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God is in the Process
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 03/04/2007
What if you were an alien just arriving on Earth and you had not received any special training in advance about the culture on Earth. Therefore, you had never heard of the concept of “God” that this planet Earth was so obsessed with. So, when these Earth creatures started talking about this God thing, you asked them to describe it to you.
Well, you see, we see the entire universe is made up of special energy that animates life. It is what makes all things organic move and react through time and space. This special energy exists with or without the material things in the universe, but it is an inherent component of all objects in the universe.
This special energy some people think is also omniscient- in other words, this energy has total and unerring knowledge about the world such that it could predict what would happen in the world, but it doesn’t use this knowledge to interfere in the world. The nature of this special energy in the world is also completely positive. In other words, it has characteristics that seem when used within creatures of the world make them act in loving, kind ways. (Then they would have to define loving and kind for the aliens.) But in acting within the creatures of the world in this way, this energy doesn’t act by itself. It doesn’t have independent agency or a conscious plan for the universe.
This particular group of scientists would happen to be process theists.
And what if there happened to be another group of scientists who also interacted with these aliens and they were asked how they thought life was directed. These other scientists that we’re going to call process naturalists might say that the whole natural world is interconnected by cause and effect. Every event that any organic or inorganic matter was involved in would necessarily affect every other bit of matter. They would say that the world of creatures was finite and cyclical. However, these people also said that life is meaningful and even sacred- but that it was meaningful to different people in different ways. And for many of them “truth” is one of those very meaningful and sacred things. They believed that all beings in the world were inter-related and were deeply involved in the creation of new truths and ways of meaningful living together in the world.
You as an alien, had no prior concept of God as a male super-being with a white beard and long flowing robe than lived in the sky. So, you have no prior image of how humans traditionally viewed God. These ideas sounded very plausible for these people who seemed scientific and yet spiritual. You had no idea that these scientists’ beliefs represented a rather small minority of religious beliefs on this planet. And you would have no idea that these beliefs were actually described by several historical figures in the past century or so. You would not understand that these two groups of scientists represented two groups of thought within “process philosophy”.
Process theists, the first group of people, describe the universe as being contained in God. In other words, these people are panentheist who see God as a larger encompassing energy that contains the universe within it. They describe life as a series of “occasions” of experience in which the being is influenced necessarily by all events that have occurred previously. This description of life came from Alfred Lord Whitehead, a process philosopher.
Many process theists also believe that humans are coaxed toward the good from the experience of having God within us. God contains all other occasions of experience but also contains the transcendent element of divinity which beckons all creatures toward choosing possibilities of healing and wholeness. In other words, all beings have complete free will but contain within them the presence of good inherently which gives them the possibility of choosing good.
Process theology suggests that God is not only eternal and unchanging but also temporal, bounded in time, and changing because God was in all of the creatures who are constantly experiencing life. This went against the traditional view of most theistic religions in which God is the unchanging, absolute and omnipotent Being who causes all things to happen but is not affected by whatever happens in the world.
This view of God as changeable gave new light to people who had problems with an image of an all powerful God. People who are trying to reconcile science with religion can not accept an all powerful, all controlling God. Science is based on the concept of cause and effect. Science describes events in the world as having observable direct causes. In a world where God causes all things to happen, observable predictable events go out the window. You can’t predict scientifically what will happen in a world where God interferes.
This changing nature of God presented Charles Hartshorne, a Unitarian and a philosopher, with a new face of God. It meant that the all powerful God described by Judaic Christian thought had to give up its’ power in order to give free will to humans. And in giving up all power, God became changeable, able to experience change as a result of experiencing life through all of it’s creatures. Therefore, evil did not come from God. In traditional theism, since God is all powerful, it is difficult to explain why evil exists since an all powerful God should be able to control it. Evil can be explained in process theology as being caused by creatures who ignored the good possibilities presented to them and chose evil.
To Hartshorne, a God who was changing and affected through time by worldly creatures, made a universe that was ultimately defined by the choices made by the worldly inhabitants. He described the creatures in the world as independent free thinking parts of the whole of the divine universe. Hartshorne saw humans as you would view the cells in the body. He said, “The world is God’s body.”
