Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others


A Natural Theology

for Our Time

The Open Court Library of Philosophy

Eugene Freeman, editor, 1967


Charles Hartshorne



Chapter Four: Theism, Science, and Religion


For the believer, “the heavens declare the glory of God.”  The believing scientist can indeed think of himself as doing something like guessing the thoughts of God from the facts of nature.  However, he must not take this to mean that God exists because of these particular facts, or because of God’s having these particular thoughts, for this is blasphemous nonsense.  But he may take it to mean that, for our contingent cosmic situation and us creatures in it, God has adopted certain contingent “decrees” or intentions, concerning which we are neither totally in the dark nor securely and definitely “in the know”, but something in between, more or less sufficient for our needs.

The scientist seeing God in nature is more than just a scientist, he is a philosopher or a religious man as well.  He has a belief, not about contingent nature and the actual state of science, but about any possible nature and any possible science, that it must declare the glory of God.  Thus the issue between him and nonreligious scientists is deeper or more general than any scientific issue.  This is compatible with his finding inspiration for his work in his belief.  Ultimately science, like human life itself, derives from inspiration, as does effective ethical practice.  Religion, it has been said, is “the morale in morality.”  Unbelievers can of course adopt ethical principles, but it may be hard for them to keep up their courage, avoid idolatrous substitutes for God, and yet master various unethical emotions.

Similarly, a nontheist can do scientific work of a high order, but he may lack the serene inspiration of a Kepler, saying that if God waited millennia to be understood by him, Kepler, then he, Kepler, could endure being misunderstood for a while.  Or of an Einstein speaking about the “incarnate reason” in nature.  Since man lives on various levels of consciousness, there is no clear-cut necessity that a creative scientist must be religious in explicit belief.  But that there is an important connection seems broadly supported both by a priori considerations and by the history of discovery.

If I am correct in denying that the divine existence is an empirical matter, subject to conceivable empirical disproof, it must not be possible for any result of science, if it is really that, to conflict with theism.  Obviously, evolutionary theory in biology does not do so; for to hold this is to assume that it would be incompatible with the unsurpassability of God that he should produce creatures in the gradual and partly-chance manner which neo-Darwinism infers from the observational facts.  Where is the incompatibility?  According to neoclassical theism, all creatures, and not just the creator, must be in some degree creative or partly free; hence in the cosmic interplay of innumerable acts of freedom there are bound to be aspects of disorder and partial randomness or chance.  Einstein said, against indeterminism, that he could not believe “in a dice-throwing God.”  But to have free creatures is, in effect, to throw dice.  So why not a dice-throwing God?  I fear the great Albert—and great he was indeed—fell into the idolatry of identifying deity with absolute law or non-chance.  We may be afraid of chance, but God need not be afraid even of that.

There seems nothing in quantum mechanics that conflicts with theism.  If even particles have no wholly predetermined path, and atoms can change their internal organization, subject only to a statistical law, then creativity may indeed be universal.  When classical physics appeared to deny this, it was functioning not as science but as philosophy, as a metaphysics.  Absolute order, exhibited as such by nonabsolute observa-tions, is a confusion.  Newtonian physics, taken literally and absolutely, was an antitheistic metaphysics, resting not on observation but on illicit absolutizing of the observationally known.  Only so could it have antitheistic implications.

Relativity physics is a puzzling case for my thesis, the most puzzling indeed of all.  If reality is ultimately a self-surpassing process, embraced in a self-surpassing divine life, there must be something like a divine past and future.  According to relativity physics, there is indeed, for our localized experience, a definite cosmic past and a definite cosmic future, but not a definite cosmic present.  We may have two contemporaries out in space, one of which is years in the past of the other.  And there seems no way to divide the cosmic process as a whole into past and future.  Yet if neoclassical theism is right, it seems there must, for God at least, be a way.  What is God’s “frame of reference,” if there is no objectively right frame of reference for the cut between past and future?  I can only suppose that we have in this apparent conflict a subtler form of the illicit extrapolation to the absolute from observational facts.  Somehow relativity as an observational truth must be compatible with divine unsurpassability.

I personally have difficulty in understand-ing how absolute nonrelativity, for example instantaneous transmission of a signal, or motion with infinite velocity, even makes sense, so that here too I suspect the issue would be with positivism, not atheism.  Unless some sort of physical relativity is compatible with deity, theism cannot even be logically possible—such would be my guess as to the logic of this matter.  In that case, the observational facts are wholly neutral, as I hold they really must be.

