Our ultimate canvas

We are all interrelated participants in the big picture that is the universe. Process philosophers call that big picture 'God.'


In his autobiography, The Darkness and the Light, the philosopher Charles Hartshorne relates an early religious experience that took place when he was a soldier stationed in France during the First World War. On a small ledge, located a few feet under the edge of the great chalk cliffs that faced the English Channel, the young man liked to sit and think, not daydreaming about wine or women or battle or any of the other preoccupations of military men, but reading William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and thinking about the nature of ultimate reality. Perhaps James, who once defined “religion” as “what one does with one’s solitude,” was right in this particular instance, for it was in this isolated spot, with only the wheeling gulls for company, that the future theologian had two pivotal experiences that would shape all his later career.

“I had been thinking of certain aspects of my life that seemed discouraging,” remembers Hartshorne. “These somewhat gloomy reflections were interrupted by a simultaneous multitude of shrill sounds.” Looking to his left almost vertically down to the bottom of the cliff, he saw a school playground filled with shouting, laughing French children. The contrast was enlightening. “Suppose my own life is unsatisfactory,” he thought. “So what? I am a tiny fragment of human life. The rest of it is not all unfortunate or wretched. Nothing compels me to think of myself miserable rather than others—those children—happy.’ Never since then,” writes Hartshorne, “have I allowed myself to identify, unless briefly, the question, Is life good and beautiful? with the question, Is my life now good and beautiful? And I have not wavered in the two convictions that there is some minimal good, beauty in all life, including my own, and that what finally matters, even to me, is the life of the Whole, the Something that includes me, outlasts me (save as I contribute myself to it), and contains more good than I can distinctly imagine.”

Hartshorne’s other religious experience occurred as he was looking across and up the valley, at the wide, scenic landscape. He says he had been thinking about the question of mind and matter and pondering the dualistic hypothesis that these are two irreducible kinds of reality: an outer world, governed by blind and unthinking forces, and an inner world of thought and emotion. But the rolling terrain, its vibrant greens and earth tones, its serenity and calm, convinced him otherwise. He realized, he says, that the landscape he beheld was itself endowed with feelings, was sensitive, as restless and filled with nameless stirrings as he himself. Though he did not analyze it further at the time, that instant of sympathetic identification with the world made an impression that would last.

I don’t think Hartshorne is unique in his religious intuitions. Many of us have had similar experiences of feeling connected to a larger something: being drawn so deeply into the peace of a landscape that we seem to be at one with the textures and sensations of the world round about, feeling our own small and obscure destiny linked to some greater and more radiant purpose. Even brief glimpses of this kind can illuminate the rest of life. Though their intensity fades, their memory abides. Few of us, though, will fully analyze such experiences, write books about them, or integrate them into an original system of philosophy.

But Charles Hartshorne, whose lifetime spanned the twentieth century (1897–2000), was one of those inventive minds not content to leave such experiences unexamined or pigeonhole them into pre-existing religious categories. The son of an Episcopal clergyman, Hartshorne abandoned his childhood beliefs after reading Emerson as an adolescent. As an adult, Hartshorne married in a Universalist church and had close ties to several Unitarian churches, although he hesitated to call himself a Unitarian. He would never abandon his quest to find a God who was intellectually tenable and in tune with the modern world, and in that venture he would eventually become one of the primary architects of the small but important movement known as process theology.

As a technical philosopher who taught with Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard and then taught at Emory, the University of Chicago, and the University of Texas, his scholarly writings were never aimed at a popular audience. Yet I think it worth the effort to become better acquainted. John Cobb Jr., who counts himself as a disciple, observes that “both directly and through his theological followers, Hartshorne has influenced the general course of theology since World War II,” and though the process school has never constituted the mainstream, it has provided one of the more original voices in recent religious discourse. With an entire volume of the Library of Living Philosophers dedicated to his thought, Hartshorne stands in the same company as figures like Albert Einstein. If there is any school of reflection in which I would place myself, it is here, in the circle of process thought. Perhaps, though, it is easiest to introduce Hartshorne’s work in terms of an analogy.

