Saturday, January 13, 2007

Naturalist Approaches to God 

What follows is a paper I recently wrote for a Christian Theology class in Seminary. I chose the topic of naturalist approaches to God, and was limited to ten pages. How do you begin to discuss postmodern, pragmatist, process naturalist theological contexts, let alone assemble and evaluate some syntheses of those... in ten pages?! Well, that was my mistake. What follows is the product - rushed at times, making a lot of assumptions about the reader throughout. But for all that, not too bad. It is a good rough start for a larger project someday. Please feel free to assess and comment. -CS

Some Postmodern, Pragmatist, Process, Naturalist Approaches
By [Flannel Christian]

[Truth is] the kind of error without which a certain kind of living being could not live.
(quoted in Double Truth, By John Sallis)

At the end of October of last year, a poll reported that while most adult Americans believe in God, only 58 percent are "absolutely certain", and that the younger one is the less likely one is to answer the question of God with such confidence. (Harris Poll) In a tradition that must always make some appeal to younger hearts and minds in order to survive (and fulfill the "great commission"), this figure should create pause. Atheism, skepticism and doubt are no longer popularly thought of as enemies of morality or evidence of “fallenness” - rather, they seem honest reactions to the self-righteous claims to certainty of previous generations, and grounded at least partly in a re-evaluation of the role of religion in the contemporary world. More and more young adults entering churches reflect these postmodern sensibilities, and approach church life - the devotional life of a community - pragmatically, choosing to be active in a community while using the language of the tradition in not-necessarily-traditional ways to fit the needs and circumstances of their own experience. Part of their experience is dwelling in a culture that is at home with the puzzles of scientific inquiry, and a culture that approaches most questions from a naturalist perspective, choosing to frame both the questions and the solutions in terms that occupy only the natural world - to the exclusion of the supernatural. Certainly, not all young people find ministry in such perspectives, and more fundamentalist and evangelical churches are booming as a result of claims of certainty and simplicity. But these generally are not congregations of the Community of Christ - a denomination with a long history of plurality, dissent, and individual theological freedom. This is a valuable tradition that we should build on. If we are to build on it, we must take a closer look at the language of our community that might be being used by populations who seek fellowship with the greater body, and yet cannot deny the truths they have come to embrace by virtue of their embodied experience in this particular half-century in North America.

My object of study is this question: How can a postmodern-pragmatist-process-naturalist meaningfully use the word "God" in such a way that it faithfully directs the devotions of both the individual and the larger community?

I will first review each qualifier individually, and then offer some synthetic possibilities.

I. Postmodern
Postmodernism is most succinctly described as anti-foundationalist – that is, postmoderns have typically lost confidence in the idea that any one single meta-narrative can explain the world, and generally mistrust claims of knowledge of or reliance on absolute foundations of any kind. (Kitchens 4) Immediately, this places a fundamental challenge to traditional notions of God, the Ultimate Absolute (but it is not entirely without precedent, finding resonance with adjectives such as unfathomable and ineffable). Anti-foundationalism eschews absolutes, emphasizing the contingency of human experience, and recognizes the play of power in definitions and ideologies. Postmodernism has moved beyond most of the dominant ideologies of the past half-millenium: past the idea of inevitable progress and improvement in human development (Kung 12); past unequivocal confidence in science to provide solutions to fundamental human problems; past the confidence that the econo-government ideological legacies of the modern era, namely capitalist democracy and state communism, can lead to peace and harmony. God also took a place on the butcher’s block of late 20th century – that is, as a claim to absolute knowledge or universal quality it has undergone some cutting. As Hans Kung pointed out, God can be a projection of human desires/faults/hopes, but doesn’t have to be. (47) There could be an external referent. Michel Foucault, on the other hand, would normally answer the question of the existence of God indirectly by asking instead: How has the concept of God functioned in our society? Being highly suspicious of claims to universal truths, Foucault doesn’t refute them; instead his strategy is to historicize grand narratives. (Rainbow 4) This is a valuable critique. We must recognize that conversations and ideas about God arise in historical conditions and in a social and dynamic process; not appeal to so high an authority as to deprive human beings of their autonomy within the world. (Kung 49) The path to naturalism here will be picked up later in this paper.

