Emerging God

From “Emerging God,” by Philip Clayton. The Christian Century, January 13, 2004:

“In one sense it’s a truism to note that things emerge. Once there was no universe and then, after the Big Bang, there was an exploding world of stars and galaxies. Once the earth was unpopulated and later it was teeming with primitive life forms. Once there were apes living in trees and then there were Mozart, Einstein and Gandhi. But the new empirical studies of emergence move far beyond truisms. A growing number of scientists and theorists of science are working to formulate fundamental laws that explain why cosmic evolution produces more and more complex things and behaviors, perhaps even by necessity. Especially significant for religionists, they are also arguing that the resulting sciences of emergence will break the strangle-hold that reductionist explanations have had on science.

“These scientists turn our attention to ‘the laws of becoming’: the inherent tendency toward an increase in complexity, self-organization, and the production of emergent wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. Perhaps, many suggest, it’s a basic rule or pattern of this universe that it gives rise to ever more complex states of affairs, ever new and different emergent realities. (See Stuart Kauffman’s Investigations and Harold Morowitz’s The Emergence of Everything.) Assume that these theorists are right and that it is an inherent feature of our universe to produce new types of entities and new levels of complexity. What might this fact tell us about the existence and the nature of God?

“Traditional theology looked backward: it postulated God as the cause of all things. Emergentist theology looks forward: it postulates God as the goal toward which all things are heading. Moreover, if God stood at the beginning and designed a universe intended to produce Jesus, then God would have to use deterministic laws to reliably bring about the desired outcomes. Where the deterministic processes, on their own, are insufficient to produce a theologically acceptable world, God would have to intervene into the natural order, setting aside the original laws in order to bring about a different, nonlaw-like outcome. Divine action then becomes the working of miracles, the breaking of laws; and God becomes, paradigmatically, the being whose nature and actions are opposed to nature. This opposition of God and nature has been disastrous.

“Emergence, in contrast, suggests a very different model of the God-world relationship. In this model God sets in motion a process of ongoing creativity. The laws are not deterministic laws but ‘stochastic’ or probabilistic: although regularities still exist, the exact outcomes are not determined in advance. More and more complex states of affairs arise in the course of natural history through an open-ended process. With the increase in complexity new entities emerge-the classical world out of the quantum world, molecules and chemical processes out of atomic structures, simple living organisms out of complex molecular structures. Then come complex multicellular organisms, societies of animals with new emergent properties at the ecosystem level, and, finally, conscious beings who create culture, use symbolic language-and experience the first intimations of transcendence.

“CONCEIVED ACCORDING to the model of emergence, God is no longer the cosmic lawgiver. The result is a far cry from Calvin’s God, who must predestine all outcomes ‘before the foundation of the world.’ Instead, God guides the process of creativity. God and creatures together compose the melodies of the unfolding world, as it were, without preordaining the outcome. Emergentists note that this God must rejoice in the unfolding richness and variety, apparently willing to affirm the openness of the process and the uncertainty of particular outcomes. On this model, God’s finite partners are the sum total of agents in the world, and all join in the process of creation. In Philip Hefner’s beautiful phrase, we become ‘created co-creators’ with God.

“Finally, in the emergence model God does not sit impassively above the process, untouched and unchanged by the vicissitudes of cosmic history. Instead, there must be emergence within God as well. God is affected by the pain of creatures, is genuinely responsive to their calls, acquires experiences as a result of these interactions that were not present beforehand-all ideas familiar to readers of process theology (or Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God). Ultimately, is not such a picture of God closer to the biblical witness than the distant God-above-time of classical philosophical theism?”

If you want to read the rest of the article, it’s available online only through the ProQuest database. Your local public or college library may subscribe – but then, they probably get the Century too – a lot of good articles in this issue.

As a new mythology, this has real promise. However, as the article also acknowledges, it really isn’t all that new: emergence theology is basically just pantheism with a twist. And pantheism is no better than traditional theology at explaining such urgent questions as “the mystery of evil,” as Clayton calls it.

I suppose I am most interested in the more mundane applications of the emerging discipline of emergence. I’ve studied forest ecology to some fair extent and it has occurred to me more than once that a mature forest ecosystem is an “emergent whole that is more than the sum of its parts.” (And needless to say, I’m for anything that promises to “break the stranglehold that reductionist explanations have had on science.”)

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

6 Comments



  1. And pantheism is no better than traditional theology at explaining such urgent questions as “the mystery of evil,� as Clayton calls it.

    On this one point, I beg to differ… pantheism has no problem with the presence of evil spirits or petty gods — indeed, those are much of what keep shamans and the like in business!

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  2. Yeah, I agree. Probably at the time I was making a distinction between animism and pantheism (both fairly bogus categories) – who knows what the hell I was thinking in 2004. I can barely remember what I believed I believed last week!

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  3. As a person who finds panentheism attractive, I really like your description of god as emergent property but would not agree that is resembles pantheism. If pantheism is the belief that the divine is in all and is the totality of all, it doesn’t fit near as well as panentheism, the belief in which the divine is in all things as in pantheism, and gives unity to all things like in pantheism, but in addition it is greater than all things: making god an emergent property. Just a thought.

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  4. Thanks for commenting. I agree: “Panentheism” is a very good work, hampered only by its obscurity, which means you have to explain it every time you use it. But that may be preferable to using words whose meanings we think we already know – always a big danger when grappling with theological questions.

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  5. This is something I wrote down recently before I discovered this blog. I think it could be relevant:

    GOD EXISTS WHEREVER AND WHENEVER HUMAN BEINGS COME TOGETHER.

    UNDER SUCH CIRCUMSTANCES (WHERE PEOPLE LIVE TOGETHER IN A COMMUNITY) EVERY PERSON IS AN ELEMENT IN THE CONSTITUTION OF GOD.

    TO THE HUMAN BEINGS WHICH ARE COMPONENT PARTS OF GOD, GOD IS NOT VISIBLE. HIS EXISTENCE IS NOT PROVABLE.

    ALL GOODNESS AND EVIL COME FROM GOD WHO IS THE SUM TOTAL OF ALL HUMANS WHO MAKE UP THE SOCIETY.

    WHERE THERE ARE DISTINCT AND SEPARATE COMMUNITIES, THEY FORM DISTINCT AND SEPARATE GODS.

    GODS CAN COOPERATE OR COMPETE.

    The above assertations are made by drawing an analogy between the concept of God and the concept of Person:

    A Person exists whenever and wherever cells (making up a human being) live together.

    Under such circumstances (where cells make up a human being) every cell is an element in the constitution of that person.

    To the cells which are component parts of a person, that person is not visible. His existence is not provable.

    All goodness and evil come from the person who is the sum total of all cells making up the person.

    Where there are distinct and separate living collections of cells, they form distinct and separate persons.

    Persons can cooperate or compete.

    22nd December, 2007

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