A while ago, I attended a service at my local Unitarian church led by a guest minister: Galen Guengerich from New York. I enjoyed it enough to want to read his book “God Revised: how religion must evolve in a scientific age” when it came out later this year.
I think many Unitarians, unwilling to throw away the concept of God altogether, will qualify a rejection of theism with the type of God they don’t believe in: I’ve heard people say “I don’t believe in a personal God”, or “I can’t believe in an interventionist God”. Galen’s word of choice to sum up those aspects of traditional God-concepts he finds incredible is ‘supernatural’:
The great religious challenge of our time is adapting our faith to the reality that God is not supernatural.
To him, as to me, science gives the best account of how the physical universe has unfolded, without the need for recourse to miracles or supernatural explanations – and clinging to such stories would only stunt our curiosity and exploration. Not only that, but he sees the same moral problems I do with a God who set the world up with so much pain and suffering intrinsic to the process of life.
He does believe in a God however; even one that is “philosophically necessary” and thus is more than just a lyrical metaphor for those things we most value in life, such as goodness and beauty and love. His philosophy is a bit hard for me to follow, but I think he views conscious experience as being an equally fundamental component of existence to the physical fundamentals of matter and energy. He says:
When we think of the most enduring elements of existence, we usually think of physical things: rocks, mountains, and so on. On the other hand, we usually think of the elements that make up the realm of meaning—thoughts, feelings, and emotions—as fleeting and ephemeral. Over time, however, the opposite turns out to be true. The atoms that make up a given body or object eventually disband themselves and go on to constitute something else entirely. Even so, the experiences made possible by those atoms remain, at least in our memories. And the experiences continue really to exist, albeit in a different way.
We have a word for the totality of the physical world; the word is universe. We also need a word for the unification of all the experiences in the universe; that word is God.
He insists that we need more than just physics to account for our sense that experiences matter, that the suffering of sentient beings always has some absolute significance even when it happens alone and unobserved, that faith and religious experiences cannot be “put in a test tube or expressed in a formula”. All these experiences constitute ‘God’.
God is not an independent agent, in other words. God is dependent upon us. The active agency of the divine life emerges through our choices and actions.
I must admit I struggle to get a sense of what his God is like. Not a person, but definitely a consciousness, more a collective one? An impersonal ultimate reality in the experiential realm? I also struggle not to mentally answer back with protestations like, “but we can explore religious experience scientifically! We know what parts of the brain give rise to that feeling of transcendence and make us feel connected to everyone and everything!” I think that such reactions in me probably miss the point he is making: after all, he doesn’t believe in a supernatural God. He presumably accepts that conscious experiences are linked to the physical happenings in the brain. He perhaps sees them as still having a life of their own, co-existing, perhaps co-dependent with, the physical laws, but not being entirely reducible to them. This may not make much practical difference in terms of how you approach physics, but it makes a psychological difference in life. It makes it easier to view all sentient experience as having a “genuine and abiding significance”, rather than just being an interesting emergent property of physics. Out of the universe of matter, God is born, and we as conscious beings are the atoms of God: we play an integral part in the unfolding of God.
It’s a beautiful way of looking at things, and unlike the traditional God story, it fits well with our moral sense, even enhances it. I feel motivated to reflect on it further.
Galen goes on to discuss the importance of belonging to religious communities. He critiques Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists”, saying that although it contains many good insights into the benefits of traditional religion,
… until they all fit together in a way that unites spiritual need and moral imagination, they don’t add up to transformed lives and a changed world. Religion is an all-or-nothing experience…
This is a bit more problematic for me: the recovering evangelical in me flinches at such grand ambitions as “transformed lives and a changed world”, and I don’t believe any religion to be universally beneficial nor universally detrimental – I feel human beings and religions are far too complex and multi-layered to generalise. Some people do just fine without religion. They get community, belonging, self-development, wonder and awe from other places. I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all.
However, I enjoyed his thoughts on the interplay between belonging and freedom, and how we need a balance of both. He cautions that his own denomination of UU, while it gladly emphasises freedom of conscience, must be careful not to take this so far as to make community un-viable:
If this individual-centered approach becomes a moral absolute, then we have nothing in common save a moral obligation to leave each other alone when it comes to anything that matters. We have a moral duty not to challenge each other’s values. We cannot confront each other about whether or not there are values we ought to hold or ways of life we should pursue.
I have written before about the pressure to be universally tolerant (even of intolerance!) in the name of “interfaith dialogue”. Galen is saying that community can only really work where we are prepared to be more honest than blandly tolerating each other. I definitely appreciated that message.