The Divine: A Heap of Mechanisms?

Kevin Sharpe

Science & Spirit 7(2) Summer 1996

Many spiritual traditions say our pictures of the Divine are grossly inadequate, and that our experiences of the Divine fall far short of who the Divine is. The Divine is remote. Yet, if we are to catch the realness of spiritual encounter, our model must tie closely with everyday experience; the Divine is close at hand. Closeness and remoteness conflict with one another, so tradition clutches to both of them in a tension. Rather than adopting this forced collaboration, is there a way to hold both without the apparent dichotomy?

I felt the anger of a psychology seminar group I addressed in Springfield, Vermont, a couple of years ago. Anger at me. Participants thought I wanted to remove the mystery from experiences and images of the Divine, and from divine interactions with the universe. They thought I wanted to reduce ultimate mystery to nothing but a heap of mechanisms, a pile of derelict cars at the wreckers. I failed to convince them otherwise.

Many spiritual traditions say our pictures of the Divine are grossly inadequate, and that our experiences of the Divine fall far short of who the Divine is. The Divine is remote. Yet, if we are to catch the realness of spiritual encounter, our model must tie closely with everyday experience; the Divine is close at hand. Closeness and remoteness conflict with one another, so tradition clutches to both of them in a tension. Rather than adopting this forced collaboration, is there a way to hold both without the apparent dichotomy?

The Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza considered mind and body (or ideas and the universe) as two aspects of the same thing, which he would alternately call "God" and "Nature," God being Nature in its fullness. Spinoza upheld both remoteness and closeness without the dichotomy since one just adds to the other. The religious and political authorities of his day regarded this notion as blasphemous. It falls into the heresy of pantheism, they said, the belief that everything is divine. They thought it relegated remoteness to the back seat.

Can we develop a system of ideas rather like Spinoza's in its lack of a dichotomy, but which doesn't succumb to pantheism?

Think of the Divine as a gigantic whole that produces the universe and accounts for everything that happens in it: a self-contained sack around the embryo universe, that which creates and supports its life. Such talk of the whole does suggest the Divine, writes Ted Peters. But is this really the Divine? Orthodox Christians, Peters continues, would disclaim its holiness in the sense of "sacred." They could only think it holy in the sense that "holy" and "whole" emerge from the same root word.

To affirm the divinity of the universe thought of as a whole appears to deny several Christian beliefs.

First, it evokes a troublesome sense of remoteness. Traditional belief requires such a separation, similar to the distinction between an architect and the building she or he designs. Many hard-won ideas in the orthodox portfolio--the independence of the universe and humans from the Divine, of the Divine from the universe, plus free will, the moral challenge that always stands before us, and so on--depend on a firmly-held sense of divine remoteness. Other critics may want to safeguard the Divine they experience as something quite different from themselves.

The end of the universe: it will finally collapse into the big crunch or slide out in an eternity of cold death. If the Divine is the whole of the universe, these events will affect the Divine significantly, perhaps even kill off the Divine. Impossible, according to John Polkinghorne. Something must prevent such dramatic happenings. Perhaps the Divine will unleash naked power to stop such "changes and chances of this fleeting world" from sweeping the Divine along with them. But this would block the universe from following its inbuilt laws; it would lose its freedom. Thus Polkinghorne rules out dramatic intervention. The only other option he sees grants the Divine much more independence from the universe. The depths of the Divine depend on nothing created, nothing in the universe. Polkinghorne rejects systems of spiritual ideas that tie the Divine closely to the universe--as with theory I suggest here--because then the Divine becomes overly vulnerable to what happens in it.

Many people would accept these points as reasonable and would require remoteness in their image of the Divine. If we talk of the Divine in terms of the wholeness of the universe, how might it understand the Divine's remoteness?

The minds of people around me always amaze me. Just when I think I understand them, some elements baffle me. The whole person exceeds those parts I understand, surpassing any biochemical machine. Similarly, if we recognize the Divine as the wholeness of the universe, then the Divine exceeds what we understand. We lose the remoteness only when we match the idea of mechanical nature with the Divine.

Many spiritual traditions bestow a twin role on the Divine. The Christian tradition, for instance, believes in the Divine at the top as Father, the mysterious creator who lies beyond everything. At the bottom, the Divine as Spirit permeates the universe and human experience, radiating and immanent throughout the complex system of reality.

The Divine I describe begins at the top, the remote role of the creator.

It also pushes closeness. The Divine also begins at the bottom and seeps back through to the top. As every object builds from the most elemental parts of matter--leptons, quarks, and bosons--so all things and experiences start from the Divine at the bottom. As we partly understand anything by the way its parts behave--the biochemistry of our bodies, for instance--so we partly understand anything, including life, by its emerging from the Divine. The Divine supports and accounts for everything.

The interactions of the Divine with the universe look obvious, readily at hand: remote with radical closeness, the Divine continuously brings about each event in the universe of our experience. Everything bears the mark of the Divine, is of the Divine.

Remoteness emerges from intimate involvement, without a dichotomy.

Copyright 1996 by Kevin Sharpe.