03 November 2000

God of the Natural Philosophers

Review: Religion and Science
Historical and Comtemporary Issues
Ian G. Barbour
A little philosophy inclineth men's minds to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds to religion. - Francis Bacon
In 1989-1991, Ian G. Barbour, now retired from Carleton College where he was professor of physics, professor of religion, and Bean Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures. One of his subjects was Religion in an Age of Science, which he subsequently revised and expanded into Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, published by Harper-Collins in 1997. Even for a physicist and amateur theologian like myself, it is a dry read, like eating ashes. This is partly because two-thirds of the book is an extended introduction to the remainder. It is also partly because, for the God of Barbour's version of Process Theology, Christ appears to be optional.

Process Theology arises from an attempt to integrate insights from both religion and science in a unified understanding of God, the Cosmos, and our relationship to them, ourselves, and each other. Nature is viewed as having multiple levels of organization and complexity, which offers multiple opportunities for a patient God to act as the chief Creative Participant in the ongoing self-creation of the Universe by a multiplicity (an ecological community) of agents — among them, ourselves. The God of Process Theology is therefore self-limited in both foreknowledge of the future, and power to direct it. This absolves God from the necessity rescuing us from catastrophe, whether brought on by natural processes or human malevolence, thus solving the age-old Problem of Evil.

This transforms the question of the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil at the End of Time — the traditional subject of Eschatology — into a purely technical question of whether the Universe will end in a Final Crunch or a featureless, uniformly cold bath of low-energy radiation. Moral victory is beyond the Process Theologian's planning horizon.

But what of personal salvation? Barbour's presentation of Process Theology is friendly toward the idea, and Christ appears as the chief instance of God's evocative power of love and persuasion. Of Christ, Barbour says (p 326),
Several themes in Christian thought support the portrayal of a God of persuasion. Christ's life and death reveal the transformative power of love. We have the freedom to respond or not, for grace is not irresistible. In the last analysis, I suggest, the central Christian model for God is the person of Christ himself. In Christ it is love, even more than justice of sheer power, that is manifest. The resurrection represents the vindication rather than the denial of the way of the cross, the power of a love stronger than death. Process theology reiterates on a cosmic scale the motif of the cross, a love that accepts suffering. By rejecting omnipotence, process thought says that God is not directly responsible for evil. Whereas exponents of kenotic self-limitation hold that the qualifications of divine onmipotence are voluntary and temporary, for Whiteheadians the limitations are metaphysical and necessary, though they are integral to God's essential nature and not something antecedent or external to it.
 In the complex hierarchy of levels of agency in the Universe, humans are most sensitive to God's power of persuasion, and Christ was the most sensitive of humans, achieving a oneness with God's will worthy of the designation, "Son of God." In other words, according to Process Theology, and in particular to Barbour's version of Process Theology as inspired by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Christ is nice, but unnecessary (except perhaps as the personification and deification of the Process Theologian's desire to see love triumph over power). The experience of the Christian community that Christ is necessary for salvation is but one of the inputs for a theology that implicitly values the tentativeness and openness of ongoing process above all other values.

The other inputs for Barbour's Process Theology are insights from physics, astronomy, and evolutionary biology. I think the omission of input from psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology might account for some of the sterility of Process Theology — for the omission of these insights is the omission of ourselves, except as physico-biological entities and philosophical abstractions.

In short, Barbour's theology is really an outline. It is waiting to be filled in by a Christology based on the scripture, literature, history, and ongoing experience of the Christian community. And yet, its place for Christ is circumscribed by the need to accomodate a systematic set of metaphysical categories that attempts to span both religion and science. I think it is unsuccessful, in part because its notions of religion and science are circumscribed.

I suggest that a Christology should be informed by the best of modern knowledge and thought (including process thought), but should be mindful that it is an answer to Christ's question, "Who do you say that I am?" In order to maintain faith with the Christian community, past and present, Christology needs to be saturated with Christ as necessary, rather than burdened with Christ as optional. And, in keeping with the witness of the New Testament, it must radically affirm Christ as human and divine, crucified and resurrected, necessary and sufficient for salvation.

Affirming Christ as human is easy — he is man born of woman, child raised by parents, and participant become renegade leader in his community. He is physically, biologically, psychologically, sociologically, culturally, politically, religiously human. Affirming Christ as divine is less obvious in a largely innumerate culture, because such affirmation is perhaps best informed by mathematics.

