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Steve Petermann

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About Steve Petermann

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  • Birthday 04/27/1949

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  1. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    Interesting discussion. That prompted me to poke around a bit and remind myself of Tillich's views. I found a couple of nice papers by David Nikkel comparing Tilich's and James' views on mysticism and religious experience. While I share aspects of both of their views, I found particular agreement in Nikkel's statements about Eastern nondualism (Vishishtadvaita Vedanta?) and James.

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  2. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    You are correct. Contrary to what the Fuller student says, I did not set out to prove anything. The question for me was, if there is a sui generis, mystical a priori then can a systematic theology be formulated that is reasonable to a discerning, science friendly person?

    Preferences are embedded in the psychological landscape that perceives and interprets reality. But preferences vary. Damasio in "Descartes' Error" makes a strong case that our decisions are driven in large part by our emotions (i.e. representations of body states). These emotions reflect both physical and cognitive interests and commitments. Now if the strongest emotional commitments are not receptive to logical reasoning and empirical evidence, then the ensuing decisions and the systems they create will not necessarily be consilient with what empirical investigations suggest. This can lead to what others would describe as an irrational view of reality. But if the strongest emotional commitment is to discover the facts-of-the-matter and other commitments are subordinate to this, then perhaps a more reasonable view is possible.

    Humans do, in general, have a strong need for foundations. Foundations offer a predictability through cause and effect that provides existential advantages and are psychologically appealing. But many humans also have a tremendous interest in ultimate foundations. Witness both the billions of dollars spent on the Hadron Collider and the billions of man hours spent in metaphysical and religious philosophy. Now the scientific pursuit of foundations has been fruitful but may be inherently indeterminate with regard the ultimate foundation of reality, via infinite regression. Enter metaphysics. But metaphysics is speculative and also indeterminate. However, that hasn't stopped attempts. Now if the goal of a metaphysical system is to describe ultimate foundations as they are and not just some exercise in a logical construct, then epistemology becomes an important nut to crack. Obviously for a metaphysical system to be considered reasonable, it must comport with reality as we know it. Then extrapolations may ensue from our reality to ultimate reality. However, another epistemic avenue that has been postulated throughout history is religious experience. In this epistemology there is direct experience of the divine. While those experiences are often described as ineffable, that hasn't stop attempts to explicate them into words and symbols. This approach is even more dicey than physical investigations but also may offer deeper insights.
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  3. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    Evolutionary psychology and sociology are certainly valid ways to approach understanding religion. But one could say that "evolutionary baggage" is responsible for both religion and irreligion. Does this refute either? No. Evolution created a great diversity in living things. Apparently this was an important feature for life to survive and thrive. There can be important survival reasons for both religious belief and religious disbelief. Religious belief can offer beneficial psychological advantages and religious disbelief can temper tendencies to look "out there" for solutions to problems instead of dealing with them ourselves.

    Evolution engendered the ability of reasoning and abstract thought. Apparently this offered the opportunity to think metaphysically. Artifacts found in early hominid graves suggest that even at this early stage of hominid evolution thinking about what lies after death was occurring. Thinking about "Something Out There" goes way back.

    What is clear is that most humans do have a religious sensibility. Now this could be attributed merely to evolutionary baggage or that there is, in fact, "something out there" that people sense. While psychology and sociology (and possibly evolutionary versions of these) can shed light on the formation and content of religious sentiment, it shouldn't be a surprise that religious adherents are intransigent against the suggestion that their beliefs are spurious artifacts of evolution. Many have had experiences that convince them, albeit maybe with some skepticism, that there is a God.
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  4. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   


    If this theological system is accepted, there are several implications.

    Eschatology. In this system, life is important and valuable. But the structure of life includes constraints and with them a yin and yang of complimentary opposites. This interplay of opposites makes life possible but it also makes evil possible. The importance of life itself mitigates the potential for evil. As Leibnitz says, “This is the best of all possible words”.

    The implication of this is that there is no ultimate resolution to this struggle and one is neither needed nor desired. Accordingly, people should not look to some “heavenly” realm as a solution, but instead passionately engage in the eternal struggle against evil and for the good.

    Teleology. The narrative of the divine life proceeds according to divine intent. One of the primary purposes of this intent is life itself. Accordingly, the evolution of life is teleological. However, that telos in evolution occurs within the life giving constraints, created and honored by God. Accordingly life will evolve within the limits of those constraints.

    Communion. In an aspect monism there is a unity in the One. This means that individual actions affect God and all other aspects of God. This should promote a more global solidarity that is inclusive and concerned both with the individual and the whole.

