Understanding God as Nature or The Universe

It’s taken me a couple of decades, but I’m finally starting to make sense of the concept of God. I was raised in an Evangelical Christian household, but the ideas never fully made sense to me at the deepest level. When searching for clarity about God, the people I spoke with would appeal to mystery and faith rather than explain a concept I could rationally grasp. Finally, after investigating for more than twenty years, I have a concept of God that I can understand. The idea is one of the oldest in existence, and it turns baroque theological claims into true and important insights.

We can define “God” as “all of existence,” “the entirety of the universe,” or “reality itself.” God is the whole-thing-together. God’s parts include all of the objects, their relations, and their rules for interaction. God is the biggest conceivable existent, which is the totality of existence itself. In a word, God is Nature. Not “nature” referring to trees and shrubs and rocks, but “Nature” referring to the entire system, the universe, in which we live.

With this definition, many theological claims start to make concrete sense. I have a suspicion that this is what Christians mean (or meant) when talking about “God the Father.” In this article, I will go through and demonstrate just how powerful the concept of God is when equated with Nature or The Universe. We’ll take a couple dozen religious claims about God and turn them into something reasonable and profound by translating “God” into “Nature,” “the universe,” “existence,” or “reality.” 

Now whether, in addition to the universe, there is a Divine Person we can call “God” is a separate question. I’m not sure the answer, but regardless, it doesn’t change the profundity of the truths we can state about the universe.

Omni-Qualities

We’ll start with the traditional omni-qualities of God. Take the simplest example, the claim that:

“God is omnipresent.”

Meaning, God is everywhere at the same time.

If God is a person, it’s hard to understand how he can be omnipresent. If God is the Universe, then it suddenly because obvious, even necessarily true, that God is omnipresent. The Universe is everywhere. Existence is everywhere. If something exists, it’s part of reality, therefore part of God. There is no corner of the universe that’s somehow not part of the universe. You can’t separate yourself from the universe – or to sound theological, you can’t separate yourself from God. Not only is this claim true, but it also hints at a real relationship between the universe and you. There is some kind of remarkable connection between “the whole thing” and “you as part of it.” 

Next, take the claim,

“God is omnipotent” or “all-powerful.”

The universe is indeed all-powerful. There is definitely nothing more powerful than it, since it doesn’t really make sense to talk about something in the universe that’s more powerful than the universe. Every thing that acts is acting within the rules of existence. The system itself is categorically more powerful than any object within the system. To put it into religious terms, everything in existence is playing by God’s rules, therefore God is all-powerful.

Next, the claim,

“God is omniscient.

Meaning, God knows everything. There’s no information that God doesn’t have. This is a true statement about the universe. There’s a sense in which all states of the existence are “known” by the universe – though not necessarily implying a conscious state of knowing. Rather, all of the information about the universe is within the universe. You cannot “hide” information from the universe. You can’t trick Nature or be somewhere that Nature can’t see you. Every state that you’re in is itself a state of the universe. Therefore, the universe cannot lack knowledge of your existence, in a similar sense that the laws of physics cannot lack knowledge of your existence.

If you think of information as being a key part of how the laws of physics operate – part of the “universal function”, as I theorize in this article – then it makes sense to talk about the universe as “knowing” present states in order to render future states. 

Universal Substance and Being

Let’s examine a Biblical quote:

“God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

If God is a person, it’s unclear what this means or how it’s true. But if God is the Universe, then in the most literal sense, God is indeed the Alpha, Omega, and everything in between. You could also call God “the Father” of everything, which is essentially the same idea as being the Alpha and the Omega.

How about the claim,

“God maintains our existence every minute.”

This is also true. The universe maintains our metaphysical existence from second to second. We don’t choose to continue being; Nature chooses for us, and if Nature stopped sustaining our existence, we would cease to be.

Next, take the common claim that:

“Humans are made in the image of God,” or as it’s sometimes phrased, “Every individual has a spark of the divine.”

There is again a literal sense in which humans are an image of Nature. They are stamped with an impression of the entire universe. If you agree with the story of modern cosmology, then humans are little bits of the Big Bang, aged a few billion years. In a real sense, Nature created humans. We are inescapably of Nature – of God. You are not separate from reality. The universe is part of you, and you are part of the universe. So when you’re looking at a human, or looking at anything for that matter, you’re looking at a bit of Nature itself. Thus, if God is the Universe, then humans literally look like a part of God, and if existence is divine, then every individual has a spark of the divine.

Take the claims that:

“We’re all God’s creation,” and the more poetic, “God formed man from dust.”

