A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch
Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published by Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 4: A Cosmic Purpose
God is not before all creation, but with all creation.
More than two thousand years ago, the wisest of men proclaimed that the divine persuasion is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such measure of harmony as amid brute forces it was possible to accomplish.
The old notion of a divine being controlling the universe from outside is no longer credible. The relevant question now is, in what sense, if any, is there divine activity in the universe.
God Is Dead
Why bring God into the argument at all? Hasn’t the notion of God been disposed of by science and the Enlightenment and more recently by theologians themselves who have written about the death of God? The critical question to ask is which God is dead? There are many concepts of God and many of them should die. The primary question is not, do you believe in God? but, what do you think you would be believing in if you did believe in God? There is the God who can do anything, who could prevent nuclear war, who could have prevented the holocaust -- but didn’t. There is the God who set the universe going in the first place and then left it except for occasional interventions in the form of miracles which rarely happen. There is the God of the gaps who is brought in to fill the gaps left by science; that God grows smaller with every advance in scientific understanding of the universe. There is the cosmic bellhop who sits at the end of a cosmic telephone exchange dealing with billions of calls every minute and whom the caller hopes will alter the course of events to suit the caller. There is the God who requires praise. There is the God who demands sacrifice. There is the God who is on our side in wars who would have us kill for his sake. There is the uncertain God of the soldier’s prayer -- please God, if there be a God, save my soul if there be a soul! There is the God of judgment who rules by fear and who dispenses post-mortem rewards and punishments. All these theologies of God make things pretty easy for atheists. I too am an atheist about those Gods.
A student of Columbia University came to see Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was pastor of Riverside Church in New York. He was agitated. Before he had time to sit down he announced to Dr. Fosdick that he didn’t believe in God. ‘So you’re an atheist’ said Fosdick. ‘Describe for me the God you don’t believe in.’ The student did a good job of picturing God as a venerable bookkeeper taking notes of everyone’s good and bad deeds. When the student had finished Fosdick surprised him by saying ‘My boy, that makes two of us. I don’t believe in that God either. But we’ve still got the universe on our hands, haven’t we. What do you really think about it?’
The worldview that has been increasingly dominant since the seventeenth century, due to the work of Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton and others is a mechanistic view of nature. In its first period this worldview was theistic and dualistic. It put both God and the human soul, as it was called, outside the mechanisms. God was the omnipotent external creator who had little to do with the world but something to do with human souls. In its second phase, following the Enlightenment, the mechanistic worldview became materialistic and atheistic. This led to reductionism and determinism. The student who came to Fosdick seemed to be recapitulating this bit of history, starting out as a theist and ending up an atheist. It was argued in Chapters 1 and 2 that both dualism (theistic or otherwise) and materialism are now in shambles. Instead, these chapters argued for a unitary view of creation and the sentience of all individual entities, not just humans. They stressed the role of freedom and of purpose throughout the creation. They found no place for the universe as a giant contrivance, nor for a God who manipulates the contrivance. Why then introduce God at all?
Three objections might be raised to introducing God into the picture. One is that the word stands for nothing that is credible or defensible in the modern world, so why carry this extra baggage of questionable belief? A second objection is that even if there is a defensible view, the word God is too tied to outmoded views and will always be identified with them, just as bad money drives out good. Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century questioned if the God of the philosophers was the God of Isaac, Jacob and Abraham. A third objection is that ideologies tied up with a God are socially destructive, a cause of enmity and disastrous wars. We would be better off without them. This objection has some force when each day the newspapers report yet another internecine conflict between religious parties. The world would be better off without religious fanaticism. But it is not only religions that are a source of fanaticism; so are ideologies both of the right and the left. What has to be opposed are fanaticisms of any sort, religious or otherwise.
An objective of this chapter is to suggest a faith in a cosmic purpose that is credible in an age of science and that could lead to harmony between human beings and between them and the rest of nature. Another way of putting this is to ask -- is there divine love at the heart of the universe?
Three Views of the Relation of God to the Cosmos
There are logically three views of the relation of God to the cosmos:
1. God is identified with the cosmos and in all aspects inseparable from it and all that exists. This is pantheism.
2. God is not identified with the cosmos and is in all aspects independent of it. This is classical theism
3. God is involved in the cosmos but is not identified with it. God is both within the system and independent of it. This is panentheism.
A further breakdown of these views can obviously be made and is given by Hartshorne and Reese (1953). The position developed in this book is one of panentheism or what Hartshorne calls neoclassical theism. It is known also as process theology because reality, including God, is conceived to be process (not substance). God is involved in, but not identified with, the cosmos. It is also called an ‘ecological mode’ of God (Birch & Cobb 1981) because of the emphasis on relations, particularly internal relations.
