Chapter 4: Relationship with God

After Death: Life in God
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 4: Relationship with God

In the conclusion of the last chapter I spoke of a relationship with God which gave to our human existence its value and worth. But I did not insist that this relationship should always be of a explicitly conscious variety. There can very well be a relationship which is not thus known but which nevertheless is constant and inescapable. One of the mistakes in much religious discussion is the insistence that what is usually called ‘religious experience’ must be a matter of just such conscious awareness, whereas a more satisfactory and defensible view would hold that those moments of awareness, in the specific sense of conscious knowledge of what is taking place, are best interpreted as the ‘peak experiences’ (to use Abraham Maslow’s phrase) for a persistent fact of which, for the most part, we are not keenly conscious but which continues as a sort of Leitmotif through the whole of our human existence.

When in the Old Testament (and in the New Testament, too, for that matter) it is said that man is or possesses ‘spirit’, it is necessary to inquire just what is being affirmed. It is evident that the use of the term ‘spirit’ by the ancient Jews was a hypostatizing of something that was very real in their experience. They indicated this reality by saying that a thing (as one might put it) known as the spirit was present in human beings; they also spoke of God as being or having such a ‘thing’. But what were they really getting at, when they spoke in this fashion? I believe that their use of the idea of ‘spirit’ or ‘a spirit’ was the way in which they sought to express the capacity for relationship. Thus to talk about ‘the spirit of man’ was to say that human existence is not only a matter of mind and body, as we have represented this in our previous discussion, but is also a matter of relationship, in which there is an openness to, and a sharing in, the life of others. To speak of man’s spirit, the human spirit, is to assert that between and among humans there is a capacity for participation or mutuality. To speak of God’s Spirit is to assert that in God too there is a characteristic capacity of being open to and entering into contact with others -- in this case, with human existence and with the given instances of created men and women whom God delights to know and with whom he enters into communion. There is a mutuality of concern and care, a continuing relationship sustained on both sides, between God and his creatures. That contact may be of varying degrees of intensity and directness; it may be vivid and clear, or it may be dim and vague. But whatever may be its intensity or directness it is always there. On God’s side, it is the divine acceptance of, receptivity to, and response made towards the creature. On the human side, it is the always potential and often the actually realized sense of dependence upon the divine reality that sustains and (as traditional language would phrase it) ‘saves’ such existence from triviality, meaninglessness, and extinction.

In one way or another, the great world religions have grasped this truth. They have talked about it in most diverse fashion, but they have all been intent upon making it a basic factor in the interpretation of the lives of men and women, whoever they may be, wherever they may live, and whatever idiom they may have found useful or helpful in putting into some sort of language this persistent fact in the total experience of members of the human race. In the tradition which we of the Jewish-Christian inheritance know best, the way in which this abiding factor is presented is through talk in terms of ‘spirit’, human and divine. The relationship of the finite creature with the supremely worshipful and unsurpassable deity is being affirmed; and along with it there is also affirmed the possibility of its becoming on occasion a matter of conscious knowledge on the part of the human, as it is always a present reality in the very nature of God himself.

That relationship is all of a piece, in one sense. God does not alter in his faithful care for his creatures; he is always and everywhere the supreme Love which moves towards, with, and in the creation. On the other hand, the events in the historical order make their contribution to God and hence make available to God different ways in which the relationship may be given expression. However badly the older theology may have phrased it, the abiding truth is that what goes on in the world must matter to God; it must also have its real affect in the way in which the divine-human relationship is maintained, extended, and (dare I say?) enriched. This is the truth hidden in the talk about God’s being ‘reconciled to us’. Theologians who have quite properly protested against the notion that God was such that he needed to be made friendly and available to his creatures by reason of some event (in this case the death of Christ) which opened up for him this possibility, have failed to see that in this inadequate and often misleading way of speaking, there was an insight of which they should have taken due account. That insight is nothing other than the understanding that while in one sense God is indeed unalterable in his faithfulness, his love, and his welcome to his human children, in another sense the opportunities offered to him to express just such an attitude depend to a very considerable degree upon the way in which what has taken place in the world provides for God precisely such an opening on the human side; and it is used by him to deepen his relationship and thereby enrich both himself and the life of those children.

