Law: Natural and Divine

The following is excerpted from New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality, pp. 100-106.

Natural Laws

New Thought places great emphasis on the lawfulness of the universe. New Thoughters, like most people, tend to believe that the laws of nature are changeless. However, Whitehead tells us that natural laws are habits of interaction of the innumerably many experiences that make up the universe. (More exactly, we can say that laws are descriptions or formulations of the habits in question.) He notes that there is no evidence that the laws of nature are changeless, and indeed that

to judge by all analogy, after a sufficient span of existence our present laws will fade into unimportance. New interests will dominate. In our present sense of the term, our spatio-temporal epoch will pass into the background of the past, which conditions all things dimly and without evident effect . . .

None of this is to say that the habits that we call laws are unreliable; it is just that they probably are not truly permanent. However, the pattern of co-creativity sketched here is permanent, since it allows for any changes that eventually might produce different laws. Nor should anything we say about the centrality of experiences as the building blocks of reality suggest unreliability of the great collections of them with which we are familiar. God is still utterly dependable, though the earth be removed and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea and substance notions be replaced by process thought.

Apart from the changeableness of laws, there is the more pressing problem of the power of laws. It is understandable that after a few centuries of dramatic scientific discovery of natural laws, people almost worshipped these laws. Most unfortunately, they reified laws. Reification (from the Latin res, thing, and facere, to make) is a philosophical term that means to understand a mental entity as if it were a thing. We might call it "thingification." Whitehead referred to it as the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness," mistaking the abstract for the concrete. In this pervasive error, people fail to realize that laws are just descriptions of how reality works, rather than some power that makes things happen. In truth, considering laws as descriptions, no law ever did anything to or for anyone or anything. This is not to deny the powerfulness of the states of affairs described, summarized, by laws; those described habits, like our own habits, can be extremely powerful before they are changed.

The Golden Calf of Active Law

Part of New Thought subscribes to the belief that the creative process involves a roundabout, back-and-forth (albeit within God) movement involving an impersonal, automatically responsive side of God called Law, in addition to the side called Love. This alleged Law should not be confused with the general notion of law. Instead, this Law is like a genie or robot, obediently carrying out our commands. In contrast, Quimby's conception of creativity as a direct process of choosing between divine Wisdom and human misconceptions and thereupon directly receiving the result of the choice is consistent with process thought. Quimby's view can be likened to Polaroid photography, in which one chooses the thing to be photographed, presses the shutter release, and the image is developed directly on the film. The later New Thought idea that one thinks and feels into Law and that Law returns the selected product is like turning the film over to a photofinisher who processes the film and then returns the pictures. What actually happens is explained below in relation to healing.

A scientist or philosopher would say that the photofinisher view of creativity is not parsimonious, for it introduces an unnecessary middle step into our relationship with God. This violates Occam's Razor or law of parsimony, which says that from rival explanations, one should choose the simplest and most direct.

The notion of active, responsive Law is something like the golden calf that the Children of Israel worshipped, to the chagrin of Moses. Regardless of whether the word law is used, there is no adequate reason to believe that there is any such side of God. In Process New Thought, supremely wise Love is seen as all that is needed to explain God's activity in the world.

Why God Cannot Be Law

Why can't there be a responsive God-as-Law such as many New Thoughters believe in? God does respond in the sense that he gives to later experiences initial aims adjusted to the situations produced by the choices of their predecessors. But this response does not shape substance, since there is no enduring substance to shape. Everything is new, moment by moment, however much it may be like what preceded it. We frequently fail to recognize that only the experience of the moment can act. Past experiences continueþwithout additional actionþto be powerful influences, but what they are is fixed forever. Regardless of whether we accept process philosophy, we should realize that we can live only in the moment; process philosophy explains why. We identify ourselves with past and future experiences in our lines of development when we should be concentrating on the question of what God can do for the experience of the moment, for us right now. The answer is that all that God can doþand it is plentyþis to give initial aim, the perfect plan for the experience to deal with the situation in which it arises and to move onward to something at least a little better than the situation in which it arose.

Here are the main considerations against the existence of Law as an impersonal, automatically responsive mental substance:

1. A common-sense view of reality is inadequate, particularly the assumption that there is thing-like substance. A thing-like responsive universal Mind or Law may seem natural, even as God in the form of an old man sitting on a cloud may seem natural. One is as incorrect as the other.

2. A thingified Law is inconsistent with the known nature of the physical world. Physicists now know that the physical world is thoroughly processive at bottom. In order to maintain belief in a substantive universal Mind, there would have to be a great dichotomy between the natures of God and the world, a dichotomy that would prevent an overall unity. There would be a house of totality divided against itself.

