The best candidate for the “role” of God I’ve found through philosophy is that of the full expanse of metaphysical possibilities present in a theory of modal realism (this idea was previously broached in this post). If the familiar actual world is a subset of a necessarily existing modal manifold, then the theological version of this framework would be a form of panentheism. I thought I’d look into what some theologians are saying about panentheism and recently read most of the articles in a volume edited by Philip Clayton and the late Arthur Peacocke: In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World.
Several of the authors in the volume offer definitions of panentheism; the one from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church seems a good starting point: “The belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him, but (as against Pantheism) that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe.” (BTW, my post on plain old pantheism is here).
While there are strands of panentheistic thought which extend throughout history, Peacocke’s introductory essay sets out many of the reasons a contemporary theist might move toward panentheism from a starting point of classical theism. He says a variety of factors form the basis of this impetus: “Broadly they all point to the need to accentuate, in light of contemporary knowledge of the world and of humanity, a much stronger sense than in the past of the immanence of God as in some sense “in” the world (p.xix)”.
Importantly, it is the influence of the scientific account of the world as a seamless web of natural phenomena which “…has rendered it increasingly problematic to conceive of God’s action in the world as intervening in any way that involves an abrogation of the very regularities with which God’s own self is regarded, by theists, as having endowed the world (p.xx)”. Further, Peacocke points out that the scientific explication of how natural systems evolve and emerge through self-organization leads toward a reading of God’s work in the world as “…creator ‘in, with, and under’ the creative, natural processes of the world unveiled by the sciences (p.xx)”.
Another important driver is the increased implausibility of a strong mind/body dualism, given advances in cognitive science and neuroscience. This “…has inevitably reflected upon the use of traditional models of God’s relation to the world in terms of personal agency. In these models God’s actions on the world was analogous to a person’s intentions being implemented by bodily actions…much traditional theology has implicitly been based on dualistic models (p.xxi).” Again, a view of God’s action being continuously present through natural processes seems more plausible.
Still, as against pantheism, a panentheistic model also preserves the transcendence of God, preserving a distinction between God and world. Thus for most of the contributors to this volume, coming from a theistic background, panentheism offers the possibility of a middle ground.
But, what if you are approaching things from a non-theistic perspective? If our world is a subset of a larger metaphysical entity, what’s the motivation for taking a theistic perspective on this entity at all, apart from the aspect of transcendence?
Well, there are a couple of other aspects of the philosophical model I’ve been working on that might support this perspective. First, reality is inherently experiential. Our world is comprised of events which are physical when viewed from the third-person perspective, but experiential from the first-person view. Possible events which are unactualized from our local point of view are experienced from a distant point of view: the full manifold of events, we might imagine, is being experienced across the full sum of points of view. Further, I have argued that our causal contact with the larger space of possibilities may provide the grounding for our rational faculties, including our knowledge of abstract objects. Rationality is based on knowledge of logical possibilities, which is founded on our contact with real metaphysical possibilities. According to the thesis of modal rationalism, metaphysical and logical possibilities are the same. Thus, rationality maps the terrain of modal space, or alternatively, is a reflection of the “shape” of God.
On the other hand, in this conception, it still seems problematic to me that the manifold of possibilities is a “person”, even if it encompasses experience and grounds reason. In the absence of personhood, is it still God? Also, while I can summon up feelings of awe and wonder with regard to this entity, I can’t see why one would worship it. I suppose it is possible that whether or not you take a theistic or religious stance toward this entity might be a question of personal preference or psychological makeup, but I’m not sure (I ran up against this issue in an old two-part post called “The God Option”).
In any case, it’s interesting that the course of philosophical reasoning can at least move one into this terrain. It gives me some hope that a worldview which has independent motivation could also serve as a potential meeting ground for those looking to improve on both classical theism and classical materialism.