God-Talk in an Uncontainable World

Why do people engage in God-talk, in talking about God and to God? There are lots of bad reasons for this that can make people easy to ridicule: "The tornado missed my trailer—too bad about yours." "I prayed and got better—maybe your prayers weren't as sincere." But other reasons are more intriguing.

The main reason I keep engaging in God-talk is that, fundamentally, I have been trusting a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence all my life, sometimes in opposition to what others have expected of me, sometimes challenging even my own most settled values, often despite how my and others' lives seemed to be going. It's not the result of mindless indoctrination. Trust in this sense of uncontainable meaning and presence is the faith that moves everything I do. I'm not interested in any lesser brand of faith.

That does lead me, provisionally and carefully, to trust what certain noteworthy others say about God, in canonized sacred writings and later reflections, so far as their God-talk seems to flow out of their sense of uncontainable meaning and presence. Indeed, the fact that the God-talk of certain others (not all of them) reflects that sense is the main reason why I call it God-talk, alongside meaning-talk and presence-talk.

That sense also leads me to trust some emotional responses, though again provisionally and carefully. Strong emotions can sometimes be appropriate responses to a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence, though they can also be no more than irrational reactions. One of those strong emotions is compassion, which, far from being irrational, is a fundamental motive for rationality. We care about truth and honesty because we care about others. While stories of compassion persisting in the face of suffering prove nothing about compassion's ultimate source, they can still evoke a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence.

That accounts for most of my God-talk these days. The sacramental, Eucharistic worship of my Anglo-Catholic/Episcopalian tradition is among the most intense settings I have found for awakening and energizing a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence. Praying, reciting, scripture reading, singing, chanting, looking, smelling incense, moving, tasting, eating, touching—all conspire here to point beyond themselves to the uncontainable meaning of ever-present power perfected in apparent weakness and brokenness. I provisionally trust others' ingenious combination of these elements, not because they are beyond question, but because they awaken me to what I can't seem to escape, uncontainable meaning and presence. I use, explore and critique cruciform, Trinitarian God-talk for the same reasons. I can't seem to escape being some sort of Christian, nor would I wish otherwise. It's why I eventually realized a vocation to the priesthood.

Now of course all of that could simply be about me and my subjective experience, or my faith community's common subjective experiences. For the past 200 years some very devout and admirable people have been content to say that this is all their God-talk entails—it's about how we feel, not about what's real. But I'm not satisfied with that. For me, to say that all this simply subjective experience would seem to deny that the meaning and presence I seem to sense are uncontainable. Their seeming uncontainability is what draws me to these experiences so deeply. To call them simply subjective would make them easily containable, and I wouldn't take them as seriously any more.

To trust these experiences as clues to something more than me, I need at least some inkling of how quarks, galaxies, people, suffering, compassion, and this uncontainable meaning and presence might all credibly work together. There are numerous, reasonable attempts at this, indeed a whole publishing industry, on religion in a culture after Darwin. Like many of these writers, I have found process thought and process theism to be especially promising, not least because it does not try to explain suffering as part of some horrendous divine plan. Here's a simplified version:

An Uncontainable World: Process Thought and Process Theism

"We seek the general notions which apply to nature, namely, to what we are aware of in perception ... For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyse how these various elements of nature are connected ... What we [seek] is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known." “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, 28-29, 14 (online here.)

Contemporary process thought originally set out to be a way of framing a unified concept of nature that does not undermine the only way we arrive at such a concept—through our experience of nature. Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, William James and C. S. Peirce shared that concern. Even the anti-theist Bertrand Russell seems to have been a sympathizer here. Some process thinkers (e.g., James, Peirce, Whitehead, but not Dewey or Russell) concluded that this could lead to reframing the concept of God in a way that does not need to make God, or peoples' alleged experience of God, look unlikely either. We'll come back to that.

Process thought uses lived experience to challenge the largely unquestioned assumption that constant-things-plus-constant-properties are all that can exist. (This really is almost a dogma beyond question in most Western thought.) Instead, process thought views all things and persons and even properties as uncontainably flowing patterns in the uncontainable flow of reality as such. That's true of quarks, galaxies, experiences, selves and whatever else there is, without exception. Why? Because it's true to what is most constant in experience, namely, that constancy itself is experienced as an abstraction from experience's constant flow. Every experience flows faster than we can track; what we can track, what shows up as more or less constant, are somewhat recurrent patterns (which are not holding completely still either). That applies to what I just said. "Every experience flows faster than we can track" is a somewhat recurrent pattern that never holds completely still, constantly true, but never true in exactly the same way.

