The religions of the book are committed to the absolute transcendent unknowability and inaccessibility of “God.” In the western Christian tradition this transcendence is ultimately grounded in the complete opposition between spirit and matter. “God’s” remoteness is infinite; there is no common ground between Creator who is Pure Spirit and any creature made of matter. Any contact must come on the initiative of “God” who must reveal himself and establish not only the terms but even the very means of contact. Traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in all their forms, will not permit any sense of the sacred that is not derived from a relationship of utter submission to a pure transcendent Spirit, absolutely sovereign, personal, rational, freely choosing, omnipotent creator and providential micro-manager of the universe. This “God” that they insist on — a separate rational entity “out there” — is claimed to play exactly the creative cosmic role for which science can find no evidence whatsoever.
Science’s associated philosophical systems assert that the only creativity observable belongs to material energy’s self-elaborations driven by the need to exist. This same material energy, moreover, seems to be the source of our sense of the sacred by passing on to us its intrinsic need to exist which we experience internally as the conatus, the drive to survive. Unlike the “God” of the book, material energy did not create the world from nothing, designing its features and forces by rational personal choice. As the energy at work in cosmic development, biological evolution and all human personal and social constructions, matter’s need to exist provides the necessary drive and sufficient explanation for everything in the known universe — that it exists and how it exists — as extrusions of itself and carriers of the same existential dynamism.
Matter-energy is convertible; it seems to be neither created nor destroyed, as the first law of thermodynamics states; it stands at the end of the chain of causes and does not need any explanation beyond itself.
It must be acknowledged that the insistence on the traditional doctrine of a transcendent “God” has led to an impasse. Elaborated in pre-scientific times as a rational explanation for the universe and humankind’s sense of the sacred, it has lost all rational credibility due to science’s discoveries. If our sense of the sacred is to be validated and protected, it must be grounded in a rational explanation. The traditional concept of a transcendent “God” no longer provides such a ground.
Science and the immanentist current in our tradition — represented by the scholastic doctrine of “participation in being” — concur in a most intriguing and provocative way: characteristics that our tradition has claimed to be features of divinity are clearly identifiable attributes of the material energy that pervades the universe. Let’s review these concurrences:
First, science is talking about energy. In our Thomist philosophical tradition, “God” was defined as pure act. And in each case — “act” and energy — the focus is esse (existence) itself. These notions are different because the systems in which they function are different, but within their respective systems each performs exactly the same function: they create by sharing their own existential dynamism.
Then, both this energy and this “act” are claimed, by their respective proponents, to be the ultimate source — the “creator” — of the existence and the nature of everything in the universe, visible and invisible, known and currently unknown — both what and that things are. And in each case, to repeat what was mentioned above, they create by sharing themselves.
Third, self-subsistence is claimed for both these conceptual ultimates. The source of existence must necessarily be the absolutely independent proprietor of being. If not, then whatever it is dependent on, is. “God” and matter-energy are each said to be ultimate in this sense: they exist in their own right; they have always existed; they can never go out of existence; everything depends on them; they depend on nothing. The existence of everything else that exists is a derivative of that uniquely “stand-alone” existence. In the case of material energy it is self-extrusion; for the Thomists it is procession and emanation from “God” resulting in a “participation in being.” (ST 1, qq. 44-45).
Fourth, the divine immanence that is referenced in both NT Paul and John becomes intelligible only when the kind of physical / metaphysical continuum that “participation in being” and the shared energy of matter represent, are acknowledged to be the structural foundation of reality. If Paul did not believe “God” was immanent, then his use of Epimenides’ poetic description in Acts 17 was an insincere rhetorical ploy.
Conceptually speaking there is nothing to prevent the identification of “God” with material energy except for the claim that “God” is a rational “person” and as such must be “spirit” and cannot be matter; in fact, as “God,” he needs to be “Pure Spirit.” These two features, historically, have been interconnected in our tradition.
Person and spirit
“Person,” stems originally from “God’s” imagined interventionist role in human history that later got “ontologized” as “mind.” Religions of the Book insist on this feature because they are all constructed on obedience to “God” as the source of social coherence and personal integration. You cannot elicit obedience for an impersonal force.