The first modern thinker whose views were close to panentheism, according to Hartshorne and Reese (1953 pp. 225-7), was the Italian Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) whose followers formed the Socinian movement. Socinus broke away from the tradition of classical theism by proposing that we contribute to the life of God. But God in this view was not world-inclusive. Some more recent supporters of panentheism, for whom God both contributes to and receives from the world, are Shelling, Fechner, Peirce, Berdyaev, Iqbal, Buber, Radhakrishnan, Whitehead, Hartshorne, Weiss, Ogden, Cobb, Griffin, Haught, Suchocki, McDaniel and others. The concept of panentheism is, of course, much older than these modern representatives. Hartshorne and Reese (1953) include in what they call ancient or quasi-panentheism, Ikhnaton (the first mono-theist’), Hindu scriptures (Vedic hymns and the Upanishads), Lao-tzu (the Tao Te Ching), Judaeo-Christian scriptures (for example, sections of Genesis 1, Psalm 103 and various parts of the New Testament), and Plato.
In panentheism or the ecological model of God, God is not introduced to save the collapse of the model of the universe and all that is in it. God is not introduced to fill the gaps left over from science. God is not supernatural. God is natural. What is, is natural. In the ecological model God is the most natural entity there is. ‘God,’ says Whitehead (1978), ‘is not be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification’ (p. 343). It is true to say that the world is germane to God and God is germane to the world. The ecological model thus argues for the relevance of God to the being of and the understanding of the universe and all its entities. It is a view that attempts to combine the understanding of the best science with the best insights in religion. It seeks in Whitehead’s (1933) words ‘a deeper religion and a more subtle science’ (p. 229). The previous chapters have been concerned particularly with the more subtle science. They have hinted at a deeper religion. This is made explicit in this chapter.
The Divine Eros
Sallie McFague (1987 p. 38) makes the proposition that belief and behavior are more influenced by images than by concepts. It follows that concepts without images tend to be sterile. Whitehead speaks of two aspects of God which he calls the primordial nature and the consequent nature of God. I refer to these in terms of the Images of divine Eros and divine Passion respectively. McFague goes further with her images and speaks of God as mother, lover and friend, each of which includes divine Eros and divine Passion. She makes her images even more telling by referring to the world as God’s body, as indeed did Hartshorne (1941 p. 185) long ago. This image suggests that God is to the world as self is to the body. It represents a thoroughly incarnational theology.
The meaning of divine Eros (eros means love) is that at the heart of the universe there is persuasive love sustaining all individual entities and enticing them to deeper experiences so far as their freedom allows. In the ecological model there is constant tension between chaos and order since order is neither the outcome of one all-powerful orderer nor of deterministic necessity. All individual entities have a degree of freedom which is their degree of self-determination. Their freedom is freedom to respond or not to respond to possibilities in their future. As has been emphasized, this must be tiny for protons but highly significant for persons.
What in particular do individual entities of creation respond to? The answer is -- the possibilities for their being, including their future. At the heart of the universe, even before there were atoms or cells, there was the possibility of these entities coming into existence. The potentiality of the universe is conceived as cosmic mind. Such a reality is recognized, though not explicitly taken to be God, in Buddhism. In Hinduism it is thought of as Brahman. In Judaism and Christianity it is called God. The possibilities of the universe are realities that constitute a continuous lure to the creation. In the ecological model of God they are in the primordial mind. This is Whitehead’s doctrine of the divine Eros or the primordial nature of God. In God’s primordial nature God confronts what is actual in the world with what is possible for it. This is the aspect of the divine who is the same yesterday, today and forever. It is the immensely I sensitive and outgoing nature within nature brooding over nature. It is the ordering principle at the heart of the universe, else there would be only chaos. Materialism, by contrast, refuses in principle to take order as a problem.
The principle, so often ignored by traditional religion uninformed by science, is that there are many orderers yet one supreme orderer. As Hartshorne (1967) has said: ‘Order is in principle the rule of one’ (p. 61). But
it is not God alone who acts in the world, every individual acts. There is no single producer of the actual series of events; one producer to be sure, is uniquely universal, unsurpassably influential. Nevertheless, what happens is in no case the products of his creative acts alone. Countless choices intersect to make a world, and how, concretely, they intersect is not chosen by anyone, nor could it be . . . purpose in multiple form, and chance are not mutually exclusive but complementary; neither makes sense alone. (p. 58)
Apart from God there is no way to understand how there could be any limits to the anarchy implied by a multiplicity of creative agents -- none universally influential.
God is thus the ground of order. But this is a changing and developing order. Order involves the many becoming one, else ours is a multiverse and not a universe. The creative activity of God involves the creation of novelty that itself adds to the existing unity. Nothing creatively novel is unattached. The whole is immanent in the part. The parts are members of one another. The novel becomes one with the many. This is the meaning of creative advance. Hence Whitehead’s (1978) somewhat enigmatic phrase ‘The many become one, and are increased by one’ (p. 21).
To say that God is the ground of order is to say also that God is the ground of novelty. This is because, as Cobb and Griffin (1976) state, ‘One aspect of God is a primordial envisagement of the pure possibilities. They are envisaged with appetition that they be actualized in the world’ (p. 28). Hence Whitehead’s name the Eros of the universe for the primordial nature of God. It is the active entertainment of all ideals and possibilities, with the urge to their concrete realization, each in its due season. Where the divine Eros meets the human eros and is truly recognized the appropriate response is youthful zest with all of one’s heart and soul and mind and strength, or in Tillich’s phrase -- with infinite passion. The response of the creature to the divine Eros is passionate and transforming. It is adventure involving continual creative transformation. In the last two chapters of Adventures of Ideas Whitehead speaks of adventure as belonging to the essence of civilization, so the pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.
