“When we talk about religion and theology, we’re actually talking about the kind of world we want to live in,” according to writer and pastor Brian McLauren. Furthermore, he says, “Religion is about the world that we and future generations will inhabit.”
Theologian Bruce Epperly says that “Our beliefs about the relationship of God and the world can make the difference between life and death, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Our beliefs can shape our attitudes toward global climate change, war and peace, persons of other religions, and marriage equality.”
This message is motivated by my interest in what might be called the “uses of God”. I am not a theologian, but I am a person of faith and through the years have searched for faith-based ideas that were relevant to my work as a teacher, researcher, and policy advisor on issues of agricultural, environmental, and development economics.
How does God language and, more importantly, the ideas and images associated with this language, affect the actions of individuals, households, groups (including churches), and governments? Do our images of God encourage us to care for and conserve the natural world or do they encourage us to regard nature as an inexhaustible resource that can be used, even destroyed, with little consequence? Do our images of God inspire us to be tolerant and cooperative or do they encourage us to be territorial and competitive? Do our images of God inspire us to welcome the stranger, or do they justify fear of persons or groups that we imagine are different than us?
While a student at Eastern Mennonite University, I took a senior capstone course on ethics. One of the lectures, presented by Dr. Gary Stuckey, a chemistry professor, was on an approach to theology, called process theology, that takes into account both modern science and the Bible, and that has ethical implications for care of the earth. It caught my attention and later on, after the joys and travails of graduate school were over, I read some books on process theology that helped me make connections between faith and ethics. Today, I’d like to share some of those insights.
Process theology takes the natural and social sciences seriously as important sources of information while, at the same time, going beyond them to address the question of why we’re here and why it’s important that we live joyfully and responsibly. Its core ideas were articulated in the 1920s by Alfred North Whitehead, a mathematician and philosopher, who was grappling with the death of his son in World War I and with the displacement of Newtonian physics by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Since then, Protestant and Catholic theologians and writers have contributed to a vast literature on process theology.
The sources used, in various ways, by process theologians are scripture, tradition, science, philosophy, and experience.
Let’s Turn Now to the Origin of the Universe
According to the Genesis 1 account, God created heaven and earth and then said, “Let there be light.” How did the light get in?
Incarnation is a central idea in process theology. Incarnation happens when a deity or spirit takes an earthly form. The main incarnation narrative in most Christian circles today is the birth of Jesus. But process theologians say this makes God too small. They suggest that incarnation is a cosmic process, not just an earthly one, and that the birth of Jesus is one in a long series of incarnational events. They suggest that the Big Bang, which scientists tell us occurred around 13.7 billion years ago, was the first incarnation. After that, the universe expanded rapidly, galaxies emerged, planets took shape, and life appeared and evolved on earth. In process theology, these events are all regarded as incarnations of a creative, life-giving force that we call God.
What was the role of Jesus in the succession of incarnation events? In Acts 2:36, Peter says to a crowd after Pentecost “God has made this Jesus… both Lord and Christ.” Theologian Richard Rohr, who draws inspiration from process thinking, points out that Peter says Lord and Christ, suggesting they are not the same. A lord was an earthly leader. The word, Christ, however, implies that Jesus embodied the Divine.
God’s incarnation in human form was enormously significant. Jesus, in his role as a Christ – that is, as an incarnation of God — connects matter and spirit, helping us see and experience the whole of creation – including ourselves — as sacred and as part of the Divine. This is consistent with the writings of Paul in Colossians 3:11, where he says “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.” The view that God is in everything and everything is in God is known as panentheism.
Panentheism is sometimes confused with pantheism but it’s something quite different. Pantheism is the idea that the flower is God, the tree is God – everything in nature is God and God is everything. Panentheism, on the other hand, is the idea that God is in the flower and the flower is in God but God and the flower are not the same. God existed before the creation of the universe and before the creation of the flower. While God is in the flower, God at the same time transcends the flower.
Panentheism is a central feature of process theology, and it is key to the ethics that emerge from process theology. There is a cosmically significant reason for sustainable use of natural resources if every tree is in God and God is in every tree. There is a cosmically significant reason for treating every person kindly if they are in God and God is in them.
In contrast, in conventional Western Christian theology, God created nature and then, according to the King James translation of Genesis 1:26, gave humankind dominion over it. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that a Bible translation financed by a 17th century monarch would use the word “dominion”. That unfortunate word choice promoted the view that humans are superior to nature, and that they can use it even to the point of damage or depletion – an idea that has had devastating and tragic environmental consequences.
Process theology views humans as born in original goodness rather than original sin. The concept of original sin is based on a historical misreading of a handful of scriptures, particularly by John Calvin. The notion of original sin derives more from principles of jurisprudence that prevailed in parts of 16th century Europe than from the Bible.
The most important characteristic of God is love, according to process theology, and love is viewed as a restorative rather than a retributive force. Jesus’ death is not substitutionary atonement for sins; rather, his gruesome death illustrates how twisted human behavior and human systems can become in the absence of love and his resurrection is a demonstration that we, too, can be restored to original goodness by following Jesus’ path of humility, de-centering the self, and service to others. Prayer, meditation, and support of a community are important in the journey on this path.