The root of all this was the tribal nature of the Hebrew people who, from the eighth to the sixth centuries b.c.e., built their “nation” on their god, Yahweh. International survival and the relationships of domination, dependency or alliance among peoples were imagined as a drama being played out among the various gods who were their champions. Yahweh was not only Israel’s warrior among the other gods but he also consolidated the nation by promulgating a moral and ritual regimen its individual members were expected to follow.
Even after the Greek and Roman Empires made international competition obsolete (and the various national gods evaporated) all these dynamic relational features of Yahweh were kept in place, used for other purposes and given corresponding explanations to justify them. When Christianity inherited the Hebrew scriptures, at first it totally denationalized the role of “God.” Yahweh was claimed to be everyone’s “God” and among Greek converts was thought of as someone who had the features of the Stoic’s “divine fire,” the life that enlivened all things. Christianity’s elevation to imperial status in the fourth century made him Rome’s “God” and his tribal role resurfaced and was made to function for the unity and ascendency of the Empire.
The explanation for “God” that was in place at the time of Constantine was provided by Platonic philosophy. Platonism was characterized by two things: (1) substance dualism (that spirit and matter are separate substances, not just different aspects of the same substance) and (2) the reification of ideas and the ontologization — making metaphysical realities — of moral attitudes, intentions and commands. In the Platonic system only a “Mind,” could do what Yahweh had done: design a world of living things, call a nation into being as his representative in the world, give moral and ritual commands, and reward the “chosen people” with prosperity and international success in exchange for compliance. This was now all applied to Rome. The earlier notion of a “divine fire” that enlivened all things was foreign to the Platonic system and so “God” as a transcendent “person” — “Mind” — came to dominate the imagery.
But this “rational entity” was now acknowledged as the all ruler, the one and only “God,” Pure Spirit, remote and inaccessible to this world of matter, who required a compliance of a different sort: the surrender to a “plan” for the universal “salvation” of humankind.
Reinventing Christianity in the fourth century
I maintain that it was the Platonic insistence that “God” is Pure Spirit, Mind, totally unlike matter and therefore immutable and inaccessible, that drove the theological innovations at Nicaea and Augustine’s theory of redemption. For this “God,” who was now ontologically defined as “Mind,” by dint of his transcendent nature suddenly lost the flexibility enjoyed by “persons.” In Augustine’s Roman hands “God” became a juridical force that could not change. Because he could not change he could not forgive. When Adam sinned, a state of irreparable injustice and eternal guilt was created that would affect every human being ever born, even to the end of time. A “plan” therefore, immutably conceived from all eternity, had to be devised that would overcome the insuperable obstacles created by divine immutability: “God,” now in his new role (invented at Nicaea) as “Son,” became man and paid the price for Adam’s sin which otherwise would have been unpayable. That “man” was Jesus, and the payment was his death on the cross. Nicaea and Augustine laid out these fundamental lines of the Western Christian edifice, and those lines are with us to this day.
So “God” over a period of 300 years went from being the Hebrews’ warrior who made them a nation, to the Stoic “divine fire” that enkindled Jesus’ moral triumph, and finally to the neo-Platonic Triune Deity who, in the form of the “Son” and his Mystical Body, the Roman Empire’s Church, ruled the entire human race. For the individual, that meant your “salvation” was mediated by your compliance with the law as determined by Rome’s Church and your participation in its saving rituals.
The reformers of the sixteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant, rejected scholasticism and with it the immanence latent in “participation in being,” and returned to the Nicaean-Augustinian concept of a solely transcendent “God.” Their principal focus, however, was not “God.” It was Constantine’s Imperial Church which had become thoroughly corrupt. Protestants tried to reverse the quid pro quo elements introduced into Christian life by Roman theocracy. They rejected the Catholic identification of the Mystical Body with the actual Church and its rituals and made “salvation” the unmediated effect of personal “faith” in the interior privacy of the soul. In this scenario the Church became secondary, ancillary to the individual, a social scaffolding that assisted the personal quest for salvation. Salvation was between the individual and “God;” the Church could be helpful, but it was not essential. This shift occurred, in practice, in Catholicism as well.
But the real driving force behind the Christian worldview for both remained in place: Augustine’s transcendent Platonic “God,” whose immutability made Adam’s “Original Sin” infinitely unforgiveable, and human individuals, inescapably, the object of the implacable wrath of an immutable “God.” Augustine’s claim that “God’s” plan to circumvent his own inability to forgive was a great display of love and compassion, was incomprehensible and gained little traction in the popular mind. “God” remained as implacable as ever.
