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A Big-Enough God
A Feminist's Search for a Joyful Theology
By Sara Maitland
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 Sara Maitland
All rights reserved.
1 Dice throwing made easy
Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time was a commanding international bestseller for several years, which is extraordinary: it is not an easy read. It is not an instant turn-on either (unlike the work of Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey, authors of The Naked Ape and The Territorial Imperative, respectively, whose fashionable sociobiology of the 1960s and 1970s fed us — particularly, I have to say, men — an entrancing picture of men as macho heroes, bound by their very genes into an everlasting cycle of aggression and domination: suddenly it wasn't our fault, it was our irresistible baboonish ancestors; Original Sin with no call to repentance, no guilt). Hawking was talking about highly abstract activities, out into the unimaginable distances of space and time which are, it turns out, in any case inseparable. His book is about things not just beyond our language and our concept barriers, but beyond our knowledge boundaries, beyond our common sense and our experience. It describes what might be going on 'out there' beyond the cosmic horizon — that elegant restriction on our sensory knowing, the gift of mystery to be given to future generations. Since nothing can travel faster than light there is a point from beyond which we can receive no sensual information whatsoever: it is too far away for the light or radio impulses etc. to have got here yet. With every passing second the horizon moves out another x million miles as the light finally makes it through the vast vacuity between us and the event. Obviously it is not just a light horizon, but a time horizon too: the longer the universe exists the larger the universe will become for us.
Hawking tried to make it simple for us, but it is not simple and he could not make it so. A Brief History of Time is hard work for the average amateur. Yet desire, love even, seems to have driven an extraordinary number of lovers to give it at least their money and so presumably their effort as well.
Science has become fashionable. From a theological point of view it has also become approachable again. While the Newtonian myth of a mechanistic universe, with its reductionist approach, dominated human imagination, there was very little that theology could say. By and large deists and theists together were forced into a relationship with the God of the Gaps, a God who inevitably got smaller and smaller, and so less and less interesting, as the compass of the new mythology extended itself. This was despite the fact that Newton never gave up on his God — his theology was pre-Newtonian, just as Einstein's was to be pre-Einsteinian.
I use the word myth advisedly. The most functionalist and mechanistic of the Newtonians still thought that there was not merely moral good in knowing the Truth, but that their description, their narrative of the universal order was a source of freedom, was a structure and strategy for liberation. When Napoleon asked one of the most famous philosophers of his time, Pierre-Simon Marquis de Laplace, about the place of God in the new scientific universe, Laplace is supposed to have replied 'I have no need of that hypothesis'. 'Supposing', he wrote elsewhere, 'that this being [the intelligent human] were in a position to analyse all events then nothing would be uncertain for him, and both future and past would be open to him.' We would at last be safe from fear.
Given the optimism and arrogance of this science it is not surprising, really, that theology increasingly withdrew into the interior life and a spiritualized private moralism – 'ethics tinged with emotion'. It is not surprising either that things of the spirit were increasingly handed over to women and that they were more and more determinedly shut up within the home – guardians of the domestic shrines, since the intellectual ones had been closed down for the duration. Except for the brave and the stupid, there seemed nothing to do but beat the retreat, and require God to follow the drum. However, the science of this century has, at least at the imaginative level (and it has to be said to the appalled fury of many scientists), reopened the floodgates. Quantum mysticism is trendy; cosmology is chic; dinosaur exhibitions are packed out; the University of Cambridge creates a new job – the Starbridge Lectureship in Theology and the Natural Sciences; the BBC commissions a series in which scientists are asked about their view of the divine; and science fiction is one of the most popular forms of genre fiction available. Speculative theologians, philosophically minded scientists and all sorts of enthusiastic searchers are joining the ranks with enthusiasm.
As I said in the Introduction, I do not look to science to prove or disprove God. From other sources, including of course grace, I know that God IS. I believe in God, as creator, redeemer and sanctifier, as omnipresent, as loving and as powerful. What I want to do then is more modest. Starting from the assumption that God did indeed make the universe, and believing, as I must, that there is a connection, an intimate and sometimes painful connection between what a person is and what they do or make, I want only to contemplate what we know of the creation, with a view to asking questions like: What sort of God made this? What can we say about a God who does this? How do we stand in relation to a God who acts so? That is, I want to bring to the study of some of the discoveries of the mathematicians and physicists the same approach as many Christian spiritual and mystical writers (especially Ignatius of Loyola, also fashionable just now) suggest we bring to the Scriptures. God is here, we say from a posture of faith. What does this particular here have to tell us about God?
