The New Atheism and the Future of Christian Theism
Richard W. Kropf, Johannesburg, MI 49751, USA
In the decade since the traumatic events of September 11, 2001, we have witnessed a new onslaught of highly publicized books, all written on the topic what is now being termed ‘the New Atheism’. This movement has been led by the British-American journalist Christopher Hitchens, by far the shrillest critic of religion, followed by his would-be American understudy, Sam Harris. Then we have the renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins, who apparently considers himself to be ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ (Dawkins, 2003), and the American philosopher of science Daniel Dennett, who does not hesitate to number himself among the ‘brights’ (Dennett 2006, p. 21) — apparently in contrast to the dim-witted who still cling to belief in an Almighty. These four, pictured together in Hitchens’ latest book, are dubbed ‘The Four Horsemen of the New Atheism’, but have been backed up by far the most prolific, but still less-widely publicized, writer of books on the subject, the American physicist Victor J. Stenger.
This whole turn of events and the anti-religious literature thus generated cannot be but of major importance to those of us who are concerned with issues of ultimate reality and meaning. Indeed, as psychiatrist Viktor Frankl ( 1975, p. 13) saw it, religion can be seen as the search for ultimate meaning, and faith as a trust that such a meaning does in fact exist.
The problem is, however, whether or not that meaning is simply a construct or product of our own thinking or imagination, or is instead grounded on an ultimate reality which itself has endowed the universe with a purpose — thus for us a meaning — of its own. If the latter is the case, then we have, however it might be construed or visualized, theism or a belief in a god of some sort. However, if the former situation is the case, and we maintain, as did Carl Sagan, that ‘The Cosmos is all there is or ever was, or ever will be’ (Sagan 1980. p.4), then we have atheism — the belief that there is no such entity or being which we might properly name ‘God’, and that whatever purpose or meaning exists in the universe is entirely the product of our own intentions or perhaps simply happenstance.
Accordingly, this paper will be divided into two major parts. The first part will attempt to survey the above-mentioned literature and to analyze and to some extent critique the anti-theistic arguments it presents. The second part will attempt to analyze the present self-understanding of theism in the face of the above, and to assess its viability, particularly in its western, predominantly Christian, form.
2. THE NEW ATHEISM
2.1 The Attack on Religion
If one surveys the content of most these books (and websites), particularly those following the tactics used by Christopher Hitchens (note particularly the subtitle of his bestselling book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) it seems that, despite Hitchens’ consistent lower-case spelling, that it is not so much ‘god’ who is the problem but those who claim to follow him. Likewise Harris, Dawkins, and even, to some extent, Dennett, who in one of his latest books (Dennett 2006), also devotes a large amount of space to attack what seems obvious, even to many, even perhaps to most, believers — that the distortions of religious faith that have all too often occurred down through history have occasioned great conflict and suffering. Thus, we have had the Crusades, the Inquisitions, witch-burnings, pogroms, the Holocaust, and now, finally, this current lethal outbreak of fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Jihad. Who is not aware of this sorry religious history?
The interesting part is when it comes to claims of atheism not having spawned similar horrors. For example, Hitchens (2007, pp. 229-52) spends a whole chapter on the subject, claiming to show how the Christian churches in Germany supported Hitler, and how Stalin, whom Dawkins (2008, p. 308) believes was certainly an atheist — although Dawkins is not sure about Hitler — nevertheless used the Russian identification with Orthodoxy to help overcome Hitler’s invasion. Hitchens (2007, p. 200) blames the cruel suppression of Christianity in Maoist China on the unsavory alliance between Christian missionaries and Western political-business interests, not on the Communist suppression of all religion, which apparently he thinks is especially justified when it comes to what he sees as the autocratic rule of the Dalai Lama over his followers and the backwardness of Buddhism’s influence in Tibet. Likewise, Hitchens (Ibid., pp. 201-4) sees the aggression of imperial Japan as having been the result of collusion between Buddhism and Shinto emperor-worship, whereas, in the case of North Korea (Ibid., pp. 247-9), we have an example of a supposedly Communist political dynasty turned into a pseudo-religion.
So which is really the root of the problem? Is it really religion or the ideologies that so easily turn into pseudo-religious movements that caused tens of millions of deaths during the 20th century alone? Dawkins (2008, p. 315) claims that none of these crimes were committed ‘in the name of atheism’. Perhaps, but the 2002 website update of R. J. Rummel’s 1994 book on the subject of ‘democide’ (defined as the killing of people by their own governments by various means, including land reform, labor camps, and China’s ‘Cultural Revolution’) lists totals of 91.9 million murdered by the Soviets, 35.2 million by the Chinese Communists (not counting the 38 million Chinese who perished in the 1958-62 famine), and 2 million by the Khmer Rouge, as contrasted to 20.9 million by the Nazis and 5.9 million by Japanese imperialism. Of course, Communism itself has often been described as a ‘pseudo-religion’, and all the belligerents in the great world wars of the past century seem to have enlisted religion in one form or another in their struggle to prevail. Nevertheless, the prize for the grand total of victims, despite widely differing claims, appears to go to those regimes which, in addition to their involvement in those wars, had dedicated themselves to imposing the Marxist doctrine of dialectical materialism.
However, as to the question how closely materialism and its associated atheism, whether overt or implied, should be tied to the scientific revolution, that is another matter. While Charles Taylor, in his massive study, A Secular Age, agrees that Darwin was to play a major role, he points out that already, even before the publication of The Origin of Species, the tenor of the times, as exemplified in the writings of Carlyle, Goethe, and Schiller, was that of ‘a cosmic vision of impersonal order’, one which was diametrically opposed to concepts of divine providence, miracles, and, most of all, the moral absolutes and divine judgment that had been a mainstay of the Christian worldview (Taylor 2007, pp. 378-9). While there has been much controversy over the influence of Darwin on Marx, it appears, from the viewpoint of the World Socialist Web Site (Talbot, 2009), that both Marx and Engels seem to have been enthusiastic about Darwin, believing that his ideas supported theirs, even while Darwin himself appears to have been very reluctant to become involved in religious disputes or anything resembling political unrest or revolution.
On the other hand, Dennett (1995, pp. 461-67) believes that Nietzsche, whose philosophy influenced the Nazis, probably never read Darwin, but admits that Nietzsche undoubtedly was influenced by Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism and Spencer’s slogan phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’— to which we might add, to be honest about it, has equally inspired laisse-faire capitalists. However, alongside such twentieth century statistics, the number of lives taken by Osama bin Laden, and other religious fanatics during the past decade still pales. Yet who knows what the remainder of this new century will bring? Perhaps, if anything can be said for sure, it is that passionately held convictions, whether religious or secular, can easily lead to mass mayhem.
2.2 The Attack on God as ‘Person’
Setting aside the argument over which religion or ideology (be it founded on belief in a personal God or in some impersonal law of nature or history) has caused more grief, we can now turn to ask what is meant by the term ‘God’ (or ‘gods’ if one prefers) to begin with. Webster’s gives two proper meanings: god (with a lower case ‘g’) meaning ‘any of the various beings conceived of as supernatural, immortal, and having special powers over the lives of people and the course of nature’, and then, of course, God (within monotheistic systems, with the ‘G’ capitalized) meaning ‘the creator and ruler of the universe, regarded as eternal, infinite, all-powerful and all-knowing’.
2.2.1 God and Evil
Notice that the above definition does not describe God as being all-good. Perhaps this is because if the attack on religion, or on what is done by supposedly religious people (as seen in 2.1 above), presents one of the easiest targets for atheism, certainly a God who is supposedly all-good presents the next most ready target. As Lactantius, echoing the complaint of the ancient philosopher Epicurus, put it: ‘Either God cannot abolish all evil or He will not. If He cannot, He is not all-powerful: if He will not, then He is not all good.’
Thus also David Hume framed the problem of what Leibniz termed ‘theodicy’, that is to say, whether or not God is ‘just’. Predictably, nearly all the ‘new atheists’ touch on the problem, although usually in the context of all the horrible things religion has done. However, Stenger (2007, pp. 216-25) devotes a whole chapter to the more theoretical aspects of the subject. Here he especially cites J. J. Mackie’s 1955 article on ‘Evil and Omnipotence’, noting that all the arguments employed to explain the existence of evil in the world end up, if we insist on the fundamental goodness of God, restricting God’s presumed ability to do everything, in other words, falsifying the claim to God’s ‘omnipotence’. On the other hand, if we insist on God’s omnipotence, and hence God’s presumed power to override (through ‘miracles’) even the laws of nature which God presumable established, then it appears that God is not all that good after all—especially if he does not use his divine power to relieve innocent or undeserved suffering.
