Artwork by Michael Bradley

The emergent God

A new cosmic story

I don’t think your metaphysical views (including whether you believe in a supernatural God) are what matters when it comes to living a spiritual life — waking up to your inner divinity, being in loving conscious communion with the world, surrendering to the mystery, getting in tune with the hum of the universe, however you want to put it. Whether you have a supernatural worldview or a purely scientific worldview doesn’t really matter.

So often people are skeptical that you can be a fully spiritual person if you don’t think there’s anything supernatural going on in the universe. Supernaturally inclined spiritual people are skeptical and so they hold a prejudice against purely scientific worldviews. Scientifically inclined people are skeptical so they hold a prejudice against spirituality. What non-supernatural spirituality needs is to figure out a way to tell the cosmic story in a way that moves, inspires, comforts, and heals people.

The world’s major religions do a good job of telling the cosmic story. Not just the cosmic origin story (e.g. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.”), but also a story about the cosmic future, the cosmos’ purpose, meaning, and mystery. In Hinduism, the goal is to merge with Brahman, like a wave breaking on the ocean. In Buddhism, the goal is to transcend your individuality to attain Buddhahood — to manifest the Dharma-body. In Christianity, the goal is to leave your body on Earth and join God in heaven. These three stories are all variations on the theme of ascending to a higher reality through connection to the divine. (I don’t know enough about Judaism and Islam to summarize those religions’ cosmic stories, but Islam’s seems similar to Christianity’s and Judaism’s seems more complicated and disputed.)

Spiritually “woke” people see the major world religions as different paths up the same mountain. I believe that a purely scientific worldview, combined with spiritual exploration and practice, is yet another path up that mountain. This is hard to see. Scientific spirituality has had fewer storytellers and much less time to impart its cosmic outlook. Carl Sagan made maybe the best attempt so far.

Supernaturally inclined people often see a pure science world, a world absent of the supernatural, as a world with no magic, no wonder, no twinkling, winking shimmer of mystery. I think this is a limited way of seeing things. The natural universe is its own trip, on par with the supernatural universes of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

The predominant supernatural view is that the universe exists as a result of divine intention and is steered by divine oversight. The non-supernatural view is that the universe exists of its own accord, without anyone intending it to. The cosmos is a vast, unplanned, churning, evolving, and deeply mysterious thing. No one is at the helm. Rather than originating in an act of intelligent creation, the cosmos is an inanimate act of intelligence creation. That, to me, is an awe-inspiring mystery.

Photo by GD Taber

I don’t think the universe originated in love, but I think it’s evolving toward love. The closest thing to Yahweh or Brahman or the Dharma-body is what is emerging out of human cultural and technological evolution. I call it the emergent God.

The cosmic story of the world’s major religions is the story of a world held by a loving force. I believe that loving force is human consciousness — right now to an extent, but progressively more in the future. Human consciousness today is the seed of a God that is still growing. So, does God exist? God is coming into existence.

For thousands of years, human beings have glimpsed the divine in our own core. Christians believe that the human soul is created in God’s likeness. Buddhists believe that the Dharma-body, a transpersonal God, resonates out from beneath the costume of individual personality. Hinduism makes the connection between God and human consciousness the most explicit. Atman (the individual human person) is Brahman (God). Where the idea of the emergent God diverges from traditional theology is on these religions’ belief that God is already a finished product.

The idea of the emergent God turns the traditional cosmic origin story on its head. God didn’t create the universe. The universe is creating God. Human consciousness, the likeness of God, is slowly growing in the direction of Godliness. We are overcoming cultural, moral, and emotional hurdles — for instance, progressively embracing diversity, human equality, and compassion. Our capacity for love is growing.

Our capacities will also grow in other ways. The biological limitations of human consciousness will begin to be expanded as human creativity takes over the process of biological evolution. Biotechnology is a brilliant hack that evolution has unknowingly devised to upgrade its processing power. Human consciousness will redesign itself.

Evolution hacks itself

Our expansion into a more capaciously flowing consciousness probably won’t take the form of a homogenizing merging into Brahman, an ascension to a static state of passive bliss, or the quelching of all desire. Instead, there will be even more diversity, more complexity, more striving, struggling, and searching, without any final closure or catharsis. We will continue the journey. Maybe forever. The cosmos is not a finite game — a game played “for the purpose of winning”. It’s an infinite game — a game played “for the purpose of continuing the play.” There will probably be no point in time at which God has reached a finished end state.

We are in the midst of evolution, and we probably always will be. For now and maybe forever, God is emerging.

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