Redefining The Divine

In postmodern spirituality, redefining the divine
is a crucial step toward reinventing the human

One of the articles in Earth & Spirit (IC#24)
Originally published in Late Winter 1990 on page 20
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

A quick glance at the history of ideas about God is enough to show that those ideas have changed drastically over time. Whether you believe that knowledge of the divine is created or revealed, you will probably agree that finding a way to talk about it – i.e., defining divinity – is what allows a new understanding to spread. And as David Ray Griffin points out in this interview, new understandings about God and divinity lead to new ways of being human.

David Ray Griffin is the founder of the Center for a Postmodern World and Executive Director of the Center for Process Studies at the School of Theology at Claremont (1325 North College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711). He has written or edited numerous books and articles, and he serves as general editor for the SUNY Press series of books on constructive postmodern thought, which includes such intriguing titles as The Reenchantment of Science and Spirituality and Society: Postmodern Visions. I talked with him by telephone at his home in Santa Barbara.

Alan: What is it about the modern world, and modern spirituality, that is giving rise to a postmodern vision? What distinguishes postmodern spirituality from the modern variety?

David: There are so many different ways to describe postmodern spirituality. You can say it’s pacific, it’s ecological, it’s a spirituality of creativity, it’s a reenchantment of the universe. But perhaps the best way to get at it, as a summary term, would be pan-en-theism: the idea that the world is in God – God is something like the soul of the universe – and God is present in all things. As some mystics have said, we swim in God.

When I use the words "postmodern spirituality," I mean a spirituality that continues the advances made in the modern period. It’s not a desire to go back to some kind of premodern existence, as if that were ideal. Real advances were made in the modern period. But on the other hand, many of those advances were the mirror image of very destructive values. They didn’t seem destructive at the time, but we can see that they have become so – and that we need to recover some premodern sensibilities, values, and truths. In so doing, we’re forging a new synthesis that is postmodern. It’s genuinely new.

Take the modern ideal of autonomy. Insofar as autonomy means "self-determination," it’s a good thing. But it also got interpreted to mean "independence," in the sense of not being essentially related to our environment. We constructed a whole world view in which we said the basic elements in nature were atoms – particles that were essentially unrelated to each other. We saw the human self as essentially unrelated to other humans, to community, and even to the body. And to some extent, this world view came out of the notion that the divine reality of the universe was essentially independent from the world.

Now, one of my key notions is that there is a deep drive in us that we can call the imitatio dei – the desire to imitate deity, to create ourselves in the model or shape of what we understand to be the divine reality.

Alan: In other words, how we understand God determines how we shape ourselves.

David: That’s right. In the beginning of the modern period, which I date from the 14th Century, the idea began to grow of God as a separate being, acting on the world from outside. Immutable, impassible, independent were attributes generally given to God. That idea became central for the Protestant reformation, but also for much of the Catholic thinking of the time – and I believe it contributed significantly to the idea that atoms and human selves should be understood to be essentially independent.

Alan: Is postmodern spirituality in part, then, a redefinition of God?

David: Yes. One of the central features of the pan-en-theistic view is that the divine creative power of the universe is a persuasive, evocative power rather than a coercive power that works unilaterally. God influences us not by determining what we’re going to do, or by external threats as depicted in traditional theism, but rather by seeking to whet our appetites for better ways of being – for the values of truth, beauty, goodness, and so on. This is the one and only way that God works in the world, by persuading us.

And we can generalize all the way down: we can think of all the individuals of nature – animals, cells, macromolecules, ordinary molecules, even atoms and subatomic particles – as beings, or series of events really, that have self-determining power. This power is inherent in them. It cannot be over-ridden, even by God. It can only be persuaded. Through this we can understand why the world was created in such a slow, almost tortuous way, rather than being created unilaterally by fiat, all at once.

Now if it is true that our deepest religious drive is to imitate the divine reality, then this pan-en-theistic understanding will make a big difference in how we want to relate to each other. As long as we thought of God as an all-powerful, omnipotent being, then our ideal was to mold ourselves to imitate that kind of being. This ideal was held in a very deep way, even by people who no longer considered themselves theists.