Here I would have to agree, arguing that what we take to be evil is a necessary, even if regrettable, by-product of the evolutionary process, a view I have developed at some length (Kropf, 1984, 2004), but has also been repeated by the British physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne (1995). However, Dawkins (2008, p.135) apparently sees any such attempted solutions to the problem that appeal to the existence of evil as a prerequisite to the appearance of human freedom as hopelessly anthropocentric. At first glance, perhaps it may seem so. But we might ask, would that be the case if, as it now is seemingly more probable, that planet Earth might turn out to be only one example of who knows how many millions of inhabited planets in the universe? May we not assume that at least some of this life elsewhere in the universe might be as intelligent as we earthlings, and, as a result of having reached the stage of reflective awareness (‘knowing that they know’) also enjoy at least a modicum of free will?
It could be conceded, however, is that one need not have an intelligent designer to have such a universe. All that is being claimed at this point is that existence of evil (or at least what we experience as being evil) is not in itself a logical proof of the absence of such intelligence.
2.2.2 Monotheism on Trial
However, given the above problem one can also see how, out of a polytheistic or even an animistic milieu, the next step was not necessarily henotheism, with a chief god in charge of or superior to all others, this in turn to give way to monotheism, but in some cultures at least, was to gravitate into what might be called ‘bi-theism’ — that is, to conclude that there are two gods, one the origin of all things good, the other the origin of all things evil. It is a logical and even temptingly simple solution ¾ one that was it seems, taken by the ancient Babylonians. Yet this only works if one overlooks the fact that the fundamental question, and hence the only widely accepted meaning of the word God (with the capital ‘G’), is to account for the origin of everything. Thus, the real issue is not whether religion is good or bad for people, but whether or not the concept of God is a plausible idea to begin with.
Dawkins (2008, pp. 41, 52) makes it clear that the ‘delusion’ that he is talking about is that of a personal God, that is, a God who not only fits the second definition given by Webster’s (2.2 above), but also answers prayers and can even work miracles. The same goes for Stenger (2007, pp. 9-12, 2009a, pp. 11-2 & 2009b, p. 13), who goes on to describes such a God as being a ‘hands-on God’ — as contrasted to the divinity of classical deism, a divinity who created the universe and then walked away to leave it to its own devices.
Hitchens does not take much time to delineate such distinctions, but from his adulation of Thomas Jefferson and the other deists among America’s founding fathers (Hitchens, 2007, pp. 34, 66, esp. pp. 268-9) one can surmise that the target of Hitchens’ scorn is also primarily the personified God of the Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament in particular. The same can probably be said for Harris, whose principal target is Islam’s Allah and anything in other faiths that in the least way resembles him. One might well agree with them, particularly if one confines oneself, as do all of these authors, to singling out all the bloodthirsty passages in the Bible and completely ignoring those that depict God (or even in the Qur’an) as caring, loving, even tender, themes which seem to be entirely overlooked by Harris as well.
Stenger (2009b, pp. 107-10) argues that religious liberty and tolerance were ‘core values’ of classical polytheism and seems to admit that the more despicable attributes of Yahweh came from the more or less henotheistic period when he was still in competition with the ‘other gods’. Nevertheless, none of these authors seem to be aware that some early Christians, the Marcionites, apparently also felt the same way, wanting to jettison the Old Testament and its concept of God altogether. This omission seems rather odd on the part of thinkers who extol evolution as the opponent of religious belief, thereby conveniently ignoring the possibility that what has really been going on down through all these ages is that the human image of the concept of a personal God has itself undergone a slow evolution. Similarly, although Stenger (2009b, p. 253) lists such well–respected scholars as Bart Erhmann and his 2005 book Misquoting Jesus, Stenger goes on in his own book (Ibid., pp. 110-11), citing the arguments of authors who do exactly that, or else who quote Jesus badly out of context.
2.3 The Attack on Theological Philosophy
Apart from the mostly ad-hominem arguments mentioned above (in 1.1), as well as the biblical depictions of the deity, most of the ‘new atheism’ books do spend at least some time reviewing and refuting — although not always with any great depth — the variety of philosophically based arguments advanced in favor of belief in God. Hitchens and most of the others mention — and quickly discount — Aquinas and his five ‘proofs’ or demonstrations (Aquinas, 1945 pp. 18-21; 1955, p.9) as to how humans might come to a philosophical knowledge of God. However, Dennett (1996, pp. 23-5), the only professional philosopher in the group, is also the only one who attempts to analyze the evolution vs. creation debate in terms of Aristotle’s four aitia or ‘causes’ — which largely underlie Thomistic thinking on the subject. These begin with the general idea of contingency (the dependence of anything on something else for its existence) as subdivided according to material cause or that from which or out of which something is made or from which grows, the efficient (instrumental) and formal (exemplary) causes, which address the questions as to how a thing or organism came to be and what shape it eventually takes, and, last of all, the final cause which designates the end, goal, purpose, or telos of its existence. However, for the purposes of this debate, we will leave the issue of the material cause until last, because, when all is said and done, it will turn out to be the most crucial issue.
2.3.1 Evolution as Efficient and Formal Cause
That evolution, particularly biological evolution, is taken to be the number one weapon in the atheists arsenal (other than the simple ‘isn’t religion awful?’ argument) is evident from most of the ‘new atheism’ books, and it is here that Dawkins (2008, pp. 139-51) and Dennett (whose whole 1996 book is focused on the subject), both experts on Darwinism, are especially worth our attention. Obviously, when it comes to analyzing how living organisms developed and why they took the shape they did (efficient and formal causality) evolutionary theory can supply most, perhaps even all, of the answers. This is even clear from the fact that there are sincere, even devout, believers who have no problem at all with accepting the evolutionary account of the natural world. Dennett (2006, pp.407-8n5) even cites the 1996 statement of Pope John-Paul II, who echoing Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis, declared that evolution ‘is more than a hypothesis’, at least when it comes to the physical aspect of humanity. In other words, even official Catholicism denies, unlike religious fundamentalists, that evolution is ‘just a theory’ (sic).
Why is it then that the new atheists spend so much time on the subject of evolution? The most obvious reason is because most often modern believers (beginning with Bishop Paley and his famous watch to the latest ‘Intelligent Design’ advocates) have used the so-called ‘Argument from Design’ as their trump card in their arsenal of ‘proofs’. However, another reason seems to be that not even all convinced evolutionists feel that evolution gives all the answers. This is especially the case when it comes to the other two ‘causes’, not just the first cause (the material cause, which we’ll take up last) but more immediate to our discussion, the final cause or purpose, the dreaded or even damned (especially by Dennett 1995, p. 319-20) subject of teleology or what Aristotle
called the ‘final cause’.
2.3.2 Finality and the Debate over the Cosmological Anthropic Principle
For some years, beginning back in the 1980s, there was a fairly heated argument among scientists surrounding the concept of a so-called ‘Anthropic Principle’— the idea that nature on the cosmic scale (that is, in terms of the fundamental constants such as the expansion rate of the universe) seems to have been ‘fine-tuned’ precisely in a way as to produce life such as ours, indeed even to produce a relatively stable universe to begin with. In other words, while the arguments for the Anthropic Principle seem to focus on the formal or exemplary cause (e.g., why is that cosmic expansion rate or other constants in nature exactly the way they are?) the implication seems to be that they must have been purposely set that way with a final cause or purpose in mind — in this case, in order that we ourselves (anthropos or humankind) might exist. Although not generally linked to him, the reasoning that produced this line of thought would seem to be somewhat in line with Einstein’s refusal of the idea that the order of nature is the result of pure chance, or as he sometimes put it, that he refused ‘to believe that God plays dice’ with the universe.
However, how such an ‘Anthropic Principle’ (AP for short) might be interpreted can vary widely, ranging from a ‘strong’ form (SAP) which implies that there was a fixed almost invariable weighting of the odds in our favor, to a ‘weak’ form (WAP) which asserts, at the very most, that things just ‘happened by chance’ to turn out to be favorable for our existence and that we mistakenly assume (because we are here and can observe this happy ‘happenstance’) that somehow these results were inevitable.
