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[Chalice] Creative Advance into Novelty? [Chalice]
Whitehead's God and the Extinction of Species

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Presented May 4, 2008, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

I certainly hope you were here a few weeks ago to hear Rev. Searl's fine talk about atheism and atheists. I cannot say I am surprised, but it is depressing to learn that the most reviled minority in our country are atheists. You'd think considering it is the 21st century that even most religious people would concede that there are also pretty good reasons why people might consider themselves atheists. I have often encountered this attitude within religious friends and students I have had that there must be something wrong with atheists, why don't they believe in God like everyone else? Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than this attitude that just assumes that all reasonable, intelligent people must believe in God. I have never actually done it, but I have always wanted to say to such people: "Your attitude is oh so 12th century."

Certainly atheism is a very reasonable option and has been among educated western people for 3 centuries, and I do find it depressing that such a great majority of our fellow Americans quite obviously stick their heads in medieval sand and pretend that this is not so. I do consider atheism a reasonable option, and as a student of the Holocaust and other genocides and of 20th century philosophy, I probably understand fairly well why a lot of people take the path of atheism. Despite all this, and despite the fact that I even have a little black dog I named after the famous philosopher who declared that "God is dead," I still have never in any period of my life ever considered myself an atheist, though I don't want you to think I think less of you if you consider yourself an atheist. When it comes to being an atheist, my attitude is reminiscent of that episode from Seinfeld. I have to say I am not an atheist but quickly add, "not that there's anything wrong with that."

If you challenge me as you well might and say: Why are you not an atheist? I might give you two reasons, at least to start with. First, to say I am an atheist to me is too much of a settled thing. To me, to say I am an atheist is too close, too similar to saying something like "I am a Methodist." It's to say I have a settled, arrived at identity when it comes to the God question, and I really don't. Now if you don't like that reason let me try my second one, and this relates to one of the greatest thing one philosopher ever said about another. Jean-Paul Sartre was as you know a great French existentialist philosopher of the last century and there is no doubt he was a thoroughgoing atheist, an absolute God denier, though some people report that he may have worshipped himself. When he was asked about the great religious philosopher of the 19th century, of course Soren Kierkegaard, he said: "Kierkegaard is one of the few people who make atheism difficult."

And that's my second reason why I am not an atheist. Perhaps I am on my way to atheism, perhaps all reasonable, educated, 21st century people are, but on the way there I keep getting deferred by Soren Kierkegaard and others like him. I keep getting deferred by encountering great, fascinating people who take both God and religion seriously and who give both of them new life and new vitality, and who demand or at least persuade you to walk down their, religious path for a while and understand and appreciate it. Walking down these various other, religious paths following people like Kierkegaard is why I keep getting deferred on my way to atheism. Some of the people who can defer us in this way or, as Sartre says, at least make the atheism option more difficult to take, are in addition to Kierkegaard, Augustine, certainly the mystics of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, the rabbis in the Talmud, Emerson, and closer to our own time, certainly Buber, Tillich, Levinas, and the great author of Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead. Exploring the paths opened up by these and other great religious intellectuals has continually deferred me from the path of atheism, and I am beginning to feel that my entire life will be this constant deferral and that I will never really end up as an atheist, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Certainly one of the most interesting and persuasive and creative people opening up another religious path to walk down that defers you from atheism is the great father of what is called "process philosophy and process theology," Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was a man of reason and of science par excellence. He was a Professor of Mathematics and Logic nearly all of his adult life. Late in his life, when he normally would have retired, he came to Harvard as a Professor of Philosophy, and he came one of the century's most important speculative, metaphysical, and religious philosophers. Whitehead insisted that his metaphysical and religious speculations were not contrary to his scientific understanding of the universe, but were in harmony with it. Indeed, in a certain sense the most essential thing to understand about what Whitehead writes about God, about God's life, God's nature, is that he thinks they are entirely consistent with the way we scientifically understand the ever changing universe. "God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification."

Whitehead's scientific understanding of the universe is of course based on evolutionary theory. His reading of evolutionary theory was very positive and affirming. To Whitehead, evolutionary theory did not emphasize the survival of only the fittest, did not emphasize most species dying out over time. He believed evolutionary theory showed us rather a universe always growing in complexity and diversity, with new species poring forth constantly from the millions already populating the planet. Even the species that dies out generate new forms of their species. Every species is creatively advancing into novelty and diversity. This is Whitehead's basic metaphysical principle: everything that lives is creatively advancing into novelty, and that is why the progress of the world has given us such an incredible variety of species.

