress, mean that it is nontheistic.  What naturalism necessarily rejects is only the supernaturalistic type of theism, not theism itself.  One type of naturalistic worldview is naturalistic theism, or theistic naturalism.  It is, in fact, from such standpoint that I recommend that theology should be liberal, rather than classical, in both method and worldview.


I. Rejecting the Supernaturalism of Classical Theology

My reasons for recommending that Christians of conservative persuasion give up the supernatural-istic worldview and its authoritarian method are multiple.  The strengths of this classical world and method are, to be sure, undeniable.  Classical theologians provide a clear account of the basis for their truth-claims.  They clearly portray the God of Christian faith as the supreme power of universe, who created the world ex nihilo and rules over it with sovereign providence.  In harmony with their supernaturalistic view of divine activity in creation, revelation, and inspiration, they also portray Christian faith as promising a supernatural salvation, thereby providing the church with a divinely ordained mission of undoubted importance.  Nevertheless, this classical, supernaturalistic framework makes Christian faith, on the practical side, an extremely ambiguous blessing to the world and, on the intellectual side, it creates insuperable problems for people with a critical consciousness.

To begin with the intellectual problems: The idea that the Bible is inerrantly inspired in any straightforward sense has been amply disconfirmed by modern biblical scholarship.  Attempts to redefine inerrancy so as to be in accord with the facts are extremely artificial and lead to highly arbitrary hermeneutical practices.  The classical method—what Edward Farley has called the “house of authority” —has, accordingly, been undermined.  (See the writings by Farley cited at the beginning of the next section.)  

Classical theology’s supernaturalistic worldview has also been undermined by a number of interrelated developments.  One of these was the disconfirmation of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy itself, because this doctrine had been presented as both an implication of, and a support for, divine omnipotence.  That is, on the one hand, the idea that God is omnipotent in the classical sense led to the expectation that God would inspire the Bible inerrantly, so that God’s plan of salvation would be clearly announced.  On the other hand, the idea that God is indeed omnipotent was usually supported by pointing to biblical passages in which this idea is expressed, which presupposed, of course, that those statements were inerrantly inspired.  The realization that the Bible is not inerrantly inspired, accordingly, removes one of the main supports for the supernaturalistic worldview.

A closely related support for both divine omnipotence and inerrant inspiration was the idea of miracles, understood as events that required a supernatural intervention to suspend or override the normal laws of nature.  The belief in miracles, at least as thus understood, has been widely rejected in modern times.  The dominant basis for rejecting them has been simply to deny, a priori, that such events ever happen.  A more empirical basis, from the disciplines of anthropology, history of religions, and psychical research, has been to regard the so-called miracles of the Bible (and, for Catholics, the ongoing Christian tradition) as not different in kind from events that happen in virtually all traditions and, therefore, as probably not qualitatively different with respect to divine causation from other types of events.  Such events, in other words, are regarded as extraordinary but not supernatural.  This interpreta-tion removes them as supports for the supernatural-istic world view of classical theology and its authoritarian method.

Another blow to this classical framework was the discovery of the evolutionary origin of our world.  The doctrine of divine omnipotence both supported and was supported by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in the absolute sense, according to which God created our world not out of a chaos of finite actualities, but by bringing finite actualities themselves into existence out of absolute nothingness.  This doctrine, although not taught clearly in the Bible, if at all, has long been considered an essential implication and support for the doctrine of divine omnipotence, because if there were pre-existent materials from which our world were created, these materials might have possessed a modicum of power that could not be completely controlled by God.  The realization that our world was created through a long, slow, evolutionary process makes that idea of an omnipotent creator implausible, for at least two reasons.  First, the main contrast between the evolutionary and the traditional creationist pictures can be stated, as it was by Darwin, as the contrast between “descent with modification” and “creation ex nihilo.”  Why God would have chosen to create the present species by means of evolutionary descent from earlier species, while having had the power to have created them directly, out of nothing, is puzzling.  Likewise, supernaturalist Christian theology has always been very anthropocentric, assuming that God created the universe primarily for human beings and their drama of salvation.  Assuming that God, while having the power to create the universe, complete with human beings, in six days—or, for that matter, in an instant, because there were no pre-existent materials with even the slightest power to resist the divine will—why God would take billions of years merely to set the stage for the divine-human drama is puzzling.  The whole supernaturalistic picture, in short, is made extremely implausible by the evolutionary origin of our world.