The problem with this whole line of thinking is that the SAP form seems much too close to the whole ‘Intelligent Design’ line of thought which most Darwinians see as religious fundamentalist ‘Creationism’ in disguise. Or if it is not quite that, it appears to be at least a species of ‘Theistic Evolution’ – an evolutionary process designed by God to inevitably (at least sooner or later) result in the appearance of intelligent creatures such as ourselves.
On the other hand, those who lean in favor of the SAP interpretation would argue, to the contrary, that the WAP interpretation presupposes that if any combination of the multitude of variables that could have happened in the course of evolution really have or could have happened, to do so would require a nearly infinite number of possible universes where things might turned out differently. That, indeed, seems to be the same kind of thinking (along with some speculative ‘topological’ mathematics) that has led to all varieties of ‘multiple universes’ (sic) or so-called ‘multiverse’ theories. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how much space Dawkins (2008, pp. 162-90) devotes to the whole subject, especially in its broader cosmological implications, compared to Dennett, whose major focus, in his 1995 book, was concentrated on the strictly biological aspects of evolution on this planet. However, Dennett, who like Dawkins favors the WAP interpretation, spends only two pages in each of his books (1996, pp. 165-6; 2006, pp. 242-3) on the Anthropic Principle while the others, with the exception of Stenger, hardly mention the subject. In contrast, the latter, as one might expect from a physicist, devotes most of one whole chapter to the subject (2009a pp. 144-53), while his 2011 book and its website update has even more detailed remarks.
However, it would seem that with the exception of Stenger, the new atheists have largely left the whole debate concerning the Anthropic Principle behind. While we now know for almost certain, which we didn’t when the AP debate erupted, that there are hundreds, even over a thousand planets, (thanks to recently developed methods astronomical observation **) surrounding relatively near-by stars our own galaxy, still, as far as we can tell, the vast majority of them lack the ‘Goldilocks’ conditions – not too hot, not too cold – conducive to the appearance of life, or at least life as we know it. This fact would seem to favor the WAP interpretation — that while life is apt to appear only in those rare instances where the right conditions happen, still, given enough planets, at least a few of them will inevitably, purely by chance, spawn life. On the other hand, that the expanding universe reached a stable enough state to form stars with their planetary systems to begin with still seems to favor as SAP interpretation, unless so-called ‘other universes’ might be proven to exist other than in some speculative cosmologists minds.
Nevertheless, even when one sets aside the whole issue of teleology and ascribes all this to the workings of pure chance, the issue of origins, or where from what all this came from, still remains.
This means that we have to face the issue of material causality, and with it, the question of the existence of anything to begin with.
2.3.3 The Question of Material Causality
For Dennett, evolution is the great construction ‘crane’ as he calls it (1995, beginning on pp. 75-6 and thereafter throughout the book) vs. his ‘sky hook’ characterization of any concept of a creator God, explains everything. Yet curiously, given that analogy, Dennett never asks what ground that ‘crane’ stands upon. Instead, he expounds at great length the effect of what he calls the ‘algorithmic’ nature of the evolutionary process, even while dismissing (Ibid., pp. 320-1) the ‘teleological’ (i.e., goal-seeking) evolutionary thinking of the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin. Dennett, at least at that time, seems to have been oblivious to the fact that Teilhard repeatedly described the mechanism that drives this same phenomenon (the apparent direction in evolution toward greater complexity) as being the result, at least partly, of chance and ‘the play of large numbers’ (Teilhard, 1959, pp. 149n1, 308, 312) — a phenomenon that appears to be identical to Dennett’s own explanation.
In contrast, Dawkins, who admires Dennett’s analogy of the ‘crane’, and who throughout his book especially emphasizes the determinative power of natural selection, nevertheless seems to at least realize the need for some kind of ontological foundation or ‘ground’ underlying the whole evolutionary process. This is surely a more logical view, yet, at most, we can only find a hint that Dawkins (2008, pp. 100-3) appreciates its importance when he writes off the cosmological arguments of Aquinas (based on the seeming contingency of all natural phenomena) as leading only to or at most compounding rather than solving the problem of ‘infinite regression’. Likewise, Stenger dismisses Aquinas’ description of God as a ‘prime mover’ (2009b, p. 93), but in doing so, would seemingly dismiss Aristotle’s thinking as well, while Hitchens refuses to engage with such philosophical heavyweights, concentrating instead on the easier targets of creationism and ‘Intelligent Design’.
Nevertheless, Dawkins’ admission (Ibid., p. 101) that one might conceive the existence of some sort of ‘terminator’ to the otherwise infinite regression would seem to suggest that he can see that there is at least some kind of problem, although his denial that the solution to the problem needs to be anything resembling like God — whose logical complexity, considering all the phenomena his existence is supposed to explain, Dawkins (See especially, 2008, pp 179-80) repeatedly emphasizes. Dawkins’ insistence on God’s ‘complexity’ signals a confusion of functional roles as distinct from the divine nature. This in stark contrast to Augustine’s description of God as ‘Being as such’ or ‘Being in itself’ or to Aquinas’ insistence on God’s ontological simplicity (Aquinas 1945, pp 25-36, and 1947, p. 14) leaving us to wonder if any of the new atheists have an adequate philosophical grasp (as distinguished from religious or theological beliefs) of what is meant by the term ‘God’ to begin with.
However, perhaps we should not be too critical of Dawkins and his colleagues on this point, inasmuch as even Aquinas seems to have not given much consideration to St. Anselm’s famous (or infamous — depending on what you think about it) ontological argument for the existence of God, which Dawkins, along with other a-priori type arguments, naturally finds to be ridiculous. But in that case, why spend so much space (Ibid., pp. 104-8) refuting this line of thinking? I would suggest that this is because, as philosophers Jacques Maritain and Martin Heidegger maintained, that at the heart of all philosophy lies the ‘intuition of being’. Either maybe something like Zen satori — one either has it or ‘gets it’, or just doesn’t. Yet this is probably the key to understanding why Anselm thought that the ability to conceive the idea of God at all in one’s own mind is, in itself, a kind of proof of God that God (along with anything else) is there to begin with! Or, again, maybe it explains Descartes attraction to Anselm’s line of thought, for if one can say ‘I think, therefore I am’, might not the next logical step be to say ‘I am (i.e., I exist), therefore God is’?
In fact, in reference to all this debate about the ‘existence of God’ (here one might single out the title of Stenger’s 2003 book, but even most English translations of Aquinas’ works), I might point out that if one is really strictly speaking, at least from an etymological viewpoint, God really does not ‘exist’. Properly speaking, only creatures can be said to ‘exist’, in that they have their origin from (in Latin ex ) thus stand (sistere) apart from something else — unless we wish to speak of God standing apart from absolute nothingness. Instead, God can more exactly be said to ‘subsist ’, that is, to stand below as the ‘foundation’ or ‘ground’ of being. The fact that such precision in language seems foreign to our thinking, or that Tillich’s understanding of God as ‘the ground of being’ provokes such scorn or incomprehension probably indicates something more, most likely some fundamental gap in our ordinary way of thinking. Thus there would seem to be some irony in the fact that Stenger, the physicist, seems to appreciate the problem, however so slightly, of accounting for the existence of anything. Contrast this to Dennett, the professional philosopher, who in his 1995 book (pp. 171, 175), uses the term ‘ontology’ only in respect to what can be subjected to scientific analysis, sliding by the why¾ i.e., why it exists in the first place ¾ as being senseless.
Contrary to the unquestioning assumption illustrated above, we have cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design, where, assisted by Leonard Mlodinow, this essential questions of causality head on. Thus the end of the introductory chapter (p. 10), the authors do not back away from these three very fundamental questions:
‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’
‘Why do we exist?’
‘Why this particular set of laws and not some other?’
To try to answer these questions, the authors present what they call ‘M-theory’ from which they deduce) that not only is God not needed to jump start the universe, but even claim (pp. 172, 180) to show how the universe really could come from nothing! This appears to contradict Hawking’s previous claims in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, where he spoke of a ‘singularity’ like the big bang as being the limit of our knowledge of the origins of the universe and, according to Hitchens (2007, p. 65), did not hesitate, after visiting the Vatican archives (to view the Galileo trial records) to echo Einstein’s hope of ‘knowing the mind of God’.
However, this latest claim of Hawking’s (that the universe really did come from nothing) is one which Stenger, a physicist, has seen and debated before. In fact, he has even gone so far, in the conclusion of his chapter on ‘Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing’ in his book God, the Failed Hypothesis, to claim:
An empty universe requires supernatural intervention. Only by the constant action of an agent outside of the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God. (Stenger 2007, p. 133).
