Regaining Compassion for Humanity and Nature 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 originally by New South Wales University Press, New South Wales University press, 1993. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 6: At-One-Ment
Why is there not nothing?
O God, who himself fashioned himself,
I choose the term ‘Peace’ for that Harmony of Harmonies It is a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its co-ordination of values. There is thus involved a grasp of infinitude, an appeal beyond boundaries. . . The experience of ‘Peace’ is largely beyond the control of purpose. It comes as a gift.
The first Greek philosopher, Parmenides, asks that most difficult of all questions. Why is there not nothing? I respond to that question when I gaze at a beautifully made rainbow lorikeet feeding on my balcony. There could have been a world without birds, without anything living at all. The universe could have been just empty space stretching out for ever. But it isn’t. The modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed the same thought when he wrote: ‘Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is’.
More than 3000 years ago the first monotheist, Ikhnaton, in his poems to the one God, wrote of all things, including the birds he was familiar with on the Nile, subsisting in God’s hand. God gave unity to the creation. And the greatest metaphysical philosopher of our time, A.N. Whitehead, speaks of experiencing this unity as a momentous harmony with the universe.
Human life is infinitely complex and inexhaustible in its possibilities. More than in any other being we experience diverse and divergent trends that need be continuously kept in some sort of harmony. ‘Health’, said Paul Tillich (1963) ‘is not the lack of divergent trends in our bodily or mental or spiritual life, but the power to keep them united’ (p. 50). The word that describes the state of being disunited is estrangement, meaning a stranger to any unitary meaning to life. As a philosophical term it was given meaning by Hegel. Alienation has a similar meaning.
Estrangement and alienation are not biblical terms, but they are implied in the biblical description of the human predicament; the expulsion from paradise, the hostility between humanity and nature, the hostility of person against person, of nation against nation, and of the continuous complaint of the prophets against the rulers. Estrangement is implied in Paul’s classical description of the human predicament of ‘man against himself’ because of his conflicting desires. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ (Romans 7:19-20).
Estrangement and ‘Peace’
Estrangement presupposes the possibility of an ultimate harmony. Human beings strive to unite themselves with that to which they belong and from which they are separated. Life is separation and reunion. And it is true not only for humans but for every living creature. They desire food, warmth, play, participation in groups, sexual union and so on. The fulfillment of these desires is accompanied by pleasure. But it is not the pleasure as such which is desired, but the union with that which fulfils desire.
It is a distortion of life if one supposes from these facts that life consists essentially in fleeing from pain and striving for pleasure. Whenever that happens, life is corrupted. Authentic life strives for that which it lacks. It strives for union with that from which it is separated, because it belongs to it. All people, since they are separated from the whole, desire union with the whole. One’s poverty makes one seek for abundance.
There is a word that speaks to this harmony which is the opposite of estrangement and alienation. It is at-one-ment (or atonement), being at one with. The word salvation also means being made whole or being healed. Paul Tillich’s ‘New Being’ speaks to a similar new creation. Whitehead’s ‘Peace’, as the harmony of harmonies, expresses these meanings. Peace is not the absence of strife but the presence of something extraordinarily positive and uniting. Peace is the lure in existence that includes all values. It is forever transforming. But it is more. The ultimate hunger of the human soul is not satisfied with purely personal enjoyment. The value one seeks must be more than the sum of human attainments. ‘Otherwise’, says John Cobb (1965):
the restlessness of the soul is not quenched. Peace is the sense that indeed there are aims in the universe beyond our own and that our aims can be harmonious with them and contribute to them. It is the sense that what we attain is taken up into the larger whole and preserved in harmony with all the other achievements of value. (p. 132)
How can it be meaningful to take a single step, if the whole journey is meaningless?
The discussion of Whitehead’s ‘Peace’ cannot be separated from the discussion of God. ‘Peace . . . is a direct apprehension of one’s relatedness with that factor in the universe which is divine’ (Cobb 1965, p. 133). God is the ultimate source of that peace. It is the peace that passes understanding, yet is known in experience. According to Whitehead (1926):
It is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. (p. 238)
‘Peace’ is experienced as ineffable unity and harmony, yet is only partially grasped and understood. It is the endless quest, yet the ultimate attainment. It is like fulfilled love; at the same time extreme happiness because separation is overcome, yet also a restlessness because unity is never complete. But without the separation there is no life, no motivation for further exploration of the human spirit. We live in tension between contentedness and discontentedness. I discussed this tension in discussing love between oneself and another in Chapter 1. Relationships between some people, perhaps a very few, are suffocatingly close. But genuine love preserves the separation of the individuality of each self; making real their interdependence in love.
Real knowing is not simply cognition, but a possessing that transforms the one who knows. Perfect knowledge is perfect possession. When Socrates asserted that out of knowing the good the doing of the good follows, he knew that real knowing includes union and therefore openness to receive that with which one unites. He knew as well that one may know the good in another sense without doing it. Such a person is not grasped by the good as something that possesses him or her in such a way as to transform life.
I shall return to this harmony of harmonies. But first we need to identify the realities of our disharmonies. The preceding chapters are replete with examples of our estrangement in the world of today. It is no exaggeration to say that human beings today experience life in terms of disruption, conflict, self-destruction, meaninglessness and despair in all realms of life. This is expressed in literature, the arts, in existential and positivist philosophy and it is actualized in social and political life of all kinds.
We are estranged in four ways: from ourselves, from other human beings, from nature and from God. Our estrangement from ourselves, from humanity and from nature can all be regarded as alienation from ‘Peace’ in the sense discussed in the previous paragraphs. The question for us is how can the self-estrangement of our existence be overcome in a new reconciliation of meaning and hope?
Estrangement from Ourselves and from Humanity
We experience estrangement from ourselves when we are other than what we could be as fulfilled human beings, experiencing life to the full. During the Second World War a special psychological clinic was established in the United States for people who had, through exigencies of war lost a sense of a central control over their lives. They were very confused. The psychologist Erik Erikson referred to their condition as a loss of ‘ego identity’.
Later Erikson recognized a similar disturbance in young people who were confused because of a ‘war within themselves’. He referred to this condition as identity confusion’. Later still this became known as an ‘identity crisis (Erikson 1968). A young person passing from childhood to adolescence changes from that which he has come to be as a child toward the promise of a changed future. Youth begins to realize a certain perception of the changing self and perceives others to have certain expectations of that same youth which might be quite different. A youth who is not sure of his or her identity, perhaps his or her sexual orientation or what his or her main commitments are to be, may find life anything but fulfilling. One may, for example, shy away from intimacy and become lonely and isolated. Youth can be a time of frustration and confusion when various options have to be sorted out and only some paths chosen.
