Friday, March 22, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: The Resurrection of God

The Resurrection of God
John B. Cobb, Jr. 
Basel, Germany, where Friedrich Nietzsche had taught just prior to writing that God had “died.”
PHOTO: Patrik Tschudin

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical


If you are literal-minded, the title of this essay won’t make any sense. Anything that could literally “die” would not be God. And what has not died cannot be “resurrected.” But Nietzsche taught us to speak of “the death of God” meaningfully by transposing this “death” onto the field of human imagination and sensibility. Among intellectuals in the late modern world the idea of “God” was losing all credibility.

For centuries, even millennia, belief in God had been central to Western thought, both popular and elite. It had contributed significantly to the rise of modern science. For many centuries the most powerful institution in the West had been based on this belief. The legitimacy of political authority had been based on claims to be validated by God. In a civilization grounded on belief in God, for that belief to evaporate, was a truly momentous event. Nietzsche understood this as did few others.

The twentieth century was given the task of reconstructing its political, cultural, intellectual, and scholarly life on the basis of atheism. In this sense “God died.” Nietzsche not only recognized that this was happening but saw its radical importance. Needless to say, throughout the twentieth century there were still theists no less gifted or convinced than earlier ones. The difference was that, now, the default position was atheism or, at least, non-theism. A theist could get a hearing, if at all, only by approaching the question in a different way or formulating new reasons for being theistic.

Of course, vast numbers of people continued to believe in God. Many of them simply closed their minds to the unbelief of the elite. The resulting popular belief often took on a defensive and even hostile tone. Others, dissatisfied with the theistic beliefs of the communities that nurtured them, fought their way free. This was often a painful task. For them, God remained as an oppressive force from which they had to liberate themselves. But when they did so they found that they entered into the dominant intellectual culture of their time.

Sociologically speaking, this situation continues. More and more people declare themselves “not religious,” and this often means non-theistic. What were once mainline churches are declining and losing ground, most rapidly among youth. “God” often appears, even in their worship, more as an expression of their tradition than as evoking a vivid conviction. Affirming theism in the university becomes ever rarer and less acceptable.

If I speak of the “resurrection of God,” it is in the face of this sociological reality of steady decline of belief in God and its continued exclusion from the elite world. Non-theism is more and more strongly established as the default position in scholarly and intellectual communities. One certainly cannot claim that, in the United States and Europe, more and more people are declaring themselves to be believers in God.

But when Nietzsche declared that God was dead, belief in God was the default position. The sociological situation was that God was much talked of, the churches were strong, and in universities one was expected to believe in God. Explicit atheism was still shocking. The changes Nietzsche noticed were at a deeper level. At this deeper level, I am suggesting, we have turned a very different corner.

Mike Baird,

Belief in God and belief in the reality and importance of purpose have been closely related in human history. Last month I published an essay on the “Resurgence of Purpose.” In that article I did not speak of God. I limited myself to the failure of the modern program of excluding Aristotle’s “final causes” from a nature that came to include human beings. This failure does not mean that thoughtful people must all become theists. But it is noteworthy that for Aristotle “God” entered metaphysics as the ultimate in the line of final causes. It is also noteworthy that the systematic exclusion of any role for purpose in evolutionary theory was motivated in large part by the fear that acknowledging its role would open the door to theism. It is now worthwhile to consider whether, indeed, it has done so.

The inclusion of purpose as an explanatory factor is not a marginal modification of the materialistic worldview with which science so strongly allied itself. It falsifies that world view. If we now want to have a credible worldview, we have to engage in some fundamental re-thinking. When we do so we should not continue to exclude the idea of God a priori.

For most scientists who acknowledge the need to make some change, the most acceptable modification of traditional materialism is provided by the idea of “emergence.” This idea explains things that cannot be explained by the mechanical motions of matter. In any case, that new properties emerge has long been obvious to scientists. By expanding and developing this notion one can take account of all the evidence.

The idea of “emergence” is simple. A complex structuring of material entities can give rise to characteristics that are not present apart from this structuring. A certain combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms gives rise to water, and this is liquid, whereas the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of which water is composed are not. Liquidity “emerges.”

Even extreme materialists have to recognize this emergent property, but they want to deny that what emerges has causal effects. They assert that the liquidity is “epiphenomenal.” That means that the emergent property does not have any causal efficacy of its own. All further effects are explained by the material entities that gave rise to the liquidity.

