Wednesday, April 2, 2008

#33. Talking About God

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What can we say about God?

Thomas Aquinas says "the only accurate thing we can say about God is that we can't say anything accurate about God."

So maybe I should just leave this post blank? I'm tempted!

But obviously I can't share "thoughts about the convergence of science and religion" without saying something about God. The problem here is the same "struggle with words" I described in post #22 with regard to terms like "science" and "person." Everyone already knows (or thinks they know) what "science" and "religion" mean.

We have the same problem with the word "God." Only it's much worse.

There's no one in our culture who doesn't know that "God" refers to the a "Higher Power" or "Supreme Being who made all things." Or, even, "the Man Upstairs." At the popular level, this seems to be the best western culture is able to do when trying to talk about God.

We don't critique our own assumptions about what the word means. And Fundamentalists drive cars with bumper stickers proclaiming "God is the Answer."


Today, our religious self-understanding is in worse shape than our scientific self-understanding! Nowadays, "God" is part of the problem.


For a thousand years, the static and dualistic view of the world has so dominated western culture that the very idea-- that words like "Supreme Being" might not be such a good way to talk about God-- is hard for most of us to imagine. It's simply not part of our cultural heritage.

And if we do start to think about it, we become like Saint Augustine in that famous passage in his autobiography where he tries to talks about time. "Of course I knows what 'time' is," he says. "Except when I'm asked to describe it. Then I have no idea."

With regard to "God," we're like Augustine. Once we start asking questions, we find ourselves growing quite uncomfortable with our understanding of God. What it comes down to is whether the Supreme Being really is almighty or not: Does God enjoy seeing creatures suffer?

It's easy to see how the static worldview leads to unattractive ideas about God and to the conclusion that many reflective persons come to, that "there simply isn't any such thing."

So, just as we need to work our way out of the static worldview with regard to the material cosmos and our personal consciousness-- and we can do that now, thanks to contemporary science--we also need to work our way out of western culture's dualistic understanding of "God." 

But it's a tough problem.

Can we deal with it? I think we can, and that-- even if slowly-- we're on our way.


In science, the 20th century marked the beginning of an Immense Transition in human understanding away from the static worldview. As a result of the work of scientists since the middle of the 1800s, we know that the world isn't static but dynamic: we live in an evolutionary universe.

We have a much better understanding, for example, of things like the natural selection process and the nature of time, space and matter (thanks to Einstein's Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Complexity Theory). We have a much better understanding of the origin of life on Earth (thanks to genetic and DNA studies), the emergence of personal consciousness via the activity of the brain (thanks to neuro-physiology), and the development of human cultures (thanks to cultural anthropology).

Much less well-known is the fact that the 20th century also marked the beginning of a new post-dualistic worldview in the realm of religious thought. There are a number of 20th century religious thinkers whose efforts can help us to work our way out of dualistic ideas about God.

And, as I mentioned in post #29 (with regard to C. G. Jung's discovery of the four-fold nature of personal consciousness), sometimes it's not so much a dis-covery of something which had been previously unknown but rather a re-covery of an earlier perspective that can be found outside of western culture in many of the cultural traditions of the Earth.

For example, I used the animal imagery of the Native American Medicine Wheel in posts #29, #30 and #31 to talk about the ways in which we deal with the things that are most important to us and about how those animal images can help us to move out of the prison of patriarchal rationalism. Images like the shamanic Black Bear and the relationship-conscious Green Mouse are especially valuable precisely because they are not coming from the rationalist and dualistic views of the isolated Thinking function.


But when it comes to talking about God, it's even more difficult to dig our way out of religious dualism. I've found that using the Greek terms theos, anthropos and cosmos helps us to avoid automatically attributing our culturally inherited dualistic meanings to words like "world," "person," and especially "God."

It's a complicated situation because we're dealing with two kinds of dualism: an anthropos-cosmos dualism on one hand and an anthropos-theos dualism on the other. Science helps a lot in our movement away from anthropos-cosmos dualism. In the dynamic perspectives of modern science, we can readily see that we are not separate from the rest of the world but part of it. We can also see that we not only belong to the world but that, at the cultural level, we have a creative role to play in it.

