By David Roy
In this column, I will be laying out in more depth than previously my own views on a few ideas that run deep enough to be considered religious. Included will be an idea about one of the qualities essential for healthy relationships with self and other and with the natural world.
I doubt that anything I say here will be totally new, though some or much of it may not be widely accepted in today’s world. For some readers, these ideas likely will be similar to your own thinking. For others, you may find a lot with which you disagree and your own arguments may even be sharpened when you are finished reading.
Regardless of what is laid out, readers of my previous columns should have a clear notion that I do not propose anything in a manner that could be considered coercive or demanding. Why? Because, for me, being fully attuned to honoring one’s experience and using one’s rational mind are essential to this quest we call life. By contrast, it seems to me that a forced and uncritical acceptance of a set of right beliefs tends often to hobble life.
“Dogmatic certainty = folly”
In keeping with this, Alfred North Whitehead said, “In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” For Whitehead, this opinion covered religion and science as well. The enemies of life were rigidity and finality: “It is rigid dogma that destroys truth; and, please notice, my emphasis is not on the dogma, but on the rigidity. When men say of any question, ‘This is all there is to be known or said of the subject; investigation ends here,’ that is death.” In keeping with Whitehead, I believe that anything approaching certainty is bound to be dead wrong or, more likely, vastly incomplete.
No Narrow-Minded Deity
If there are some ideas that challenge your own, keep in mind that I am not demanding that anyone conform to anything I am laying out, nor do I think that people are eternally damned or blessed by what they believe. Nor is there a black-and-white thinking deity just waiting to toss you overboard for an unforgiveable mistake.
…and No Narrow-Minded Agnostics or Atheists, Please!
One would hope that those reading this article recognize that there are intellectually strong and well-developed forms of all the major religions, including Christianity, that do not subscribe to the stereotypical picture of uncritical biblical literalism and everything that goes with that.
Although these ideas and ways of looking at religion are far from being mainstream, they are growing stronger. Whether they can become dominant is unclear, but in their own fashion they have become influential by seeping into the larger perspectives.
These religiously, theologically progressive individuals, communities and institutions also are typically strong supporters and advocates for similar causes and issues as are most progressives, including those who are neutral or negative toward religion.
Furthermore, these religiously committed progressives are nearly always at home with the jewel of rational analytical thought, namely, science, scientific methodology, and scientific results and discoveries.
Secular Progressives Can Be Close-Minded
Yet, unfortunately, the reverse is often not the case. In fact, there is a strong tendency among progressives who have given up on religion to minimize or even deny any possible value that a spiritually framed understanding might bring to the problems we face.
I certainly understand this resistance on the part of those who labored long under the frowns, criticisms and outright attacks by insecure and fearful people who claimed to be following the dictates of their angry God.
In most cases, particularly those involving stated Christians, these individuals allowed themselves to respond in a way that was the opposite of their sacred scripture; these people were not acting in accordance with the teachings from their own tradition. They were using pieces of their religious tradition to attack what frightened them and doing this in a distinctly unreligious fashion.
To a certain extent, some advocates of a scientifically verified, materialist view of reality make the same type of error. That is, they go well beyond what can be supported by data to critique religious beliefs and, in particular, believers (as these advocates define them) in order to make the point that religion and religious perspectives are rooted in baseless beliefs, that these views are not simply unsupportable but dangerous, creating dependency, intolerance and so on.
In their worst form, some (e.g., Sam Harris) have ended up sounding and acting like born-again atheists: “Here is the Truth! Accept it or be scorned for all eternity!”
Our Science Is in Its Infancy
Yet the field of science from which these secular firebrands draw their support and their indisputable knowledge is not the solid, secure fortress they imply. I won’t take a huge amount of time to show this, but I would encourage you to consider the fact that the evidence of the incompleteness of our knowledge is abundant.
Take the field of physics, the science that studies the foundation of everything and is the foundation for all the other sciences. Today’s physics is in tremendous flux with major unanswered questions in many areas. One huge unresolved problem concerns dark matter. This is matter that, by definition, is directly unknowable. However, it accounts for the vast majority of the mass of the universe. That is an almost unseemly large gap in accounting for and explaining how the universe functions.
Moreover, the entire field of physics itself is in flux. The principles of quantum physics traditionally have been assumed to apply to micro levels of the universe, to the tiniest of particles, but not necessarily to larger structures. Today, however, the arguments are accumulating that these same principles apply to the macro level as well. As a result, there is a growing consensus that quantum physics may be applicable to and a better explanation of reality at all levels.
Quantum physics embraces notions unsettling to traditional physics and closer to far out ideas that seem unreal to many people (but not necessarily at least some who are spiritually sensitive). One example is the quantum notion of “entanglement,” whereby two particles separated by a great distance can and do act in sync with each other.
Entanglement and “Spooky Action”
Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance” because there is no apparent causal chain connecting these events; furthermore, they appear to be acting in this entangled fashion simultaneously and therefore are not subject to the limitations of the speed of light.
One of Whitehead’s ideas was similar, namely “non-mediated causality at a distance.” This supports the possibility of mentality having efficacy at a distance, of some form of ESP, and so forth.
