“Constituents in the Heart of an Emergent God” | Kevin Carson

A sermon given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, June 10, 2018

Science has come a long way since Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741.  Theology has come a long way too, though you wouldn’t know it in most American churches on Sunday morning.  In this follow up to my sermon, “The Double Dark Night of the Soul,” we will explore some of the exciting ideas about “God” that modern science and theology reveals.

In Medieval Europe, theology was considered a “science” because it concerned not only God but the physical world we live in.  In fact, theology was called “the queen of the sciences.” While some medieval scholars explored questions in areas of what we now call the natural sciences, the overarching standard of “truth” belonged to the accepted orthodox Christian theology of the day.  If your “science” conflicted with accepted theological “truth,” then your findings were obviously wrong.  If you had a different opinion about that, well … that could be very dangerous. You might easily find yourself tied to a burning stake like a number of our theological ancestors.  When I was in Rome a couple of weeks ago I saw a statue commemorating the philosopher Giordano Bruno, for example.  He was held prisoner in the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome for three years and then burned as a heretic by the Inquisition in the year 1600.  His “crime,” in the eyes of the Church, was supporting the Copernican model of the solar system and a form of Unitarian theology. We owe a lot to brave individuals like Giordano Bruno who continued to advance the evolution of both science and theology through even the darkest times.  And though fundamentalism in a variety of forms continues to plague the human family, the world has generally grown more tolerant of diverse religious views, and so today we see an incredible smorgasbord of beliefs and practices.  

The story of our Unitarian Universalist faith lies mostly in the Western Christian lineage, but you can see a similar evolution of ideas among other great religious traditions.  Change is inevitable, because human beings learn and explore.  Despite what we might claim about our personal beliefs, or even the most cherished doctrines of the church, new ideas come along from science and philosophy and the old thinking simply must adjust.  And when it comes to ideas about topics like God, or the afterlife, if we are honest, we have to admit that all theology is at its core speculation.  Theologians can only speculate about the nature of the sacred and make reasoned arguments to support their propositions.  Theology is not something that can be proven by logic or experimental evidence.  We don’t even think of theology as a “science” anymore, because it cannot be tested by the scientific method, but that doesn’t mean there are no theological truths that stand the test of time.  Theology changes when old assumptions are challenged and we discard ideas that no longer make sense.  It is a healthy process, though it can be painful to abandon the old as we struggle to embrace the new.  Sometimes old beliefs don’t go quietly, and wars have even been fought over competing religious ideas.
As religious liberals, we are more willing to explore new ideas and take theological risks, and historically we certainly have.  For our ministers, this has sometimes come at great personal and professional risk.  We claim to respect the freedom of the pulpit, but we too have a long history of ministers who found themselves preaching too far outside of the mainstream, and it seldom ended well.  Even someone as exalted as Emerson ruffled quite a few feathers among the Unitarian establishment when he spoke of revitalizing religion by tapping into the lived experience of nature and the divine.  It is really no surprise that after seminary, he left the ministry after less than three years.  

On the Universalist side of our family tree, the “good news” of universal salvation was central to the preaching you would hear on just about any given Sunday in Universalist churches like this one, usually backed up by dozens of biblical citations to “prove” its theological correctness.  

But, sometimes even the idea that everyone was worthy of God’s love and salvation was too much to tolerate.  According to one legendary story, once, when Rev. John Murray was preaching in Boston in the late 1700s, one of his opponents threw a large rock through a window, narrowly missing his head.  Without hesitation, Murray picked up the rock and said, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”  Then, laying the rock aside, he announced, “Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth.”

These days, it is uncommon to hear much real theology preached on Sunday mornings even in liberal churches, and I think that is unfortunate.  It is easier, and honestly safer, for many of us, to simply revisit familiar themes that speak to the human condition within a comfortable context and language, without pushing the theological envelope even a little.  We may not fear being beaned in the head by a rock or burned at the stake anymore, but in some religious circles, especially in more conservative churches, uttering anything too controversial can still be quite risky.  Also, I think many ministers shy away from the best theology they study in seminary and beyond because it is complex and challenging.  It is admittedly hard to preach on very complex topics without feeling you are only scratching the surface.  Good theological conversations can last many hours, and if you get an opportunity to really explore such topics within a congregation, you will find we have all kinds of interesting ideas to consider. Unfortunately, most people are limited to what they hear on Sunday morning, and there are many other subjects that rightfully compete with theology for attention in worship.  Deep theological musings week after week would also become overbearing.  Sometimes, when we come to church, we just need to be comforted and “lay our burdens down.” But, if our faith hopes to remain relevant and vital going forward, I do think we need to make time for more theological exploration in our pulpits.  Our faith, after all, is a journey of discovery, and Sunday morning is the best chance most people have.  

