Asking the Right Questions
Then I became a graduate student. And things changed. This was at the
Waite Agricultural Research Institute at the University of Adelaide. For
the first time I was in direct contact with real scientists, working with
them in the laboratory. They all seemed to be atheists or agnostics. That
I took religion seriously was very odd to them. My supervisor in
particular had thought it all through. Religion was anti-science and a
source of much evil in society. Many were the discussions I had with him.
I was quite unable to defend my position intellectually. It was full of
holes. My religion did not mix with my science.
Then came my second conversion. It was an intellectual one this time.
My faith was falling apart. It had foundations of sand. The beginning of a
resolution came via the Student Christian Movement. It showed me there was
an alternative interpretation of Christianity to the fundamentalism in
which I was brought up. I never knew of that possibility before.
When reassurance began to re-establish itself it came like the weaving
together of strands. I was conscious of a bottom forming under me. I tried
to break it down. The strands refused to be broken. The effect was to
re-establish a fundamental trust with respect to the meaningfulness of
human life. I found some of the former elements came back, different from
the old, no longer borrowed dwellings. For better or worse, they were
The elements that came back renewed were the experience of forgiveness,
the courage to face the new, the sense of not being alone in the universe,
and all that could be called the values of existence as revealed in the
life of Jesus. God as a source of value was nearer than hands and feet,
closer than breathing.
But I had a new problem. The science I was becoming more familiar with
presented me with a mechanistic universe which provided no clues to a
meaning of life. It had nothing to say about my feelings which were to me
the most important part of life. How did they fit into a mechanistic
I began a new journey of discovery when my newly discovered mentors in
the SCM, especially one of them, urged me to read Whitehead's Science
and the Modern World. I felt this was written just for me, especially
chapter five The Romantic Reaction. On reading Whitehead my mind
flashed back to a lecture I had heard as an undergraduate but had not
understood at the time. It was on the philosophy of biology given by my
professor of zoology W E Agar. He had discovered that Whitehead was
fundamental to his understanding of philosophical problems raised by
biology especially in evolution, behaviour and development.
So I wrote and asked him what I should now read. He replied, Charles
Hartshorne's recently published The Philosophy and Psychology of
Sensation. He added that he had himself just completed a book on
Whitehead's interpretation of biology, A Contribution to the Theory of
the Living Organism. Its first sentence read: "The main thesis of this
book is that all living organisms are subjects." That was what I needed to
Besides reading these books I read much of Plato and all I could on
Whitehead. More specifically on religious topics I read Harry Emerson
Fosdick of Riverside Church in New York. He had been a minister of the
First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, had been accused of heresy and
left to occupy the pulpit of a huge new cathedral church near Columbia
University built for him by John D Rockefeller, a member of his
congregation. His history seemed promising to me.
I became dissatisfied with the prospect of a career devoted entirely to
research. I wanted more involvement with people. I aimed for a combination
of research with teaching. So off to the University of Chicago I went.
Unknown to me at the time, until I got there the University was the centre
of Whitehead's thought (process thought) in the world. Hartshorne was in
philosophy, and in the divinity school were Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard
Meland, Bernard Loomer and Daniel Day Williams. And the most distinguished
Professor in the Department of Zoology where I researched and did courses
was Sewall Wright who was a Whitehead disciple and close friend of
This was all terribly important for me as I began to wonder if I had
got on the right track. After all I had already made one bad mistake in
embracing fundamentalism. My new experiences reinforced the foundation of
my thinking which I had begun to build in Adelaide.
From there I became familiar with other process thinkers, notably John
Cobb, a student of Hartshorne who is a Director of the Centre for Process
Studies in Claremont California. And of course, I had plenty of encounters
with opponents of this perspective especially when I was involved with the
World Council of Churches - which seemed to me to be socially left wing
and theologically right wing.
What were the questions which I now regarded as the right ones to ask
about God? Nietzsche said that truth is the metaphor that matters for you.
I think I have two such metaphors.
