Open Theology & Science - Week 1 Recap
I'm currently in Boston at a 3-week seminar entitled "Open Theology and Science". The goal of the conference is to generate new research at the intersection of science, philosophy, and theology in light of the distinctive commitments of open theism (= broadly classical theism + real future contingency + epistemic openness of the future for God). I am one of 20 invited scholars. Even better, I'm getting paid to go.
So far things have been great. Every weekday morning we hear a presentation by an invited scientist or philosopher on matters pertaining to the theme. After that, we have a couple hours of group discussion. The afternoons and evenings are mostly free and include optional sight-seeing excursions into Boston. So far I've gotten to interact with a lot of really neat people and hear from some very stimulating speakers. What follows are a few of the highlights.
On Monday we heard a presentation by philosopher/theologian John Sanders outlining open theology. He spoke about his own experience as the unfortunate victim of an academic witch hunt for espousing politically incorrect theology at a conservative evangelical college. One of the lessons of his experience that he emphasized was the importance of bridging the communication gap between persons of different theological persuasions. Often this can be very difficult and requires a careful "framing" of one's position to avoid misleading connotations. For example, instead of describing open theism as denying exhaustive definite foreknowledge, a locution that plays into the hands of the critics by suggesting a limitation on God's knowledge, he now prefers to speak in positive terms of "dynamic omniscience".
On Tuesday we heard two presentations. The first was by philosopher Thomas Flint, perhaps the leading defender of Molinism, a major competitor to open theism. Flint contrasted open theism and Molinism and presented some arguments in favor of the latter. After him, theologian Thomas Oord spoke on the similarities and differences between open theism and process theism. In the evening we had a formal debate between Flint and Bill Hasker, a leading philosophical defender of open theism and critic of Molinism. There were no surprises during the debate, with both Flint and Hasker making the standard moves and countermoves that they've each been defending for years. Both presentations were quite witty, though, and made for a fun evening.
The speaker on Wednesday was Philip Clayton, a philosopher/theologian from Claremont Graduate University. A self-professed 'panentheist', Clayton holds a position intermediate between full-blown process theism and open theism. He spoke on what it means to have a real three-way dialogue between theologians, philosophers, and scientists. In his view we ought to allow each discipline a full and equal place at the table. Clayton did generate some controversy, however, because he affirms a strong methodological naturalism according to which we ought never to posit unilateral divine intervention into the natural order. As he sees it, even the possibility of a miracle would be utterly disastrous for science. His main worry, though, is a theological one - if God can ever intervene in the natural order then why doesn't he intervene more than he does to prevent evils like the Holocaust, etc.? Many of the participants objected that there would be no such disastrous consequences for sciences and that ruling out unilateral divine intervention would give up far too much of traditional theism.
Thursday's speaker was retired physicist Howard Van Till. After speaking about how our worldviews or ODoR's (operational depictions of reality) are acquired and how they shape us in turn, he offered some specific suggestions for science-religion dialogue. Not too surprisingly, he came down in much the same place as Clayton did. He wants to rule out any appeal to supernatural intervention in science. Many of us, myself included, pressed him on this and he wound up appealing to the same theological issue that Clayton raised, namely, why God doesn't intervene more. What was interesting was how Van Till's adherence to strong methodical naturalism has led him to give up most of traditional Christian theology. Over the years he's gone from being a staunch Calvinist to being essentially a Jeffersonian deist, denying the inspiration of Scripture as well as both the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
Regarding the theological issue raised by both Clayton and Van Till, it's a problem for any version of theism that affirms that God could (metaphysically and morally) intervene in the natural order. Process theists deny that this is metaphysically possible - God couldn't do a miracle. Clayton and (I think) Van Till want to say that such intervention is morally impossible. God, they insist, simply wouldn't do such things because it would be a really bad thing if he did. But this really does seem to limit God in an objectionable way since it's hard to see why an all-good, all-powerful being would have to lack either sufficient power or sufficient motive for intervening in the natural world.
Today, Friday, we heard a very stimulating presentation by Robert Mann, a Canadian physicist and astronomer on "God and Time". He spoke about what physics has to say about the origins of the universe, the age of the universe, the nature and measurement of time, and the implications of relativity (STR and GTR), quantum theory, and chaos theory. It was especially refreshing to hear from a scientist who really understood where many of the theologians were coming from and was sympathetic to their concerns. The chief concern of us philosophers was the relevance of relativity theory for the A-theory of time. Mann had a lot of very interesting stuff to say on the matter, though he didn't seem to me to adequately appreciate the distinction between physical and metaphysical questions. The result was a communication gap. In the end, I'm inclined to go with the suggestion that was made by both Robin Collins and Alan Padgett that we ought to take an instrumentalist approach to relativity theory, and possibly also quantum theory as well. Given the incompatibility of the two theories and the long-standing conceptual problems within each, such an approach seems to be sufficiently well-motivated and the most straightforward way of reconciling absolute simultaneity with modern physics.