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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 16: A Definition of God in the Light of Twentieth-Century Knowledge

My task in one sense is impossible, for God alone can define God. Why should a human being presume to tell others who God is? Why, particularly, should a twentieth-century man dare to do so in terms of his own time? Suppose God had been defined a hundred thousand years ago. What kind of standard would that have been? Suppose someone should define God a hundred thousand years from now. If we may use James Bryant Conant’s prophecy, even cautiously, to the effect that the next fifty years may see more basic change in thought, especially in scientific knowledge, than has the last five hundred years, how ignorant, dull, and primitive may not the thought of our century seem then.

On the other hand, we all have a God inescapably. In fact, there are no atheists or agnostics, but only true worshipers or idolators. God by definition is whatever is most important and most real. All of us have to have some way of organizing experience and directing behavior. There is no presuppositionless thinking. All of us have some presupposition, not only for thinking but for living, that we cannot prove. If we could prove it, it would no longer be our presupposition. Thus we all have a god of some kind which or whom we cannot prove. He can be proved only in terms of what is more real than he; and then that is our God. Yes, we all live by faith, worship some god, and are in this sense unavoidably religious. Religion is nonoptional because it is situational. We must choose some position, some way of standing, or some direction, some way of walking. Our dominant drive discloses our worship. The question, then, is not: Shall we believe? Shall we be religious? Or, can we believe in God? Rather, it is: Is our God a private necessity, to help or to hurt, or is God also in some sense public? Is religion merely existentiell or is it also existential? Can this inescapable faith-judgment, or the choice that we must make of presupposition for life and thought, be understood and communicated, and are there any reasons at all why one god can be called better or truer than any other? Reason serves our dominant drive; can it also check its truth and change the drive?

Alasdair MacIntyre of Manchester University, England, once said on the Third Programme of the BBC that for civilization to become meaningful we need a metaphysics. He avers that the modern revolution in philosophy has made metaphysics based on reason impossible (and I agree with him if by reason he means rationalism), that we are now consequently caught in Meaninglessness with a capital M, to the point where men no longer communicate with each other. What he is really saying, I believe, is that we need God, but we do not know how to find him. Is MacIntyre right? Is he speaking for twentieth-century man?

I have shown that we have gods inescapably. The real question is, therefore: Can we know at all who God is, who the right God is, and can we know him together? To answer this question, I must admit that knowledge can never give us God. At most, knowledge can give content to a response that we must make. Knowledge provides us choices for decision. I shall try to show that it can also help check and help change our faith. As knowledge grows, that is, we might be helped by it to outgrow certain immature and inadequate ideas of God. Only because of this fact is our task at all worthwhile. How then can twentieth-century knowledge help us? How can it inform our existential decision and improve it? How can reason serve faith?

Unfortunately for me, in this task, there is no one twentieth-century man. Some of our contemporaries are affected scarcely at all by modern knowledge. They have fixed their faith in some part of history, in some institution, or in some book. Since faith cannot be forced, only changed from within, what I am writing is not for those who wear dogmatic blinders. Others want to flit around from one shrine of authority to another or from one wilderness of negation to another. My definition, however, is for the sake of those who are intellectually trained in modern knowledge, who dare to see that they have to have some faith-stance or other, and who want their response to reality to be as true as possible.

Such a person, of course, cannot bypass Copernicus. Earth is no longer central to his thinking. Darwin has moved into his home. Man is somehow, in some real sense, a slow product of the patient ages. Marx has taught him about sociological knowledge, and Freud has introduced him to the perilous power of the subconscious depths that enter unbidden into man’s best thinking.

The twentieth century man is aware of amazing dimensions of thought and consequently is rightfully wary of all claims of faith. In our century, radical changes of thought that once were new and startling have become domesticated and enter into the very presuppositions of modern man’s thinking. Added, however, are the facts and implications of atomic science, the messianism of the social sciences, the long tendrils of cybernetic inquiry, and the naked memories of world conflagrations that have unstrung man’s moral muscle, unnerved his intellectual fiber, nearly crushed his spiritual backbone, and left him, in the main, defeatist with a will not to believe as well as with an accumulation of reasons for not believing.

