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 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



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?'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."