Many of my earlier posts are attempts to spell out some details of that anthropos-cosmos relationship, especially of the insights offered by the neurological sciences which help us to appreciate how the human mind (our "soul" or "spirit" or "self") emerges from the world of living matter via the structural functioning of the brain. It's that kind of information which most helps us to see that, on our Earth, personal consciousness and cultural development are, in fact, what the evolution of the universe is all about.

As I've said many times in these posts, it's the genius of Biogenetic Structuralism that it puts together the three areas of evolutionary biology, neurophysiology and cultural anthropology; that combination of perspectives makes clear, as nothing else I know of does, the central place of anthropos in the anthropos-cosmos relationship.

One of my points here is that it's only after we have a better understanding of the anthropos-cosmos relationship that we can make good sense of the anthropos-theos relationship. If we're going to talk about God in our day, we have to talk about the evolution of the universe and the central place of person in the cosmic process first. And religious thinkers have begun to do that.


Just as much has happened in the realm of religious thought in the 20th century as has happened in the world of science. The Immense Transition in the anthropos-cosmos relationship has been paralleled by similar changes in our understanding of the anthropos-theos relationship.

But while everyone has heard of scientists like Darwin and Einstein, we are much less familiar with the names of the major creative thinkers in the 20th century transition in religious thought. I'm thinking, for example, of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov and the French Jesuit scholar Henri de Lubac.

Theirs are not household names, to be sure. But they are pioneers no less than Darwin or Einstein. An introductory essay in a recent collection entitled The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005) names Bulgakov and de Lubac the two most significant religious thinkers of the 20th century.

I've mentioned Bulgakov a few times in earlier posts, and I hope to offer some extensive thoughts about his significance in the future. I haven't mentioned Henri de Lubac previously, but I have a few things to say about his work in this post. He was, among other things, the first religious thinker in modern times to question the rationalist assumptions of Scholastic theology.

And just as happens in the world of science, many subsequent thinkers built on his pioneering work. The most comprehensive religious thinker of the 20th century is the German Jesuit Karl Rahner. His is not a household name either and his work has yet to become widely known. 

But he is already considered by scholars to be no less a comprehensive thinker than Augustine or Aquinas. Rahner recognized that the idea of God is part of the problem in our day, and he constructed a whole new non-static and non-dualistic religious worldview starting not with God but with the basic human experience of being a conscious person.


I can hear readers saying to themselves... "This post is called 'Talking About God' but you're not talking about God, you're talking about people." Right. I think it's important to know something about the religious geniuses of the 20th century who can help us to re-think our understanding of God, just as it's important to know something about the work of the 20th century scientists who helped us re-think our understanding of the physical universe.

If we have been slow to catch on to that new scientific understanding of the non-static anthropos-cosmos relationship, we've been even slower to catch on to the new non-dualistic understanding of the anthropos-theos relationship.

For the vast majority of people in the western world, "God" still means a being who is separate and apart from the world, a supreme being who exists in some other realm of reality outside the material time-space universe. Or-- for those who gave up on that idea of a God-- who simply doesn't exist at all.

It's that little word "or" which sets the stage for the antagonism between science and religion. Fundamentalists assert the existence of "the Man upstairs." Rationalists deny it. Clearly we need to move beyond that dualistic sense of God.


Henri de Lubac offers help. One of his main ideas is that God isn't a being in any sense at all, so that it's quite accurate to say "God does not exist." Not, at least, in the sense that a robin or a shoe-- or any other thing-- exists.

And Karl Rahner provides a good alternative. Rahner describes God not as something that exists along side other things but as "the context and precondition" for the existence of all things. He gives us a way of talking about the creative source of the world without making it sound like we're talking about a highest or supreme thing.

