A New Way of Knowing God
Rev. Douglas Taylor
August 30, 2015
I was splitting wood yesterday. I had several trees taken down last year that I had cut and stacked for the winter. Now, I need to split the wood and restack it so I can use it in the fireplace this coming winter. As I am swinging my ax, I’m also thinking about my sermon. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you. Perhaps you can even guess the insight I uncovered.
There were times when my ax would come down on the wood and it would thunk into the log a few times before a blow would split it. And then it would usually only split it some of the way or most of the way, and I would have to set it up and hit it again. Other times my ax would come down and, on the first blow, split the log easily. The difference was mostly about me, not the log. If I hit the log right, along the grain, the log was ready to split.
This is not a new insight. Any good Buddhist text will use an analogy like this, telling you about archery or juggling or chopping wood. Look at everything and nothing, aim for the follow-through rather than the exact point on top, be in harmony with the target, take a steady breath before acting – really, take you breath, no one else can take it for you … well, until you fall in love or experience some other absolutely breath-taking moment. But we’re not falling in love just here; we’re just chopping wood – so take your own breath. And notice the grain.
If the ax hits the log on the grain, the log will split with ease. The outcome I am wanting fits with what the log is ready to do. This is similar to what is meant with idea of God luring us toward the good. Like pancakes on the table calling us to rise from bed and begin the day. In Process Theology, God is not all powerful. Instead of making things happen or not happen, God’s power is purely the power of luring us toward the good, toward justice, toward harmony. Process theologian David Stowe says, “God is a dynamic presence, active everywhere in the world.” (Creative Transformation Vol. 9:3, p21) Or as Daniel Day Williams says, using the word ‘spirit’ instead of ‘god,’ “The Spirit is not a static ideal but a creative power which participates in the life it informs.” (The Spirit and the Forms of Love, p4)
This is how I began to understand Process Theology, through spiritual experience rather than the logic of science or theology. Don’t get me wrong, I love science and theology. I find it helpful when presenting the idea to others to start with the science of Quantum theory which is where Whitehead started. And I enjoy unpacking Hartshorne’s deconstruction of the Theodicy problem in classic monotheistic theology. The paths paved by quantum science and thorough critique of classic Christian theology are solid ways to understand Process Theology. But really it is the spirituality of process theology that hooked me. It has been the experiences I have of Spirit and grace and the lure toward the good that have drawn me in.
Briefly, in case you are wondering, the scientific path I mention is this: Process Theology arises from Alfred North Whitehead’s response to Einstein and quantum physics. In quantum physics we see that everything is in motion. Atoms, for example, are not simply little static building blocks. They have sub-parts, and those parts are spinning and vibrating and changing. Even to talk about electrons having an orbit around the nucleus is inaccurate – instead scientists speak of the ‘electron field’ that defines where the electrons have been and probably will be. In other words, an electron is best defined as an event in which something is happening. Whitehead said, in essence, if it is true for the physical world, it will be true for the metaphysical world as well. If the universe is dynamic then so is God. I find this an elegant argument.
Likewise, you can learn about Process Theology from Charles Hartshorne’s heresy. The Theodicy problem of classic Christianity says God is all powerful, and God is all loving, yet evil and suffering exist. This creates a logical puzzle. Why is there suffering if God cares about us and has the power to stop it? Hartshorne refuses this puzzle by saying God is not all powerful. God’s power is not coercive, but persuasive. God can’t stop suffering or evil on God’s own. But God is a resource to us so we can be God’s hands and God’s heart in the world. God’s power is not the power that can stop bad things from happening. Instead God’s power is in the lure toward the good, drawing people like you and me to act in ways that bring more wholeness and harmony to the world. Again, an elegant argument.
And I understand these scientific concepts (more or less) and believe in these theological ideas; but in truth, I was not won over by these arguments. Originally, I was drawn in by the spirituality of Process Theology. It is like that story of the humming planet.
I told this story for the children a number of years back now, maybe it’s time to do it again … Anyway, this is by UU Storyteller Joshua Searle-White: The Humming Planet. A girl is travelling around the universe in her spaceship and gets lost. She lands on a strange planet to get directions. She discovers that everything on the planet hums, or more accurately everything hums in response to the every other thing. She discovers that she is humming, her body is humming. So when she looks closer at a flower, she and the flower hum louder together. The humming is a wonderful feeling in her.
When she walks into town, people are smiling and nodding to her, and all the while the hum is steady and strong and good. She turns to ask someone how to find a star map and the first person she approaches is a shock to her. The man’s face is discolored and scarred. He is hard to look at. Though he smiles at her as she comes close, his scars look painful and it scares her. Instead of asking him for directions, she looks way and walks past him looking for someone else to approach. But when she does that, the humming fades. Within seconds it is like an aching absence.
So she takes a deep breath, turns back to the scarred man and looks him in the eye; the humming inside and around her resumes. She asks where she can find a star chart, with a smile he tells her. She thanks him and goes to find the chart, elated with the humming. She figures out where she is, gets back in her spaceship and heads back home.
Part of the lesson is about the interchange between us and between all things. Another part of the lesson is about how your spiritual life is not just about the happy, peaceful moments on the mountain top. It is not a spirituality aiming for inner peace. Creative interchange may challenge you. The interactions that matter most, the lure and creative interchanges, have more to do with compassion in the face of suffering than bliss and an escape from difficulty.
