Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (XI)

This is the eleventh in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next week or so. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The eleventh essay is by Richard Rohr, who probably needs no introduction, but is a Franciscan friar who writes, talks and teaches prolifically about spirituality (and particularly mystical spirituality), and founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation. He has co-authored with Mike Morrell (one of the facilitators of the group) the book “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” which I will admit to not having yet read. I have, however, listened to Fr. Rohr talking about it.

He opens by making a case for why Christians tend to decry pantheism (which panentheism is often mistaken for), finding the problem in the insistence on an absolute divide between God and man, between transcendence (God) and immanence (presence in the world, and not God). So far, so good – but he then goes straight to asserting that early Christians found God in “two other manifestations of the Godhead”, namely the Christ and the Spirit, and we’re into Trinity. Actually, early Christians found God in more than three manifestations, particularly including Logos and Wisdom, but that slips by…

Panentheism does (as I alluded to in my response to Philip Clayton’s essay, the first of these reflections) make it necessary to re-evaluate the historical doctrines of the Church, and this is more or less easy depending on which doctrine you’re talking of. Having been wrestling with doctrines and whether I can legitimately assent to them as a panentheist for some years, I can say that Trinity is one of the most difficult. With panentheism comes the overwhelming conviction of unity, but of unity as seen in limitless multiplicity, and so trinity offends by being more than one, and by being absurdly limited compared with an infinity of manifestation. However, Fr. Rohr proceeds to try to make a case for Trinity as flowing out of a panentheistic (or perhaps pantheist) consciousness alongside his otherwise excellent trip through the experiences of the more mystically inclined Christians of the past.

Now, panentheism does solve the gap between a transcendent God and earthly creation by insisting on the radical immanence as well as the transcendence of God, and Fr. Rohr spends some time criticising (rightly, in my eyes) the effects of the historical insistence on God as wholly other, and commending the long chain of mystics who saw God as immanent, quoting for instance Catherine of Genoa as saying “My deepest me is God” and the Eastern Orthodox belief (which I think may stem from the fact that mystics have always been far more central in Orthodoxy) in theosis. Do we get to Trinity, as Fr. Rohr suggests, via Jesus’ seeing God in a third person perspective “God as him”, a second person perspective “God as Abba” and a first person perspective “God as me”? Well, no, and not just because this falls smartly into one of “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies”. You don’t arrive at Trinity by looking at the relationship between two individuals (or a part and the whole) in three ways.

Do you, however, arrive at Trinity by thinking of God in terms of action or activity rather than something more static, as the essentially static “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” might indicate? Can you, indeed, get there via mystics thinking in terms not so much of identity with God, but of “interbeing between God and the soul”? This is, of course, the basis of the concept of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, which is a favorite of recent writers on Trinity, but one which Fr. Rohr only touches on briefly here (but in much more detail in “The Divine Dance”). Again, if you start with two, I don’t think you get there. Other writers in this book have talked of the love between two individuals inevitably producing a third entity – but short of actually conceiving a child, I cannot see this as a “third person”, even if you regard, for instance “Chris and Nel” as being a person distinct from myself, my wife or the mere addition of the two. Again, the general concept of mutual indwelling is very amenable to a panentheist – but has nothing in particular to do with threeness. In her talk (although not in her essay) Ilia Delio remarks that three is the lowest number which avoids binary dualism – if you like, the gateway to multiplicity, and that is, I think, about as close as any of the writers get to an argument for a threefold interpretative lens – but that is still not “one essence, three persons”.

And yet, in his penultimate section, headed “The Ultimate Template for All Orthodoxy”, Fr. Rohr says “…the ultimate Christian source and model for panentheism is the central doctrine of the Trinity itself”. I don’t think he has remotely succeded in showing that. On the other hand, he also says “Divine union is not uniformity but precisely diversity loved and overcome! Only the contemplative, non-dual mind can process this, not the rational dualistic mind”. With that, I can agree wholeheartedly.

Fr. Rohr is plainly a contemplative and a mystic, and as such I am confident the most natural god-concept for him will always be panentheism, and he makes a decent case for this. However, he is also a Catholic priest, and more even than people in the other confessional denominations will have the catechism, and thus a fairly full description of Trinity, ingrained in his mind as a primary necessity for Christian belief. He doesn’t do a bad job of reconciling that with panentheism, and he plainly takes great intellectual joy in the concept. However, there is no way in my mind that he has demonstrated that it is, for the panentheist, more than one among many interpretative lenses which can be employed.


Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (X)

This is the tenth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The tenth essay is by Marjorie Suhocki, who is a process theologian. What most struck me about her chapter was her personal story. She falls about halfway between me and my late mother, and her story of being expected to go out to work rather than pursue an academic career mirrors my mother’s – she had a place to read Music at Durham University (where I eventually got my BSc), but had to go to work to support the family when her father fell ill; like Suhocki, she returned to study later in life, although whereas Suhocki managed this in her 30’s (with three young children and an alcoholic husband, no mean feat), my mother waited until her 60s, and was content with a BA from the Open University. Suhocki’s achievement in doing the coursework aspects of a PhD in one year particularly belies her early thought that “I don’t have enough brains”. I am filled with admiration, and left with the feeling that possibly I don’t have enough brains to understand process adequately, whereas she clearly does…

I love her statement that “Theology is provisional; God is not” and her later quote of an article “On the other hand, this may not be the case at all” which she adds as a silent rider to all her work. Those very much sum up my own attitude to theology, and I will not doubt borrow them in the future. I’m also with her in rejection of two out of the three “omnis”, namely omnipotence and omniscience. She and I both cannot abandon omnipresence, which she talks of experiencing as do I; I like the fact that she differentiates this from the idea of a King’s rule pervading his kingdom, which is absolutely not the way the average mystic experiences it.

