Review of James E. Huchingson’s Pandemonium Tremendum

Review of James E. Huchingson’s Pandemonium Tremendum

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Metanexus: Views 2001.12.31 3504 words

If one probes deeper than a mere description of God and the world, one thenencounters problems concerning how God and the world interact, if indeedthey do. Although this kind of analysis calls for metaphysics, yet asHuchingson points out, old world views which, after all, die hard, impedeconstructing a vision of God at once fulfilling and satisfying. How doesGod act in a universe conceived as a giant machine? Moreover, cantraditional assumptions of the relation between God and the world leading tovarious monisms, such as pantheism, on the one hand, and dualisms, such asdeism, on the other, clarify matters?

These are some of the questions that are broached and addressed in today’scolumn: a review by Carl Keener, PhD, of James E. Huchingson’s bookPandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (Cleveland: ThePilgrim Press; ISBN 0-8298-1419-1; Paper; 224 pp.; $17.00; 2001). Accordingto Keener,

Huchingson rightly regards metaphysics as the search for the most generalprinciples that apply to any possible universe or set of universes, suchthat 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 metaphysicsinsidiously affirmed (48), and that [w]e are all metaphysicians unaware(49). Hear! Hear!

And, yes, we are. All of us have theories of cause and effect where eitherthe cause or the effect exceeds our direction perception. This is,essentially, metaphysics. But, speaking now as a philosopher, when doesmetaphysics (ideas about that which lies beyond the physically verifiable)slide into ontology (a theory or a study of the nature of being)? That seemsto be an excruciatingly important question. Is it an organic transition,like that of the seasons? Or an arbitrary one, like that of the calendar orthe clock, is grasping moments of time? If you have an opinions or ideasabout all this, please feel free to email me at <> or torespond using the comment button on the bottom of webpage for this column.

Today’s reviewer, Carl S. Keener, was a member of the Department of Biologyat The Pennsylvania State University from which he retired after serving 31years in 1997 as Professor Emeritus. His undergraduate degree is fromEastern Mennonite University and his graduate degrees are from theUniversity of Pennsylvania (M.S.) and North Carolina State University(Ph.D.). His professional career has been in systematic botany, with aparticular specialty in the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup Family), the flora ofPennsylvania, and the mid-Appalachian shale barren endemic flora. Long-timeinterests include process theology, Mennonite history and thought, historyand philosophy of science, and ethics.

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Review of James E. Huchingson’s Pandemonium TremendumFrom: Carl S. KeenerEmail: <>

One of the biggest problems faced by humans everywhere is how to relate ourhuman spirit to the rest of the universe. As Heidegger once stated, Why isthere 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 oforigins and evolutionary processes and patterns, the question is, how doesone envision God, or by whatever name one calls a deity. By way of broadreview, in his magnum opus, Process and Reality, Alfred North Whiteheadcharacterized the historical quest for God as involving several quitedifferent visions or strains of thought: God as a Divine Caesar, God as aDivine Moralist, God as a philosophical absolute, or God as best seen in theGalilean vision marked by the life of Jesus. All these visions have beeninspirations for many people over the millennia, but to these, however, wecan now add a fifth: God as Divine Communicator.

In Pandemonium Tremendum, James Huchingson tackles a notoriously toughphilosophical and theological problem: How best to envision a God whocreates, yet who communicates with elements of the creation. Moreover, whatis the source of the stuff out of which God created the order we encounterwithin the universe? Primarily, Huchingson, Associate professor ofReligious Studies at Florida International University in Miami, aims tofocus 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-blowntheology. Consequently, many topics dealt within most systematictheologies, e.g., such as Christology, soteriology, nature and function ofthe church, and others, are not dealt with. And Huchingson admits as much(222).

To begin with, Pandemonium Tremendum is an exercise in synoptic vision. Itis a study of the way things go and how they hang together and sometimesfall apart (vii). But as alluded above, several metaphors have hadconsiderable influence in constructing a concept of God: Kingly functions,moral imperatives, certain philosophical motifs, Jesus. Now the fascinatingthing about Pandemonium Tremendum is not that Huchingson dismisses thesevisions tout court, but he explores other and timely possibilities such ascommunications theory, computer models, and the like. Huchingson admitsstraightforwardly that applying communications theory to an accounting ofthe relationship of God and the world might seem ridiculous. So heestablishes certain premisses, and as it turns out, world views are oftengeared to the prevailing technology and human experience. For example,computers are changing the way we see nature as well as relate to eachother. Moreover, communication, however accomplished at various levels, iscritical for any complex interactive system of order. PandemoniumTremendum, then, is an exercise in constructive theology(x). Divided into12 chapters, Pandemonium Tremendum moves from establishing Huchingson’smajor premisses, including a defense of metaphysics, to a vision of Godbuilt upon his view that communication is central to understandingintelligibly any created order. Although tightly packed, PandemoniumTremendum is a lucid account of a different and challenging way tore-envision the nature of God and God’s interactions with the cosmos.