I have thus far spoken of the conflict between the supernaturalistic worldview and both the results and the assumptions of the sciences of history, biblical criticism, psychical research, and evolution.  A more general point of conflict is the assumption, created by supernaturalism, that there will be gaps in our account of the world based upon natural causes alone, gaps that need to be filled by reference to supernatural causation.  That assumption has been disconfirmed time after time, leading to the strong suspicion that the God of supernaturalism, often referred to disparagingly as the “God of the gaps,” does not exist.

The other major reason for the growing disbelief in a divine being who could intervene in the world in a supernatural way is the problem of evil.  This problem points to an incoherence at the heart of classical Christian theology.  On the one hand, one of the strengths of this theology, as I have mentioned, is that it has presented a robust doctrine of salvation.  It has done this by portraying human beings apart from Christ as deeply in the grip of demonic power, from which only Christ’s salvific act can free them.  Classical theology, in fact, has generally explained not only human sin, but also all those evils seemingly due to nature, as ultimately due to demonic forces.  On the other hand, however, classical theology could not explain why there should be any genuine evil in the universe at all, let alone demonic power of cosmic scope that could seriously challenge God’s rule of the world.  God was said to be perfectly good, which means that God would not want there to be any genuine evil (meaning any prima facie evil that does not in fact serve to bring about the greatest possible good).  And the supernaturalistic doctrine of divine omnipotence entailed that God could prevent all genuine evil.  This twofold doctrine of divine goodness and omnipotence led to the conclusion that there is no genuine evil in the world—to the view, in other words, that this is “the best of all possible worlds,” which was ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide.  Besides being unbelievable, this view means that the Christian drama in which God through Christ saves us from demonic power is all a charade, because the devil no more than any other creature can actually resist divine omnipotence.  The notion of divine omnipotence, furthermore, makes the need for the church problematic; an omnipotent deity has no need for help in saving the world.

These problems have led some theologians to adopt a free-will supernaturalism, according to which God has granted humans (and perhaps angels) real freedom to act contrary to the divine will, although God retains the power to intervene at will to override creaturely freedom or its otherwise inevitable effects.  This modification of supernaturalistic theism, while making it less obviously incoherent and incompatible with many facts of the world in all their horror, still leaves theism in strong tension with the facts of experience.1  The problem of evil remains a powerful reason, perhaps the most powerful reason, for rejecting the supernaturalistic worldview of classical Christian theology.

Besides having these intellectual problems, I have said, classical Christian theology has been extremely ambiguous with regard to its practical effects.  Rather than trying to summarize its negative effects throughout the centuries, I will look only at ways in which it is unhelpful with regard to some of the overriding problems of our time.  One of these overriding problems is that of the threat to the very survival of life-human life and many other forms of life as well—through the twin threats of nuclear holocaust and more gradual ecological destruction.  Classical theism, with its view that God can intervene to prevent any possible catastrophe, creates a complacency among its believers that prevents them from the kind of passionate concern and involvement that should be forthcoming from those who worship the creator of heaven and earth.  While creating complacency about the fate of the earth, supernaturalism also promotes fanaticism with regard to cultural and religious differences.  Fanaticism is promoted by the notion that one’s own religion is the One True Way, which God wants all people to embrace, and by the related doctrine that this religion’s scriptures, and these alone, are inerrantly inspired.  These obvious ways in which the supernaturalistic doctrine of divine omnipotence supports fanaticism are undergirded by a more subtle way, which depends upon the notion, to which I alluded earlier, that the basic religious impulse of human beings is to be in harmony with the supreme power of the universe.  One aspect of this dynamic, especially in theistic religions, is the imitatio dei, the desire to imitate God, insofar as possible.  This imitation involves the effort to imitate the divine modus operandi, the divine way of acting.  Portraying God as acting in terms of overwhelming coercive power, accordingly, creates in devotees the desire to use that kind of power, especially in relation to enemies perceived to be enemies of God.2  This dynamic, I am convinced, lay behind the otherwise inexplicable, because suicidal, nuclear-weapons policies developed during the cold war with Soviet Communism.  In sum, the supernaturalistic salvation portrayed by classical Christian theology is at best irrelevant to the central problems on God’s earth today, and at worst counterproductive to the divine aims, which must be thought to involve the development of a form of human civilization that is peaceable and sustainable.