The psalmist wrote:
Understand, O dullest of the people!
Fools, when will you be wise?
He who planted the ear, does he not hear?
He who formed the eye, does he not see?
He who chastens the nations, does he not chastise?
He who teaches us knowledge, knows our thoughts.
This psalmist was not engaged in any 'argument by design' exercise. This poet – a better word here than theologian – is not endeavouring to prove that God exists as a logical or deductive consequence of ears and eyes existing; the existence of God is a poetic (and theological) certainty to the writer – what is being explored is what we can learn or say about God, because we believe that God created ears and eyes.
My position is similar, but the questions feel a bit trickier. The God who made reverse time in atomic particles, random mutation in therapsids, black holes in the far-flung galaxies, who allows infinity to come in infinite sizes, and oysters to be able to tell the phases of the moon – does this God not ... what? As Paul puts it:
... for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and godhead.
I want to make clear here that I am not trying to, and have little interest in, developing ecological ethics: 'Green is the opiate of the middle classes', as Marx did not say. This does not mean that I don't think ecological considerations should play a more central rôle in our thinking about ethics and particularly thinking about global interdependencies; it means that this is not what I'm wanting to talk about at the moment.
I think that a good deal of contemporary so-called creationist theology has worked itself into a trap by trying to syncretize Christian understandings with certain sorts of pantheism and justify the whole thing in the name of an ecological utopianism which cannot hold water. A lot of this sort of theology is based on a notion which has gained fairly general acceptance, although it seems to me totally unfounded: the unexamined (axiomatic) presupposition that the created world is static and perfect. In order to maintain this presupposition it is necessary to deny that time is real. Plato saw time as an 'accident', as opposed to an essence. In his world of the Ideal there was no time. For the Platonist, of course, the Ideal world is the real Real World, while our apparent world is only a shadow, a flickering image of reality. In that real world there will be no time, at least not as an agent of growth, change, movement and so forth. This Platonic desire to ignore the reality of time goes deep in all of us. For example Stephen Hawking, who would be the last to acknowledge this dependency, has been accused by his fellow scientist Ilya Prigogine of trying to eliminate the realness of time as a fundamental and active force of nature, like gravity and thermodynamics and so forth.
Yet such a treatment of the created order is in conflict with the scriptural revelation of time (history) being a creative force in the narrative of redemption, and essential to a meaningful understanding of the Incarnation. 'In the fullness of time' means that the passing of the years, the centuries and the eons has itself created the circumstances of the revelation of God in Christ: this part of the 'scandal of particularity' is often underplayed or even left out. Time, like gravity, is for real and this should not come as a surprise to Christians.
Despite their almost inevitable conflicts, the reason why it is possible for Marxism and Christianity to have a dialogue seems to me to be because, unlike more idealist ideologies, both parties take history, take time with a real seriousness. It seems to me that many current creation theologies do not take time seriously enough; do not take change and growth and death and corruption as the complex realities that they are. Yet time is a force, it is a scientific 'cause' which has effects, results, consequences. The world does not exist outside of time, however much we might like it to.
I do not think that the real problem is with time itself, but with the paucity of our imaginations. God's time-scale is, like God, unimaginably enormous; the mind falters in the face of it, poised on a ghastly chasm of emptiness. It is easier to write off time than to accept the vast vacuity of its expanses. There have not yet been a million days since Pentecost and the founding of the Church. 'We're such a young Church', a priest said to me recently when I was complaining about some grossly offensive attempt at Christian articulation, 'a baby Church. You find the early sentences of young children funny and sweet, why can't you be patient?'
'I try to teach my children both grammar and manners', I replied cheekily, but I know what he meant. Christianity is not yet a million days old, although 2,000 years seems almost unimaginable. Yet scientists now call on us to think of the cosmos in thousands of millions of years. And since it takes even light a long time to travel the distances involved, miles and years, time and space, become mind-boggingly confused. Distance and time are inextricably entangled, and we find the complexity almost insulting. Our frail intelligences try and simplify the whole thing to make the enormity bearable: we try, ever more desperately to cling to a Platonic sense of being in which time has no real effect.
