After Copernicus, we know that Earth is not at the center of the universe. Our planet is merely the “third rock from the sun” on the edge of one spiral galaxy, which in turn is merely one among more than a billion galaxies in the universe. After Darwin, we know that we humans are not “a little lower than the angels,” but merely “a little higher than the apes.” These are but two of the paradigm-shifting ways that science has de-centered traditional religious claims.
In her new book from Beacon Press, “A God That Could Be Real,” Nancy Abrams — an “atheist married to a famous scientist” (cosmologist Joel Primack) — asks what God could still be real if we are honest about all the insights of modern science. She writes, “Every idea of God I had ever encountered seemed either physically impossible or so vague as to be empty…. But a time came when I needed a higher power” (xix).
While in recovery from an eating disorder, she was skeptical about claims that, “a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” But to her surprise, she found herself entering “the first period in my life when food was not a problem” (xxiii). And as a scientifically-inclined person, she wanted to know why this approach worked: was there any divine “there there,” or was it merely a psychological trick? The complicating factor was that the more she began to think of the “God of her understanding” as only a psychological trick, the effectiveness of that “Higher Power” in helping her stay in recovery decreased (xiv). So she began searching for a “God that could be real” in light of all science teaches us about the 13.8 billion year old universe story (xxviii). In her words, “Science can be brutal about placing truth above human consequences” (37).
Accordingly, in Abrams’ view, the “God that can’t be real” includes the traditional claims that:
- God existed before the universe.
- God created the universe.
- God knows everything.
- God plans what happens.
- God can choose to violate the laws of nature. (23)
She unpacks each of these points in “Chapter Two.”In constructing a positive theology, the most interesting perspective she proposes is that ‘God’ is not cosmic, but “planetary” — an emergent phenomenon of life on Earth (53). Note that she means “Emergence” in the technical sense of the field of science that studies how systems (such as the human body) are much greater than the sum of their parts. (See, for example, Steven Johnson’s Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.) This evolving, emergent “God that could be real” is akin to Carl Jung’s “Collective Unconscious” in which the sacred is understood less literally than metaphorically and archetypally — but which is still actual, efficacious, and real (84).
In her final chapter, “A Big Picture for Our Time,” she explores the implications of this perspective. As she see it, the invitation is to “wake up to our god-capacity” and harness the power of the “God that could be real” to transform ourselves and our society, as she has experienced in her own life (149).
I recommend Abrams’s book. At only 162 pages, it is accessible. And she points to a way beyond the boring religion-science debates, which pit secular fundamentalists against religious fundamentalists. I will leave the last words to her:
I don’t expect millions of people to change their ideas of God overnight, but to those who care about the human future and can see beyond ideology, to those who believe that truth matters, and to those who recognize the potential of humanity but don’t see how to make us rise to that potential, it could make all the difference to discover a God that is real. (163)
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
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