Does “God” Make Sense? A Theological Autobiography

I was a pious child. God was my loving companion, the one to whom I could talk most freely with the confidence of being understood. Since the adults I most respected all believed in God, God’s reality was not in question for me. My childhood largely took place in Japan with my missionary parents and in Georgia during my last years of high school and junior college. The most devout people I knew were also the most loving and active in the cause of justice. For example, the only people I knew working against racial injustice in Georgia were motivated by their faith to oppose social conventions.

Of course, there were arguments about God, and I enjoyed them. As a Methodist, and therefore a follower of John Wesley, I engaged with his high Calvinist friends in the old argument about predestination, the divine foreordaining of all that will happen, especially of who will attain salvation. We Methodists thought that it was a terrible idea. I still think so.

Early Challenges to My Piety

About growing up with missionary parents in Japan, Cobb writes, "The most devout people I knew were also the most loving and active in the cause of justice." Dream Walking by Joel Nakamura. Credit: Joel Nakamura.

My first experience with what we call the “modern” world was during World War II. I was in the Japanese-language program of the Army. Most of the soldiers in my unit had been studying Japanese in New York. My best friends were New Yorkers, whose culture and sophistication fascinated me. They were all either Jews or Catholics. They found my Georgia Protestant piety sociologically interesting. I found the world into which they introduced me fascinating. Under the tutelage especially of Robert Langbaum I gained a little knowledge of modern literature.

I read Aldous Huxley, especially his Perennial Philosophy, and was deeply moved. I also read Reinhold Niebuhr, especially The Nature and Destiny of Man, and I was overwhelmed. None of this made belief in God in general problematic, but it did problematize my childhood ways of thinking about God. And along with these writings, which I could engage with enthusiasm, I became aware that the wider movement of modern thought cut strongly away from any such affirmations.

While in the army, I felt called to some kind of Christian ministry. That meant going to seminary. But I still had college to complete, and, in any case, before settling in to a church career I wanted to test my beliefs more systematically. One of my friends told me about the University of Chicago under Robert Maynard Hutchins. My two years of college credit would allow me to take examinations and go directly into graduate school. I did so and chose a program called “Analysis of Ideas and the Study of Method.” It was the brainchild of Richard McKeon, and during my years at Chicago I took more courses with him than with anyone else.

In this program one was to identify one’s topic. I chose “the reasons for not believing in God.” I was launched on a three-year MA program on this topic, but it took only a couple of quarters for my beliefs to fade away. What happened was not that I discovered particular arguments for atheism that were strongly convincing. I did not. What happened was that I was drawn into the modern world of sensibility and thought, and I found that God simply had no place there.

What then about my future? It hardly seemed useful to expose myself for three years to this intense immersion in the acids of modernity. One possibility was to switch gears and aim to become a professor of philosophy. I could study with Charles Morris, or Rudolf Carnap, or Richard McKeon. But I was not quite ready to become a “modern” philosopher without further testing. Making that move would leave a hole in my life that was too large and painful.

Furthermore, even during those months when I was entering the modern world, I had encountered a few people who seemed to have assimilated that world and in some sense gone beyond it. James Luther Adams and Mircea Eliade of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago were two of them. What I heard from them was quite far removed from my childhood piety, but it was not the modern world of Carnap and Morris either.

Seeking Alternatives to Secular Modernity

For me at that point the most important alternative to modernity was provided by Charles Hartshorne. He not only affirmed the reality of God but also discussed in detail the nature of God, the reasons for this belief, and its importance. He associated his ideas with those of Alfred North Whitehead, although he had come to them in large measure independently. He knew the thought of Western philosophers well, and interacted convincingly with many of them. His style of teaching was allowing us students in on his own philosophical musings, which certainly took full account of modern thinkers. To seize the lifesaver he threw my way might be too much influenced by my wishes, but he certainly spoke to my mind as much as to my heart.