Regarding process, let me just quote her “I do not know if process theology has it right. Its intricate metaphysical system, in its attempt to describe the world, may or may not concur with contemporary scientific understandings of the world… What matters for me us that its relational analysis of the world is consistent with the way the world is in a metaphorical way. Its metaphysics provide not a road map, but a metaphor for the fundamental nature of reality. And that fundamental naure is relational, through and through.”. Equally, I do not know if process has it right; those who are following my set of responses will already know that I have particular difficulty getting my brain round proces metaphysics. However, once they leave Whitehead behind, I tend to find process theologians coming up with statements which I can readily agree – it works as a metaphor, in other words.

It is just as well. Her earlier statement “Whitehead’s conception of God as a singular actual entity with a reversed polar structure necessitated that the world be taken into God at all moments of its multitudinous entities’ completions…” goes straight over my head. Maybe, however, a less concentrated, more expansive account might break through my wall of incomprehension? I hope so – I have her “God, Church, World” on order now.

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (the God of Entropy)

I’ve been reading and blogging about “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

This is not part of the chapter-by chapter reactions, however. It’s the result of one of those things – coincidence, synchronicity, divine providence – I don’t know – whereby I will be talking about a subject in one place on the internet, and in an unconnected place, I see something which puts things in a new light. In this case, in a post in the Partially Examined Life facebook group, John Shannon posted a link to an article in “Wired” about the work of Karl Friston. The article is headlined as being about the “key to real AI”. In the comments following that, Wilson Alexander posted a link to a paper in “Physics of Life” about free energy and the Schroedinger Equation. (The first of those is very readable and I strongly suggest that you go and read it; the second is really very technical… but John Shannon posted a set of very brief and excellent outlines of many of the technical bits, which he’s kindly let me steal).

So, what do those have to do with discussions about panentheism? Well, after I posted some of my earlier reactions to some of the chapters, I got into discussions with a few people (notably Paul Gideon Dann and Bryce Haymond) in the book group about idealism and panspychism. Keith Ward is an idealist; Rupert Sheldrake is a panpsychist. Several of the authors are process theologians, and process certainly seems to me at least to tend in the direction of panpsychism.

I’m definitely not an idealist; I’d definitely a methodological naturalist (in that I expect to find naturalistic explanations for things, i.e. explanations which are rational and scientifically testable), and I tend to lean towards thinking that if there is one most fundamental “stuff” of the universe, it’s material (which would make me a materialist), and that phenomena such as mind and consciousness can probably eventually be reduced to being emergent properties or epiphenomena of matter. That is very much the direction of Karl Friston’s thinking, which leans heavily on the Free Energy Principle.

So what is that all about? Friston considers that the hallmark of life is that it involves prediction of what is going to happen, and that it acts to reduce “the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs”, i.e. to reduce free energy. The main other key concept referred to in the article is that of the Markov Blanket, which Christopher Frith describes (as quoted in the article) as “a cognitive version of a cell membrane, shielding states inside the blanket from states outside.” Friston’s thinking is then described as follows:- “Each of us has a Markov blanket that keeps us apart from what is not us. And within us are blankets separating organs, which contain blankets separating cells, which contain blankets separating their organelles. The blankets define how biological things exist over time and behave distinctly from one another.”

Again, “When the brain makes a prediction that isn’t immediately borne out by what the senses relay back, Friston believes, it can minimize free energy in one of two ways: It can revise its prediction—absorb the surprise, concede the error, update its model of the world—or it can act to make the prediction true. “ In other words, there must be a feedback loop (or, more likely, several) which operate to minimise the difference between prediction and actuality by acting or by revising the prediction (and as an aside, I think this will link with the work of Douglas Hofstadter).

Moving on to the second article, John Shannon’s precis version is here in red, parts of the original which he quotes are in brown, bits I’ve added are in black, to aid those who find the original article hard going:-
1. Survival by minimizing energy expenditures through good guessing.
2. Wiggle room for mistakes is mitigated by accuracy in forming a good idea of what’s “out there”
3. “All biological systems exhibit a specific form of self-organisation, which has been sculpted by natural selection to allow them to actively maintain their integrity…” – Survival bubbles, cells
4. “…All other self-organising systems, from snowflakes to solar systems, follow an inevitable and irreversible path to disorder.”  – No internal world-in-itself. No emulation of importance if you will. No “being-for-itself” as Sartre would put it. And no feedback loops.
5. Attracting states = “…extended phenotype of the organism—its morphology, physiology, behavioural patterns, cultural patterns, and designer environments…” – Creature habits, probably including rest!
6. “The implications of this are profound. It means that all biotic agents move, systematically, towards attracting states […] -This means living systems are effectively self-evidencing—they move to maximise the evidence of their existence…” – Retreat to habits of regularity and regulation, as if seeking comfort in its niche. I picture something snapping back into some kind of neutral ground in order to save energy  – perhaps including the consideration that thought consumes energy.
7. “…all biological systems maintain their integrity by actively reducing the disorder or dispersion (i.e., entropy) of their sensory and physiological states by minimising their variational free energy…” -Don’t work hard, work smart… though a thermostat might be thought to do that
8. “Thus, an organism’s distal imperative of survival and maintaining functional states within physiological bounds (i.e., homeostasis and allostasis) translates into a proximal avoidance of surprise…” -Intelligence (I might argue that intelligence as we understand it might need another feedback loop, but possibly no more than that).
9. “…this propensity to minimise surprise is the result of natural selection (that itself can be seen as a free energy minimising process; see below)—self-organising systems that are able to avoid entropic, internal phase-transitions have been selected over those that could not…” – Natural selection breeds in this necessary perpetuating propensity
10. “…one needs to differentiate between the system and its environment—those states that constitute or are intrinsic to the system and those that are not. To do this, we have to introduce a third set of states that separates internal from external states. This is known as a Markov blanket. Markov blankets establish a conditional independence between internal and external states that renders the inside open to the outside, but only in a conditional sense…” – Membranes as world-makers, emulators… They also act as curbs on the more extreme conceptions of relationality found in Process Thought.
11. “The Markov blanket can be further divided into ‘sensory’ and ‘active’ states that are distinguished in the following way: internal states cannot influence sensory states, while external states cannot influence active states. With these conditional independencies in place, we now have a well-defined (statistical) separation between the internal and external states of any system. A Markov blanket can be thought of as the surface of a cell, the states of our sensory epithelia, or carefully chosen nodes of the World Wide Web surrounding a particular province.” -Division of labor and also boundaries between levels in emergence.
12. “…free energy is a function of probabilistic beliefs, encoded by internal states about external states (i.e., expectations about the probable causes of sensory input).” – The need of communication
13. “then, how do Markov blankets relate to the FEP (free energy principle)? The FEP tells us how the quantities that define Markov blankets change as the system moves towards its variational free energy minimum (following Hamilton’s principle of least action) … In other words, an organism does not just encode a model of the world, it *is* a model of the world—a physical transcription of causal regularities in its eco-niche that has been sculpted by reciprocal interactions between self-organisation and selection over time…” – Heidegger’s “being-in-the-world” comes to mind here… I also note that those regularities (patterns) can be in an extremely simplified form – indeed, science tends to the simplest explanation which is consistent with the facts, and even to the simplest explanation which is sufficiently consistent with the facts for the purposes of prediction. I could regard this as an energy minimising process, the energy in question being thinking time.