But Hartshorne did not view the world in duality, as divided into physical and spiritual planes. His views were very Buddhist in seeing the mind as the organ of the spirit- the same thing as the spirit or psyche as he called it- but including both the physical mind and the thoughts of the mind. The different cells of the brain experiencing thoughts and feelings that the creature felt makes up the psyche. The entirety of all creatures’ experiences make up what God feels and experiences. Therefore, God suffers as humans suffer. And God changes because of what humans experience. This makes God human in the most significant way. God, in this model of theology, feels our suffering. God suffers and changes because we do, suffers and changes with us.
Burton Cooper, a Christian process theologian, speaks in his book, Why God?, about how lost and alone he felt when his six year old daughter died of an unexplainable virus. He was in seminary at the time and here he was stricken down with grief and there seemed to be no one around with a plausible theological answer. He could not accept that God would allow this to happen. What good could it possibly be to God for this little girl to die? And where was God?
Cooper had a friend who came and sat with him as he sat in his anguish. Cooper asked this friend why didn’t all these theologians have an answer for why this happened. His friend answered, “We are waiting for you to help us.” At first this answer seemed cruel and distant. How could he possibly have an answer for this tragedy that made any sense. Why didn’t they want to help? But as time went by and his friend was still there, waiting for him to find his own answer, he began to feel differently. He began to feel that within this answer was hope. He began to see his friends’ presence during his time of grief as the hope and compassion that was God in his life. God was present with him and suffered with him as he struggled to find his own peace with his loss.
Author C. Robert Mesle describes the interaction that God has with humans in this way, “To love is to feel all the passions of joy, sorrow, grief, fear, hope and triumph that bind us to each other, that make life so dynamic and changeable. But perfect unilateral power is the power to be unaffected by such changing passions. A God with perfect unilateral power cannot love in the sense in which we love.” God in the process model, is not unilaterally powerful. Instead, God is unilaterally loving. God is affected by our experiences and God affects our experience. In this way, in process theology, we are totally inter-related.
Many process theologians also emphasize that God’s power is to persuade humans toward the good. A Unitarian process theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, argues that religion is about human transformation, about the ability of humans to be persuaded toward good or toward evil, but not by God but by our own experiences with good and evil. Wieman is more of a process naturalist in that he doesn’t see God as an omniscient being but rather as a force for good. Wieman doesn’t define where this good comes from but he saw it as a natural event not as a supernatural being. He said that if we expect salvation to come from some supernatural force that will make us all be good that the world will not be saved. It is up to humankind to save itself and it can happen if we choose it.
Whether we fall on the theist side or the naturalist side, process thought offers us good insights into the Unitarian concept that probably was originated by Whitehead, the interconnected web of existence. Whitehead argued that to live means to be related to all other creatures on this earth. We live in relation to other creatures and are changed and influenced by them. Who we have become in life has come in a large part from the experiences and relationships we have had in life. How our parents treated us, with love and respect or with disdain and indifference. What our siblings said about us and how they interacted with us. The teachers we had in school, our friends- whether they saw us as interesting, vibrant people or whether we were seen as the peacemakers or whether we were seen as the quiet studious type. The people we fell in love with and how they treated us. And our children and the tremendous impact they make as we try to love them as best we can. The tragedies we endured, the joys we felt, the journeys we made. All of these interactions have had great influence in creating us as people who can love, people who can create joy and overcome suffering, as people who have definite opinions about the world, as people who choose our actions to end violence and injustice.
This sounds a lot like the nature or nurture argument, that our environment creates us. But it’s more than that. Process thought says that even at the cellular level, energy is affecting us from outside of us, that creates new possibilities for the next action we take, the next decision we make, and who we choose to become. Our cells affected by the love we feel, our the tension we feel can change the course of our lives.
These interactions, our experiences, have created in us our history which has everything to do with what choices we’ll make next. In the theist side of process thought, mixed into the past influences of our experience is also a spark of God who coaxes us toward the good, toward the most enhancing next experience. In the naturalist side, since we have experienced good somewhere in our history, we have that good understood within us and that good entices us toward positive choices. But our lives are made up of these infinite possibilities toward the next experience which in turn creates us anew as we change and grow.