Part of our difficulty is to be found in the unfortunate notion that the divine is not susceptible of any kind of change. Even when it is properly affirmed that God is always and everywhere himself, in his basic nature as Love-in-act, and hence that there is a sense in which God is immutable and unalterable, it needs also to be said that in the divine adaptation to and self-disclosure in the world, there are many different ways in which this may and does take place. And the different ways are relative to that which has happened in the created order -- that is, once we grant that what occurs in that order is genuinely significant and has its inevitable consequences. A portrayal of God which would see him as in no sense thus affected would be alien to the general biblical picture, and would reduce human activity to a meaningless and irrelevant series of events. In the conceptuality which we are here accepting, such a position is impossible; while in the biblical perspective it is senseless and absurd. The God of Israel is one whose ‘ear is open’ to the prayers of his people and whose response to their prayers, as also to their acts, is determined by the sort and quality of their human and historical situation. This biblical understanding fits in with and confirms the insight of a process conceptuality in which God is influenced by the creation, although whatever happens in that creation cannot cause him to deny or contradict his essential character as Love.

In the religious tradition which we inherit, it is a tragedy that the conventional model used for God has not very frequently found its center in this faithful Love. Much of the time our tradition has talked of a divine monarch or ruler who is absolutely in control of the world and is thus to be held responsible for whatever happens in it. Much of the time it has talked also of a divine judge, whose major concern is with the conduct of those who live in the world, determining their guilt and assigning sentences, either of punishment in hell or reward in heaven, sentences against which his creatures have no appeal. Often God has been envisioned as ‘the great big man up in the sky’, in that he is given the attributes of masculinity which society has developed and is denied, save in some slight degree, the feminine qualities which in our culture have unhappily been regarded as somehow inferior to the masculine ones. God is active, inflexible, adamant, assertive, rather than gentle, tender, receptive, deeply sympathetic. Of course this last picture has been modified somewhat, and of necessity, by the Christian faith in Jesus Christ and in him suffering and crucified. This has meant that some room has been found for talk of God as ‘loving’. But for many people this has been more an adjective modifying the substantive noun ‘power’ than the central clue to God’s nature.

When such pictures of God have been dominant, it has been difficult to talk intelligibly of God’s being influenced or affected by what happens in the creation. This is because the stress in the pictures is on the divine all-sufficiency, total control, demand for moral rectitude, and active self-assertion, none of which fits in very well with the focus on Love -- for love is always a matter of receiving as well as of giving, and it requires that both lover and beloved are involved in a kind of relationship which matters to and has its results for each of them. When we come to consider, in Chapter 7, what I shall call ‘God as recipient’, much more will be said on this point. For the moment, I wish only to stress the relationship which exists between the divine reality and the finite creatures in the world, whether or not this relationship is always fully grasped and given the correct interpretation.

Granted that there is such an unfailing relationship, one of its chief modes is certainly in God’s providing the final dependability in the cosmos. In outlining the meaning of human existence we have spoken of the patent truth that the events in the world, and especially men and women in that world, are dependent and not independent. They are dependent upon their creaturely or human fellows and they are dependent upon the total natural order; without these two, human existence (and any other created existence) would be meaningless. But underneath and through such dependence upon other created entities, there is a dependence upon the divine creativity. One might say that other humans and the world In which we live serve as surrogates for the divine dependability. They are surrogates, which is a way of saying that they are agencies by which God works; they are not substitutes, although much of the time, in our foolishness and defection, we regard them as such -- and in so regarding them bring about a state of affairs which is disproportionate and destructive. To think and act as if such creaturely occasions were divine is to fall victim to idolatry, where the creature is worshipped as if it were the creator. But only God is finally creative and only God is worthy of the worship which is proper towards the supremely unsurpassable and all-encompassing reality ‘in which we live and move and have our being’.

This dependability can and does express itself, and receive its due recognition, in specifically ‘religious experiences’. Such an understanding is present in Schleiermacher’s definition of religion as a sense, feeling, or awareness or human dependence upon God. But there is a wider aspect; and at the moment I am concerned with that wider aspect, with what Whitehead styled the ‘secular functions’ of deity, recognized as operative in the world but not necessarily the occasion for explicit religious consciousness. There is a special need to emphasize this, because far too often in the thought of religiously-minded people God has become nothing more than an essential, and indeed central, aspect of their faith, without attention to the ways in which God (if he really is God) is active in modes that are not thus known or defined. Human existence and human experience are not all that is important in this universe we know or in the creation at large.

