A Modern Metaphysic
Dr. Peter Mills
Peter Mills is a retired Pro-Vice- Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth. He is a Chartered Mathematician and a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. Peter is a Vice- President of Modern Church, having previously been its Treasurer for thirty years. He has also served on the Board of Amnesty International UK, and was chair of its Finance Sub- Committee for a number of years.
From Honest to God onward, Anglican theologians have explored ways of thinking about God that emphasise the gracious nature of being, rather than the identity of a Supreme Being. Approaches of this kind pose their own problems, however, although they are not always immediately evident. Very recently, a new round of scientific scepticism has added a further measure to the problems. In an attempt to resolve at least some of these issues, a constructive argument is offered based on the significance of spiritual or mental energy. This is the dominant counterpart of the physical energy that became manifest in the ‘Big Bang’. A modern metaphysic is offered that upholds the Biblical principles of benign creation whilst taking due cognisance of modern approaches to truth and recent developments in science.
Being and Beings
What do we mean when we talk of God? Are we speaking about a particular being – the Supreme Being – whom we think of as creative and gracious, or are we talking about the nature of being itself, and hoping that it is creative and gracious? Or does our thinking extend beyond these direct alternatives? In the more distant past, there is little doubt that Western thought would have been centred on God as the Supreme Being. Careful people would have added that God is above and beyond any thoughts we have about him, and that we know him only insofar as he makes himself known to us. Christian Trinitarian beliefs would have increased the complexity of the argument, with the one God declared to be in three persons. But whatever the content of cautionary comment and formal Trinitarian theology, the general tendency would still have been to regard God the Father Almighty, the first person of the Holy Trinity, as the Supreme Being, with Jesus and the Holy Ghost occupying different but related roles.
In recent times, however, doubts have set in. According to the Bible, God – normally thought of as the Supreme Being – manifests himself through a series of miraculous events. These appear to have stopped. Actions nowadays occur in accord with scientific laws, or not at all. It can still be argued that God, the Supreme Being, was responsible for creating everything in the first place, but even that claim to very distant action has become contentious.
In any case, that is only part of the difficulty. Belief in God, the Supreme Being, is not chiefly about solving the intellectual puzzle of the origin of the universe. It is about morality, love, forgiveness, and the hope that they are something more than local human inventions. God is thought of, or at least hoped for, as the Supreme Being in whom these characteristics are vested and thereby rendered absolute. Present also is the hope for life beyond death, with God, the Supreme Being, regarded as the essential agent.
For many people in the Western world, however, schooled to seek objective truth, belief that God, the Supreme Being, is caring and compassionate, is difficult to sustain when confronted with the consequences of natural disaster and disease. Anglican (and other) Churches tend to avoid considering whether God is directly responsible for the state of nature, and to focus instead on efforts that Christians should undertake in the relief of suffering. But for those whose beliefs are determined predominantly in the world outside the Church, that is not going to be enough. Characteristic is the view of a young businessman that ‘God is either good but not very mighty, or mighty but not very good’. Implicit in his assertion is the thought that perhaps God, the Supreme Being, is not there at all. Beings do things, and if the divine being fails to do things when most wanted, then how can we be certain that he is really there at all? Perhaps he is no more than the product of our imagination and desire.
These problems with belief in God as a being can be countered, and for those in the pew the traditional beliefs will often continue to satisfy. But for many others, particularly in the secular Western world, the difficulties will remain cogent, and this has led to a search for different ways of thinking about God. This is a field in which Anglican theologians have been particularly prominent. Their endeavour was first brought to public notice in Honest to God by Bishop John Robinson1, and it has been vigorously continued by Bishop John Shelby Spong2 in his challenging book, Why Christianity must change or die. At the beginning of this text the question was framed: is God a being or the nature of being? As put, the alternatives are simplistic. In a broader exploration, God is also identified as the depth of being, the ground of being, and ultimate concern. The common objective in each case is to withdraw from the thought of God as a being, without simultaneously abandoning belief in God altogether. Proponents of such ideas are wont to proffer them as straightforward and credible alternatives to traditional belief – a radical form of Christianity, better suited to modern Western society. Unfortunately, these ideas bring their own problems, although they are not always recognised. An attempt will be made in the ensuing text not only to analyse the difficulties but also to offer a possible way through them.
