Sunday, September 09, 2007

God: The Improbable

Drawing: by Paul C. Johnston, circa 1955
[Correction 9/15/07: The drawing was made by Eleanor a.k.a. London Bridges, Paul's art teacher at the time.]

"It is perhaps true in a sense that God is a God of beginnings; the ends are up to us, and to work in the fruitfulness of God is to be renewed in the promise of the beginning." From a journal entry, April 24, 2005

I was browsing in an old journal and came across the above. It occurred to me that only a "modern" would write that "... the ends are up to us." Most historic societies have had or continue to have a concept of Providence, which would translate into the concept that "the ends are up to God." Nevertheless, with some reservations, I endorse the modern idea, at least in the context of its sentence.

The real bugaboo for the "modern" is the concept of the "Beginning." Almost all of our science, and certainly our common life, is ruled by a notion of a beginningless - and therefore a godless - universe. I don't consider the "Big Bang" an adequate substitute for the concept of a beginning, which must always include the notion of a definite starting point, a structure of some kind. The notion of the "Big Bang" has too much of the merely random for my taste - as e.g. astrophysicist Alan Guth once put it, a universe is just something that happens from time to time. But even modern science uncovers almost daily new strange facts of all the things that "had to happen" and just in the right amount (and to the tenth or twentieth decimal place) and in the right sequence, for this world to have come into being at all. This precision of event and sequence presents a strange contrast to the nebulous concept of how it all happened in the first place. We live in a strange world, where large and incoherent ideas about origins and metaphysics trip over facts of stringent limits and precision.

On my walk to work the other day, I had the idea for a book someone should write on the "Improbable God." There would be a science section - full of the just-barely "coincidences" that had to happen. In a way this part might be the easiest to write. At least there would be an abundance of material. And there would be a theology section, which also might not be too difficult to write, in the sense that there is much material accumulated over two millenia, so that there would be no shortage of sources and ideas. The improbabilities of Catholic theology, say, would present a living complement to the improbabilities of science, but instead of powers to the 20th decimal place we are examining levels of reality. The particular difficulty is that for the most part we have no very exact notion of other "levels of reality." Even our science on this point is confused - it claims to tell us the truth about the world, but on the other hand it deals with entities inaccessible to ordinary consciousness, hence it has culminated with a new mystique.

The aim of theological improbability would be to restore the world to us - that is, restore the act of knowledge as the encounter of the mind with things. Oddly enough, theological improbability culminates with something very much like "common sense," though perhaps that is an odd way of putting it. It is common sense to acknowledge that this world is very improbable. Theological improbability aims at the restoration of "common sense" - which, we should remember, is already a concept which is not as easy and innocent as it appears. It is bristling with philosophical history. "The history of this one single expression contains in miniature the entire history of the western world," writes Peter Kingsley, in his book Reality - an exploration of the pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles. We assume, rather than in fact know, that human beings always possessed the capacity to coordinate their senses - to see, hear, taste, touch and smell at the same time. Did they? Perhaps they had to undergo a coordination through exercise - through meditation. Peter Kingsley thinks so- "for Empedocles, the training in how to perceive oneself perceiving was provided as part of an esoteric transmission from teacher to disciple." He believes that the teaching of the awareness of being aware was degraded as it took the journey through philosophy. "Reason" pre-empted the activity of watching the perceptive process itself. Hence, being "aware" became something we already have rather than something we have to achieve.

So from theological improbability we take a leap into history - perhaps the hardest part of the book to write. History has the odd combination of being both obvious and improbable. Because it is our medium, because we are immersed in it, we cannot see it - yet when we begin to "see" it we begin to perceive how improbable it is. Much more would need to be written about this, or more accurately, thought. But in essence the improbability which is this universe, world, life and history is at odds with the smooth, dull hum of Evolutionism which has so enthralled the modern mind.

In the tangle of improbabilities which is everything, an improbable God "makes sense" in a new way. Perhaps improbability is a new way to talk about grace. For in the theology of St. Thomas, grace presupposes nature. But in the new schema of understanding, we can also come to perceive that nature presupposes improbability - and this is grace.

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