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.

 

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*"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.