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Metaphorical gods vs. Reality/God: Part 2
The universe is real, not imaginary. We all know this. How is it, then, that in recent centuries and for many believers and nonbelievers alike, God as the Creator of the Universe has become less real than the Universe?
What I mean by "real" is precisely as a dictionary would define it—that is, "existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary, ideal, or fictitious." Here is another definition of real, drawn from the same webpage (dictionary.com): "being an actual thing; having objective existence; not imaginary." Thus my question: Is God today less real than the Universe?
In my previous blog post I offered that there is a radical and vital difference between objectively real answers to big-picture questions and anything we might subjectively say about how these issues impinge upon our lives—that is, how we interpret the meaning(s) of factual discoveries. Big-picture questions that seek factual and interpretive understandings would include: 'How did we get here?' 'How were we made?' 'Who is my brother, my sister, my neighbor?' 'Tell me about my ancestors?' 'Why is there death?' 'What can I trust?' 'What should I care about?' 'Where do I find hope and guidance?'
Below are 18 ways to begin thinking through this core distinction between what is objectively true and subjectively meaningful—applied to the questions and perspectives through which we make meaning of the world and find purpose, value, guidance, comfort, trust, and a satisfying sense of place and mission.
1. PERCEIVING REALITY
- A. Reality for human beings is always experienced via a blend of objective and subjective factors.
- B. Reality operates on far smaller, larger, and more complex scales than unaided human perception can possibly discern.
- C. Because of our brains, we inevitably use stories to answer life's biggest questions in subjectively meaningful ways.
- D. Until telescopes, microscopes, and computers, it was impossible to have objectively true answers to such questions.
- E. It is as natural as breathing to relationalize (even personalize) various aspects of nature, and indeed Reality as a whole.
- F. Mistaking the map for the territory, the menu for the meal, seems to be a human universal.
2. NESTED EMERGENCE
- As those who have read my book, attended one of my programs, or watched one of my DVDs know, I like the analogy of Russian nesting dolls. From a 'nested emergent' perspective, God is a sacred proper name for Ultimate Reality—a mythic personification of the largest Creative Whole. God is the one and only Reality not part of some larger, more comprehensive wholeness—that which transcends and includes everything else. Objectively, that there is such a thing as ‘Ultimate Reality' or ‘Supreme Wholeness' is undeniable. Subjectively, anything we might say about the nature of Ultimacy and its meanings will be metaphorical. Different individuals will find such metaphorical expressions as inspiring or not inspiring, helpful or not helpful, comforting or not comforting, alluring or not alluring.
3. DO YOU BELIEVE IN LIFE? (Excerpt from Thank God for Evolution, pp. 118-19)
Do you believe in life? What an absurd question! It doesn’t matter whether we 'believe in' life. Life is all around us, and in us. We’re part of it. Life is, period. What anyone says about life, however, is another story, and may invite belief or disbelief. If I say, “Life is wonderful,” or “Life is brutal,” or “Life is unimportant—it’s what happens after death that really matters,” you may or may not believe me, depending on your own experience and worldview. What we say about life—its nature, its purpose, its meaning—along with the metaphors we choose to describe it—is wide open for discussion and debate. But the reality of life is indisputable. This is exactly the way that God is understood by many who hold the perspective of the Great Story—that is, when human, Earth, and cosmic history are woven into a holy narrative. Our common creation story offers a refreshingly intimate, scientifically compelling, and theologically inspiring vision of God that can provide common ground for both skeptics and religious believers. For peoples alive today, any understanding of 'God' that does not at least mean 'Ultimate Reality' or 'the Wholeness of Reality' (measurable and nonmeasurable) is, I suggest, a trivialized, inadequate notion of the divine. Thus, the emergence of the Great Story—a sacred narrative that embraces yet transcends all scientific, religious, and cultural stories—will come to be cherished, I believe, first and foremost for enriching the depth and breadth of our experience of God.
4. SUPERNATIURAL BELIEFS AS PRE-NATURAL EXPLANATIONS
- What is the nature of so-called 'supernatural' beliefs? Evolutionary psychology and evolutionary neuroscience suggest that human beings will inevitably and freely use dream-like (supposedly 'supernatural') language in the process of personifying or relationalizing natural forces and dynamics. How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? Why do we struggle with inner feelings and impulses that tempt us to act in ways detrimental to ourselves and our loved ones? And why have other cultures answered these same questions in different ways? These and other big questions cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Yet answer them we must. Thus, long before modern science could be recruited to the task, ancient cultures gave useful and inspiring answers—answers that now compel literalistic forms of religions to engage in endless battles with the scientific worldview. The way forward is to recognize that prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It wasn't just difficult to have a natural, factual understanding of infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Similarly, it was impossible to understand the large-scale structure of the Universe before telescopes allowed us to see galaxies. Thus, traditional answers to life's biggest questions are not really supernatural; they are pre-natural.
5. TRIVIAL NOTIONS OF GOD
- From an evolutionary perspective, any 'God' that can be believed in or not, is a trivial concept of the divine. God is that all embracing, all transcending Wholeness of Reality, which is of supreme value and essentially ineffable. That's why there are innumerable names for, and characterizations of, God. The Whole of Reality (God/the Universe) created human beings. Human beings, in turn, create ideas, images, and metaphorical understandings of Ultimate Reality.