Luther’s efforts to resurrect Augustine’s convoluted solution met the same fate. People continued to live in the only way that made sense: a quid pro quo morality that expected reward for good behavior, and an imaginary relationship with a living Jesus who may perform miracles of fortune, healing and “grace.” This was true for both Catholics and Protestants. The tortuous explanations imagined by the theologians were unintelligible, and “God” remained, as always, some “other” person, invisible but really there watching what you do, whom you must obey or be punished, and to whom you may relate for favors or companionship.
Augustine’s insistence on “God’s” immutability had the effect of depersonalizing “God,” and people could not relate to it. People continued to imagine “God” anthropomorphically because no one can imagine a “person” who is not human. Thus Christian doctrine lives in a schizoid state at all times: it is “metaphysical” in theory and anthropomorphic in practice. Doctrinal statements made for popular consumption refer to “God” in terms that presume that he changes his mind. All official public prayer, for example, is premised on persuading God to do something he is not already doing … clearly impossible if “God” is immutable.
Living comes first, theology — the “explanations” — come afterward. In our time the implacable and punitive character of the traditional “God,” which was a derivative of his transcendent immutability, is now suddenly declared “incorrect” based on a re-reading of the scriptures. Philosophical tradition is ignored, but doctrine based on it remains on the books. Coincidental with a more permissive social mindset, “God” is now imagined as primarily “compassionate,” and “forgiving” and no longer rigid and demanding. But the belief still imputes these “nicer” attitudes to a humanoid “person.” It does not address the fact that such “feelings” are incompatible with the accepted metaphysical definitions about “God,” specifically divine transcendence, that Christians trot out to “explain” the contradictions of anthropomorphism when they arise. The outrage at “God’s” providence, for example, when it is thought to “permit” disasters like the Haitian earthquake of 2010, is answered by saying the events had been foreseen from all eternity by an immutable all-seeing “God.” Notice the “explanation” makes no mention of any “feelings” of compassion for the 150,000 children that died or were left orphans by the event. An immutable “God” could also have had compassion from all eternity! The explanation doesn’t work.
Sometimes, in a flagrant disregard for rational integrity, humanoid imagery is gratuitously declared a metaphysical premise from which other conclusions are then deduced. The “fatherhood” of “God,” for example, obviously a metaphor, is adduced as the eternal paradigm and archetype of earthly paternity and the “reason” for an exclusively male hierarchy in the Church. These examples, just two of many, illustrate the dysfunctionality of the entire traditional western “concept of God.” It doesn’t work because it makes no sense. There is no such “God”-person. People realize it and are abandoning those churches that insist on it … but they are not abandoning their sense of the sacred or the search for how to respond to it.
“Other” or “not other”
The claim that “God” is “other” than what we are is a projection. It objectifies as a “thing out there” what is really our own existential dynamic — the material energy that constitutes the material cosmos and our human organisms which are part of it. By separating us from our own inner dynamism, it prevents awareness of the intrinsic nature of our existential dependency, i.e., that we are internally conditioned by the very stuff of which we are constituted. Thinking of “God” as “not-other,” in contrast, encourages a recognition of authentically human action as a requirement of our own inner conditioned nature, not the imposed demands of an “other” person. Once we realize that “God” is “not-other,” humility, the need for human community with its concomitant sense of justice, respect for other species, compassion and solidarity for the existential dependency of all things and a profound gratitude for our shared life, are all perceived as inner imperatives, not outside commands, or counsels, or poets’ flights of fantasy. The divine energy that bears us aloft into existence is simultaneously our consciousness of being borne aloft IN it — that our ability to “fly” is a function of our being part of a material totality. We are exactly where we belong.
“Other” is the very heart of transcendence in a dualist universe, it is a corollary of spirit’s opposition to matter. Transcendent materialism, on the other hand, refers to material energy’s ability to transcend itself and evolve new and unexpected forms; it does not imply “opposition.” In transcendent materialism there is no “other” of any kind, for everything shares the same “substance.” We are like the leaves of an immense cosmic tree, and our being-here as humans is a function of our place in the whole.
Divine transcendence in a universe conceived along substance-dualist lines is both cause and effect of human alienation, what I call autogenic disease. It guarantees we will feel like strangers to — and perhaps even victims of — the very energies “in which we live and move and have our being.” A recent commentator called it “a genuinely sad state of affairs.”