For all of these reasons, both intellectual and practical, I believe that Christian theology, if it is to be truthful and truly to serve the divine cause, must completely reject the classical framework.  I will argue next that Christian theology must be postmodern; but this call cannot be intended as it is by some, as a disguised way of returning to the classical framework.  Christian theology in our time must be postclassical. That is, it must be liberal, as I am using the term.


II. Rejecting Modern Presuppositions about Perception and Nature

Liberal theology, as I have defined it, rejects the method of authority and the supernaturalistic worldview on which it is based.  (The connection between supernaturalism and the method of authority is laid out clearly in Edward Farley and Peter C. Hodgson’s essay on “Scripture and Tradition” in Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, edited by Peter C. Hodgson and Robert H. King [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982; enlarged edition 1985], and in Farley’s Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982].) Modern liberal theology combines this rejection with an acceptance of two distinctively modern presuppositions: the sensationist view of perception and the mechanistic view of nature.  The sensationist doctrine of perception means that we can perceive other things only by means of our physical sensory organs, which implies that we can perceive only physical things.  The mechanistic doctrine of nature involves a threefold denial about the ultimate units of nature: the denial that they have any experience; the denial that they have any element of spontaneity, self-motion, or selfdetermination; and the denial that they can either exert or receive causal influence at a distance.

The acceptance of these modern presuppositions usually involves the acceptance of the “modern scientific worldview.”  Insofar as this is the late modern world view (I will explain below its distinction from the early modern worldview), this acceptance involves atheism, sensationism, and materialism, and thereby a worldview that is not hospitable to any significant theology. 

Insofar as theologians accept the atheism of the late modern worldview, they cannot speak of God as creator of the universe in any straightforward sense.  (The acceptance of neo-Darwinism, for example, rules out any reference to divine causation in the evolutionary process.3)  The acceptance of sensationism makes impossible any straightforward talk of religious experience and thereby of any divine presence in human experience. (Incarnational language is thereby excluded.)  The acceptance of materialism, which denies that we have a mind or soul that is distinct from the physical brain, rules out not only life after death but also human freedom in any significant sense.  The acceptance of atheism, sensationism, and materialism imply a completely nihilistic worldview, according to which there is no ultimate meaning to anything.  Insofar as liberal theologians have accepted this late modern worldview, trying to “do theology” within its confines, they have taken on an impossible task.  God, experience of God, divine activity, divine incarnation, divine grace, resurrection, and other central theological ideas have had to be denied or else, redefined beyond recognition.

Here, however, I must make a distinction.  Modern liberal theology, as I characterize it, does not necessarily accept the modern world view; the more accurate statement is that this world view is accepted as adequate for and required by science (meaning primarily the physical sciences).  Many forms of modern liberal theology, having conceded the adequacy of the late modern world view for science, then relativize it.  Much modern liberal theology has sought to do this in terms of some form of idealism—Berkeleian, Kantian, or Hegelian.  According to these idealisms, science tells us about mere appearances, not reality, so that theology can ignore it.  Other modern liberal theologians have sought independence from the late modern worldview, without criticizing it as such, through a doctrine of different “language games,” saying that the atheism, sensationism, and determinism of the language game employed in the scientific community does not prevent speaking of God, religious experience, freedom, and so on when engaged in the language game of the religious community.

Most of the attempts to theologize by relativizing the “scientific worldview” in these ways, however, have died out in our time.  Modern liberal theologians in our time are most likely simply to accept the modern worldview, seeking to theologize within its framework.  This more and more leads to ignoring the question of the truth, or even the meaning, of basic theological affirmations, aside from their pragmatic (generally ethical) meaning.  If forced to say just what they mean, rhetoric aside, by “God,” “Christ,” “salvation,” and so on, the affirmations of modern liberal theologians become exceedingly thin, if not wholly vacuous.  Modern liberal theology in our time has seemingly reached the culminating stage of the process that began in the eighteenth century.

The tragedy of all this is that it has been based on a colossal mistake.  This mistake is the belief that there are good reasons to accept the modern worldview, at least as required by and adequate for science.  Such reasons do not exist.  There is, accordingly, no good reason to try to tailor our theologies to fit this worldview.  The argument for this claim is complex, involving three parts.  I cannot here layout the argument adequately.  But I will say enough to indicate the nature of the threefold argument I have in mind.


1. The first step of the argument is simply to point out that what is now called the “scientific world view “ is really the second version of the modern world view, and that it is simply a decapitated version of the first version.


