Talking About God: Doing Theology in the Context of Modern Pluralism
by David Tracy and John B. Cobb, Jr.
Chapter 4: God and the Scientific World View by John B. Cobb, Jr
Belief in God has been buffeted about in many ways in recent years. It is attacked for being meaningless, for being false, for being vapid, and for being harmful. Its defenders are in disarray. Hurrying to defend the idea from the charge of meaninglessness, we find it attacked as an error. Correcting the idea so as to show that it can be true, we are accused of trivializing it. Seeking to show that it is important, we encounter the charge that it is harmful, Clearly if what is named God is truly God, the assertion of God must be meaningful and true, and we should strive to show that God is important and good. But it is no small task to speak of God in this way.
It is easy for us who are believers to experience this buffeting and frantic defense as a gradual retreat from the great age of faith. Without doubt there are now many circles in which we find ourselves in a ghetto, either ignored or attacked, and we experience confusion and mutual criticism among ourselves. We are likely to speak of what we "still" believe, hardly expecting our children and grandchildren to hold on to these beleaguered convictions.
There is, however, another attitude that we can take. We can recognize that of all matters, thinking rightly about God is the most important. We can further note that when belief in Cod is general and expressions of doubt are greeted with shocked dismay and ostracism, what has been meant by "God" has not been subject to the searching scrutiny it deserves.
Partly as a result, much of the worst of our heritage -- as well as much of the best -- has been bound up with belief in God. Therefore, we can rejoice that today the idea of God is extensively criticized on all sides. Perhaps out of the present chaos there can emerge a purer and truer understanding of God. Perhaps in this sense we can understand the manifold criticisms of theism not as obstacles or enemies, but as resources for the resolution of the problem of God.
Out of the welter of possible topics to pursue in this spirit I have chosen three: science. Buddhism, and feminism. These raise highly divergent issues for theological reflection. Science raises the question of God's relation to the world. It shows that some of our older ways of conceiving God's activity in the world do not work and that if we are to affirm God's presence in the world at all we must rethink our notions of divine agency. Buddhism raises the question of God's relation to religion. It shows that a great religious movement, a movement that produces its own saints and mystics and martyrs, is possible without belief in God. Feminism raises the question of God's relation to our images and our existence in a very intimate way. It shows that belief in God has been closely correlated with male dominance and the oppression and exploitation of women.
The challenge is now: Can we think of God in a way that is compatible with our scientific world view without removing God's presence and efficacy from our lives and our world? Can we think of God as the one in whom we place our complete trust and yet acknowledge the truth and greatness of a Way that ignores or denies God? Can we free our thought of God from sexism without losing the profound values that have been bound up with the masculine images of God as Father and as Son?
Even if we can make progress in these directions and in others as well, we will not have proved the existence of God. Perhaps we are only adjusting ideas, not improving our thought of reality. But it is my conviction that the two are closely related. If there is a way of conceiving of God that fits with our experience of the world as that is informed by science, that illumines the encounter with other great religious traditions, and that liberates us from oppression, there will be many reasons to believe that it is true. Some of these reasons have sufficient strength to convince many people even when the objections remain unanswered. If, through this time of testing, there emerges an understanding of God that is intelligible, appropriate, relevant, and significant, and if the God who is thereby known illumines and liberates, unites and heals, reassures and challenges, the future may be a time of renewed vitality for theistic faith. These chapters will do no more than suggest a few steps in that direction.
The perspective I bring to bear on these questions is Whiteheadian. This is not for me a matter of choice. In my first year as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, my first serious exposure to modern thought, especially philosophy and psychology, shattered my previously strong conviction of the reality of God. This shattering did not take place by a frontal assault on my belief. It was more that I was drawn into a way of thinking and perceiving that was closed in on itself and that contained no place for God.
By chance, or perhaps providentially, I encountered one thinker who obviously understood modern thought far better than I and yet found it not in the least threatening to his convictions about God. His name was Charles Hartshorne and it was clear to me that I must sit at his feet. He introduced me to a world of thought, largely Whiteheadian, that incorporated the modern vision but transcended it. In that world God gradually came alive for me again.