The neo-classicists of the eighteenth century drew down the curtains of their carriages when they passed over the Alps on their way to Italy so that their elegant sensibilities should not be offended, damaged, by the huge disorderliness of the mountains. Now we admire the mountains, call upon each other to be 'brought down to size' by their magnificent untouchedness, but we treat ourselves in much the same way as they did when we are asked to take on the huge disorderliness of the cosmos. Out there, so long ago we cannot imagine it, in that immeasurable arena stars, whole galaxies, have been born and whirled and died to bring to birth the substance of our bones.
It is all too much. Better to think of a pure still universe untouched by time and sin; and this thing we call time as but a fantasy. Now we see in a glass darkly and the shadow is time, but when we see face to face we'll realize that time did not really count, was extraneous. This is cheating, but we all try it nonetheless.
This business of scale has worried me since I was a child. I had then a collection of tales which included the story of Thumbelina. It was illustrated, and in the pictures Thumbelina, small enough to sleep in a walnut shell, had a long beautiful smooth pigtail. My sister also had a plait of which I was very jealous. This is why, no doubt, the whole thing fixed itself so firmly in my mind – there is always a psychological narrative, plaited in along with the rational narrative, stranded together to make our interests and our selves. Each morning I watched the delicacy with which my mother braided it up. I was never able to understand how Thumbelina's adopted mother, whose fingers were larger than her tiny child's whole body, could manage the manipulation of each individual, nearly invisible, strand. To take my plait image of the Trinity a step further, if an enormous God is trying to plait the divine image onto us like tiny Thumbelinas, it is not surprising that immense amounts of time are needed. The difference in scale is of itself awe-inspiring. Little is gained by trying to eliminate time as part of God's creation: it is not a shadow but an essential, a reality.
In using an idealist model of 'nature', of creation, as the static, time-free, unmoveable zone of God's self-revelation, are we certain that we aren't treating the created order in the same way that we often accuse fundamentalists of treating the Bible, and reactionary Catholics of treating the Church's tradition: that it is inerrant and pre-inscribed? Having learned, painfully, over the last hundred or so years that neither the Bible nor ecclesiology is free from the processes of what it is to exist within time and within the dimensions both of evolution and of sinfulness, we need to be aware that the whole created order may not provide us with an infallible safety-net. The problem is made particularly acute when we remember to bear in mind that we cannot separate ourselves, including our readings and interpretations of scientific descriptions of nature, from the rest of the revelation of God in the creation.
Yet if we can bear it, there are very strong reasons for us to prefer to engage with a dynamic cosmos over a more Thomist or Platonic model. Some of these reasons are quite simply about how the universe is, or (at very least) is observed to be, and I shall come on to them later; but there are also good theological reasons. Indeed it is only within a dynamic, historical framework that we can incorporate either political or psychoanalytical understanding of ourselves into a world which is not painfully deterministic, fatalistic. The question I am struggling to ask is whether we can, and should, apply the same sort of thinking to areas beyond the individual, right to the very heart of the creation – the cosmos, matter itself. I believe we can and must in order to preserve our transformatory or revolutionary potential, our claims to be participators in the creation of the Kingdom of God. However this does dislodge us from a cosy retreat which is most easily presented in the form of a classical syllogism:
God made everything and saw that it was good.
God made X (whatever thing we happen to want to discuss).
Therefore X is good.
This little trick is always a temptation for any theology of oppression — much feminist and gay liberation theology for example falls, perhaps understandably, into this trap. So, more arrogantly, do certain New Age theologies, where the earth is identified not merely as God's but as God. The Gaia principle, for example, which sees the earth as a living organism (named after the Greek earth goddess, the Great Mother beloved of Robert Graves), is a very good example of a lovely poetic metaphor run wild and turned into a religious principle. The individual cells of an organism, which is what human beings become in the Gaia model, cannot personify the organism, let alone take responsibility for it, as this model requires, without being given a disproportionate rôle within the organism and thus slipping neatly back into the anthropocentrism which the analogy was designed to counteract. The problems proliferate: Gaia herself is only a fragment, a 'part' of a larger organism called Cosmos (or some such) or becomes one of a huge harem of interstellar concubines of the Great God — once again, one must suppose, male. God is thus reduced to a consort, the annual spouse of the fertility religions, and such reduction once again leaves us with a God too small for what the evidence is offering. The language of analogy works brilliantly so long, but only so long, as people recognize that it is an analogy — with all the limitations that analogy is heir to — and are not dragged into the same sort of literalism (the belief that what is said completely circumscribes the thing spoken about) that other fundamentalisms are criticized for.
Excerpted from A Big-Enough God by Sara Maitland. Copyright © 1995 Sara Maitland. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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