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Process Theology for Simpletons (Like Me)

by Kirk Wood

Part I

     Process Theology is the highly intellectualized integration of the philosophical school known as Process Thought, as first postulated by Alfred North Whitehead in the 1920s, and a logical delineation of the theological premise that God is Love.  Which makes it perfect for a church as full of university professors and graduate school students and/or graduates as ours is.  But this series of articles ain’t for y’all, not exclusively.  These articles are for all the grad school dropouts, not-quite-high-school graduates or otherwise academically naive or disinclined among us – like me.  These articles will be the super-simplified version of Process Theology, designed to whet your appetite for the slightly more fleshed-out version that Dick Hatch has requested I present to the Sunday Morning Live! group sometime in the near future. 

The plan:

I. Process Thought, a primer
II. God is Love, unconditional and universal
III. Living a Life in Process, within a Universe in Process, in partnership with God/Love  in Process

 

 

     Alfred North Whitehead began his academic career as a mathematician.  As a mathematician he was used to explaining complex ideas in the elegantly simple and precise language of mathematic symbols.  As a philosopher he greatly lamented the convoluted and imprecise nature of human language, specifically English.  And so he made up his own language.  He gave old words new meanings, and made up new words where needed, in order to explain his philosophy precisely.  This will be the only example of that language that I will translate precisely (luckily it is an elegant summary of Process Thought):

 

“The coherence, which the system seeks to preserve, is the discovery that the process, or concrescence, of any one actual entity involves the other actual entities among its components.  In this way the obvious solidarity of the world receives its explanation.”

 

     In other words:  The central idea, which has so captivated my imagination and passion that I have devoted my life and academic career to developing it into a well-argued systematic philosophy, is every individual thing or creature in the universe (actual entity) is in the process of becoming (concrescence) the individual thing or creature that it will be in the next moment in time.  And each individual in process is made up of other individuals in process (think atoms).  This interdependence of one individual upon a multitude of other individuals, all working together to become the new world in the next moment, is the explanation of how the reality of the universe works and why each individual within it, no matter how small, is important.
This is the process-relational model of reality that scholars and theologians like John B. Cobb Jr. and David Ray Griffin discovered in the 1960s and 70s and became excited about working out the implications of a creation that continually recreates itself and the question of where God would fit into such a dynamic universe.
More on that in Part II.

Part II

     The theological tenant at the core of Process Theology is God = Love.  Love is relational.  When you love somebody you become a part of their life and they become a part of yours.  When they feel pain, you share that pain; when they feel joy, you share that joy.  When your three-year-old steps on a nail, you pick her up and hold her close, bandage the foot and drive like a madman to the ER to get her a tetanus shot, all the while sharing her pain and cursing the fact you could not prevent it.  Love is a process.  On your wedding day, your spouse becomes your whole world.  When the honeymoon is over, everyday tasks and routines slowly reassert their primacy (the food won’t cook itself) and you have to work hard to hear the undying love expressed by your spouse’s loud snoring as you both lay exhausted from the day before the clock has struck eight.  God loves you as you love your three-year-old child, but more.  God calls to you as your partner calls to you, loving you, encouraging you, helping you to become the best you possibly can. 

     But it doesn’t stop there.  God loves every cell within you.  God calls every cell within you to become the best possible cell it can.  God loves and calls to every mote of stardust throughout the universe, to become the best mote it can be, in each succeeding moment.  God loves and lures everyone and everything on the micro, macro, and gi-normous planes of existence.  Because God is Love, unconditional and universal.

     One thing that Process Theology does, to an extent that no other Christian theology does, is tell us how God works.  Not content with merely stating that God works (in mysterious ways, don’t ya know), Process Theology tells us explicitly how God as Love works in the world.  (Philosophical Disclaimer: To the extent that anyone can know how anything works, much less God, the world, human souls and the universe, this is the model which makes the most sense to proponents of Process Theology.)  The starting points are: 1) God is Love and 2) the Universe operates in a process-relational manner.  The end point is a little idea called panentheism, which means all things are in God.  Not to be confused with pantheism, which means that all things combined together are God.

     Here’s how the model goes.  God is Love.  The power that love exerts is relational (as opposed to unilateral).  Every creature and everything is continually in the process of becoming. Being “in process” implies freedom to choose what one is becoming, though the available choices are necessarily dependant upon what one has been.  God does not, and cannot, stomp on any individual’s freedom through a unilateral showing of power (such as the Queen of Hearts’ “Off with his head!”).  God meets each individual in its current moment of becoming and lovingly lures it toward the best possible choice currently available.  Each individual makes its choice and that moment which has been is taken into God and informs God what the best possible choice for the new moment is and again God lovingly lures each individual toward its own best possible choice. God knows all the possibilities; once a possibility becomes that which has occurred, God must respond according to the new set of possibilities now available.  Every creature and every thing are moment by moment becoming that which is the universe.  That which is becoming the universe knows itself as the universe.  But God not only knows it as the universe, not only knows (intimately) each individual that has come together to become the universe but knows what the universe, and all the individuals within it, might yet become. 

     All the cells in your body combine to make you, yet you are somehow more than that combination, with an awareness and ability to act that go far beyond what a mere collection of cells might be expected to do.  So God encompasses all the minutia which combine to make the universe and yet God is more, with an awareness and an ability to act that is unique to God.  And that uniquely divine more is Love, unconditional and universal.