At that point, John’s interests diverge from those which I’m following in this post. The article goes on to put forward a concept of the Hierarchically Mechanistic Mind (figure 4 in the article) which, it seems to me, does not require the panpsychist’s concept of “mind all the way down” (as opposed to turtles), and definitely does not make any form of idealism look attractive – indeed, the whole article describes a system in which ideas are effectively no more than guesses.

Backtracking in the article to just before it introduces the Markov Blanket concept (End of section 2.1), I find this:- “Thus, an organism’s distal imperative of survival and maintaining functional states within physiological bounds (i.e., homeostasis and allostasis) translates into a proximal avoidance of surprise . Although surprise itself cannot be evaluated, since free energy imposes an upper bound on surprise, biological systems can minimise surprise by minimising their variational free energy. From the point of view of a physicist, surprise corresponds to thermodynamic potential energy , such that minimising (the average) variational free energy entails the minimisation of thermodynamic entropy.” (I have left in the hyperlinks which are in the original).

This, I think, is where we get to Process. Process theologians have a tendency to talk of God as continually introducing novelty, new experience, new possibilities. Or, if you like, surprise. And surprise is now another way of talking of entropy, which is arguably the most powerful principle in the universe. So far, so good (we may have a formulation of “God is Entropy”), but the whole line of argument through these two articles is demonstrating that life is profoundly surprise-reducing, and anti-entropic.

So, are we (as life forms and so devoted to reducing surprise, and thus entropy) fundamentally set in opposition to the Entropic God?

I think back to Genesis 1, with the earth being without form and void (chaotic) and the spirit of God moving over the waters and establishing some kind of order, and wonder whether the God of Order or the God of Entropy is being considered here. On balance, and taking into consideration that the Ruach Elohim is both the spirit of God and the breath of life, I would incline towards God being the God of life, and of order, if forced to make a choice.

But maybe, just maybe, God is both? For we panentheists, “there is nothing that is not God” is a meaningful statement; for mystics, the coincidence of opposites is something we tend to just have to live with.

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (XII)

This is the twelfth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

Those who are following these as they come out will notice that I haven’t yet posted my tenth and eleventh reactions. As with the ninth on Matthew Fox, the schedule of sessions with the authors demands that I try to post this before Tuesday evening. The others will come eventually!

The twelfth and last essay is by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. Tripp Fuller has sometimes referred to Brad Artson as “his rabbi”, and insofar as a Christian can have a rabbi, I share his feeling. I read and listen to R. Artson’s work with fascination. He is a (possibly “the”) Jewish process theologian.

Reading his essay, however, does not deal very much with how process interacts with Judaism; among a set of personal reflections, his strikes me as perhaps the most personal of all. Like me, he was an atheist at an early age (though he was largely brought up as such whereas I rejected the religious teaching I was thrust into) and like me he had a transformative experience. His, however, was extremely specific; he felt and saw himself as present at the Exodus (“The vision was visual, clear and experiential”), whereas mine was definitely of the “what on earth was THAT?” type, requiring a huge amount of later processing (and repetition) in order to make sense of it. The image of a return is something which permeates the essay.

I see there something extremely Jewish – the insistence on the particular, which has to precede the general. The Talmud states, after all, “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” I’ll come back to that, which isn’t something R. Artson quotes, but note that I think this is a principle which Christianity could do to pay more attention to.

He then immerses himself in practice, at the suggestion of R. Gold, which is again the Jewish approach, and again something I feel is undervalued in Christianity; Judaism is overwhelmingly interested in orthopraxy and not very much in orthodoxy, whereas we have “sola fide” running through our theologies. We ignore at our peril the well established psychological mechanism which is summed up as “Act as if” – what you do consistently will eventually affect your thinking and your belief. Following that, he turns from politics to rabbinical studies, and I think of Hillel’s statement “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” I spent a lot of time in politics myself, albeit at a local level, which for me was, I’m sure his own involvement was for R. Artson, intended as a means of being rather more positive about the Golden Rule, and doing good things for others. I then turned to study later; he made that transition much earlier in life.

