Humans have long recognized the patterns of order within the world. Despite imperfections, there is a regularity, a measure of harmony, and predictability to reality, enough for the ancients to speak of the nature of our world as cosmos as opposed to chaos – meaning an ordered world rather than a random, disordered one. Cosmos implies an interconnected system of cycles and rhythms, a dynamic harmony of changes, not all perfect or good, but more or less ordered and balanced. Further, cosmos also implies a world of meaning, whereas chaos implies a nihilistic reality.
The source of the cosmos – our ordered universe – is the principles of being and physics themselves. Gravity, electromagnetism and the other forces and laws of physics and nature produce a somewhat ordered universe. These forces are multiple, impersonal, and don’t serve well for producing poetry, appealing to some form of spiritual ritual, or moving the religious imagination.
Therefore, some religious naturalists advocate retaining God as the metaphor for the ongoing creativity in the universe – the life-giving, creative, ordering power within the emerging into being of all that is. God is a unified shorthand, a metaphor, for the totality of creative-ordering forces in the universe. God is the metaphor for those powers permeated throughout nature.
Recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and linguistics have helped us see the crucial role metaphor serves in the mental inference that makes thinking and the imagination possible. The common stereotype is that a metaphor is something imaginary and not real. On one level this may be true, but at the level of neuroscience and cognition, metaphor is, literally, everything. It is the basic working cognitive unit of our minds and it is by using metaphor that all our concepts are formed and learned. (See the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, including, Metaphors We Live By, 2003)
Using this metaphor runs some risks. We need to be careful not to anthropomorphize the metaphor, using it as an excuse for sloppy thinking that turns us back to unwarranted theistic visions. This is God as metaphor, not God as a conscious, willful, interactive personal power that might respond to human beckoning. God may serve as poetic shorthand in conversation, ritual, meditation, and poetry – but we don’t worship metaphors.
There may be value in avoiding the word God and opting instead for divinity, the eternal, or even goddess. God is such a ladened term, carrying with it the accumulated baggage of so much bad theology and poor reasoning. Words matter. Those of us willing to retain some notion of the god-concept, even metaphorically, need to choose wisely.
“Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that underlie the living world. The Goddess is the presence of consciousness in all living beings; the Goddess is the great creative force that spun the universe out of coiled springs of probability and set the stars spinning.”
The God metaphor does not assert something posed over and against the universe, in addition to it, nor the universe itself. This notion of God does not count God as a being at least in the way that a tree, a person, or a personal god is a being. God as metaphor is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of object at all. (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 107-108)
God is the metaphor and symbol for the creative principles in being – the creative power(s) infused throughout all things – the underlying, organizing force that brings order out of chaos and potentiality that drives emergence into ordered complexity and toward life. In this sense, retaining God as a metaphor aligns with the Western concept of monotheism as the apprehension of a unified transcendent value source.
The creative mystery that some call God serves as a foundational symbol for our culture. For many people, it functions as a primary focus for orientation to the sacred, creative principle driving the mystery of reality – that there is something and not nothing, and that this something is orderly, and produces conscious life that can ponder questions of meaning.
God is the concept of unity among the diversity of being – a symbol of the great oneness that speaks of the truth of the interconnectedness of everything. Such notions underlie most mystical experience.
Individuals are free to retain God as a metaphor or reject the concept altogether. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
I’d welcome hearing your thoughts on the matter.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.