Is God a Process?
Rev. Amy Russell
Davies Memorial UU Church
June 1, 2014
Those of you who were taught about a concept of God growing up, was this image of God, something immutable, unchanging, omniscient and omnipotent? Was this concept of God and the world one in which there was a duality? The material plane in which we live and the non-physical plane in which God reigns? The material world and the spiritual world? And if you were taught that, did you wonder what it was like this non-physical existence where God was supposed to exist?
The concept of this dual universe was an idea taught by Plato back in the classical Greek age when philosophy and science were really one body of thought. Platonic thought began with the idea that reality is a single unchanging entity. He taught that the physical world that we see is an illusion. And the real world is the spiritual world that was infinite and unchanging. He illustrates this idea with his story, the allegory of the cave.
In the allegory, there are a group of prisoners who are chained so that they are facing the back wall of a cave. Behind the opening of the cave, a distance away is a fire that it creating a bright light. Between the opening of the cave and the prisoners there is a pathway where people are walking and carrying objects up to be reflected in the light coming from the fire. The reflection of the light behind these objects creates shadow images on the back wall that the prisoners view. They have been locked up all their lives and only see the wall as their reality. The shadows that they see are what they see as real.
This story is an allegory to describe how humans view the physical world as reality when Plato believes that the physical plane of existence is illusion. That the real world is the spiritual world that we can’t see. The concept of duality that this creates lies at the basis for Christian thought. That God and the spiritual realm are reality that we can only see glimpses of, but can believe in as the true object behind the shadows we see in life. Physical world is the illusion – it’s changeable, temporal, and not real. The real world is immutable and unchanging- that’s God.
God as unchanging was the basis of most theistic religions in the world until science began to influence philosophy. One of the first philosphers to dispute the idea that the knowledge of the real world is something we can only postulate, that we can’t prove it’s existence was William of Ockham in the early 14th century. He suggested that knowledge must be brought forth by observation and experience to which we can apply our God-given gift of reason. This was one of the first ideas that became a scientific approach to studying life.
With the advent of many early scientists who were treated as heretics, eventually Newton revolutionized scientific thought by proving many of the earlier theories with universal mathematical formulations. Through these accurate formulations, Newton could explain the natural laws of the universe. People began to see a new relationship between themselves and God since they could now understand and predict some of the ways the world worked. The traditions of religious belief and superstition began to be questioned through scientific thought. When people began to use reason and observation as a yardstick to measure the universe, the idea of an unchanging, immutable God no longer made as much sense. As scientific thought developed, religion was no longer the only paradigm describing the universe and how it worked. Suddenly theology had a competitive partner in discussions about reality.
New theories of evolution and the way that species change and grow adaptable to their environment presents a different view of how God might operate in the world. The world in which everything is undergoing constant change might need a God who is also able to change, grow, and become new with the way that science described the world.
Modernity insists that everything is changing and that we can only understand reality through observation and rationality. Modernity is the inevitable result of modern scientific thought influencing philosophical thought. For religion to remain relevant, there needed to be a philosophy that include modern scientific views of a constantly changing universe that was understood by empirical observation.
The image of an immutable God does not relate to a world in which scientists can clone a sheep, manage genetic material, and map the DNA of humans. We begin to wonder who is creating the universe, God or scientists? If God is unchanging, what is this constantly changing universe in which we live and need to understand ourselves as one small part of these myriad inter-connected elements? For many people, for God to be truly all of reality, then doesn’t God need to reflect that constant change?
Two philosophers who described a God who fit this description of a changing God affected by the universe as it change, was Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, a Unitarian theologian.
Hartshorne saw the mind as the organ of the spirit. He described all the experiences of the creatures of God’s world as making up what God feels and thinks. So, when we suffer as humans, God suffers with us. When we grow and change as a result of our life experience, so God grows and changes with us. This is a totally different view of God as not a “being” but an experience of our being. God becomes a verb in this theology. The verb of our life as humans and of all of the universe’s life. God becomes the active possibilities within us, laying out before us all our choices to create our life in the next moment. As we choose our next moment, we are co-creating with God, the history of the universe.
