Open up to God

Anthony Freeman suggests that just as consciousness is an ‘emergent property’ of the brain, so ‘God’ is an emergent property of human consciousness—Anthony Freeman is a priest in the Church of England and managing editor of the 'Journal of Consciousness' Studies.


In a recent article for this magazine (‘Bless my soul’, July 2005) I commended the idea—espoused by a number of contemporary philosophers-of-mind such as John Searle—that consciousness is an emergent feature of the brain. This doctrine of emergence stands midway between two other well-established approaches to the mind-body relationship. These are (1) dualism, long associated with Descartes, which says that mind and body are two quite different kinds of substance, and (2) reductionism, favoured by many scientists, which treats mental states as identical with brain states, or at least explicable in terms of brain function alone.

Emergence combines elements of both these positions, saying that (a) consciousness does have its origins in the brain, but also that (b) the mind is not simply the same thing as the brain. On this account, having ‘emerged’ from the physical body, the conscious mind exhibits new features over and above the sum of its parts, but does so without any added ingredients from outside. Thus it takes on an existence of its own, and has a legitimate place in the external world of bodies and events (something reductionism denies), but cannot altogether be divorced from its physical basis in the brain (something dualism denies).

In my earlier article I developed this approach to suggest that just as Christ’s human mind arose from the complex physiology of his body, especially his brain and nervous system, so his divinity arose from the complex system which was his total humanity. In other words, just as the mind or soul is not an added ingredient to the human body, but an integral and emergent feature of it, so Christ’s divinity is not an added ingredient to his human person, but an integral emergent feature of it.

I now want to take this development beyond Christ’s divinity, and explore the possibility that God is altogether best understood as a high-level emergent property. Just as the human mind is ‘caused by and realised in’ (to use Searle’s expression) the brain, so God results from and is expressed in the physical-and-mental-totality of human beings.

Background Voices

To give my ideas some theological background, consider first a scholar of the last generation who understood the need to think about God in the context of human nature. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner took as his starting point the conviction that openness is the fundamental human characteristic. ‘Man is spirit,’ he wrote, ‘that is, he lives his life in a perpetual reaching out to the Absolute, in openness to God.’ Although his language now sounds old fashioned, Rahner made a crucial move away from treating humanity and divinity as two quite different entities. His concern was to understand the co-existence of humanity and divinity in the single person, Jesus Christ, and he saw the openness of humanity as sufficiently God-like to make the conjunction possible. As he wrote, somewhat scornfully: ‘Only someone who forgets that the essence of man is to be unbounded... can suppose that it is impossible for there to be a man, who, precisely by being man in the fullest sense (which we never attain), is God’s existence in the world.’

Divinity is not seen here as something over against humanity, different from it, or incompatible with it. Quite the reverse: for Rahner, to be human ‘in the fullest sense’ is itself to be ‘God’s presence in the world’. Here is a theological approach that is much more conducive to the concept of emergence than are most interpretations of the God-Man relationship. Moreover it is taking very seriously the old Biblical doctrine that humankind is in God’s image.

Similar views had been published nearly a century and a half earlier by Friedrich Schleiermacher, this time a Protestant scholar, who bears the honorific title ‘father of modern theology’. He spoke of a quality—which he claimed must be present potentially in all humans—that he called ‘God-consciousness’. Any given person’s degree of religious awareness was, in his view, a measure of how far this potential for God-consciousness had become actual; and this quality Schleiermacher thought Jesus must have possessed to a hitherto unknown extent. Here was a theological key to unlock the door barring the way between humanity and divinity. On the one hand, Christ was the final stage in human evolution, so that Schleiermacher could call him ‘the one in whom the creation of human nature, which up to this point had existed only in a provisional state, was perfected’. But this unique degree of God-consciousness resulted in something more. While remaining beyond any question a state of human perfection, its being a state of human perfection gave it an altogether new—indeed a divine—dimension. Thus we find Schleiermacher writing: ‘The Redeemer is like all men in virtue of the identity of his human nature, and distinguished from all by the constant potency of his God-consciousness, which was a veritable existence of God in him.’

The ‘like’ in this quotation is more significant than the ‘distinguished’. Christ’s human nature is like ours absolutely; but the constancy of his God-consciousness distinguishes him from us not absolutely, but only by his being the first. Schleiermacher makes this clear when he writes, ‘As certainly as Christ was a man, there must reside in human nature the possibility of taking up the divine into itself, just as did happen in Christ.’

Here is the nub of the matter. As it stands, the reference to the divine in this last quotation is ambiguous. It could be interpreted to mean that the divine is something external that needs ‘taking up... into’ the human (rather as a sponge takes up water). But it may also be construed in an evolutionary way, as meaning that the break-through to ‘the veritable existence of God in [Christ]’ is a stage—albeit an extraordinary and unique stage—of the natural process of development, with the emergence at key points of new levels of existence. I think this interpretation becomes imperative when we continue with the next sentence so that the quotation reads: ‘As certainly as Christ was a man, there must reside in human nature the possibility of taking up the divine into itself, just as did happen in Christ. So the idea that the divine revelation in Christ must be something in this respect supernatural will simply not stand the test.’