Machines, Huchingson states, have enormously affected how we live, with manyconsequences for both good and bad at all levels of society, including howwe think about ourselves as humans. In particular, computers have hadseveral important and far-reaching impacts-information storage andretrieval, increased and wide-ranging social interaction, reaching even intoone’s own identity as we communicate with persons we don’t see, touch, orhear. There can be no question that the machine age has enormouslyinfluenced how we look at the structures of the universe as well as humaninteraction, both among ourselves and everything else. Huchingson suggeststhree possible types of universes: 1) a classificational universe, stemmingfrom Plato and Aristotle, in which substances, with attributes, are arrangedin a hierarchical order (the Scala naturae of Medieval thinkers); 2) arelational universe in which events rather than substances are paramount;and 3) a relevantial universe in which existential concerns of individualswith shared needs and desires are critical for understanding one’s being.Into this matrix, of course, are the various tool-driven revolutions whichin turn have spawned conceptual revolutions in thought. CertainlyCopernicus, Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Einstein, Freud, and the physicists whodeveloped quantum electrodynamic theories have given us a picture of theuniverse 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 developmentof a metaphysics of complex interdependence (20)?

As indicated earlier, in the light of these complex and intellectuallystimulating developments, constructing an expanded vision of God relevant tothese modern developments in thought becomes increasingly imperative. Onecan, of course, brush them all aside, and return to the wisdom and insightsof the ancients-to the Psalms, the prophets of the Old Testament, to othersacred writings of even greater vintage. Huchingson does not reject thepast. But he builds a compelling case that if our vision of God is tocontinue to have modern cash value (William James’ phrase), we must findsome ontological resemblance between certain aspects of the world and God(24). There are, however, modern challenges to any kind of revisionistGod-talk, including the drift of modern philosophy with its repudiation ofmetaphysics, and claims that God can only be known by a direct and inwardintuition, that God is infinitely removed from the cosmos and can be knownonly by means of special revelations (e.g., Karl Barth), and that anaturalistic science precludes any claim of knowledge of God by any naturalmeans. Moreover, a philosophy of mechanism riding on the heels of aNewtonian universe has alienated many modern persons from any relationshipwith any deity, and social constructions of reality seem to suggest thateven God is a construct of the human mind, and thus really an extension ofus as humans.

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

If one probes deeper than a mere description of God and the world, one thenencounters problems concerning how God and the world interact, if indeedthey do. Although this kind of analysis calls for metaphysics, yet asHuchingson points out, old world views which, after all, die hard, impedeconstructing a vision of God at once fulfilling and satisfying. How doesGod act in a universe conceived as a giant machine? Moreover, cantraditional assumptions of the relation between God and the world leading tovarious monisms, such as pantheism, on the one hand, and dualisms, such asdeism, on the other, clarify matters? Huchingson rightly regardsmetaphysics as the search for the most general principles that apply to anypossible universe or set of universes, such that no world can conceivablyexist without satisfying these principles. . . . Although Huchingson isalive to various efforts to repudiate metaphysics (e.g., Abelard’snominalism, arguments by Hume and Kant, skepticism by A. J. Ayer), yet hecalmly suggests that metaphysics denied is metaphysics insidiouslyaffirmed (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 thisuniverse, 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 furtherspeculation about the character of God requires reference to our world as wefind it (51). This means that cosmology as indeed quite relevant to any.. . reasoned and imaginative discourse about God (51). To be sure, anyassertion about the feasibility of any metaphysics requires some sort oftest, and Huchingson notes three: internal coherence, relevance, andpragmatic application.

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

Huchingson suggests that the three main premisses for a philosophicaltheology are God, being, and chaos (96). Few would argue against the firsttwo, but chaos??? Chaos, Huchingson says, is . . . a state of completedisorder and confusion, [and] is undefinable, a continuum of disorderedstates (97), and is the annihilation or obliteration of order, pattern,and repeatable process (98). Huchingson believes that the idea of chaosplays an important part in the opening chapters of Genesis. Rather than Godcreating the universe out of nothing, God has created the structures ofexistence out of this primordial chaos, the raw and elemental stuff out ofwhich order is made (102). Huchingson claims that [c]haos is asfundamental as God and being are to the understanding of anything andeverything-how things arise, how they perish how they persist if between(102). Chaos is the antonym of system, thus a heterogenous miscellany ofparticulars, a jumbled mess, and, to use Robert Nozick’s phrase, thestructure of all possibilities (103). In brief, chaos is an infinitefield of variety, of complete indeterminateness filled with potency, thesource of all created things and one aspect of divine abundance (105).Following Rudolf Otto’s appraisal of the holy as the Mysterium Tremendum etFascinans, Huchingson names the formless and dynamic character of thisprimordial chaos, Pandemonium Tremendum (105). The Pandemonium Tremendum,this undifferentiated field of variety, thus, is the basic source of theinfinite possibilities available for God’s creative energies and decisions.