    Revelation. Revelation concerning ultimate reality is not something interjected across some divide but inherent in the depth of reality. As such, since God is present in every aspect and event, every event is a religious experience i.e. saying something about ultimate reality. Now these experiences need not be dramatic but dramatic experiences often heighten our sense of the divine depth. Accordingly, as Paul Tillich says there are people, places, events, texts, etc. that are particularly transparent to the divine. It’s all a matter of looking and being open to that depth.

    Morality. For those who avail themselves to the dimension of depth, glimpses of divine preferences and telos may be sensed. However, as these intuitions have a contextual and subjective element, they are best tested with every possible resource, i.e. intuitions of others, wisdom literature, history, results, etc.

    Prayer. Prayer is not an attempt to breach some divide but rather an attempt to fathom the divine depth found in all things. As such, each prayer looks to the depth within that also reaches to the Author, the One. Prayers of supplication should also honor God’s commitment to constraint. Life requires constraints and because of this, the intent of supplications should not be for God to violate those constraints but to work within them.

    Afterlife. Life proceeds according to a systematic process. When that process is sufficiently disrupted, that life terminates. What follows after that is unknown. However, at the least, an individual life is eternally present in the mind of God.
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  5. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    Divine Action

    One of the most controversial aspects of theism is the postulate that God acts in the world. This is controversial because over against a view that reality emerges intentionally, there are models that dispute that.

    In philosophy, a non-intentional view may have been first introduced by the Carvakan school of thought around the sixth century BCE in what is now known as India. These philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature. In other words, matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today this self-nature is thought of as properties such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently this line of thinking made its way into early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later the concept of materialistic atomism appears. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce what we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to be a dominant view in science.

    However, this “svabhava” view was not without its detractors. There were those both in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna developed his sunyata concept or “emptiness” saying that nothing has an essential independent nature but only a conditional or relational existence. The term for this is “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. In early Greek thought the rejection of non-intentional atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind.

    Perhaps the most forceful attack on the svabhavan atomism came later with the idealism schools of thought in Germany and England. Some maintained that what constituted reality was, in fact, mind or perception. George Berkeley as one of its leading proponents famously said, “To be is to be perceived or to perceive”. Berkeley and his “subjective idealism” fell under considerable criticism for being unable to account for common experience, and later became more of an absolute idealist by attributing our perceptions to God.

    Another strain of criticism also came from forms of panpsychism that date back to early Greek thought, Heraclitus for one. Most notable among modern proponents is the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead. Whitehead was a contemporary of Einstein and even developed his own physical theories. Later in his life he forged off into speculative metaphysics and founded process philosophy. Whitehead claimed that reality is constituted by occasions (events) of experience. Like the quote below from Stapp, Whitehead rejected the enduring substance view of reality in favor of an event model of becoming.

    There continue to be critics of a svabhavan materialism, but materialistic atomism has maintained its prominence among many thinkers because it has proved a helpful framework within which to do science. It has offered many achievements by utilizing reductionism.

    So, for a reasonable, science friendly person who at least entertains a teleological view of reality, how are these opposing views to be adjudicated? Has an intentional constituting element or process (teleology) been definitively refuted? I would say no, but the teleological view has also not been definitively affirmed. To me, the landscape is very muddled. Now I haven’t kept up with all the latest in fundamental science but I’ll offer my perspective. If someone has new information, that would be welcome.

    At some level, science has been very successful in making predictions and predictability might be a path to ruling out teleology. But there are and have been limits to this predictability. Under a Newtonian model, the limits of predictability originate from the lack of data. But with the advent of quantum mechanics the limits of predictability are not epistemological but rather ontological. For instance, the collapse of the wave packet can be characterized through probability but exactly when and why the collapse occurs is indeterminate. Events occur within a statistical model but a particular event has an unpredictability to it.

    Then there is the issue of consciousness or mind in experiments. Berkeley Physicist, Henry Stapp put it this way:

    Another apparent kink in predictability arises with emergence. Nobel laureate physicist Robert Laughlin’s book “A Difference Universe” offers examples where collective behavior seems to create properties that aren’t amenable to reductionist explanations. He even speculates that space/time may be emergent. I haven’t followed emergence research closely but if the collective has a powerful effect on how reality is constituted that would present an enormous challenge for science because the efficacy of the reductionist approach relies on minimizing parameters.

    So, if a thoroughgoing predictability is not currently in the offing, where does that leave a discerning, metaphysically seeking individual? Probably back to an informed intuition. Reality certainly appears to have some level of purpose i.e. intentionality. If that intuition is reasonable, and I think it is, then where does intentionality come from? Since we usually approach things from a cascading cause-and-effect perspective, this raises the possibility of an ultimate intentionality as the source. Enter divine action.