While his more recent books seem to have backed away from this rather paradoxical logic, Stenger remains steadfast in his battle against what he terms ‘nothingism’. Thus we find a whole chapter devoted to the subject in his book Quantum Gods (Stenger, 2009a, pp. 239-64), plus his presentation of an alternative in The New Atheism (Stenger 2009b, pp. 171, 240). In the latter, Stenger repeats a suggestion that he first made in The Comprehensible Cosmos (Stenger, 2006, pp. 312-19) and in an article on ‘A Scenario for the Natural Origin of Our Universe’ published in the journal Philo 9 (No. 2, pp. 93-102) and reproduced on Stenger’s website the same year. In these, he claims that a phenomenon known as ‘quantum tunneling’ (a.k.a. ‘cosmic wormholes’) can explain the origin of our universe ‘from an earlier universe that, from our point of view, existed limitlessly in the past’.
Again, in a recent article titled ‘The Grand Accident’, Stenger criticizes Hawking’s latest book, not only for it’s claim that the universe literally came from ‘nothing’, but even more for its title (The Grand Design) which Stenger sees as implying that there is a ‘design’ after all — something which comes uncomfortably close to implying that there is a ‘designer’. Thus, in The New Atheism (p. 172), Stenger also repeats the claim made in his 2006 book that the so-called ‘laws of physics’ are simply formulas concocted by physicists. (Having taken Einstein’s statement that ‘time is what we measure on a clock’ a bit too literally, apparently Stenger has deduced that without clocks, scales, and yardsticks there would be no phenomena such as time, mass, or space — certainly an odd point of view for a physicist, one that reminds us more of Bishop Berkeley’s radical idealism!)
Thus Stenger, in his attempt to oppose what he calls ‘nothingism’, seems to repeat what we have already seen, particularly among those who favor WAP – the weakest possible interpretation of the Anthropic Principle. It comes down to the realization that in order to explain the existence of our universe, rather than seeing its origin in nothing at all, there has to have been ‘something’. This something could have been other unseen universes, either coexisting in parallel with ours, or else in prior eras leading up to ours in a kind of beginning-less and endless succession (so much for dismissive talk about ‘infinite regressions’!). When one has reached this point, which uncannily resembles certain ancient Hindu and Buddhist beliefs (which even the Dalai Lama, a keen student of science, has admitted need rethinking), one is tempted to write off such evasions, as does physicist Eric Chaisson (2001, pp. 10-1), not as reputable science, but more as a variety of ‘science fiction.’ Or, again, as the astronomer John D. Barrow — with characteristic British understatement — noted, after many pages explaining the limitations of observational astronomy, a few years earlier:
…[T]he restriction of our empirical knowledge about the universe to the visible region means that we can never test the consequences of a prescription for the entire initial state of the universe. We can see only the evolutionary consequences of a tiny part of that initial state. One day we may be able to say something about the origins of our own cosmic neighborhood. (Barrow 1994, p. 137)
Granted that we have now developed other means or ways of detecting what is ‘visible’ since Barrow wrote the above words, ones which may enable us to reach even further back into space and time than is possible with either our optical or radio telescopes. Yet if Einstein was right about the speed of light being the speed limit of everything, at least for now (it may have been faster during the initial ‘inflationary’ phase of cosmic expansion and a recent experiment originating at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland has raised the question as to whether or not neutrinos may move slightly faster than light) and the foreseeable future, then it seems that we are locked permanently into a knowledge barrier beyond which it is impossible to pass. In this regard we will have reached (if we haven’t already) the final stage of what John Horgan, the former editor of Scientific American magazine, characterized as being ‘The End of Science’ (Horgan, 1996).
This is not to say that no more useful information or data with be gathered, either on the cosmic scale on the one hand or on the infinitesimally small scale as well. But it does mean that even if the ‘God of the gaps’ — the divinity who was once invoked to explain the creation of the earth, the origin of life, the diversity of species, the appearance of humans, etc., etc. — has ‘died’, the God of the Gap or of the Void that separates existence from nothing at all still remains. And if that is so, then a belief or faith in a ‘something’, be it a life-force or god of some sort, will inevitably fill that void in human consciousness.
The problem then is what form this faith or belief takes. Can there be some ‘middle way’, other than the agnosticism that Dawkins and his friends scorn, or between Dawkins’ dogmatic atheism and an equally dogmatic—even though theologians may dispute the doctrines among themselves—theism? Is there something that can give a firmer sense of ultimate meaning and purpose to human life or existence?
2.4 Conclusion to Part 1
By way of conclusion or summary of the above arguments, it would seem safe to say that the New Atheism has succeed in defeating biblically-based Creationism, as well as appeals to ‘Intelligent Design’, — at least when this latter is understood in a interventionist manner. And it may also have succeeded in calling into question the so-called ‘Anthropic Cosmological Principle’ (at least in its ‘strong’ form — but this is only at the cost of supposing the existence of other unseen ‘universes’). Yet, what the New Atheism has not succeeded in doing is to explain the existence of anything at all without supposing the preexistence of some kind of first or uncaused cause of some sort, what Aristotle called a ‘prime mover’. Although it may be that the ‘uncaused cause’ (a ‘blind watchmaker’ as Dawkins dubbed it in the title of an earlier book) was some kind of ‘quantum vacuum’, a chaotic form of matter or energy. Then this force seems to have gradually taken on some regularity, which regularity is generally referred to as ‘the laws of nature’. If so, then the question becomes to what extent this regularity or rationality that permeates the universe can be legitimately personified. But this in turn, as we shall soon see, will lead us back to the problem or challenge of perhaps redefining what we mean by the term God to begin with. This is because, in effect, what the new atheism has only succeeded in doing, it seems, is to claim to endow the universe itself with the hitherto divine qualities (as listed in Webster’s) of being ‘eternal’, ‘infinite’, and ‘all-powerful’ — apparently leaving only the ‘all-knowing’ role to the new atheists.
3. THE FUTURE OF CHRISTIAN THEISM
Given all the above, plus the bad reputation that religion in most of its forms has acquired, whether deservedly or undeservedly, and given the increasing loss of religious faith among the more highly educated, one might appropriately ask about the viability of theism in general and of Christianity in particular, especially in the face of other alternatives.
3.1 Possible Alternatives
If theism is taken to mean (as we have throughout this article) belief in a personal ‘hands on’ God who listens to and answers prayers, and even sometimes works miracles if we have enough faith and pray hard enough, then it may be that theism or theistic religion is headed for hard times indeed — unless we consider various new theological developments. One of these would be to try to divorce Christianity from all association with classical theism, as advocated by Bishop John Shelby Spong. Another option would be a revival from might be seen a revival or alteration of classical deism in a newer form — what Stenger calls ‘the new deism’. Third, there could be a revival of pantheism, much as the nature pantheism that might be seen in advocates of a ‘deep ecology’ or in the monistic pantheism of Spinoza with its traces in the opinions of Albert Einstein. Finally, we will look another option — a revival of pantheism in its latest modality, sometimes called ‘panentheism’ and its development from the thought of Alfred North Whitehead and possible further elaboration, in the form of an evolutionary Christianity, with the help of ideas drawn from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
3.1.1 Spong’s Non-Theistic Christianity
Retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong’s 2007 Jesus for the Non-religious, following a line of thought that he has been developing over many years — inspired by the call of the German theologian Deitrich Bonhöffer for a ‘religionless Christianity’ and basing his reasoning on that of his theological mentors, Paul Tillich, and the Anglican bishop J. A. T. Robinson — does think such a non-theistic Christianity is possible. For this Spong has earned the notice of Daniel Dennett (2006, p. 209), but also the distain of Richard Dawkins (2008, p. 269), and the outrage of many traditional Episcopalians.
Beginning (in Part 3 of his 2007 book) Spong capsulizes our evolutionary history not only in both cosmic and biological terms, but also psychologically in regard to the development of religion, beginning with primitive animism. Spong sees this latter development as motivated by both fear (primarily of death) and a longing for security. However, instead of the fear-driven and guilt-filled religion that had developed down through the ages, Spong would offer us non-theistic liberation from all that has gone before in a view centered on the humanity of Jesus. This is because, as Spong (Ibid., p. 263) says ‘in the fullness of Jesus’ humanity we can experience what it means to live beyond the barriers of our evolutionary past and soar into a humanity that is spirit-filled, open to the source of life and love and what Paul Tillich called, as his name for God, the “ground of being”.’ Or again, much as the subtitle of his earlier book (Christpower: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human) indicates, Jesus ‘becomes for us the doorway into what human beings mean by the word “divinity” ’(Ibidem.).
