Processing Theology

God, the Verb, part 2

Whitehead gives us Process PHILOSOPHY, and while Whitehead did write about the place of God in his philosophy, process philosophy did not become full-fledged process theology until the Unitarian Charles Hartshorne’s work expanded, extended, and revised Whitehead.

The main name in Process Theology is Charles Hartshorne. Born in 1897, Hartshorne was 103-years-old when he died in 2000. I never met him, though I could have. He was at our UU General Assembly as recently as 1994. Then 97-years-old, he participated in a seminar there put on by the Unitarian Universalist Process Theology Network, delighting attendees “with his lively, extemporaneous answers to their questions.” (Charles Hartshorne had one child, a daughter, Emily, -- who I did have the pleasure of meeting, -- in the sanctuary of Community UU, when she was visiting White Plains and attended one of our services a couple years ago.)

For Process Theology, God is not omnipotent. God is finite – changing and growing along with creation. Reality is made of events, not material substance. God, being finite and not omnipotent, doesn’t have full control of what happens. Rather, God engages with us in a process in which both we and God develop together. God changes.

God offers us possibilities the full meaning of which God doesn’t know. As we, God’s creatures, explore the offered possibilities, Creator and Creation alike learn, grow, develop, allowing new possibilities to be offered. Hartshorne held that people do not experience subjective immortality, but we do have objective immortality in that our experiences live on forever in God, who contains all that was. Just as you, throughout your life, build on your experiences, developing new experiences shaped by all prior experience, so, too, God, after your death, continues to build on your experiences. Your experiences continue to contribute to God’s new experiences for all eternity.

Yes, God transcends the world, but the world also transcends God. Yes, God creates the world, but the world also creates God. We are a part of God. Our growth is a part of God’s growth. God’s knowledge is the sum total of the knowledge of all life-forms – God’s desires the sum of the desires of life.

The emphasis on change leads to the idea that God is a verb – the active, creative principle in the universe. Buckminster Fuller, in 1940, wrote:
Here is God's purpose –
for God to me, it seems,
is a verb
not a noun,
proper or improper;
is the articulation
not the art, objective or subjective;
is loving,
not the abstraction "love" commanded or entreated;
is knowledge dynamic,
not legislative code,
not proclamation law,
not academic dogma, nor ecclesiastic canon.
Yes, God is a verb,
the most active,
connoting the vast harmonic
reordering of the universe
from unleashed chaos of energy.
And there is born unheralded
a great natural peace,
not out of exclusive
pseudo-static security
but out of including, refining, dynamic balancing.”
The traditional notion of God as creator isn’t entirely off-base, says Process Theology. There really is a connection between the function of creating and the deep mystery, awe, wonder and sense of reverence that goes with the notion “God.” God the creator wasn’t entirely off-base – but God isn’t a person-like creator. Instead, God is creativity itself.

Here’s how the poet Wild Bill Balding puts it:
God is a verb, not a noun:
'I am who I am,
I will be who I will be.'
dynamic, seething, active
web of love poured out,
given, received, exchanged,
one God in vibrant community
always on the move,
slipping through our fingers,
blowing through the nets we cast
to hold and name,
confine to nouns, to labels,
freezeframe stasis,
pinned like a butterfly,
solid, cold, controlled, lifeless.
'I am who I am,
I will be who I will be' -
not pinned down by names, labels,
buildings, traditions,
or even by nails to wood:
I am: a verb, not a noun,
living, free, exuberant,
always on the move.
Jean-Claude Koven writes:
“God is indeed a verb. He is not the creator. He is the ongoing unfoldment of creation itself. There is nothing that is not a part of this unfolding. Thus there can be nothing separate from God. . . . When we perceive God as a noun, we envision him as the creator, the architect of, and therefore separate from, his creation. Identifying ourselves as part of that creation, we see ourselves not only separate from our source but separate from each other and all other manifest things as well. . . . Once I viewed God as a verb instead of a noun, my perception of life shifted. Everything around me, manifest or no, became God. There was only God. When someone spoke to me, it was with God's voice; when I listened, it was with God's heart. As you begin to view God not as the creator but as the constantly changing dance of creation itself, you'll discover God in everything you see – including yourself.” (end quote)
UU minister Stephen Phinney puts it this way:
“I believe that the holy is in the process of giving and taking of the love we have. In other words, the holy or God is the process of interchanging love.”
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This is part 2 of 3 of "God, the Verb"
See also
Part 1: What Are You Saying When You Say "God"?


What Are You Saying When You Say "God"?

God, the Verb, part 1

I used to have a ponytail. For seven years during the aughts decade I had a ponytail. I was aware that a ponytail makes a certain statement, and a ponytail on a man – or, person apparently presenting as male -- makes a different statement from a ponytail on a person apparently presenting as female. But what statement? What does a ponytail say? Now I have a beard – and what does that say? I don’t know. Different things to different people, I guess.

What does the word “God” say to people? (An even hairier question!) It says something, though it’s not exactly clear what. Whatever it is, does it need to be said? If it does, can it be said as well, or better, without using “the G-word”?