Rahner's name for God is mystery, "the great and holy Mystery." He doesn't mean that God is a puzzle that we can't figured out, but that the Mystery of God is something of which we can never exhaust our understanding. He says, "the great question of our time isn't whether God exists, but whether we are willing to make the effort to be sensitive and responsive to a mystery which is always and everywhere giving itself to us."

I think those words may be the very essence of a new, non-static and non-dualistic, understanding of the anthropos-theos relationship.

And I find it fascinating that this profound thinker-- one of the all-time greats in the history of theology, right up there in the big leagues with Augustine and Aquinas-- uses the same words to describe God that Native Americans use. The Lakota term, wakan tanka, for example, means exactly the same thing Rahner means: not a being above and beyond the world but that which is always and everywhere making itself known to us. As a Native American prayer says, "Great Mystery, we see you all around."


In a comment at the end of post #25, reader Mollie asks "where God fits in" to the dynamic and non-dualist worldview of the new Universe Story. As a supreme being, God doesn't.

You can see why I put off talking about God until I was able to present some thoughts about the anthropos-cosmos relationship-- about how consciousness and culture are related to the physical world and about how an understanding of the fact that we have a four-fold mind can help us in our self-understanding.

The idea that God is not a supreme being existing somewhere apart from the world is a very powerful idea. Of course it takes some time to get used to: it's not easy to move into a larger and more mature understanding of the anthropos-theos relationship after so many centuries of religious dualism. But as Karl Rahner insists, it makes good sense. It makes sense specifically in terms of our deepest personal experience of being mystery to ourselves. It's there, he says, that we can be open to the Great Mystery.


It may sound strange, but reflection on the phrase "God made all things out of nothing" is especially helpful in moving to a more mature sense of the anthropos-theos relationship.

Theologians call the idea that God made all things out of nothing "creation ex nihilo." It's the well-known biblical image of God saying, "Let there be light!" ("And there was LIGHT!")

But there's another understanding of the idea of creation. This one is also expressed in a familiar biblical image: God making humans by breathing into the clay of the Earth. To put it into its starkest form, this image says that we're made of the life-breath of God. Whatever God is, that's what we are. In the most literal sense, we're made of God.

This second understanding is known as creation by kenosis; it comes from the Greek word for "pouring" (as milk is poured out from a pitcher into a glass). The idea is that creative source of the world brings us into being by pouring itself out. Not into the world, however, but as the world. Here's where Henri de Lubac is especially helpful. He says clearly and emphatically with regard to the Mystery's creative out-pouring that "there is no prior recipient."

It's the self-giving of the Great Mystery that creates persons and world. And this kenotic understanding of creation makes clear that the anthropos-theos relationship is not one of separation and distance but of unity and communion.

Aquinas still had it. So did the Eastern church thinkers. But once the isolated Thinking function took over in the late 13th century, it was lost to all subsequent philosophical and theological thought, and western culture is marked by that loss.


Personally, I don't think there's a great deal of difference between creation "ex nihilo" and creation via kenosis. At a deep level, they're saying the same thing. But at the unreflective level of popular thought, they sound different. What's really different is the emphasis.

In any case, it's easy to see why patriarchal authority would promote the ex nihilo understanding; it emphasizes a dualistic God who exists above and apart from the world in contrast to the Mystery of God manifesting itself as the created world.

Whether parental, political or religious, patriarchal authority isn't interested in promoting human dignity-- any more than it is interested in promoting the natural mode of the Thinking function (questioning), as I mentioned in post #31 on Integrating the Four Functions.


Many centuries before Scholastic thinking appeared in western culture, Saint Leo the Great, in a famous Christmas sermon that's still read today in monasteries said: "Be conscious, O Christian, of your dignity!" 

He was talking precisely about this kenotic understanding of the non-dualistic anthropos-theos relationship of unity and communion.

Our dignity is nothing less than that we are what God is. The briefest way I can say it is that nothing exists apart from God. We participate in God.

This understanding is utterly incompatible with religious dualism. And its recovery, with regard to the anthropos-theos relationship, is the very essence of the Immense Transition we are experiencing.

