Excellence in Scholarship and Learning
Divinity in Things
Religion without Myth
Eric Ackroyd is an ex-clergyman and retired lecturer. He has degrees in philosophy and theology, and is the author of the best-selling Dictionary of Dream Symbols. When not writing he practises yoga, wrestles with the piano, and engages with his five children and six grandchildren.
Divinity in Things: Religion without Myth provides a credible alternative to the so-called ‘western’ religions,
which all trace their ancestry to the Hebrew Yahweh, who was the
first sky-god to divorce (or be divorced by) his earth-mother consort,
so initiating the long separation of God from Nature, putting an
end to the feeling of oneness with Nature that had typified primal
forms of religion. The author goes back in time, beyond the gods
and goddesses of natural forces to the natural forces themselves,
and then to the earliest known god-concept – generally known
as ‘mana’, translatable as ‘energy’ and denoting not only the forces
of external nature, but also the creative powers of human beings.
For ‘mana’, he substitutes the more familiar ‘divinity’ to depict
the energy, presumed intelligence and rightness (beauty and goodness)
of our universe. A central theme is that religion should be understood
as a positive attitude – intellectual and emotional – towards
Planet Earth and, by implication, the total cosmos of which we are,
spiritually speaking, crucial and significant components. Since
the whole universe is the product of energy combined with intelligence,
we should put our trust in the rightness of the universe, the rightness
of nature. Such an attitude includes an ethical element: if awareness
of divinity within all things and therefore within ourselves is
cause for positive and joyful self-appraisal, this awareness must
be justified by responsible, constructive and benign employment
of our divine–human creativity.
Divinity is present in all things, including ourselves. But human beings, who possess intelligence and also considerable freedom of choice, sometimes abuse these gifts, even presuming to know better than Nature – with disastrous consequences. This book proposes lessons humankind needs to take to heart. Geniuses of all kinds – the Einsteins, Bachs, Rembrandts and Gandhis – whether believers or not, have received inspiration from their indwelling divinity. This message of trust of one’s personal divinity has special relevance for today’s troubled world.
|Paperback Price:||£16.95 / $29.95|
|Release Date:||May 2009|
|Page Extent / Format:||224 pp. / 229 x 152 mm|
Chapter One: Is God Dead?
Chapter Two: The Western Split I: Transcendent Deity, Desacralised Nature
Chapter Three: The Western Split II: God’s Otherness, Humanity’s Degradation
Chapter Four: The Western Split III: Gender Discrimination, its Origins and its Consequences
Chapter Five: Energy and Divinity
Chapter Six: Divinity Within
Chapter Seven: The Christian Doctrine of Incarnation: Restricted Immanence
Chapter Eight: Incarnation and Atonement Mythology
Chapter Nine: Creativity, Divine and Human
Chapter Ten: Divinity and Ethics
Chapter Eleven: Religion and Science
Chapter Twelve: The 'Problem’ of Evil; Providence
Chapter Thirteen: Death – and Beyond?
From the position that any religion’s claim to ‘unique truth’ is a contradiction in terms, a former Christian clergyman with degrees in philosophy and theology emphasizes looking inward to cultivate spirituality defined as an awareness of God or ‘intelligent universal energy’ in all things. In an eclectic argument against theism and Christian myths of incarnation, Ackroyd draws from Nietzsche and Sartre as well as Taoist philosophy and Western science.
Reference & Research Book News
Review by Jeaneane Fowler
Eric Ackroyd's thesis is encapsulated in a statement late in his book:
“A universe in process requires us to justify our existence within it by transcending ourselves and thereby assisting in the spiritual self-transcendence of the universe, the great cosmic organism of which we are intelligent cells, cells which, like those within our own body, die and have to be replaced. What we can be reasonably sure of is that the life-force within those cells is everlasting. That life-force is the divinity I speak of, which is our own true self and the true essence of everything” (p. 170).
Leading up to this point, Ackroyd dismantles the basic tenets of Christianity brick by mythological brick, berating and annihilating foundational concepts such as God the Father and God the Son, though as the book proceeds we find him accepting God the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he begins by abandoning the term God but later taking it up again. It is a brave book and in many ways is very refreshing: many of the author's thoughts would readily resonate with ordinary people, especially since it is so clearly written and, hence, very readable. The book would not be out of place in the realm of religious pluralism given its openness and non-dogmatic approach as well as its constant gleaning of ideas from other cultures both past and present.
Chapter 1, Is God Dead?, eschews theism in any religion as outmoded and removes God to an a-theistic (as opposed to atheist) presence within rather than "out there" or "beyond" the human sphere. Ackroyd thus radically denies any possibility of an anthropomorphic God. So he claims that theism is "no longer a viable option for any thinking person in the 21st century CE" (p. 3): the theistic god "is not big enough for the job" (p. 3). It would have to be said that the chapter upholds individualism, is bravely anti-theistic, and articulates frankly what has probably become the view of many.