One comes from Paul Tillich. The metaphor is "ultimate concern".
Ultimate concern is that concern that fulfils life. All other concerns are
secondary. This is his metaphor for God.
The other comes from Whitehead. It is the idea that there was inherent
in the universe from its foundations the potentialities or possibilities
of the future. From a universe of pure hydrogen some moments after the big
bang eventually some billions of years after came us. In contemplating
this cosmic evolutionary process Whitehead argued that the potentiality of
the universe must be somewhere. By somewhere he meant some actual entity.
He named that actual entity the mind of God. Divine potentiality becomes
concrete reality in the universe by means of persuasive love, never by
So my second metaphor is that at the heart of the universe is
persuasive love. In the last chapter of Process and Reality,
Whitehead said that when the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar
conquered. "The brief Gallilean vision of humility flickered throughout
the ages uncertainly ... the Gallilean origin of Christianity does not
emphasise the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved
mover. Its dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and
quietly operate by love."
I wish now to consider these metaphors in a bit more detail under three
headings: The presence of God in the world; the response of the world to
God's presence; the presence of the world in God.
The presence of God in the world
Martin Buber said, "In every event we are addressed by God". Charles
Wesley put it thus: "Father, thou art all compassion; pure unbounded love
thou art." There is a persuasive influence in human life that is
transforming. None of us need stay the way we are. For each there are
persuasive possibilities not yet realised. We are tuned to the lure of God
in our lives. A note on a tuning fork elicits a response from a piano
because the piano already has in it a string tuned to the same note. So
This persuasive aspect of God is given many names - treasure in the
field, pearl of great price, light on the hill. It has been called the
divine eros to emphasise that this is a passionately felt
relationship. The proposition of process thought is that this same
influence is at work in all the individual entities of creation from
protons to people.
The potentialities of the universe and its individual entities are not
in the form of a blueprint of the future. So it is misleading to speak of
divine design. The term design has connotations of a preconceived detailed
plan - which is one reason why Darwinism dealt such a blow to the deism of
Paley's natural theology.
The term "purpose" is better as it does not carry this connotation.
Nothing is completely determined. The future is open-ended. One reason for
this in process thought is that God is not the sole cause of all
happenings. God exercises causality always in relation to beings who have
their own measure of self-determination. As the source of un-actualised
possibilities, God is always creating by confronting what is with that
which is possible. And this by persuasion and not by manipulation.
Thus God, like all other entities, is in some aspects incomplete. He
is our companion in the creative advance. So it would be true to have God
say, "I am what I am becoming" (Exodus 3.14) . It would also be true to
say that the world lives by the incarnation of God in itself.
It is appropriate to conceive of providence in these terms. Providence
is a difficult word with a number of meanings. The meaning in the present
context is that God provides the possibilities. In so doing, God is
forever active and never needs be persuaded to act. Providence does not
mean divine planning by which everything is pre-determined, as in an
Rather, it means there is a creative and saving possibility in every
situation which cannot be destroyed by any event. The use of persuasion as
opposed to coercion is not to be conceived as based on a voluntary
self-limitation of God. We might think a surer way to create would be to
combine a bit of persuasion with coercive manipulation from time to time.
I know of no evidence to support this view. The world does not appear to
be made that way.
Some traditional theists have said to me, "You make God limited if he
has no power to do anything at all". But is God limited if he cannot work
any nonsense in the world when he wants to, such as to create a stone so
heavy he could not carry it? The imagery leads to absurdity. It is as
absurd to say we have our own power and freedom (which we all presuppose)
but that God can step in and control our actions. It is absurd to suppose
that to do what has to be done God cannot work within the order of nature
as we do, but has to destroy the creation to do that.
Is God then powerless? The paradox is that there is a power in love. It
is the only sort of power that matters in the long run. The form of power
that is creative and admirable is that which empathises with others and
empowers them. Some events in the history of the cosmos, including human
history, have more significance than others. They are peak events. This is
not because God intervenes in these events and not in others. To interpret
significant events as special acts of God is to turn God into an agent of
mechanical intervention or into a magician. It is to replace persuasive
love by fiat.
