Listening to the Past,
Praying to the Silence
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
A Lutheran-Christian reflects on final matters.
I can’t explain the exact difference between “recollection” and “memory.” But in my experience, memories are something we consciously seek, while recollections more-or-less come unbidden. But with recollection it seems that we chew on memory a little longer, maybe working harder at understanding what pushed it into our minds. The problem is time. Time intervals strike me as strange and contradictory mental events. It’s reasonable to suppose that a routine eventless time would seem indeterminable. It should be so, but it’s not. It’s the dull eventless times that have no duration that is beyond recollection. But a time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, canvassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in recollection.
I think this is why William Stager observed that the “laws of nature” encompass two interdependent meanings: the physical regularities, processes, and structures in nature as (1) we know and understand them and (2) as they actually function in reality—provided one assumes some form of Ian Barbour’s “critical realism.” It’s the “how questions” answered by “natural laws” that reveal the underlying unity of nature because natural laws testify to nature as a universally embedded rationality evidenced by the power of mathematics to describe these processes. Which means, as Albert Einstein noted, the greatest mystery of the universe is that we, through reason, can comprehend it. Which doesn’t mean that we can comprehend everything about the universe even though the “how questions” reveal the universe’s exquisite rationality. It’s the “why questions,” questions of ethical and aesthetic value, that reveal the universe’s fundamental mystery. Taken together, both the “how” and “why” questions may very well be evidence for the reasonableness of belief in God.
In terms of the “how questions,” in the realm of the very small (i.e., sub-atomic particles) to the very large (the cosmos as such), the extraordinary applicability of mathematics in describing the structures, entities, and physical processes of nature enforces the conclusion that there is indeed an underlying unity to all things and events in the universe at every moment of space-time since the first nanosecond of the Big Bang to the Universe’s end trillions of years from now. But the “how questions” of scientific concern hemorrhage into the “why questions” of other disciplines, especially theology and philosophy. It is at the intersection of these “how” and “why” questions that the rationality embedded in the universe, and the mystery that human beings seem to be able to comprehend the physical processes of nature, that make belief in God reasonable even though the universe’s rationality and the mystery of why it should exist in the first place—along with we who ask such questions—do not constitute proof of God’s existence.
Biologist Ursula Goodenough agrees. According to her, evolution is fundamentally a process of “emergence,” which she defines as “something more” from “nothing but.” This is the sole “purpose” of evolution, an idea that is obviously not a reductionist approach that reduces everything to subatomic particles because the process involves “top-down” causation (the environment’s impact on lower-level interrelationships). So life is a process of getting something to happen against all odds while remembering how to do it. The “something” that happens, according to Goodenough, is biochemistry and biophysics, and the odds are “beat” by incredibly complicated processes of sorting out shape fits and shape changes at the molecular level guided by the “memory” that is “encoded in the strings of DNA in the genes of living organisms. This is “bottom-up causation.” “Evolution” refers to the frequencies of different sets of instructions for making organisms. But to understand evolution, it’s necessary to understand how the instructions become different (mutation) and how the frequencies of those instructions change over time, which she describes as “the process of natural selection.”
“Natural selection” is the answer to two questions: (1) Does a new protein work better or worse or the same as the old one, and (2) How is the difference important to an organism? So, evolution is a process whereby; (1) mutations change the quality of genes, as (2) natural selection changes the frequency of the genes in a process that is (3) totally dependent on the environmental circumstances in which it is occurring (top-down causation interdependent with bottom-up causation.)
Again, God is not needed to explain these processes. Yet evolutionary processes do not in principle exclude the existence of God as Creator. My sneaking hunch is that God creates continually through these processes everywhere they occur in the universe. But we should not refer to God as an element in scientific explanations because God cannot be an explanatory category in any scientific description of physical realities. Such a “God of the gaps” will always entail bad science and bad theology. If, however, “why” questions are the center of attention, it is not unreasonable to conclude that evolutionary processes are the means by which God is creatively active in the universe wherever life may exist. But what the hell does “emergence” mean? Perhaps at the level of scientific descriptions, life “works” like a poker game.