As an amateur artist who finds standing out-of-doors with brush and canvas to be one of the most satisfying and frustrating occupations imaginable, I can easily relate to Hartshorne’s vision atop his lonely perch, when he looked out across the landscape of France and sensed that the colors he saw—the trees, the land, the clouds, the sky—were charged with feeling, sentient almost, insistently alive. That feeling is why I paint, or try to. It explains why a decent painting can be more effective at conveying the mood and flavor and spirit of a subject than any photograph, for although the camera is an accurate recorder of light and shadow, as a mechanical device it lacks any sense of empathy. Sometimes I carry a camera to capture scenes that touch me in some manner, perhaps a tree-lined street that fills me with a sense of tranquility or quiet or domesticity, but often the snapshots I take are disappointing, lifeless, and flat compared to the picture that’s vivid in my memory. The emotion is missing. Sometimes I can still use even a poor photograph to re-create the scene and out of my own imagination supply some of the vitality that’s lacking. Art reminds us that the world is responsive and alive, filled with both joy and pathos, and this is also one of the primary assertions of process theology. At some level, everything is capable of feeling.

And not only that—everything is connected.

I suppose one of the childlike mistakes most of us make when first learning how to draw is to delineate each of our creations with a firm, dark outline. As children, we probably used a black crayon. A person, a dog, a house were all depicted with a heavy, dark border framing their edges. But in the real world there are no distinct boundaries of this kind. One of my mother’s instructors in art school used to smear his thumb across her work whenever he saw an edge forming, softening and blending the contours. In a fine portrait, of course, there is no hard line where the mouth or the nose meets the rest of the face, nor in a landscape is there any disjunction that separates the clouds from the sky. There is a seamless quality to our experience. This is another of the fundamental points of process metaphysics.

And within reality, as within a work of art, all of the parts stand in mutual relation to one another. In painting, I’ve become more and more aware of this fact as I’ve tried to control my colors. Each hue and tint has an impact upon all the others, and to make them work in harmony can be a difficult undertaking. The most accomplished colorists of modern painting were undoubtedly the Impressionists, and the one who carried his investigations in this field the farthest was Georges Seurat, the father of the artistic style known as Pointillism. Probably most readers have seen his canvases, which are constructed of thousands of tiny dots, or points of color. This approach was based on Seurat’s study of the physiology of perception. He was especially influenced by De la loi du contraste simultané des coleurs, et de l’assortiment des objects colorés, considéré d’après cette loi [The principles of harmony and contrast of colours, and their applications to the arts], written by Michel Eugene Chevreul in 1839. Chevreul showed that a spot of pure color on the retina is always accompanied by its complement; the eye sees a dot of orange rimmed by a halo of blue, for instance. Red is ringed by green, purple by yellow. The interference of these visual haloes means that each color affects its neighbor. None exists in isolation; they literally interpenetrate. Color perception is therefore a complex process of interaction, and what Seurat tried to demonstrate in his painting was how each point of color interrelates with those that surround it, each reciprocally impacting all the others. Seurat’s finished paintings strike many observers as being rather stiff and immobile. But if we could imagine them instead in motion, like a movie or like the world itself, the waves lapping on the beach, the picnickers promenading gaily through the park, each corpuscle of light constantly changing hue in relation to all its companions, then we should have a very good analogy to the model of the universe posited by process thought—except for the detail that the units which compose our world are not made of pigment, but of events.

Process philosophy holds that materialism is mistaken. Our universe is not an assortment of lifeless particles but an ensemble of interrelated and dynamic happenings. And each of these events—from the energy that maintains a simple chemical bond to the complex flow of information through a termite mound or coral reef—is in constant change and interaction with all the others.