He was then faced with a problem in theodicy in the very particular case of his son Jacob, who is autistic, and found a solution in process theology. “What process theology offers me in addition to extended community is a way to make sense of my son’t struggles and triumphs. It allows me to affirm that Jacob isn’t being judged or tested, that he in fact is like all of us, living with the random workings out of a natural order, and that meaning isd to be fashioned by his response to life, not by happenstance. I realise that since God is self-surpassing and engaged in everything, every instant, every moment, that Jacob also can be self-surpassing. Indeed, he is!”. He writes in lyrical terms about how this concept of God allows him to delight in existence; indeed, I could see there that it lets him love God again (which I inevitably link with Hillel’s statement, having learned something like it as the second part of the Great Commandments), having written of his two years not talking to God. “All life is a mixture of delight and suffering, and consciousness itself brings about the capacity to delight and the capacity to mourn”.

We see there both the return which is the overriding theme of the essay and the insistence on the particular; it is through this specific experience that he loves life and loves God. I am uplifted by his words – and thank him for referring to Christianity as the “younger nephew” of Torah. I am always ready to learn from what I suppose must be our auntie.


Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (VIII)

This is the eighth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The eighth essay is by Loreliai Biernacki, and is – well – different. She titles it “Panentheism and Technology: The Immanence of Rage”, and rage is not an emotion which I naturally associate with an overpowering sense of immanence. Granted, at times when I focus on the natural world at the moment, I get a strong feeling that “all creation is groaning”, and can contemplate for a few moments that humanity is looking more like an infestation which needs eradicating than like the summit of evolution – before compassion swings back into the centre of my thinking. That, however, is not what she is talking of.

She paints a picture of an augmented humanity, with the boundary between man and machine blurring and the possibility arising that we may create an AI which surpasses humanity and renders us redundant – “God is not so much dead in modernity, but rather, not quite yet born”. She sees this as a future in the making of which we are losing touch with our embodiment as individual humans. Our lives become more ruled by virtual reality and the internet, substituting real human contact, and we dream of uploading our consciousnesses into computers and living forever in a disembodied state. This, of course, resonates with the longstanding Christian view that the objective is to transcend the material and achieve a safe space as a disembodied spirit.

Against this, she talks of “…the intelligence of the body itself, the intelligence of earth as growing plants and animal species” and of “preternatural instincts” telling us to turn this corner rather than that. I can resonate with that to some extent – the idea of disembodied spirits is one which the New Testament imports from the Greeks, and has no part in the earlier Biblical narrative, in which everything in order to exist at all must have physical form (I think of Walter Wink’s analysis in his “Powers” trilogy there). And yet, I don’t see as big a divide as she does. An augmented humanity is still embodied, just not entirely in biological form; the blurring of boundaries is very much part of the panentheistic experience. Even if I were uploaded to the cloud, I would still be embodied, just not in the same way as now. OK, as things stand, there would be a serious deficiency in the bodily mechanisms which produce emotion, which would result in a pale shadow of embodied existence, but that is not necessarily always going to be the case.

She goes on to ground the rest of the essay in Tantra. Using the thought of Utpaladeva, she criticises vikalpa, the kind of imagination which chops reality into small pieces and rearranges them into, for example, and elephant with two trunks and a hundred tusks, proposing instead vimarsa, the transformative peace gained from self-reflection, and bhavana, meditative visualisation. Again, this resonates with the panentheistic blurring of boundaries – if all boundaries are illusory, cutting things up into small bits makes no sense, as something is inevitably lost.

The step which I worry about most is that she thinks this concentration on vikalpa rather than vimarsa is part of the foundation for a pervasive sense of rage which she detects in society, over and above the rage engendered by economics; she suggests that fundamentalisms are “connected to a plea to bring back groundedness, the security of time-worn religious traditions to an ungrounded technological world”. Actually, I see rage in society very differently than she does – I see simmering discontent at economic opression which I fear may erupt into widespread violence, and I see huge fear at the pace of change (and fear engenders rage); it is the second of those which I think undergirds religious fundamentalisms. She does say that it is tied to a sense of being ungrounded, however, and that is certainly an aspect of living in a rapidly changing society.

However, I do not think that the secularisation process which she criticises involves any departure from embodiment. On the contrary, most secularists are confirmed materialists, and that is about as embodied a philosophy as you can get.

She writes “The rage of fundamentalist religion is, I suspect, a plea to call back a way of being that remembers embodiment in a greater scheme of life”, and I demur. I don’t think it “remembers embodiment”, I think it looks back to a day when ones identity was fixed, when there was a clear map of the ways in which to behave, where there was an authority beyond the individual prescribing most of the template of your life (this lust for submitting to authority, to me, explains why there is such a resurgence in charismatic and authoritarian leaders in the world). Modernity has delivered us choice, and choice is scary. Yes, it is a “greater scheme of life”, but not particularly an embodied one. The old schemes of meaning involved far more non-material concepts than you need in modernity, after all, and the rise in “spiritual but not religious” indicates to me a strong sense of embodied spirituality severed from non-material concepts like church and, perhaps, God.

Her later stories from the Tantric tradition, therefore, do not really connect with me, apart from in thinking that the idea of a raging god is one which we perhaps abandon to the fundamentalists at our peril, and the idea of a drunken god is one which we could do not to lose completely. Both are pictures of lack of inhibition, and I for one am far too inhibited for my own good.