William James had a prolonged identity crisis during which he experienced his world as stagnant and he became very depressed. At the age of twenty-six he wrote to Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘Much would I give for a constructive passion of some kind’ (Erikson 1968, p. 151). By dint of sheer will he persuaded himself that he had to find a work that would interest him and at the same time allow him ‘to feel that through it he takes hold of the reality of things’. (Dean 1990, p. 89). James said he was entirely broken down before he was thirty. Yet in middle age he wrote his acclaimed Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he says that if he had not, in his state of despair, clung to two biblical verses he had learned in his youth -- ‘God is my refuge’ and ‘Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden’ he would have gone mad. Later William James was able to write to his wife:
A man’s character is discernable in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: This is the real me! (Erikson 1968, p. 21)
Erikson suggests that the word ‘character’ which James uses in this letter means a sense of identity. He writes in a way to suggest that a sense of identity can be experienced by anyone. He acknowledges that the real me is not the stagnant me in a state of depression but the me who has found a deep sense of life as fulfilling to overflowing.
Tolstoy seemed forever in an identity crisis in three areas of his life; his attitudes to Russian nationalism, to religion and to sex. Many of his novels are thinly disguised accounts of his struggles with each. One wonders if he ever really came to terms with any of them (Wilson 1988).
According to psychiatrist Scott Peck (1990), most people who come to see a psychiatrist are suffering from either a ‘neurosis’ or a ‘character disorder’. These are opposite ways of relating to the world and its problems. When neurotic people are in conflict with the world they assume that they are at fault. When those with ‘character disorders’ are in conflict with the world they assume that the world is at fault. People don’t like me and I don’t like myself, says the neurotic. On the other hand, people with a ‘character disorder’ don’t see themselves as the source of their problems. Other people are. Both conditions are disorders of responsibility. Both give a sense of deep estrangement, one from self; the other from the world.
We can hide from ourselves our real motives that can lead to a sense of alienation. But we cannot hide from ourselves for ever. A man works with dedication to his business or profession, feeling assured of the good he is doing. Yet his commitment to his work may be a way of escaping genuine human commitments and of escaping from himself. A mother who lives for her children passionately feels only love for them. Yet her anxiety concerning them may be an expression of her will to dominate them. We cannot applaud our every act of moral self-restraint. Its cause may be cowardice, preventing us from making a revolution against inherited rules of behavior.
The evil I do not want to do is what I do, because I kid myself that what I am doing is good. In countless ways we experience a power that dwells within us and directs our will in ways we seem unable to control. We are a battlefield of influences where decisive choices are made. This is our despair. It is also our glory.
The decisive aspect of estrangement, be it in youth or adulthood, comes from choosing to make ultimate that which is not of ultimate concern for our lives. The classical name of this distortion is idolatry.
Idolatry is the worshipping of false values. It leads to the estrangement of self. This was clearly recognized in the Old Testament: ‘those who make them [idols] will be like them and so will all who trust in them’ (Psalm 115:8). Idolatry is the basic distortion in life. One way people try to overcome an identity crisis is to idolize themselves. They persuade themselves that what is evil and divisive is good.
Idolatry leads to pride, which is very destructive and terrible in perverting relations between human beings. This is the theme of the story of the fall and the tower of Babel in the Old Testament. Pride is the main subject of Greek tragedy, where it is called hubris. Hubris is the self-elevation of a person into the sphere of the divine. The individual who is usually a hero in Greek drama, becomes a god to himself. It is a turning inward to oneself and away from at-one-ment with others and the world.
The Pharisees, at the time of Jesus, identified their supposed goodness with an absoluteness that made them see themselves as local gods. They deeply resented the possibility that anyone else could be more virtuous than they.
The Emperor Nero is a classic embodiment of a man who draws everything into himself to use it for himself in whatever way he wants.
Goethe’s Faust has an unlimited passion for knowledge, therefore in order to know everything he accepts a pact with the devil. It is the ‘everything’, not the knowledge as such, that produces his demonic temptation. The modern Faust is the technocrat who puts his complete trust in yet more technical knowledge with which to control the world. So it was appropriate that those who put their utmost faith in nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s were said by their opponents to have made a Faustian pact.
Pride, with its overweening self-interest, becomes transmuted into the will to power. There is a legitimate role for power in maintaining order in society. Just what that role is has always been a problem for ethics, particularly one that has love as its guiding principle. How can power be united with love?
This was a problem that perplexed Luther. He resolved the dilemma for himself with the statement that power is the ‘strange work of love’. Tillich (1954) interprets that to mean, ‘It is the strange work of love to destroy that which is against love’ (p. 49). The strange work of love has to do with judgment and punishment. It is to destroy that which is against love, but not the one who acts against love. But, as Tillich points out, Luther did not appreciate sufficiently that love’s strange work can be used by those in power as a means for keeping themselves in power.
John Calvin was guilty of that. He said the state must use its power to punish the impious, otherwise how could he maintain the sort of theocratic society he was creating in Geneva. He was true to his word. The Spanish biologist Servetus, who had discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood before William Harvey, was deeply religious. In a book published in Vienna he made a vigorous attack on Calvin. Calvin was furious and had Servetus brought before the Inquisition in Vienna. Servetus was cast into prison, but escaped. He sought refuge in Geneva, probably to cooperate with the anti-Calvinistic party which was planning to attack the despotic reformer. However Calvin was on his guard. Servetus was arrested, tried in Geneva and condemned to be burnt at the stake. The verdict was carried out on 27 October 1553 to the eternal shame of Calvin. Many others in Geneva suffered lesser fates under the rule of Calvin for their ‘impiety’. Those who objected to the conditions he laid down for being a citizen of Geneva simply left, or were goaled or executed. Such was the moral, legal and political power Calvin gave to himself, though he never held a post higher than that of pastor.
I have discussed estrangement of the individual person from self; how self-centerdness leads to pride which leads to the will to power. Power becomes an idol. Estrangement can also be corporate. The problem of power becomes the central problem of any movement that attempts to change the social order. The Hebrew prophets spent more time denouncing the nation than individuals. The individual in society may be alienated because of an unjust economic system that devalues the personal. The sources of corporate estrangement are the same as those that produce the estrangement of the individual; egoism, pride and the desire for power and domination by a group or groups of people. Such groups work against achieving a true human community.