Most people today, as I did above, equate the “modern scientific worldview” with the atheistic, materialistic, deterministic worldview with which most scientific work has been increasingly associated since the middle of the nineteenth century.  This worldview, however, is really the descendant of the scientific worldview formulated in the seventeenth century.  That first version was not atheistic but supernaturalistic, believing in an omnipotent God who created the world ex nihilo and who could intervene in it miraculously (although deists denied that God ever would do this); and it was not materialistic but dualistic, holding the human soul to be qualitatively different from the matter constituting the human body and the rest of nature.  The second or late modern worldview was created simply by lopping off the soul and God (and thereby the possibility of miracles) from the first or early modern worldview while leaving intact that earlier worldview’s mechanistic doctrine of nature and its sensationist doctrine of perception.  This is extremely important because, as we will see, these doctrines of nature and perception were adopted by advocates of the early modern worldview to bolster their beliefs in God and the soul (and perhaps miracles).  That is, these early modernists, such as Mersenne, Descartes, Boyle, and Newton, thought that the mechanistic doctrine of nature and the sensationist doctrine of perception necessitated a supernaturalistic, dualistic worldview, because these doctrines of nature and perception could not be coherently combined with an atheistic, materialistic worldview.  And yet that is exactly what the late modern worldview has attempted.

Awareness of these historical facts about the currently dominant worldview should make one suspicious about its coherence and adequacy.  And, indeed, the case for its truth has always rested less on its adequacy than on the claim that it at least does not suffer from the problems inherent in the first version of the modern worldview, with its dualism and supernaturalism.  These problems were, of course, formidable.  I earlier mentioned how problems involving infallible inspiration, miracles, gaps, evil, and evolution led to the rejection of supernaturalism.  Once this occurred, dualism then became unintelligible, because the (at least apparent) interaction of spiritual soul and mechanistic body could only be explained by appeal to supernatural causation (ct. Malebranche, Geulincx, Reid).  Once the relation of soul and body could no longer be explained by appeal to God, the increasingly popular solution was simply to deny the existence of a soul or mind distinct from the brain.  However, while being skeptical of early modernity’s beliefs about God and the soul, the late modern mentality has remained entirely credulous with regard to its doctrines of nature and perception.  And yet, as we will see, those doctrines should have been equally suspect, because they were part and parcel of the dualistic supernaturalism of the early modern worldview.


2. The second claim of the argument is that the sensationist theory of perception and the mechanistic doctrine of nature were based not primarily upon scientific or other empirical evidence, but upon theological and sociological reasons.


In explaining this claim, I will begin with the mechanistic doctrine of nature.  As I mentioned earlier, there are three dimensions to this doctrine.  One is that the ultimate units of nature are completely devoid of an experience.  A second is that they are devoid of any self-determination, or final causation; there is nothing but efficient causation, so that determinism reigns.  A third dimension of the mechanistic doctrine of nature is that all efficient causation is by contact, or impact, which means that there is no causal influence at a distance.  This mechanistic doctrine of nature became accepted by the leading philosopher-scientists of the seven-teenth-century, such as Galileo, Mersenne, Descartes, Boyle, and Newton, and soon came to be accepted as part and parcel of the scientific worldview.  The prevalent mythology of science, at least until the past two decades, had it that this idea of nature was both supported by scientific evidence and a prerequisite of good science.  Part of this orthodox view was that the main view that the “mechanical philosophy” replaced was Aristotelian-ism.  Historians of science have recently rendered this standard view dubious.

The truth seems to be that this mechanistic view of nature was adopted more in opposition to a variety of neoplatonic, cabalistic, and hermetic worldviews that can be called holistic, naturalistic, organismic, even magical.4  Nature was comprised of units that were self-moving, sentient, and capable of exerting and receiving influence at a distance.  Deity was understood pantheistically or panentheistically.  These worldviews were understood by many intellectual Christians as posing severe threats to the authority of the Christian Church and thereby the peace and stability of the social order.  What we now call the early modern scientific worldview was a response by these Christian intellectuals to these threats.  I will give several examples.

One heretical doctrine held by some advocates of these naturalistic worldviews was mortalism, the doctrine that when the body dies, so does the soul.  The argument went like this: “Those who have argued for the immortality of the soul have based this doctrine on Plato’s idea that the soul is a self-moving thing.  But the elements of nature composing the body are also self-moving things, and they are clearly mortal.  The fact that the soul is self-moving provides no reason, therefore, to believe that it is immortaL”  This conclusion was, of course, a severe threat to the authority of the church, given the widely held view, among Protestants as well as Catholics, that this authority rested on the church’s having the keys to the kingdom—that is, the power to determine who would go to heaven and who to hell.  If there is no life after death, there is obviously no heaven to anticipate, no hell to fear.  This conclusion posed a threat to social stability as well, in that it was generally held that civil peace and order, which in practice meant a large degree of acquiescence by the poor in the status quo, depended upon the church’s support for civil society, backed up by supernatural sanctions.