Chapter 2 contrasts patriarchal religion that has elevated a transcendent male God at the expense of the feminine in nature bringing about the complete divorce of God from all nature. Again, his thesis that God is within nature as much as within humanity and that this is the essence of religion rather than belief in a supernatural God will resonate with many. It is the desacralization of nature that has led to its abuse. So the author posits a new understanding of divinity as "the intelligence and wisdom and energy of the cosmos" – that is immanent in one's physical (but also spiritual) self (p. 25). In short, he believes that the loss of reverence for fellow beings and nature stems from the elevation of a superior being as God beyond both. Thus, chapter 3 extends the idea that the "otherness" of God degrades humanity. Christianity has always eschewed pantheism, the belief that God is in all things, but this is actually the tenet that Ackroyd upholds and, yet again, it will chime with the thoughts of many others. For the author, a true religion "is one that sees, experiences and responds to the divinity that is in all things" (p. 29) and the human being has the conscious capacity to experience this indwelling divinity. He defines divinity as "whatever is the ultimate reality that is manifest in the energy, intelligence, beauty and rightness of the universe" (p. 31). While immanent divinity may be better than supernatural theism, however, it seems to me that seeing nature as divinity (p. 32) cannot but beg the question that nature is so often ruthlessly cruel: nature may well inspire "spiritual passions" (p. 34), but in my view it cannot be consistently divine.
Chapter 4 examines the issue of gender discrimination. Here, Ackroyd argues that the cosmos is organic, that is to say "a whole whose parts interact in such a way as to maintain (or, indeed, transform) both it and themselves" (p. 36). He therefore argues for a masculine/feminine wholeness and harmony within each individual and a spiritual goal of experiencing the "union of opposites (but without forfeiting their interplay)" within – a unity but not identity with divinity, a becoming "at one" with the divinity within. Again, his thesis here would resonate with many, as would his criticism of the notable absence of the feminine element in Christianity and its historical attitude to women as the evil products of a sinful Eve, even if the Roman Catholic view of the Virgin – a tenet that he finds unacceptable – Mary has filled a needed theological gap. The facts here given by the author are readily acceptable though the chapter tends to flit unnecessarily across time spans and from culture to culture to support what is really an acceptable and incontrovertible thesis.
It is precisely the tendency of the author to embrace wide-ranging cultures and different periods of time to support his views that detracts from some of his pointedly strong tenets. And this becomes a facet of the material from chapter five onwards leading to over-simplification. Many of the examples he gives are interesting, but the moment he strays into one's own areas of expertise it is all too easy to see that his facts are wanting in accuracy. For example, his opinion in chapter 6 that Hinduism does not tolerate monotheism (p. 78) is totally erroneous and his knowledge of Hinduism tends to rely solely on Advaita Vedanta, excluding the whole realm of devotional Hinduism where monotheism prevails, though not exclusively so. He gives ample examples to support his beliefs, even if they are rather carefully sifted. Dynamic energy as a vital force pervading all the cosmos is the subject matter of chapter 5: it is a force that is One and the ultimate Reality in the many. Again, the pantheistic tone is clear and again, will find acceptance by many despite the historical antipathy of Christianity to any attempts at bringing divinity into the world. An important subject matter emerges in this chapter and that is his view that everything in the cosmos is dynamic, a creative energy, which Ackroyd sees as spirit and divinity and the same energy in the human being as in the universe. This energy he maintains is the starting point for any religion: "It lacks the rigidity and dubiousness of Western anthropomorphic and mythological concepts of God. It is an intuitive, immediate and totally appropriate response to experience that is both universal and truly spiritual – mystical, yet compatible with a strictly empirical understanding of things" (p. 54). He believes this fundamental experience – "inborn spirituality unburdened by religious dogma" (p. 53) – can unite not only religion and science but also different religious traditions. Getting rid of the anthropomorphic God the Father as like Father Christmas, he thinks it is better to relate to God as Spirit in the form of energy.