This is why the God described in Process Theology, is a God of compassion and a God of Justice. Because if something is not right – and I am in tune with the holy – I will feel that it is off. The humming will fade, if you will. The ax will hit the log again and again ineffectively.
It is a new way of knowing God, based not on seeing a deity that is cast in the image of humanity; rather God is the spirit of creativity and harmony. It is the event of interchange between me and the log or my friend or my community. A creative interchange is one in which I welcome in a little of you into my understanding of me. Our interconnectedness is not the event; it is what makes an interchange possible. And God is the lure for the event to unfold toward greater harmony and goodness.
The trouble with such a perspective, however, is that the word God already means something particular to most people in our western culture. Now, there is a strong humanistic strained in Process Theology. Process Naturalism acknowledges the interconnectedness of the universe, the emphasis on events over material substances as the base of reality, and the primacy of free will. They don’t talk about a lure toward goodness so much as the recognition that harmony and beauty are key aspects of goodness. And then there are those in Process Naturalism who will use the word God for poetic purposes. Process thought is a pluralistic perspective that is not a single uniform way of looking at reality – it has common themes but still variety.
But for many, Process Theology is a way to continue to believe in God by allowing the definition of the word to evolve. The classic monotheistic perspective is not the only option. In classical theism, we talk about God as a separate and wholly other entity from the Universe. God existed before the universe, created the universe, and remains outside, beyond, unaffected, discrete from everything else that exists. The driving characteristic of classical theism is there is no overlap between creator and creation.
To get to the version that Process Theology offers, we need to first pass through the concept of Pantheism. Pantheism takes the two concepts, God and the Universe, and names them synonymous. If you can picture two circles, one labeled “God” and the other labeled “the Universe,” Pantheism would have a single circle labeled “God = the Universe.”
From there we construct a third picture for Panentheism which says that God is the whole Universe as well as more. Picture a circle within another circle where the first circle is labeled “the Universe” and the second circle around it is labeled “God.” The sum is more than the total of the parts. Over our heads, but also in our hearts, there must be a God somewhere.
Panentheism is a common perspective for Unitarian Universalists who identify as theists. Emerson’s Transcendentalism and Process Theology and other contemporary perspectives fit within the general concept of Panentheism. It includes nature and humanity as participants in all that is holy, but allows for a ‘something more.’
But there’s more. To really draw the circles for a Process Theology version of Panentheism, we first have to change the label of ‘the universe’ and of ‘God.’ While it may seem like the big radical claim of Process Theology is a statement about God, it is actually a statement of cosmology. What if ‘the universe’ is not made up of things and materials, but events and the experiences of becoming?
The log I am about to split is a series of events from seed through tree to, in this case, log into split firewood and on into ashes and stardust to feed another seed. When I swing the ax, I am seeing both the log that is and the split firewood that will be. Instead of the log as a static thing, it is the event over time which serves as the ‘building blocks’ of reality and ‘all that is.’ The interaction between things over time is the defining aspect of reality more than the things themselves as such.
So, expand that concept from logs and firewood out to the whole universe. The large circle in Panentheism gets relabeled as ‘creativity’ rather than ‘God.’ The Whole to which process theology points is the dynamic interchange of creativity, the process unfolding and becoming, the possibilities and actualities as well as the histories of all that was, is and yet shall be.
But where is God in that picture? God is in the midst of the interchange, God is that aspect of the event luring us toward harmony and goodness. God is Omnipresent – in everything and every event. One theologian, Marjorie Suchocki, puts it like this: “Receiving the world, God fashions for it, in its next moment of becoming, an aim that will lure it toward harmony.” (God, Christ, Church, p 222) Within each moment of event, God offers the lure toward the good. “God works with what is, in order to lead the world toward what can be.” (Ibid p206)
This leads to a version of God that has unchanging aspects – goodness and love – as well as a nature subject to change because God is in the interchange. One of the old biblical phrases says it is in God that we live, and move, and have our being. And Process Theology affirms that but also insists that it is in the world and in humanity that God lives, and moves, and has God’s being. Omni-present rather than Omni-potent! Thus as we grow and change, so does God.
Change and connection are the strongest words in this theology. So, whether I am wrestling with climate change issues or a loved one with cancer, I strive to stay connected with our earth or with my loved one, to stay connected and let what is happening affect me so I can be the hands and the heart of a God who longs for the good to be more manifest among us.
When we are struggling with the Black Lives Matter movement, I am compelled by my spirit to listen to the voices in the movement, the voices of counter-movements that challenge me, and the voices of those along the sidelines anxious to not wade in too far. But I am obligated by the Spirit to not only listen. I must also heed the lure toward harmony and goodness. So, with compassion, I speak out in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement because that is where the creative interchange has lead me. Change and connection are the watch words of a Process Spirituality.
The God I love is not a God of power. God is the Spirit that lures us toward our best selves and a more harmonious would. But it will never be done. It is always changing and unfolding anew. Listen for the humming, seek to interact creatively with others, learn to hear the tug drawing you toward the good. Notice the grain. Take your breath. But don’t just commune with the beauty of it all, when it is time we must also act. Swing the ax to make the firewood, touch the hand to show another they are not alone, speak up for what is right but use compassion rather than force, and listen for the hum calling you toward home.
In a world without end
May it be so.