Faith Is Not Believing Without Questioning—Fr. Charles Allen

An opinion hath spread it selfe verie farre in the world, as if the waye to be ripe in faith, were to be rawe in wit and judgement; as if reason were an enimie unto religion … [But] ‘Judge you of that which I speak,’ saith the Apostle [1 Cor.10:15]. In vaine it were to speake any thing of God, but that by reason men are able some what to judge of that they heare, and by discourse to discerne how consonant it is to truth.”—16th Century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 3.8.11-12

Could it be that our world could use a few more Hookers? (Yes, that’s a shameless double entendre.) There’s a tendency in our modern culture to equate faith with unquestioning belief: you believe something without having looked at any reasons for or against believing it, and then you treat it as if it should be off-limits to questions like that. This is what upsets vocal critics of faith like the new atheists. I think they are right to be upset about this. It may be harmless in most cases, but it’s also a breeding ground for fanaticism, terrorism, super-patriotism and other ills that beset our world.

But I and countless others like me will never speak of faith as a matter of believing without questioning, because we see God as the ever-present reality who constantly eludes any final descriptions, even those of our favorite creeds. For us faith is not believing in something absent but trusting in an ever-present reality beyond our grasp or control. It does not have to wonder about the existence of such a reality, only about its ultimate character. It is an inkling that this reality in which we already find ourselves immersed is also our ultimate good. It is a kind of “knowledge,” or awareness, but not the everyday kind: the more we know of this reality “in which we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), the more we realize that it is too vast, too intimate and too engaging ever to be adequately described. The very scriptures and traditions we inhabit, and which inhabit us, speak to us most faithfully, not when we look to them for final “answers,” but when they awaken, transform and deepen this inkling of the ultimate goodness of the reality in which we live and move and have our being.

Now whenever I say something like this, somebody almost always responds that I’m offering a “liberal” or “academic” redefinition of faith. That simply is not true. It may be a minority voice in a world where most people, religious or not, would rather not think, but it’s still a voice that’s been around for quite some time. Christian thinkers understood faith in this way well before the rise of modern science—not all of them, but many of them, like Hooker.

John Calvin, another 16th Century theologian (not known for being liberal), concurred in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He claimed: 1) Faith is a form of knowledge, not blind belief: “Is this what believing means—to understand nothing, provided only that you submit your feeling obediently to the church? Faith rests not on ignorance but on knowledge … It is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate”(3.2.2). 2) Faith’s “knowledge” is not comprehension but an assured recognition of something incomprehensible: “When we call faith ‘knowledge’ we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond itself and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, in does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. … For very good reason … faith is called ‘recognition’, but by John, ‘knowledge’. … [But] the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”(3.2.14).

Over the past fifty years many people of faith have been influenced by Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957). Faith, Tillich said, “is the state of being ultimately concerned,” “an act of the personality as a whole,” concern, above all, “about what is experienced as ultimate” (1, 5, 11). Faith can of course be idolatrous when misplaced: “In true faith the ultimate concern is a concern about the truly ultimate; while in idolatrous faith preliminary, finite realities are elevated to the rank of ultimacy” (13). For example, it is idolatry to be ultimately concerned about my own faith tradition, my tradition’s scriptures, or even my own beliefs. None of these are the truly ultimate—at best, they can help us to participate in the truly ultimate, but only when we let them point beyond themselves. Only the truly ultimate deserves the name of “God,” and if we hear stories about God in our scriptures, they are true stories only insofar as they point us to the truly ultimate beyond all our limited concepts of God (53-55).

Now, let’s admit, Tillich is most definitely an “ivory tower” figure, and he is perceived by many as “liberal” (though he always rejected the term as too bourgeois). But is this really an illicit attempt, as Sam Harris charges, to change the meaning of the term from what pre-modern religious leaders meant? (See Harris, The End of Faith [New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004), p. 65.) As it turns out, “ultimate concern with the truly ultimate” seems to be a theme that Tillich (a Lutheran) borrowed from Martin Luther himself: “What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”—From The Larger CatechismHarris can reject this as a definition of faith, but he needs to recognize that this is no modern reinvention of the term. It’s hundreds of years old. It was once required reading for young Lutherans.

Harris may of course be right that the majority of religious people have always preferred to think of faith as unquestioning belief, but doesn’t that simply confirm Tillich’s point that we have a tendency to settle for idolatry? And isn’t it a central point of theological education to teach people to stop making idols of their own cherished ideas? Isn’t that also a central point of preaching, at least in Churches like mine that always required an educated clergy? (Alas, many do not require this any more.) Furthermore, if we’re going to discuss an idea, shouldn’t we start with what the most informed people say it means? If we want to discuss reason and science, do we look to childhood impressions for our definitions, or do we look to mature reflections of people well-versed in both? So why is it OK to stick with childish impressions of faith and God? Again, let’s admit, those of us who want to move beyond childish impressions may be a minority voice, but we are, and always have been, much more numerous than “Tillich’s blameless parish of one” (Harris, 65), and we are not giving up or going away.

A Heavenly Reconsideration—a Poem by Wesley Sexton (Butler ‘16)

I can’t say lamb anymore

than I could have said damn to my mother

as a 3rd grader, though I tried once,

quoting my older brother,

and still I was sent to my room

without supper. I think Jesus came

not just to say so many true things

and wear a thorny crown but also to point

to the godliness of our world – this one,

not the one A&E fell out of, but the one

they fell into. No one wants us lying in bed

of an afternoon, hands crossed over our chests.

Our proper place is under the yellow eye,

amongst grey-birds & stick-bugs, filling our bodies

with as much green as possible. For this,

God sits beside every unburied tomb

singing wildly in the mouths of bees,

the song of our resurrection if we knew

only to look for it in this world,

the one God himself inhabited

and asked us so enthusiastically to love.

Questions from a Friendly Skeptic—Fr. Charles Allen

These are questions sent to me several years ago by a friend who was just getting to know me (I think they were recycled from a new atheist website.) He was and is an atheist who had once been a very, very conservative evangelical minister. We're still friends, though we realize that on some subjects we're simply at an impasse. The questions here are common enough in popular debates, so they're worth answering, and I did. I've tweaked the answers occasionally since then, whenever I noticed that I hadn't been as clear as I could have been. I hope my answers are not unfriendly. If so, I apologize. I do have opinions. If I say unflattering things about Bible-thumpers, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists, I'm not identifying you, the reader, or anybody else with those a simplistic caricatures, though I do encourage you not to identify yourself with either of them. Incidentally, there was a conservative evangelical minister included in the initial exchange. He found my answers completely unacceptable. I'm not surprised. Episcopalians liked them—no surprise there either.

1. Why is God called loving or merciful when, in the Old Testament's stories of the Israelite conquest, he specifically orders his chosen people to massacre their enemies, showing no mercy to men, women, even children and animals?

That's a problem for Christians who believe that every snapshot of God in the Bible is 100% accurate. That's not most Christians. Most Christian writers never believed that, because most of them were not literalists. Literalism is the invention of "Bible-thumping" Protestants (not all Protestants) in the last 400 of Christianity's 2,000 years. They rejected all the traditions that helped people make sense of the Bible. The first Christians called God loving, not because they were literalists, but because they read their Bibles through their shared experience of being inexplicably embraced by God, despite their own enmity, as Jesus, the rejected one, began to animate their lives. You undoubtedly consider the experience an illusion, but for the moment that's beside the point. It was their experience, illusory or not. The Bible was a commentary on that shared experience from different angles, but the shared experience, the core of their living tradition, came first. When a passage showed God behaving nastily, they assumed it had to be a caricature. That's how the Bible should be read today, though Bible-thumpers, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists, have forgotten this. Because I approach the Bible in that originating way, I have no problem with how today's most reputable scholars approach it. And I readily recognize that different writers of the Bible viewed God differently, in terms of their own agendas. Some thought God could not tolerate religious differences (these were the writers and editors of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings). Others, like Second Isaiah, the writer of Jonah, and St. Paul, emphasized God's ultimate mercy for everybody over temporary wrath against wrongdoing. The writers of Ephesians and Colossians (probably not Paul) seem to have been universalists. So again, Christians in the first century believed Jesus' ongoing life fulfills the spiritual meaning of the Bible and simply ignored the literal meaning (look at how Paul allegorizes the Genesis stories of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-5:1). St. Augustine, following his own teachers, taught that no passage should be taken literally if it makes God look immoral. It's only in the seventeenth century that entire churches full of Bible-thumpers tried out the idea that every passage of the Bible was equally, clearly and literally informative about God and that it could therefore be immediately understood without listening to any other interpretations. It was a lousy idea. I have no problem calling God loving because the living traditions that produced the Bible, and the Bible itself, teach me that nasty-looking stories about God can't define God. That's a typically Episcopalian answer.

2. Does it make sense to claim, as the Bible does, that wrongdoing can be forgiven by magically transferring the blame from a guilty person to an innocent one, then punishing the innocent person?

No, it doesn't make sense. But don’t assume that the Bible claims this (more here). As I read the Bible, God and God's servants may suffer and bear the harmful consequences of human wrongdoing, in order to keep working with us, and that's a major sacrifice. But it doesn't require punishment for punishments' sake, whether directly inflicted or transferred to somebody else. Most reputable historians and biblical scholars agree that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement was later developed by Anselm, Aquinas, and the first Protestants. It never showed up in Eastern Orthodoxy.

3. Why does the Bible routinely depict God as manifesting himself in dramatic, unmistakable ways and performing obvious miracles even before the eyes of nonbelievers, when no such thing happens in the world today?

Because the writers of the Bible exaggerated. There's no reason to assume that God's presence was ever unmistakable. People today, like me, report experiences of a sacred presence that can shake up their views of the everyday world. I'm not talking about dramatic visions or voices—more a constant, subtle awareness of an inescapable presence. We find it natural to assume that people had similar experiences back then, some decisively more vivid than any of mine. As their stories circulated they got embellished. Sometimes, as in the Talmud, everybody seemed to know that the stories were embellished in order to make a point, and they didn't have a problem with that. Did you ever notice that Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, never refers to Jesus' alleged miracles, unless you count his rather mystical experience of the living Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. But even there he denies that it was physical: "risen" bodies are spiritual, not physical. The Gospels report all kinds of miracles, but they came decades later. Given storytelling practices like Midrash, there's no reason to assume that anybody was being fraudulent. Embellishments were ok, as long as they made a point. In any case, reports about past miracles are no substitute for experiencing an inescapable sacred presence here and now.

4. Why do vast numbers of Christians still believe in the imminent end of the world when the New Testament states clearly that the apocalypse was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago, during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries?

There are also vast numbers of Christians who don’t believe this. Again, you're assuming that American, ultra-conservative, Bible-thumping Protestants represent the majority of Christians. They don't. Though I agree that their numbers are depressingly vast. I don't know why they hold on to that belief. I tried to embrace it myself for a few years in the 1970s, but it just didn't take. Paul clearly believed it would happen soon, maybe while he still lived. He was mistaken. Despite an escape clause (nobody knows the day or the hour), Jesus is reported to have said that all this stuff would happen within the lifespan of his generation. It didn't. Bible-thumpers have a problem admitting this, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists think admitting this disproves the Bible. It does, I admit, help disprove a Bible-thumping view of the Bible, but as I keep reiterating, I don't belong to either group. Many New Testament scholars think that Jesus originally preached that God's reign is already arriving, but it's germinating like a mustard seed, fermenting like yeast. Of course it's always guesswork when people try to separate the "original" Jesus from the narrated Jesus. People look for his bombastic return today because they want somebody to step in and prove them right. I'm not counting on that. I don't need proof to be convinced that the best way to love God is to love (and thus respect!) others who will never be just like me. We probably agree about that, except for the God part.

5. Why do Christians believe in the soul when neurology has found clear evidence that the sense of identity and personality can be altered by physical changes to the brain?

Because many Christians ignore the Bible when they talk about souls. Later Christians borrowed the idea of an immortal soul from their Greek influenced culture. The Bible seems mostly to deny a soul/body dualism. Paul insisted that any life beyond this one would have to be embodied in some incomprehensible way ("spiritually"). I believe that my own self wouldn't exist now as it does without my own body, and that changes in my body can change who I am. But I can also make changes in my body happen. I'm doing that all the time. I'm not just a passive byproduct of my body, even though I constantly depend on embodiment. Neurology is no threat to this. Anybody who says and means "I" or "You" already believes that selves are more than third-person descriptions, neurological or otherwise. And "self" is just a modern substitute for "soul."

6. If it was always God's plan to provide salvation through Jesus, why didn't he send Jesus from the very beginning, instead of waiting thousands of years?

I don't assume that God foreknew exactly what role Jesus would play all along, or even that there would be that specific human being named Jesus. Most biblical passages portray God as one who keeps altering plans in response to human decisions. The goal of reconciliation doesn't change, but the way of reaching the goal does. Jesus' life embodied the reconciliation that God has been working toward ever since there has been a need for reconciliation. It didn't start with Jesus or even with Abraham. And it doesn't end there either. The basic biblical storyline is that God's plan is to do whatever it takes to foster reconciliation. I believe that continuing to embody the communion of God's Spirit in the living Jesus is my way to do this and that it's worth sharing with everybody. But God will keep doing whatever it takes. That's how the story goes.

7. Since the Bible states that God does not desire that anyone perish, but also states that the majority of humankind is going to Hell, doesn't this show that God's plan of salvation is a failure even by his own standard? If this outcome is a success, what would count as a failure?

The Bible is not clear even about the existence of Hell, much less about how many people might wind up there. Some New Testament writers were universalists, as were many of the Church Fathers, as I've already said. So again the way this question is framed is wrong from the outset. A fairly consistent theme of the Bible is that God never stops working toward reconciliation, though perhaps we never stop trying to avoid it. Is that a failure on God's part? That would depend on God's expectations, and ours.

8. Why didn't God create human beings such that they freely desire to do good, thus removing the need to create a Hell at all? (If you believe this is impossible, isn't this the state that will exist in Heaven?)

We've already dealt with misconceptions about Hell. You seem to equate freely desiring to do good with being programmed to do good automatically. That's not freedom. And I don't speculate about afterlife, since the New Testament never provides details outside of parables and Revelation's bizarre visions. Genesis, in ancient, flat-earth terms, depicts God repeatedly summoning multiply creative community from a chaos that already existed, with further chaos and conflict as inevitable byproducts of that. The common vision of both testaments is that reconciliation can exhaust and outlast any chaos or conflict. I don't know if reconciliation needs to come to an end in this life or beyond. Maybe participating right now in everlasting reconciliation is a better glimpse of paradise than someday singing celestial campfire songs.

9. Is it fair or rational for God to hide himself so that he can only be known by faith, then insist that every single human being find him by picking the right one out of thousands of conflicting and incompatible religions?

Does God hide? Or is God by definition the ultimate, ever-present and utterly engaging reality that can't be observed the way we observe objects, which are limited by definition? In that case it's not God who's hiding but we who are in denial. My experience confirms that most of us are indeed in denial about the constant, inescapable, unsettling presence of the sacred, which some of us rightly continue to call God. We tend to suppress anything in experience that seems immune to our efforts to control everything—we suppress our deepest feelings but also our deepest awareness that we can't escape a relentless summons to community where none of us gets to call the shots. God doesn't hide. We hide from God just as we hide from ourselves and anything unsettling. What's more than fair, the biblical storyline goes, is that our hiding doesn't keep God from working with us toward reconciliation, regardless of the religious or irreligious choices we make. I don't think God is as concerned as some of us are about our getting all our beliefs exactly right. If they move us toward reconciliation, they're good enough for God to work with. You can find as much to support that view of God in the Bible as you can find to support a narrower view.

10. If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn't God done this already?

God is helping, just not controlling. The underlying theme of the Bible is that God always has and is still doing just that—not controlling, but helping: God never stops doing whatever it takes to work with all of us toward reconciliation, though one might say that this costs God everything. According to the basic storyline, from the beginning God summons multiply creative community from primal chaos, where multiple, uncontrollable and unpredictable responses inevitably produce more chaos, conflict and pain. That's an unpreventable consequence of summoning multiply creative community from chaos. But, the storyline narrates, God bears all consequences with us, whether devastating or delightful, on the way into further, multiply creative community (with its further chaotic byproducts). That's the basic storyline of Jesus' life and presence, but also the basic storyline of God's life and presence in Israel long before Jesus' birth. The storyline shows us that, ultimately, the only effective power God seems to have with a multiply creative community is the power to keep summoning every bit of it from chaos into further community, no matter how many unforeseen detours that involves, and the storyline shows us many unforeseen detours. You can call this power a kind of "sovereignty" or "omnipotence" (the power to summon multiply creative community from chaos is immeasurably greater than any other power—certainly greater than any ability to control the uncreative), but I find those terms misleading. God is helping all the time, helping immeasurably. We can help too, and that should be our focus.

11. What's the evidence for this God you keep talking about so confidently?

My evidence is nothing less than every moment of existence, sufficiently noted. When I pay enough attention, I experience every moment of existence as a relentless summons from chaos into multiply creative community: I'm summoned to arise anew from the vast mixture of community and chaos that brought me to this moment; I take all of that and remix it into something somewhat new, releasing this novelty back into the mixture; I and the mixture are momentarily renewed, somewhat; and then the process starts over, though never quite the same. It's so inescapable for me that if others deny experiencing this, I can't help presuming that they aren't paying enough attention. They're like people who try to tell me that awareness is only an illusion, failing to note that illusions can't happen where there is no awareness.

If I experience every moment of existence this way, the simplest presumption is that every moment of existence beyond my experience is this way too. And everything I now know about existence beyond my experience readily lends itself to viewing it in these terms, especially with the help of process thought. Process thought holds that any moment of existence anywhere arises anew from a vast mixture of community and chaos, remixes it into something somewhat new, releasing its novelty back into the mixture, yielding a somewhat new mixture of community and chaos. That's just what momentary existence fundamentally is, no matter where or when it happens. Every experience illustrates this. It's how we learn to identify moments as moments. And momentary existence is in turn fundamental to every other sort of existence. Every experience illustrates that too. Show me any other type of existence that doesn't depend on this momentary existence. Try to think of any supposed non-momentary existence without relying on momentary existence to think it. To presume that momentary existence could be absent anywhere is blatantly metaphysical speculation, never supported by experience. It's anti-empirical. I seem to have all the evidence anybody could reasonably demand for viewing and responding to existence itself (or if you prefer, Being Itself) as the relentless summons from chaos into multiply creative community. And that, I and countless others claim, is the fundamental storyline of the biblical God.