The ordered universe contains within it much that is disordered and incomplete. Multiple creativity makes some disorder and conflict inevitable. It allows for the possibility of great disorder and evil. In the ecological model evils spring from chance and the freedom that allows -- not from providence. The reason providence does not eliminate chance is because a world without chance is a world without freedom. Every natural entity, every atom must have an aspect of self-determination or spontaneity and the intersection of even two, let alone myriads, of acts of self-determination is precisely chance. For God to completely control the world would be the same as to annihilate it. It follows that it is nonsense to ask the question -- why did God allow Vesuvius to pour its molten larva on populated Pompeii, or why did God allow the Holocaust? People who ask such questions have not been liberated from the concept of God as omnipotent dictator of the universe, responsible for everything that happens and who, if he willed, could change the course of events by sheer fiat. This concept has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and Mohammedanism. When catastrophe strikes people ask -- why did God do this to me? It is a non-question because God does not manipulate things and people. God’s is not the power to do anything at all. God doesn’t need that particular false metaphysical compliment. Yet this notion of God has been, and still is, a cause of much suffering and agony, as poignantly portrayed by Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1982). The notion of an all-arranging, chance-excluding providence is cruel. It compels us to try and imagine that our worst tortures are deliberately contrived. And it is dangerous because it suggests we can do little to avert evil. Whitehead (1978) wrote that, ‘When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered.’ God became fashioned in the image of Egyptian, Persian and Roman Imperial rulers:
The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar . . . There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which . . . does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love. (pp. 342-3).
There are things a God of love cannot do. The God of love could not change the decision of the rich young ruler to whom Jesus spoke. When persuasion failed, coercion did not take over. Let us give up the destructive notion of divine omnipotence that plagues so much of Christian theology. Hartshorne (1984a) argues that omnipotence, as usually conceived, denies God any world worth talking about. It denies that in the world of the living there are any significant decision-making agents. All is determined by God. ‘No worse falsehood was ever perpetuated than the traditional concept of omnipotence. It is a piece of unconscious blasphemy, condemning God to a dead world, probably not distinguishable from no world at all’ (p. 18).
The biblical image is of one who stands at the door and knocks, who never forces entry. The valid analogy is the lure of loving parents to creative response in the child. God is never coercive, ever persuasive. This image of God’s creative activity includes the notion ‘in the fullness of time’. At each step in the evolutionary process of the universe, or of a life, there is an appropriate response. There are no short cuts. A billion years ago there was no possibility then and there of humans becoming a reality on earth. A million years ago human values began to be realized, but there was no immediate possibility of a mature society then and there. A Jesus or a Buddha would have been an anachronism a million years ago. But not now. In the fullness of time they appeared out of their own societies and some were ready to respond to the call. The future of the universe at any stage of its history is conditioned by the past and awaits the spontaneity of the novel occasions as in their season they come into being.
Russell (1935) said that if he were God he would have skipped the millions of years of the dinosaurs and gone straight to man:
Why the Creator should have preferred to reach His goal by a process, instead of going straight to it, these modern theologians do not tell us. Nor do they say much to allay our doubts as to the gloriousness of the consummation. It is difficult not to feel, as the boy did after being taught the alphabet, that it was not worth going through so much to get so little. (p. 80)
God is not a magician, though Russell seemed to think this was the main quality endowed upon God by theologians, even those who in his time had accepted the concept of evolution. But Russell’s warped view of theism can be understood when so many theists want God to be a magician.
The ecological worldview of the divine as conceived as a persuasive agency and not a manipulative one should be looked upon, says Whitehead (1942 p. 196), as one of the greatest intellectual discoveries in the history of religion. It was plainly enunciated by Plato in his view that ideals are effective in the world and forms of order evolve. ‘Can there be any doubt,’ says Whitehead, ‘that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act of that which Plato divined in theory?’ (p. 197).
The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Jesus as a revelation of the nature of God’s activity in the world. Jesus rejected the notion of God as coercive power. Did that mean that God was powerless? The paradox is that there is a power in persuasive love. In commenting on this paradox Whitehead (1930) remarks:
The life of Christ is not an exhibition of over-ruling power. Its glory is for those who can discern it, and not for the world. Its power lies in its absence of force. It has the decisiveness of a supreme ideal, and that is why the history of the world divides at this point of time. (p. 47)
The world is still divided on this issue. Most people seem to discern no way out of the rivalry between nations other than a power struggle. Those who think differently seem but a small voice in the shouting and the tumult. Their call must still be made. At the time of the peace negotiations between the Americans and the Russians during Carter’s presidency, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York, William Sloane Coffin, said to his fellow Americans ‘We must be meek otherwise there will be no-one to inherit the earth’. The way of the world is by might. The way of the gospel is not by might nor by power -- but by persuasive love. In the end that is the only power that counts. Divine creativity is a consequence of divine Eros finding a response in the world.
