Let me present three apparently disparate themes and then show that, together, they give some useful theological insights.
If you have any interest at all in the question of consciousness, and haven’t read Thomas Nagel’s essay What it is like to be a bat, then your education in the matter is lacking.
Nagel’s central thesis is that consciousness is irreducibly subjective. There is “something that it is like” to be a bat (or anything else you might consider sentient), but it is completely impossible to apprehend without actually being that bat. Not only can a human not imagine it, but even if we were to contrive to do so, or somehow to gain access to a bat’s neurological system, we would still only be a human observing batness. Science therefore cannot explain consciousness, because you can’t be objective about the purely subjective, by definition.
Such considerations explain why Nagel no longer considers materialism philosophically tenable, but it’s sufficient to for us to note that we can never ever truly understand any consciousness beyond our own. The best we can do (and it is a pretty striking best) is to make the jump to realising other people are enough “like us” for communication and moral accountability. And we are able to extend that realisation. though increasingly inaccurately, to animals, to angelic beings, or to God.
Theistic personalism is that modern strand of theology that rejects the old formulations of God’s being and essence in favour of making him more “personal” – or, more specifically, a member of that species called “persons”, though hugely wiser, more loving and so on. Here I’m considering it particularly in the context of that significant number who integrate it with the doctrine of creation, especially in its more extreme forms such as Open Theism.
In this, the sentient being’s “freedom to be other” takes priority, particularly in God’s delegation of nature, or evolution (it’s never quite clear what entity is meant, nor how it is an entity) as co-creator, largely independent of God. Its outcomes then, are organisms and systems that may either please, or perplex, God – or in Open Theism itself, which denies God’s knowledge of the future, literally surprise him.
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, chemist Victor Frankenstein is the “modern Prometheus” who, discovering ways of restoring dead flesh to life, makes an ersatz human. Frankenstein comes to hate his work, because he really doesn’t understand his creation. Maybe for both reasons, it has no name – Victor calls it many things from “monster” to “fiend”. But the strength of the story is the psychology of the creature itself – actually intelligent and sensitive, but alone in the world and both misunderstood and despised by its creator – yet in the final scene bitterly mourning his death.
Amongst other things, Shelley’s genius lies in the recognition of our fundamental need to be understood for who we are. That is why the monster pleads with Frankenstein for a mate – a direct allusion to the creation-role of Eve in Genesis. But Victor, again from fear of Promethean (or Pandoran) consequences, destroys her before she is completed.
It’s my belief that theistic personalism finds its root in the spread of Arminianism through popular Protestantism. But Jacobus Arminius himself was a classical theist. And he said this of God as Creator:
This creation is the foundation of that right by which God can require religion from man, which is a matter that will be more certainly and fully understood, when we come more specially to treat on the primeval creation of man; for he who is not the creator of all things, and who, therefore, has not all things under his command, cannot be believed, neither can any sure hope and confidence be placed in him, nor can he alone be feared. Yet all these are acts which belong to religion.
Frankenstein’s creature lived in the truth of the first part of this statement, but for him it was tragic, because of the ignorance and creatureliness of his maker. The semi-Deist (or “statistical Deist” in R J Russell’s parlance) who treats evolution as a demiurge is actually worse off, for he owes what he is more to blind, impersonal forces in nature, which cannot be rationally worshipped, than to the distant God who let them loose. I guess that, implict in Mary Shelley’s tale, is the idea that the monster cannot find ultimate comfort in God because whilst the latter might have enabled him to be, it was Frankenstein who caused him to be what he was.
But it wasn’t just the fallibility of his creator that was the creature’s grief – it was the impossibility of Frankenstein’s truly understanding what he had made. He was not God – he merely used what he found in God’s universe and only dimly comprehended. And this tragedy is equally the case in theistic personalism, especially when tied into an automous evolution.
Remember Nagel’s bat: it cannot know me and I cannot know it, because such knowledge is entirely subjective. If God is a divine person, and I am a biologically-contingent kind of person, then it makes no difference if God set off the evolutionary process that led to the possibility of sufficient commonality for communication. He still cannot know me as I know myself – and he certainly can’t know me better than I know myself, which is what I need if I am to gain what is lacking within myself. Presumably such a God – higher up the scale of intelligence than I, and incorporeal, has even less conception of “batness” than I do. Pity the God-forsaken bat.
The personalist God might have more intelligence than any human, but intelligence can no more lead to knowledge of the subjective experience of being me than science can. What’s good for bats is good (or bad) for God. In Open Theism, for example, God knows the future only by a higher order of the same reading of the past and present that we have. If he designs proteins, it is by trial-and-error or thought experiment. He deduces Abraham’s faith literally only from observing the fact of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. But whatever your powers of deduction, you cannot work out a subjective experience. Such a God cannot know me, even in principle.
But one can, alternatively, abandon personalism and re-embrace classical theism. In traditional Christian belief, although creation is genuinely separate from God, every part of it arises from some facet of his infinite being. His knowledge is never acquired from outside, but arises from what we might reverently mis-call his “subjective” internal experience, his self-knowledge.
He knows what it is like to be a bat because the bat, including its subjective batness, comes from within God. And he knows what it is like to be me, because my humanness – and my Jonness – are also from within God’s being: and that is so because, whether via intermediaries like evolutionary processes or not, I am directly created by him. I am the result of his determining will, which dwells with his depthless wisdom and his unfathomable knowledge. “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Such a truth is the reason both for the deepest faith and worship and for atheism, dependant on receiving the grace to prefer being known by the One who knows all than to live eternally in autonomy. As for me, I guess I sense I have more in common with Mary Shelley’s misshapen monster than with her thoroughly autonomous Prometheus.