Faith, Doubt and Reason—Fr. Charles Allen

Every year a good number of first year students at Butler University choose to enroll in a two-semester core course called "Faith, Doubt and Reason." And every year I get interviewed by students who are writing their final papers for the first semester. Since that's likely to happen again, I thought I'd write down my answers.

Q: How do you define reason? A: Reason is, concretely, responding with integrity to all that we undergo. Aristotle called it practical wisdom (I wrote a 246-page, jargon-filled doctoral dissertation on that in the 1980s). The formal operations of logic and even scientific method are more abstract versions of this. They would never have developed if we did not recognize them as ways to respond with integrity to some of what we undergo, but they're too artificial to work everywhere. Yet even where formal operations and controlled experiments seem too artificial, we still seem to find ways to respond with integrity. There's no escaping this demand, even when we appeal to faith. Faith itself aims to respond with integrity to what we ultimately undergo. Integrity requires attentiveness, honesty, consistency, a capacity for self-criticism and a willingness to change if need be. That’s my less-than-246-page answer.

Q: How do you define doubt? A: Doubt is a form of questioning that arises when what we undergo doesn't seem to fit what is currently affirmed. Unlike Descartes, and more like C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey, I don't think reason requires us to try doubting everything at once. Nor do I think we're obliged to prove, or be certain about, what already seems true to us and other reliable-seeming people, as long as we don't suppress honest questions (doubt!). But we are obliged to be honest when what we undergo doesn't seem to fit what is currently affirmed. We may then have to modify what was affirmed or else reexamine what we're undergoing (maybe it does fit, and we just haven't figured out how). Example: After an intense week of dating  somebody says, “I love you more than anybody else.” Then the next day you see them kissing somebody else. Maybe they were lying, or maybe the other person is a sibling or cousin.

There's a kind of doubt that always accompanies what I would call undergoing God. Undergoing God always exceeds our affirmations about God. It never quite fits what we affirm, though some affirmations seem to come closer than others. It's sort of a paradox. Our affirmations mean nothing apart from moments that never quite fit them, but they mean everything when they point us toward those moments.

Q: How do you define faith? A: I've said elsewhere that, ultimately speaking, faith is not believing in something absent but trusting the present reality in which we ultimately find ourselves, even though it remains beyond our grasp or control. It includes a provisional trust in the way we have come to speak of this reality, but our trust is ultimately in the reality that seems to have prompted this way of speaking, not in the way of speaking itself. It's a way of responding with integrity to what we ultimately undergo.

That's an attempt to describe the sort of faith that, I believe, everybody lives by even when they deny it. And yes, I'm very indebted to Paul Tillich for that.

For me that faith is inseparable from my and my tradition's belief that we are all unconditionally embraced by the Communion of God's Spirit in Jesus Christ and thereby drawn to embody that Communion for everybody now and always. That Communion is, I believe, the reality in which we ultimately find ourselves, though I speak of it in those terms provisionally in order to point beyond them to the reality they can't ever grasp. Other traditions, even some secular ones, seem to fare well using very different terms, and I welcome their insights. But I as a Christian don't know of any better terms than those I've been using, and I'm committed to making them communicate better to everybody. I try to imagine a time when I might decide that some other tradition's terms were better than these, but honestly, I can't imagine that. This is my vocation, not theirs, and it's survived more intellectual challenges than most people ever encounter.

Q: Can faith, doubt and reason coexist in the same person at the same time? Why or why not? A: Yes. Because they coexist already if we pay attention: at the very moment I am able to trust the present reality in which I ultimately find myself, I'm aware that I am not that reality, and that this reality remains forever beyond my grasp, and that's a faithful form of doubt. If I don't undergo that sort of doubt, then I haven't undergone anything ultimate. My only option, if I'm to keep trusting, is to respond with integrity to this tension that I undergo. Honest faith raises doubts, and addressing those doubts with integrity calls for reason. Faith, doubt and reason are all ways of responding with integrity to what we undergo.

Q: Would you like to change any of your answers? Why or why not? A: Not now. Because that's where I am, and it's pretty much where I've been for over 40 years, and I haven't developed any regrets. I never say anything in exactly the same way, of course, but there's more continuity than discontinuity here. I'd be surprised if that ever changed. 

God: All-Enlivening, All-Sustaining, All-Embracing, Not All-Controlling—Fr. Charles Allen

For me, to believe in God is to awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing. The common reality within which I ultimately live, and to which I awaken, enlivens not just me but all things, sustains not just me but all things for as long as they live, and embraces not just me but all things for as long as they live and after they live. This is the God to whom I awaken and in whom I thus believe.

This is not a new idea: According to the earliest New Testament writer, Paul, God is the one from whom, through whom, and in whom all things are (Romans 11:36), the always-near one in whom we live and move and have our being, as he reportedly said elsewhere (Acts 17:27-28). And Paul was simply repeating an idea that he and other Jews around his time had inherited from their study of their own most sacred writings. Most church “fathers” and major theologians cited these passages at the very beginning of their discussions on God. For example, St. Augustine: “I would not exist, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you existed in me. Or is it rather that I would not exist unless I existed in you, ‘from whom, through whom, in whom, everything exists’?”—Confessions 1.2.2. For over 2000 years God has thus been regarded as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing, and whatever was experienced in this way was called God. 

But this is a new idea: While I view God as all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing, I most emphatically do not view God as all-controlling. This is where I differ, importantly, from many theists in centuries past. It makes me some sort of "process" theist (more here). That is because to be all-enlivening is nearly the opposite of being all-controlling. To enliven others is to prompt new ways of being beyond one's own control. There is nothing lively about being utterly subject to control from someone or something else. I cannot love an all-controlling power. I cannot help but love the uniquely all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing power.

Obvious question: How do I know that reality as such is like this? What reasons do I have to view reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing? Where is the evidence, and is there enough evidence?

I have every reason to view reality as such in this way, because I have every reason to view my own immediate situation as an example of reality as such, not as an exception to it.*

I am at once intimately enlivened by my situation, sustained by my situation, and embraced by my situation. And so is every part of me. And so are others around me. I experience this in every waking moment, if I pay enough attention, and so can you and anybody else. How can there be more evidence than that?

This is my immediate situation, but where shall I draw a barrier between my immediate situation and the situation of everything, reality as such? Drawing a barrier anywhere seems arbitrary, as well as pointlessly alienating. It's an inherited assumption that we are entitled to shelve. We can make distinctions without making barriers of them. Artificial barriers aside, my immediate situation is no less than the intimate presence of reality as such.

My immediate situation, reality as such, obviously enlivens me, but many would question why I would view my immediate situation as likewise enlivening every part of me and every part of others around me. Are my and your atoms enlivened along with you and me? Again I would ask in return, Why should I not view what my immediate situation is doing in and around me as an example of, not an exception to, what happens everywhere else? Where shall I draw a barrier between what is happening with me and what is happening with everything else? Drawing such a barrier again seems arbitrary and pointlessly alienating.

Sure, a rock doesn't look very lively, but we know that its components are full of liveliness. The rock itself is enlivened as a somewhat recurring pattern in a whole constellation of highly lively interactions. The same goes for bigger things that look inert: planets, stars, galaxies, etc.

Again, viewing rocks and everything else in this way is simply a consequence of presuming that what happens in, through and around me is an example of what happens everywhere, not an exception. Nothing in physics or chemistry or biology contradicts this, and I would argue that it is a simpler, indeed more natural, viewpoint to adopt than other viewpoints which would restrict the liveliness in me to only a relatively few, highly exceptional cases in the universe as a whole. Such barriers again seem arbitrary and pointlessly alienating, though habitually ingrained in our culture, and the evidence of every waking moment supports my placing the burden of proof on those who insist upon drawing them.

For me, to be at once intimately enlivened, sustained and embraced by reality as such is the same as to be loved by reality as such. Lovers, after all, enliven each other, sustain each other and embrace each other to the fullest extent possible, don't they? And yet, in a way, the common reality in which lovers do this is even more intimately related to both of them.

When we love others and are loved in return, we most intensely reflect the intimately common reality that enlivens, sustains and embraces all of us and everything else. Why presume otherwise?

So I awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love, because what happens in and through and around me is no exception to what happens everywhere. Every moment of experience, rightly noted, supports this. That's enough evidence. Reality as such is ultimately Love.

It's crucial to add here that this in no way minimizes the degree and intensity of suffering around and within us, what is often called the problem of evil. There is no special treatment promised by awakening to reality as such, ultimate reality, as Love. I and those I love might still suffer immeasurably as a result of chance happenings or of others' deluded hate. With all things enlivened beyond anyone's control, there are simply no guarantees about exactly how my life or any other life will go. That would presume an all-controlling power, the very antithesis of all-enlivening power. The only guarantee is that, however my life or your life goes, it has been intimately enlivened, it is being intimately sustained, and it is now and will always be intimately embraced in all its significance by reality as such, Love, God. No preliminary or final moment of my life or your life or others' lives, however abrupt or devastating, can rob it of the full significance it already has in the Love that enlivens, sustains and embraces all things (Romans 8:38-39). Yes, we are right to grieve over suffering natural disasters and to feel moral outrage at the suffering caused by rejecting Love. But grief and outrage are not reasons for despair, because these reactions are shared by the Love that enlivens, sustains and embraces all things, and awakening to this impels us to join in the common task of "mending the world" (tikkun olam).

I’m suggesting that anybody, anywhere, can awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing. They may or may not call this God, but I do, with ample precedents from past usage in many traditions. I also do this as one kind of Christian, and that’s no accident. Here’s why:

The first Christians placed all their trust in Jesus of Nazareth, indeed to the point of deifying him, because their experience of his life, death, and risen life among them became for them the most enlivening, most sustaining and most embracing embodiment of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love. There they discovered that such an embodiment of all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing life cannot be undone by utter rejection or even death. Jesus' post-execution, enlivening presence became for them the unifying embodiment (sacrament) of all other sacramental embodiments of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love. That shared experience was what made Christianity Christian, and it is still what makes Christianity Christian today.

It's what makes me Christian. For me, as for my ancestors, participating communally in the presently embodied life, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth remains the unifying embodiment of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love.

Others tell me that they do not view Jesus in this way, and while that always surprises me, at least slightly, I have no reason to say anything disparaging in response to this. I can't explain why this unifying embodiment in and around my life is not everybody's unifying embodiment. I can't explain why others find something else to be what I would call their unifying embodiment. I can only confess that this is where I am. And it would be unfaithful of me to feel threatened by the fact that others are not where I am. Rejecting Love is threatening; embodying Love on other terms is not.

Regardless of what we think or say about Jesus' life or some other unifying embodiment, regardless of what we think or say about the word "God," I cannot help trusting that we are all at once intimately enlivened, sustained and embraced by reality as such. That is what I fundamentally mean by awakening, as one kind of Christian, to the one God Jesus' life embodies.

 

********

*"It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body."—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978), p.119. "Many biochemists insist that the line between living organisms and inert chemical substances can be drawn only arbitrarily. Viruses and genes, they say, are only highly complex molecules. But an intellectual road cannot be opened to one-way traffic only. If the distinction between organisms and molecules is, after all, an arbitrary one, then the same must be true of the distinction between molecules and organisms. Any arguments which justify biochemists in speaking of genes as 'molecules of extreme complexity' justify us also in speaking of atoms and molecules as 'organisms of extreme simplicity'."—Stephen E. Toulmin, Foresight and Understanding: An Enquiry into the Aims of Science (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), p. 78. "Especially since Charles Darwin, it has become increasingly clear that we are part of the natural world, that we are completely interwoven with everything. We are unique in some ways, but not in others, and our uniqueness is a matter of degree rather than of kind. We are part of the same causal web of interconnections as everything else that exists ... One helpful consequence of the view that we are part of the world rather than separate from it is that, by looking at our own existence, we can learn something about the rules that apply to everything that exists. We are examples of those rules, not exceptions to them. The world is like us because we are like the world, part of the world, reflecting the same basic principles and rules as the world. We cannot understand ourselves without understanding the world of which we are a part; nor can we finally understand the world without understanding ourselves as part of it. Yes, we must beware of anthropomorphism, of simply making animals, God, and the world look like us in a self-centered way. But it is the reverse of anthropomorphism to acknowledge that we are simply instances of how everything else in the universe works, that we are not supernatural exceptions."— C. Robert Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead (West Conschocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), p. 24.

Process Mindfulness—Fr. Charles Allen

Be mindful of yourself, not as a fixed thing but as a way of newly interacting (very recurrent, very inclusive, but still a way of newly interacting).

Likewise, be mindful of others, whether like or unlike you, not as fixed things but as other ways of newly interacting (more or less recurrent, more or less inclusive, but still ways of newly interacting).

Likewise, be mindful of general properties, rules and even physical “laws,” not as fixed or detachable “metathings” but as generally shareable ways of newly interacting.

Likewise, be mindful of particular events, stories and traditions that formed and are transforming you, not as fixed, stultifying things but as particularly shareable ways of newly interacting (example: the transformed and transforming “post-execution” life of Jesus of Nazareth). 

Likewise, be mindful of reality as such, the whole of reality, not as a fixed thing but as the exceedingly recurrent and all-inclusive way of newly interacting, whether or not you decide to call this “God” (but really, why not?).

Explore how being mindful in this way helps you integrate and renew all that you and others seem to experience.

I have been practicing this for over 40 years, and I continue to find being thus mindful to be the most helpful way to integrate and renew all that I and others seem to experience. It integrates my intellectual, emotional, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual inklings into one all-engaging exploration. For me at least, that’s every reason to keep exploring this way. (For more details on process thought, click here and here.)

Experiences of God?—Fr. Charles Allen

Here are some examples of how people have spoken of their experience of God in similar terms through the ages, though they don't all say exactly the same thing. I've also included Sam Harris's account of meditation, because he sounds a lot like Paul Tillich talking about faith, except that Harris despises faith and the very idea of God. That's why the above heading has a question mark. It's food for thought.

God is not far from each one of us, for in God we live and move and have our being.—St. Paul (c. 5-c. 67), Acts 17:27-28.

With you as my guide I entered into my innermost citadel,… and with my soul's eye, such as it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind – not the light of every day, but a different thing, utterly different from all our kinds of light... When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe. And I found myself far from you in the region of dissimilarity, and heard as it were your voice from on high: "I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me." ... And you cried from far away: "Now, I am who I am." I heard in the way one hears within the heart, and all doubt left me.—St. Augustine (354-430), Confessions 7.10.16

Strange, then, is the blindness of an experience which does not consider that which it sees first and without which it can know nothing. The eye, concentrating on various differences of color, does not see the very light by which it sees other things; and if it does see this light, it does not advert to it. In the same way, the eye of experience, concentrating on particular and universal being, does not advert to Being Itself, which is beyond every genus [i.e., transcendental], even though it comes to our experience first and through it we know other things … Thus our experience, accustomed to the darkness of beings and the images of the things of sense, when it glimpses the light of Being Itself, seems to itself to see nothing. It does not realize that this very darkness is the supreme illumination of our mind, just as when the eye sees pure light, it seems to itself to see nothing.— St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), The Soul's Journey into God 5.4. (Bonaventure actually uses “intellect” and “mind” instead of “experience” here. But in medieval thought intellect and mind were ways of experiencing.)

Religion is "to be one with the infinite in the midst of the finite and to be eternal in a moment"—Friedrich Schleiermacher, "the Father of Modern Theology," in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1988 [1799]), p. 140

The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged to details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted. The details are a reaction to the totality. ... They are interpretive and not originative. What is original is the vague totality... The primitive stage of discrimination… is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, "The Whole," "That Other," and "This-My-Self." ... This is primarily a dim division.… There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. ... There is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence... We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole. ... The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by [a] sense of deity... We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world.—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), pp. 109-110, 102.

[In our experience of God,] God can never be object without being at the same time subject. ... The same experience expressed in abstract language is the disappearance of the ordinary subject-object scheme in the experience of the ultimate, the unconditional. In the act of faith that which is the source of this act is present beyond the cleavage of subject and object. It is present as both and beyond both.—Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2001 [1957]), pp. 12-13.

All talk about God always only points to ... an experience in which the one whom we call “God” encounters us … as the absolute and the immeasurable, as the term of our transcendence which cannot really be incorporated into any system of coordinates.— Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. by William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), p. 21.

[In meditation] our sense of "self"—of subject/object dualism in perception and cognition—can be made to vanish, while consciousness remains vividly aware of the continuum of experience.—Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004) p. 217.

From Experience* to Process Thought to Process Theism—Fr. Charles Allen

First, experience:

In every experience a) you experience yourself; b) you experience others, some occasionally very like you, most others not so much; c) and if you pay enough attention you experience all as newly interacting in various ways.

Now to process thought: 

Most of our inherited ways of thinking have started out by assuming that constant selves or others (or both) are the ultimate realities, and only then try to describe or explain how they interact and change.

Process thought reverses this tendency, claiming that these continually experienced ways of newly interacting are the ultimate realities that offer the most economical and yet generous way to describe and account for everything else, including more or less constant selves and others.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it ... They do not deny that there are temporally stable and reliably recurrent aspects of reality. But they take such aspects of persistence to be the regular behavior of dynamic organizations that arise due to the continuously ongoing interaction of processes.”

Here’s how it works:

You are a very recurrent way of newly interacting, and so are others like and unlike you, from fundamental particles to galaxies (constant=very recurring).

Different levels of recurrence in ways of newly interacting are what enable all sorts of ways of generalizing in the sciences and other disciplines (including process thought’s ways of generalizing), but these ways, no matter how widely applicable, never fully capture the novelty involved in every way of interacting, no matter how recurrent. They provisionally outline shareable ways of newly interacting. Thus we can make and appreciate all sorts of reliable predictions without assuming determinism. Ways of generalizing are similarly appropriate in similar circumstances, but no two circumstances are ever exactly the same.

You and others like you are not only very recurrent but very inclusive ways of newly interacting. (Your way of newly interacting includes your body’s ways of newly interacting, which include your organs’ ways of newly interacting, which include your cells’ ways of newly interacting, which include your molecules’ ways of newly interacting, and so on. Furthermore, through sensation and awareness your way of newly interacting also includes wider social and environmental ways of newly interacting.) 

It’s this high level of inclusiveness that accounts for experiencing yourself and others like you as subjects, not just objects (though of course you are all objects too).

