In my first semester of seminary, I took a course in systematic theology from Dr. James Cone, known as the father of black liberation theology. Dr. Cone is a force of nature – a slight black man from the backwoods of Arkansas, with incredible passion and intellect, and who, in his 70s, can literally run circles around even the fittest 20-somethings I know. His class lectures were a tour de force – right off the bat, he encouraged us to build our own theologies; he said that his job was to show us how theology worked and then we were to build a theology that worked for us.
The first time I heard this introduction, I was enraptured. The second time – the very next week, I thought “okay, he really wants us to get this point.” By the third week, it was clear that Dr. Cone would pretty much say the same thing for the first 20 minutes of class each week, and we all became a little less anxious to get to the lecture hall on time.
I tell you this story because I feel a little like that – for those of you who have been here for the first two parts of this sermon series, my introduction will seem a bit familiar. On the plus side, this is the last week of this series, so unlike me and Systematic Theology, you escape another 10 weeks of the same introduction.
For those of you here for the first time, the good news is that it won’t take long to get up to speed. Our working metaphor is the universal translator from Star Trek that allowed the crew of the Enterprise to understand the languages of everyone they encountered without struggling with Google Translate. The problem – not just for the Enterprise crew but for us, without universal translators – is that even when we understand the words, we don’t always understand their context; much like strangers to western culture wouldn’t understand the image produced when we say “Juliet on her balcony”, we aren’t well equipped to understand the narrative imagery other cultures use to communicate. Thus, we have to build our own universal translators – especially when it comes to talking about God.
What we know is that we struggle when we talk about religious ideas with others, because our ideas vary greatly, even when we use the same word. Now of course as Unitarian Universalists, we try to mitigate that problem with many words to substitute for “God” – spirit of life, creator, infinite all, the divine – we have such a litany of names to whom we pray it’s a wonder we ever get to the prayer itself. But the word “God” – as laden as it is, is a kind of shorthand that lets us get into the real questions, about the nature of the Divine.
It’s this nature that we’ve been exploring – not just in general, but in how we Unitarian Universalists understand it – in our principles, in our theology, in our songs.
Two weeks ago, we looked at the transcendent God – the God that is above and separate from us, and who – for us anyway – is loving, forgiving, and comforting, the God we sing of in hymns like “immortal, invisible, God only wise.” Last week, we looked at the immanent God – the God that is in everything: the trees, the rocks, the animals, the air, the fire, and the people; this is the God we sing of in hymns like “for the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies.”
But of course, this being a pluralistic faith, there are other ideas of God in our faith tradition, imbedded in our hymnals – this week, we’ll examine an idea of God that seems somewhat new but is in fact much older: this is the god of process theology.
Now one of the struggles in talking about this particular aspect of God is that it is a fairly new way of talking about God, and the language is still morphing. We have narrative imagery, but not a concrete word or phrase to describe that imagery. In the title of this service I called this god the creating-creator God. But I could have just as easily called this god the relational God, the dynamic God, the responsive God, the big picture God, the persuasive God, the changing God.
Why such difficulty? Perhaps it will help to look at what we mean by process theology and where it comes from. Now the scientists and engineers among us are going to like this next bit – because process thought starts with Einstein.
More specifically, it begins with a mathematician named Alfred North Whitehead, who was fascinated with Einstein’s work, in particular, quantum physics, where we see that everything is in motion; everything – from the biggest bodies of mass to the tiniest quark, is in motion; it turns out that everything we thought was fixed, stable, and solid, is actually vibrating, changing, and shifting. Whitehead realized that this didn’t just apply to the physical world, but to the metaphysical world as well, and he developed a philosophy that proposed that events are the discrete base of reality, not matter. Essentially, the core of Whitehead’s philosophy is “if it seems static, don’t trust it.”
Soon, process philosophy found a home in theological circles; Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb realized that if everything was an ever-changing event – then surely God and all of creation was equally ever-changing. Instead of a transcendent God – above us, creating the rules of nature but not in nature; or an immanent God – present in the material world; this God is as mutable as the quark – at once a vibration and a particle. This God – like us – is always being created, is always creating, is always happening; this God – like us – is eternally becoming.