Some Christian intellectuals, such as Mersenne, Descartes, and Boyle, found in the mechanistic doctrine of nature a way to nip this heresy in the bud.  If nature is composed of bits of matter that are wholly devoid of both experience and the power of self-motion, then, we, being experiencing, self-moving organisms, must have something in us—a spiritual mind or soul—that is different in kind from nature.  If the soul is different in kind from the body, then the fact that the body is mortal is no evidence that the soul is mortal.  So, although the mechanistic doctrine of nature is now widely regarded as the foundation of a view of human beings that makes life after death impossible, it was originally seen by Christian thinkers in the seventeenth century as supporting belief in life after death.

A second theological-sociological reason for preferring the mechanistic doctrine of nature, with its view that the ultimate units of nature are inert and thereby devoid of any capacity for self-motion, involved belief in the existence of a God external to nature.  On the basis of the contrary view, that nature is composed of self-moving things, some thinkers were advocating the heretical doctrine that the world is a self-organizing organism.  Some of these thinkers could be called atheists, others pantheists, and others (although the term did not exist then) panentheists.  What was made unnecessary by the idea of a self-organizing universe was a supernaturalistic form of theism, according to which God acts on the universe from without.  To undermine this doctrine, of course, was even more threatening to supernaturalistic Christianity, if possible, than the denial of life after death, because everything else—the belief in infallible revelation, inerrant inspiration, a unique incarnation in Jesus, a supernatural atonement, and miraculous proofs, as well as heaven and hell—rested on the presupposition of a God who created the universe out of nothing and acts upon it from without at will.

This threat was countered by leading Christian intellectuals, including Boyle and Newton, by appeal to the notion that the ultimate units of nature are essentially inert, incapable of initiating movement of any sort.  If the world is made of things that are devoid of the capacity to initiate motion, the argument went, then the fact that it now embodies motion shows that there must be a supernatural being outside the universe, a First Mover, who put the universe into motion.  So, although the mechanistic worldview is now generally seen as antithetical to theism, it was originally used by Christian intellectuals to support theism—not just any kind of theism, of course, but the kind of theism presupposed by a supernaturalistic understanding of Christian faith.

Another motive for the adoption of the mechanistic doctrine of nature involved belief in miracles.  In classical Christianity, the Christian miracles were taken to be divine testimony that Christianity is the One True Religion.  This apologetic appeal to miracles has so completely disappeared in liberal theology that those of us who are in this tradition probably have difficulty realizing the extent to which the truth of Christianity was at one time, and still is in evangelical circles, thought to rest upon the Christian miracles.  In any case, this apologetic role for miracles was being threatened by the naturalistic worldviews of the time, especially the more magical type.  According to this magical or hermetic worldview, the capacity to exert and receive influence at a distance was a fully natural capacity of nature, including the human mind.  This point is crucial because all those types of events that are usually thought of as miraculous appear to involve causal influence at a distance.  For example, Jesus’ reported knowledge of ideas in the minds of other people, traditionally interpreted as evidence of his supernatural knowledge, can be interpreted as telepathy, or feeling at a distance.   Likewise, the occurrences of physical healing attributed to Jesus, traditionally understood as evidence of his supernatural powers, can be interpreted as telekinesis, or the effecting of movement at a distance.  And, indeed, some of the advocates of the hermetic worldview were expressing the opinion that the so-called miracles of Jesus and some of the apostles were to be interpreted as purely natural occurrences, no different in kind from similar events that have occurred in other traditions.  Again, the authority of the church, and with it the stability of society, seemed threatened.

And again the mechanistic doctrine of nature seemed a godsend.  This time the relevant feature was the idea that all causal influence is by contact, or impact, which negatively means the denial of any causal influence at a distance.  This feature of the mechanistic doctrine of nature, was, in fact, its central feature in the debates of the time.  For Father Marin Mersenne, who was the person chiefly responsible for getting mechanism accepted in scientific circles in France, this doctrine was favored because it declared that action at a distance could not happen naturally.  The miracles of the New Testament and the Catholic Church, accordingly, had to be interpreted as truly miraculous—that is, as involving supernatural causation from on high.  Divine attestation to Christianity as the One True Religion was thereby protected.  

