No one told the Babylonians about Nathan, the prophet, and his declaration that the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah was established vouchsafed to David and his descendants “forever.” (2 Samuel 7:11.5-16) First, civil war divided the Kingdom north and south with David’s descendants continuing to rule in the southern Kingdom of Judah. Then the Babylonians marched in, dismantled the Davidic kingship, and took the cream of the kingdom’s citizenry into exile.
The Psalm reference with our title image expresses the anguish of a people whose national and cultural identity, immanent in their triumphant “Songs of Zion,” had been crushed. (I am grateful to Michele Myers for the use of her painting as my title image.) If you read the whole Psalm you’ll discover that it ends with a passionate cry for vengeance against the Babylonians.
Well, at last we are at the final post in this confessional series. I will semi-apologize up front for its length. In spite of my intent to be concise, I have discovered that composing a theological summation does not lend itself to brevity. Nevertheless, I hope you, the reader, will have the patience to persevere to the end.
In my previous posts in this series, I’ve tried to share my understanding of how we in so-called western culture have arrived at this time of a newly emerging vision of the universe and its history. As I have said all along, “This is my story and I’m sticking to it” … or at least for the time being.
The reason I chose the title quote and image for the conclusion of this series is because it seems to me that there is a similar “anguish,” even including some desire for “vengeance,” in our current cultural moment. The so-called “culture wars” are for me one data point in this anguish. What follows is a theological confession that some may see as either another salvo in those “wars” or, on the other hand, as a parallel to Martin Luther’s declaration at the Diet of Worms in 1521, “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me.” Though, again, I must admit that there are other places I could stand. Nevertheless, I have chosen to stand here.
But before getting into the theological substance of this post I want to offer three caveats. First, contrary to many theists and atheists, I hold that the affirmation of God is a presupposition not a conclusion. You do not make an argument and then say, “QED, God!” Rather you say, “Given God, ….” and then live in relation to the content of that affirmation. At its most basic, I think the affirmation of God is a declaration of faith that there is an a priori transcendent order to things. What follows is my characterization of that order.
I say “my characterization” because, once again, I recognize that there are alternative characterizations. In their important work, Philosophers Speak of God, Charles Hartshorne and William Reese identify ten types of theism. In addition, they describe four types of theological skepticism. Granted that typologies are significantly in the eye of the typologizer, still, their work suggests that when a person says, “I don’t believe in god,” an appropriate response might be, “Which god don’t you believe in?”.
My second caveat is drawn from Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the Tractatus he wrote,
3.342 Although there is something arbitrary in our notations, this much is not arbitrary–that when we have determined one thing arbitrarily, something else is necessarily the case. (This derives from the essence of notation.) (emphasis in the original).
While Wittgenstein was writing about notation, I take his point to be a more general epistemological characterization of reality. We live in an indeterminate yet ordered reality such that there are necessary consequences to the determinations we make contingently. This is a complicated way of saying that our free actions have necessary, though often unknown until they appear, consequences. In terms of this current series of blogs it means that, if I claim to believe something foundational, then I am obliged to except the necessary consequences of that belief as best I can conceive them. It also suggests that, if reason and experience challenge my expectations of what my foundational belief requires, then I have to reconsider that belief no matter how foundational.
The last caveat is one such foundational belief; namely, that cosmology precedes theology. By theology I mean deliberately thinking about God. This assertion seems to me to be true in two ways. First, the universe was here for 13.8 billion years or so before there was any creature (at least here on Earth) that could think about it theologically. I am not saying anything here about whether other species in the universe that may have theologies. I’m limiting myself to the genus Homo. Second and more personally, all of us were conceived, gestated, birthed, and nurtured in our earliest year or so of life in an active relationship to the cosmos before we related to it theologically.
With these caveats out of the way you may recall the picture of the speculative cosmology with which I ended my last blog. This is my cosmological starting point.
