Talking about God
by the Rev. Peter Connolly
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on June 8, 2014
I once took a course taught by the writer Dan Wakefield called “Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography.” It’s a course that invites you to take a close look into the events in your life that helped form your beliefs and the person that you now are, to say nothing of the person that you are becoming.
One of the earliest assignments is to draw a picture of God— or, more precisely, to draw a picture of the image you held of God around the age of five or six. My drawing was not so different than the drawings of others in the class— the head of a man, an old and impossibly wise man, a man with a long, flowing gray beard, piercing eyes and a commanding demeanor. It was a child’s understanding of the God of the Old Testament.
We were then to draw our depiction of God when we were around the age of 13. My vision had not changed very much in that time. Then, we were challenged to draw our conception of God at the present time, as adults. Now things got more imaginative, more abstract, more diverse. Rainbows. Mandalas full of color. What became abundantly clear is that our notions of God changed over time as our capacity to understand grew and developed.
Following from that thought came this: if our understanding of God changes and develops over time, how can we ever say that we can understand God, the eternal? Each conception is limited by our capacity to understand and each attempt to understand, however orthodox, is bound to be idiosyncratic because each of us is different in background, outlook, intellectual development, imaginative facility, any number of things.
So, to “know” the impassable, omnipresent, omnipotent, transcendent God is really impossible (despite all the impressive cataloguing of Thomas Aquinas) for mere human beings. But, today, we are talking about God as understood by process theology and the process theologians, so we might find that things are a little different.
Well, perhaps “a lot different.” Process theology attempts, like most well-developed theologies, to be systematic. By that, I mean that it attempts to present a conception of God through certain formulations which have become standard over time, especially in the West and especially in the Christian tradition. Process theology proceeds, for the most part, from Christian theological understandings. So, the theology is much more expansive than we can have time to investigate today. It covers areas such as doctrine, the nature of God, God’s relation to the natural world, to human existence, to Christ Jesus, to eschatology (the study of end-times), to the church, the cosmos and our present situation of cultural and social development. Clearly, more than we can look into even on a cursory basis on one Sunday morning But, we can look at some things.
Theology is usually understood as “the study of God,” but, since this study is purely conjectural, it can seem so outmoded that we shouldn’t bother about it at all. (Imagine: God is understood as the basis of all things, the reason for all things, the justification of all things, the rationale for the unfolding of all creation and yet we dispose of the study completely.) At a liberal Christian theological school such as the one I attended, we were counseled early on to think of “theology,” not as the study of God, which is well-nigh impossible, but the study of human understanding of God and its articulation. I liked that. Seemed to make a lot more sense. So, that is the way I am using the term “theology” today.
Process theology is the only theology that I am aware of that grew out of a philosophy, a philosophy called, not surprisingly, “process philosophy.” This is a discipline formulated by the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, most famously in a series of three books called Science and the Modern World, Process and Reality, and Adventures of Ideas, written between 1925 and 1933. Because this was such a long time ago, you might be tempted to dismiss the ideas out of hand. I urge you not to do so for reasons which I hope will become apparent as we dig into the discipline a little bit.
Whitehead’s ideas were more fully developed by a man named Charles Hartshorne who worked for a time as his secretary. He is probably the most well-known process theologian, though John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin have also made large contributions to the field, especially in this “introductory exposition” called, simply, Process Theology, an Introductory Exposition (PT).
Because most of us, when we think of the word “God,” have certain images in mind that we were taught early on in Christian churches or Christian households or in the culture we live in whether we experienced a Christian or Judeo-Christian upbringing or not, it will probably be useful to say up front what God is not, according to the ideas of process theology. There are five ideas (stereotypes, perhaps), that we have to remove from our minds to gain an understanding of the God of process theology.
- The first is God as Cosmic Moralist. Cobb and Griffin say that “At its worst, this notion takes the form of the image of God as divine lawgiver and judge, who has proclaimed an arbitrary set of moral rules” (we can decide for ourselves how “arbitrary” these rules are), “who keeps records of offenses, and who will punish offenders…. Process theology denies the existence of this God.”
- The second is God as the Unchanging and Passionless Absolute, a “conception (that) derives from the Greeks, who maintained that ‘perfection’ entailed complete ‘immutability,” or lack of change. The notion of ‘impassability’ stressed that the deity must be completely unaffected by any other reality and must lack all passion or emotional response. The notion that deity is the ‘Absolute’ (means) that God is not really related to the world…. Process theology denies the existence of this God”— God, the unchanging and passionless absolute.