As this extreme materialism breaks down, physicists can acknowledge the distinct causal efficacy of liquidity while retaining much of their inherited worldview. The world remains basically matter in motion, but it is now acknowledged that some structuring of this process has results that in turn have other effects.

This idea can be applied to Aristotle’s final causes. We might suppose that in a lifeless world final causes play no role, but that certain structures made up of lifeless molecules give rise to living cells. Among the emergent properties of what we call life, one is goal-oriented behavior or purpose. Once this emerges, it has its own effects.

The analogy is suggestive, but the acknowledgment that purpose plays a causal role in the world requires much deeper change. Among basic principles associated with Cartesian science, and reinforced by Kant, is that events in the objective world are to be explained by what is known of the objective world. Subjective experience is not allowed to play a role. But it is hard to understand purpose apart from subjective experience.

Once subjective experience is acknowledged as playing a role in the world that is studied objectively, we confront another issue. Is subjectivity an emergent property of the objective world? Some hold to this view. Others think that natural entities or events must always have had subjectivity or distinctive properties that developed into subjectivity. Subjectivity in the full sense, no doubt, emerged from something more elemental that we might call proto-subjectivity. But some think that a purely objective world of matter in motion could not give rise to it.

Two worldviews, then, take account of the reality of purpose in our world. One holds that there was once, presumably for billions of years, a purely material or objective world which then gave rise to subjectivity and purpose. The other holds that at some very elementary level all events exist for themselves (that is, subjectively) as well as for others (that is, objectively). In even the most primitive subjectivity, something that in its higher forms we call purpose plays a role. Whichever way we go on this question, the worldview that emerges is quite different from the reductionist, materialist one so long associated with science.

The purposes in and of nature can all be located in particular natural entities without positing any inclusive or divine purpose. Nevertheless, the question of God becomes meaningful in this context in a way it was not in the reductionist one. It seems that at least on the planet Earth there is a common direction in which the manifold purposes aim. They aim to bring life into being, to maintain and reproduce life, and to enhance the quality of life. It seems that where conditions allow, life appears and evolves into more complex forms.

We could, of course, suppose that this is all by chance. The aim could be in each case just as easily at remaining inanimate, or ceasing to live. But a simpler explanation is that nature as a whole favors life and the emergence of more complex forms of life, forms that realize richer and more intense experience. We could judge that “nature” aims at the increase of value in and through the aims of each individual entity–that the presence of “aiming” in individual entities derives from a cosmic aim or purpose.

PHOTO: Martin Sordilla


We may ask whether there is any further indication that in fact nature as a whole favors life. For several centuries the answer seemed negative. The materialist understanding of nature gained ground through scientific advances. Reductionist explanations advanced on many fronts. What seemed purposive was repeatedly explained in terms of chance and necessity. However, I argued in “The Resurgence of Purpose” that a corner has been turned: the reductionist, materialist program is exposed as inadequate. Purpose plays a role.

Another development in science may be even more decisive. It is sometimes misleadingly called, the “anthropic” principle. It has always been obvious that our universe is such that life is possible. But this did not count toward belief in God if the possibility of life follows easily from the existence of a physical universe. What has now been discovered is that life would not be possible if the universe did not have a very specific character.

For example, the strong nuclear force has a value of .007. If the figure were even slightly greater or less, life could not exist. Similarly, if the ratio of the force of gravity to the electromagnetic force were either a little greater or a little less, life could not have emerged. Scientists call these features of our universe “constants,” and they now identify six constants that have just the character required for life. These highly technical matters are very different from the observed order of nature that once gave rise to the conviction of a beneficent Creator.

Scientists like to explain their empirical findings by grounding them in a more comprehensive formula or patterns from which they can be derived. But so far as they can discover, there is no unifying cause of these remarkable constants. That each has the character needed for life appears to be entirely arbitrary from the perspective of efficient, material, and formal causation. Accordingly, it seems that this remarkable fact is best explained by a final cause. That would mean that the universe has the character it has so that life can appear.

If there were just one such constant, its occurrence would still suggest to those open to theism that intelligent purpose is at work. But the alternative view, that its occurrence is a matter of luck, would also be quite plausible. As long as atheism is the default position, “chance” would no doubt satisfy most scientists. And the public would have no problem in accepting the authority of “science” on such a matter. But that there are six such constants complicates the explanation by chance.

