Modern Doctrines of God
Kenneth Cauthen

These themes have been developed by Kenneth Cauthen over the past 30+ years - see Science, Secularization and God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), 90-194, and Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997), 77-107.

A concept of God can begin at many places. I begin with a search for ultimate origins. Two complementary approaches can be taken: The personal: Where did I come from? The cosmic: Where did the evolving, life-producing world come from?

PERSONAL: A quest for God appropriately begins with a two-fold basic experience. The first is the amazement that we are. The most immediate and self-verifying knowledge that we have is the consciousness of our own existence. This realization arises out of the contrast between the undeniable fact that we are "really here" and the recognition that we might not have been at all. Reflection and observation leads to the certainty that there will come a time when we will cease to be. There was a past when we were not, a present when we are, and a future in which we will no longer be. Out of this shock and astonishment arises the question of the factually ultimate origin of this coming to be and passing away. The formal answer to this question is God. To speak of God is to refer to the primordial, objective ground of our personal being. I experience my life as a gift from beyond myself from an Ultimate Source that I call God. The second deep experience is the awareness that it is good to be. The primal response to the gift of life is joy in being. We experience our existence as potentially and essentially good, i. e., capable of producing enjoyable, desirable, and satisfying experiences. The processes of life that fulfill the potential of the organism are experienced as pleasing and agreeable. Goodness is coincident with being. Life with its promise of happiness and joy is a gift to us from some Ultimate Mystery. The delight and ecstasy of life at its best point toward a Loving Giver of what comes to us a pure unmerited favor, grace.

COSMIC: Science tells us that our present world has evolved over billions of years from a "big bang." Moreover, the evolutionary process has produced many forms of life. Organisms are highly organized systems composed of mutually sustaining, interacting parts whose harmonious functioning sustains the life of the whole in ways that tend to actualize the potential within it. The processes of life are internally directed toward the survival and flourishing of the individual organism and the perpetuation of the species. The universe appears to have a life-producing, life-fulfilling, and life-reproducing urge and capacity. Moreover, new forms of life have emerged over long periods of time hinting at a tendency toward novel complexity aimed at increasing the range and depth of possible experiences. The process that produced the first living cell and finally eventuated in the appearance of human beings with their marvelous capacities for thinking, feeling, and creating indicates a purposive element at work in the cosmos that requires explanation.

Hence, the emergence of life, its evolution toward novel forms of complexity, and its goodness require explication by reference to primordial factors prior to and resident in the cosmic process. A theory is needed that explains the experienced world and our own experience of what it is to be a living being. My intuition is that the universe is in the business of producing life and promoting its fulfillment. Life is the process by which the possible becomes actual under the lure of the good. Hence, I project this observation and experience into the primordial situation as a way of developing a doctrine of God explanatory of the world as known to us in experience. I believe that the fact of evolving life and its experienced quality of goodness can plausibly be explained by reference to a trinity of factors incorporated into a di-polar version of naturalistic panentheism.

A doctrine of God must provide a plausible explanation of the evolving cosmos and the experienced goodness of life that accompanies the self-awareness of our own existence. What factors must be presupposed (logically and ontologically but not necessarily temporally) to account for the world as known to us in experience? The following is an attempt to specify at least the minimal conditions essential to the process that generated the presently actual universe. Let us postulate that God has a dual nature: the UNCREATED and the CREATED. The UNCREATED refers to the ultimate, original, unoriginated factors that account for everything else. The CREATED refers to the temporal, emergent "everything else," i. e., the presently actual world, that originates from the UNCREATED. My assumption is that the UNCREATED cannot be accounted for but must be accepted as a brute given that confronts us as absolute mystery. However, the UNCREATED must be presupposed in order to account for the CREATED.

