Leviathan, from the North French Hebrew Miscellany (c. 1278). This sea monster symbolizes the watery chaos from which God created the world (Genesis 1.2). Process theology suggests this chaos (“the deep”) was not itself made by God out of nothing
Last week, you will recall, former pastor Ryan Bell finished up his “year without God” and came out as an atheist. You may remember too that we at psnt.net don’t disagree with him about everything. For example, we reject the same God he rejects, which seems to be precisely the rejectable God: an idea among ideas, homogeneous with the conceptual terrain in general, an add-on and therefore detachable.
Bell went on to question the idea of God as a “divine being who is in charge of things,” and, in the face of this (reasonable, we think) concern, we mentioned something called process theology. This brand of theology has its own reasons for being and is not a mere workaround, but it does offer a clear alternative for those who don’t like the idea of God as a cosmic controller. (Classical Christianity does not see God this way, but some popular theologies do.)
In response to last week’s events, several alert readers queried us about process theology online and a class at our church invited us to visit and talk about it. So there is some interest in process thought, but few outside official theological circles seem to know anything about it.
Assuming you’re on board, we’d like to take a tiny step toward fixing that. And we do mean tiny: despite its soft-boiled reputation, process can be tough to wrap your head around.
We could bore you with a point-by-point lecture, but who wants that? Nobody, that’s who. So, with an eye toward keeping everyone amused, we offer herewith the following activity.
QUIZ: How process are you?
Think in terms of agree/disagree (and yes, “process” is an adjective)
1. God is primarily relational as opposed to being some kind of unity that might stand alone.
2. God is an exception to basic rules of logic and is not the exemplar of such rules.
3. God is omnipotent. That is, God holds all power and can — in principle — do anything.
4. Supernatural events — in which God makes the impossible, possible — occur.
5. God created (or called forth) the world out of pre-existing stuff (chaos, the deep; see Genesis 1.2) and not out of nothing at all (ex nihilo; see classical Christianity).
6. The unfolding of history is ultimately up to us and other creatures. God may beckon and woo and lure us toward the good, but the results are not up to God.
7. God can only create with the assistance of creatures (that’s us, and dinosaurs, and raccoons, and spores, and rocks, and so on).
8. Jesus is different from us in kind — that is, in his essence — and not just in degree. That is, he was not just a man who was unusually tuned-in to God.
9. God promises no ultimate guaranteed victory, moral or otherwise, at history’s end. The future is “more of the same,” so far as we know.
The fully process-positive among you would answer: 1. Agree; 2. Disagree; 3. Disagree; 4. Disagree; 5. Agree; 6. Agree; 7. Agree; 8. Disagree; 9. Agree. Adherents of classical Christianity would answer oppositely in all cases except, depending on definitions, 1 and 2.
As you can see, process gives a stiff yank to some foundational doctrines of the faith. In fact, many hold that process theology is not really Christian at all. Admittedly, it has its roots in the not-Christian process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. But the ancient Greek philosophy that gave shape to so much classical doctrine was not Christian either. In any case, we at psnt.net think that whether or not process is “Christian,” process thinkers can certainly be Christians (Christ-followers).
Time to show our cards: when it comes to process, we are not true believers. However, there are certain aspects of it that are deeply, dare we say crazily, attractive to us. Which ones? Now is not the time. Perhaps future posts will hold the answer.
Meanwhile, find out more about process theology at Process & Faith. Note in particular a nice Q&A page with John Cobb, one of the foremost Christian advocates of process thought.
Thanks to Roger E. Olson at Patheos. The quiz is based on his article, “Why I am Not A Process Theologian.”
Maybe a bad idea: “A divine being who is in charge of things.” Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern” (1860)
About a year ago a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor named Ryan Bell started living without believing in God and, like any normal 21st-century person, he blogged about it.
His year without God is over and now the guy’s an atheist.
Fearfully, I glanced at his website. But he’s not what I guessed: a black-and-white, binary thinker whose new hatred of God and religious expression is just as hot as his former Christian conviction. But he’s got none of that nonsense going on. He seems a reasonable guy. He’s pretty relaxed about the whole thing. I’d like to meet him.
You can read a short interview with him here. In it, when asked why he no longer believes in God, Bell responds:
The intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us… the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.
Now as many of you know I’m a Christian minister. Despite its folly, its well-known crimes, and its millions of tiny betrayals of trust, I love the tradition that formed me. I believe that, deep down, it gives us a glimpse of what human life is really about. This is important to me so I’ve stuck with it. I do all the churchy stuff church people do. I do my best to love God and to stay connected to my divine source.
But I think Bell’s onto something. Three somethings, really. First, he is right: It does take intellectual and emotional energy to believe in God. It’s not at all easy to understand how God “fits into everything.” For some of us it’s fun, and occasionally enlightening. But if it becomes a mere chore you really should stop. I stop a lot. I have even, on occasion, tried to stay stopped. But here at midlife disbelieving in God would be indistinguishable from disbelieving in myself. Not because I’m God but because God is central to my deepest and most secret identity.
Which gets me to my second comment: I don’t see God as an extra. God is not a thing among things, or an idea among ideas. God is in no way addable to — or subtractable from — anything. In my experience God is encountered in exactly the reality Bell deals with when he stops thinking about God and sees the world truly. “All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.” If he sees God as an add-on, as a removable idea, I can understand why trying to figure out God gives him such a headache, and why a year off has been good for him.
Finally, and to my larger point here and beyond: I am beginning to wonder about our classical Christian idea of God as a “divine being who is in charge of things.” It might be good to stop insisting this is what God is. Maybe our idea of an omnipotent God-in-charge is just an ego trip. Maybe it’s about what we want: control.
