Asking the Right Questions About God

Professor Charles Birch

This paper was presented at the NZ SOFN Conference 24 August 1996.

Machievelli, on his death bed, was visited by the pope who said, "Machievelli will you now renounce the devil and all his works?" Machievelli scarcely opened his eyes. So the pope repeated, "will you now renounce the devil and all his works?" Opening one eye Machievelli responded, "this is no time to make enemies." Wrong question, wrong time. When Henry Thoreau's aunt asked him on his deathbed whether he had made peace with his god, he replied that he did not know that they had quarrelled. Gertrude Stein said: "It is better to ask the right questions than to give answers, even good answers."

In his recent book River Out Of Eden Richard Dawkins tells of getting a letter from an American minister of religion who had been an atheist but was converted by reading an article in the National Geographic on wasps. It was a very special wasp which fertilises a special orchid. The flower of the orchid resembled very closely the female of the species of wasp. The male wasp, thinking the flower to be a female, tries to copulate with it by reaching down an appropriate opening and in so doing gets covered with pollen. Flying to the next flower the wasp repeats the process and cross-pollinates the orchid. What makes the flower in the first place attractive to the wasp? The flower emits a pheromone attractant identical to that produced by the female wasp.

Dawkin's correspondent then said that with a terrific sense of shock he realized that in order for the reproductive strategy to work it had to be perfect to work at all. The flower had to look like a wasp. It had to produce the right chemical pheromone. It had to have a hole in the right place for the wasp to enter. Here was a wonderful design. It must have a designer. "I came", he said, "to believe that the designer must be God."

Orchids were amongst Charles Darwin's favourite examples of wonderful adaptations. He started asking the question: did God design them all as a man might design a watch? This he found to be the wrong question. He came to explain such adaptations by putting other questions to the facts and developing his theory of evolution by natural selection of chance variations. In so doing he devoted a whole book to the subject of the adaptation of orchids.

Dawkins wanted to ask the minister, "how can you be sure that the wasp-mimicking orchid would not work unless every part of it was perfectly in place? And how can you assert that the wasps are so hard to fool that the orchid's resemblance would have to be perfect in order to work?" These were the precise questions Darwin asked not only about orchids but about complex organs such as the human eye. The minister hadn't asked, you see, enough questions before arriving at his conclusion. Or to put it another way, he asked the wrong question about orchids and wasps.

In typical fashion Dawkins begins his next chapter this way. "My clerical correspondent of the previous chapter found faith through a wasp. Charles Darwin lost his with the help of another." "I cannot persuade myself", wrote Darwin, "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars". Their macabre habits are shared by their cousin the digger wasp. The female not only lays her eggs in a caterpillar so that her larvae can feed on it but she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system so as to paralyse but not kill it. In this way she keeps the meat fresh. Maybe the prey is aware of being eaten alive from inside yet unable to move a muscle to do anything about it .

Darwin asked the right question about the Ichneumonidae. Could a kind God deliberately create this? He said no. His challenge led many after him to question their pre-scientific understanding of God.

Darwin was aware of the importance of asking the right questions. "Looking back", he said, "I think it was more difficult to see what the problems were than to solve them." He was saying that he found it more difficult to ask the right questions than to find the answers once the right questions were asked. Interestingly enough Darwin asked many questions about God but he never got any answers that seemed reasonable. Even so Darwin was very important for theology as he pointed out quite clearly concepts of God that were no longer credible. This enabled others to think in different directions. I have right now a manuscript on my table from a Jesuit theologian entitled Darwin's Gift To Theology. Darwin, he argues, was a winnowing wind for theology.

Dawkins, in his rather perverse way, asks the following question about God. What is God's utility function? Utility function is a term in economics meaning "that which is maximised". His question becomes: what is God maximising in evolution? So he looks at the cheetah. It appears to be well designed for killing antelopes. The cheetah is precisely what we would expect if God's purpose in designing the cheetah was to maximise the death rate of antelopes. Conversely if we ask the same question of antelopes we would conclude that they are designed for the opposite end: the survival of antelopes. It is, says Dawkins, as though cheetahs were designed by one deity and antelopes by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one creator who made the cheetah and the antelope, what is he playing at? Is he a sadist who enjoys spectator sports? No, these are wrong questions. We should ask what is the utility function of life in general? Dawkins then proceeds to tell us that it is the of survival of DNA. He proceeds to tell us that if this be so it is not a recipe for happiness. Indeed, it leads us to expect the suffering of the caterpillar and the antelope and much more because the minimising of suffering is not the utility function of life. I happen to think that Dawkin's question was OK but he got off the rails in attempting to answer it. Life is more than DNA molecules replicating themselves.