We tend to worry about the cares of the world and the problems of the morrow. Jesus spoke of the caring God whose resources are sufficient for every moment, yet so often blocked by us. He is the one in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.28). So too the lilies of the field don’t toil to be what they are. They too are what they are by their participation in the divine Eros. All life is responsive to the divine love. The gospel proclaims a love in the universe which meets human life and other life as sustainer and lure to a fuller experience.
Speak to Him thou for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet --
The power of the Christian gospel is the experience of divine love that transforms life. We experience God first and then spend the rest of our lives trying to understand that experience and its relevance to the whole world. The God of the universe touches us as we experience life in its fullness. But God is vaster than our experience of him. When I go down to the ocean and swim on its shores I get to know one part of the ocean; its near end. But there is a vast extent of ocean way beyond my ken that is nevertheless continuous with that bit of the ocean I know. So it is with God. We touch God at the near end, yet that same God extends into the farthest reaches of the universe and there too is pervasive love. This is the full meaning of incarnation. The universe exists by its incarnation of God in itself. It is the sort of universe in which God can be incarnate. God could not be incarnate in a machine! The divine Eros works in the universe through influence (literally meaning inflowing) as its universal mode of causation.
To see the universe as a whole in this way, with the same God working in the universe at large, and in the life of Jesus, and in the lives of all of us, was put in highly symbolic language by the apostle Paul in his letter about the ‘Cosmic Christ’ in Colossians 1. In verse 4 is the phrase ‘In him all things hang together’. This affirmation is repeated no less than five times in this chapter. It was Paul’s conviction that the same spirit which was in Jesus animated the whole universe. The universal principle of reality is the free act of experiencing. For many people in his time the world was a dualism. Not so for Paul. God is the God of ‘all things’. Nature as well as human history is the theatre of grace.
This cosmic panorama is caught up in the prologue to Saint John’s gospel and becomes particularly pointed in Bishop John Robinson’s (1967) paraphrase:
The clue to the universe as personal was present from the beginning. It was to be found at the level of reality which we call God. Indeed, it was no other than God nor God than it. At that depth of reality the element of the personal was there from the start. Everything was drawn into existence through it, and there is nothing in the process that has come into being without it. Life owes its emergence to it, and life lights the path to man. It is that light which illumines the darkness of the sub-personal creation, and the darkness never succeeded in quenching it. That light was the clue to reality -- the light which comes to clarity in man. Even before that it was making its way in the universe. It was already in the universe, and the whole process depended upon it, although it was not conscious of it. It came to its own in the evolution of the personal; yet persons failed to grasp it. But to those who did, who believed what it represented, it gave the potential of a fully personal relationship to God . . . And this divine personal principle found embodiment in a man and took habitation in our midst. We saw its full glory, in all its utterly gracious reality -- the wonderful sight of a person living in uniquely normal relationship to God, as son to father. (p. 98)
Here is a picture of everything being alive with Life from the very beginning. Such is this particular biblical interpretation of the creative process. It was personal from the beginning, but that only becomes fully evident in the light of its manifestation in human persons. Always it was transcendent to the world. Always it was involved with the world, drawing the world to itself, brooding over the face of the earth.
This light flickered uncertainly within the church as it wavered from commitment to a view of the total involvement of God in the world to one restricted to humans alone. In the process both humanity and nature lost out, for neither nature, humanity nor God can be understood alone.
The Divine Passion
The divine Eros draws the world to greater richness of experience as each individual entity responds to possibilities for itself. The divine Passion is the response of the divine to the realization of value in the world. With each successive evolutionary step the possibility for the concrete realization of a greater richness of experience becomes the greater. It is tiny for the electron and for whatever else existed soon after the big bang that brought the universe into existence. It reaches its heights in the human. All this is the activity of the creative love of God in the world. But we may ask -- what value is achieved if, in the long run, our earth collapses into the sun and life on earth is no more and indeed if the universe collapses upon itself to where it was before the big bang? That there will come an end to our earth seems inevitable. What then of the purposes of God?
There are those who contend that they all fall to the ground. T. S. Eliot in ‘The Hollow Men’ puts it thus:
This is the way the world ends
Russell (1961) puts it dramatically in his stoic faith:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental concatenations of atoms; that no force, no heroism, no intensity of thought or feeling, can presume an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the age, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruin . . . all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. (p. 67)
Accepting all or most of this, Sartre contends that a man must give himself meaning in a universe that itself is devoid of meaning. But if we have no value for the cosmos then we have no value. To pretend we have is simply self-delusion. Hartshorne (1970b) aptly says: ‘The idea that the universe is absurd or meaningless is itself absurd or meaningless. It expresses a living creature trying to deny its aliveness’ (p. 317). The crux of the matter is precisely put by Cobb (1959):
What happens really matters only if it matters ultimately, and it matters ultimately only if it matters everlastingly. What happens can matter everlastingly only if it matters to him who is everlasting. Hence, seriousness about life implicitly involves faith in God. (p. 84)
We come face to face with the greatest adventure of the human spirit. It is the proposition, the faith and the conviction that God, in addition to being creative outgoing love, is also responsive love which is the divine Passion experiencing the world. This is Whitehead’s doctrine of the consequent nature of God.