Process thought gives us the possibility of becoming in every moment. We have within us such creative possibilities that we can re-create ourselves based on who we are at a given moment- but with new input, we can become new. And within this moment of existence, we are not alone in this evolutionary becoming. Each being is becoming along with us. We can see God in the process with us, or we can see all of the influences of all the beings who have been in our lives and contributed to who we are. Either way, we are not alone.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Ohio to visit a good friend of mine who was dying of stomach cancer. I was lucky to have gotten there while she was still cognizant and alert. We chatted about many memories we had of our children growing up together. I thanked her for helping to raise my kids. We cried together.
This last week while I was taking time off, one afternoon Bill and I were driving somewhere and I turned to him with the knowledge that my friend had just passed. Somehow she sent me a message that she was going. When I called her husband, I learned that she had died a few hours earlier.
I was able to go visit her family and sit with them. The first thing that her husband said to me was that my family had been through this kind of suffering before in the loss of my first husband, so we knew what it was like. My friend and her family had been there with us at our time of loss. All I could say to him was that I could never understand why people had to die before their time- but that they had been with us during our difficult time and that we would be with them, sending them love and energy. Yesterday, my son was there with the family for the memorial service and is with them today.
There are no answers or right things to say at a time like that. But the fact that this family’s experience included going through our loss with us, meant that they had a different kind of experience going through it. Maybe they saw that we had somehow gotten through it and we were okay. Our experience was a part of their experience. We were inter-related in experience. In seeing the healing that my family has experienced, my friend’s family could possibly have some hope for this healing as a part of their spiritual experience. And in remembering how we were not alone in our time of grief, our spiritual experience was enhanced by their participation in our grief.
Process theology sees each way that we relate to others, each experience that we have with others, creates a different future for ourselves that is shaped in some way by the past. The current experience has all the life experiences that brought us to today as an integral part of how we live this new day.
Our present moment and the choices we make in it, are new, creative possibilities. But they are inter-connected to all the past experiences and choices that we have had. Process theists see in the present life choices, possibilities that God brings to us. God in this sense includes all the experiences and relationships we’ve had in our past. God doesn’t intervene as a being, God is these new possibilities. Possibilities for a new creative way of living positive and healthy lives.
Process naturalists see these possibilities as being self-created with the experiences that we have had in our total relation to the rest of the world.
Both process theists and process naturalists see that our lives are based on “the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part” just as our Unitarian Universalist principle describes. This interdependent web includes all other beings in the world and for some, it includes God, or Spirit. Regardless, it means that we are not alone.
Meditation: The Great Tree
We are seated here under our sacred tree, encircled by mountains, at Ghost Ranch.
Our tree is full of leaves, as we have imagined them but not made them, as they have budded and foliated in our minds.
This is our Tree of Oneness, which branches and foliates into the many- diversity in unity. We are leaves of that tree, each a unique embodiment of the one pattern. Although eventually to be burned and forgotten, giving way to new leafage in another spring, these leaves are now alive and green in the sun. Only a leaf caught in the wind, you and I, yet part of a great tree that grows, branches out, thrusts roots down into earth, and is full of leaves that drink in the sunlight and release into the atmosphere an invisible spray of moisture.
In the beauty of sunlight the tree burns without being consumed. Mysterious vitality. Silent magic. A finite mode of the Infinite.
Darwin, in his modern genesis, The Origin of the Species, wrote of the tree as the most appropriate and adequate symbol of the evolution and relatedness of all life.
From tiny filaments into the roots, from the roots up end-to-end tubes of wood in the trunk, from the trunk through branches and twigs to the leaves, the tree draws up water, minerals, creates new life.
So, to the Wisdom Tree has roots going down into the human, and all life related to the human. The end-to-end tubes are the traditions through which are drawn upward the sap of living knowledge and experience. The leaf-dynamo is the person, taking something from below, and something from above, the mysterious energy of thought, to create new life, beauty.