This book study begins April 28, 2019.
A paradigm-shifting blend of science, religion, and philosophy for agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious, and scientifically minded readers
Many people are fed up with the way traditional religion alienates them: too easily it can perpetuate conflict, vilify science, and undermine reason. Nancy Abrams, a philosopher of science, lawyer, and lifelong atheist, is among them. And yet, when she turned to the recovery community to face a personal struggle, she found that imagining a higher power gave her a new freedom. Intellectually, this was quite surprising.
Meanwhile her husband, famed astrophysicist Joel Primack, was helping create a new theory of the universe based on dark matter and dark energy, and Abrams was collaborating with him on two books that put the new scientific picture into a social and political context. She wondered, “Could anything actually exist in this strange new universe that is worthy of the name ‘God?’”
In A God That Could Be Real, Abrams explores a radically new way of thinking about God. She dismantles several common assumptions about God and shows why an omniscient, omnipotent God that created the universe and plans what happens is incompatible with science—but that this doesn’t preclude a God that can comfort and empower us.
Moving away from traditional arguments for God, Abrams finds something worthy of the name “God” in the new science of emergence: just as a complex ant hill emerges from the collective behavior of individually clueless ants, and just as the global economy emerges from the interactions of billions of individuals’ choices, God, she argues, is an “emergent phenomenon” that arises from the staggering complexity of humanity’s collective aspirations and is in dialogue with every individual. This God did not create the universe—it created the meaning of the universe. It’s not universal—it’s planetary. It can’t change the world, but it helps us change the world. A God that could be real, Abrams shows us, is what humanity needs to inspire us to collectively cooperate to protect our warming planet and create a long-term civilization.
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Week 6 Questions
1 – Pick two Long Term Ideals and justify. 141
2 – How do you understand: “we are our future and our past right now.”? 145
3 – Does “how you conceive of God” have enormous impact on how we behave toward each other? Explain. 147
4 – What does “limitless spiritual power” mean? 147
5 – Could God punish you? How? 151
6 – What difference is your “newly discovered cosmic identity” making in our life? 154
7 – What is an example of living how you aspire to live? 159
8 – There are no seams between day and night language. Comments? 160
9 – Comment on one of the Ten Better Promises. 161
10 – Are you convinced, or at least interested?
Responses to Week 6 Questions
Chapter 8: Planetary God, Planetary Morality…continued
1. Pick two “long-term ideals” and justify. [p.141]
Not surprisingly, I’d choose two values from my “truth box” (Why not?): compassion and justice. The first thing that came to my mind were those powerful words of Micah 6: 8 – “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
So, I would think that “compassion,” by its very nature, includes those aspects of kindness that we find lifted up throughout the Bible and are at the heart of any healthy family or society. Remarkably enough, it’s an ideal that also includes the kind of “empathy” that Abrams has lifted up in her definition of morality (p.130). It’s what one would feel toward the less fortunate among us which would then move us to alleviate the suffering that we still see in the world. We would all benefit from such tenderheartedness. Think of the damage that’s been done throughout history by its opposites – animosity, cruelty, hatred and indifference. True compassion would go a long way toward healing the brokenness that we find everywhere – even in ourselves.
And while it’s not why I chose these two ideals, I find “justice,” of course, to be very much like the “fairness” that’s the second part of Abrams’ simple definition of morality (Ibid.) – and yet much more. It requires the kind of honesty or integrity that moves anyone to do the right thing. It ought to be at the heart of our system of ethics. It also demands equality and respect in the ways we would treat others. What’s more, it’s simply the reasonable (rational) thing to do if we’re ever to achieve a healthy society.
2. How do you understand: “we are our future and our past right now.”? [p.145]
As Abrams points out here (and I agree with her), we humans beings “are still trying to figure out how to live with each other.” So, we must carry our past into the future. I’m reminded of something that was said by the eminent philosopher, George Santayana: “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” If we forget, or can’t remember, our past, it will have been a meaningless existence. We will have learned nothing.
I must admit, however, I’ve no idea what Abrams means in saying that by bringing our future and our past together we’re able to “see ourselves as a four-dimensional reality across time.” What in the world is beyond length, area and volume? Time – or “space-time,” as the physicists call it? But, I admit, I’ve never been able to get my mind around Einstein’s theory of special relativity anyway (E=mc2) – or the later cosmological “string theory.” I don’t seem to have the kind of mind for such things.
Now, if we were to think of the fourth dimension in a metaphysical way, I’d call it spirituality. Hey, it works for me!
Chapter 9: A Big Picture for Our Time
3. Does “how you conceive of God” have enormous impact on how we behave toward each other? Explain. [p.147]
Absolutely, it does. Consider the current punitive actions taken by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church – all based upon one faction’s conception of God. So, I do agree with Abrams conclusion here: “If our ideas about God are not helping us…then we need a new understanding of God.” I just don’t agree with her understanding of God – i.e., “If there’s something infinite beyond the Big Bang,…it has nothing to do with us. It’s not our God.” How can she know that – one way or the other?
4. What does “limitless spiritual power” mean? [p.147]
It is an odd phrase – especially since in just three paragraphs earlier on that same page, Abrams said, “To be real it must be limited.” So, is it or isn’t it? I think that our individual spiritual power is limited. Collectively, it is much greater, but limitless? I doubt it. It seems that she’s fallen into hyperbole as she’s conceived her own version of a “Higher Power.”
Throughout this book, she says one thing that either I disagree with or that makes no sense to me, but then later says much that I do agree with. For instance, when it comes to our spiritual power she says this: “For the first time we can have a coherent picture of reality that meets our highest scientific standards [that] has a meaningful place for an awesome God, and frees our spirits to strike out with fervor….” But why then limit the nature of God solely to the collective aspirations of human beings?
Still, she asks a good question: “What do we humans really need from our idea of God?” (p.149). Those values and principles that are “making us useful to the world, giving us peace of mind, and showing us how to live in harmony with the universe and with each other” (p.149) is a good answer. I agree with at least that much of her response. But when she goes on to conclude that we, collectively, influence God or weaken God (p.150), I don’t see that at all; we’re influencing ourselves – weakening or strengthening ourselves. Oddly enough, it sounds like she agrees with that old adage, “God helps those who help themselves.” Maybe so, but how?
5. Could God punish you? How? [p.151]
I don’t believe so – certainly not directly. My concept of God doesn’t function that way. If we do upset the balance of life within this universe – the place in which we live, move and from which we take our very being (cf. Acts 17: 28) – and then suffer consequences for doing so, some might consider that punishment. But I don’t. God wasn’t the punisher; we brought it on ourselves (e.g., consider wars and climate change) – just as we can save ourselves if we pay attention to reality and do what’s right.