If I don’t know what “God” means, then I don’t know what “atheist” means either. Declaring you’re an atheist – or a theist -- makes some kind of statement. But what? Some people say they believe in God. What are they saying? Others say they don’t believe in God. What are they saying?

And is there a real disagreement here or only the appearance of a disagreement? If you say something is red, and I say no, it’s yellow, but by “red” you mean orange – and by “yellow,” I mean orange – then we don’t have a real disagreement. Thus, some people say they believe in God but not the God that the atheists don’t believe in. They agree with the atheists that that God doesn’t exist, but they believe in another one. It reminds me of the mythological beast described in an early Woody Allen essay. The “Great Roe,” he says, has "the body of a lion and the head of lion, but not the same lion."

So let me ask you some different questions.

Have you felt awe? Have you ever felt a fulsome beauty that stopped you dead in your tracks? Have you felt grandeur in the world, the planet, or the space in which it floats? Have you felt a deep humility in the face of that grandeur? Have you ever felt a oneness with another being – perhaps watching a hawk soaring across the sky felt that you, too, were soaring there – that the boundaries of your self expanded, or dropped away entirely? Have you ever felt mystery and wonder? For all the world’s tragedies and atrocities -- the holocaust, mass famines, horrible hatred and violence, have you ever felt that the entirety, the whole enchilada, the full catastrophe – the stuff we judge good and the stuff we judge bad – all of it together -- the laughter, the tears, and heartache, all added up -- all fit together somehow into a whole that, tragedy and pain and all, is good and beautiful and true?

If your answer to all those questions is “no,” then if you want to identify yourself as an atheist, I won’t quibble. If your answer to even one of those questions is “yes,” then if you still want to self-identify as an atheist, a quibble or two may be in order. To wit: Why not call that feeling a feeling of God?

Maybe one person defines God as the universe – the universe with nothing in it other than what scientists describe. Meanwhile another person defines God as a super-powered person with knowledge and desires. Two such people can have a conversation in which they each mention God. For all their differences, they are both invoking what is of ultimate concern, what is awe-inspiring, what is the source of life and beauty and mystery – that toward which an attitude of reverence is appropriate.

There are a lot of options for how to think about God. In what follows, I will look particularly at an option offered by a school of thought called Process Theology.

Process Theology began in the early 20th century, as a development from Process Philosophy, created by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead, a mathematician turned philosopher, published Process and Reality in 1929.

Western thought since Plato has privileged Being over Becoming. Whitehead flipped that. He said reality is fundamentally becoming. Process is what’s fundamental, and things are just temporary manifestations of unfolding process -- as opposed to the predominant presumption that things are fundamental and that they change is nonessential, an imperfection, a design flaw.

The perfection of God, from the Platonists through Thomas Aquinas and up to modern times, was God’s unchangingness. Whitehead said change is not a bug in the system. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Change is not nonessential – it is the essence. The ultimate principle is creativity – the process of creating takes precedence over any product creation.

NEXT: Charles Hartshorne makes Process Philosophy into Process Theology

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This is part 1 of 3 of "God, the Verb"
See also
Part 2: Processing Theology


In Praise of Not Knowing

Cultivating Awe, part 3

A koan from the Book of Serenity – case number 20:
Master Dizang asked Fayan, “Where have you come from?”
“I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Fayan.
“What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Dizang.
“I don't know'” replied Fayan.
“Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Dizang.
At that, Fayan experienced great enlightenment.
“Not knowing is most intimate.” Not that knowledge is a bad thing. Knowledge is great. Ignorance really is a big problem. Here's a story about that.

Many years ago when I was serving our congregation in Midland, Texas, the University of Texas of the Permian Basin -- UTPB -- was then a fairly new addition to the Texas University system. A colorful lawyer had been an important force in the creation of UTPB. During the planning and proposal stages there was concern that the region was too sparsely populated. At a public meeting for citizen input, someone asked, “Can west Texas support a four-year institution?”

The lawyer drew his breath, leaned forward, and said, “There’s enough ignorance in west Texas to support an eight-year institution.”

Yes, absolutely, ongoing continual learning and acquiring knowledge are essential to a full and engaged life. I’m just pointing out that you sometimes can deliberately set aside what you already know because it might be getting in the way of learning a new thing.

Knowledge is a tool – and it’s worth remembering that just because you have a really great wrench doesn’t mean you have to always use it. What we know – the story we have, the categories for putting things in – is very useful, but sometimes the story and categories distance us from the intimacy of a unique moment. So Dizang says, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Or, as the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn would repeatedly tell his students, “Only don’t know.”

And we can practice that – we can undertake to cultivate openness to awe: the not knowing that stretches us. One of the options for this month’s spiritual practice in the October issue of “On the Journey” – is “Take a Walk Until the World Lights Up.” Just start walking -- in the woods or along a beach or even just down a city sidewalk – opening yourself to see, smell, hear, touch something new – or something old in a new way. Instead of your usual way of sizing things up and moving on, look through that initial quick dismissal to find the incomprehensibility behind the familiar, the perceptual expansion behind your mental map that makes you draw a new mental map. Look for something that will knock you temporarily off-kilter, and you’ll probably find it.