Did you know that scientists estimate that the planet contains 30 million different species of living organisms and that so far the human mind has been able to track down, investigate, name and classify only about 1.5 million of them. We humans consciously live in the midst of a diversity and plurality and a continually creative advance into more diversity, plurality, novelty that defies the power of the human mind to understand and conceptualize it. Do you know how many species of birds there are? We live our lives with Robins, wrens, hawks, blue jays, cardinals, a few others. But there are actually nearly ten thousand different species of birds, and that's just the known ones. And fish? We live with catfish and carp and we buy tuna, salmon, a few others, but there are actually 30,000 species of fish on the planet. We love orchids and their beauty marvels us, but their diversity should as well. Did you know there are tens of thousands of varieties of orchids in the world. And bumblebees? There are more than 200 different species of bumblebee, but to most of us when we see a bumblebee it's just a bumblebee. We tend to live in our own little part of the world and cannot see beyond our own little corner, as Nietzsche says, or as William James has it, we humans live with a certain blindness. We have no clue about the rich diversity of species we live amidst.

That's exactly what Whitehead says to us. Understand the richness of the diversity we live among, a diversity so great it defies the power of the human mind to ever understand it. Understand that the ultimate metaphysical principle in the world is creative advance into novelty, that this continually creative advance into novelty has produced this amazing world with such incredible diversity in it. Then this is precisely where Whitehead gets speculative and becomes theological and a creative God-centered thinker. He says that only when we understand the world scientifically and marvel at the incredibly rich diversity of the world can we then really think intelligently and creatively about the nature of God.

Because this is the nature of the universe, continually advancing to diversity and novelty, then the nature of the universe shows us something about God and God's life and nature. To Whitehead, God must be a being who loves to create, who loves diversity and multiplicity and who takes delight in creativity and novelty. Whitehead reasons that God is not an exception or a contradiction to the way the universe is but that His life and His nature must be consistent with the way the world is. To Whitehead, God must love opening up potentialities, new varieties of forms. To Whitehead, God lives within the world and enjoys its richness and diversity as it evolves. He loves to see the world's creative advance into novelty. The world's creative advance into novelty is at the same time God's creative advance into novelty. The continual creation of new species adds more variety to God's life and God's experiences too. Both God and the world have the same ultimate metaphysical ground: the creative advance into novelty. "Either of them, God and the World, is the instrument of novelty for the other." The creative advance of the world into new species, into ever richer diversity, is also novelty for God, is also God's creative advance into novelty. This is what Whitehead means when he says: "It is as true to say that God transcends the World as it is true to say that the World transcends God. It is as true to say that God creates the World as that the World creates God." The creative advance of the world creates God's future and is the instrument of novelty for God.

Now if you look at the second half of the title of this talk, you know where I am going with this. Something radical is happening to the creative advance of the world and to what Whitehead sees as the ultimate metaphysical ground of all that is including God, the creative advance into novelty. Whitehead doesn't use the term, but the great and continual diversity of species Whitehead wants us to think about scientifically and philosophically and theologically is now referred to as biodiversity, and biodiversity is now in crisis. For the first time since the cataclysmic period that wiped out the dinosaurs, the biodiversity on the planet is actually shrinking. Now more species are actually becoming extinct than are emerging. The ultimate metaphysical ground of all that is, creative advance into novelty, is threatened. Our human life on the planet is actually changing the ultimate metaphysical ground of all that is, and we will be living in a world with less variety and diversity, and this for Whitehead is a crisis and a tragedy for us, for humans, for the world, and also for God. God's future too and God's enjoyment of the world is affected by the fact that biodiversity is becoming less and not more diversity, that something tragic is happening to the creative advance into novelty.

Scientists estimate that now more than 1000 species die out every year and that this number may increase exponentially given the deterioration of native habitats, global warming, and human poaching and killing. There are 5918 known species of amphibians, 31% are now listed as threatened. 9,934 species of birds, 12% are threatened, and predictions are that 25% will be extinct by the end of the century. 29,300 species of fish, 40% of them are threatened. 5,416 mammals, 20% of them are threatened. And as to the future, as Yogi Berra says, the difficult thing about the future is that it hasn't happened yet, but there is little doubt as to where the future is heading: to more species dying out and to less variety, diminished novelty. That's why there is a question mark in the title. Are we, is the world, creatively advancing into novelty? For the first time since the period that brought about the extinction of the dinsosaurs, it seems we are not creatively advancing into novelty. The scientific community today is telling us that if current trends continue into the future, roughly between one half and two thirds of all known species will be extinct or near extinction by the end of the century. That is a crisis for us, for the world, and, if we walk along the theological path opened for us by the great Whitehead, a crisis for God as well.

©2008 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2008. Creative Advance into Novelty? Whitehead's God and the Extinction of Species, /talks/20080504.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

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