6. What difference is your “newly discovered cosmic identity” making in our life? [p.154]
Again, I like some of what she says here in this section: “Each of us is a process that takes a lifetime” (p.152). But then she throws in a non sequitur: “No one has any identity, except across time.” What? Our identity develops across time, but at no time are we without an identity.
Yes, I agree with her that “the history of everything makes it what it is” so, in a way, “each of us is an event unfolding” (p. 153). But I’m not sure that my identity has the kind of “cosmic” quality as Abrams envisions it here. One day we, as a species, might evolve to the point of connecting to all people everywhere – and so then feel as if we were “part of God” – but we’re a long way away from having created that collective consciousness, let alone being in “harmony with the universe.”
7. What is an example of living how you aspire to live? [p.159]
As I have opportunity, I aspire to live out the values as I’ve recognized them in religion (and so listed most of them in my “truth box”). It has, quite literally, taken a lifetime and I sincerely hope that I’ve gotten better at it over these past 74 years. While I’m as guilty of “backsliding” as anyone, my family and community – if not the institutional version of The United Methodist Church – has made me a better person for having made this journey alongside me.
8. There are no seams between day and night language. Comments? [p.160]
The further part of that quote goes like this: “scientific reality and God – there are no seams between them. … God, after all, is the source of all meaning, old and new, and can be understood this way in any religion that doesn’t require taking its teachings literally.” So, we can’t separate the reality of scientific discovery from the reality of God – whether it’s a seam or a line, a theory or a theology. They are both part of the same Reality. Hopefully one can inspire the other toward the depths of truth. But we shouldn’t ignore the insights of one at the expense of the other. Science and religion can remain in dialogue with each other and not have to say where one stops (e.g., a “seam”) and the other begins.
9. Comment on one of the Ten Better Promises. [p.161]
I’m with her through every single one of those. I find it curious, however, that she could still think that her “emerging God is doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.” There are aspects of divinity that transcend humanity. I’m just surprised to hear her say that after all that she’s said before.
10. Are you convinced, or at least interested?
If I’m being asked whether or not I’m convinced that Abrams’ idea of God is “a God that could be real,” my answer is no, I am not convinced. I remain to be deeply interested, however, in how our scientifically informed minds might be able to positively affect our collective consciousness as a species. We need to “get our act together” and science can help – but so could an informed religion, a heightened spirituality, and a renewed dedication toward the kinds of values common to us all (again, I would submit at least those that I’ve listed in my version of a “truth box”).
Overall, I found that there were many issues in this book where I do agree with Abrams – especially as she relates them to our fundamental need to redefine God. I just don’t come to her conclusion that God is nothing more than the collective aspirations of our species. God, for me, is much, much more vast and mysterious than that – a Force both at the heart and beginnings of creation and still at work in the ongoing processes of creation that we’ve come to call “evolution.”
I feel the same kind of passion that Abrams seems to feel, however, when she speaks about a cosmic consciousness: “Every time we let ourselves feel the reality of this cosmos…we are priming ourselves for divine contact” (p.156). Absolutely, we are. That’s how I understand prayer.
I do agree with her, though, that we need to reinterpret all of those outdated anthropomorphic images of God that have been portrayed for centuries in religions all across the world. “Spiritual imagery that helps us feel cosmically connected is invaluable,” she says, and yet it must be connected “to the real cosmos,” not one – I assume she means – that is merely imagined in the myths and legends of institutionalized religion (p.158). Absolutely. I believe that is true.
Finally, I agree with her that “once we let God be real, no scientific truth can ever be in conflict with God” (p.161). But, again, I do find it curious that she can say, right after that, that her “emerging God is doing for us what we could never do for ourselves” (Ibid.). Really? So, God is, in fact more than our aspirations and the collective consciousness of humanity? I would say, yes. God is much, much more than that. But I respectfully disagree with her further unfounded conclusion that “no God could have been there in the beginning; the miracle is that God is here now” and that if humanity disappears, so will God (Loc. cit.). How does she know that? She offers no scientific proof for that conclusion. For me, then, God is not only here now, but God was there before us, and will be here long after we’re gone – still an ineffable Mystery and creative Force – and not just “a big picture for our time,” but for all time.
In the end, however, truth does matter. But let’s not confuse Abrams’ version of the truth with the Ultimate Truth – Ultimate Reality – truth that’s not only at the heart of creation, but all around us, within us, among us, and yet still so far beyond us that more will be revealed. You can depend upon it.
Week 5 Questions
1 – What one or two modern people would you raise up for spiritual distinction? Why? 116
2 – Maintaining a literal biblical world view is immoral. Comments? 119
3 – Draw a religious truth box. 123
4 – What do you have to take out – and what do you have to put in – to make a religion for all people ( or expand it to all earth creatures )? 126
5 – What is sacred to everyone? 128
6 – How would / do you define morality? How does this compare with our author on pg. 130?
7 – Is morality limited by the culture it is built within? Comments? 131
8 – There seem to be 12 Step programs to “fix” lots of things about life. Does it make sense to have a 12 Step program for life itself? Comments? 132
9 – How many people should there be in the world? 135
10 – What do you see as the greatest impediment to the last sentence on pg. 140? (Now the challenge … spiritual connection.)
Responses to Week 5 Questions
Chapter 7: Renewing God, Renewing Religion
1. What one or two modern people would you raise up for spiritual distinction? Why? [p.116]
I don’t know whether or not you’d consider him “modern,” but for me The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. must be raised up for “spiritual distinction” for his witness on behalf of justice – for all people of color if nothing else. In the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King has done more on behalf of justice for black people than anyone else in “modern” times.
I would also lift up Lhamo Thondup – renamed Tenzin Gyatso and who continues to identify himself as “a simple Buddhist monk” – but he is better known as “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama” and the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. In many ways he’s shown himself to be an extraordinary man of peace in the face of the People’s Republic of China that wishes to take over his country. He has consistently advocated policies of non-violence, even in the face of extreme aggression, and continues to urge his country to follow the trends of the free world in the ways of democracy. He’s also the first Nobel Laureate to be recognized for his concern for global environmental problems and even now – in his “retirement” – continues to work for the promotion of moral values and religious harmony across all nations and cultures in the world.
2. Maintaining a literal biblical world view is immoral. Comments? [p.119]
Such a view becomes “immoral” if those biblical literalists expect that God will actually intervene at some point in the future to permanently condemn the damned to hell and reward the faithful with heaven for adhering to their narrow interpretations of the Bible. It’s just not going to happen.
3. Draw a religious truth box. [p.123]
Let’s say that we agree with Abrams’ definition of such a “box” in that “Only by defining the limits of a religion can you discover in what respects it is reliably true” (p.122). If, as she points out there, “Physicists are constantly trying to find the limits of their best theories, [and] constantly forced to embrace their own humility in the process,” so, too, should we theologians. When it comes to being religious, I agree with her, as well, that “It is a spiritual challenge to find the limits of traditional teachings and create the next teachings.”