I hope that most of you were here in November for my sermon, “The Double Dark Night of the Soul,” when I talked about how our theological thinking must adjust to the reality of a universe full of dark matter and energy that is proving to be more bizarre and mysterious that we might have imagined.  This is the follow up I promised, that was unfortunately delayed quite a bit by events in my personal life. But if you missed the first one, or if it’s been too long to remember what I said last fall, it’s okay.  What I want to explore in the rest of my sermon today is one possible answer to the question I asked in the earlier sermon: where might “God” exist in a universe than is mostly invisible, constantly evolving, and still very mysterious to the one form of intelligent life on Earth that has emerged with the capacity to even ask such a question?
So, let’s begin by considering where God is not.  If you read the blurb about today’s service, I mentioned that the title of my sermon today is intended as an homage to the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that Jonathan Edwards preached in Enfield, Connecticut in 1741.  That sermon is considered to be one of the exemplary works of religious thinking during the so-called Great Awakening period in America, and it is filled with images of the horrors of hellfire and damnation that await those who are not saved.  It was literally a sermon that intended to scare the hell out of everyone, so they would repent and turn to Christ for salvation.  As an example of his imagery, Edwards famously compares humanity dangling over the pit of hell to a spider dangling by a web over a fire.  The only thing keeping our depraved, sinful selves out of the well-deserved enteral fires of hell is the grace of God – and God is very angry with us.  I’m guessing that most of you these days would find such a sermon troubling to say the least.  

Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors had a lot of trouble with these ideas too, so their theology evolved over the next several decades toward a more benign view of the Almighty, and a more sympathetic understanding of humanity.  They acknowledged that we human beings are capable of great sin, but they also saw that we are inherently capable of great good and worthy of salvation.  But, even so, they still held onto the idea that “God” was something apart from the universe.  He was “out there” somewhere, pushed farther and farther away as our knowledge of the universe expanded.  God increasingly became the “God of the gaps” our second reading described.  Then, after a few more decades of scientific discoveries, Humanism swept through our faith and very nearly pushed the idea of “god” completely out the door.  It seemed like we had to make a choice between having a conventional concept of God or having no god at all, and the debate has remained contentious to this day among Unitarian Universalists.  But what if there is at least a third option?

When I was here in May I talked about Religious Naturalism as the core theology of our faith, and today I want to take a deeper look at one of the many strands of thinking that comes under that general philosophical label.  So, let me begin by unpacking what I mean by the unusual title of today’s sermon: Constituents in the Heart of an Emergent God, and it is probably best to start at the end and work backwards.  

What do I mean by an emergent God?  In general, emergence describes something that comes out of something else.  In this case, I am specifically talking about an idea from the field of Systems Theory that refers to a quality or trait that can only be realized by a system at a certain level of organization.  For example, think about all the layers of complex systems that make up a living creature.  At the lowest levels, there are elementary particles, then atoms, then molecules, then complex molecules like DNA, then cells, then organs, then systems of organs (like the circulatory system), then finally the organism.  At each level of complexity, there are attributes or traits that have no meaning at lower levels, and could never be anticipated by looking up the chain.  We say, for example, that cells and organisms have the quality of “being alive,” but you could never predict the quality of “being alive” by only looking only at the billions of atoms at the lower levels, or even the multitude of chemical reactions between molecules upon which life depends.  So, we can say “being alive” is an emergent quality of a cell or organism.  Another example is the quality of “intelligent behavior,” which is an emergent quality of organisms with complex brains.  These are demonstrably real qualities that are easy to observe and describe, but they only exist within a certain context.  

Now, let’s take this up a level to the level of society. We can talk about something like “market forces” or “culture” or “the media” as if they are real things, but these concepts are emergent, and only exist when there is an underlying society of human beings that enables their existence.  Here again, clearly these concepts are “real” in the context of society, since we can all understand them and give examples, but they make no sense at the level of an individual, and are absurd to speak of at the cellular or atomic layer.

So, back to this idea of an emergent God.  What might that mean?  Nancy Ellen Abrams, who is a philosopher of science and a religious naturalist, explores this idea very nicely in her recent book, A God That Could Be Real.  She begins from this simple proposition: “If we look for God in what is real, the argument about God’s existence is over, and we begin to discover its true nature and relationship to us.”  She then develops the idea of an emergent God using the same kind of arguments about emergent phenomena that I just described.  She writes, “God is endlessly emerging from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations across time … Each of us is directly connected to the emerging God.”  In other words, an emergent God is a phenomenon that can exist because of human consciousness – and only because of human consciousness.  It may be startling to say out loud, but an emergent God simply could not exist without us, but that doesn’t make God any less real.  Let that sink in a little … an endlessly emerging God that arises from the combined aspirations of humanity, with each of us connected to this sacred creative force.  