If we are born into original goodness, what about evil? Process theology regards evil as a very real force, one that stands in the way of God’s intentions for goodness, development, and fullness for all of creation.
Things can and do go wrong in both nature and human affairs. Genes may mutate in good or bad ways. Humans may cherish and care for each other or they may hate and kill. If God is all powerful, as in the conventional Western Christian view of God as omnipotent, why did the cancer return, why did the loved one die, why did the tornado strike where it did, why did the COVID-19 virus emerge? The standard answer is that disease and natural disasters are part of God’s mysterious plan and beyond our knowing, an explanation that is jarring and often disillusioning to the afflicted and their loves ones. The standard explanation in conservative Christian theology for the existence of human-perpetrated evil is that God created us with a will, and sometimes we make bad choices and sin.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, who was influenced by process theology, wrote a widely read book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, after the death of his young son. Kushner wrote that it’s easier to take God seriously as the source of moral values if we do not hold God responsible for disease and other unfair things that happen in the world.
How does process theology explain the existence of evil and unfair things? God created the cosmos in the beginning and endowed each part of it with a set of possibilities. Natural and human outcomes are self-determined by natural processes and by human will. Within the cosmos, God operates by persuasion through gravity, photosynthesis, love and other relational forces but, critically important, God does not control outcomes. Whatever else God may be, God is the sum of possibilities, and when possibilities are restricted by evil, whether of human or natural origin, God is affected. God is a changing and dynamic force moved by life-giving as well as destructive weather cycles, by both good health and illness of the human body, and by both human love and human strife.
Process theology describes God as deeply touched by and affected by events both natural and human. God is moved and altered by our choices and the course of events in our lives. Our actions affect God. Process theologians have paid special attention to the environment and climate change. In their view, the very nature of God is altered by carbon emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere and warm this blue-green planet. The view that God is affected and altered by our decisions provides a reason of the greatest metaphysical significance for us to live healthily, peacefully, responsibly, and reverently.
How Does the Light Get into Our Lives?
When it comes to matters of life and death, relationships and their woes, family matters, career choices, mental health, and in the big disappointments in life, the human spirit is affected at the deepest level. In such circumstances, we need vision, we need hope, we need inner strength.
Process theology sees divine incarnation as continuing in the universe today, in human society, and in the lives of individuals. As the scripture reading today from Genesis 1 says, we are made in the image of God. Process theology suggests that God is within us and we are in God.
Awareness of an internal divine spark is experiential. Opening oneself to this experience has a long history in Christianity, especially among – though not limited to — Christian mystics such as Apostle Paul in the 1st century, Hildegard of Bingen in the 11th century, the Anabaptist leader Hans Denck in the 16th century, Richard Rohr in the 21st century, to name just a few. Many of these individuals have described this experience as a spark within or an inner light.
How does the light get in? Process theology says we are born with this light and that it’s nourished and grows through relationships, through experiencing and appreciating nature, through art and other creative activities, and through just actions and responsible living.
Light also gets in through love and suffering. Earlier this summer, a dozen of us here at HMC met for an hour for five weeks on Sunday mornings before the worship service to discuss a book written by Richard Rohr, a book inspired by process theology. Writing about depression with which he struggled, Rohr points out that many of us carry a great, and sometimes secret, hurt. He learned through personal experience that the only way out of depression is to go with it and through it and, while doing this, he drew comfort from the knowledge that his suffering was also the suffering of God. When we reach out to others and surrender our tendency to think we must suffer alone, we open ourselves to the presence of God – we let the light come in.
I am reminded of the words of singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, who wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There’s a crack, a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”
Yes, the light comes through a crack more often than not. In that light, we can see ourselves and others just as we are: made in the image of God.
Process theology is a relational way of thinking of the earth and our place in it. Its core ideas are that everything in the universe is dynamically interconnected; that all creatures have intrinsic worth; that to be in relationship means to be affected by others, and to affect others; that God is in relationship with all of creation; and that God is affected by and affects creation in positive ways.
These ideas, I’ve shared with you today in the spirit of faith seeking understanding. I can say, humbly, that I have a faith in which science is not parked at the door. The theism of process theology provides continuity with where I’ve come from in my faith journey and, at the same time, provides new and, I believe, more useful language and images of God than the theology that many Christians hang on to today.
Many progressive Christians continue to attend church but are unsure about what to do with God language and, so, they tend to avoid it – except in hymns and liturgies. That’s unfortunate because we then begin to lose sight that our fate is bound to carbon cycles, to rivers and ecosystems, and to one another. We’re all in this together, and we need something to bind us together and to motivate us to action. We, like all of creation, are made in the image of God; we have God within us and we are in God. We are brothers and sisters with each other and also with each little flower that opens and each little bird that sings. Let’s celebrate the wonders of creation and care for it. Let’s affect creation and human society in positive ways, expanding rather than curbing the sum of possibilities. When we do this, we are contributing, we are adding, to God, who is always in the process of becoming.