Rejecting the Wrong God?

Toowoomba Sea of Faith member and one-time theist Greg Spearritt reviews A God for This World (Mowbray 2000) by Scott Cowdell. Reprinted with permission from the Bulletin of the Sea of Faith In Australia, July 2002

If we are to have a viable belief in God, says Scott Cowdell, we must face the truth about the kind of world we now inhabit. It's disappointing that Christians have prized and in many cases tenaciously maintained images of God that positively invite religious scepticism… Priests and parents, Sunday School teachers and even theologians have bound heavy burdens of belief, hard to bear, in commending images of God which fail to resonate powerfully with experience, images of God which are remote from life in the world. (4)

Cowdell sees three major aspects of contemporary experience with which these images fail to resonate. There is, first, a new awareness of evil and suffering brought about by the myth of progress collapsing (with technology's "unreflective onward swagger" an exception) into a mood of anxiety. We're on our own, without supernatural protection: we humans must secure our own future.

Second, there's a growing perception of reality as holistic and relational. The social, physical and biological sciences have been converging on this point: life is a web and events, even (or especially) at subatomic level, are fundamentally interrelated. We have all been impressed with the notion that the fluttering of the butterfly's wings in some far-off country can affect us all. The need for something beyond the natural world causing and directing all this has faded.

The third factor is 'secularity'. God is a personal matter nowadays, even a recreational option, functionally absent or at best on the periphery of the way we live our lives.

All of this leaves no place for the remote, supernatural God of classical theism. That God was squeezed out as the gaps began to close, and even the attempt to find refuge for God in the modern Self à la Kant and Hegel was defeated by radical historicism and postmodern deconstruction.

So Cowdell begins rethinking God, finding in the mainstream Christian tradition — in people like Aquinas, Luther and Calvin — an emphasis on faith rather than speculation in which God is intimately bound up with humanity and the world. He sees also a venerable tradition of 'double agency', a non-interventionist view in which God acts in the very functioning of the natural world and in free human action.

In the end, influenced particularly by insights drawn from the modern physical and biological sciences, Cowdell argues for a species of panentheism, endorsing both 'uniform' divine action — where God works through natural evolutionary processes and is discerned in the complex whole rather than in being useful to help explain this part or that — and 'special' divine action in the world.

'Special' divine action

I find the author's case for the 'special' action of God unconvincing. Cowdell is open, for instance, to the possibility of telepathy and to Carl Jung's 'synchronicity' (where internal events like recounting a dream can coincide with actual external events), and although he suggests these may well be cases of the natural world at work in ways we just don't understand, to my mind he isn't nearly sceptical enough of such 'miraculous' happenings.

He loves the possible theological implications of quantum physics, but does not appear to ask whether science at any level treats telepathy or synchronicity seriously. Until the evidence for these is more than merely anecdotal (with or without the authority of C.G. Jung), why should they be any more plausible than your average fundamentalist claim about God locating parking spots for the faithful?

At a psychological/mental level also, says Cowdell, we can retain the special, 'miraculous' action of God. Thus Christians praying for strength, conversion and guidance can experience this action directly, but Cowdell wants to argue for external as well as internal influence. In this connection, intercessory prayer may be effective because God might work to give us what we ask for or need simply because we ask, with the caveat that respect for natural conditions and the contradictory wishes of others would prevent God from doing many of the things that people request in prayer. (109)

Thus remission from cancer and a change in the weather "are all reasonable conjectures in faith", where legs growing back or God forcing people to act would not be. This sounds to me too much like the 'God of the gaps' Cowdell is at pains to escape.

God may well be specially active in these crevices, and it's unlikely (though who knows?) that we'll ever know enough to exclude this, but there's no obvious case in my view for asserting it at all. Admittedly, Cowdell does call it 'conjecture', but his very consideration of it begs the question of whether intercessory prayer is actually "effective". And that's another 'unprovable'. In my experience, it's just as plausible - based on the evidence of what actually happens to people in the world - that a mischievous, occasionally capricious demon has been delegated by God to answer the prayers of the faithful.

Cowdell's foray for God into quantum physics, via the likes of John Polkinghorne and Philip Clayton, is tantalizing but not, for me, convincing, though this may have more to do with my ignorance of the field than with the quality of the author's argument. Cowdell considers the positive possibility of a God of the gaps: not of epistemological gaps, but of

'ontological gaps' that would never… be closable, wedged open forever by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or the impenetrable randomness of chaotic regimes or the ways whole influence parts. (94)

'Uniform' divine action

I confess also to major problems with the general or 'uniform' divine action that Cowdell proposes. God may indeed be intimately involved in the functioning of the world as a whole, but I would argue we may account for the way the world goes quite adequately — indeed, more adequately — without reference to divine action. I refer to one of the main issues which led me ultimately to theological non-realism: evil and suffering.