    Historically there is a wide spectrum of ideas on divine action. In theistic, dualistic systems divine action is often characterized as supernatural interventions. In this view, our reality pretty much runs on its own but from time to time the divine intervenes and overrules the normal order of things to accomplish some end. In milder forms the divine just maintains the order of the world and doesn’t step in at any point to affect some difference. Both of these are predicated on the perception that there is a definite order to the universe and it may not exist by itself or be intransigent without some outside activity. Examples of both of these positions can be found in the Abrahamic traditions like fundamentalist Christianity and theistic evolutionism.

    In monistic systems where divine action is postulated, divine action occurs not across some divide but integral to reality. This approach also acknowledges the importance of order but may attribute that order to God. I don’t know if the following represents a dualistic or monistic approach but it states one way to view divine action and the regularity in the universe from a physicist’s perspective.

    In Measurements and time reversal in objective quantum theory, Purdue physicist F. J. Belinfante:

    The key point, in this view, is that God has made a commitment to the regular habits found in the structure of reality. The result of which would explain predictability, at least in the macroscopic realm. From the “life” perspective of my previous post this means that God respects that order is a necessary requirement for life. And even more than that, as Belinfante claims, the order we see is not svabhavan i.e. intrinsic but rather intentionally created event by event. What this also says is that order is not mechanistic but rather a teleological complex of events that are purposeful, somehow embedded in and represented by both the predictability and unpredictability of events.

    Now since there is flow of events in order, this may also mean that stark disruptions in order could have significant, cascading negative effects on life. This suggests that supernaturalism not only discounts the adequacy of God’s creation but also God’s faithfulness to the life giving order that is needed.

    So, all this taken together represents another decision point for the theological system. Is divine action a forceful, overriding intervention or an organic process? An aspect monism would opt for the later. If the divine has a life and we are aspects of it, then the divine is not an outside influence but rather within the Life itself that proceeds according to divine purpose. Also if a fundamental feature of life is constraint, then it isn’t unreasonable to view divine action as constrained action as well. And intentionality can operate comfortably within those constraints.
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  6. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    I didn't develop an ontology to answer an ethical imperative. That would be sequentially illegitimate. Of course there are biases in intuitions but in the interest of intellectual honesty those should be held in abeyance as much as possible. The reason I proceeded to investigate an alternative theological system was my dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in theology. The primary goal was to see if a system could be developed that a reasonable, scientifically friendly person could feel comfortable with. That is more and more not the case with traditional theologies.

    Yes. And if they work, all the better. Unfortunately the dualistic ontology and the judgmental inclinations of the Abrahamic traditions have often led to divisions instead of communion. Of course, one would hope a theology promotes the well being of the world but if this the first goal, contrivances may ensue that illegitimize the attempt.

    Testing is fine but if the goal is to develop a theology that markets well with the desired result, then that would be dishonest and most people are not stupid. Many would detect the underlying deceit. A theology needs to have a verisimilitude with reality as people perceive it. Having said that, there have been tests that detect communal sensibilities in cultures. The one I remember showed subjects pictures of individuals with other people in the background. Then some question was asked of the subject regarding the foreground individual's position on something. What the study found was that Asian subjects spent more time looking at the faces of the background individuals before coming to a conclusion. Westerns didn't look much at them. Now it is common knowledge that Asian cultures are more communally oriented than in the West. Perhaps this reflects the communist influences of the past. How does this effect their ethics? I'm no expert but it does seem that Asian cultures do put more weight on communal interests over against those of the individual. Does this make their culture healthier, and promote the moral good more? A difficult question because moral sensibilities are complex in our global and information age environment. The answer also depends on one's perception of the moral good.

    In theory, perhaps a more moral world does not require a theology. In practice, probably. The reason is that a large percentage of the world population is religious. These adherents base their morality to some extent on the moral teachings of their religion. Now religion is clearly not the only factor but it does carry weight. So, theologies do matter. However, in my experience, atheists, for the most part, are very moral people. But that point of view does not appeal to everyone. I think what needs to be acknowledged and even emphasized is that there is a wide array of personality types in the world. Each has its own sensitivities and inclinations. One religion, philosophy, or theology will not suit all. Just won't happen. In fact, personality types that are strong in abstract thinking and empirical friendliness are a very small percentage of the population. Personality studies estimate that group is only about 7-12% of the population. So, the vast majority of people will choose their metaphysical orientation on things other than reasonableness and empirical consilience. Often individuals in that smaller group become disillusioned with traditional religions. This may have either positive or negative effects. However, for those who still feel the urge to find some religious or theological framework as a grounding, perhaps there could be such. From my experience with my blog for six years, this seems to be a very small group.