The philosophical revolution that MacIntyre takes for granted I believe to be mostly the result of the incapacity of man to think as a whole. His inner unity is broken. Therefore, he splits knowledge as an escape mechanism into logical necessity and existential contingency, which even at their most abstract and unworkable are poles apart from each other. Thereupon, meaningful knowledge of God within this field comes to an end, but not man’s personal need and necessity to respond to God, nor the need and necessity for God in life and in civilization. However, the intellectual revolution, so-called, could be constructively fulfilled if there were a will to believe strong enough to dare to see. As it is, the deeply seared conscience of our century tries to cover up its guilt by its outright denial of the God who can be known and, also, of those standards of right and wrong that must be honored if life and community are to be real. Confusion, nihilism, and convention cannot take the place of God in any century. And many are beginning to see that this is a fact.


How, then, can twentieth-century knowledge give content to faith in God, and what right has it to check faith or to change previous concepts?

In the twentieth century, energy is a basic way of understanding the world in which we live. The sciences deal with energy whether in terms of atoms, molecules, organisms, or galaxies. Sometimes whirl seems to be king and all seems ultimately to be flux. Yes, whirl appears to have killed Zeus and energy to have replaced God. Suppose, however, we employ Spirit, which suggests potential and active energy, to define God? Nietzsche may not have been right in his claim that whoever first defined God as Spirit killed him.

Energy, however, is not what we really observe. We arrive at energy as an abstraction of science and thought. What we do see is an actual world of interacting and changing phenomena.

Two observations must be made concerning this world: (1) It is a world with enough unity to be called a universe, where diverse aspects like the salinity of the ocean, the laws of gravitation, the speed of light, entropy, and life all affect each other. A critical work like L. J. Henderson’s The Order of Nature, or his The Fitness of the Environment, with its strong stress on lack of purpose in the universe, has to admit the basically organic way the world hangs together. The sciences presuppose a dependable universe and predictable relationships; and philosophy presupposes that the rules of entailment are universally valid, not merely arbitrary and unpredictable conventions. Edmund W. Sinnott of Yale has shown in The Spirit of Biology how the organismic drives are unimaginably intense, as, for instance, when a sponge although pulverized through a nearly microscopic screen and thrown into the sea, comes together again in the ocean. Objectively, then, not only must we respond as total human beings, but we must respond, for ourselves and together, to a world which in some sense has the unity of a universe.

Not only does energy thus have pattern and appear in diverse forms, which nevertheless, in the large and surprisingly, involve each other; but (2) this unity of the universe, science tells us, has come into being through various stages over billions of years. If we were confronted merely by a ready-made world, we should have the right to say that out of an infinite number of possibilities this world is as likely as any other. But no! We live within a series of becomings, of novelties that insofar as they are genuinely new, cannot be accounted for in terms of previous existence. This series of novelties adds up to a universe that increasingly reveals its fuller and richer nature. Such a universe cannot have become by chance over such a long stretch of time, unless, of course, no thought counts. It definitely cannot be accounted for from below, or in terms of first beginnings, without denying the whole history of evolution; nor can it be interpreted in terms of present existence without our becoming intellectually presumptuous by freezing the process. Why should this series stop with us?

Our knowledge, therefore, operates with energy, but with patterned and interactive energy, that is, with relations that either are organic or analogous to the organic, with its parts interrelated, like tides, vegetation, and the salinity of the ocean. We work also with an accumulative series of novelties, of becomings, unexplainable and unpredictable from below, that have come together to constitute and increasingly to disclose a unity of a world we call a universe.

Even so, the most important fact is not the mystery of nature or of creation. It is history. Man’s history is a cosmic swoosh, a blitz-emergence within the mystery of creation. Sir James Jeans has compared the time since creation with the height of Cleopatra’s Needle, man’s existence with a penny on top of it, and man’s civilized history with the additional thickness of a postage stamp. On the scale of three billion years to thirty days, man’s history, roughly, is ten seconds. But the next half-second may, at that, show more rapid changes than the last five seconds. Whence this swoosh, this blitz-emergence, unless reality is far different from, and more than, our actual world? It looks as though someone had shifted the gears of time from beyond the order of our time.

What of history itself, however? Has this thin edge of time any meaning to suggest? Through man’s relation to nature in terms of need and nature’s capacity to meet these needs, especially through technology, man has developed ever wider media of community and means of communication. Not through choice or conscious planning has man changed from a food-finding to a foodproducing animal and from a localized wanderer through clans, states, empires, and the United Nations to a citizen of the world, in need if not in fact. This lightning-quick change has been due to the push of the process. Man has been driven indirectly by his needs and the history of meeting those needs into ever wider ways of togetherness. At the same time, ideal ways of behaving in his environment and of interpreting it have grown along with, and in response to, this push of process. Man has been drawn by this pull of purpose as well as driven by the push of process.