There is a strand of theology (called process theology) that rejects the traditional power-as-control divine model. I have known about it — and taught it — for years, but am recently becoming more and more swayed by it. I won’t develop this idea here today, but I will be unpacking it a little over the coming weeks here at psnt.net.
In the meantime, head on over to Bell’s blog. It’s energizing reading for anyone with an interest in God (or not-God).
Craig Chesek/AMNH, Quetzalcoatlus. If Job were alive today maybe God would introduce him to this late Cretaceous flying lizard. It had a 30-foot wingspan (!)
As one who is prone to ponder the dual mysteries of human suffering and oddball animals, I’ve been thinking about Job a bit lately. You remember him — he’s the Old Testament man-about-town who lost his many children, his ample land, his numberless livestock, his health, and his great pile of money in the course of a few short days.
He quickly spiraled, perching himself on an ash heap, cutting himself with potsherds, and envying the dead.
Even his wife recoiled from his wretchedness. She urged him to curse God and die. His friends were more earnest but in the end turned on him too, trying to convince him he somehow deserved what he got. Hard to blame them, really; their entreaties were in accordance with the conventional wisdom of their time (and ours too): If you’re suffering, it’s probably your fault, sorry.
But we know something Job’s interlocutors didn’t: Job was a thoroughly good man — one of the best, really — and had done nothing to deserve his extra helpings of trouble. Ever maintaining his innocence, he mourned the day of his birth and pleaded with God for peace, justice, and, barring these, at least a decent explanation. Which seems the least God could provide in such circumstances.
But when God finally turned up at the ash heap, Job didn’t even get that.
What he got instead, in Chapters 38-41, is a whirlwind tour of the extreme cosmos. He got an intimate view of the margins of creation: the firmament, the wilderness, strange animals, and up-close-and-personal encounters with monsters of land and sea.
What? Really? It is as if, by way of response to the death of your children, someone pointed you toward weirdlookinganimals.com. Why? Was there a bookkeeping snafu at the divine complaint box? Or, as theologian Catherine Keller asked, If this is the answer, what was the question?
Strangely, whatever the reason, it worked. Something about the tour of stars and beasts really seemed to quiet the old guy down. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” he said, “but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
But he had done nothing worth repenting for, and even God later said that throughout the whole episode Job “had spoken of me what is right.” And the poor bloke had already thoroughly covered the dust and ashes piece.
So what I’m wondering is, Why did visions of distant feral goats and sea monsters cure Job’s depression and orient him correctly to God, creation, and himself? And of what further use was Job’s repentance?
Erik Wernquist, Christian Sandquist, and Carl Sagan, Wanderers, 2014
I first saw this video about a month ago and I was simultaneously amazed and disturbed by it.
My amazement is easy enough to explain. It really is a spectacular vision of our future colonization of the Solar System. What I love about it is, it’s not about tunneling through wormholes or traveling faster than light or befriending aliens. It’s about human beings going to actual places and doing things that seem pretty much sort of possible. The producers of the film depended largely on real images of real worlds to make this, and that gives it a thrilling vibe of science-fiction-but-not-quite, a sensation I’ve never really caught before.
The late Carl Sagan provides the narration in his unmistakable baritone (just revel in his pronunciation of “meticulously” at 00:59), culled from a reading of his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot. Hearing his voice atop this imagery nearly makes one believe the colonization of space is inevitable.
So yes, I was amazed in a simple way. It took a few weeks for me to get clear on the disturbing part. But I think I have it now.
It starts with a question: What is the woman smiling about in the last frame?
Every visual and verbal cue tells me she’s relishing the simple joy of adventure and her breathtaking view of Saturn’s rings and cloud decks, but anyone who knows how difficult it would be to achieve this vision will also detect in her smile — which, rather fascinatingly, we can’t actually see — the satisfaction of “Wow, we really did it. We made it out here.”
It would be quite an achievement. From a merely technical and physiological point of view, the difficulty of realizing such a dream is immense. Intense radiation, God-knows-what-kind of microbes, sub-sub-arctic cold, variable gravity, enormous payloads, vast distances, and terrifically long journeys are just the issues that came to mind as I first watched. There must be literally hundreds more. I’m not pessimistic about our raw capacity to do this, though. Technical problems tend to get solved once people get properly financed and motivated.
But for an accomplishment of this scale to be realized, there needs to be a sea change down here on Old Blue. For starters, we must end poverty.
And I don’t just mean that it would be immoral to rocket off to Miranda for a base jumping session with your buds when millions can’t get a single square meal, which of course it would be. I mean that, as a matter of economics, the feat simply can’t occur while so many struggle just to survive. The educational improvements and sheer human capital required would be enormous, and these cannot develop to the required levels so long as any group is unable to eat. As long as there is extreme poverty there will be war. This seems obvious. And the scale and depth of international (and inter-corporate) cooperation needed to support these adventurers is so vast that it cannot happen if there is widespread war anywhere on the planet.
But I’m no economist. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this could happen without ending poverty. But this connects to my point.
If I am wrong and if one day people go for icy adventures on Europa or paraglide over Titan’s ethane lakes while the least of these languish in poverty and violence down here, then frankly I’m not interested. If this is the case then the woman’s smile is hollow and it gives me the total creeps. That was what disturbed the water a few layers beneath my consciousness a couple weeks ago.
But if I am right and if we colonize the Solar System after humanity has found a way out of poverty and violence and extreme wretchedness, then sign me up. I’m there. If that’s what lurks behind the woman’s smile, then I’m smiling too. Because that would be something to be really happy about, and the mind-blowing scenery would make for some truly excellent icing.
Major thanks to Alert Reader Ron Taylor for bringing Wanderers to our attention. As for everyone else, keep on sending us interesting pieces when you find them — the Internets are huge, and we here at psnt.net are oh so tiny.