A common retort that Dawkins finds from his audiences goes like this. You scientists are very good at answering how questions but you're powerless when it comes to why questions. Now I agree with Dawkins that this is a stupid division of labour to say that science deals with "how" and religion with "why". I say it is stupid because it implies that religion should have nothing to say about what is the nature of nature. You leave that to the scientist. This was the harmful divide made of knowledge at the time of the scientific revolution in a sort of gentleman's agreement as to how to carve up the territory. Furthermore science is always asking "why" questions. The biologist asks why cicadas have reproductive cycles that are prime-numbered years long, 13 or 17 but never 15 or l6. They are involved in a lot of what the engineer calls reverse engineering. A new sort of bomb was dropped in England by the Nazis. What was it designed to do? Why this bit of insulation here. Why a thick wire there and so on. By persisting in asking "why" questions the engineer can discover how it works and what it is designed to do.

Dawkins correctly makes the point that the mere fact that it is possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate to do so. It is legitimate to ask what is the temperature of the sea. But you may not ask what is the temperature of prayer. You can ask in a scientific spirit "why" questions such as the purpose of mudguards on a bicycle but it is not reasonable to ask the "why" question of, say, a boulder or Mount Everest.

Unlike Dawkins I do think it is legitimate to ask what is it that God seeks to maximise. But I have a different view of God than the one he demolishes. More anon on that.

It is not necessary for a theology that accepts the fact of evolution by natural selection of chance variations to begin by attempting to safeguard the emaciated idea of God that Dawkins and more recently Daniel Dennett consider to have been debunked by Darwin.

I accept that debunking. Darwin debunked the argument for God from the design of nature as though nature were like a watch and God was the watchmaker. There was some excuse for arguing like this prior to Darwin but not after. The tiger was not made with its stripes to camouflage it as we might make a camouflaged tank. There must have been all sorts of patterns but only that one which help its to survive persisted. This is the principle of chance variation and natural selection. It would be a round-about way of doing things for a designer who was all-powerful. Moreover we know that such adaptations were forged in a struggle for existence-nature red in tooth and claws. It was one of Darwin's contemporaries, the Anglican vicar Charles Kingsley, who wrote to him and said "now they have got rid of an interfering God_a master-magician as I call it_they have to choose between the absolute empire of accident and a living, immanent, ever-working God."

So much of the discussion about God then, and even now, has assumed a notion of divine power arbitrarily capable of intervening in and interrupting natural processes, but for some obscure reason decides not to do so. Charles Hartshorne wrote a book called Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes in which he wrote (p.94) "let us give up the destructive notion of divine omnipotence that plagues so much of Christian theology ... no worse falsehood was ever perpetuated than the traditional concept of omnipotence." If God is all powerful then why does he allow volcanoes to destroy villages and their inhabitants, why all the evil and suffering in the world, why Hitler, why the holocaust? Where was the God of omnipotence then? I heard philosopher John Passmore of the Australian National University recently say on radio that if there is a supreme being in charge of the world then his name is Satan.

God's power is not the power to do anything at all. God does not manipulate things and people. Why do I say this? Because there is no evidence for such a God. Yet this notion of God has been and still is a cause of much suffering and agony as poignantly portrayed in Kushner's When Bad Things Happen To Good People. There are things a God of love cannot do. The God of love could not change the decision of the rich young ruler to whom Jesus spoke. When persuasion failed, coercion did not take over. People who pray for God to intervene in the world need to bring their prayers under scrutiny. Indeed I would say that of most prayers said in churches.

For nearly 2000 years European theology staked its fortunes upon a certain conception of divinity. In spite of a seeming variety of doctrines and creeds, one basic concept was accepted by most theologians. Only in the last several decades has a genuinely alternative theology been at all widely considered, so unobtrusively however that many opponents of theism, even most distinguished ones such as Dawkins and Dennett, are still fighting the old conception exculsively, convinced that if they dispose of it they have disposed of the theological question. And these days many of those who find the idea of a godless universe incredible suppose that it is to traditional theology that they must turn as for example those who turn to fundamentalism.