Chapter 6, Divinity Within, brings us to the heart of Ackroyd's book. Here, he eschews the word "God" and again courts pantheism in view of the omnipresence of energy. He believes that the universality of religious concepts is essential and that it is energy that will provide such a universal aspect. In contrast to the love of and fear of the Western Christian God, whom he terms "schizophrenic" (p. 63), he suggests that energy, when combined with beauty, can provide blissful experience, and his view of reality equates energy with divinity as "scientific". Less credible, however, is the author's contention that there is a "sophisticated intelligence" (p. 66) in nature because: "It is generally assumed that every kind of creativity requires intelligence as well as energy" and nature has self-creativity (p. 65). But this evidence for intelligence in nature is thin. "Nature-divinity 'knows best'", he writes, and then adds "rightness" to the energy and intelligence in nature (p. 71). Here, Ackroyd is on thin ice. Intelligence is dependent on energy but that correlation cannot be turned around to say that energy is dependent on intelligence and it is a theme that is not developed satisfactorily in the chapter and yet taken as fact from here on. And then to add "rightness" to nature is bizarre: there is too much proof to the contrary that nature does not always know best – take, for example the beauty of the cancerous growth with its devastating effects. The definition of rightness as "being just as it ought to be" (p. 72) is better, but I doubt that nature can be wholly trusted even if we can lift our sights to the universal as opposed to the egocentric and anthropocentric. Belief that nature "destroys only what hinders further creativity" (p. 74) is very suspect – again, tell that to the being with terminal cancer. But, like nature, Ackroyd's divinity is totally impartial, and he is right to "pension off" anthropomorphic deities (pp. 75–6) and to decry the fruits of theism. Less to argue with is his tenet that religion should be "a feeling, in response to a perceived property or quality in things" (p. 80) – a positive property.
In chapter 7 the author divorces himself from traditional beliefs in the Christian Incarnation, the virgin birth, Jesus as the Son of God or as God. Here, he uses now well-documented critiques of foundational Christian doctrines based on the New Testament. He continues his attack in chapter 8, depicting the Atonement and doctrine of Redemption as myths, the doctrines surrounding the Crucifixion as "revolting" (p. 99) and the doctrine of original sin as "absurd and horrific" (p. 100) – "better no God than this one", he writes (p. 100), describing Christianity as "sin-centred" (p. 101). His view of salvation is as an internalized process of recognition of the divinity within, and here he uses the term Holy Spirit, the third aspect of the Christian Trinity, having eschewed totally God the Father and God the Son as the first two, and his pantheistic beliefs return with his view that each being is a part of the wholeness of divinity. Spirit, he says, "is the inward presence of the living God and, as such, supersedes both Old Testament and New Testament, both Father and Son. God has not died or disappeared; God lives in the cosmos and in the microcosmic human spirit, or mind" (p. 107). He returns to his belief that spirit includes intelligence, that is to say, cosmic intelligence, though this is not a theme that has been satisfactorily developed in earlier chapters. Jesus, he thinks, was led and motivated by the Spirit within and he accepts that "Christ manifests the divine creative intelligence in the physical universe" (p. 108), which presumably means that Jesus successfully integrated and harmonized his conscious and subconscious being, so experiencing the immanence of divinity. We, too, he believes, must "develop our conscious existential oneness" with divinity (p. 109) by diminished ego and discovery of Self with involvement in the world from that perspective. In a very meaningful statement he says: "Spirituality (as distinct from piety or religiosity) is essentially an individual experience and consists in developing an interior relationship with the divinity, in everything one does. This means living fully and intently – not necessarily tensely, but mindfully – in every present moment. This is not a relationship to God as Father, but an adult co-creative relationship in which one may say that divinity and humanity are interdependent" (p. 111).
Divine and human creativity is the subject of chapter 9, which begins with a sound and positive view of an evolving universe. Salvation according to Ackroyd is "spiritual fulfilment" (p. 112), full development of our potential and a "transfiguration" of the self to reveal the inborn divinity, which he equates with creative potential. Less sound, however, is the linking of the indwelling divinity with conscience (p. 115). He says "conscience is that conscious relationship with divinity" (p. 115), linking conscience with imagination. But conscience has far more to do with guilt-ridden conditioning and can be more of an inhibitor of personal evolution and self-transformation than a positive creative stimulus within. Notable, however, is the fluidity of relationship with the God within, since divinity is energy it makes possible a "universal drive towards further growth, further development" (p. 122). Presumably, this drive is the intelligence of energy that he accepts.
Chapter 10 takes up the theme of ethics. The divinity that is energy within is the source of religious ethics but Ackroyd does not equate ethics with religion. Divinity is "a primal human awareness of a One within the many, an immanent dynamic and intelligent source and sustainer of all things" (p. 125). Again, the intelligence of that source is the weakness of the statement. The definition of his concept of religion is more acceptable: "Religion is a certain kind of attitude towards the universe – including oneself – that has both an emotional and an intellectual component, the emotional component consisting in reverence and respect and wonder (love) and a feeling of oneness with the universe, and the intellectual component presenting the empirical grounding for the emotional component" (p. 125). His view of ethics, then, is as a creative activity informed by empathetic love. He believes it is a "moral imperative" to act creatively (p. 130) in order to move towards a more perfect world. He concludes that we can do without the theistic God but not without "immanent divinity that is cosmic energy" (p. 133), without which we cannot exist. Then he makes a great leap to link, in pure pantheistic tone, the cosmic intelligence with consciousness and mind. It is a leap that may be metaphysically justified, but little evidence can, or is, given here for the premise. Nevertheless, he ends the chapter with "divinity being the intelligence or mind of the universe" and states that: "Mind – and likewise intelligence or consciousness – is a dynamic property of the universe.
