in search of a new imagery for “God”
“No one has ever seen ‘God’.” John’s gospel and the first letter of John both considered that statement to be a fulcrum around which their argument turned. Because “God” was not available for observation, Jesus played an indispensable role in putting “God” on display in terms that ordinary human beings ― even little children ― could understand. Jesus was the image of “God,” so much like him that the gospel called him “God’s” only begotten son.
“Image” is what religion is all about. Religion provides imaginary depictions of what we know has to be there (because we are not self-originating or self-sustaining), but about which we know nothing at all: the ultimate source and sustenance of the universe. Unfortunately, religion is all we’ve got; and it has been forced, everywhere in the world, to imagine the unknown and unimaginable wellspring of life. When John said that Jesus was “God’s” only begotten son, what he had in mind was Jesus’ extraordinary humanity, so human that it communicated unerringly to human beings, and so extraordinary that what it depicted was nothing less than the creative dynamism of reality itself. He said “God,” the source, the principle of all things (archē) was love. We can see it in Jesus, and we can see it in ourselves. if “God” is “being,” then to be is to love.
Unfortunately, John’s attempt to explain how Jesus’ was an authentic image of “God” that updated anything the Jews had inherited from their tradition, was misunderstood three hundred years later, and interpreted to mean that Jesus was actually “God.” Even in the case of a perfect image in a mirror, the image and the object it is reflecting may look exactly the same, but one is real, and the other is only an image. If you think they are the same, it is a mistake.
The crude intrusion of the Roman emperor in the decisions at the Council of Nicaea where that mistake was set in institutional stone, adds to its discreditation as a valid religious development. The doctrine’s value for theocracy is too obvious. Constantine was determined that only the very highest of all the many gods worshipped in the Roman Empire would do as the Imperial protector. Jesus and his cross, emblazoned 12 years earlier on the shields of his victorious troops, would henceforth be that highest of all gods. Rome had spoken, and it was Rome, after all, whose divinity no one doubted. Rome made Jesus “God,” investing him with exactly the kind of divinity Rome needed to continue being Rome.
In becoming Rome’s “God,” Jesus stopped being the Jewish human being ― the mensch ― that he once was. But that meant, unfortunately, that he was no longer the human image of the sacred dynamism that activated reality. He was assumed into the “divinity” which other, older imagery had already described and which the ancient world had long ago internalized: Pantocrator, The All Ruler, the Judge of the living and the dead, the heavenly analog of the Emperor of Rome. Rome’s divinity was beyond dispute, and it was Rome’s divinity that clothed the Cosmic Christ in the robes of the gods. Jesus’ counter-intuitive human message of compassion and humble trust in a Father of love suddenly became easy to understand: it was a trick ― a public relations ploy to lure and lull the masses; and his death was, under the disguise of victimhood, a forensic mechanism for placing the whole human race in his debt. Once he became “God,” everybody knew what the real picture was; it was the same old story of power and control; and the movie-theater currently projecting it was owned by Rome. The very imagery that Jesus’ extraordinary humanity was claimed to replace, was with demonic irony applied to Jesus himself, harnessing both “God” and Jesus to the imperial machine. The gods of wealth and power were reinstalled with a vengeance.
Clearly, imagery is not an insignificant aspect of religion, a mere catechetical tool to be used and discarded once the comprehension of the concepts has been achieved. The images concocted by the various religious traditions to mediate relationship with the source of life come to mesh so completely with their object that the two become indistinguishable. In this sense, it was inevitable that Jesus would be mis-taken for “God” just as Rama or Krishna would come to stand in the place of Brahman or the Atman in the Hindu tradition. The process seems universal. Even in Buddhism where the founder himself was quite explicit that any thought of “God” or “the gods” or even metaphysical theory was entirely irrelevant to his program of personal liberation and community transformation, was divinized by his followers centuries after his death. I don’t think the universal occurrence of this phenomenon is necessarily damaging or deforming for practitioners who, like John, were aware of the distinctions involved; they were, after all, describing the undeniable transcendent effect it had on their lives. It changed their image of “God” 1800. They had come to know what “God” was really like; he was like the man Jesus. And once we, too, embraced the call to love, “God” was like us.
