At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
– T.S. Eliot
The Need for (Re)Visioning Divinity
Notions of divinity and God have always been in flux. God as creator, God as ground of being, God as source of life, God as person, God as force or power, God as omniscient, God as limited in some manner – the language is always lofty, as it should be when trying to describe ultimate reality, yet it should surprise no one that such language is also ambiguous, and sometimes even vacuous.
Also, many of the claims that we make about God – as healer, benevolent influence, bestower of blessings, source of all goodness, kindness, and love – don’t always align with our experience of reality. Any honest person understands the disconnect between the all powerful, all loving God of goodness, and children dying of cancer, tornados wiping out homes and lives, genocide, famine, even the simple setbacks in life and the inevitable decay of ageing and the loss in death.
Further, the need for God has shifted. Science has improved and advanced to narrow or even eliminate many of gaps where we once filled with God. People recognize that prayer might seem appropriate, but it has little influence on whether the chemotherapy will work, whether a loved one gets that job, the weather improves, or our children flourishing as we’d hope. Intercessory prayer may satisfy some deep seated human need, but its results and efficacy are vague and sporadic at best.
Most people misunderstand Nietzsche’s prophetic and savey proclamation that “God is dead.” This shocking announcement was not the heralding of atheism, it was the recognition that the West had killed off and moved beyond many of its ideas about God and that, for all intents and purposes, the God of the common culture, was in fact, now dead.
Theodicy, science, globalism, technology, modern medicine, new philosophies – our modern and even postmodern reality – require of us a revisioning of our philosophy and theology of the divine.
The New Atheists, and some of the old ones too, have put forward cogent and convincing arguments that pick up where Nietzsche left off. They have, rather successfully, summarized and shown the futility and even absurdity of certain ideas about God. But rather than kill and bury God, they’ve merely killed and buried certain ideas about God, most of them related to Evangelical and popular culture notions of a personal God who closely resembles Santa Claus.
For religious people who are theists, for those who find some value in maintaining a God-concept, the challenge is to reconcile their thinking about God with an accurate and true understanding of the world and to demonstrate the usefulness of holding onto to such notions at all.
Discussing various understandings of the Divinity is one thing. To make these notions of God meaningful today, is quite another. To render the concept of God tenable requires a theological reformulation making such concepts intellectually acceptable to contemporary people. This is not a watering down of religion or a relativizing of it – rather, it is a desperately needed repositioning of key aspects of theology according to the best of philosophy, science, and human knowledge.
The above task cannot be fully undertaken without consideration of the work of the New Atheists – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, among others. The work of these thinkers have successfully challenged much of the faulty thinking and fantasy spirituality that exists concerning God today.
Sadly, and almost humorously, many defenders of the Divine-Status-Quo scoff at these thinkers without having read them and when they engage their ideas, do so with incomplete and unsophisticated arguments from Aquinas or Anselm or some other thinker they barely understand and have likely also never read.
The New Atheists are right in much of what they say. But they are also quite limited in their analysis. Once one gets past the Biblical literalism and fundamentalism of the New Atheists, (their assumption that all or most Christians are fundamentalists and literalist is annoying, at best), the thrust of their work takes a two pronged approach.
First, the authors argue that the concept of God is unnecessary (some argue the concept is also meaningless.) God is not needed in today’s theories of evolution, emergence, and so on. In The God Delusion, Dawkins contends that complex, improbable design in the universe arises from simple origins and principles. According to Dawkins, there is no need for God as part of the explanation.
Second, they argue against God in terms of theodicy – the conflict that arises between assertions of an all powerful God of love, on the one hand, and the superfluous suffering of humans, (children in particular), as well as the randomness of much disease and natural disasters. If God is all powerful and all loving, then either God can do nothing to stop suffering, or cares not to. God is either impotent or evil. Suffering is visceral, God is not.
Five hundred million people died of smallpox in the 20th Century, many of them infants. God’s ways are, indeed, inscrutable.
– Sam Harris, Atheist Manifesto
A leading defender of classical theism, as well as critic of the New Atheists, is Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart argues that the New Atheists make many valid points, but that the bulk of their work is spent debating nonexistent persons, strawman arguments, and limited forms of Christianity and religion.
The New Atheists largely start with the assumption that the fullness of Christianity equates to the American Fundamentalist-Evangelical view of the tradition – biblical literalism, outright rejection of science, fundamentalist dogmatism, magical thinking, circular reasoning, anti-intellectualism, and so on.