- The third notion is that of God as Controlling Power, the “notion…that God determines every detail of the world. This is the notion that prompts the question ‘why?’ when a loved one dies too young or when people die as a result of hurricanes or other natural disasters that are called, very often ‘acts of God.’…Process theology denies the existence of this God.”
- The fourth notion of God that most of us either grew up believing or at least were encouraged to believe is that God sanctions the status quo. If you think of God as the cosmic moralist, you understand God as being primarily interested in order. If you believe that God is the all-controlling power, then you probably believe that “the present order (of things) exists because God wills (it to exist).” In order to be obedient to God, you must obey the status quo. “Process theology denies the existence of this God,”— the God who sanctions the status quo.
- The fifth of the five traditional notions of God that process theology disputes is that God is male. “God is totally active, controlling and independent, and wholly lacking in receptiveness and responsiveness” as Cobb and Griffin put it, going on to say that “God seems to be the archetype of the dominant, inflexible, unemotional, completely independent… male. Process theology denies the existence of this God.” Although various process theologians will vary in their understandings within the discipline, on these five precepts they agree.
Here is probably a good place to clarify the purpose of our presentation today. All this “God-talk” and “process talk” can be understood on a purely intellectual level, of course, but there’s not much purpose in delivering a lecture on ideas unless those ideas can have some application in our lives. Only you can decide that, of course. And its usefulness to you is probably proportional to your ability to think flexibly and to be willing for a new and unorthodox version of “God” to take its place beside the conceptions that you have already established.
Process theology affirms that everything that is is in the process of changing. Everything that is once was something else and will become something else. On the most fundamental level, we are always sloughing off cells and new cells develop in their place— well not exactly in their place because the actuality of place is always changing, as well. Every time we are struck by a new thought we are in some manner changed; every time we lose something that is precious to us we are changed; every time we lose something that is of little importance we are changed; every breath we take is new; every interaction we engage in makes a difference, however subtle; all is in flux; we can’t, as Heraclitus says, step in the same river twice.
But time is not a steady flow through which we move. It is made up of innumerable tiny fractions, “droplets” of time. the authors of Process Theology say, giving as an example the reel of film that comprises a motion picture. The individual frames are not really in motion; their unspooling through the reel make them appear to be moving. Every actual thing is actual for the merest moment—shedding a portion of what gives it form, adding a portion that gives it form. Mushrooms pop up overnight; dandelions sprout in an afternoon; your fourteen-year-old outgrows his new pair of jeans the day after they are purchased. All these beings are in motion all the time and the thing that makes them real is only partially what appears as form. The infinitesimal changes that indicate growth or decay are just as real as the form and help to define the form. “True individuals are momentary experiences.”
If you have been attending our early service, you probably see a parallel here with the Buddhist understanding of being and not-being (except that Buddhist teaching is to overcome this apparent duality). So, all things are not only being at any particular time, but are also in the process of becoming— “dynamic acts of concrescence” to use Whitehead’s term, but I don’t think that we need to get as technical as that.
All these “things” or “beings” that are constantly in the process of change, which are constantly in the process of becoming, have an external reality and an internal reality. The fact that they all have an internal reality means that they (we) all have something in common— we all are part of a fabric of existence— an interdependent web, if you like. There is a “kinship of all things,” not ideally, but actually. “God” is one word for that unity of experience that comprises the totality of internal experiences.
That interdependence, Whitehead believes, is a variable. We can actualize it to the extent that we are aware of it and choose to actualize it. This impulse towards actualization is God’s influence. God wants creation to realize that it is interconnected and interdependent. God is a creative force of union which is not all-powerful because God is dependent upon our choice for reality so understood to be actualized. This is one aspect of incarnation. The world is not just a creation, it is also creative. It’s called a “doctrine of partial self-determination (PT, p. 25).
This allows both for gratitude for the things which we enjoy which are outside of our control and a sense of responsibility for the consequences of our actions which are within our control. Our morality is consonant with the creative unfolding of the world, part of which is caused by God’s participation in actualizing certain events out of otherwise incoherent parts; part of which is due to our making choices that are responsive to the health of the whole. “We are partially created by our environment and partially self-created.”
“The fact that the quality of an individual’s enjoyment is partly a function of that individual’s total environment means that, if we are concerned with promoting the enjoyment of others, we cannot neglect the quality of their environment, since what is ‘the environment’ in one moment essentially enters into the individual in the next moment…. The most we can do is seek to provide an optimum environment, which heightens the probability that the enjoyment will be enhanced.” God’s role is to lure us into making the choice that will enhance the environment for all, knowing that it enhances the environment for each. God provides an “attractive possibility” which it is up to us to choose. We both create and define the moral universe in cooperation with the lure that God provides.