Before I turn to that alternative perspective I want to indicate to you how I got to the alternative myself. I originated as a low church evangelical Anglican in the city of Melbourne when I was a schoolboy. Sin, saving souls, a literal interpretation of the Bible and miracles were the order of the day. I accepted the lot. But the rough terrain came during adolescence. I quite suddenly came to an awareness that I was not good enough. Even my righteousness, such as I might have had, I was told was "but as filthy rags." I believed I was very sinful. I read the confessions of Saint Augustine and said "there am I", though in reality I was probably lily-white compared with him. My self diagnosis was supported by a fundamentalist group called the Crusader Movement which I got involved in at my school. I must say I never felt at home with that group but I thought that was because I was so bad. They pleaded with me to break the ice, meaning I think, take the first hurdle on the road to being born again and the rest will follow smoothly.

In the long hours of the night I pondered on all this. But I felt that life was a burden and I was unworthy. There was a picture in my copy of Pilgrim's Progress of Christian walking on his long journey with a huge bundle on his back. Later on in the book was another picture of Christian having reached the foot of the cross and behold, the bundle falls off his back to the ground. That is what I wanted to happen to me. Why didn't it? Then quite suddenly. I remember the time and the place. I asked myself-why am I so burdened with a sense of sin when Jesus says your sins are forgiven? Does that really mean the past is the past, that I can begin again right now with a clean slate, that I don't have to carry that burden on my back any more? So I prayed a fervent prayer that the burden be lifted. It was. I considered myself saved.

I was then an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne convinced I had the answer to life's meaning. I became a Sunday school teacher. Poor kids. I now think! I went to evangelical meetings. For four undergraduate years that was where I was. My biology classes emphasised the fact of evolution but that was of little concern. The Bible taught otherwise and creationism was what I had to believe. I had a religious faith, a sort of package that encompassed the whole truth about the world. Looking back I realize that I didn't learn to think when I was an undergraduate.

Then I became a graduate student. And things changed. This was at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute at the University of Adelaide. For the first time I was in direct contact with real scientists working with them in the laboratory. They all seemed to be atheists or agnostics. That I took religion seriously was very odd to them. My supervisor in particular had thought it all through. Religion was anti-science and a source of much evil in society. Many were the discussions I had with him. I was quite unable to defend my position intellectually. It was full of holes. My religion did not mix with my science.

Then came my second conversion. It was an intellectual one this time. My faith was falling apart. It had foundations of sand. The beginning of a resolution came through the Student Christian Movement. It showed me there was an alternative interpretation of Christianity to the fundamentalism in which I was brought up. I never knew of that possibility before. When reassurance began to re-establish itself it came like the weaving together of strands. I was conscious of a bottom forming under me. I tried to break it down. The strands refused to be broken. The effect was to re-establish a fundamental trust with respect to the meaningfulness of human life. I found some of the former elements came back, different from the old, no longer borrowed dwellings. For better or worse, they were mine.

The elements that came back renewed were the experiences of forgiveness, the courage to face the new, the sense of not being alone in the universe and all that could be called the values of existence as revealed in the life of Jesus. God as a source of value was nearer than hands and feet, closer than breathing.

But I had a new problem. The science I was becoming more familiar with presented me with a mechanistic universe which provided no clues to a meaning of life. It had nothing to say about my feelings which were to me the most important part of life. How did they fit into a mechanistic universe?

I began a new journey of discovery when my newly discovered mentors in the SCM, especially one of them, urged me to read Whitehead's Science and the Modern World. I felt this was written just for me, especially chapter five 'The Romantic Reaction.' On reading Whitehead my mind flashed back to a lecture I had heard as an undergraduate but had not understood at the time. It was on the philosophy of biology given by my professor of zoology W.E.Agar. He had discovered that Whitehead was fundamental to his understanding of philosophical problems raised by biology especially in evolution, behaviour and development. So I wrote and asked him what I should now read. He replied, Charles Hartshorne's recently published The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation. He added that he had himself just completed a book on a Whiteheadian interpretation of biology: A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism. Its first sentence read "The main thesis of this book is that all living organisms are subjects." That was what I needed to know.

