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Jeffrey Small Headshot

Re-imagining God in the 21st Century

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GOD OCEAN METAPHOR

Unlike the age of the Biblical writers, we live in a world ruled by science, technology and secular thought -- a world that is interconnected in ways that a few decades ago was unimagined. Today we understand that our world is governed by physical laws from the subatomic realm to the cosmic, so where do we find room for God to act? Is God still relevant? How can we conceive of God today in a way that is honest to our intellects while satisfying to our hearts?

In my previous post, Moving Beyond a Human Image of God, I set forth the problems of the classical picture of God as a supernatural being. God as the potter, the watchmaker or the chess master has lost its relevance for many in our post-modern world. The response to this critique by some is to close their eyes to science and the realities of existence. Such a strategy is not sustainable in a society in which almost everything we touch and encounter during our daily lives depends on the laws of physics, chemistry and biology working. Others take the atheistic approach, one I also do not find satisfying because I sense in the core of my being that there is meaning to existence and that the daily physical reality of our world is not the end of the story.

In this post, however, I will not debate the existence of God because I do not think that the argument is winnable by either side. Instead, I will outline ways in which we can start to understand God in the modern world. For me, God must not just be consistent with scientific and rational thought but must embrace it.

I have come to understand God, not as a transcendent Zeus-like figure, but instead as the infinite creative source of existence.

By "creative source" here, I do not mean to say that I think of God as creating existence by waving a magic wand from afar, but rather that all of existence -- matter, energy, the physical laws which govern the universe, even our consciousness -- comes out of God. This understanding of God is rooted not in Creationism, Intelligent Design or a desire for a father figure, but rather comes from this simple question posed first by the ancient Greek philosopher Parminedes (b. 510 BCE): Why is there existence in the first place, instead of nothing?

I do not see this "coming from" God as just happening at one particular time in history, whether this was 6,000 years ago according to Genesis or 13.7 billion years ago according to the Big Bang theory, but it happens continually. I do not see God as a separate being, but rather God is the center of being within me and everything around me. God did not form my distant ancestors out of clay as mythological tales might suggest if taken literally; rather, God is what gives me life and gives existence its very structure. This power is infinite and indescribable because it lies behind all that is. God is not to be found "out there" but deep within existence.

My conception of God is not new but is derived from 20th-century Christian theologian Paul Tillich's description of God as "the ground of being." Tillich himself was influenced by centuries of theologians and philosophers before him who thought of God in similar existential terms: Friedrich Schelling (b. 1775) considered God as "the Power of Being"; Georg Hegel (b.1770 ) referred to God simply as "Being"; Meister Eckhart (b. 1260) "being itself"; Francis of Assisi (b. 1182) "the ground of all reality"; and Plotinus (b. 205), drawing on Plato, described God as "the One" -- the source out of which all being emanates, including the human soul.

My view of God was also influenced by another 20th century philosopher-theologian, Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of process theology. For Whitehead, God is not a static supernatural creature but is the essence of the creative process of the universe. God does not sit in a different dimensional heaven and watch us go about our daily lives, occasionally intervening for good measure. But God is immanent within the universe as its creative power.

Whitehead insists that the traditional image of God as unchanging must be reconsidered. A God truly immanent within existence means that as the universe expands and evolves, so does God. This view of God also does not mean that God is directing and determining every creative act, but only that the power for existence comes out of God. Essential to the creative power that God bestows on the universe is the ability of its constituent parts (including us) to self-create. The scientific laws that govern the universe -- the randomness and uncertainty inherent in both quantum mechanics and evolution, for example -- are then not contrary to God but become crucial elements of the divine creative process.

How does one even conceive of such a God that is not an exalted deity? Here, I will leave you with one example. This metaphor for God as the creative source of being does not come from a Christian theologian or a philosopher, but from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who imagined the relationship between God and human as that between the ocean and the wave.

The ocean and the wave are related in two important ways. The ocean is the "ground" of the wave in the sense that the water molecules of the ocean make up the essence of the wave. From a creative and dynamic perspective, the power of the ocean creates the individual existence of the wave. The wave (like us) has its own individuality, but its lifespan is relatively short. The wave emanates from the infinite ocean, and at the end of its existence, it returns to the ocean. Each individual wave is connected to all other waves because they share the ocean as their ground. Existence is finite, individualized and unique, yet underlying existence is a connection to the infinite.

To me, this understanding of God can not only work within the confines of modern science (since all scientific laws come from God as part of the creative existence of the universe), but it also provides a powerful direction for how we experience God. What I may have lost from the illusory "comfort" of believing in a supernatural father figure who may or may not intervene on my behalf, I have more than made up for with a new realization: I can touch and experience a God that is the ground of my being (though I'll never fully understand or see God) at a much more intimate level, because God is the spark of light within me. This view of God also leads to a more embracing view of morality because I share this power of being with each of my fellow humans in true brother and sisterhood, and I share it with the natural world as well.

One challenge we face when thinking about God in this way is how do we talk about, much less worship, such a philosophical sounding God? It is easy to picture Michelangelo's God as the grandfatherly figure on the Sistine Chapel, but how do we relate to the God of Tillich and Whitehead? In a future post, I will examine how we can rethink our traditional symbols of God as Father or Lord, but for now I'll pose the question to you:

What symbols or metaphors might we use to open our minds to a new way of thinking about God that works in the 21st century?

Around the Web

Paul Tillich - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Ground of Being - Andrew Cohen Quote of the Week - andrewcohen.org

YouTube - Alan Watts - The Ground of Being

Paul David Walker: The Ground Of Being, Soul, Genius And Life