Jeffery Small

Re-imagining God in the 21st Century by Jeffery Small

Unlike the age of the Biblical writers, we live in a world ruled by science, technology and secular thought — a world that is interconnected in ways that a few decades ago was unimagined. Today we understand that our world is governed by physical laws from the subatomic realm to the cosmic, so where do we find room for God to act? Is God still relevant? How can we conceive of God today in a way that is honest to our intellects while satisfying to our hearts?

In my previous post,
Moving Beyond a Human Image of God, I set forth the problems of the classical picture of God as a supernatural being. God as the potter, the watchmaker or the chess master has lost its relevance for many in our post-modern world. The response to this critique by some is to close their eyes to science and the realities of existence. Such a strategy is not sustainable in a society in which almost everything we touch and encounter during our daily lives depends on the laws of physics, chemistry and biology working. Others take the atheistic approach, one I also do not find satisfying because I sense in the core of my being that there is meaning to existence and that the daily physical reality of our world is not the end of the story.

In this post, however, I will not debate the existence of God because I do not think that the argument is winnable by either side. Instead, I will outline ways in which we can start to understand God in the modern world. For me, God must not just be consistent with scientific and rational thought but must embrace it.

I have come to understand God, not as a transcendent Zeus-like figure, but instead as the infinite creative source of existence.

By “creative source” here, I do not mean to say that I think of God as creating existence by waving a magic wand from afar, but rather that all of existence — matter, energy, the physical laws which govern the universe, even our consciousness — comes out of God. This understanding of God is rooted not in Creationism, Intelligent Design or a desire for a father figure, but rather comes from this simple question posed first by the ancient Greek philosopher Parminedes (b. 510 BCE): Why is there existence in the first place, instead of nothing?

I do not see this “coming from” God as just happening at one particular time in history, whether this was 6,000 years ago according to Genesis or 13.7 billion years ago according to the Big Bang theory, but it happens continually. I do not see God as a separate being, but rather God is the center of being within me and everything around me. God did not form my distant ancestors out of clay as mythological tales might suggest if taken literally; rather, God is what gives me life and gives existence its very structure. This power is infinite and indescribable because it lies behind all that is. God is not to be found “out there” but deep within existence.

My conception of God is not new but is derived from 20th-century Christian theologian Paul Tillich’s description of God as “the ground of being.” Tillich himself was influenced by centuries of theologians and philosophers before him who thought of God in similar existential terms: Friedrich Schelling (b. 1775) considered God as “the Power of Being”; Georg Hegel (b.1770 ) referred to God simply as “Being”; Meister Eckhart (b. 1260) “being itself”; Francis of Assisi (b. 1182) “the ground of all reality”; and Plotinus (b. 205), drawing on Plato, described God as “the One” — the source out of which all being emanates, including the human soul.

My view of God was also influenced by another 20th century philosopher-theologian, Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of process theology. For Whitehead, God is not a static supernatural creature but is the essence of the creative process of the universe. God does not sit in a different dimensional heaven and watch us go about our daily lives, occasionally intervening for good measure. But God is immanent within the universe as its creative power.

Whitehead insists that the traditional image of God as unchanging must be reconsidered. A God truly immanent within existence means that as the universe expands and evolves, so does God. This view of God also does not mean that God is directing and determining every creative act, but only that the power for existence comes out of God. Essential to the creative power that God bestows on the universe is the ability of its constituent parts (including us) to self-create. The scientific laws that govern the universe — the randomness and uncertainty inherent in both quantum mechanics and evolution, for example — are then not contrary to God but become crucial elements of the divine creative process.

How does one even conceive of such a God that is not an exalted deity? Here, I will leave you with one example. This metaphor for God as the creative source of being does not come from a Christian theologian or a philosopher, but from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who imagined the relationship between God and human as that between the ocean and the wave.

The ocean and the wave are related in two important ways. The ocean is the “ground” of the wave in the sense that the water molecules of the ocean make up the essence of the wave. From a creative and dynamic perspective, the power of the ocean creates the individual existence of the wave. The wave (like us) has its own individuality, but its lifespan is relatively short. The wave emanates from the infinite ocean, and at the end of its existence, it returns to the ocean. Each individual wave is connected to all other waves because they share the ocean as their ground. Existence is finite, individualized and unique, yet underlying existence is a connection to the infinite.

To me, this understanding of God can not only work within the confines of modern science (since all scientific laws come from God as part of the creative existence of the universe), but it also provides a powerful direction for how we experience God. What I may have lost from the illusory “comfort” of believing in a supernatural father figure who may or may not intervene on my behalf, I have more than made up for with a new realization: I can touch and experience a God that is the ground of my being (though I’ll never fully understand or see God) at a much more intimate level, because God is the spark of light within me. This view of God also leads to a more embracing view of morality because I share this power of being with each of my fellow humans in true brother and sisterhood, and I share it with the natural world as well.