This is an important factor behind our desire to dominate nature, as well as other humans. It’s not the sole cause; there’s never a single cause for anything. But if we take this postmodern, pan-en-theistic view, in which the divine reality is a persuasive power, this will rather naturally lead us to develop a pacific spirituality, in which we desire to reduce our coercive relations to each other and the rest of the world to the absolute minimum.

Alan: De-emphasizing the stick in favor of the carrot.

David: Yes – with the aim of mutual agreement, negotiation, and trying to find win-win solutions. I use the term "pacific" rather than "pacifistic" deliberately, because most people understand pacifism as an obligation, something we ought to do. I’m stressing that we will naturally want to become peaceable with each other and with the rest of the world if this new notion of divine reality really becomes deeply rooted in our psyches.

Alan: There’s a lovely essay by Joe Holland in your book on Spirituality and Society. In it, he says that spiritual energies are the deepest source of the legitimation or transformation of society. Do you agree? What energies are emerging now?

David: I agree with Joe that we are essentially religious beings – that’s what I meant by saying that the very core of our being is the imitatio dei. Of the postmodern spiritual energies that seem to be emerging, the term ecological may describe the most pervasive one – the sense that all things are interconnected. In philosophical language, we would say that all things are internally related to their environment, constituted by their relations. The other side of the ecological vision is the sense that all things have their own intrinsic value. This represents a move away from the anthropocentric view of the universe to a biocentric view – and even more than that, to a reverence for being as being.

That vision seems to be emerging all over the place, and to be motivating all sorts of changes away from the modern domination and exploitation of nature – away from seeing the rest of the world as a resource for human beings and, instead, seeing ourselves as part of a sacred, interconnected whole.

Alan: You’ve written that in modernism, money and material goods were in essence our religion, and that we are – one hopes – moving away from that. Is postmodernism a call for a new kind of religion? What impact do you see it having on people, including those who don’t belong to a religious community?

David: Modern spirituality has infected modern people in general, whether they call themselves religious or not. I’m using "spirituality" in a very broad sense to mean people’s fundamental sense of what life is all about, their most fundamental values.

The modern world, both in its capitalistic and socialistic forms, has created the pervasive sense that the physical, material world is the fundamental reality. So if we do have this desire to be in harmony with that which we believe to be most real, and we believe matter to be that fundamental reality, then our desire will be to be in harmony with matter. That very abstract statement translates into wanting to have as much control as we can over material things – over property and its abstract equivalent, money. Even the modern churches, to a great extent, have succumbed to this notion.

In a postmodern spirituality, there would be a recovery of the sense that life has deeper meanings – that there’s an ultimate meaning to life that transcends what we call "success" in this world. Max Weber said that the modern world was disenchanted, meaning that we could no longer believe that values – such as truth, beauty, goodness, and justice – were inherent in reality. This translated for him into power politics: if we believe there are no inherent values to provide norms for relating with each other, then power becomes the only criterion. Out of this belief structure comes the slogan, "Might makes right."

A reenchanted postmodern spirituality would see values as again inherent in reality, and see our deepest meaning as living in harmony with those values. We would be more concerned again with such things as personal integrity, speaking the truth, being in harmony with beauty, and with goodness in the sense of justice. Now these things, particularly goodness and beauty, are very hard to define. But we all have some sense of what they are and, at least at some level, that they are real – they call us, they put a demand upon us. If we again believe with our minds – as well as our deep souls – that these values are real, and reaffirm this consciously, this can make a tremendous difference in the way that we live.

Alan: You’ve also written that modern ideology and social policy exert a steady pressure on people to develop the features of modernism – individualism, centralization, disenchantment, etc. How can we encourage the embodiment of postmodern values, and create social pressures of our own that will counterbalance and ultimately contravene the overwhelming, persisting pressures to be modern?

David: Certainly one way is by making people conscious of the modern ideology as an ideology. Once you become conscious of the fact that the modern way of being human is a new way – and a rather aberrant one, given the way people have lived in all other times and places – then it’s possible to realize that modernity had a beginning and, like any other period of history, will have an end. We don’t have to assume that this way of being human is what the universe has been aiming at all along.