This view of divine action is not only a view of the nature of goodness
but also the nature of evil. John Cobb says that if God is understood as
that factor in the universe which makes for novelty, life, intensity of
feeling, consciousness, freedom and in humanity a genuine concern for
others, we must recognise that he is also responsible in a significant way
for the evil in the world.
If there were nothing at all, or total chaos, or if there were only
some very simple structure of order, there would be little evil. There
would instead be the absence of both good and evil. Earthquakes and
tornadoes would be neither good nor evil in a world devoid of life. Only
where there is significant values does the possibility of their thwarting
their conflict and their destruction arise. The possibility of pain is the
price for consciousness and the capacity for intense feeling. Sin is the
corruption of the capacity for love. Thus God, by creating good, provides
the context within which there is evil.
In this view, evil springs not from providence but from chance and
freedom. Because of chance, freedom and struggle there are misfits,
suffering and what is called the evil of nature.
The world's response to God presence in the world
The second proposition is that creativity in the world is the response
of the entities of creation from protons to people to God's presence. A
verse in Matthew's Gospel reads, "Be you compassionate as your heavenly
father is compassionate."
The Gospel of Thomas puts it a little differently. It has Jesus say,
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If
you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you will kill
"Infinite passion" is the phrase which Tillich borrowed from
Kierkegaard to express the only adequate "with all" response to God's
"The divine imperative", says Hartshorne, "is to be creative and to
foster creativity in others." Even an atom of uranium, he suggests, is not
just deciding whether or not at a given moment turn into an atom of lead.
It too is creative not only for itself but for other atoms.
The presence of the world in God
It is as true to say that God experiences the world as to say that the
world experiences God. God is both cause (in creating the world) and
effect (in experiencing the world). In process theology God is conceived
not as the playwright watching afar off the drama of creation, but as
involved in all its experiences of joy and suffering. God feels the world
as the world is created.
This is in contrast to the classical view where God is said to be
loving, yet without anything like emotion, feeling or sensitivity to the
feelings of others. Aristotle said it first: "God is mover of all things,
unmoved by any." So also says the first of the 39 Articles in the back of
the Anglican Prayer Book which I once had to learn in preparation for
The alternative proposition is that whatever we do makes a difference
to God. Whatever any individual entity in creation does makes a difference
to God. That includes the sparrow who falls to the ground. The universe
will never be as it is if we and the sparrow had never been. A love that
leaves the lover unaffected by the joys and suffering of the one who is
loved is not love at all.
The denial of God as one who feels the world's joys and sufferings was
largely due to the Greek notion that perfection involves immutability - if
God is perfect then God cannot be changed in any way by what happens in
the world. On the contrary, to be enriched by the enrichment of the world
is to be responsive to the world and therefore to be more loving.
Responsiveness, not immutability, is the nature of perfection.
Where was God at Auschwitz when the child was standing at the wall
facing the firing squad? God was suffering with that child. God
experienced the excruciating suffering of the tormented and was agonised
by the satisfaction of their tormentors. According to the Jewish scholar
Abraham Heschel the pathos of God is the central idea of prophetic
theology in the Bible.
There is an ocean of God's experience to which we and the world
contribute as the hymn suggests:
O love that will not let me go,
I give you back the life I owe,
That in your ocean's depth its flow
May richer, fuller be.
My faith involves a sense of belonging to a larger reality which
contributes to one's life and which receives the contribution of that
In this vision of the divine, who is not the supreme autocrat but the
universal agent of persuasion, whose power is the worship he/she inspires and
who feels all the feelings of the world, I find not only a new way of
understanding the world, but also a new way of facing the tasks of today.
Charles Birch is Professor Emeritus at the University of
Sydney, Australia. For 25 years he was Challis Professor of Biology. In 1990 he
won the Templeton Prize for Progress of Religion