So, if I were to draw a “truth box” (and I have, but as an addenda to another version of this paper), I would first list these seven core values that are almost universally recognized as being at the heart of any true religion: LOVE, JUSTICE, HOPE, COMPASSION, KINDNESS, TRUTH, and WISDOM. While I consider those to be central, other important values in my “truth box” would be Harmony, Reason, Integrity, Inclusiveness, Self-actualization, Experience, Beauty, Joy, Happiness, Family, Responsibility, Forgiveness, Empathy, Perseverance, Peace, Well-being, Community, Freedom, Scripture, Worship, Curiosity, Prayer, Health, Respect, Stewardship, Generosity, Humility and Loyalty. There very well might be other values that I’ve not thought of here, so the dialogue among us ought to continue. What do you think should be added or eliminated? Why?
4. What do you have to take out – and what do you have to put in – to make a religion for all people (or expand it to all earth creatures )?[p.126]
Not surprisingly, I would agree here with Abrams’ wonderful aspiration that we should “aspire to shape goals that are sacred for all humans, regardless of religion.” What’s more, I think that her three goals are good ones to have: “…to protect our extraordinary jewel of a planet,” “…to do our best for future generations” and “…to identify with humanity’s story.” That first one necessarily would value the kind of environmental stewardship that would expand our care “to all earth creatures.” To me, all of these are parts of what any religion ought to be – again, celebrating our shared values. If I were to add any more (and, no surprise, I would), at least they would be those that I’ve outlined above in #3 – my version of a “truth box” in which "Love" is central and then closely followed by "Justice," "Hope," "Kindness," "Compassion," "Truth," "Wisdom," etc.
As far as taking things out, I’d eliminate all dogma, rigid orthodoxy and the kind of clericalism that insists upon only one version of theology and biblical interpretation at the exclusion of all others. Let’s also allow for reputable biblical scholarship to influence our understanding of religion and open up the canon of scripture while we’re at it to honor new discoveries of ancient texts.
5. What is sacred to everyone? [p.128]
Oddly enough, this might be problematic – depending upon one’s culture, environment, and the level of intelligence of its people. However, unless a person is certifiably insane, or deeply twisted by misfortune, I think a good benchmark for everyone would be the classic three: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I would think that life and happiness would necessarily include having others to love and being loved by them as well – and that would be consider sacred by everyone. I’d also think that caring for and being supported by an enriching physical environment would be sacred to anybody.
Chapter 8: Planetary God, Planetary Morality
6. How would / do you define morality? How does this compare with our author on p.130?
In my culture, it’s our predisposition to evaluate some actions as virtuous, or morally good, and others as evil, or morally bad. Morality, then, consists of the urge to judge the actions of anyone as either right or wrong in terms of their consequences experienced by the rest of us – i.e., it necessarily involves an extended community of people and how it defines morality as well. Regrettably, moral behavior can be defined differently depending upon that community’s mores – approving of some and disapproving of others. We’re facing such a conundrum right now in the different understandings within communities and cultures regarding human sexuality.
So, I think that Abrams’ brief definition emphasizing only “empathy” and “fairness” – while both good moral qualities – might be an oversimplification. I do agree, however, that such “fifth-order thinking” (as she and the primatologist, Frans de Waal, have called it here) would be a good skill to cultivate by any community or culture – whether they be monkeys or human beings!
7. Is morality limited by the culture it is built within? Comments? [p.131]
As I pointed out in #6, above, I think that it can be – and, regrettably, very often is. Is there, however, a standard of morality that all human beings could agree upon? Given the opportunity and the will, I think there is. I would submit my “truth box” on religious values as a good model to begin with.
8. There seem to be 12 Step programs to “fix” lots of things about life. Does it make sense to have a 12 Step program for life itself Comments? [p.132]
I found it helpful to briefly review just what the 12 Steps are. They began with this foundational statement from the insights and work of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
Growing out of that confession evolved 12 principles that have become known as the twelve steps to recovery; here’s a shorthand of just one version: 1st – Surrender (admit that you have a serious addiction problem), 2nd – Hope (come to know that there is hope for recovery), 3rd – Faith (trust in your own idea of a Higher Power), 4th – Courage (make a moral inventory of yourself), 5th – Integrity (acknowledge where you’ve been wrong), 6th – Willingness (make a decision to stop holding back), 7th – Humility (have the proper perception of yourself), 8th – Reflection (make a list of all the people you’ve harmed), 9th – Amendment (make a real effort to make amends to those people), 10th – Vigilance (persevere in your new purpose in spite of how hard it will be), 11th – Attunement/Spirituality or Spiritual Awareness (remember positive lessons and prayerfully remain open to the messages of recovery), and 12th – Service (pass on the lessons that you’ve learned to others in the grip of addiction).
I think that it does “make sense to have a 12 Step program for life itself” – or something very much like it. While you or I may not be behaving in ways that have risen to the crisis level of truly addictive behavior, we all could benefit from taking the time to go through such an in-depth moral inventory. It would make us better people and then that would affect the larger community (society, culture, nation, all of humanity – even the world itself) in more positive and healthier ways.
9. How many people should there be in the world? [p.135]
I’m tempted to flippantly respond, “God knows.” But, whatever the population, it shouldn’t just be an arbitrary number. The first thing that comes to my mind would be for us to create a world that can adequately feed, clothe and house all of the people in the world. Have we already gone beyond that number? I think not. Our inability to provide all of those necessities is simply because we’ve not yet had the will as a species to clearly do what needs to be done.
I keep coming back to the phrase that speaks of what ought to be available to all human beings: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – i.e., that everyone has the resources to experience life in all of its fullness, the freedom to achieve his/her fullest potential and to experience some level of happiness while doing so. If we can accomplish all of that, the size of the population is no longer the issue.
10. What do you see as the greatest impediment to the last sentence on p.140? (“Now the challenge is to shape a materially sustainable world where most growth is in knowledge, justice, compassion, creativity, and spiritual connection.”)
The greatest impediment to this aspiration, tragically, is that we neither have the will as a species nor the ethical leadership across the countries of our world yet in order to accomplish this.
Week 4 Questions
1 - “[W]e don’t get to choose what reality is, but we get to discover it.” Isn’t that what life is, choosing our reality? 87
2 – As I’ve said before, you religion can determine your worl view, or your world view can determine your religion. How is our author making a(ny) difference in your world view or your religion? 89
3 – What was your result from reading the though experiments on pages 89 – 92?
