Power and Process Theology

Power and Process Theology
Rev. Douglas Taylor
1-22-12
 

I am still trying to figure out if Process Theology is for me.  Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal tradition rather than a creedal one; we don’t have a single belief structure here.  We are theists, pagans, atheists, seekers and mystics together encouraging each other on the path of faith.  As one who believes in God, I have been excited to learn more about Process Theology because it offers a version of God that I find compelling and that fits well my experiences and understanding.

Last spring when singer/songwriter Peter Mayer came to visit I had the pleasure of sharing the Sunday worship with him.  I asked him to sing his song “God is a River” as a companion to the story I shared about John Muir strapping himself near the top of a pine to experience a storm.  The song and the layer of interpretation I put on the story offered up the image of God very much in line with Process Theology.  In the song, Peter Mayer says he clung to the rock for solace and shelter but eventually learned to ride the flowing river in faith. 

            God is a river, not just a stone
            God is a wild, raging rapids
            And a slow, meandering flow
            God is a deep and narrow passage
            And a peaceful, sandy shoal
            God is a river, swimmer, so let go 

Yes, God can be seen as the rock, but God is also like the river.  In the story I lifted up that image of John Muir clinging near the top of a soldier pine as the wind howls around him, bending his tree and the trees around him in deep arcs as Muir revels in the awesome experience of the storm.  I talked about how God is not just the solid place you can always return to as a protecting shelter when the storms of life rage, God can also bend with you and move with you in your troubled times.  As I stray into history and metaphysics over the next few minutes I invite you to keep these images in mind as touch points.  The images of the God as a river you don’t have to fight against and God as a bending tree in the storm of your troubled life can help keep some of this academic and philosophical stuff I am about to wade into linked to the heart and the spirit of faith.

So, what exactly is Process Theology?  I have found over the past year or so, two distinct ways into this conversation about Process Theology.  Let me roll these out briefly so we can move on to the interesting consequences such a conversation holds.  One way in is the question of God and suffering.  If god is indeed all powerful and all loving, how is it that suffering also exists?  Process Theology offers a singular answer to this classic Christian conundrum.  But let me first spend some time on the other way into this conversation and I will come back to the question of God and suffering in a moment.

The other way in is through science and philosophy, and it starts with Alfred North Whitehead, the progenitor of this school of thought.   Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher from the late 1800’s through the mid 1900’s.  He wrote books which set the groundwork for modern mathematical philosophy and logic. The philosophical ground of what we now know as Process Theology arises from Whitehead’s response to Einstein and quantum physics.  I won’t go into detail, I can’t go into detail.  But the crux of the idea is this: in quantum physics we see that everything is in motion. We discover that nothing is fixed, everything is moving.  Atoms, those tiny things that are the basic building block of everything, are not simply little building blocks.  They have sub-parts, and those parts are spinning and vibrating and changing. 

Mountains that poetically epitomize stability and changelessness are not only growing and wearing down – they are also built out of those tiny atoms that are shaking and vibrating all the time.  Everything that seems solid, fixed, and stable, is in fact in dynamic motion.  The electrons of an atom are not even little balls orbiting the nucleus like I was taught in high school.  The models I was offered in school looked very similar to astronomical models of small round objects orbiting a larger central object: like our moon circling the earth.  By college I was learning about the ‘electron field’ because it wasn’t accurate to say it was orbiting – it was doing something else.  I won’t go into details, I can’t go into derails.  The point is this: everything we thought was fixed, stable, solid, turns out to be vibrating, changing, shifting.

Whitehead saw this and figured this applied not just to the nature, physical world but to the metaphysical world as well.  He came up with a philosophy that trusted ‘becoming’ over ‘being.’  He talked about ‘events’ as the discrete base of reality rather than matter.  He really messed with our sense of time and reality.  A simplified version of what Whitehead seemed to be getting at is “if it seems static, don’t trust it.” 

This is a remarkable sentiment when applied to religion.  Static is often synonymous with our traditions, foundations, orthodoxy and ideals.  We want truth to be unchanging, our deepest values ought to be unchanging, there ought to be some firm ground on which we stand – metaphorically speaking.  But when the literal firm ground we stand on is made up of vibrating atoms, then perhaps the metaphorical ground we stand on is also subject to shift – not because we’re wrong or that we’ve chosen unstable ground, simply because that is the nature of ground. 

Now, before we dip below the conversation of science and logic, thus falling into a mere quibble of semantics, let me suddenly shift gears and share with you the other way into this conversation.  Let us set momentarily set aside grand thoughts about the nature of the universe and the dynamic nature of all matter and the implications that has on the nature of God to consider the question from the perspective of the traditional theology of God.

Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) took Whitehead’s philosophy and developed into a theology.  Hartshorne was a 20th century American theologian who wrote books such as Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes.  The starting point for this conversation is the “theodicy problem” of traditional Christianity.  The theodicy problem states that there are three non-negotiable givens that set up a puzzle: First, God is all powerful.  This is declared over and over in scripture and affirmed again and again in Christian theology.  God is the almighty creator.  Second, God is all loving.  This is sometimes rendered as ‘all-good,’ but it amounts to much the same thing for the purposes of this puzzle.  God is not a monster or a capricious force.  He cares about us.  Scripture declares this and traditional Christian theology affirms this again and again.  Third, evil and suffering exist.  Our own experience of reality shows us this, scripture speaks of it, and basic Christian theology wrestles with the problem of suffering and the problem of evil regularly.