But at the level of lived human experience, things are much more complicated. As the historical Jesus Christians confess to be the Christ of faith is reported to have once said: “He (and I suppose “she’) who loves his (or her) life shall lose it and he (and she) who loses his (or her) life for my sake will save it.” I suspect this is the way life works for human beings, at least. But I don’t think this is one of God’s “commandments,” although it is part of the structure of existence that God creates. It’s simply an aspect of the human condition wrapped in the field of space-time. So, if we “cast our bread upon the waters,” prepared to give it up for good, it somehow comes back again, but in another form beyond expectations. God seems to be very tricky in the way God deals out grace according to God’s creative aims and there are times when God seems like a card shark dealing from the bottom of the deck in a rigged poker game. Or paraphrasing the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer in The Cost of Discipleship, “When God calls you, he calls you to your death.” But here’s the jackpot, according to St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15: at the moment of death, everyone—all living beings who have lived, are now living, or will live—whether virtuous or not, whether Christian or not, are confronted by the loving gaze of Christ. God deals us a winning hand we neither earn nor deserve.
So, at old age—the gates through which I have passed—everybody has their own particular ghosts, their own particular memories. Perhaps the ghosts and the memories are identical. People wrap themselves in the past, spinning cocoons around pain and joy, suffering and hope. It’s memories that insulate, at least for a while, against the ice of death creeping upward from the feet, against an eternal cold entering the veins—the way it did for Socrates after he drank the hemlock. Still, I have a hunch that belief in the resurrection of Jesus and us is not unreasonable. If it is true that individuals can commune with God by means of prayer, meditation, or simply by living creatively and ethically in the world, then at least Jesus must matter to God and share God’s eternity. If God is love, God cannot be conceived as scrapping what is precious in God’s sight. This seems to me to be, in a nutshell, the case for the reasonableness of believing in the resurrection of Jesus—as well as for trusting that there awaits a similar destiny for us and every other sentient being caught in the field of space-time, past, present, and future.
Still, I can’t remember reading any theologian who claims that God is interested in religion. In fact, if one believes the New Testament, God doesn’t give a damn about religion. I suspect the same is true in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, although Islam is the only religious Way that defines itself as “religion” (‘islām). It seems that the one and only test of a valid religious idea is pragmatic, or as Jesus is reported to have said, “You know them by their works.” A valid religious idea, doctrine, practice, or religious experience leads directly to practical compassion and love. “Compassion” is knowing by experience the utter interdependence of all things caught up in the field of space-time, so that the suffering of any living being is one’s own suffering, just as the joy of any living being is also, partly, one’s own. Compassion engenders love, meaning active social engagement with the world in nonviolent (if possible) struggle against systemic social, economic, and political structures of injustice that cause suffering to human beings and the creatures of nature.
Accordingly, if one’s understanding of God makes one kinder, more empathetic, more impelled to act justly through concrete nonviolent acts of loving kindness—at least as far as possible in a universe in which life must eat life to survive—then one’s understanding of God corresponds to reality. I think this is true whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, a participant in a non-theistic tradition like Buddhism, or an avowed “secularist.” But if one’s notion of God has made one unkind, brittle of spirit, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or has led one to kill in God’s name, one has an untruthful understanding of God. I also think this is true whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or a participant in a non-theistic religious tradition like Buddhism.
I also think this is why Thomas Merton thought that religious practice should be about “entering the silence” because that’s where we find God. But I suspect that God is found everywhere, including the noise of our lives and Merton would have probably not denied this. But human beings experience God most often in silence—Jesus in the silence of the desert for forty days, the Buddha sitting in meditation for forty-nine days (although he didn’t name what he found in his silence “God”). I am certainly not an accomplished mystic like Merton, the Buddha, or my favorite medieval Christian mystic, Margarete Porete. But like Merton, I have come to think that the silence is all there really is. It’s the alpha and Omega. From my Lutheran-Christian perspective, it is God brooding over the face of the deep, the blended notes of ten thousand things, the whine of wings, the music of Bach and Mozart, the physics of Einstein and Bohr. We take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence. Here all distinctions blur and we quit our tents and pray without ceasing.
 William Stager, “The Mind-Brain Problem,” in Neuroscience and the Person, edited by Robert John Russel et al (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory Foundation, 2022), 130. Also see, Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 117-20.
 Ursala Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 29