What does The Mystery of Matter (MM) tell us about “God” … and how important is “God” to religion?
The first problem in dealing with this question has to do with words — specifically the word “God.” If I ask, “is there a ‘God’”? just by using the word I have already predefined what I am looking for, because in our culture that word comes already loaded with imagery and associated descriptors. That imagery, it hardly needs to be emphasized, is completely anthropomorphic and “other wordly.” It projects human characteristics onto “God,” and believes that “God” is “other” than us and dwells in another world.
As a way of avoiding the pre-emptions lurking in the term, therefore, I have chosen to begin with the commonly observed phenomenon of the “sense of the sacred” and work backward to the source, “necessary and sufficient” to explain it, whatever it may be. Whether that source should have the word “God” applied to it is a second issue and requires further discussion. Any other procedure, to my mind, runs the risk of begging the question. But notice. “God,” as a heuristic notion, cannot survive being reduced from a premise to a conclusion. For once it is recognized that “God” is, logically speaking, a derivative of some more fundamental human experience, “God” changes character and takes on the features of of its conceptual wellspring. “God,” in a universe of matter, derives from a sense of the sacred that is itself the echo of a material drive. It suggests that whatever “God” there is, is material.
In MM we discovered that our impulse for self-preservation— the conatus — springs from the very nature of the material elements of which we are constructed. Matter’s energy, the homogeneous substrate of the entire universe — that “stuff” from which all forces, energies, valences, properties, particles, as well as their composites have sprung — is existence. It can be validly described as that in which we live and move and have our being.
I realize that very phrase was used by Paul in his speech on an “Unknown God“ at the Areópagus in Athens. Be that as it may, the description, according to MM, is phenomenologically valid. Some may personally decide to accept the identity with Paul’s traditional description and call it “God.” But that is their choice, and they must accept full responsibility for the use of a term that comes pre-loaded with spiritual and humanoid connotations that we know are not true. MM does not conclude that material energy is “God.” But it does recognize that material energy has characteristics that have been traditionally associated with divinity: Matter is (1) neither created nor destroyed, (2) the transcendently creative source of every construction and organism in the universe, (3) the matrix in which all things “live and move and have their being,” (4) the source of the sense of the sacred … and (5) something we can relate to with trust (that was the burden of the previous chapter). The free decision to conflate material energy and the traditional language surrounding “God” is a choice, not a conclusion.
Making that choice involves some caveats. Our traditional religious “doctrines” are imbued with the archaic scientific world-view in which they were born. They believed that “God” fashioned the universe and manages all the events that occur in it. That world-view is factually erroneous and its projections about “God” anthropomorphic; they are scientifically false and philosophically untenable. The scientific facts are primary and must remain primary. I limit myself to saying that the traditional poetic religious descriptors may validly be applied to matter’s energy as metaphor if done with due regard to the controlling data. The fundamental facts must always be respected: I am related to matter’s energy as to the source of my existence; that relationship is reflected in my conatus, and from there in my sense of the sacred — separately from the religious poetry traditionally used to evoke it. I have no knowledge of “God” that is independent of the religious traditions in which I was formed.
There is no problem with religion as metaphor (although some religious metaphors may require serious disclaimers). In fact the poetry that is religion may be essential if our sense of the sacred is to have its full creative effect. The major problem is that religion generally does not project its constructions as poetic metaphor but rather as scientific fact. Such an insistence is destructive not only of science, but also of the power of religious expression. A religion that calls its mythic constructions “fact” stifles thought and opens itself — deservedly, in my opinion — to ridicule and rejection. But, just as important, it simultaneously robs “myth” of its power to bring light and life to our existential experience. In our “modern” era, the combination of an arrogant reductionist scientism and a religion that offers a set of parallel “facts” whose existence it pontificates by pure ungrounded fiat, has been fatal. We in the west live in a state of spiritual impoverishment because, in the main, religion refuses to apply its sacred song to reality as science has discovered it to be.
Let me be clear: that there is a personal “God”-entity who designed and created the universe and all its forms and features by rational choice, is not a fact; … that there was an “original sin” responsible for human “concupiscence” and the loss of a natural immortality, is not a fact; … that the man Jesus was “God” as defined by traditional western notions, biblical imagery and perennial philosophy, is not a fact. To claim these items are anything but metaphor, in my opinion, is illusion. Insistence that they are “facts” will continue to feed the pathologies of religious bigotry, disdain for the “flesh,” disregard for rationality, ethnic self-aggrandizement and a world where genocidal plunder has been justified in the name of someone’s ersatz religious “facts.” Religion has no “facts.” What it has (and can lose) is the poetic power to make richly human our relationship to that in which “we live and move and have our being” — transcendently creative reality as uncovered and articulated by the science of our times.
 Acts 17:28. The Jerusalem Bible, Garden City, Doubleday, 1966, fn “t” on page 231 of the NT in referring to that particular phrase says: “Expression suggested by the poet Epimenides of Cnossos (6th c. BC).” The origin of the phrase is not “Christian.”