God, the Verb, part 1
What does the word “God” say to people? (An even hairier question!) It says something, though it’s not exactly clear what. Whatever it is, does it need to be said? If it does, can it be said as well, or better, without using “the G-word”?
If I don’t know what “God” means, then I don’t know what “atheist” means either. Declaring you’re an atheist – or a theist -- makes some kind of statement. But what? Some people say they believe in God. What are they saying? Others say they don’t believe in God. What are they saying?
And is there a real disagreement here or only the appearance of a disagreement? If you say something is red, and I say no, it’s yellow, but by “red” you mean orange – and by “yellow,” I mean orange – then we don’t have a real disagreement. Thus, some people say they believe in God but not the God that the atheists don’t believe in. They agree with the atheists that that God doesn’t exist, but they believe in another one. It reminds me of the mythological beast described in an early Woody Allen essay. The “Great Roe,” he says, has "the body of a lion and the head of lion, but not the same lion."
So let me ask you some different questions.
Have you felt awe? Have you ever felt a fulsome beauty that stopped you dead in your tracks? Have you felt grandeur in the world, the planet, or the space in which it floats? Have you felt a deep humility in the face of that grandeur? Have you ever felt a oneness with another being – perhaps watching a hawk soaring across the sky felt that you, too, were soaring there – that the boundaries of your self expanded, or dropped away entirely? Have you ever felt mystery and wonder? For all the world’s tragedies and atrocities -- the holocaust, mass famines, horrible hatred and violence, have you ever felt that the entirety, the whole enchilada, the full catastrophe – the stuff we judge good and the stuff we judge bad – all of it together -- the laughter, the tears, and heartache, all added up -- all fit together somehow into a whole that, tragedy and pain and all, is good and beautiful and true?
If your answer to all those questions is “no,” then if you want to identify yourself as an atheist, I won’t quibble. If your answer to even one of those questions is “yes,” then if you still want to self-identify as an atheist, a quibble or two may be in order. To wit: Why not call that feeling a feeling of God?
Maybe one person defines God as the universe – the universe with nothing in it other than what scientists describe. Meanwhile another person defines God as a super-powered person with knowledge and desires. Two such people can have a conversation in which they each mention God. For all their differences, they are both invoking what is of ultimate concern, what is awe-inspiring, what is the source of life and beauty and mystery – that toward which an attitude of reverence is appropriate.
There are a lot of options for how to think about God. In what follows, I will look particularly at an option offered by a school of thought called Process Theology.
Western thought since Plato has privileged Being over Becoming. Whitehead flipped that. He said reality is fundamentally becoming. Process is what’s fundamental, and things are just temporary manifestations of unfolding process -- as opposed to the predominant presumption that things are fundamental and that they change is nonessential, an imperfection, a design flaw.
The perfection of God, from the Platonists through Thomas Aquinas and up to modern times, was God’s unchangingness. Whitehead said change is not a bug in the system. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Change is not nonessential – it is the essence. The ultimate principle is creativity – the process of creating takes precedence over any product creation.
NEXT: Charles Hartshorne makes Process Philosophy into Process Theology
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This is part 1 of 3 of "God, the Verb"
Part 2: Processing Theology
Part 3: Transitive, Intransitive, and God