…the companion who understands

Whitehead sums up the creative activity of God in two ways:

1. In her eternal wisdom God provides the initial aim for every existing entity.

2. In her engaged love she includes the actual relationships of every entity, transforming them, by persuasion, for new life. This engagement causes God pain, but she is faithful. She accompanies her creation, and suffers with it. She is the companion who understands.

There are elements in Whitehead’s account of God, which relate easily to Christian belief, and others which don’t, for example, his statement that it’s just as true to say that God is made by the world, as that the world is made by God. Even this heresy, however, is driven by his rejection of images of domination and his insistence on images of persuasion and love. God is affected by the world because love is affected by its relationships.

There are endless subtleties in theologies based on Whitehead’s work. JS regards himself as convinced by a view of the world as process and relationship, and of God as a creative partner to it, as envisaged in the book of The Acts, “in God we live and move and have our being.”

From this vantage point he sees the process of evolution as provided with initial aims by God’s wisdom, and persuaded out of unfruitful dead ends by God’ subsequent engagement with it. This allows JS himself to engage with evolution as one of its products, trusting that he is also a product of God’s wisdom and love, along with viruses. But just as he cannot blame God for all his imperfections, he cannot attribute all the activity of viruses to her. He can imagine that the initial aim of God with viruses is for them to explore the wisdom of symbiosis as a form of life, while admitting that their relationship with human beings has so far not been very positive. What sort of adjustments in human beings might be necessary to improve the relationship? It may be that we are not adapted to viruses at all, in which case we should design our environment to limit their access to us. Or maybe viruses can adapt to cause us no more problems than say, than ordinary flu’. Or perhaps our immune systems, encouraged by vaccines, have to become more efficient in attacking them. It’s hard for JS to imagine a fruitful relationship between humans and viruses, but then he reflects that there must have been a time when the same might have been said about the many bacteria that now live in his gut and are essential to his welfare. Beyond all this, he knows that we do not understand all the relationships within our ecosystem, and must beware of destroying what may be essential to its functioning.

He believes that God remains in relationship with all parts of the universe. “Not a sparrow falls to the earth without your heavenly father” God shares the joy and the pain of all creatures, and will remain faithful until they all relate harmoniously.

He does not think that Whitehead’s thinking is the only way of bringing the facts of evolution and faith together; but he does think that simply banishing or distorting fact in favour of faith is the work of the devil, no matter how pious the people who do it. A certain kind of fundamentalism encourages the believer to dismiss facts in favour of what the Bible is said to say or what the pastor insists is true doctrine. The habit of ignoring facts in favour of what you believe, once learned, will turn a decent person into a raving denier of electoral defeat, who may also think that the corona virus vaccine will change their sexuality. The God who is opposed to facts is the God of the Inquisition, of the Mother and Baby Homes of Eire, of Franco, of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, the KKK, ISIS and thousands of other killers. If beliefs are fact-proof, they will be dangerous.

This does not mean that faith cannot challenge alleged facts. When the idol – worshippers challenged the prophet known as Isaiah 2, he challenged the fact of their Gods, detailing how they are made by human hands and cannot stand with the God who makes the heavens and the earth: out of his faith which incorporated facts, he challenged a faith that ignores them. Jesus challenged a fearful belief in the deadliness of leprosy by touching a man who suffered from it. He knew the facts were friendly because God is in the facts.

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