As Professor John B. Cobb has remarked to me, whereas the relativity of simultaneity is connected with the question of relative motions of systems within which observations are being made compared to events being observed, unit events themselves (White-head’s “actual entities”) do not move but merely happen or become.  This remark serves to remind us of the element of artificiality involved in science as such.  The cosmos is observable only from a localized and movable station within itself—unless the observer be himself cosmic.  But a cosmic observer is not a topic within physics, since the physicist cannot ask such an observer to report his findings.  So long as no such report can be received, any suprarelative simul-taneity which the cosmic observer might discern would not violate any law of physics, for it would not constitute infinite velocity in the physicists’ sense.  It scarcely seems reasonable to expect localized observations alone to tell the whole story about what a nonlocalized observer would observe.  And it is not logically possible that any mere facts could conflict with the existence of an unsurpassably cosmic individual, since the mere possibility of such a conflict with fact implies surpassability.  Thus, once more, the question is nonempirical in principle.

The cosmic observer would not move, since it would always be everywhere (somewhat as a man’s consciousness is everywhere in some limited area in his nervous system, rather than localized in a point).  Each of its observations would be made in a single present, not a succession of presents, and would exhibit the cosmos impartially, rather than in a perspective which suppressed detail more and more as the things observed were distant from some small region, and which revealed a past more and more remote in time as the things were distant in space.  Is this impartiality possible?  It is if Unsurpassable consciousness is possi-ble.  Whether it is possible or no is not an empirical matter, but one of insight or faith.

An analogy sometimes occurs to me.  A piano player moves, and is aware of moving, two hands at once.  What the right hand does is not determined by what the left hand does, but by the musical design which is back of both in a kind of pre-established harmony.  (Not of course in the Leibnizian sense, for we are allowing a pervasive aspect of indetermination or creaturely freedom, but in the neoclassical sense of statistical causal principles, probabilities only, so far as individual actions are concerned.)  The design makes it unnecessary for there to be immediate influence of one hand’s actions upon the other’s.  Both are subject to the same influence, either the design as already fixed, or the unitary feeling of the player.  Given creaturely freedom, absolute control of events is out of the question anyway; hence the lack of interdependence between contemporaries which our cosmos seems to exhibit is logically compatible with such control as unsurpassable cosmic governance implies.  Some cosmic design setting limits to freedom is alone implied a priori, and without such a design cosmic knowledge by localized observers is unthinkable.  Hence any knowable cosmos would satisfy the theistic requirement.  And a simply unknowable cosmos—unknowable to localized, and also to unlocalized observation—has no relevance, so far as I can see, to any real problem.

There is a conceivable teleological justification for relativity.  What good would it do us to be able to transmit messages with infinite velocity?  It is bad enough being able to learn about troubles around the world in seconds, but to get bad news quickly from remote planets, and have to reply almost at once—that would be too much.  Thank God we are isolated by the cosmically slow speed of light—we have enough complexity on our hands with this planet.  Thus, once more, the heavens declare the glory of God; but so, in some appropriate way, would any possible heavens.

Both in Greece and in India, the analogy was sometimes used between an animal organism and deity.  But rarely if ever was there adequate clarity about the two-way influence between a mind or “soul” and its body.  That soul “rules” or should rule the body was clear to Plato, Aristotle, and the Hindu Ramanuja.  But the rather obvious fact that the members of the body (microscopic in their real units) act upon the soul was strangely neglected or even denied outright.

A similar blindness concerning the political analogy was also remarkably pervasive.  A “ruler” is the eminent influence in his society, but not in any sense the sole influence.  And the better the ruler, the more sensitively he responds to significant influences coming to him from the ruled.  Ruling is interaction, not mere action.  We act in one-way fashion upon posterity; and for that very reason we do not rule posterity.  (So simple are some of the relevant analogies neglected by our forefathers!) 

Assuming an interaction between human mind and human brain or nerve cells or molecules, and admitting God’s interaction with every creature, we can say that each creature is to God somewhat as a nerve cell is to us.  But of course the cosmos as organism, or as nervous system, is a radically unique case.  For it alone has no external environ-ment, or it alone is, as it were, a nervous system not encased in any further body.   Moreover, it alone is unborn and undying.

It appears from the foregoing that a theist must not take the view of some scientific materialists that what a man does is simply what his atoms do, that causation is entirely on the micro-level.  For then the interaction of God with his creatures could have no analogy to that of a man with his bodily constituents, and indeed “the man interacts with other individuals” would be merely shorthand for, “atoms interact.”  But if a theist holds to an interactionist view of organisms, then he can apply the same transcendental categories to God and the creatures we know best, ourselves.

There is a certain attraction for scientists in the materialistic view above specified.  I recently noticed the phrase, “so uneconomical a theory as [mind-body] interactionism” in an essay by a scientist, or philosopher of science.  But the consideration that a system of atoms whose collective behavior is wholly explicable in terms of the interactions of these atoms is simpler than one in which a full explanation must also take into account certain human experiences associated with the atomic events is no evidence that nature consists only of the simpler type of system.  It establishes not even the slightest probability of such a conclusion. Our intellectual convenience is one thing, the constitution of nature is another.  And the experiences are given facts.  Naturally it is simpler for a physicist to suppose that they play no causal role.  But what of that?  The methodological rule, “seek simplicity,” is vicious unless it is followed by the Whiteheadian injunction “and mistrust it.”  Nature is very complex indeed, and we are forever tempted to underestimate this complexity.