For example, Sam Harris’ work, Letter to a Christian Nation is a well done polemic that rightly criticizes many aspects of today’s superficial pop-spirituality and it subsequent magical thinking. However, Harris seems to overlook the work of the Patristics, centuries worth of diverse Christian philosophy, and any nuanced theology today, much of which agrees with Harris on many points.
The New Atheists are largely correct. Certain notions of God must be reformed, if not outright rejected. The tendency in today’s pop-spirituality is to treat God much like one treats Santa Claus. The implied spirituality being that if one is a good boy or girl, one will get gifts. Contractual arrangements with the divine also abound – if I do x, God will do y! Accompanying this spiritual approach is an overconfident sense of intimacy with the divine, with God speaking clearly to the individual much as one speaks with a friend over coffee or a beer.
However, this is not reality. Good boys and girls, from time to time, suffer, experience setbacks, and will all eventually die. Daily Mass, rosary, hours and hours of bible study, and even devoting one’s life to the poor may have merit, but it’s certainly not going to control events or God, or both. God is much more than a gift dispenser. Notions of an intimate, personal God are highly subjective. History, life, and reality simply do not support such saccharine, limited notions of Divinity.
How then to make sense of God? What reality are the scriptures speaking of when they speak of God (mythopoetically)? What is behind the religious experience that many claim? Complete answers are impossible, but a sense of a way forward recommends itself.
Moving Forward – Exploring Meanings of Divinity
God and metaphor.
Divinity as Logos
Humans have long recognized the patterns of order within the world. Despite imperfections, there is a regularity, a measure of harmony, and predictability to reality, enough for the ancients to speak of the nature of our world as cosmos as opposed to chaos – meaning an ordered world rather than a random, disordered one. Cosmos implies an interconnected system of cycles and rhythms, a dynamic harmony of changes, not all perfect or good, but more or less ordered and balanced. Further, cosmos also implies a world of meaning, whereas chaos implies a nihilistic reality.
From Greek philosophy came the notion of the logos, with varied meaning approximating word, reason, logic, idea, and order. Jews had the concept of Memra, which wasn’t the exact equivalent of logos, but implied a sense of underlying order in the world rendered by God’s word. The Greek’s argued that logos was the ordering, organizing force or forces acting upon, or found within, nature. Some thinkers have argued that logos is transcendent to reality and possessed a sacred quality. Others posit logos as sacred, but inherent in all being (panentheism.) For some, the logos even rose to the level of divinity, equating logos with the essence of divine nature.
Divinity as Ground or Content for Being
The Western tradition has often asserted that the universe lacks sufficient reason for its existence. Within the tradition, metaphysical discussion concerning God has often focused on the noncontingent context of being – what is often called the “ground” of being – although terms such as sacred, ultimate, or source are also apt. In this manner of reasoning, Divinity/God is the the wellspring and grounding context for existence, and thus, the context and ground of the singularity and process of emergence-evolution.
Divinity, therefore, appears not to be something posed over and against the universe, in addition to it, nor the universe itself. Divinity is not a “being,” at least in the way that a tree, a person, or a personal god is a being. Divinity is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continually from Divinity, who/which is the infinite wellspring of all that is.
“The Divine energy at work in the world is like a wave of the sea which, rushing up on the flat beach, runs out, even thinner and more transparent, and does not return to its source but sinks into the sand and disappears.”
Divinity is the context and creative source of being – the creative imprint that remains infused throughout all creation – the underlying, organizing force that brings order out of chaos and potentiality – the telos embedded in reality driving emergence into ordered complexity and toward life. In this sense, the traditional Western concept of monotheism is the apprehension of a unified transcendent value source.
Divinity as Life-Giving-Creative-Ordering
The above themes have hints and references in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, particularly with portrayals of God as “life-giving-creativity.” There is a primal or foundational sense to this notion of creativity as a mystery that somehow was involved in the initial coming into being of the universe, in evolutionary processes, and is also found and mirrored in human creativity which manifests in myriad ways, including technology, industry, manufacturing and, more broadly, culture and in particular, religion.
God is a metaphor for the ongoing creativity in the universe – the life-giving, creative, ordering power behind the emerging into being of all that is.
Thinking of God as creativity enables us to bring theological values and meanings into significant connection with modern cosmological and evolutionary thinking. This conception connects our understanding of God with today’s ideas of the Big Bang; cosmic and biological evolution; the evolutionary emergence of novel complex realities from simpler realities, and the irreducibility of these complex realities to their simpler origins; leading to the emergence of life and consciousness.