3. God is supremely good. God wants the very best for every experience, not just for its successors. An experience chooses and enjoys for only a fraction of a second. This choosing is a response to what God already has done for it in giving it the very best plan that could be offered. Whatever is given to an experience must be given to it at the start of its moment of developing. God could do nothing greater for it, even if God under the curious name of Law were able to respond to it during its extremely brief career. An experience experiences only once, and it must be in that moment that it receives and gives.

4. Each experience is isolated. Although an experience contains all of the past, once an experience is started on its way of momentary development, it receives no more input. When it has finished its rapid co-creation, it itself becomes its gift to later experiences, even as all earlier experiences were gifts to it. (If it seems strange that an experience knows only the past and not what currently is developing around it, consider that all well-educated people know that physically we receive only information coming from the past: light emitted by stars centuries ago, from our sun about eight minutes ago, sounds produced perhaps a second ago, the pain of being struck by an object a fraction of a second before the message reaches the brain.) What God does not do by acting within the experience as its alluring initial aim God never can do for that experience.

5. The supposed Law lacks freedom in having to respond mechanically, "mathematically" to what is fed into it. That is inconsistent with freedom in all experiences, including the divine experience, and there are only experiences.

6. God can't give a completed product. Those who believe in Law hold that Law gives people completed products, material or nonmaterial. Process thought maintains that the only gifts that God can give to an experience (in addition to the harmonious arrangement of the past in the Divine Mind) is the experience's initial aim. God cannot give a completed product, such as believers in Law envision.

7.Finite entities aren't able to come up with perfect plans. We usually assume that it is up to us to discover what possibilities are open to us and to select from them. We seldom consider what a monumental task this is, since the possibilities are endless. If it is difficult for human beings, what must it be for animals lacking self-consciousness, to say nothing of lower levels of reality? We may speak of the instincts of animals, but seldom attempt to say exactly what instinct is. Process philosophy recognizes that nothing less than infinite, loving, willing, personal Intelligence is adequate to do the job of selecting from among the infinite possibilities for realization, and this philosophy maintains that God offers the perfect plan to each experience. It is God who makes possible the departure from the pattern of the past; in other words, without God there could be no newness, only endless repetition, if even that were possible, which it is not, since all creation is co-creation with God.

8.Only personal Love-Wisdom is all-sufficient, not the implied mechanistic materialism of the impersonal Ultimate. When Law is conceived as an impersonal yet intelligent responsive reality, it is asked to perform a function that only the supremely personal is adequate to exercise. Leading, luring, orchestrating the universe (of however many dimensions, planes, or whatever there may be) is a job that only the perfectly personal Reality can do. Belief in an Ultimate that is even partly impersonal in essence (as distinguished from the many impersonal parts of God's all-inclusive body) is hardly different from belief in materialism. To resort to the belief that Divine Mind (as distinguished from God's body, the universe) is in any degree impersonal, or that the ultimately personal is in any degree unreliable or lacking in impartiality, is simply to fail to understand how gloriously adequate the personal God of love-intelligence is to guide every experience throughout the universe.

As Emmet Fox used to say, the Lord is my Shepherd, not my bellhop.

Don't Ride the Epicycles

Any of our conclusions about what God and the world are like should be tentative; but some of us believe that the process interpretation of New Thought is a much closer approximation of the truth than is the old substance interpretation. The notion of an active, responsive, impersonal Law is as antiquated and needless as the old theories of phlogiston to explain combustion and epicycles (circles within circles) to explain the paths of heavenly bodies assumed to be moving around an immobile Earth at the center of the universe. Such theories did provide a helpful orderliness to the universe for anyone who believed them, but one scarcely can imagine anyone's resorting to them after encountering more adequate explanations.

Demythologize or Die, at Least Intellectually

Belief in a fully personal (self-conscious, rational, purposeful) God of unimaginably wondrously wise Love, initiatingþbut never compellingþall that goes on, may be challenging, but it is the best explanation that anyone has offered yet for how the universe works. Nevertheless, the old view of an impersonal active Law can continue to be a useful myth for those who find it helpful, who have no taste for demythologizing, and who are too set in their ways to change. We hope that Process New Thought will come naturally to people who are new to New Thought and carry with them few, if any, substance assumptions. It is not so much that people who are firmly committed to theories change their minds as it is that progress is made funeral by funeral, as quantum discoverer Max Planck observed about science.


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Created February 9, 1997, by Alan Anderson
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Latest update (not of text) June 27, 1998