Also, the abandonment of confidence in inevitable progress and improvement has worn away the cultural foundations that underlie the persuasiveness of the teleological arguments for the existence of a traditional God. The world does not seem so sensical or beautiful a creation in the face of the Holocaust, Stalinism, US genocide in Vietnam, or nuclear weapons. Although not a direct contradiction of teleological argument, reference to telos in contemporary life is no longer as compelling as it might have been.

Postmodernism inherits a reliance on democracy from modernism, while no longer assuming its infallibility or finality. Likewise, postmodernism inherits a reliance on the natural and human sciences, without assuming their infallibility or finality. God under postmodernism must work within these contexts as well: community and the sciences – such that even Hans Kung, a Catholic priest, says that a religion is true and good to the degree that it serves humanity. (90) This is quite a reversal of a God-centered idea of religion, unless one understands “God” differently.

Needless to say, arguments from authority for the existence or nature of God do not hold much water in a postmodern context, but “reason” also is not elevated above authoritative tradition. While postmodernity has inherited the modern emphasis on individuality, a renewed interest in the communal aspects of individual consciousness and the social role in formation of individuation – the shared elements among individuals that help form them as individuals – has opened up seekers to the importance of community in spirituality. Religion and God for postmoderns, if it is a concern at all, will likely be approached through a devotional community of some kind – enter, the Church. This move starts as a utilitarian venture, a strategic and pragmatic act recognizing the (trans)formative possibilities of “God.”

II. Pragmatist
For pragmatists, the meaning of a word is in its use. This would, of course, include the meaning of the word “God,” leaving open the possibility of diverse (equally “true”) meanings in different contexts and therefore the possibility of new and/or alternative meanings – always evaluated against the backdrop of the “usefulness” of the word or idea. Richard Rorty, among others, sees the gradual but inevitable fading away of God-talk by a kind of natural attrition, “just as we have given up Aristotelian language centuries after the Newtonian revolution.” (Hall 94) This squares well with pragmatism’s (and postmodernism’s) broad rejection of absolute claims, in favor of emphasis on the contingency of knowledge/experience/beliefs/worldview. (James 17) “God” is therefore a strategic play within a particular language-game, a play or a game which may be fading in its usefulness for enriching contemporary human experience. (A pragmatist wishing to employ “God-talk”, therefore, might do so either as a play in another language game or as a novel play within the existing – in this case, Christian – language-game.)

Contrast this pragmatic view of God with one traditional Christian theology. Instead of ontological arguments beginning with the qualities of God and leading to the existence of God, pragmatists look to what exists (or what they perceive existing in the social interplay among humanity and their world), looking to how the language is being used, what role(s) does the word God play, what problem(s) is it meant to solve, in order to grasp the qualities of a particularly employed “God.” (James 32) The issue may rest on the old line between a priori and a posteriori possibility – that is, whether God or Self or what have you is something in existence beforehand and to which we ought to strive to be in closer approximation to it, or grounded in the actuality of extant things and the challenge to make of ourselves and our world what we choose. (James 134-6) (We can see how this fits with naturalism/humanism, that is, the locus of possibility and impetus is in the natural world and human endeavor.) For the pragmatist, if the “hypothesis of God” works (in the widest sense of that word), it is true, not the other way around. (James 143) Therefore, a pragmatic theologian would look to what ways in which “God” might work, and look to those uses as authoritative. Absolute claims, and typical claims that run counter to the natural sciences (since “truth” in the natural sciences is also predicated on the qualification of “working”), are therefore not as helpful in managing human experience. When claims within an absolutist framework occasionally do work, the pragmatist would respond that that is likely coincidental, rather than indicative of the “workability” of other/all absolute claims.

Pragmatists leave open a wide range of possibilities in the employment of “God-talk,” but approach it from the conviction that it must work within the frame of the bulk of our convictions and experience. Whether “God-talk” is flexible enough to survive in this environment remains to be seen (as is in part the object of this paper).