Taking it a step further, the idea that “God” emerges from our combined human aspirations is why I say we are “constituents in the heart” of this emergent God. We are constituents because it is through the mutuality of humankind that an emergent God has existence.  We, and everyone who ever lived, or will ever live, are all part of God.  It is an idea that sounds very familiar to Emerson’s description of “that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.” It is an ancient idea – as old as the mystic teachings of holy men and women through the ages – and yet, by embracing the concept of emergence from the scientific world, it presents us with an image of God that is both relevant to contemporary theology and consistent with the truths about the universe uncovered by the latest physics and cosmology.  This is important because recent scientific discoveries may very well be able to describe the origins of our strange and wonderful universe, with its mysterious dark energy and matter, without appealing to a creator, and this is one of the last refuges for a “god of the gaps.” For those who find the concept of “God” to be useful and relevant, it may soon be hard to locate God anywhere else with any intellectual integrity.

And if you think this is just Humanism hiding behind some clever use of “god” language, remember that emergent phenomena are real within the right context.  Emergent God theology proposes that such a God is as real and worthy of worship as any other concept of God we might propose.  The important element is that consciousness must exist first, and it is consciousness that allows us to overlay meaning on the events we experience.  As Abrams suggests, you could say, “God did not create the universe.  God created the meaning of the universe.”  It is because of our combined human journey through time that we have values and apply names and meanings to the world of our senses.  You might even say God is the conceptual framework that holds the universe together.

As I warned you earlier, I can only give you a glimpse of the possibilities of Emergent God theology in a Sunday sermon.  If this kind of theology appeals to you, also consider this is just one among many new ideas about God that have been proposed over the last century, as theology tries to reconcile with our growing scientific understanding of the universe.   There are fascinating theological ideas ranging from very complex philosophical frameworks like Process Theology, to thinking of God as the creative force at work in the universe, and even to so-called “non-realist” ideas that God ultimately has no objective reality but is merely a useful mental concept at best.  

Each idea is worthy of exploration, but I find  the idea of an emergent God – humanity’s God that arises from our shared aspirations – a God that brings meaning to the world, is a God I could relate to and celebrate in worship .  An emergent God invites us to retain the language and rituals of our human story while exploring bold new possibilities that are exciting, and sometimes a bit challenging.  That said, I should note that one thing about this I am struggling with is whether we should extend these ideas beyond human consciousness to the differing levels of consciousness present in animals and potentially even in plants.  And for that matter, what about other intelligent life forms that likely exist in this vast universe – or even a multiverse?  Does this imply there is a pantheon of different emergent “gods” spread across time and space? 

Mind blowing isn’t it!  I hope this gives you some good theological thoughts to chew on over the summer.  What we reflect on in Sunday morning worship can present some powerful ideas and implications. I am reminded of a great quote about Sunday worship, from the author Annie Dillard, who said, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

So, I say to you this morning, let us be bold in our theological journey!  It’s how we roll as Unitarian Universalists, and it’s why we have communities like this one to support us in our explorations.  Each of us must examine new ideas to see what might be a good spiritual fit, and this often changes over time.  I hope sermons like this one will help stimulate your imaginations.


Opening Words

“Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” by Mary Oliver

Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?
There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.
The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily, out of the water and back in; the goldfinches singfrom the unreachable top of the tree.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing aroundas though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, someshining coil of wind, or a few leaves from any old tree – they are all in this too.
And now I will tell you the truth. Everything in the worldcomes.
At least, closer.
And, cordially.
Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.Like goldfinches, little dolls of goldfluttering around the corner of the sky
of God, the blue air.

First Reading         

excerpt from The Over-Soul by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1841)

“The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and so to speak from his character and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power and beauty.  We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles.  Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”
Second Reading    excerpt from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Foreword in A God That Could Be Real by Nancy Ellen Abrams
“For centuries we have been stuck in a futile battle between believers and atheists, with each lampooning and denouncing each other’s beliefs.  It is my hope that [… we can enjoy] a new revival of true cultural dialogue, debate, and exploration.  We must move beyond the polemics and polarization that have come to characterize so much scientific-religious and interfaith discourse in our time.
The God that I worship is not one that sits in Heaven, apprehensively worrying that humanity will discover his (or her) secrets.  No, not at all.  The God that I believe in commands us to love God with all our mind and wants us to keep learning and discovering and exploring every inch or millimeter (or nanometer) of creation.  Over time, we graduate from more simplistic understandings of God to richer and more complex ones.

Far too often God is a “God of the gaps” – where we fill our lack of knowledge with a belief that there must be a God.  For many centuries, when our understanding of the universe extended just to the planets and heavenly stars, we thought God resided just beyond.  Then as our knowledge of the universe expanded, we have pushed God farther and farther out in space in time.  God must be much more than just a placeholder for what we do not yet know.”