Personalizing a Natural God

Dr. Mohler, in reading my book and blog, claims that I reject the notion of a personal God. Given his traditional sense of a personal God, I do not fault him for that conclusion. Here, however, I wish to offer an alternate (and, I assert, a fuller and more compelling) sense of what a personal God could entail in our modern, evolutionary world.

 

St. Thomas Aquinas, one of Christianity’s most celebrated theologians, warned 750 years ago, “A mistake about Creation will necessarily result in a mistake about God.” What this means is that the more we learn about the nature of the universe, if we’re not also updating what we mean when we use the word “God”, we may have understandings of the divine that are so out of touch with reality as to no longer be life-giving—perhaps even requiring a book like The God Delusion to be written to remind us of this fact.

Specifically, we’ve been thinking of God in unnatural and therefore trivial ways for far too long. In a few thousand year old universe, where heaven was just a few hundred miles skyward, the God portrayed in much of the Bible made sense. None of us, not even the most fundamentalist here in America, lives in that kind of universe anymore. The Hubble Space Telescope makes the distance scales and configurations used in the Bible metaphorical at best.

Rather, we now can celebrate a God that is no less real, ancient, majestic, and powerful than the cosmos itself, and no more inclined than the cosmos to take sides in matters of war, weather, or geological upheaval. Given the vastness and age and mysteries of the universe as we now know it, to insist that the Creator is divorced from, and less real than, Creation is to not only dishonor God but to relegate the divine to the ever-contracting realm of that which is not yet known.

Darwin didn’t kill God. To the contrary, he and Alfred Russel Wallace offered the first glimpse of the real Creator behind and beyond the world’s myriad mythic portrayals of the divine.

Joseph John Campbell

As Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and other 20th century scholars of mythology and world religions remind us, we simply cannot understand religion and religious differences if we ignore the human propensity to relationalize—that is, personify—anything important or mysterious.

Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience to anthropology to cross-cultural study of the world’s myths and religions, all support the claim that God is a personification not a person, and that we instinctually forget this. More, there is no counter-evidence! This fact alone makes sense of the thousands of competing stories around the world as to what God supposedly said or did. “God” is a mythic name for Reality in all its sublime fullness. Any so-called God that is imagined as less than this is unworthy of our devotion and deserves to be mocked, as the New Atheists so readily do.

Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if some supernatural entity separate from water were looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas.

Sol was not the spirit of the sun, as if there were a separation between the two. Sol was a sacred name for that seemingly eternal, life-giving source of heat and light—and occasionally life-taking source in times of desperate drought. By saying “Sol,” “Helios,” or some other proper name, our ancestors experienced that reality as a “Thou” to be related to.

Today most of us have a starkly different subjective experience. We look up and say “the sun” and think of “it” in a depersonalized way: not as the God “Helios” but as the generator of the element helium through stellar nucleosynthesis. Such an intellectual gain need not, however, come at an emotional loss. Again, my relationship with the Sun, as with all of reality, is personal.

Helios, the Sun God.

Whenever any story or any scriptural passage claims, “God said this” or “God did that,” what follows is always, necessarily, an interpretation. It’s an interpretation of what some person or group of people thought or felt or sensed or wished Reality was saying or doing, and almost always as justification after the fact or to make a theological point.

There is no compelling evidence that such subjectively meaningful claims are ever objective, measurable truth. In other words, had CNN or ABC News been there to record the moment of “divine revelation,” there most likely would have been nothing out of the ordinary (nothing miraculous) to report on the evening news—nothing other than what was coming out of someone’s mouth, or pen, or whatever folks wrote with back then.

If we fail to grasp this not only will we trivialize the divine, but also, even more tragically, we will miss what Reality, or God, is up to today.

My own transformation from biblical Christianity to evolutionary Christianity—and from religious un-naturalist to religious naturalist—demonstrates the profound difference between believing in a personal God and relating to Reality personally, that is, communing with Life As It Really Is. For example, prayer from my now-evolutionary perspective is a far more intimate process, and does not require me to believe in anything otherworldly.

Prayer is no longer an act of petitioning a far-off, invisible, unnatural entity to miraculously intervene in the world according to my wishes or desires. With an understanding of God as no less than a personification of Reality, through prayer I experience myself as a cell in deep communion with the larger body of which I am part.

In the words of Philip K. Dick, “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it doesn’t go away.” Anyone can develop a habit of mindfully and heartfully communing with this Ultimacy, of quieting our minds, jettisoning judgments, surrendering to Life As It Really Is, seeking deep and intuitive guidance, opening to the way of the heart, engaging in contemplative prayer, and many other names and activities that put us in a state of radical openness and receptivity to wider and deeper wisdom. In so doing, our experience of life will improve enormously—even if the outward conditions of our existence change not a whit.

Believing in a personal God—giving mental assent to the existence of a supernatural being with a personality—may or may not make a difference in the life of the believer. When belief does not richly transform one’s experience, however, such belief becomes a booby prize.

(Previous Part: Supernatural is Unnatural is Uninspiring)

(Next Part: Rethinking “the Authority of Scripture”)

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About the Author

Michael Dowd the author of "Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World" (Viking/Plume), which has been endorsed by 6 Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including noted skeptics and atheists, and by religious leaders across the spectrum. He and his wife, Connie Barlow, an acclaimed science writer, have traveled North America non-stop since 2002, and have addressed more than a thousand religious and secular audiences. They show how the science-based epic of physical, biological, and cultural evolution (our common creation story) can be interpreted in ways that inspire people to cooperate across religious and political differences in service of a just and thriving future for all. They also show how an understanding of human nature given by evolutionary psychology and neurobiology can help each of us live with greater integrity and passion for life.

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