There are two sides to love. Love not only gives. Love also receives. ‘I just want to be loved by you,’ sang Marilyn Monroe. That’s sick! To love is to be the recipient of love and to return love. Is the God of love an exception to this principle? On the contrary, God’s love must be responsive or it is not love at all. Indeed, a God whose influence is divorced from responsiveness and sensitivity is irresponsible. Without that aspect of God’s nature nothing is saved after the world comes to its end in a fiery furnace of the sun or in a frozen waste. All in the end is as futile as the pessimistic Ecclesiastes supposed; ‘Oh what a weary task God has given mankind to labour at. I have seen everything that is done here under the sun, and what a vanity it is, what chasing of the wind... Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. For all his toil under the sun, what does man gain by it?’ (Ecclesiastes 1:13-17). A thoroughly depressing assessment of life and the world by a thoroughly depressing character. He was a kind of Old Testament Bertrand Russell. ruthlessly honest and rational, profoundly cynical and pessimistic. Frustrating and difficult, life and the world may be -- futile, no!
The divine passion is God’s feeling of the world as the world is created. As every entity ‘feels’ the lure of God and responds to that lure then God becomes concretely real in a way God was not concretely real before. And that new reality makes a difference to God. God is the one who cherishes all; ‘unto whom all hearts are open’, says the collect. With each creative advance, be it in cosmic evolution or in an individual life, God becomes different. Every individual experience has its consequence in the life of God.
In Whitehead’s image God saves the world in his experience as a sort of memory. God saves all of value that has become concretely real. Whitehead described God’s consequent nature as the adventure of God in the universe. Haught (1984) begins a chapter entitled ‘The Cosmic Adventure’ with the statement ‘In God’s feeling of the world it is saved from perishing’ (p. 119). And Whitehead (1978) says:
The image -- and it is but an image -- the image under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing is lost . . . He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved. (p. 346)
Something happens to the life of God as God saves the world in the divine experience. Whitehead speculates that at that moment God becomes conscious in a way God was not conscious before. God becomes conscious as the world is made and as he realizes the actual world in the unity of his nature. In this sense, says Whitehead (1978), ‘God is the great companion -- the fellow sufferer who understands’ (p. 351). A woman in New York had nursed for fourteen months with loving care an abandoned baby with AIDS. The baby eventually died in her arms. She told her friends afterwards that her urge to rage at a universe that could subject a fragile innocent child to such suffering was tempered only by the memory of some words of William Sloane Coffin: ‘When tragedy occurs, God’s heart is the first of all to break’. Our existence from moment to moment, all the joys and suffering, become one with the divine life. Is there any more ultimate meaning of existence than this?
Hartshorne (1948 p. 58) predicted that a new era in religion may come into being as soon as people grasp the idea that it is just as true that God is the supreme beneficiary or recipient of achievement as he is the supreme benefactor or source of achievement. If the divine life is indebted to no-one and can receive no value from anyone, then to speak of serving God is to indulge in equivocation. For the most part, the church, following Augustine, has preferred to regard God as unchanged by the world. The world can add nothing to God. How can you add anything to absolute perfection?
This is a peculiar concept of perfection -- that if God is perfect God cannot change. Yet if God is love and if that love is responsive, God is not the unmoved mover of classical theism. God to be love must be intimately affected by the plight and suffering of the world. The proposition is that God’s experience evolves as the world evolves. Perfection is not static. It is dynamic. ‘Be ye perfect’ does not mean, says Hartshorne (1967), ‘be ye immutable’ (p. 18). The passage in scripture translated ‘I am what I am’ (Exodus 3:14) has been used to support classical theism of an unchanging God, what is sometimes called the doctrine of the impassability of God. But two Japanese scholars Ariga (1959) and Tanaka (1984) discovered that the text is better rendered ‘I am what I am becoming’, which meaning was lost in the translation to the Greek and then to English. Their conclusion is that the biblical God does not stand aloof and immutable from the historical processes of the world.
The impassability or ‘apathy’ of God is a principle of classical theism and much Christian orthodoxy today. Yet according to the Jewish biblical scholar Abraham I. Heschel, precisely the contrary -- ‘the pathos of God’ -- is the central idea of prophetic theology (Merkle 1985 p. 494). Heschel tells a story of a diplomat from the state of Israel who in the late 1940s went on an official mission to Poland. It concerned the emigration of Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps. After finishing his work in Warsaw, he left for Paris and was given a compartment to himself on the overcrowded train. Outside his compartment he noticed an emaciated, poorly clad young Jew who could not find a seat on the train. The diplomat invited the young man to join him in his compartment. It was comfortable, clean, pleasant and the poor fellow came in with his bundle, put it on the rack over the seat and sat down.