Initially such groups may be deceptive, because of what they promise. Hitler and his gang initially promised, and gave, employment and a sense of belonging to the nation. Many people were deceived. They did not realize what was in store for them in terms of genocide and mass destruction. The promised paradise became a living hell. Gerhard Linn was a pastor who lived through both the Fascist and the socialist regimes in Germany. He says it was easier, though more dangerous, to discern the truth when confronting the crimes of Fascist groups, than to cope with the ambiguity of the Communists in East Germany during the first years after the war. In the beginning they made some good moves, such as land-reform, but soon after that people began to disappear mysteriously. The official party claimed they were promoting a democratic renewal of Germany. The first constitution of the German Democratic Republic was an acceptable one. But what was good in it was meant to deceive the reality that was planned for the Communist state (Linn 1991).
It was the abuse of power that shipwrecked the socialist states in Eastern Europe and not the many mistakes that could have been corrected. According to one who has lived through the rise and fall of the socialist state in Czechoslovakia, the real and irreconcilable antagonism between social systems is between restrained and unrestrained power (Macek 1991).
The USSR was established on principles of egalitarianism that seemed noble enough at the time. How was it that what commenced as a reforming movement so quickly became a nightmare for seventy-four years, particularly under Stalin, finally to collapse in August 1991? Of course there are all sorts of reasons. A critical one was the abuse of power when problems in economics, agriculture and other areas became intractable.
When the state dehumanizes people for the enforcement of its laws it loses its legitimacy to govern. The totalitarian state of Nazi Germany did this as did the totalitarian socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. They knew no criteria against the tyranny they used to preserve power. Power is a limited good. When power dehumanizes people it becomes evil.
We see this evil around the world in the abuse of human rights. The United Nations Development Program made a study of freedom and lack of it in eighty-eight countries in the United Nations General Assembly. They estimated a ‘human freedom index’ for each country based on 1985 figures for forty different indicators among them the right to travel, freedom of religion, freedom from unlawful detention, independent press, homosexual activities between consenting adults. All the forty freedoms are endorsed by international accords such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland were at the top. Sweden had thirty-eight freedoms out of forty; Finland had thirty-six freedoms. At the bottom were Iraq with zero freedoms Libya with one freedom, Ethiopia and China with two freedoms, and South Africa and the USSR each with three. Countries with a low level of freedom also had a low level of human development (Human Development Report 1991). The achievement of the right balance between power and justice is obviously a major problem in the world today.
It is the genius of democracy to recognize the necessity of restraints on power. One is reminded again of Niebuhr’s perceptive statement that it is our human capacity for justice that makes democracy possible, but the human inclination to injustice that makes democracy necessary (Niebuhr 1944, p. xiii).
Pastor Gerhard Linn was active in the Christian church in East Germany. They were a people, he said, who had no power and who did not long for power. They longed for change and they indeed helped to bring it about. His fear is that the church, having now won a certain reputation and role in society, may fall to the temptation to become a master rather than a servant of society (Linn 1991). History suggests his fears are warranted.
For example, Christianity began as a fringe group in society. For the first three hundred years of its existence the church was an alienated minority. Christians felt themselves alienated from the world they lived in. They were discriminated against and persecuted by their rulers. But while there was alienation between the church and society at large, ancient alienations were being overcome within the church. In particular, differences of race, social position and of sex were being reduced by a new spirit of reconciliation. But with Emperor Constantine and the fourth century the picture changed. The one-time alienated minority becomes, first, a tolerated religion and then the religion of the state. The church became identified with society and some of its members engaged in persecution of the remaining pockets of paganism. The Emperor Constantine was not averse to the ruthless dispatch of those he regarded as conspiring against him. He murdered his wife and son for this reason in AD 326 while he was actually presiding at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea! (Chryssavgis 1991).
The close identification of church and state was full of dangers. For something like fifteen centuries, Christianity remained the dominant religious force in Europe, being closely identified with the social and political fabric. This was the phenomenon which we now call ‘Christendom’. It was full of ambiguities. So long as the church was an alienated sect, it kept alive a vision of a new humanity but had no power to influence the wider society other than to be a leaven in the loaf. When it attained power and influence its ideal faded and, in large measure, it conformed to the values of the society in which it had power. The same seems to be happening to Islam today in some countries. The power of the corporate group that alienates itself from the society it claims to serve is a corrupting power.
Another sort of estrangement is that of groups within society who are alienated by the prejudice of others. Until recently black people have been excluded from the mainstream of American society. They have lived in separate neighborhoods and gone to separate schools and churches. They still suffer from alienation. The Aborigines of Australia suffered hideous crimes when European settlement took over. Only in recent decades have serious attempts been made to bring the Aborigines into full community with whites. Yet many of them still live in shanty settlements on the periphery of country towns or in the slums of big cities.
Throughout the world, especially in Europe, the Jews have been an alienated people. They were compelled to live in ghettos and have been excluded from many aspects of public life. The call to inclusiveness has been part of the heritage of the Christian church, yet the church has also been anti-Semitic in much of its history (Cobb 1991b).
A third group who suffer alienation from society at large are homosexuals. At worst they have been persecuted and at best tolerated. Gay men and lesbian women are physically and psychologically abused, they are excluded from families, frozen out of churches and discriminated against in a variety of legal ways. Most people in our society are homophobic. Their self-understanding as sexual beings is disturbed by encounters with homosexuality, both in themselves and in others. This is true of many parents.
Just as the ‘woman problem’ is really a problem of male chauvinism, the ‘homosexual problem’, is really a problem of the homophobia of heterosexuals. Christians who claim to be loving, yet who brand homosexuals as sinful and wicked, are themselves full of prejudice. They accuse homosexuals of choosing their sexual orientation when the evidence points to sexual orientation, at least in most cases, as being something we do not choose but are born with. If a homosexual person is so made that an intimate loving relationship is possible only with a member of the same sex, on what basis can this experience of love be declared sinful? Are such people to be celibate for their whole lives? Is not the law of love more important than the laws of biology?
Members of the dominant sexual orientation reason that what is normal for them is also natural. If something is not normal for them it is unnatural. So they argue that homosexual behavior is unnatural. But as Bishop Spong (1990) says: ‘Behind this pronouncement are stereotypic definitions of masculinity and femininity that reflect the rigid gender categories that arise out of a patriarchal society . . . Can a religious tradition that has long practiced circumcision and institutionalized celibacy ever dismiss any other practice on the basis of its unnaturalness?’ (pp. 70, 71). Homosexuals are not inferior or superior to other people. They are simply different, just as blue-eyed people are neither superior nor inferior to brown-eyed people. They are different.
