Pandemonium Tremendum: A Review

Pandemonium Tremendum: A Review

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A review by Carl Keener of James E. Huchingson’s book Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press; ISBN 0-8298-1419-1; Paper; 224 pp.; $17.00; 2001).

One of the biggest problems faced by humans everywhere is how to relate our human spirit to the rest of the universe. As Heidegger once stated, Why is there something rather than nothing? From whence and why did it all occur? Now if one injects the notion of a deity into all this complex mix of origins and evolutionary processes and patterns, the question is, how does one envision God, or by whatever name one calls a deity. By way of broad review, in his magnum opus, Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead characterized the historical quest for God as involving several quite different visions or strains of thought: God as a Divine Caesar, God as a Divine Moralist, God as a philosophical absolute, or God as best seen in the Galilean vision marked by the life of Jesus. All these visions have been inspirations for many people over the millennia, but to these, however, we can now add a fifth: God as Divine Communicator.

In Pandemonium Tremendum, James Huchingson tackles a notoriously tough philosophical and theological problem: How best to envision a God who creates, yet who communicates with elements of the creation. Moreover, what is the source of the “stuff” out of which God created the order we encounter within the universe? Primarily, Huchingson, associate professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University in Miami, aims to “focus on a model of God derived from an account of the primordial chaos” (222). As such, Pandemonium Tremendum is not intended to be a full-blown theology. Consequently, many topics dealt within most systematic theologies, e.g., such as Christology, soteriology, nature and function of the church, and others, are not dealt with. And Huchingson admits as much (222).

To begin with, Pandemonium Tremendum is “an exercise in synoptic vision. It is a study of the way things go and how they hang together and sometimes fall apart” (vii). But as alluded above, several metaphors have had considerable influence in constructing a concept of God: Kingly functions, moral imperatives, certain philosophical motifs, Jesus. Now the fascinating thing about Pandemonium Tremendum is not that Huchingson dismisses these visions tout court, but he explores other and timely possibilities such as communications theory, computer models, and the like. Huchingson admits straightforwardly that applying communications theory to an accounting of the relationship of God and the world might seem ridiculous. So he establishes certain premisses, and as it turns out, world views are often geared to the prevailing technology and human experience. For example, computers are changing the way we “see” nature as well as relate to each other. Moreover, communication, however accomplished at various levels, is critical for any complex interactive system of order. Pandemonium Tremendum, then, is “an exercise in constructive theology”(x). Divided into 12 chapters, Pandemonium Tremendum moves from establishing Huchingson’s major premisses, including a defense of metaphysics, to a vision of God built upon his view that communication is central to understanding intelligibly any created order. Although tightly packed, Pandemonium Tremendum is a lucid account of a different and challenging way to re-envision the nature of God and God’s interactions with the cosmos.

Machines, Huchingson states, have enormously affected how we live, with many consequences for both good and bad at all levels of society, including how we think about ourselves as humans. In particular, computers have had several important and far-reaching impacts-information storage and retrieval, increased and wide-ranging social interaction, reaching even into one’s own identity as we communicate with persons we don’t see, touch, or hear. There can be no question that the machine age has enormously influenced how we look at the structures of the universe as well as human interaction, both among ourselves and everything else. Huchingson suggests three possible types of universes: 1) a classificational universe, stemming from Plato and Aristotle, in which substances, with attributes, are arranged in a hierarchical order (the Scala naturae of Medieval thinkers); 2) a relational universe in which events rather than substances are paramount; and 3) a relevantial universe in which existential concerns of individuals with shared needs and desires are critical for understanding one’s being. Into this matrix, of course, are the various tool-driven revolutions which in turn have spawned conceptual revolutions in thought. Certainly Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Freud, and the physicists who developed quantum electrodynamic theories have given us a picture of the universe undreamed of by the ancients who lacked tools if not imagination. But what does all this have to do with our vision of God and the development of a metaphysics of complex interdependence (20)?

As indicated earlier, in the light of these complex and intellectually stimulating developments, constructing an expanded vision of God relevant to these modern developments in thought becomes increasingly imperative. One can, of course, brush them all aside, and return to the wisdom and insights of the ancients-to the Psalms, the prophets of the Old Testament, to other sacred writings of even greater vintage. Huchingson does not reject the past. But he builds a compelling case that if our vision of God is to continue to have modern “cash value” (William James’ phrase), we must find some ontological resemblance between “certain aspects of the world and God” (24). There are, however, modern challenges to any kind of revisionist “God-talk,” including the drift of modern philosophy with its repudiation of metaphysics, and claims that God can only be known by a direct and inward intuition, that God is infinitely removed from the cosmos and can be known only by means of special revelations (e.g., Karl Barth), and that a naturalistic science precludes any claim of knowledge of God by any natural means. Moreover, a philosophy of mechanism riding on the heels of a Newtonian universe has alienated many modern persons from any relationship with any deity, and social constructions of reality seem to suggest that even God is a construct of the human mind, and thus really an extension of us as humans.