History, as Arnold J. Toynbee holds, has been a challenge and a response, a challenge of the push of process and a response in terms of the pull, to whatever extent faltering, failing, or prevailing. Thus indirectly, through man’s relation to nature, history has been fashioned in accordance with man’s conditioned freedom.

Right now we sometimes hear the claim that man through automation has become free from his previous dependence on nature. On the contrary, nature in the form of nuclear weapons now threatens our destruction unless this particular form of the push of process is answered in terms of an adequate pull of purpose, in terms of the responsible, concerned, co-operative community that lies at the heart of our definition of God and his purpose. Or we may think ourselves free from nature through medicine, but such power over nature fails to cure the diseases of civilization that involve our minds and spirits. We have, then, a world of energy basically organismic in nature, or analogously so, a unity of a universe due to an accumulative series of becomings that fit into and fulfill what was there before, a blitz-emergence of history as such, and a pattern of history calling for a matching of the push of process by the pull of purpose.

This pull of purpose, some of us believe, has been seen climactically in Jesus. His life, his willingness to forgive and to die in the interest of truth and people, suggest God as the inclusive and unconditional concern, who is the ground and the goal of creation and of history. They point to the God who is the power for the pattern of the process that seeks co-operative community. In Jesus we see exhibited that creative concern for community that constitutes our peak understanding of God.

Our definition of God as the creative and reconciling love is centered in Christ, but it is also definitely suggested by the main direction of knowledge and its incredibly sudden spurt; and it is to be filled in, corrected by, and verified by future history. The knowledge that we have is but a swift, flaming arrow across a dark sky. God is the Spirit of love and truth.


Since we must make some whole response, I acknowledge that such a God best satisfies my own deepest need both to know and to live. This definition of God, I believe, helps us find out what is wrong with us as well as providing meaning to life and to civilization.

The need for mystery is also met. Alfred North Whitehead suggests that not ignorance but the ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge. Evil is too real and too deep to be ignored with integrity. The shifting of history’s gears is perplexing. Time and eternity are too much beyond us for us to have either easy or complete answers. While evil is real and sin is serious, the suffering of the Innocent for the guilty is at least a clue to love’s use of evil. The Cross of Christ fascinates as well as frightens mankind by its truth, and finds deep echoes in all religions. Natural evil, on the other hand, begins to acquire meaning as God’s means to frustrate man’s self-sufficiency in sin through the control, indirectly by nature and particularly by death, of the consequences of man’s deeds.

Of course, if God be this unaccountably great, eternal Spirit, our lives here on earth witness only the beginning of his pedagogy. Neither good nor evil can be meaningfully discussed, let alone solved, on man’s scale. Only the scale of God’s eternity will do. Thus, knowledge finds meaning only within the fuller context of faith. If God is to be real, let alone meaningful, to twentieth-century man, our understanding of God must grow apace.

One more mainly practical suggestion: If God is ultimate love, his true worshipers cannot become fanatical. The more that genuine love is practiced, the more is identification made with concrete need. Attitude cannot take the place of needed study or of study of action. Love is a built-in, self-correcting pedagogical principle; it employs the true feed-back mechanism. Some American social scientists are saying that this is the generation that has discovered love as basic for life, personal and social. Now the concept is being used in, for instance, depth psychology, sociology, and penology. But most such discoveries, I believe, are yet to be made.

All that I dare to say in the light of twentieth-century knowledge is that since we must have some faith, since we must accept some God, the choice for me is God as love, made known and to be made known in concerned, creative, and co-operative community. Non-Christians and Christians can learn together what such a God means in the face of an avalanche of new knowledge and a prospective united world. Both church people and so-called secularists can find open communication and increasing community if they will direct their steps in the way of nonsentimental and inclusive love. The way is narrow and long, but I find that it provides enough light and meaning to walk by. My experience is that only according to our working faith shall we be given to find existentially who God is; for no one can choose the way of knowledge, in any century, without discovering that the way of faith is a way of darkness as well as of light, a way of trusting beyond our clearest seeing.

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