Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Why I am doing pluralist theology; why don't I just accept the traditional monism?


If your theology works for you - and does not distort your Christian faith - fine.

My position is that theology, philosophy, metaphysics - should serve Christianity, and be subordinate to it. 

I'm trying to do something else - I'm trying to do theology in the 'pragmatist/ pluralist' school/ style of William James; and am therefore using different metaphysical presuppositions.


Why? Because they solve some of the metaphysical problems which lie nearest the core of Christianity, while pragmatism provides a clear and coherent explanation of the core things.

I mean things like how God can be wholly Good and wholly loving of us, yet there is vast suffering; and how Men have real free will - real autonomy of choice.

Pragmatism/pluralism also solves the problem (and this is a subject about which I have not yet blogged) of the suffering caused by natural disasters (meteor collisions, volcanoes and earthquakes, harsh weather, predation and disease). Simply: These need not be God's will (although some specific instances will be).


In other words pragmatism solves - or rather does not have in the first place -  some of the toughest and most faith destroying (and most historically-divisive) problems with Classical Metaphysics.

This is impressive!

Pragmatism has its own problems, and these are as ineradicable as the problem of free will is ineradicable for monism; but these problems are not at the core of Christian belief - so I think pluralism is - on the whole - better!


But the problems of monism, of classical theology really are ineradicable.

If God caused everything, he did all evil. The numerous attempts to argue otherwise are disingenuous or confused - people sometimes almost deliberately attempting to confuse themselves by piling on further hypotheses, or simply losing track of their arguments.

But the real situation is crystal clear.

The get-out clause about everything being for the good but incomprehensible is unacceptable to Christians since it leaves Man utterly unable to judge for himself over anything at all; and in a position where there is nothing to do but submit to the will of God, which must appear arbitrary.

Yet this would not be Christian but the other major monotheism. And this just is where that kind of metaphysics takes you.


Wise Christians have always refused to go along all the way with the metaphysics (e.g. Aquinas refused) but sometimes they do follow it, and this has led to some monstrous deformities in the history of Christianity.

One way or another, all good Christians will, and necessarily, chuck-out this monist metaphysics before they follow it all the way through to the implications.


This chucking-out can be done openly or covertly - but either way the metaphysics is in fact being chucked.

The problem of the unacceptable, anti-Christian, implications of classical metaphysics is being avoided, but it is not being solved.


For example, to take the monist position that everything is ultimately caused by God, and then to say that God created Man with free will, genuine choice and moral autonomy is just nonsense. It does not make sense. 

Metaphysically, it is just incoherent - a fake, a fudge. 

The problem has not been solved; instead the problem has been concealed behind a confused and confusing formulation.

But if people are happy with this pseudo-explanation... then fine. To be happy with a fake explanation in service of subordinating philosophy to Christianity, is both good and necessary.


But some people perceive the fact that this is a philosophical fake, and it bugs them so much that they regard the situation as a reductio ad absurdum of monism and classical theology; and then the usual monist position doesn't work.

Welcome to pluralist Christianity!


Nicholas Fulford said...

Well you are taking the bull by the horns and not ducking out on the problems of monism which is admirable in my books. Most monotheists that I know stay about as far away from that as the Bubonic Plague, with a few notable exceptions ... and those are the mystics, but then they are driven by experiences that include ineffability and paradox.

Natural disasters, the existence of the guinea worm, malaria virus, and things of this sort are a terrible problem for the Monist who also holds that God is Good. And if free will is an illusion, what can one say about the Holocaust? These are legitimate questions that should not be avoided, (but often are conveniently pushed to the side.)

The problem is that pluralism posits that which is other than God as existent in itself, and hence that God is not the Alpha and Omega, that which is the first mover, the cause of causes.

Matthew C. said...

I think you are doing pluralist theology because you are a Mormon in your heart. You love the Mormon Faith and therefore you are trying to develop a good intellectual understanding of the Mormon teachings and how they make sense.

There is much to love about the Mormons!

Myself, I am a Monist of mystical bent. I would NOT say that free will is an illusion.

I'm not sure why the guinea worm presents a particular problem, unless Nicholas believes Schlaraffenland is the ideal universe.

We are here for such a short time, as St. Paul wrote:

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

I know my Lord loves me so much my heart aches when I feel it, and Bruce, and Nicholas the same, and Adolph Hitler, and Anne Frank. I know I don't understand, but I trust him to redeem everything, even the Holocaust. I can see the outlines of that redemption in my own life - the suicide of my brother, my apostasy from God for eighteen years, my mentally-ill mother who refuses to live in a fixed address. I see in gestalt now how God is redeeming those tragedies - I deeply trust God redeems all the others as well.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

I'm trying to do theology in the 'pragmatist/ pluralist' school/ style of William James; and am therefore using different metaphysical presuppositions.

There would be no problem in that if said presuppositions were demonstrably true and the opposite ones demonstrably false. To keep on ruling out classical philosophy and Catholic theology without demonstration is no argument.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - You seem to get a great deal of satisfaction and stimulus from Thomist theology - and I would not want to change that state of affairs - which I why I prefer not to debate you!

J.L.Erkelens said...

I just wanted to thank you and say that I admire you for writing so openly on this, and many other, troublesome subjects. You really manage put the finger on some of the sore spots of Christian faith.

Every time when I reluctantly read a post of yours of which the title alone made me bristle I've come away with a better understanding of both the problem and the alternatives to it.