    I think the best one can do is affirm our anthropocentric inclinations and proceed on as unbiased as possible. There is a common notion that the goal of history or its center revolves our humanity. Now there may be some value to the level of evolutionary development in homo sapiens but that need not be viewed as ultimately important or even reality's ultimate achievement. After all the universe has been around for billions of years without us and eventually we will disappear. At this point in time, however, humans sometimes look beyond their petty concerns and seek deeper meaning and purpose. Perhaps there are ways in philosophy, religion, and culture that can facilitate this even though we may not "really know what we're talking about".
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  7. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    I would mostly agree. For a long time I have found some form of absolute idealism appealing. First, it fits my ontology. Second it seems to ameliorate the hard problem of consciousness. If everything is fundamentally mind then phenomenal consciousness seems to fit seamlessly. Also there is really no such thing as the material. The "material" is just a term used to refer to a particular mental state of affairs. Reality is a mental state. And individual consciousness is an aspect of the One consciousness.

    However, I do see a difference in talking about mind vs phenomenal consciousness. This comes primarily from thinking about the difference between what the brain/mind does and what phenomenal consciousness does. The brain/mind does the work but consciousness experiences what is going on. Anyway that's my view of it. So, I see consciousness as an element of mind but not what creates reality. The mind of God and we create reality but consciousness experiences it.

    Now the following is probably hogwash but I'll put it out there anyway since, at least in my mind, it addresses a couple of problems, time symmetry in QM and the possibility of precognition/retrocognition. Back to my Author/Story metaphor. Let's say that the narrative in the story is created timelessly i.e. there is no time arrow during its creation but God, the characters, and environment do what they do anyway as if there was time. So the whole story "exists". Then, however, we and God experience it. This experience does seem to have an arrow of time as the narrative is transversed, like reading a book. However, since the narrative already exists, under the right conditions, it may be possible to skip ahead a few pages and experience the future, or back and experience some other part of the narrative. Probably hogwash but aren't unfounded speculations sometimes fun to think about?
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  8. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    Right. Destruction could be viewed morally as an evil thing but destruction and evil are not necessarily analogous. It's not a matter of degree of destruction or creation for that matter but how they are morally interpreted. For instance, the destruction of nuclear warheads could be viewed as a moral good whereas the creation of a totalitarian state morally bad. So, the very same processes can produce the good or the evil.

    Change is part of life. In and of itself this is morally neutral.

    While an aspect monism is an ontology and could form a basis for ethical considerations, I don't think the ontology alone is sufficient for such. Moral or ethical considerations could arise through intuitive examinations of how the "narrative" is unfolding which perhaps gives hints on how the Author would have it unfold.

    I don't really see how ethics can come before ontology. What would be the foundation for it?

    This approach does not fit well within an aspect monism as it maintains a stark ontological divide. However, the other and the Other need not be discounted. They have their own uniqueness and identity but occur in a communion of the Divine Life. This reflects the great difficulty that we in the West particularly have with grasping what might be called mystical ontologies. How is it that we can be both other and the same? Paul Tillich characterized this function of reality as the polarity of individuation and participation.

    Yes, one can respect the otherness of individuals but also within the recognition of a unity as well. Transcendence is a problematic word only in the sense where it creates a divide between God and world. I prefer the term "depth". In an aspect monism God may have an abysmal depth but that depth is a continuum with the depth of our reality, not a separation. For this reason the depth of the divine life can be probed as best one can. In fact, this can represent the ineffable factor in religious experience.

    One of the important moral implications that could flow from this ontology, is the breaking down of barriers. We live in very tribal times, not only globally but also locally. This us-versus-them mentality is the source of much conflict and violence. If there was rather a communal sense of unity in a grand narrative of life, perhaps these divisions would subside. There is already a strong sense of "otherness" in play. Perhaps this needs to be counterbalanced with a sense of common unity.
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  9. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    Life and the Problem of Evil

    What is life? This is a controversial question. Does life require metabolism, replication, use of energy, etc? From a theological perspective, however, I would like to focus on a broad feature, constrained being. How ever life may be defined, it occurs within constraints. There is a structure to the universe and it is within that structure that beings exist. There are fundamental constrains like polarities: positive/negative, perhaps energy/dark energy as well as things described as heat, entropy, space and time, etc. The bottom line is that these constraints make life, as we know it, possible. They allow for dynamic processes to occur that support things like energy flow, information transfer, and stability as well as change. The processes both create and destroy. There is growth and decay. Evolution itself shows how complexity can be created and destroyed but so far life moves on.