The thought of Alfred North Whitehead, pictured above, shaped Cobb's theological explorations. Credit: Creative Commons - Public Domain.

I felt that my choice was to enter the world of contemporary philosophy in which Hartshorne’s thought was marginalized or to study in a context in which the idea of God was not automatically discounted. I discovered that there was considerable interest in Whitehead in the Divinity School. I was especially interested in learning more about him, given his stature as a mathematician and physicist, and the great role that science had played in freeing the modern mind of God.

Since I was not impressed by the existential value of the dominant philosophy and was still struggling with existential issues that were, for me, of ultimate importance, I decided to enter the Divinity School. It was an intellectual hothouse. Today many progressive thinkers in the arena of religion are pressured to become objective scholars about religion. But in the University of Chicago Divinity School at that time, the focus was on what one actually believed. The program I entered was called “Constructive Theology.” “Theology” meant the articulation of one’s deepest convictions, whether they were theist or atheist or something that did not fit those categories.

The general view in this community was that modern science and the philosophy and culture it supported were too limited. Their description of nature in materialist and mechanistic terms left out much of what is most important in reality. This was largely because of the adoption of a sensationalist empiricism, that is, the belief that all our knowledge of the world beyond our immediate experience is mediated through our sense organs. My professors thought that the cutting edge developments in science had already shown the limitations of what had long been the scientific worldview. For the most part they rejected metaphysical materialism in favor of a new naturalism. They were strongly empirical in their emphasis but thought that what was usually called “empiricism” had too narrow an understanding of experience. They occasionally labeled themselves as “neo-naturalists” and, following William James, “radical empiricists.” These were moves beyond the dominant modern worldview that felt right to me.

Neo-naturalism, that is, a new understanding of nature that includes purpose and value, and radical empiricism, the understanding that our experience is affected by the world in ways other than through the senses organs, opened the door to taking seriously religious experience, including specifically its Christian form. The former had developed at Chicago partly in reaction to the thoroughgoing historicism of the previous generation there. That generation was committed to the socio-historical method. Sometimes strict empiricism so focuses attention on what is knowable in the immediate presence, that it largely ignores history. But, fortunately, the empiricism of my teachers did not altogether exclude a historical consciousness. I felt I could participate wholeheartedly in these discussions, which were so much more interesting to me than what was going on in contemporary philosophy departments. It did not seem to me that I was simply clinging to my childhood faith although I knew then, and still know, that my passion and conviction of importance arose from that background.

Discovering Wieman

Neo-naturalism and radical empiricism made “God” a discussable topic. To me that was important. The single most influential figure among the faculty was the recently retired Henry Nelson Wieman. He thought that careful empirical analysis showed the reality of a kind of process at work in and among human beings that was worthy of total commitment. He thought that displaying the reality of this process in an indisputable way could put an end to doubts about the existence of God and guide people into a form of devotion that truly saved them. This process was one of “creative interchange” or “creative transformation,” apart from which no baby could become an adult. But there are many other processes at work that thwart and distort this one. People need consciously and intentionally to remove obstacles to the fuller working of this process and to allow themselves to be transformed by it. Although Wieman called this empirically identifiable process “God,” he was far more interested in the process than in how it was labeled. I was fascinated and wrote my master’s thesis on Wieman.

I remain deeply indebted to Wieman. To this day I believe that what he called “creative transformation” is of immense importance both individually and collectively. I made central use of this idea in my Christology. I commend Wieman to anyone who no longer believes in God as he or she has understood God. I do not know how one can deny the occurrence of what Wieman identifies as creative transformation or fail to see the value of promoting it.