In dealing with the relationship between religion and science in chapter 11, the author claims that divinity as energy in the cosmos is an empirical fact and so religion and science need not be so disparate. This thesis, of course, is totally dependent on the equation energy = divinity. We have at the outset of this chapter a useful summary of his position in the book:
“As has already been said, I use the word 'divinity' to signify that whatever it is applied to is held in reverence, with wonder and awe and also with love and gratitude and joy, as the ultimate source and sustainer of all things, and as omnipresent so that human beings can consciously have access to the energy and intelligence (or mind) and rightness of this omnipresent divinity. In short, 'divinity' expresses a way of looking at – an attitude towards – the universe and our life within it, an attitude that fosters creative thinking and creative activity that are not only a means of self-fulfilment for the individual, but play a positive part in bringing the cosmos closer to its fulfilment" (p. 136).
In terms of the individual, then, he or she needs to experience transcendence into immanent divinity in such a way that there is an active and symbiotic process between spirit and Spirit. This necessitates a moral response to the way we view the world.
The "fulfilment" referred to in the quotation above is somewhat modified in the context of evil and providence in chapter 12. The universe is not perfect but is constantly changing and evolving. Ackroyd believes that evolving towards perfection without ever being perfect is the goal, so there is no absolute perfection. Providence, he defines, is becoming what you are, fulfilling potential. Again, divinity is portrayed as creative energy, intelligence and rightness and this is still the flaw in the thesis: though many may experience divinity as creative energy (or even simply energy) the leap to intelligence and rightness begs far too many questions. Either way, the author believes that the expression of divinity in the universe is informed also by randomness and freedom, making human beings free to deal with problems in life, especially with suffering. Thus, each human being is providentially in existence with choices that are in no way predestined.
The final chapter, chapter 13, continues the identification of divinity with nature in the context of death and what may or may not lie beyond, if anything at all. Ackroyd's feelings for the universe in life are ones of reverence, love and trust, and in death, what survives, he believes, is energy separate from the body. He appears to accept Barry Long's view that we are "a point of consciousness" after death; he surmises that "it is itself a further stage in our self-transfiguration, or a doorway that leads to such transfiguration" (p. 167). But he accepts that letting the egoistic self die in this life is better than waiting for it to be transformed in the next. Ultimately, he says: "What survives is the One, the divinity that is within us all; and who can say what new form or forms that divinity – that energy – will assume?" (p. 168). He may have taken away the word "God" at the beginning of the book, but he brings it back forcefully and pantheistically at the end: "Thus, God will be all in all, and all in God. This I accept. But it is a mystery, and in the contemplation of which the tongue must come to rest" (p. 170). And yet, his final word is that he sees death as "the potentiality for something new" (p. 171).
So how does one assess this courageous work? I think this has to be done on two levels. First, there is the core material, the core beliefs that Ackroyd puts forward in a very refreshing style. These beliefs are rather humanist and would be attractive to those who feel that there "must be something" but who do not wish to take up the theistic stances that accept a God "out there" and removed from the world in every possible way. The core beliefs border on the mystical, with the experience of the best aspects of nature providing the medium for indescribable wonder and awe, and an acceptance that self-transcendence to a point of harmonized balance of all dimensions of being is a proximate and ultimate goal. The positive view of humanity is also a corollary of the core beliefs as well as the juxtaposed goals of pursuing personal potential and yet realization of oneself as a cosmic particle – as stardust.
The second level is the more difficult one. This is an author who draws widely on different cultures and belief systems to support his views but this makes the evidence surrounding his core statements very suspect. One gains the impression that he is a casual visitor to some of these fields and the experienced scholars within them will find too much that is not accurate and much that is overstated at the expense of deeper knowledge. This is a shame since there is much to like in this book, even if the argument breaks down occasionally over very important issues, like the assigning of intelligence to energy and to nature. Any author who wishes to make bold and brave statements as Eric Ackroyd has done will want to support beliefs in a variety of ways, but such support has to be valid rather than hypothetical.
Nevertheless, aside from scholastic criticism, there is a sound fundamental message in this brave book and that is that there is no guilt to be acquired by questioning the basic tenets of a faith, and what amounts to conditioned thinking about God – even to the extent of getting rid of the word "God" itself. This book claims that religious tenets that stretch the bounds of credibility and have no logical relevance in today's world should be abandoned rather than maintained through conditioned faith. In their place should arise a more flexible self-journeying analysis of the depth and potential of one's being, the outward expression of that journey in how we view and relate to the world, along with a deepening awareness of the profound and dynamic interconnectedness that informs the universe. Such is a new definition of divinity.
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