Furthermore, this high level of inclusiveness means that you are not neutral subjects, but highly involved and entangled subjects engaging others and yourself in aesthetic and moral and other evaluative terms. You and others are not simply here or there, as a mere matter of fact, but engagedly and engagingly here and there, as a matter of value. Thus, while distinguishing “facts” from “values” is contextually possible, they are never completely disentangled.

So regarding anything and everything as differing ways of newly interacting, more or less recurrent, more or less shareable, more or less inclusive, entitles you to be as scientific as you want to be, and as arts and humanities centered as you want to be, without discounting any of these ways of understanding and celebrating our world and ourselves.

Now to process theism (more here):

Process theism takes process thought one step further, or deeper, but it doesn’t claim to go beyond what we continually experience.

(So if a skeptic asks, “Where’s the evidence?” the process theist answers, “Right here and now, if you pay enough attention.” Maybe that sounds arrogant, but why not be honest? The skeptic of course has every right to counter that the process theist is projecting something that isn’t there onto experience. The only reasonable response to this, on either side, is to continue honestly paying attention to what we continually seem to experience. Maybe minds will change, maybe not.)

Process theists claim that, sufficiently noted, every experience involves not just various ways of newly interacting but also the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, and (appealing to ancient and current precedents) they identify this all-inclusive way with God.

They recognize room for debate about whether “God” is a suitable term for the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, but without excluding other terms they are convinced of this one’s suitability for the following reasons, among others. 

For one thing, it fits the way St. Paul and his early followers thought of God (at least sometimes):  "From God, through God, and into God are all things" (Romans 11:36). "God is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6). "God is not far from each of us, for in God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28). And that means it at least arguably fits how later Christian theologians began their reflections on God (they started with biblical passages like these before using Platonic or Aristotelian categories to interpret them).

As the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, God is newly interacting all-inclusively, and thus directly, with everything from fundamental particles to galaxies, which of course includes you and me and others like us.

And this exceedingly highest level of inclusiveness entitles us to speak of God as the uniquely all-inclusive subject, not just another object.

And this also entitles us to regard our continual way of newly interacting with God as an exceedingly different sort of interpersonal dialogue, of which we can become more aware through prayer and contemplation.

This means that contemplative people over the centuries and across cultures who have reported experience of interpersonal-like communion with the divine were not always deluding themselves, although they usually did not express this in terms of process thinking, and delusions did of course happen. (For examples click here and here).

This also entitles us to speak of God’s all-inclusive way of newly interacting as providential, as long as we are clear about what this does and does not mean.

It does not mean controlling, enforcing some pre-established pattern, because ways of newly interacting are by definition beyond total control, even where one way is all-inclusively influential. Instead it means intimately influencing all ways of newly interacting toward increasingly inclusive ways.  Whether we call this a purpose or just a tendency depends on how comfortable we are with interpersonal-like analogies for our interactions with the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. Process theists call it a purpose, because they find interpersonal-like analogies indispensable.

For the same reason, providence does not mean preventing conflict and resultant suffering or denying their reality. Instead it means (again) influencing conflicting ways to move beyond conflict toward increasingly inclusive ways of newly interacting. This will continue to happen everywhere, even if our species manages to destroy itself (which is quite possible). There will still be countless ways of newly interacting drawn toward increasingly inclusive ways by the all-inclusive way.

This all-inclusive influence toward such increasingly inclusive ways is not only consistent with what we have come to know about natural selection but actually requires it—ways of newly interacting become recurrent to the extent that they support and are supported by more inclusive ways (like ecosystems).

So for process theists, embracing natural selection, like embracing other generalizations in the sciences, does not in any way conflict with experiencing a transformative, interpersonal-like communion with the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. And even when life’s occurrences devastate us, we can still awaken to this transformative, interpersonal-like, endless communion, and move on.

If you’re still wondering about this, try these practices here.

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*A technical aside: Some people object to starting with experience because, they point out, we can’t really isolate experiences from the languages we use to speak of them or even think about them. Point taken, but with others who grant this point, I’m not trying to isolate anything or place it beyond question, as I argued at length several decades ago, and I still see experience, however linguistically permeated, as a good place to start from and return to, again and again. In other words, I’m happy to grant that my experiences are already interpretations, but they are interpretations that form me anew, before, during and after any interpretations I intentionally devise, and I want all these interpretations to get along with one another. Maybe, as Jacques Derrida famously said, there is no world outside the text, or as Wilfred Sellars said, all awareness is a linguistic affair, but in either case there is still a textually involved world, or a linguistic affair, happening to us in ways that we cannot fully anticipate. I call this happening “experience.”

Self, Others and Our Continually Differing Inclusion: A Philosophically Contemplative Theism—Fr. Charles Allen

(This is a simplified version of process theism, but it's also a bit Tillichian, a bit Hegelian, a bit Patristic, a bit Radically Orthodox, a bit postmodern, all at once.)

I experience myself and others within our continually differing inclusion.*

This experience, I'm convinced, is inescapable and fundamental. To deny it is either inattentive or self-deceptive. Its inescapability is its evidence.

And the categories—self, others and our continually differing inclusion—are more basic than any other categories. Any worldview that neglects any or all of them is inadequate and anti-empirical.

Even physics, which requires physicists, must presuppose these categories. All physicists, whether they notice or not, experience themselves and others—including the smallest and largest "others" they study—within their continually differing inclusion. These categories are experienced as operative whenever the field of physics happens, or whenever any other scientific field happens. They're experientially inescapable. If you cringe at calling them metaphysical categories, try calling them "protophysical."

I never experience these categories—self, others and our continually differing inclusion—in exactly the same way. My experience of myself is never exactly the same, my experience of others is never exactly the same, and my experience of our inclusion is never exactly the same.

So while these categories continue in every moment, they continue differently in every moment. That they continue never changes; how they continue always changes. They are in a process of continual, mutual renewal.

This is a form of process thought, which dares to view everything, even the tiniest bits and largest masses of everything, in terms of the continually differing inclusion of continually differing selves and others, extrapolating from these categories' experienced inescapability.

The continually differing inclusion of continually differing selves and others is also experienced as boundless. With St. Paul, I would call this boundless, continually differing inclusion God.** All continually differing selves and others have traditionally been said to arise from God, through God and in God (Romans 11:36), their boundless, continually differing inclusion. According to the Nicene Creed, even God is, boundlessly, the continually differing self-inclusion of God's continually differing self-othering (God originating God, God inclusively differing from God, God differently including God).***

Our boundless, continually differing inclusion includes the personal and the impersonal, and thus cannot be reduced to either of these categories. (That, again, is what the Christian doctrine of the Trinity implies—God is not personal without being interpersonal.)

Faith is letting myself be drawn into this boundless, continually differing inclusion, trusting this as my and all others' ultimate good.

Unfaith, sin, is fleeing (self-deceptively and unsuccessfully) from this boundless, continually differing inclusion, fearing this as my ultimate bane, denying its undeniability.

Christian faith is letting myself be drawn into this boundless, continually differing inclusion, renewingly practiced in the Body of Christ, begun with Jesus of Nazareth, whose human, continually differing inclusion of continually differing selves and others still embraces and outlives all powers of destruction. 

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*"The primitive stage of [categorizing] … is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, "The Whole," "That Other," and "This-My-Self." ... This is primarily a dim division.… There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. ... There is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence... We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), p. 110.

**"[In our experience of God,] God can never be object without being at the same time subject. ... The same experience expressed in abstract language is the disappearance of the ordinary subject-object scheme in the experience of the ultimate, the unconditional. In the act of faith that which is the source of this act is present beyond the cleavage of subject and object. It is present as both and beyond both."—Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1957), pp. 12-13. "The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by [a] sense of deity... We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world."—Whitehead, p. 102

***"God is the mystery of a gift exchanged, and non-identically repeated. That is the mystery of the Trinity. God is not a being, but Being as such. But Being as such is word and gift as well as origin; it is community and not isolated individuality."—Catherine Pickstock, “Is Orthodoxy Radical?” http://www.affirmingcatholicism.org.uk

Interactive Nondualism: Process Thought's Reframing of the Physical/Mental Binary

[This was a sort of position paper drafted to assist a student interviewing me for his "Philosophy of Mind" course.] 

"What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature ... into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness."—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920) pp. 30-31. (online here)

"Beginning with a familiar Whiteheadian move, the rejection of the traditional 'bifurcation of nature' into a physical and a mental domain, the process approach operates like a gestalt switch, opening up new ways of looking at a wide variety of issues. Whiteheadians argue that the traditional mind-body problem dissolves if all basic constituents of reality are ... processes of information transfer that exhibit both ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ aspects in different accentuations according to context." (online here)

"I think that both mind and matter are merely convenient ways of grouping events."—Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (online here)

 

The whole of reality, including every part thereof, is newly interacting, newly influenced by others and newly influencing others, always and everywhere. This is my summation of process thought (more here).

In some configurations reality interacts newly in ways that have been called physical, and in other configurations it interacts newly in ways that have been called mental. (But with this outlook we might imagine a culture that never developed a "physical/mental" binary.)

So again, newly interacting remains the fundamental reality, not matter or mind—not even things or properties. Every experience, sufficiently noted, supports this.

In the context of philosophy of mind, I call this position "interactive nondualism." 

Interactive nondualism has some affinities with what has been called "neutral monism." But newly interacting is not a namelessly neutral "something-we-know-not-what." We do know what newly interacting is—we're doing it right now. Nor is newly interacting neutral "stuff," in fact not a substance at all. Substances and even properties are ways in which we abstractly identify somewhat recurring ways of newly interacting. And newly interacting has both unifying and pluralizing aspects, so it's not strictly monistic. It does undermine dualism, what Whitehead called "the bifurcation of nature," so we could call it a form of nondualism (to borrow a term from Hindu philosophy). But it's a qualified nondualism, interactively qualified. That's why I prefer the phrase, "interactive nondualism."

Here there is no "hard problem of consciousness." There is the much "softer" task of reasonably identifying various ways of newly interacting in physical terms, in some contexts, and in mental terms, in other contexts, whenever the physical/mental distinction seems useful.

In fact, I don't see any reason why the various ways of newly interacting would have to be sorted into only two subcategories like the physical and the mental. Maybe there can be as many subcategories as there are adverbs to modify "newly interacting." After all, categories and subcategories, like substances and properties, are ways in which we abstractly identify somewhat recurring ways of newly interacting. (This sounds close to what philosopher of science John Dupre calls "promiscuous realism." Dupre has more recently "come out" as a process thinker.) Some diehard physicalists will still see this as a disguised form of panpsychism or idealism. But they are assuming the exhaustive bifurcation that interactive nondualism denies.

I admit that I lean towards panpsychism myself (more here and here), but it does seem that all the arguments in favor of panpsychism work just as well for interactive nondualism. And interactive nondualism, like neutral monism, seems to arouse fewer alarms, so it's easier to defend. (Many process thinkers, notably Charles Hartshorne and David Ray Griffin, embrace panpsychism—or "panexperientialism"—wholeheartedly. Others, like Schubert Ogden and Franklin Gamwell, find panpsychism too anthropomorphic and embrace something closer to interactive nondualism.)

Addendum: Interactive Nondualism Compared with Functionalism, Nonreductive Physicalism, Emergentism, etc.

"Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part" (online here).

Interactive nondualism could easily be called a kind of functionalism, given the above definition, where "state" is shorthand for a way of newly interacting. Calling a way of newly interacting mental does indeed depend "on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part." But the way it functions would not be sharply contrasted with its "internal constitution," because the way it functions simply is its internal/external constitution, where the line between internal and external is fuzzy at best.

But note: interactive nondualism would also insist that what goes for "mental states" goes just as much for "physical states," with the same demurrals about terminology. "What makes something a [physical] state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part."

So we could say that interactive nondualism is functionalism radicalized to apply to matter as much as mind.

What about nonreductive physicalism? Interactive nondualism is definitely nonreductive: the novelty involved in any interaction cannot be reduced to what went before, nor to the somewhat recurring ways of newly interacting we may abstractly identify.

But since newly interacting is more concrete than any abstracted physical/mental distinction, it would be misleading, I think, to insist on calling this a form of physicalism, even a nonreductive form.

People could of course stretch the word "physical" to include all that newly interacting involves, but then they start to look like process theists stretching the word "divine" to mean the all-inclusivel way of newly interacting (see Hempel's Dilemma). It can be done, with reason, in either case. In fact stretching has been done repeatedly with words like "physical" and "divine." Just read the histories of either term. But when this happens, the relevant question is and has always been what might be gained by keeping and stretching a word, and what might be lost by dropping it altogether and trying something else. And while there may be all sorts of reasons for keeping and stretching a word, it becomes more difficult to object to others who wish to try out alternative terminology (more here).

Arguments for keeping or discarding words like "physical" and "mental" thus start to look like an interreligious dialogue. It's easy to support certain ways of speaking as legitimate, more difficult to insist that these are the only legitimate ways of speaking. With appropriate degrees of stretching, I can see good reasons for keeping words like "matter" and "mind" as all-embracing terms. I can also see good reasons for keeping words like "God," "Tao," "Brahman," "Sunyata" and "nature" as all-embracing terms. I can't see good reasons for insisting that any of these terms must the last word for everybody.

Maybe this could be called a form of emergentism, but in this case, if we use that term, it is not only what we have called mental properties that emerge: what we have called physical properties are likewise emergent. And in either case, their emergence is not the sudden appearance of something utterly different from what was already there, but an amplification of aspects that are always present in every way of newly interacting.

Q&A with with a physicalist philosopher:

PP: "Interacting in its ordinary meaning expresses a relation, typically between two or more objects or other kinds of entities -- people interact, particles and fields interact, etc.  You say "the whole of reality, including every part thereof is newly interacting, newly influenced by others and newly influencing others."  So what are the parts of reality that are newly interacting or influencing?  And can this view be meaningfully articulated without identifying the relata of the interactions?"

CA: Yes, we do have to identify “relata.” And I do implicitly identify them in my further discussion—as various "ways of newly interacting." Some of these ways are highly recurrent, others not so much. I use the vague phrase, “ways of newly interacting,” to speak of what have traditionally been called substances and properties. And I prefer vagueness here. Following Aristotle, in the right context I believe vagueness is a virtue, not a vice. In trying to be more precise, Whitehead and Hartshorne both seem to preserve a kind of dualism between actualities (or actual occasions) and their features or properties. I am questioning whether such a sharp distinction is necessary. It seems to me that it's not, but I could be wrong.

PP: "Your view, as best as I can understand it, sounds like panpsychism—perhaps a bit like Spinoza.  Neutral monism is—well neutral—but it's still not very process oriented, as I understand it (which may not be very well)."

CA: Well, maybe it's still panpsychism. I do lean that way, as I admitted already. But I do wonder if you're still assuming the "bifurcation" Whitehead (and I) question, assuming that, if it's pan-something but not "panphysicalism," it must be panpsychism. If I have to be labeled a panpsychist I suppose I can live with that. I do find Galen Strawson's arguments mostly persuasive, except for his insistence that panpsychism is the culmination of a consistent physicalism. Some versions of neutral monism, especially Spinoza’s, are not process oriented, but others are, especially Bertrand Russell's, who I think got his version from collaborating with Whitehead. Russell's version was in fact my first exposure to process thought as I was finishing his History of Western Philosophy as a college sophomore back in the summer of 1973: "What has been thought of as a particle will have to be thought of as a series of events. The series of events that replaces a particle has certain important physical properties, and therefore demands our attention; but it has no more substantiality than any other series of events that we might arbitrarily single out. Thus "matter" is not part of the ultimate material of the world, but merely a convenient way of collecting events into bundles ... I think that both mind and matter are merely convenient ways of grouping events. ... This doctrine effects a great simplification in our picture of the structure of the world."—Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (online here)

What’s the Evidence for Process Theism?

"Worship is a consciously unitary response to life. It lifts to the level of explicit awareness the integrity of an individual responding to reality.  … [In theistic worship] the conscious wholeness of the individual is correlative to an inclusive wholeness in the world of which the individual is aware, and this wholeness is deity.  … God is the wholeness of the world, correlative to the wholeness of every sound individual dealing with the world."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 5-6.

"The primitive stage of discrimination … is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a three-fold scheme, namely, 'The Whole,' 'That Other,' and 'This-My-Self.'"—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), p. 110.

 

A friend of mine read an online pamphlet on process theology by Marjorie Suchocki (here). As an atheist of the sort who demands empirical evidence for everything, all he could see in her account was a bunch of groundless assertions about God. In Suchocki’s defense, that was often because he did not notice the hypothetical context of many of her assertions. Her argument was basically that, if a process view of the world is true, then God, if there was a God, would have to be conceived in this way … She didn’t really try to address how we could determine if the process view is true or if God (or anything “God-like”) exists. So she can’t be said to have failed at something she didn’t even try to do.

Still, I agree that one ought to have shareable reasons (evidence) for any assertion. Suchocki’s assumption is that process thought in general, and process theism in particular, are both true to experience. And my friend was right to ask how somebody might go about showing that. So I tried to respond to his demands by taking each of the assertions he considered unsupported and showing how they might be supported by a process thinker.

The evidence for process theology depends on the evidence for process thought in general. (Some process thinkers don’t address the question of God, so process thought isn’t the same as process theology.) While process thought is often presumed to be wildly speculative, it actually claims to derive all of its categories from everyday experience. But instead of focusing on particular experiences, process thought focuses on describing what seem to be common aspects of experience, aspects of experience which, as best anybody can tell, are going to show up in any experience anybody can imagine.

Process thought of the sort I would bother to defend starts with this principle: 

To be is to be interactive.
Here “interactive” is defined as “jointly influential and influenced,” or, alternatively, as “somewhat recurrent and somewhat original”—making a difference in what may be a limitless network of relationships.
(Suchocki says, "To exist is to be in relation." I like that too, but I'm going with my formulation. They seem roughly equivalent.)

I think this principle is well-founded, in fact verifiable by every experience we have or could conceivably have. Show me a state of affairs that has not been influenced and is not in turn influential with its surroundings. Show me a state of affairs that is utterly lacking in originality (or novelty). Nobody has ever succeeded in showing me any counterexamples, and that is enough to justify adopting this as a fundamental working principle until I'm shown otherwise: to be is to be interactive.

None of the above depends on any particular discoveries in, say, the empirical sciences. Still, it can’t hurt to notice how through those sciences we’ve now learned that everything that seems noninteractive on one level has turned out to be very interactive on other levels. Rocks seem noninteractive, yet they’re full of microinteractions. And even on a macro level, there are electromagnetic and gravitational interactions happening between one rock and another. In other words, current empirical sciences now presume that the objects they study are themselves interactive even when none of us are around.