The solution is to emphasize that current theory suggests that before the Big Bang there was a different universe. Indeed in infinite time there may have been an infinite succession of universes each with different constants. Obviously, the universe we occupy is one of the very rare ones that happen to support life.

At one time physicists claimed authority because they limited themselves to theories that could, in principle, be refuted by evidence. They dismissed other theories as mere speculation. In particular they used this principle to reject theistic theories. But they now are proposing a theory for which no evidence exists. They can propose no experiment that would test their claim. This is no longer “science” against theology. It is one worldview against another, each of which can account for what is scientifically known and neither of which is definitively supported by that evidence.

When the materialistic worldview with which science associated itself was advancing victoriously on all fronts, it was understandable that it provided the default position. But when the evidence is requiring fundamental adjustments, this advantage is, in principle, lost. Of course, the great prestige of scientists in fact continues and to a large extent encompasses what is left of the associated worldview.

If we set aside claims to be “scientific,” consider the two worldviews. The data to be explained are nature’s favoring of life on this planet and the cosmic constants that make life possible. One holds that the universe expresses an aim at the realization and increase of value to be attained chiefly through living things. The other holds that there have been a vast, perhaps infinite number of universes; so that the fact that some of them have constants that make life possible can be understood as a matter of chance. The actualization of life where conditions allow is also attributable to chance.

One problem with the explanation by chance has not been much discussed. The judgment that prior to the origins of our universe there was an earlier one is based on physical “laws” that are assumed to be relevant to all universes. Otherwise we would have no basis for any conjecture whatsoever. But if this is so, is it realistic to suppose that the “constants” are exempt from this larger universality?

Stated philosophically this would mean that we can distinguish some physical laws as “metaphysical,” that is, necessarily operative before the Big Bang and in any possible universe from others that arise out of contingent characteristics of the Big Bang that created our universe. Specifying which features of “our” Big Bang are contingent is itself no easy task. This is not to say that this program cannot be carried out, but it is to say that developing a plausible theory about how each successive universe is likely to have a different set of constants remains a large task.

If one could understand events on this planet without introducing purpose, then this brave effort to see only chance at work cosmically would make more sense. But the program of excluding animal purposes including human ones from any role in events on this planet has failed, and there seems to be a deep-seated aim to bring life into being and to promote it. If purpose is acknowledged to play a role in events, it seems that Occam’s razor can no longer exclude the possibility that purpose functions globally and even cosmically. In fact it might support positing one cosmic purpose instead of vast numbers of universes with random characteristics.

At a very deep level, a corner has been turned. The most natural reading of the evidence now is theistic. This is the idea that there is operative in the universe an aim at the emergence and preservation of life for the sake of the value that it provides, an aim that calls us to work with it to this end. That the universe is purposeless has certainly not been disproved any more than the existence of God had been disproved when Nietzsche declared the death of God. But Nietzsche saw that God did not fit into the emerging worldview. That situation is now reversed. This is what I mean by the “resurrection of God.”

”Star Trails Over Kentucky”
PHOTO: The Pug Father


Nietzsche saw that God was dead even if those who had killed God did not know what they had done. He saw that it was only a matter of time before God would lose any significant or positive role in the human imagination. God was disappearing from the cultured imagination even if most people, even most cultured people, had still not become aware of this change.

What, then, today, justifies the claim that the situation, rightly perceived by Nietzsche, has changed? Obviously, my claim depends on a particular reading of the current direction of the history of thought. Nietzsche offered no objective proofs for his pronouncement. I offer none for my claims either. Nietzsche could have been wrong in his reading of what was happening.

In fact, however, he proved to be right.

That certainly does not mean that my reading is correct. It is only a justification for considering it despite the continuing, even growing, dominance of atheism. Considering the possibility that God is rising again involves considering the nontheistic accounts that scientists and other scholars continue to devise. It is my judgment that these are becoming progressively less plausible. But there is enormous support for their efforts from those who have been deeply socialized to reject God, or at least any actual role for God in the world. All of us are prepared to accept relatively weak arguments in favor of positions we hold on other grounds.