In framing an alternative approach to belief in God, the problem of meaning is bound to arise. Whilst the idea of ‘a being’ is straightforward enough, the related concept of ‘being’ is subtler, and its use in a religious context can create confusion and obscurity. Trying to be clear, ‘being’ is a near synonym of ‘existence’, although there is a tendency to restrict ‘being’ to individuals – human beings – and apply the term ‘existence’ to things and individuals in the wider context. Elementarily, existence or being as applied to a thing or an individual is simply the difference between something or nothing. It is the property that an object or individual must possess before having any other properties. For example, there is no point in asking whether an object is large or heavy if it does not exist! But if the term ‘being’ is used only in this limited sense, then expressions like ‘ground of being’ or ‘depth of being’ are of questionable meaning. In the first instance, an entity either exists or it does not. If it does, then it can have other properties, including perhaps a ground or a depth, but they are more straightforwardly described as properties of the entity itself, not the being of the entity.
There is, however, another meaning for ‘being’ (or ‘existence’). It can mean the totality of all that exists – the whole jolly lot! That can be more productive, but it too presents a difficulty. If being is everything that exists, and God is being, then the direct outcome is a simple and rather pointless pantheism. God is whatever is! Why not restrict talk to whatever is, and leave God out? It is in resolving this problem that proponents reach towards the idea that God is not just being, but the depth of being or the ground of being. To follow this line of thought, however, we need to consider whether, in this deliberately broader sense, being can have a ground or depth, and whether we can also reasonably maintain that such a ground or depth is gracious. Only if we can give positive answers to both questions will it be proper to claim that being itself is gracious, and express that belief by saying that the ground of being is God.
Intent, Creation and First Cause
This leads us to an immediate problem, which is that of intent. If we are disposed to think that existence is gracious, presumably we would not expect it to be so as a matter of chance. It follows that the graciousness of existence must be the subject of intent. How is this to be explained without the doctrine of a distinct creator, the Supreme Being, to whom the intent belongs? There is no easy answer. If existence is gracious, but not by the intent of a distinct creator, it seems that the intent must be internal and integral to existence itself. But if the origin of existence is thought of in merely physical terms – the ‘Big Bang’ – then it becomes virtually impossible to see how this could be. In searching for an alternative to belief in a Supreme Being, we shall have to regard the ‘Big Bang’ as just the visible physical aspect of the origin of existence, and assume that other mental or spiritual aspects were also present from the beginning. We can then hope to discover the presence of purposive grace contained within these further elements of existence.
To explore the problems that attach to this broader notion, it is helpful to begin with an illustration obtained from individual physical objects. According to our common scientific understanding, every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a gravitational force. Gravity is therefore a property of physical objects, part of the nature of being that applies to all physical objects. But if there were only one particle in existence, gravity would become irrelevant. For gravity to exercise its vital and familiar role in characterising existence, many billions of particles are needed. To apply a corresponding argument to individuals, the existence of human beings is characterised by a range of interpersonal relations. But if a single person were stranded on the proverbial desert island and never met another human being, interpersonal relations would become irrelevant to his being. Greatly to extend this form of argument, it is not enough to claim that God can be found in relation to being or existence, unless the critical importance is also understood of there being in existence a vast assembly of beings and things, as well as their properties and relations.
To emphasise this point, consider an argument put forward by Bishop Spong.
“There is no God external to life. God, rather, is the inescapable depth and centre of all that is. God is not a being superior to all other beings. God is the Ground of Being itself”3.
At risk of being a little trivial about it, suppose not very much exists. Then God is the inescapable depth and centre of not very much. That is not an encouraging thought! Furthermore, if the actual succession of events and the presence of persons is the subject of an origin with a wholly physical explanation – which is what science based arguments often offer – then God can only be the Ground of Being of whatever the physical action generates. Clearly this is an inadequate doctrine. Problematic as it may be, it seems that we do still need to think of God as creator as well the purposive gracious ground of being. This brings us to the mystery of first cause, a mystery which applies inescapably to all arguments about existence and creation, irrespective of any particular way of thinking about God.