The “problem” in the case of Jesus is that because the imaging process was not understood, or was manipulated for theocratic purposes, the meshing that occurred got consigned to another earlier and undeveloped image. The symbolic nature of the connection disappears, and the “God” that Jesus is said to be, is no longer imaged by the man Jesus; he is imaged by something else entirely, something primitive, atavistic ― entirely different from his own compassionate, forgiving humanity. In this case the archaic image was that of a severe imperial judge and executioner. Imagery matters. If you worship the wrong image, no matter how “holy” it appears, instead of putting yourself at the service of LIFE, you end up sacrificing your children to demons.
The legitimate meshing of symbol and reality that I’m talking about derives from the very essence of our reality ― from the nature of LIFE in our material universe. I use the word “LIFE” in an intentionally ambiguous way because I am convinced that our material reality itself is a scientifically ambiguous phenomenon. “Ambiguous” means “true of both,” and abstractly contemplates two “things” that the speaker might be referring to. We usually use the word pejoratively to describe statements that are not clear, but it can also have a positive sense. And it is because all of cosmic reality is quite undeniably always at least two things at once that I contend it is not only legitimate, but essential that we look for ways to include it in our statements about it. We must be appropriately ambiguous if we are to be true to reality. Let me explain what I mean.
Everything in the universe is “what it is” and, at the same time, it is “what it is made of”. And what all things are made of is some form of material energy which, in its most fundamental form, is the same everywhere. This homogeneous “stuff,” reduced artificially in particle colliders to its most structurally primitive and foundational elements, is what is studied by physics. A tree, a squirrel, a silver-back gorilla are all entities, “things,” each with their own peculiar capacities and limitations embedded in their organisms; but however different they are, they are all made exclusively and exhaustively of exactly the same “stuff”: those same particles studied by physics.
Physicists agree that all is ultimately energy:
. . . “all particles are made of the same substance: energy” (Heisenberg, 1958). On this view, concrete stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is distinct from energy and that has energy. Rather concrete physical stuff is energy.
So too, concrete physical stuff isn’t well thought of as something that is in some way distinct from process, in which processes go on or occur; it is process. So too, concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain natural, categorical, concretely instantiated intrinsic qualities while being in some manner irreducibly ontologically distinct from them; its existence is nothing ontologically over and above the instantiation of those qualities. It is, however, hard for us to hold this point steadily in mind given the deep object-property / subject-predicate structure of our thought and language.
we may allow that non-biological entities like leptons and quarks jointly constitute larger things that have properties that are essentially more and other than the properties of leptons and quarks. We may do this even if we continue to conceive of leptons and quarks in a crude ‘smallist’ way as genuine individuals of some sort. We do better, though, to conceive of them in a quantum-field-theoretic way, as features or aspects of the various ‘fields’ that jointly constitute the universe in a way that is profoundly mysterious to us, or (perhaps better still) as features or aspects of the single complex field that constitutes ― is ― the universe
Given that common understanding of the “stuff” of the universe, unless you are prepared to deny the unitary reality of the composites of that “stuff,” ― what we call “things” ― you are faced with a mystery: what exactly is it that accounts for the unity and integrity of individual entities at these subsequent (macro) levels? Are things “many,” in other words, as they appear to be, or is there only one “thing” out there, since everything is constructed of the same “stuff”?
Rather than getting into the various solutions offered to this classic question, I think it is sufficient at this stage to point out the ambigüity at the very heart of matter. Reality, or as we have traditionally called it, “being” seems to reside in two “places” simultaneously: in the components and in the composite, making each somehow an echo and reflection of the other. Reality is ambiguous, and human terminology reflects that fact by “meshing” component and composite, reality and reflection, origin and emanate, wellspring and effluent, roots and branches. All symbols are grounded in the soil of meta-physical ambigüity.
In the case of Jesus’ humanity, the idea that a human being could be the image of God had preceded him by many centuries in Hebrew thought. The first chapters of Genesis, integrated into the Hebrew scriptures about 600 bce., speak of “God” consciously and intentionally making man “in his own image and likeness.” I do not cite Genesis as some sort of revelatory source of “truth” in this matter; I do it only to show that John was writing within a tradition of expression in which human nature was understood to be a reflection, an echo, an image of its creative source. I would only add that it does not surprise me that conceptual chain should be found in Genesis because it is a fundamental feature of reality. All things are expressions ― images ― of their source, insofar as all things are made of nothing else. Things are, simultaneously, themselves and their source; so one would expect they would look like one another.
