Touch-see-listen-taste-smell the living earth, receiving its wisdom and relating with humility.
- Mary Elizabeth Moore
Climbing Pine Mountain
Perceiving God with our Senses
I want to talk about how we can perceive God with our senses.
Meet Sandra, an eighteen year old naturalist who lives in Arkansas, close to a pine-forest mountain natives call Pine Mountain. I ask her how she experiences God and she says "by climbing Pine Mountain."
She doesn't mean that she infers God's existence from the mountain, or that she thanks God the creator for the mountain's existence, or that she is amazed and awed by God's creation. She means that she finds God in the palpable presence of the mountain as felt by her ears, her eyes, her face, and her sense of smell.
As you stand at the base of the mountain, you can feel the vibrations emanating from the earth beneath your feet. The mountain seems to pulsate with a deep, primal energy that fills the air around you. The scent of pine needles and fresh earth fills your nostrils, crisp and invigorating, charging you up for the journey ahead.
The Mutual Immanence of God and the World
In experiencing the mountain in this way, is Sandra also experiencing God?
There are three ways to say No. We can imagine God as entirely separate from the world, having no experience at all. We can imagine God as having experience, but enclosed within the divine self and cut off from the world, such that the world is not part of God. Or we can say that God is non-existent altogether. In each of these ways God is disconnected from sense experience, and in the latter case, of course, God is completely unreal.
There are two ways of saying Yes.
First, we can imagine God as the energy of the universe itself, in which case any experience of anything at all is an experience of God. This would include experiencing mountains and experiencing warfare, experiencing moments of kindness and experiencing moments of hatred. Such a perspective would deplete God of what we normally call compassion, since God is in hatred and violence, too; but it would enable us to say that God is everywhere. Climbing a mountain is indeed climbing God.
Second, we can imagine God as a Consciousness different from the world who does indeed experience the world, and then to say that our experience of the world through our senses is one way of experiencing the objective content of God's life. This is a Whiteheadian way of saying Yes.
An image would be to imagine God as a boundless and nurturant Womb within which (or whom) the universe unfolds. God is more than the universe, but the universe is within God.
In Whitehead's philosophy God is this Womb. God is the living whole of the universe: a subjective concrescence of the hills and rivers, trees and stars, in which, as Whitehead puts it, "the many become one." The living whole is not simply a thing or an abstract idea; it is a Consciousness with experiences (feelings, prehensions) of its own. You can address God as You. The world, is the content of God's experience, not unlike the way an embryo is the content of a mother's experience.
In the final part of Process and Reality Whitehead offers three sentences that support these ideas:
"It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World."
"It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God."
"It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many."
In effect Whitehead is saying that Pine Mountain is immanent within God's life; it helps create God; and it is part of God's multiplicity. We can say God is One, but we must also say God is Many, because the mountain is part of what makes God "God."
Panentheism The world in God, God in the World
Some people speak of this way of thinking about God as panentheism, which literally means "everything-in-God." While the phrase literally suggests the the universe is immanent with God not unlike the way an embryo is within a womb, many reverse the meaning and emphasize God's immanence in the universe.
Note that in Whitehead's philosophy both are true. The universe is immanent within God's life and God's nurturant energies are immanent within the universe. These nurturant energies are what process theologians call "initial aims." They are akin to the amniotic fluids in an embryo: surrounding, protecting, and providing nurturance for the developing fetus.
Initial aims are fresh possibilities given to creatures in the universe at every moment of their lives, combined with emotional yearnings on God's part that they be actualized. As dwelling in a creature's own experience, they belong to God and to the creatures simultaneously; they are God incarnate in the creatures. Even when creatures diverge from the aims, the aims are still part of the creatures' life as energetic possibilities.
To be sure, we human beings often fall very short of God's aims within us. Process theologians say that, moment by moment, we are "called" or "lured" to actualize possibilities for wisdom, compassion, and healthy creativity, for justice, listening, and healthy decision-making. We feel the beckoning of God in our lives even as we so often diverge from its callings. In traditional language, we sin.
Are our sins also part of God's life? The answer is yes. Even the hatred and violence are part of God's life: not that they are pleasing to God but rather that they, too, form the objective content of God's experience. Just as we cannot sharply separate ourselves from the tragedies that befall the world, so God cannot sharply separate God's own life from such tragedies. Not that they are willed by God, but they are indeed felt by God. God is, in Whitehead's words, a fellow sufferer who understands.
Back, then, to how we might actually experience God through our senses. Some Whitehead-influenced thinkers say that God can only be directly perceived through what they call nonsensory perception. They sayGod does not have a body located in space and the senses are not equipped for us to experience a non-embodied God.
