MT02 Version Date: 24 December 1993
GOD THE WORLD-AS-A-WHOLE
The Graduate School of The Union Institute
Mailing Address: 65 Hoit Road, Concord, NH 03301, USA
ABSTRACT. This essay seeks to understand the interaction between God and the world. I first look at the idea of the world-as-a-whole and how it might interact with the parts of the world. Then I propose and briefly develop the image of God as the world-as-a-whole. John Polkinghorne criticizes embodiment theology as threatening either God's impassibility or God's vulnerability. I conclude by answering this issue for the world-as-a-whole theology.
KEY WORDS.God-World Relation, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Impassibility, Science and Theology, Wholism, World-as-a-Whole.
I'm not one for rapid tours. Two days' sightseeing of Germany touches very few of the beauties and treasures of this large and culturally rich nation. Writing wise, I'm in the midst of a major project and I want to report on it in this three minute sprint of an essay. I can only touch on one aspect of one point.
To understand the interaction between God and the world in a way that satisfies mesthis forms my goal. By world, I include especially physical and biological nature as well as the subjective world of persons and souls and spirits. I mean the scientific universe beyond the realm to which most theology has retreated.
Two current heroes in science and theology, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne, form the launch pad for this exploratory essay (Sharpe Forthcoming; Preprint b). Like Polkinghorne, I would rather speak of the interaction between God and the world than of the intervention of God into the world (Polkinghorne 1989:6). God's no whiz-bang magician, but honors the world's regularityswhich, of course, comes from God in the first place.
Now to find an adequate picture for how God and the world interact. I turn to Peacocke. He supports a wholistic understanding of the God-world relation in which God transcends the world-as-a-whole, which in turn transcends the parts of the world (Peacocke 1990). God relates to the world-as-a-whole which in turn acts wholistically on the world humans experience. If I spray the outside of an apple, it takes the chemical to every cell inside. I deal with the apple-as-a-whole which then works with its parts. Similarly for God's interaction with the world-as-a-whole.
In my search, I follow the idea of the world-as-a-whole. It raises many questions to explore. For starters, does the world-as-a-whole exist? The idea doesn't rally support as a regular entity subject to normal scientific laws. So what can I and what can't I say of it? For instance, is the world-as-a-whole silver with orange spots? Further, a lot of work's needed on the nature of wholes. I should look at how they act on their parts and what new comes with the whole, for instance.
I have several suggestions on how the whole could act on the parts of the world. Each model for this activity starts with a wholistic action within the world, then extends it to cover the whole.
Polkinghorne offers a model for how God might interact with the world and I could use it to say how the world-as-a-whole interacts with its parts. He holds that God supplies information to chaotic systems and this can alter the ways the system develops. Since he thinks such systems lie under much of what happens in the world, he concludes that God can interact with it by supplying this information. Similarly, the world-as-a-whole could act on its parts by supplying information to chaotic systems.
A second model comes from Sperry's understanding of how the mind, brain, and body relate (Peacocke 1990:207 n.62; Sperry 1988, for example). The mind, he says, equals the brain-as-a-whole. It acts on the parts of the brain, the neurons for instance, which in turn affect the body. One could say the world-as-a-whole acts on the world as the brain-as-a-whole acts on the body.
The third examplesand by no means the last possible wholistic modelscomes from David Bohm and Basil Hiley (Bohm and Hiley 1993; Sharpe 1993). In their picture, "active information" carried by the "quantum potential" guides the behavior of an elementary particle such as an electron. They compare it to how the information in radar waves guides the course a ship steers. The potential not only acts in a wholistic way on the electron and its surrounding particles, but on every particle everywhere. The model says what the information is physically and how it influences the electron. The world-as-a-whole could use a medium like the quantum potential to influence the behavior of everything in the world.
As I said, the idea of the world-as-a-whole needs a lot of thought. What supports the suggestion that the world-as-a-whole does act on its parts? If it does, how can I judge between the different models for this?
For the moment, I put these concerns aside and explore the relation between God and the world-as-a-whole. Peacocke has God transcending the world-as-a-whole and Polkinghorne starts with the belief that God lies outside the world. God has to get from the outside to the inside. Polkinghorne sets out to understand this without having God intervene in the world. He also thinks that the inside, the world, doesn't depend on God's actions to function. God may enhance it, but its day to day operation doesn't need God. I suspect that, in this picture, God can't get from the outside to the inside.
Similarly, I couldn't teach any of my children to crawl. They crawled because their biology made them and told them how. And I can't get to their insides. Yet, in another sense there's no outside and inside. I'm inside my children for they have my genes. When her mother tells my older daughter that she's like her father because she studies hard and has scholastic gifts, it's not that I taught her. Half the planet has separated us for many years. The connection between us lies beyond the ideas of outside and inside.