As Cobb points out, the Christ of the churches today is bad news for homosexual persons. Today churches have conceded to women a place in the sun. There is some measure of repentance for millennia-long oppression sanctioned by the teaching of the church in its appeal to patriarchal morality. Some concession is also made now to the effect that having desire for persons of the same sex may not in itself be sinful. But it is still asserted that to act on that desire is immoral. Hence a homosexual, to satisfy the demands of the patriarchal church, must either abstain from sexual activity or ‘convert’ to heterosexual behavior. Whether the latter is a feasible alternative is very questionable. The Christ of the churches is certainly bad news for homosexual persons. But as Cobb makes clear, the Christ who is bad news is not Christ at all (Cobb 1991b). The church has been good at helping homosexuals (with AIDS) to die but has not been good at helping homosexuals to live.
If the church is to make Christ good news for the homosexual person its task will be to help that person envision positive scenarios for a fulfilled and happy future. These will be scenarios that order the sexual life to wider purposes without simply denying it or repressing it. Cobb sees the best choice for most to be a pair bonding that involves mutual responsibility for each other in a possible lifelong commitment. But, of course, it is no more certain that such a partnership can endure for life than in the case of heterosexual pairing. Many homosexual couples have maintained a commitment to each other that has been fulfilling over time. The agony of many a gay man dying of AIDS is eased by the faithful ministrations of a partner who stays with him and ministers to him until death does them part. If the church threw the full weight of its moral support behind this ideal, more of these partnerships would succeed. Cobb argues that temporary and permanent bonding could be distinguished and the latter should be celebrated by the church. It could have the same legal, moral and religious status as heterosexual marriage, whatever name be given to it (Cobb 1991a, 1991b).
A remarkable statement by the House of Bishops of the Church of England in 1991 shows them moving for the first time in this direction. The statement accepts the fact that there are Christians who can find fulfillment only with the help of a loving and faithful homosexual partner, involving a sexually active relationship with that partner. The statement says that Christian tradition contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgment where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The bishops do not reject those who sincerely choose this way. It is important, they say, that in every congregation such homosexual persons should find fellow-Christians who sensitively provide friendship and understanding. If this does not happen, the statement goes on to say, any profession on the part of the church that it is committed to openness and learning about the homosexual situation can be no more than empty words (House of Bishops 1991).
The Methodist church of the US gives a measure of concern in this direction in its concept of the ‘reconciling congregation’. Any congregation of the church is free to openly accept and minister to homosexual persons, without distinction and so become a reconciling congregation.
David Oliphant, an archdeacon in the Anglican diocese of Canberra and Goulburn, has perceptively remarked that those who condemn homosexuals have very little appreciation of what goes on within the youth who comes to feel the pain and pleasure of sexual feelings and desire for comfort from someone of their own sex. What is needed at this time of crisis, he says, is someone who can see where I am within myself and relate to me in a non-judging way, without taking advantage of my vulnerability. He went on to suggest that God’s acceptance and pleasure in me would be none the less if at this turning point along the way I had accepted sexual comfort from a person of my own sex, even to the point of an identity shift and an adoption of a homosexual lifestyle. It is not a question of rights and wrongs but a question of authenticity in the face of what life presents (Oliphant 1991). Archdeacon Oliphant’s statement and that of the House of Bishops of the Church of England stand in strong contrast to the excommunication meted out to practicing homosexuals by the Anglican diocese of Sydney (Williams 1992). A practicing homosexual in this diocese is to be refused the sacrament of communion by his rector. Yet Jesus at the last supper; when he instituted this sacrament, did not refuse Judas the bread and the wine, despite the fact that he knew Judas was his betrayer. Is the practicing homosexual more wicked than Judas who led Jesus into the hands of his crucifiers?
The Archbishop of York, John Habgood, offered the following reflection at a conference of the World Council of Churches on AIDS and the churches:
The AIDS virus is fragile. For its transmission it depends upon intimate contact. And there is an interesting connection between intimacy and vulnerability. Every intimate contact makes us vulnerable in all sorts of ways not only through transmission of infection but also psychologically and in our personal identity. And this is why every civilization has in various ways surrounded intimate relationships with rules, with structures, with ceremonies, with taboos. These have as it were protected the relationships. And what I see the AIDS epidemic as teaching us is that we cannot lightly treat these intimate relations any longer. And that is where the world has lost its sense that close contact between human beings needs to be within an ordered framework. Then it is sure to recover that perspective. And this it seems to me is a moral and theological understanding which can be expressed in ways which are accessible not only to those with Christian commitment but to all those who think seriously about our human nature and our contacts with one another. (quoted in Gosling 1992, pp. 45-6)
To be estranged from others means to deprive ourselves and others. To have some sort of at-one-ment with others is to weave our own lives with strands taken from the lives of others and to furnish our own lives as strands to be woven into their lives. It is giving and receiving.
This section has been about estrangement of ourselves from ourselves and from others through idolizing false values. The examples so far have been concerned with the idolizing of a false view of self and of others which leads to pride or to prejudice.
There is another form of idolizing that leads to estrangement. It is the idolizing of things. This results in indulgence and greed. We see this in the plethora of devices in our technological age which becomes turned into a multiplication of artificial needs and appetites. In the end these appetites are dehumanizing. They are misplaced commitment. They lead to the abuse of power which is clearly seen, for example, in the abuse of the free market principle as discussed in Chapter 4. The free market has to do with freedom of marketing commodities without undue interference from outside powers that may seek to control it. It works well on a small scale, for example in local markets. At the international level it becomes abused. Aggressive competition becomes the rule and human well-being is ignored. The free market becomes sacralized as an idol, a contemporary Baal. What centrally planned economies never understood was that what is needed is not to suppress the market, but to humanize it (de Santa Ana 1991).
Estrangement from Nature
If we are to survive the global crisis that is discussed in Chapter 3 we need to develop a new consciousness about nature which includes those creatures who share the Earth with us. It will have to show us how to bridge the gap between our illusions of separateness from nature and our urge to dominate nature. In Chapter 2 we discussed a twofold responsibility to nature. One is to maintain the lifesupport systems of nature on which all life depends. We spoke of these systems as having instrumental value to us and to other living creatures. We recognized a second responsibility and that was to respect other living creatures, not because they might be of use to us, but because of their intrinsic value in themselves to themselves.
In so far as we use nature to supply our needs of food, shelter and many other resources, an environmental ethic has to strike a balance between our use of nature for its instrumental value and our respect of nature for the intrinsic value of the organisms in it. Such an ethic would help establish a relationship with nature that would also be fulfilling for ourselves. To break our illusions of separateness from nature and to develop instead a sense of oneness with nature is to be an inclusionist. It is to extend our concern to the whole of life. By contrast, exclusionists see themselves outside nature and in opposition to it.