Allowing the metaphor of God as creativity also may be employed in ways that downplay or even eliminate anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism from the conception of God. The question of God as person(s) is fascinating, complex, and unresolved, with many today adopting non-personal notions of divinity, thus enabling more reasonable explanations and responses to the challenges of theodicy.
Life-Giving-Creative Ordering and Religion
The creative mystery we call God serves as a living symbol for our culture. For many people, it functions as a primary focus for “orientation and devotion.” Being oriented on the sacred, creative principle driving the mystery of reality – that there is something and not nothing.
Regardless of what God is in itself, we can assert some meaningful sense of God as orientation, as the unifying focus of our values and commitments. God is the concept of unity among the diversity of being – a symbol of the great oneness that speaks of the truth of the interconnectedness of everything. Such notions underlie most mystical experience.
When we contemplate our highest aspirations – loving families, faithful marriages, honest livelihoods, safe communities, care for the needy – we begin to understand that these goals require lifelong commitments that in reflection cannot be satisfactorily explained in terms of our taking these upon ourselves. There is a sense that these are ultimate concerns – concerns that seem rightly grounded in a reality transcendent to human whim.
Humans experience their lives as containing inherent meaning, purpose, and direction. We are capable of experiencing being commanded by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to God.
Such analysis offers the divine as the symbol-metaphor for ultimate values and meaning in all their dimensions. It connotes that such should exercise a claim on our loyalty. It bespeaks a sense of how we should order our priorities and commitments. It’s positing a divine dimension to teleonomy. It points us in the direction of what we understand to be the context and content of our lasting fulfillment.
Religion, much of it, in a fundamental sense, is about contemplating, experiencing, and aligning with this mystery of creativity – God – manifest throughout the universe is quite awe-inspiring, calling forth emotions of gratitude, love, peace, fear, and hope, and a sense of the profound meaningfulness of human existence in the world. We are the creative fruit of serendipitous creativity itself.
And we will gain much, if we risk the discomfort and make the effort to reevaluate and revision these religious concepts in order to render them intellectually tenable to contemporary, postmodern people.
The above is careful not to assert an argument for God from design. We are not seeking to justify claims of a personal God, or a specific vision of deity. Rather, we are talking of the abstract, metaphysical sense of contingency and noncontingency and speaking of our glimpses into the ultimate realities that provide the context for the being of noncontingent realities.
Exploring Christian Meanings of Divinity
The Christian tradition has asserted an understanding of Divinity in Trinitarian form – meaning that the Christian experience and conception of the Divine has three centers of focus. Christian tradition has further offered that these centers of focus should be considered as persons. Whatever the nature of these centers, the tradition insists that the fullness of Divinity should be understood in terms of their unity.
Trinitarian theology is rooted in Greek philosophical concepts overlaid on the early Christian communities’ understanding of Divinity within Jewish and Pagan contexts of the community and culture.
The reasons for Trinitarian assertions relate primarily to the early communities wrestling with the sense of Jesus’ divinity, while wishing to maintain Jewish monotheism. The communities appear to testify to experiencing God in three manners, or from three centers of focus – God as the order in creation, God as they encountered in Jesus, and God as the enthusiasm and power of transformation that was seen in the lives of individuals and groups. Later Christian thinkers would interpret the scriptures along these same lines. In the early centuries of Christian theology, and at the Council of Nicaea, with the formulation of the Creed, the Trinity became an established part of the Christian tradition.
From the perspective of evidential theology, we must recognize the abstract nature of Trinitarian theology, probing the practical meaning of these claims. At the same time, we must accept that the concept and language of the Trinity is engrained in Christian experience and theology, and therefore must be taken into account, even if one desires to adopt a Unitarian position.
God The Father
God the Father – Yahweh, the Creator – is essentially the creative-ordering power of the logos, the power that brings cosmos out of chaos. The use of the term logos is limited to the prologue of John’s Gospel, and is hinted at in some of the early Christian writers. It is essentially a hesitant application of the same formulated by pagan thinkers, starting with Heraclitus.
Philo picks up the term, equates it with the Hebrew memra, and argues that Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures represents and approximation of the concept in Jewish thought. Therefore, the association of the term(s) and their philosophical meanings with the Judeo-Christian God are entwined with Hellenistic culture and thought of the period.
Given patriarchal cultural structures, it is understandable that this sense of the divine, when personified, would take on a masculine character. Earlier cultures that employed feminine metaphors for the divine, nevertheless, understood goddess in much the same manner – as the life giving, ordering force of the world.
Examining the writings of the early Christian communities and those of the Patristics, there remains a lack of clarity of whether logos is God or whether logos is within God as some quality or power.