Nevertheless, I was dissatisfied and my thesis was critical. For me, the question of what may be called “ontology” was, and still is, inescapable. What status does what one speaks about have in reality? In this case, what ontological status does the creative transformation that Wieman calls “God” have? Many people seem not to need to know, but for me that question persists. I was persuaded then and remain persuaded now that there are in fact many events that embody creative transformation to some degree as well as some dramatic instances. But what is creative transformation as such? Is it the sum total of these events? Or is it an abstraction from them? Wieman’s writings suggest some other status, but at the time I could not figure this out. I agreed with Wieman that we should promote the occurrence of events in which creative transformation impressively takes place, but I did not see how it could function as the object of devotion. It seemed to me that one needed to go further into the question of what causes these events to occur.

I agreed with Wieman that this further questioning draws us into speculation. He opposed speculation in matters of existential importance. He saw that it introduces uncertainty where we most need certainty. I agreed that my questions could not be answered simply by describing human experience. They did involve speculation. But I could not avoid that speculation. I saw that not only Wieman but also many other theologians tried to avoid speculation. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on “The Independence of Christian Faith from Speculative Belief.” My conclusion was that the effort to establish such independence failed. The theologians all made assumptions that were disputable. I thought that it was better to articulate these assumptions and discuss them as critically as possible. That involved speculation.

Discovering Whitehead

I found in the philosophy of Whitehead the most creative, rigorous, and insightful speculation. Of course, I have not read everything, but I continue to think that no other speculative system of the past century compares with his. We have to go back to Hegel to find a real competitor.

Wieman had early on introduced Whitehead’s book on religion to the Divinity School faculty. Whitehead, like Wieman, was a neo-naturalist and a radical empiricist. But by the time Whitehead wrote his magnum opus, Process and Reality, Wieman was strongly opposed. Whitehead’s doctrine of God was part of his speculative system. This countered all that Wieman had hoped to accomplish by locating God strictly in human experience. But Whitehead gave me the speculative basis for understanding creative transformation and the God who is incarnate in it.

Cobb writes, “Like Aristotle, Whitehead thought further that we need to go beyond physics to reflect about its assumptions.” Credit: Creative Commons - Public Domain.

Whitehead and Wieman agreed that speculation goes beyond empirical description. But whereas Wieman seemed to think that staying with description was enough, Whitehead pointed out that all science depends on speculation. To speculate is to propose a theory that accounts for what one has observed. The task is then to check the theory against the facts, preferably facts other than those that gave rise to it. Like Aristotle, Whitehead thought further that we need to go beyond physics to reflect about its assumptions. This is metaphysics. Of course, we need to go beyond psychology in the same way.

Like the neo-naturalists generally, Whitehead judged that reality consists in events rather than substances. He went far beyond any of them in his analysis of what takes place in all events and then in distinguishing and describing diverse types of events. He showed that something like creative transformation occurs in all events, and that it becomes increasingly important in complex events. The occurrence of creative transformation depends on the participation of “pure potentials.” These pure potentials provide new possibilities. The actual world is made up of ever new and unique individual events, and none of these can occur without the participation of potentialities in it. Nor can we understand the coming to be of each event without positing that each has an aim, an aim at becoming what it can be in that situation. This aim also depends on the world of potentiality and upon that world being ordered with a view to the realization of value. This aim at value realization thus plays a profound role in reality as a whole, and its success is always an instance of creative transformation. Thus Whitehead provided an answer, a brilliant and original answer, to my question of Wieman.

Wieman called creative transformation “God.” Whitehead gave that name to the sphere of pure potentials as they are ordered to the realization of value. To follow Whitehead has much the same practical outcome as following Wieman, but it moves one into a much richer sphere of imaginative thought. It turns out that the same ideas that work so well to explain Christian experience, also throw light on other religious communities. They also give guidance for the development of mathematics and the sciences. I find this reassuring.

God as the Source of Purpose and Love

God in Whitehead’s understanding is the source of purpose, of life, of mind, of novelty, and of love. It does not seem inappropriate to me to worship God thus understood. The belief that God is literally immanent or incarnate in every moment of my life, and in every other event as well, has deep existential meaning. Also the reality of God is the ground of hope in a world that seems bent on self-destruction. The vast majority of Whitehead’s references to God are to this reality.