So once again, to be is to be interactive. I know of no counterexamples.

That's what has to be settled first. You may say it isn't, but let's pretend it is, as I believe it to be. Here then is how I would explain and support the following sentences that my friend found completely unsupported. They are of course just as debatable as the central principle of process thought is, but they are not simply pulled out of the air.

God exists. Where’s the evidence?
Hartshorne and Whitehead claim (see above) that any fully aware individual will also be aware of “the wholeness of the world.”
And if to be is to be interactive, “the wholeness of the world” is interactive too, in fact, wholly interactive as opposed to only partly interactive.
And my very awareness of it is an interaction with the wholly interactive.
So to say that God exists is to say that we and the wholeness of the world really do interact with one another, something we experience constantly if we are fully aware.
All of this is convergent with the arguably cross-cultural experience of the sacred, the more-elusive-than-everyday reality that ultimately enables and sustains our everyday existence.
Process thought simply supplies one rather promising vocabulary for speaking of this: what better candidate than the wholly interactive could there be for whatever ultimately enables and sustains our everyday existence?
This is not an inference to something absent, but an articulated awareness of something ever-present.
Again (since the point seems to be repeatedly missed): not an inference to the absent but an articulation of the present. It’s experience, not an attempt at an explanation.
So this is the claim: To interact knowingly enough with the particularly interactive is to interact somewhat knowingly with the wholly interactive. The wholly interactive is indirectly known whenever anything else is known.
Any sufficiently attentive person can notice this. And that supplies every reason to say that the wholly interactive, God, exists.

You could still insist that the wholly interactive isn't God. But that tells me more about what you want "God" to mean, not what it can legitimately mean in light of the term's long, varied history, even among Christians. You might need to do some homework before you assume this isn't God.

God is not independent of the Universe. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, then independence from some universe (i.e. other interactions) is already ruled out. That does not mean that God is a part of the universe: “interactive with” does not equal “part of.” If anything, the universe is part of God, as God is more inclusive, “the wholeness of the world.” This is not a further piece of information somebody needs to discover, but an implication of the central principle we are working with in process thought. Again, not an inference to the absent but an articulation of the present.

God can be experienced by humans. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, then it automatically follows that God interacts with the interactions we call my experience. As I’ve said, we are at least vaguely aware of the wholly interactive every time we are aware of anything particular.

God did not create the universe from nothing. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, and if to be wholly interactive requires other interactions, then that automatically rules out a state of affairs where there are no other interactions. Genesis 1, by the way, seems to be imagining God as prompting more formed interactions to emerge from a relatively formless ones, not from nothing. That adds no further support, of course, if you don't care what Genesis 1 says.

God directs/influences the ongoing processes of the universe. Where’s the evidence?
This is simply another way of saying that to be divine is to be wholly interactive. It also follows that the ongoing processes of the universe influence God. Most process thinkers would avoid saying that God “directs” anything. If somebody said that, they mean it in a very weak, non-controlling sense. If to be is to be interactive, nobody is in complete control of anything. Everybody and everything is influenced by others, and everybody and everything has influence on others.

God makes new realities out of past events by integrating them into the present to create the future. Where’s the evidence?
Every interaction does this. If it isn’t influenced by past influences, and if it does not contribute its own distinctive influence to future interactions, it’s not an interaction. If that’s true of every interaction, it’s true of the wholly interactive, i.e., God.

When humans die they continue to exist in the memory of God. Where’s the evidence?
When human interactions and all other interactions are past, they are ALL integrated into ongoing interactions by the wholly interactive (i.e., God). Again that follows automatically if God is the wholly interactive. That is actually a fuller version of what happens when I integrate my past interactions into my present ones. If my past self continues to exist in my present, that is even more the case when it exists in God’s present. Death may put a stop to my own relatively independent integration of the past, but the wholly interactive integration of my and everything else’s past (including my subjective past) will continue.

The redemptive activity of God consists in his willingness to accept past evil, transform it into good and continue to lure each individual toward a self-authenticating acceptance of true value. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, what else is there to do with past interactions, whether good or evil? To integrate past interactions with the present simply is to accept and transform them into present resources for ongoing interactions. Their value is determined by the roles they can play in ongoing interactions. Those roles are good to the extent that they contribute to the mutual flourishing of ongoing interactions, not good to the extent that they don't.

Summing up
So these statements about God all follow, at least arguably, from two basic assertions:
1. To be is to be interactive.
2. To be divine is to be wholly interactive.
And these assertions are said to be illustrated and thus confirmed in every experience, though easily missed by people who are not sufficiently aware of all they experience. They are not inferences to the absent but articulations of the present. The evidence for them is either everywhere, or else it’s nowhere.

Is there room for debate about this? I keep debating it with my more skeptical friends, so obviously there is. But it should at least be granted that none of the above sentences were simply pulled out of a vacuum. They are not the result of speculation or of wishful thinking. They are not at all like statements about Russell’s teapot (a teapot allegedly floating undetected somewhere in outer space), which nobody has ever even pretended to have experienced. Every one of them is said to flow out of the constant features of every experience of the here and now. To challenge this, all one need do is show one coherent, credible example of "to be" that is in no way interactive. Good luck with that.

Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

Fr. Charles Allen

The Bible is a collection of ancient writings written and read by people who, rightly or mistakenly, experienced life in terms of living together with God. Regardless of what you or I believe, or don't, we can begin to appreciate these ancient writings by asking and exploring the following questions:

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

2. What sort of God did they purportedly experience—distant, intimate, stern, loving, hateful, temperamental, empathic, limited, unlimited, etc.?

3. How did this address the "big questions"* we may still ask today?

4. How are the writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

5. How does understanding the writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

There are no wrong answers here. The point is a deeper understanding of your own life, in light of how others have understood theirs.

It's OK to start with any question.  

*Some Big Questions (feel free to add others): Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe? How can they really matter? How do we come to terms with death? Why are we outraged when we see injustice? How is it that reality (whatever that might be) produces beings that care and ask about what reality might be? Is this the final truth about us?—"'We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes'.  (The Selfish Gene, p. ix). ... That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth ..."—Richard Dawkins, (1981), "In Defense of Selfish Genes," Philosophy 56:573. Or is there more to our lives than blindly preserving selfish molecules? What would make life more than this?

An Example:

Genesis 12:1-3: Now YHWH said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

The writer and early readers of this passage consider themselves to be descendants of Abram (his name was later changed to Abraham).

They now live in "the land that I will show you," and they believe that coming to live in this land justified any violent conquests they may have undertaken. (!)

They have become a nation that still aspires to be a great nation.

They are not totally self-absorbed—they still hope that the greatness they aspire to will be a blessing for all humanity.

They believe this aspiration comes from no less than God, and that it began with Abram's journey away from his homeland.

2. What sort of God did they purportedly experience—distant, intimate, stern, loving, hateful, temperamental, empathic, limited, unlimited, etc.?

In this passage the writer and early readers purportedly experience what they call "God" in terms of one who summons them to greatness for everybody's benefit; they trust that this summoner can make that happen, at least eventually.

Their name for God is YHWH, a name that can be written down but not pronounced orally. They associated it with the sentence that can be translated, "I am" or "I'll be" (Hebrew: "Ehyeh," Exodus 3:14).

3. How did this address the "big questions" we may still ask today?

Many of us still can't help believing that somehow our being here matters, that it makes a difference, that the difference we make can be a good thing.

Many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, not just for ourselves but for others.

We wonder:

—Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe?

—How can they really matter?

—Is an aspiration to "greatness" worth the harm it can cause?

4. How are the writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

Like: Again, many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, a summons to make our lives worthwhile to us and to others.

Unlike: We know way more about how much bigger the world is than we are. This has made many wonder if our lives really matter at all.

Unlike: I am painfully aware of the countless atrocities that have resulted from people following what they took to be a summons to greatness.

Like/Unlike: My understanding of greatness has been re-shaped by the story of Jesus, who appears to win by losing. (Stories about Gautama or Lao Tzu have a similar impact, though they can't be substituted for one another.)

All said, many of us, myself included, still experience life as a summons to greatness of some sort, and many of us consider God to be the one who ultimately summons us.

5. How does understanding the writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

Abram's descendants include Jews, Muslims, Christians, and even the secular movements that grew out of these traditions.

So in a way I am still a character in this storyline.

Like the ancient writer and early readers, I still experience life as a summons to make my life worthwhile to me and to others, and I still trust the summoner to make this happen one way or another, at least eventually.

I know that people have viewed life this way since ancient times, and that this aspiration is responsible for what I consider to be both the highest achievements and greatest atrocities of human history. (Here's a conundrum: the most noteworthy protesters against the atrocities this summons can produce are also characters in this storyline. They aspire to greatness which is more consistently humane.)

I know that whatever I accomplish with my life will not make up for the worst that has been done as a result of this aspiration, but still the best I can do is keep working to make my life worthwhile to me and to others.

I am drawn to the way the story of Jesus turns this aspiration to greatness on its head.

How Can We Be Progressivly, Inclusively Biblical?

 Questions to ask yourself (no wrong answers):

Do you read the Bible?

If you do, do you get anything out of reading it?

If you get anything out of reading it, what do you get?

 

Some statements to chew on:

1. "We [GraceUnlimited] listen to the Bible, not as a magical answer book, but as a living Word awakening us to God's movement among us today. We also listen to what the best of current biblical scholarship can tell us about the Bible."

2. "Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in justice."—2 Timothy 3:16. (Note, when these words were written, Christians and Jews had not yet agreed on which writings were actually "God-breathed.")

3. "All Scripture sets forth Christ … What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod does it."—Martin Luther, "Preface to James and Jude"

4. "We must ... take great heede, lest in attributing to scripture more then it can have, the incredibillitie of that do cause even those thinges which indeed it hath most aboundantly to be lesse reverendly esteemed."—Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, 2.8.7

 

Digging deeper:

What if it turns out that the Bible was written by lots of biased people who don't always agree on who God is or what God wants? Would this mean that it can't also be "a living Word awakening us to God's movement among us today"? Would it mean that 2 Timothy 3:16 was simply false?

 GraceUnlimited, like the churches that sponsor us, wagers that it's OK if the Bible's writers turned out to have the same failings we have. It's still a living, useful Word (with a capital "W"). We can look past the writers' failings to learn from how they wrestled with the same God who moves among us today.

Have you ever experienced a moment when a passage from the Bible spoke to you in a new way? If so, what do you imagine was going on when that happened? If not, why not give it a try?

One assumption that Christians and Jews share is this: Recognizing God as God requires taking part in a story that's still unfolding. It has a beginning, and it has an envisioned ending, and we're helping to flesh out the way toward that ending, creatively. But to do that, we need to know how it began. The Bible provides that beginning.

 For GraceUnlimited, the Bible is not the last word, but it's an eye-opening first word, as long as we don't expect it to do what no ancient writing should be expected to do.

 

Some Suggestions:

 —Try following a daily lectionary: http://www.dailylectio.net

 —Check out these resources that follow the readings for the church calendar: http://www.textweek.com

 —Use the sort of study Bible that's used in introductory college-level courses in nonsectarian schools (like Butler, IU, Purdue)—The New Oxford Annotated Bible, or The Harper Collins Study Bible, or The New Interpreter's Study Bible. They represent what most biblical scholars are saying.

 —Avoid relying too much on books like the NIV Study Bible, the NIV Student Bible or the Life Application Bible—they go out of their way to misrepresent what most biblical scholars are saying (alternative facts).

 —Be careful reading translations by individuals—they almost always have a theological bias. That doesn't make them worthless, but you should be aware of a probable bias.

—Fr. Charles Allen  

Night Prayer

Night Prayer

Adapted from A New Zealand Prayer Book, He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (Auckland: William Collins Publishers Ltd., 1989), pp. 167-186. This is a Christian service of prayer, and we Christians will hear many of its expressions as pointing to God’s communion with us in Jesus of Nazareth: “Light of the world,” “Living Word,” “Beloved,” “Wisdom,” “Pain-Bearer.” In fact, for us the story of Jesus breathes new life into all of these expressions. We trust that this is a good thing, though we have too often used it to do harm. We also trust that it is a good thing when others join us in this service and hear these and other expressions in terms that make sense to them out of their own lives. Others may hear them as pointing simply to God, or hear them as pointing to a Mystery that even the word “God” cannot encompass. And why not? Again, it is an ancient Christian conviction (and not only Christian) that God comes to us on our own terms in order to stretch them and us beyond the limits of business as usual. So hear and speak these words in whatever way makes any sense to you, and expect to be stretched.—Fr. Charles

The people speak the words in boldface.

Approach

The messengers of God guard us through the night,
and quiet the powers of darkness.

The Spirit of God be our guide
to lead us to peace and to glory.

It is but lost labor that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

(silence)

Our help is in the name of the eternal God,
who is making the heavens and the earth.

God, thank you for all that is good, for our creation and our humanity, for the stewardship you have given us of this planet earth, for the gifts of life and of one another, for your love which is unbounded and eternal.

O most holy and beloved Companion, our guide upon the way, our bright evening star,

We repent the wrongs we have done:

(silence)

We have wounded your love.
O God, heal us.

We stumble in the darkness.
Light of the world transfigure us.

We forget that we are your home.
Spirit of God, dwell in us.

Eternal Spirit, living God, in whom we live and move and have our being, all that we are, have been, and may be is known to you, to the very secret of our hearts and all that rises to trouble us. Living flame, burn into us, cleansing wind, blow through us, fountain of water, well up within us, that we may love and praise in deed and in truth.

Invocation

Eternal Spirit, flow through our being and open our lips,
that our mouths may proclaim your praise.

Let us worship the God of love.
Alleluia, alleluia. (omitted during Lent)

Psalm: The following or some other psalm may be said

Psalm 134 Ecce nunc
1 Behold now, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, *you that stand by night in the house of the LORD.
2 Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the LORD; *the LORD who made heaven and earth bless you out of Zion.
The psalm concludes with:
Praise to the Eternal, the Living Word and the Giver of Life:
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

Reading: One of the following or some other reading may be used

Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and permeates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with Wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against Wisdom evil does not prevail. Wisdom of Solomon 7:24-30 

Thanks be to God.

Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your Name: Do not forsake us, O Lord our God. Jeremiah 14:9,22

Thanks be to God.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

Thanks be to God.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 1 John 4:18-20

Thanks be to God.

Hymn

Prayers

Into your hands, O God, I commend my spirit,
for you have redeemed me, O God of truth and love.
Keep me, O God, as the apple of an eye;
hide me under the shadow of your wings.

Preserve us, O God, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with your Beloved, and asleep may rest in your peace.

Song of Simeon

Praise be to God, I have lived to see this day. God’s promise is fulfilled, and my duty done. At last you have given me peace, for I have seen with my own eyes the salvation you have prepared for all nations - a light to the world in its darkness and the glory of your people Israel.

Praise to the Eternal, the Living Word and the Giver of Life:
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.

Preserve us, O God, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with your Beloved, and asleep may rest in your peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Wisdom, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Lord’s Prayer

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.

I will lie down in peace and take my rest,
for it is in God alone that I dwell unafraid.
Let us bless the Earth-maker, the Pain-bearer, the Life-giver,
let us praise and exalt God above all for ever.
May God’s name be praised beyond the furthest star,
glorified and exalted above all for ever.

Living Word, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be. The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you. The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace. The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities. In your name we pray. Amen

Blessing, light, and glory surround us and scatter the darkness of every long and lonely night. Amen

Holy Eternal Majesty, Holy Living Word, Holy Abiding Spirit bless us forever more. Amen

The divine Spirit dwells in us.
Thanks be to God.

The God We're NOT Debating: Confessions of a Different Kind of Theist

 

[This is excerpted from a Facebook discussion that happened in 2008. I've preserved the most insightful and challenging questions from several Butler and IUPUI students.]

I keep reading the “new atheists,” people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I continue to find that the God they don’t believe in is not the God that I believe in. They don’t like it when people like me say that. They continue to insist that people like me don’t really believe in God, that we’re using the word “God” to mean something else, something much less than God, like just an expression of awe and reverence toward a basically uncaring universe, or else a philosophical abstraction that appeals only to a select few.

Well, sorry, but I think the God I believe in is just as “God-like” as God could be. I believe in a God who encompasses and indwells all things, who cares deeply about you and me as you and me, who constantly calls us into love and still loves us in spite of our failure to respond wholeheartedly, and who saves us from futility and oblivion. God does all this for us because God does all this for every creature.

This is not a vindictive God, but this is most definitely a God whose unconditional love stands in opposition to our failures to love unconditionally. God won’t give up on us, but God will not stop insistently luring us away from our own self-centered ways. God is relentless about that, and we may not like it. God may be infinitely loving and relentlessly alluring, but that does not make God “nice” or “convenient.”

I do not know of a concept of God that could be more “religiously” satisfying than that. I’ve heard it preached for decades and have preached it myself, and people are definitely moved by it. It may not produce mega-churches, but it enlivens many faith communities. This is much more than a philosophical abstraction.

There may be all kinds of reasons for viewing God this way, but for me the main reason arises out of the Christian practice of seeing the shape of God’s very life enacted in the life, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth—a God who rules the world through enduring its worst and yet refusing to be driven away, returning again and again to embrace and indwell all things and to call them into love. This is a God whose perfected power may look weak, but only to those who define power as total control (as many Christians have done and still do). It culminates in the early Christian affirmation, “God is love, and those who dwell in love dwell in God, and God dwells in them” (1 John 4:16b). Furthermore, like love, this God is not simply personal but interpersonal, as ancient trinitarian creeds struggled to say (with mixed results).

Some would call my version of God “pan-en-theistic” (not “pantheistic”—God is not simply “all things” or “the all”; God is greater than all other things, yet indwells them all, just as they indwell God). There are all sorts of panentheists, some ancient, many contemporary, so I don’t mind the label, even when I’m not sure if any particular type fits me. Labels aside, this is clearly not the all-controlling, petulant, “invisible superman” of popular theism, nor is it the currently uninvolved clock-maker of deism, nor is it modern pantheism’s expression of awe and reverence for a universe that doesn’t look especially caring.

And there is one other thing it is not—it is not a watered-down concept of God. As best I can tell, it comes closer to Anselm’s “that than which no greater can be conceived” than any other concept I’ve explored. It preaches. (I’ve been preaching it, and hearing it preached, for over 30 years.) If we’re going to debate God’s existence, why can’t we debate the existence of this God? That hardly ever happens, and, frankly, I’m baffled.