The denial of causal influence at a distance was also used by Newton and his followers to support the existence of God.  Newton was most famous, of course, for his empirical discoveries regarding gravitational attraction, which seemed like a clear case of causal influence at a distance if there ever was one.  But Newton insisted emphatically that the power to exert attraction at a distance was not inherent in matter.  This denial meant that the fact that distant bodies do attract each other could be used as a proof for the existence of a cosmic being who could cause this mutual attraction to occur.

In all these ways, then, the mechanistic doctrine of nature, which denied to matter the power to have feeling, to initiate motion, or to exert or receive influence at a distance, was used by Christian intellectuals to support supernaturalist forms of Christian beliefs.  The same is true of the other major foundation of the modern worldview, the sensationist theory of perception, according to which we can perceive things beyond ourselves only by means of our physical senses.

This doctrine would at first glance not seem to be one that Christian thinkers would favor.  It rules out mysticism and, in fact, any kind of direct experience of God, through which we might, for example, come to know not only of God’s existence but also moral values.  It would thereby seem to rule out the activity of the Holy Spirit in the human soul.  It would even seem to rule out the possibility of God’s incarnation in Jesus.  And yet John Locke and other Christian thinkers adopted the sensationist view of perception, thinking that, far from harming the Christian cause, it aided it.  One reason for favoring it was that it ruled out “enthusiasm,” which was a pejorative term (literally referring to being filled with God) for all claims to having a direct experience of God, perhaps with a new revelation.  Such claims, of course, can be threatening to the authority of the institutional church.  The sensationist theory of perception provided a philosophical basis for saying that no such claims should be taken seriously.  The sensationist theory of perception can also be regarded as an application of the more general denial of action at a distance to the human soul or mind.  Because of the dualistic doctrine that the human mind or soul is different from the rest of nature, some thinkers held that it was an exception to the general denial of causal influence at a distance.  The soul could perceive things directly at a distance and could exert influence directly on things at a distance.  But the dominant view was that the mind can influence the world beyond its body only by acting through its body, and that the mind can perceive things beyond its body only by means of its body, that is, by means of its physical sensory organs.  Besides undermining enthusiasm, this doctrine provided a basis for saying that Jesus’ healings and his knowledge of what was in other people’s mind were truly supernatural.

We can now see, accordingly, that the mechanistic doctrine of nature and the sensationist doctrine of perception were accepted primarily for ideological, not scientific or more generally empirical, reasons.


3. The third and final claim in my argument is that, besides not being required by scientific considerations, the mechanistic doctrine of nature and the sensationist doctrine of perception can now, more clearly than even before, be seen to stand in tension with various scientific facts and to stand in the way of an adequate worldview.


Science in the twentieth century has dealt a succession of blows to the mechanistic doctrine of nature.  For example, quantum physics undermined the assumption that nature at its fundamental level operated deterministically.  More recently, quantum physics has also thrown into doubt the veto against causal influence at a distance.  (Of course, gravitation has always seemed to be strong evidence against that dogma; the recent rejection or at least softening of that dogma may reduce the felt need to provide alternative explanation.)  The view that all of nature except the human soul is devoid of experience has always seemed false to most people with regard at least to the higher animals.  Now an increasing number of ethologists are saying that we can explain the behavior of animals, even as far down the phylogenetic scale as bees, only on the assumption that they have experience.5  Going down even further, biologists have reported evidence suggestive of memory and decisions in bacteria, one of the lowest forms of life.6  Furthermore, the earlier view that macromolecules such as DNA and RNA operated in a purely mechanistic fashion has given way to the view that they are self-organizing organisms.7

The science of psychical research, or parapsychology, also should not be ignored.8  The evidence for extrasensory perception contradicts the dogma that all perception is sensory and the closely related dogma that there can be no perception at a distance.  The evidence for psychokinesis stands in strong tension not only with the denial of action at a distance, but also with the materialistic denial of a distinction between mind and brain.