    Now, an ever present issue in theology and religious philosophy has been the problem of evil. From a moral sensibility standpoint bad stuff happens. So the metaphysical issue is how to deal with this perceived problem. A common approach to resolving this problem has been to seek some resolution in an alternate existence or the dissolution of existence itself. In the East one solution is to move beyond the life/death cycle. In the West the solution is often some alternative being where evil is not present. Now in theism since God is the creator of all things as well as the good, this presents a problem for theology to resolve. A common sentiment is that somehow God must be shielded from evil and there must also be some sort of eventual purging of evil from existence. So buffers are contrived. In the Abrahamic traditions a dualism is set up to shield God from evil. A sharp ontological divide is in play. God is perfect even though the world is imperfect. Also since God is the creator of all things a rationale must be devised to mitigate this. The rationale is usually found in free will. So creatures may act in discord with the perfect divine, but this created situation is worth it. Then a resolution is in the offing where the free creatures who made the right choice are rewarded with an evil-free existence. Now it is, I think, fair that some rationale is needed to mitigate the presence of evil, but since this whole scheme is based on only one possible ontology is there another way to deal with the problem of evil reasonably? I think a viable mitigating factor is life itself.

    The very same structures that make life possible also make what we call evil possible. As said before, these structures both create and destroy. An example is growth. What came before is destroyed to some extent and the new takes its place. Even things like learning both create and destroy. Hence, both the good and the evil participate in these same processes. If this is the case, then life requires the potential for evil to exist. Without the structures and processes that make evil possible, life would not be possible either.

    So the question is, is life worth the potential for evil to exist? What would be an acceptable alternative? Enter heaven. To resolve the problem of evil, some sort of ultimate bliss is postulated. No evil, no pain, etc. At first blush this might sound appealing but would it really be? I think not. If there is no possibility of failure, would there be any satisfaction in success? Could there be any joy without the opposite of pain? Without tension where is the satisfaction of release. There would also be no joy in learning where the old is destroyed and the new created. I think if one thinks long enough about an existence without possible negatives there would be no appeal. Perhaps then having life is worth having evil.

    So, in this scenario is it necessary to shield God from evil and is a resolution to evil necessary? If the structure of life (and with it the potential for evil) is actually a worthwhile thing, then God as creator needs no defense. In fact praise might be in order. But wouldn't it be unfair that although creation with evil present is a good thing, God in God’s perfection doesn’t have to deal with evil? Only if there is no evil within God. In an aspect monism this isn’t the case. God is a living God, God has a Life. If there is only the One then evil resides in the One and, in fact, is created by the One. But such is life, and if there is a Divine Life then the divine also includes evil. From a moral point of view, since aspects in God both create and experience evil, so does God. The Author is responsible for both life and the evil within it. So is a resolution to the issue of evil necessary or even wanted? No evil, no life. If life is worth having the potential for evil, then a resolution is neither needed nor wanted.

    Now, this scenario doesn’t suggest complacency toward evil. To the contrary. Intuitional revelation as encoded in wisdom literature resoundingly calls for a struggle against evil. So apparently the Divine Life entails a struggle for good over evil and if there is no resolution in the offing then this struggle is eternal.
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  10. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    Hey Peter,

    Illustrations of tacit knowledge could be riding a bicycle, dancing, or possibly even a nagging feeling about a mathematical proof. "We know more than we can say" I'm not sure it directly correlates to intuition but I think there are similarities. In any case, just because we have a tacit knowledge or an intuition, that does not usually stop us from trying to explicate it into words and symbols. For instance, a music theorist may just know a piece of music is good or bad, for some reason, and then proceed to analyze it from a music theory standpoint to try to understand why it has that value. Or a golfer tries to break down a golf swing that just feels right so they know how to duplicate it if something stops working. After all, the brain is, in large part, an amazing pattern matching engine. And as George Lakoff shows in "Philosophy in the Flesh" much, if not all, our language flows from our bodily senses, up/down, distance, volume, etc. So the bodily senses, how ever they are encoded, either tacit, intuitional, or symbolic are still patterns within the brain that may have cross correlations.

    I view an intuition as a gestalt proceeding from many things going on in the environment, brain, and body. It generates a "sense" that is not immediately explicated but may be later. From an evolutionary standpoint this capability is very important. It enables quick responses to things whereas analysis would take too long. There may be hardwired intuitions from birth like recognition of "good" and "bad" from a biological standpoint but intuitions also expand their scope as experience expands. They also get refined as they get tested.