What about “the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language,” that Richard Dawkins denies?

That God is a caricature of the God I believe in, who encompasses and indwells all things and draws them relentlessly into love. And that Bible is a caricature of the Bible I read and the critical methods I’ve been taught (by observant Christians!) to help me read it. But the God I believe in does seem to be what the writers of the Bible, the priests, mullahs and rabbis were trying to portray in ordinary language of their times and worldviews (which were at least as conflicted as ours). They were, I believe, speaking in grossly anthropomorphic terms about their own awareness of a presence too elusive to describe in everyday terms. Many of them did admit that the language they used was far from adequate.

They were convinced that what they did mattered, what happened to them mattered, that sometimes wonderfully good things happened, and that other times dreadfully bad things happened. And they related all of this to a universally responsive presence which, it at least seemed, was summoning them to speak and act.

They believed that this presence, God, cared for them constantly and responded to them constantly, refusing to let them create God in their own conflicted images. And yes, in working through all that, they often made God look like an immature, sometimes abusive, monarch or parent or spouse. It’s dangerous to quote them out of context, and disheartening that anybody would want to!

But that does not mean that they were not responding to something utterly real and active, nor does it mean that people who still talk that way today are not responding to something utterly real. It just means that people often do a disastrous job of articulating what’s really happening, though of course that’s my view, and evaluation, of why so many still prefer to talk of God in that way.

Is such a God credible in a world that depends heavily on the methods and theories of the natural sciences?

I believe so. In fact, this concept fits remarkably well with many views of the universe that have been inspired by a variety of current scientific theories. These views, like belief in God, go beyond what could be tested by experimental methods. They’re invitations to view all of reality, somewhat figuratively, in terms of some part of reality. As such, they can never be proved or disproved decisively, but there are still observations, experiences, facts, and accepted theories that can count for or against them.

For example, the natural sciences have, I think, made it more difficult, more of a “stretch,” to view the universe as simply a result of miniscule, inert particles bumping into each other like billiard balls. “Subatomic particles” are not particles, and they don’t interact like particles either.

They have also made it more difficult to view the universe as a machine that runs only in predetermined patterns like a clock. Machines, after all, are human artifacts. The universe is not.

True, the natural sciences have also made it increasingly difficult to imagine how there might be any disembodied “stuff” like minds or spirits or souls that could exist independently of bodies. But I don’t have a problem with that, since even the Bible never fully bought into that view of things. “Soul” may simply be a heuristic term for lives that are always embodied in some way or other.

In any case, for the time being, at least, the natural sciences have made it relatively easy to view the universe as a vast network of centers of activity which follow predictable patterns without being fully predetermined—from subatomic “particles” (again, they’re not really particles any more) to complex molecules to cells to organisms to animals to people to … well, who knows what else? Some of these centers of activity (like you and me) are more inclusive than others, and more responsive too.

If that view of the universe is credible, then it is no great stretch of the imagination to consider that there may well be a universally responsive presiding center of activity. Some have even argued that viewing the universe this way requires us to presume that such a center of activity exists. It’s a reasonable argument, but not an airtight one. Others have argued that presuming the existence of such a center of activity would make it easier to make sense of the fact that, despite there being so many other centers of activity, with all their unpredictability, we don’t have utter chaos. That too seems a reasonable argument, without being airtight.

Note: The existence of considerable chaos, conflict and unpredictability is only to be expected in a universe with innumerable centers of activity. It does not count against a universally responsive presiding center of activity. It would count against a universally controlling center of activity (which is one popular idea of God), but that is not what we are considering here. The famous “problem of evil” arises only for people who equate power with control, and thus greater power with greater control. But what if perfect power is not perfect control?

That’s a bit abstract. Is this still the God I believe in?

Maybe not yet. When I say God cares for me deeply, that’s saying a great deal more than “a universally responsive presiding center of activity responds to me.” But this is starting to sound a great deal like the God I believe in. It responds to and presides over me and all that I do as a lesser center of activity who also responds to and presides over still lesser centers of activity (like the cells that make up my body). That’s not the same as caring deeply about me or loving me or saving me from oblivion. BUT it’s consistent with all that.

And it’s more than just consistent. It provides a framework for me to take more seriously those moments in my life when I sense that I am never alone, that I am loved beyond the love of friends or family or self, that what happens to me, or to you, or even to an electron, matters immeasurably in the whole scheme of things, that there is an intimate presence in my life that I didn’t produce. I don’t have to rule these moments out in advance, as Freud or Dawkins might, as pitiable illusions. And it is because of moments like these (call them moments of revelation) that I can use more concrete imagery when talking about a universally responsive presiding center of activity.

It also helps me to take more seriously the conviction that I and many scientists and philosophers share that our efforts to understand the world and ourselves are more than just incidental byproducts of unthinking, self-replicating mechanisms (like Dawkins’s memes, maybe?). I don’t have to explain the quest for understanding away as a pitiable illusion either. (Freud and Dawkins don’t do that, but I’m not sure how they manage to avoid it.)

Frankly, I do not know of a more intellectually satisfying way to look at things than this one. The fact that it’s also emotionally, ethically and religiously satisfying is all the more reason to keep living by it.

But where’s the evidence?

I think I’ve already addressed that, but I know somebody is still going to say that my believing in this God is just as unwarranted as believing in flying saucers or the Loch Ness monster (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster). Why can’t we go out and observe God in God’s native habitat?

But God isn’t the sort of thing you can go out and observe. In fact, God isn’t the sort of thing you need to go out and observe. A universally responsive presiding center of activity would already be here, waiting, if you will, to be noticed. We’re already in God’s native habitat.

I do however say “noticed,” not “observed.” Strictly speaking, you just can’t observe something that is both all-encompassing and all-pervading. It’s both too vast and too intimate to be observed—both at once. To observe something, you have to get some distance from it. If God exists, we won’t be able to get that kind of distance. It’s like trying to observe myself. I can notice myself when I’m observing something else. I can be aware of myself, but strictly speaking, I can’t observe myself. The same applies to God, who, according to Augustine and many contemplative folk, is nearer to me than I am to myself.

Admittedly, God is not as noticeable as we are to ourselves, but that’s partly because, unlike you or me, God’s intimacy is as boundless as God’s vastness. And it’s already tricky enough just keeping track of ourselves! (Try doing it the next time you’re in a heated argument.) If we don’t notice God, that may simply be because we’re not paying enough attention to what’s happening around and in and through us. Or maybe we’ve already bought into a view of reality that encourages us to discount certain features of our experience—like people who can’t admit how much their feelings and concerns shape their thinking and observations.

I believe, in other words, that we can “find” God, not by going out and looking, but by paying more attention to what is already happening right here and at least considering whether there might be noticeable aspects of what’s happening that would be less puzzling if we saw them as responses to a universally responsive presiding center of activity. We begin to know God in the only way such a reality can be known—not by observation, not by logical inference, not by “blind faith,” but by reflective participation in an inescapable reality. And that knowledge is never more than a beginning.

In a way, asking “Does God exist” is like asking “Do subjects exist.” By “subjects” I mean whatever it is about you and me that makes us more than just objects. I mean whatever it is about you and me that makes it crucial to keep distinguishing between what we observe and who does the observing, even when we try to observe ourselves. I mean that “I” statements and “you” statements can never be replaced by “it” statements, not just because it would be inconvenient, but because we’d be missing something real (even if it is, as I suspect, inseparable from some sort of embodiment—a subject is not the same as a disembodied soul or spirit). If any part of what we observe exists, can observers be any less real, or any less crucial to giving a full account of reality?

If you ask me “Where’s the evidence for subjects?” I can’t point to observations or experiments. Deciding whether subjects exist is a matter of deciding how we are going to view the lives we are already living. We already have more “data” for this than we will ever be able to absorb. This is a question of how to view all of reality in a way that does not discount the reality and integrity of the viewer. We begin to know subjects by reflective participation in an inescapable reality.

Similarly, if you ask me about evidence for God, I can only point to the lives we are already living and how we view them. And all I can say is that a panentheistic view of our lives so far has allowed me to honor and integrate far more aspects of my life than any other view. That conclusion can be challenged very easily. Just try reading some current Buddhist philosophers. But the only pertinent challenges would be, like Buddhist philosophy, on the whole-scale terms of how we view the lives we are already living. It’s never a matter of isolated observations. It’s ongoing, reflective participation. And it’s always a beginning, not a final solution.

What do I want people to do with this?

Mainly this: if we’re going to debate God’s existence, could we at least debate the existence of this one? None of the “new atheists” I’ve read deal with this concept of God—nor do they deal with the kinds of reasons that would be relevant to deciding whether this sort of God really exists. There’s plenty of room for debate, if they would just make room for it. I suspect they avoid it because it’s easier to make other concepts of God look stupid or irrelevant.

I’m not looking for quick agreements here. Obviously, I would be delighted if people decided that they could fully embrace this kind of theism. When it comes to how we view our lives, and their contexts, in their full concreteness and entirety, who doesn’t want more company?

But this is such a self-involving subject that I don’t expect that much unanimity. So I think I would be just as delighted if people first saw this as an occasion to consider that there may be other, more inclusive ways to honor and integrate all the aspects of our lives as we take note of them. I mainly want people to be as honest as they can be about everything they are undergoing. I am more concerned about that than I am about the conclusions they are drawing at any point in their lives.

That’s partly because of what I already believe about God, of course. Without claiming infallible inspiration, I’m brash enough to say that God is likewise more concerned about our honesty and integrity than anything else, and that God is honored even when some of us still wonder if such a God exists. God wants us to grow into love, but we can’t do that without honesty and integrity. We would still be responding affirmatively to God’s promptings, even if we could not in good conscience say that we are.

So keep paying attention to every aspect of your life. Be as honest as you can about all of it. If God is there to be delighted, God will be delighted. And so will I.

—Fr. Charles Allen

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Responses

AH: I don't get it. Father Allen is an awesome guy, and I'll never say he's not an intelligent or thoughtful sort. I'm just not sure what he's bending himself over backwards and twisting himself into logical knots to accomplish. It seems like the answer to the question of, "If you're right and nobody believes in a God that we can pretty much prove doesn't exist, what now?" is to redefine his terms and start all over again. "Oh, well, that's not my God. My God doesn't do things or make claims that could be disproven by observing his/her/its hypothetical effect on material reality. My God just loves me." What does he do when you need more than love? Sometimes, in some places, some people need more than love. They need help. They need something or someone who loves them to be effectual about it. What then? I just don't get it. I keep coming back to this. I'd love to get back on board with this whole theism thing, but if these are the best arguments around... they're gonna have to do better than:

* changing the definition of God to one that is more insistently difficult to disprove, but also more completely empty of significance or distinctiveness

* claiming that science can't observe God, even as theists try to placate and convert skeptics, and even as theists leap on every scientific study that does feel supportive (see how excited people who don't believe science knows everything will get about studies about the "power of prayer")

I just don't get it. It's not that I have this huge disgust for theists and that I think they should all cut out of their lives something which is clearly still included for a reason. It's that I wish they would stop acting like that reason has anything to do with "proof" as the experimenting world understands it, you know?

Charles: I'm glad that you think I'm still undeniably awesome. I don't think my definition of God is very new or very original. I find plenty of precedents for it in the Bible and in many pre-modern writers. I think what passes for "theism" in popular terms also had ancient precedents (though it's mostly a 17th/18th Century invention). But I'm not just reinventing the idea: It's always had a complex and diverse history. I don't say that God doesn't do anything except love me. I believe that God constantly presents new opportunities for me and others to live into deeper community than we've realized up to now. I don't believe God ever controls the outcome, but that doesn't mean that God isn't doing something immensely needful. True, a lot of people would stop believing in God if they realized that God isn't going to do magic tricks for them, but if that's why they believe, I'd just as soon they stopped. I am, by the way, very skeptical about studies that claim to prove the efficacy of prayer. Even if they did prove that praying can affect certain outcomes, that could still be due to natural forces that don't fit any current theories. You may find this concept completely empty of significance or distinctiveness. I don't know how to respond to that, except to say that countless people from ancient times to the present have found it to be immeasurably important. Anyway, that's my two-cents worth. Your response may be a familiar one, but it's still thought-provoking, and I'm glad that you find the topic engaging enough to comment on.

AH: "I believe that God constantly presents new opportunities for me and others to live into deeper community than we've realized up to now." How? What activity is this that's happening, and how is it different from "interventionist" ideas of God? It's not that I find the idea of a "more loving than deism says but not actually active" God to be devoid of meaning or emotional importance to the people who include it in their lives. I just think that God lacks significance and distinctiveness, and here's why. If God doesn't do anything but feel affection from some removed or even immanent location, there's still not really any reason to let that affect decisions in the material. Functionally, he's not there except emotionally. I love the Iranian protesters and I care about what happens to them, but my approval doesn't and shouldn't affect their decisions. That's the significance. Distinctiveness comes in finding the character of God. If everything that makes the Judeo-Christian God who he is can be pared away to make him more defensible, then do those qualities really matter? Can the goalposts be shifted infinitely, or is there a line beyond which they can be shifted no further, some quality that must remain part of the definition?

Charles: The "interventionist" idea, as I understand it, is that God, who exists somewhere else, is only involved in the world sometimes, and usually to do a special favor for somebody. I'm working in colloquial terms from the process theism model, where God is always in interaction with everything else, not just sometimes, but all the time. In the process model, God is prompting the Iranians to to find more just and peaceable options for moving forward, and prompting us to find appropriate ways to get involved ourselves. That's much more than feeling affection from a distance. But it's not a magical solution that relieves people from taking responsibility for the impasses they've developed.

DB: It seems the position of the New Atheists is to target the most broadly shared conception a god - sort of the Old-Man-in-the-Sky version, the version which seems to cause the most havoc and discord in the modern world. However, when you get right down to it, most atheists are non-cognitivists with respect to the "form" of a god, that is, any defining characteristics. Dawkins said theology is not a proper subject, for this reason of slippery definitions. Now, I find process theology to be more aesthetically pleasing in general, but I see no reason to accept that conception either. If a god is in everything, then it is both 'love' as well as 'hate' and 'evil'. Politically, the teleology of the New Atheists movement might have its origins in opposing the rise of religious neo-conservatism. Many on the Left felt the country was hijacked for 8 years by religion. I don't like the fact that it has left so much polarization in its wake.

Charles: What Dawkins says of theology is what most natural scientists would say of philosophy in general. The definitions do often get slippery, and even analytic philosophers avoid this mostly by adopting conventions which cannot themselves be justified in analytic terms. Process theism does not say that God is neutrally "in" everything. It says that God is working noncoercively in everything, bringing about deeper degrees of community, encouraging love as opposed to hate. Whether anybody can justify saying anything like that about God is of course another matter, and it partly depends, not just on this or that argument or experience, but upon a whole framework in terms of which everyday experience is interpreted.

DB: Can you distinguish "neutral" from "noncoercive"? If it is noncoercive, how can it "encourage" or "oppose" anything? I'm just trying to understand here - you know I like to question things. How is this not a psychological projection onto the world, as opposed to a real qualia of the world itself? If only believers have access to this truth about a god, isn't this evidence for psychological projection?

Charles: "Neutral" means, in this context, having no influence whatsoever, and in the same context, noncoercive encouragement (or opposition) means having some influence, but without fully determining the outcome. One of the axioms of process thought, you may recall, is that no activity can be fully determined by anything else, not even God (if there be one). But all activities are influenced to varying degrees by others. Can you clarify what you mean by psychological projection? Process thinkers often like to say that the influence of one activity on another is "persuasive," rather than coercive, which does sound like psychological projection. But here persuasion is more of a metaphor for influencing a relatively original activity. Is that what you're getting at?

DB: Scientists, as people, have as much credibility as anyone else by dint of their shared humanity to answer metaphysical questions, which by definition means 'above nature". This pertains to things like our collective desires, ethics and our notion of the Good. The nonmaterial dimension of reality includes the world of ideas, which we all share as humans. I am unaware of any immaterial laws that might be manifest in our ethics, our notions of the Good which changes over time, or our desires which may depend on our culture. So, my answer is that basically, scientists are human too and religious people, who I respect, are equally qualified as anybody else to offer their ideas.

Charles: Well-stated, especially about how scientists as humans deserve as much voice as anybody (and more of a voice than some). I'm intrigued that you are content to say that the appropriate realm of study for science is "matter in motion." I've been toying with writing an essay entitled "The Matter Delusion," because what physicists study nowadays bears very little resemblance to those microscopic billiard balls of 17th century physics, when the phrase, "matter in motion," first came into vogue. So why do we still call it "matter"? Here's a quote from Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos": "Throughout this book we have periodically alluded to the ultramicroscopic constituents of spacetime, but ... we've yet to say anything about what these constituents might actually be. And for good reason. We really have no idea what they are." (pp. 485-486) But we have a very good idea what they are not. They are not the inert particles of Hobbesian materialism. That's why some philosophers have stopped defending materialism and have opted to call themselves "physicalists." But that only shifts the problem, because if you ask them what counts as physical their answers tend to boil down to "what physicists currently study.” And yet that unexamined phrase, "matter in motion," keeps cropping up as if we all know what it means.

DB: Yeah, "matter in motion" is antiquated, isn't it? Well...it's better than "science is what scientists do". Better yet: Science: the study of the natural world. Re: psychological projection. I suppose metaphysical intuition might be better: there is an effort to find a way to fit a noncontradictory definition of a god into the world without having any compelling reason for thinking that is the particular way it is. For example, how can you distinguish between a determined event and an influenced event? What I meant was that we can project an a priori idea on the world without any means of knowing if it is true or false. I suppose I'm looking for some way to falsify the idea in order to know that it can't be false. I am a failed theist: I want to be able to prove it true, but I have never found a cogent reason to believe it is so.

AH: "I am a failed theist: I want to be able to prove it true, but I have never found a cogent reason to believe it is so." Seconded, to all of that.