4 – Comments on the idea that people invent many versions of heaven, but people must be taught (what) to believe in hell. 97
5 – Do you feel like a “grand prize winner in the cosmic lottery”? Why? 99
6 – Our author’s view of afterlife looks a lot like the evolution of life on our planet. Are we really talking about the same or different things? 102
7 – Will the internet become consciousness? 104
8 – What’s wrong with our author’s idea of immortality? 106
9 – How do you see the relationship (if any) between our author’s conscious universe and altered states of consciousness? 108
10 – What one thing do you think we are doing to make this planet hell? 111
Responses to Week 4 Questions
Chapter 5: Does God Answer Prayers?...continued
1. “[W]e don’t get to choose what reality is, but we get to discover it.” Isn’t that what life is, choosing our reality? [p.87]
No one chooses reality. Reality is simply the way things are. We must adjust ourselves to it. The first choice we have is how we will interpret and react to reality. Paradoxically, however, we can often change reality – to make it either better or worse – by the choices that we make (e.g. the climate of our planet for instance). Then we have some new choices or adjustments to make about the new reality.
I do agree with Abrams in one thing here, though, when she says that “hardly anybody has accurate concepts for grasping the spiritual meaning of what lies beyond [us].” However we name it still must be couched in metaphor and conjecture, but our experiences of it are real. More often than not, though, “spiritual meaning” chooses and summons us – not the other way around.
2. As I’ve said before, your religion can determine your world view, or your world view can determine your religion. How is our author making a(ny) difference in your world view or your religion? [p.89]
I would say that both our religion and our world view are in dialogue with one another – each informs the other. Since I’ve long ago moved away from the traditional (and decidedly anthropomorphic) images of God, however, Abrams hasn’t made any difference at all in either my current world view or my religion. I believe in science, but I also believe in God – just not her version of that Ultimate Reality. While I have appreciated her own journey and her rejection of ancient cosmology and theology, I’ve not arrived at the same conclusions, as she has, about the anthropomorphic nature and spirit of God.
As far as religion is concerned (it should be said) my understanding of it doesn’t always reflect the ways in which it’s been institutionalized in the Church – or in any of the other major religions of the world for that matter. Again, for me, “religion” is represented by both a personal as well as a communal devotion that’s reflected in a commitment to whatever matters most in the life of a community – i.e., the shared values of that community. Those values then become a total way of interpreting and living life, so religion reflects what “binds” us together (from the Latin root, religare, meaning “to bind).
While one aspect of prayer may, indeed, be a way of “conjuring up the best in ourselves” (pp.88-89), as she says, I think it’s also true when she observes that it’s a way of “reaching out to whatever larger reality people believed or hoped existed” (p.89). I find myself agreeing even more with her later observation about prayer, though, when she says that it’s, “Expanding our consciousness to the spiritual realms of the universe” itself (p.92). To me, that is both profound and true – but, then, so is prayer.
3. What was your result from reading the thought experiments on pages 89 – 92?
To begin with, I don’t think that I fully understand – nor do I agree with – her phrase at the opening of that section (“Contemplating the Universe Can Be Praying”) when she says, “We no longer live in an intuitive universe” (p.89). I believe in intuition. I do agree with a portion of her comment just before, however, that prayer can be “a way of harmonizing oneself with the reality” of God – not an emerging one, as she posits though, but one that was here long before we appeared on the scene.
All of that aside, I enjoyed reminiscing, myself, in response to her “thought experiments” – I’ve even experienced a couple similar to them, myself, beginning with that first one. I was a child at the time, and it wasn’t on grass, but I vividly recall lying on my back in the warm sand at the beach and “feeling” the earth move under me – I even imagined that I could feel the “heartbeat” of God. So, in much the same way as Abrams says in the paragraph just after that, I did feel as if my consciousness was in “alignment with the reality where God can be found” (p.90). She goes on to say that it “takes a lot of imagination to see cosmic reality.” If that’s true, I’ve always had a lot of that kind of imagination!
While I’ve not ever done the next one (going backward from my limited awareness of reality to the unimaginable “Big Bang” moment), I could understand the cosmic journey that Abrams paints. I felt a moment of profound gratitude that I was, and am, part of that journey. So, while this “is science” (as Abrams dutifully says), I can accept that, in a way for her, “it is also a prayer – to align ourselves with the universe so that each of us can experience who we are” (p.92). It’s true, we are part of an awesome cosmic journey – with both a beginning and (possibly) an ending that remains to be shrouded in Mystery.
I’ve had just as profound an experience of the Holy as she describes what one might feel while gazing up into the depths of the sky on a moonless night. I recall being enraptured by the sight of such an endless sky – one literally filled with stars – that only can be seen at places in the world where there is no air pollution or artificial light. I grew up in such a place (the island of Aruba in the Caribbean). So, I do like her imagery here that our “galaxy is merely our local geography. There is a whole universe to re-envision” (Ibid.). What’s more (as I pointed out at the end of #2, above), I also agree with her that such a profound awareness of the spiritual aspects of the universe is, itself, a kind of praying. I’ve entered into such moments as these throughout most of my life – and still do.
Chapter 6: Is There an Afterlife?
4. Comments on the idea that people invent many versions of heaven, but people must be taught (what) to believe in hell. [p. 97]
First of all, they’re all fiction. What should be noticed, though – in all cases – is to ask, just who is creating these versions and why? For example, if the inventors are (or were) religious leaders, they’re probably doing it in order to retain their positions of power and maintain their influence over the laity.
As far as being “taught (what) to believe in hell” is concerned, except maybe for the sociopath or mentally insane, no one wants to face eternal damnation. We all have a way of deluding ourselves that we really are better persons than we actually are – so, if there is an afterlife, we’re pretty sure it’s going to be a good one for us! On the other hand, the concept that “you reap what you sow” is older than the first human society that gave it that agrarian imagery. That whole notion of rewards and punishments has been part of our culture for millennia. It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve imagined that it plays out after we’re dead as well.
5. Do you feel like a “grand prize winner in the cosmic lottery”? Why? [p.99]
No, I don’t. Yes, “Gratitude is called for” as she states. But, personally, I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever felt like a “lottery winner” – to choose her analogy. I simply consider myself profoundly blessed to be alive and to have been given the family that nurtured me during my childhood and has given me the children and grandchildren that remain to live nearby and love me for who I am. If that’s not a “grand prize winner” in some kind of “cosmic lottery,” at the very least it is priceless. I am a lucky man.
6. Our author’s view of afterlife looks a lot like the evolution of life on our planet. Are we really talking about the same or different things? [p.102]
She does seem to equate evolution with some other kind of “emerging reality” and it transcends our individuality in her mind. It should be said, though: no one knows if there’s any kind of “afterlife” or not. Neither science nor theology has any way of proving or disproving its existence. All that we can do is speculate and continue to live as well as we can while we’re alive. I don’t think we get a second chance at it. In my opinion, then, Abrams simply misuses the term as she’s titled this chapter. So, yes, she’s not talking about life-after-death in any individual sense, but the evolution of our species.