Be that as it may, Huchingson believes that cosmology can be a resource for theology, but this requires attention to metaphysics. As Huchingson asks, “[d]oes a comprehensive model for God give intelligibility to the cosmos, or does a comprehensive model for the cosmos give intelligibility to God?” (37). Huchingson believes these questions are reciprocal, but the question remains just what sort of world we inhabit-a mechanistic, dualistic world, or a world of self-organizing systems, illuminated by “[n]onlinear chaos theory, complexity studies, autopoietic systems theory, and information or communication theory” (39), or even some other world-encompassing vision. In any case, Huchingson believes that the new consciousness in science and religion, to use Harold Schilling’s felicitous phrase, does have a direct bearing on how we construct a vision of God consonant for our times. As implied above, this requires some sort of metaphysics, and despite widespread doubts about the possibility of a metaphysics, Huchingson believes a metaphysics reflecting our current views of the structures of reality is imperative for any meaningful God-talk.

If one probes deeper than a mere description of God and the world, one then encounters problems concerning how God and the world interact, if indeed they do. Although this kind of analysis calls for metaphysics, yet as Huchingson points out, old world views which, after all, die hard, impede constructing a vision of God at once fulfilling and satisfying. How does God act in a universe conceived as a giant machine? Moreover, can traditional assumptions of the relation between God and the world leading to various monisms, such as pantheism, on the one hand, and dualisms, such as deism, on the other, clarify matters? Huchingson rightly regards metaphysics as the search for the “most general principles that apply to any possible universe or set of universes, such that no world can conceivably exist without satisfying these principles. . . .” Although Huchingson is alive to various efforts to repudiate metaphysics (e.g., Abelard’s nominalism, arguments by Hume and Kant, skepticism by A. J. Ayer), yet he calmly suggests that “metaphysics denied is metaphysics insidiously affirmed” (48), and that “[w]e are all metaphysicians unaware” (49). Hear! Hear!

After noting several attempts to define God, Huchingson regards God as the “‘one metaphysical individual’, the singular being who must exist if this universe, or any universe at all, for that matter, is even to be possible, [and, as such,] God is the one individual with strictly universal function, . . . the one individual for whom reason alone can account, although further speculation about the character of God requires reference to our world as we find it” (51). This means that cosmology as indeed quite relevant to any “. . . reasoned and imaginative discourse about God” (51). To be sure, any assertion about the feasibility of any metaphysics requires some sort of test, and Huchingson notes three: internal coherence, relevance, and pragmatic application.

Huchingson then shifts gears by presenting a primer of communications and systems theory which he believes is adequate for a construction of a coherent model of God. Such a theory, Huchingson argues, “. . . provides the precision we seek, is rich in insight and fruitful concepts, pervades the everyday social world, and is available for theological construction” (66). Communication means sending signals (data) of some sort, and it limits competing possibilities. But it also implies dealing with variety, constraint, feedback, open and closed systems, entropy, all of which form part of the complex array of the many singular events involved in the evolution of the ordered structures around us. Thus communications theory (sensu Claude Shannon) is the basis of the conceptual apparatus Huchingson believes is pertinent to a modern understanding of God.

Huchingson suggests that the three main premisses for a philosophical theology are God, being, and chaos (96). Few would argue against the first two, but chaos? Chaos, Huchingson says, is “. . . a state of complete disorder and confusion, [and] is undefinable,” a “continuum of disordered states” (97), and is the “annihilation or obliteration of order, pattern, and repeatable process” (98). Huchingson believes that the idea of chaos plays an important part in the opening chapters of Genesis. Rather than God creating the universe “out of nothing,” God has created the structures of existence out of this primordial chaos, the “raw and elemental stuff out of which order is made” (102). Huchingson claims that “[c]haos is as fundamental as God and being are to the understanding of anything and everything-how things arise, how they perish how they persist if between” (102). Chaos is the antonym of system, thus a “heterogenous miscellany of particulars, a jumbled mess,” and, to use Robert Nozick’s phrase, the “structure of all possibilities” (103). In brief, chaos is an “infinite field of variety, of complete indeterminateness filled with potency, the source of all created things and one aspect of divine abundance” (105). Following Rudolf Otto’s appraisal of the holy as the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans, Huchingson names the formless and dynamic character of this primordial chaos, Pandemonium Tremendum (105). The Pandemonium Tremendum, this undifferentiated field of variety, thus, is the basic source of the infinite possibilities available for God’s creative energies and decisions.

God, thus, becomes in Huchingson’s system, the source of possibilities, of definite order, of history with meaning. The movement from chaos to cosmos is through God. Still, God, in Huchingson’s view, must “channel requisite variety into the cosmic regions, where it builds order,” as well as containing the “chaos as it strikes out insanely against any attempt to contain its dissipative ferocity” (127). So the critical question is, how does God interact with the primordial chaos (the Pandemonium Tremendum) and the created order which has already evolved? Huchingson’s model suggests that the “creation [is] a consequence of God’s messages or conversation” (140). In particular, “[a]s the functioning entity standing between chaos and creation, [like Maxwell’s demon] God is the waist of the hourglass through which primordial variety is released in proper proportions” (151). Still, no matter how we attempt to spell out in any detail how God acts, a metaphorical or analogical approach seems to clarify matters best.