III. Process
Process thought can be described as a metaphysical pragmatism, and it provides the most constructive work on God. There are at least two formulations for God in Process thought, both pointing to the importance of the spontaneous, unaccountable, miraculous ability to choose or to become, and more specifically to become something new. A more extensive coverage of Process philosophy and theology would be necessary to canvas the operation of choice in events as small as quarks and as large as nations, but suffice it to say here that creative opportunity is of ultimate importance to process thinkers.

Henry Nelson Wieman sees religion as an answer to the problem of how to direct humanity’s tremendous potential for transformation in ways that are creative rather than destructive. (MUC 9) For Wieman, a dedicated naturalist, God is that source of creative transformation – in Process thought: the repository of all possibilities, but for Wieman God is not just the options but also the call to greater complexity, to deeper and broader experience. While the character of the symbol should not be confused with what is symbolized (SHG 33), Wieman believes God has so often been perceived as a person because the creative event at the level most important for human living often operates between persons. (SHG 266) The creative event “creates the good of the world in a way that [humanity] cannot do,” it transforms people and the world in ways that they, acting alone, could not have been transformed. (SHG 76) This creativity can be drawn from many institutions: culture, friendships, faith, a god-concept, reflection, and so on, but Wieman is concerned that we not supplant our dedication to the Creative Good with that toward created goods.

Process theologians’ major contributions are in reshaping our descriptions of the nature of the divine. Similarly to Wieman, John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin describe God as “that factor which makes what-is-not relevant to what-is, and lures the world toward new forms of realization.” (43) For Cobb & Griffin, this is best described as creative-responsive love, finding Biblical inspiration in the Gospel of John’s opening lines. They take up issue with Anselm and Aquinas – who between them felt that the unchangeableness of God made God unable to be sympathetic or responsive in love. Process thinkers would rather give up immutability in favor of responsive love, than vice versa. “Responsive” here signifies that the lover (in this case, God) is changed by the loving relationship as well as the beloved (in this case, humanity or the world). “Creative” here means that God is persuasive (as opposed to coercive), promotes enjoyment, and is adventurous – God is willing to risk for the sake of increased breadth and depth of enjoyment by creation. God wants to see everyone become a “flaming hearth of initiative.” (Marty 187)

This God is entirely natural. Wieman describes the creative event as supra-human in that it transcends individual humans; not supernatural in that the creative event is of and works within the natural world. (76) While “transcendent divinity” is a human construct, it expresses an attempt to articulate and develop an experience indispensable in humanity’s effort to continually expand its horizons and enrich its life. (Marty 181) The idea of a transcendent divinity as supernatural requires a specific view of nature. If, however, one views nature as open, as alive with unrealized but realizable possibilities and as radically developmental, then the category of “supernatural” would appear less useful and in fact misleading. (Marty 183)

IV. Naturalism
Naturalism can be broadly construed as the belief that only nature exists – that is, all that exists is natural. More to the point, naturalism affirms that causation in the natural world (this world) be traced to natural sources. In other words, there is no supernatural causation – nothing outside the sphere of “this” (natural) world causally relates to anything inside it. (Augustine 3) (This definition allows for the existence of non-natural worlds existing and relating outside this world, which for obvious reasons can’t be ruled out, but any such world is beyond the scope of human inquiry and certainly this paper.) There are, of course, many cultures within “naturalism” – the more pertinent of which to this discussion is religious naturalism, that community which endorses human religious responses and value commitments within a naturalistic framework.

Religious naturalists recognize the value of personal wholeness and social coherence offered by traditionally religious communities, and lifts up the fundamental human impulse toward common spiritual and moral sensibilities. (Goodenough 2) The decision to join a church, grounded in this-world experience, might be more of a political act than a theological one, and although that includes discussions of what we usually call “politics”, this should be understood more broadly to mean engaging in fundamental questions about what it means to be human. (Jensen 1) Religious communities are one of the few places where people come not only open to, but seeking and expressing a yearning for, personal transformation. Many religious traditions, the Community of Christ among them, see personal transformation and the transformation of the world as intimately integrated. This expression of desire for personal transformation, and a culture of cultivating practices that draw people beyond themselves, is attractive to some people, theist or naturalist.