To accomplish this same goal, Spong begins (in Part 1 of this newer book) by invoking what he considers to be the latest New Testament interpretation, primarily the output of the so-called ‘Jesus Seminar’ (see Funk et al) — ignoring the devastating criticisms of the eminent New Testament exegete and historian of the first century (and now Anglican bishop) N. Thomas Wright (1999a). Nevertheless, following the path marked out by Rudolph Bultmann, Spong develops a demythologized (no virgin birth, no miracles, no resurrection — at least not to be understood literally) view of Jesus. It is also an approach which, it almost goes without saying, departs nearly entirely from the long history of the development of Christian doctrine concerning the divine identity of Christ, a history that has been traced in great detail by such authorities as Aloys Grillmeier (1965, 1975) or else capsulated on a more popular level by Richard Rubenstein (2000).
Without necessarily adopting all of Spong’s views regarding his interpretations of the gospels, or even adopting his anti-theistic terminology, I would suggest that what Spong has been attempting to do points us in the direction that Christianity, and with it theism — despite Spong’s anti-theistic rhetoric — must go if it really does wish to survive and to continue to provide a convincing vision of ultimate reality and source of ultimate meaning.
However, at this point it might be opportune to point out that theism as we have known it has been generally predicated as if the idea of God as a ‘person’ is to be taken literally, as if it were not merely a symbolic objectification or projection of human religious experience or even of philosophical theorization. To say that we experience God as ‘personal’ or analogiously ascribe person-like characteristics to the ultimate and still largely unknown ground of being is not to say that God is a person in any usual or ordinary sense of the contemporary meaning of that word. This same confusion of symbol with it referant seems to have also motivated theologian Karl Rahner’s suggestion that we declare a moritorium on the use of that same word when it comes to Christian expositions of God as a ‘Trinity’ (Rahner 1975, pp. 1208, 1756). We need to keep this same caution very much in mind as we explore the other following alternatives.
3.1.2 The ‘New Deism’ as an Alternative to Theism
As indicated previously, another approach that theism might adopt is a modification of classical deism. Deism is a philosophy that does not deny the existence of a God or ‘First Cause’ of all that exists, but which resolutely resists the idea of this divinity altering in any way the divinely established laws of nature or interfering with human freedom. This view of divinity, with its roots in ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy, particularly underwent a revival under the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers following the rapid emergence (especially after Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton) of modern science. This deism, with its depiction of God as The Grand Architect of the universe, became the more or less official ‘theology’ of American independence and (renamed ‘Reason’) the patroness of the French revolution.
Accordingly, in his later books, Stenger (2009a pp. 234-5; 2009b pp. 27-28, 97-103, 223-27, 233-6) evidences some interest in what he calls ‘the New Deism’, apparently one in which the basic laws of nature allow for more flexibility than in the Enlightenment version which was largely formulated in terms of a clock-work (i.e., Newtonian) universe. This was, of course, before Darwinian evolution and Einsteinian relativity were known or became widely accepted. In fact, Stenger in Chapter 14 (‘Where Can God Act?’) of his book Quantum Gods (Stenger, 2009a, pp. 209-225) summarizes with some evident interest the thought of some contemporary theologians, such as Philip Clayton, who have moved in this direction.
On the other hand, Dawkins (2008, pp. 24, 69-77, 136) speaks with unveiled contempt about this and what he considers to be revisionist waffling, indeed, associating it what he terms ‘the academic smoke screen’ (Ibid., pp. 258-64) and all other scholarly efforts to keep religion respectable in the public’s eye. Even honest agnosticism is to be rejected as anything tolerable, except as a very temporary resting point before conversion to full-fledged atheism. Dawkins (Ibid., pp. 319-23) vehemently rejects all suggestions that his passionate defense of evolution is a kind of ‘fundamentalism’. Yet so strong are Dawkins’ feelings and language on the subject that one can easily see why a host of websites have characterized him as a kind of ‘born-again atheist’! Might not the principal reason for this upset be that these liberal, non-fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible would seem to destroy the frightening picture of the personal God (3.2 above) that seems to be the favorite target of the new atheism? Given the vehemence with which Dawkins’ opinions are expressed, one cannot help but think so.
3.1.3 Reviving Pantheism
Still another proposed alternative route around theism is pantheism¾ literally meaning that all or everything (i.e., the whole universe) is divine or can be called ‘God’. With its animistic roots (that is, the belief that everything is endowed with a mysterious ‘spirit’ of some sort), pantheism is probably even older than either theism or deism. In its classical form, it comes in two varieties. The third form, which might be seen as having its roots in the first two, will be treated separately.
The first form is nature pantheism in which the emphasis is on everything, in all their variety, as being in some sense divine, even if eternally changing. A modified form of the same basic idea, albeit in a more Christian mode, might be seen in the thought of Johann (‘Meister’) Eckhart (1260-1327). A German Dominican friar and popular preacher, his mystical speculations suggested that all created things are divine because they share in God’s being — an insight for which he was accused of being a pantheist and obliged to explain himself (as were many other mystics like him) before the Inquisition.
The second form is monistic pantheism in which everything is seen simply as an emanation or extension of a single divine being or substance. While its roots might also be traced back to the classical age, for example, to Plotinus and other neo-Platonists, today it is usually associated with the philosophy of Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632-77). In Spinoza’s major thesis, Deus sive Natura, God appears to be equated with Nature, and vice vs., a view which earned him both expulsion from the Amsterdam synagogue and a place on the Roman Index of Forbidden Books.
Not that any of these books on the new atheism attempt such fine distinctions, but the importance of Spinoza cannot be overestimated, considering the amount of space devoted in several of these books to exactly what the great physicist Albert Einstein really meant when he occasionally used the term ‘God’. Hitchens (2007 pp. 242-3) apparently thinks it was only meant as a kind of sop (e.g., ‘I want to know what God thinks’) to reassure the pious. To the contrary, Stenger (2009b, p.17, 227-37), seems to think that Einstein’s use of the term was essentially a way of referring to a fixed order in the universe. However, Walter Isaacson, Einstein’s most recent biographer, devotes a chapter (pp. 384-93) to the subject of Einstein’s beliefs — especially his early fascination with Spinoza’s philosophy in which nature and divinity are perceived as identical, in other words, monistic pantheism.
True, at one point Einstein claimed that he totally rejected the idea of a personal God and that, at least in this regard, he may have been inaccurate when he once described himself as an ‘agnostic’. Still, his pantheism, if that is what it really was, nevertheless seems to have leaned more in the direction of the formalized conceptualization of nature that we see in Enlightenment deism. This can be deduced from the number of times Einstein is supposed to have reiterated that (contrary to prevailing interpretations of the theory of Quantum Mechanics) ‘I refuse to believe that God plays dice.’ In other words, Einstein stood steadfastly against any suggestion that the laws of nature established from the beginning (and Einstein had to be convinced by Edmund Hubble that apparently there was a beginning – what we now call ‘The Big Bang’) were or are subject to chance variation (Isaacson, pp. 353-55). The monistic character of Einstein’s views is also manifest in his belief, which was similar to that of Schopenhauer, as well as that of Spinoza, that humans were completely determined both by inner and outer necessity in their actions, even though Einstein also believed that ‘The most important human endeavor is striving for morality in our actions’ (Ibid., pp. 391, 393).
3.1.4 Panentheism and A. N. Whitehead
However, we must consider a third form of pantheism, known as panentheism. Although the term is relatively new, the idea is seen by some as (e.g., Cooper, 2006) as having roots in Plato’s thought. Briefly put, panentheism, while it sees God’s presence in — hence the insistence on the insertion of the Greek preposition en within the more general term — all things, equally insists on the distinction between God and the rest of creation. Like the quotation from the ancient Greek poet quoted by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (17:23) ‘In him [i.e., God] we live and move and have our being’, for panentheists (to paraphrase Plotinus), ‘God is not just everywhere…God is the everywhere from which everything [else] has its existence’ (Aeneads, VI, 8,16).