    Intuitions regarding metaphysics are more difficult to explain because they point to the more ineffable. Often they seem sourced in some kind of religious experience, usually a dramatic one, but within my theological framework there is no such thing as a non-religious experience. This is because every experience says something about reality, which is also ultimate reality. From that standpoint everyone has intuitions regarding the ultimate whether it includes a God or not. I posted a nice example of a dramatic experience that Paul Tillich had on my blog here. He also talks about the "dimension of depth" that I would suggest means that religious experiences are not crossing some divide but rather probing the depth of reality that leads to our intuitions about it.

    What is interesting is that metaphysical intuitions vary. If there is one ultimate reality then why the difference? I think it has a lot to do with context and experience. In the axial age there was a lot of world rejection going around so it would be expected that intuitions be skewed in that direction. Today there is less. Bellah has a nice piece on religious evolution that includes this here. If one accepts the notion of metaphysical intuitions then I guess the best one can do is go with what seems right. That's also why I think religious pluralism can be a good thing, if it promotes a healthier, more moral world. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Although intuitions and extrapolations from them are fallible, I think it is still valid to have a "faithing fallibilism". Although I'm not a Christian, I think something to the effect of what Luther said is valid, "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly." It's OK to passionately commit to something fallible while believing in the grace of God. There is no eternal judgment. I would not have the slightest interest in such a god.
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  11. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   


    At least in my view, one of the things that distinguishes theism from other religious forms is that it represents the ultimate as intentional and possibly personal. If the ultimate is personal then a relationship may be possible. But how can this ultimate intentionality, personhood, and relatedness be described? This is where ontology comes in.

    To me ontology is a dicey concept. Since it deals with the concept of being itself, it opens up difficult definitions and issues to navigate. However, ontology is extremely important for a systematic theology. Historically there have been numerous ontologies offered in theology and religious philosophy. Often they are labeled with terms like monism (non-dual), dualism, or pluralism. In the East, monism (non-dual) seems to be more prevalent (i.e. Buddhism, Hindu philosophies) although there are examples of dualism and pluralism. In the West, strains of both monism and dualism can be found in Abrahamic religions.

    One way to approach the issue of ontology for a systematic theology could be to somehow characterize distinctions between God and "the world". Is there a strong distinction between God and the world or not? This is obviously a huge topic but let me try to distill it down within my understanding of it.

    In dualism there are strong distinctions between God and the world. These could be metaphorized as some sort of divide between the divine and the mundane where delineation of being or engagement/detachment of God with the world is an important issue. Often there seems to be a need to shield God from the "evil" found in the world. So God is "perfect" and the world is "imperfect". Or there is an essential nature and an existential nature.

    In a monism (non-dual) there is only the One where if there are distinctions they are about aspects or qualities of the One. There is no stark divide within the One. An example in the East of an ontology with distinctions is Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. Its ontology is a qualified monism. In the West there are strains of pantheism and panentheism.

    From a theological perspective, the terms themselves (dualism, monism, pantheism, etc.) are not as important as how they are reflected in the religious sentiment that emerges from a chosen ontology. For a systematic theology, ontology is the stepping off point for much of what follows. So, this is one of those decision points that must be made.

    Now an intuition concerning the ontology of reality could go lots of ways. This is where informing intuitions may be helpful. While our investigations into the structure of reality relate to our reality, they may offer hints as well into the structure of reality, ultimately. This may be a stretch but I think this is what metaphysics often does, draw from our experience of this reality and extrapolate to the meta level.

    So how can we characterize ontological distinctions within our reality? At first blush, it's tempting to see sharp distinctions of being as we look around at "beings". But this can be misleading. If we just look at ourselves, we are a conglomerate of many beings, i.e. cells, each having its own being. Also biology has shown that we are also a host for many other beings like viruses, bacteria, and parasites. Some are even essential to our health.

    Some other examples to ponder:

    Psychologically somehow a self emerges from the myriad of beings and processes within the body and mind.

    Economics emerges from the actions of billions of individuals around the world.

    Sociologically, somehow groups, organizations, and countries emerge from the actions and interactions of many.

    In physics there is this strange phenomenon of quantum entanglement where particles no matter how far apart spatially they are somehow show the same measurement at the same time. So even the entire universe appears holistic.

    Also in physics and biology there are emergent properties that arise from the collective that can't seem to be explained through reductionism.

    Then there are controversial psi experiments that may indicate some sort of consciousness interconnectivity.

    All this taken together seems to support the intuition that there is a relational whole (one thing) and that all things are aspects of it. Aspects affect themselves, other aspects, and the whole. If this is the case then it may be reasonable to expect all of reality to be "one thing" i.e. the One. I call this ontology an aspect monism. This is the first crossroad decision for the system.

    So, with this decision made, a theology can begin to be fleshed out as follows. An aspect monism says that God is the One and that all things are aspects of the One. This has several consequences. First it means that God has a Life. Our lives and that of all things are aspects of God’s Life. It also says there is a communion of all things within the One.