Now, as we very consciously try to integrate the discoveries of science into our understanding of the universe which evolved us, we cannot ignore the implications of our human organisms being nothing but an evolved form of the material energy that constitutes all things. There is nothing else there than the highly complex elaborations, anatomical, neurological, hormonal, emotional, instinctive, that represent matter’s evolutionary adjustments to the needs of survival for the hominid line in which we developed. If we want to know what we are, our first datum is the components of our organism. Matter’s evolutionary processes, aggregating, integrating, complexifying the particles studied by physics made us what we are. It made us human beings. And the “person” whom we identify as our own “self” is nothing but the individual organism reflexively conscious of itself and instinctively driven to preserve and defend its life, just like every other living organism on the face of the earth. Just as “concrete stuff isn’t something that possesses certain qualities while being in some manner ontologically distinct from them” so too the human individual is not something other than its organism’s instincts, urges, capacities and limitations. It is that very identity of our “selves” with our organisms that makes us a mirror-like representation of the “stuff” that comprises them. Herein is imagery born. We are nothing but what makes us to be-here, and so seeing us ― seeing what we are like and what we do ― reveals in a unique and compelling way what that which makes us to be-here is.
This is the physical / metaphysical basis for the imaging that is the very essence of religion. Reality is not simple. It is complex and structured. One thing is not only the thing it appears to be; it is a multitude of things that have gone into its formation and it is also the multitude of things that it later goes on to be part of forming. Parents and children reflect each other. But they also reflect by anticipation grandchildren and extended progeny. Everything speaks of everything else. Everything reveals everything else. Everything, at the end of the day, is everything else. The many are one, and the one only exists as many.
While we have always understood the dynamics of symbol and imagery, it was not until modern science revealed the material depth of our being-here as humans that we became aware of the reflectivity ― the mirror-ness ― of our relationship with everything else. Imaging is not a voluntary, intentional activity. It is unavoidable because it springs from the very composite structure of material reality. We evolved from, but continue to be constituted by, the “particles” studied by physics. We are what we are, but what we are is constructed of those particles and so we are also what they are . . . and they in turn are what we are.
It is from understanding reality from this point of view that I am encouraged to offer a suggestion about a new set of images that correspond to our new knowledge. We are as aware as any previous generation that “no one has ever seen God.” And certainly more than any other generation we are acutely conscious of the depths of moral commitment and of the undeniably authentic mystical experience had among the practitioners of other traditions across the globe. Hence we are less inclined than anyone before us to embrace a Christian supremacist view of the world. We know from experience that Jesus is not the only, and therefore cannot in any way be considered the definitive manifestation of the sacred source of our material world that we have traditionally called “God.” We also know from our science that whatever this “God” might be who has never been seen by anyone, it does not act like a rational, personal agent in any way recognizable as such to human beings. From this we suspect that the imagery of our own western traditions rooted in the Hebrew scriptures is pure projection, and reflects an earlier, obsolete, pre-scientific picture of the universe, life and human consciousness. I believe all these factors come together in validating the need for a new set of images that may more credibly provide the concrete anchor for our sense of the sacred depths of our lives.
Fundamentally, and to my mind, quite appropriately, the imagery I propose is generated by the picture that science has provided us of the actual state of things-in-process in our evolving universe of matter. Since we now know that “God” cannot refer to a humanoid, rational agent, “personal” and personally interactive as we understand the words, rather than attempt to conjecture about this unknown source, we are on safer ground just sticking with what we really know: we ourselves have an insuppressible sense of the sacredness of this universe of things and, even without knowing what our source is, we feel a profound gratitude and admiration toward it for what it has produced. Our gratitude is grounded in ourselves as undeniable gift; it is not grounded in knowing the giver. It occurs in the absence of knowledge. The only thing known is our non-origination.