A scientific friend of mine argues that the unity of the cosmic organism is of a loose kind since, while interactions can go through a brain in a fraction of a second (and this explains the time length of the human “specious present”), the cosmic interactions take billions of light years, and so a cosmic consciousness, my friend argues, must detect as little of what happens in any shorter time as we do of what happens in less than a tenth or twentieth of a second.  However, this is to overlook the differences in principle to which the analogy, when applied to the supreme case, is subject.  As Plato pointed out, an animal adjusting to an external environment is one thing, an “ideal animal” adjusting only to its own members, quite another.  All the clearer is this difference if we recall that the inclusive organism is temporally as well as spatially universal, i.e., ungenerated and immortal.  There is a difference in principle between ephemeral and primordial-everlasting individuality.  A man in dreamless sleep is not furnishing his body its unity of action, he is not forming its habits by decisions of his own, and thus at such times is not in any degree its “lawgiver.”  And at all times there are fundamental laws which obtain in his body thanks to no decisions of his.  Thus the man’s individuality as a sentient and conscious being is rather superficially imposed upon his bodily members.  But the concrete individuality of the cosmos in its present distinctive laws (compared to other conceivable cosmic laws) is far from a superficial aspect of what goes on in a human body, or anywhere else.  The cosmic laws either have no explanation at all, and are sheer brute facts, or they are explicable as the decisions of a cosmic mind, which never sleeps, and which gives rise to the basic habits of nature.

True, the cosmic consciousness must be sensitive to, or in detail dependent upon, the processes of nature.  But only for inessential details, not for its essential identity or existence, this being noncontingent, or without alternative.  Thus the dependence of God upon the world is superficial, while that of the world upon God is profound; by contrast, the dependence of an ordinary animal upon its bodily members is profound.  Accordingly, the cosmic interaction in its particular character, for instance any particular speed, cannot be required for the very existence of God defined as unsurpassable by another.

What then is the significance of the slow tempo of cosmic interaction?  If, as I hold, the business of a supreme creative power is to set the stage for lesser types of creativity which the supreme creativity can take into its own endlessly enriched life, there are two questions about the tempo of cosmic interaction: does it make possible coherent forms of creaturely experience, and will these furnish a coherent spectacle for the supreme spectator to enjoy?  I see no reason why our cosmos cannot fulfill both requirements.  Indeed any coherent cosmos, Le., any cosmos, would do so.

On the one hand, surely the laws of nature set the stage for orderly nondivine experiences, which are unhampered by the time it takes for a signal to traverse the universe.  There is no need for us, for instance, to be able to influence and be influenced quickly by inhabitants of remote planets.  So I think the cosmic system is as unified as we need it to be.  Moreover, looking at it from the other end—the cosmic body as making possible the cosmic consciousness—all that is required is that the cosmic panorama be capable of being experienced as a single picture, so to speak.  And even we can (in abstract outline) almost do that.  So why not the divine mind?  I see the laws of nature, any laws of nature, as exactly what is required to make all that happens a possible object of one experience.  They guarantee the individual unity of the cosmos as one.  They do not guarantee my individual unity—which is a special thing within the cosmos, a derivative and expendable thing, while the cosmic unity or individuality is in principle primordial and indispensable.  The only “acts of God” we can identify (in spite of the lawyers) are the laws of nature.  They make possible collectively coherent creative actions by the nondivine individuals and just this is the intent and need of the divine individual.

By various routes we arrive at the conclusion: any possible universe or state of affairs, any which can be coherently conceived as possible at all, would be a possible object of divine experience, so that the existence of God is not an empirical question at all, and not a scientific one.  Scientific questions concern God only in terms of the kind of world, and corresponding kind of world-experiences, which he may be supposed to have.  Not, “Does he exist with some world or other,” but only, “With what world?” is the empirical or observational question.  The rest is logic, in a broad sense, not fact.

The relations of theism to religion seem, if possible, more puzzling than its relations to science.  Religion is much more than worship in the idealized sense so far discussed.  It is the particular, social-historical-institutional form of worship found on this planet, and in various countries and cultures.  Here immensely important empirical factors enter, entirely additional to worship merely as such, and to God merely as such, factors concerning which a mere metaphysician may be no wiser, or less wise, than anyone else.  I find something which I seem to sense as revelation in the Bible, but then I also seem to find it in the still earlier hymns of Ikhnaton, and some Hindu and other non-Christian writings.  However, in some respects at least other traditions seem less than equal to the Judeo-Christian in the clarity with which they depict the content of worship.  For one thing, compared to Hinduism and Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam seem freer from the substitution of self-deification for the worship of God.  Here the Old Testament, I confess, seems to me a safer guide even than the New.  Job addressed from the whirlwind is clear that he is not the deity; and so, I think, should we be.  But with the Hindu and the Buddhist one must sometimes wonder.