For “Christian atheism,” on the other hand, “God” might be a word that stands for one’s highest ideals – a utopian benchmark – and god-talk language that helps create meaning. (BBC 1) If, in this way, God is merely a projection of the human mind that would be dangerously close to what both Wieman and Paul Tillich would consider idolatry. But consider it against the backdrop of other Christian atheist beliefs: humanity is forced to take responsibility for its actions; human beings are seen as able to do things for themselves; and religion is inherently democratic, that is, it comes from humanity, not something forced on humanity by a god. (BBC 2) It seems clear that what is meant by God being a projection of the human mind is a confession that God is a human construct and final responsibility for that construct (or human activity responding to it) rests with particular humans (or humanity as an abstract whole).

The term “naturalism” is preferred here because it does not carry the association of animosity toward the tradition that “atheism” does, and more importantly because it focuses on the operative concept: that the natural world is what we have to work with, and (a) “God” might have a role to play in that framework. The religious naturalist is one who employs mindful religious approaches to her understanding of the natural world, including (but not limited to) reflection on narratives of fundamental value (akin to theological reflection); inward responses to such narratives like gratitude, awe, humility, respect, engagement (what might be called “spirituality”); and outward, communal responses to the narratives such as compassion, fair-mindedness, generosity (the traditionally “moral” sphere). (Goodenough 2)

A key point of naturalism is not to distract the human endeavor with supernatural confusions, and thereby more boldly empower humanity to transform itself.

V. Synthetic Possibilities
There are a number of possible descriptions or uses of “God” that would be an engaging, faithful, devoted renderings within a postmodern, pragmatist, process, naturalist paradigm. Some highlights that follow can be roughly grouped under three umbrellas: Psycho-analytical (first three), Bio-psychical (next one), and Social-Relational (last three).

God as Absolute Self or Subjectivity: Jacques Derrida recognizes a psychological role for God, as the “absolute self” or subjectivity – the possibility, as he puts it, “of keeping a secret from myself.” (108-9) The singularity of the individual is suspended in communication (communion) with this Other (or alienated self), and one is no longer alone. (60) Derrida is joined by Michael Novak: “The search for God is intimately connected with the discovery of one’s own identity.” (Marty 168) The transcendence of God is the self’s ability to see beyond its present self, a reality which points beyond itself and in so doing discovers itself. There is, in contrast to Jung and Irigaray below, however, no endpoint of wholeness; “wholeness” would be anathema to Derrida’s latent existentialist convictions.

God as Instrument for Psychological Wholeness: For Luce Irigaray, “God” functions to anchor several interrelated concepts. Similar to Derrida, God for Irigaray provides a framework and a horizon for the constitution of the subject’s identity as a subject. (Grosz 123) God also provides an ideal of perfection specific to each individual but general to genders, classes and communities: a “sensible transcendental,” a process of completion and integration, a movement always tending toward and becoming its own ideal. Similar to Jung, God is a projection of an ego-ideal, and is instrumental in self-completion (without finality). (Grosz 123) (Irigaray might here be influenced by Feuerbach’s compelling claim that God is simply the projection of our own hidden potential. [Migliore 57]) God is also an emblem of a supreme form of alterity that institutes ethics: one can love the other only if one also loves oneself and (a) God – gods are linked to the constitution of an identity and community. (Grosz 123)
Thus, for Irigaray, the divine is not simply the reward for earthly virtue, all wishes come true; it is rather the field of creativity, fertility, production, an always uncertain and unpreempted field. … The divine is a movement, a movement of and within history, a movement of becoming without telos, a movement of Love in its Empedoclean sense. (Grosz 125)
(It is amazing to me that Irigaray hasn’t been taken up by more Process thinkers.)

