“IS GOD DEAD?”
So read the cover of Time Magazine on April 8, 1966. Time was reporting on a handful of radical theologians who claimed to have invented “Death of God Theology” (aka Theothanatology). Actually, those theologians borrowed their slogan, and perhaps even their idea, from Friedrich Nietzsche. First in The Gay Science (1882) and later and more famously in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche had written: “God is dead!”
Like a rebellious teenager taunting his parents, Nietzsche undoubtedly used the phrase at least in part to shock his Judeo-Christian readers. Nonetheless, it is consistent with his philosophy.
In the 1880s and then again in the 1960s, Christians were outraged. But why? Every year on Good Friday, Christians of almost every denomination celebrate precisely the same thing: the death of God. Of course, Nietzsche and the Death of God theologians did not have Holy Week in mind when they coined their slogan. Still, their core concept should horrify no one.
Today, we are asked to believe that the universe came to be instantly and will later cease to be, perhaps just as suddenly. While we have well developed theories of how the universe has evolved, no one claims to know much of anything about how or why it came to be in the first place.
The problem is massively compounded by the fact that we don’t even know if our universe is unique. It may be simply one ‘cycle’ in a possibly infinite series of ontologically similar cycles (Penrose); or it may be one ‘verse’ in a ‘multiverse’ (Randall); or it may be that every quantum de-coherence splits the universe into two or more independent universes (Everett).
Yet none of these theories, even if true, answers the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” So where do we go from here?
Let’s start by looking at the world as it is. What do we know about it? From one perspective, we see that it consists of discrete entities (objects, events) and the relationships between them. From another perspective, we see that the world consists of qualities (colors, textures, values) and the harmonies among them. Both perspectives are true. Entities differ from one other according to the various qualities they display but qualities are not displayed until they inhere in some entity. Without entities and qualities, there would be no universe…at least no universe as we know it.
So accounting for the universe means accounting for entities (and their relationships) and qualities (and their harmonies). This insight lies at the core of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy. He called qualities “primordial” and “conceptual”, entities “consequent” and “physical”.
To explain the world as we know it, Whitehead posited the existence of a single ‘super-entity’ that includes all qualities primordially and all entities consequently. Primordially, Whitehead’s super-entity is the source of all the qualities that characterize all the entities that constitute our world. Consequently, it is also the source of every entity’s raison d’etre…its purpose, its motivation, its goal…in Whitehead’s terminology, its ‘subjective aim’.
It is this subjective aim that defines the relationship between each entity and the super-entity. Stated differently, each entity defines itself in terms of its relation to the super-entity.
Guided by its subjective aim, each entity ‘decides’ which qualities it wishes to display and how it wishes to display them. (Of course, not all entities ‘decide’ in the way a human being might decide. There is no requirement that consciousness be part of the process.)
Each entity (including the super-entity) exhibits its qualities in a unique way which Whitehead called ‘subjective form’. The subjective aim conditions the subjective form and together they constitute the entity’s unique identity.
Entities share qualities and this sharing constitutes the relationship between entities. The sharing of qualities gives universe its solidarity. Every entity, of course, shares all of its qualities with the super-entity. This ensures that solidarity is universal.
If two entities combined the exact same qualities in the exact same way, they would not be “two entities” but one. The unique combination and display of qualities that characterizes each entity is what that entity is.
Pursuant to its subjective aim, each entity combines a variety of diverse qualities. The entity “harmonizes” those qualities so that they form an integrated, holistic pattern. That pattern is the ultimate expression of the entity’s identity and constitutes the entity’s unique objective contribution to the content of the universe. Whitehead called this the entity’s ‘superject’.
Some folks will recoil at the premise of this model. The idea of super-entity goes against their grain. And they would be right if we claimed a special ontological status for the super-entity; but we do not. The super-entity is an entity among entities. All the ‘rules’ that apply to everyday entities apply equally to the super-entity. Our world is one world! The super-entity is unique only in the sense that it combines all qualities and harmonizes them in a particular way.
Note my language above. I said “the source of all the qualities that characterize all the entities that constitute our world”; I did not say “the source of all the qualities that characterize all the other entities that constitute our world”. Likewise, I said “the source of every entity’s…subjective aim”; I did not say “the source of every other entity’s subjective aim”.
Why not? Because there is no logical or ontological justification for separating the super-entity from other entities! For example, if I say that the super-entity is transcendent and other entities immanent, I have failed. If I say that the super-entity is eternal and other entities temporal, I have likewise failed.
Whatever we say about the nature of the ‘other entities’, we need to be able to say about the nature of the super-entity. Likewise, whatever we say about the nature of the super-entity, we must be able to say about the nature of the ‘other entities’. At the end of the day, they are all just entities, super or otherwise. Ontology plays no favorites.
So let’s examine the nature of the relationship that exists between the super-entity and any other entity. We know (above) that the super-entity is the source of the other entity’s qualities and subjective aim. Therefore it must be the source of its own qualities and subjective aim as well. In relation to itself, the super-entity must be both the source and the recipient. This process is called ‘recursion’.
How is this possible? As the cosmological ‘source’ of all qualities, the super-entity does not necessarily manifest any of those qualities. To manifest qualities, the super-entity must actively appropriate those qualities from the ‘source’, itself (as all entities must) and display them with a specific subjective form in accordance with a specific subjective aim. Ultimately, those qualities and that form constitute the super-entity’s superject.
As source and as superject, the super-entity is eternal. As an entity manifesting qualities with a specific subjective form according to a specific subjective aim, the super-entity is temporal…and mortal.