The view I find most satisfactory is that the UNCREATED factors are EROS, POSSIBILITY, and THE GOOD. EROS (Love, Desire) is the powerful, active urge to actualize POSSIBILITY in quest of THE GOOD. POSSIBILITY refers to whatever can be or become. THE GOOD is ideal possibility or what normatively fulfills or satisfies EROS. EROS unites with POSSIBILITY to generate the most primitive sequence of actualities that could arise ex nihilo. Some scientists have speculated recently that the universe may have ultimately come into being out of nothing. Others suggest that perhaps it has no beginning nor end but just is. My attempt is to specify the necessary UNCREATED factors that made creation possible, i. e., initiated something from nothing, leaving it as an open question as to whether the world is temporally finite or everlasting. Whether space-time is primordial and uncreated or among the first creations I do not know. Mythically, I imagine that space-time is the first child of EROS and POSSIBILITY. In some sequence, however, in our cosmic background, the possible begins to become actual under the lure of the good. Hence, there emerges the space-time/matter-energy continuum and with it the evolving cosmic process that has brought the presently actual world into being. Somewhere in this process occurs the "big bang" that scientists describe as the beginning of our cosmic era. This emergent process (the world) is what I call the CREATED. GOD includes both the UNCREATED and the CREATED. My idea of the relationship between POSSIBILITY and THE GOOD is akin to that in Plato's thought between the Forms and The Good. Alfred North Whitehead is my primary 20th century mentor.

The doctrine of God sketched here is an imaginative construct that seeks to account for the presently actual world by reference to the underlying factors that constitute the realm of ultimacy and that are necessary to account for the known cosmic process. I cannot think away POSSIBILITY (the sum total of all entities and arrangements individually and in all their combinations that could become actual). However, mere POSSIBILITY cannot generate a creative process of becoming. That role is played by EROS, the hunger (desire) for actualization that fulfills. Whatever fulfills desire is good . However, for there to be a continuing process of creation in which actualities can be organized harmoniously in ways that enable emergent actualities to survive and prosper, reference must be made to THE GOOD. THE GOOD is the principle of harmonious organization and progressive actualization. Primordially, with nothing to build on, I imagine that the first or an early emergent was space-time sequentially evolving into the space-time/matter-energy continuum and the emerging cosmic process that produced on earth human beings who could wonder where they came from. At each stage and in very moment and situation, the presently actual sets the limits of what is possible, i. e., what can become actual , in the immediate future.

Difficult questions arise with respect to the status of EROS, POSSIBILITY, and THE GOOD prior to or independently of creation. What meaning can they have without reference to concrete contexts and processes? The terms make more sense when considered as factors operative within actual events and beings. For that reason it appears better to assume that the priority of the UNCREATED to the CREATED is logical and ontological but not necessarily temporal. Perhaps it is better to assume that the world has no beginning in time. Notorious difficulties have arisen in the history of thought whether the world is said to have a finite or an infinite past. It is beyond my competence to resolve the dilemmas, antinomies, and complexities involved. Nevertheless, conceptual adequacy is better served if it is assumed that the processes by which EROS drives toward the actualization of POSSIBILITY under the lure of THE GOOD always occur in some specific contextual embodiments, i. e., in actual beings, the sum total of which constitutes the real world. EROS, POSSIBILITY, and THE GOOD point to factors with the Cosmic Life of God, i. e., the divine body. Within this most universal and inclusive setting, they stand in analogy with their reality and functioning within finite life processes at every level from subatomic particles to human beings and the expanding galaxies. To speak of creation ex nihilo, then, means that the CREATED is utterly dependent on the UNCREATED for its being and for its dynamic, creative, value-producing, self-transcending character. This does not necessarily imply a moment in the past when the world literally began to be. Speculative thought at this level provides no certainty. Agnosticism is the only defensible posture for human beings with regard to Ultimate Mystery. Nevertheless, it is useful for purposes of understanding and for coping with life to have some workable theory about ultimates based on our experience of what the actual world is like and might reasonably require as its final explanation.

I conclude, then, that the cosmos exhibits patterns of meaning and purpose that suggest that at the base of all things is a Creativity (the union of EROS, POSSIBILITY, and THE GOOD) that has the character of goodness, best described as love. As a Christian, I believe this to be the heart of the biblical witness. Life is a gift of God, to whom we owe gratitude, praise, and cooperation in actualizing the goodness that is potential in the gift of life. The universe is in the business of producing life and bringing it to fulfillment. Life is the process of actualizing potential in quest of the good that produces enjoyment in living beings. I follow Alfred North Whitehead in supposing that all actual entities at whatever level of existence right down to the most primitive have a life-like quality, i. e., that they are experiencing subjects at least at some elementary level. He maintains that the key notion from which cosmology should start is that "the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life." [Modes of Thought (1938), 232]

Hence, I take life to be the central category of cosmology, theology, and ethics. God is the Uncreated Life who creates life and directs it toward fulfillment. Created life is within God and may be thought of metaphorically as the body of God. Ethics is the theory of the good life intended by God and sought by all creatures. God is continually active in the world seeking to actualize the ideal possibilities in all life. Whitehead said that all living beings are driven by a three-fold urge: "to live, to live well, and to live better." This urge is eros, the hunger for the good. God works in and through this urge, this drive in life toward fulfillment. Good achieved or being achieved is experienced as enjoyment. God's purpose is to create life and to bring it to the highest possible fulfillment. Life is driven by eros toward the good. The good attracts eros with a promise of fulfillment, enjoyment, and satisfaction.