Whitehead was very clear that much thinking about God, including what is often called classical theism, has been terribly damaging. But he found in Jesus a message that was more congruent with his position. It was important for Whitehead to see that although no event comes into being without God, every event is largely determined by its situation, that is, by its unique past. Further, whereas God’s aim for every event is the realization of optimum value in itself and through its contribution to the future, every event also involves a decision, that is, a cutting off of all solutions except one. God’s aim for the event introduces possibilities among which the occasion chooses. God “lures.” God does not determine the outcome. Both purpose and freedom come from God. Both are delimited by the reality of the inherited situation. This is a long way from atheism. But it is a long way also from supposing that God unilaterally determines everything that happens. The idea of divine omnipotence is totally misleading and has caused enormous suffering and evil.

For Whitehead this speculation is quite close to the facts as radical empiricism reveals them. He called this the secular function of God. He judged that it leaves unanswered the specifically religious question raised by what he called “perpetual perishing.” Each event no sooner becomes than it ceases to exist in its own subjectivity. Its own intrinsic value is over. It exists only as an object influencing its future. This fleeting nature of every realization of value raises the question of the worthwhileness of life. Those who reflect most deeply about this rapid disappearance of everything we do are those most likely to feel the threat of nihilism. What difference does it make what I do or what happens to others? It is all over as soon as it happens.

Whitehead thought that this raised another question about God. Does God constitute an answer to this existential problem rooted in the metaphysical reality of process? Whitehead thought that there have been human intuitions into an answer, but the experiential basis for this answer is far more tenuous than the previously discussed speculation about God. Nevertheless, there are reasonable theories.

God Is Affected by the World

In his analysis, every actual occasion is di-polar. It is shaped by its past in what Whitehead called its “physical pole.” It entertains possibilities (or actualizes potentials) in its mental pole. The divine envisagement of all potentials constitutes a mental pole for God. But for God to be an agent, God must be actual, and all else that is actual is di-polar. If God is not a violation of metaphysical principles, then God must also have a physical pole. That is, God must be affected by the world.

Throughout his theological exploration, Cobb continuously asked the question, "Does God make sense?" Credit: Pixabay.

I will not go into details, but there are good reasons for speculating that God is affected fully by everything that happens in the world. Accordingly what is radically ephemeral in the world enters into the everlasting reality of the divine experience. Nothing is lost, and therefore everything is important. In our religious language, we can say quite literally that God is ideally compassionate as well as knowing all that occurs and all that has ever occurred in the biblical sense of “knowing.”

Since this speculation renders the whole of Whitehead’s convincing system more coherent, and since it fits what seem to me to be the deepest intuitions of the most spiritually advanced people in my tradition, I accept and affirm these ideas. It is my belief that we cannot organize our lives or our thought around only what is certain. That is nothing, or next to nothing. And of course, we should not organize our lives and our thought around chance ideas that we happen to like. At the same time, I think that simply accepting whatever happens to be most widely believed in one’s community, whether that is a church or a university, is to abdicate personal responsibility. We can do better. The best I can do is to follow the thought of the greatest thinker I have encountered.

To follow Whitehead is to engage in constant criticism and testing of his ideas. There are many unanswered questions. One can be certain (or as close to “certain” as is available to human beings) that he made many mistakes. That is the human condition. But what impresses me is how far he thought beyond the dominant thinking of modernity and also beyond other forms of postmodernity. For me and for a growing community he opens the door for new levels of discussion about God and about much else besides. I do not ask more of anyone.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Summer 2014 print issueThinking Anew About God. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/god-anew to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)

John B. Cobb Jr. taught at Claremont School of Theology. To develop the implications of Whitehead’s philosophy he cofounded Process Studies, the Center for Process Studies, the International Process Network, and the Institute for Postmodern Development of China.
 
tags: Christianity, Spirituality   
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