God as Ultimate Mind: Keith Ward’s “Christian Idea of God”

Keith Ward’s recent book The Christian Idea of God is a slim but ambitious volume. It aims to turn on its head the common belief we know the material world is real while ethereal objects like God and the soul are at best speculative inferences.

Ward points out that we’re actually more certain of the existence of mind than we are of matter. Our own first-person experience makes the reality of consciousness certain to all but the most determined reductionists. It’s matter, he says, that is an inference from or interpretation of our experience. The “material world” as we experience it is in no small part a construction of our mind’s own perceptual and conceptual apparatus.

He bolsters this by appealing to contemporary physics, which has “de-mattered” matter in a sense: physicists no longer see matter (and haven’t for a long time) as composed of little solid bits bumping into each other. Matter in contemporary physics is described in the language of entities and forces that don’t correspond to anything that we can picture in normal three-dimensional space. Matter turns out to be just as mysterious as mind!

The point is that we shouldn’t think of consciousness as an alien intruder into the cosmos, or as some kind of epiphenomenon. Consciousness and self-hood are central to our experience, and they should be integrated into our understanding of the world, not explained away. In fact, the conditions that led to the emergence of consciousness are woven into the deep structure of nature’s laws.

If we see consciousness as fundamental to reality, Ward argues, we should understand reality as a whole in a way that is hospitable to mind. The postulate of a mind-like ultimate reality is one way of doing this. The case is further bolstered by the intelligibility, beauty and goodness that we perceive in the world. Ward calls the belief in an Ultimate Mind an “interpretative hypothesis”–which “interprets some experienced reality in terms of concepts that do not derive simply from the observations in themselves” (p. 54). God, of course, is the name that most people would give to such an Ultimate Mind, and Ward adds that “God is a reasonable and natural interpretive hypothesis that helps us integrate these [aspects of experience] into a coherent whole” (p. 55).

The idea of God Ward goes on to develop will be familiar to readers of his other works. His is a personal God of awareness, purpose, and goodness who can be affected by what happens in the world. God brings the universe into existence for a reason—to realize goods that would otherwise be unavailable. And in particular, God wants conscious beings to enter into a loving relationship with God that will allow them to attain their true fulfillment.

It’s really only in the last section of the book where Ward connects his argument to more specifically Christian doctrines. One of the most important ones is the exemplification of God’s kenosis—or self-sacrificial love—in the incarnation of Christ. In Christ, God enters into the world of human sin and suffering. This is for purpose of theosis—united human beings to the divine so they can share in the divine life.

The specific revelation of God in Christ is complementary, Ward thinks, to the philosophical foundation he has laid. There’s a natural consonance between the idea of a God who creates new forms of goodness and relates to his creation in empathy and the loving Father of Jesus. Ward doesn’t make a hard-and-fast distinction between “natural” and “revealed” theology. Traces of this God can be found through general human reason and experience, as well as among the insights of other religious traditions.

To show my own cards, I find much of what Ward says persuasive (which isn’t surprising given the amount of virtual ink I’ve spilled on his writing over the years). His ongoing project of “open orthodoxy” has been very helpful in my own thinking. On this view, Christian theology and faith can’t be walled off from the findings of science or history, philosophical argument, or other religious traditions. Christianity should develop and change, incorporating insights from the full spectrum of human experience, while retaining its core commitment to God’s universal love revealed in Jesus.

p.s. Ward says he intends this book to be the completion of a trilogy on philosophical theology that includes his earlier books Morality, Autonomy and God and Christ and the Cosmos. I discussed those books here and here.

p.p.s. Listen to Tripp Fuller talk to Ward about the book here.


Kenosis and pleroma

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been reading the volume The Work of Love—a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne that explore the idea of divine “kenosis” or self-limitation.