As someone who stumbled into the Christian faith through one of its dedicated back-doors for intellectuals (Thomism, for those who need common sense explained to them!) I of course cannot follow you in your pluralism, the foundation of my faith being what it is. Though I recognize all of the limitations and problems you rightly mention.

Frankly, the only answer that ever made sense to me came through a Orthodox writer (or so I think at least, I'm not sure to be honest). He stressed that Original Sin quite literally broke reality in some way. Meaning that Truth was now inaccessible to us and we simply had to be content with separate truths that we are unable to weld back together into a whole. No single truth, no single approach will ever get us to the whole.

Maybe this seems at odds with my Thomist ideas, but it's my personal duck-out and it has so far only strengthened my personal faith.

Wonder said...

You may have covered this elsewhere, in which case I'd appreciate some pointers to earlier posts, or a brief re-explanation.

1. How does pluralism solve the problem of suffering exactly? I see how it improves the resolution of the problem through the concept of an embattled God in a War in Heaven, but not really fully addressed.

2. Why are you so set on belief in free will? To my knowledge the Bible doesn't explicitly say we have free will... also the general view of simple people historically, and some philosophers, was that something unknowable was God's will... and it was often seen that destiny was destiny.

Due to destiny + suffering this means something more like the Demiurge of Gnosticism is God, which is untenable to Christians... however I am more interested in what is than what is desirable to believe.

Personally I still can't get around the existence of suffering, especially in cases like suicidal depression happening to a good person.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - The problem of suffering is that - with monism - God is responsible for *everything*.

Think of the worst suffering you have ever heard of - the monist God did *that*, Monist God willed *that*: He set things up so *that* happened.

With pluralism, this is not the case - it cannot be assumed that God wills everything that happens.


Free will, the genuine ability to choose, is absolutely central to Christianity - it is there all through the Bible. People must be able to choose salvation, or reject it - and this choice must be real and come from within them.

This is absolutely non-negotiable in Christianity - if it is rejected, then so is Christianity.

"something like the demiurge of Gnosticism... etc" - well Gnosticism was of course "something like" Christianity, it just wasn't Christianity - the question is not whether something is 'like' something else, but whether it IS that thing - or not!

Matthew C. said...

Saying an Omnipotent God is directly responsible for Buchenwald is not very fair. That's a product of a universe of beings with free will.

Free will exercised wrongly means evil.

I don't see how we blame God for something implied by the existence of free will.

We can complain that we don't think free will is worth it -- but not blame God for the results of it.

I think free will is required for real love, and real love is the purpose behind existence.

I'm not sure we really have free will to the same extent after our life on this planet is over, so we have to use it wisely while we still have it! I think God is a lot more obvious there than here, and the obviousness of God precluded genuinely choosing God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matthew C - I am saying that if beings have free will, then this is pluralism - because if will is free, then God does not cause it. And if there is *anything* which God does not cause, then that is pluralism.

It is not a matter of 'blame' but of logic and causation.

To put it the other way about: If (monist) God created everything, set-up everything, sustains everything moment by moment - then there is on the one hand no free will; and on the other God is *directly* responsible for everything bad and for all misery, pain, terror, guilt, depression... etc.

Wonder said...

I understand the problem of monism and suffering.

So pluralism provides these advantages:

1. The War in Heaven perspective - God's power is limited due to that ongoing War, which we are influenced by and is reflected in temporal life. Suffering is caused in part by the War, which limits His power temporarily.

2. Pluralism adds human free will to mess up (are people then mini-gods?)

3. Bad things happen, and God does not cause all nor can stop all. He is somewhat like a magnified Zeus.

Regarding free will, does it apply to anything other than (for lack of a better word) consciousness, e.g. choosing salvation?

Or is it supposed that we actually have free will in behavior too?

Peter of Carolina said...

Mr. Charlton, you seem to be in a narrow place in which no mystery can be acknowledged in God. The Bible presents us with a God that is so utterly above us that it is possible for what seem to be logically irreconcilable opposites to be true in him. Take the trinity for example. Scripture says that he is of purer eyes than to behold sin. He is presented as all powerful but in no wise is the origin of sin and evil attributed to him. Lucifer and Adam and Eve were all given genuine choices but they were also in the hands of God.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Thanks for your answer. I barely had a couple hours this week to read anything aside from work and did not see it till today.

You seem to get a great deal of satisfaction and stimulus from Thomist theology
I get a very great deal of satisfaction from orthodox Catholic theology, Thomist and other, and from scholastic and sound classical philosophy, because they are true. For sure, they still are human sciences, but like David Warren (convert from High-Church Anglicanism) said about Catholic theology: It isn’t “infallible,” in the sense you might use, but it is extremely good, because if anyone, Catlick or non-Catlick, can find a contradiction in the thing, we sweat it through until we’ve fixed it. (http://www.davidwarrenonline.com/2013/01/14/james-m-buchanan/#comments quoted in my post http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/on-catholic-theology-and-western-civ/)

I prefer not to debate you!
I am not trying to really debate you either. The theological points are easily found in the Catechism, so I would only enumerate them and quote the articles and, anyway, the rational assumptions are philosophical and I am only an amateur philosopher. All I pretend to do is pointing out what I find untrue in the assumptions, sometimes quoting or referring to distinguished Catholic authors on the subject. I would very much like if you would take time to delve in this, as I feel you are not enough acquainted with philosophia perennis to see immediately error or truth that faithful educated Catholics find blatant.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PoC - My feeling is that the core Christian beliefs must make common-sense - and indeed that they did, when they were first told. Of course there is more to it than that - but that is very helpful.