Of course these things are subtle and disputes about them are always at least partly semantic.  The unborn and undying deity is in each of us, and if by “the true self” the Buddhist or Hindu (they often seem indistinguishable at this point) means this birthless and deathless element, then each of us houses the eternal one.  “That art thou”—yes, each of us is at least that.  But He is also more!  For mere timeless being is but an abstraction; the supreme reality is supreme creative becoming, forever enriching itself.  An ordinary creature is but a fragment of the Creature, the divine process enriched by the de facto universe. Even such a fragment is more than the bare eternal, pure “Being”; but it is incomparably less than the inclusive Creature, the living contemporary deity.

If by “the true self” one means, that which the individual, when he understands himself, wishes to serve with all his being, then indeed this is the one universal God.  Yet even here things are not so simple as mystics sometimes suggest.  For the concrete deity which I can serve here and now is not unqualifiedly identical with the concrete deity which you can serve where you are.  The genetic identity of the divine personality is not a simple unity, but an integration of a very real multiplicity of states and of lives sympathetically participated in.

In the Old Testament the Covenant is with Israel, a society, not a heap of individuals.  Paul’s metaphor of the social organism, whose parts are members one of another, continues this tradition.  The chief novelty of the New Testament is that divine love, which seems plainly affirmed in the prophetic doctrine of a merciful deity concerned with the fate of the helpless and unfortunate, is carried to the point of participation in creaturely suffering, symbolized by the Cross taken together with the doctrine of the Incarnation.  I personally see such participation as logically required by any intelligible doctrine of omniscience, since concrete awareness of another’s suffering can, so far as I understand these things, only consist in participation in that suffering.  But this implication of the idea of an all-comprehending Life needs to be made fully explicit, and Christian symbolism seems precious at this point.

Some theologians argue that the New Testament message is not just that God suffers with us, but that he suffers for us, as it were grieves over our mistakes and misfortunes.  But this too seems to me implicit in the monotheistic doctrine, from Ikhnaton down.  If anyone is clearly aware of the loss to the creatures through creaturely actions, it must be the divine spectator.  And the only way to be aware of a loss as such is to regret it.

It seems implicit if not explicit in Christianity generally, and in Islamic doctrine also, though less clearly, that the social structure of existence is no mere appearance of something more ultimate, but an aspect of reality itself or as such.  The Trinity is one attempt, perhaps none too successful, to express this.  If interaction inheres in individuality as such, and if the concrete states of individuals are in principle dependent upon past states of individuals (not alone those in the past of the same individual), and if what is neither individual nor concrete state is a mere abstraction, then the entire notion of a relationless absolute, devoid of inner plurality, the “One” of Plotinus, the “Absolute” of Bradley, the “self” of some forms of Hinduism, is an idolatrous abstraction, when taken as self-sufficient or as the most admirable object of contemplation.  Love is not derivative or secondary, but is itself, in the highest form, the highest beauty.  Here the Greeks and the Orient tended to err, but Ikhnaton the Egyptian was already clear.  The idea that love seeks what is more than love, say the formless Nothing or Void or Absolute Beauty, is a philosophical superstition.  Love seeks only further objects to love, and these objects themselves embody love.  The beauty of the cosmos is the spectacle of its innumerable forms of creative social experience, all basically in harmony together; and this spectacle only Eminent love can adequately inspire or enjoy.  What Eminent love “desires” is only its own further participation in creaturely experiences, themselves all forms of social experience, more or less harmonious, all poised somewhere between pure love and pure hate or indifference (which could not be distinguished).

A dubious side of the New Testament, as it has actually affected religious life, is the immense stimulus it gave, partly through Paul’s speculations, to the idea that our chief concern should be over what happens to us after death.  Here, as at some other points (not all!), the influence of Plato was not exactly helpful.  The conception of an immortal soul, imprisoned in the body, and with its earthly career but an incident in its ultimate destiny, is Platonism not at its best; it exhibits the partly life-hating and life-fearing Plato, or the legislator Plato, who is tempted to think of providence as an extension of our earthly legal codes.  The wicked must—he perhaps thought—face a reckoning more adequate than they usually find in this life, and the good must have something better to expect than any rewards that fickle fortune and fickle human opinion are likely to bestow upon them.  But all arguments for personal immortality, as most philosophers and theologians have conceived this, seem to me fallacious; and I include ethical and religious arguments.  Even the argument from the words of Jesus, “God is the God of the living not of the dead,” seems to turn upon a possible ambiguity.  “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” are indeed in one sense “living not dead,” for immortalized in God are not their mere corpses, but their lives between birth and death.  Of course, too, “soul,” life or mind, as such is immortal, for it is the principle of all reality and unreality, all motion and all permanence.  Also one Eminent Life or Mind is deathless and unborn.