Why mortal? When an entity ceases to grow, ceases to undergo change, it dies. In Whitehead’s terminology, this happens when it achieves its ‘satisfaction’, which is the subjective side of the objective superject. So only a mortal entity can have a superject and only by having a superject can an entity make an enduring contribution to universe. Therefore, the super-entity must be mortal as well as eternal. But how on earth can that be possible?
Right now, scientists and philosophers all over the world are engaged in the search for a ‘TOE’, a Theory of Everything. The hope is that once we can explain all the fundamental features of universe with a single, self-consistent theory, we will be able to resolve rather quickly the remaining paradoxes of physics and cosmology.
Truth to tell, however, we already have that TOE. It’s called Christian theology. According to the Nicene Creed (325 & 381 A.D.), Christianity’s primary creedal document:
God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”. Jesus Christ is his “only begotten Son…true God from true God…consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made…By the Holy Spirit (he) was incarnate of the Virgin Mary…he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried…the Holy Spirit (is) the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
This, of course, is the famous Christian doctrine of Trinity: one God, three Persons. But it also happens to be just exactly what we were talking about earlier in this essay. God the Father (Creator) is God-primordial, God the Son (Christ) is God-consequent, and God the Spirit (Holy Spirit) is God-superject.
It is by the Father that we have a world (qualities), by the Son (Christ) that that world consists of entities, and by the Spirit that we have ‘life’ (process). The Trinitarian God is the super-entity we have been describing.
So is God, dead? You bet! And Jesus explains why (John 16): “If I do not go (die), the Advocate (Spirit) will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” Jesus Christ must die so that his Spirit, God’s superject, may infuse the world. It is not by way of Creation or Incarnation that God suffuses the world but by Crucifixion (the “bloody sacrifice”), Eucharist (the “unbloody sacrifice”) and Pentecost.
Jesus explains this in a parable (John 12: 24): “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” In ‘parable-speak’, the fruit is the superject of the seed.
Without a super-entity to source qualities and subjective aims for other entities, there can be no world. But unless that super-entity is also an ‘other entity’ with its own unique superject, there is no way for those qualities to become part of the life of that world. So God, the super-entity, must fully share the nature of ‘other entities’…and that must include mortality.
Happily though, there is a flip side to this! ‘Other entities’ must also share in the nature of the super-entity. Remember, there can be no fundamental ontological discontinuity between the nature of ‘other entities’ and the nature of the super-entity; they’re all just entities.
If God eternal is also temporal (via Incarnation) then temporal entities (objects, events) must also be eternal. We call that side of things Resurrection and Ascension. Upon achieving Whitehead’s ‘satisfaction”, each entity contributes its superject to the temporal world and thereby enters into eternal life with God.
Without an eternal dimension, the temporal world would auto-abort. Time is ‘perpetual perishing’, entropy. On the other hand, without a temporal dimension, the eternal world would be devoid of content.
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Parmenides, (c. 400 B.C.), framed this dilemma in his ontological poem, On Nature. In that poem, he describes two “ways” (Are they ways of seeing or ways of being?): the Way of Truth (Aletheia) and the Way of Appearance (Doxa).
Re Aletheia, he writes:
What-is is un-generated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast and complete…it is, now, all together, one, continuous…Nor is it divisible since it is all alike…It is completed from every direction like the bulk of a well-rounded sphere…equal to itself from every direction…Thus coming to be is extinguished and perishing not to be heard of.
But re Doxa, he writes:
It has been named all things that mortals have established, trusting them to be true: to come to be and to perish, to be and not to be, to shift place and to exchange bright color…Everywhere the same as itself but not the same as the other…Thus according to belief, these things were born and now are, and hereafter, having grown from this, they will come to an end.
For almost 2500 years philosophers (including Plato) have debated the meaning of Parmenides’ paradox. Is he outlining a nihilist philosophy a la Nietzsche or Wittgenstein? Or does his model prefigure the Christian theology of John and Paul? In either event, he clearly understood the problem. A purely eternal world is featureless while a purely temporal world is self-annihilating.
But let’s get back to our story. Primordially, all qualities exist in God in perfect harmony; no conflicts! So consequently, all entities must exist in God in perfect harmony. All conflicts must be resolved into contrasts and all contrasts must be subsumed into an over-arching harmony.
Every temporal entity is initially responsible for its own subjective aim and ultimately responsible for its own superject. Pursuant to that aim, each appropriates the combination of qualities that it wishes to exhibit and determines how it wishes to exhibit them to achieve satisfaction, its superject. That is our work and when it is done, God takes over.
It is God who harmonizes each entity’s superject, including his own, with the superjects of every other entity. This is what we mean by Grace. As a result of Grace, every entity shares in eternal life. That is what we mean by Salvation. Finally, our participation in the Consequent Nature of God is what we mean by the Kingdom of Heaven.
From our earliest musings, humans have been confronted with the task of explaining how it is that there is a world and what purpose that world has, if any. Christian theology answers those questions. It offers a comprehensive model and the model works.
But could there be other, non-Christian solutions? Aren’t there secular models that accomplish the same thing? First, as far as I know, there are not! But second, and much more importantly, any such model would have to account for the presence of qualities and entities (Creation). It would have to account for the ontological solidarity of the world (Incarnation). It would have to provide a mechanism enabling temporal entities to share in eternal life (Resurrection/Grace/Salvation/Heaven). At the end of the day, any successful model would be Christianity by another name.