Now, thirty years later, I have had the chance to study more carefully the various philosophical and theological responses to the absence of God from the modern vision. I have wondered what would have become of me if at that critical time I had encountered other forms of defense of the belief in God espoused by their best proponents. And I am still not sure that any of the others would have checked my drift into atheistic modernity. At that time I could not respond to the dogmatic theology of Earth or the kerygmatic theology of Bultmann. Neither Tillich nor neo-Thomism spoke convincingly to my doubts. Boston Personalism in the form given it by E. S. Brightman challenged me, but I could not quite believe its idealism. The brilliant analyses of human nature and destiny by Reinhold Niebuhr had already moved and grasped me, but they did not deal directly with my experience of the disappearance of God. The neo- naturalism that I encountered in the faculty of the Chicago Divinity School seemed to have accommodated too far to the disbelief of our age to open up for me the possibility of authentic belief. Even now, looking back, it seems that my taking the Hartshornian- Whiteheadian direction was not the mere consequence of the chance encounter with Hartshome. It seems more to be the one possibility of belief that was open to me in the intellectual world of the late forties.
There is a second way in which I find my Whiteheadian perspective something more than a biographical chance. The years since I was drawn into it have brought crises of faith on new grounds. Richard Ruben stein has challenged belief in a God who permitted Auschwitz and has called for return to the gods of the soil. Thomas Altizer has attacked the God of the church as repressive of human freedom and creativity and called on us, as Christians, to will God's death. Under the influence of dominant currents in modern philosophy many have abandoned consideration of God's reality and devoted attention to matters of language and imaging alone. The ecological crisis made us aware of how seriously our Western concentration on God has detached us from sensitive attention to our interconnectedness with all things and led us falsely to separate history from nature.
Each of these events -- and the widespread cultural currents they represent and articulate -- has undermined, for many, ways of conceiving of God that had survived the tension with the dominant modern world view. It has been my experience, however, that each new challenge has made me more genuinely Whiteheadian. I have come to understand Whitehead's distaste for the image of Creator, which at first I had tried to build up, and his preference for identifying God with the tender elements that work in love. And I have come to a new appreciation of his vision of the radical interconnectedness and interdependence, even interfusion, of all things. None other, I believe, of all the ways of thinking of God propounded at the time of my own crisis of faith would have similarly flowered through the new challenges of the years ahead. I am now finding, as I wrestle with the challenges of Buddhism and feminism, that Whitehead's thought again displays heretofore untapped resources. Let me hasten to say that I do not mean that Whitehead's doctrine of God is in itself the answer to our present and future needs. It expresses his own attention to a surprising array of the issues that have been prominent since his death. But he was not prescient or omniscient! His formulations are bound to his time and place even while, like all works of genius, they speak to other times and places as well. We need to think afresh in the light of our new experience, not to defend a doctrine formulated half a century ago. Much that I will say in these lectures cannot be found in the pages of Whitehead's writing, and if that were not true I would not be faithful to his own spirit. But in thinking afresh in new situations I find continuing and surprising help in aspects of Whitehead's vision that I had not previously noted or appreciated. Hence I find myself, inescapably, a Whiteheadian, and when I think of our common topic, "resources for the resolution of the problem of God today," I must continue to confess that for me the central resource after the Bible itself is the philosophy of Whitehead.
The remainder of this first chapter reflects my own graduate school crisis, a crisis that, I think, was typical of the experience of many Christians in the past century or more. I did not encounter arguments against belief in God. That would not have been very troublesome. Over the years I have never found arguments for or against belief in God convincing. Indeed the arguments against belief stir the debater in me, and since their weakness is easily exposed, they tend to confirm my faith. But what I did encounter was a powerful and all-encompassing way of thinking and experiencing that dominated the university in all its branches and from which God was excluded. l found this vision of reality superseding the one I had brought with me to the university. This was not a matter of choice, but a fate or destiny.
Because of the importance of this experience for me, and because I believe it is a widely shared experience, I have often reflected about it, asking what essentially made the earlier Christian vision so powerless before the modern world view and also what is the most essential advance required beyond the modern view if theism is to be recovered on a new level. There are many answers, of course, all interrelated. For our consideration in this chapter I am choosing the theme of causality. My argument is as follows: (1) God must be the cause of something. (2) The modem view of causality excludes in principle asserting that God is the cause of anything. (3) A new view of causality opens the door to an improved understanding of how God-is causally efficacious in the world.
God Must Be the Cause of Something
What God causes is subject to highly varied interpretation. Our insurance policies in their language of "acts of God" reflect a time when natural disasters were viewed as caused by God. Even today when personal disaster strikes, many people wonder why God did this to them. But there are strong theological reasons for denying this as the locus of agency of a loving God. And it accords poorly with our scientific world view.