Basically, we baulk at the notion of existence as its own first cause and purpose. For that matter we baulk at the idea of anything as its own first cause. The ‘Big Bang’ is not only a singular physical event, it also constitutes a kind of philosophical and psychological divide. From the moment of the ‘Big Bang’ onward, every physical event has a perceivable cause, and, if anything is done for a purpose, the origin of that purpose can be found (at least in theory) within the span of previous life, thought and physical existence. But of the ‘Big Bang’ itself, no immediate account can be given either of its cause or its purpose. This leaves us with three possibilities. The first is that existence in its entirety began with a ‘Big Bang’ that was complete in its physical self, and was an unconscious purposeless happening. If we are unhappy with that answer, then either we have to think of existence as somehow containing its own first cause and motivation, or we must move the first cause and purpose and ascribe them to someone else.
Outside this article, the tendency is to focus upon the first and third possibilities. That is to say, the argument has been between those who regard the ‘Big Bang’ as the unconscious internally induced physical beginning of existence and those who ascribe the ‘Big Bang’ to the creator God, the Supreme Being. Those who wish to think of God as the gracious nature of existence normally stay out of the argument. But that will not do – at least not if such an idea is to make serious headway in spiritual considerations. So, in what follows, we will have to accept the complications that arise from having three different possibilities to examine. The objective of course is limited to attempts at showing what is reasonable and credible. The subject is metaphysics with an Anglican flavour, not Anglican doctrine. As such, the hope is that it may resonate with ideas emanating from the liberal wing of the Anglican Churches, and may also be of relevance to those whose spiritual lives belong principally if not entirely in the secular world. But the metaphysical function itself remains strictly limited.
As previously remarked, we have great difficulties with the idea of the ‘Big Bang’ as an unconscious purposeless physical happening. Even without the desire to consider the graciousness of being, a physical event out of nothing as its own first cause seems desperately hard to explain. Nevertheless, in some notable scientific circles, it is an idea that is gaining ground. The headline on a recent front page of the Times put it emphatically: “Hawking: God did not create Universe”4. Immediately below the headline came the explanatory words, “The Big Bang was inevitable consequence of laws of physics, says Britain’s most eminent scientist”. This presaged the publication of Professor Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design5. Unsurprisingly, Professor Richards Dawkins wasted no time in expressing his enthusiastic support6. Equally swift was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who penned an abrupt rebuttal. After this initial flurry, comments have quietened a little, but almost certainly the argument initiated by “Britain’s most eminent scientist” is going to run and run.
There are two points to consider. Taking the lesser one first, no one can build an argument without having some kind of basis or framework. In reaching his negative conclusion, Hawking made use of a whole series of assumptions. Furthermore, the particular branch of mathematical physics that he applied, M theory, is exceptional in that validation of its assumptions and ideas by experiment is extraordinarily difficult. To some extent, Hawking’s approach can be thought of as a return to the ways of classical Greece, where hypotheses and theories were constructed with little concern for experiments to justify the assumptions or test the results. This is bound to create difficulties for Hawking’s scientific contemporaries. Some of the ideas of M theory – existence involving eleven dimensions and bodies characterised by strings so extraordinarily small that they make an electron appear vast – will struggle hard for common acceptance. Given such uncertainties, there is a case in the short term to withhold judgment. In the absence of experimental justification, it can reasonably be claimed that arguments around M theory are more philosophical and mathematical than scientific. If this point is accepted, it will not invalidate Hawking’s argument, but will in due course render it susceptible to different kinds of criticism.
Of greater significance, however, is the question of scientific outreach. It is our common experience that the physical universe exhibits patterns and regularities, and the basic assumption underpinning the entire scientific enterprise is that this characteristic applies everywhere. Within this common understanding, the function of specific branches of science is to record, codify and explain the various patterns and regularities, seeking to do so with at least sufficient rigour to provide for accurate prediction.
But is the whole of reality scientific in this broad and general sense? What of ourselves? What of mental or spiritual life? More closely, what of free will, responsibility, decision making and moral choice? Are these susceptible to scientific explanation? It is contended that they are not – indeed cannot be – although this is a point that often passes unremarked.