Maybe you've never noticed this. Much of our everyday language downplays it, partly because it's unsettling. We're more comfortable with constant-things-plus-constant-properties. Many sciences ignore this, because they tend to limit themselves to what can be tracked—recurrent patterns abstracted from this uncontainable flow. But once you start to notice reality's uncontainable flow, it becomes undeniable. We experience this before we even think about employing the humanly established methods of science or even logic, or the everyday categories of changeless properties attached in some inexplicable way to changeless things. Every experience, every thing or property experienced, flows faster than we can track. It can take a lifetime to appreciate the implications of this, and much of my spirituality is devoted to that. (Buddhists, by the way, have for centuries formed their own spirituality around insights like these. But process thought is mostly a Western movement more open to theistic interpretations than much of Buddhism cares to be.)

When all things and persons are seen as flowing, uncontainable patterns in the uncontainable flow of reality as such, it's easy to see how empathic, intimate relationships with the ultimately real (and with everything else along the way) are available to each of us. We're all flowing uncontainably in the uncontainable flow of the ultimately real, reality as such. This makes oral cultures' tendency to personify the forces in their surroundings look more insightful than moderns have tended to assume, because we all share so much liveliness in common even in our differences. The differences are as real and as great as we need them to be, but still somewhat relative. What we call lifeless or lively, impersonal, personal or interpersonal, becomes partly a matter of convention, of how we choose to see others—as competitors only, or as potential neighbors of endless variety.

When we make the eminently reasonable choice to see everything we experience in process terms, seeing varieties of liveliness everywhere, it makes good sense to interact with reality as such, the ultimately real, in lively terms—not only in impersonal terms but also in personal and interpersonal terms, provided that we pay due attention to the major differences involved. And that is where God-talk arises—where it seems to have arisen historically and where it seems to arise and get renewed today.

We can trace, for example, how the writers of the Bible, in a more animistic and anthropomorphic milieu, moved from thinking of God crudely as one of several temperamental, superhuman agencies in the world to thinking of God more contemplatively as the uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things (Romans 11:36—cited by almost every major Christian writer afterwards) drawing meaning out of shattered dreams. The second half of Isaiah is one of the earliest texts to recognize this, and to recognize further that no terms could be applied to God literally. Instead the impersonal, personal and interpersonal terms used for lesser things had to be stretched and understood figuratively—metaphorically or analogically. By the time of Jesus and Rabbi Hillel and Philo, you could figuratively call God a rock, a fortress, a fire, a shepherd, a parent, a lover, or eventually even love itself (an interpersonal analogy) or reason itself (logos), as long as you remembered that you were evoking the majorly different beginning, way and end of all things, reality as such, the ultimately real. But these figurative expressions weren't considered false. They really pointed, however inadequately, to the uncontainable liveliness of all things, and to the uncontainable liveliness of the beginning, way and end of all things, God. Or so many influential people of faith presumed.

There's a major implication here that has only recently been recognized with any consistency. If all things flow uncontainably, not just the beginning, way and end of all things, then there's no place for an all-controlling power. The uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things does not, and by definition cannot, contain the uncontainable, lively flow of anything else. So process theists avoid using words like "omnipotence," when they speak of God. They view God, the uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things, as uncontainably powerful, but that's not controllingly powerful. The process world is an unforeseeably creative world. Unforeseeable things, including unforeseeable conflicts and disasters, happen when all things flow uncontainably. Even uncontainable awareness cannot foresee them. They can be drawn into closer cooperation afterwards, but they are not preventable by any conceivable power, not even the uncontainably greatest power. With this recognition there's no need to explain away disasters—they're an inevitable byproduct of a multiply creative world, not part of any horrendous plan. I view that as a major selling point. But others see it as paying too high a price.

There are, in fact, both theists and atheists who insist that only an all-controlling being can be called God, and they will predictably object to the process theists' version of God. But process theists reply that, to them (and to me), all-encompassing, all-attracting, non-controlling, uncontainable power is the only power worthy of worship and imitation in an uncontainably lively world. And they point out that this is the power embodied in the canonical stories of Jesus of Nazareth. There, "power is made perfect in weakness," in self-giving compassion, according to St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9; Philippians 2:5-11). Other theists, and their nontheistic critics, have trouble making room for such a statement, or the story behind it, because they start with the concept of an all-controlling God. Process theism starts with power made perfect in (apparent) weakness. All-encompassing, all-attracting, non-controlling, uncontainable power can look weak to the impatient, but it will always outlast and refashion whatever harm occurs.

Process thought insists, credibly, I maintain, that nothing we have discovered since ancient times counts against this ancient insight into the uncontainable liveliness of all things, and of the beginning, way and end of all things, God. This uncontainable liveliness can make room for any number of containable, mechanistic models popular in today's sciences. As models (which are always somewhat figurative abstractions), they, too, really point, however inadequately, to the innumerable variety of recurrent patterns in the uncontainable liveliness that produces and adapts them. We are talking about something real when we speak somewhat mechanistically of fundamental particles, and we are talking about something equally real when we speak somewhat animistically of fundamental, lively moments of uncontainable flowing. There's no inherent conflict in speaking both ways, as long as we notice how we are stretching ordinary words to point to the extraordinary—reality as such flowing uncontainably.