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The Big Question

Does God evolve?

By Bruce Sanguin

I appreciate the humility of the medieval theologians when they weighed in on questions about God. They first state their answer positively (God is love), then negate it (God isn’t really love), then negate the negation (we don’t even know what we don’t know about God), and finally rest in the deep “mystery of unknowing” — where you’ll find God. Then repeat.

But in fear and trembling, I’ll take a crack at whether God evolves.

Let’s start with what the Bible says. God certainly is portrayed as listening to the people, and the people are pretty sure that they are able to plea and bargain with the Almighty. In the process, sometimes God changes God’s mind. Abraham proves to be a great negotiator on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, when God is ready to rain fire and brimstone down upon them (Genesis 18:22-33). 

Reacting to the story of the flood in Genesis, one could interpret God’s lament at wiping out most of Creation as God’s own evolution. God learns that divine violence can’t solve human violence, and learning is a quintessential indicator of evolution. God also changes God’s mind about sacrificing Isaac at the last moment, using a ram as a substitute — an evolution from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice (Genesis 22:11-13).

These stories are early, mythic expressions of spiritual intelligence, not to be taken literally, and yet they contain within them clues of a more complex truth. They suggest God has arisen in human consciousness in and through three fundamental perspectives.

We can talk about God in the third person as an “It”; we can relate to God directly in the second person from within an “I-Thou” relationship; and we can show up as God in the first person, tapping into the mystical dimensions of our own being. Another way of saying this is that, in the history of human consciousness, across all religious traditions, God arises as the Infinite It (third person), the Intimate Other (second person), and the Inner Self (first person).

God evolves in the first- and second- person perspectives, but not in the third person. In the third person, we can imagine God as the Infinite Potential for love, intelligence and creativity, and that’s not going to evolve (otherwise it wouldn’t be infinite). This is an absolute, unchanging dimension of God. But Infinite Potential needs a world in which to be realized and made real. This is my best guess as to why a world emerged out of God.

When that world comes into being, God evolves in both the second-person perspective (God as Intimate Other) and the first-person perspective (God as Inner Self ). Let’s begin with the second- person view, God as Lover.

Process theologians are not the only school of theology to use love as an analogy for God. But they are unique in claiming that any Loving Presence worth the metaphor must, therefore, be responsive to the feelings and concerns of others. In the story of Exodus, for example, God hears the cries of the suffering Hebrews and responds by telling the Pharaoh to let the people go (Exodus 3:7-8). God takes in new information, God’s heart is moved and God responds. This capacity to learn and respond to shifting life conditions describes the evolutionary process pretty well at all levels.

What about God in the first person — the Inner Self? Mainline churches still get somewhat twitchy about human claims for divinity. But it’s crucial to distinguish between egotistically imagining oneself to be divine, and knowing oneself to be an emergent realization of Infinite Potential. This inner knowing produces a desire to be an agent of conscious evolution, love and creativity in service of the Whole.

The world that comes into being in God and through God becomes conscious in human beings. In us, natural selection becomes actual selection. By consciously selecting our future, we participate in the divine promise of a new creation. “Behold, I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). When we love the world with all our heart and mind and strength, we are letting “this mind be in you that was also in Christ” (Philippians 2:5). Through this process, we show up in our divine nature. This face of God evolves in, through and as us. In the spiritual practice of consciously becoming and bringing forth what is ours to bring forth, God evolves.

Let’s loop back to God in the third person, as Infinite Potential. This dimension of God doesn’t just sit around watching reruns. I like how Catholic priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin imagines God as a “divine milieu” — the originating Creative Matrix, non-coercively alluring everything, everybody and every form of consciousness, in every moment, to take its next best step into the adventure of life. God both evolves and is the Evolver.

Rev. Bruce Sanguin is the minister at Canadian Memorial United & Centre for Peace in Vancouver. His most recent book is If Darwin Prayed.

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