Besides reading these books I read much of Plato and all I could on Whitehead. More specifically on religious topics I read Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church in New York. He had been a minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, had been accused of heresy and left to occupy the pulpit of a huge new cathedral church near Columbia University built for him by John D. Rockefeller, a member of his congregation. His history seemed promising to me.

I became unsatisfied with the prospect of a career devoted entirely to research. I wanted more involvement with people. I aimed for a combination of research with teaching. So off to the University of Chicago I went. Unknown to me at the time until I got there the University was the centre of Whiteheadian thought_process thought_in the world. Hartshorne was in philosophy, and in the divinity school were Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Meland, Bernard Loomer and Daniel Day Williams. And the most distinguished professor in the department of zoology where I researched and did courses was Sewall Wright who was a Whiteheadian and close friend of Hartshorne.

This was all terribly important for me as I began to wonder in Adelaide if I had got on the right track. After all I had already made one bad mistake in embracing fundamentalism. My new experiences reinforced the foundation of my thinking which I had begun to build in Adelaide.

From there I became familiar with other process thinkers notably John Cobb a student of Hartshorne who is a director of the Centre for Process Studies in Claremont California. And of course I had plenty of encounters with opponents of this perspective especially when I was involved with the World Council of Churches which seemed to me to be socially left wing and theologically right wing.

What were the questions which I now regarded as the right ones to ask about God? Nietzsche said that truth is the metaphor that matters for you. I think I have two such metaphors. One comes from Paul Tillich. The metaphor is ultimate concern. Ultimate concern is that concern that fulfils life. All other concerns are secondary. This is his metaphor for God. The other comes from Whitehead. It is the idea that there was inherent in the universe from its foundations the potentialities or possibilities of the future. From a universe of pure hydrogen some moments after the big bang eventually some billions of years after came us. In contemplating this cosmic evolutionary process Whitehead argued that the potentiality of the universe must be somewhere. By somewhere he meant some actual entity. He named that actual entity the mind of God. Divine potentiality becomes concrete reality in the universe by means of persuasive love, never by coercion. So my second metaphor is: at the heart of the universe is persuasive love. In the last chapter of Process and Reality, Whitehead said that when the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered. "The brief Gallilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages uncertainly ... the Gallilean origin of Christianity does not emphasise the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist or the unmoved mover. Its dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and quietly operate by love."

I wish now to consider these metaphors in a bit more detail under three headings: The presence of God in the world; the response of the world to God's presence; the presence of the world in God.

The presence of God in the world

Martin Buber said "In every event we are addressed by God". Charles Wesley put it thus: "father thou art all compassion pure unbounded love thou art." There is a persuasive influence in human life that is transforming. No one of us need stay the way we are. For each there are persuasive possibilities not yet realised. We are tuned to the lure of God in our lives. A note on a tuning fork elicits a response from a piano because the piano already has in it a string tuned to the same note. So have we. This persuasive aspect of God is given many names, treasure in the field, pearl of great price, light on the hill. It has been called the divine eros to emphasise that this is a passionately felt relationship. The proposition of process thought is that this same influence is at work in all the individual entities of creation from protons to people.

The potentialities of the universe and its individual entities are not in the form of a blueprint of the future. So it is misleading to speak of divine design. The term design has connotations of a pre-conceived detailed plan which is one reason why Darwinism dealt such a blow to the deism of Paley's "Natural Theology". The term "purpose" is better as it does not carry this connotation. Nothing is completely determined. The future is open-ended. One reason for this in process thought is that God is not the sole cause of all happenings. God exercises causality always in relation to beings who have their own measure of self-determination. As the source of unactualised possibilities God is always creating by confronting what is with that which is possible. And this by persuasion and not by manipulation. Thus God, like all other entities, is in some aspects incomplete. He is our companion in the creative advance. So it would be true to have God say "I am what I am becoming" (Exodus 3:14) . It would also be true to say that the world lives by the incarnation of God in itself.

It is appropriate to conceive of providence in these terms. Providence is a difficult word with a number of meanings. The meaning in the present context is that God provides the possibilities. In so doing, God is forever active and never needs be persuaded to act. Providence does not mean a divine planning by which everything is pre-determined, as in an efficient machine. Rather it means there is a creative and saving possibility in every situation which cannot be destroyed by any event. The use of persuasion as opposed to coercion is not to be conceived as based on a voluntary self-limitation of God. We might think a surer way to create would be to combine a bit of persuasion with cooercive manipulation from time to time. I know of no evidence to support th is view. The world does not appear to be made that way.