In mathematics, an infinite set can be mapped member for member (one-to-one) onto a proper (smaller) subset of itself. For example, the integers can be mapped one-to-one onto the even integers: just take each integer and multiply it by two. One maps onto two, two maps onto four, three maps onto six, and so on forever. And yet, the even integers are only half of all the integers. Mappings that are one-to-one are also reversible — dividing the even integers by two recovers the whole set of all the integers. Now, I could just as well have proposed to multiply each integer by a billion, mapping the entire infinite set of integers one-to-one onto a set only a billionth as big as itself. Perhaps similarly, God chose to become the human Christ, a mapping of the Infinite God onto a human being, infinitely smaller than God, but still infinite (which may be part of what it means to say we are made in God's image). That God could also still be God, that Christ had to communicate with his larger self through prayer just like the rest of us, should present no problem. The Author of Space is not bound by space, the Author of Time is not bound by time. If God can be everywhere, why not also somewhere in particular? If God can be everywhere, why not two places at once?

The crucified-resurrected duality also has an easy first part. We know the Romans routinely crucified non-citizens for a variety of crimes, real or imagined. There is no reason to suppose they did not crucify a charismatic cult leader who refused to recognize the Emperor's divinity, and who therefore refused to acknowledge the theological/moral right of the Roman Empire to rule the world. Affirming Christ's resurrection, however, requires a leap of faith, which is most easily enabled by religious experience involving personal encounter with the Risen Christ. (I must admit, that my own rather non-specific experiences could easily be dismissed as wishful thinking. I have no inspiration beyond the "light that lights everyone who comes into the world.") On the other hand, Jesus never wrote a book, never held office, and never went more than 200 miles from his birthplace — yet 2000 years later, he is still a force in human history. Something astounding must have happened.

But now we come to what it all means — the bit about Christ being "necessary and sufficient for salvation." This has to do with our ultimate concern, which the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich identified with God. The problem is that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said (God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Noonday Press, 1955, p127), "Only saints are ultimately concerned with God. What concerns most of us ultimately is our ego." We are turned away from God and toward ourselves in a twisted way which we ourselves cannot straighten out. This estranges us from God, but also estranges us from ourselves (we create a self-image which we use to have a relationship to ourselves — we observe ourselves acting as ourselves — instead of just being ourselves. Not surprisingly, we also are estranged from each other and the natural world, as well. These four basic estrangements are Sin, and make it impossible for us to have completely honest relationships with anyone or anything, including God.

As long as we are in the world God gave us, we can manage. We even use our estrangements to survive. By compulsively distinguishing between self and other, we avoid danger, and seek the reward of food and shelter. But in God's world, the world to come, estrangement is dysfunctional. By clinging to estrangement we condemn ourselves to flee God's Presence (Heaven), rather than to seek it. In God's world, the absence of God is the Outer Darkness (Hell). Fortunately God helps us with our problem.

God goes all the infinite way to rescue us. God becomes one of us (Jesus), not just to preach at us, but to live among us. God as Jesus shows us the depth of our estrangement by teaching us the error of our ways, and then letting us kill him out of our fear and rage at him. God as Jesus bestows on us the ultimate pardon — he undoes our murder of him by coming back to life. God as Jesus then promises to come for us when we enter God's world, to meet us person-to-person, to guide us to Himself as God.

Now for a Christian, the above two paragraphs sketch out the necessity and sufficiency of Christ for our salvation. But what of other faiths? Traditionally Christians have a model of salvation that works like a room with many doors. Pick the one with Jesus in front of it, and he will take you to Heaven. The rest lead to Hell. This creates tension with people of religions other than Christian. I prefer a model that works like a room with many doors, but with Jesus, in many different guises, opening every one of them. Hell is refusing to go through any door at all.

But the categories of Process Theology cannot be found in Barbour's book, that can accomodate a discussion of Christ as Redeemer. The God of Process Theology seems to me an idol of philosophers, and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus.

Editor's Note: Process theology is an ongoing attempt to reconcile theology with modern science. Here is a definition from its adherents. It offers some interesting insights, but ultimately tries to stuff God into a box. It's different Fundamentalist's box, but it's still a box.

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