Try to pick out one piece of the universe to study in isolation, and you discover that it’s connected to everything else. A chimpanzee, for example, cannot be understood by separating the infant from its mother to see “what happens.” Every organism exists within a network of relationships—relationships between parent and offspring, predator and prey, population and food supply—that enable it to live and which it in turn touches and transforms. Even on a much simpler physical level, the same principle holds. A cloudy day may be associated with high humidity and low barometric pressure. But there are no purely linear relationships involved. A storm front doesn’t cause clouds to form any more than clouds cause the storm. Weather is messier and more reciprocal than that, with a built-in unpredictability that makes long-term forecasting not just difficult but impossible. In the image from chaos theory popularized by Edward Lorenz, a Monarch butterfly fluttering its wings in Mexico can affect siroccos in the Mediterranean, thousands of miles away. These are co-creative events.

I am an event. You are an event. So is a bear, a rain forest, and the winding of the double helix within us all. All are active participants within the bigger picture, the same picture Charles Hartshorne glimpsed as he looked down from his lonely heights at the carefree play of schoolchildren in France and felt his own problems grow less burdensome. Hartshorne would call that big picture God, a reality that includes all of us but is larger than any of us.

Painting with broad strokes and upon the largest canvas available, this is how we might depict the contours of the world, as seen through the lens of process thought:

  • At some incipient level, everything is alive. Atmospheres, oceans, and continents, for example, are all vital organs within the larger body of Gaia. The cosmos itself, it appears, is predisposed toward the conditions that permit life to arise and flourish. Process philosophy is sometimes called “the philosophy of organism” for this reason. Not all life rises to the level of reflective awareness, but all is endowed with some capacity for creative self-expression.

  • The whole defines its parts. As Whitehead remarks, “The misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of independent existence. There is no such mode of existence. Every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.” Human beings are not distinct from nature in such a world. As star dust, we have grown out of this cosmos and are inseparable from all that is.

  • Relationships form the matrix for our mutual becoming. Lives intermesh, thoughts and feelings intermingle. Events influence one another, not like billiard balls that collide and expend their energy in exchanges that are purely external. Rather, the relationships we share are like the bits of color in a painting, each of us a point of light, our own coloration affected by all the surrounding hues.

  • Reality in all its manifestations is subjective as well as objective. There is a psychic or experiential dimension to all situations. Consciousness appears to be finely interwoven into the fabric of creation, both at the relativistic level of the very large and in the quantum realm of the very small. The same mind that impels us to ask how the world fits together seems to be at work within the universe itself, offering intelligible answers.

Thinking of the world as composed of verbs rather than nouns—of evanescent “events” rather than enduring “substances”—involves a conceptual shift. At least since the time of Isaac Newton, we have been accustomed to imagining that what he called “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable Particles” constitute the irreducible units of our universe. Up until that time, the world was still half-enchanted, filled with “sympathies” and vague affinities that made “natural philosophy” an enterprise that was as much religious as scientific. But Newton theorized that matter is dumb and insensate partly to emphasize the glory of God, the immaterial maker and prime mover of all. He repudiated the suggestion that objects might contain any animating or “occult” qualities, the better to illustrate the need for “a powerful, ever-living Agent” to set the world in gear. Even gravity, he asserted, must owe its operations “to some other Cause than dense Matter.” But physicists today are saying that reality at the most fundamental levels is composed of shimmering waves of probability, fluctuating eruptions in the void, an intertwined continuum of matter and energy that exerts invisible fields of force stretching from here to the farthest star. Neither Newton’s theology nor his physics make complete sense anymore, but the idea that our world might be composed of events or “occasions of experience” (Whitehead’s term) has become increasingly plausible.

Whitehead proposed that each of these “occasions” gathers and synthesizes information from its own immediate past and from its surroundings, then responds. This response—whether attraction or repulsion, affection or its opposite—is a bit of small-scale, localized world-making activity. And this response is not forced or causally overdetermined. Rather, each occasion—consciously or with dim apprehension—decides how to take account of the world it experiences. And its response then concretizes what had previously hovered as a mere penumbra of possibility into a manifestation of actual existence—becoming in turn part of the total environment with which other events, and its own successors, will have to contend. The “choices” a quark has may be limited, and so the universe displays a dependable, statistical regularity. Nonetheless, there is an element of subjectivity and intention in all of these events and in their interplay. And from the multitude of events taking place each moment, vanishing and giving birth to new occasions, the world in all its freshness and changeability arises.