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

Now over the years many metaphors have been suggested to account for God’screative activities: Divine Craftsman, Royal Monarch, an emanation likesunshine, the world as God’s body, the last compatible with communicationtheory as developed by Huchingson. This requires both transcendence andimmanence, but more, it requires that God acts in some manner to sort outthe infinite possibilities available in any creative advance. Thus, forHuchingson, God is both the source of all being, the witness of theprimordial chaos, and the sorter, the dominant determiner of arrangement increation and the power of difference (152). All events of creation aredynamic aspects of communication. God speaks, and the chaos becomesgradually ordered and self-creative, and creation then becomes a set ofmessages (153). God exercises the initial powers of creation, and asHuchingson nicely puts it, creation has three broad movements–the decisionto create, the divine work of separation (opus distinctionis), and the workof embellishment and elaboration (opus ornatus). This is indeed atremendous symphony. God, thus, moves from uncertainty, as understood incommunication theory, to certainty through a process of decision andrealization (158).

Once the cosmos has been shaped in its broad contours, Huchingson raises aninteresting question concerning how to envision its management. Traditionalviews tended to regard the cosmos as conforming more or less to some sort ofaesthetic ideal, to some sort of standard of beauty. Management byaesthetics, Huchingson believes, tends toward gnosticism, with the resultantnotion that God is always battling recalcitrant matter which keeps relapsinginto chaos. Huchingson much prefers a cybernetics view of management whichregards [l]ife [as] a constant communication project whose overall aim isto build a world in which to find a place to flourish (173). Management bycybernetics, thus, is transactional, synergetic, pluralistic, andliberating (172). Such responsive systems, or kybernetai, require aconstant stream of communication to balance the world between its possibleutter chaos and constraining repetitiousness of past structures.

Huchingson raises a difficult issue by asking whether humans reflect both animage 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 adventuresinvolving countless previous interactions between the past structures andtheir environment. What earmarks humans as different, however, is theircapacity for self-determination and consequently, their personality. Theimago, Huchingson claims, is no visual image but rather a system ofisomorphic correspondences shared by a tremendous variety of open systemsinhabiting the earth (185). The imago Dei can be understood [to mean] . .. that we share the personal qualities with God (186), and, as such, we arean agent managing variety within our world by means of self-consciousdecisions. And if God is Love, some sort of creation becomes necessary, aswell as a continual support of that creation. Humans then becomeco-creators with God, and as fellow communicators (witness the Old Testamentstory of Adam naming the creatures) we participate in the cyberneticinteractions within our part of the cosmos. Although both God and humansare kybernetai, God is qualitatively different, and Huchingson suggests thatGod (as compared to humans) is ontologically prior to creation, is notthreatened by nonbeing, has a privileged access to the PandemoniumTremendum, and without any intermediaries, carried forward the single act ofdecision to create a cybernetically-grounded universe.

In particular, I appreciated that Huchingson noted the various symbols whichcarry significance within the Christian tradition: fish, baptism, themiracle of Loaves and Fishes (which prefigures the Eucharist), and others,all of which help illuminate the reign of God. Huchingson clearly notesthat Hebrew thought emphasized the dynamic dimensions of reality (incontrast to the ordered, structured reality of the Greeks). Dabarsignifies the dynamic transmission of variety into the world as messageswith varying degrees of constraint but with animating power and potential(206). But it’s clear there are demonic systems as well-systems thatdistort and even destroy order and variety. In all of this, however, Goddiscloses Godself through definitive acts in history (e.g., the law given toMoses at Sinai), as well as in a general way through the wide reaches ofnature itself. Moreover, an understanding of God’s continued communicationto creation requires a consideration of providence, judgment, andrevelation, topics requiring fuller treatment than Huchingson has given themin Pandemonium Tremendum.

In the final chapter, Huchingson evaluates his communication model in termsof several useful criteria against which metaphysical proposals should betested–internal coherence, everyday relevance, and pragmatic application.Huchingson notes several problems. With respect to internal coherence, whatis the relationship of God to the Pandemonium Tremendum, and can this visionof God be squared with the vision of God whom people worship. How does oneovercome the ontological gap between God and the cosmos? Can one everovercome a basic intractable mystery when talking about God? Huchingsonbelieves his model illuminates the mundane relevance of what we believeconcerning the way the world works, and, as such, it is quite close toprocess thought. Concerning pragmatic applicability, Huchingson is lesscertain. It is simply too early, he states, to determine the success ofa systems-informational metaphysic in postmodern culture (221). Still, themodel does emphasize communication, relationality, and divine sovereignty.Within the stated aims that his book is to . . . focus on a model of Godderived from an account of the primordial chaos (222), Huchingson has givenus a rich essay concerning one way to envision God in all the variety andcomplexity we see in the cosmos. How the universe has come to have itspresent structures will always invoke a feeling of awe and wonder. Whythere something rather than nothing will continue to puzzle philosophers aslong as humans think about such matters. Pandemonium Tremendum is anoteworthy and richly nuanced account of the relation of God, the primordialchaos, and the immensity of it all. Read the book for both education andinspiration.

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