“Every occasion of experience aims at its own self-creation.” When the aim of that occasion is to pervade the environment, creative self-expression is creative of a healthy future (a healthy and sustainable future we may say in light of our existential concerns today). “Divine reality is understood to be the ground of novelty,” (PT, p. 28), of new things, possibilities that are realized…. The God of process thought is also the ground of order, but this is a changing and developing order, an order that must continually incorporate novelty” (Ibid.).
What does it mean to be related to God? In process theology, it means to be, to exist, whether living or inanimate— you cannot be in existence without being related to God. Cobb and Griffin use this phrase: “God-relatedness is constitutive of every occasion of experience.” (I don’t know whether that makes things more clear or just clouds up the water.) “If we could think of a world apart from God,” they say, “it would be a world of repetition lapsing into lesser and lesser forms of order according to the principle of entropy. What happened in each occasion could only be the declining outgrowth of what had happened before.”
When God confronts the world with unrealized opportunities, it opens up a space for freedom and self-creativity. So, the status quo is not sanctioned—not at all. Being consciously related to this God “implies a continual, creative transformation of what is received from the past, in the light of a divinely received call forward (italics mine), to actualize new possibilities. This divine power “is persuasive rather than controlling,” but there is no more effective power in reality. What is God? Process theology says that “God is that factor in the universe which establishes what-is-not as relevant to what-is, and lures the world toward new forms of realization” (PT, p. 43). And God is in process just as we are in process because reality is unfolding and God’s nature is creatively evolving as choices are made that benefit the environment that is inhabited by all. Divine creation and divine creativity are in dynamic relationship, parallel sides of a double-helix if that metaphor appeals to you.
Process theology rejects the kind of thinking that says that the events that make up our history are the product of linear causes— or “unilinear” as the authors say. In other words, it rejects an understanding that says C was caused by B and B was caused by A and A was caused by Z ad infinitum. Instead, it holds to an ecological understanding. Each event arises from the intersection of numerous other events. You cannot isolate any one particular entity as giving rise to another particular entity.
We are part of an environment and are influenced by all the things that constitute that environment, some of which we can point to and identify and some of which— well, we haven’t got a clue. “Process theology… calls for an ecological sensibility…. Each event in an ecological system is made possible by a complex interconnection of antecedent events. No one of the events is ‘the cause’ of the event, but all of them play a causal role…. The full causal explanation of any occurrence is infinitely complex, as are its full causal consequences” (PT, p. 153-154). This “sense of mutual participation reduces the sense of the difference between self and other.” (Again, you may see parallels with Buddhist teachings here). “The whole of nature participates in us and we in it.”
The full significance of process theology, I think, lies in the creative possibilities inherent in reality, a deep understanding of the nature of interdependence, and a vision of transformation that is based on realizable possibilities. I will let Mr. Cobb and Mr. Griffin shape the conclusion here:
“Insofar as we are transformed in our self-understanding from unilinear beings with only external relations to the rest of the world into participants in the whole process of nature-history, planning and the use of technology will have to be transformed…. We will consider every action (not with a single end in view, but) in terms of the whole scope of probable and even possible consequences. We will take account of the whole context out of which our action must grow. We will refrain from those actions which might have irreversible negative consequences upon the life-support system of the planet even at considerable personal sacrifice(.)”
What is the ideal that we strive for? If we conform our ideas to that end, we will greatly enhance our chances of achieving that end. If we envision a land, an ecosystem, a planet, a biosphere that is healthy and vibrant and supportive of the myriad forms of life that have been produced by the creative dynamic of possibility and intention that Whitehead calls God, we have in our power the ability to reach that ideal. The goal of this period in our history is “our creative transformation into beings who can survive, and indeed flourish more abundantly, upon a planet with finite physical resources and other valuable species of life” (PT, p. 155). “Trusting God is not assurance that whatever we do, all will work out well. It is instead the confidence that God’s call is wise and good” (PT, p. 158).
- Cobb, John B. and Griffin, David Ray, 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press
- Whitehead, Alfred North, 1933. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The New American Library.
- Garrett, Jan, 1973. “Platonism and the Philosophy of Organism: Ancient and Modern Cosmologies Involving Forms.” (unpublished paper)
- Wikipedia: “Alfred North Whitehead;” “Process Theology”