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A dialogue that could be real…but not quite yet

Nancy Ellen Abrams’ new book A God That Could Be Real was recently touted through the BC Conference (United Church of Canada) LeaderShift website.  I decided to read and comment on the book after I read the two-page summary.  Why?  Because it irritated me.  That’s my signal: if something gets my back up, I either have to learn about it or learn to let it go.  So here’s my analysis:

I wish we liberal Christians didn’t feel like we needed the permission of scientists to believe in God. Because that is, in the end, what Nancy Ellen Abrams attempts to do—give us permission to believe in God, but only in the God that she finds compelling.

There is much to appreciate in Abrams’ book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet. It is a passionately argued thesis for a new understanding of God and a planetary morality based on a worldview informed by the findings of science.  The author clearly believes that the survival of our world depends on humans reclaiming a relationship with some form of the divine. These are things to appreciate in her writing.

Abrams discovered that her life depended on a working conception of God when she found herself in need of a Twelve-Step program. But Abrams is married to astrophysicist Joel Primack, one of the principal originators and developers of the theory of Cold Dark Matter (which has become the basis for the modern picture of structure formation in the universe), and the versions of God with which she was acquainted simply made no sense to her in light of what she knew about the nature of reality.

So Abrams has neatly explored modern science to find a God that works for her and offers her observations to the rest of us. Most controversial, of course, is not her call for a planetary morality. It’s her assumption that we humans make God through the principle of emergence. In Abrams’ thinking, God is the product of complexity, the result of individual and collective human aspiration. God evolves—not just the idea of God, but God’s own self.

Abrams’ analysis echoes the findings of numerous contemporary religious writers when she talks about God as the fundamental characteristic of connection between ourselves and the universe. She also argues for an embodied, reality-based God, another notion current in theology. I was grateful for her provocative discussion of the property of emergence, as well as the powerful argument that we currently risk reversing evolution when we decrease our capacity to empathize with others and future generations. These are certainly things that we as humans must grapple with.

And, actually, theologians and mystics are grappling with them.  Cyprian Consiglio has a new book out exploring how humans participate in God–an ancient understanding of the eastern church made new in light of 21st century science.  Ilia Delio, Beatrice Bruteau, Barbara Brown Taylor and numerous others are exploring this territory.  Which brings me to my complaint about this book.

Abrams asserts a good many things, some of which are convincing, some thought provoking and some simply tiresome repetitions of old assumptions.  When she declares that no intelligence (i.e., God) could have existed before the Big Bang because of the evolutionary nature of complexity, I was inclined to ask her Wendell Berry’s provocative question: So what banged?  Or, had she considered Teilhard de Chardin’s writings which argue that the phenomena she calls emergence is as much a matter of being drawn as it is chance–that there is intention in the universe?

While much of the book is interesting and worth consideration, I found her ignorance of contemporary theology and mysticism troubling.  Abrams’ curious insistence that no religious person can possibly hold faith and current science findings in any coherent way was disturbing, as was her tendency to dismiss religious experience as delusional.  It is, after all, contemporary mystics who most deeply understand—on an experiential level—the kind of reality that modern physics points to.  It seems clear that Abrams doesn’t really know much about the lived experience of religious life; I do see that she needs and wants a God that works, but doesn’t really understand how others might have found that Higher Power where she couldn’t.  She would have benefited from a reading of Ken Wilber’s distinction between stages—one’s location in culture, time, and education—and states—level of inner awakening.

Very little of what Abrams vehemently refutes in this book could qualify as “good theology.” And some of what she asserts isn’t necessarily good science, either—as in her citation of the limitations placed on thinking by the speed of light without referencing the findings of quantum entanglement.  (But then, what do I know?  Only what other scientists have said.)

Abrams has clearly missed the writings of Ilia Delio, Cynthia Bourgeault, Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, Teilhard de Chardin, Raimundo Pannikar and Beatrice Bruteau; I’d also suggest that she is unacquainted with the research of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, the Greater Good Science Center, the Institute of Noetic Science, and the Science and Nonduality community. In these places, I have generally found science and deep religious thought in intelligent and generous dialogue.

So while I applaud Abrams’ attempt to bring a new marriage between faith and science, I would have found this book much more satisfying had she claimed less or read more widely. My biggest issue is with having this posted on the web page for LeaderShift, although I’ve benefited from the opportunity to think and reflect on these issues!  But there are other thinkers exploring the same ground who are not dismissive of religion. While I wish that scientists would bother to learn as much about theology as they expect theologians to learn about science, I wish even more that religious people would learn their own mystical tradition, which is where the best of science is in dialogue with the deepest faith these days. As Karl Rahner said over 30 years ago, the Christian of the future will be a mystic or not a Christian at all.


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