    A metaphor I use to describe this is Author/Story. As an author creates a narrative in her mind, she creates environments, characters, and situations. These are within the author’s mind (aspects) but they also seem to have a life unto themselves. As authors will tell you, sometimes as the narrative unfolds the characters will surprise the author with what they do and how they develop. They seem to have a level of freedom to emerge. Freewill?

    So with this ontology in tow, there are several things to deal with like the structure of life, the problem of evil, divine action, practical and moral implications, etc.
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  12. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic Theology from Scratch   

    The first step in a systematic theology is an epistemology. This is a bit tricky because it seems to me that any epistemological assertion is also an ontological one. And ontology will be the foundation from which many assertions flow.

    Now if one accepts the reasonableness of an intuition of a purposeful divine, then the question becomes, where does this come from? As David pointed out, one answer comes from Calvin, a sensus divinitatis. Tillich called this the mystical a priori. This part of Tillich's epistemology also says that "to know is to participate in" i.e. there is some sort of unity of the knowing subject and that which is known. Now clearly, this is an ontological statement as well as an epistemological one. I don't know if this circularity is a deal killer but I also don't know of another way to proceed.

    Now before I discuss epistemology, let me say something about method. Every systematic theology proceeds according to some method whether it is explicit or not. Tillich called his "the method of correlation" where existential questions are asked and then revelation explored for answers to those questions. This method works well when there are established revelatory resources, but won't work when starting from scratch. This is because those revelatory resources are not given a priori authority. In a "starting from scratch" theology, the revelatory slate starts clean.

    The first aspect of the method I will employ is minimalism. Since this is a metaphysical system, it can be tempting to go hog wild with all sorts of metaphysical assertions. We see this often in religious systems, particularly those rooted in ancient times. Since metaphysical assertions are tentative anyway, I think it is neither necessary nor wise to go beyond only what is needed to form an actionable theology. Others may extrapolate beyond the system but that's their personal choice.

    Now in every system there are decision points that shape the rest of the system. Once a choice is made, other avenues are excluded. So in this system there will be points where a decision on which way to go will have to be made. How those decisions are made is rooted in the epistemology in conjunction with anything that can be brought to bear on the issue.

    On epistemology. This system utilizes what I call "an informed intuition". By intuition I mean something like a sensus divinitatis, or to be more precise, a sense of reality as it ultimately is. How ever they may be fleshed out, I belief religious systems start out with this sense. Now intuitions can be ill defined and by themselves often turn out to be wrong. But intuitions that are informed may have a better chance of being valid. Reality itself has a powerful way of informing intuitions, often in painful ways. So in this system any available resource is welcome to inform this sense of ultimate reality. This means personal experience, philosophy, science, art, moral sensibility, wisdom literature, or anything else that can be brought to bear.

    Granted, this type of epistemology has no authority beyond what is granted to it by the individual. It is fallible and open to revision but, in my view, there is no other foundational resource available.

    Ontology next.
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  13. Steve Petermann added a topic in History and Philosophy of Science   

    Theology from Scratch
    Something like 70-80% of the people on the planet believe in some form of God. Now this could be explained as some type of extrapolation from the evolutionary development of purposeful recognition to the ultimate, or it could actually mean there is something to it. If there might be something to it, how would one proceed in exploring this topic?

    So, I'd like to couch this exploration within the confines of a certain type of person that would entertain the thought that there might be some ultimate personal basis of reality. Obviously, there are many people who accept this proposition uncritically but that's not the type of person I'm interested in. The type of person I'm focusing on has a healthy degree of skepticism, has a friendly relationship with all forms of human interest including philosopy, science, religion, the arts, etc. This type of person will not accept something uncritically or because some establishment promotes it.

    Now most people are exposed to some sort of religious culture as they grow up and often adopt that framework. Sometimes, however, there is a falling out with that culture at some point, for some reason, and that can clean the slate, religiously speaking. So where to go from there?

    The first question to ask is, does this person feel compelled to explore the question of a divine presense in reality? If not the story ends, at least for the moment. If they are compelled, then there are a few options. First, they can do a survey of current religious sentiment to see if something resonates with them. This is a common approach. If they find something that meets their needs, all well and good for them. However, sometimes nothing suits this personality type I'm focusing on. Current religious systems have many artifacts dating back to the axial age that do not suit the modern mind. They are fraught with elements that offend a person friendly with philosophical reasoning and empirical sensibilities. So what to do?