There are several process theologians who describe how it might feel to believe in a God like this.
Burton Cooper is one of them. He came to his belief in a God as a process when he lost his young six year old daughter to a rare virus when he was still in seminary. He had not a clue how to understand this experience, as most of us would also feel. He walked through his days numb and in deep pain. He wondered why people in the seminary who had been studying God for so long couldn’t explain to him why this happened. But every day as he went through this terrible time, he began to notice that there was a friend of his who showed up every day. He didn’t give explanations or expect Cooper to pray with him. He just showed up and sat with Cooper, quietly and without expectation. Finally after several days of this, Cooper asked his friend if he had an answer for why God would allow this to happen. The friend shook his head and said he had no clue. But as time went by, and the friend was still there, Cooper realized something. That perhaps the friend in this case was God, sitting with him, feeling his pain and suffering as he did. That perhaps God was in the friend and in himself, as heart-broken and as lost as everyone would be as such an event. Cooper began to feel that God was present in this event, not unchanging and omnipotent, but changeable and wondering, but still present. This brought Cooper to his understanding of process theology, where God is in each of us as we experience whatever life brings us.
Hartshorne described the world as “God’s body”. The creatures of the world stumbling around making stupid and even bad decisions, are parts of God trying to learn how to be better. He described God as the active ingredient inside of us that lures us to make the good and right decisions.
A more current Unitarian process theologian is Henry Nelson Wieman who argues that religion is about human transformation. Wieman doesn’t see God as an omniscient being but rather as a force for good. He sees it as a natural part of the universe, not as something supernatural. He echoes many humanists in our tradition who say that if we expect salvation to come from some supernatural source, then the world is doomed. It’s up to us, he says, to save the world from ourselves.
A necessary part of process thought is what we UU’s call the inter-connected web of existence. Alfred North Whitehead argued that to live means to be related to all other beings on this planet. We live in relation to other creatures and we are changed and influenced by all of them, both past and present. Everything we have experienced in our life, the people, the animals, nature, all of it has gone into making us who we are today. And the decisions we make in the next moment contain all of the experiences we’ve already had in life. The tragedies we endured, the joys we felt, the journeys we made, and all the small and significant relationships we have, all of it influences the decisions we make in every moment. Process thought says that even at the cellular level, energy is affecting us from all around us, helping to create the next moment of creation.
So, if we are co- creating our life with the God of these possibilities, this gives us the possibility of becoming new in every moment. We can re-write our own history and that of the relationships that surround us. And everyone around us is doing the same- co-writing a new history. We are never alone in life- God is in every one of these moments.
Some of you may have seen a movie a few years ago called Into the Wild with Hal Holbrook playing an older man meeting a young man, just out of college, out trying to make sense of the world. He had experienced a dysfunctional family situation and had decided to escape and go on an adventure across the country. As he travels, he meets many colorful figures, including this older man, played by Hal Holbrook. At one point, they go hiking and are sitting on the top of a hill looking out at a beautiful valley. The older man is trying to get the boy to stop running away from his life and to take a look at what his life could be like. He points out all the beauty that is surrounding them. He says that God is somehow on this journey with the boy. Even in the difficult times. Not having any answers, but just being with him. The older man says, “God is trying to show you some other possibilities in your life. The possibility of hope, that is already in you.”
I think that when I’m struggling with trying to find answers, I often pray. I don’t pray to a God who has answers. I pray to the wisdom and unconditional love that is within me and within the universe, awaiting my prayer. This wisdom and love is available- it’s inside me and inside each person I meet. I just need to know it’s there and be ready to let it in. It’s not God as a being who controls me and the universe. It’s god with a little “g”, a god who offers possibilities in my next moment. Always possibilities to create life anew.