Keith Ward, in his essay “Cosmos and Kenosis,” provides what I think is a helpful nuance to the concept of kenosis. He notes that the Lutheran theologians who pioneered a “kenotic” Christology understood it in terms of the divine Word divesting itself of its divine properties in the Incarnation. Appeal in this case was often made to Paul’s “hymn” in Philippians 2. However, Ward says, it’s just as natural, if not moreso, to interpret kenosis here in a moral rather than a metaphysical sense. Moreover, we can see kenosis as characterizing not just the incarnation or the life of Christ, but how God creates and interacts with the entire world.

In particular, Ward argues that kenosis is not just a self-limitation on God’s part, but a means of actualizing certain potentialities in the divine being that would otherwise remain un-realized. How so? First, by creating finite creatures, God is able to attain “affective knowledge” of their joys and sufferings. This goes beyond simple propositional knowledge that a creature is, for instance, suffering; it encompasses an empathetic experience on God’s part. This is a limitation for God—God gives up the perfect, undisturbed bliss God enjoyed in eternity. But it also adds something genuinely new to God’s knowledge and experience. Similarly, by creating a world with its own relative autonomy and creativity, God permits new forms of value to come into existence, which God delights in, even though this limits God’s power and knowledge.

Thus, on Ward’s account, kenosis—God’s self-limitation in giving up perfect bliss, as well as total omniscience and omnipotence—is not sheer self-abnegation. Rather it is for the sake of genuinely new values and experiences that would have been unavailable to God otherwise (scandalous as that may sound). In Ward’s terms, kenosis (self-emptying) leads to “pleroma,” or greater fulfillment:

God limits the divine properties in order that a cosmos of free finite agents should exist. But God thereby realizes new aspects of the divine nature as God enters into real relationship with creatures. God not only suffers new things. God also enjoys and delights in new things. And in the end all those good things are to be conserved in God, and perhaps shared with creatures, for ever. There is an addition to the divine being as well as a limitation of it, and the two are essentially bound together. So if we can speak of a kenosis in God, a renunciation of his absolute and unmixed perfection, we must also speak of a pleroma, or fulfillment, in God, by which new forms of perfection are added by creatures to the divine being. (p. 160)

This is obviously at odds with the classical view of God, in which God cannot be changed or affected by what creatures do, and nothing can be added to or taken away from the divine bliss. It could be argued, however, that what Ward calls this “more relational and participative view of God” is supported by certain passages in the Bible which portray God in more relational and passionate terms.

In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if God’s love should necessarily be portrayed strictly in terms of disinterested agape without a trace of eros. Does God not long to be united with God’s creatures? Does the existence of creation really add nothing to God’s happiness? As Ward says, it would be presumptions to claim certainty about what is essential to the divine nature, but on the face of it this movement of divine kenosis and pleroma seems to resonate with large parts of the biblical portrait of God.

It can be—and has been–argued that God’s love can only be truly self-giving if creation is utterly gratuitous and God gains nothing by the existence of creatures. However, this isn’t how we usually think about love between humans. If I claim to love you but remain totally unaffected by you and get nothing out of our relationship, you might reasonably infer that my love was less than genuine. Of course, God’s love should not be thought of as exactly like human love. But if our language is to point–however metaphorically or analogously–to God, we may well wonder if God can be said to truly love creation without being affected by it in some way.

“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.'” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

“Deep time” and religious belief

Keith Ward reviews what sounds like a pretty interesting book on “deep time” and the possible future evolution of religious beliefs.

The acceptance of deep time — of the fact that the universe has existed for billions of years and that it will continue to exist for billions of years — could, if inwardly digested, have a radical effect on human religious beliefs. In the first two chapters of this book, Schellenberg presents the scientific arguments for this view, and argues that the far-future beliefs of whatever succeeds the human species are liable to reduce our own early and primitive beliefs to virtual irrelevance. This is true in science, and we should expect it to be true of religion, too.