Besides the fact that these (and many other) scientific developments suggest the falsity of the materialistic worldview, with its sensationism and mechanism, there is the more general consideration that the materialistic world view comes nowhere close to providing an adequate account of human experience and the world as we know it.  For example, it cannot, in spite of over a century of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian attempts, provide a satisfactory account of the evolutionary process.  It even more clearly cannot account for the cosmic order that is presupposed by biological evolution; I refer here especially to all the so-called cosmic coincidences that are so striking that they have led erstwhile atheistic astrophysicists to posit a cosmic intelligence.9  

Perhaps the most obvious failure of materialism, and the one most discussed, is its inability to explain the mind-body relation.  By identifying the mind with the brain, materialism cannot account for the freedom that we all presuppose.  It cannot account for the unity of our experience.  And, most fundamentally, it cannot even account for the fact that we have experience at all.  It likes to say that our conscious experience “emerged” out of the organization of the brain; but this alleged emergence is not analogous to any of the non problematic examples of emergence to which it is usually compared.  How conscious experience emerged out of, and continues to be related to, a brain made of insentient neurons remains an absolute mystery.  The fact that materialism can come no closer to explaining the mind-body relation than could the dualism that it replaced is now, in fact, being recognized by some materialistic philosophers themselves.  For example, John Searle in The Rediscovery of Mind has forcibly pointed out the inadequacy of most materialistic treatments of the problem.  He does still believe that an emergentist position is viable, but the inadequacy of his own position has been pointed out by fellow physicalists, such as Thomas Nagel.  Nagel himself, in Mortal Questions and The View from Nowhere, has been the one most responsible for the recent admission by some materialists that no solution is within sight.  In fact, Colin McGinn in The Problem of Consciousness and William Seager in Metaphysics of Consciousness have gone beyond Nagel, arguing that physicalism will never be able to solve the problem.10  

Still another major inadequacy of materialism, with its sensationist doctrine of perception, is its inability to account for our inevitable presuppositions about values.  We all presuppose that some ways of being and acting are better than others.  Most embarrassing for materialistic scientists and philosophers, however, is the problem of truth.  They presuppose that truth exists and that it is a positive value.  The whole enterprise of science and philosophy, in fact, is based on the assumption that it is in general better to believe truth rather than falsehood.  However, the materialistic worldview has no room for nonphysical things such as values.  And the sensationist theory of perception implies that, even if such nonphysical things existed, we could not perceive them.  This is one of many contradictions within the materialistic worldview that result from its continued acceptance of early modernity’s presuppositions while rejecting its doctrines of God and the soul.  That is, the early modernists could combine their sensationism with belief in values because of their supernaturalism.

Locke, for example, said that we learn moral and religious truth from God’s self-revelation in Jesus.  Many thinkers were, however, coming to think that we should not think of God as continuing to act in the world after the creation.  These deists, such as Adam Ferguson and Thomas Jefferson, could still explain our knowledge of moral values by saying that God has implanted this knowledge in the human soul at creation.11 But late modernity, having rejected supernaturalism while retaining sensationism, must deny that we have any genuine knowledge of values.  The result is a complete relativism, even nihilism, in theory.  The inadequacy of this theory, however, is demonstrated by the fact that its proponents continue in practice to presuppose the reality of values, such as truth, beauty, and goodness.


III. Moving to a Postmodern Worldview

The main conclusion to be derived from the previous section is that, if there ever was an excuse for modern liberal theology, that excuse no longer exists.  The two basic premises of the modern world view—the sensationist doctrine of perception and the mechanistic doctrine of nature—were never based upon empirical evidence, and they have always prevented the development of an adequate worldview.  The early modern worldview, with its dualistic supernaturalism, was fully seen to be inadequate by the middle of the nineteenth century.  The late modern worldview’s claim to truth has been based primarily upon the idea that it is less problematic than the early modern world view.  But we can see now that it is at least equally problematic.  If we are to have a worldview that is adequate for science and ordinary human experience, we must reject the two doctrinal pillars of modernity, the mechanistic doctrine of nature and the sensationist doctrine of perception.  We need to do this even apart from any concern with distinctively religious experience and theology.  But, having done so, we will find that the resulting postmodern worldview provides the basis for significant theological affirmations.

At the root of the needed postmodern worldview is panexperientialism, the doctrine that experience and spontaneity go all the way down.  That is, there is (by hypothesis) an element of experience and of spontaneity (or self-determination) in the most elementary individuals composing nature.  This doctrine does not entail that things such as rocks, stars, and typewriters have either experience or spontaneity.  The “pan” in panexperientialism refers not simply to all things whatsoever, but only to all genuine individuals.  Things such as rocks, stars, and typewriters are not genuine individuals, but mere aggregational societies of individual molecules.  In any case, because lowly individuals such as molecules do not have sensory organs, panexperientialism implies that sense-perception is not the basic kind of perceptual experience.  Panexperientialism’s assertion is that even the most elementary units of nature have a nonsensory form of perception, and that this nonsensory type of perception is the basic type even in creatures who have sensory perception as well, such as human beings.