Others think of God as the cause of the totality of nature rather than as the particular cause of particular events. This works best when we think that nature had a beginning, and the doctrine of God as initiator of the whole show has gained some color in connection with the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins. However, God as the initiator of the Big Bang has little human meaning, and in any case it fits uncomfortably with the inevitable scientific interest in the state of nature prior to this cosmic explosion.
Accordingly, attention may be directed to humanly important features of the world as the locus of divine causality. Some have suggested that God acted to bring life into being in an inanimate world or to create human beings out of animals. But the God of the gaps recedes before scientific advance as the gaps are narrowed and the continuous character of the evolutionary development appears more and more clearly.
Finally, where the whole natural process is recognized as the sphere of science, human religious experience is sometimes identified as the place where God directly affects us. Mystical experience or faith may be singled out as phenomena that cannot be explained apart from divine causality. But, again, the advance of science can display these also as continuous with other types of phenomena in such a way that the claim that they have supernatural causes progressively decreases in plausibility.
All of these views of God's causal agency in the world are interventionist. God is seen as intervening in the nothing to initiate something and as intervening at points in the world process to effect results it would not otherwise attain. I have suggested that these views tend inevitably to retreat before the advance of science. This is not only because the gaps where God could be thought to act are becoming more narrow because of this advance, but also because the basic understanding of the world has altered. When nature was understood unhistorically as essentially changeless in its basic structure, occasional intervention to bring about new structures made some, though questionable, sense. But when nature is seen as a dynamic process, supernatural interventions are not required to account for the emergence of novel forms. Indeed the idea of an interventionist God connected with such a world makes the problem of evil insuperable. Why did God let nature spend billions of years producing what in the end requires an intervention anyway? And why did a God who acts through interventions not intervene to prevent Auschwitz?
The decline of interventionist thinking; has opened the way to the development of an alternative style of theological thought. In this perspective God is a factor in all events through the spectrum of nature and history. God is sustainer. renewer, and source of directivity in the cosmic process. Life and human personhood and religious experience can be lifted up, in this perspective as well, as indicative of God's directive agency. But God's causality is seen in the whole process that produces them and follows from them rather than in individual interventions. It is Gods nature to work with the ongoing, largely autonomous, process continuously rather than at occasional discreet moments. Hence we are led to attend to our present and ordinary experiences rather than to focus on a few "mighty works."
This mode of conceiving of God is not vulnerable to scientific advance in the way that interventionist modes of thinking are. Nevertheless, it too faces acute problems. Often God's efficacy is indicated so vaguely that God cannot be distinguished from the natural process as a whole and appears simply to be brought in for rhetorical purposes, ii, on the other hand. God's causal agency in the process is seriously affirmed, we confront the fact that modern reflection on causality rules out this possibility in advance.
The Modern Understanding of Causality Excludes God's Causality in Principle
This was certainly not true for Isaac Newton, In his thought entities acted upon other entities according to imposed laws. God was the author of these laws and the agency of their imposition. God was, thus, not one cause among others, but the cause of the laws that regulate all other causal relations. It is the erosion of the Newtonian vision that has made talk of God problematic in the modern scientific world view.
Hume is the key figure in this erosion. He called attention to the fact that we never observe causal connections except as regularity of contiguous succession between phenomena. A law is a generalization of such regularities. Hume denied that a law is imposed, and, hence, saw no need of a divine law-giver. In this perception, a cause is an antecedent member in an observed regular succession. In principle, therefore, the cause must be observable. Also it must be a phenomenon that sometimes occurs and sometimes does not. God clearly cannot be a cause in this sense. God is not sensuously observable, and God is not an occasional phenomenon.
Hume's view has been widely contested but, in modified versions, it has become the orthodoxy against which critics must contend. This remains true even when the shift of focus from metaphysics to logic leads to a shift from consideration of cause to consideration of explanation. An occurrence is explained when its relation to antecedent states of affairs is subsumed under a law that is a generalization of such observed relations. With this doctrine of explanation it is impossible to explain any feature of the observable world by reference to something in principle unobservable, for example, God.