You may also recall that when Napoleon is purported to have asked Laplace, “Where is God in your [cosmic] system?”, Laplace is said to have responded, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” It is my intention here to give a different answer.
Referring to my first caveat in this blog, I think Laplace’s answer involves a category error. The affirmation of God is not a hypothesis to be confirmed by evidence and argument but rather a presupposition that informs a way of life including all questions that might be asked about the cosmos. It is for me a complex, constructed presupposition, as you will see. But, no matter how original my articulation of this presupposition may be, it is deeply dependent on and influenced by the thoughts of people like Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, Ian Barbour, and John Cobb.
As noted earlier God, the presupposition, begins as a simple assertion, which does not seem controversial, that underlying the oft seeming unruliness of existence is a principle of order. That order in my view is rooted in the future, expressed in the past, and active in a calling in the present.
It is rooted in what I am going to call the unchanging primordial nature of God or the divine purpose. I identify this with the future, a domain of potentiality, a non-existent cloud of possible qualitative relationships whose particular integrations will form the moments of history. As I suggested in my previous blog, I don’t think this domain of potentiality is value neutral. Rather I believe the future is weighted or inclined toward the integration of moments that embody goodness, truth, and beauty.
The concrete actualization or realization of those moments of history is the past, what I am calling the ever-changing consequent nature of God or the divine memory. Once actualized each past moment is fixed, but the whole set of moments that constitute the past is continually changing as new moments come into being and are integrated into the whole; or in Whitehead’s words, “the many become one and are increased by one.” (Process and Reality, 1978, pg. 21)
What joins past and future, the primordial and consequent natures of God, is what I am identifying as the call of God, the initial aim of each concrescing (growing together) moment of existence.
More theologically put, the future or primordial nature of God is the Father as source of creation;
the consequent nature of God is the Son, the actualization of the intentionality of God in history (the Logos incarnate);
with the call of God being the Spirit, the Logos acting creatively in the present, linking the two natures of God.
Taken all together and “at the same time,” this is my sense of God.
You may have noticed that this “picture of God,” much to my surprise, has a trinitarian form. I used to say that “On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I was trinitarian; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I was not; and on Sunday I rested.” But low and behold, I have discovered myself to be trinitarian after all.
Still, I am confident there are scholars of the history of Christian doctrine who would point out that what I have written and illustrated above is just another example Christian heresy. But back to Luther’s declaration, “Here I stand,” even with the proviso that I actually could stand somewhere else.
Perhaps even worse than a charge of heresy, this “picture” is, in principle, a violation of the Second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus, 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). This is an “image of God,” not graven from matter but formed of words. Yet, I would argue so is all theology except, perhaps, that of the apophatic sort; what is called negative theology, declarations of what God is not. Otherwise, every positive Christian theology is at its core idolatrous.
But my heresy and idolatry aside, there are three things I would like to note about my picture of God. First, it is intended to be a dynamic one, though words on a page are not particularly dynamic. Perhaps better, it is a picture of God primarily as creating. Contrary to most western Christian theology, in this picture God as creator supersedes and encompasses God as redeemer. Here redemption is a form of creation (Psalm 51:10).
Second, the consequent nature of God is within God-as-a-whole not separated from God. So, God changes with every new moment that becomes an actual entity. This theological position is what has been called “panentheism,” all within God. It is not “pantheism” for which God is simply all.
But it is also different from “classical theism” wherein the creation, world, cosmos is completely separate from God and God’s nature is unaffected by the creation. Even though traditional Christianity affirms that God is immanent in creation, still classical notions of divine perfection insolate God from being affected by the creation.
Third, though each moment of existence, each moment of history, comes into existence in relation to the calling of the Spirit, it forms itself in relation both to the whole past and all that is possible. Each moment is free to become what it will. It is free, not absolutely but really. Because the calling of the Spirit is qualitative, not to some specific material outcome, each moment can exercise its own creativity. Be it a musical score, a theatrical script, a public policy, a building design, a technological innovation or a marriage, all have the potential in their own way of being true, good and beautiful.