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (VII)

This is the seventh in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The seventh essay is by Deepak Chopra. I’ve not read anything by him for quite some time (I think I have a thin memory of something which must have been one of his very early works), and must admit that this arises from a certain amount of prejudice. Firstly, his books seemed to be shelved in bookshops amidst a stack of new-agey stuff, which I gave up reading any of rather more years ago than I prefer to admit. Secondly, (and this is linked with the first) I viewed him as trying to do a kind of synthesis between Indian and Christian traditions, and had decided after my 10 years or so exploring all sorts of traditions that syncretism generally did no justice to either (or any) of the traditions involved. Yes, you can do successful syncretism to an extent (let’s face it, Christianity is to some extent a syncretic effort between Hebrew and Greek traditions) but you need to be, in my eyes, a genius to do it well. Most of those I read who were trying to do this weren’t geniuses, and I was pretty confident I couldn’t do a good job myself, at least not without far more work than I was prepared to put into the project, given that as I saw it, each tradition actually functions adequately on its own terms.

So I was agreeably surprised by this essay, while being really nervous about the title – “Making God Necessary”. Were we going to descend into another pit of ontology, I wondered? But no, Chopra is, like Sheldrake and Delio, out of the tradition of biological sciences, and focuses immediately on making sense of (and properly valuing) personal experience. He then proceeds to attempt to make a case that a full understanding of that experience requires a God – “Unless God enters into daily decisions and, furthermore, brings about better results than doing without God, the divine will be at most an add-on to modern life”.

Laplace, of course, when taken to task by Napoleon for writing a huge amount about the natural world but not mentioning its putative creator, said “I had no need of that hypothesis”, which is a view effectively shared by the vast bulk of science these days, so Chopra has a distinctly uphill task. He talks of “belief” as being willing to entertain the God hypothesis and of faith as being upheld by some kind of personal experience which points towards the divine; I diverge from him there. I’m a mystic, I claim that I don’t need to entertain a hypothesis of God or have faith in God, I experience God. But perhaps this is a difference in the way of putting it rather than something more substantive.

I am in complete agreement with his well-made point that just because we can see brain activity during spiritual experiences doesn’t mean that the brain is creating those experiences. You can see brain activity when I look at a photo of my wife, but that doesn’t mean she is a figment of my imagination.

However, he goes on to stretch somewhat further than I think is viable as an argument. He says:-

“I would say that everyday life, in fact, is littered with clues and hints of spiritual experience. These passing moments take on a flavor everyone can identify with, even the most convinced atheist. Let me offer a partial list, which consists of moments when you or I feel: Safe and protected; Wanted; Loved; As if we belong; As if our lives are embedded in a larger design; As if the body is light and action is effortless; Upheld by unseen forces; Unusually fortunate or lucky; Touched by fate; Inspired; Infused with light, or actually able to see a faint light around someone else; Held in the presence of the divine; Spoken to by our soul; Certain that a deep wish or dream is coming true; Certain that a physical illness will be healed; At ease with death and dying” (I have reduced this to a list divided by semicolons, which I have added, in order to save some space).

I have in the past spent a very large amount of time (possibly as much as the magic 10,000 hours) attempting to argue with atheists that there is some value in the concept of God, and one of the bases for this was to point at a lot of examples of subjective experience; I can therefore pretty much guarantee that while those of us who are already confident that there is a God (for some value of that word) will look at that list and think “Yes, I can see God at work in those”, an atheist will say “those are just emotional states” and, in some cases, that they are definitely subjective illusions. I once spent well over a year in a discussion thread involving several thousand messages trying to get a group of French atheists to accept the idea that there could be something which underlay these and other experiences. I managed to bully everyone into accepting that they had actually had such experiences, and got them as far as saying yes, there might be some [   ] underlying those which was perhaps, just perhaps, an useful idea. The square brackets represented a box, and my next move was to say “G-O-D” is a label we can put on the box, a variable the value of which we don’t yet know, perhaps – we might find out, for instance, that the box contained nothing but a mirror.

It didn’t work – as soon as those three letters appeared, we were right back to the beginning and they were discounting their actual experiences as meaningless.

So I applaud his attempt, but I think it fails in practice. I’ve tried…

Beyond this, he is absolutely right in suggesting that the Indian traditions make it really easy to accept radical divine immanence. So does Taoism, so do some strands of Confucianism. I came very close to setting my Christian upbringing and milieu completely aside and espousing one of those many years ago, and am still inclined to “think Taoist” or “think Buddhist” on occasion (my decision was to no small extent based on the fact that the Eastern systems would have required a vast amount of study to become “second nature” to me, and that wasn’t likely to be achieved without teachers from those traditions, which were in short supply in a small market town in Yorkshire). Referring back to my initial comments on syncretism, however, the Eastern traditions are, to me, completely different systems; I can work in one or in another, but trying to combine them is apt to produce confusion.

He is absolutely right in saying that if you drill down far enough in contemplation, you will find a “knowledge you become”. We have such a tradition in Christianity as well, perhaps best expressed by Meister Eckhart in many quotations, of which I select You should know (God) without image, unmediated and without likeness. But if I am to know God without mediation in such a way, then “I” must become “he”, and “he” must become “I”. More precisely I say: God must become me and I must become God, so entirely one that “he” and this “I” become one “is” and act in this “isness” as one, for this “he” and this “I”, that is God and the soul, are very fruitful.

The mark of a good deal…

Brexit is again all anyone is talking about for the time being. This week has seen the announcement of a draft deal for withdrawal with the EU, individual meetings between the PM and ministers, a long cabinet meeting, various ministerial resignations, a gruelling initial presentation to the House of Commons and, yesterday evening, a press conference. Here’s a link to the BBC coverage.

Now, I hate Brexit with considerable fervour, as just might be apparent from previous posts. That said, I want to issue some congratulations in two directions where the vast bulk of news is currently issuing condemnations.