Although the term ‘panentheism’ was not coined or used by the Anglo-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the use of the term is widely employed by the school of ‘process theologians’ influenced by the process philosophy derived from Whitehead’s work. In the final chapter of his great masterwork, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology — originally delivered as the Gifford lectures back in 1927 — Whitehead had spoken of an ‘antecedent’ or ‘primeval’ nature as well as a ‘consequent nature’ of God within whom all individual beings or entities (usually called ‘occasions’ in Whitehead’s evolutionary vocabulary) find their fulfillment, as well as contribute to God’s own fulfillment. The movement to develop the further implications of Whitehead’s thought along more explicitly Christian lines seems to have stemmed mostly from the work of his one-time teaching assistant at Harvard, Charles Hartshorne. From these beginnings, the movement has flourished, particularly in Whitehead’s adopted home, even if only recently, his theological thought has only begun taking root in his land of origin, where he is still mostly remembered for his co-authorship, with Bertrand Russell, of a highly theoretical three volume work titled (like Isaac Newton’s famous treatise) Prinicipia Mathematica.
Given his background in such mathematical abstractions, it is no wonder that his great philosophical masterwork, at least in its initial chapters, appears to be almost impenetrable to average minds. For example, the second chapter of Part I (‘The Speculative Scheme’), presents a ‘categoreal scheme’ that consists of eight categories of existence and twenty-seven categories of explanation, the ninth of which asserts (here I quote, word for word):
That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the ‘principle of process.’ (Whitehead, 1970, pp. 34-5)
The above passage, with its equation of being with becoming, or even the replacement of the former by the latter as the chief object of our attention, is of paramount importance if we are to understand Whitehead’s concept of God. For as he says in another place, ‘…God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse.’ Instead, ‘He [God] is their chief exemplification’ (Ibid., p. 521). Thus God’s being, seen as a constituent of the entire cosmos, is a state of eternal becoming. So while Whitehead insists that while, at least conceptually-speaking, ‘God and the World stand over against each other…’, a sentence or so later he also insists that ‘no two actualities [i.e., God and the World] can be torn apart: each is all in all’ (Ibid., p. 529). If so, then the traditional transcendentalist understanding of traditional theism, e.g., God as ‘totally other’, is radically undercut.
Thus, Whitehead wrote of God as being, as it were, ‘the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire’ (Ibid., p. 522) a source of endless ‘creativity’ (Ibid., pp. 46-7, 135, 329, 343-4, 522), of innovation or novelty (Ibid., pp. 31, 135, 249, 529). Most noteworthy, however, is Whitehead’s distinction between the antecedent or ‘primordial’ nature and the ‘consequent nature’ of God. The former is ‘God in abstraction, alone with himself’, (Ibid., p. 50). On the other hand ‘The consequent nature of God is conscious; and it is the realization of the actual world in the unity of his nature, and through the transformation of his wisdom’ (Ibid., p. 524). It is between these two poles, during the eons of evolution, both past and what is yet to come, in which ‘[t]he perfection of God’s subjective aim, derived from the completeness of his primordial nature, issues into the character of his consequent nature’ (Ibidem). Even if ‘[t]he revolts of destructive evil’ are taken into regard, yet ‘the image — and it is but an image — the image under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost’ (Ibid., p. 525). Thus God is seen as ‘the great companion—the fellow sufferer who understands’ (Ibid., p. 532).
The question remains, however, if this radical modification of theism is any longer compatible with the ‘unmoved mover’ concept of God derived from Aristotle. Apparently Whitehead believed that it was not, and that it was this Greek philosophical understanding of divinity, foreign to the more dynamic Hebrew concept of God, which combined with the notion of the ‘eminently real’ (i.e., a static concept of being rather than becoming), that ‘infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and Mahometanism’ (Ibid., p. 519). All this, Whitehead believed, ill-accords with ‘the brief Galilean vision of humility’ which ‘dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world’ (Ibid., p. 520).
Curiously, none of the ‘new atheists’ seem to have seriously investigated, or even to be aware of, contemporary panentheistic thought. No doubt this is partly due to the difficulties in following all the intricate turns of thought in Whitehead’s great masterwork. Nor does Whitehead’s concept of God present the easy target for critics of theism found in more traditional Christian thought. Finally, due to the relatively low-key, liberally humanistic picture of Jesus presented by Whitehead and most of his followers, the new atheists, if they were to pay any attention to the process theologians at all, are inclined to classify them, like Stenger does, among the ‘new deists’. Given this situation, what can be done to rescue this more dynamic panentheistic concept of the divine from oblivion?
One could attempt to revive the traditions of some of the early church ‘Fathers’ or theologians whose view of Christianity was much more expansive than Augustine’s fixation on humanity’s fall (i.e., the Original Sin) and Anselm’s consequent theology of ‘Atonement’. But even St. Irenaeus’ understanding of the Incarnation as a ‘recapitulation’ of Creation, or Origen’s understanding of redemption as a universal ‘restoration’ presuppose a ‘fall’ of some sort, even if it be one of more cosmic dimensions. Or else one might turn to medieval thinkers such as the ninth century Irish philosopher John Scotus Erigena. In his grand masterwork Periphysion (‘About Nature’), Erigena daringly spoke of nature passing through four stages: first, ‘nature which is neither created nor creating’ (in other words, God in his primal or original state; second, ‘nature which is uncreated but creating’ (i.e., God in the process of creating); third, nature which is both created and creating (i.e., nature as we think of it today); and fourth, nature, both created and uncreated, but which no longer creates — in other words, the final, fully consummated universe, when God, as St. Paul wrote, becomes ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28). Certainly, the parallels between Erigena’s grand vision and that of Whitehead’s view of the antecedent and consequent nature of God are striking, even if Whitehead never mentions Erigena, while nevertheless thinking of himself as being basically a Platonist.
The last noteworthy predecessor along these same lines was the thirteenth century Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus, most noted for his claim that Incarnation of God in Christ would have taken place even if there had been no ‘Fall’ or ‘Original Sin’. Supposedly, Scotus was contradicted by St. Thomas Aquinas, but the fact is that Aquinas, later in life, apparently conceded at least a bit, when he admitted that (in addition to remedying sin) ‘the Incarnation puts the finishing touch to the whole vast work envisioned by God’ (Aquinas, 1947, p. 216).
3.2 Teilhard de Chardin and the Completion of God
Indeed, this is why I turn especially to the thought of the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) who was informed by a Franciscan (see Gabriel Allegra, O.F.M.) of the similarity of his (Teilhard’s) thought in this regard to that of John Duns Scotus. While teaching as a geologist and paleontologist in Paris at the Institute Catholique in 1922, Teilhard had recognized the impossibility of the whole idea of a primeval couple and their original sin as presented in the usual mode of Christian teaching and said so in a paper he had written intended for private circulation but which found its way into the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities. This turned out to be an indiscretion that earned him a twenty-some years reassignment to do research work in China, during which he served on the international team that discovered ‘Peking Man’, now recognized as a sub-species of homo erectus. However, in that same essay that had gotten him into trouble (Teilhard, 1971, pp. 45-55), he had also toyed with the idea of creation itself as a ‘fall’. But he appears to have rejected this concept as well, not just because of its Gnostic overtones, but also because, like Whitehead, he seems to have sensed that this implied a departure point from a concept of God that was static and who had no intrinsic relationship to a universe that can only be understood in terms of its evolution or its becoming.
However, unlike Whitehead, Teilhard was also deeply motivated by his beliefs concerning Christ, especially by the passages in the later Pauline epistles which associated the risen Christ with the pleroma. This term designated not only the fullness of creation, but (at least as Teilhard described it in a letter to a friend) as ‘Creation in some way “completing” God’ (Kropf 1980, p. 191, my translation). Thus Teilhard’s thought in many ways paralleled Whitehead’s, although expressed very differently. Both, for example, believed there had been far too much emphasis on the concept of the essence of God as ‘being’, and not nearly enough on ‘becoming’. Hence, for Teilhard, the idea of God as creator seems to have been much the same as for Whitehead, for whom the concept of God is ‘a derivative notion’ in the sense of being introduced at a later point to explain the existence of actual temporal realities which are experienced as ‘common and public facts’ (Reese & Freemen, p. 189). Likewise, for Whitehead, God remained ‘the timeless source of all order’ God is also ‘that power in history that implants into … process … a drive towards some ideal’ (Ibid. p. 192). So while Teilhard believed that the ‘existence’ of God can not be proved in the context of a dynamic universe (Journal XVIII, p. 84), he also believed that we have focused too much on the past. As he saw it, we have relied too much on the concept of God as a ‘quasi-efficient cause’, or as it were, a ‘Moteur en arrière ’, instead of seeing God as a ‘quasi-formal’ cause, even a ‘Dieu animateur … en avant ’ (Ibid., p. 132).