In the classes I lead with my own congregation, I sometimes liken the process model of reality to a stimulating conversation. A conversation arises and flows without any prior plan, but with an order born of free association. As participants and learners gathered in a circle, each member of the class is an “event”—a life story in progress—who both contributes and receives. Most of us have settled opinions or fixed ideas on the topic of theology, the result of our religious upbringing and past reflection, and each wants to share his or her own views. But through listening, each may find those views changing. In many respects the conversation is predictable. Most of what can be said about God has already been mentioned over the centuries. (Bertrand Russell’s remark that “there is nothing so absurd that it has not been uttered at one time or another by some philosopher” applies to theologians as well.) But the shape of the dialogue is not predetermined, despite that, and novel insights are always ready to emerge as a result of our encounter; the group can generate ideas that go beyond the additive knowledge of the individuals in the room. When the conversation ends and the class is over, few of us are likely to have been profoundly affected. But perhaps we have been altered in subtle ways—ways that we will carry over into future discussions. Our personal narrative will have been recast. When the poet Muriel Rukeyser said “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” she was closer to the truth than she realized. For at bottom, the world consists of a multiplicity of stories, transient creative episodes that overlap, merge, or clash, each striving for greater clarity of self-expression and more thorough comprehension of the whole.

This is one way to think of God: as that Living Whole of which you and I and others in the “cosmic conversation” are active parts and partners. In a mechanistic universe, such a proposition would be ridiculous, as in the cartoon where a white-coated lab technician feeds an old-fashioned, room-sized computer a punch card encoded with the question, “Is there a God?” After spinning its wheels and flashing its lights, the machine eventually prints out the answer: “Now there is!” Whatever we mean by the word God, we do not mean a machine. And when the universe was envisioned as machine-like, as for Newton, the only way to imagine deity was as a Being external and superior to all created forms. In Newton’s words, “This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God or Universal Ruler.”

Newton’s faith stressed divine transcendence rather than immanence. He wanted no confusion between the Watchmaker and the watch. But with the demise of the clockwork universe, this theological difficulty disappears, along with many of the scientific objections to theism. For there is nothing supernatural about the God proposed by process thought, nothing otherworldly. God is in the cosmos, though not completely identified with the cosmos, surpassing it as the Whole exceeds the parts. In a panoply of events, God is simply the Main Event. Amid a multitude of partial and imperfect relationships, God is the one to whom all are fully and perfectly related. In a “participatory universe” where all have a role in the construction of reality, God is the one who participates in all life and every act of creation.

I like this way of thinking about God for several reasons, first of all because it is ecological. Too much of our Western religious tradition has been human-centered. Men and women are conceived in the divine image and given dominion over the earth. Only human beings possess an immortal soul, and only they count in the moral calculus. For process thinkers, in contrast, all creatures are valued participants within the great living system. Of course, not every entity within our world is “alive” in any strict sense. A rock or rubble pile probably lacks the level of internal integration to achieve even a low grade of experience. But animals, especially, are like us in knowing both pleasure and pain, and none is so small as to be beneath our consideration. It’s significant that Hartshorne is almost better known as an ornithologist than as a philosopher. As the author of Born to Sing: An Interpretation and World Survey of Bird Song, he suggests that animals, like ourselves, appreciate beauty and are endowed with an aesthetic impulse. In a celebratory universe, there are many species that savor the sheer exuberance of living—who sing for the joy of singing. And there is a divine element within every living being that shares in the chorus of life.

I like the process conception of God, too, because it makes room for freedom. In much of the biblical tradition, God is likened to a Middle Eastern potentate: King of kings, Lord of lords. God’s word is law; he speaks, and his will is done. The culture that revered this kind of deity was patriarchal from top to bottom, as well as rigidly controlled. The only genuine choices permitted were obedience and sin, and theologies that stressed divine omnipotence often had a fatalistic aspect. As in the dogma of predestination, everything that happened in the world had been foreseen from the beginning of time, divinely foreordained. But in process thought, we do have alternatives. Our options are very real. There is no finished blueprint that determines the historical process or guarantees its outcome. For as we realize now, we live in an open-ended cosmos. Some events are unpredictable, not only because of the chaos inherent in such seemingly simple actions as the flip of a coin, but because spontaneity and originality are inevitably part of the equation within any universe that includes beings like ourselves. For better or worse, we make our own destiny, and through a multitude of decisions large and small we shape the course of our own evolution. God is involved in that process, not as a commanding or coercive presence, but as a persuasive lure, the promise of richer, more rewarding experiences to those who choose wisely and well.