Indians in the Americas and indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia and Australia seem to have been inclusionists. The indigenous people of Africa, for example, felt the presence of what they called modimo, the source and presence of life which penetrated through plants, humans and other animals, dark caverns and tall mountains. For 4000 years the people of the Korean peninsula had been a homogenous people united with the land. They spoke of their home as ‘the land of morning calm’. That disappeared with colonization by foreign powers (Birch, Eakin & McDaniel 1990). The religion of Taoism in China sought the recovery of the primordial harmony of humans and nature, as did other Asian religions.
In Israel, humans tended to distinguish themselves from the rest of nature, as did many interpretations of the book of Genesis by Christians. I have indicated in Chapter 2 that this division has been exaggerated beyond what the text warrants. I also argued that to be an inclusionist does not mean to accept the equal value of all creatures. On the contrary, the uniqueness of the human quality is to be preserved together with an evaluation of all creatures. Jesus had a valuation of nature of this sort which is evident in his parables of nature and his valuation of the sparrows and lilies of the field. They were one with the creation, yet each unique in its own right.
How are we to discover a greater oneness with nature than the way of the modern world? Here are five principles to that end.
1. Biology teaches that all species that live today and that ever have been stem from one, or at most a few, original source of life. Every species is a branch on the tree of life. On that tree human beings are on a direct line of descent from beings called Australopithecenes who have human and ape features. They are sometimes called ape-men. They in turn stem from creatures who were much more like apes, who in turn seem to have come from monkey-like beings. The theory does not say that humans are descended from apes but from ape-like creatures. The apes and monkeys on Earth today were not progenitors of humans.
It is possible that if we were able to arrange all creatures on the direct ancestry of humans in line we would find it difficult, if not impossible, to draw a line and say from that point human beings began. On the other hand, there may be a feature or two that seems to appear without much sharing with the past. On our present information, for example, no creature other than humans provide evidence, anatomical or otherwise, of the capacity for speech. But who knows what anatomical structures were involved in the beginning of speech? At present no-one knows.
The point is that evolution shows we have a common origin with the rest of the animal kingdom. That fact has nothing to do with any valuation of humans we might care to make in relation to other animals. Much opposition to the concept of evolution in the nineteenth century derived from a revulsion against the idea that humans were descended from ape-like animals long ago. This way of thinking is the genetic fallacy of supposing that the origin of something settles the question of its falsehood or truth. It does not.
2. Biology reveals an extraordinary similarity between the biochemistry and physiology of all animals. The closer the evolutionary kinship the more similar the biochemistry and physiology. Even complex biochemical compounds, such as the red respiratory pigment hemoglobin, are found in simple single-celled animals and in some plants. Amongst apes on the Earth now, chimpanzees share more similarities with humans than the other apes. The difference between the DNA of chimpanzees and humans is very small; a mere 1.6 per cent of the DNA is different. That indicates not only a close evolutionary relationship, but also that relatively few genes must produce large differences (Diamond 1991).
The nervous system of all mammals is very similar. From that I infer that their feelings are similar to mine. This helps me to have a greater rapport with the feelings of joy and pain of fellow creatures. To have rapport with them means to enter into their feelings and have a degree of oneness with them.
3. To get to know the inner life of a pet is a step toward having a feeling for other creatures. We come to appreciate their need for companionship and trust, because they adopt us as their kin. We then come to experience ourselves as part of a wider community of living beings.
4. To have a vision of reality that is inclusive of all creatures, indeed of all individual entities of creation from protons to people, is to appreciate more the whole gamut of the creation.
Materialism does not have this vision. Nor does the dominant scientific-technological worldview of mechanism. We have to go beyond these models in imaginative leaps that stretch all our capacities for inclusive thinking. It should include the information that science gives and the more subjective information that comes directly through our intuition and feeling for the world. The great seers such as Buddha, Plato and Jesus had such an inclusive vision as was possible in their day. We need to interpret it for our day. This book is based on one such vision developed in more philosophical ways in its predecessor, On Purpose (Birch 1990).
An essential concept of an inclusive vision is the idea of the ‘within of things’. Classical physics and traditional biology study the outer aspects of things. The new physics no longer pictures the universe in terms of bits and pieces called particles. It points to mystery at the heart of what classical physics called particles. There is an inner aspect of these entities that the new physics seeks to penetrate. Likewise, a new biology seeks to explore the inner life of creatures such as chimpanzees. We know for ourselves that each of us has a within which we refer to as consciousness mind, feeling or experience. This is the private part of our lives that only we know. The outsider can only infer what our inner life is like. We have our times of ecstasy, elation, grief and despondency. Our inner life, which is not a matter of outward observation, has been called our internal relations with the world, in contrast to our external relations, such as being hit by a motor car.
There is every reason to suppose that all living creatures have an inner life and internal relations. We are not alone in the universe in having an inner life. The proposition of this book, and of process thought in general, is that the concept of internal relations extends right down to entities such as protons. Of course, we don’t talk about conscious feelings at that level, but we do suppose that something analogous to mind is present there. They are not just bits and pieces unrelated to their environment. They too take account of their environment in the inner aspect of their existence. We can put this another way by saying that each individual entity from protons to people has an inner reality, a within of things, which makes them what they are to themselves. Just as my internal relations with my world, which constitute all my feelings, are what I am in myself to myself, so too something analogous applies to the proton and other such entities.
Teilhard de Chardin (1965), paleontologist and priest, expresses this view quite precisely and poetically when he writes:
It is a fact beyond question that deep within ourselves we can discern, as though through a rent, an ‘interior" at the heart of things; and this glimpse is sufficient to force upon us the conviction that in one degree or another this ‘interior’ exists and has always existed everywhere in nature. Since at one particular point in itself, the stuff of the universe has an inner face, we are forced to conclude that in its very structure -- that is, in every region of space and time -- it has this double aspect, just as, for instance, in its very structure it is granular. In all things there is a Within, co-extensive with their Without. (p. 83)
We can probably all make sense of the idea that our inner life has reality for us. It is the richness of experience which we know for ourselves. It is the most real thing for us. The view I am propounding and which is expressed in the quotation from Teilhard de Chardin is that this is a characteristic of all entities from protons to cells to humans. This is an experiential view of the world. This view is rejected by materialism which admits no inner reality to non-human entities. The non-human universe is nuts and bolts. The alternative proposition is that there is a ‘within of things’ in all things from protons to people. It is to think of entities from protons to people as what they are in themselves to themselves.