The second step is precisely what has been happening: people are becoming aware that this way of being human, both individually and as a society, is self-destructive. That leads to the third step, which is looking at premodern ways and seeing that they weren’t just superstitious. If we, with our modern minds, look back in time at other societies, we say "Well, they had some very strange beliefs and practices." But with our emerging postmodern sensibility, we can look back and say, "They were able to survive for tens of thousands of years with those beliefs and practices – and we’ll be lucky to make it through the next decade, let alone the next hundred years." Of course they did have many false beliefs, but intermingled with those – and at their root – were certain ideas that had a large element of truth in them. From those truths follow values, and ways to live.

Alan: So they weren’t just ideas – they were observations of how the world actually worked.

David: Yes. One example of this is how transpersonal psychologists, when they started looking into Buddhist and Hindu spirituality and meditation, were amazed to learn the wisdom carried in those systems – wisdom about what it is to be human, and practices to overcome egotism, greed, and so on. Transpersonal psychology involves a blending of very modern ideas and the premodern, bringing about a creative synthesis and a genuinely postmodern psychology, psychotherapy, and spiritual practice.

Alan: Can we expect similar developments in the other sciences?

David: Science as an institution will change, but let me look at it from another direction, which is the way science is supporting this move towards a postmodern spirituality. One development that’s often talked about is quantum physics, which broke the stranglehold of determinism – the belief that the world is actually determined and that freedom is an illusion. If there is a kind of freedom or spontaneity at the quantum level, that gives us an analogy for freedom at higher levels, including human freedom.

Another important development in quantum physics is the notion that at some deep level all things are interconnected. We now have physicists of all types – Henry Stapp and David Bohm are two of the most prominent – saying that the so-called "elementary particles" aren’t particles at all. They’re series of events, each one of which enfolds the whole universe into itself. So we’re recovering a sense that every event is, in some sense, a microcosm that enfolds, in a partial way, the whole macrocosm of reality. And when physics – which has been our most fundamental and prestigious science – says this sort of thing, it affects the other sciences.

Another of my favorite examples is the work of Daniel Koshland at U.C. Berkeley, among others, who is doing experiments showing that bacteria – the most elementary form of life – seem to have a rudimentary form of memory, and that they make decisions on the basis of this memory. Now this is important, because the modern world has had two fundamental ontologies, or beliefs about the nature of existence. The first was a radical dualism, in which the human self, soul, or mind was understood to be one kind of substance – a thinking, feeling substance – and the rest of nature was understood to be entirely devoid not only of thinking and consciousness, but of any feeling or sentience whatsoever.

By the middle of the 18th century in France and the 19th century in England, we started moving towards a rejection of this dualism in favor of materialism. In talking about modernity thus far, I’ve been talking largely about this later, materialistic view. But now we see the possibility of a third position: an organicism, or a view that I call panexperientialism, which says that spontaneity and experience are entirely natural features of the world. By saying "entirely natural" I mean that they go all the way down. From this viewpoint, you would expect bacteria to have both the power to make decisions – spontaneity – and some kind of memory, or perception of their environment.

There is also scientific evidence suggesting that these traits go down even further, to macromolecules. The early view was that DNA molecules were made up of various passive entities that could only be moved around rather gradually by a very slow process. Then Barbara McClintock began thinking of cells and DNA molecules as organisms that actively transpose their parts. She worked on this idea in a very lonely way for a long time, but now it’s a widely accepted view that these entities have the power actively to transpose their own parts rather radically. There seems to be a kind of spontaneous, self-organizing ability even at that level.

Those are just some of the ways in which I see the natural sciences giving support to this new world view, and the spirituality that would follow from it.

Alan: To what extent is this world view actually a "world" view? In other words, how much of it is localized to North American and European intellectual circles, and how much represents a bubbling up that’s more global in scope?

David: It works both ways. It is bubbling up somewhat autonomously, but at the same time it is going out from the academic, theoretical world. Through journals, books, and magazines like yours, these ideas get spread very rapidly to a large community. The ideas of David Bohm, Brian Swimme and Rupert Sheldrake are known by people in all parts of the world.

This is one of the hopeful aspects of the modern world, because it has helped the postmodern world emerge much more quickly. The transition from the medieval to the modern world took perhaps four centuries, whereas this transition – from the modern to the postmodern – could occur within a century or less. And that’s absolutely necessary, because unless this kind of transition does occur, why, there won’t be a world to be postmodern.

Alan: As a postmodern spirituality continues to emerge, how important do you see the role of ritual, ceremony, and liturgy in helping people to embody this new way of understanding what it means to be human?

