Openness to the future grounded in the giftedness of life received as a gift

Henry Nelson Wieman
Readings: Psalm 42

From Daniel C. Dennet's book Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Allen Lane, London 2006 pp. 208-210)

Mystery is declared to surround the various conceptions of God, but there is nothing mysterious about the process of transformation, which is clear for all to see and has been described (and often decried) by generations of would-be stewards of this important idea. Why don't the stewards just coin new terms for the revised conceptions and let go of the traditional terms along with the discarded conceptions? After all, we don't persist in the outmoded medical terminology of humors and apoplexy or insist on finding something in contemporary physics or chemistry to identify as phlogiston. Nobody has proposed that we have discovered the identity of élan vital (the secret ingredient that distinguishes living things from mere matter); it's DNA (the vitalists just didn't have the right conception of it, but they knew there had to be something). Why do people insist on calling the Higher Power they believe in “God”? The answer is clear: the believers in the belief in God have appreciated that the continuity of professing requires continuity of nomenclature, that brand loyalty is a feature so valuable that it would be foolish to tamper with it. So, whatever other reforms you may want to institute, don't try to replace the word “God” (“Jehovah”, “Theos”, “Deus”, “the Almighty”, “Our Lord”, “Allah”) when you tinker with your religion. In the beginning was the Word.
I have to say that it has worked pretty well, after a fashion. For a thousand years, roughly, we've entertained a throng of variously deanthropomorphized, intellectualized concepts of God, all more or less peacefully coexisting in the minds of “believers”. Since everybody calls his or her version “God”, there is something “we can all agree about”—we all believe in God; we're not atheists! But of course it doesn't work that well. If Lucy believes that Rock (Hudson) is to die for, and Desi believes that Rock (music) is to die for, they really don't agree on anything, do they?
  [An] eminent Episcopal cleric once confided to me that when he found out what some Mormons believed when they said they believed in God, he rather wished they didn't believe in God! Why won't he say this from the pulpit? Because he doesn't want to let down the side.

From Henry Nelson Wieman's 1926 book, Religious Experience and Scientific Method (pp. 9-10)

Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist.
  Of course one can say that there are innumerable conditions which converge to sustain human life and that is doubtless a fact. But in that case either one of two things are true. Either the universe is a single individual organic unity, in which case it is the whole indivisible universe that has brought forth and now sustains human life; or else certain of these sustaining conditions are more critically, ultimately and constantly important for conditions are human welfare than are others. According to the first view God would be, or involve, the whole universe; according to the second he would be those most important conditions which, taken collectively, constitute the Something which must have supreme value for all human living. The word God, taken with its very minimum meaning, is the name for this Something of supreme value. God may be much more than this, but he is certainly this by definition. In this sense, with this minimum, God cannot be denied. His existence is absolutely certain. He is simply that which is supremely significant in all the universe for human living, however known or unknown he may be.
  Of course this statement concerning God proves nothing about his character, except that he is the most beneficent object in the universe for human beings. He is certainly the object of supreme value. Nothing is implied by this definition concerning personality in God; but neither is personality denied. In fact, personality is by no means a clear and simple term. But two things are made certain: his existence and the supremacy of his value over all others, if we measure value in terms of human need.

I'm not a great fan of the "new atheists" in general, that loose group of four writers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and the man whose words we heard in our readings today, Daniel Dennett. However, despite their limited and often highly reductionist understanding of, and approach to, religion, they have clearly made many important points that need addressing, especially by those of us who remain connected meaningfully with a religious community. One critique that has hung over me since I read it back in 2006, is that made by Daniel Dennett concerning the use of the word God.

The phenomenon he points to is, of course, very real in every liberal Christian setting but, within the even more liberal setting of a church such as this, the phenomenon is so widespread as explicitly to be the norm. Most of us here are well aware that, when it comes to the word God, we really do seem - notice the use of the word "seem" - we really do seem all to be talking about something as different as Rock (Hudson) and Rock (music). Today's address suggests that this may not be the case and that behind the dizzying variety of surface languages of theism, atheism, non-theism, pantheism, pan(en)theism, and religious humanism and naturalism used here there exists among us a shared, empirically rooted, if highly minimalist, definition of God.

