Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Asking the Right Questions (Continued)

Then I became a graduate student. And things changed. This was at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute at the University of Adelaide. For the first time I was in direct contact with real scientists, working with them in the laboratory. They all seemed to be atheists or agnostics. That I took religion seriously was very odd to them. My supervisor in particular had thought it all through. Religion was anti-science and a source of much evil in society. Many were the discussions I had with him. I was quite unable to defend my position intellectually. It was full of holes. My religion did not mix with my science.

Then came my second conversion. It was an intellectual one this time. My faith was falling apart. It had foundations of sand. The beginning of a resolution came via the Student Christian Movement. It showed me there was an alternative interpretation of Christianity to the fundamentalism in which I was brought up. I never knew of that possibility before. 

When reassurance began to re-establish itself it came like the weaving together of strands. I was conscious of a bottom forming under me. I tried to break it down. The strands refused to be broken. The effect was to re-establish a fundamental trust with respect to the meaningfulness of human life. I found some of the former elements came back, different from the old, no longer borrowed dwellings. For better or worse, they were mine.

The elements that came back renewed were the experience of forgiveness, the courage to face the new, the sense of not being alone in the universe, and all that could be called the values of existence as revealed in the life of Jesus. God as a source of value was nearer than hands and feet, closer than breathing.

But I had a new problem. The science I was becoming more familiar with presented me with a mechanistic universe which provided no clues to a meaning of life. It had nothing to say about my feelings which were to me the most important part of life. How did they fit into a mechanistic universe?

I began a new journey of discovery when my newly discovered mentors in the SCM, especially one of them, urged me to read Whitehead's Science and the Modern World. I felt this was written just for me, especially chapter five The Romantic Reaction. On reading Whitehead my mind flashed back to a lecture I had heard as an undergraduate but had not understood at the time. It was on the philosophy of biology given by my professor of zoology W E Agar. He had discovered that Whitehead was fundamental to his understanding of philosophical problems raised by biology especially in evolution, behaviour and development. 

So I wrote and asked him what I should now read. He replied, Charles Hartshorne's recently published The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation. He added that he had himself just completed a book on Whitehead's interpretation of biology, A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism. Its first sentence read: "The main thesis of this book is that all living organisms are subjects." That was what I needed to know.

Besides reading these books I read much of Plato and all I could on Whitehead. More specifically on religious topics I read Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church in New York. He had been a minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, had been accused of heresy and left to occupy the pulpit of a huge new cathedral church near Columbia University built for him by John D Rockefeller, a member of his congregation. His history seemed promising to me.

I became dissatisfied with the prospect of a career devoted entirely to research. I wanted more involvement with people. I aimed for a combination of research with teaching. So off to the University of Chicago I went. Unknown to me at the time, until I got there the University was the centre of Whitehead's thought (process thought) in the world. Hartshorne was in philosophy, and in the divinity school were Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Meland, Bernard Loomer and Daniel Day Williams. And the most distinguished Professor in the Department of Zoology where I researched and did courses was Sewall Wright who was a Whitehead disciple and close friend of Hartshorne.

This was all terribly important for me as I began to wonder if I had got on the right track. After all I had already made one bad mistake in embracing fundamentalism. My new experiences reinforced the foundation of my thinking which I had begun to build in Adelaide.

From there I became familiar with other process thinkers, notably John Cobb, a student of Hartshorne who is a Director of the Centre for Process Studies in Claremont California. And of course, I had plenty of encounters with opponents of this perspective especially when I was involved with the World Council of Churches - which seemed to me to be socially left wing and theologically right wing.

What were the questions which I now regarded as the right ones to ask about God? Nietzsche said that truth is the metaphor that matters for you. I think I have two such metaphors.

One comes from Paul Tillich. The metaphor is "ultimate concern". Ultimate concern is that concern that fulfils life. All other concerns are secondary. This is his metaphor for God.

The other comes from Whitehead. It is the idea that there was inherent in the universe from its foundations the potentialities or possibilities of the future. From a universe of pure hydrogen some moments after the big bang eventually some billions of years after came us. In contemplating this cosmic evolutionary process Whitehead argued that the potentiality of the universe must be somewhere. By somewhere he meant some actual entity. He named that actual entity the mind of God. Divine potentiality becomes concrete reality in the universe by means of persuasive love, never by coercion.

So my second metaphor is that at the heart of the universe is persuasive love. In the last chapter of Process and Reality, Whitehead said that when the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered. "The brief Gallilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages uncertainly ... the Gallilean origin of Christianity does not emphasise the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. Its dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and quietly operate by love."

I wish now to consider these metaphors in a bit more detail under three headings: The presence of God in the world; the response of the world to God's presence; the presence of the world in God.

The presence of God in the world
Martin Buber said, "In every event we are addressed by God". Charles Wesley put it thus: "Father, thou art all compassion; pure unbounded love thou art." There is a persuasive influence in human life that is transforming. None of us need stay the way we are. For each there are persuasive possibilities not yet realised. We are tuned to the lure of God in our lives. A note on a tuning fork elicits a response from a piano because the piano already has in it a string tuned to the same note. So have we.

This persuasive aspect of God is given many names - treasure in the field, pearl of great price, light on the hill. It has been called the divine eros to emphasise that this is a passionately felt relationship. The proposition of process thought is that this same influence is at work in all the individual entities of creation from protons to people.

The potentialities of the universe and its individual entities are not in the form of a blueprint of the future. So it is misleading to speak of divine design. The term design has connotations of a preconceived detailed plan - which is one reason why Darwinism dealt such a blow to the deism of Paley's natural theology. 