7. Will the internet become consciousness? [p.104]
Abrams does state, unequivocally, that consciousness “can’t exist independent of us” (pp.103-104). There might still be an alien race out there somewhere that has consciousness similar to ours. But the ability to store data and simply react to it as the internet does is not consciousness; it just means that it’s a highly sophisticated machine. An essential aspect of consciousness, I think, requires an ability to make an independent decision on the basis of feelings, intuition and/or morality – which would require the living neocortical tissue to make those connections happen. I can’t see artificial intelligence being able to do that on its own; a human being would have to program all of it in – but it wouldn’t be self-replicating – i.e., with any ongoing conscious sense of itself.
8. What’s wrong with our author’s idea of immortality? [p.106]
It’s been said that the “second death” (when, presumably, you are really, really dead) happens when a person is no longer remembered – by anybody. I don’t think that most people would equate the idea of immortality with something like the collective consciousness that Abrams describes here. To my mind, collective consciousness is nothing more than the set of shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes which have come to operate as a unifying force throughout society (cf. Emile Durkheim). It’s no more immortal than it is God. The definition of “immortality” literally means that one is able to live forever. At the current level of biology, nothing and no one is able to do that. The closest thing to it is the way that we pass on our DNA to the next generation; but that’s not immortality.
In the end, her definition of immortality as simply the continuation of human intelligence is, essentially, redefining the meaning of the word. If there may come a time when we’re able to completely store our entire consciousness and then replant it in newer bodies over and over, ad infinitum, only then would we achieve immortality. But, wow – think about it – that would raise practically insurmountable ethical questions about who just gets these “new” bodies and where did they come from?
9. How do you see the relationship (if any) between our author’s conscious universe and altered states of consciousness? [p.108]
I don’t see the connection. As I understand it, an altered state of consciousness can be any kind of state that’s been altered beyond our normal, ordinary awareness – from dreaming sleep, to a drug-induced hallucinogenic state, or something like a hypnotic trance. It’s “altered” because it both deviates and is clearly demarcated from what we’d consider ordinary waking consciousness. It certainly isn’t cosmic in the ways that Abrams seems to be presenting here as her “conscious universe.”
Positively, meditation can lead us into an altered state of consciousness. Some think that it can happen, as well, while practicing yoga or tai chi. Curiously enough, many mothers have experienced child birth as such an altered state. Negatively, on the other hand, mental illnesses – like depression – could be viewed as altered states of consciousness. Again, what is common to all of these is that they allow or cause a person to see himself/herself through a completely different lens or from different angles of perception than what we’d consider to be the ordinary state of awareness. Could that make us “cosmic islands?” I don’t see it – at least not in the way that Abrams seems to.
10. What one thing do you think we are doing to make this planet hell? [p.111]
I’d say it must be something like greed (or selfishness) – in short, those who try to get whatever they want at either the expense of the well-being of others, or the well-being of the very ecosystem in which we all live. We’re experiencing aspects of it now – at every moment and all around us.
Week 3 Questions
1 – What do you think of our author’s definition of spiritual? 64
2 – What does “blended outward into the spiritual” actually mean? 65
3 – Comments on the thought experiment on pg. 72.
4 – What happened (in the language) to turn the world outside the Midgard into the spiritual world? 74
5 – Did we just get a new God as a “conceptual framework”? How does this relate to emergence? 74
6 – I don’t understand the “WHY DOES THIS MATTER?” part. 75
7 – How would you explain our author’s prayer example on pg. 77?
8 – What connects the head and tail of the Uroboros on pg. 82?
9 – General comments on spirituality and/or prayer, especially as our author discusses them. 84
My Reply to Week 3 Questions
Chapter 4: Is There a Spiritual World?
1. What do you think of our author’s definition of spiritual? [p.64]
As Abrams has defined it here, it’s as she’s experienced “connecting to the larger reality we believe exists.” Simple, right? I wouldn’t disagree with her brevity. At least she admits that that “larger reality…will be different for different people.” But (and here’s the rub), I don’t think that she would accept my definition of it. I suspect that she would think me deluded because I’ve no scientific proof that might satisfactorily explain to her what my larger reality actually is.
For me, spirituality is the capacity to recognize that that larger Reality is profoundly related to the spirit, essence, or soul of all life. It’s distinctly different from the physical aspects of life – so, in that sense it is, quite literally, metaphysical (i.e., from the Greek, meaning “beyond,” and “behind,” but also paradoxically “within” and “among”). It’s at the very heart of how we human beings have come to define morality and all things religious in the first place. Its source is God.
And when I use the word “religious,” don’t think at all of “organized” religion or the Church. I mean it in its etymological sense (i.e., the very root meaning of the word); as I’ve said before, to be religious is to express a kind of devotion and commitment to whatever matters most in life – our values. And yet it is our spirituality that has given rise to those values – and both are more than just the collective aspirations of our species. The Spirit within whom we live and move and express our very being has inexorably led us to the kinds of experiences that we’ve come to label as sacred, holy, revered, often profoundly numinous – and so, (and in many ways) intangible and ethereal. In my theology, then – and from the very beginning – all of this has been God given. Once again, I think that we emerged from God – not the other way around.
Do you begin to see how this point of view would be so very hard for a scientist to pin down?
2. What does “blended outward into the spiritual” actually mean? [p.65]
I’m not certain what she means. However, when she says, “What we call physical today blends outward into the spiritual,” I would say that the one reality supports – even arises from - the other. So, we’ve come to emerge as both sentient as well as spiritual beings.
3. Comments on the thought experiment on p.72.
Just to back up a moment, I think Abrams’ conclusion “that all the universe’s exotically large and small size scales have now been discovered” (p.68) is a bit presumptuous. Even she’s admitted that dark matter and dark energy remain, to a great extent, to be undiscovered – more theoretical than material. She’s also claimed that “There is just as much universe within us as there is without” (p.70). What does she mean and how can she claim to know that? Then, too, she’s maintained that “a living cellular world and, within that, the quantum world…[are] the evolutionary and physical sources of everything we are" (p. 71). She seems, to me, to erase – or at least discount – the soul and the spirit.
As far as the “thought experiment” is concerned, yes size is all relative. But when she concludes that “the concept of ‘physical’ becomes progressively more metaphorical until at very large and very small scales it loses its meaning,” she’s lost me. I think that the essence and meaning of something remains – regardless of its size. She then practically discounts the physical universe beyond us and views it, paradoxically, as a “spiritual realm” that surrounds us (p.74) – i.e., that it’s without any meaningful physicality at all. How does she move from physics to such an ethereal realm?
4. What happened (in the language) to turn the world outside the Midgard into the spiritual world? [p.74]
It was an interesting turn for her, because in doing so she’s come close to my own concept of God when she presents it as “the conceptual framework that holds [everything] together and gives meaning to our universe.” As a panentheist, I accept the nature of that Reality.
