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Unitarian Church * Webster, Texas * Sunday, 24 June 2001
The Future of God...

or, more precisely, the future of humanity's relationship with God.

Dr. Wendy L. Schultz (copyright © 2001)

Good morning!

I must admit, I cannot quite remember how this happened: it seems one Wednesday discussion night during idle conversation someone said something about the future of God, and the next thing I knew Terry grabbed me and hauled me over and volunteered me for this very interesting activity -- to which I have been looking forward immensely. As I was saying to Terry earlier, generally speaking, when I am teaching in classes or making presentations to other groups I must focus very much on business and practical and applied aspects of futures studies and long-range trends, and I don't often get to talk about what are, in fact, the most important issues; so this is a delightful opportunity for me, and I thank you for the invitation.

HOWEVER, the bad news is -- for those of you who are sitting here thinking, YEAH now we're going to find out what's REALLY GOING ON... -- that's not going to happen. As Terry mentioned, perhaps one of the strongest parallels between your worldview and the futurists' worldview is the championing of possibilities -- infinite possibilities -- and futurists tend to explore more than they predict, and so I am going to be raising questions more than I am going to be giving you the inside scoop on the future of God. In fact, the title, "The Future of God," was a shortened version of what we were actually thinking about, which was more "The Future of the Relationship between Humanity and God," but that, unfortunately, was too long to fit on your sign out on the driveway, and hence, "The Future of God."

Today I am going to talk about emerging trends of change and the impacts they might have upon how we conceptualize ourselves as spiritual beings; what has been in the past our relationship to God and the various concepts we associate historically with that relationship; and how those concepts, and consequently that relationship, might change in the future.

And I will start with history, because all good futurists must tip their hats in respect to historians: we cannot understand the possibilities for change in the future without being well acquainted with the patterns of change that occurred in the past. So I will begin by talking briefly about one philosopher's conception of the development of human society and human civilization as the evolution of our relationship with God: the "positive philosophy" of Auguste Comte.

Auguste Comte: The Positive Philosophy

Writing in the early 1800's, Comte suggested that if you looked at human development from the newly conceptualized "scientific" point of view, then what he called (rather obscurely) "the highest dispositions of our nature" -- our spiritual selves -- are in a "continuous state of relative development." If you analyzed human society and its development over time, you could see a spiral of evolutionary progress of the spiritual.

It begins with what Comte called the "primitive theological state," controlled by spiritual authorities, which evolved through two developmental phases. In the first phase of spirituality, nomadic hunters and gatherers believed that all things, both organic and inorganic, were infused with a life more or less like our own, with which we must negotiate -- the concept of animism. That worldview then evolved into one that saw the world peopled by superhuman agents who cause phenomena by direct action upon the world and upon the people in it: gods and godesses, whom people must propitiate -- the concept of theism. As human society grew more complex in capability and output, leadership roles within it began to coalesce along economic, spiritual, and military lines. The theistic worldview was then followed by that of the "transient metaphysical state." These were societies controlled by military, economic, and religious authorities, and characterized by clear institutional divisions between secular and spiritual leaders. In this context, formerly personalized, spiritual explanations of the world became increasingly abstract. Instead of gods and goddesses with personalities -- and you have to wonder if the Greeks and Romans really thought of their gods and goddesses in that "Xena, Warrior Princess" mode (that is, as punks and Valley girls) -- and distinct physical features, people began to conceptualize the Immanent as the ineffable. The logical output of this evolution was the monotheism that characterizes many (but not all) of the world's largest religions today. Beyond that, Comte suggested, we would achieve a final positive state, where our understanding of the universe from the "scientific point of view" (remember, intellectuals were still in their first flush of infatuation with the power of scientific method) was such that we no longer expected superhuman agents to be the primary movers and actors of what we saw around us. At that point, we would have developed the rational to the fullest extent and become the complete secular humanists.

Now, many people disagree with Comte's conceptualization of human social development. Nonetheless, we do seem to have reached a point where the modern, post-industrial "world" culture often seems to be more secular than it is spiritual. We might ask ourselves, as religion has changed over time, where have we located God? Where have we put God in relationship to ourselves, the other living creatures on the planet, and the planet itself? At this point I'm going to draw upon another old classic, the concept of the "great chain of being."