In explanation, the regularities of the physical world are normally accounted for by laws that are either deterministic (Newtonian) or probabilistic ( belonging to Quantum Theory). Broadly speaking, deterministic laws apply in the common scale of observation, probabilistic laws in the sub-atomic world of minute particles. In situations where determinism applies, scientific law permits only a single course of action to stem from a given starting point. It follows that a decision, implying as it does a choice between at least two distinct courses of action, is unable to be accounted for by scientific law.
This is quite straightforward, yet in large measure it is simply overlooked. When it is considered, it is often dismissed by asserting that, what appears to an individual to be a decision, is actually an inevitable response to a particular stimulus and brain state. Upon that argument, free will and decision-making are simply myths we tell to each other in order to account for the unseen physical and chemical activities of our brains. (Upon this argument, none of us has any choice about the myth making, of course!)
A subtler argument appeals to Quantum Theory to explain decisions. What an individual regards as his decision (between two possibilities, say) is actually the chance outcome of two quantum probabilities. But a simple example indicates the failure of this approach. If a coin is spun, there is a one in two chance of its landing ‘heads’. But if a person chooses to place it ‘heads’, no chance is involved. Chance and choice are not the same thing, although sometimes they appear indistinguishable after the event. Ultimately, persisting with the attempt to subsume choice into chance can only lead back to the assertion that free will and decision making are myths. It has to be claimed that quantum probabilities apply, but we are not aware of them, and continue mistakenly to believe that we are acting out of free will.
Neither as individuals nor as members of society will many of us be prepared to accept such a line of argument. We are personally aware that we do have the power to make decisions, and we hold that we are spiritual beings with the capacity for moral choice. We are not willing to be told that our behaviour is just the inevitable consequence of our brain structure, or that good and evil acts are no more than inescapable responses to different arrangements of atoms. We recognise from our own introspection and experience a fundamental distinction between a person who makes decisions and an object that can only obeys physical laws.
To return to the original issue, it must follow that whilst physical science is of great importance in human affairs, it is not without its boundaries. Within our nature as human beings there is a further and greater reality that is beyond the reach of scientific regularity and law. Whatever the final outcome of Professor Hawking’s claims for M theory, they will apply only in the physical domain, leaving unanswered the questions concerning the greater reality that lies beyond its span.
There remains a final point to be introduced at this stage. We tend to think of existence as things or beings existing in time and space. But it is also possible to extend our thoughts beyond the ‘box’ of time and space, and recognise that existence, in an overarching sense, can be understood as time, space, and everything else, not just the everything else! Theists will wish to say that they quite understand this point, and will readily agree that God, the Supreme Being, is beyond and above the time and space of which he is the creator. But, in this context, it is also reasonable to express the hope that God is the gracious creative nature and purpose of existence, suffusing existence, incorporating the dimensions of time and space, but beyond identification as any single being that we can find or conceive.
Natural and Supernatural
Much of the activity that we see around us in the world falls into the category that we would term ‘natural’. That is to say, we believe that it accords with the laws of natural science. These laws are either deterministic, one state of affairs following inevitably from another, or at least probabilistic, with one state of affairs following another in accord with a particular probability distribution. Miracles are clearly outside this framework, although their existence may be questioned. As just remarked, however, many events involving personal existence and decision making also lie beyond the span of natural law, and these too can fairly be termed ‘supernatural’. Having once breached the boundary of natural existence in this way, it swiftly transpires that human behaviour gives to the supernatural a much greater presence in our affairs than is commonly appreciated.
It is a moot point whether the ‘Big Bang’ should also be regarded as a supernatural event. What can be said without re-entering the earlier controversy is that either physical existence came first in the form of the ‘Big Bang’, with life and purposive behaviour emerging later, or the ‘Big Bang’ itself was generated by an initial purposive power. In the latter case, the ‘Big Bang’ may have been a solely physical event when it happened, but it was the subject of an intent that included the potential for the emergence of individual purposeful beings. If we admit to ideas of this kind, then the ‘Big Bang’ must be viewed as just the visible physical aspect of the origin of existence. Creation was a supernatural event wrought by a mental or spiritual agency distinct from but interacting with the physical universe.
