Many people have lost a sense of God. For me, and I know for some others, this has left a void that’s difficult to know know how to fill. On the one hand it has become impossible to think of a personal, interventionist being who rules from on high. On the other, I personally felt emotionally and intellectually adrift without some sort of concept to help me understand reality.
It seemed to me that, in thinking about ‘the divine’, I needed to start again without any of my previous baggage. The first question to answer was the big one: does God exist? Well, at first sight that seemed easy, the answer was no. But that answer presumed I had a concept of God. Really my answer ‘no’ was to a different question: “Does the kind of God you believed in as an evangelical Christian exist?” Closer examination of the word ‘exist’ revealed that it means something that stands out from other things. Whatever my concept of God, he, she or it certainly didn’t stand out. As Lau Tzu says of the Tao, “Approach it and you find no beginning. Follow it and you find no end.” If there is ‘God’ there is no suitable definition in terms of pairs of opposites. Therefore, in relation to what can be understood within the parameters of space and time, God does not exist.
Yet I couldn’t get away from the idea that something purposeful, though random was going on in nature. Evolution appears to continuously overcome the second law of thermodynamics. Instead of winding down into chaos, as the second law says it should, life continuously winds up in ever increasing complexity. Not only that, but this winding up is not wholly random. Indeed, some kind of intelligence seems to be at work. Even scientist Fred Hoyle, not known for his religiosity, wrote:
“Would you not say to yourself, ‘Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.’ Of course you would. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
It is a great mystery that some functions evolve before they’re needed. A baby camel’s knees for instance. It’s born with callouses already in place, whereas my baby feet had to grow their own callouses over several years. A better illustration is the function of the ductus arterios in babies. As I understand it, before birth this function enables blood to bi-pass the baby’s lungs. Until the moment of birth the baby’s blood has been oxygenated by its mother because its own lungs have been full of liquid. At the moment of birth the ductus arterios shuts down and is subsequently absorbed into the body. This enables oxygen to get into the blood stream through the lungs in the normal way. The timing of this event is critical. Too soon or too late and the baby will suffocate. Too late and the baby’s brain will be damaged by oxygen deprivation.
It occurred to me that this function had to be in place very early in the evolution of the human being and technically, it had to be functional before it was needed. The standard Newtonian cause-and-effect system dictates that evolution is either: (a) accidental (b) a gradual development through trial and error (c) a response to environmental pressures over a long period or (d) a response to constant lifestyle stimuli. Yet the evolution of the ductus arterios can’t be the result of any of these.
Intentional adaptation (somatic hypermutation) is another recent discovery which questions the validity of random adaptation. Scientist, John Cairns, found that when bacteria are stressed, i.e. put into a potentially toxic solution, they produce an enzyme. This causes the random production of genes. This the bacteria continues to do until they find a gene capable of surviving the toxicity. They then replace the original gene with the new version and survive. Cairns proved that organisms not only adapt to their environment but purposefully change their own genetics. They can then pass on the adaptation to future generations.1
This discovery took other scientists some time to get used to. Randomly producing genes when stressed and stopping only when the right gene is found is surely a purposeful activity. The organism appears to know what it’s looking for since it does not replace its existing gene haphazardly but purposefully only when it has found the right one. Presumably it can recognise what will work before the substitution takes place. Such discoveries really upset those whose paradigms are fixed by ideas of a material universe and random evolution. But they don’t surprise those of a more mystical tendency. Incidentally, Cairns discovery of somatic hypermutation has now been accepted by mainstream science. It has been put to practical use in helping to mop up oil spillages.