My thesis, nevertheless, is that the atheistic worldview is now, in principle, on the defensive. That is a profound shift. Its defenses, when disconnected from established bias, are not impressive. In these ways its situation is much like that of theism when Nietzsche declared that God was dead.

Nietzsche did not suppose that the death of God returned culture to where it had been before God became its central reality. There is no turning back. Equally, the God who rises cannot be the same as the one who died. Many of the reasons for God’s death are just as valid today as they were when Nietzsche proclaimed it. Perhaps they would have led to God’s death even if modern science had not undermined belief. I incline to think that the prestige of an atheistic science played the determinative role, but we will briefly consider more existential reasons for God’s death.

God functioned as a social sanction for established customs and privileges. Those who found these restrictive and oppressive sought freedom. Marx identified the support of economic and political injustice by God. Freud showed the repressive influence on sexual feelings and behavior. In the name of God men made women their servants, belittling their abilities and demeaning their persons.

More generally, the power of God limited the power of human beings, and an all-powerful God made humans powerless. In the name of God people slaughtered those who had different views of God or rejected God. And in the name of God religious institutions demanded unrealistic beliefs that blocked honesty and clear thinking. This list could go on. For many, the only way to advance was to overcome theistic belief overall. The weakness of the scientific exclusion of God from the world is not a reason for people to welcome back the oppressive God. Many looked to a world free of God in great hopes.

For those who hoped for great social and cultural gains from the death of God, the twentieth century was a disappointment. It was largely free of wars over religion, but the wars over economic systems and national interests were not less horrible. Churchly restriction on what could be said and done was greatly reduced, but economic and political censorship proved just as bad. Science was free of interference by ecclesial bodies, but it became heavily dependent on corporations and wealthy individuals. Education ceased to be cursed by sectarian indoctrination, but by becoming value-free it came to be dominated by economic interests. And the planet as a whole accelerated its movement toward self-destruction. The great experiment with the death of God has been a failure.

That a culture based on the death of God does not respond well to social or personal needs is now widely recognized. Our youth are not returning in large numbers to theism, but they want to be “spiritual.” Being spiritual but not religious is their preferred formulation. The meaning is vague, but it does not support the militant atheism of some scientists or the ideal of value-free education and research. At the same time it rejects the institutions associated with belief in God that have survived through the twentieth century. Even if I am correct about the resurrection of God, this is not likely to mean the revitalization of long-established institutions–unless they transform themselves dramatically.

Sioux Spiritual Center and the Plainview, SD Chapel run by the Roman Catholic Society of Jesuits
PHOTO: Raymond Bucko, SJ


What sort of God can rise? The God who rises must not, cannot, have many of the characteristics of the God who died. On the other hand, to use the word “God” at all means that there must be a continuity with what has long been meant by that term. In this essay, the focus has been on a role for God in the universe with special attention to this planet. The role highlighted is that of making life possible and encouraging it universally where it is possible. This is best understood as a purposeful action. It builds on, and is an adaptation of, the idea of the “Creator” that has been so central to thinking of God in the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

This understanding of God has existential implications. If there is a cosmic reality that enables and encourages life, and if I am an instance of that life, I have reason to feel my dependence on God and be grateful. I have reason to believe that God cares for all living things and to adapt my actions to that understanding. I have reason to believe that God wants living things to live abundantly, and therefore to prize and seek that “abundant” life.

If one really believes this, then one also understands that the relation to God is the most fundamental of all relations. However, attending to that relation does not draw one out of involvement in other relations. On the contrary, it calls one to involve oneself in the world of relations. The more we love God, the more we love and serve our neighbors, human and otherwise.

There is nothing in this reading of our situation that leads us to think that the One who makes life possible and encourages it to be lived fully, controls what happens. One of the worst developments in the Abrahamic traditions was the emergence of the idea that the Giver of Life totally controlled all things. To this day the idea that God is “almighty” does enormous harm to those who believe it and drives away many. Jews and Christians can rejoice that, if the idea is in the Bible at all, it is extremely marginal and in sharp tension with the vast majority of biblical teaching, whereas the close association of God with life pervades the Bible.

Of course, there is much more to be said. My point is only that the God who is rising is indeed the God of Abraham but freed from much that has attached itself, even from the beginning, through the traditions and the cultures that have intended to worship. Burdened by all the accoutrements of one or another of our orthodoxies, God cannot rise. Freed to be the Giver of Life, God can live again.

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