The term "purpose" is better as it does not carry this connotation. Nothing is completely determined. The future is open-ended. One reason for this in process thought is that God is not the sole cause of all happenings. God exercises causality always in relation to beings who have their own measure of self-determination. As the source of un-actualised possibilities, God is always creating by confronting what is with that which is possible. And this by persuasion and not by manipulation. 

Thus God, like all other entities, is in some aspects incomplete. He is our companion in the creative advance. So it would be true to have God say, "I am what I am becoming" (Exodus 3.14) . It would also be true to say that the world lives by the incarnation of God in itself.

It is appropriate to conceive of providence in these terms. Providence is a difficult word with a number of meanings. The meaning in the present context is that God provides the possibilities. In so doing, God is forever active and never needs be persuaded to act. Providence does not mean divine planning by which everything is pre-determined, as in an efficient machine. 

Rather, it means there is a creative and saving possibility in every situation which cannot be destroyed by any event. The use of persuasion as opposed to coercion is not to be conceived as based on a voluntary self-limitation of God. We might think a surer way to create would be to combine a bit of persuasion with coercive manipulation from time to time. I know of no evidence to support this view. The world does not appear to be made that way.

Some traditional theists have said to me, "You make God limited if he has no power to do anything at all". But is God limited if he cannot work any nonsense in the world when he wants to, such as to create a stone so heavy he could not carry it? The imagery leads to absurdity. It is as absurd to say we have our own power and freedom (which we all presuppose) but that God can step in and control our actions. It is absurd to suppose that to do what has to be done God cannot work within the order of nature as we do, but has to destroy the creation to do that.

Is God then powerless? The paradox is that there is a power in love. It is the only sort of power that matters in the long run. The form of power that is creative and admirable is that which empathises with others and empowers them. Some events in the history of the cosmos, including human history, have more significance than others. They are peak events. This is not because God intervenes in these events and not in others. To interpret significant events as special acts of God is to turn God into an agent of mechanical intervention or into a magician. It is to replace persuasive love by fiat.

This view of divine action is not only a view of the nature of goodness but also the nature of evil. John Cobb says that if God is understood as that factor in the universe which makes for novelty, life, intensity of feeling, consciousness, freedom and in humanity a genuine concern for others, we must recognise that he is also responsible in a significant way for the evil in the world. 

If there were nothing at all, or total chaos, or if there were only some very simple structure of order, there would be little evil. There would instead be the absence of both good and evil. Earthquakes and tornadoes would be neither good nor evil in a world devoid of life. Only where there is significant values does the possibility of their thwarting their conflict and their destruction arise. The possibility of pain is the price for consciousness and the capacity for intense feeling. Sin is the corruption of the capacity for love. Thus God, by creating good, provides the context within which there is evil.

In this view, evil springs not from providence but from chance and freedom. Because of chance, freedom and struggle there are misfits, suffering and what is called the evil of nature.

The world's response to God presence in the world
The second proposition is that creativity in the world is the response of the entities of creation from protons to people to God's presence. A verse in Matthew's Gospel reads, "Be you compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate."

The Gospel of Thomas puts it a little differently. It has Jesus say, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill you."

"Infinite passion" is the phrase which Tillich borrowed from Kierkegaard to express the only adequate "with all" response to God's persuasive love.

"The divine imperative", says Hartshorne, "is to be creative and to foster creativity in others." Even an atom of uranium, he suggests, is not just deciding whether or not at a given moment turn into an atom of lead. It too is creative not only for itself but for other atoms.

The presence of the world in God
It is as true to say that God experiences the world as to say that the world experiences God. God is both cause (in creating the world) and effect (in experiencing the world). In process theology God is conceived not as the playwright watching afar off the drama of creation, but as involved in all its experiences of joy and suffering. God feels the world as the world is created. 

This is in contrast to the classical view where God is said to be loving, yet without anything like emotion, feeling or sensitivity to the feelings of others. Aristotle said it first: "God is mover of all things, unmoved by any." So also says the first of the 39 Articles in the back of the Anglican Prayer Book which I once had to learn in preparation for confirmation.

The alternative proposition is that whatever we do makes a difference to God. Whatever any individual entity in creation does makes a difference to God. That includes the sparrow who falls to the ground. The universe will never be as it is if we and the sparrow had never been. A love that leaves the lover unaffected by the joys and suffering of the one who is loved is not love at all. 

The denial of God as one who feels the world's joys and sufferings was largely due to the Greek notion that perfection involves immutability - if God is perfect then God cannot be changed in any way by what happens in the world. On the contrary, to be enriched by the enrichment of the world is to be responsive to the world and therefore to be more loving. Responsiveness, not immutability, is the nature of perfection.

Where was God at Auschwitz when the child was standing at the wall facing the firing squad? God was suffering with that child. God experienced the excruciating suffering of the tormented and was agonised by the satisfaction of their tormentors. According to the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel the pathos of God is the central idea of prophetic theology in the Bible.

There is an ocean of God's experience to which we and the world contribute as the hymn suggests:

O love that will not let me go,
I give you back the life I owe,
That in  your ocean's  depth its flow
May richer, fuller be.

My faith involves a sense of belonging to a larger reality which contributes to one's life and which receives the contribution of that life.

In this vision of the divine, who is not the supreme autocrat but the universal agent of persuasion, whose power is the worship he/she inspires and who feels all the feelings of the world, I find not only a new way of understanding the world, but also a new way of facing the tasks of today.
Charles Birch is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney, Australia. For 25 years he was Challis Professor of Biology. In 1990 he won the Templeton Prize for Progress of Religion

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