Rethinking Spirit in the Modern World
(Philip Clayton, Adventures in the Spirit, Chapter 9)
Traditionally, when we think of Spirit, we think of the third member of the Trinity or maybe we think of that which is internal to the human person. That is, that which makes us, well, us. For Philip Clayton Spirit takes on a broader sense, and with this chapter we begin to understand the meaning of the title of the book still under consideration on this blog – Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action (Fortress, 2008). I apologize for the lengthy time that this is taking! I started in March, and I’ve reviewed a number of books in the mean time. But, I’m plugging along because this is requiring more of me than I anticipated (not so much in time as in theological wrestling).
The chapter under consideration (chapter 9) forms the second chapter in part 4, which seeks to offer a definition of “panentheism.” Now, we’ve already discovered that panentheism is an alternative to classical theism – that understanding of the divine that is deeply rooted in Greek thought – more Platonic that Semitic. Clayton has suggested that what he’s attempting to do here is develop a “theology of the Spirit,” something I am very interested in (I’ve been working on a manuscript about spiritual gifts for more than a decade – speak of slowness). What is interesting here is that Clayton seeks to root this theology of the Spirit in philosophy. This should come as no surprise to those who have read Clayton – he is a deeply philosophical theologian. I’ll admit that sometimes the Barthian in me rebels, but I seek to listen and learn about how we might better understand both God and God’s relationship to the world. If panentheism is an effective way of not only understanding God, but putting the gospel in terms that make sense in our day, then there is value in this project. I think we who might be a bit more “traditional” in our approaches need to admit that our theological ancestors turned to Plato and Aristotle for the same reasons.
To get a hold of this concept of panenthism, if I understand Clayton correctly, we must pay attention to post-foundationalism, which is a very postmodern philosophical position. My sense has been that Whiteheadian Process Thought was very much part of the Modernist program, so this would be a major departure. In modernist thought we start with a premise that there is one foundational set of truths, and then you build from there. In this case we’re seeking truth that is “coherence-based.” What is important about this venture is that it might allow us to embrace theological language, even as we seek to engage other thought forms and perspectives (we need to remember that Clayton is interested in engaging science in theological conversation.). It also means that we don’t have to submit our theology to a “higher” neutral set of standards to judge our faith professions.
In this chapter, in which Clayton begins to develop his theology of the Spirit, he suggests that we must move from substantivalism to spirit. Once again we have in mind the questions of the infinite and the finite. The old adage is that two substances cannot be in the same place, so if God is a substance and the world is a substance, they can’t share the same space (especially if God is infinite, then there would be no room for us). Thus, how can God interact with the world (without somehow breaking natural law and becoming interventionist). Clayton doesn’t believe that God can or will break natural law (God isn’t an interventionist!), but he wants to retain the idea of divine agency. With that in mind, making use of modern philosophical developments, he suggests that we move from substantivalism to spirit. Then, God, who is infinite, can include within God’s self the finite, and thus because the world is within God, even though God transcends the worked, God is able to engage the world, essentially from within.
Although Clayton goes into some detail as to how the transition from substantivalism has occurred – a process that goes back to at least Aristotle was transformed and challenged by such philosophers as Spinoza (Spinoza assumed only one substance – monism) and beyond to Hegel and the German Idealists -- I’m not going to rehearse that part of the story (you may read it for yourself). But, from that discussion, it’s becoming clear that Clayton’s version of Process Theism is heavily influenced by Hegel and the German Idealists. He also takes something from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology, especially his suggestion that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence on the infinite. But, returning to Hegel, Clayton writes that Hegel’s theory of subjectivity, most ably synthesizes Greek, medieval, and early modern motifs, and thus “if the highest being (or Being itself) is a personal reality, full of self-consciousness and a sense of spiritual unity are precisely the features one would expect it to have” (p. 144). For Hegel, “Spirit becomes the ultimate principle of rationality,” and the real is the rational.