5. Did we just get a new God as a “conceptual framework”? How does this relate to emergence? [p.74]
As I noted in #4, above, I think, yes, she does seem to posit yet another viewpoint of God. And it does seem to relate to emergence in that the universe and all that has been “given birth” in it has emerged from this conceptual framework – a framework which, to my mind, very well could be God.
6. I don’t understand the “WHY DOES THIS MATTER?” part. [p.75]
I agree with her statement on the previous page that “our experience, our sense that we are present and part of this universe, can only be called spiritual” (p.74). In my own experiences of awe and wonder, that has always felt right to me. I think that it “matters” to her because her concept seems to be – for her, as a “scientifically literate” person – a replacement for the “nether realm or escape fantasy” of most organized religion. For much the same reason, that matters to me as well.
I do find her concluding paragraph, however, a bit odd. To say that “Most of the scientific universe is spiritual” doesn’t seem to fit her thesis – i.e., for her concept of an “emerging God.”
Chapter 5: Does God Answer Prayers?
7. How would you explain our author’s prayer example on p.77?
To begin with, the very title of her chapter led me to simply say to myself, “No, God does not answer prayers – at least not in any traditional sense – not at all.” Her “prayer” was simply – if also profoundly powerful – as a result of the discipline and support that she found in her 12-step group. Counseling and a supportive community can do that for us. So, I can agree with her concept of prayer when she says that it “helps us accept and navigate reality and our deepest needs can be a tool for self-empowerment, just as rational thinking is a tool for self-empowerment” (p.78). Yes, it does.
Oddly enough, however, when she insists that this emerging God can “love us” and “respond to us” I find myself saying, well, no – not in any such anthropomorphic sense. But, yes, we can love this God and, yes, we can feel as if our prayers were answered, but not in a supernatural sense – as if this were a Divine Therapist responding with sage and compassionate advice from the Spirit World.
8. What connects the head and tail of the Uroboros on p.82?
She would have to answer that one, but it looks to me like the connection is made when our self-consciousness becomes aware of the cosmos and we come to feel at one with it – or to use the odd imagery that she’s chosen, we also feel consumed by it.
9. General comments on spirituality and/or prayer, especially as our author discusses them. [p.84]
To begin with, I take issue with her definition of prayer at the close of that section that she’s labeled “Locating the Larger Consciousness” (pp.82-84). In the opening sentence of the second paragraph at the top of p.84 she says: “Prayer is a conversation among different faces of ourselves as we exist on different size scales.” So, prayer is just talking to ourselves? She continues in this way, saying, “We send our ordinary consciousness out to connect to our roles on emergent size scales. Those roles speak back to us if we’re open to their existence.” All of this, apparently, is about us talking to ourselves.
If prayer is “just” conversation, I think that it’s a much more expansive dialogue than the self-reflection that Abrams describes. For me, it is a profoundly intimate give-and-take with the wholly (as well as Holy) Other. Often I am left speechless with awe and wonder in the presence of this greater Reality. If I do say anything in its presence it’s, out of a profound sense of gratitude, to simply say, “Thank you. Thank you” – over and over again.
Again, I think that Abrams got the emerging phenomenon backward: it is we who are continuing to emerge from the greater Reality of God, just as our aspirations have emerged from our awareness of this greater Reality. Our “god-capacity,” then, is our emerging capacity to be at one with the universe that created us. While she says that “it belongs to us, not to any religion (p.85),” in that latter phrase, I appreciate her recognition that all of organized religion (Synagogue, Church, Mosque, et al.) represents a theft of the Holy in that each thinks that they are the only ones who’ve captured the Truth. But it doesn't just “belong to us”; it’s part of the entire cosmos. In the end, I do agree with her that “We have the power to change our images of God without losing God” (Ibid.). So, let’s get rid of all of the anthropomorphic and supernatural images for God in order that we might begin to become fully aware of that awesome phenomenon that gave birth to the cosmos – and then gave birth to us all.
Week 2 Questions
1 – Are any of the five attributes on pg 23 associated with your God? Can you recall if or when they were?
2 – What do you see wrong or at least interesting about proposition 1? 27
3 – Is there any other choice (that you know about) that is neither science or dogma? 28
4 – Is our author’s God too anthropomorphic? Comments? 35
5 – How does a self-organizing system emerge? 39
6 – Do you feel you have a good understanding of emergence? If not, what question(s) would you raise? 43
7 – Consider the church as an emergent property. 45
8 – God emerged from humanity. Comments? 47
9 – If you were to apply science (the method) to theology, where would you start? 56
10 – What is your reaction to the “real” God our author describes? 61
My Responses to Week 2 Questions
Chapter 2: A God That Can’t Be Real
1. Are any of the five attributes on p. 23 associated with your God? Can you recall if or when they were?
If there’s anything of the traditionalist still remaining in me, it’s that I leave open the possibility that some kind of Force existed before the universe and, in fact, may have created it. I cannot conceive of that reality suddenly appearing out of nothing. Some Force gave rise to the so-called “Big Bang” (or “eternal inflation” as Abrams later references what astrophysicists are calling it - p.26). While I understand the creation stories of Genesis (and all other such religious stories) only as metaphor, that Force at the beginning of creation is close to how I’ve come to view the ineffable Mystery that might be considered to be God. So, I don’t reject Abrams’ points 1 and 2 as dismissively as she does – saying that they all “must be lopped away that a real God may live.”
As far as the other three are concerned, at one time in my early childhood I might have accepted points 3, 4 and 5 (sic, that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent) so that God was one who knew everything, planned everything and was powerful enough to violate the laws of nature – at any time. But somewhere in my adolescence I began to suspect that those last three made no sense at all and I’ve long ago rejected them. I came to see them as just wishful thinking and, worse, ways in which the Church came to impose its own authority over ignorant people.
2. What do you see wrong or at least interesting about proposition 1? [p.27]
I must admit that Abrams and I parted company three pages before where she boldly claimed in this proposition that “God could not have existed before the universe.” Oh, really? How does she know that? She rightly observes that throughout the history of the world complexity did evolve from “simpler states of being” (p.24). So, okay, but then she assumes that nothing at all could’ve existed “before the universe” to put it all into motion. That’s more than a bit presumptuous, so I found her conclusion to be an odd non sequitur – ultimately, unbelievable.
On the other hand, I found myself fascinated by what Abrams then went on to say about how astrophysicists have extrapolated in their theory of “eternal inflation…a pure quantum state of being outside our universe…” (p.26). That concept of a “state of being” comes very close to how I’ve come to understand the reality of God – a Force that, “once begun, can never stop and may continue eternally, producing multiple universes, including ours” (Ibid.). Yes! Why not?