The diplomat tried to engage him in conversation, but he would not talk. When evening came, the diplomat, an observing Jew, recited the evening prayer. The other fellow did not say a word. The following morning the diplomat took out his prayer shawl and said his prayer. His companion who looked so wretched did not speak or pray. Finally when the day was almost over, they started a conversation. The young man said, ‘I am never going to pray anymore because of what happened to us in Auschwitz. How could I pray? That is why I did not pray all day.’
The following morning on this long train journey the diplomat was surprised when the young man suddenly opened his bundle, took out his prayer shawl, and started to pray. He asked him afterwards, ‘What made you change your mind?’ The young man replied: ‘It suddenly dawned upon me to think how lonely God must be; look with whom he is left. I felt sorry for him’ (recounted by Merkle 1985).
The story contains a profound and original insight which Abraham Heschel, who told it, makes explicit in this startling sentence: ‘Faith is the beginning of compassion, of compassion for God’. Is God really lonely? If so, this implies God’s need for others. It means God suffers.
The divine concern for the creation is expressed in various passages in the New Testament. Jesus says not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing. What could this mean but that God is involved in the life of the sparrow such that even the experiences of the sparrow are of value for God? The sparrow is but a representative of all entities of the creation. Whitehead said the merest puff of existence has some significance for God. For there is no such thing as mere matter.
When the writer of Romans 8 speaks of the whole of the creation groaning and suffering in travail as in the agony of childbirth, he adds that God is not simply watching from afar as a theatrical producer might watch his play from the wings. God is in the drama, feeling every feeling in ways that words cannot express. God is no mere detached spectator of the ocean of feelings which is nature, but is the supreme synthesis of those feelings. So too, Hartshorne (1979) says that ‘all life contributes to the living one who alone can appreciate life’s every nuance. He experiences our experiences and those of all creatures. His feelings are feelings of all feelings’ (p. 60). This is a feeling universe. Our own feelings are feelings of feelings. ‘The chief novelty of the New Testament,’ says Hartshorne (1967), ‘is that divine love . . . is carried to the point of participation in creaturely suffering, symbolized by the Cross taken together with the doctrine of the Incarnation’ (p. 104). He goes on to point out that concrete awareness of another’s suffering can only consist in participation in that suffering. There is no other way So God is the great fellow sufferer who bears all the burdens of a creation in continuous travail. Has there been any deeper symbol of the nature of persuasive love and a love that feels all joys and all suffering than the Cross? The two doctrines, the incarnation of God in all things and the responsiveness of God to the experiences of the world, are at the heart of the Christian religion. God’s experience of the world is Whitehead’s doctrine of the consequent nature of God -- the divine Passion. There is no more speculative aspect of Whitehead’s thought than this concept. Metaphysical views such as this are not provable as a mathematical theorem might be. They are visions of the world and are to be judged by their comprehensiveness, consistency, logic and by their adequacy to illumine our actual experience.
The Inside Story of Cosmic Evolution
The proposition of this chapter is that as the cosmos evolves God as divine Eros, transcendent to the universe, becomes immanent within the new creation. This is God’s presence in the world. In addition the world is present in God as the divine Passion responds to each new creation and each existing one. This is not the image of the world as a contrivance and God as the artificer working from a pre-planned blueprint of the future. It is an image of the world as organically related to God who provides the purposes and values of creation moment by moment, yet leaves the creation with its degree of freedom and self-determination. In this sense the future is not determined. It is open-ended. The possibilities of creativity are immense, but not all possibilities are relevant at any particular stage of the evolving cosmos. Indeed, the realization of some possibilities necessarily excludes others. Our universe took the path of hydrogen and life as we know it. Maybe there are other universes which have taken another path and have life as we don’t know it. But that is not our universe, nor could our universe break with its past and hove into one detached from its past. We are caught in the web of history. Yet our future is still open-ended within the realm of possibilities relevant to that history.
Whitehead (1930) said ‘whatever suggests a cosmology suggests a religion’ (p. 141). The cosmology of ancient biblical times suggested the religion of the early chapters of the Bible. The cosmology of Hinduism suggested the religion of the sacred writings of Hinduism. This is not to say that religion starts with a cosmology. It starts with experience that leads to a cosmology. The scientific world has produced a cosmology. It is now relevant to think of religion within the context of that cosmology. And in doing so we are not building a religion out of a cosmology but suggesting a religion relevant to that cosmology.
In the ecological model the evolution of the cosmos is the evolution of order at successive levels from chaos through atoms to complex living organisms. But according to the second law of thermodynamics the universe as a whole is moving from a stage of greater order to one of lesser order. There is said to be an increase in entropy. Entropy literally means transformation of energy. According to the second law, all the energy of the universe will eventually be converted into heat which will be evenly distributed throughout the universe. This means that no more work can be done, such as happens when simple arrangements of matter become more complexly ordered. Maximum entropy is the hypothetical state when everything will be at the same temperature and all processes will therefore have ceased and order is minimal. So the immediate question that arises is this -- does the evolution of life from non-life run counter to the second law of thermodynamics, resulting, as it does, in local decreases in entropy? No it doesn’t, because the earth is not a closed system. Energy reaches the earth from the sun. Increase in order of living matter on earth is gained at the expense of the sun, whose order decreases correspondingly ever so slightly. If the universe were not running down life would have no source of energy on which to draw. Perhaps we should be thankful then for the heat death of the universe. Without it we might not be here at all. But in the universe as a whole, entropy increases. There can still be local decreases in entropy, as happens with all living organisms while they are still alive and in some other situations as, for example, when complex organic molecules are made from their constituent atoms in outer space, as now seems to be the case.