The difficulty created for theism by this modern understanding of causality and explanation can hardly be exaggerated. Both theoretically and practically the reasons for affirming God have always been the judgment of the need to affirm a cause. This has been articulated as the principle of sufficient reason, that is, there must be a sufficient reason for the occurrence of whatever occurs. There are many features of the world for which antecedent circumstances, however regular, do not appear to be sufficient reasons. This leads to explaining them as God-given. In this way we were encouraged to reason from effect to cause. But the more deeply we are drawn into the dominant modern vision, the less free we find ourselves to think in such terms. For this modern vision, we can reason only from cause to effect; we cannot reason from effect to cause. The logical form of explanation is identical with the logical form of prediction.
One may argue that the replacement of the principle of sufficient reason with the covering law model of explanation is simply arbitrary and can therefore be rejected by theists. In a sense this is true. No one has ever refuted the principle of sufficient reason or proved the exclusive correctness of covering law explanation. But such a response is completely inadequate, for to appeal to
God as the cause or explanation of some aspect of the world is unconvincing unless what is meant by cause and explanation is itself explained. If the Humean model of causality is rejected, with what can it be replaced?
A New View of Causality Opens the Door to an Improved Understanding of How God Is Causally Efficacious in the World
What Hume missed in the causal relations he observed was any inherent necessity or, we might say in a commonsense way, any causality. He could observe successive events, and he believed that once the former occurred the latter would follow, but he could not observe any production by the first of the second. The relation of the two events appeared to be external to both of them. Now if for all other purposes the view of cause as regular succession proved satisfying, it would be a fruitless move to propose a different mode of causality for the sake of theism. But this is far from the case. There is a large literature, for example, arguing that the explanations of events sought by historians are quite different from Humean explanations, and even in the hard sciences covering law theory has acute difficulties with, for example, statistical laws. In- deed, it seems that the only reason for clinging to the Humean view is that in the realm of public events experienced through the senses there is no other way to go. Sensa are of necessity susceptible only to external relations.
The original home of causal thinking was quite elsewhere. In the Greek law courts one sought to determine the cause of a crime, that on which it was to be blamed, as a precondition of appropriate punishment. Today it is necessary to return to the human sphere for a new model of causality.
In personal, subjective experience we are all aware of causes as something more than regular succession. If someone grabs my arm and forces me to move it against my will, I am aware of being compelled to move my arm. If I decide to write a word and then write it, I experience myself writing because of the decision, not merely following it. If my tooth aches, I feel the throbbing in the tooth as the cause of my experience of pain. In all these cases the relation of the two events is not merely external. It is internal to the later event, which occurs not only after the other event but because of it. The cause is internal to or contained in the effect.
Let me offer one more example. I would not be writing this if I did not hope to influence the readers in some measure. To influence is to flow into. My hope is that some of the ideas I am expressing and perhaps even some of my verbal formulations will flow into the readers, that is, become part of them. That would not necessarily mean that they accepted all my ideas, but it would mean the ideas entered the readers experience for reflective consideration and judgment. The relation of my ideas to a reader's experience would not be a matter of regular temporal succession. It would be a matter of participation in the constitution of the reader's experience.
Internal relations are involved in all genuinely causal relations. If the reader's experience is affected by the writer's ideas, this is be- cause these ideas in some measure become a constitutive part of the reader's experience. It is true that a third party cannot observe this internalization and insofar as the third party position is the basis for science, this internal relation lies outside the scientific vision. The scientific observer would be limited to observing the reader's behavior and seeking correlations between it and the written words. But this would not be the primary causal relationship, which is immediately available only to the attentive reader.
When causality is understood as regular succession, one cannot reason from the effect to the cause since the cause is external to the effect; that is, the effect bears no witness to the cause. The same effect could have arisen from another cause. But when causality is understood as the internalization of the antecedent event by a consequent one, as in the case of one person grasping the meaning of another, the situation is quite different. Here we cannot predict the effect from the cause, for there is no necessity that readers attend to ideas even if they read a book. But if the effect occurs -- if ideas are assimilated -- the cause can be inferred. Of course, there can be mistakes in such inference, but without risking such reasoning, and apart from its general reliability, life could not go on. We experience our pain as arising from events in the body and we adjust ourselves accordingly. We could not survive if we simply experienced the pain or the words and required knowledge of Humean laws to identify their causes. There are times when knowledge of Humean laws is helpful, hut people remove their hands from hot stoves before they learn generalizations about heat causing pain.
Now I am claiming that this kind of causality we all know so well provides a much better way of conceiving of God's causality in the than do either Newtonian or Humean notions. It implies that God is efficacious in the world to the extent that worldly events include God within them. This inclusion does not determine just how they will constitute themselves any more than a reader's inclusion of a writer's suggestions determines how the reader will respond. But the inclusion makes a difference, and a very important difference.