Charles: First of all, thanks for the first-rate questions from you "failed theists." As I said at the end of my essay, I'm not trying to convert you to anything except paying attention to our already-interpreted experience in all its dimensions. You're already doing that. And your questions ARE provocative for me, as they should be at this level of sweeping ideas. Second, I want to reiterate that we're not talking about specific pieces of "evidence" that would decisively settle our differences. The differences are really about entire worldviews—some in which something rather extraordinary figures prominently (God, the Tao, Sunyata), and others in which certain "ultramicroconstituents" (matter, strings, branes) do all the important work. There are theistic worldviews, nontheistic but religious worldviews (which affirm a sacred dimension but do not use personal analogies to speak of it), and naturalistic worldviews. None of these can be decided by a crucial experiment or bits of evidence (though all those items play a role). We're talking about the very framework with which we interpret the everyday world. I'm opting for a framework which isn't just about God. It's also about honoring our experience of freedom without explaining it away as an illusion. It's about honoring the seeming fact that what we count as "experience" seems to come to us in a variety of dimensions—in wholes and not just in parts. And it's about honoring our craving to ask the big, metaphysical questions even when they can't be asked or answered by a few observations or experiments. If we have differences over what freedom is, what experience is, and what metaphysics is (and whether any of these have any reality), then it follows almost automatically that we're not going to agree about what (or whether) God is. I want to remind everybody of one of my closing statements on "where's the evidence." I'm afraid that's all that can be said. It doesn't settle anything, but as far as my theology goes, we don't have to settle this. People worry about such differences more than God ever does. Here's what I said: "... if you ask me about evidence for God, I can only point to the lives we are already living and how we view them. And all I can say is that a panentheistic view of our lives so far has allowed me to honor and integrate far more aspects of my life than any other view. That conclusion can be challenged very easily. Just try reading some current Buddhist philosophers. But the only pertinent challenges would be, like Buddhist philosophy, on the whole-scale terms of how we view the lives we are already living. It’s never a matter of isolated observations. It’s ongoing, reflective participation. And it’s always a beginning, not a final solution."

Reframing Practically Everything: Process Thought, Nature & God—Fr. Charles Allen

A Personal Note: I began to explore process thought in college. Back then I had recently become a theologically conservative evangelical (though politically left wing). When it came to God, what mattered to me most was what I took to be my experience of an intimate, empathic, interpersonal-like relationship with God. I say “interpersonal-like” because I was already convinced that the God St. Paul identified as the beginning, way and end of all things (Romans 11:36) had to be immeasurably different from a person like you or me, though still more like a “you” than an “it.” The thing is, I just didn’t know how to square that relationship (real or imagined) with the concept of an all-controlling first cause. How do you have a real relationship with that first cause if your side of the relationship is totally controlled by it? That’s what “omnipotence” almost always amounts to—if it’s not total control, it’s not really omnipotence in the traditional sense, and theologians who try to resist this by insisting that God’s totally “bringing about” your responses is not the same as totally controlling them are, I think, playing very deceptive word games. They typically argue that God’s bringing about your responses is on a totally different level from the past events that caused them, like an author writing a character’s responses to events in a story—an ingenious distinction, but if that’s not totally controlling, what is? Nor could I see how anybody could call this first cause “good,” if it caused bad things to take place just as much as good things. Some say that God causes the good things but only permits the bad things. But if God is really all-controlling, like the author of a story, there’s no real difference between causing and permitting, as John Calvin recognized (Institutes 1.18.1). He was OK with that kind of God; I wasn’t. (I’ll say a bit more about traditional “omni” attributes below.) Those problems kept nagging me, and by my senior year I had become convinced that, either there was no God I could care about, or else God was more like the newly all-interactive but non-controlling God of process theism (which ironically I had learned about when my pastor warned me against it). So my first explorations of process thought began with trying to be more consistent about what I took to be an intimate, empathic, interpersonal-like relationship with God. Along the way process thought also seemed to promise ways to be more consistent about lots of other important matters besides God, matters like you and me and the varieties of order and novelty in the world we all share. And thinking in process terms seemed to make the reality of God experientially inescapable, at least for me and many others. So I continue to explore its implications, to the point of getting downright wonky, as you’ll see if you read further. Anyway, while I definitely have not been an evangelical since my twenties, thinking in process terms I still find that younger evangelical’s all-important, interpersonal-like relationship to have as much claim to reality as any other experience. (By the way, there is what I would say amounts to an evangelical version of process theism pioneered by Thomas Jay Oord—more here.)

A Note about Terminology: I’ve tried to employ a fairly simplified terminology often adapted from Charles Hartshorne’s work. Alfred North Whitehead is the most famous process thinker, but much of his terminology is downright bizarre to the point that you can’t easily see why he thought it had anything to do with how we experience our world (though he claimed that every term came from analyzing everyday experience). I’ve never had that much of a problem with Hartshorne’s terminology, though I’m not completely satisfied with his terms either. And I don’t feel like defending everything Hartshorne or Whitehead said, some of which would be met with utter incredulity at first glance. Also, process thought is a much broader movement than the works of either Whitehead or Hartshorne, as you can see from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article. So I’m not following anybody else’s terminology exactly, and even my own terminology shifts sometimes (compare here, here and here), as I keep looking for more direct ways to communicate a way of seeing things that, while odd at first, doesn’t have to be forbiddingly complicated. In process thought I don’t think we can experientially confirm any terminology more precise than what I am pointing to with the phrase, “ways of newly interacting.” The briefest possible moment, if there be such (I wonder), is a way of newly interacting. A succession of those moments could either be called a succession of ways of newly interacting, or it could just as easily be called another way of newly interacting in its own right. Enduring things and shareable properties are both somewhat repeatable ways of newly interacting. We simply cannot experience anything more fundamental than ways of newly interacting, or so I am convinced.

About Reframing: We don’t just experience reality, not without interpreting it, at least not by the time we can reflect on it. By then our experience is already framed in inherited patterns of thinking that emphasize absolute, fixed divisions over relational, flowing distinctions. To an extent those patterns work well, but only to an extent, and they also confuse and alienate us. Process thinkers are convinced that we are not stuck with these inherited patterns. We can reverse the emphasis and reframe the flow of experience in deeper, non-divisive ways that, over time, leave us less confused and alienated. Absolute, fixed divisions are seen to be partial outlines of relational, flowing distinctions, like depicting a whirlpool with a drawing of a spiral on a sheet of paper—it’s a true depiction as far as it goes, but it only goes so far. Experienced reality is always more fluid. This is a radical move, and at first it can seem disorienting and implausible. That’s why I’ve decided to start with an adaptation of a famous Zen Koan.

A "Process Zen Koan": Before learning process terms, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, you and I are you and I, and God is God; while first learning process terms, mountains are not mountains, rivers are not rivers, you and I are not you and I, and God is not God; after learning and living process terms, mountains are really mountains, rivers are really rivers, you and I are really you and I, and God is really God (compare here). Like Zen, process thought seems to take away everything familiar, but then it gives it all back on different terms.

Process Thought's Central Theme: To be real is to be a way of newly interacting—newly influenced by others and newly influencing others, exemplifying the "novel togetherness" that Alfred North Whitehead called "creativity" (Process and Reality [New York: Free Press, 1978 (1929)], p. 21). (Note: a) because novelty is everywhere, influence is always partial, never total; b) while everywhere, novelty remains immeasurably fluid, as it never repeats entirely.) While much of reality is more or less the same, nothing is ever exactly the same, not even God (if we wish to speak of God).

Where's the evidence? Your every experience supports this. “Novel togetherness” is experientially inescapable. There's always something new about the way others are influencing you, and there's always something new about the way you are influencing others—always. And there’s always something new about the overall situation you and those others are in, about how it’s being influenced by you and them and about the influence it’s having on you and them. Since we never experience an exception to this, process thinkers dare to argue that even to imagine an exception anywhere would be ungrounded speculation. This is also at least arguably consistent with everything else we know about reality through the natural sciences (more here, here and here). So the simplest presumption, based on our every experience, is that to be real anywhere is to be a way of newly interacting.

This naturally leads to a fuller statement: Like its parts, reality as a whole is a way of newly interacting, and not just one more way, but the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting. And this too can be supported experientially. As Whitehead noted, we don't just construct or infer the whole of reality from the parts—our every experience involves awareness of “the whole occurrence” of reality, “dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, 'The Whole,' 'That Other,' and 'This-My-Self.'"[1] Every experience involves differing ways of newly interacting, one way being uniquely all-inclusive.

Reframing How We Think of Nature: This thoroughly interactive understanding of reality accounts for what we call matter in some contexts and what we call mind in other contexts (more below), for what we call causation in some contexts and what we call freedom in other contexts (more below), even for what we call things/substances in some contexts and what we call properties in other contexts (things and properties are somewhat repeatable ways of newly interacting—"eddies in the constant flux of process"). This also accounts for the evolution of complexity through natural selection. Natural selection results directly from the self-selective, relationship involving the all-inclusive way of newly interacting with all less inclusive ways. There is no need for an external designer, nothing beyond this newly self-selective interactivity, since interactivity is, you could say, already beyond itself. There are no gaps either. But there is a version of what Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called the "beyond in the midst of our life" (more here). Bonhoeffer was speaking of God. But in process thought, with or without mentioning God, this ever-present "beyond" involves all that is concretely right here, right now, which is always immeasurably more than the abstract, semi-repeatable patterns popularly equated with nature. As Catherine Keller would say, nature itself is "apophatically entangled." Transcendence is everywhere, without exception, naturally.

Reframing How We Think of God: Again, reality constantly engages us as an ensemble of ways of newly interacting, one way being uniquely all-inclusive. This accounts for what is happening when past and present God-worshipers (like me) speak of their experienced, interpersonal-like relationship with God (more here, here, here and here). In prayer and contemplation they are at least dimly aware of themselves as less inclusive, newly interactive "parts" intimately interacting ("dialoguing") with the all-inclusive way of newly interacting.[2] They analogically attribute immeasurably greater versions of awareness, empathy, responsiveness, purposefulness, love, etc., to this all-inclusive way, because these are taken to be among the most inclusive ways of newly interacting on the worshipers' level. (I say “analogically” where others say “metaphorically” or “symbolically” because there’s no complete consensus on what the differences among these terms are supposed to be. As the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged in 1215CE, any analogy for God says more about what God isn’t like than what God is like, though the similarity, however different, is still experienced as somehow real. How is that different from a metaphor or symbol?)[3] The interaction is experienced as somehow "I/You-ish," not just "I/It-ish," as Martin Buber might say, and it is the interpersonal-like character of this interaction, more than any other characteristic (like alleged omnipotence), that makes using the term “God” eminently fitting. There is nothing unreasonable about this, not if to be real is to be a way of newly interacting. It would instead be unreasonable to object to this. But note: The God reportedly experienced by process theists has nothing to do with an uncaused, all-controlling being “outside” the universe. They regard the very idea of such a being as incoherent and thus not even an hypothesis we could consistently entertain, much lest test. In a way, then, they go further than Richard Dawkins’s claim that there “almost certainly” is no such being. [See Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).] If to be real is to be a way of newly interacting, then belief in such a being is not “almost certainly” false, but necessarily false. But so what? That alleged being is not the all-inclusive way of newly interacting that process theists claim to experience intimately in interpersonal-like terms.

Reframing How We think of "Proofs" for God: While not interested in familiar proofs for an uncaused, all-controlling being outside the universe, process theists have offered their own arguments for God's reality, including Hartshorne's reframed version of Anselm's ontological argument: when understood as the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, the reality of "that than which no greater can be conceived" cannot be coherently denied in practice, although “fools” (Anselm’s label) may incoherently deny this in theory (more here). But note that this "proof" is actually an experiential claim, as Hartshorne himself points out (here): "All those who accepted the ontological argument held that among the implications of the reasoning was the view that in thinking God we in a fashion also experience [God], so that the argument [is] ... experiential." This applies to any other arguments—theistic arguments work only to the extent that they help us articulate what we inescapably experience. As I say elsewhere, they're not inferences to something absent, like Russell's teapot, but articulations of the ever-present. Again, the central experiential claim of process theism is this: When we are aware enough to experience all things as differing ways of newly interacting, we also experience the all-inclusive way of newly interacting—God. And if we deny this, process theists claim, we're just not paying enough attention. Or maybe we're repressing the experience, just as many repress how nothing in experience ever remains exactly the same. There's always room for dispute about this, of course, because whether appealing  to arguments or to experience, one thing process theists can't do is say, with Aquinas, "and this all people call God." Not all people call this God. But a significant number do, with ample precedent from theistic traditions.

Reframing How We think of Pantheism & Its Alternatives: Pantheism "equates God directly with the whole of reality" [Richard Grigg, Beyond the God Delusion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 68]. In its own way, so does process theism—God is equated with the whole of reality understood as the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. With that understanding, you could say that, in a way, nature is God. Even Protestant Reformer John Calvin grudgingly recognized this, though not on process terms—“I admit, indeed that the expression ‘Nature is God’, may be piously used” (Institutes 1.5.5). Or you could say that, in another way, God is more than nature (that’s what Calvin recommended). It all depends on how inclusively, or not, we use "nature." In any case, process theists don't equate the whole of reality with the physically measurable universe (as Grigg does), and they don't like to be called pantheists. They prefer to be called neoclassical theists, dipolar theists or panentheists, insisting that, as ways of newly interacting, the whole (God) and the parts are creatively both in and beyond one another. Maybe that's quibbling. Charles Hartshorne did at first call his process theism “The New Pantheism,” before deciding the term was misleading (Christian Register 115 [1936]:119-120). The reason he changed his mind is that too many people equate pantheism with Spinoza's pantheism. For Spinoza the whole of reality is totally active, while its parts are totally passive, so nothing is newly interacting—when parts of reality appear to interact newly with one another, they are actually passively expressing the one and only activity of the whole of reality. Process thought and process theism reject this—both the parts of reality (all of them) and the whole of reality newly interact, and nothing is totally active or totally passive. The whole of reality influences the parts but does not control them, and the parts of reality influence but do not control the whole. This means, again, that we, as "parts," can have an intimate, dialogical, interpersonal-like relationship with the whole of reality, something Spinoza could never entertain with his commitment to monism and total determinism. Process theists would tend to agree, fairly or not, with Richard Dawkins (p. 40) in calling Spinoza's (and Einstein's) pantheism "sexed-up atheism." And they would probably say the same thing about Grigg's pantheism, which equates God, the whole of reality, with a "closed system of purely physical cause and effect" (p. 55). Process thinkers find no evidence for a totally closed system anywhere. There is ample evidence for partly closed systems (and to that extent they illustrate the laws of thermodynamics), but never for totally closed systems (and to that extent such laws don't apply). (The data pointing to "the Big Bang" do not prove that our universe is totally closed, because cosmologists continue to disagree over what the data mean—more here, pp. 144-147, 401-407). And process theists don't feel obliged to regard newly interactive systems of cause and effect as "purely physical," since the meaning of "physical" seems to change over time just as much as the meaning of "mental," "spiritual" or "divine" (more here and here).

Reframing How We Think of Evil: Again, process theists generally do not attribute omnipotence to God, the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, not even analogically, because omnipotence (unless drastically redefined) is not a version of being interactive on any level. God's “omni” power is newly “omni-interactive,” immeasurably greater than any others', but it's still newly interactive, not monopolizing. (Again, I’ll say a bit more about this below.) The interactive relationship involving the all-inclusive way with all others thus provides no guarantees against vast amounts and degrees of evil, that is, of conflict and suffering. Process theists don't ask, "Why is there so much conflict and suffering?" (they would be surprised if there weren't), nor do they see it as part of some pre-designed purpose. They instead respond to it empathically with the further purpose of denying it the last word, and so, analogically speaking, does God.[4] (More here)

Reframing How We Think of God’s “Omni” Attributes: God has traditionally been understood to be omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere) and omnibenevolent (all-“goodwilling”). (I’ll say more about some other traditional “absolute” attributes below.) It’s easy to see how the all-inclusive way of newly interacting exemplifies traditional attributes like omnipresence and omnibenevolence. But as I’ve said, most process theists, like me, avoid calling God omnipotent or omniscient. Still, people who are really in love with those two attributes could hold on to them by redefining them in terms of newly all-inclusive interactivity. [That’s basically what Keith Ward does, following Richard Swinburne, in God: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Oneworld, 2002), 221-228.] I tried out that strategy myself in a 1997 lecture (online here). So there’s a way to hold on to these attributes, defined in a certain technical way: Analogically speaking, God does all that one can conceivably do with all newly interactive others, and God knows all that one can conceivably know of all newly interactive others. But when all others are indeed newly interactive, there’s so much that one can’t unilaterally do with them and can’t totally foreknow of them that I find it too misleading to speak of omnipotence or omniscience here.

Reframing How We Think of Absolutes: As I’ve said, process thinkers reframe experience in ways that emphasize relational, flowing distinctions over absolute, fixed divisions. This need not imply relativism, however. In fact, many process thinkers insist that there are still statements, principles, etc., that are true always and everywhere, and if those aren’t absolutes I’m not sure what would be. The obvious example here, of course, is process thought’s starting point: To be real is to be a way of newly interacting. That’s supposed to be true always and everywhere. But it’s crucial to recognize that, even if we accept that it’s somehow abstractly true always and everywhere, it tells us very little about how it’s concretely true here and now. As I hinted earlier, absolutely stated truths, if indeed true, are abstract, partial outlines of the relational, flowing distinctions we concretely experience. That doesn’t make them untrue, just incomplete. (I sometimes suggest that we think of such abstractions as rubber bands. You can stretch and twist them to fit all kinds of shapes, and they do have some pull on whatever they fit, but there’s no way to predict how they’ll fit or how much pull they’ll have.) One perhaps surprising consequence is that this way of reframing how we think of absolutes allows many process theists, like Schubert Ogden, to retain a few more traditional attributes of of God like immutability and eternity (though again these are radically reframed): “There is a sense in which God may be appropriately characterized by the classical attributes. Since his sociality or relativity to others is itself relative to nothing, it is quite properly spoken of as absolute. God, one may say, is absolutely relative. Likewise, the one thing about God which is never-changing, and so in the strictest sense immutable, is that he never ceases to change in his real relations of love with his whole creation. Precisely as eminently temporal, God is also of necessity strictly eternal or everlasting. But, important as it is to acknowledge this continuity with the older theism, there is no mistaking the radical difference. Although all the classical attributes contain an element of truth, they are neither the whole truth about God’s nature nor the surest clue to discerning it. That clue, rather, is to be found in the ancient religious insight that the very principle of all being is love, in the sense of the mutual giving and receiving whereby each of us becomes himself only in genuine interdependence with his fellows. If to be even the least of things is somehow to be related to others and dependent on them, then the One ‘than whom none greater can be conceived’ can only be the supreme instance of such social relatedness, the One who as the unbounded love of others is the end no less than the beginning of all that either is or can ever be.” (This incidentally was written in 1966, when the use of male pronouns went mostly unquestioned. Ogden no longer writes that way.)