Just like the claim that “God made man and woman”, this is literally true. We are a creation of the universe – but not necessarily a creation in the intentional conscious sense. The material building blocks of humans are of the universe. Humans are a particular composition, a structure, that’s been created – or if you prefer, has emerged – from the universe. Again in a literal sense, the universe formed man from dust.

Take a claim that I used to hear from Evangelicals growing up:

“God made man and woman,” or more generally, “Things are the way they are because God made them that way.”

Again, true and important. Nature has created men and women with different biological and psychological traits. This is a fact of the reality in which we live. It’s foolish and arrogant to pretend otherwise, and it should probably affect the way that we live in the world. 

Submission, Satan, and Karma

Consider the popular religious concept of “submission to God.” It makes a great deal of sense. To submit to God is to submit to reality, to Nature. To obey the system and let it operate. To establish God as ”sovereign over everything” is to admit that reality, Nature, the Universe, is king. We have no metaphysical power over the structure of reality. 

Looking at things from a universal perspective, there’s a very real sense in which your life is not your own. It’s God’s; it’s Nature’s. What happens in your life is not ultimately controlled by you, but rather by greater forces outside of yourself. 

In this sense, I can agree with religious people when they claim,

“Western culture needs to submit to God!”

Western culture does need to acknowledge the existence of objective reality and live in accordance with it. Perhaps when theologians say “humans should live by God’s law”, they’re really saying “humans should not pretend they live in an alternative universe; they should live by the laws of Nature and accept reality as it is.”

This perspective also gives me a comprehensible understanding of “Satan.” Instead of being a really bad supernatural person, he might be the personification of non-reality, falsehood, or rebellion against reality. 

Imagine we constructed a story about God (reality) versus Satan (falsehood), where both God and Satan were people. We could talk about how seductive Satan is, how tempting lies can be, and how deep delusions run in the human psychology. We could talk about the fundamental arrogance of Satan – the tendency for humans to vociferously proclaim they have the truth when they don’t. We could tell stories about how “listening to Satan” leads to unhappiness, since in the real world, lies and delusions end up harming people.

With such stories, I would end up advising the same thing as my Christian friends: stay away from Satan! God is what you need! And we could translate this rationally as, “Stay away from lies and delusions! Truth and reality is what you need!”

Furthermore, I often heard stories in my youth about the burning hatred that Satan has for God. Well, understanding God as reality and Satan as non-reality, I actually see this story play out in people. Humans that are living in delusion have an extreme hatred for anything true – even the concept of truth. Similarly, humans that are doing really bad things – think the Epstein sex ring – do not want the truth exposed. They have a strong preference for darkness and a fear of the light, so to speak.

After hearing stories about God and Satan for so many years, and never quite grasping them, it’s stunning to see them suddenly make sense by simply translating “God” as “reality” or “existence.”

This translation also helps make sense of the concepts of “Karma” or “cosmic justice.” Instead of thinking there’s someone personally punishing and rewarding humans for their behavior, we can conceive of the universe as possibly being intrinsically just. Perhaps the laws of physics are also coupled with laws of morality. When something bad happens in the world, perhaps it sets of up a chain of events to correct itself at a future time. “Punishment” might be built into the structure of the universe, rather than something dished out by a person.

“God will judge you for your sins”

might be another way of saying “actions have consequences.” 

Now, whether or not we live in a universe which operates on principles of justice is an entirely empirical and open question. I’m not saying we do. There’s plenty of evidence that seems to suggest otherwise. However, it’s another example of the explanatory power of treating God as existence. We can seriously talk about whether God is just without invoking confusing theological concepts. We can even talk about whether God “has a sense of humor” or God is “loving.” These are all meaningful statements about how the universe operates.

God and Culture

Next, let’s examine the cultural criticism you might hear from a cranky old person:

“Western society has forgotten about God!”

This statement becomes true and important if we interpret it as, “Western society has forgotten about reality!” Especially in elite society, humans seem to have forgotten that the universe has a structure independent of them. They pretend that all of existence is a mere social construction. They are deluded about the reality of things as they are in the world. One could even interpret the fashionable claim that “there is no objective truth” as “there is no universe” or in this context, “there is no God.”

To quote Psalms:

“A fool in his heart says ‘there is no God.’”

Again true and relevant to my own work. A fool says “there is no universe” or “there is no such thing as reality.” I’ve met plenty of fools and even interviewed a few on my show. Perhaps part of the reason past thinkers believed the existence of God was self-evident is because they were treating “God” as Nature or the Universe. The existence of the universe is essentially self-evident – i.e. the existence of existence – and it probably reflects on some psychological or moral problem to deny that it exists.

