Monday, November 5, 2012

"God is ... Mind" - Professor Peter Bien

Peter Bien

          We are always told that God is love.  Might we extend this by saying that God is also mind?  Perhaps, although I’m sure that some (even many) will object.
          In exploring this, let’s start from the very beginning: chapter 1 of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  The earth was without form and void.  It can’t be both.  If it is “without form”—that is “formless”—it consists of unformed substance; it is not void.  So, a choice is given here.  Theologians exploit this by saying that God is either volitional (creating something out of nothing, out of a void, by wishing it) or rational (transforming formlessness into form, chaos into cosmos, by an act of intelligence, of mind).  A loving God can wish the universe out of nothing.  But a God who transforms chaos into cosmos needs to be an intellectual power capable of forming the formless.  The editors of the Revised Standard Version prefer rationality over volition, since they declare, “Out of primordial chaos God created an orderly world.”  They declare as well that creation out of nothing was a later doctrine and cite Maccabees 7:28: “. . . look at the sky and the earth.  Consider everything you see there, and realize that God made it all from nothing . . . “.  I, too, prefer the rational God—or why not both rational and volitional?  Let’s give Him or Her a mind for thought, organization, and understanding, as well as a heart for loving. 
          There is still more evidence for mind in Genesis 1.  Remember, “darkness was upon the face of the deep. . . . And God said, ‘Let there be light’ . . .” (verse 3).  But sun, moon, and stars don’t come until verse 16, two day’s later.  I once did an extensive study of the meaning of “light” in Genesis.  I discovered that all the ancient sources equate this light with intelligence, enlightenment—in other words, with mind: the divine power that organizes, giving form to the formless.  The ancients were entirely clear about this.  Listen to Plotinus (3rd century A.D.): “The One [God] remains absolutely at rest, and Intellect springs from it like light from the sun.”  Light here is equated with God’s intellectual energy, the divine Mind that creates differentiation out of undifferentiated chaos, the finite out of the infinite.  Listen also to Saint Thomas Aquinas (13th century): “Brightness . . . agrees with the property of the Son [S-O-N, NOT S-U-N], as the Word, which is the light and splendor of the intellect.”  A modern Biblical scholar concludes that the Word in John’s Gospel, equated with both Light and God, is “the rational principle in the universe, its meaning, plan or purpose.”  Finally, listen to Dante (late 13th, early 14th century): “All that which dies and all that cannot die / Reflect the radiance of that Idea / Which God the Father through His love begets: / That Living Light, which from its radiant Source / Streams forth.”  Here, wonderfully, the two possibilities are joined, light being the “Idea” generated by “love.” Yes, God can be both love and mind.                                       
          The overall topic for this term’s chapel services is “Loving God with Your Mind.”  That’s why I am attracted to Romans 7:25 as an appropriate Biblical verse:  “On my own I can serve God’s law only with my mind, while my human nature serves the law of sin.” Or, as more freely translated in the New English Bible, “I myself, subject to God’s law as a rational being, am yet, in my unspiritual nature, a slave to the law of sin.”  This seems to derive from Stoic philosophy, which greatly influenced early Christian thinkers.  The Stoic view was that God equals nature and that nature is rational.  Accordingly we, imitating God and thereby fulfilling our own natures, should strive to be rational, loving God with our minds.  I qualified this view at the start by saying “Perhaps” and by worrying “that some (even many) will object.”  Indeed Saint Augustine, at the end of the 4th century, did vigorously object to Stoic influence, claiming that it exhibited “an exorbitant belief in the power of human reason and the ability of the wise man to perfect himself,” a belief that “struck at the heart of Christian teaching, by ignoring the Fall and eliminating the need for divine grace”.1  It is hard to argue against Saint Augustine, and furthermore hard to argue against postmodern philosophical thinking with its emphasis on the vagueness and imprecision of everything, on the omnipresence of mutability, the absence of any final point of stability in the swirl of existence.  But I am a Quaker and Quakers really do not place the Fall at the center of Christian belief.  We were of course accused of heresy on this account, perhaps justifiably; nevertheless Quakers in general and I in particular are more attracted to the conviction—at least the hope—that by imitating God we may become capable of thinking and acting rationally.  The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (ca. A.D. 50–130), whose ultimate guru was Socrates, put it this way: “Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered.  And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”2
          This appeals to me because I believe that we and our circumambient universe are part of a cosmic order established in the beginning when God said “Let there by light.”  As I observe and contemplate the regularity of sunrise and sunset, the circling of planets around stars, the predictable cycle of living creatures’ birth, growth, maturation, reproduction, and senescence, the intricate interdependence of animate and inanimate creation, I really do sense rationality at work around me and inside me.  Of course unpredictability, chance, and inexplicability are also present, but I prefer to see them as defects of our system rather than that system’s essence.  The Stoics assert that this cosmic order is constituted by Zeus (God).  I am not a “creationist,” but if God is just shorthand for “the nature of things”—the predictable regularity characterizing cosmic order—then I have no problem.  Indeed, I can subscribe to the Quaker assurance that something of God— something of the rational universe—resides in each person.
          Of course a viable religious system should be more than just a comfortable intellectual doctrine; it should also direct our behavior.  If God is mind as well as love, then we, imitating deity, should behave rationally.  Perhaps we ascribe good behavior chiefly to love.  That is fine; however, good behavior must also derive from understanding, discrimination, correct choices, allegiance to a reasonable table of values, the ability to differentiate between that which is subject to our control and that which is beyond our control.  In sum, good behavior depends not only on love but also on rationality, perhaps (who knows?) primarily on rationality.
          In any case, although we are always told that God is love, I hope that I have convinced you that we may extend this by saying that God is also mind, even though some (even many) will object.

Hanover, New Hampshire
October 30, 2012.

1 Noel Malcolm, reviewing Christopher Brooke’s “Philosophic Pride” in TLS, September 28, 2012, p. 5.
2 A. A. Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), p. 272, citing Epictetus’s Encheiridion 51.