Yet, because a moment is not coerced or forced to become what it is called by the Spirit to be, each has the opportunity to fall short of its calling. This missing the mark is a classical Jewish and Christian definition for sin. But I’d argue that rather than sin, such “falling short” is actually the definition of moral error.
Because past moments project themselves forward, because the future represents an overabundance of possibilities, and because the calling of the Spirit is not coercive, then the actualization of each moment can be erroneous in relation to that call. In my view such error is not sin. But to persist in such error, to perpetuate error, even to magnify it with additional errors is, to my mind, what constitutes sin.
This distinction, it seems to me, is reflected in the Biblical tradition. Theologically, it is declared that Jesus was without sin. But, in the story of his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman [Mark 7:24-30], I think Jesus exhibits moral error. Initially, he clearly displays ethnic prejudice in the face of the woman’s desperate need. But in reaction to her humble response, he does not persist in his prejudice but provides the care for which she has pled. Too often the tradition has interpreted this as a test of the woman’s faith. Instead, I believe it was a test of Jesus’ integrity as an advocate of self-giving love.
A dimension of the Christian tradition associated with the Gospel of John asserts that Jesus is the Logos of God made flesh. I think this claim is not unique to Jesus. Rather in Jesus we see what is paradigmatic for all creatures. As the moments of Jesus life constituted him as an enduring object, the affirmation that he was the incarnation of God means that he faithfully responded to the call of the Spirit in every moment of his life. But every moment in creation is also at least to some degree an actualization of its initial aim, a response to the call of God, an incarnation of the Logos. This would make Jesus exemplary of what all creatures are intended to be in their own way, a concrete integration of truth, beauty, and goodness in their particular place and time.
I believe, the French Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, captured the significance of this understanding of the creation when he wrote, “… by virtue of the Creation and, still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” (The Divine Milieu, 1960, p. 112)
There is another main theological dimension of the Christian understanding Jesus; namely, that he is the Messiah of Jewish prophesy (the Christ as translated into Greek). Unfortunately, it is often forgotten that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name but a title.
In the face of the cultural and theological devastation of the people of Judah due to the Babylonian conquest (the circumstance that is expressed in Psalm 137), Jewish theologians developed two parallel but separate theological traditions. One was that of the future Messiah, the David-like king, who would restore the nation and fulfill the Abrahamic promise that Abraham’s descendants would become a great nation and that nation would be a blessing to all nations. This was the tradition that energized Jesus’ earliest disciples. It led to arguments among them about who would have high positions in the Messianic kingdom. This was a tradition of hope of restoration.
The other tradition was that of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) whose dire trials and tribulations were the price paid for the sins of the people as a whole. In this tradition, the Suffering Servant was not an individual but the personification of the people who bore brunt of the Babylonian captivity. The scapegoat of Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 16:21-22) became the sacrificial lamb of the New Testament (John 1:29). In its own way the tradition of the Suffering Servant was also a tradition of hope, but now in terms of redemption rather than restoration. What is arguably one of Jesus’ unique theological teachings was the integration of these two traditions of hope: the Messiah who suffered for the sake of the people’s redemption.
As noted earlier, every moment is not required to fully enflesh its calling. Failure to do so is ultimately the source of discord, disruption, trauma, loss, and pain. But these are not felt only by the creation. Remember the creation is in God. So, God experiences all of these. It is literally the case that God feels our pain. This is one reason that the cross or the crucifix is perhaps the most universal Christian symbol. It is also why the creation itself, in all its parts and as a whole, can be seen as cruciform.
