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  • The Religious Qualities of Naturalistic God Metaphors: Introducing the Debate
  • Demian Wheeler (bio) and Daniel J. Ott (bio)

What follows is a continuation of a debate that dates back to at least John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius but took on its naturalistic guise in the third generation of the Chicago school between Bernard Loomer and Bernard Meland. Basically, the argument pertains to whether God is to be associated with everything that is, including suffering and evil, or whether God is more rightly associated with what we take to be good or redemptive. Loomer defended the former position. Late in life, he came to embrace pantheism, arguing that God and nature are identical. The thesis of his 1987 essay, “The Size of God,” was that the divine is to be equated with the world in its ambiguous and mysterious entirety—with the “Whole Shebang,” to borrow Nancy Frankenberry’s clever phrase.1 “God,” wrote Loomer, “is to be identified with the concrete, interconnected totality of this struggling, imperfect, unfinished, and evolving societal web.”2

In a number of recent writings, including his new book on pragmatic historicism, Demian Wheeler has aligned himself with the later Loomer, the pantheist Loomer.3 Three years ago, in a paper he gave at the American Academy of Religion, he went so far as to contend that Loomer’s pantheistic variety of religious naturalism offers a bridge between Whiteheadianism and Tillichianism, possibly opening a path to a ground-of-being process theology.4 In an effort to solicit feedback, Wheeler sent the essay to Daniel Ott. Ott’s reaction was mixed, to put it mildly. [End Page 5]

On the one hand, Ott reminded Wheeler that they share quite a bit in common, that they are fellow travelers, theologically and philosophically speaking. Indeed, we are bonded in our mutual admiration for the Chicago school of theology and the streams of American thought that flow into and out of it. We both embrace pragmatism and historicism and, like Loomer and Meland, situate ourselves in the empirical tradition of process theology.5 We also follow Loomer and Meland in labeling ourselves religious, even theistic, naturalists.6 To be clear, neither of us believes in an otherworldly or personal divine being. But each of us ventures that the humanly constructed symbol “God” has not outlived its usefulness, notwithstanding its supernatural and anthropomorphic baggage. As Ott remarks, God, along with other religious metaphors and myths, can be meaningfully reinterpreted as symbolizing “the depth within the creative passage,” the “deep pools of value” that “emerge as nature presses toward complexity in harmony and reflective organisms develop cultures and traditions.”7

On the other hand, despite these deep intellectual affinities, Ott shook his head at Wheeler’s affection for Loomer’s oversized deity and cited his preference for the other Bernard, Bernard Meland. Although understanding the theological appeal of divine bigness—an infinite against which the finite crashes, an abyss that causes awe, a God beyond god that blows up all our petty idols—Ott stated that the liberation theologian in him needs a deity that is small enough to stand with the poor and the oppressed, while the process theologian in him requires an object of worship that is specific enough to stand for the instantiations of truth, beauty, and goodness that nature manifests. Thus, Ott wants to suggest that the metaphor “God” points not to the ambiguous totality of nature, as Loomer proposed, but to what Meland termed “the sensitive nature within nature”—those natural events that evidence creative transformation and [End Page 6] drive us toward harmonious relations and novel expressions of faith, hope, and love.8

We carried on for several more months and eventually decided to bring the dialogue to the 2019 IARPT meeting in Asheville, North Carolina. While writing the proposal for our joint presentation, we discovered that our main disagreement is more about axiology and piety than cosmology and metaphysics, less about ultimacy than the relationship between ultimacy and divinity. In other words, what we are really arguing about is religion, more precisely, the religious qualities of different naturalistic God metaphors. By “religious,” we have in mind something quite pragmatic, something akin to John...


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