The areas of human knowledge that I have been closest to over the years have centered on the human mind and the human brain. The human brain is exceedingly complex, more complex than any other structure of which we have any awareness or direct knowledge.
Although the estimates of the number of neurons in the brain have varied over the years, today it is believed that the brain has roughly 100 billion neurons. However, the complexity comes not simply from the sheer number of neurons but from the multitude of connections, which, according to one estimate, is upward of 100 trillion. (Think about this during the next televised political debate.)
Neuroscience has been making great strides in recent decades, yet my ongoing impression is that this science is in its early stages. Compared to my own studies 30‒35 years ago, there have been major gains utilizing complex and noninvasive measures of brain activity.
Along with that, however, today, there is a growing rush toward what is being hailed as “brain-based” therapy. I am all for correlating brain activity with the activity of the human mind and behavior, but I feel the implications of the totality of explanation in this new field are at best premature.
There also is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, reductionism in these explanations. If something happens because you can demonstrate correlated activity in the brain, then it’s real, a whole lot more real than phenomena not locatable somewhere in the neurons.
The brain, then, becomes the ultimate cause, and the brain is matter, it is biological tissue. Not so the mind. Descartes’ separation of the mind from the body remains only slightly out of sight, a very real ghost haunting our worldview.
We Are a (Tiny) Part of an Enormous Universe
The final reinforcement for maintaining a tempered position has to do with the beautiful and unsettling realization of the vastness of our universe. When I look at the sky on a clear night, I see the lights we all see, and today we know that they are dozens and hundreds and even thousands of light years away. We are on the outer edge of but one of perhaps 170 billion galaxies, each galaxy containing millions to trillions of stars.
In my mind, the awareness of all of the preceding plays havoc with the idea of detailed certainty. But I do trust that some more general observations may embody more truth, truth that is useful to consider.
The first one has to do with an understanding of the nature of evolution, evolution of the cosmos from the Big Bang forward, of the development of stars and planets into solar systems and, in our case, of a planet that gradually gave birth to what we call life from non-life, of organic matter from inorganic, of the shift from plants to animals, and then the development of countless life forms, ranging from single-cell organisms (some of which have lasted as a species for a long time) to this 100 billion nerve cell creature we call a human being, a homo sapiens sapiens.
Evolution: From Simple to Complex
One of the most striking features for me in all of this is the dawning realization that evolution has consistently moved from the simple to the complex. While the arguments are complex, there does not seem to be a necessity for vastly increased complexity in order to ensure survival. There are plenty of insect species that have been around a whole lot longer than we have.
All of this raises the possibility that the increase in complexity results from the response by the World to the Divine aim (according to process theology) for intensity of experience.
Implicit in this is change and, in this case, change that is transformational. Yet it is more than simply change for new actualities result from these developments; hence, there are new creations as the outcome.
This is what Cobb and others mean by creative transformation. This also illustrates Whitehead’s idea that creativity is the ultimate (reigning or supreme) principle of reality, characterizing all of reality, including God.
The Persuasive God
Another key understanding by Whitehead, and one for which he also emphasized its importance, is that the God of the universe is not (!) the all-controlling, all-powerful (as in coercive) entity that so many were raised to believe in and that some of those as well as others from outside narrow religious confines continue to hold onto while simultaneously rejecting this awful, mean, insensitive deity.
But for Whitehead, the headmaster of the universe, God (or, the Divine Eros, as he termed it) expresses power in a persuasive fashion, not coercive. (This idea takes getting used to, but you can do it.)
An additional critical point is that Whitehead’s understanding of God’s nature was that God was concerned with maximizing the well-being of each and every part of the universe and that, of course, includes us. This is expressed in a highly attuned fashion, following a total acceptance that includes full and complete knowledge of everything that has happened (thoughts, emotions, actions, outcomes and so on).
Then, this is used as a basis to select and proffer the most relevant possibilities for our next thoughts, feelings and actions, possibilities that, if made into realities, would maximize our own well-being and the well-being of those affected by us.
Some Implications to Consider
If this is the deeper nature of reality, then being in sync with it would be helpful for ourselves and for moving toward the general aims outlined above. Being in sync could include some or all of the following:
- Being open to and seeking connection with those people and situations that are different, learning to incorporate what is meaningful in their worldview and practices.
- Accepting that creativity means change and is the fundamental purpose of the universe; that is what drives events, development, people and society toward more and especially toward change.
- Being tuned into and fully receiving (understanding and acceptance on an emotional level) of others, as well as yourself.
- Willing and aiming for one’s own well-being (compassion does begin at home, in one’s own soul), as well as for the well-being of others.
- Using a meditation practice (such as mindfulness meditation) to help to become still and quiet to receive those healing and helpful intuitions from the God who is fully present always.
- Working on becoming persuasive instead of coercive, knowing that this stance is what works best in most human situations and using coercion only as a last resort.
Although this is the end of my list, you will likely discover additional places where these ideas have relevance. (If you have some you would like to share with me, please e-mail me and I will get back to you.)
In the meantime, stay tuned for what Joseph Campbell is noted for emphasizing (Campbell interpreted and helped to develop further the ideas of Carl Jung): Follow your bliss. I do believe this is fully in keeping with the aims outlined by Whitehead and will result in exactly what is needed for our troubled and troubling future.
Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.