Now over the years many metaphors have been suggested to account for God’s creative activities: Divine Craftsman, Royal Monarch, an emanation like sunshine, the world as God’s body, the last compatible with communication theory as developed by Huchingson. This requires both transcendence and immanence, but more, it requires that God acts in some manner to sort out the infinite possibilities available in any creative advance. Thus, for Huchingson, “God is both the source of all being, the witness of the primordial chaos, and the sorter, the dominant determiner of arrangement in creation and the power of difference” (152). All events of creation are dynamic aspects of communication. God speaks, and the chaos becomes gradually ordered and self-creative, and creation then becomes a “set of messages” (153). God exercises the initial powers of creation, and as Huchingson nicely puts it, creation has three broad movements–the decision to create, the divine work of separation (opus distinctionis), and the work of embellishment and elaboration (opus ornatus). This is indeed a tremendous symphony. God, thus, “moves from uncertainty, as understood in communication theory, to certainty through a process of decision and realization” (158).

Once the cosmos has been shaped in its broad contours, Huchingson raises an interesting question concerning how to envision its management. Traditional views tended to regard the cosmos as conforming more or less to some sort of aesthetic ideal, to some sort of standard of beauty. Management by aesthetics, Huchingson believes, tends toward gnosticism, with the resultant notion that God is always battling recalcitrant matter which keeps relapsing into chaos. Huchingson much prefers a cybernetics view of management which regards “[l]ife [as] a constant communication project whose overall aim is to build a world in which to find a place to flourish” (173). Management by cybernetics, thus, is “transactional, synergetic, pluralistic, and liberating” (172). Such responsive systems, or kybernetai, require a constant stream of communication to balance the world between its possible utter chaos and constraining repetitiousness of past structures.

Huchingson raises a difficult issue by asking whether humans reflect both an image of the world (imago mundi), as well as the image of God (imago Dei). We are, as he notes, the product of a long series of evolutionary adventures involving countless previous interactions between the past structures and their environment. What earmarks humans as different, however, is their capacity for self-determination and consequently, their personality. The imago, Huchingson claims, is “no visual image but rather a system of isomorphic correspondences shared by a tremendous variety of open systems inhabiting the earth” (185). The imago Dei “can be understood [to mean] . . . that we share the personal qualities with God” (186), and, as such, we are an agent managing variety within our world by means of self-conscious decisions. And if God is Love, some sort of creation becomes necessary, as well as a continual support of that creation. Humans then become co-creators with God, and as fellow communicators (witness the Old Testament story of Adam naming the creatures) we participate in the cybernetic interactions within our part of the cosmos. Although both God and humans are kybernetai, God is qualitatively different, and Huchingson suggests that God (as compared to humans) is ontologically prior to creation, is not threatened by nonbeing, has a privileged access to the Pandemonium Tremendum, and without any intermediaries, carried forward the single act of decision to create a cybernetically-grounded universe.

In particular, I appreciated that Huchingson noted the various symbols which carry significance within the Christian tradition: fish, baptism, the miracle of Loaves and Fishes (which prefigures the Eucharist), and others, all of which help illuminate the reign of God. Huchingson clearly notes that Hebrew thought emphasized the dynamic dimensions of reality (in contrast to the ordered, structured reality of the Greeks). “Dabar signifies the dynamic transmission of variety into the world as messages with varying degrees of constraint but with animating power and potential” (206). But it’s clear there are demonic systems as well-systems that distort and even destroy order and variety. In all of this, however, God discloses Godself through definitive acts in history (e.g., the law given to Moses at Sinai), as well as in a general way through the wide reaches of nature itself. Moreover, an understanding of God’s continued communication to creation requires a consideration of providence, judgment, and revelation, topics requiring fuller treatment than Huchingson has given them in Pandemonium Tremendum.

In the final chapter, Huchingson evaluates his communication model in terms of several useful criteria against which metaphysical proposals should be tested–internal coherence, everyday relevance, and pragmatic application. Huchingson notes several problems. With respect to internal coherence, what is the relationship of God to the Pandemonium Tremendum, and can this vision of God be squared with the vision of God whom people worship. How does one overcome the ontological gap between God and the cosmos? Can one ever overcome a basic intractable mystery when talking about God? Huchingson believes his model illuminates the mundane relevance of what we believe concerning the way the world works, and, as such, it is quite close to process thought. Concerning pragmatic applicability, Huchingson is less certain. “It is simply too early,” he states, “to determine the success of a systems-informational metaphysic in postmodern culture” (221). Still, the model does emphasize communication, relationality, and divine sovereignty. Within the stated aims that his book is to “. . . focus on a model of God derived from an account of the primordial chaos” (222), Huchingson has given us a rich essay concerning one way to envision God in all the variety and complexity we see in the cosmos. How the universe has come to have its present structures will always invoke a feeling of awe and wonder. Why there something rather than nothing will continue to puzzle philosophers as long as humans think about such matters. Pandemonium Tremendum is a noteworthy and richly nuanced account of the relation of God, the primordial chaos, and the immensity of it all. Read the book for both education and inspiration.