We then view the individual entities from protons to people, and all things in between, as much more alive than we ever did before. The appearance of human beings on earth is not to be seen as an abrupt intervention in which something totally novel and different was created. What existed before humans, even before any living creature, were things which had significance in themselves for themselves and for God. Such a vision inspired Teilhard de Chardin to write his Hymn of the Universe which begins as a meditation of Mon Universe in a desert in Asia (Teilhard de Chardin 1965).
The world had intrinsic value at every stage of its cosmic evolution. We have kinship not only with the creatures who are closest to us, but to the entities that were there from the foundations of the universe. This extends the idea of evolutionary continuity of an inner being backwards from all living creatures to that in matter as it existed before living beings appeared. Each individual entity from protons to people takes account of its environment in its inner or subjective being. We have maintained that the inner life of humans is richer than that of mice or amoebae, nevertheless there is a continuity that can be recognized. To appreciate that is to find the universe a much more friendly place than materialism allows.
5. A vision and understanding of the inclusiveness of humanity and nature leads to commitment. The aspect of life which most stirs my soul is the ability to share in an undertaking and in a reality more enduring than myself. Commitment is not a matter of choice. It is a matter of being grasped by something of ultimate importance. It is the experience of Whitehead’s ‘Peace’, discussed at the beginning of this chapter. The within of things we experience as humans is richness of conscious experience. We do not manufacture the experience so much as appropriate it. Its source for all humans is the same, call that source what you will -- ultimate concern or God. Within ourselves an inner life is a part of the life of the cells that constitute our bodies. They too take account of their environment. What they take account of includes the source of all experience, namely God. So too molecules, atoms and protons take account of that same source in so far as it is relevant to their being.
The God whom we meet in our conscious lives is the same God who meets all individual entities of creation. Faith of the profoundest kind has this inclusive meaning to God. In traditional terms the concept is expressed as a faith that the God of redemption is the God of creation of the whole world. Traditional theologies have had great difficulty in bringing these two aspects of the divine together. Today, as never before, we have the opportunity to discover a deeper meaning to that faith and therefore a deeper commitment. As Sallie McFague (1987) writes: ‘Only a sensibility that accepts our intrinsic interdependence not only with all other people but also with the Earth will be able to create the conditions necessary to help bring about the fulfillment of all as salvation for our time’ (p. 52).
Estrangement from the Whole Scheme of Things
Sartre, Beckett and others contend that we must give ourselves to a universe that is itself devoid of meaning. They express a sense of total alienation from the universe. If there is a whole scheme of things, they know nothing of it. Human life is an isolated phenomenon unable to find any kinship in the surrounding world. This is perhaps the most profound alienation of all.
To the Gnostics the world was utterly alien and demonic. It was created by an evil God whom they equated with the God of the Old Testament. Men and women are lost and alone in an alien world. Therefore salvation is liberation from the world. It was accomplished through direct access to the divine, through ethical values of community and asceticism. The Gnostics were helped in this through their Gnostic gospels which record many sayings attributed to Jesus, whom they regarded as savior from demonic powers (Pagels 1979). Gnosticism flourished over a wide area of the Middle East about the time of the rise of Christianity. In some of its forms it merged with Christian elements. Indeed at one stage it was regarded as a competitor with Christianity and was severely persecuted.
In the West a parallel to the cosmic nihilism of the Gnostics is found in Nietzsche. For him God had died and everything was growing darker and colder. No way into the future is to be found. This is the ultimate estrangement of despair; whose meaning is indicated in the etymology of the word -- without hope.
A basic proposition of this book is that the universe is neither indifferent nor malevolent, but that it is on the side of life and its fulfillment. John Cobb (1972) puts hope in an evolutionary context. He asks, is there a basis for realistic hope? He answers that the fact that chemical conditions make it possible for life to appear, with growth and reproduction, means that there is that in reality that calls forth life and strives against the forces of inertia.
The fact that the human psyche is capable of being claimed by truth and touched by concern for others means there is a reality that calls forth love and strives against the retreat into security and narrow interests. This power works slowly and quietly by persuasion. It does not present itself for observation by the biologist or the psychologist says Cobb (1972):
It is not to be found somewhere outside the organisms in which it is at work, but it is not to be identified with them either. We can conceive it best as Spirit. In spite of all the destructive forces man lets loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles man puts in its path. (p. 143)
Cobb goes on to say that in spite of one’s tendencies to complacency and despair, it is possible to experience the Spirit in one’s life, calling forth realistic hope. What makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another; but a Spirit that moves us all. This Spirit is God. Men and women strive to unite themselves with that to which they belong and from which they are separated. This is true not only for us but for all creatures. Life is separation and reunion.
In this way of thinking, God is internally related to all that is. Th be internally related is to know by acquaintance. Nothing can be closer. God is to the world as self is to the body. So it is appropriate that Sallie McFague (1987) refers to the world as God’s body: As the body of the world, God is forever ‘nailed to the cross’ for as this body suffers, so God suffers’ (1987, p. 75). By destroying life-support systems of this planet we are impoverishing the life of God. That is the nature of internal relationships. They are what constitute the participation of one being within another.
Christians find clues for this way of looking at the world in the life of Jesus. The devotion of Jesus to his fellows involved a feeling of sympathetic identity with them in their troubles and sufferings, as well as in their joys. So their cause and their tragedy became his. He paid the price of a bitter death, rather than weaken the intimacy of his relationship with the human lot, with all its suffering and failure. Jesus, to his fellows, was the persuasive love of God in action in their lives.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:15-20) has as its theme the persuasive love of God as extended not only to all humanity but to the whole of creation. He identifies the love of God that is manifest in the life of Jesus as the same love that is extended to all creation and in which all creation subsists. In highly metaphorical language Paul speaks of all things having been created through Christ. This creative activity existed before all things existed. ‘All things’ is repeated in these six verses no fewer than six times. It is not that all things are a tumbled multitude of facts in an unrelated mass. No, all things are held together in a unity because of their subsistence in the persuasive love of God that is extended to all creation.
The error of the Colossians that Paul was addressing in his letter was their supposition that there were thrones, dominions, principalities and powers’ which had a life of their own. It was the supposition that these authorities had a life quite apart from any activity of God in the world. The real world was a dualism, one part of which was evil and not subject to the influence of God. The other part participated in the influence of God’s love. This error trapped the God and Christ of the Colossians exclusively in terms of the moral and spiritual life of humans. Paul, on the contrary, claims all for God. Elements of the whole can be estranged from the divine influence but none is without the possibility of at-one-ment.
