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Beyond All Gods

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Is God Necessary? NO! and YES!

Chapter 8

By Herbert F. Vetter

In terms of conversations within the liberal religious movement now and throughout the twentieth century, a great question before us is: Should the object of our supreme devotion be the human family or should it be the dynamic cosmos of which humanity is but a part? We religious liberals always put high value on both humanity and nature, and today the humanist and theist philosophies of life are once again fashioned in the light of degrees of this double affirmation of devotion. As a religious animal, a human being not only has the intelligence to envision an object of supreme devotion for oneself and for all of humanity; one also does in fact—throughout the processes of health and healing—find forms of integral personal security precisely through such orientation and commitment to some object of ultimate devotion.

Our question is, then, part of a larger question: What is the proper object of our supreme loyalty and love? Let us personalize the question: Should I personally be the primary object of my own devotion? Should my ultimate devotion be given to some concrete other self or group of selves such as my family, my nation, or humanity—in either actual or ideal form. Or should my ultimate object of devotion be that natural divine reality which includes and yet transcends all of these lesser loyal ties? Negatively speaking, I should like to state the question this way: Is it not true that if I deify one of these egocentric or ethnocentric gods, I can find no ultimate security, no ultimate meaning of my life, and no enduring basis for moral action? Are not all of these gods, who are less than reality or nature as infinitely lovable, doomed to extinction at some future time? If I devote my life to one of these, will not all mean ing and value be lost when the finite object of my devotion perishes? Is not some more valid faith not only religiously available but also pragmatically imperative for the fullest realization of the life of humanity? Thinking that it is, I would present a case for our finding security through a humanistic naturalistic theism which moves beyond all gods and yet is faithful to the freedom which liberal religious living forever requires for its fulfillment.

Faith in ourselves as creative participants in an ever living, ever changing pluralistic universe at once provides an invaluable check upon perennial human tendencies to lapse into either world fleeing illusions or idolatry. Indeed, is not a basic form of idolatry the adoration of a part as having higher worth than the whole? My thesis is that humanistic naturalistic theism contains all of the positive values of naturalistic humanism but avoids certain of the latter’s narrowing negations—especially whenever it repudiates all ideas of God.

First, however, let us recall some of the major areas of agreement between these two forms of naturalism. Both naturalistic humanists and naturalistic theists assert that reality consists of actual and possible events in space-time and the relations between them. Both reject super naturalism, the assertion that there is something beyond such events in space-time. Both reject the belief that humanity’s chief end is to find some personal salvation in another world beyond death. Both reject the traditional theism which asserts that God is an utterly transcendent Being without body and without becoming, a superspatial Being bursting into history from beyond through miraculous action revealing the divine in our mundane world. In addition to rejecting such traditional theism, both also reject the traditional pantheism which affirms the opposing monopolar extreme, a world without change and without chance. These common negations are the consequence of certain vital common affirmations. Both naturalistic humanists and naturalistic theists cherish and promote modern science and root their concepts in its methods, its principles, and its findings. Both share an evolutionary perspective on life.

In presenting a case for humanistic naturalistic theism, I should like to keep close to our actual religious experience, beginning with the operational faith of the scientist. What, in terms of behavior, is the creative natural scientist’s actual object of supreme devotion? Is it not devotion to nature, nature not as a mere instrument to be manipulated or used by us but as having meaning and worth in its own right? Consider Darwin’s love of the lowly earthworm or Maeterlinck’s love of the bee. Such portions of nature are experienced and interpreted by great scientists not as a mere means of human fulfillment but as having intrinsic value. Likewise, consider the astronomer’s fascination with the galaxies. Observation of the actual behavior of the scientific observer leads us to think that knowledge of the universe springs quite spontaneously and directly from affection for nature in and of and for itself. There is good reason in the records of the lives of scientists for thinking that such monumental discoveries as those of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton are precious fruits of religious devotion to the cosmos conceived as the embodiment of God.

The natural scientist’s religious experience of nature is explicitly expressed when Albert Einstein speaks of cosmic mysticism as the driving force of creative science: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself in the highest wisdom and the most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all true religiousness. The cosmic religious experience is the strongest and the noblest thing behind scientific research which is derived from it.”

In the field of ethics, as well as in that of scientific description of empirical knowledge, do we not also most properly make our decisions in terms of a context which is ampler than just human welfare? Are the plant world and the animal world of no real and enduring worth except insofar as they serve the ends of humanity? If this is so, then is not the proper object of our devotion the reality which transcends, as well as includes, us. Humanistic naturalistic theism sees moral action in personal, social, and cultural life in terms of our creative contribution to life, and ultimately to the deathless cosmic Life. We are co-creators with God, and so are all other creatures. The question then arises, do we not agree with Albert Schweitzer when he says: “The more deeply we look into nature, the more we recognize that it is full of life, and the more profoundly we know that all life is a secret and that we are united with all life that is in nature. From this knowledge comes our spiritual relationship to the universe.”

Having briefly considered the proper object of our supreme devotion as related to ethics as well as to science, let us now ask: What is the valid object of devotion for the artist? Does not the artist’s real religion lie in appreciative awareness of persons as well as of natural objects such as mountains and rivers, trees and birds, as well as the artist’s abstraction from the concrete flow of such eventful entities? Do not cosmic dimensions of depth break through notable artistic creations? For example, sometimes naturalistic humanists speak of Beethoven’s works as triumphs of the humanistic outlook, and so in a sense they are, but not necessarily to the exclusion of their being pervasively theistic. As Frank Lloyd Wright said in his latter years: “All of my life I have listened to Beethoven as the master architect of all time; the most profound student of Nature known, one whose inspired imaginative resource is beyond comparison. I wish more life to more creative music revealing the cosmic rhythms of great Nature, Nature spelled with a capital N as we spell God with a capital G. Why? Because Nature is all of the body of God we mortals will ever see.” In his architecture Wright notably expressed the humanistic naturalisic theism which he liked to define in terms of a principle which he called the Unitarian abstract. The natural house and organic architecture are among the flowerings of this creatively unifying faith.

An ally to this cause is Julian Huxley, the biologist and philosopher of life who preferred not to employ the traditional word “God” to convey his implicitly theistic meaning. Listen to his living words: “The religion of the future must have as its basis the consciousness of sanctity in existence. The experience of the universe as affecting human life—and therefore as invested with sanctity—is the Sacred Reality and is the proper object of religion. Humanity is rooted in what transcends it.”

Consider also the case for humanistic naturalistic theism in terms of major needs of our time for the growth of world community and the achievement of integration in our personal religious living. Does not a secure religious foundation for world community lie in the realization of each individual’s being a vital cell in the body of humanity, which is a precious portion of the cosmos? Some lines of Norman Cousins sing this theme with invigorating power: “I am a single cell in a body of two billion cells. The body is mankind. I glory in self, but my individuality does not separate me from my universal self, the oneness of mankind. If I deny the oneness of humanity, I deny the oneness of God. There fore, I affirm both. Without a belief in human unity I am hungry and incomplete. The sense of human unity makes possible a reverence for life. It is a sense of the whole, a capacity for wonder, a respect for the intricate universe of the individual life.”

Ponder also this practical question: How can you and I achieve the finest creative integration of our own personalities? I suggest that this may well best be done through the affirmations of humanistic naturalistic theism.

One clue to an answer to this question is visible in these words of a mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who says:

“God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere—in the ether, water, earth, and human hearts. Insofar as we partake of this creative process we partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is our immortality, reducing the question of whether one’s individuality survives death of the body to the state of an irrelevancy. Our true destiny as co-creator in the universe is our dignity and our grandeur.”