Thus far I have argued for three points. First, to talk about God is to talk of God as the cause of something, and it is far better to think of this something as an aspect of all events rather than to think of God's causal efficacy in terms intervention in an otherwise autonomous course of events. Second, the modern, dominantly Humean, understanding of causality excludes any notion of God's causal efficacy in the world. Third, through the analysis of the root experiences causality we can arrive at an understanding of the cause as participating in the constitution of the effect, and this understanding leaves open the possibility that God. too. participates in The constitution of events in the world.
If it makes sense to think of God as causally effective in the world, the remaining question is whether there is evidence in the world of such effectiveness. Are there human experiences of God's grace, power, or efficacy? Or, more generally, are there aspects of experience that are best explained through affirming the effective presence of God as their cause?
That many people believe that they have had experiences of God goes without question. That the unobservability of God as cause does not in itself render such beliefs fallacious is now also clear. That the causal relation of God to the world stands outside of the work of science need not disturb us. Still there are reasons for serious doubt.
We know that there are errors in identifying the cause even in the clearest and most vivid experiences. For most of us most of the time the experience of God's grace and agency in our lives is not clear and vivid. There has been much error in adjudging various aspects of experience as God's grace, and we worry that we too may be in error. Where there is so little clarity, we suspect that the whole tendency to interpret experience in terms of God's agency may be derived from cultural convention and wishful thinking. There are, on the other hand, experiences felt so powerfully as experiences of God that the subjects know them to be such, and the understanding of causality I have proposed can sometimes justify them in their conviction. But even their assurance requires some notion of God and God's agency that does not transform these experiences into eccentricities but sees them as the heightening and enlivening of God's presence everywhere. Hence we need to consider philosophically what role God may be thought to play in the total process to provide a context for the appreciation of those most vivid experiences. Where there is no vivid consciousness of God's presence as such, what features of the world may we most reasonably suppose are the result of his presence?
I propose that we consider freedom to be such a feature. We can approach this through a brief examination of the recent philosophical discussions of freedom. These arise generally from the fact that philosophers know that we do attribute responsibility to people for at least some of their actions. The question is whether this is justified and, if so, why.
One position is that the view that people are responsible for their actions is false. The more we understand actions psychologically and sociologically and even physically and chemically the more we realize that there are reasons for just those actions. Given the conditions, the total situation, only that action could occur. There may be reasons for punishing some actions as a means of introducing new causal factors into the future situation, but there is no sense in speaking of justice, as if a murderer "deserved" punishment. That appeals only to primitive instincts of revenge. The act of murdering followed necessarily from the situation just as an act of kindness might follow necessarily from a slightly different situation. This position is called hard determinism.
The difficulty with hard determinism is that it is inconsistent .with so much of our ordinary language and common sense. We hold people responsible for what they do in our law courts and in ordinary life in ways that convict with the implications of hard determinism. Of course, that does not refute hard determinism as a metaphysical position, but it does show why philosophers who orient themselves to ordinary language, as so many have done in recent years, find it an uncomfortable doctrine. They have devised an alternative position known as soft determinism.
The soft determinists stress that we can and do make distinctions between what we are compelled to do and what we do freely. What we do freely is what we do because of our own intentions and desires. They think it is possible to explain why we intend or desire what we do. Hence a free action can be explained just as well as one that is forced upon us. This explanation will show that it too is determined. But when the act is determined by our own purposes, we are responsible. When the act is forced upon us, we are not.
Soft determinism certainly comes closer to describing the way we do think about responsibility than does hard determinism, However, the hard determinists rightly point out that on the basic questions there is no difference. If I act from my purpose, but my purpose, directly or indirectly, is a function of physical and chemical or sociological or historical conditions, then I am still not responsible in any serious sense. If the courts choose to use this distinction as a basis for determining my legal guilt, there is nothing to prevent them. But responsibility of this sort cannot justify moral judgments.
There are other philosophers who reject determinism altogether. They point out that from a Humean point of view determinism is no more than a faith that every aspect of every event can ultimately be brought under general laws. Many recommend this as a good attitude to adopt so that we will not stop the search for such general laws at any point. But since laws relate only to types of events or aspects of events, not to events in their totality, it is hard to see how any event in its concrete determinateness could ever be brought exhaustively under covering laws. Hence there is no logical basis for excluding a measure of indeterminateness.