Reframing How We Think of Prayer: As the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, God is always newly interacting all-inclusively with all the efforts and aspirations of every newly interactive "part," including you and me. This means (again, analogically speaking) that God is constantly hearing and answering every conscious and unconscious prayer in ways that promote wholeness (increasingly inclusive ways of newly interacting) among all, what Christians have called God's kingdom or reign. But promoting wholeness is not guaranteeing it, because (again) God's power is newly interactive, not controlling. And unwholesome efforts and aspirations are never promoted, even though they are not preventable. For both these reasons, many prayers are not answered the way we might want. Why pray, then? Praying deepens and reinforces our constantly new interactions with God. It can open us to the wholeness God is newly promoting and transform our efforts and aspirations accordingly. It can itself contribute to the wholeness God is newly offering not just to us but to all others. (More here)

Reframing How You Think of Yourself: In process thought, what makes you uniquely yourself, distinguishable from all others, is actually a direct line of succession of momentary selves. (This sounds a lot like some schools of Buddhist thought—more here.) When you are aware of yourself, your self isn’t holding still. Instead, your present self is aware of its own immediately preceding self. It's a relationship with an other, but not just any other, because there's always a direct line of succession involved. Still, there's a kind of altruism intrinsically involved in simply being yourself. The novel union that your present self preserves with your past self involves both self-love and love of another—an "other you." And it opens you to loving others who do not directly share your line of succession when you recognize them as "other yous." Another twist: in process theism God, the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, directly shares your and all others' direct lines of self-succession in God's own direct line of self-succession, which further undoes any stark opposition between egoism and altruism. It also involves everyone in a kind of self-transcending immortality in God—your whole life up to death will abide in God's present just as directly as your whole life up to now abides in your present (as well as God’s). What ends at death is not your life in and with God but your life’s present ability to diverge from God’s. God’s endless life unifies and continues the differing projects of every ended life, which means that no life is ever totally ended. 

Reframing How We Think of Biblical Portrayals of God: The ancient testimonies of the Bible matter vitally to most process theists, especially in communities, like mine, whose God-talk is not only shaped but awakened by listening to them (more here and here). These testimonies are not considered infallible, but they're still considered crucial. Some passages in the Bible have been interpreted to say that God is all-controlling, but process theists argue that on the whole the all-newly-interacting, non-controlling God is a better match for the God referred to in the Bible and addressed in prayer. Starting with Genesis 1, the God portrayed in the Bible has been, and still is, persistently summoning the world from chaos into multiply creative community—over and over and over (more here). Defenders of the all-controlling idea of God, like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, etc., got around this by arguing that, even though the vast majority of biblical passages seem to make God look non-controlling, these should be taken more figuratively than the rarer passages that made God look all-controlling. Process theists turn the tables on that argument: if some biblical portrayals of God should be taken more figuratively than others, why not take the all-controlling-looking portrayals more figuratively?

Reframing How We Think of Jesus: For process theists, every person anywhere, indeed every moment, embodies ("incarnates") God, the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, in some way. Everything is some sort of "Word made flesh." So in process thought, to call Jesus "the Word made flesh" (John 1:14) is to identify something that he has in common with every other human being (and non-human being too). That alone does not make Jesus unique. But Christian process theists, like me, nevertheless discern something unsurpassably unique in Jesus, not in the fact that he somehow embodies God, but in the specific story of how he embodies God. For us the story of Jesus' life is best summarized in Philippians 2:5-11: Jesus lives an utterly self-giving (literally, "self-emptying") life whose embrace outlives and undoes utter rejection and devastation, and this gives rise to a community ("the body of Christ") animated by this utterly self-giving, all-embracing life, the life of God-with-us. Without putting down other religious figures or texts, Christian process theists want this unique storyline to keep reframing the very terms in which all of us think of ourselves, of God, and of everybody and everything else. (Incidentally, all of this can be squared with the underlying themes of the Nicene Creed, as I have explained more fully here.)

Reframing How We Think of Mind & Matter: One of the most astonishing tendencies among process thinkers is how nonchalantly most of them seem to embrace some form of panpsychism or panexperientialism—the claim that every interaction is mental, experiential, spiritual, subjective, etc. (more here and here). There are of course prominent figures in the natural sciences who embrace panpsychism (more here), but most prefer physicalism (or materialism)—the claim that every interaction is physical, material, etc. (more here). Now I'm rather fond of panpsychism myself, but I have to admit that I still cringe a bit when process thinkers write as if panpsychism were obviously more defensible than physicalism, or when they make God-talk dependent on first embracing panpsychism wholeheartedly. I think a better term for the process approach to the mind/matter binary is "interactive nondualism"—"mind" and "matter" are terms that can be used to emphasize different aspects involved in every novel interaction. "Mind" emphasizes the active, novel aspects, while "matter" emphasizes the passive, semi-repeatable aspects. I have quite a bit more to say about that here. The upshot is that in process terms you can call yourself at least one sort of panpsychist, but you don't have to. And you can also call yourself at least one sort of physicalist, but you don't have to. What you can't do is insist that your preferred label is the only reasonable one. 

Reframing How We Think of Freedom & Determinism: To reiterate, in process thought, things, properties and even the most universal of natural regularities are somewhat repeatable ways of newly interacting, "eddies in the constant flux of process." No matter how stable or fixed they look, they never fully describe the novelty involved in every concrete interaction. This radically reframes how we approach the usual debates about determinism and human freedom. Process thinkers don’t equate freedom (creativity) with sheer indeterminacy or unpredictability (how are you free if you have no idea what you’ll do next?). While there are always relatively indeterminate and unpredictable aspects, there are also determinate and predictable aspects involved in what Whitehead called “the production of novel togetherness” (see above), the newly influenced capacity to be newly influential. On these terms, we’re no longer asking how to fit creativity into an otherwise fixed system of causes and effects. Seemingly fixed systems of any sort are abstractions from unfixed “eddies in the constant flux of process.” They're not just constructions or projections, as some versions of postmodernism allege. They outline real influences, but they're still abstractions. No matter how widely they apply, they never exhaust all that is creatively happening, whether on a human level, a quantum level or any other level. Representing the Stanford School in philosophy of science, John Dupre (who seems only recently to have discovered his affinities with Whitehead) makes a similar case: "Few, if any, situations have a complete causal truth to be told about them. Causal regularity is a much rarer feature of the world than is generally supposed. And the real solution to the problem of freedom of the will ... is to recognize that humans, far from being putative exceptions to an otherwise seamless web of causal connection, are in fact dense concentrations of causal power in a world where [causal regularity] is in short supply. The solution to the problem of human autonomy that I propose, then, is a complete reversal of traditional ... approaches." (online here)

Reframing How We Think of Spacetime: If, as process thinkers insist, reality as such is newly interacting, this means that some sort of temporality is ultimately real. (You can't have novelty without some sort of temporality.) Many noteworthy physicists and cosmologists and writers in popular science disagree, claiming that our experience of temporality is an illusion, and process thinkers say they're wrong (more here). How dare they! But they do dare. This should come as no surprise. If seemingly static things and properties are reinterpreted as somewhat repeatable ways of newly interacting, why not do the same with the equally static “block universe” of popular cosmologists? Process thinkers argue that timeless, block-universe cosmologies result from unwittingly importing unexamined philosophical assumptions (Platonism, for example) into equations that actually allow multiple interpretations. And they find further support for this from other cosmologists like George Ellis, Tim Maudlin, Lee Smolin and Richard Muller. But basically their insistence comes from their commitment to a thoroughly experiential methodology: we should prefer cosmologies and worldviews that do not deny what seems experientially inescapable, and newly interacting seems as experientially inescapable as anything else. 

To sum up: Process thought basically does an end run around all sorts of traditional oppositons—unity vs. diversity, self vs. others, absoluteness vs. relativity, matter vs. mind, causality vs. freedom, things vs. properties, fact vs. value, immanence vs. transcendence, natural vs. supernatural, secular vs. sacred, nature vs. God, evil vs. providence, individuality vs. universality, etc. Distinctions remain, but these are no longer competitive alternatives, and that's a major part of its appeal. "To be real is to be a way of newly interacting" reframes practically everything. Try it.

Fr. Charles Allen 

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[1]"The immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence of nature. It is nature as an event present for sense-awareness, and essentially passing."—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, p. 14 (online here). Note: if the whole occurrence of nature is "essentially passing," that means it's also essentially arriving—passing and arriving are complementary ways of describing any occurrence. At this stage in his thinking, Whitehead had not yet realized that he was also talking about God. "The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged to details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted. The details are a reaction to the totality. ... They are interpretive and not originative. What is [experientially] original is the vague totality. ... The primitive stage of discrimination … is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, 'The Whole,' 'That Other,' and 'This-My-Self.' ... This is primarily a dim division. … There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. ... There is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence. ... We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), pp. 109-110 (online here). Although Whitehead occasionally speaks of "the totality," as the most prominent process thinker he clearly does not mean a fixed totality. "Any relation in which some more or less determinate reality is understood discriminates that object from the rest of the cosmos, contrasts just this part with every other actual and possible reality. Subjects of understanding are aware of reality as such; they are related, at least implicitly, to a representation of the all-inclusive context in which they are set."—Franklin I. Gamwell, Democracy on Purpose: Justice and the Reality of God (Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2002), p. 33.

[2]"The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by [the] sense of Deity ... We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), p. 102 (online here). "Worship is a consciously unitary response to life. It lifts to the level of explicit awareness the integrity of an individual responding to reality.  … [In worshipping God] the conscious wholeness of the individual is correlative to an inclusive wholeness in the world of which the individual is aware, and this wholeness is deity.  … God is the wholeness of the world, correlative to the wholeness of every sound individual dealing with the world."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 5-6, online here. "I hold that the primary use or function of 'God' is to refer to the objective ground in reality itself of our ineradicable confidence in the final worth of our existence. It lies in the nature of this basic confidence to affirm that the real whole of which we experience ourselves to be parts is such as to be worthy of, and thus to evoke, that very confidence."—Schubert M. Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977 [1966]), p. 37.

[3]Others would call this sort of attribution metaphorical or symbolic. All agree that language is being stretched immeasurably but nevertheless somehow fittingly. According to Aquinas, "a term is predicated analogically of creatures and of God when we know from creatures that it must be true of God too, but also know that how it is true of God must be beyond our comprehension."—Denys Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 211. In speaking analogically of God, "there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater."—Fourth Lateran Council of the Roman Catholic Church, Canon 2, 1215 CE). "Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap."—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, (New York: Free Press, 1978 [1929]), p. 4. "To assert truly, albeit symbolically, that God is boundless love ... we must be able to assert not only truly but also literally that ultimate reality is a distinct center of universal interaction that, being acted on by all things as well as acting on them, is their sole final end as well as their only primal source."—Schubert Ogden, The Point of Christology (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 145. Ogden provocatively dares to think he is speaking literally when he refers to ultimate reality as "a distinct center of universal interaction." That is certainly speaking less anthropomorphically, but others (including Whitehead!) would question whether this is or needs to be literal.

[4]"To the question, Why ... the partial disorder and evils in the world? [process theism] has essentially but one answer. It holds that it is not God alone who acts in the world; every individual acts. There is no single producer of the actual series of events; one producer, to be sure, is uniquely universal, unsurpassably influential. Nevertheless, what happens is in no case the product of his creative acts alone. Countless choices, including the universally influential choices, intersect to make a world, and how, concretely, they intersect is not chosen by anyone, nor could it be. A multiplicity of choosers means that what concretely happens is never simply chosen; rather, it just happens. Purpose, in multiple form, and chance are not mutually exclusive but complementary; neither makes sense alone ... Concrete evils and goods simply happen, they are never in their full particularity chosen. Hence to ask, Why did God choose to inflict this or that evil upon us? is to ask a pseudo-question."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 58-59, online here.

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 [An Optional Aside on Paul Tillich: Paul Tillich is also a panentheist who seems to understand God (being-itself) and all others interactively: “To call God transcendent … does not mean that one must establish a ‘super world’ of divine objects. It does mean that, within itself, the finite world points beyond itself. In other words, it is self transcendent ... The finitude of the finite points to the infinitude of the infinite. It goes beyond itself in order to return to itself in a new dimension”—Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 7-8. Process theists agree. Nevertheless, process theists generally disagree with Tillich on several points. 1) They don't think it limits God to say that God exists. They think Tillich is using "exists" in too restricted a sense. For Tillich, "existence" is a narrower category than "being" or "reality." But process thinkers, like most English speaking philosophers and the general public, use "existence" to cover whatever "being" or "reality" covers. They do agree with Tillich that God's way of existing is unsurpassably unique and immeasurably different from any other way of existing. God's way of existing is both necessary in some respects and contingent in others, while all others' ways of existing are simply contingent. But God's unsurpassable way of existing is still existing. 2) They don't think it limits God to call God a being or an individual. The all-inclusive way of newly interacting is the one and only concrete reality where individuality and universality coincide, where a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind, "the individual with strictly universal functions" (Hartshorne, p. 36). "Individuality and universality ordinarily are opposed ... What Tillich overlooks, however, is that this seemingly inevitable contrast between universality and individuality is one of the very rules to which God as worshipful or unsurpassable must be an exception. [God's] uniqueness must consist precisely in being both reality as such and an individual reality, insofar comparable to other individuals" (Hartshorne, pp. 34-35). 3) They don't think God is the answer to the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" They find the question itself too confused to need answering. For them "nothing" is not a conceivable alternative to "something," so there's no "rather than" to ponder. "Nothing," they claim, is a relative term that always presumes the existence of something else, as in "There's nothing in the fridge" (there's still the fridge, and there's still plenty in the fridge—shelves, air, electro-magnetic waves, etc.—just nothing edible). In fact many process thinkers (Hartshorne, Ogden, Gamwell) insist that "Something exists" is necessarily true, making "Nothing exists" necessarily false. For them the astonishment of existence is better expressed in Blaise Pascal's astonishment "at being here rather than there … now rather than then" (Pensees, 205).]

[Another Optional Aside on Gordon Kaufman: Gordon Kaufman has come to identify God “as the creativity manifest throughout the cosmos”—In the Beginning ... Creativity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 48. This certainly converges with many themes in process theism. But Kaufman does not identify God as the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. For him God is simply the novel interactivity (creativity) with which the imagined whole and all parts of reality are continually involved. We may be intimately interactive with local manifestations of creativity, which is itself fraught with mystery, but for Kaufman there is no reason to think that we or these local manifestations are intimately interactive with the all-inclusively newly interactive whole of reality. That is because for him, as best I can tell, the whole of reality may indeed be newly interactive to some extent, but not all-inclusively so, not directly interactive with every likewise interactive part no matter how minuscule, as process theists maintain. So Kaufman thinks that “it would certainly be a mistake to argue that cosmic creativity always manifests love for all the creatures involved” (p. 63). Process theists, however, see no mistake here, because love simply is among the best human approximations of the all-inclusively newly interactive wholeness that distinguishes God from everything else. Yes, this is speaking analogically or metaphorically or symbolically (take your pick), but for process theists the similarity is real, experientially real, no matter how great the dissimilarity. Kaufman’s reluctance here may also stem from his take on religious experience in general: “I seem to be ‘tone deaf’ with respect to so-called religious experience. When others speak of their ‘experience of God’ or of ‘God’s presence’, or the profound experience of ‘the holy’ or of ‘sacredness’, I simply do not know what they are talking about” (pp. 109-110). Process theists do not consider themselves tone deaf to these experiences. Doubtless one reason Kaufman finds himself tone deaf to such experiences that he seems to equate experience with direct perception of an object (see An Essay on Theological Method, Third Edition [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995], p. 29). Anything else is an imaginative construct added to our perceptions of objects, maybe unavoidably added, but never experienced as intimately as objects are. But for process thinkers, as we’ve seen, objects are themselves abstractions from an intimate awareness of “the whole occurrence” of reality, and that whole occurrence is not added—it’s experienced as inescapably as any object. To most process thinkers, Kaufman has managed to reframe many things in light of the creativity he has found here and there, but he has stopped short of reframing practically everything.]

[Another Optional Aside on John Caputo: John Caputo’s Derridian deconstruction may not be for everyone, but I find his writing delightfully seductive. And I find it largely congruent with process thought. Pragmatist Richard Rorty concurs (about deconstruction and process thought), and he’s worth quoting: “Philosophers as diverse as William James and Friedrich Nietzsche, Donald Davidson and Jacques Derrida, Hilary Putnam and Bruno Latour, John Dewey and Michel Foucault, are antidualists ... They are trying to shake off the influences of the peculiarly metaphysical dualisms which the Western philosophical tradition inherited from the Greeks: those between essence and accident, substance and property, and appearance and reality. They are trying to replace the world pictures constructed with the aid of these Greek oppositions with a picture of a flux of continually changing relations. One effect of this panrelationalism is that it lets us put aside the distinction between subject and object, between the elements in human knowledge contributed by the mind and those contributed by the world. ... Various labels and slogans are associated with this ... movement in various Western traditions. Among them are pragmatism, existentialism, deconstructionism, holism, process philosophy, poststructuralism, postmodernism, Wittgensteinianism, antirealism, and hermeneutics. Perhaps for merely patriotic reasons, my own preferred term is pragmatism. ... It is useful to think of [the] Whiteheadian criticism of Aristotle (a criticism found in other early twentieth-century philosophers—e.g., Peirce and Russell—who tried to formulate a non subject-predicate logic) as paralleling Derrida's criticism of logocentrism. Derrida's picture of a word as a node in an infinitely flexible web of relationships with other words is obviously reminiscent of Whitehead's account, in Process and Reality, of every actual occasion as constituted by relations to all other actual occasions. My hunch is that the twentieth century will be seen by historians of philosophy as the period in which a kind of neo-Leibnizian panrelationalism was developed in various different idioms” (Rorty, pp.47-48, 69-70, emphasis added). Back to Caputo, it’s also well documented that he and process theologian Catherine Keller seem to belong to a mutual appreciation society: “What [Catherine Keller and I] mean by this word metaphysics is ‘a series of metaphors mutely appealing for an intuitive leap,’ as Whitehead says, a work of creative imagination construing our place in the world and the world’s place in us ... We might describe our common ground here ... [as] a kind of metaphysics without Metaphysics.” (Online here.) But despite this momentary concession, most of the time Caputo would rather not be linked to anything smacking of panentheism or process metaphysics or any other sort of metaphysics or ontology. Still, much of what he says sounds like the sort of “panrelational” reframing I am commending with this version of process thought (which I am still willing to call a sort of metaphysics/ontology, although it’s every bit as “weak” as Caputo’s version of “God, perhaps”). Here’s Caputo: “We must let God, the name (of) ‘God,’ weaken into the name of an event, of an unconditional call, into the folly of a call to lead an unconditional life. It is God, the name of the still soft voice of an insistent call, that has need of the kingdom, of those who would make the kingdom come true in word and deed ... The kingdom of God is something that circulates within ... quasi-systems of forces, under its own inner impulses, pulsing with the pulse of the event, not being ruled from on high. We in turn must make ourselves worthy of the event that happens to us in and under this name ... The call calls. The call calls for a response, which may or may not transpire ... The call is not a Mighty Spirit, but a soft aspiration, the soft sighs of a perhaps. The call is not a mighty being but a might-be. The call is not the ground of being, or the being of beings, but a may-being.”—John Caputo, The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2016), pp. 127-128, emphasis added. I love this. But I don’t see how this is not (for me, at least) another captivating way of speaking of countless ways of newly interacting with the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. My project of reframing practically everything in process terms is likewise meant to open us to “the event that happens to us in and under this name,” whether that name be God, God’s reign, nature, the ground of being, the being of beings, may-being, the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, or whatever. What matters is opening to that event in and under whatever terms we wind up using. I don’t think we have to choose here between Caputo’s poststructuralism and this version of process mindfulness.]