David: I haven’t been very involved in that yet, but it’s an area I plan to devote much attention to in the future. Many people rightly see it as absolutely fundamental. This understanding must be embodied, because we are embodied beings – we can’t have an abstract spirituality that is not connected with deep habits and our bodily way of being. Rituals – whether we’re talking about the rituals of the institutional church or the daily rituals of people with their recycling containers – act out our fundamental values. Not only do they remind us of them consciously, but they put into our bodily grooves these senses of the interconnectedness and intrinsic value of all things.

We won’t bring about a fundamental change in our public way of being and our public policy, I believe, until a significant percentage of us begin embodying these things in daily and seasonal rituals. One way to define modernity is that most of the rites of passage which mark different stages of our lives, and seasonal rites have disappeared. Postmodernity will be a way of being that recovers some of the old rites, and creates some new ones. This is going on most actively in many feminist circles.

Alan: What other features of premodern spirituality might get revived in a postmodern world?

David: I’ve come around to believing there may be a continued life after death, and I am even promoting this as an important aspect of a postmodern spirituality. During the modern period people have thought that believing in an afterlife was diversionary – for example, the Marxist critique is that it was used as an opiate to numb people to the injustices of the present world. That may sometimes be true, but it’s not necessarily the case. I think it could be a help.

Alan: In what way?

David: We in the First and Second Worlds need liberation from our captivity to materialism. And we will not willingly give up our domination of nature, give up our desire to dominate others in order to have more wealth, and move towards a steady-state economy until our fundamental sense of what life is all about changes. From what I’ve seen, the recovery of a belief in life after death helps to break people’s subjugation to their possessions, and to free them to work for the liberation of the planet from modernity.

A lot of modern destructiveness is frenetic activity to try to hide from ourselves the sense that life is fundamentally meaningless – that all we can do is "grab all the gusto we can get." When you scratch many moderns very deeply, you find that their fundamental commitment has to do with the ongoing increase of the economy and with the technological domination of nature. They can’t even conceive of overcoming this way of life, because for them it’s their religious commitment.

Belief in life after death – and particularly recovering that belief after having lost it – helps to show people that a meaning to life is provided. They don’t have to try to manufacture one for themselves.

Alan: Or buy one off the shelf.

David: Yes, or hide from the idea that there is no meaning.

Alan: If you were an historian a hundred years hence, how would you describe where we are now in our progress towards a postmodern sensibility? What reasons for hope do you have that we’re going to get there?

David: We’re in the decisive period. These ideas have started to move very quickly. People who were being formed in the 1960s are moving into positions of influence, so now these ideas can flourish in the public realm, the media, the political realm, and perhaps soon in the economic realm.

I don’t think the Worldwatch Institute is alarmist – because usually people who are funded by Rockefeller and similar kinds of money are not alarmist crackpots – and yet, they say that unless the decade of the 90s is the turnaround decade, we may not have a turnaround decade. So this has to be, and may be, the decade for spreading this world view and for seeing it become the emergently dominant one.

Nobody knows exactly what shape it will take. I’ve got my own preferences, and other postmodern thinkers have more or less different ideas. But something that we could call, in the broader sense, a postmodern world view and spirituality could spread and start to become institutionalized. Then we could hope that in the first decade or two of the 21st century, major structural changes on the global scene would already be in place, or would be rapidly put into place. If we can move that fast, I believe there will be hope – and I do, increasingly, have the hope that we will move that fast.

When you look at the figures on population, arable land and the like, it’s hard not to be pessimistic. So like most thinkers, I have a very grim picture of the future that’s ahead, but at the same time I maintain a hope that we can change radically and quickly enough that even though the times ahead will be very difficult in many respects, they will not be absolutely disastrous.

Alan: It sounds like there’s a place in a postmodern spirituality for prayer.

David: I believe that our heart’s deepest desires are our prayers. I also believe that those things that we most deeply want, feel, and believe have an influence beyond ourselves, beyond the ways that we put those beliefs and desires into practice bodily. What kind of beings we are has a general, pervasive influence on other people, and in fact on all other things. If we deeply desire a peaceable world, a world of freedom, and an ecologically sustainable world, I think our desire itself will help bring those things about.