The theologian Joseph Sittler gave an address entitled ‘Called to Unity’ to the third assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1961. He took the passage in Colossians about ‘all things’ as his theme because he wanted to speak against the dualism of the church and the world which piety always presumes. He spoke at a time when the ecological crisis was beginning to become evident to people outside the church. In a highly metaphorical and powerful statement he declared: ‘It is now excruciatingly clear that Christ cannot be a light that lights every man coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him’. I interpret this last sentence to mean that the same God who is present in the life of humans, including Jesus, is present also in the world in which humans live. ‘Nature’ and ‘grace’ are not contradictory categories. They are made to be contradictory when the doctrine of the creation is made a doctrine of the past. Because the church has committed that error; Sittler says, ‘The address of Christian thought is most weak precisely where man’s ache is most strong’ (Sittler 1961). God is not before all creation but with all creation. This is the theme of Paul’s statement to the Colossians. In a modern context it is the theme of process theology.
In this way of looking at things, salvation becomes an ecological word in the sense of the restoration of a right relation which has been corrupted. The relation is corrupted within human life and within the nature that we are destroying by what we call progress (see Chapter 3). The restoration of a right relationship, which is salvation, is also the meaning of atonement, the becoming one of that which has been sundered.
The Christian church has not consistently understood atonement in cosmic terms. On the contrary, it has been more usual to apply it exclusively to human salvation. On the basis of certain passages attributed to Paul, a theological proposition of the doctrine was elaborated by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century. He had a legalistic approach in his theology. Justice requires that humans are punished for their sin. Yet God is merciful, so how can a merciful God punish people? According to Anselm, God found a way of escape by allowing Jesus to take upon himself all the sins of the world. The solution is the undeserved substitutional death of Jesus on the cross. This became known as the substitutionary doctrine of atonement.
Paul Tillich (1954) comments on this doctrine as follows: ‘In spite of its theological weakness this remained the predominant doctrine of Western Christianity because of its psychological power’ (p. 14). The psychological power that Tillich refers to is that this system of symbols gives the individual the courage to accept himself in spite of his awareness that he is unacceptable. Tillich goes on to say that the proper relation between love and justice is not manifest in this legalistic form of the doctrine. There are no conflicts between the reconciling love of God and the justice of God. Persuasive love is extended to all, irrespective of the degree of estrangement of the individual. Where justice comes in is the experience of the self-destructive consequences of continued estrangement. Yet God participates in the suffering of our existential estrangement. God’s suffering is not a substitute for our suffering. It is a sharing of it. So too God participates in the joy of the individual whose estrangement is converted to at-one-ment with God.
‘Who are we?’ asks Hans Kung (1991). ‘The answer is: defective beings who are not what they might be and expectant, hoping, yearning beings who are continually excelling themselves . . . what is the explanation of this strange pressure constantly to transcend ourselves?’ (p. 61). At our deepest level we are responsive to the possibilities of ourselves not yet realized but ever pressing upon us as divine persuasive love. God lives, genuinely lives, in unison with our living. God gives to the world the life of the world and God takes into God’s actuality the life of the world as it is lived in all its joys and sufferings. Could there be any more personal concept of God than that?
God as Personal
The last question is deliberate. Discussions I have had on the concept of God nearly always lead to two questions. Is God personal? And how can you pray to and worship the sort of God you write about?
Is God personal? If I have to give a yes or no answer I would say, yes God is personal. But there are so many problems with the word personal that we cannot just leave it there. It all depends on what one means by person. The word is bound up with a substance way of thinking. That is to think of persons as separate entities in the way we think of chairs and tables. I have emphasized that persons are what they are by virtue of their internal relations They are not like substances.
Person is not a biblical word. In relation to God it was first used by Tertullian in the third century. He was an anti-Gnostic church father who lived in Carthage where he was converted in AD 193. He introduced the doctrine of the trinity into ecclesiastical language to describe what he called the divine economy. He used the word economy in the sense in which we use the word ecology. Tertullian was anxious to find ways of expressing God’s various activities in cosmic history. He used the Greek word persona. It means the mask of an actor through which a special character is portrayed. Is the incarnation of Christ a metamorphosis of God? No, replied Tertullian. It is the manifestation of the divine in a human life. Christ is one persona of God. The others he called God the father and God the holy spirit.
Unfortunately it was very easy for those who followed this formulation to convert the doctrine of the trinity into tritheism. That happened early on in the subsequent history of Christianity. The ‘persons’ of the trinity, in Christian thought, became analagous to the way people thought of human persons as independent entities, that is to say as substances. When Christian theology fell into this trap of substance thinking, all sorts of conundrums arose. If Jesus is a divine person, since no two substances can occupy the same space at the same time, then the human Jesus must be removed to let the divine Jesus in! If one thinks that we are somewhere God is not, then better say God is not a person. But if we believe that the relation of God to ourselves is love that gives and love that receives, then God is personal. Indeed the central issue of the Christian religion is response to the ultimate as personal.
Creeds, the canon of scripture (the books accepted as the official Bible) and the institutional structure of the church emerged only toward the end of the second century. How did Christians think before that?
McAfee Brown (1991) has made a somewhat fanciful, yet instructive reconstruction of beliefs in that early church. With some variations of my own it goes something like this. The scene: an imaginary early discussion over coffee during the adult study hour of the First Church of Ephesus, AD 100. Topic: who is the God we worship?
First answer: We worship (attribute worth to) as creator, the one who was from the foundations of the universe. We see the same creativity of God all around us today in the life of plants and animals and in all things such as the waters of the ocean and the air we breathe.
Second answer: Amen to all that with the addition that it is that very same God who has drawn near to us and shared our lot in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus reveals to us the possibilities of human nature when the divine life is released into human life. Jesus is the truth about life for us. He is not the truth about life because his teachings are true. His teachings are true because they express the truth which he himself lived. His teachings should not be used as infallible prescriptions for life and thought. What they do is point to the truth, to one whose life is the truth about life. Let us never forget that.
Third answer: Amen to both these claims with the addition that it is the same God -- creator -- also revealed in Jesus of Nazareth who has drawn near to our fathers and mothers, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah and Rachel, and whose presence we ourselves feel here and now, day after day. We feel that especially when we gather to break bread and share wine. God’s spirit makes God our contemporary.
Program chairperson: Anybody taking notes? Let’s get it written down: one God (not three) in three manifestations. If that is helpful, so let it be. Yet when one considers the billions of individual entities in the universe from atoms to people there is a sense in which God is manifested in billions of ways. I would suggest that as the topic for the next seminar!