You could see this as the cosmic and temporal analogue to recognizing that human religious beliefs already vary widely across different communities. For many people, realizing that their own beliefs are at least partly contingent upon chance and circumstance introduces an element of doubt. The thrust of Schellenberg’s argument seems to be that contemplating what our beliefs may look like to our far-future descendents is cause for even greater skepticism.

Ward provides some good reasons for thinking that we needn’t lapse into wholesale religious skepticism, though. If there is an ultimate reality that human beings can come into contact with, it seems plausible that our experiences of it to date would not be wholly misleading.

I suspect that anyone who postulates that there is a supremely valuable source of universal and ultimate good will expect to find some specific instances of human contact with, and transformation by, this good. A search for revelation will begin, and you might expect to find that while such instances do not disclose all the truths there are to be known about the ultimate, nevertheless they provide accurate information which is not seriously misleading about the nature and goals of human existence.

But he also says that Schellenberg makes a strong case that “religious believers should be much less dogmatic, especially about very detailed and obscure and controversial beliefs” and that they should be more open to developing their beliefs in light of new insights.

I do think that Christians in particular are prone to thinking that most of the important development of our religious beliefs has already happened. We look back to the writing and formation of the Biblical canon, the great councils of the early church, and maybe the Middle Ages or the Reformation (depending on our church affiliation) as codifying, more or less for good, the right way of understanding who God is. This is probably inevitable to some extent because Christianity is based on a historical revelation. But another important motif of Christian faith–though one not emphasized as consistently–is the messianic, future-oriented dimension. Christianity teaches that the Kingdom has not come in its fullness and we still see “in a glass darkly.” This might lend support to the idea that our current beliefs about ultimate reality will undergo indefinite revision. But this has to be kept in balance with the conviction, which most Christians would share, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide a reliable indication of what God is like.

Keith Ward on creation and the (social) Trinity

Keith Ward’s Religion and Creation (RC) is part of his multi-volume “comparative theology.” Its goal is to develop a contemporary Christian theology in genuine conversation with both modern science and other religious traditions.

The focus of RC is the doctrine of God. Ward argues that recent representative figures from four major religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) all make similar moves in revising the classical understanding of God.* They have qualified the traditional insistence on God’s complete immutability and impassibility with an emphasis on the importance of the spatio-temporal creation to God. The particular moves they make differ, but they agree that the creation makes a difference to God in a way that classical forms of theism generally denied. In some cases, this means affirming that God experiences time, change, and empathy with the sufferings of creatures.

In the book’s final chapter, Ward discusses the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in relation to creation. He suggests that creation of some kind may be necessary for God to realize the capacity for loving what is truly other. As he says elsewhere, it is “a love for what is other than God but can be united to the life of God in fellowship.”

Ward rejects the view, proposed by some theologians, that God can be perfectly loving in Godself because of the love that exists between the three persons of the Trinity. This strongly “social” view of the Trinity sees the godhead as comprising three divine persons or centers of consciousness whose unity consists of their loving fellowship.

According to Ward, some forms of social Trinitarianism border on polytheism, though a “rather cosy and harmonious polytheism” (p. 322). Social Trinitarians have a difficult time accounting for the necessary unity of the three persons, and attempts to do so often look like subordinationism (i.e., by making the Son and Spirit derivative from, and less than, the Father). Or they treat love as a reified, abstract principle that somehow stands “above” the three persons and binds them together.

It’s better, he proposes, to talk about “one ultimate subject which possesses three distinct forms of action and awareness” (p. 323). The problem with social Trinitarianism, he says, is that it tends to veer into speculation about three divine individuals with intra-divine relations apart from any relation to created reality. Trinitiarian thinking should be rooted in the biblical witness, which does not speak of “three divine individuals in continuing conversation” (p. 327). Rather, “belief in the one God of monotheism, who is somehow mediated to [the apostles] through Jesus and intimately present in the power of the Spirit. The idea of the Trinity does not supersede monotheism; it interprets it, in light of a specific set of revelatory events and experiences” (p. 327).

