Letter from Mark van Steenwyk III

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 11, 2009 in Guest Post,Letters

Below is Mark van Steenwyk’s third letter to me. See the index of all our letters so far, here.

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Luke,

I would say that I am certainly something like a mystic – though my own mystical experiences aren’t all that common. I value the creeds (and other “badges” of orthodoxy) only insofar as they represent the experiences that other Christians have had with Christ. In other words, I believe the apostles knew Christ physically and mystically, and the early church knew Christ mystically, and therefore I will submit to them to a point.

Let me clarify what I mean when I say “the Divine exists in community.” I acknowledge the fuzziness of that statement; I should have explained.

By saying “the Divine exists in community” I am saying that the being we call “God” is a communal being. God is the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The reason I phrased it as “the Divine exists in community” is because I wanted to communicate that God’s being is contingent upon the relationality of God. God is not a single substance or mind but is dynamic relationality in God’s self. Relationship precedes being. This isn’t any sort of innovation on my part…it is part of a broader revival of Trinitarian thought among theologians.

By “all that exists is created, sustained, and moving towards the Divine” I mean that all things that exist have their existence because of their relationship with God. If God’s existence is contingent upon God’s triune relationality, then everything that exists exists only in relationship to God. At the risk of getting increasingly dense and theological, I would generally affirm a panentheist understanding of existence.  In other words, everything that exists – even God – only exists because of its relationship with God.

Furthermore, the relationship between God and the universe is dynamic and moving towards the ultimate destination God desires for the universe. My faith in Christ tells me that all things will become submitted perfectly to Christ and will find its wholeness.

I grant the frustrating nature of my epistemological methods. I generally affirm the approach of Alvin Plantinga (even though you find his notions hardly worth a response) and would also broadly hold to fideism. I recognize that I cannot give any proof for the existence of God beyond my experiences of God and those of those with similar experiences. The only thing outside of those experiences I can point to are the morality and beauty of my beliefs when lived out, as well as their explanatory power. Goodness and beauty and explanatory power are all subjective criteria and, therefore, do not require justification.

I’m not sure where the conversation goes from here. I clearly am content with my fideism, you clearly require externally validated evidence for belief. Unless there is some room for wiggle between our two views, perhaps we could explore what it would look like for two people with clearly different epistemologies and with very different systems of belief to work together for a better world. How can an atheistic humanist (is it fair to call you a humanist?) and a Christian work towards the same sorts of goals with very different reasons and approaches?

- Mark

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

FA November 11, 2009 at 4:44 pm

“God is not a single substance or mind but is dynamic relationality in God’s self. Relationship precedes being.”

-Or how to claim monotheism while having more than one god. I wonder what would Jesus, a jew himself, would have said…John 20:17.

“you clearly require externally validated evidence for belief.”

-Everybody does that in every sphere of life with the unwarranted exception of religion. Why?

“I recognize that I cannot give any proof for the existence of God beyond my experiences of God and those of those with similar experiences.”

-What of those that had no experiences? Wouldn’t that be proof of the non existence of god then?

“the morality and beauty of my beliefs”

-Humanism is a moral and beautiful belief system without the need of god. Why bother with it then? Especially when god belief can produce very serious problems?

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J Wahler November 11, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Mark, the last sentence of the second to last paragraph…you say..’Goodness and beauty and explanatory power are all subjective criteria that do not warrant belief.’….do you instead mean to say ‘goodness, beauty, and explanatory scope are subjective criteria that do not require justification for their belief.’? Surely you’d say you believe in beauty and goodness and explanatory scope even though they may be subjective in your opinion, just that they need no justification?

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Mark Van Steenwyk November 11, 2009 at 7:34 pm

J Wahler: good point. I did mean justification, rather than warrant in the last sentence in the second to last paragrah.

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Mark Van Steenwyk November 11, 2009 at 7:46 pm

FA writes: Or how to claim monotheism while having more than one god. I wonder what would Jesus, a jew himself, would have said…John 20:17.

I’ll ask him. :)

I think it is unfair to assume that trinitarian Christians
are just trying to get away with sneakily believing in three Gods. If you want to say trinitarianism is silly, then do so. But don’t tell me I believe in three Gods. I don’t.

FA writes: everybody does that in every sphere of life with the unwarranted exception of religion. Why?

That’s not true. Any sort of personal relationship operates that way, does it not?

FA writes: What of those that had no experiences? Wouldn’t that be proof of the non existence of god then?

I can’t speak to what experiences others have or have not had. I can only speak about my own experiences and, perhaps, the experiences of those who I deem to be trustworthy.

FA writes: Humanism is a moral and beautiful belief system without the need of god. Why bother with it then? Especially when god belief can produce very serious problems?

There are plenty of beautiful belief systems. But not all are beautiful or compelling to the same extent. And it certainly needs to be pointed out that a lack of god belief can have serious problems too. I don’t really believe that there is one iota of compelling evidence that belief in God is necessarily more problematic than disbelief in God.

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lukeprog November 11, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Mark, can you provide that sentence as you intended it, and I’ll change the post?

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Mark Van Steenwyk November 11, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Sure. Change it from “Goodness and beauty and explanatory power are all subjective criteria that do not warrant belief.” to “Goodness and beauty and explanatory power are all subjective criteria and, therefore, do not require justification.”

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lukeprog November 11, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Done.

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Steven November 12, 2009 at 8:11 pm

This is a really great conversation. I am enjoying it. I feel that I have equal amounts of Mark and Luke in me (sorry Matthew and John…..).

Sometimes I see any observed aspect of our world as a box – we measure it and weigh it, yet when we open it, it’s bigger and heavier on the inside.

While I favor a naturalistic viewpoint, I acknowledge that possible elements outside naturalism (or inside – still wholly naturalistic but beyond our capacity to perceive or comprehend) are difficult to discount. I’m not talking specifics here, like the tooth fairy or unicorns. I simply mean that naturalists complain for a lack of reliability and predictability in supernatural claims – yet if they were reliable or predictable they would be natural. For instance, there is nothing about electricity that is not utterly miraculous and bizarre except that it is predictable and reliable.

Of course this works the opposite way. Any concrete, “objective” claims about the supernatural rely on giant, unnecessary presuppositions.

I think that Mark’s approach is wise, seeking his answers mystically. As long as faith claims are humble, not overly dogmatic, and do not willfully violate observation, I don’t see a problem. In fact, I think they can be great………..and perhaps terrible too (like just about anything).

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