One such theologian, Thomas Oord, puts it this way:
To make sense of perceiving God, we should embrace what some call “nonsensory perception...In terms of perceiving God, nonsensory perception identifies the activity of what John Wesley called “spiritual senses.” Nonsensory perception detects the actions of the Spirit...Although the idea of nonsensory perception may sound new, it fits the language of many who talk about encounters with God. Believers speak of detecting the divine, for instance, as a “still small voice,” “intuition,” a “feeling” a “holy nudge,” an “inclination,” one’s “moral compass,” a “hunch,” an “inkling,” “divine insight,” an inaudible “call,” a “light,” one’s “better angels,” one’s conscience, and more. Although not fully accurate, this language describes perception of that for which our five senses are not equipped. And it gives us direct access to the Spirit. (Thomas Oord, The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence)
Oord's focus seems to be in "inner" experiences of God, amid which people feel inwardly called or lured by God. In his words, they "detect" God. His preoccupation is with the moral side of life and, more specifically, with the presence of divine callings, initial aims, in human experience. There is, it seems to me, a flight from sacramentality: that is, from perceiving God in the world, and the world in God, through the senses.
Mary Elizabeth Moore well captures the spirit of sacramentality I have in mind:
Touch-see-listen-taste-smell the living earth, receiving its wisdom and relating with humility.
The phrase comes from her essay "Responding to a Weeping Planet: Practical Theology as a Discipline Called by Crisis" in which she convincingly presents an image of theology as prophetic, practical, and sacramental. She writes: "Crises exist in daily lives when people live detached from God’s creation and from communion with other people and trees and soil."
She invites us to re-attach our lives to God's creation and communion with other people and trees and soils. She is especially sensitive to the way that other forms of life, including trees and soil, have voices of their own to which and whom we can listen and from whom we can learn. Her point, and mine as well, is that we do so through our senses.
A flight from sacramentality, then, is a flight from healthy, sensory connections with one another and the more than human world and, I suggest, from God.
It is a flight from the living presence of God in the world as a nurturant energy that is in other people and the more than human world: earth, soil, plants, animals, hills, rivers, stars, and mountains. And it is a flight from the living presence of the world in God as a multiplicity that forms the objective content of God's life. In short, it is a flight from the immanence of God in the world and the immanence of the world in God.
This flight is rooted, I believe, not in a hatred of the world but in a fear of the senses and bodily experience, a fear of the vitality of bodily life. It is often expressed in a problematic dualism between mind and body, intellect and emotion, God and the world. When such dualisms reign, we find God by turning within ourselves or by looking up to the sky, but not by, in Mary Elizabeth Moore's words, "communion with other people and trees and soil."
Such dualisms too often reinforce oppressive hierarchies of racism, sexism, and colonialism. Just as God is a higher power, so some feel that they, too, can be higher powers. All the more important to reclaim the sacramental dimension of life and, in Mary Elizabeth Moore's words, "draw upon the legacies of people and waters and lands" to help respond to a world in crisis. We cannot draw upon the legacies of water and lands unless we listen to them in attentive and loving ways.
Can process theology be of assistance? I think it can, but only if it follows the lead of Mary Elizabeth Moore, herself a prominent process theologian, and helps us reclaim the sacramental, sensory side of life. Appeals to "nonsensory perception" do not help. The appeal must be instead to parasensory perception: that is, to ways that we can indeed touch, see, listen, taste, and smell the world around us, linking those experiences with a sense of One in whose love and embodied life we live and move and have our being.
The embodied life of God is God's multiplicity, God's manyness.
Moore, Mary Elizabeth. 2022. Responding to a Weeping Planet: Practical Theology as a Discipline Called by Crisis. Religions 13: 244. https://doi.org/10.3390/ rel13030244
Amipotence, Violence, and the World's Transcendence of God
Thomas Oord speaks of God as amipotent. By amipotent he means all-loving in a profoundly powerful way. One of Oord's major preoccupations for many years has been to help people move past images of an all-powerful God who can do anything "he" wants and into a sense that God is a universal Spirit at work in a non-coercive and nurturant way in each and every creature. His book The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence is an extension of this agenda.
Here a question emerges for Oord and for us all. Is the natural world, the world we see with our eyes and touch with our hands, a sign of divine love? As we reengage the world of our senses, learning to see the world in God and God in the world, how do we make sense of, for example, predator-prey relations. As the fox chases the rabbit, the rabbit is terrified? There is no reason to fault the fox, but no reason to hide from the fact that, for the rabbit, the experience is painful. Animals eating other animals, supernovae exploding. In saying that God is immanent within the world, are we saying the the violence of creation, in human life of course but also in many other arenas, is an expression of divine love?
I asked ChatGPT to give me examples of violence in creation biologically and galactically and was given this list:
Predation: Predators such as lions, tigers, and wolves kill and eat their prey.
Competition: Animals compete with each other for resources like food, water, and mates. This competition can sometimes turn violent.
Aggression: Animals can be aggressive towards members of their own species or other species, sometimes resulting in injury or death.
Self-defense: Animals will often defend themselves against predators or other threats, sometimes using violence.
Supernovae: When a star runs out of fuel, it can explode in a violent event known as a supernova. This explosion can release as much energy as a hundred billion suns.
Black holes: Black holes are incredibly dense objects that can pull in and destroy anything that comes too close, including stars and planets.
Galactic collisions: Galaxies can collide and merge, leading to violent interactions between stars and other objects in space.
Gamma-ray bursts: These are the most energetic explosions in the universe and can release as much energy in a few seconds as the sun will emit over its entire lifetime.