Threefold-ness is a real aspect of God, but it is manifested in relation to creation (p. 329). Theology shouldn’t posit some purely immanent, intra-trinitarian relation of the persons: “intra-Trinitarian being is given to us only in revelation” (p. 329). The basis of trinitarian doctrine is the apostolic experience of Jesus making God present in a new way:

[T]he simple historical source of this doctrine is the apostolic experience of God as loving Father, Jesus as the obedient Son, the Father’s image on earth, and the Spirit as the one who makes Jesus present to every time and place, and unites ll in him. (pp. 330-1)

While the Trinity corresponds to something real in God’s being, we only have access to the “economic” Trinity–that is, the threefold activity of God as we see it in the history of salvation. The economic Trinity is God-in-relation–responding to and affected by the actions of creatures. “This is the responsive aspect of the Divine, which interacts with created beings to check tendencies to disintegration and guide them actively toward perfection” (p. 340).

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of social Trinitarianism, particularly when it’s combined with political theologies which suppose that human communities can and should reflect the intra-Trinitarian life (Kathryn Tanner and Karen Kilby have both powerfully criticized this view). They often seem to rest on just the sort of speculative divine metaphysics Ward is criticizing, and draw what are, to my mind, improper analogies between human communities and the divine “community.” (Obviously there’s a lot more that can be, and has been, said on this topic, both pro and con.)

Even if we reject social Trinitarianism, though, couldn’t we say that God perfectly loves the divine self and would do so even if God had not created a world? Ward would say, however, that God would still have failed to realize the capacity for loving what is genuinely other than God, and that this form of love is a great good. In Ward’s view, it is better to have a universe with creatures who can enter into freely chosen fellowship with God, even if this also creates the possibility of their estrangement. Therefore, he thinks, creation does make a difference to God, enriching the divine life beyond what it would’ve been had God not created.


*The four 20th-century figures Ward focuses on are Abraham Joshua Heschel (Judaism), Karl Barth (Christianity), Mohammad Iqbal (Islam), and Aurobindo Ghose (Hinduism).

“Physical” vs. “spiritual” resurrection?

Liberal Christian icon Marcus Borg recently joined the blogosphere, and one of his first posts was an attempt to clarify his views on the resurrection of Jesus. Borg has been accused of denying the independent reality of the resurrection, reducing it to a subjective experience the disciples had after the crucifixion. But Borg maintains that he believes in a real resurrection, just not a physical one. Jesus is really alive and manifested himself to his followers following his death, but his body was not raised physically from the tomb.

I’m not sure I find the “physical”/”spiritual” distinction particularly helpful or important. First, it presumes that we have a clear idea of what “matter” is and how it contrasts with “spirit.” Modern physics, if nothing else, has called that kind of Cartesian dichotomy into question. But more fundamentally, the New Testament stories themselves don’t seem particularly interested in answering that question. Even if we take the resurrection stories at face value, we have a Jesus who is both “physical” in the sense of being a tangible presence, who eats with his disciples and shows them the still-present wounds in his body, but who also can appear and disappear at will and whom the disciples don’t immediately recognize as being the same person. The only thing that comes through clearly here is that, for the NT writers, Jesus’ post-resurrection state involved both continuity (he was the same person, the crucified one) and discontinuity (he had been radically transformed and raised to a different state of existence).

Keith Ward has suggested that Jesus’ resurrection involved a transformation of his body (i.e., the tomb was empty) to a “spiritual” state. But “spiritual” here doesn’t mean the opposite of “physical”; rather it means something more like a state of being fully infused with God’s Spirit. Jesus lives in the power and presence of God, but in a form that radically transcends his earthly, pre-resurrection existence. It’s not clear that asking whether this constitutes a “physical” or “spiritual” resurrection is a particularly meaningful question. The point is that the resurrection signifies God’s victory over the forces of sin, alienation, and death and promises a consummation of God’s purposes for creation.