In a second step, we experience our own being-here directly and as a “self” at every emerging moment of time. I cannot define “self” in any terms other than to evoke the experience. It cannot be “understood” in other terms and it cannot be “explained” because I have no idea where “I” came from. My parents who were instrumental in my coming to be here had no idea what kind of “self” I was going to be and certainly had no hand in its determination. I did not originate it myself, even though later I did participate in re-shaping it according to my chosen and changing values. I know nothing about the “self” except that it appeared along with my organism, and it disappears when my organism disintegrates. Without presuming to “know,” I can validly say that it seems completely commensurate with this complex, DNA shaped and driven packet of material energy formed by the interaction of multiple composites, that is my biological organism. My “self” is my body reflectively conscious of itself.
In a third step, I am well informed by science about the evolutionary processes driven by the instinct to survive, integrating, complexifying and re-arranging the wave-fields/particles constituent of matter and the creative effect they have had on the production of living species. As a human being I am personally identified with this organism which I know was produced by evolution and is enjoyed by every other human being on the planet. In my search for a source, I cannot ignore the obvious and fully explanatory role of biological evolution in the elaboration of my “self.” Clearly it is the energy of these material particles that have driven the evolutionary process. In an undeniably factual way then, I have to say that phenomenally speaking ― as far as human observation and verification is concerned ― my source is this energy embedded in the wave-fields/particles of the fundamental elements of matter, for “I” am nothing else.
The nature of this constructive hierarchy of wave-field/particles and their undeniable innate energy to continue to be-here are sufficient and necessary to explain my being-here in every aspect of my existence and at every moment of time without exception. There is no observable fact or feature of my organism ― physical, mental or emotional ― that remains unexplained requiring the search for any other source. If the cause and explanation for my being-here is also called “God,” then, logically speaking I have no reason to look any further. I am perfectly justified in identifying this material energy as “God.”
Even if someone were to object and insist that there must some “source” beyond the wave-fields / particles of material energy that constitute everything in our universe that is responsible for the existence, nature and character of these particles, it would have to be said that whatever else that hypothetical “source” might be, it would have to itself be a material energy of a type and character necessary and sufficient to explain what it produced in every aspect and at every moment in time. Conceptually speaking, therefore, material energy and its putative “source” can be considered one and the same thing. In fact, however many “sources of sources” there might be going back beyond our universe’s material energy, there will never be something other than material energy as we know it to account for it or it would never exist.
So for the purposes of the imagery that I am suggesting, the material energy we can observe and measure represents anything that its hypothetical “source” could ever be as source, and therefore can be validly embraced as our source.
This “God,” then, that we have identified as material energy “transcends” being any one “thing” by being pervasively and suffusively the structural and dynamic components of all. It is “that in which we live and move and have our being.” That means phenomenologically (scientifically, observably and measurably) we as individual “things” are not distinguishable from our constituent components, the wave-fields/particles that comprise our organisms. If material energy is “God” then we are distinguishable from “God” only metaphysically, which means conceptually ― only in human minds ― as “source” and “product.” We are a completely unified structured reality whose surface appearance is individual and finite but whose roots are universal and reach into the infinite ground, the reservoir where homogeneous material energy is neither created nor destroyed and totally unformed and uncomposed.
So I propose: between us and “God” there is no difference, but from the point of view of originating energy, we are conceptually distinct. “God” is the originating, indestructible, self-possessed endless energy of the constituent components, and we are the composite product arising constructed and de-constructible, subject to the entropy that characterizes the descent back into an equilibrium from which we had been wrenched by the energy of LIFE. The “distinction” is in the metaphysical structure: Are the roots different from the tree with its leaves and branches? No but they are distinct for human thought, in role and function. Is the “underground source” different from the pool of spring water emerging on the surface? No but they are categorically distinct as “source” of movement and the resulting motion. Is the light with which we see things on earth different from the sun’s light? No it is not different. It is one and the same light, there is only one light, and it illumines us all. It’s how we see one another. It’s how we know we are all here and in this together. Only thus are we “distinct” from “God” and from one another.
 Galen Strawson, What does “physical” mean? [a version of the chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Panpsychism (2020), forthcoming in Mind and Being uploaded separately by the author to Academia.edu] pp.5&7