God the Spiral not the Throne
in appreciation of the prophetic wisdom of David Loy
What would religion be like if it were to focus on world loyalty
as opposed to sectarian or national loyalty or world escape?
-- Pando Populus
Bad transcendence is a mind-set. When we think of ourselves as skin-encapsulated egos cut off from (transcending) the world by the boundaries of our skin; we think of the sacred as a sphere of reality cut off from (transcending) the physical world of plants and animals, hills and rivers; and we think of the religious life primarily if not exclusively as escaping the world for a better place. In "Towards a New Buddhist Story" David Loy proposes that bad transcendence emerged historically in the Axial Age and that it has been a part of Asian and Abrahamic thinking ever since. There may have been a time when it functioned in a healthy way for people. Loy proposes that it is time for religions to evolve beyond bad transcendence for the sake of a new, more life-affirming and creativity-honoring way of living in the world. His article shows how this might happen in Buddhism. Here are some excerpts:
from David Loy's Towards a New Buddhist Story in Huffington Post
"Anyone who is paying attention knows that we are living in a time of crisis -- most obviously, severe ecological and economic challenges. They are interconnected: an economy based on consumerism and perpetual growth is incompatible with the well-being of our biosphere. What is less obvious is that there are also fundamental problems with the story that underlies these crises. By "story" I mean our basic way of understanding who we are, what the world is, and our role in it."
David Loy invites us to transcend transcendence, or at least to transcend the kind of transcendence described on the left. We can call it bad transcendence. Those who are persuaded by David Loy's general argument, and who are also shaped by Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) might think that, if bad transcendence is transcended, we must abandon a feature of our faith that is important to many of us: faith in God. This is not true. Instead, we can welcome a new way of thinking about God, most clearly articulated by process theologians such as Rabbi Brad Artson in God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology, which invites us to think of the entire universe as 'marinated' in God's love. Here is how he puts it in Turtles and Whales:
I believe that the divine is not separate from creation, looking down on us from the outside, immutable and incomparable. Rather, I see divinity wherever I look. The Hebrew prophets speak of mountains that leap like lambs, of trees clapping in exultation, of moon and stars glad to do the bidding of their maker. Like those Biblical visions, I too see creation everywhere and ongoing, permeated with the creator whose engagement is continuous, everywhere, and wondrous. We - like the rest of creation - are marinating in the divine, and we - like our brother and sister creatures - are momentary expressions of a creativity that links us in relationship without end: each to each, each to all, each and all to the One.
As Rabbi Artson makes clear in his book and many writings, the idea that we are marinated in God need not mean that God is not a You, a Thou, a Person, with consciousness and feeling who prehends the evolving and creative universe. But the vantage point from which God feels the world is not that of a throne cut off from the world. It is that of a self, everywhere at once, who feels the feelings of all living beings, all the time, with a tender care that nothing be lost; and who responds to what is felt with fresh possibilities, felt by the living beings themselves, for moving forward in a way that is creative, courageous, wise, and compassionate, relative to the situation at hand. We might best imagine God as a circle or spiral, as in the image above drawn by a college student. The other living beings have agency of their own, which means that God is not all-powerful in a traditional sense. God works with the agency of the universe, and in order for God's will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven" the other creatures must cooperate. Global climate change and local cruelties are examples of non-cooperation. Moreover, God's own agency is conceived in an instance of, not an exception to, the kind of relational agency that is true of human beings and other animals. Our agency on earth does not begin in isolation from our felt relationships with the surrounding world; it begins with our physical feelings of the surrounding world and emerges as responses to what we feel.
Relational Transcendence not Atomized Transcendence
And so it is for God, says Rabbi Artson. In the beginning is not a God who is isolated from the world; in the beginning -- and there is not absolute beginning -- is a God who feels the feelings of all living beings in our world and all other worlds, with tender care that nothing be lost. As an agent God transcends the world, but it is relational transcendence not self-enclosed transcendence. Truth be told, we transcend each other and God in this way, too. In our freedom we create worlds for one another and are responsible to, and for, the worlds we create. Our transcendence of others gives us our uniqueness, our difference from others, even as those "others" and our relationships with them help make up who we are. Truth be told, says Rabbi Artson and other process thinkers, we are spirals, too.
God both Personal and Transpersonal
Back to David Loy. If we are persuaded by his wisdom, does this mean that we should abandon the image of a personal God who loves us. I think not, just as it doesn't mean that Buddhists should abandon the idea of personal Bodhisattvas, existing in other dimensions of existence which overlap our own, who also love us. Indeed, we might think that those personal Bodhisattvas (I think of Guan Yin) are themselves faces of God: that is, ways in which God becomes present to individual people and groups of people, providing comfort and beckoning them into the creativity, wisdom, and compassion of which they are capable in the moment at hand.
However, and importantly, it also opens the door for people to think of God in transpersonal ways if this makes more sense to them. In process theology God can meaningfully be conceived in both personal and transpersonal terms, and that there is a continuum between the two poles.
I myself sometimes speak of God as You and sometimes as the Arc of Compassion. The first is more personal than the second. Viewing God in personal terms involves a sense that God feels or apprehends the universe and responds in a loving way; viewing God in transpersonal terms involves a sense that God is a connective thread that holds things together and a primordial lure toward novelty and order, partly composed of the universe itself. I see wisdom on both sides, and I think it is fine to move from one way of speaking to another, depending on context. Interestingly, from a process perspective, both views are naturalistic, inasmuch as both see God as an expression of, not an exception to, the dynamics and patterns of “nature,” deeply understood. The dichotomy between the natural and supernatural is not one that process thinkers accept. For them — for me as well — nature is the evolving web of concrescing subjects, and God is the unifying life (personal) or connective pattern (transpersonal) in whom the web unfolds, and by which it is animated. I like the way that Rabbi Bradley Artson puts it; he says that the universe is ‘marinated’ in God.
Whether we think in terms of personal or transpersonal imagery, the key is to allow our faith to unfold in terms of what process thinkers call world loyalty. World loyalty is what it says: a sense of loyalty to, and gratitude for, the world itself, understood as a welling forth of creativity and a home for sentient beings, each of whom is worthy of respect and awe. The practical manifestation of world loyalty is respect and care for the community of life, combined with efforts to build local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory,multicultural, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying with no one left behind. Martin Luther King Jr. called them beloved communities; Bradley Artson speaks of them as communities of love and justice.
For process thinkers a commitment to world loyalty does not undermine or undercut a hope that there is a continuing journey after death or that, in a deep and mysterious way, all living beings finds find a final resting place, filled with creativity. Our universe is complex and multidimensional. God works in mysterious ways. Such hopes have a place within a life of world loyalty. But these hopes rightly emerge within, not apart from, a profound love of this life, this world, these people, these animals, these plants, these mountains, and a willingness to share in their destinies, cognizant that we are together in a web of creative inter-becoming. At its best faith in God inspires this kind of life.
Patricia Adams Farmer calls it a Fat Soul life. That's a good metaphor for the souls of people who have transcended the illusion of being encased within their bodies and cut off from the world and whose individuality emerges, not through spiritual anaesthesia, but through spontaneity in the moment and the strength of felt connections. Sounds like a prophetic Zen Buddhist to me. Or a good Jew or Muslim or Christian, for that matter. Such souls may be loyal to one religion or another, or even to several, but more deeply they are loyal to life and the spiral-like Spirit in whose heart life unfolds.
-- Jay McDaniel