Jungian Collective Unconscious: The Jungian model of self-realization points to a common fund of images whose basic patterns were ingrained in the psyche from birth. (Heisig 75) The role of religion is to help individuals discover a collectivity with men and women of all times and places. (Heisig 75) As such, “God” might refer to this fund of shared images. This discovery of a shared community, Jung felt, was essential for individuation of the psyche. Each individual has a personal unconscious created from their own particular experiences. Every human, however, also has a collective unconscious that serves to invite the ego to previously unknown dimensions of the psyche. (Heisig 80) Like Chomsky below, Jung postulates innate structures of the human mind that serve as means to share common experiences between individual minds, and, somewhat like Jaynes to follow, that sharing helps direct individual discovery of the self. For Jung, the ultimate goal is psychic wholeness, which as an ideal is never fully attainable but always present as a possibility. (Heisig 82) In a therapeutic sense, Jung belongs to the “psycho-analytical” group, but in a metaphysical discussion he might be grouped under the bio-psychical umbrella.

God as a Way the Brain Processes Certain Experience: Noam Chomsky offers a biological possibility for God-experience. For Chomsky, the ability of different people to communicate and share meaningful experiences leads him to the conclusion that there must be a bio-physical structure underlying the mind – that is, brains are hard-wired to operate within a broad (but relatively consistent) framework. (Rainbow 3; Pinker) “God” might be such an innate category that some of our experience is filtered through that mechanism. The existence or discussion of an “outside referent” moves, then, to a discussion of how humans experience or sort their experience of the divine. This study would be along the lines of the natural and human sciences, but challenged to maintain a fundamental reverence for the experience of transformative absolutes. Chomsky finds an echo in the work of Julian Jaynes, who traces the experience of gods to the bicameral structure of the human brain – the different hemispheres “speaking” to one another might be the source of religious or divine experience. (117) In a devotional sense, then, when one prays, for instance, one would be praying to the best part of oneself, addressing it as if it were another in order to give voice to the tension between what we are and what we might become; between our limited vision and a greater, grander one; between our sense of finitude and that of unpredictable possibility.

God as Creative-Responsive Love: As was discussed above, many process thinkers find useful (and therefore “true” in a pragmatic sense) the concept of God as love – a love that is both affected by and affects the beloved (creation). This is closely linked to the idea of Creativity.

God as the Source of Creativity: Some process thinkers, as discussed above, speak of God as the source of all possibilities and the lure of creation to fulfill them. It is not as if there is some cosmic vat of possibility-beads just waiting to be picked – opportunities for novelty arise out of each moment and decision, and it can be said that there is a force at work in each moment calling each quark and cell and person and people to creative transformation – to become something more enjoyable and rich than was previously thought possible. Another way to phrase this hope is for Creative Transformation.

God as Solidarity: One possibility not discussed above is the idea that “God” could be used to refer to the mass of shared convictions held by a community. This would, of course, raise the possibility of tribalism (as has been the case innumerable times throughout history), unless “universality” was a shared conviction. In this way, when God is reaching out to all people, we could be expressing our own expanding embrace of different people, ideas, concerns, and drawing them into our shared community (or community of shared conviction). Solidarity, after all, is the political form of love.

VI. Concluding Thoughts
These possibilities reflect the postmodern, pragmatist, process and naturalist communities’ emphasis on reason and experience. However, there are Biblical and traditional precedents for most of them as well. The challenge of the Church in any age is to make the gospel live in its time. The enduring question posed by this brief coverage is whether the essential gospel message is diluted or concentrated through them. (Of course, there will be different answers for different individuals and denominations, but the community of the church will at some point reach some sort of consensus on the broad acceptability or appropriateness of such a worldview adapting the gospel to itself.)

All these hold the divine to be “absolute” in that it ceaselessly draws individuals and communities into greater depths, further communion, broader wholeness – always just beyond what-is and forever unattainable (but no less of a draw for that). At first glance, this seems in conflict with the postmodern aversion to absolutes. But I think the “absolute” in common to these concepts recognizes the fundamentally human experience of contingency, and plays to that strength. It is an absolute that opens-up, rather than closes-off.

Pragmatists and postmoderns of many stripes want to avoid making the merely human an idolatrous projection. They are “unalterably opposed to any tendency of [humanity] to close in upon [itself] or to conceive [itself] as the apex of reality.” (Marty 185) To the contrary, the religious quest is grounded on quite the contrary principle. The challenge of religion is to direct human devotion to that which will transform humanity into the best we can imagine (or even better than that). If we can wrestle it away from the created goods, God may be just the focal point we need.

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