In his utter dependability, God is the guarantor of order in the world. God sets the limits, so to say, beyond which the contrasts and varieties of events would become sheer chaos. We talk of cosmos, and that signifies exactly such an ordering of things. While there is no absolute determinism, in which everything happens in a mechanical fashion and with no possibility of deviation or modification, there is a patterning. Scientists count upon this for their experiments and explorations; the rest of us take it for granted as providing the context in which our lives are lived. Whatever name we may wish to give this assumption, we all of us do in fact believe in it and we live and act, as we think and speak, in terms of it.

Yet within the basic cosmic continuity which is the result of such an order, there is also the appearance of novelty. Genuinely new things occur. And if the relationship of God and world begins with dependability and goes on to patterning, it also includes the provision of possibilities for the appearance of the new. Such possibilities come from somewhere; they cannot be simply the past which is inherited, for that would mean repetition without novelty. But God, from among the countless number of possibilities, as it were selects one which is then a ‘given’ for an event or particular occasion; this is what Whitehead would call an ‘initial aim’ which the occasion may then adopt for its own and towards the actualizing of which, in concrete fashion, it may work. Here is a third aspect of the God-world relationship.

Along with that third aspect there goes the way in which each event or occasion in the world is ‘lured’ (again a Whiteheadian term) towards making its aim actual. From our own experience we are well aware of the many invitation and solicitations, the many pressures and influences, which come to us. They may be rejected or they may be accepted; they may seem attractive and compelling or they may be dismissed as irrelevant and unimportant. None the less, they are there. They constitute part of that God-world relationship about which we are speaking, for they too must have their source in something that is deeply grounded in the way things go in the creation.

Choices may be made in the world which result in distortion or blockage; there are evils, to use the traditional word, which can and do interfere with the realization of a pattern that is good and right. At the human level, there is what we style ‘sin’ -- willful choice, with its consequences, of that which is self-centered, regardless of other occasions, content to remain stuck in the present without concern for future possibilities -- and this is an obstacle which is like an algebraic surd. It does not fit in, it cannot be explained away, it must be faced and dealt with in some fashion. Here again, to meet this obstacle, the God-man and God-world relationship includes what I should wish to speak about as a ‘healing operation’. In the natural order this is often seen; damage things as we may, somehow there is yet a restorative activity which works towards a recovering of balance. Doctors talk about the healing work of nature and are prepared to say that their own job is primarily to assist that work to take place. In human relationships themselves, something of the same healing may, and often does, occur. ‘Time is the healing river’, said W. H. Auden; and there seems to be a way in which the worst of evils, which as evil are not to be welcomed nor valued, can be incorporated into some later ordering which may very well be all the deeper and more significant because it has absorbed and used that which in itself was horribly wrong. Probably all of us have had an experience, however slight, of just that healing process in our own lives, when wrongs we have done or intentions for evil to which we have succumbed are strangely and almost miraculously used to give our later life a depth and worth that otherwise it might not have exhibited.

This healing or recuperative process is also part of the continuing relationship between God and the creation. Along with the others to which I have referred, it may now be seen as representing a supreme way in which value, importance, worth, and dignity are provided for, and given to, the things of the world through God’s self-identification with them and his reception of them into his own ongoing movement for good. As I have already urged, with a quotation or two from Schubert Ogden, a sense of such value, worth, importance, and dignity is integral to human existence as such. Otherwise we should not go on living. Even when we see someone who feels that his life is meaningless and as a result contemplates and may even commit suicide, there remains that hidden sense of meaning -- for to be a suicide is to say that at least in this way, if in no other, I may act out meaningfully what I think is worth doing. Most of the time, however, we simply take our creaturely worth as something granted and given; we may not think about it much if at all, yet it is the basis for our existence. This sense of worth or significance is not in itself divine, to be sure; but it is grounded in the divine concern for the creation, and in that concern alone can it find any rational and meaningful explanation.

