A GOD THAT COULD BE REAL:
Spirituality, Science and the
Future of Our Planet,
by Nancy Ellen Abrams
Beacon Press. Paperback. 2016.
200 pages. $19.82 CAD.
ISBN # 978-0807073391.
A paradigm-shifting blend of science, religion, and philosophy for agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious, and scientifically minded readers
Many people are fed up with the way traditional religion alienates them: too easily it can perpetuate conflict, vilify science, and undermine reason. Nancy Abrams, a philosopher of science, lawyer, and lifelong atheist, is among them. And yet, when she turned to the recovery community to face a personal struggle, she found that imagining a higher power gave her a new freedom. Intellectually, this was quite surprising.
Meanwhile her husband, famed astrophysicist Joel Primack, was helping create a new theory of the universe based on dark matter and dark energy, and Abrams was collaborating with him on two books that put the new scientific picture into a social and political context. She wondered, “Could anything actually exist in this strange new universe that is worthy of the name ‘God?’”
In A God That Could Be Real, Abrams explores a radically new way of thinking about God. She dismantles several common assumptions about God and shows why an omniscient, omnipotent God that created the universe and plans what happens is incompatible with science—but that this doesn’t preclude a God that can comfort and empower us.
Moving away from traditional arguments for God, Abrams finds something worthy of the name “God” in the new science of emergence: just as a complex ant hill emerges from the collective behavior of individually clueless ants, and just as the global economy emerges from the interactions of billions of individuals’ choices, God, she argues, is an “emergent phenomenon” that arises from the staggering complexity of humanity’s collective aspirations and is in dialogue with every individual. This God did not create the universe—it created the meaning of the universe. It’s not universal—it’s planetary. It can’t change the world, but it helps us change the world. A God that could be real, Abrams shows us, is what humanity needs to inspire us to collectively cooperate to protect our warming planet and create a long-term civilization.
Nancy Ellen Abrams is coauthor with Joel R. Primack, of The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future.
I have decided not to add my thoughts about this book because of
time constraints this week, and also because I do not feel adequate at this point to give it an honest appraisal.
However, a scientist-friend suggested I consider the book, and I plan to do so. In the meantime, I am offering a review made available on the Amazon.ca website and hope you might consider it, since Bishop Desmond Tutu lends his support at the end of this selection.
Reviewed on the Amazon.ca site by “the Dean Family” –
This is a difficult book to review. It is also a hard book to get through. The subject matter is both lofty and dense. If you are going to do more than skim it, you will probably have to read parts, put it aside, chew on it, and then return for another session. And if it is difficult to read and review, I can only imagine how terrifically much harder it must have been to write! For the effort alone, I would give it four stars. What a task to take on: to set out not only to define what God is, based on (the author’s grasp of) the most recent scientific understanding of the nature of the universe — and then to infuse this with her personal experience of a Higher Power encountered through her 12-Step program!
I found this read (and find, since I am not finished with it) to be stimulating, exasperating, disturbing, overwhelming, inspirational, headache-making, breakthrough, bewildering and finally (even grudgingly), elucidating.
I will say first, in case I lose you along the way, if you are serious in your contemplation of the nature of God, you will want to read Nancy Abrams’ book.
To begin, it helps to look at the roots on which the book grew. There are many, but four I find fundamental to understanding:
One: Nancy Abrams is the wife of cosmologist Joel Primack, one of the promulgators of the theory that our universe is not composed primarily of atoms, as you and I were taught, but instead, of invisible and mysterious “cold dark matter” and “dark energy.” Together, these two form the “double dark” theory, that, according to Nancy, are “the foundation of the modern picture of the universe.” Her idea of God had to fit, first and foremost, with that and the current take on the laws of physics and thermodynamics.
Two: when Nancy was 15, she told her rabbi, “God didn’t create us; we created God.” While she explains how she came to refine that immature idea, nevertheless, that the seed grew into her ultimate theory.
Three: Ms. Abrams was a successful intellectual, lawyer, and philosopher. Yet she developed an eating disorder that eventually drove her to a 12-Step Program (which, you may know, began when two alcoholics banded together in their attempt to remain sober. It was part of the Christian temperance movement of the 20th Century, and grew into a worldwide spiritual program of recovery for addicts of many kinds). Nancy believes that her Higher Power, or God, has a reality outside herself. God is not merely a projection, as many philosophers and theologians have said, of the better part of human nature. Nancy found a God who, unlike the title of her book, not only “Could Be Real” but Is.
The fourth key to Ms. Abrams’ concept of God is the Theory (or phenomenon) of “emergence.” Cells have individual life, but when billions are gathered together in a certain form, what emerges is greater than the sum of the parts: it is (or can be) a human being. Humans themselves have individual life, but when millions focus their efforts in certain ways, other realities emerge. One might be called “the stock market,” which exists and has definite rules and characteristics. Another is “the media,” and so on.
Therefore, Ms. Abrams tells us, God is an emergent phenomenon. He (or it) is not the omnipotent, omnipresent Creator of all things that many religions claim. Instead, she says, God is an emergent reality from humanity. However, God is not just a projection. God is a reality humans can know, pray to, hear, and embrace. Millions upon millions of the world’s inhabitants would reject Nancy Abrams’ version of God, of course. In some cultures today, she could be executed for blasphemy.
In more tolerant, reasonable systems, she would still be branded a heretic, or dismissed as a kook. The first possibility is a lot of what is wrong with our world today – a narrow and violent view of existence that would return humanity to some new version of the Dark Ages. Even the last two would do this deep thinker a disservice. I have thought about the nature of God and reality a lot in my life, but I approach the spiritual being and force that powers a universe with more of a sense of humility and awe, and the sense that the tiny human speck of awareness I am should not and cannot define a God within and behind all things. I am forced to admit, I have never approached the idea of God with Ms. Abrams’ rigor, or depth of research.
Reading her book has required me to question everything I held true about both science and God. I am not saying in the end that I agree with all or even most of what the author is so boldly willing to declare.
I stand with Desmond Tutu, who wrote one of the forewords to her book. “I do not agree with everything that Nancy Abrams says about the scientific understanding of God,” the Archbishop writes. But “..The God I believe in…wants us to keep learning and discovering and exploring every inch…of creation…. This book will help you clarify your own personal understanding of God…. I recommend it highly to all, religious or secular, believer or atheist, who are ready to explore honestly their understanding of the divine in our beautiful, expanding universe.”
Amen, brother Tutu. And bravo, Nancy Abrams.
Buy the book from Amazon.ca:
Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development at St. David’s United Church in that city. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________