But when you hold all three of these traditional non-negotiable Christian beliefs together, there is a problem:  How could there be suffering if God really does care about us and has the power to make it better?  When I see someone I love suffering I want to make it better and will do what is in my power to help.  Why doesn’t God?

Well, traditional Christianity will occasionally solve this puzzle through semantics and slick logic while maintaining belief in all three pieces.  For example: We might say the problem is in our understanding of God as all loving.  God’s love, we are told, is sometimes a tough love that allows us to make mistakes so we can learn from them and become better people.  That is not a very satisfying answer for a child soldier from the Darfur genocide, or person paralyzed by a random car accident.  Unearned suffering can be redemptive, but only in certain situations. 

Another tack is to say the problem is in our understanding of God as all powerful.  God’s power is perhaps more properly seen in the grandest of scales, we are told; and the finest exercising of that power was when God gave us free will.  God could step in to alter things and maybe does on occasion, but doing so messes with the bigger picture of our free will.  Yes, God is all powerful and could end suffering, but God restrains herself because the grand human experience of life hinges on our capacity to choose between good and evil, creation and destruction, love and hate, justice and apathy.  That also is not a very satisfying answer; it makes me wonder why bother believing in that sort of God … unless you go with that slim little piece where occasional miracles do still happen when God comes down and tinkers with our troubled lives.  But that leaves us with a God waiting for us to ask in just the right way or for just the right people to ask for us in just the right way with just the right intention and circumstance.  It seems too much like a trick to me. 

The final significant way people try to solve this theodicy problem is to undercut the reality of evil or suffering.  Suffering, we are told, leads to greater joy in the next life.  Evil, we are told, is judged or possibly redeemed by God in heaven in God’s time.  Some theologies even go so far as to say evil and suffering are a result of our sinfulness; we deserve what is happening in some cosmic scale. 

So Process Theology looks at this and basically says, ‘what a ridiculous set up!’  Of course all three pieces can’t be true.  Suffering is real, evil exists.  Hartshorne’s articulation of Process Theology came on the heels of World War II; everyone had a ready reference to point to in terms of the reality of evil and suffering.  God is a loving God, otherwise God is not worthy of worship and would be better named a monster.  The piece that has to fall is God’s power.  Thus, Process Theology declares that God’s power is not through force but through persuasion. 

Hartshorne and other theologians spoke of God’s power as a lure we could align ourselves with rather than a raw power we could call upon in need.  It’s not that God doesn’t choose to use a greater power.  It is not that God could but decides not to tinker with the laws of nature.  It’s not that God has the capacity to perform miracles and to end suffering or snuff out evil but has decided that instead it is better not to.  No.  God can’t do those things. God is on the side of the creative good.  God can’t unilaterally end suffering, but God’s power is relational power

By this theology, and in my understanding of the nature of God, we’re not talking about a being, a person or creature that looks a little like you and me, maybe with a beard and a thunderbolt.  No.  God is a name given for the source of your living, for the creative energy in everything, for the whole of which you are a part.  It is a little fuzzy, perhaps a bit vague.  But then the trouble with God began when people started to speak of God as a literal character in literal stories.  Cast away all literal interpretations of the nature of God.  They are illogical and irrational.  Seek instead to source of your living.  Seek the creative energy that flows around you and through you.  Seek the whole of which you are a part.  You do not need to then name it God, though many do.  Much to think on!  Remember the river and the tree; there is a simple intuitive element here as well.

I remember a colleague who claimed to be a ‘third-person Unitarian.’  By this he meant that as Unitarians we historically reject the Trinitarian formula of God as three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And that many did this by rejecting the godhood of the second-person of the trinity, Jesus.  Often this led Unitarians to declare God the father, the first-person of the trinity, to be the one God: creator, first cause, almighty author of all that is.  Process Theology leads us to look at the other end of the formula with my colleague who declared himself to be a third-person Unitarian.  The Holy Spirit is traditionally the movement of God, the advocate, the ready aid at hand for those in need.  The dynamic spirit of life, to me, is quite a compelling phrase to describe what I know and understand of God.

But this is more than academic for me, more than clever theological debate.  I trust science and logic, and I have had experiences that lead me to believe my prayers do make a difference and that grace is real.  I am the kind of person who desperately needs a theological framework to hold it all.  I see God as a dynamic spirit luring the best out of me, a creative energy in and around us all.  

            God is a river, not just a stone
            God is a wild, raging rapids
            And a slow, meandering flow
            God is a deep and narrow passage
            And a peaceful, sandy shoal
            God is a river, swimmer, so let go

In my experience God is that creative and transforming power in my life, ever new, ever leading me to put my faith and trust in the beckoning future.  The watch word of Process Theology is “becoming,” synonymous with growing, developing and evolving.  I believe in God as the spirit of life and love, the creative energy found in all life, the transformative power of love that lures us to become better people building a better world.

In a world without end

May it be so.