Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

God, Darwin and Spinoza

People often ask me if I believe in God, and my honest answer is always: ‘It depends what you understand by the word “God”’.

This word probably means something different for every person who professes such a belief, which is why there is such a thing as ‘orthodoxy’ in a church (let alone ‘dogma’): it is to make sure that all the members of the church believe (more or less) in the same thing. Ever since the first Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine 1 in 325 CE (AD), which was intended to reach consensus on which of the competing doctrines among various groups of Christians were to be regarded as ‘orthodox’ (‘correct opinion’), and which as ‘heterodox’ (‘other opinion’), or better known as ‘heretical’, the battle lines have been drawn between what the church approves of as ‘correct’, and ‘unacceptable’ belief.

The fact that during the 16th century Reformation the Christian (Roman Catholic) church split into two, and that the Protestant church, in turn, engendered several ‘branches’ (or that there are two main streams of belief in Islam) testifies to the sensitivity of this thing called ‘religious belief’ (or ‘faith’). That is, if you profess to believe in God, or Christ, or any other object of religious belief, precisely WHAT it is that you believe may, or may not, correspond with the church’s canonised articles of faith. And it is not enough for a Christian, for example, to invoke the apostles’ creed as proof of the orthodoxy of their belief, either.

Anyone can repeat it verbatim, but that begs the question of what, precisely, it means to you.

What do you understand by ‘God’, for instance, and how do you reconcile God as ‘father’ with God as ‘son’ and as ‘holy ghost’ – the doctrine of the ‘Trinity’? After all, it is no accident that this is one of the most difficult theological questions to explain ‘rationally’ (and not metaphysically) — in the end people who defend it have to turn to orthodoxy or dogma, simply asserting the ‘supra-rational’ oneness of three distinct beings. Or one could argue, more cogently, that the son and the holy ghost are different ‘manifestations’ of God the father. I have even listened to a theologian who was defending the very progressive idea that there is scriptural evidence of God sometimes manifesting ‘herself’ as ‘mother’.

But if you really want to see theologians tying themselves in knots, ask them to explain how God as ‘father’ (a term that suggests a finite, gendered being) can simultaneously be conceived as ‘infinite’ and ‘eternal’, as orthodoxy would have it. Finite and infinite, temporal and eternal at the same time? Hegel gave one of the best answers to this question, in my estimation, when he pointed out that — to put it simply — precisely because humans cannot deal with, or relate to, the infinite, Christ (God the son) as ‘mediator’ made sense, given his finitude, which people could relate to.

But the notion of Christ as man and God, at the same time, creates its own problems, of course.

In brief, theologians have tried, in diverse ways, to make sense of the ‘identity’ of God — if such a being could be said to have an ‘identity’ — and of the presumed relationship between God and creation, particularly people. Some of the best answers, to my mind, have come from modern theologians like Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and (my personal favourite) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who candidly admitted (following Nietzsche) that we live in a time when we have to live without God, in the guise of Christ, and that we must learn to look for Christ there, where we find suffering. Karl Barth — that uncompromising neo-Augustinian — too, appeals to me because of his emphasis on the ‘chasm’ that separates humans from God as traditionally conceived.

This is food for thought at a time when ‘the market’ and ‘technology’ are deified. In brief, although my own conception of ‘God as creator’ differs from such theological elaborations on the traditional theistic conception, they afford one a means of understanding contemporary society.

To return to the answer I usually give to people who want to know whether I believe in God, and who are usually taken aback by my hypothetical answer — if time permits, I usually offer a decidedly unorthodox explanation. If I accept the idea of ‘God’, it is in the sense of ‘creator’ — not in the orthodox, theistic sense of the word, as formulated in the apostles’ creed, which is why I don’t capitalise it. Rather, I take my cue from the 17th century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, and from Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species. I know this is counter-intuitive, so let me explain. As an aside, a theologian friend of mine once remarked that his own favourite theologian was Darwin, and while I doubt whether his reasons are identical to mine, there must be an overlap somewhere.

Well, firstly, what strikes one about Darwin’s conception of nature — or the laws of (living) nature — as the realm of provenance of all living species, including humanity (Homo sapiens sapiens), is that nature is incomprehensibly creative. Life originated in and from nature; the greatest variety of species have emerged from nature on the basis of the relationship between organisms and their natural environment, combined with hereditary laws, and — even if humans destroyed all existing species completely — would continue doing so (from scratch).

Whenever change takes place in an organism, it is in the form of an adaptive response to something that has changed in the environment, and the adaptation occurs for the sake of the survival of the organism, which then passes on this change to its descendants. Hence, if the traditional conception of God emphasises ‘his’ creativity as creator, I cannot think of anything that fits such a conception better than Darwin’s depiction of nature. Small wonder my theological friend regards Darwin as his favourite theologian!

Spinoza, in turn, deserves inclusion here because of his identification, in the 17th century, of God and nature (in his language, ‘Deus sive Natura’), which may seem to make him, as many claim, a pantheist (‘God is everywhere’); but more accurately, I believe, one should regard him as a ‘panentheist’. This means that God is indeed found in nature, BUT ALSO exceeds concrete nature as it exists at any given time. In Spinoza’s doctrine this is manifested in his claim that humans know only two attributes of the divine (and only) substance, namely thought and extension (what Descartes had regarded as ‘created substances’), BUT that there were infinitely more of such attributes. Spinoza also thought of nature or God as ‘natura naturans’ (‘nature naturing’, or causing itself), which appeals to me because it resonates with Darwin’s emphasis on nature’s endless spawning of new species. ‘Natura naturata’ (‘nature natured’, or the products of causal chains), by contrast, refers to what nature has already produced at any given time, which – animals, plants and humans, as well as specific ideas, theories and arguments – are, in Spinoza’s terms, (finite) ‘modes’ of the two knowable attributes, extension and thought.

It is noteworthy that, in response to the question, put to him by a rabbi, whether he believed in God, Albert Einstein replied: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings’. I feel much the same, except to say that disorder or entropy sometimes reigns in the universe, as at the present time on Earth; in which case the role of ‘God’ — or preferably the ‘creator’ — in such a state of affairs becomes somewhat problematical, or puzzling. Perhaps the possibility of reversing the entropy that is currently in the ascendance on our planet, bringing what Stiegler calls ‘negentropy’ into its own, depends precisely on creativity.

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