On Cowdell's account, God strives with creation to bring good out of evil. Yet [t]he world we know is built at a price, and can emerge as far as we know in no other way. (103) Indeed, [w]ithout a great deal of carnage in the realm of individual creatures and without the extinction of species there would be no human beings on the Earth… (119)

Let's put this in starker terms. Hear the words of one Catholic contributor to The New York Times, writing in 1996 after a proclamation by Pope John Paul II endorsing the theory of evolution:

What can one say about evolution, even a spiritual theory of evolution? Pain and suffering, mindless cruelty and terror are its means of creation. Evolution's engine is the grinding of predatory teeth upon the screaming, living flesh and bones of prey… If evolution be true, my faith has rougher seas to sail. [1].

Rough seas, indeed, as Cowdell admits. Cowdell's God, however, is a God of redemption as much as of creation, and this is in evidence for example in the fact that the extinction of the dinosaurs favored the rise of mammals and ultimately of humans. Cowdell's own existence, he acknowledges, is in part due to the fact that many Turkish infantrymen were shot or hacked to death by his grandfather in a particular battle in WW1.

I'm afraid I just can't see redemption, or the striving to bring good out of evil, at work here. Cowdell speaks of paying the price, but the analogy is flawed. We pay the price to achieve something we consider worth the sacrifice. How can the fact of my existence, well-being and relative comfort be considered 'redemptive' or worth the sacrifice if the price has been and continues to be, among other things, the dispossession and suffering of thousands of Aboriginal Australians? (Perhaps I might experience my existence as worth it all, but who else would?) Is it enough that I give to Community Aid Abroad which works to alleviate Aboriginal disadvantage? How 'redemptive', then, is the existence of those privileged Australians who have overtly bigoted, racist attitudes and actions towards Aborigines?

Indeed, who's to say the evolutionary rise of humans is a redemptive move? Surely not the many children who died in the last five minutes, having led short, miserable, diseased or violent, hunger-filled lives.

Go the whole hog, I say. The world is the way it is because there is no entity, no compassionate Power, no caring God working "in, with and under" the natural order. The only thing that is and can be caring and striving to bring good out of evil is … us.

I regret that I cannot, and have not, done justice to A God for This World. Cowdell's argument is more complex than I can demonstrate here. He is a writer with a passion for his topic, and his scholarly credentials far exceed my own. The book is positive, hopeful and well worth reading.

However, I am particularly disquieted by one aspect of it. Cowdell mentions in passing "the real Christian God"; he speaks of "Christianity rightly understood"; and he says the God some critics reject "is not what Christianity really means by God". (32, 38 and 19 respectively). He speaks of "fidelity to scripture" (110). And we must not forget, he says, that "the God of Jesus Christ is Trinitarian", as came to be established by the "full-blown orthodoxy" which had developed by the fourth century. (50)

This suggests a commitment to a singular — and 'orthodox' — understanding of Christianity and the Christian God. Doctrinal orthodoxy (liberal, to be sure, but still conforming to creedal formulae) is not surprising in one who was, until recently, Principal of St Barnabus' Anglican Theological College in Adelaide: but it's disappointing. I find the very notion of orthodoxy odious. The idea that there's one right way to think if you want to be in the Christian club runs counter to my understanding of what Jesus stood for.

The impression Cowdell gives that Christianity or the Christian God can be 'correctly' understood just one way is more puzzling, particularly since he has elsewhere acknowledged that Christianity is characterised by an "incredible diversity of belief and practice, ranging from Jim Bakker to Don Cupitt". [2].

Cowdell is concerned to turn Christian thinking, and the Church, around. He speaks of those who live disaffected Christian lives in their middle years, sustained by glimpses of a holistic spirituality in relationships and creative work, in music and the arts, in nature walks and gardening, in the fulfilment of human potential. But these impeccable catholic instincts are often not reflected back to people, celebrated, corrected and fulfilled, in the Church's preaching, teaching, life and worship. But it need not be this way. (15)

I think perhaps I see myself here. A church reformed through Cowdell's attempt to rethink God would undoubtedly be a good thing. However, it will have to be less concerned about sticking with orthodox Christian tradition than Cowdell seems to be, and more ready to cater for the kind of diversity of belief ('choice' or 'heresy') that the church exhibited pre-Nicea to have any hope of attracting me.

Footnotes

[1]. Quoted in Stephen Jay Gould Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (Vintage, 1999) 283.
[2]. 'Buddhism and Christianity' Asia Journal of Theology IV (1990) 190.

Greg Spearritt