Some traditional theists have said to me "you make God limited if he has not the power to do anything at all'. But is God limited if he cannot work any nonsense in the world when he wants to, such as to create a stone so heavy he could not carry it? The imagery leads to absurdity. It is as absurd to say we have our own power and freedom (which we all presuppose) but that God can step in and control our actions. It is absurd to suppose that to do what has to be done God cannot work within the order of nature as we do, but has to destroy the creation to do that.

Is God then powerless? The paradox is: there is a power in love. It is the only sort of power that matters in the long run. The form of power that is creative and admirable is that which empathises with others and empowers them. Some events in the history of the cosmos, including human history, have more significance than others. They are peak events. This is not because God intervenes in these events and not in others. To interpret significant events as special acts of God is to turn God into an agent of mechanical intervention or into a magician. It is to replace persuasive love by fiat.

This view of divine action is not only a view of the nature of goodness but also the nature of evil. John Cobb says that if God is understood as that factor in the universe which makes for novelty, life, intensity of feeling, consciousness, freedom and in humanity for genuine concern for others we must recognise that he is also responsible in a significant way for the evil in the world. If there were nothing at all, or total chaos, or if there were only some very simple structure of order, there would be little evil. There would instead be the absence of both good and evil. Earthquakes and tornadoes would be neither good nor evil in a world devoid of life. Only where there is significant values does the possibility of their thwarting their conflict and their destruction arise. The possibility of pain is the price for consciousness and the capacity for intense feeling. Sin is the corruption of the capacity for love. Thus God, by creating good, provides the context within which there is evil.

In this view, evil springs not from providence but from chance and freedom. Because of chance, freedom and struggle there are misfits, suffering and what is called the evil of nature.

The world's response to God presence in the world

The second proposition is that creativity in the world is the response of the entities of creation from protons to people to God's presence. A verse in Matthew reads "Be you compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate."

The gospel of Thomas puts it a little differently. It has Jesus say "If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you what you do not have within you will kill you."

"Infinite passion" is the phrase Tillich borrowed from Kierkegaard to express the only adequate "with all" response to God's persuasive love.

"The divine imperative", says Hartshorne, "is to be creative and to foster creativity in others." Even an atom of uranium, he suggests, is not just deciding whether or not at a given moment turn into an atom of lead. It too is creative not only for itself but for other atoms.

The presence of the world in God

It is as true to say that God experiences the world as to say that the world experiences God. God is both cause (in creating the world) and effect (in experiencing the world). In process theology God is conceived not as the playwright watching afar off the drama of creation, but as involved in all its experiences of joy and suffering. God feels the world as the world is created. This is in contrast to the classical view where God is said to be loving, yet without anything like emotion, feeling or sensitivity to the feelings of others. Aristotle said it first. "God is mover of all things, unmoved by any." So also says the first of the 39 articles in the back of the Anglican prayerbook which I once had to learn in preparation for confirmation.

The alternative proposition is that whatever we do makes a difference to God. Whatever any individual entity in creation does makes a difference to God. That includes the sparrow who falls to the ground. The universe will never be as it is if we and the sparrow had never been. A love that leaves the lover unaffected by the joys and suffering of the one who is loved is not love at all. The denial of God as one who feels the world's joys and sufferings was largely due to the Greek notion that perfection involves immutability_if God is perfect then God cannot be changed in any way by what happens in the world. On the contrary, to be enriched by the enrichment of the world is to be responsive to the world and therefore to be more loving. Responsiveness, not immutability, is the nature of perfection.

Where was God at Auschwitz when the child was standing at the wall facing the firing squad? God was suffering with that child. God experienced the excruciating suffering of the tormented and was agonised by the satisfaction of their tormentors. According to the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel the pathos of God is the central idea of prophetic theology in the bible.

There is an ocean of God's experience to which we and the world contribute as the hymn suggests :

O love that will not let me go,
I give you back the life I owe,
That in  your ocean's  depth its flow
May richer, fuller be.

My faith involves a sense of belonging to a larger reality which contributes to one's life and which receives the contribution of that life.

In this vision of the divine, who is not the supreme autocrat but the universal agent of persuasion, whose power is the worship he/she inspires and who feels all the feelings of the world, I find not only a new way of understanding the world, but also a new way of facing the tasks of today.