The first of these is to the negotiating team who have managed to produce this document. Mrs. May’s account of her brief on this was to produce a deal which the whole country could get behind, and actually what they have negotiated is something which this ardent supporter of a more united Europe could at a pinch stomach. And that is an amazing achievement. I didn’t think the EU negotiators, who have always rather had us over a barrel once we invoked Article 50, would bend so far as they seem to have done. Although it doesn’t cover the terms of future relationship, the extension of time to December 2020 and the outline of where both sides would like to find agreement are actually very comforting – there does seem to be a route through this which would not produce massive economic hardship in the short term.

The second is for Teresa May herself. She has acquitted herself brilliantly through the week’s events, keeping her calm amidst a torrent of complaint (and sometimes abuse) from all sides, and the final press conference was a fine example of that. It was very definitely a prime-ministerial performance, indeed a statesmanlike one. I can’t help contrasting it with some other press conferences I’ve seen clips of recently, and thinking that we could do a whole lot worse for a leader.

I never really expected to feel this way about her, as I’ve always felt an instinctive antipathy toward her (possibly because she reminds me of Margaret Thatcher in a blander form, possibly because she switched from campaigning to Remain to insisting that “the people have spoken” and took the leadership in what seemed to me an opportunistic manner to implement what she’d just campaigned against), but I feel really sorry for her. Hers is not a position which I would remotely like to be in. As things stand at the moment, her chances of getting a parliamentary majority in favour of the draft agreement seem remarkably slim, and it even seems very much in doubt that she can continue to lead the Conservative party, and so the nation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the government fall, and a snap general election called. Whether that would then sink our chances of leaving the EU on anything better than “crash out and try to work with World Trade Organisation rules” is a question I can’t answer, but which worries me. However, as Mrs. May said in the press conference, there will now be a lot of debate in the House of Commons over the coming weeks, and she may even be right in suggesting that eventually a majority of MPs will come round to accepting that this is the best option that can be hoped for.

Of course, it actually pleases no-one. The enthusiastic Brexiteers are now talking about crashing out on WTO rules as being a viable option that they would support (although not as much as they’d support a Canada style ongoing relationship – but we were never going to be able to agree one of those before the deadline, particularly if we crashed out having not paid in a lot of money to balance the books on the previous relationship). They can, I think, be relied on to try to sabotage anything other than a hard Brexit. The DUP don’t see the agreement as preserving the Britishness of Northern Ireland, and they would probably not be too bothered to see a hard border with Ireland return, though the rest of us shudder at the prospect, which would probably come with an immediate resumption of violence.

It definitely doesn’t please those of us who were nearly half of those who voted on the issue who don’t want to leave at all, which of course includes my former party, the Liberal Democrats (who have not featured in recent news at all, despite being a solidly pro-Europe voice and having around 20% of the vote last time – do I detect bias?) Granted, if the future relationship does follow the outline in the agreement, it won’t be as economically disastrous as we feared, but we will still have no say in the future European project. I will grant that, from my point of view, getting out of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy would be a boon – both of those were not constructed with Britain in mind, and they have long needed a major overhaul which may not ever be satisfactorily achieved. I will also grant that the construction of the EU’s governing bodies is not adequately democratic, and being out of that system is perhaps a plus – but in that case, what I wanted to see (and which would I think inevitably develop) was a more democratic system in which the European Parliament, directly elected, gained more power at the expense of the Council of Ministers and Commission, which are respectively members of and appointed via the governments of the individual states. (I note that there is a similar though less dramatic democratic deficit in the USA with the allocation of two senators to each state irrespective of population – this is a feature of going from an assembly of individual states to a coherent whole…)

It also doesn’t seem to please the Labour Party, which perhaps surprises me, given that it’s as close to the outline Jeremy Corbyn has been talking about as is, I think, remotely within the bounds of possibility. I have been very disappointed with his stance on Brexit even as I’ve applauded his stance on most other things. I feel that he may have been too concerned about the electoral prospects of his party (noting that the Brexit vote was strong in most of the industrial and urban areas where Labour gain most of their seats) and not enough concerned with the internationalist traditions of his socialism, which I share. That said, the EU institutions are congenitally neoliberal in their outlook these days, especially the European Bank, and I can envisage him thinking that it would be a lot easier to try to practice real socialism in a country which was divorced from those. I think he’s misguided in that – if we do leave the EU, I cannot see that Scotland will remain part of the UK for all that long, and without the solidly socialist vote in most of Scotland (much of which currently goes to the SNP, but I can easily see a Labour-SNP coalition), Labour would probably never manage a majority in the lifetime of anyone living today.

Having said all that, it has been said that the mark of a good deal is that all parties are equally dissatisfied with it. Maybe this is the best we can get?

Where are we going to end up? I don’t know. Some commentators have talked of a “Government of national unity” which would probably be a Conservative-Labour coalition. I don’t rule that out, and it is perhaps the only way in which we could move forward with the draft agreement. That actually makes me feel somewhat hopeful – I look at the States, and wonder what the chances of a Democrat-Republican coalition would be these days…

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (IX)

This is the ninth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

(Those who are wondering where my seventh and eighth reactions are; please be patient. The book study had an interview with Matthew Fox, the author of the ninth essay, this week, so it’s convenient for me to write this while that is still fresh).

Fox is a former Catholic priest, now an Episcopal one. My first acquaintance with his writing was his book “The Coming of the Cosmic Christ”, which I admit I wasn’t thrilled by, largely because what I wanted to read at the time was something very concrete, and his writing was extremely figurative. However, his essay here is a different matter – not entirely, because he still has a liking for the figurative. He opens, for instance, with a figure of a fish swimming in the sea, in which the fish is in the sea and (to some extent) the sea in the fish, coupled with the idea of “in whom we live and move and have our being” as being like a field, presumably as in physics. The slight difference in the concepts makes me feel a little as if I’ve picked up the wrong pair of spectacles, a slight blurriness – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would have like him to extend the figure of the ocean to mention the sense of oneness which some people refer to as “oceanic”, though – but that requires identity with the ocean, and the fish remains discrete, even if lost in the immensity of the whole.

