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Is ‘God’ compatible with evolution?

AN INTERVIEW WITH STIG ZEETI, conducted by Mark Hudson

The intensely private Stig Zeeti is best known for his esoteric but briefly influential book, Nothing Else? (published in Japan, but only available now in photocopied pages). This contained the germs of what would later evolve in the hands of others into evolutionary theology. He lectured in the 1980s at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Medicine, University of Michigan. He currently leads seminars on campuses and at retreat centres in the USA and elsewhere. Confusingly, he appears now to disavow his earlier writings. It is hard to find online references to Zeeti, though he was cited in a number of works in the 1970s and 1980s.
Zeeti is a keen ornithologist. He is believed to have been born in the 1940s in the Philippines, of Indonesian-Latvian origin. His only acknowledged family is his sister Rita (sic?), who emigrated first to France and then USA. She did her Ph. D in Italy on the rabies virus, in 1966.

MH: I want to plunge straight in and ask you why you say that God is entirely compatible with evolution?

SZ: But why ever not? There is no God ‘here’ or God ‘there’. This thing which we have called ‘God’ – by the way, now a heavily corrupted term – is in fact not a ‘thing’, it is not something which can be grasped or defined. Nietzsche was of course right, God is dead. The concept of God is dead. Or ‘God’ is a dead concept. We have killed the concept of God by loading it with so much of our culture, by projecting so much onto it. Indeed, even Christians – perhaps especially Christians – have become accustomed so easily to images of God, to God as the ‘creator’, to God ‘on our side’, to God as the clockmaker …

MH: Yes, I see what you are saying, but how does this show that God is compatible with evolution?

SZ: Hold back a moment, and I will try to explain … though actually this is impossible to do. I need to start at the beginning, and the beginning is the idea of God which is stuck in our minds. Even for atheists, there is an idea of God, or how could they be atheists? How can we reject something if we do not know what it is? And this is the dilemma. We need to affirm something in order to deny it. And the idea which is rejected, as we see in dear Dawkins’ simple book [The God Delusion], is of God as the controller, the ‘person’ ultimately in charge. But this is not the fault of atheists, as this is what Jews and the Christians have been saying about ‘God’ for thousands of years. But they are wrong.

MH: Didn’t Jesus imply this aspect of God when he spoke of ‘my father in heaven’?

SZ: But not at all. Not at all. He was using the language of his time – he was a man if he was anything, so he had to speak from within his culture. The question is, what did he mean by this? And the answer changes, it changes each time we try and answer it, if we are really honest, or perhaps I should say, it changes if we are really able to speak from the heart, the centre – because we who answer are always changing, even if imperceptibly, and thus our perspective is different, and thus what we see is different, because we see it from a new angle …
I can see that you think that I am straying again, but this is important, and we have to clear the decks, as I think you say, we have to get rid of … stuff, in order to see more clearly.
And so I get back to God, to the dreadful ideas of God which have polluted our world. Indeed, I would go further and say that the essence of what I have to say is that we have to get rid of ideas of God altogether, because ‘ideas’ are not reality.
For example, do we talk of the idea of a mutual friend, let us call her Petra Gonzalez? Or do we simply talk of Petra? We refer directly and intuitively to Petra. We don’t need to explain or to have an idea of her in our mind – though we may need to explain who she is when we talk of her to someone who does not know her .. and that is where misconceptions come in.

MH: So, you mean that we don’t know God and so we make up ideas about him which are wrong because we don’t know him, and so we get further and further away …?

SZ: Yes, more or less … But not quite. Because I don’t think we can ever really ‘know’ God with our minds … but then, this is also true of our friend Petra. We don’t get to know her just through our mind, but in the full experience of meeting her, of being with her – which is about much more than just dry questions on a page. Reality is not there to be grasped in its entirety like scientific equation – because it is infinite. Though it can and must be explored, be probed, and be questioned. We can look into the mirror and make adjustments to our face, we can make changes to how it looks and how we think of it, but we can never actually see our face directly with our own eyes – never. Only the image of our face. There is always a separation, a self and an object. Or is there?

MH: Apologies, but I am getting lost.

SZ: We are talking about God, or ideas of God, and the impossibility of knowing God. For me, I have to say, God is simply reality. But what is reality? Reality is everything. By this I do mean the cosmos but more than that, much more than that … the cosmos is the expression of this reality, or an expression of it. It is infinite and it is unknowable, except that we are part of it, we are shot through with it, we live in it. But reality is not co-terminus with us, or with the universe, with nature. It – reality – is just itself … ‘I am’, as God says in the Bible. Reality is, well reality … and we adjust to it, not the other way round. It does not fit into our ideas, but we have to abandon our ideas if we are to let it come to us …
In fact, like a good scientist, we only advance when we can accept that what we have learnt is as nothing, as nothing compared with reality. Everything is hypothesis, experiment, proof and then … refutation. The minute we think we know it all, or can know it all, we then shut off true discovery and the possibility of learning. True science accepts doubt … indeed, it must be based on doubt … the necessity of testing logic with empirical facts, the openness to being wrong and thus the doubt that the current accepted theory is right …

MH: So, we do need to question and to think?

SZ: Yes, of course, But the issue is that we have to think without thinking … We have to think without getting stuck on old ideas and terms, we have to be truly creative to think naturally, by which I mean that usually our thinking is a rearrangement of old thoughts, of old ideas. We do not actually come into contact with reality, often. But we do meet reality when we experience something.
This is why our world is so obsessed with sex and violence. We have lost any sense of the sacred, which is really nothing more – and nothing less – than reality, reality which is sacred because it is so real. And so there is this relentless quest for more and more extreme – and synthetic – images. We are desperately grabbing the air, trying to hold on to something … when in fact we already have it, we are as real as can be.