One challenge we face when thinking about God in this way is how do we talk about, much less worship, such a philosophical sounding God? It is easy to picture Michelangelo’s God as the grandfatherly figure on the Sistine Chapel, but how do we relate to the God of Tillich and Whitehead? In a future post, I will examine how we can rethink our traditional symbols of God as Father or Lord, but for now I’ll pose the question to you:
What symbols or metaphors might we use to open our minds to a new way of thinking about God that works in the 21st century?


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"Moving Beyond A Human Image Of God" by Jeffery Small

When you think of God, what images come to mind?

Do you think of a supernatural being who sits outside the four dimensional (space + time) universe who created us as a potter might? Do you picture God as a supreme designer who built the intricate laws of the universe as a watchmaker assembles a fine timepiece? Do you see God as a grand chess master who has an elaborate plan for the figures on his cosmic chessboard? Do you imagine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where the outstretched hand of Michelangelo’s God (who looks like someone’s muscular grandfather!) reaches toward Adam?

Many popular images of God resemble a Zeus-like figure, who lives in “heaven” rather than on Olympus. When we think about it, this God seems a lot like us, only much more powerful. He has emotions: he can be a “jealous God”; he can be an “angry God” or a “loving God.” We may address him as Father, Lord, or Judge. We even use the personal (and masculine) pronoun “He” in referring to God, but we capitalize it to show that “He” is greater than we are.

In other words this God is strongly anthropomorphic, a Greek word whose roots mean “human” and “form.” In the fifth century BC, Greek philosopher Xenophanes wrote, “If horses had gods, they would look like horses.”

To me these classical images of God are fraught with problems. As a teenager, when my interest in science blossomed, I began to question the theology I had been taught as a child. Why would God allow millions of children to starve in Africa or die in a genocide, yet “He” just might intervene on behalf of our favorite sports team if we prayed hard enough? Why is it that two and three thousand years ago (when human understanding of science was very different than it is today) during the age of the Biblical writers, God seemed to intervene in the world a great deal more than he does today: causing worldwide floods, parting seas, speaking from burning bushes, stopping the sun from moving across the sky, raising dead people, and sending angels to earth to deliver his message?

The common view of God as a supernatural being like us, only more powerful, is one of the principal reasons behind the rise of atheism in the Western world and the spiritual apathy of many young people today. It certainly contributed to my own questioning of the usefulness of religion. This view of God opens itself up to critiques from the likes of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume who pointed out the logical fallacies in the traditional arguments for the existence of God, Sigmund Freud who characterized such a God as nothing more than a “projected father figure,” and twenty-first century biologist Richard Dawkins who points out the incompatibility of this God with science.

Our modern lifestyles depend on scientific principles working, not some of the time, but all of the time: would you fly in an airplane if the laws of aerodynamics only worked occasionally? We take for granted the physics behind our cell phones and TVs. We understand that solar eclipses are not a divine omen in which God turns day into night, but are predictable astronomical events caused by the moon passing between the sun and the earth. We have faith in the biological principles that allow for the medicines we create to treat our diseases - diseases that we understand today are not caused by evil spirits or divine punishment but by bacteria, viruses, and biochemical processes.

In this post-modern age in which reason and science underlie every aspect of our daily lives, which concept will lose out in the battle between God and science? I think we are seeing (unfortunately) that God is losing this battle.

Even more problematic than the incompatibility of the classical view of God with modern scientific and logical thought is that this God opens “Himself” up to the critique of being an incompetent watchmaker, an unartistic potter, and a cruel chess master. The world we live in is a messy, complicated, imperfect place, ripe with tragedy, sickness, and injustice. The traditional view of God leads to the philosophical problems caused by the existence of evil, the reality of human suffering, and the multiple religions around the world with opposing doctrines about God. How can such a God be omniscient, omnipotent, and loving at the same time?

Finally, for me, the ultimate critique of this God is that “He” is too small. A God that is seen as some kind of intelligent being living in an extra-dimensional heaven becomes just one more thing in the universe (although a powerful thing nonetheless). A God that chooses when to tinker in the workings of the universe and when not to is not only capricious but begs the question of why God didn’t make things right the first time around? In other words, this God is finite.
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Does this critique of our traditional understanding of God mean that the only alternative is the atheist one?

That is what writers like Dawkins, Hitchins, and Harris want us to believe. I actually agree with much of their criticism of religion, but ultimately, I think that the version of God they are trying to disprove is nothing more than a straw-man.

As much as my rational mind wanted to reject God, something deep in my core sensed a fundamental meaning to existence. What I needed was a different way to conceive of God that didn’t require me to close my eyes to scientific knowledge, to reason, and to personal experience. How could I be true to both my intellect and my soul: my mind that must see the world in logical terms and my heart which yearns for a greater spiritual connection? In my next post, I’ll explain how my current view of God attempts to reconcile these seemingly conflicting goals. But for now, I’m interested to hear from you.

How then do you think about God in a way that works in the 21st century?



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