The Great Chain of Being:

Let's remind ourselves of the purpose, and actual composition, of the great chain. Rohr, in his sermon on the concept, states that, "by this image the Scholastic theologians tried to communicate a linked and coherent world." He then goes on to quote Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), in which Lovejoy describes the links of the great chain from the top, down:

''The essential and unbreakable links in the chain include the Divine Creator, the angelic heavenly [who are themselves arrayed in ranks -- seraphim, cherubim, etc], the human, the animal, the world of plants and vegetation, and the planet Earth itself with its minerals and waters. In themselves, and in their union together, they proclaim the glory of God (Psalm 104) and the inherent dignity of all things. This image became the basis for calling anything and everything "sacred."" [Richard Rohr, OFM, Radical Grace, Center for Action and Contemplation]

On the one hand, the concept of the Great Chain of Being linked all together in the idea of God, and located God in close relationship to us. But on the other hand, this is a very linear, structured, top-down, hierarchical conception of relationships among people, between people and other life forms, between people and the spiritual forces of transcendence, whatever they may be and however you conceptualize them. Nor is the "great chain of being" limited to the Western philosophies of transcendence. The notions of spiritual growth and advancement embedded in the concept of reincarnation have the reincarnated soul occupying ever more "advanced" forms on a great chain of spiritual being -- from animal being, through social being, to transcendental being.

This and other underlying similarities among the religions of the world are often written about as the "perennial philosophy." From Ken Wilbur we have a restatement within the framework of the perennial philosophy of this concept of the great chain of being.

from Ken Wilbur:

"Manifest reality ... consists of different grades or levels, reaching from the lowest and most dense and least conscious to the highest and most subtle and most conscious. At one end of this continuum of being or spectrum of consciousness is what we in the West would call "matter" or the insentient and the non conscious, and at the other end is "spirit" or "godhead" or the "super conscious" (which is also said to be the all-pervading ground of the entire sequence, as we will see). Arrayed in between are the other dimensions of being arranged according to their individual degrees of reality (Plato), actuality (Aristotle), inclusiveness (Hegel), consciousness (Aurobindo), clarity (Leibniz), embrace (Plotinus), or knowingness (GarabDorje).

The central claim of the perennial philosophy is that men and women can grow and develop (or evolve) all the way up the hierarchy to Spirit itself, therein to realize a "supreme identity" with Godhead -- the ensperfectissimum toward which all growth and evolution yearns."

It was very clear, in the past, according to these schema, where God was to be found. For the next millennium, the question becomes more problematic.

Certainly we live in an age where the secular seems to overshadow the spiritual -- certainly the material overshadows the spiritual. The great Western religious institutions struggle to adjust to the conditions of 21st century life -- not always successfully. Religious sisterhoods and brotherhoods regularly hold conferences whose panels bear such dispirited titles as, "Will the last person to leave the order please turn out the lights?"(I'm not making that up: I have a friend who is, by her calculation, at 42 the youngest nun in her order -- her entire order, worldwide.) Yet many people are both frightened and repelled by the high-tech images of the future that abound, especially in the US media. In a backlash, they respond with a yearning for a more high-touch, in-depth community, a community that provides them more opportunities to explore the spiritual. Those two trends -- the high-tech and the high-touch -- exist in tension with each other. We are immersed in high technology innovations; that trend is easy to track. But the backlash is evident as well: the multimedia, evangelical, charismatic churches are booming; Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet, and people throughout the U.S. are exploring alternative approaches to spiritual growth, from deep ecology to transcendental meditation to yoga. We are spiritual as well as social creatures, and the only antidote to the overwhelming materialism and technism of our age is deeper exploration of our fundamental humanity.

Except that we are changing that as well: the next millennium will see us pry apart, re-shape, and re-arrange the links of the great chain of being. DNA makes an apt logo for this transition. Beyond the information age, the pundits say, is the biological or genomic age: we can redesign ourselves. We can redesign ourselves for sound environmental reasons, for therapeutic reasons, for cosmetic reasons -- we can do it for fun. When we can redesign ourselves to adapt more comfortably to new environments, where do we fit in the great chain, and what then is our link to God? When we borrow genetic designs from the dolphins to enhance our ability to work in our own oceans, what, then, will be our definition of immanence? When we have changed our physical selves to tolerate the harsh and beautiful environment of Mars, and see ourselves as maturing out of "the cradle of mankind," where then will we be in relation to God?

Our current biological sciences are focussing very heavily -- especially in this country -- on the processes of biological development and aging, to understand how undifferentiated cells in the womb differentiate themselves to create fetuses, to grow into children, to mature into adolescents and then into adults. And to then start replicating errors in themselves to cause the signs of aging -- that many of us are grappling with even as I speak. When we unlock the keys to aging, and once again approach the lifetimes of Methuselah's kin, what will our technology of transcendence be? If we master the ultimate art of self-repair, how does the prospective eternity of the body affect our perspective on our eternal souls?