Neither do I accept the outside/inside theology. The idea that God somehow lies outside the universe doesn't make sense. Rather, I think of God as the world-as-a-whole that interacts with the world in a wholistic way. I try to solve the problem of how God acts by saying God contains the world and that natural laws describe some of God's activity. No longer does God stand on the outside trying to act inside a self-contained world. And God doesn't relate to the world at particular places, for they interact at every place.
The world-as-a-whole is God. Then God's actionssmodelled perhaps on one or more of the wholistic mechanisms discussed abovesconnect intimately with what happens in the world. To research this helps create a theology best described as the science of the whole. It works out the nature of the world-as-a-whole, and how it relates to people and the rest of the world.
This God image quickly leads to several theological topics. I do not elaborate them further here, but I can say it suggests a sense of mystery that points to God's transcendence; that God does everything and yet the world and people experience freedom; a way of understanding the problem of evil and human morality; that God is personal; the idea of incarnation; and so on.
My suggestion also raises problems. Polkinghorne raises an important one when he discusses embodiment theology, the model that pictures the world as God's body (Polkinghorne 1989:18-23). I close this report by looking at his point for the world-as-a-whole theology.
Polkinghorne thinks embodiment theology calls into question the beliefs in God's impassibility, or that God is vulnerable. What happens in the world does affect God, who suffers with people and isn't completely isolated. But the depths of God don't depend on anything created. This is what Polkinghorne means by impassible. Then, by vulnerable he means that God accepts the creation as different. It goes about its existence freely making its own choices.
Think of the end of the universe: it will final collapse into the big crunch or slide out in an eternity of cold death. If the world is God's body or if the world-as-a-whole is God, then these events must affect God significantly. But God's impassibility makes this impossible. So something must occur to prevent the universe undergoing such dramatic changes. This could only happen if God unleashed naked power, Polkinghorne insists, to avoid "being swept along in the changes and chances of [t]his fleeting world" (Polkinghorne 1989:21). But then this means the universe can't freely carry out what its inbuilt laws would allow it to. God's impassibility removes God's vulnerability. To escape this, Polkinghorne rejects theologies that tie God closely to the world.
To respond, I accept Polkinghorne's scene with God as impassible, vulnerable, and the universe, left to its own laws, suffering a miserable fate. What would we think of a devoted mother who watches her son freely take poison and die in agony, and who could stop him from doing it? What, then, should we think of Polkinghorne's God? The case against God tightens if we remember that God gave the universe the laws leading to its wretched end. Without an embodiment theology, there's a problem with Polkinghorne's scene.
The weakness lies in impassibility. How might the theology I propose change Polkinghorne's argument? It accepts the forecast for the universe. It also accepts God's vulnerability, meaning God doesn't stop the world going where its laws lead. My theory suggests this freedom because it pictures the interactions between God and the world as Polkinghorne does. God interacts with the systems of the world wholistically. Consider how the body usually acts free of mental direction. So the world usually behaves without God appearing to direct it. It is free.
My approach accepts the freedom of the universe and its dismal future. What now of impassibility?
The world-as-a-whole theology does sense God's separateness from the universe. In another essay, I depicted the universe's existence coming naturally from two properties of God: God's reason and God's power to make things happen (Sharpe Preprint a). God exists independent of the universe in the sense that the universe comes from God. This doesn't contradict the idea that God is the world-as-a-whole because from God comes the wholeness of the world-as-a-whole. The whole exceeds its parts, everything in the universe. This wholeness separates God from the universe.
Further, while I say God is the world-as-a-whole, I also could say God contains the world-as-a-whole. This would further help protect God from the fate of the universe. I hesitate with this God idea because the world-as-a-whole contains all that humans can know of God. No one can know of anything outside it, not even if there's anything beyond it. I shouldn't apply the words outside and beyond to the world (Sharpe 1993).
What do I conclude? Polkinghorne thinks that embodiment theology challenges God's impassibility or vulnerability. My response says this problem arises traditionally too. The world-as-a-whole theology supports a sense of God's impassibility and upholds the freedom of the universe to go about its business.
This brief essay can, of course, only glimpse at world-as-a-whole theology. My hope is that this introduction begins a discussion of the merits and problems of the approach.
Bohm, D., and B. J. Hiley. 1993. The Undivided Universe. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Peacocke, Arthur. 1990. Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and BecomingsNatural and Divine. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Polkinghorne, John. 1989. Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World. Boston: Shambhala.
Sharpe, Kevin. 1993. David Bohm's World: New Physics and New Religion. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press.
------. Forthcoming. "Nudging John Polkinghorne." In Bridges Between Theology and the Natural Sciences, ed. Mark Richardson and Wesley Wildman.
------. Preprint a. "The Divine Origin of the Big Bang Universe."
------. Preprint b. "Theology and Science as Different Levels of a Hierarchy: A Caution."
Sperry, R. W. 1988. "Psychology's Mentalist Paradigm and the Religion/Science Tension." American Psychologist 43 (August):607-13.