In the very next paragraph, however, she seems to discount any presence of such a Force at the beginning by blithely saying that “no meaningful past could exist” (loc. sit.). We cannot know that as a scientific fact. She doesn’t seem to even want to think about a beginning, saying that it’s “just a line we draw in our minds to be able to start telling a story” (p.27). Everything has a beginning – but I’m still wondering if that’s also true about God. Some years before I began my vocation as ordained clergy (i.e., still a lay person within the Church), I created a poster to represent my thinking. Out of a whirling extra-galactic background of chaos, I captioned the poster by truncating that opening line from the Book of Genesis so that it simply said, “In the beginning…God.” Even back then I envisioned that it was out of the very reality of God that “eternal inflation” began – and it has never stopped.
In my current theology, then, God (whatever Force or Being that is) has always been here – in reality. Abrams’ thesis, however, claims that even God evolved into being so, of course, God could not have created the universe (her proposition #2). In her mind, God simply wasn’t there. It may be an interesting thesis, but it’s never been determined by scientific fact.
3. Is there any other choice (that you know about) that is neither science nor dogma? [p.28]
In a way, I think Abrams says it, right there (in her proposition #3): “In our universe there is simply no unified view of the whole.” What we have is profound uncertainty. So, let’s keep looking for the Real – in whatever form(s) it presents itself.
4. Is our author’s God too anthropomorphic? Comments? [p.35]
In the sense that she’s created that imagery of God out of her own aspirations, herself, yes. And yet, back in her proposition #4 (i.e., that “God doesn’t plan what happens”), she’s said “Since God has no unified will or mind, there’s none there to make and evaluate a plan” (p.31). That, oddly enough, sounds decidedly anti-anthropomorphic to me.
Chapter 3: A God That Could Be Real
5. How does a self-organizing system emerge? [p.39]
I think that her choice of an anthill to describe this phenomenon is interesting to consider. As she says, “Ants don’t have free choice. They [just] follow the local rules” (p.40). The whole colony of ants then becomes “a higher-level organism that has far more sophisticated abilities than its members do” (pp.40-41). If such a system were to further “emerge” in human beings (in both a religious and scientific point of view), it would be because our consciousness of the whole system and our parts in it might allow us for greater creativity and cooperation. As we evolved so would the system.
But it isn’t easy. Self-centeredness, greed, lust for individual power and control – all such things endanger any emergence from within the system. I think this is why Abrams observes that “emergence refers to the great qualitative differences that occur only rarely” (p.41) – a good reason why we shouldn’t miss our chance while we still have it.
6. Do you feel you have a good understanding of emergence? If not, what question(s) would you raise? [p.43]
I think that I do. Check me out in this. I would begin by pointing to just two statements that Abrams makes on p.44 that helped me understand it:
• “The essence of emergence is unpredicted newness, and naming and studying that newness keeps expanding our perspective on reality.”
• “An emergent phenomenon is not just an organizing tool: it is truly a new entity. … something radically new, different from its constituent parts. It triggers, if not creates, new laws to describe it.”
In the end, I understand emergence as the kind of formation of collective behaviors that builds upon what parts of a system can do together that they wouldn’t or couldn’t do alone.
Described more simply, emergence is order actually arising out of chaos. A more nuanced explanation, though, is to begin to understand that this higher-order complexity – again, coming out of chaos – creates really novel, coherent structures as they coalesce and interact with the diverse entities of the rest of the system. Paradoxically, emergence only seems to happen when these interactions first create a disruption within the system causing it to then differentiate and ultimately coalesce into something really novel – different from anything ever seen or known before.
7. Consider the church as an emergent property. [p.45]
We are at just such a time. As not only The United Methodist Church, but religion as a whole, is going through huge shifts in understanding reality, the meaning of revelation, and the true nature of the sacred, emergence is happening. Sadly, those closest to it – particularly those in positions of power and influence – either can’t see it or are actively frightened by it, so are fighting against it. But if those of us who can perceive a startling newness emerging out of all of this chaos, and will continue to name it, study it, defend it, promote it and support it, it will continue to emerge – into something truly worth our worship and veneration.
As I’ve said about so many other things within the Church, though, unless we allow the old ways to die – and put up with a bit of chaos in the midst of those endings – nothing radically new will be born. If we won’t let go of those old ways, sadly – tragically – a kind of still-birth death of the entire system will happen and nothing new will ever emerge.
8. God emerged from humanity. Comments? [p.47]
From my point of view, Abrams has that just backwards. Before there was us, there was some kind of monumental Force at work that was God. It was only much later that from the primordial soup of creation we emerged from God – and, if we’re paying attention, we will come to discover that we still are. Is God, “itself,” an emergent phenomenon? I don’t think that anyone could say for certain one way or the other.
9. If you were to apply science (the method) to theology, where would you start? [p.56]
Start with what we know. Then, continue to ask questions and do honest research until we find the answers to those things that we did not know. Look for facts – and yet allow for speculation and wonder. But don’t stop there. Admit that we do not, and cannot, know it all. Only then will we be able to see that there are even more profound questions rising up out of that uncertainty that will then move us to seek yet more answers. That way evolution and emergence will continue.
By the way, if we fail at this, I think that we will just die – but in more ways than one. Our species might then become extinct and God will empower something else to emerge.
10. What is your reaction to the “real” God our author describes? [p.61]
I don’t doubt that Abrams underwent a life-changing event through her 12-step support group. It was a profoundly sacred awakening. But her semi-consciousness of the Holy within that event didn’t just rise out of her own aspirations. What she was experiencing was a vague awareness of a greater Reality that already existed – and had existed even before the cumulative consciousness of humanity and her experience of it. God did not emerge, then, simply through the collective aspirations of human beings (p.57). Only Abrams’ recognition of God emerged from within the presence of that reality. Neither she nor we created it. It was there all along. In my theology, that “it” was and is God.
Week 1 Questions
1 – What do you think/feel is the best approach to learning what God is / means? Xii
2 – Could there be yet higher levels of emergence? Speculate on it’s character. Xiv
3 – In light of our previous book (Integral Christianity) do you think this book can “inject a new dimension in the stale bickering between atheistic scientists and religious fundamentalists.”? Comments? Xvii
4 – How do (would) you understand the difference between an imaginary God and a real God? Xxiii
5 – What do you think of our author’s question “Could anything actually exist in the universe, as science understands it, that is worthy of being called God?” xxviii
6 – Do you think it’s important for your God to match your cosmology? Comments? 3
7 – Do you see any discrepancies in the creation stories and their underlying cosmology? What? 11
8 – What date would you say was the point at which our world changed from constant to changing? 16
9 – Our understanding of God must be grounded in our understanding of the cosmos. Comments? 18
10 – Do you think/feel that you are ahead of our author in “tak[ing] a creative, active role in the evolution of God.”? Comments? 21
Responses to Week 1 Questions
1. What do you think/feel is the best approach to learning what God is/means? [p .xii]
I think that we should open and deepen the dialogue between science and theology – to accept and use the best information available provided to us by science, yes, and yet also be open to the many kinds of experiences of spirituality that theology has recognized for centuries. Where might be the places of meeting? I think a great place would be in conjunction with one of the Westar Institute’s “God Seminars” – if some astrophysicists or cosmologists could be convinced to attend. Sadly, Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan have died, but I’d love to hear from Neil deGrasse Tyson at such a gathering (and anybody else that he’d recommend). We should talk. All too often, sadly, we’ve just gone back-and-forth trying to prove the other wrong.