This being the “foundation,” we return to panentheism, which is our focus. Clayton’s go is to move us beyond dualist views of personhood, so that we move to one of “psycho-physical” unity. Personhood is more than the physical, but includes the physical. Indeed, we can’t understand consciousness or spirit apart from the body. This needs to be stated, lest we fall prey to reductionist views. From this he moves to defining the question of the “divine Spirit,” and there appears to be a psycho-physical unity to God. He writes:
“Just as spirit stands for the dimension of personal being that we only find in conjunction with highly complex physical systems such as the human body, so God can be introduced as that spiritual identity, presence, and agency that we come to know out of the physical world (the universe) taken as a whole” (p. 146).
God is, it seems, to be an embodied Spirit (or embodied subjectivity) – with the universe forming the body, and God as Spirit transcending/is more than this body. Thus, when God acts as divine agent, God doesn’t intervene (act from outside), but acts from within as Spirit. This is thus, “inner-worldly causality.” God is, thus acting within natural law, not contrary to it.
If Clayton is advocating for panentheism, he also believes that it needs correcting. One aspect of this correct is to affirm the personal survival after/in the body’s death. He’s suggesting that there is “life after death,” a new heavenly body. Furthermore, we need to re-envision the Spirit, so that we can envision God’s nature “from above” – that sense of the Spirit transcending the universe itself (p. 149). This God is necessary not contingent, eternal, infinite, and thus the “Ground of the world.” Thus, the infinite encompasses the finite, but also transcends it. He makes a suggestion here that the Trinity is the key to understanding all of this – something I’m eager to consider. He writes that God is “trans-personal,” and then suggests that in this way, “God consists of three divine persons,” rather than God simply being a personal being (p. 149).
All of this might become a bit confusing – at least it is at points for me – but I think I know what Clayton’s trying to do. Our tendency is to say – God is a mystery – and leave it there. God is, in Barthian terms, wholly other, and known only by way of revelation in Jesus Christ. Barth was known for his dislike of natural theology. Clayton, on the other hand, wants to go in a different direction. He believes that God has broken down the dividing wall (Eph. 1:9ff), so that we can understand the divine nature.
God is “the infinite Ground, the condition of the possibility of all finite or contingent things” (p. 151). God is infinite, encompassing all things. But, God is more than the finite – the world. The Scriptures make it clear that there is a difference – there is a Creator! The universe continues to exist – only because of “God’s concurring will at each new moment.” All of this is well known, but what we’ve missed, Clayton says, is the “non-otherness of God and God’s creation” (p. 151). It is this Immanent Spirit, which humanity and God share. There is, he suggests a pericoretic relationship, a mutual penetration of the divine and the finite. There is both immanence and transcendence – two halves of a dialectical whole.
Another idea to bring into this conversation is the imago dei (image of God). Is God simply a projection, ala Feuerbach. That is, is God simply a matter of using divine language to talk about humanity. Or is it something different. Does our God talk, as ones who are created in the image of God, speak of a reality that transcends humanity? Here Clayton turns to Jurgen Moltmann, whom I had asked him to speak about. We are, according to Moltmann, the image of God in the sense that “God recognizes the divine self in them as in a mirror” (p. 154 – quote from Moltmann and Wendell-Moltmann, Humanity in God). We know and experience God – something that is beyond proof – in our own human experience. We know God as God is present in the World, for the World is part of God.
Clayton concludes this discussion of the Spirit by making three points. First, this is a monistic perspective, for all that exists is part of God. It is also dualist, because there is a distinction between God and the universe – there is room for the other to exist. Finally, it’s Trinitarian, a sense of God’s identity that allows for the personal, so that God can be in relationship with the creation. This final point leads to the next chapter, where Clayton, will, it appears, develop his understanding of the Trinity. My hope is that all of this will become, at least for me, clearer, so that I might have a better sense of who God is in relationship to this creation, of which we’re a part.
This is my continuing contribution to the Transforming Theology -- theo-blogging project.