From nature to God


I'm currently in the middle of reading two very different books that have been making me think about humanity's place in nature. One of them is Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos by Bruce Sanguin, which discusses "an ecological Christianity". The other is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which is ostensibly about what the world would be like if humans suddenly disappeared, but in fact is really about the environmental impact that humans have on the world.

While Sanguin's book is theological and Weisman's is not, the books do complement each other in that both remind us that we are not separate from the natural world that we inhabit. Weisman's book can be very depressing; after reading his chapter on the massive and long-lasting damage that plastic is having on our ecosystems, including our oceans, you'll never want to put your groceries in a plastic bag again.

Some theologies would look to the damage that humans are doing to their world as an example of our inherently flawed nature. Others would look to the world that we are a part of--a world of which death, pain, and violence are part and parcel--and say that nature itself is flawed. The messiness of evolution, which gave us humans things like wisdom teeth and appendicitis, is surely nothing like an orderly eschatological vision in which nature is flawless, harmonious, and peaceful, where the lion lies down next to the lamb. Some would argue from this reality that nature alone cannot point us to God.

But to say that an imperfect nature will not point us to God is to make assumptions about God's nature. If you assume that "God" is a necessarily supernaturally theistic Deity who is utterly in control and who could order up a peaceful, harmonious utopia if it so pleased "him", then you would find the current messiness of the world to be contrary to Divine prerogative and therefore not the way to the discovery of the Divine.

This assumption reminds me of the monologue that George Carlin delivered about God in the very first episode of Saturday Night Live back in 1975. He suggested that God's work was less than stellar:

I-I think God may not be, uh, perfect. I think His work.. shows that. Take a look at a mountain range - they're all crooked, they're never in line. All different sizes. There are no two leaves that same. He can't even give two people the same fingerprints! He's had BILLIONS of years to work on some of this stuff! And EVERYTHING He has ever MADE.. DIED!! Everything so far!! [ audience applauds ] So far! Where did He get this great reputation? He's batting .000!
Despite Carlin's negativity towards religion, he seems to share some assumptions about God with theologians who say that nature does not lead us to God. Both assume that an imperfect world--one in which all of us die, for example--in some sense defies the purposes of an ostensibly perfect God. Carlin sees this as reason to be cynical about the existence of God. Certain theologians see this as a reason to be cynical about the universe--the latter suggesting that the world is at a fundamental level divorced from God's perfection. I think both positions are wrong.

Yes, the world is messy. Yes, the world doesn't always live up to God's desires. But I would argue that the overall framework under which the world operates and in which God participates is consistent with God's purposes. That framework is one of freedom and creativity, and these, I believe, reflect Divine virtues. This same Divinely sanctioned freedom that characterizes the universe is also what allows the universe to diverge from Divine purposes. The universe doesn't always act according to what God wants as each moment transpires, but these worldly misfires take place within the context of an overall evolutionary framework in which God plays an integral part. We know the world has evolved slowly, since the Big Bang. Whenever the world goes wrong somehow by not acting according to Divine purposes, at each moment in the ever-ongoing processes of evolution that have been taking place for 14 billion years, God is still there, prodding and urging the world to right itself, to take itself in new directions for the betterment of all. The messiness of the world is thus part of the very processes that God participates in. You can't divorce God from the world of nature, because God is so intimately involved with it. I would suggest that nature may not point us to certain conceptions of God, but it does point us to one such as I am describing here, where God coaxes the world towards greater complexity, self-awareness, order, and beauty.

Sanguin's book has led me to ponder an interesting notion about the fundamental ordering of the universe that I had not considered before. Citing various versions of the anthropic principle, which notes that humans could not have existed if the laws of the universe had not been just so, Sanguin offers an alternative vision:
A variation of the anthropic principle, much more attractive in my opinion, is the "strong aesthetic principle." The universe does have direction and purpose, evidenced in the human being certainly, but not exclusively. The "aim" of the universe is seen throughout all of creation, in the form of beauty. Beauty, in a cosmological context, includes our common notions of beauty, but also much more. Alfred North Whitehead talks about it as "a harmony of contrasts," or the "ordering of novelty." As John Haught points out in his book God after Darwin, without contrast (chaos), there is only the monotony of sheer order. Without order, there is only chaos. The universe's unfolding involves the intricate interplay of these two poles at every level of being. Beauty is a "delicate synthesis of unity and complexity, stability and motion, form and dynamics." The capacity for conscious self-reflection in the human being is one, but only one, expression of this delicate synthesis, which the universe displays. This also means that, at any given moment in time, disharmony may predominate, but, in the wide sweep of the evolutionary process, it will always be gathered up in the service of beauty.

If beauty, understood in this broad sense, is the aim of the universe (the strong aesthetic principle), then diversity needs to be understood as a primary expression of beauty, and also, therefore, as one of the primary values of Spirit in an evolutionary universe.
Here we have the notion that there is an aim, such as what we call "beauty", built into the very processes of the universe. My take on an evolutionary universe from the perspective of process theology had been up to this point focused on the notion that there were individual processes having immediate, limited aims, while God had the global vision thing going on, coaxing those processes towards greater complexity. But from Sanguin's comments it occurs to me to wonder if there is a tendency, or even a predisposition, for the universe at its fundamental core to self-organize itself towards the creation of emergent and more complex forms of organization that involve both order and chaos. Maybe the universe can't help but do so; maybe it has a sense of beauty built into its very fabric. Or maybe it all just comes from God's visionary lure, that guided the universe towards emergent forms of complexity over the course of eons. Either way, though, I think that the evolving self-organization of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present, shows an unfolding world that is constantly engaged in a vibrant dance with God. The improvisational nature of this unfolding process, complete with mistakes, can be said to reflect the way that God interacts with it. Nature is in God and is with God at every step of the way.