The existence of the second law of thermodynamics and the existence of local enclaves of decreasing entropy, as is the case with life, means that less ordered systems within the whole system of the universe have become more ordered. But our religion has also to take into account the cosmological prediction that our world and its universe will not go on for ever. What then is the point of the evolution of complex order and all the novelty and richness of experience that is a consequence? In the ecological model what has been achieved of value in cosmic history is saved. It is saved in the consequent nature of God. The universe in its evolution is temporal. God who evolves with the universe is eternal. Without that our religion would, in the end, be empty. All purposes would be for naught. All value achieved would be as ephemeral as the flower that fades.
A modern cosmology suggests a religion that involves a God who evolves with the cosmos and who, whilst involved, is yet not finally dependent for his being upon it. Whitehead (1978) said: ‘It is as true to say that God creates the world, as that the world creates God’ (p. 384). God is created (in his consequent nature) by the world, but our world will eventually cease to be a source of creativity for God. Who knows, there may then be -- indeed there may be now -- other avenues for the infinite creativity of God. God in his consequent nature is dependent upon a world as the world is dependent upon God. But the world is fluent while God is permanent.
Wieman (1929 p. 213 et seq.) had an image far ahead of his time when he conceived the evolving cosmos in terms of a struggle for order with stability achieved at successive levels. There was a time, perhaps 20 billion years ago, when the association of elementary particles into atoms had achieved no stability. That epoch is now passed. The association of elementary particles into atoms has achieved marvelous stability with an adequacy of organization such as to sustain their integrity through the shocks and strains of cosmic change. The frontier of the organization of elementary particles into atoms has now passed.
The more complex and subtle association of atoms and molecules into cells in living organisms is not so firmly established. Here misfits occur. Nevertheless, there is an order and stability in living cells that has enabled them to endure the many shocks of change and circumstance since their first appearance, probably in some shallow tropical sea, three to four billion years ago. The frontier of life at the level of the cell is now passed. The organization of cells into complex living organisms may have taken millions of years to achieve. Early on there were relatively simple aggregations of cells, such as we find in sponges today. Then came more complex assemblages in which the organism has greater unity and coordination, as in jellyfish and so on through the hierarchy of the animal kingdom from invertebrates through vertebrates -- fish, amphibia, reptiles, birds and eventually mammals and ourselves. There is a stability at all these levels, yet not as secure as the association of atoms in molecules and elementary particles in atoms. But each step is yet a basis for further advance to further levels of organization. It is not a straight-line advance but one that has many meanderings. Eventually, as a great river meanders to the sea, so the river of life reaches higher levels of order.
In all these successions there is an outward evolution which science can study and there is an inner evolution of experience which only the individual entity, be it a proton or a person, itself knows, together with God. Living cells certainly behave as though aliveness is an experience for them. Sense organs first appeared without much, if any, central coordination. The development of the central nervous system and coordination of the sense organs must have brought a new level of experience. The animal experience may be partly conscious. This seems to be associated with the development of the central nervous system. It is the crossing of a great new threshold of ‘feeling’ or ‘experience’. At each stage we surmise that the evolved entity is a subject, that is -- an experiencing entity, though not necessarily a conscious one in the way we are conscious.
In plants the assemblage and mutual coordination of cells may enrich the feelings of an individual cell, but there is no indication of any centralized feeling in the plant. The life of the plant is the life of its individual cells and no more.
To some extent all animal experience functions for the sake of purely bodily needs. In fulfilling the requirements of survival the animal experiences the world. It also may enjoy that experience, as when it is satisfying hunger. But as the brain becomes more complex we may surmise that the animal has experiences that go beyond the mere service of the body. It may take risks for the sake of enjoyment. In the case of humans a great deal of bodily activity is performed without regard to its benefit to the body. We discipline our bodies for the sake of distinctively human purposes. We may lay down our lives for another. Indeed the whole of culture, in the sense of acquired information that is handed from generation to generation by learning, is that sort of experience. We don’t know when such cultural activities became a dominant part of human life. Perhaps they became significant a hundred thousand years ago. When that happened the human being had arrived. The unified human experience with its consciousness through the life of the individual and its dominance over strictly bodily needs is the human psyche.
