Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A gracious universe?

Writing about the theologian John Haught the other day prompted me to look again at his little book What Is God?, published more than 20 years ago, one of his earliest works.

It is a smart little book. Haught anchors his notion of God in mystery, and then talks about five ways we confront mystery in our daily lives: our experiences of depth, future, freedom, beauty and truth. "For ultimately 'God' means mystery, and the prevalence of a sense of mystery would render books like this one superfluous," he writes.

In all of this he is one with the religious naturalist.

But there are two major truths that a genuine religious sense requires, he says. The first is that our lives are embraced by mystery. The second is that this mystery is "gracious." It is here, in the second "truth," that Haught and religious naturalists part company.

For the religious naturalist, the mystery is sometimes gracious and sometimes not. Was it a graciousness that sent a cyclone streaming into Myanmar, causing tens of thousands of deaths and untold misery? Is it graciousness that lets a quarter of human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortions? is it graciousness that drives natural selection? Like all believers in a gracious God, Haught must confront the problem of evil. The religious naturalist does not have to explain the apparent "ungraciousness" of God. For the religious naturalist, the mystery is law and chaos, light and darkness, good and evil, creation and destruction, hope and despair -- not as Manichean opposing forces, but all at once. In the face of this all-encompassing unitary mystery we -- humans -- struggle to be gracious. Why? That too, I suppose, is part of the mystery. Certainly, there is no evidence that atheists or agnostics are any less gracious than theists. Perhaps graciousness is part of who we are biologically.

Once Haught insists that the mystery is gracious, it is only a small step to endow the mystery with personhood, for graciousness is a human trait. And so he ends where he needs to be as an orthodox theologian, with a personal God -- thereby at least partly negating his truth number one.