Now take the crotchety old person’s condemnation of his teenager son’s behavior:

“Don’t rebel against God!”

It’s actually sound advice if the old man is saying “Don’t rebel against Nature!” Rebelling against reality is vain and counter-productive. You might not like Nature, but you’d better grow up and get over it. Nature is a particular way, and it won’t change just because you don’t like it.

Instead of “rebellion” against God, I think it would be amazing to live in a society that “worshipped” God. In other words, a society in which truth and reality are sacred. Lying, for example, would be seen as seriously immoral, but at present, Western culture seems completely tolerant of lies and celebrates a myriad of human delusions.

Next, consider the wisdom of the proverb:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

That’s wise if we interpret it as “the fear of Nature is the beginning of wisdom.”

As somebody who has experienced chronic illness for nearly a decade, I can tell you this is true. All pain, suffering, disease, and death comes from Nature. Your mental state – happy or sad, sane or insane – is an output of Nature, and at any moment it can change. Everything can be taken away from you, and this fact is outside of your control. Nature has the ability to eternally torture you or ruin your life in ways inconceivable to you. 

Next, consider the common practice of “Thanking God” before a meal, for success in life, or for avoiding some tragedy. My old Evangelical community thanked God with the belief that they were thanking a cosmically powerful person who was responsible for their well-being. But there’s another way to understand giving thanks to God.

In a literal sense, the universe provided you with your meal. The universe was the ultimate cause of your professional success. The universe – forces external to you – were the reason that some particular tragedy was avoided. If you have talents, wealth, or physical looks, the universe gave them to you. And as the saying goes, since the universe gives you everything, it can take everything away from you.  

A related phenomenon is religious people “giving glory to God” when they perform things at a high level. Say we’re talking about music. Rather than merely celebrate some particular human’s musical creation, it makes sense to celebrate the whole structure that gives rise to the existence of music in the first place! It’s extraordinary that we live in a universe in which sound exists. Relatively speaking, the musician isn’t actually doing much. He’s not creating music ex nihilo. He’s creating music within the system provided to him. In this context, “giving glory to God” makes sense to me.

These high-performers often say things like,

“There is a higher power working through me.”

Again, in this context, that’s true. When somebody accomplishes something, it’s some part of the entire universe operating. The actions of individual humans are just a small part of its operation.

Now consider a few Biblical quotes. This one is of God speaking:

“My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding.”

Imagine the universe talking. It could truthfully say that humans are “my people,” as humans are constructed out of the universe itself. It could also say that humans are senseless children who have no understanding of reality. That’s also true.

Now from Corinthians:

“God makes foolish the wisdom of the world”

Yes, definitely. The universe makes foolish the “wisdom” of the world. Intellectuals for all of history have been fundamentally mistaken about everything, and the present moment is no exception. The more you learn about the universe, the more you learn that humans know approximately nothing, and the greatest fools are those who profess to understand while being in a state of ignorance.

Personal or Impersonal

In theological discussions, whether God is “personal” or “impersonal” seems to be a big deal. Of course it depends on what we mean by these terms, but in this framework, I think God is both personal and impersonal. There’s a sense in which God is the most personal thing in existence. To the extent that there are people in the universe, then God is personal. It’s necessarily part of God’s potential to be personal, since there are people. God is the substrate out of which people are built, including yourself. What could be more personal? To the extent that consciousness is part of the universe, then at least part of God is conscious, too.

But in this context, God is also bigger than a person. He’s a person and everything else, too, including the laws of physics. He’s the mechanical forces keeping everything in operation. Even rocks and planets are a tiny part of God.

One of the difficulties I’ve had with thinking of God as a cosmic person is that it seems like he would still be a part of a larger system. He would be bound by the laws of logic, for example. It just seems weird to me to think of a solely-personal God that operates in a system which is larger and more powerful than he is. Instead of God being a person acting in a larger system, it makes sense to talk about God as being the system itself. Nothing is outside of it, larger than it, or more powerful than it. Nothing is higher than God if God is the structure for all of existence.

That being said, we can also talk as if it has a kind of personality. We can meaningfully say, “God wants you to have children.” In reality, Nature pushes organisms towards procreation. You can talk about Nature having a “purpose”, as new states and structures are continually coming into existence. The universe is constructed in such a way to generate living things that have the capacity to love. That’s remarkable – staggering and absurd, really when you think about it – whether you attribute it to a Divine Person or not. You can talk about God having a “will” or a “plan.” When something happens, it was “God’s will.” In other words, everything that happens is a kind of unfolding of the entire universe towards a future state, with all parts relating to one another. Any event is merely a step towards some future state – a part of “God’s plan.”