Sometimes we’re so sure we know what to do that we miss the little something that’s calling us to do something different.

So there’s Jonah. He’s running a small prophecy business. He knows how to do it. He knows his clientele, he has a relationship with them – he knows how far he can go, as a prophet, in criticizing them to change their ways. He knows how to work with them and motivate them on social justice projects. And then he gets an invitation – a call from God, as the story goes – for a prophesying gig in Nineveh. He doesn’t want to go. He knows his business, and the people of Nineveh aren’t Jewish and won’t listen to him.

What he knows is getting in the way of being open to the freshness of his situation. In fact, he decides to get on a boat and go in the opposite direction. But then Jonah has an experience of awe and wonder: an awesome storm – he’s swallowed up by it, as if by a giant fish. Yet he survives – wonder of wonders. Now he’s had an experience of awe, which has pulled him into the present moment, out of his usual self concerns, and re-oriented him toward kindness and compassion. Maybe he can do something helpful for Nineveh after all.

You see, that part of the story about the storm and the fish – that wasn’t just a device to get Jonah to Nineveh. It was the awe-inspiring experience that was necessary to prepare him to serve as he was then able to do.

The invitation of Yom Kippur is to take this time of the year for forgiveness, reconciliation, atonement. Set aside how well you KNOW that guy’s a jerk, and see the relationship with fresh eyes. These are called the days of awe – because a little awe can slow us down, can pull us out of habitual assessments and orient us toward kindness. Then forgiveness can happen. The work of reconciliation and atonement can properly begin. Then we can, as the saying goes, meet each other again for the first time.

These are called the days of awe because a little awe can help that happen. And when it does happen, it’s awesome. It is the feast by which we time-starved become time-fed.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Cultivating Awe"
See also
Part 1: Too Busy? Maybe You Need Some Awe
Part 2: In Praise of Being Temporarily Off-Kilter


In Praise of Being Temporarily Off-Kilter

Cultivating Awe, part 2

Big and Small Doses

Different people experience awe from different things. Overall, travel ranks high. A clear night and a star-filled sky gazed at for a while is also effective for many people. There are certain sensational films that can do it for a number of folks. Anything encountered in a massive quantity is liable to be awesome: a large school of fish, a vast field of tulips in bloom, a bustling market in India.

I mentioned previously a study where staring up at a building wasn’t as effective as staring up at tree. Although nature gets the edge, sometimes really large buildings can also be awesome. The new and the big gets our attention, forces us into the present moment. And, while a profound experience of the Grand Canyon, or standing underneath a massive murmuration of starlings can stay with you for the rest of your life, cultivating small doses of awe in the everyday boosts life satisfaction.

Can you have a small dose of bigness? Researchers into awe generally define it as “an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with the incomprehensibility of it all.” Is it possible to have that on a daily basis?

It’s a matter of being “temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world.” Part of that is taking yourself to unfamiliar places – exposing yourself to things you can expect to not understand at first.

Familiarity and Expertise

Another part of that is deciding to set aside your understanding. When we know a lot about something, our knowledge can actually get in the way of experiencing the thing fresh.

In his autobiography, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain explains how becoming knowledgeable and experienced about piloting steamboats on rivers changed his experience of rivers.
“Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!”
He then describes an experience before becoming expert in the ways of riverboating: seeing a beautiful and awe-inspiring sunset over the river.
“If that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion:
‘This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?'
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.”
Twain is wonderful at making vivid and concrete the price we sometimes pay for knowledge and expertise. But were Twain my parishioner, I would challenge him to re-examine his feeling that awe was gone for good from the river. His focus on usefulness for “compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat” may have become a habit for him – but it is still a choice. He can choose to set that habit aside. He would have to deliberately try – and I’m not sure that occurred to him.

It is possible to have knowledge, but to intentionally, temporarily set it aside. Face the river with an intention of seeing it fresh, of opening yourself to the wonder of it again. Before his expertise, he didn’t have to choose that – a striking and beautiful scene simply slapped him in the face, willy-nilly. After expertise, the awe need not be gone for good. It just requires intentional attention to cultivate.

The Way Your Fingers Tie Your Shoe

Twain then makes an analogy that I think betrays his claim of permanent loss. He says,
“I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?”
Perhaps you are, like me, wondering: did Mark Twain ever talk to a doctor about this? In my experience, doctors of either gender are as apt as anyone to notice and appreciate human beauty when they see it outside the context of professional diagnosis.

As a doctor can set aside diagnosis, and a riverboater, when not engaged in riverboating, can set aside the diagnosis of the river, so you and I can intend to set aside, temporarily, our knowledge of the familiar objects and procedures of our day. Decide, for example, to watch with amazement the intricate and flowing way that your fingers move when you tie your shoe.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of 'Cultivating Awe'
See also
Part 1: Too Busy? Maybe You Need Some Awe
Part 3: In Praise of Not Knowing