Perhaps I have a blind spot in this region, but I see no need for post-terrestrial rewards or punishments—beyond the satisfaction, to be achieved now, of feeling one’s earthly actuality indestructibly, definitively, appropriated in the divine participation.  If, or insofar as, punishments or rewards are necessary to secure good behavior, our human laws, magistrates, and institutions should if possible be shaped to provide them in this life.  But that God has to guide and inspire the world by these none too efficient means I cannot believe.  God deals directly with each creature “in his heart.”  The divine “laws” need no backing by “sanctions.”  The reward of virtue, so far as it can in the ethical sense be rewarded, is truly “virtue itself.”  He who does not love God and his neighbor for God’s and his neighbor’s sakes does not love them—period.  And if he does not, what reward does he, in the religious sense, “deserve”?  So those who need the reward will not deserve it!  And is the way to persuade us into love for God or anyone to frighten us with possible penalties?  Also, if the penalty works, do we love God and our neighbor, or only our escape from the penalty?  The reward for loving God is simply that he alone is unqualifiedly lovable.  This is the whole of the matter.  It is now, each moment, that we miss the pearl of great price by not loving him.

Connected with this point, however, I incline to look to the Buddhists in one way, and to the Jews of the Old Testament, in another way, as counterbalance to such horrible examples as Dante—and I could almost add, St. Paul.  I agree with Buddhism that, strictly speaking, a person is numerically a new entity each moment, so that the person who wants to wake up in heaven to begin a further life is not asking for his present actuality to be preserved from death.  That actuality is already largely gone the next moment—unless God is preserving its full flavor forever.  But then perhaps no further immortality is needed?  The Jew who served God without asking for post-mortem rewards, or worrying about post-mortem punishments, was to my mind eminently sound.

One personality indeed must evermore go on to new achievements, for only in this way can any achievements endure.  But this one immortality suffices; to demand more may be to play at being God, or to try to make bargains with deity.

Moreover, self-interest, concern for the personal future, is from the Buddhist-Whiteheadian point of view only a special strand, a narrow kind, of altruism—the interest which the present self takes in those possible or probable future selves which will bear the same name and prolong the same personal history.  Any future-regarding interest is a sort of sympathy felt by a momentary actuality for various potential future actualities.  There is therefore no metaphysical and, I incline to think, no religious reason to make an undue fuss about the one strand of sympathy which relates present experience to future experiences of the same organism or the same personal history, and this no matter whether the future experiences are to be on earth or anywhere else.  The present actuality enjoys its glimpse of the universe and the divine glory; what comes after transcends that actuality in any case, and interest in it may as well in principle transcend self-regard altogether.  The future that ultimately matters is not particularly mine or yours, or even human, but cosmic and divine.

Perhaps our culture will find its way back after a long detour to the original Jewish insight that only two things matter, creaturely life between birth and death, and the unborn and undying life of God.  The sole bargain or covenant to make with God is that we do our best and trust him to salvage what can be salvaged from our failures and to make the most that can be made of our successes.   But he will do this for the cosmos and his own life, and for us only as items in the inclusive reality, members of the inclusive society.  Does this mean that there is no divine love for us as individuals?  Not at all, but it is love for us as we are, between birth and death, not for us as some magically different yet oddly identical entities after death.  This, I think, is how we love ourselves and our friends most genuinely—as earthly realities between birth and death.  The rest is vague, confused fantasy, not definite serious concern.  God need not be so confused in his love for us as we in our fancied unearthly love for ourselves and our friends.

We may need to combine the Hindu-Buddhist insight into the relativity and tenuousness of human self-identity with the Old Testament insight that the sole indispensable self-identity is divine, taken as related to, rather than identical with, ours.  We are ephemeral, but immortally so, for nothing escapes being woven into the imperishable and living texture of deity.

It is a mistranslation of this sublime doctrine to speak of our being “absorbed” into God, or to call this form of immortality “impersonal.”  “Absorbed” suggests a total loss of particular form; but no such loss is in question, since it is particulars in their particularity which are preserved in God.  Also what is personal if not an actual human life from birth to death?  It is this which is everlastingly cherished.

To say (as I have known some to do) that it is “no help to us” that God enjoys us forevermore is to say either that we have no need to know that we achieve any really permanent results by our efforts, or else that a good to God is of no concern to us.  In other words, it is to say either that the demand of reason for an aim which retains its attractiveness when the whole truth, including truth about the future, is taken into account does not concern us, or else that we love God not one whit.  Yet by definition God is wholly, unsurpassably lovable.  In short, such contentions are wild talk, without regard to the meaning of the question under discussion.