     Does that mean that God suffers with us rather than being some aloof paternalistic figure off in the stars somewhere?  Yes.  Process Theology very boldly affirms that just as you share the pain of your injured three-year-old child, and yet cannot act to prevent the injury that has already occurred, so God shares our pain and yet cannot act to prevent those injuries which have already occurred.  But, through love, God does everything in God’s power to comfort each hurting individual and to persuade us away from taking actions that will be injurious to ourselves and others in the moments of becoming still open to us.  God feels everything that you feel.  Indeed, God feels everything that every cell, every vein, every bone, every muscle, every nerve ending within you feels.  That is how much God loves you and loves everyone and everything else in the Universe. 

     It is the combination of the free willed individuals listening and God’s voice lovingly luring that recreates the universe, with the intention of becoming the best universe possible, through love.  And Jesus, in this theological model, is held to be the highest example of what it means to be a free willed individual, so closely attuned to the divine lure that every action taken is an incarnation of God’s Love in the world.  God suffered and died on that cross with Jesus.  Just as God takes up all the suffering and death in the universe into God’s self and responds with love, calling each of us to transform the universe with new life, one moment of becoming at a time.  We have a responsibility to hear, understand, and share the message: God is Love, unconditional and universal.

Part III

 

     Okay, so Process Thought is a pretty interesting intellectual exercise, and Process Theology shows us how God = Love in a process-relational model of the universe, but what does it mean to my life here and now?  What are the practical applications of Process Theology?  To answer this we must first take a look at Christian Ethics because Ethics is the field of philosophy and theology that addresses how we act out our systems of belief in the world.  And because Process Theology blazes a new trail through Christian Ethics, one that insists Love is the ultimate power in the universe and therefore acting through love leads us to taking ethical action. 

     Holding Love up as an important, or the most important, guide to right action is not a new idea in Christian Ethics.  All Christian theologies hold Jesus as the ultimate expression of God’s love in the world.  And all Christian Ethics teach us that following the example of Jesus, or living a Christ like life, is the ideal path for learning to live an ethical life.  The differences lie in interpretation and emphasis.  Throughout history, living a Christ-like life has meant different things to different people.  Sometimes it meant selling all of one’s individual possessions and living communally with other Christians.  Sometimes it meant doing everything one could to become a martyr killed for one’s faith by an oppressive regime.  Sometimes it meant living and working with the poor or marginalized members of society.  Sometimes it meant marching off to war to defend the faith from dangerous heathens.  And so on and so forth, you get the idea.  Probably the biggest difference in current Christian views of this topic is whether the emphasis lies on modeling one’s life on the life and teaching’s of Jesus or on trusting in the eternal rewards (and punishments) granted by the resurrected savior Christ.  These two ideals are not mutually exclusive and most Christian theologies have a place for both.  The difference is which is more often emphasized (and what interpretation this emphasis reveals). 

     Process Theology emphasizes the life and teachings of Jesus, through a social justice interpretation of the Gospels.  Jesus, as the highest example of a free-willed individual so attuned to God’s lure that every action taken is an expression of God’s Love, lived a life that every Christian can aspire to emulate.  Jesus’ preaching on God’s love (esp. the greatest commandment – Love the Lord God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself, and the parable of the Good Samaritan) and loving actions in the community: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, reaching out to the poor and marginalized members of society, are the basis of this interpretation and emphasis.  Therefore, the Process model of living a Christ-like life is all about spreading God’s Love to everyone and everything, especially seeking out the forgotten or oppressed. 

     There are moments in all our lives when we are in fact the forgotten or oppressed.  As someone who suffers from clinical depression, I know this to be true.  I also know how amazing it feels when friends or family, or perfect strangers find a way to reach me in the depths of depression, and let me know I am loved.  So take this moment, in the many moments that make up the process of your life, to know you are loved.  You are God’s child and every part of you – every cell, every heartbeat, every stray thought that is you is known and loved by God.  This is the starting point for any practical application of Christian Ethics.  Knowing you are loved puts you on the path to showing others the love of God.  Now, here are three ways you can live like the process-relational Christ:

     Standup for equality and inclusiveness at every opportunity.  We UCC members trace our commitment to this form of social action back to our Congregationalist forbearers, who helped the Mende people imprisoned and intended for sale as slaves aboard the Amistad, in their legal battle to regain their freedom.  Today our congregation is going through the process to officially declare ourselves to be an Open and Affirming congregation.  It is God’s love which compels us in this moment to let our LGBT sisters and brothers know that we love, accept and welcome them just as they are.  And we want to very publicly take a stand and say that we recognize them as God’s children and fellow members in the body of Christ.  By so doing, we also offer a loving but adamant rebuke to our brothers and sisters in Christ of other theological convictions who insist on denying our LGBT brothers and sisters a place in the Kin-dom of God.

     Care for the poor wherever you find them. In his ministry, Jesus consistently and intentionally sought out the poor and needy, in material and spiritual matters, brought food to the hungry, brought healing to the sick in mind, body, or spirit, and brought dignity to all who, for whatever reason, could not meet their own needs in that particular moment.  And in this way, he let each one know she was loved.  We have many opportunities, individually and as a congregation, to give donations and volunteer time to those who are hungry, and in need.  For details on some of these opportunities, contact the Mission and Outreach Board (which is in need of two more members, if you feel so led). 

     Care for the environment, be a good steward.  In this moment, and for the anticipated moments in the near future, this is the only planet we’ve got.  I (as a loyal reader of science fiction) eagerly await the time when human civilization will fill up this solar system and find its way beyond the stars to new galaxies.  But for now, this Earth is all we’ve got and each of us is a steward of all the plants, animals, and other resources that exist here.  So plant a tree, join the Sierra Club, become an eco-warrior, however far the lure leads you, go there.

     We all, every one of us, are intricately connected in the process-relational universe.  And God knows and loves and incorporates into herself each one, moment by moment.  Therefore, helping the least of these truly is helping God and enriching the whole universe.

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