We may quibble with one or another of these examples, but the fact of violence in creation, and not only in ourselves, is undeniable. Is God responsible for the violence?
Process theologians say No. They recognize that the world has power of its own, transcending the agency of God, even as God is immanent within the world. Whitehead writes: "It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God." In reclaiming the senses, we must be attentive to the world's transcendence of God and to God's limitations. Not all things are possible, not even for God.
Attention to Divine Presence in the World and to the Intrinsic Value of Sentient Beings Independent of God
The world's transcendence of God is not simply a problem, it is also a source of beauty and wonder. It is good that the world transcends God.
Every sentient being in our universe, in whatever dimension, has value in and for itself; process theologians call it the "intrinsic value" of self-enjoyment. This value is not reducible to God or to God's immanence in the creature. And, in process theology, all beings are living in a deep sense. All carry a vital energy of their own, different from God's, that is filled with life, self-creativity, self-enjoyment, sentient, and aims. This is true of other animals and microbes and living cells, of quantum events in the depths of atoms. and of every human being.
This means that divine immanence in the world is partial not totalizing. The "initial aims" in other creatures, belonging to God and to the creature at issue, are only part of that creature's life. This universe itself is more, so much more, than God. It has unfolded, and still unfolds, in a spectacular display of creativity, sometimes profoundly tender and sometimes profoundly violent. And it means that the world's immanence in God is likewise not totalizing. The multiplicity of the world, itself part of God's life. does not reduce God to the world. Just as a mother is more than the embryo in her womb, God is more than the universe inside God. God and the world transcend one another even as they are immanent within one another.
A sacramental approach to life is attentive, says Mary Elizabeth Moore. I suggest that this attention is twofold. It is attentive to the living presence of God in each creature, what Orthodox Christianity calls the logoi (divine energy) in each entity, and it is attentive to the intrinsic value of each and every being, God or no God.
The beckoning of God within each creature, says Thomas Oord, is always toward the overall good. We best be honest. We do never really know what the good is. We can only look with wonder and, as Mary Elizabeth Moore says, with humility, attentive to God's presence in the creature and the creatures intrinsic value, independent of God. And then, as individuals and communities, we can make what Mary Elizabeth Moore calls "urgent daring decisions" to promote the overall good, to the best of our ability: the overall good for ourselves, other people, other plants and animals, earth itself. As we make such decisions we can trust and hope that we are doing what is good, that are following, to the best of our abilities, God's aims within each of us. Our daring decisions best emerge, not simply out of abstract strategies for helping heal a broken world, but out of deep listening, sacramental awareness. For some people this awareness occurs in hiking, in climbing mountains.
God is many as well as one. When we see a mountain we are seeing the objective content of God's life and experience. We are seeing part of the many that are becoming one in God's ongoing life. They are, in their way, creating God. God is not separated from the world by the boundaries of divine skin. The objects of God's experience are part of what make God "God." In this sense we are seeing God. When we climb the mountain, we are climbing God. When we smell the scent of the pine needles we are smelling God. And when we hear the wind rushing past our ears we are hearing God.
To be more precise, we are experiencing part of God. God is the totality of the universe as felt and loved in its particularities. Whereas God feels the mountain in all of its detail and from all angles simultaneously, we feel the mountain from our limited perspective.
The presence of the mountain is not restricted to a bare patch of color, to what Whitehead called perception in the mode of presentational immediacy. It is instead a vibrant and pulsating energy that you feel with your feet. You are perceiving the mountain through what Whitehead called symbolic reference, which is a way of experiencing that combines presentational immediacy and the causal efficacy of the mountain itself. The energy you feel with your feet comes from the causal efficacy. This energy belongs to the mountain and to God since mountain is part of God's life.
The energy in the mountain also contains the residue of God's presence in the mountain itself, independently of your climbing it. Here I am speaking of what Whitehead calls initial aims. The mountain itself is an aggregate expression of momentary energy events. Whitehead speaks of these pulsations as "actual occasions" or "actual entities" or "occasions of experience." Each is itself a subject and not simply an object. Each moment begins with the living presence of God as a fresh possibility and a sharing in God's desire that the possibility be actualized. Thus each actual occasion includes, within its very essence, an element of divine eros. In this way God is immanent within the occasion even as, in its self-creativity, the entity is more than God.
Pine Tree Mountain is an aggregate-expression of pulsations of energy: billions upon billions upon billions of them. Whitehead speaks of it a "public matter of fact" or a nexus. When you see the mountain with your eyes and touch it with your feet through symbolic reference (that is, in ways that include feelings the feelings of the energy in the mountain) you are feeling some portion of God's eros (God's initial aims) in the energy of the mountain itself. It is not easy to distinguish the two and usually not necessary. The vibrancy of the mountain and the wind comes to you as a whole, What you can say, however, is that God is in the mountain and God the mountain is part of God, even as each has its integrity, transcending the other.
Whitehead's Understanding of God
It is as true to say that God is permanent and the World fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent.
It is as true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God many.
It is as true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently.
It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World.
It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God. It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God.