    Another option is to start from scratch, as far as one can. I would suggest that the only starting place is an intuition about reality. This might correlate to Michael Polyani's tacit mode, "we know more than we can say". Is there an intuition that there is an ultimate purposefullness to reality and this may not be a spurious artifact of evolutionary developments? If there is then Polanyi's explicit mode may proceed from there, that may or may not satisfy this person I'm describing. I'll stop there for comments, then if suitable I'll proceed with a delineation of a theological system I call "The Divine Life Communon" that may be reasonable for some of this type of person.
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  14. Steve Petermann added an answer to a question Advice: Literature concerning the "History of Religion/s"   

    I also think Armstrong's books are good for this. Here are some others:

    There are some good books from sociologists of religion by Eliade, Durkheim, and Weber. Mircea Eliade's "A History of Religious Ideas" covers religious ideas from very early hominids through Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

    For axial age religion and philosophy McEvilley's book "The Shape of Ancient Thought" is outstanding.

    Robert Bellah has some very interesting ideas on religious evolution. One book I found helpful was "Beyond Belief". Here's a taste of his ideas that are on the web.

    Michael Horace Barnes has a fascinating book "Stages of Thought" that tracks the evolution of religious thought with changes in science and culture, starting from the axial age through modern times. He also offers similar stages as Bellah and utilizes Piaget's stages of cognition.

    For a history of Christian thought, two books are Tillich's "A History of Christian Thought" and a very thorough treatment of liberal Christianity by Gary Dorrien "The Making of American Liberal Theology" in three volumes.

    While these books chronicle religious thought, an area that I haven't been able to find much of which I am very interested, asks the question why religious formulations took the shape they did. To address this question one would have to explore religious experience, contextual psychology, cognitive foundations, etc. For instance, one of my theories is that systems of religious thought took the shape they did based on what existential issues were emphasized. A couple of examples could be Buddhism/Hinduism and Judaism/Islam/Christianity coming out of the axial age. Buddhism seems to have emphasized the question of suffering. Once that emphasis is taken, the shape of religious answers will necessarily take a certain form. However, for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity the existential emphasis seems to be on justice. Thusly, religious formulations focused on dealing with transgression, guilty, and atonement. If anyone is familar with treatments of this question, I'd appreciate pointers to it.
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  15. Steve Petermann added a post in a topic What is your deconversion story?   

    My story actually has a couple of deconversions. Ever since I was young, I've had a religious sensibility. I was raised in a conservative Lutheran denomination and really liked the sense of the sacred that was prevalent in my church. Although my pastor once told me I should go into the ministry, I wasn't interested and went into engineering instead. After about 5 years working in engineering, I got interesting in theology and eventually decided to go to seminary. Ironically it was in seminary that my journey away from Christianity began. As I studied scripture in depth and the best theologians, I became liberal theologically. I came to see scripture in a new light as well. The historical-critical method of studying scripture showed me that the documents of scripture are very human documents, full of contradictions, variations in theology, myth, symbol, and were also contextually determined by worldviews of their time. In other words, they could not be taken literally and must be viewed within their historical and personal settings. They were context sensitive testaments. This alone was not a reason to reject certain liberal Christian theologies of the time, but it did mean that I wouldn't fit in, in a parish. So I quit seminary and went back into engineering. I was a bit bitter at the sham perpetrated in the parish by liberal parish pastors and theologians, not revealing what they really believed.

    I didn't think about theology or religion for quite a few years but still maintained a religious sensibility at the personal level, albeit, very vague. Being an engineer and interested in science, I read a lot in the physical sciences and biology. I came to think (based on my western ontology) that an interventionist theism was not viable anymore or reasonable based on my scientific understanding of the way the world works. I had enough doubts about my beliefs and theism that I felt in the interest of trying to be a truth seeker, I should try atheism. So I did. What a radical change that was! I was an atheist for a while, but I didn't really like it. It meant shedding some of the things that had centered my life and gave me meaning. Now this may be just me, but I didn't feel connected with anything profoundly or ultimately meaningful. I also sensed a narcissism was on the rise within me. After a while I decided that atheism wasn't for me, but neither was traditional religion. From that point, I decided to embrace, once again, my religious sense but see if there was some reasonable way to reconcile that sense with science. So I began to reading in philosophy and about other religious systems. A breakthrough came when I was reading about probably the first materialists, the Carvakan philosophers in the Indus valley (circa 600 BCE). They claimed that the basis of reality was little things (later called atoms) and that they had svabhava (self-natures). I said to myself, wait a minute. This was something I took for granted before, having been immersed in Western atomism. I then realized that svabhava is a speculation, not something empirically determined. That realization eventually led me to a non-interventionist theism that is monistic and idealistic. So far I have found this type of theism is reasonable and compatible with science. So I was deconverted again, this time from atheism.
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