Finitude, limited scope, birth and death, constitute the definiteness or concreteness of our lives, as contrasted with God’s.  He who rebels against death wishes to be God.  But only God can be God, infinitely able to adapt to changing circumstances.  Our privilege is to love and serve him, not to be him.  Yet we may trust him to see to it that death, like “finis” at the end of a book, no more means the destruction of our earthly reality than the last chapter of a book means the destruction of the book.  We write our book of life either for extremely inadequate and ultimately, according to all rational probability, nonexistent readers, or for the one adequate Reader.  Some have little chance to write much of a book, some make less than the best use of the chance they have.  But chance, multiple freedom, existence, God, are mutually implicative ideas.

Freud was right in saying, “the world is not a Kindergarten.”  But it could not be.  Or if it could be and were, the opportunities in such a world must be as trivial as the risks.  So we should accept our risk-full world as essentially good and providential.  It is for us to minimize, by our own wisdom, energy, courage, and good will, the most destructive risks, not for us to call upon God to upset death by miracle so that the neglected children of men may have a second and better chance.  Einstein’s rejection of a “dice-throwing God” was a great man’s error.  And human individuals are some of the dice; for being, in Plato’s language, “souls,” they are “motions that move themselves.”  In short, they are lesser creators, sparks of the unsurpassable creativity, which is infinitely more than the mere “ground of being,” for it is also the inclusive fruition of being, the sublime and universal Creature.

The question of the legendary bright child, “Who made God”? has an answer.  God in his concrete de facto state is in one sense simply self-made, like every creature spontaneously springing into being as something more than any causal antecedents could definitely imply.  In another sense, or causally speaking, God, in his latest concrete state, is jointly “made” or produced by God and the world in the prior states of each.  We are not simply co-creators, with God, of the world, but in last analysis co-creators, with him, of himself.  As the Socinians, Fechner, Lequier, Varisco, Berdyaev, and a few others saw, while the proud scholarly world in general as yet could not see, to do anything at all is to do something to God, to decide anything is to decide something divine.  For it is to determine something of the content of the all-inclusive awareness.  Our deeds are instantly written in strictly indelible ink.  And we have a part in the writing.  As the humble, earnest poet had it,


All are architects of fate . . .

For the structure that we raise

Time is with materials filled.

Our todays and yesterdays

Are the blocks with which we build.


But presumably Longfellow believed also in a superarchitect without which our creativity could only produce mere confusion, that is, nothing, and apart from whom any order that, per impossibile, might appear momentarily could in the end leave not even an appreciable trace upon the face of things.

By recognizing ordinary, surpassable forms of creativity in their multiplicity we explain why disorder and conflict exist.  By recognizing extraordinary, Unsurpassable Creativity and its strictly universal influence, we explain, as Plato long ago divined, how the disorders and frustrations can be within a basic order, and contribute to an overall transcendent Good, which in the Timaeus turns out to be no merely eternal pattern or form, but the concrete life of the Besouled Animal, the soul which, as we are explicitly told, contains the cosmic body, not vice versa.

The only twentieth-century philosopher who recalls Plato to any striking degree, Whitehead, returns to this vision, but frees it from the corruptions which “Platonism” subjected it to, and makes far clearer in what the “self-motion” or creativity of mind or soul consists, and far clearer that and how all motion of singular individuals, mere aggregates apart, is of this kind.  The problem of “matter” and “space” (or the “receptacle”) which Plato honestly admits deeply puzzles him, and which Aristotle seems to have thought he had intellectually mastered so far as this could be done, but which only a long painful process of collective inquiry could really illuminate, has at last proved not hopelessly recalcitrant to a genuinely platonic solution.  Souls are indeed “self-moved” (which in Greek really meant, self-changed, i.e., creative), and when (with Leibniz) we distinguish clearly between singulars or true individuals and aggregates, we can, as Plato apparently wished to do, see all motion as soul motion.  We can also (with Fechner, Lequier, Varisco, Peirce, Bergson, Whitehead) see all causality as involving a kind of transcendence of merely mechanical order—some injection, however slight, of strictly unforeseeable novelty of concrete form, which will subsequently influence all future changes.

Taking one more step, and overcoming Leibniz’s blunder of supposing monads to have “no windows,” no direct awareness of one another, we can explain influence among individuals as simply their awareness of one another by more or less unconscious “prehensions.”  Thus we have Plato’s vision in the Timaeus and Laws, Book Ten, worked out for us in our intellectual climate. The rest is details.

Even the “first monotheist” said much of what needs to be said.  Addressing his all-loving deity as “fashioning thyself” Ikhnaton declares


Thou of thyself art length of life;

Men live through thee.