My thinking on this matter has been sharpened thanks to the opportunities I get to talk to groups outside this local church setting about what we do, or do not believe about God. Inevitably, at some point in the proceedings, a version of Dennett's criticism is made and I feel obliged to answer it in a more satisfactory way than is often done, that is to say with the simple shrug of the shoulders and a generally flabby line about the need within a liberal church for "inclusivity", "tolerance of different beliefs" and a general acceptance that, these days, everyone creates to some extent, to borrow a phrase from the sociologist Ulrich Beck, a "God of One's Own".

Don't get me wrong, I broadly agree that these are necessary marks of a contemporary liberal church, but left merely at this and without going on to explore what might be the intelligent, corporate theological way we are (or should be) using the word "God" then it may well turn out that Dennett is correct and that we are, in fact, talking to each other about something as different from Rock (Hudson) and Rock (music).

But, in our own culture, the word God today seems fated to be the vaguest of all words and in Dennett's mind (and perhaps, at times, even in our own minds) the word is simply no longer fit for purpose and should be abandoned. After all, he points out, in other important spheres of human endeavour (such as medicine,biology, chemistry and physics) we have most certainly done this. Consequently, Dennett asks, "Why don't the stewards [of the word "God"] just coin new terms for the revised conceptions and let go of the traditional terms along with the discarded conceptions?" As one of those stewards it's a good, if uncomfortable, question to address.

Dennett believes that all religious people simply keep using the word God because it helps them/us pretend that there is, at least one thing religious people can agree about, "we all believe in God; we're not atheists!" Sadly, this reveals that, just like the religious fundamentalists he so dislikes, Dennett seems to want to separate the world into two distinct groups, the wheat and the tares, the good and the bad and the enlightened and benighted. His good group (the wheat) is, of course, made up of those who have courageously developed an intellectual clarity which allows them to admit they are atheists. They are the enlightened ones - indeed Dennett is involved in a group which even calls itself "The Brights". His bad group (the tares) are those who continue to use the word God, whether wrongly but honestly (i.e. people who really believe in a supreme being) or wrongly but dishonestly (i.e. those who just use the discredited term to show they are not atheists).

So where does that leave a group of liberal religious people like us who value (and generally hold) a naturalistic world view but who still use the word "God" and other words in our culture's religious lexicon? On the face of it we seem clearly to be gathered together in Dennett's dark and dull bundle of tares. If we accept his division of the world then we're certainly amongst the most benighted and to be pitied bunch of tares because we keep using the word God even though we know it really refers to nothing existent or truly shared and meaningful. We should be pitied because, even as we keep talking to each other about our shared love of "Rock" the minister at the lectern is talking about "Rock (Hudson)" whilst the member of the congregation in the front row is talking about "Rock (music)". Meanwhile someone in the common room is speaking about "Rock (stick of)" whilst the person with whom they a conversing is really talking about "Rock (huge boulder of)". Oh yes, we must, indeed, be a dark, dull and deluded bunch of tares.

Dennett's argument has power because the word God has so often been used by religious people to theorise about a *thing* or a *being* that either does, or does not, exist. Dennett and the other three nay-saying horsemen of the atheist apocalypse line-up on one side of the divide whilst assorted religious figures, whether deluded or disingenuous, line-up on the other. As we know, the ensuing unedifying skirmishes between theses two sides characterise our contemporary culture's primary public way of proceeding in matters of religion and we, embarrassingly, seem to be implicated in this spectacle in a particularly problematic and disingenuous way.

But for us there is, in fact, another way of proceeding that has become increasingly central to the kind of liberal religious tradition I try to pass on to you here - one which, even as it seeks a meaningful continuity with, and understanding of, the past it doesn't, at the same time, require anything like identity and agreement with the past. It was first clearly articulated among us by a twentieth-century American theologian who, between 1927 and 1947, was Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School; his name was Henry Nelson Wieman (1884—1975). It is highly significant that, as his thought developed he left behind the Presbyterianism of his youth and spent the last twenty six years of life as a Unitarian/Universalist. There is a huge amount I could and would like say about him and his thought but today I'm just going briefly, all too briefly really, to introduce you to two things he suggested that can help us respond effectively to Dennett's critique. I'm not going to lay-out here any of the supporting arguments for his position - though I can later on if you wish - instead I'm just going to give them to you very simply and straightforwardly so we can get an initial conversation going.