But we have to be careful about making too much of this. The idea that all we have to do is just "visualize peace," have the right emotions, and go about our business as usual is "Disneyland postmodernism," as Richard Falk calls it. We have to get in and do the hard work. We have to identify with the suffering and oppressed of the world, and take direct action to try to relieve these immediate concerns, rather than just looking for the turn-about that’s going to come about in 20 or 30 years.

Yet, at the same time, there is a place for very intentional prayer in the traditional sense of taking time out each day to reaffirm that, yes, this is what we really want. There is a place for trying to bring ourselves into harmony with what the divine spirit of the universe wants, and trying to unite our energy with the divine energies – so we can do our part to lure things in this direction.


The Birth of God

by Fr. Daniel Martin

We recently spoke with Father Daniel Martin, coordinator of the Environmental Sabbath program for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and a fountain of inspiration for those who come into contact with him. Fr. Martin, a Catholic, is working to expand the scope of UNEP’s outreach to churches and faith communities. Contact him at Wainwright House, 260 Stuyvesant Ave., Rye, NY 10580 for more information.

Though the conversation was by telephone, Danny instructed us (in his light Irish semi-brogue) to say that he "waved his arms around wildly" as he talked. We asked him why the Judeo-Christian world, in particular, has heretofore been so resistant to ecological concerns.

Let’s begin as far back as we need to begin. Even the ambivalent gift of consciousness itself is worth looking at: it reveals to us infinite spaces, infinite potentials – yet at the same time it reveals personal mortality. We have struggled with this – you can see it in our myths, our hieroglyphics, our paintings. We’re "lying in the gutter and looking at the stars," as a wild philospher once said. That kind of basic tension we experience also lends itself to a certain dualism, a separation of this conscious species from everything that is "Other."

We’re very young in terms of the process of cosmic unfolding. Maybe we’re just in the early learning stages of dealing with consciousness – which belongs not simply to us, but to the whole process of evolution. That process has now become conscious of itself, and how we’ve dealt with being the vehicle of that consciousness is the issue.

Out of a combination of fear and, perhaps, hubris – because we could see our potential – we began to separate ourselves and objectify everything else. We learned to control, manipulate, analyze, break down, understand. In order to have this understanding, consciousness was necessary – but as I said, there’s a shadow side to that.

Another aspect of this resistance concerns how human beings have dealt with the problem of their own survival. As human beings moved further away from warmer climates, the container became the center – and the beginnings – of civilization. The storage container lends itself to village life, to security against a wilderness. Our civilization has essentially been a village or city civilization, and as a result it has seen the wilderness as something "out there" that you need to protect yourself against.

Then there is the impact of the whole history of ideas, in particular the dualistic strand of Greek philosophy that prevailed. Persian thinking – which was also dualistic, and anti-body – clearly influenced the Hebrew mind and crept into Western thinking.

Then there is the history of the young Christian church as it emerged in the declining Roman Empire and needed to survive against nature itself, as well as the nature-based religions. One could also probably add to that a male, patriarchal system, which may have grown out of these other things, but certainly prevailed and kept the feminine spirit down. And one would then have to take various quantum leaps forward and talk about the emergence of science -which was probably an indirect result of the emergence of the individual.

These are just some of the factors that suggest that the Judeo-Christian world was riddled with resistance to the natural order. It saw it as something of a threat, something it couldn’t understand, possibly something that it couldn’t control.

That’s beginning to break down now, perhaps out of necessity. The metaphor I find helpful is addiction. Even though the evidence suggests that the American lifestyle is becoming increasingly destructive of the life systems, we still are inclined not to address the issue on a fundamental level. We deny it.

We do take superficial actions – we think that speaking about it is sufficient, because it acts like a catharsis. But if we only begin to open up the ramifications of our behavior for the larger world, we see that it’s not enough for the rich to simply modify that behavior a little bit. Rather than just cosmetically shifting a few things around, a whole change in consciousness is required.

The notion of the Earth being somehow alive is helping. It hearkens back to the French philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and subsequently Thomas Berry’s thinking, that the whole process of cosmogenesis is a spiritual act; it’s the manifestation of the Creator. So spirituality is the spirituality of the Earth – or rather, the spirituality of the Universe! If you want to put it in a mystical way, we’re talking about the birth of God.

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