6. DARWIN'S GREAT GIFT
- Darwin's great gift is to us is a real God. Darwin lifted the veil and gave us our first glimpse of just how God/Reality created us over these billions of years—really, not just mythically.
7. GOD AS THE LARGEST NESTED REALITY—TRANSCENDING YET INCLUDING 'THE UNIVERSE'
- Occasionally someone will ask me, often in a concerned tone, "Are you equating God with the Universe? God is more than the universe!" My typical response to to remind them that our best scientists now tell us that 96% of what we call 'the Universe' is dark matter and dark energy, and we're practically clueless as to what exactly dark matter and dark energy are. Thus, to say that God is more than the universe may be true. But it's also true to say: "The universe is more than the universe! We have no idea what the universe is." Many people today look up and around them and think 'the Universe'. Many people two thousand years ago looked up and around them, and thought 'God' or 'Lord'. 'God' and 'the Universe' are terms used by human beings to point to that Ultimate Reality beyond the ability of symbolic language to fully capture. But that doesn't mean they are the same. Whatever we mean by God must, it seems to me, include the Universe. But what we mean by the Universe may or may not include what religous people mean when they use the word God. That's why I like the anology of nesting dolls so much. God is a legitimate proper name for the largest Whole, which includes and transcends the Universe.
8. GOD IS STILL REVEALING
- The great tragedy of clinging to merely mythic-literal views of God is that we are thereby prevented from seeing all that God is still revealing today through the entire range of sciences. These ongoing 'public revelations' (of God/the Universe) are include insights and practical applications that peoples today are now ready to grasp—indeed, which modern societies need to grasp for our own benefit and to ensure a healthy future for the generations that will follow.
9. SCRIPTURAL CLAIMS OF GOD'S DIRECTIVES
- Whenever any story, any culture, or any scriptural passage claims "God said this" or "God did that," what follows is necessarily what some human being or group of human beings felt or thought or wished or wanted God to say or do. These claims are never objective, measurable fact; they are subjectively meaningful interpretations. In other words, had CNN been available to record the moment of divine revelation, there would have been nothing out of the ordinary (nothing miraculous) to show on the nightly news—nothing other than what was coming out of someone's mouth, or pen, or whatever folks wrote with back then. If we don't understand this, we mock God and will surely miss what God is revealing today.
10. BEYOND BELIEF
- Philip K. Dick wrote in 1978, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." It is this undeniable Reality that I am pointing to when I use the word God.
11. TO TRAGICALLY BLIND OURSELVES
- To interpret the Bible literally is to tragically blind ourselves from seeing what God is doing today. The only place that gods speak, angels bless, demons tempt, snakes talk, suns stop, virgins get pregnant, and people zoom off to heaven is in legends and myths born in older, pre-scientific eras.
12. BELITTLING GOD / BELITTLING SCIENCE
- If we think of ‘God's word' as being revealed in ancient texts but not present discoveries, we belittle God. If we think of science as revealing secular facts but not divine truths, we belittle science.
13. MORAL GUIDANCE
- Only the marriage of science and religion provide the real moral guidance to live in deep integrity. And integrity is everything. It's now the only thing that matters.
14. JESUS AS 'THE WAY'
- There is only one way out of the current confluence of crises facing humanity, and that is for individuals and institutions to align with the wellbeing of the whole—that is, to live in evolutionary integrity. If you want to get religious about it, this is surely what Jesus meant when he said, 'I am the way.' He was inviting us to live the way he lived, in integrity, which includes loving our enemies, feeding the hungry, and being one with 'the Father' (or with 'the Universe', if you prefer).
15. DISTINGUISHING MEANINGFUL METAPHOR FROM MEASURABLE REALITY
- Few things diminish ‘the gospel’ more than the fact that millions of Christians have not yet been encouraged to distinguish meaningful metaphor from measurable reality.
16. BELIEFS VS. KNOWLEDGE
- Perhaps the single greatest gift of an evolutionary worldview is that we can now know what formerly could only be believed. Before, in order to acquire deep trust (when thinking about the future) or deep gratitude (when thinking about the past) or deep inspiration (in the present), one needed to believe one or another fantastic story. Today, these basic needs can be obtained through knowledge. Beliefs in unnatural ('supernatural') events are unnecessary, and sometimes even a hinderance.
17. FOCUSING ON THE BENEFITS
- It is impossible to logically argue someone out of their ‘beliefs'. Only by showing how a reality-based worldview can provide the same benefits (trust, gratitude, inspiration, comfort, etc) will someone be willing to consider that the attractiveness of pre-natural beliefs can also be obtained through the scientific worldview. Literal beliefs thus can evolve into metaphorical understandings without losing their power and appeal.
18. GOD AND MYSTERY (excerpt from Thank God for Evolution, p. 107)
God is the Mystery at the Center of our amazement that the Universe is here at all, that it is what it is, and that it is always becoming, yet always somehow whole.
God is the Mystery at the Heart of consciousness, conscience, compassion, and all the other forms of co-creative, co-incarnational responsiveness of life to life.
God is the Mysterious Omni-Creative Power through which the Universe is and ever becomes more intricately and wondrously fulfilled through the interactions of all its parts (each of which contains a spark of the Whole).