Indeterminacy, however drips not imply responsibility. As the Stoics recognized long ago, the fact that some of our actions are not determined would mean that we do not determine them. For an action that I do not determine, I cannot be held accountable.
Does this mean that in tact our basic notions of freedom and responsibility are illusory? This is the general impression one receives from reading recent philosophic discussions. Either an action is determined or it is not determined, and in neither case can we intelligibly attribute to it the sort of responsibility we associate with freedom..
The only alternative seems to be to introduce an additional category? self-determination. Now self-determination can be understood as nothing more than what the soft determinist asserts, that is, that among the immediately precipitating factors behind an act a key one was the person's own intention. But self-determination must mean more than what the soft determinist asserts, that is, that among the immediately precipitating factors behind an act a key one was the person’s own intention. But self-determination must mean more than that if it to help us out of our quandary.
It must mean that the intention was not in its turn a product of antecedent factors alone. Instead the intention must have been in part self-determined in the moment in which it precipitated the action.
To think clearly about what is asserted here, we should consider the moment of human experience in which the intention is formed. What must be asserted is that although this moment of experience arose out of a complex past that deeply affected it. It had some autonomy in its constitution o itself. That is, this momentary experience must not be simply an outgrowth of its past. and features in it that are not determined by the past must not be simply a matter of chance. The act of experience must in some measure determine itself. Only thus can it be responsible in an ethically intelligible way for itself or for the overt actions to which it leads.
This is a difficult idea for most philosophers. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that such self-determination presupposes multiple possibilities. Also these possibilities must include possibilities not realized in the effective antecedent world. But for the dominant modern vision the antecedent world at any point exhausts reality. Nothing can enter a moment of experience from anywhere else since there is nowhere else. Hence multiple possibilities cannot really present themselves, and self-determination in this radical sense is impossible.
The alternative is to argue that since self-determination is real. the antecedent world does not exhaust reality. There is also the sphere of possibility which presents itself as effectively relevant for decision in each moment. The moment of experience constitutes itself out of its antecedent world, but how it responds to that world -- what, in its self-constitution, it does with that world -- is affected by the new possibilities among which it chooses.
The question remains: how can possibilities unrealized in the antecedent world attain effective relevance for the new moment of experience? This is a complicated way of asking our basic question: how can there be real freedom? And the answer is that in addition to the antecedent world there is also another reality that enters into each moment opening up a space of self-determination. The other reality is God.
Let me summarize the argument. We experience ourselves as free. If we are truly free, that means that the way we constitute ourselves transcends the sheer outworking of the past. This means that there are possibilities genuinely available for realization that are not contributed by the past world. These possibilities must be felt as such in the process of self-constitution. Since nothing in the past world can be the cause of the effectiveness of these possibilities, that cause transcends the world. It is appropriate to call it God. To think of God as the cause of the effectiveness of these possibilities is to think of God as a factor in the self-constitution of each experience, for this is what it means to be a cause. According to our earlier consideration of causality, to think of God as the cause of the effectiveness of new possibilities -- and thus the cause of freedom -- is to think of God as participating in the constitution of experience. Or to put it more personally, it is by virtue of the presence of God that I experience a call to be more than I have been and more than my circumstances necessitate that I be. It is that call to transcendence that frees me from simply acting by habit and reacting to the forces of the world. In short, it is by God's grace that I am free.
I have not, of course, proved the existence of God. I cannot even prove that freedom is real. Determinists see the same world and are convinced that everything is as it must be because its past is what it is. Whatever phenomenon I may point to as indicating that the present transcends the past, determinists will claim that in time an explanation can be given that shows that there has been no such transcendence. Against that claim there can be no proof, only the witness of our ordinary language and the deep-seated conviction that something more occurs than the unrolling of what is preestablished and predetermined. What I have tried to show is that belief in freedom and belief in God belong together, and that -- once we are free to think in terms of non-Humean causality and explanation -- it makes sense to refer to God as the explanation of our freedom.
Furthermore, the association of freedom with God is not a convenient ad hoc solution to our current difficulties with theism. It is an ancient connection. As a sweeping generalization over the history of religions and associated philosophies, I think it can be safety said that creative freedom and personal responsibility have beep accented where belief in the biblical God has been alive. Human freedom has not been a topic of reflection in Oriental philosophy and religion, and although its roots can be found in Greek thought, the theme was not fully articulated or clarified. Discussion of human freedom has withered in the philosophy that most fully reflects the dominant modern worldview. But where the biblical God was understood to hold before human beings new possibilities for their lives -- indeed a new historical order, and finally a new world -- there human beings have experienced themselves as free to transcend the bounds of the past and to live from the not yet realized possibilities.