This postmodern starting point provides the basis for a world view that is adequate to the presuppositions of our experience.  For example, by attributing experience of a lowly sort to our brain cells, thereby rejecting a dualism between mind and brain, it can explain how mind and brain can interact: We feel the feelings of our brain cells, and they in turn feel ours.  The fact that this view allows us to affirm a distinction (without an ontological dualism) between mind and brain allows us to account for the unity of our experience and for our freedom.12  Also, the idea that we enjoy a nonsensory form of perception allows us to explain, without resort to supernaturalism, our knowledge of values.

As a bonus, this postmodern worldview provides the basis for a theology that, while liberal, is far from vacuous.  We can speak of genuine religious experience.  We can have a robust doctrine of God, an incarnational christology, meaningful spiritual discipline, healing prayer, and even an eschatology that includes a continuing journey beyond bodily death and hope for an ultimate victory of divine good over demonic evil.  We can even, perhaps most surprisingly, realistically hope, with Jesus and the New Testament Christians, for a reversal of divine and demonic power on earth, so that demonic power will no longer be dominant over divine.  This will provide, furthermore, for a doctrine of the church’s mission that will overcome its recent doubt about its importance.



1 I have criticized the free-will defense based on traditional (classical) theism in the chapter on John Hick in God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973; reprint, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990); in my critique of Hick in Stephen Davis, ed., Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981); and in chapters one and five of Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany: State University of New York, 1991).

2 On this issue, see my “Creation Ex Nihilo, the Divine Modus Operandi, and the lmitatio Dei,” in George Nordgulen and George W. Shields, ed., Faith and Creativity: Essays in Honor of Eugene Peters (St. Louis: CPB Press, 1988),95-123.

3 See my “Evolution and Postmodern Theism,” which is Chapter 5 of God and Religion in the Postmodern World (Albany: State University of New York, 1988),69-82.

4 References for the various points made in this historical discussion can be found in the notes to Chapter 6 of God and Religion in the Postmodern World, or in the notes for my introduction to The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals (Albany: State University of New York, 1988).

5 See Donald R. Griffin, The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience (New York: Rockefeller University, 1976).

6 See Julius Adler and Wing-Wai Tse, “Decision-Making in Bacteria,” Science 184 (21 June 1974 ): 1292-94; A. Goldbeter and D. E. Koshland, Jr., “Simple Molecular Model for Sensing and Adaptation Based on Receptor Modification with Application to Bacterial Chemotaxis,” Journal of Molecular Biology. 161:3 (1982 ): 395-416.

7 See Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (New York: Freeman, 1983).

8 For excellent surveys of parapsychological studies, see Benjamin Wolman, ed., Handbook of Parapsychology (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977); Hoyt L. Edge, Robert L. Morris, John Palmer, and Joseph H. Rush, Foundations of Parapsychology (Boston and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); and the series, Advances in Parapsychological Research, ed. Stanley Krippner (New York: Plenum Press), especially vol. 1, Psychokinesis (1977) and vol. 2, Extrasensory Perception (1978).  For evaluations of the evidence by capable philosophers, see Essays on Psychical Research in the Harvard edition of the writings of William James, ed. Robert McDermott; C. D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953; reprint, New York: Humanities Press, 1969); and Stephen Braude, ESP and Psychokinesis: A Philosophical Examination (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979) and The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis and the Philosophy of Science (New York and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986). See also my “Parapsychology and Philosophy: A Whiteheadian Postmodern Perspective,” The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 87:3 (July 1993):217-88.

9 For references, see M. A. Corey, God and the New Cosmology: The Anthropic Design Argument (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1993).

10 I have discussed this issue in a book-length manuscript titled “Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem,” which I anticipate having published in 1995.  [It was published in 1998.  The book’s complete text is available online.—A.F.]

11 See Chapter 13, “. . . endowed by their creator. . . ,” in Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (New York: Vintage Books, 1978).

12 I have developed this point at length in “Unsnarling the World-Knot.”



2. Why Demonic Power Exists: Understanding the Church’s Enemy


Posted September 12, 2007

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