So while, for Teilhard, God remained personal, still it was obvious to him that what modern humanity was rejecting was ‘the image of a God who is too insignificant to nourish us in this concern to survive…’. What is really needed is ‘a progressively more real and more magnetic God [that can] be seen by us to stand out at the higher pole of humanization’ (Teilhard, 1970, pp. 240, 242). In Teilhard’s specialized vocabulary, this ‘humanization’ signifies the future cultural and psychological advance of human civilization, ‘the progressive development of a collective human consciousness’ (Teilhard, 1971, p. 141) as distinguished from the biological process of ‘hominisation’ that marked our evolutionary past. Described elsewhere in his writings as the achievement of an ‘ultrahumanity’ (e.g., Teilhard, 1970, p. 313) through a process of ‘unanimasation’ (Teilhard, 1962, p. 259) which he saw as the culmination of the whole process of evolution. Yet none of this is accomplished without struggle, and even occasional setbacks. All of it is part of the evolutionary process, which he reminded us, ‘even in the view of the mere biologist … resembles nothing so much as the way of the Cross’ (Teilhard, 1959, p. 313).
3.2.1 The Role of Christ in Teilhard’s Thought
Thus compared to Whitehead, who saw ‘The essence of Christianity’ in the life of the historical Jesus ‘the Nazarene’ as ‘a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world’ (1967, p. 174), Teilhard’s interest was focused almost entirely on the Christ of Faith – almost to the point where he neglects to spend much time contemplating or writing about the Jesus of History. In fact, for Teilhard, as he suggested in one of his still unpublished notes (Journal 20  p. 23), the historical Jesus sometimes seems to have been merely a kind of ‘relachement definitiv’ (definitive unleashing) of the ‘trans-Christ ’. This last term was another way of referring to the Cosmic Christ, whose incarnation Teilhard saw as a kind of ‘inoculation’ of the divine into the universe (1965, p. 61). This same concern was to also express itself, as Teilhard — always alert to the developments in the other sciences, contemplated the growing likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (1971, pp.235-6) — saw the necessity for a recognition of a ‘third nature’ of Christ’, one capable of embracing ‘the whole cosmic milieu’ but also to serve as an ‘ultimate psychic centre of universal concentration’ (Teilhard 1973, p. 199).
As to what Teilhard was getting at in these latter phrases, perhaps we should recall that in the words of Teilhard’s friend, the biologist Julian Huxley — grandson of Thomas Huxley, a.k.a. ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ — ‘Man (sic) discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself’ (Teilhard, 1959, p. 221). But if this is true, although Teilhard never explicitly said so, then might we not say that Christ, even in his human nature, represents (at least to those who follow him) humanity or self-reflective life become conscious of its divinity or (to put it in Whitehead’s terms) the role of self-reflective life in the achievement of the ‘consequent nature of God’?
If so, then this last-mentioned ‘psychic’ element is perhaps most important when it comes to trying to supply another path to achieving Bishop Spong’s goal realizing how it might be we humans discover or realize our own divinity. While it might not quite free us entirely from the ‘theism’ that Spong finds so hopeless, it might give us a means of understanding why Bishop Spong, a devotee of a demythologized Jesus (sans miracles, etc) nevertheless finds the Gospel of John so inspiring. It is not because he actually believes that Jesus may have said that ‘I and the Father are one’, but because Spong believes that such a saying, written well over a half-century later, perfectly describes what in fact actually was the case.
3.2.3 Whitehead & Teilhard on the Future of Humanity
While Whitehead and Teilhard might have approached the goal somewhat differently (the former as a mathematician modeling his thought on physics, the later a paleontologist thinking primarily in biological terms) it was this shared theme of completion, both of the universe and in some way, of God, that reveals a striking similarity in their thought. Granted, that Whitehead’s concept of this completion was more or less a-temporal or infinite, seen as an on-going process without end.
On the other hand, Teilhard’s concept of the end-time was more traditional, and hence more time-conditioned, although he insisted that the parousia would not come about — but come it will — until humanity has reached its full capacity for union (Teilhard 1965 p. 84) and thus until we ourselves fully desire it to take place (Teilhard 1960, pp. 133-9). As to which of the two was right about this matter, only the future will tell. Although contemporary (at least observation-based) cosmology may favor Teilhard, still, in view of human conduct (both in terms of ecology and our treatment of one another), it could turn out that both Whitehead and Teilhard, each in their own way, were to some degree wrong.
Regarding our future as individuals, Whitehead concluded his great masterwork Process and Reality by summing up his thoughts on what he called ‘objective immortality’, when ‘What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality of heaven passes back into the world’ and ‘the insistent craving that zest for existence be refreshed by the ever-present, unfading importance of our immediate actions, which perish and yet live forevermore’ (Whitehead, 1970, p. 533). However, what this actually means in terms of individual consciousness (i.e., subjective immortality) is debated among the process theologians.
Teilhard, in contrast was quite explicit in describing what he saw as ‘A Personalistic Universe’ (Teilhard, 1969, pp. 48-92), as somehow preserving individual identities, even after death. Although he spoke eloquently of the ‘pantheistic’ current or impulse that he discerned was at the heart of all religion (Ibid., pp. 56-75), he nevertheless insisted that Christianity, to the extent that it embodied this tendency, is a ‘pantheism of union’, not a ‘pantheism of fusion’ in which the identity of the individual is lost (Ibid. p 171; 1970, p. 222).
3.2.4 The Future of Faith
Finally, although Whitehead is probably most famous for having once said that ‘Religion is what man does with his solitude’ (Whitehead 1974, p.16), but he had quite a bit more to say about the subject, including its communal aspects, especially the rise of ‘rational religion…whose beliefs and rituals have been reorganized with the aim of making it the central element in a coherent ordering of life…’ (Ibid., p. 31).
Likewise, Teilhard also spoke of this same ‘zest for living’ in an address on the importance and future of religion, which he gave in 1950 to an interfaith group calling itself the Congres Universel des Croyants. In it, Teilhard claimed that the ‘era of religion’ (vs. the various ‘religions’) had not been left behind. To the contrary ‘it is quite certainly beginning’ (Teilhard, 1970, pp. 239-40). What Teilhard described as a world that seems to be ‘foundering in atheism’, is really suffering from is, instead, ‘unsatisfied theism ’. But the religion Teilhard had in mind could no longer be invested in creeds that were ‘primarily concerned to provide every man with an individual line of escape’ or what he later described as ‘Religions of the Above’ — the various theisms or even the monistic ‘pantheisms of absorption’ (1978, p. 97). What we need, instead, is ‘a religion of mankind and the earth’ and ‘a re-alignment and readjustment of old beliefs towards a new Godhead who has risen up at the anticipated pole of cosmic evolution’ (1970, pp. 240-1). However, then the question remains: what religion is truly capable of accomplishing this feat?
Teilhard’s answer — although he didn’t say it openly in that broadly ecumenical audience — was that this new Godhead is, as it was always for Teilhard, the cosmic Christ. Thus, in his last essay ‘Le Christique’, completed just weeks before his death, Teilhard spelled out the three essential components of his life’s vision. First, he lists Jesus’ historical entry (by his birth) which marked his ‘tangibility in the experiential order’. Second, Teilhard insists on Christ’s resurrection, which he sees as signaling his ‘expansibility in the cosmic order’. Third, Teilhard insisted that the new Christianity that he envisioned requires an ‘assimilative power in the organic order’ — one which was capable of ‘potentially integrating the totality of the human race in the unity of a single “body” ’ (Teilhard, 1978, p. 89).
Admittedly — and Teilhard did admit it in this final essay — his vision might seem to be an ‘illogical mixture of primitive “anthropomorphism”, mythical marvel, and Gnostic extravagance’ (Ibidem.) — thereby confirming Maritain’s suspicions that Teilhard was guilty of fostering a new form of gnosticism and having ‘bowed down before the world’ (Maritain 1968, p. 116), especially if Maritain had lived to see this essay (which remained unpublished until 1976). Nevertheless, Teilhard stubbornly held to his conviction, warning that ‘however strange the combination of these three factors may appear, it holds good — it works — you have only to diminish the reality (or even the realism) of these three confronting components for the flame of Christianity to be immediately extinguished’ (Teilhard, 1978, p 89-90). Thus, even though he had few months earlier (in August 1954) admitted that he saw the historical claims for the divinity of Jesus as being more or less elusive (‘insaisissable’ ) and had lamented the paradox that just when these claims had become, in world’s eyes, ‘untenable’, nevertheless, at the same time, they had also become all the more ‘essential’ (Journal XX, pp. 63-4). This he apparently saw as being equally important as belief in God, which he had already, the month before, emphasized as an ‘L’Exigence Existentielle ’, and which, although he admitted was not provable (‘indemonstrable’ ), he saw as nevertheless necessary for our survival — both in terms of time (‘toujours’ ) and in completeness (‘tout entire’ ) (Ibid., p 59).