The physicist and cosmologist, Paul Davies is right, though, when he observes that for far too long “the word God traditionally had a very specific meaning…a sort of Cosmic Magician…who intervenes from time to time in the great sweep of history and perhaps in day-to-day affairs.” I don’t think such a God exists in reality. I do commiserate with Bishop Tutu, however, when he says that “God must be much more than just a placeholder for what we do not yet know” (p. x). And yet, regrettably, I think that Davies was right when he observed earlier that “in the secular societies of the West, religion is regarded as at best an anachronism, at worst a threat to rational thought…” (p. xi).
2. Could there be yet higher levels of emergence? Speculate on its character. [p. xiv]
Absolutely. That’s what the process of evolution is all about – as I understand it. If humanity doesn’t annihilate itself, “higher levels of emergence” will continue to express themselves as we evolve – possibly in much the same way as Ken Wilber has been positing through his integral theory.
As far as speculating “on its character” is concerned, I think that one aspect might be as all conscious beings come to discover greater ways to use the potential powers of their brains – especially we human beings. As we couple that power with the emerging sophistication of AI (artificial intelligence), life as we know it will inevitably take that proverbial quantum leap into the future – a future that, today, we would think, not only incredible, but impossible.
3. In light of our previous book (Integral Christianity) do you think this book can “inject a new dimension in the stale bickering between
atheistic scientists and religious fundamentalists.”? Comments? [p. xvii]
No. While such scientists might appreciate Abrams’ attempt and intent, if they truly are atheists, they will still have no use for God. I think that Abrams’ theory isn’t substantial enough anyway. And the religious fundamentalists, undoubtedly, will remain where they are: worshiping and praying to a supernatural deity who was conceived at least a millennia ago by those who wrote scripture that then came to be considered sacrosanct – e.g., whether one chooses the Bible, the Quran or the Tripitaka.
4. How do (would) you understand the difference between an imaginary God and a real God? [p. xxiii]
God either has to be real or not; there’s no in-between. What’s real is real. What’s imagined, though, may or may not be. And that’s the root of the problem. While we can imagine what God is like – and we have for centuries – that’s never meant that our imagined God is or ever was actually real. That God might be real, but could just as well be a figment of our collective imaginations. While an in depth dialogue between theology and science might finally resolve this conundrum – and I hope, one day, it does – I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime. And, of course, if the issue is never resolved, human beings will continue to use their fertile imaginations to conjure up numerous possibilities for God. We always have. We always will.
5. What do you think of our author’s question “Could anything actually exist in the universe, as science understands it, that is worthy of being called God?” [p. xxviii]
I think that there is. I want to say, however, that like Abrams here, I too have always “wanted to feel coherent intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.” I, too, have always “longed to be at peace with myself.” How science understands the concept of God, however, and how Abrams does, represent perspectives that are as diverse as the number of scientists who care to speculate about this issue. So, of course, there is no universal agreement even between scientists (although Abrams wants us to think that there is). Some scientists might theorize that there is some force “that is worthy of being called God,” others might not. Abrams thinks her concept is worthy. I do not. She’s just equated emerging human consciousness with God. She’s invented a concept just as much as we theologians have.
As Davies rightly observed earlier in his foreword: “Abrams’s God is…in fact, a product of the human mind and human society” (p. xv). Until we know for sure – until science either proves or disproves it – we human beings will continue to use our “god capacity” (ref. Abrams, at p. 84 f.) to speculate about and then invent our own idea of just who or what God is. As I said, above, we always have. Abrams has, too, throughout this book. Alongside her, however, I, too, have long been “dissatisfied with worn-out images and tired liturgies about God” and so I admire and share her unwillingness “to dismiss the quest for spiritual insight” (p. xxix). I agree with her when she says, “How we think about God matters” (p. xxx). So, together – science and theology – let’s keep searching for what is really Real.
Chapter 1: God Evolves
6. Do you think it’s important for your God to match your cosmology? Comments? [p. 3]
Yes, absolutely. If my concept of God doesn’t fit into the cosmology that has become an established scientific fact, then my God very well might be false. If, however, that cosmology allows for what’s still unknown (i.e., very much of a mystery), then my concept of God might be worth further scientific consideration. In the final analysis, if any concept of God doesn’t make sense to me – in the “real” world as I’ve come to experience it – I will reject it. The traditional image of God presented throughout much of scripture is one example that I have rejected. So, I keep searching for the More.
7. Do you see any discrepancies in the creation stories and their underlying cosmology? What? [p. 11]
Of course, there are many. The obvious reason is that they were stories – myths, legends, in short: fiction. So, too then, would be their “underlying cosmology” – or, at best, that cosmology would be limited by the ignorance of those who created those stories. After all, they weren’t scientists and never pretended to be. They were theologians who do what theologians do: speculate about the meaning of creation and offer aspects of it that we should then consider to be profoundly sacred.
8. What date would you say was the point at which our world changed from constant to changing? [p. 16]
I’ve no idea just how far back it goes, but that point obviously pre-dates any presence of life forms. From the moment that Earth became a planet in this universe, it began to change – to evolve – and it’s never stopped. What has become very important to recognize, however, is that our species (homo sapiens) now can fundamentally change the direction of that evolution – even destroy it. To do so probably would lead to our extinction.
9. Our understanding of God must be grounded in our understanding of the cosmos. Comments? [p. 18]
To begin with, we don’t know what we don’t know. If you mean by the phrase “must be grounded” something like “must be scientifically believable,” I might agree with you. But just because “our understanding of the cosmos” is limited, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. Even science speculates and postulates theories (yes, based upon hard evidence); we theologians have the right to do so as well. In the end, however (wherever or whenever that is), our cosmology and our theology should not be at odds with each other. So, I do agree with Abrams, here, when she says that “Gods that have nothing to do with the real world have ultimately no foundation but hearsay.”
10. Do you think/feel that you are ahead of our author in “tak[ing] a creative, active role in the evolution of God.”? Comments? [p. 21]
I wouldn’t say that either one of us is “ahead” of the other – so, neither one of us is “behind.” We just have different perspectives. And I’m not certain that the phenomenon that we refer to as “God,” is or is not evolving. We simply may be stuck by our limited points of view and not be aware that we are. Again, we don’t know what we don’t yet know. But let’s keep investigating by using science, yes, while at the same time celebrating those fundamental values within the world community that we all share and hold sacred – using the gifts given us by religion and theology.