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  • The Spirituality of Size: The Religious Qualities of Pantheistic God Metaphors
  • Demian Wheeler (bio)

Daniel Ott and I are reenacting and extending a debate that took place in the early 1980s between the third-generation Chicago schoolers Bernard Loomer and Bernard Meland.1 Their quarrel concerned the “size” of God and the accompanying question of divine ambiguity.

After a brief examination of the Loomer-Meland debate, this article explores and commends the religious qualities of pantheistic God metaphors—what I will call “the spirituality of size.” Clearly, then, I tend to side with Loomer in “the battle of the Bernards.” Be that as it may, I end up holding out for a polytheistic pantheism that effectively merges a Loomerian aesthetics with a Melandian axiology, a pantheist metaphysics of ultimacy with a pluralist ontology of divinity.

I. The Battle of the Bernards: The Question of Divine Ambiguity

Like Ott and myself, Meland and Loomer repudiated agential and panentheistic models of God, identifying instead as religious naturalists, naturalistic theists, and empirical process theologians.2 They grasped that if the natural realm is all there is, then “God” or “the sacred” must be coincidental with or included [End Page 8] within nature itself; for the God-intoxicated naturalist, the divine either is the world or is in the world.3 Loomer opted for the former, divinizing the totality of the concrete, experienceable, interrelated world, including its possibilities.4 Meland, by contrast, took the latter route: God is not nature but “the sensitive nature within nature,” not the creative passage but the “depth and ultimacy within the creative passage,” not the web of interrelations but the “ultimate efficacy within relationships.”5 For him, “God” is a hyperspecific symbol that points to certain sustaining relations, activities, structures, and behaviors within the universe and functions religiously to synthesize them into a single object of contemplation and worship.6

According to Meland, there is a “more-than-human” yet utterly natural pattern within the cosmic environment that is “growing toward increasing organic unity.” And mystically inclined naturalists like himself call this growth, this “richer integration of activity,” God, believing that it is “worthy of man’s full devotion.”7 As a mystical naturalist, Meland insisted that God is a mystery that is hidden and deeper than we can think and yet is empirically discernable as an infinitely good and gracious power that transmutes the “brute force” of nature’s creative processes into “meaningful events.”8 Here, he followed White-head in distinguishing between creativity—the ceaseless torrent of becoming and perishing—and “that which gives to creation meaning and character, a gentle working that is the redemptive influence upon force.” This “silent” and “everlasting operation of persuasion toward meaning, beauty, and goodness” [End Page 9] is none other than the work of God in history, “the work of an immensely sensitive nature within nature, brooding over the waters, giving light to its darkness.”9 Meland later clarified that “sensitivity” designates a “quality of the cosmic process akin to the quality of our own spiritual life,” namely, “a mode of efficacy” within the natural world that aims at “qualitative attainment” and implies “a tender regard for relationships.”10

Loomer pointed out that Meland and Whitehead alike end up positing a kind of “cosmic struggle” in which a “tender persuasiveness” is “pitted against” the efficient causes of the universe and the blind compulsions of creativity. The problem with separating God from “the compulsive, efficient, creative dimensions of existence” is twofold, according to Loomer. First, such a view is not genuinely naturalistic. On Loomer’s reading, Meland inadvertently turns God into “something other than, more than, the interrelated, dynamic world of events.” Loomer protested that there is no empirical basis for a divine “guide and orderer of meaning,” for a persuasive “presence” that is somehow distinct from the creative advance. Creativity itself is the carrier of both “brute, repetitive force” and “whatever good has been achieved.” Second, and far more significantly, bifurcating creativity and God, efficient causality and gentle persuasiveness, arises from the desire to transcend the inescapable ambiguities and tragedies of reality, which, in Loomer’s estimation, is to opt for death. Meland and other process thinkers, although...


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