This historical connection of freedom and God has been appreciated even by some atheists, such as Ernst Bloch. But it must be admitted that there are those who affirm freedom in our world without seeing any need to speak of God. This has been possible chiefly because, alongside the kind of philosophy I have been describing, dominant in the Anglo-American world, there has been an idealist way of thinking that long ago responded to the challenge of science in quite a different manner. The idealists rightly saw that science omitted from its consideration the scientist and indeed all human knowing. Since science is a production of human beings, they insisted that the primary reality is the human one. The characteristics of the human mind that make knowledge possible are logically and metaphysically prior to the information that science contributes. Hence what is to be said of human beings, such as whether or not they are free, is in no way restricted by the scientific attitude or findings. Phenomenology and existentialism represent the last great expressions of this idealist spirit. Where that prevails human freedom can be taken as a starting point requiring no defense and no explanation. Indeed any explanation appears as a concession to an inappropriate demand and even as an infringement upon the freedom itself.
I rejoice in this bold affirmation of freedom as we find it, for example, in Jean-Paul Sartre. It witnesses to the strength of the inner certainty of freedom where this is not eroded by restrictive ideas of what is possible. But I also believe that the radical dualism of the human consciousness and the physical world that freed Sartre from all need of explanation is itself eroding. It becomes increasingly difficult to suppose that consciousness is in no way to be explained by physiology, that consciousness and the body belong to different spheres such that each is to be understood without regard for the other. Merleau-Ponty, from the phenomenological side, began the process of correlating consciousness with the lived body, that is, the body as inwardly experienced.
Now, in the structuralism that has risen to prominence in France -- partly displacing phenomenology and extentialism -- the deterministic perspective encouraged by science intrudes sharply into the explanation of human experience. This course of thought suggests that the sheer affirmation of radical freedom -- based on immediate experience but cut off from belief in God -- will some day appear as a residue of an earlier faith, unable to sustain itself for long.
There is a final point to be made about freedom, and it is a point that atheistic affirmers of freedom have found most difficult. Significant freedom requires that in the process of self-determination the distinction of better and worse be experienced as a real and relevant factor. This should not be thought of in the first instance as an ethical question. Moral distinctions may or may not play a role. But in a significant act of self-determination, of deciding among possibilities, there must be some felt ranking of these possibilities. It must be better to realize some rather than others, otherwise the choice is arbitrary and freedom cannot be felt as significant.
Sartre struggled against this conclusion. He even argued that for freedom to be truly free we must decide what is better and worse with no antecedent standards by which to decide. He was opposing chiefly, of course, the idea of moral rules of conduct imposed upon us by society or God, which we heteronomously obey or disobey. And of course he is right that any significant freedom must be freedom to decide whether such rules are themselves good or evil. But his formulations were far more extreme than that, for his philosophy allowed him no norm in relation to freedom that was not freely, and hence arbitrarily, chosen. Actually he qualified this extreme claim in various ways, whether legitimately or not, for he strongly believed that we should exercise freedom so as to maximize the freedom of others rather than to enslave them, and he did not really believe that to act by that principle was arbitrary.
In the moment of decision the decision loses significance if it is not immediately felt that some modes of self-constitution are truly, in themselves, better than others; for example (as with Sartre) those that enhance freedom rather than reduce it. But that means that in the giving of freedom God gives also the call to its fullest exercise. God does not simply open up a space for our self-determination. God also urges or lures us to use that freedom to the fullest -- to eschew, for example, those easy decisions to neglect our new possibilities for the sake of safer reiteration of past habits. God is thus not only the giver of freedom, but also the call to be more free. And finally the ethical element does enter. For God's call is not only that we so determine ourselves as to be more free, but also that we constitute ourselves so as to contribute to the freedom of others. Our experience of God is an experience of an ideal, not a fixed ideal, but a new one moment by moment -- an ideal possibility for realization in that situation pulling us away from the easy out, the slothful capitulation to inertia. We are aware, at the deepest level of our being, that there are possibilities of good that we partly realize and partly miss, and in that awareness we experience the immanence of God in our lives.