Regardless of the exact use of the term logos by particular ancient authors, Yahweh rendered God the Father by later Christians, is clearly understood as the creative and ordering force and energy of the universe, as is clearly seen in the opening lines of Genesis and later in writings about God’s ordering Wisdom.
John’s profound and poetic wording in the prologue to his gospel are admitted ambiguous. Is God the logos or is Jesus? John is likely intentionally blurring the lines. Further, we must remind ourselves that John is not writing a metaphysical treatise, he’s providing an introduction and context for his gospel that harkens back to opening lines of Genesis, thus connecting Jesus to his Jewish roots, while at the same time casting Yahweh and Jesus in terms understandable to the pagan gentiles of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Jesus and Divinity
To apply the term ‘God’ (in the Christian sense) is to say that we perceive intuitively a connection between the marvels of the natural world, the moral law, the life of Jesus, the depths of the human personality, our intimations about time, death and eternity, our experience of human forgiveness and love, and the finest insights of the Christian tradition. To deny the existence of ‘God’ is to say that we cannot (yet) see such connections.
– British Society of Friends, Faith & Practice, 5th Edition
At the heart of Christian history and experience is the claim that God/logos is embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the human face of the West’s apprehension of the unified transcendent value source. The prologue to the Gospel of John, while at times poetically vague, does directly reference Jesus as the logos made flesh.
Claims of Jesus as logos have an existential quality in that the gospels speak to issues of human meaning, morality, and fulfillment, and not as much to issues of creation, natural order, or fundamental causality. This is not to argue some superficial or artificial separation or divide, but to grasp the thrust of the gospels to be about human purpose and meaning, and the nature of a good life and a just society.
The Gospels depict Jesus as heralding a new order amidst the chaos of Roman occupation, religious instability, and the bitterness and harshness of life in First Century Judaea. Jesus called this new order the kingdom of God and intentionally contrasted it with the oppressive order of Imperial Rome. And within the order of the Kingdom are hints of the broader, creative power that rendered the cosmos.
In this sense, Jesus serves as the icon – the sacrament of God, understood as logos. The witness of the first Christian communities is that Jesus embodied the Divine dynamism, creating cosmos out of chaos – they found meaning and order – a redemptive creativity – in Jesus’ subversive teachings and example.
Jesus, therefore, is Lord of a New Order – the Kingdom of God – a way of life that rails against the dehumanizing forces of Empire and the secular world that wreak chaos. To conform one’s life to Jesus’s example and teaching is to live in such a way as to make the new order a reality.
The Holy Spirit
When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.
– Acts 2:1-4 (The Message translation)
In the Bible, the word spirit is translated from the Hebrew word ruʹach and the Greek word pneuʹma. Most often, these words refer to the Holy Spirit. These words also imply breath, wind, and life force – meanings which may then be attributed to the Spirit. These meanings all share the sense of something invisible to humans that produces visible effects.
Jewish tradition speaks of the Holy Spirit as the perceivable action of God within the world, connecting such to the notion of Shekinah, a femmine sense of the divine that can be intuited within the world, a sort of glow of the Divine light-energy present within reality.
Further developing the Jewish tradition, Christian thinking asserted the Holy Spirit as the locus for Divine power experienced in the world and in our lives. In a strong sense, the word experience is pivotal when speaking of the Holy Spirit.
While we may participate in and understand some sense of the fundamental order of the world – intuiting the cosmos that pulls order out of chaos – our experience of what the tradition calls God the Father as logos or context and ground of being remains somewhat abstract and intellectual.
Further, our understanding of Jesus as the embodied logos is still not a direct encounter or experience. Jesus, as the second center of Divine influence in the world remains mediated to us through the gospels, rituals, and through religious imagination. Our sense of relationship with him is personal, yet symbolic and not immediate.
The Christian tradition asserts the Holy Spirit as that Divine center that represents the Divine power at action in the world, an active force that humans may interpret as such in the context of their actual circumstances (Micah 3:8, Luke 1:35.)
Notes on Panentheism
The roots of the word panentheism are Greek – pan, meaning all – en, meaning in – and theos, meaning God. Panentheism is the notion that God is beyond all things, but also infused within all things – it is a manner of claiming transcendence (beyond all things) through immanence (being in all things.)
Panentheism is a way of conceiving of and imagining God, it is not a proof or argument for God’s existence. Further, the concept is not to be mistaken with pantheism, which states that God is all things and all things are God.
In the modern period, panentheism was given prominence by the work of Spinoza, who claimed that whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived. Spinoza thought that God was the power that allowed nature to emerge and evolve as nature. Recently, Panentheism has gained attention through the works of Jewish philosopher Mordecai Kaplan, as well as Christian scholar Marcus Borg. It also plays a foundational role in much of Process theology.