Finally, there is the question of human conception and birth. It may seem strange to suggest that the arrival of a new baby should include a supernatural element (except in the form of human decision making). But whilst the conception of the embryo results from decisions involving physical sexual activities, the identity and subjectivity of the new person are not of the parents choosing. The process through which individual human beings come into existence includes intercourse, gestation and birth, but the particular person is not designed or created by human decision. Unless therefore we subscribe to the notion that the mental is wholly determined by the physical, the emergence of the new mental and spiritual being belongs outside any natural process. This is not something that is often thought about, probably because the arrival of a new baby involves so many immediate and practical considerations that the opportunity for metaphysical explorations is simply not there. So the presence of a new person may be categorised as a supernatural event, but it is not one that evidently arises from the actions of the Supreme Being. All we can definitely say is that existence is such as to bring into being vast numbers of individual human beings, each possessing the capacity to form purposes and make decisions. We can then ask whether existence as a whole could create purposive beings without itself being purposive. A reasonable answer is probably not!
What emerges from this discussion is that the supernatural has a greater prevalence in our lives than is apparent from immediate observation. It follows that the presence of an agent or agency will be required with the creative capacity to provide for far more than a universe composed merely of physical energy and objects. Interestingly, we tend to argue more about the origin of the physical universe, the ‘Big Bang’, than we do about the arrival of a new person. Probably this is due to an abiding (if misleading) impression that the mental is grounded in the physical, so that a new being is really only the old atoms differently arranged. But if we refuse to be seduced by a physicalism for which there is no proper account, then we must seek a supernatural explanation for the creation of myriads of new human beings – persons who (seemingly) had no previous existence.
Spiritual or Mental Energy
Creative power is manifest both in the ‘Big Bang’ and in the emergence of new human beings – subjective beings with their own spiritual and mental characteristics. It is also evident that existence is complex, possessing many different characteristics and capabilities. One issue therefore concerns the location of the creative power within the complex.
To begin the search, existence includes time, the dimensions of space, the distribution of physical energy and objects, their properties and relations, the dimensions of spirituality and thought, mental (human) beings, their properties and relations, and the interrelations of the physical and the mental. Is the list complete? There seems to be an imbalance in that physical objects utilise physical energy in their actions and interactions, but mental beings are without any corresponding source of mental energy. A casual assumption would be that we use physical energy to fuel our thought processes, but that would require physical energy to behave outside the boundaries of physical law. That is to say, physical energy would have to behave as if it were not physical energy. Suppose instead we think in terms of a spiritual or mental energy that relates to mental beings and connects with the various modes of physical energy whilst still being distinct from them. Where would such a spiritual energy belong within the totality of existence? Could it account for the creative power needed for the ‘Big Bang’ and the emergence of human beings?
As it was the presence of physical energy that prompted thoughts about spiritual or mental energy, it may be helpful to look a little more closely at just how physical energy functions. As Einstein discovered, energy and matter are capable of transformation, one into the other7. Matter is constrained energy, whilst energy is matter released. Either energy or matter is a primitive of existence. Suppose that in a given space there are a certain number of material objects – objects composed of matter – together with a diffusion of separate energy, including heat for example. One thing we do not do is to regard the separate heat energy as forming an additional object or objects. Energy acts upon the objects and the objects use energy, but the objects remain distinct. Now let us apply these thoughts by analogy to mental (human) beings and spiritual energy. The spiritual or mental aspects of existence comprise spiritual or mental energy and individual mental beings, with the latter composed of the former. Spiritual energy thus exists in two modes – free or constrained, with the latter forming individual mental beings. It is a characteristic of individual mental beings – human beings – that they possess free will and can establish their own purposes. They utilise spiritual or mental energy in the process. Existence in its totality also has its character and purposes, and these are expressed through the pervasive action of free spiritual energy, as well as the active presence of a myriad of individuals.
Moving far beyond the previous analogy, but noting the capacity of mental beings to interact and impose themselves upon the physical world, the further constructive thought can now be proffered that it is free spiritual energy that constitutes both its own first cause and the creative power that induced the ‘Big Bang’. That spiritual energy can be creative is evident by extrapolation from its role in human creativity. On the basis of the previous argument, the ownership of first cause is more convincingly placed with spiritual energy than physical energy, and, as has also been pointed out, it must be placed somewhere! There emerges, however, an awkward point. Is all this really only word play: the reinstatement of God the Father Almighty, the Supreme Being, under the new name of spiritual energy? In fact, there is a crucial difference. Spiritual energy is both purposive and creative, the constituent of existence out of which individual (human) beings are formed. But spiritual energy is not one spiritual being among others, any more than the presence of free physical energy constitutes an extra object among objects.