We have only to add the Platonic insight that we are not outside the cosmic life but in it to see that we too help to fashion deity.  Creativity, prehending other creativity, endlessly deriving thus new materials for further emergent synthesis, and operating on both surpassable and (by others) unsurpassable levels accounts for good and evil, change and permanence, and gives a lasting meaning to all decision. 

I should like to sum up the religious meaning of neoclassical theism by considering the oldest known discussion of the “problem of evil,” the Book of Job.  “Does Job serve God for naught”? was the initial question in that sublime book.  It is too often overlooked that the implied answer was affirmative.  The voice from the whirlwind promises Job nothing and threatens him with nothing.  It merely calls his attention, somewhat humorously, to the grandeur and mystery of a cosmos in which man is but an item.  Job seems finally to understand, not that his demands have an answer too deep for his comprehension, but that individual demands are not in order.  We serve God, or we settle for a less rational aim, and if we do the former it should be because we want to have the right or reason-satisfying aim now, not because some less rational aim, like eventual personal advantage, will thereby be accomplished.  There is no appropriate reward for serving God; simply there is nothing else (able to withstand criticism) for a conscious being to live for.

The voice from the whirlwind does not explicitly say that Job or his comforters were in error concerning divine justice.  The voice says nothing about justice.  It deals rather with the mystery of cosmic power.  Job’s mistake was in supposing that he knew what is meant by unsurpassable or divine power.  No man has ever created a star, an element of nature, or an animal; nor has he ever governed a cosmos.  How then, in the mouth of such a being, could words like “create” or “govern”, applied to the cosmic situation, have any clear sense?

The shallow view of the divine rebuke to Job is that he is brought to admit that the relation between God’s power and his goodness, or perhaps the goodness itself, is beyond human grasp.  This interpretation supposes that at least we know what divine power is, and only its use by divine justice is too deep for us.  However, is not this idea of divine power already, just in itself, quite as mysterious as that of divine justice?  The mystery is in both terms and not simply in one, or simply in the relation between the one and the other.  If we really knew what it would be like to create or rule cosmically, we should also know what it would be like to do so wisely or righteously, and vice versa.  But can we know either?

A careless objection to the message from the whirlwind is that Job is overawed by a mere show of force, that he grovels before brute power.  But the sublime thing about this ancient document is that there is not a hint or suggestion that the power is to be taken as a threat.  Job is not warned to take care lest the power be used against him; and he is not invited to consider how it might be used to reward him should he submit and confess his mistake.  The almost unbelievable nobility of this old writer shows in the dignity with which Job’s disinterestedness is respected.  He is not scared or bribed into humility, he is simply shown his actual cognitive situation.  And what is that situation?  That he has been brought up on a theory of all-mightiness whose meaning no one understands.  What is the use of trying to derive consequences from a concept that one does not possess?  There was no clearly understood notion of God’s power to give rise to a problem of evil, of why God “does” this or “does” that.  What does it mean to say, “God does something”?  To accept such language as clear, but find a puzzle in the divine motive, why God does things, is, as Berdyaev said, once for all, to treat as a mystery a problem which one has “already overrationalized.”  The puzzle begins one step earlier.  Human “power” we know something about, but what sort of analogy enables us to speak of “divine power”?  Until we have this analogy straight, there is no clearly defined problem of evil.

Traditional theism and traditional atheism are alike in this, that they overestimated the claims of “omnipotence” to constitute a well-defined premise from which conclusions are deducible.  God’s power or influence must of course be worshipful, unsurpassably great; but to identify this unsurpassability of power with its sheer monopoly, a control by which all concrete details of existence are determined, leaving the creatures with nothing to determine for themselves, no genuine options of their own, is to burden the divine worshipfulness with a logical paradox of our own making.  The monopoly theory is at best no more than a theory.  To worship God need not be to accept the theory.  But really, it is less than a theory, for no one knows what it means.

To try to advance beyond the modesty of Job’s final confession of incompetence may be rash, but perhaps not hopelessly so.  Three millenia have passed.  The entire ancient world produced no clear alternative to the monopoly notion of unsurpassable power.  However, in our time there is an alternative.  It is the view that supreme creativity implies lesser forms of creativity, and that the supreme form sets limits to the chance elements introduced by the lesser forms, but does not and could not eliminate all such elements.  Perhaps there is no why God sends us evils, since he does not send them at all.  Rather he establishes an order in which creatures can send each other particular goods and evils.

Apart from God nothing could make sense, even as evil.  Only meaningless chaos, the same as nothing, fits the idea of a godless world.  But on the other hand, God as sole form of creative freedom would be a meaningless perfection of order with nothing to order.  Everything would be wholly under control, but this everything would be nonentity.  That there is not perfect harmony and security is already explained by the notion of self-determining creatures, the only positively conceivable kind of creatures.  What cannot be explained merely in this way, however, is that in spite of all discord and peril a world of coexisting, and insofar mutually harmonious, things can exist and continue.  This is the providential aspect, that it all adds up to a meaningful world.