Panentheism does not equate creation with God – nature is not considered a literal “part of” God, and divinity is essentially distinct from creation (i.e., transcendent). There is, in other words, an irreducible difference between the uncreated – God – and the created – everything else. This does not mean, however, that the creation is wholly separated from God, because the creation exists in and from the divine energies. In Judaism, these energies or operations are the natural activity of God and are in some sense identifiable with God, but at the same time the creation is wholly distinct from the divine essence. The same is hinted at in Early Greek Christian thought and its work on Divine energies.
Panentheism allows for fruitful dialog with forms of evolutionary theory, although implies notions of teleos, which most science rejects since it cannot discuss finality or ends properly without violating scientific methodology.
Notes on Proving God’s Existence
Can the existence of God be demonstrated or proven? Asking the question begs at least another – what do we mean by God? What is it we’re seeking to prove or disprove?
The Western tradition has offered the world the vision of classical theism – the all-perfect, transcendent, personal God who created the world and sustains it. Variations of this vision exist, some deemphasizing God’s power, some shifting the meaning of transcendence, and some arguing against God’s personal nature. For the most part, they share in common the claim of an ultimate reality that underlies the created order.
Claims of the existence of Divine beings are ubiquitous among all human cultures, including our own. Yet do such assertions prove anything? Is the commonality of the claim evidence for anything?
Along with the claim of God’s existence, have come various arguments to demonstrate such, to offer justification for the claim. In the West, these justifications begin with the non-Christian Greeks – Aristotle offers a lengthy defense of the existence of a single, Divine being. The Jewish philosopher Philo, the later Greek philosopher Plotinus both offer arguments defending God’s oneness as well as God’s existence. Such arguments run through Augustine, to Anselm’s ontological argument, through Aquinas’ Five Proofs, through Spinoza’s panentheism, detouring with Nietzsche’s proclaiming the death of God, through to our own day.
With the exception of Anselm, the vast majority of the arguments have taken the form of reasoning from the existence of the world to the existence of God. We find a world of beauty and of order, a world that seems to call for an intelligent designer behind the material veil. Some of the arguments have taken a slightly more abstract form, noting the seeming contingency of the world, the insufficient reason for existence, the surprising, but unnecessary fact that there is something instead of nothing. And some arguments take the form of arguing from causality, eventually reasoning to an uncaused cause that grounds the dynamism of the world.
Are any of these arguments conclusive? In all honesty, no. That’s not to argue that some of the arguments don’t have merit, especially the ones concerning contingency and necessity. Yet no one has produced an irrefutable argument for God’s existence in clear, deductive form. Further still, no one has produced a definitive description or summation of what God is.
Many philosophers and theologians have accepted this fact, realizing that affirming God’s existence is more a matter of choice than a matter of absolute certainty, while descriptions of God’s character are somewhat inexact, if not arbitrary.
Again, drawing back to illative reasoning, claiming the existence of some notion of God is the result of interconnected observations and reflections, entwined reasoning concerning causality, and other factors, all leading to either a conviction, but not a certain one, that either God exists or does not exist.
Like most fundamental questions, answering the question of God’s existence, simply leads to further questions – whether one affirms God’s existence or not. The consequences of our answer touch upon issues of meaning and purpose, causality and necessity, and even philosophical anthropology – our own self understanding.
One aim of evidential theology is to seek clarity in our claims and ongoing attempts to justify those claims in a reasonable manner. Yet another aim is remembering humility when making theological claims, particularly since many are speculative by nature. If admit we can’t prove the existence of God, then we can’t prove assertions that we understand God’s will with certainty, either, and should maintain a degree of humility, and even a dose of skepticism, when asserting such, and other related claims.
Lacking certainty concerning God’s existence doesn’t invalidate religion or theology, and why should it? There are other fundamental issues that also resist the certainty of deductive reasoning – questions of value and morality, questions of character, questions of beauty, and questions of meaning and purpose. In a sense, even the existence of the material world cannot be deduced.
It seems that concerning life’s most important matters, we must be satisfied with wrestling with ongoing illative reasoning. And it’s the role and function of religion to aid in such investigations and queries.
God’s existence cannot be proven in the strict sense of the term. Yet no one can prove issues of meaning to another, either, yet most of us aren’t nihilists. Religious traditions offer symbols and metaphors that speak of underlying realities that offer their meaning for our consideration – matters that slip through the deductive and scientific nets.