And when we combine this participatory understanding of the anthropos-theos relationship with the basic insights of modern science about the anthropos-cosmos relationship-- that we are nothing less than the universe become aware of itself-- we can say to one another, "Be conscious, O person, of your dignity!"

And this isn't as radical an idea as it may at first seem. In the earliest chapters of the Hebrew Bible it says that humanity is made in God's "image and likeness," and one of the earliest New Testament letters says that we "participate in the nature of God." In Christian tradition this understanding became known as "grace" (which is Greek for both "gift" and "love"). Catholics called it "sanctifying grace" (although those words took on a negative understanding) and Eastern Christians referred to it by the Greek word theosis, usually translated as "deification."

And there's a powerful image of creation by kenosis at the very end of the Bible. The Book of Revelations speaks of "the lamb slain from the beginning of the world." This is an image which probably goes back to the Hunting Culture of Paleolithic times and is still found among Native American people today, where the spirit of the hunted animal is understood to give itself willingly as food for the life of the people. In Revelations, the lamb's willing sacrifice of itself is a primordial image of the creation of the world by divine kenosis.


But, you may be thinking, this unitive understanding of the kenotic anthropos-theos relationship and its connections with the anthropos-cosmos relationship only has to do with the convergence of modern science and the Christian or Judeo-Christian tradition.

But that's not at all the case. The unitive perspective-- that human persons are what the Ultimate is-- is a fundamental insight of all the world religions. In fact, it's much clearer in Asian religious cultures such as Taoism, Buddhism and the Hindu tradition. And it's one of the main reasons why Eastern practices such as yoga, tai chi and zazen became so popular in the last half of the 20th century. Those practices all are based on the same fundamental insight-- that we and God are "not two"-- that was lost to western culture.

So... while there is indeed a fundamental antagonism between religious and science-- if we mean dualistic religion and rationalistic science-- once we come to recognize that the revolution which happened in 20th century religious thinking is no less immense than what happened in 20th century scientific thought, we can see that there really is a convergence in our understanding of the anthropos-cosmos relationship and the anthropos-theos relationship.

And we can see that it's our human self-understanding that ties together our understanding of God (theos) and the world (cosmos). We can't talk about God or about the world without talking about ourselves (anthropos).

Karl Rahner has a stimulating idea that helps make clear the central position of anthropos in the Immense Transition our planet is experiencing. If God can create anything, he says, God can not in fact create anything other than persons.

What a fascinating idea this is, that God's creative activity is "limited" to making persons. It's obviously not meant to be a down-grading of God but an up-grading of the mystery of person and cosmos. It may sound at first that Rahner is trying to put a limitation on God's activity and power, but what he's really doing is putting no limit on the meaning of person. Rahner isn't saying that God is finite or limited but that human consciousness is infinite and unlimited.

What an incredibly large idea of "person" this is! And from the scientific point of view, what an incredibly full understanding this offers of the universe! Persons are the universe become conscious of itself, and stars, trees and animals are literally our ancestors. They might be thought of as "pre-persons." Or as Native Americans say, they are "all our relations."

In a static world view, the idea that stars and trees and animals are "pre-human" is nonsense, and this is one of the main reasons why religious fundamentalists so object to the evolutionary worldview. But in a dynamic-evolutionary perspective we can see quite clearly that everything leads up to the mystery of persons. This is why I've given a lot of time and energy in these posts to trying to spell out neuro-science concepts such as the cognitive extension of prehension and the cognized environment that Biogenetic Structuralism emphasizes. And why I put off talking about God.


In sum: we can't talk about God without talking about ourselves, and we can't talk about ourselves without talking about the evolutionary universe. We are at the center of it all.

I want to stress that I'm not saying that I think the idea of creation by kenosis converges with modern scientific ideas, but I am saying that we need the ideas of modern science to help us understand the richness and fullness of this non-dualist religious understanding of a creator spiritus.

As I've said, it's not a downgrading of the Mystery's creative power but an upgrading of the significance of the mystery of our personal self-awareness.

Talking about God means talking about us!

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