Disarming Suspicions of Evolution: One Student's Story

This was originally an introductory statement for a panel discussion at the 2012 International Conference of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching

Fr. Charles Allen

This is one story of how a student's suspicions of evolution were eventually disarmed. It's not every student's story, certainly not the story of every fundamentalist or conservative evangelical student. But maybe that's the point. Behind a student's suspicions may lie a story that isn't easily categorized.

I grew up in a household of educators who, like the 60% of science educators, were a bit conflicted about evolution. They didn't have a problem with it personally, but they didn't rise to its defense. That would be rude.

They were actually Southern Baptists, but they didn't believe that the Bible was a flawless answer book. Dad was a professor of educational administration at a state university, and Mom was an elementary school teacher. They took us to church and Sunday school fairly regularly, but they also bought my brother and me a whole library of books on natural history. We had Jewish and Muslim and secular friends too and didn't think they needed converting. Our pastor was tolerant of people like us, and so was our church. It was a FIRST Baptist Church in a southern college town, and those are never typical.

So before I could even read, I accepted a watered-down story of evolution along with watered-down Bible stories, and as I grew older I harmonized everything by assuming that the really established facts were in my science books. The Bible, I assumed, had a lot of facts in it too, but they weren't always clearly or accurately reported. One of my Sunday school teachers was a biology professor, and he would have agreed. My heroes included Jesus, Socrates, Galileo, Moses, Darwin, Muhammad, Einstein, Gautama, Mr. Wizard, Billy Graham and John Scopes. I didn't realize that it might be tricky to admire all these people at once.

But while I was in high school that all changed. Our church called a younger pastor who was finishing his doctorate. He was a scientific creationist who assumed that practically everybody needed converting, not just Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or, of course, atheists, but even most so-called Christians. There were very few real Christians. I considered leaving that church for, maybe, the Unitarians, but he had an engaging way with young people and a library full of books that challenged most of my bland, if tolerant, assumptions. So instead I became a conservative evangelical, suspicious of most scholarship and especially evolutionary science, worried that many churchgoing friends and even my own family were not real Christians.

Now, obviously, that phase didn't last, as you can tell from my collar alone. Episcopal priests led the list of people who might not be real Christians. They couldn't even decide if they were Protestants! I try to imagine what would happen if that young, intolerant evangelical and this current edition of me could actually meet. I suspect it would be traumatic for the evangelical I once was.

But fortunately, my "evolution" out of that intolerant phase was not traumatic. Oddly enough, my creationist pastor played a bigger role than he realized in slowly undermining the worldview he wanted me to promote. He kept encouraging me to investigate things for myself. He made it clear, of course, that he expected me to wind up thinking pretty much the way he did. So I kept investigating things and instead came to realize that I couldn't possibly think as he did.

Even when I gave most of my attention to writers he endorsed, I kept running into problems. They made claims about the Bible that even the Bible didn't seem to make. They insisted that there was no room for disagreement on how to read the Bible, yet they often disagreed with one another. They claimed that reading the Bible would answer all questions, while I found it raising more questions than answers.

By the time these problems came to a head, my creationist pastor had moved on. Our new pastor, to my relief, saw the early parts of Genesis as origin myths, stories telling us that, for all its shortcomings, this world is exactly where we and God belong. He also encouraged me to do my own thinking but didn't expect or even want me to wind up thinking exactly as he did. So I returned to my more tolerant upbringing, though with a far greater sense of how complicated things could be. And I finished college convinced that my theology would be enhanced and challenged to grow if I didn't try to second-guess the peer-reviewed work of other fields, including, of course, biology.

I haven't changed that much since then. I wouldn't even have been too surprised to learn that I had become an Episcopal priest, as I had already grown to love their liturgy. It was a trauma-free transition.

So ... what can we learn from this?

First: students who question or challenge the teaching of evolution may sometimes be on their own peculiar path of critical inquiry. I questioned evolution precisely because I had grown up taking it for granted. I hadn't realized that there were any living science Ph.D.s anywhere who would try to argue that Genesis could be a factual account. There was something exciting and intellectually stimulating about identifying with what I took to be a cognitive minority who, they claimed, were being silenced. It took a while to realize that most of them would have gladly silenced everybody else, given the opportunity. The people who helped me most during that phase were those who encouraged me to keep questioning consistently. I learned that I, at least, was not being silenced by some grand secular humanist conspiracy, but only challenged by friends and faculty who had to be honest about what they did and did not find convincing.

Second: I was not helped by people who spoke of scientific method as if it were a magic spell that could lift us above our own humanity. I was helped by philosophers of science who spoke of the natural sciences in more humanistic terms. Science is not a matter of automatically scrapping a theory the first time something doesn't go as predicted. It's more like what we do with all our promising ideas: we follow where they lead; we may modify them when they take us somewhere unexpected; we may eventually drop them for a different idea when they seem to have grown too cumbersome, but hardly ever without some controversy among our peers. There's nothing wrong with admitting all this. Natural selection, I had to admit, is one of those promising ideas. It's been challenged and modified countless times without getting too cumbersome. Its relevance for understanding all sorts of topics has actually grown. It would be a disaster to stop following where it leads just because of a few isolated puzzles. And it would be a needless distraction to devote valuable time to theories that claim to solve a few of its puzzles by invoking one of the biggest puzzles ever imagined, that is, some sort of superperson working behind the scenes. That's not an explanation, it's changing the subject. And it's not even good theology. (Trust me.)

Finally: I'm saddened by the culture wars that can make biology teachers think twice about teaching evolution. I suspect that an aggravating factor has been the desire for a simple checklist of steps that could settle all our questions. Some people claim to find that checklist in a sacred book; others claim to find it in the book of nature. I suggest instead that only simple questions can be answered by simple checklists, and that we need to wean people away from the temptation to turn every question into a simple one. That's not what people want to hear, especially school boards and anxious parents, and especially in this economy. But that only shows how deep-seated the problem is. It won't go away if we ignore it.

Genesis 1: An Ongoing Dialogue

The writers of the early church knew Genesis 1 couldn't be a literal description.

St. Augustine: "No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. For St. Paul says: 'Now all these things that happened ... were symbolic.' ... What meaning other than allegorical have the words: 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth?'" (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.1-1.2)

Ironically, nowadays, when people loudly insist on reading Genesis 1 literally, they don't really read it literally!

Genesis 1 literally sketches an ancient worldview that looks bizzarre today.

It describes the earth as a lumpy land mass, supported by pillars, surrounded by vast, chaotic waters on all sides, including a huge body of water over our heads that's kept from drowning us by a transparent dome ("firmament"), studded with stars, sun and moon, with "windows" in it that can be opened to let some of the water in as rain.

If you wanted to insist that Genesis is literally true, you'd have to go way further than the Creation Museum. You'd have to defend the idea that we all live under this giant, transparent dome! You'd have to take the blue of the sky as evidence of that huge body of water over our heads! (Scroll down for some images.)

Good luck with that.

It's healthier to follow the example of the early church and read Genesis 1 figuratively.

In other words, Genesis 1 uses the terms of an ancient worldview to say symbolically that from the very beginning, without literally having vocal chords, God was in some sort of communication with a vast, dark, shapeless, fluid mess, summoning it to become a luminous, shapely, creative community. God "spoke" to the chaos creatively, the chaos responded creatively, and that's how we got this intricately interwoven community we call the world, with all its appealing and devastating surprises.

Like those ancient storytellers, we say that's what happened way back then, because we see a version of it it happening now. We keep seeing luminous, shapely, creative community emerging from the vast, dark, shapeless, fluid messiness of everyday life.

It's like an ongoing dialogue.

Nobody controls it—it's not a dialogue if it's controlled—and yet it seems to be going somewhere, no matter how many twists and turns it takes.

It's one of the most basic storylines underlying the entire Bible. We hear it every Sunday in our Eucharistic prayer: God's constant communication summons the world from chaos into community. ("Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being.") The world turns chaotic again. ("But we rebelled against you and wandered far away.") And again God summons the world from chaos into community, over and over. ("And yet as a mother cares for her children you would not forget us. Time and again you called us to live in the fullness of your love.")

For us who gather in Christ's name this storyline is lived as God draws us into the surprisingly renewed and renewing life of an executed criminal, Jesus, who through broken bread and fluid wine still summons us from chaos into the community known as the Body of Christ; the meal itself is both a realization and a summons to community through brokenness and fluidity.

This is God's very being for us: the relentless, self-sacrificing summons from chaos into community.

That's the ongoing dialogue we celebrate every Sunday. It's a concentrated form of the dialogue happening everywhere. It's not a literal dialogue. (Remember St. Augustine?) But calling it a dialogue deepens our awareness, opens us us to the utter mystery of what happens around, in and through us to make us ... us.

Darwin called this dialogue "natural selection." He wasn't wrong. The very nature of things displays a mutually selective process, often devastating, yet issuing in unpredictable forms of community.

But some of us, with these ancient storytellers, call this process, inherent in the very nature of things, a sort of dialogue, and I don't think we're wrong either. We just see things in more expansive and engaging terms.

In Genesis 1 God says this dialogue is not only natural but good. Yes, it can be devastating beyond words, but the dialogue is going somewhere, somewhere good, no matter how many twists and turns it takes.

Let's celebrate that.

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Jesus As an Historical Figure

 

As a Christian my faith is in the ever-present God who lives as Jesus is said to have lived—meeting our conflicts and rejection with an embrace that even death cannot dispel. Why I would believe in such a God I've addressed elsewhere, to my satisfaction if not to everybody's. I keep finding such a God to be inescapably present in ways that provoke immeasurable wonder and joy, and that suffices.

My faith is not in conclusions historians draw about Jesus, or in my opinions about their conclusions. It's in what I take to be the unconditional, "Jesus-like" embrace of the God with whom and in whom I live now. And it's in Jesus not simply as he was but as I experience him now—as God's living, "humanized" presence.

Faith is awakening to what I take to be happening now. It’s not the same as opinions about what happened centuries ago. Still, I do have opinions about Jesus as a past figure for historians to investigate, and they matter:

a) I think he was a real person who provoked all sorts of creatively shaped stories about him.

b) I think he spoke and acted in disconcerting ways that reflected his vision of the subversive nearness of God's reign—already dawning in his words and actions, but soon to arrive universally.

c) I think he was executed because his words and actions seemed politically disruptive.

d) I think that his first followers discovered that even execution couldn't keep him from animating their life in God in new and startling ways, and that some believed they had actually seen and heard him in ways they found difficult to describe.

I think all these things about Jesus and his first followers. I think they're probably true, historically speaking. And it matters to me. I'm not sure exactly why it matters, or how much it matters, but it matters. If my opinions about Jesus changed, I don't know how that might change my faith in the God I take to be present now—maybe not that much, but I really don't know, since that's not where I am right now.

In any case, my opinions matter to me, and I feel obliged to defend them, just as I would feel obliged to defend any opinions that matter. It's not that I couldn't possibly be wrong, but when I think I'm at least approximately right I should be clear about that and, just as importantly, about why I think so.

My more skeptical friends like to ask me why I would even think any of this about Jesus. The only evidence for his existence seems to be material written about him decades after his alleged crucifixion. He’s first mentioned by Paul, who didn’t know Jesus before his execution, though he did claim to know Jesus’ brother James as well as Peter. Stories in the Gospels were written even later and show obvious signs of embellishment. People outside the movement, like Josephus or Pliny or Tacitus, are only reporting what members of the movement told them decades later. There's just not a lot of documentation. And any new information might radically alter our assumptions about what really happened.

That's all true. But like Bart Ehrman (a secular historian of early Christianity) I think the evidence we have is more than enough to support what I currently think happened. Let me illustrate:

Pretend you're an anthropologist. Imagine that you find a new tribe, a completely oral culture, and the tribal leader tells you this story:

"When my great-great-grandfather was young he and his friends followed a man they called Peacemaker, who told us to stop going to war. He worked many wonders to show us that the gods endorsed what he taught. But the chief accused him of disloyalty and executed him. Peacemaker could have called upon the power of the gods to kill the chief, or he could have turned into an eagle and flown away, but instead he let himself be killed to teach us not to go to war. My great-great-grandfather and his friends were shunned and called fools, and so they left that tribe and came here to found a new tribe that did not want war. When we get angry, we remember Peacemaker and do not strike others."

You hear that story repeated with varying details by other members of the community. This is all the evidence you have about a figure called Peacemaker. But it's enough to draw several conclusions.

First, you would probably discount stories about the wonders Peacemaker supposedly worked or could have worked. Stories like that frequently crop up. They indicate the powerful impact a charismatic figure had. He surely had a powerful impact, but turning into an eagle was not an option. You would also probably wonder when he got his current name. (Did his birth name influence his devotion to peacemaking, or did he acquire the name because of his devotion?) And you might wonder if there are some unflattering details about his life and motives that have been omitted from the "official" account.

But it wouldn't occur to you to doubt that somebody now called Peacemaker really lived some time ago, that he tried to stop his people from going to war, that he attracted a following and provoked opposition, that he was executed, and that his followers were shunned and ridiculed. All you have is the testimony of people who were born after he and his first followers died. You don't have documentation from any other source. But you have every reason to believe that this much of their founding narrative really happened.

Why? Because a) with varying details, these are the overall contours of the story that would not be forgotten, b) they help explain why these people now live by a rather peculiar and potentially costly ethic, and perhaps most importantly, c) they are parts of the story that would not be invented. None of them are flattering to the people telling the story. Why would a people invent details that make them and their founder look weak and inconsequential to others? It's not utterly impossible that they would do that, but it's inexplicable, and thus highly unlikely.

Historians call this last reason the "criterion of embarrassment."  This is one of the principle criteria that New Testament scholars use to reconstruct early Christianity. It's not the only criterion, but it helps anchor the others. It doesn't "prove" that certain events really happened, because there aren't any such proofs among historians, but it introduces a presumption. Stories unflattering to oneself or one’s cause usually have some basis in memory.

The earliest reports we have about Jesus (via Paul) come from people who seem to be worshipping him. They tell us that this "life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:5) was also an executed criminal. It's hard to imagine that they would be mistaken about that rather glaring fact, or that they would make it up. Why would anybody start to worship an executed criminal? You could argue easily that they've deluded themselves into thinking that he's still around for them to worship, but you'd have a hard time convincing anybody that they would delude themselves about his legal execution. That's too embarrassing to invent, and too glaring not to remember.

Likewise, the Gospels' stories about his message and actions help explain why he got executed. Some found him politically disruptive. And these accounts are also at least slightly embarrassing. Jesus preached that something universally stupendous was about to happen. What did happen was an execution followed by alleged appearances that any skeptic could dismiss. You could argue (as I would) that this unlikely movement itself was something with universal implications, but it didn't work out the way people were expecting. Jesus' followers did see continuity between Jesus' message and their later experience of his living presence, but they didn't cover up some real, somewhat embarrassing tensions. 

So I think that Jesus really lived and preached the subversive present/future nearness of God's reign, that this got him executed, and that his followers had to reinterpret his original message in light of what they took to be his subsequent, life-giving presence. My reasons for thinking that are, again: a) with varying details, these are the overall contours of the story that would not be forgotten, b) they help explain why these people now live by a very peculiar worldview (quite puzzling to their contemporaries), and perhaps most importantly, c) they are parts of the story that would not be invented.

That's where I am now. 

—Fr. Charles Allen  

How I Experience the God of Jesus Christ—Fr. Charles Allen

St. Paul was the earliest New Testament writer. He and his early followers identified the God of Jesus Christ as the all-inclusive reality, influencing everything that happens all-inclusively, pivotally embodying this all-inclusive influence through the humanly all-inclusive life of Jesus Christ.*

This too is how I identify the God of Jesus Christ, and how I experience God. (As a “process theist,” however, I regard God as both all-inclusively newly influencing and all-inclusively newly influenced.)

Indeed, in order to experience God, it's important to think of God the way that St. Paul and his early followers did.

When I am most deeply aware of myself and my surroundings, I am aware of the all-inclusive influence of all-inclusive reality. People may be aware of this without calling this God. But this is how St. Paul and his early followers thought of God.

When I am open to this influence (that's faith), I experience it as grace and love.

When I am closed or resistant to it, I experience it as judgment.

When I participate in the continuing story of Jesus' overcoming death-dealing hatred through unquenchable and all-reconciling love, my opening to this influence is renewed, deepened and strengthened.

Nothing I have learned about myself and my surroundings through the natural sciences threatens my opening to this all-inclusive influence of all-inclusive reality.

Nothing I have learned about how the continuing story of Jesus may first have been told and retold threatens its power to renew, deepen and strengthen my opening to this influence when I participate in this story.

When others call this opening unreasonable or downright stupid, I smile.

When others say that I have reinvented my concept of the God to suit my 21st-century sensibilities, I point to St. Paul and his early followers, and smile again.

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*"For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Corinthians 8:6). "From God, through God, and in God are all things" (Romans 11:36). "God is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6). "In God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). "In Jesus Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Colossians 1:19-20).