Teilhard’s use of the word ‘Existential’’ in this context is very significant. Seldom, if ever, had he used that word in any complimentary sense in his earlier writings. Back in 1951, he had spoken of the ‘morbid symptoms’ such as those found in ‘Sartrian existentialism’ (Teilhard, 1964, p. 296) and a few months later, the ‘heartsick pessimism (whether atheist or religious)’ — the latter a reference to Karl Barth — in his own 1952 essay ‘On What the World is Looking For from the Church’ which remained unpublished during his lifetime (Teilhard, 1971, p. 215).
For Teilhard then, it seems that just as it had been for Whitehead, religion and religious beliefs were ultimately about permanence — not in individualistic sense that religion is often seen, as merely selfish ‘soul-saving’ based on promises of heavenly rewards or fears of eternal punishment — but rather as what theologian Paul Tillich called the ‘Ultimate Concern’ on the largest scale, that is to say, the eventual fate of the universe and all that is in it.
For Whitehead, for whom the universe was itself eternal, ‘Each actuality in the temporal world has its reception into God’s [consequent] nature’ and ‘[t]he corresponding element in God’s nature is not temporal actuality, but is the transmutation of that temporal actuality into a living, ever-present fact’ (Whitehead, 1960, p. 531). In contrast, for Teilhard — especially after Lemaître’s theory of ‘the Primal Atom’ and Hubble’s observational confirmation of what we now know as ‘the Big Bang’ (Teilhard, 1959, pp. 47-8, n1) — the universe is seen as entropic, with the material (‘tangential’) energy slowly exhausting itself in a cosmological ‘heat death’, leaving only the life of the spirit to be sustained by ‘the hope of an “imperishable”’ and by ‘the action of a conquering love, can reflective life continue to function and progress unless, above it, there is a pole which is supreme in attraction and consistence’ (Ibid., p. 291). For Teilhard, of course, this ‘pole’ of attraction is the ‘Omega’ revealed in the figure of the cosmic Christ. But whether seen from Whitehead’s or Teilhard’s perspective, either way, within an evolving universe, religion is more than matter of individual soul-saving, but instead has taken on a truly cosmic perspective.
We have seen, in the first part of this paper, how the proclamation, or the prediction of Nietzsche that ‘God is dead’, at least the God of traditional theism, has been, at least to a significant extent, fulfilled. If it is not exactly ‘We’ (i.e., ourselves, as Nietzsche claimed) who are to blame, it is certainly our science and the pervasive sense of secularity that has killed Him. So while the first, uncaused cause of the philosophers may remain, it hardly seems to be a God, much less a ‘person’ to whom we can pray, much less, from whom we can expect miracles. Even Whitehead, who ascribed boundless ‘creativity’, and even all-encompassing ‘love’ as attributes of God, and who even referred to God using the personal pronouns ‘He’, ‘Him’, and ‘His’, nevertheless seems to have stopped short of actually calling God an actual ‘person’. And just for the record, even Pope Benedict XVI, at least in his earlier days, spoke of ‘that unknown reality that faith calls God’ (Ratzinger 1997, p.22) and has even admitted, much more recently, in a preliminary address to the 2006 World Youth Congress, that neither the existence of God nor God’s non-existence can be ‘proved’. Instead, he sees it as an ‘option’ as to whether or not one chooses to believe in the ‘the priority of reason, of Creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things’, or else to believe, to the contrary, in ‘the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would only be accidental, marginal, an irrational result — [thus] reason would be a product of irrationality’ (l’Oservatore Romano, Apr. 12, 2006, p.8).
So where does that leave us — particularly those of us who call ourselves ‘Christians’? From a purely rational, or even historical, point of view, I think it is fairly evident that Christianity has taken the memory of the human figure of Jesus of Nazareth and elevated him to the status of God, at least God as God was imagined to be in the ancient world. Thus Jesus, who had his own image of God as ‘Abba’ or ‘Father’, has become for believers ‘the image of the unseen God’ (Col 1:15) and the ‘perfect replica of God’s being’ (Heb 1:3). Or again, taking as our model the divine Logos theme of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, may we not see in Christ, as has the pope, the ‘personification’ of divine Reason?
The only remaining question would seem to be whether or not that ‘personification’ is merely something of our own doing or is, on the other hand, a result of God’s own initiative. For the unbeliever it may seem clearly the former — just another case of fashioning for ourselves a ‘god’ (i.e., an idol) ‘in our own image and likeness’. To the contrary, for the traditional ‘orthodox’ Christian, it was God’s own doing. But might there not be a ‘third way’ by which we might solve this dilemma?
To try to answer this question, we might turn to a historical precedent. We know that François Arouet (1694-1778) — better known as the great skeptic ‘Voltaire’ — once wrote, ‘If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him’. Likewise, from what we have seen from the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who on his mother’s side was a great-great grandnephew of Voltaire), particularly in his final essay (see 2.2.4 above), it looks like Teilhard was doing the same with his concept of the ‘trans-‘ or cosmic Christ who signifies the ‘Omega-Point’ or goal of evolution.
However, would it not also be possible to see the roots of this transformation as having taken place through the agency of Jesus himself, that is, if Albert Schweitzer, even as far back as 1905, was on the right track in his famous, and then revolutionary book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus? Thus Wright (1999b, p. 23), while following Schweitzer’s lead, believes that while Schweitzer was essentially correct in emphasizing the message of Jesus as being focused on the arrival of God’s kingdom, Schweitzer, led astray by an overly-literal interpretation of the apocalyptic language of the synoptic gospels in which this message was expressed. Naturally, since this event has obviously not happened, one seems forced to either of two extremes, either to conclude (like ‘The Jesus Seminar’) that Jesus never actually said these things or else, if he did, he was spectacularly wrong! Wright (Ibid., pp. 25, 37, 68-69, 75) points out that the discovery and subsequent understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls has greatly enhanced our understanding of this sort of literary genre.)
Granted that many of the first Christians also seem to have misinterpreted the apocalyptic passages, and even if they did not necessarily believe that they presaged the end of the world, they did take them to predict the imminent parousia — the ‘Second Coming’ of Christ. Wright (Ibid., pp. 93-4) seems to suggest that contrary to that mistake, Christians should see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — especially latter (Ibid., pp 126-31) — as having in fact brought into existence the beginning of a new historical era.
Granted that this era now sees things quite differently. The challenge to the established order is no longer the threat of God’s wrath as heralded by John the Baptist nor even the imminent arrival of his Kingdom as announced by Jesus himself. Instead, what we face today, in addition to the continuing threat of nuclear proliferation, is the looming threat of environmental disaster, as well as what seems to be increasing clarity within the scientific realm regarding the long-term (and apparently entropic) fate of the universe.
Thus Christians should see themselves as those called to retranslate Jesus’ own eschatological perspective into the time-frame of history as we see it today, not in terms of an imminent end of the world, or but rather in terms of bringing about, as much as possible in this world, what Jesus saw, and taught his followers to pray for, as ‘the kingdom of Heaven’ or ‘the reign of God’ on earth.
Understood this way, I think that the future of Christian theism need not be held hostage to an overly literalistic concept of God as ‘person’. Nor should we conclude that science has answered all the basic questions: quite the contrary, its answers, when pondered fully, only seem to pose even deeper questions than those first asked. On the other hand, given the human propensity to personify that unknown reality that lies at the heart of being, might not Christians be forgiven for finding, or indeed even encouraged to revere, the image of the unseen God in the person of Jesus Christ? * And if Voltaire’s ‘God’ was seen as the source of nature’s laws and the guarantor of societal order, so Teilhard’s ‘Cosmic Christ’ was more the projection of his belief, even in the face of an entropic universe, in the infallibility of evolution. If so, then Teilhard’s transposition of the traditional Christ of Faith into the goal of human or even cosmic evolution would seem to be the next logical step in the evolution of Christian theism. Then perhaps the only real question that remains is this: What would Jesus himself have said about this development?
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