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Bringing God Back

In a letter to his great friend Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that we are living in a godless world (Letters and Papers From Prison, pp. 279-282) We have squeezed God out of our lives. We have learned to cope with the challenges of life without recourse to God as a relevant factor. The secularization of modern life has made God far more distant and unapproachable.

This is exactly what my wife and I found in a recent trip to Europe in celebration of our fiftieth wedding anniversary. You can’t spend time in Western Europe without visiting magnificent cathedrals. There are several in each major city. Sadly, however, most of these cathedrals are no longer used by practicing Christians. They have become museums.

I asked our tour guide in Copenhagen about religion in Denmark. Most Danes are Lutheran, she said. About 80%. Do they attend church regularly? I asked. Probably no more than 2%, she responded. When I posed the same questions in Helsinki, I received similar answers. “Most of my friends go to church on Christmas and to attend weddings, but that’s about it. We Finns believe in God, and, of course, love, but we’re not too enchanted with all that doctrine.”

The problem with the Christian church in Western Europe is that it has little or no impact on the society at large. You can’t have an impact if the pews are empty. With the possible exception of Evangelical Protestants, the same trend is occurring in America, though at a slower rate. Museums are in our future too. Millennials are abandoning Christianity in record numbers. Like the people I spoke to in Denmark, they do not reject God but rather Christian doctrine.

What’s the problem? Modern science is responsible for killing the theistic God of traditional Christian belief. During the years of the early 17th century, Galileo Galilei and his colleagues published a host of astronomical studies arguing the earth is a small, round planet that orbits around the sun. Because of these findings, the earth could no longer be viewed as the center of the universe, and outer space was defined as vast. Where was heaven located in this ever expanding universe? The Catholic Church recognized the threat Galileo’s theories posed for the three-tiered universe described in the New Testament, declaring him a heretic in 1633 and placing him under house arrest.

The next nail in the coffin came from Sir Isaac Newton in 1687 when he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy which provided the foundation for classical mechanics. According to Newton, the universe was not kept together by an external God in heaven who intervenes to make it rain, cause crops to grow, or bring in a major storm as a punishment for sin; but rather by natural laws based on mathematical principles. An external God was no longer seen as intervening in nature or world affairs.

Finally, Charles Darwin destroyed the idea of God the creator. Yes, it is possible to argue God was involved in the formation of the universe thirteen billion years ago when the Big Bang explosion took place. It is also possible to argue that God is somehow behind the life process. What is not possible to put forward is the idea that the two creation stories in the first three chapters of Genesis add anything to our understanding of the creation process.

How can we bring God back as a relevant factor in our lives? Alfred North Whitehead, the father of process philosophy, has a creative solution. Whitehead argues that the world is not made up of unchanging things, but rather of events and processes. Process philosophy sees the world as a web of interrelated processes. Everything is tied together. Every unit of reality from human beings to quantum particles is relational, moving from event to event to event. These events are the building blocks of reality, not substances. They become, and they perish. New events replace older ones that have perished.

Although Whitehead’s model is highly technical, you can read about events at the subatomic level on your own, it fits ordinary human experience well. Humans make concrete decisions by sensing many influences, evaluating them, and deciding based on their individual purposes. Life moves from decision event, to decision event, to decision event.

In making decisions, humans take into account two different influences—the effects of the past and the possibilities for the future. A sense of the past is made up of memories, emotions, goals, hopes, and fears. One sense of the future comes from the biological need to survive—a sense driven by self-centered concerns. Another sense of the future comes from God—a sense of beauty, goodness, creativity, justice and harmony.

Humans are free agents. We can decide based on a past influence or we can decide for God. This stark choice is present in every situation. God offers a future possibility for every decision we make, but that possibility is often not taken because God never forces. She persuades. She tries to lure us toward goodness. But from God’s point of view, there’s a risk. We can decide based on self-interest, greed, fear or some other human related influence. Evil results from decisions that ignore God’s vision. Even when we choose for God, the decision is never pure. God’s vision is only one among many influences. The founding fathers who proclaimed that all humans are created equal were also slave owners.

What fascinates me is that you find this divine vision expressed throughout world religions. The prophets of Israel were famous for speaking out for economic justice (Amos 5: 21-24) and world peace (Isaiah, 2: 2-4). The religion of Jesus leaps off the pages of the New Testament. He defines the most important characteristic of God as compassion. He has a passionate concern for economic and social justice as well as the practice of nonviolence.

The focus of Jesus on love and compassion echoes the teachings of the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, and the teachings of Lao-tza, the founder of Taoism. Five hundred years before Jesus, Confucius called on his followers to live by the Golden Rule, to cultivate empathy and compassion by putting yourself in the shoes of others. Finally, Muhammad speaks forcefully in the Koran for economic and social justice. He urges his followers to practice kindness and humility in their daily living.

The vision of God in all of the world’s great religions is consistently the same. God urges all people to focus on goodness, to live with compassion for others, to work for social and economic justice, and to seek peace and reconciliation. When we heed this call, God becomes relevant again. We no longer ask God to solve our problems, but rather we join with him to make the world a better place. That’s an exciting prospect.

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