Explanations of particular evils in terms of individual deserts plus divine distributive machinery are, I believe, just wrong, a misuse of the idea of providence.  God is neither a wise sadist nor a detached magistrate, torturing us for some good end.  Rather he turns creatures loose to be each other’s destiny, within wise limits of natural law.  Cosmic governance is not a magnified law court.  It is thrilling that one ancient document cleanly rejects this theory.  Only Job’s comforters, not the voice from beyond, espouse it.  Job, enlightened, not terrified or bribed, at least partially understands, perhaps, that there can be no moral why for sufferings.  Life could not be free of the risk of unmerited sufferings.  Alas, the level thus long ago reached is still above multitudes of human beings.

I cannot resist saying a word or two, in this context, about Kafka’s The Castle.  Like Job, Kafka finds the workings of providence abysmally mysterious.  In the modern writer, however, the emphasis is upon the intermediaries between any of us and the ultimate ruler of all things.  Concrete actions are taken only by members of the bureaucracy interposed between the villagers and the unapproachable aristocrat who owns the castle.  And is it not true that our concrete destinies come to us from other creatures, more or less like ourselves?  Job’s sufferings came, not directly from God but from Satan, via the Sabaeans, the Chaldeans, lightning, wind, and also (as we might now say) bacteria and his own bodily cells.  All of these were fellow creatures, not God.  The universe is, in a manner of speaking, a bureaucracy, and the members of this bureaucracy whose actions furnish the setting for an individual’s life are all fallible, more or less unintelligent, imperfect agents.  After all, they are not divine.  To suppose that divine infallibility and goodness can simply determine life’s setting for each of us is to suppose that only one agent really acts, God himself.  But in that case the word “act” has no secular meaning, but only a mystical one, referring exclusively to deity.  And then there is no rational problem of evil since, on the assumptions, secular reason can have no notion of divine power.  If there is a secular conception of this power, then it is not a sheer monopoly and does not determine the concrete course of events.  A host of intermediaries stand between anyone of us and deity.  Thus Kafka supplements Job in a helpful way, without himself, perhaps, necessarily seeing clearly how this is so.  A monopoly of power is no ideal but, as I have said on other occasions, a nightmare, a ghastly semblance of meaning which, looked at soberly and analytically, exhibits its inherent absurdity.  In any possible world one would depend, for the details of one’s existence, upon fellow creatures and one’s own past acts.  From this solidarity of destiny, this partial dependence upon the choices of others, there is no escape, in this world or any other.  Any kingdom of heaven must incorporate this aspect.

As Berdyaev, with his usual courage and penetration, insisted, not only must the creatures derive concrete details from other creatures, but God himself must be qualified by creaturely choices.  To know what the creatures decide to do is to be Himself in his cognitive state decided by these decisions.  God can know what we freely decide only because we do so decide.  Thus our contingency becomes also his.  Our freedom is in a measure, in Buber’s words, “divine destiny.”  There is chance and tragedy even for God.  This is part of what creaturely freedom means.

Yet the essential necessity of the divine essence and existence is not thereby infringed.  God, the unsurpassable, exists no matter what anyone decides.  His nonexistence is inconceivable, and he who is unable to conceive this inconceivability is unable to conceive God.  But that in God to which there is no conceivable alternative is the merest abstraction, by itself.  God is unimaginably more than the mere existence of that which could not fail to exist.  He is the contingent actuality which fully expresses all actuality, in an unsurpassable adequacy of love for all.  He who does not conceive this actuality, which might have been infinitely otherwise than it is, also does not conceive God.

As the merely contingent is a concrete “fetish” or “idol,” so the merely necessary is an abstract one.  That philosophers often explicitly espouse the latter sort of idolatry, while primitive or naive persons tend to fall into the former, is to be expected.  What is more surprising is that many philosophers have unwittingly, or by implication, fallen also into the naive or concrete form of fetishism—by their rejection of anything like an ontological proof, or their search for an empirical proof or disproof for the bare existence of the unsurpassable individual.  They have thereby assimilated the individual presupposition of all existence to the individuals subsequent to that presupposition; they have demoted the universal creator to the status of mere creature.  Or, they have looked for the very principle of factuality as though it were itself just another fact.

If natural theology can simultaneously avoid both the abstract and the concrete forms of idolatry, and also avoid the absurd attempt to exalt the supreme creativity by treating ordinary creativity as nothing, it may be expected to have a new vitality and a new power to deal with its critics.  Plato said that there had always been atheists.  Perhaps there always will be some in civilized societies.  But perhaps also we know at last how rationally to answer them.


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Chapter Five: Epilogue: Abstract and Concrete Approaches to Deity and the Divine Historicity


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Chapter Three: Why There Cannot Be Empirical Proofs


Posted April 5, 2007


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