There remains the critical issue of the graciousness of existence. The starting point for this whole discussion was the question of whether God was a gracious being or the graciousness of being. A lengthy pursuit of the second alternative has led finally to spiritual energy, which is thought of as being purposive and creative, and the source of individual mental/spiritual beings. But can we reasonably believe that spiritual energy is gracious as well as creative?
The argument is not straightforward. As we already seen, the presence of natural disaster and disease puts a serious obstacle in the path of those who wish to believe that the creator is gracious. Regarding the creative power as coming from spiritual energy rather than the Supreme Being modifies the problem – prayers of petition no longer have the same edge – but otherwise the moral dilemma is still the same, and may reduce belief to hope or even remove it altogether. Nor is that the only issue. Individual beings – human beings – formed out of spiritual energy possess the capacity to behave in a gracious manner. Their thoughts, fuelled by spiritual energy, include ideas of grace and aspirations for the triumph of love. It follows that spiritual energy itself must include grace among its characteristics. So far, so good, but that does not complete the exploration. Human beings have a host of other characteristics, not all of them attractive. Given that the ultimate source of human beings and human activity is spiritual or mental energy, what are its dominant characteristics? Whatever they are, they will chiefly determine the nature of existence. The reality is that we do not have a certain answer. We can argue that spiritual or mental energy is not only purposive and creative but also includes grace among its characteristics. We can go on to hope that grace is the principal dominant characteristic. Some of us may extend these hopes to actual beliefs, but ultimately we cannot be sure. If we are drawn to this line of argument, then to some degree we must live with uncertainty.
There is further aspect of this argument that has not yet been put. We have considered the concept of a spiritual power that is the origin of all things and all beings, and extended the concept with the desire that the spiritual power should also be holy. We engage in such ideas partly because of our own nature. We have it within ourselves to be just, righteous, loving, forgiving and merciful – as well as a lot of other less desirable things. But, in addition, we have an aspiration – for a life beyond death, for a coming together with those whom we love. To meet that aspiration, our hope or belief in the nature of being must extend beyond raw creative power to caring and compassion. As previously discussed, the problem is that the natural world, the world of our common and scientific observation, is thoroughly ambivalent where these issues are concerned. We live in an environment in which accident, disease, suffering and death are inescapable, both for human beings and for the other creatures that inhabit the earth. They suggest the possibility that whatever agency is responsible for creation is (at best) indifferent to human suffering? There is no easy response, but belief in an afterlife and the further opportunities it could bring offers the possibility of the alternative view. But an afterlife is what many of us have the desire to believe in anyway, and it is what drives much of our religious concern. We reach therefore a tightly constrained outcome. If spiritual energy is both mighty and good, then it becomes a convincing agency for an afterlife; put the other way round, belief in the afterlife allows the possibility of finding grace as well as creativity in the character of spiritual energy. So the two hopes or beliefs are bound closely together. Neither is assured, but they support each other and can be brought together within the bounds of a modern metaphysic.
Finally, in this context, a distinction is drawn between use of the expressions ‘spiritual energy’ and ‘mental energy’. ‘Spiritual energy’ is offered as the more hopeful title, carrying with it ‘intimations of immortality’. In contrast, the title ‘mental energy’ is intended as more earth-bound and neutral, holding no broader implications. In other respects, however, the two expressions have the same connotation. With this distinction duly recorded, we are now in a position to lay out a modern metaphysic, a metaphysic building upon Anglican liberal thought and taking due account of the modern approach to knowledge and truth. As will be evident from what has gone before, it cannot be assured, but it will aim to meet the contemporary tests of rationality and scientific understanding.
The starting point is that our thoughts operate in a mental domain, and that we inhabit bodies existing in a physical domain – the natural universe – so that reality is dual. Excepting mental interaction, the behaviour of the physical universe is regular, determined by physical law. Starting from this position and making immediate use of the ideas of spiritual energy as just developed, we ask how it all began, how it all works, what is it for, and where is it leading? No certain answers are available, but here in outline is a modern metaphysic.
