I. Open Theism and Cancer. J. Todd Billings and John Sanders

I was going to try and do this in one post, but it will be too long; so I am breaking these postings up into two installments (this one and creationthe next one forthcoming). In this first post I will try to give a brief and summative introduction to the Open Theism of theologian John Sanders, and then in the next installment we will engage with J. Todd Billings’ brief treatment and critique of John Sanders’ Open Theism and how we can or should think about human suffering and God without going to the extreme of positing an Open Theism.

I do not want to trivialize the book I am currently reading; it is a sober, reflective, and Christian theological engagement dealing with, in particular, an incurable cancer (like one that I had, but of a different species, although not genus). The book I am referring to is my friend’s (we have never met personally, but we have corresponded via Facebook and email), J. Todd Billings’ newly released book entitled Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015). I start out mentioning the fact that I don’t want to trivialize this important book because often academic debates (like this one can become) reduce to an abstract exercise that has no contact with real life realities, and further I wanted to broach something that Todd touches upon as he is writing about (and even arguing for) the place of ‘lament’ before God in the Christian’s life, especially, in Todd’s case (and mine) when involving an incurable or ‘terminal’ cancer for which there is no real lasting treatment. The issue that Todd touches upon, on one side of a discussion he is developing in regard to God’s providence and the so called problem of evil, is the theological paradigm which has come to be known as Open Theism. So for the rest of this post I will engage with what Billings has written on this, and engage with it in a way that hopefully illustrates the real life impact that academic theology (which often stays abstract in people’s minds) has when it interfaces with life and death in the lives of real life people.

As with any identified and intentional framework of belief or theological trajectory there is a variety of nuance among those who self-identify with said framework; this is the case with what has come to be known as ‘Open Theism.’ But since Todd Billings focuses on one prominent advocate of Open Theism, I will use this advocate’s understanding of what Open Theism is in general; I will quote from him voluminously throughout the beginning stages of this post. This advocate of Open Theism that Billings refers to is John Sanders. Sanders is an able and ardent defender of this position, and so I think we will gain a good and general understanding simply hearing from him on what he thinks constitutes Open Theism. Sanders writes this in regard to his personal explanation of what Open Theism actually entails (and in a general way):

Openness Theology (commonly referred to as Open Theism and Free Will Theism) connects with the spirituality of many Christians throughout the history of the church especially when it comes to prayer. Many Christians feel that our prayers or lack of them can make a difference as to what God does in history. The Openness of God is an attempt to think out more consistently what it means that God enters into personal relationships with humanity. We want to develop an understanding of the triune God and God’s relationship to the world that is Biblically faithful, finds consonance with the tradition, is theologically coherent and which enhances the way we live our Christian lives. On the core tenets of the Christian faith, we agree, but we believe that some aspects of the tradition need reforming, particularly when it comes to what is called “Classical Theism.” We believe that some aspects of this model of God have led Christians to misread certain Scriptures and develop some serious problems in our understanding of God which affect the way we live, pray and answer the problem of evil. (source)

As Sanders understands Open Theism it is a theological trajectory that sees itself within the ambit of historical Christian orthodoxy, but it at the same time wants to critique what it thinks has become a cumbersome understanding of an overly-deterministic God in relation to human agency and contingency in the world. In other words, Open Theists want to make room for what they believe is representative of a world where human beings can make ‘genuine’ human decisions that not only affect themselves and their own personal trajectories, but indeed affect God and his relation to creation. Sanders believes that God chose to create a world like this–where God’s knowledge of future events is not exhaustive, but instead is responsive to our choices–because he believes this ensures a real dynamism in who God is in a God-world relation such that human freedom and the contingencies of this world cannot or should not be attributed to God, per se, but instead to the real contingencies built into the fabric of this world. Sanders writes further:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts to contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad intention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharaoh rather than God and killed the baby boys, then God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does-God does not fake the story of human history. (source)

Sanders mentions ‘meticulous providence’ (what Sanders would see as the ‘Classical Theist’ position on Divine providence) versus a ‘general providence’ (which would be Sanders’ Open Theist view of God’s providential relation to history, and ‘dynamic’ relation); it is this type of meticulous providence or monocausality that Open Theists deplore with much vehemence. Open Theists, like Sanders, believe that the ostensible ‘classical’ view of providence reduces all of reality to God’s hyper-deterministic supervening over human and natural history such that there remains no space for genuine human story making, and even more negatively, Open Theists believe that this kind of ‘static’ supervening of God over history in deterministic ways ultimately can only lead us to conclude that God is the author of evil and human suffering (along with everything else in the world). We can see how the Open Theist is genuinely trying to, among other loci, engage with the purported philosophical problem of ‘God and evil’ (theodicy).

It is these issues and others (how to avoid the kind of meticulous providence, without falling into an Open Theist ‘solution’) that Todd Billings touches upon in his discussion on cancer, human suffering, and more broadly on God and evil in the world. We will get into Todd’s critique of Open Theism, and John Sanders in the next installment of this little mini-series on Open Theism and cancer.

Until then I hope this brief introduction to Open Theism has served somewhat informative. To get a the full meal deal, and John Sanders full (summative) articulation of what Open Theism entails (it is relatively short), click here.