Friday, July 22, 2011

Guest Post: Pastor Dwight Welch on God, Causality, and Christianity

"I’ve been asked by Jason Hills to comment on the discussion of process thought, God, and causality. As a mainline pastor and former colleague of Hills at SIUC, I’ve been influenced by process and classical American pragmatism but I’ve been far enough from the field of philosophy that I apologize if my treatment of some issues is thin.

I’m sympathetic to Whitehead’s cosmology but I don’t believe that one must adopt any particular cosmology in terms of identifying with religious faith and theism in particular. In that I agree with Rudolph Bultmann that religious faith need not tie its fortunes to one system such that one could be a Whiteheadian, a Columbian Naturalist, a Platonist, etc and still identify with and work out of, in my case, the Christian tradition.

I myself am sympathetic to a form of naturalism that would identify God with particular features, events as found in the natural world. In particular, those events, features, etc that works in ways to relativize and humanize our existence to use Gordon Kaufman’s language or works to judge and redeem our existence in Reinhold Niebuhr’s language.

The model that I find most helpful would be Whitehead’s idea of intensity, the greatest amount of diversity/contrasts held together. If one imagined communities which held to such a goal, one can see how difference held in community can critique our norms and sense of things while expanding those communities in transforming ways. In that I can see a model for various communities, including religious ones.

The question of causality could be this; does God cause such vivifying contrasts? Is God an explanation behind such a thing? I’d argue not. Instead of saying that God is behind and causing events, I would say that God is to be identified with such events. That is, when we see transformation towards the better, we’ve experienced God. Not something God did but something of who God is.

God in this case is a term we use when we encounter such events. God is not an explanation. I would presume that we would want to use all sorts of descriptive accounts, from the natural and social sciences, etc. One could go to a number of disciplines to describe what happens when life is critiqued and transformed. None need invalidate each other. They would be various descriptive routes to the same event.

God would be an evaluative description, one which describes the quality of such events, and calls for a particular response. Such responses could be that of loyalty, ultimacy, reverence, devotion, and so forth. In any case, a commitment to what makes life move towards the better. In the west, given the history of the word, God would seem most appropriate given the nature of specific communities, including my own.

In that I can see atheist interlocutors not describing a world with one less object, but rather prone to use different evaluative words (and given the way certain words have been tied to a certain set of actions done by religious communities and presented in ways which fly against what we know of the world, one can see the plausibility of using different words.)

But for those of us who, given the history and meaning of God, in our communities, the word best fits when we encounter salvific events, as a response. The point is to transform our language so that it can be in conversation with, not be used over and against other descriptions what less other communities."


  1. thanks for inviting Pastor Welch, Jason, and thanks to the Pastor for his remarks. I am sympathetic for the most part, but because I came to Christianity as a result of philosophical reflection (rather than to philosophy in search of an understanding of faith), I find it perhaps a bit more important to ground the Christ event in a compatible and mutually illuminating cosmological scheme. I agree that faith can be self-justifying on a communal and ethical level. But to assure science and religion remain compatible, faith must be held accountable to reason. Faith, or the cognition of the heart, need not be in conflict with reason, or the cognition of the intellect. I think Whitehead did a great job bringing them into fruitful conversation.

  2. Matt,

    Fides et Ratio. Per Aquinas, faith in order to believe, but reason in order to understand. It seems that you want to put faith and reason on par, and then reduce faith to belief. These should sound like familiar charges, as they are the first line of objections to sympathetic atheists.

    To directly respond, one doesn't "ground" the Christ event. One comes to understand it. You appear to be letting your non-religious commitments guide your religious ones rather than the other way around. I do not say this as a point of criticism, per se, but to point out that those moves are not of one of traditional faith. I think Aquinas did a good job, and that Whitehead only appears to do so in an epoch when "God is dead." Moreover, science is reconciliable without the moves that you mention, although of course it will be a different kind of reconciliation.

  3. I'd definitely want to distinguish between faith and belief, which is why I think a panentheist cosmology is so important. If I cannot understand how the Christ event is possible, I can only irrationally believe in it. Faith is not belief in some specific dogma, or a fervent hope that the impossible is somehow possible. Faith, to me, means open-heartedness: it leads to a transformation of the soul allowing for perception of what otherwise remains hidden. Faith is a kind of moral imagination. Without it, I don't think it would be possible to understand the Christ event. Religious practitioners may not need to. As a philosopher, I feel compelled to try.

  4. So while faith is necessary, it doesn't seem sufficient, at least to me. I also need reason to make sense of my faith.

  5. Matt,

    I would distinguish between lay practicioners and theologians, which is a distinction that Larval Subjects did not like. You note this. However, to be a theologian is to place priority on faith and reason second. Hence, faith in the possibility of salvation first, and understanding how second without negating that possibility. Otherwise, one ceases to do theology and does philosophy tout court. The distinction comes down to whether one wishes to raise human reason above revelation and revealed religion_ or not. I get the feeling that you're not sure for your part, and I do not mean to be pointed or to pry, as your personal decision is none of my business. However, the perspective we take on the issue can vary greatly.

    For instance, I often talked to a medieval scholar, a friend of mind, who was also an extremely pious orthodox Catholic. He was concerned that without an understanding of the moral law, virtue, etc., that we could not come to be virtuous (good qua exemplarity) and that even our everyday goodness would suffer. And I could go on. While he worked much on the philosophy, he deferred to revelation and authority with an honest humility when he could see no other path through. That is something that very few who are not so devout would do.

    I say all this as an aid to think upon our standing and thought, since I presume that few having this conversation are orthodox or traditional. Thank you for joining us, and I hope that more do so as there are many other topics that have not yet been broached.