Such discoveries show living things are pre-programmed for survival. So what is this random yet purposeful intelligence that enables processes that anticipate a creature’s future developmental needs? Science has shown us that creation is not the result of deliberate construction to a pre-determined design. That’s how a human being would approach it. Newton imagined it as a mechanical clock but physicist James Jeans said it seemed to be more like a great thought. There was no blue print, no plan, no project with time-scales and costs, no bills of quantity. A principle between random and ordered has been and still is at work here. Such random yet purposeful actions are said to be ‘stochastic’. This Greek word describes an arrow in flight. However well it has been aimed by the archer no one can say precisely where the arrow will land. Many factors will influence that – wind speed and direction, collision with insects or the flutter of a passing bird. The archer has no control over these. Looking at the hit and miss journey of evolution, I’d say it’s a pretty good description of the way things have developed over millennia. But I prefer to think of evolution as a longing; a deep desire, which did not ‘make’ the bits and assemble them, but allured the conditions into being from which all things we know could emerge. What exists is what can exist. But the longing continues. The allurement never ceases. What can be in a 1000 years may be vastly different. Such a view, to my mind, recognises scientific knowledge and the intuition of the spiritual. It accords with many of the statements in the Tao Te Ching and the Kena Upanishad expresses the hidden influence like this:
What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see: Know that alone to be Brahman, the spirit; and not what people here adore. What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear: Know that alone to be Brahman, the spirit; and not what people here adore.”
When I thought of ‘God’ as a creator who planned and executed creation like an engineer, evolution couldn’t make much sense. Now I think of ‘God’ as an ‘enabler’ of what can be, it makes every sense and also explains why it took so many billions of years to reach the stage of development we are in.
What helped me further formulate these ideas was a fundamental of Quaker philosophy and the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: non-violence. To be non-violent simply on the principle that it isn’t a good thing seemed to me a quite inadequate reason. There had to be a better argument and I discovered that non-violence is a principle at the very heart of nature. First I must differentiate between the violence animals display toward one another and prey, and violence human beings exercise from time to time. The former, with some notable exceptions, is not generally malicious but about food or mating. Such violence is preferably avoided or brief but life has to live off life. Campbell says that the only difference between vegetarians and carnivores is that vegetarians eat living things that don’t run around. Only mankind hunts to extinction. In all animals the instinct to violence is never as pronounced as the instinct to nurture. Lau Tzu says that ‘the norm of the earth is serenity and peace’. When violence erupts in nature it is short lived and peace quickly returns. The most pronounced principle is that it is in the nature of nature to nurture. There’s a famous film on YouTube in which young lions, who had recently fed, were playing with a young impala. The impala was clearly unafraid of its potential diners and deliberately joined in the frolic. Animals know when they need to be wary of a predator and are otherwise unconcerned. Hunting is simply an aspect of earth’s nurturing process which we observe every day. The earth nurtures seeds which grow into plants which nurture insects which are eaten by birds which are eaten by animals and so on. But from the religious and spiritual point of view there is a much more compelling argument for non-violence.
At the end of Matthew five Jesus spells out what non-violence means in action. Turning the other cheek, giving your cloak as well as your shirt and loving your enemy. Then he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” My understanding of this is that we are to be non-violent, not in order to please God but because God is non-violent. In non-theistic terms, it means that which enables the universe is non-violent.
All the energies that affect the evolution of this wonderful universe of which we are each a part emanated from the ‘big-bang’. This must therefore include the principle that it is in the nature of nature to nurture. We humans prefer to use the word ‘love’ – so it is equally true that it is in the nature of nature to love. Paul expresses his beautifully in his first letter to the Corinthians.
It seems to me, then, that Enabling Love is at the heart of the universe supporting the emergence of increasingly complex objects. It is because this Enabling Love is non-violent that it has taken so many billion years to get to the point we’re at now. To overcome the scientific evidence for evolution, fundamentalists explain that God can compress what might ordinarily take a million years into a single day. But that would be a violent act – forcing nature to comply. Enabling Love would not do that. What is, is what can be – and that includes what can be in my life and experience too, warts and all. It is what it is because of love. I can rest in that.
So ‘God’ (noun) cannot exist. But ‘Enabling Love’ (verbal adjective and verb) can. The early followers of Jesus spoke of ‘The Way’ and the Tao of the Tao Te Ching means the ‘way’ also. Since we have no creed or doctrine, perhaps being a Quaker is ‘a way’ too – a way of enabling love.
1 Spontaneous Evolution, p 150, Bruce H. Lipton and Steve Bhaerman, Hay House