Schleiermacher clearly saw no conflict between ‘perfect human nature’ and ‘the taking up of the divine’, and there seems to be a good match between emergentist philosophy and Schleiermacher’s theology. This is an encouragement to keep an open mind about the nature of God, and to work towards an understanding of it on the basis of St. John’s belief—and Schleiermacher’s and Rahner’s—that it is by looking at Christ’s humanity, and indeed all humanity, that we shall learn what God is like. Can it also open a window on to the origin of God?

God’s Story

It has traditionally been assumed that God is a conscious agent who, before anything existed, created the world as a purposive act. God himself therefore has no ‘origin’. But this is not the only or even the best way to think about God. The account of creation and redemption, related in the bible and creeds, is a story. And within the story, a central character is God, who certainly thinks, decides and acts, as though he had a conscious mind. But that is the character in the story. It is equally true to say of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan that they think, talk, act, etc., but their conscious minds and their actions have no existence outside the parables of Jesus in which they feature. Why should God be any different?

An obvious answer to that question is: ‘Because the universe is there.’ Despite the activities of some dodgy relic-traders in the middle ages, no-one is going to take seriously claims to have the ring given to the Prodigal Son by his father, or the saddle belonging to the Good Samaritan’s donkey. These things only exist in stories, they are fictions. But the universe—so the traditional argument goes—is not a fiction; it is real, and so its creator must be real as well. They are not fictions, they are facts.

This answer may be obvious, but there are serious problems with it. First, even if (pace Don Cupitt) we allow that the physical universe is a fact, it still does not immediately follow that God is also a fact. The logical move from ‘the universe exists’ to ‘God exists’ relies on an argument, going back at least to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, which claims that our contingent world (ie, a world consisting of cause and effect) can only be explained by some original uncaused (or ‘necessary’) reality, namely God. This ‘cosmological argument’ is commonly paired with a related argument, based not on the mere fact of the universe, but on its apparent order and purpose, from which it is deduced that the world must have had a designer, namely God. Such attempts to bridge the gap from the observed world to the mind of God are still popular and can be guaranteed to sell books—especially when produced by reputable scientists such as Paul Davies and John Polkinghorne—but they cannot bear the weight put upon them.

St Thomas’ cosmological argument depends upon our rejecting as unthinkable the possibility that the universe is just ‘there’ as an unexplained fact. But today such a view is not unthinkable, it is exactly what a lot of people do think. The ‘argument from design’ is also flawed. Despite the recently popular argument for intelligent design, based on the ‘fine tuning’ of the fundamental laws of nature, many people question whether the universe does in fact exhibit the good order and design which the argument requires. In any case, to shift from observing order in the universe to proposing a conscious designer is to invent a creation ‘story’—a fiction—with the creator as its leading character, which brings us back to where we started.

So if the traditional creator is just a character in a story, where is creative activity truly to be found? I am reminded of the traditional ‘Irish’ joke: ‘If I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t begin here!’ This joke is funny because we have no choice but to start from ‘here’—from where we are—and we all know it. Yet when the journey is an intellectual or religious quest, we are apt to forget this. In particular, when exploring the concept of a creator, we always try to set out from some mythical location ‘before time began’ or ‘beyond the physical universe’. It can’t be done. The road to God—no less than the road to Dublin—starts here.

For our present purpose, ‘here’ means the civilised West at the start of the twenty-first century, with our current experience and best understanding of human nature, of creativity, and of consciousness. I have said that this contemporary understanding includes the notion of emergence to explain the presence of creative human consciousness, including what Schleiermacher called ‘God consciousness’, defined as ‘a veritable existence of God’ in the human person.

Anyone wishing to retain a traditional understanding of incarnation can interpret this as the meaning a suitably receptive human consciousness becomes the vehicle for the external and eternal God to take up residence within his creation. But Schleiermacher’s words can also be taken in a more radical way, opening up the idea that God (the creator God) actually originates in human God-consciousness. On this view, God is no longer the supernatural agent creating the world from outside, but the ultimate emergent outcome of the natural process of evolution.

In a similar way, for a person or a community of people to ‘open up to God’ would traditionally mean the human person being receptive to the external deity (‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’, etc.). Now it can be taken to mean—adapting Rahner’s terms now, rather than Schleiermacher’s—that when humans are most truly themselves by being totally open to everything, then is God’s existence in the world realised in the sense that only then is it originated.

For those of us brought up on the conventional view of things, it is very hard to take seriously the idea that the creator emerges at the end of the creative process rather than pre-existing it in splendid isolation. Very hard, but not impossible—especially if we have taken on board the necessity to start from ‘here’ in our quest for God, and if we are prepared to join the company of daring but not always popular explorers from the past. Teilhard de Chardin comes to mind, and his concept of God as an evolutionary Omega point seems an appropriate thought with which to end.

Notes on Books

I had written most of the above before coming across the book The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist Hypothesis from Science to Religion, edited by Philip Clayton and Paul Davies (OUP 2006), which I recommend to anyone interested in this subject. Chapter 13 ‘Emergence: What is at stake for religious reflection?’ by Niels Henrik Gregerson is especially relevant, and will help readers to situate the views expressed in this article on the broader map of scientific and theological emergentism.

Theological quotations in this article are from K. Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 1 (Darton, Longman & Todd 1961) and Hearers of the Word (Herder & Herder 1969), and F. Schleiermacher (1989), The Christian Faith (T...lark 1989).

John Searle’s ideas are conveniently summarised, along with those of other philosophers, in his book The Mystery of Consciousness (Granta Books 1997).

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