Can I pray to and worship the God who is presumed in this book? To worship means to ascribe worth to. I ascribe worth to whatever has intrinsic value. That includes all the qualities that make for richness of experience in human life and in the life of the world. I ascribe worth to the source of these values, which is God. Wieman (1946) made the distinction between created goods and creative good. Created goods are, for example, living things with all their feelings and values and all the communities and institutions they have created. Creative good is the Life of the universe, without which there could be no created goods. I call creative good by the name God.
Wieman (1929) considers there to be three preconditions which must be met before effective worship is possible. The first is that one must go into deep water. One must take life seriously. The common lot of men and women is to be destroyed by trivialities. Every one of the multitude of things that enter into our lives each day will sap away our strength unless they are assimilated into some integrated purpose for living. The second condition is sincerity. One must be honest with oneself about what one regards as of ultimate concern. No more sarcastic picture was ever drawn by Jesus than the portrait of a man who went up to the temple to pray and ‘stood and prayed thus with himself’ -- a mean and self-centered act of worship. The third precondition of worship is seclusion from distracting activities. All three may be found in solitude. Or worship may be corporate.
As to prayer; it is too often thought of in terms of a telephone exchange with us at one end and God at the other. The activity at our end is to ask God to do something: break the drought, stop the holocaust, prevent the finger from pressing the nuclear button, annihilate the virus that causes AIDS. At the other end God decides whether or not to grant what is asked. This is a travesty of the meaning of prayer.
Prayer is not getting God to do what we want. It is not begging. It is not asking God to do anything. It is the endeavor to put ourselves in such a relationship with God that God can do in and for and through us what God wants. It is not that God changes things. God changes us to change things. We are changed by having revealed to us new possibilities of truth, beauty goodness, peace and adventure that enable us to transcend the past quite profoundly. This is the main point of John Cobb’s (1985) novelette, Praying for Jennifer. Jennifer; in the story, had been in a coma for three months, following a motor car crash. Her fellow students explored what praying could possibly mean in that tragic situation.
They did not need to ask God to do anything. Nor do we. God is already doing everything. God is ever active never off duty. God’s persuasive love is ever available to all, only blocked by us. It is always there, prior to any move on our part. To pray is to get ourselves to be receptive and then to do something we would not have otherwise done. When Paul wrote to Christians in Thessalonica urging them ‘to pray without ceasing’, he surely was not suggesting that for every moment of every day they should be on their knees asking God to do things. The Christians in Thessalonica at the time were being severely persecuted. They were in deep need. What they needed was encouragement, courage, patience and hope. That is why Paul wrote to them. What should they do? They were to be on their guard. They were to be ever aware of an ever-present resource that could meet their deepest needs in their hour of trial and tribulation.
We don’t know what the Christians in Thessalonica discovered as a result of Paul’s injunction. We do know that Paul’s spirit had survived shipwrecks, a stoning, beatings, long nights in goal and a near lynching. We do know what Hugh Latimer discovered in his hour of trial in the sixteenth century, tied to the stake in Oxford Square waiting for the logs to be lit. He turned to his companion in martyrdom: ‘Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as, I trust, shall never be put out’.
For these, and those who have followed since, to respond to the Spirit of the universe, which is God, is to give up the security of habitual, customary and socially approved actions and to live in terms of a radically new and open future. Every moment of our lives we are confronted with new possibilities that can lure us forwards to new purposes. If that were not so there would be little ground for hope.
Life is separation and reunion. The human predicament is described by words such as estrangement and alienation. Yet life strives for what it could be and is not. The opposite of the state of estrangement is expressed in various words: at-one-ness, salvation, wholeness and in Whitehead’s term ‘Peace’, which is a harmony of all harmonies. All life participates in a striving to unite with that which it lacks.
We are estranged in four ways: from self; from others, from nature and from God. The struggle with the feeling of estrangement from oneself may be experienced as an identity crisis. We are estranged from self when we choose to make ultimate in life something which is not of ultimate concern. This is idolatry in its basic meaning. Idolatry leads to pride which can be very destructive. Pride becomes transmuted to the will to power which eventually has to be opposed when it becomes oppressive of others. It is the genius of democracy to recognize the necessity of restraints on power.
Prejudice is a cause of estrangement of groups of people from society in general. Examples of such oppressed groups are the Jews, aboriginal peoples the world over, homosexuals and women. All are, or have been, estranged from the general community.
We are estranged from nature when we use nature primarily for our own purposes. Our domination of nature brings with it the illusion that we are separate from nature. We have a twofold responsibility to nature. One is to look after it because it looks after us. The other is to value living organisms because of their intrinsic value to themselves and to God.
Five principles can help us to rediscover a oneness with nature. First: all living organisms and all that have ever been stem from one, or at most a few, original forms of life. We have a common origin with the rest of creation. Second: modern biology shows there to be an extraordinary similarity between the biochemistry and physiology of all animals. The closer the evolutionary relationship, the closer the similarity. There is good biological evidence that animals have feelings of joy and unhappiness. They are like us. Third: by having pets we get to know the inner life of creatures other than ourselves. Fourth: a view of reality that is inclusive, rather than exclusive, that recognizes all creatures as having both an objective aspect and as well a subjective ‘within’. The concept of a within of things’ and its related concept of ‘internal relations’ is fundamental to an overall view of reality that brings together both scientific understanding and the deepest probings of the human spirit. Fifth: an inclusive vision of reality leads to commitment to that which has value. It is respect for life. It is a commitment to ultimate concern, which is God.
Besides estrangement from self, from others and from nature, there is estrangement from ‘the whole scheme of things’. The existential atheist denies there is any possibility of knowing any scheme of things, even if there is any. Alternatively we may discover that the universe is neither indifferent nor malevolent. It is on the side of life and its fulfillment, despite the tragedies and failures along the way. We can conceive this influence in the universe best as spirit or the persuasive lure of God upon the creation. God does not act by intervening as an external agent into the creation. God’s action is best conceived in terms similar to our internal relations with one another. God is internally related to all that is. God is to the world as self is to the body. Christians find clues to this way of looking at the world in the life of Jesus. The restoration of a right relationship which has been corrupted is salvation or healing. It is the meaning of atonement.
The concept of God developed in this chapter is not academic and remote. There is real meaning to God as personal, provided we do not think of persons in terms of substance images. If we think of persons in relationships that are internal relationships, then the word person is appropriately applied to God. We can say with conviction -- God is personal.
There is an intellectual aspect of atonement in seeking harmony in our conception of God and the cosmos. There is also an emotional aspect which is the experience of atonement of our inner life of feeling. Yet there is also the sense of incompleteness because we find ourselves in the midst of tragedy and with hopes not yet realized. An adequate religious faith should be intellectually humble, morally strenuous, with a sense of the tragic dimensions of life and a sense of human hopefulness.