The same deity that was considered an all-powerful overseer was also thought to be “immutable,” meaning incapable of suffering or feeling injury. Sensitivity was synonymous with weakness: It meant you could get hurt. In process theology, by contrast, God’s perfection is the gift of absolute empathy and rapport. God is the One who rejoices in each creature’s ecstasy and also feels their anguish—for God is as closely related to each of us as the Whole is related to its parts. Of course, this image of deity is also present in the Bible, in tension with that of the patriarchal monarch. God is love, the ever-present possibility of intimacy and compassion. The kind of influence this divinity exercises is not power-over but power-with: nurturing and deepening the bonds of kinship that hold us in human community and keep us in right relation with other living beings. For the downtrodden or downhearted, God’s power lies in the seductive suggestion that a freer, more fulfilling existence is possible. In a world we often experience as discordant, in conflict, at cross-purposes with itself, God is the real potential for healing and unity present in each moment.

Finally, I like process thought because it offers hope to the human spirit and encourages us to take responsibility for our lives—for as each of us shapes the world, we also add to the life of God. C.S. Lewis’s image of God as the evolutionary “dance” in which we live and move seems an apt expression here. Or, to return to our original formulation, we might think of God as the Big Picture, the ongoing creative endeavor that includes us all and to whom each of us contributes a minor brush stroke or two. It is comforting to believe that our little lifetimes add to the larger composition in some small way. Even the layers of experience that have slipped into the past—the underpainting—continue to influence the work-in-progress, and as artists realize, the most minute highlights can often have a telling effect upon the total canvas. Indeed, if the Butterfly Effect is valid, our words and actions may have a larger and more far-reaching impact than most of us dare to believe. Although our time here is, as Whitehead said, a “perpetual perishing,” nothing that we have ever said or done is entirely wasted or discarded, but serves to feed and nourish the world in its endless process of becoming.

Religion, according to Alfred North Whitehead, is a phenomenon that begins in wonder and ends in wonder. Feelings of awe, reverence, and gratitude are primary, and these can never be learned from books. We gain them from sitting high on a cliff side, gazing at the sea, lost in reverie and listening to the laughter of children. I appreciate those individuals like Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne who muse deeply about such experiences and what they mean.

Their intellectual edifice is admittedly metaphysical rather than physical—not an effort to do science, but an attempt to think about reality at the highest levels of generality and abstraction. Yet because Whitehead was one of the outstanding mathematicians of the twentieth century and quite familiar with the new physics, his philosophy is entirely consistent with the universe of relativity and quantum theory. As a mental map, process thought is not intended to describe every detail of our world, but to indicate the grand outlines of our experience, including religious experience.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space.” These words of Einstein have become a touchstone for me. They speak to the spiritual intuition that we are related in mind and body to an all-encompassing reality, a reality that is unimaginably old and yet somehow always new. In at-one-ment and alignment with this reality, our own well-being resides. “We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness,” Einstein writes. “This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.” Yet we are an outgrowth of the same process that produced the universe in all its splendor, and our own identity is inseparable from the relational synergy that vivifies our cosmos. “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” It may no longer be possible to believe in a deity that is omnipotent or immutable, but in the One who accompanies all creation and invites us to expand the horizons of our concern to all the earth, we can still affirm that God is Life and God is Love. It may no longer be appropriate to pray to a Lord who is ruler of the universe, standing outside of nature, intervening from above. But with the Living Whole as our companion, then even in our moments of inwardness and solitude, we can never really be abandoned or alone.

Adapted from Science and the Search for God(Lantern Books), copyright 2003 by Gary Kowalski, reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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