A Feeling for Things

Of course, there are various reasons for the steady decline of participation in traditional religion. Is there any doubt that there is also a steady secularization in societies? The reason I would like to focus on is the incredulity of many religious claims found in the traditions. Most of the traditions, at least in the West, still point to an interventionist supernatural mode of causation. The miracle stories in all the traditions are still taken seriously by many adherents. For some people, however, the idea that there are supernatural interventions taking place in the cosmos has become less and less tenable. Why? In a large part I think it is a result of people getting a feel for how things work in reality. I use the word “feel” purposefully. Most people in populations do not have a strong grasp of the details of causation as described in science. Instead they steadily attain a feel for the causal dynamics of life. Certainly the success of science in explaining many of the causal factors associated with reality has had a big impact. As people become more educated and science literate they attain some sense of how things nominally work. This sense has created a dissonance between what the traditions claim and what science claims.

I was raised in a relatively conservative Lutheran church in the South, USA. In confirmation we were required to read the Bible both Old and New Testaments. As I read the miracle stories in both I began to wonder why there didn’t seem to be any striking miracles occuring today like those found in the scriptures. I asked my pastor about this, but he didn’t seem to have a very convincing answer. At the time I didn’t pursue the issue, but I think it was a seed of things to come for me. Even after I became an engineer I still wasn’t all that worried about it. However, as in all lives, I had some crises that made me ask deep questions about life again. As I probed deeper and turned to the Bible for answers the sense of reality that I had gained from being an engineer made it hard for me to accept without question the notion of miraculous interventions by God. The thing about engineering is that engineers bump up against reality at every turn. Those sensibilities that do not connect with reality, as it really is, can lead to catastrophic engineering blunders. Over time the engineer gains a real sense of how things work. Of course engineering is embedded in what might be called the lower levels of reality i.e. physics, chemistry, mechanics, thermodynamics, etc. At those levels reality has a great regularity that makes engineering possible. Miracles just don’t seem to be happening. This is what I mean by getting a feel for things. It’s a general sense because it is less a matter of one or a few specific things, but rather a gestalt based on long experience. Although this is engineering, I think the same sort of thing comes through for the educated populace as they experience the causal flow of their own lives and hear daily about the explanations and discoveries of science. At some point this general “feeling” of things gets in the way of accepting the supernatural claims of religion. Things like the parting of the Red Sea, turning water into wine, the virgin birth, and bodily resurrection just don’t seem to fit the feeling of how things work. Now some people including engineers and scientists can compartmentalize their technical and religious sensibilities, but for many others this is not possible. Often this may bring a crisis of faith where religion seems silly and superstitious. It may represent one substantial reason why people leave their traditions. Unfortunately the conservative elements in religion quite often do not honor the reasonableness of the skepticism that arises when developing this sense. Of course this is understandable because to honor and affirm this skepticism would undermine the requirement for certainty found in conservative religion.

Does this feeling of how things work mean that theistic religion must be abandoned? I don’t think so. It does, however, mean a change in how one perceives the relationship between God and the world. Since science is often a culprit in challenging people’s sense of things and perhaps rejecting religious sentiment, it is necessary to take a deeper look at what science is really telling us today about our world and how it works. After Newton and his clockwork universe there weren’t really any alternative religious worldviews except supernaturalism. Today things are different. In fact, if anything, what science is beginning to tell us about the causal fabric of the world can deeply enrich a theistic perspective where God is a personal, loving, and active God. Reductive science that has dominated worldviews for centuries is on the wane. Reductionism is, after all, the cornerstone of a mechanistic universe. More and more prominent scientists (including Nobel laureates) are finding chinks in the armor of reductionism. They claim that a reductive approach to science cannot provide explanations to most of the interesting things we see in our world. The more complex things get the less a reductive approach can offer explanation. Instead the picture of our world is one of profound interrelation. Quantum physics in particular has shown that everything is interrelated and indeterminate. Physicists like Bohr and Schroedinger who were not theologians, none the less talk like mystics in terms of wholeness, unity in diversity, relatedness, and even the perennial problems of the one and the many. Why? Because that is where the data leads. Of course much could be said about the details of the new science. It has been called the science of emergence where the underlying “laws” do not determine what happens in what emerges. In fact, at this point, scientists are truly at a loss to describe the “mechanisms” of emergence. Does emergence occur because of new unknown “laws” based on chance and necessity, or could there be something much more profound going on? I think so. For those interested in a glimpse of this new science, Nobel Laureate Robert Laughlin’s book A Different Universe is an excellent and accessible place to start.

While this new feeling of how things work in the science is in its infancy, if taken seriously it can also offer a new feeling about how God works. No longer is God relegated to an interventionist jumping in from time to time to direct things. Instead God is intimately embedded in the fabric of life and how it emerges both personally and globally. It points to a living God who participates in life in its very depth. It also means that God creates and honors the life giving constraints of life. From the stand point of piety and prayer it points the religious adherent away from a God who will radically alter the life giving order that is present, to a God who has shaped reality, its structures and dynamics such that truly wonderful, personal, purposeful, teleological, and “miraculous” things do happen but not in a disruptive way. The feeling one can get from embracing what has been called a panentheistic approach to religion is that a rejection of divine love and action is not necessary. Instead theism can be enriched, become science friendly, and organic. We live in a wonderful age where the sense of feeling we can have about how reality works points not to a distant, transcendent God but to a living, participating God who is not just related to the world but is its very fabric.

2 thoughts on “A Feeling for Things

  1. Great post. The concluding remarks that “theism can be enriched, become science friendly, and organic” is a solid, vibrant response to both antipodes of the debate (whether to sink with the ship or to speed up the process by proclaiming the ship is dead…).

    I am lead to thoughts of various futures that not only focus on the redefining the divine via new understandings of “lower levels of reality” in science, but upon the behavioral sciences. I can imagine individuals and societies developing a higher spiritual or religious understanding of the world through practices such as meditation in schools or taxes on sugary drinks or a more dignified welfare system. Though it may be controversial today (at least in the US), a couple generations from now we might have a new universal understanding of these sciences that will produce “better, more productive citizens”, focused upon developing a solid psychologically sound life for the individual and in turn the community.

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    • I am lead to thoughts of various futures that not only focus on the redefining the divine via new understandings of “lower levels of reality” in science, but upon the behavioral sciences. I can imagine individuals and societies developing a higher spiritual or religious understanding of the world through practices such as meditation in schools or taxes on sugary drinks or a more dignified welfare system. Though it may be controversial today (at least in the US), a couple generations from now we might have a new universal understanding of these sciences that will produce “better, more productive citizens”, focused upon developing a solid psychologically sound life for the individual and in turn the community.

      Right. Ultimately whatever changes occur in knowledge whether it be lower levels or higher levels, and with it the explications of those into some sort of personal, moral, or metaphysical insights, eventually they all end up effecting behavior whether that be internal or external to ourselves. How that all plays out is unknown, for the better or for the worse. I think history shows that there are unintended and unforeseen consequences to so-called progress.

      What I think is that whatever changes occur and I hope they are progressive, the struggles in live are eternal. There are ebbs and flows to teleological history, some that may comport to what God in God’s depth would want for the Divine Life and some may not. But such is life and each step whether comporting or not, God embraces whatever comes and struggles toward the good. As each of us are part of the Divine Life that is our situation as well. Hopefully each of us will probe our divine depth and embrace the good.

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