I Believe in Big Love(大爱)
Letter to a Chinese Exchange Student
Dear Dr. McDaniel,
Today my roommate asked me if I believe in God.
Can you tell me: What is God? Is he an emperor in the sky? Does he make everything happen?
In China, at least among my friends, we do not talk about God very much. We think God is a figment of the human imagination.
I think that it might be easiest if you come and visit with me one on one because there is so much to say. But in this short response let me tell you a little bit about Whitehead’s understanding of God.
Some people call his view panentheism. The word “pan” means everything and the word “en” means inside and the word “theism” means something like the Supreme Being. So panentheism is a phrase that means “everything is inside the Supreme Being.”
It is very important, though, to recognize what Supreme means in a Whiteheadian context. For many people the word “supreme” suggests something very powerful and forceful, like an emperor who issues commands and threatens punishment. Whitehead did not think of “supreme” this way at all, and he was quite critical of the idea that the Supreme Being is similar to an emperor. He called this “rendering unto God what better belongs to Caesar.”
He believed that the truly supreme power in life is love, not coercive power, and that if we are to imagine the supremacy of the supreme being in meaningful terms, we should imagine it as supreme love. That’s why in this website we sometimes speak of the divine reality as the Great Compassion or, to quote the jazz musician John Coltrane, the Love Supreme. Have you ever listened to Coltrane?
Thus, if you are to think pan-en-theistically, please do not imagine an emperor in the sky. Don’t imagine anything with a face or a body. Don’t imagine anything that is located anywhere at all; instead imagine something that is everyone at once, equally present to all things. You might imagine a boundless circle of compassion inside of which the whole universe “lives and moves and has its being.” Or an ocean of empathy in which fish are constantly swimming, but don’t give the ocean any boundaries. The ocean is everywhere. It is inside people, too.
Do you remember the earthquake in Chengdu? From Whitehead’s perspective this ocean of empathy was present to each person who died in the earthquake, sharing in their suffering. Much like Kuan Yin. And the ocean was present in the lives of the people who reached into the rubble to help save and comfort people. And in the lives of the many people afterwards who cared for the survivors and their families. I believe that in China you call this Big Love(大爱). The Supreme Being is Big Love as revealed in the love of people for one another. Your roommate may be a Christian; I don’t know. If so, your roommate probably believes that the Big Love was revealed, but not exhausted, in Jesus.
I know what you are asking: But is this Big Love really a being? Is this Big Love someone who listens to prayers?
Whitehead said “yes.”
I know that, when you think of a being, you may think of something located somewhere, maybe even with a face. A unique feature of Whitehead’s perspective, though, is that he doesn’t even think of us humans that way. He thinks that we ourselves are not reducible to our faces or even our bodies; we are also our consciousness and our awareness, our heart-minds(心灵). And if you think about your heart-mind, it is not located one place or another, but is present both within you and around you, wherever you focus your attention and care. Your heart-mind is where you are sitting as your read this letter, but it is also with your parents back in China, who are thousands of miles away. And so it is with the Big Love. She is here where you are, but also there were your parents are. And in the stars and galaxies, too.
Well that’s enough for now. There is more to Whitehead’s understanding of the Supreme Being than this. There is the idea that the Supreme Being is evolving over time and does not know the future in advance. There is the idea that the Supreme Being contains within his or her own mind all the possibilities for what can happen, but that the world itself must actualize them. There is the idea that the Supreme Being dwells within each human being as an indwelling lure toward wisdom and creativity as well as compassion. There is the idea that people can experience and respond to the Supreme Being even if they do not believe in the Supreme Being. But we can talk about those matters at another time.
The first thing I want to say to you is, when your roommate asks if you believe in God, you might simply say: “I don’t know and I’m thinking about it.” Or you can say “No, I don’t.” Or you can even say “Yes, I do.” But if you say “Yes, I do,” you can add – if you wish – that you don’t believe in a Big Emperor you believe in Big Love. If you put things this way, you are moving beyond images of reward and punishment to concerns for wisdom and compassion. From Whitehead’s perspective, you are moving into the Big Love.
See you soon,