The Christian tradition has typically seen redemption, the divine resolution of the problem of sin, in legal terms. The capital punishment of Jesus through his suffering on the cross and death are considered “payment” for the sinfulness of humanity. Perhaps this is not surprising given that Christianity is rooted in Judaism for whom the Law of Moses is central. Also, many of the foundational elements of Christianity were set by Paul, the Apostle, who in an earlier portion of his life was a Pharisee, an advocate for faithfulness to the Mosaic law and traditions. The word, redemption itself, is a quasi-legal term referring to reclaiming something by paying a debt.
I believe that this legal orientation has skewed the Christian understanding of redemption and, in fact, privileged the idea of redemption above that of the act of forgiveness inherent to self-giving love. Forgiveness is the opposite of a paid-off debt. In fact, the same Paul associates forgiveness with love.
Arguably one of the most widely quoted passages of the Bible comes from the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It is a staple reading for Christian marriage ceremonies.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends….
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
For Christians love is not sentimentality; nor is it romance. The Greek word for the Christian understanding of love is agape, unconditional love. Forgiveness of others is possible because of love for them. Here forgiveness is not forgetting the harm caused by the other but instead remembering and not holding that harm against the other. This allows the aggrieved as well as the one who harmed alternate possible futures rather than both being bound by the past. This I hold is God’s expression of love for the Creation; that the future is underdetermined by the past. This I believe is what is meant by “the grace of God.”
And where is this grace expressed? Where does God love? It is in the calling of the Spirit, a calling to a new creation, a calling that does not eliminate but transforms the past.
But if the Spirit is the initial aim of the act of self-creating of each moment; if it is the aim toward the enfleshment of the Logos; if that incarnation is the integration of truth, goodness, and beauty; and if the Logos is the potential realization of God’s love; then the creation is a concrete expression of love, intended by love, by means of love.
But again to identify creating as a form of loving is not to offer a schmaltzy understanding of love. The exercise of love is tough. Jesus said that it requires the love of the enemy (Matthew 5:44), the turning of the cheek (Matthew 5:39), the active care of those we would rather pass by and ignore (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37).
But it also requires making hard choices between the least of evils, defending the weak even by means of mortal combat. Or surgically invading a person’s body in order that their life might be extended. Love does not require standing by in the face of dire threats to the innocent or the ravages of disease. But it does not sugarcoat the evil that may be done to protect the innocent or care for the ill.
God does not save us from the consequences of our actions but does empower us through the Spirit to mitigate those consequences and to redirect our actions toward the integration of truth, beauty, and goodness; toward peace; toward the incarnation of love.
So, unlike those by the rivers of Babylon, the new song we are called to sing is not one of despair, not one of bitterness, not one of vengeance. It is a love song. It is a song that is created as we sing like a vocal improv. It is a song not for a single voice but for a cosmic choir. Each creating moment offers its distinctive note, fit for its time and place, yet called to be in harmony with every other note well sung. It is a contribution to what Pythagoras called the “music of the spheres.”
Well, here we are at the end of the series of five posts. Were these posts my contribution to the cosmic singing or were they only an atonal long-winded sermon? That is for you, dear reader, to judge.
I’ve offered these musings in the spirit of psychotherapist Carl Rogers who wrote, “What is most personal is most universal.” That does not mean that I think that my notes in the song of creation are universal such that every other creature should also sing them. Rather I hope that my singing is in harmony with the distinctive singing of all the other creatures and faithful to the qualitative call to which it is a response.It is sometimes said that spirituality is the universal search for “the meaning of it all.” In light of what I have written, I would disagree. Rather I believe that the religious pursuit is a contribution to the sacred “making of the meaning of it all.”
Jim is an honorably retired teaching elder of the Presbyterian Church (USA). For most of his career he served as a minister in higher education at Michigan Tech, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. However, immediately following seminary, Jim worked in the School of Engineering at North Carolina State University. From 1996-2006 he was the Senior Program Associate for the Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Jim is the immediate past president of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith and currently serves as co-chair of the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. In 2021 Jim was elected a Fellow of the AAAS.