From my perspective, he is spot-on in quoting Bede Griffiths as saying that experience precedes concepts, that there is conflict between the letter and the spirit and that the rational mind imposes concepts and categories on a more universal truth. I love him saying “There is nothing heretical about being a panentheist. Indeed, it is heretical not to be one”, and his development through (inter alia) Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ suggestion that the God of the mystics is the only God the contemporary mind can grasp (as at 1945!) and a selection of mediaeval mystics, Eckhart and Aquinas to John Dominic Crossan’s provocative suggestion that all Christians must be panentheistic and only panentheists can be Christians!

I love him saying that, but then pause, because this is the kind of thing the newly-minted mystic Chris was saying in late adolescence, and before learning not only that moderating your language persuades people better than shock tactics most of the time, but also that a very high proportion of people seem to have no mystical consciousness at all and, even if they can be persuaded to put in the work, still don’t develop one after a lot of contemplative and other work. I read him suggesting “a theistic imaging of God is essentially adolescent, for it is based on an egoistic mindset, a zeroing in on how we are separate from God” and smile wryly, because I see adolescent zeal in his pushing things to that point.

However, we are 50 years on from those days; as I noted in my sixth response, a quite remarkable percentage of people are now saying they have had some kind of mystical experience (50 years ago it was one in a thousand or so), and I am beginning to suspect that just maybe we may be entering a world in which it’s actually practical for most, or even all, Christians to be mystics. Or, indeed, all humanity. I have an evangelistic streak in me, not just because I’ve taken on board the Great Commission, but because experience has shown be a better way to be in the world and I’d like everyone to have the benefit of that – but it’s towards mysticism, not so much towards Christianity as such, although that is the tradition I mostly inhabit.

Not so much apparent from Fox’s essay, but something which came out more in his interview with Mike Morrell, was the fact that over the years he seems to have quite a decent track record of forming mystics and communities revolving round mystical consciousness. I take my hat off to him; that is something I was unable to do in the 1970s, but clearly he (as he’s a little older than me) did have that capability even then. The more people we have who are ready, willing and able to do this, the better!

One other thing I note before closing; he gives a very good account of Paul as a Christ-mystic, which he describes as a Christological panentheism, drawing on Crossan. One of my own stumbling blocks in approaching Christian scripture seriously was the feeling (which Fox echoes earlier in his essay) that much of scripture and almost all of theology was based on non-mystics misinterpreting what mystics said; that was my initial approach to Paul, who, after all, probably ranks as the first Christian theologian. Paul does, however, make far more sense to me if I see him as a mystic, substituting Christ where I would more naturally think “God”. So, for that matter, does the author of the Fourth Gospel…


Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (VI)

This is the sixth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The sixth essay is by Cynthia Bourgeault, and she titles it “I am not a space that God does not occupy”, which I find maybe a little too apophatic for my own taste. However, when you contrast that with the response she quotes “There is nothing of God that indwells the human person” it is easy to see where she is coming from, and, of course, mystics have always tended towards the apophatic, given the extreme difficulty of conveying mystical experience in human language.

She has major reservations about the term “panentheism”; I have a certain amount of sympathy there, as I do too – but her reservations are about the “pan” and the “en”, because apparently pantheism is a terrible thing and the “en” doesn’t adequately distinguish panentheism, whereas I have reservations about the “theism” bit. Most of the time, I find that the associations of the word “Theist” are with the interventionary supernatural God who functions rather like a cosmic-level superhero, and, to be honest, I can’t cope with a God-concept which includes wearing one’s knickers outside one’s tights. That said, “panentheism” is a well-known term these days which captures as nearly as any single word my experience, so I’m content to wear it as a label, at least for the time being.

What she prefers is Raimon Panikkar’s “Cosmotheandrism”. I was unfamiliar with Panikkar before reading her essay; Panikkar is a Catholic theologian who has concentrated on interfaith and cross-faith concerns, and I was taken with his words “I left Europe [for India] as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian”. Having spent significant time investigating (as much as possible from the inside) several Eastern traditions myself, I like the idea that you can, perhaps, have multiple languages of expression, and it’s clear that he made that his life’s work. I will obviously need to study Panikkar rather more in the future. However, I don’t much like the term he coins – it incorporates cosmos and God, but promotes mankind at the potential expense of the remainder of existence in general and life in particular, and loses the unitive aspect of pantheism and panentheism.

That said, I completely fail to see trinity (in the conventional Christian sense) in his location of Jesus between the extremes of complete separation from God (but as God’s son) and identity with God. Trinity involves three persons, for a start, and this looks very like a species of modalism. Not being personally worried about being heretical, I don’t reject modalism as a concept, but tend to be reluctant to apply the label “Trinity” to something so obviously modalist. I also have a reservation about Panikkar’s concept just from the point of view of peak mystical experience – while the poles of nothingness/insignificance and union with God are definite insights, they are sometimes present at the same time – OK, they are also sometimes extremely rapidly cycling between each other (and the apparent coincidence of opposites might be just an inability to perceive so fast a cycling), but this does not seem to me to be the mutual kenosis, one emptying into the other and then receiving it back which Bourgeault sees Panikkar as suggesting. I note that while this could be viewed as a form of hypostatic union, it is a union of two rather than three.