One further dimension must be added. While potentially and essentially good, life is actually and existentially ambiguous. Life is a mixture of good and evil. Over every moment hangs the threat of meaninglessness, disruption, suffering, and death. Moreover, the evolutionary process is also marked with ambiguity. Species have emerged in what appears to be a blind, groping manner and not in a fashion that points to an omnipotent purpose with a definite plan. Moreover, the dysteleological aspects are appalling, even calling into question the goodness of God. Many observers have noted the happenstance, contingency, waste, cruelty, death, and horror of the proceedings and the apparent indifference of the process to the weak and helpless, allowing the strong to flourish and the unadapted to perish. The recognition of the ambiguity at the human and cosmic levels leads me to a doctrine of a God perfect in goodness and intention but limited in power and competence. God works opportunistically in and through human freedom and the law-abiding processes of nature to achieve the best that is possible under given circumstances. The purposive aims of God are manifest in the eros in all of life that drives toward actualization of the potential for being and goodness.

Life is an adventure full of promise but also full of peril. Good and evil are both part of our experience. Evil is the frustration or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in living beings (human and animal). It is experienced as suffering. Evil arises when sentient actualities (1) fail to achieve or lose organized stability and/or maximum actualization of their potential for enjoyment for internal reasons or (2) undergo destructive conflicts with entities external to them. Evil, then, in the most comprehensive sense is the disruption or destruction of a potential for enjoyment in sentient beings, especially animals and humans. Hence, evil is not primordial but emergent and occurs when a possibility for good is frustrated or destroyed. Given the nature of finitude and the complexity of organization that enjoyment in organisms requires, evil can and will most probably occur. Sentient beings are vulnerable to destruction because of internal failure and external conflict.

Do I have any reason to believe that these ideas are true? I do not find the notion of truth as correspondence to reality useful when dealing with ultimate matters. How could one possibly test theories about God to assign marks of true or false to them and get any results that one could be certain about? Rival doctrines confront and eliminate each other in endless rounds of debate. I am a pragmatist. Theories are worthy of belief by particular persons if they are useful to them in accounting for known relevant evidence in the most compelling fashion and in providing a way of coping with life's problems and challenges. Theories can be tested in life in terms of whether in the light of all considerations they produce coherent doctrines that harmoniously integrate available evidence in the most productive way and lead to satisfying consequences. Theories become more plausible if they fit with all our other beliefs and lead to further insights that can be incorporated into a consistent whole. Obviously, some interpreter must collect the evidence, put it together in theories, and test them by stated criteria. We cannot judge whether such theories correspond to reality, but we can make tentative claims about their usefulness in promoting understanding and the good life for all. The only thing one can claim is that a theory about God represents the best one knows from all available sources up to now, while remaining open to further insight. Exponents of competing doctrines can engage in conversation, critically and constructively conducted, in search of mutual edification that ideally leads all parties toward greater appreciation of each other and to more profound theoretical constructions.

Such, in brief, is how I arrive at the conception of God so fragmentarily hinted at on this page. It sustains itself in my thinking to the extent that it can organize the totality of my experience and provide a way of coping with life in a satisfactory way. Does it describe reality correctly? Probably not, but it is the alternative that is most compelling, and I have considered and rejected many other options as honestly as I could given my meager intellectual power and limited experience.

© 1997

About the author...
Kenneth Cauthen is the John Price Crozer Griffith emeritus Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. He is the author of twenty books, including The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, which was the standard text in the field for a quarter of a century. Born in Georgia, he was educated at Mercer, Yale, Emory, and Vanderbilt, receiving a BA, BD, MA and PhD. He has served as Baptist pastor, college professor at Mercer University, and as a professor of theology for forty years.

Cauthen is dedicated to defending liberal Christianity. To this end, he runs a web site and a regularly updated blog. He welcomes e-mails responding to his perspective.


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