I have been discussing what have been styled by Whitehead some aspects of ‘the secular function’ of God in the creation. Now I must say something about the more conscious aspect of relationship which is usually in view when we speak of religion and the practice of religion. Whitehead once suggested that from the religious vision we may conclude that there is a source for, and a giver of, ‘refreshment and companionship’ to be known and enjoyed by human beings. It seems to me that these two words sum up in a useful fashion what the several religious traditions have offered to their adherents. Their ways of doing this are most varied, ranging from a sense of acting in accordance with the ‘rightness in things’ (as in much Chinese religion), through a mystical identification of the deepest self or atman with the cosmic reality or brahma (as in Hinduism), or a ‘blowing-out’ of individual selfhood by sharing in the bliss of Nirvana (as in most varieties of Buddhism), to the sense of fellowship or communion with God found in our own Jewish-Christian religious tradition. In these quite different ways, something is being said about a refreshment or enablement which is provided for human existence; and something is also being said, even in a fashion which sometimes seems curiously negative (as in Indian religious thought and observance), about a relationship with a more ultimate and all-inclusive reality that establishes a kind of companionship between our own little life and the greater circumambient divine being. Some useful comments about this, especially insofar as Eastern Asiatic culture has things to tell us, can be found in such a study as Trevor Ling’s fascinating History of Religion East and West, (Macmillan 1969) as well as in the many books of Raymond Pannikar, R. C. Zaehner, Ninian Smart, and S. Radhakrishnan.

Within the Jewish-Christian tradition, this refreshment and companionship is given a supreme and clear statement in the language in which the biblical writers speak of God as the living one who identifies himself with his creatures, works for their healing, enables them to experience newness of life, and enters into fellowship with them. Christians speak of this as taking place ‘through Jesus Christ’; and here we have to do with the way in which an event in the historical order, with its setting in the natural world (for all history has a geography, as I have often phrased it in my teaching), has made a genuine difference. The difference has been made in how things have gone in succeeding centuries; and that requires that a difference has been made also for God, since he is affected by what takes place in the world. And a fortiori a difference has been made in the possible kind of relationship between that God and the world, such as is opened up by the fact that the event of Jesus Christ has indeed occurred.

What this all comes down to, then, in respect to the main subject of the present book, is that all existence, and particularly for our purposes human existence, stands continually in a genuine relationship with God. God values such existence; God works in and through such existence; God guarantees that such existence has its own dignity in the total scheme of things and that it can make its own contribution to that totality. The cosmic enterprise is like a great adventure, in which deity moves out towards the creatures -- not as if it were only an incidental or accidental act of God, but because God by very necessity of the divine nature itself is constantly outgoing, self-identifying, receptive, and responsive. In that sense, then, ‘nothing walks with aimless feet’ and nothing will be ‘cast as rubbish to the void’. What happens matters; and those who are the agents of the happening matter also. They are not mere irrelevancies; on the contrary, they count, and they count for exactly what they are and for exactly what they have been and what they have done. And since all ‘being’ is found only in ‘doing’ -- Whitehead’s maxim that ‘a thing is what it does’ is crucial here -- the creaturely energizing which is at work in the whole creation finds its goal in, and its final significance through its being taken ‘up’ into himself by the unsurpassable God ‘whose nature and whose name is Love’.

In Chapter 7 of this book, on ‘God as Recipient’, we shall have occasion to spell out more fully the model of God which is implied in what has been said up to the present point. But before we come to that discussion, it will be useful for us to turn our attention to the question of ‘resurrection’ -- first, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, about which so much of the earliest Christian writing found in the New Testament, and so much of the Christian experience of discipleship, turns; and second, to consider the point of the continuing Christian affirmation that those who have responded to the event of Christ are themselves made ‘sharers in Christ’s resurrection’.

In any case, it will be evident by now that the relationship between God and the created order is much more like that between the human mind and the human body, as we commonly conceive it, than it is like that between an earthly ruler and his subjects. As I have quoted on other occasions and in other writing, St. Thomas Aquinas made the point with his usual precision in an incidental remark -- provided perhaps that we change his word ‘soul’ to the word ‘mind’ Aquinas said, ‘In his "rule" God stands in relation to the whole universe as the soul stands in relation to the body.’ What that may imply for ‘the risen life’ of men and women will be developed in the sequel.