There is a certain undisturbed harmony in the experience of the cow in the fields or the well fed cat that enjoys a cared-for life in a good home. The body is restricted from its spontaneous expression only by external forces. But the human psyche introduced a certain disharmony into the human experience. Now the body could be inhibited from within and actions are deliberately taken which might be dangerous or uncomfortable. This is an example of what could be interpreted as ‘the fall’ (Birch & Cobb 1981 pp. 117, 136). Yet the ‘fall’ made possible far richer experience. With the appearance of the human psyche religion also appeared as life found time for reflection on the meaning of things. The human psyche crosses another threshold with the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago and the subsequent rise of cities. The new threshold was the emergence of rationality as an important factor in psychic life. The flow of water had to be controlled. Land had to be surveyed. All this required social organization and planning. This was not an advance in intelligence. The Stone Age hunter was as intelligent as the Egyptian architect. Agriculture was a new use of intelligence. It paved the way for science and philosophy. The brain which had evolved largely as an organ of survival becomes used in ways that serve far more than bodily needs.
During the first millennium BC. another threshold was crossed, another ‘fall’. Apparently quite independently, spiritual leaders arose across the world in the sixth century BC. There lived then in China, Confucius and Lao-tzu, in India Gautama Buddha, in Persia Zoroaster. Thales and Pythagoras were founding Greek philosophy and the prophetic movement in Israel had reached a climax in second Isaiah (Cobb 1967 pp. 50-2). These leaders expressed and called for a quite new psychic development. Full self-consciousness appeared. Thus emerged rational religion as opposed to archaic systems of meaning. A new disharmony and conflict was thus introduced into human life. Furthermore the new ways differed among themselves and when they met, yet further conflict occurred. The up-reach of the human spirit therefore was not without great cost. Every move forward seems to open up new possibilities of disharmony and evil. That is why each move forward is appropriately called a ‘fall’. Much of the unity and harmony of life up to then was destroyed. But in its place there arose the possibilities of experiences that were quite beyond those that existed before. For more than two thousand years the teachings of these religions provided for most of the civilized world the norms in relation to which people took their bearings. New purposes became dominant in societies all over the world.
In the past two centuries this situation has changed. More and more of the world’s leaders have given up seeking guidance from these ways. They have turned to science, philosophy, psychology and even drugs. Or they have denied the need for any direction at all. The ancient ways are far from dead, but they are in turmoil. That too may be a move forward if it leads to a reassessment of what is worth saving and how that can be brought to bear on modern understanding.
In the perspective of cosmic evolution it is here that the fighting frontier of progressive integration is now being waged. The life force, which is the divine Eros, is calling humanity to a new organization of human societies. Here is where integration is most urgently needed. Here is where achieved integration is most incomplete and inadequate. So far as we know, human society is the utmost cosmic adventure toward creation of richer integration with the possibility of richer human experience. Here is the great up-reach toward values higher than any which have ever visited the realm of existence. Here the existing universe is groping out into the vast realm of the possibilities of God as yet unrealized on earth. Here the cosmic venture is under way. Here is where heaven and hell shimmer in a mirage of possibility. It follows that here is where the sufferings and joys of God and the creation must surely be most intense. This would appear to be the present frontier of cosmic evolution.
There was a time when the integration of electrons into atoms was the fighting frontier of progressive integration in the universe. There was a time later when the integration of atoms into cells and still later of cells into complex organisms was the outpost of organization and increasing value in the universe. Those frontiers are now long passed. The storm now rages about the kind of association called human society. ‘Religion of the noblest kind,’ says Wieman (1929), ‘is man’s recognition of this creative cosmic struggle and his personal allegiance to the process of progressive integration’ (p. 216). Therefore the religious person needs to be disciplined and equipped in body and mind for the task, with more calmness and mastery in the midst of peril and turmoil, more sensitivity and deeper insight into the bonds of interdependence that hold people together in rich community, a more passionate and richly integrated life purpose which can transmute the common things of daily experience.
All this we should have if we are to be the shock troops of the integrating process of the universe. All this we can have. For the divine Eros is the source of these gifts. And that is the only reason we have cause for hope. The future is not closed. It is open. The resources of God have not been exhausted. Faith is the conviction that there are values that have not yet visited this planet that are waiting to be appropriated. We do not need to go on as we are now. No man or woman need stay the way he or she is. No society need live for ever with the status quo. That God is involved and that we are involved in God does not mean that God will look after it all and all will be well. There could be a nuclear holocaust. God won’t stop that. There is a real sense in which the future is in our hands. In the words of the Jewish scholar Abraham J. Heschel, ‘God is waiting for us to redeem the world’ (Merkle 1985 p. 495). For us to fail to respond to the forward call of life is not just a personal failure. It is a cosmic tragedy.
We need in a very special way to have hope, to have faith and to have love. Reinhold Niebuhr (1976) put it this way:
Nothing that is worth doing is completed in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love. (p. vii)
This chapter has been about purpose in cosmic perspective. It ends with our place in that cosmic scene. For all the creatures, for the human species, for each of us, life is to be enjoyed as it is lived, ‘but,’ says Hartshorne (1970b), ‘its eventual worth will consist in the contribution it has made to something more enduring than any animal, or than any species of animal. The final beauty is the "beauty of holiness" ‘ (p. 321) -- which beauty I take to mean the enrichment of the life of God.