Now don’t get me wrong: it might be possible that the entire universe is a person. Perhaps God is all of existence, and if you put together all of existence, you get a person. That would be remarkable indeed. I don’t want to rule it out, but I have a very hard time making sense of it, so this article won’t make a claim either way. Even if the universe is ultimately unified into a person, it doesn’t change the various, true things we can say about it.

Little Greek Gods

This way of understanding God can also apply to lesser gods. Say we’re talking about Greek or Roman gods. Suddenly, they make sense if they are understood as real, abstract forces and patterns in the universe, rather than supernatural people. The god of Love, for example – the real force of love in the world – can be spoken about as if she had a personality. The god of Wine makes people do silly things. The god of War has his own destructive personality. There’s even a way of talking about the interplay between the god of Wine and War – as if the two gods speak to each other. I’m sure there’s a real connection in the universe between alcohol, violence, and war.

We can make sense of the Greeks saying things like,

“The gods might strike you with madness.”

That’s just another way of saying “the universe, the many forces outside your control, might struck you with madness.” These gods should be feared. They are powerful and immortal. Humans can’t “kill” them. 

With this context, you can see how clever it is to build stories about the gods – their personalities, relationships among themselves, including their various marriages, children, and partners, and about the relationship between the gods and humans. It makes sense to say,

“The gods don’t care about the affairs of humans.”

Contemporary minds might say “the laws of nature do not care about the affairs of humans.” 

These lesser gods are different from the Big God. Lesser gods are specific forces and patterns in reality. They are themselves deferent to the Big God – the totality of reality itself.

Monotheism versus Polytheism

This way of thinking also helps me make sense of the debate between monotheists and polytheists. Are there multiple gods, or just one? I think there’s a sense in which both monotheism and polytheism could be true. Polytheism makes sense when understood in the Greek god example. There are many powerful, immortal forces that control what happens on Earth. 

Monotheism makes sense when talking about the biggest-possible picture. We don’t need to posit the existence of multiple existences. We can say, “If something exists, it’s part of the totality of existence. Therefore, there is only one universe, one reality, one God.”

Pantheism vs Panentheism

Is this Pantheism? Is it Panentheism? I don’t know. I haven’t studied theology, and I’m not sure of the nuances between Pantheism and Panentheism. I don’t really care how my ideas are labeled, but from what I can tell, they are similar to both.  Pantheism is the idea that everything is divine or of God. Panentheism is the idea that everything is within God, but not everything is divine, and God might be bigger than the universe. To me, since I don’t have a theological dog in the fight, it seems to be more of a semantic distinction.

There’s an obvious sense in which I’m saying “the universe is God”, which sounds like Pantheism, but it depends on what we mean by “the universe.” If “the universe” is restricted to four-dimensional spacetime, then I would be a Panentheist, because I believe existence is much bigger than four dimensional space. The universe studied by Physics might only be a small part of God. If, however, we treat “the universe” as “all of existence in every form”, then I would be a Pantheist, since there couldn’t be anything “outside” of existence in the biggest picture. If all parts of existence are in God, then they are still of God – as something in existence is a part of existence, from what I can tell. Regardless, I’ll let theologians handle the taxonomy.

No Faith

The picture I’ve just painted requires no faith to appreciate. It comes with no religious dogma. It’s just philosophy. It’s by no means an exhaustive list of religious claims that make sense if you translate “God” to “existence.” Nearly every time I encounter claims about God, I can make sense of them in this context.

Regardless of whether there’s a Divine Person in addition to everything else, we can say really remarkable things about the universe. You are part of the entire universe; the universe is part of you. You are made up of the universe. If Nature were a painter, you would be a small part of its painting.

As my Evangelical community was fond of saying,

“God can fill a hole in your heart.”

In other words, reality – the truth – can seriously fulfill you. If you don’t have it, it’s what you’re missing. Life without truth is aimless and fuzzy. This is a true statement about human psychology. People really are restless when they don’t have any grasp of reality.

The universe provides everything for you. It is sustaining you right now. It’s been churning through various states for billions of years, with unbelievably powerful forces working together, and it’s finally reached the point of producing you at this present moment. It’s responsible for all of your positive and negative qualities. To the extent you learn, it’s always teaching you a lesson. To the extent that you are conscious, then the universe is conscious. To the extent that you love or are loved, then the universe loves. These truths seem profound to me. I believe this is the beginning of a rational theology.