Where she quotes Panikkar as suggesting that Jesus was not a monotheist, however, she lose me completely. The bridging of the supposed divide between the human and the divine is, for me, exactly the point of panentheism, in expressing mystical consciousness. Indeed, “bridging” is too weak a term for me, I’d use “erasing”. Assuming that I’m right in identifying Jesus as having an overwhelming mystical consciousness, his offence would not be a lack of monotheism, it would be the erasing of the dualism between man and God, the “ego eime” and not just the use of “Abba” or the term “son of God”. But then she comes on track again by identifying us all as sons and daughters of God, and Jesus as the examplar of the man/god relationship (and, of course, for me, the creation/god relationship). Was he actually the first non-dual consciousness? I don’t know, but I’m confident that’s what he was, for at least extended periods and probably, on some level, for much of his life. I know this to be a possibility for at least some of us.

Is she, I wonder, right in identifying us as being at the commencement of another axial age, when such consciousness becomes widespread? I don’t know. I’d certainly like to think so – and note that whereas in my youth, a vanishingly small proportion of the population could attest to having had a mystical experience, in recent polls the proportion has climbed tantalisingly close to the 50% which would be, I think, the breakthrough point.

When I posted my first comments on the book, someone suggested that I would like Bourgeault’s essay a lot. I think I probably do, after initially seeing only the problematic parts from my point of view. I still have a very well developed, as she puts it “rational mind running its perception-through-differentiation program”.

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (V)

This is the fifth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The fifth essay is by John B. Cobb junior, possibly the best known process theologian of recent years. I was particularly interested to hear that he had been taught Japanese during Word War II, and spent a significant amount of time translating documents, as my father was also taught Japanese and sent out to India to be an interrogator – and, lacking prisoners to interrogate, also learned the script so he could focus on written materials. I could wonder whether the two of them ever met, or, at least, translated the same papers…

He writes about Charles Hartshorne as a major influence and teacher. I was myself delighted to find Hartshorne’s “Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes” some years ago, as it presented a good philosophical argument for the incoherence of omnipotence and omniscience, which I had long thought were stumbling blocks to any attempt to put together a workable god-concept. What surprises me is that Dr. Cobb went from there to atheism. For me, Hartshorne’s work was one of the elements in allowing me to think that my own concept of God was at least somewhat rational, given that following my initial peak experience, a lot of my thought was devoted to understanding what mystical experience might mean; theology has, after all, been called “faith seeking understanding”.

At that point, however, Cobb moves into territory I’m not familiar with, citing Bernard Loomer, Bernard Meland, Daniel Day Williams and Henry Nelson Wieman, none of whom I’ve read. That said, Wieman’s thought that “one needs to stay entirely within the realm of human experience and not speculate beyond it” resonates with me, as I start with experience and work from there, and consider myself at least something of an empiricist. However, everything we construct scientifically as well as theologically involves “speculations beyond experience”, so I clearly cannot rest with radical empiricist thinking.

Cobb wanted more than the God of Wieman as some “event” (and I think of my own rejection of concepts of God as possibly just some impersonal force or principle which might well be adequately described by science one day), wanting something more personal. There, I’m definitely with him; peak mystical experience feels as if it involves contact with something which would not be horribly misdescribed by the term “person”. I’m sorry if that ends up as a convoluted thought; I cannot rule out the possibility that the sensation of God-as-person is a function of the experiencer rather than that which is experienced, and wonder whether “person” is not an excessively confining term – perhaps I can use Philip Clayton’s terminology and say “God is, to me, not less than personal”?

He then went further than Hartshorne to Whitehead, or whom Harsthorne had been a pupil, and there I get a little lost, as I feel myself floundering in wording like “prehension” and “concrescence” as well as being hung up on how that-which-is can be regarded as units of experience rather than an uncomfortable wave/particle/field/continuum arrangement. I rather suspect that there might be a kind of paradigm-shift involved in accepting process, but for this former theoretical Physicist, translating “experience” into a description of fundamental particles is something which has so far escaped me. I recall reading somewhere that adopting Process was somewhat like installing an entirely new operating system. I read process theologians, including Cobb, with interest – it seems to me that once you get over the initial word-salad of describing Whitehead’s thought, they mostly come to much the same conclusions as I do from a panentheist position which doesn’t worry too much about metaphysics. But then, as I kept saying in my response to Keith Ward, I’m not a philosopher…

When Cobb goes on to talk about the past, saying “If the past does not exist in any sense… then statements about the past cannot be true or false”, I run up against this being a philosopher’s argument, but think of one aspect of the mystical experience as the “timeless moment”. I feel from this that, in at least some sense, God is atemporal (and that we can briefly enter into that atemporality in mystical states – certainly there is a huge disparity between objective time and subjective time there, as a mystical state can seem to last a very long time but last only a few minutes “in the real world” or can seem to flash by in an instant, whereas you find you have lost several hours). Am I convinced by this argument? No, but it arrives at the right place, from my point of view…

I do agree wholeheartedly with his identification of immanence as a central feature. If that is not a feature of process thinking, it probably should be! Certainly my own mystical experience is characterised by radical immanence – rather than turtles all the way down, it’s God all the way down.

Cobb talks of his difficulty in conceiving of two substances occupying the same space. That is not necessarily quite such a problem for someone steeped in quantum physics, where two wave functions can readily be superimposed and locality is something which had had to be abandoned. However, he seems keen to avoid Cartesian dualism (mind/matter dualism), and while that seems attractive from the point of view of simplicity, I still have suspicions that it might, at least for many purposes, be a practical way of thinking of things. That said, radical immanence does rather demand that ultimately there is only one “stuff of the universe”…

I think my overall takeaway from this is that I wish I could get my head properly round process, because without that, Cobb’s deepest thinking is obscure to me.