The next medical and biological frontier, indeed, will be our understanding of the human brain and the mind-body link. Already we have the tools for non-intrusive monitoring of the brain as we engage in various mental and physical activities. In the past ten years, these new tools have enabled new insights into the cellular and biochemical changes that occur as we dream, or perform calculus, or play music, or recite poetry. Will we, in the next millennium, discover a scientific basis of understanding the soul? If we do not, what then is our bridge to God?

When we inevitably design the first artifical sentient -- another area of rapid development and focussed resource deployment: the building of ever larger computational systems using ever more sophisticated network architecture coupled with innovations in mathematics allowing software innovations which may be clever enough at learning and adapting to approach artificial intelligence -- when that begins to succeed in any demonstrable way, in the next fifty years, one hundred years, and the first computer wakes up and starts talking to us in ways that challenge the Turing test, and when its descendents finally surpass us in knowledge and wisdom, how then will we have to reconceptualize the soul? Does the soul require an organic base? Or can it emerge from artificial life as well? And where, then, is God?

As our understanding and ability to manipulate both the smallest parts of matter and the basic blocks of biology increase, the boundaries between our machines and ourselves will blur: we will no longer carry cell phones and computers, but embed them, with direct neural links to the microprocessors and transmitters of the future, whatever form they take. At what point, then, does the global communications net become in truth a neural net become the global brain -- or, in Teilhard de Chardin's conceptualization, a noosphere?

Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg, "A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain," WIRED

"Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness.

He believed this vast thinking membrane would ultimately coalesce into "the living unity of a single tissue" containing our collective thoughts and experiences."

A hundred years from now, will parapsychologists and whoever the researchers are of the real "X-files" finally decide that they should drop the hunt for people capable of telepathy -- if such an ability even exists on an organic level -- because we will have achieved the practical equivalent by having computer links embedded and connected directly to our biochemical brains.

Will it be fun to have group calls to the world mind? I dunno. Given what comprises 90% of the current activity on the World Wide Web these days, I suspect we will all be playing poker in the deep recesses of brains -- or engaged in far more unmentionable activities. But the point being that we will be much more interconnected.

In fact, Dr. Pentti Malaska, member of the Club of Rome and former President of the World Futures Studies Federation, has suggested that society is not, as many sociologists would have it, progressing neatly from agricultural age through the industrial age to the information age. Rather, what we perceive as the information age is merely the turbulent transition to a more complex, more economically ephemeral age where worth is based primarily on the number of interrelationships we all can claim -- what he likes to call "the interaction age."

Where in this scheme is God?

We have bent and shattered the links of the great chain of being: we are reforging them into cables and weaving a complex, multidimensional web of relationships encompassing ourselves, other life, all matter -- and artificial life that we are busy creating.

Is God then to be found at the point of convergence, in the stable center of this web?

Or is God at the boundary of the web, providing the anchor points fixing life to the matter of the universe?

Perhaps both: perhaps God is the structure itself. After all, if the devil is in the details, is not God also? Or in the words of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, maybe God is in "the fiddly bits." The new science of complexity -- the study of complex adaptive systems -- would suggest that humanity is itself a complex adaptive system, made up of many intelligent, adaptive, intentional agents working on both their own individual goals as well as joint goals comprising human endeavor as a whole. Perhaps, in the future, God will simply be seen to be the emergent property of that system, the very difference that distinguishes the whole from the sum of the parts.

Teilhard de Chardin:

And so to find God in the turbulence that we are creating as we create the future and remake reality, we must become seekers. We must become...

"...seeker[s] who devote... [themselves], ultimately through love, to the labours of discovery. No longer... worshipper[s] of the world but of something greater than the world, through and beyond the world in progress. "

"The outcome of the world, the gates of the future, the entry into the super-human -- these are not thrown open to a few of the privileged nor to one chosen people to the exclusion of all others. They will open only to an advance of all together, in a direction in which all together can join and find completion in a spiritual renovation of the earth...."

(And so to the blessing.)

Prayer from Zelazny, "The Possibly Proper Death Litany"

Composing the closing benediction was a challenge to me, as I have little practice in writing blessings. So I have brought to you a prayer from the far future, written by one of my favorite science fiction authors, Roger Zelazny. He posited a very distant future in which people were still concerned that they be on good relations with whatever might exist, but they had gotten ever more careful about deciding what that might -- or might not -- be.

Hence my blessing to you:

"Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to ensure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to ensure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this [benefit], and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen."

(from Creatures of Light and Darkness , Avon, 1986)

"The future is an emergent property of the complex system by which we adapt to the infinite possibilities inherent in the moving present." Schultz, 6/24/2001


> Essays > Lyrical > Parable | Sermon | Lullaby | Moonlight on the Ocean

15 February 2003. Email IF.
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