Before I get to those two things it is important to know that what Wieman was himself a convinced religious naturalist. This meant he thought it was perfectly possible (and, in fact, was desirable) for religion to contain no supernatural elements at all. In the context of this address this means that, whatever the word "God" meant, or to what it "refers", it was for Wieman something natural and this worldly.

Firstly, he wanted to clarify our religious terminology. He, too, knew the word "God" had been, and still was, used in all kinds of unclear and ungrounded conjectural ways. Consequently, he set about articulating a very minimal definition of "God" that he thought could clearly, and empirically, be shown to exist. What he thought existed was, "that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance." He was of the opinion, as am I, "[t]hat there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist."

Although in the early (1926) passage we read earlier he, throughout, uses the pronoun "he" to refer to this "Something" it should be clear from the whole section that this is merely a grammatical convention and even here he makes it clear that personality is not at all necessary aspect of this Something.

The second thing Wieman was concerned about was to encourage us away from asking the normal highly speculative questions about what kinds of qualities God must have to deserve our absolute devotion or worship [such as omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience]. These questions are, of course, the kinds things that Dennett and conventional religious believers get stuck on. Instead Wieman wanted to encourage us to talking about God in a functional way. That is to say we should try to define God in terms of "his" function as that toward which we ought to direct our final devotion and loyalty" (Hardwick: Events of Grace pp. 21-22).

As Wieman's thought developed into the 1930s and beyond he increasingly began to associate the notion of God (that Something) with "creativity". God became for him the "creative event" - that constantly refulgent Something, that "World Bud" which constantly gifts us, not with just an extraordinary natural universe but, within it, a life of value and meaning - a world filled, at least always potentially, with ever new "created goods". This "creative event" was God and to it we ought always to direct our final devotion and loyalty. We should never commit the mistake of directing our final devotion and loyalty to any created good, even such created goods as the exemplar Jesus or the Christian Church. This is idolatry. Only the "creative event" itself was worthy of being called God and of commanding our final devotion and loyalty.

To repeat, that this "creative event" exists can be seen to be a natural fact of the universe and, moreover, something accessible to our empirical, scientific methods. Our religious question, i.e. that which concerns the, for us, ultimate value and meaning of life, is answered when we understand how best to respond and commit to God, to this "creative event" with complete devotion and loyalty. Charley Hardwick, a contemporary commentator and advocate of Wieman's basic theology, sums this up what this looks like in a very simple and powerful way:

"Openness to the future grounded in the giftedness of life received as a gift."

In the fourteen years I've been the minister of this church I have listened to and conversed with many people whose maximal definitions of God I have struggled to find credible. By the same token I know that there are many people over that same time who have struggled to find credible my own occasional maximal definitions of God. But I can honestly say that those who have stayed here and who have been able to commit in an ongoing way to this liberal religious community - which includes me of course - have all strongly held to something very akin to Wieman's minimal definition of God as the "creative event" and they have shown this by their openness to the future and their grateful reception of life as a gift.

I think Dennett's wrong - here in this liberal church we are, in this minimal way, very much talking about the same God.

Over to you . . .


Yewtree said…
I tend to talk about the (Neoplatonic) Divine Source, or the Divine - however I have noticed that some people don't know that "the Divine" is a gender-neutral or gender-inclusive term for God, so in the end, I reverted to saying God.

In Pagan circles, of course, one can refer to the Goddess, who is immediately understood as being a different concept from God - she is the deepest, she is immanent, she is the Universe, and the Divine Source. (The term simply has less historical baggage.) On the other hand, the minute you add gender to the terminology, people get hung-up on the gender. (God is not a gender-neutral term for me, unless someone refers to God and then immediately uses the feminine pronoun, She - as some Unitarian ministers do.)