MH: Does this mean that the sacred is not special, not really sacred in the traditional sense, but more about the perspective with which we look on things?

SZ: Yes, exactly. For me, the sacred is sacred because of my intense sense of its reality. And therefore anything and everything can be – and is – sacred. But the word itself is polluted, it is lost, like nearly all religious language. It has to be resurrected in new, disguised forms … but this is dangerous when no one knows what they are doing.

MH: And so back to God?

SZ: Well yes, if I must. We will not go further down that avenue. So you see, at my age I try not to think, though the ideas just keep coming. Most of them are old and worn out. And I can get a little confused, which is why it can be useful to be interviewed.

MH: Thanks, I was beginning to wonder! But I would like to steer us back to the question of how God and evolution can be compatible … because there is a strong view that it only works with a deist God, a ‘first mover’ who sets it all up and lets it run. So we have a God who appears to be not in control, on the surface, but really he is in control, he has pre-programmed the whole thing …

SZ: Let me stop you there. I know this God, this God I do know. This is the God created largely by man, and I mean ‘man’ more than woman, because men have been leading this line of thought for a long time.
And this is a false idea … simply because it is an idea. It is not reality. Reality does not need to be explained. In fact, reality cannot be explained. If God was a clockmaker, a ‘first mover’, the implication is that reality is separate from him, that reality is what we humans can imagine we know, or can imagine that we can eventually come to know. And this is not so. Think again of Petra. Is she an idea or is she awkwardly, unknowably alive?

MH: But what if the universe is one massive computer, if there is a cause for everything, if it is simply a matter of working it all out, of going back to the big bang or the ultimate string, at least in theory, and modelling, so to speak, the entire universe and every possible universe, and all time … is that possible?

SZ: That is certainly what some think. They see an essentially dull, or repetitive, cosmos. The problem is a huge loss of imagination. Our science, which is wonderful in its way, proceeds by cause and effect, and so we have gradually conditioned ourselves to think that that is it, that is all there is. This is a true source of pain, of sorts. We are losing the capacity to be open, to see beyond ourselves … in fact, to believe that there is anything beyond ourselves.
This is why there is such a yearning to discover alien life. It is a kind of hidden acknowledgement that there must be something else. I don’t see it is a desire ‘not to be alone’ so much as the only way a deeply materialist mind-set can allow there to be an unknown.

MH: So what is God?

SZ: Ah, well, the question can be asked … but the answer … There is none. There is reality, that sense of life, and of mystery, by which I mean the unknowable, the bit beyond wherever we are … the horizon which we can ‘see’ in a sense, but never reach. You look sceptical?

MH: Well … I am acting the devil’s advocate here … this sounds like mystifying talk.

SZ: You mean words to disguise a lack of content? Well, yes, you may be right, in a way. But how can you describe the colour blue, except by referring to things which are ‘blue’, in other words, by describing it in terms which are self-referential. Strictly speaking, we don’t know if your blue is the same as my blue. People can write books and books talking about how to talk about reality, or the colour blue … or time … But in real life, you and I know what we mean by ‘blue’ – even though we cannot explain it in logical terms, that it, from purely inside the mind. This is where philosophy gets stuck, so often … Not that I am a philosopher. But reality is not a thing of the mind, it simply is. Like ‘blue’.

MH: Tell me more about what you mean by God.

SZ: Hmm, I am not sure I can.

MH: Then perhaps you can explain how God and evolution can be reconciled …?

SZ: There is nothing to reconcile. Ironically, according to my way of thinking, the atheists have it about right, in the sense that they have tried to get rid of all ideas of God, and in this I agree absolutely.
I can see that this is not going to satisfy you. So let me take a step towards you.
You could say that God is reality, and that this reality is not nature or the universe, but is itself, it simply is. In a technical, limited human sense, this reality exists outside time and space, and also our time and space exist inside it. So there is literally no ‘time’ when things start or when ‘reality’ begins … nor is there an end.
So the universe is held in, or is created in, this reality. Everything about it is compatible with reality – it has to be! A poor analogy might be a baby or foetus inside a woman’s womb. The foetus is the universe, and the mother is what we call ‘God’, or ultimate reality. The baby in the womb is utterly dependent on the mother, but perhaps thinking – if it could think – that it is a free agent. If the foetus could be conscious, it would be unaware that its world was not all there is, and that its marvellous but limited ability to move and to think is in fact entirely sustained by the mother, the unseen and unsee-able mother, whose very existence is impossible for the foetus to envision, as the mother is so absolutely beyond it. All the foetus can tell is that it lives in a not-entirely predictable environment on which it can feed.
Or think of an ant … and Shakespeare’s Hamlet … They both exist, but the latter is just impossible for the former fully to imagine, to grasp, or to argue into or out of existence. This is another very imperfect analogy for the distance of our relationship to ‘reality’. In truth, the distance is infinite, but that is not to say that there is not a relationship, and in fact a very close and present one.
Our minds, cannot know reality, though we naturally seek to find and define it. And at the same time, since we are part of it, in our being we can sense it – if only we can stop thinking, if only we can allow our minds to relax totally and let all ideas of God or not-God go … Just enjoy the dawn, or the beauty of music, or the pure moment of living …

MH: I have to say that I am getting lost again. Can I take you back to the relationship of God to evolution?

SZ: Fair enough, you need to get there! I could talk about a kind of evolutionary theology and the existence of randomness. But that is for another time. I am afraid that I think I have come to the end of my usefulness here …

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lives in London... BA Oxon, MA London

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