Being began as spiritual energy, living, purposive, creative and benign. Spiritual energy was its own first cause, and the first cause of time, space and physical energy – the physical universe originating in the ‘Big Bang’. The universe developed in accordance with natural laws devolving from spiritual energy. Material objects formed out of physical energy, living cells emerged from the combination of matter and energy (both spiritual and physical), and complex organisms evolved from single cells. The sequence of life and death for living organisms was established as an inescapable fact of their physical existence.
Spiritual energy is not a being, but is the gracious creative source of all beings. Spiritual energy forms the ‘material’ of mental beings, human beings, new subjective persons created at the conception or birth of the human body. Human beings inhabit their bodies, and interact with the physical world and with one another through their bodies. Because human beings are formed directly out of spiritual energy they participate in an existence that extends beyond the physical domain of life and death into a world of eternal spiritual reality. Human beings choose their own purposes and make their own decisions, but do so within a framework of existence that has the purposes of spiritual energy as its dominant theme.
Notwithstanding the very different terminology, these statements constitute a contemporary development from the ideas of benign creation that are part implicit, part explicit, in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. They exclude the historical elements and many of the moral considerations of the Biblical texts, but endeavour to take account of modern understandings of truth and the recent developments of science. What they highlight are two key assertions that are brought into immediate relationship with one another. The first is that spiritual energy is indeed gracious and benign, so that the highest human aspirations for the fulfilment of love align with its over-riding purpose. The second is that human life does extend beyond the known physical world into a world of eternal spiritual reality.
The metaphysic given above was by no means minimal, nor was the decision to use the expression ‘spiritual energy’ instead of ‘mental energy’ merely casual. A minimal statement, based upon similar ideas, would begin neutrally by referring to mental energy, omitting any claim that it is benign, and would conclude without any mention of spiritual reality. It would stand nevertheless as a credible account of existence, over and against the notion that a wholly physical ‘Big Bang’ was its own first cause, and that life and mental existence emerged from a mindless distribution of physical energy and matter.
But what has actually been offered goes a great deal further. The assertions relating to spiritual energy declare it to be benign as well as creative and purposeful. Together with the statements affirming human spiritual nature and purpose, they align the metaphysic with the religious hope for the fulfilment of love beyond physical death. Yet for all its ambition, the metaphysic itself makes no mention of God. Is that because there is really nothing more to say, because what has been asserted about spiritual energy renders it synonymous with God?
In framing an answer, we need to take into account the limited role of a metaphysic. It seeks to give an intellectual account of the greater reality that embraces our life and world. To do so it both simplifies and categorises. In this particular case, the expression ‘spiritual energy’ is being used to bring spiritual matters within the span of modern understanding. In so doing, the term is distinguished from ‘mental energy’, which has a more limited connotation. In contrast to this process of careful definition, if we choose to speak of God as the benign creative power of being, we do so in recognition of our own intellectual and experiential limits. We accept that there are mental heights beyond our comprehension, and depths of being that we cannot fathom. There is too, the question of personal commitment. The function of a metaphysic is to explain. It does not include a call for any particular form of behaviour. But when we think of God or pray to God it would be most unusual not to have any regard for behaviour or morality. The differences are subtle, but as far as possible the expression ‘spiritual energy’ has been used in this text only in the restricted sense of giving an explanation. In one critical respect, however, consistency requires a common constraint. Whilst there may be a choice of terms in which to express ideas, they all deliberately exclude the notion of a Supreme Being whose active participation can be sought or found in human affairs. On the basis of this modern metaphysic, life on earth has to be lived according to its contingent nature, without the support or intrusion of an active divine being. It does, however, include the hope of an afterlife sustained by the notion of an existence extending beyond the physical frame into a greater spiritual reality.
1 John A T Robinson, Honest to God, SCM Paperback, 1963
2 John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Harper San Francisco, 1998
3 John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Harper San Francisco, 1998, Ch 4, P 70
4 The Times, 2 September 2010
5 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Press, 2010
6 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Black Swan, 2006.
7 Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc², shows the equivalence of mass and energy. The equation appeared in a supplement to his paper of 1905 that introduced the ideas of relativity. In the equation, E represents energy, m mass and c the speed of light.