Now in Unitarian Universalist thought, our ideas of God – or the divine, the collective unconscious, the universe, the infinite – is one of benevolence. God is good and wants what’s best for us. Thus, when we apply process theology, we find a God who isn’t controlling us but is inviting us to imagine, to grow, to dream, to create – enticing us toward goodness and wholeness. This God invites us to be architects, as we see in hymn number 288, All Are Architects; please join me in singing verses 1 and 2.
I used a word a few minutes ago that I’d like to reflect on – “becoming.” What does it mean to be always becoming rather than being? This is a bit contrary to what we think of in the Eastern traditions, where nirvana is a state of being. Yet I think we can find, even in the eastern religions, the idea that we are ever-changing, always striving for that nirvana.
My own understanding of becoming comes from thinking about concepts of time. There is the idea that time is linear, with a rather causal past, present, and future. But there’s also an idea that time is not linear; rather, we have all that is known, the eternal now, and then all that is unknown. At every moment of the eternal now, we have a choice; we create reality in relation to all that is known and all the possibilities of the unknown. In that eternal now, we are constantly becoming.
In process thought, time is not linear; instead, it is unfolding in many directions all at once, each new moment ripe with possibility. Each new moment carrying the known, offering an opportunity for creativity, always becoming, always in that eternal now. We are always making choices, small and large. When applied to our faith’s call to action, we know that our choices lead us to fight for economic justice, reproductive rights, immigration reform. Our choices lead us to follow this call from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:
I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.
Another aspect of this God of process thinking is that God is relational – perhaps the most relational reality of all. Human choices to hurt others hurt God. And maybe that is evil – when we make choices that hurt others. Process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki suggests that “In positive choices, we blend our own interests with the interests of the wider communities within the world. In negative choices, we secure our own interests against all others. Process thinking affirms that God calls us beyond violence toward communities of well-being.”
Like the immanent God we spoke of last week, the creating-creator God calls us to action, to “come build a land where we’ll bind up the broken” and “I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find…” and “ ‘til there is peace for us and everyone, we’ll take one more step…” We also hear the call in hymn number 6, Just as Long as I Have Breath. Let’s sing verse 1.
So when we embrace the idea that we are not just experiencing God in all living things, and not just experiencing God as a big eternal separate idea – but are experiencing God as co-creative force calling us into communities of well-being, we see a God that is a Living Whole of which you and I and others in the “cosmic conversation” are active parts and partners. In a “participatory universe” where all have a role in the construction of reality, God participates in all life and every act of creation. And we in turn must participate too. Einstein put it this way:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
And we see our place in the whole of the universe reflected in hymn number 22, Dear Weaver of our Lives’ Design. Let’s sing verses 1 and 2.
When I first read about process theology in our Wellspring spiritual deepening course a few years ago, I felt as though the Universe opened up to me with a resounding Yes. If I’d been reading in the tub, I would have been like Archimedes jumping out naked and running through the streets shouting Eureka! For the first time, I discovered there was a theology that matched what I believe: process thought jives with my Unitarian belief in human potential and reason as our way toward truth and meaning; it jives with my Universalist belief in universal goodness and love, which propels me to serve my human family. And apparently, I am not alone. UUs all over are realizing that we understand this idea of God intimately. As Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar points out in her book Fluent in Faith, process thinking affirms many of the threads in our theological heritage:
We are a part of an interconnected web of life in which each affects all. There is a sacred spark, a spiritual energy and power, in each of us. It matters what we do with our lives. The great, ultimately unnamable mystery of life is a call to goodness and love. As we choose love, decide for love, stand on the side of love, we are part of the growing God in the universe. This is process theology made real.
This creating-creator God affirms our long-held belief in the goodness and progress of humanity; we find this in James Freeman Clarke’s affirmation of the “the progress of humankind onward and upward forever.” In the early 20th century, John Dietrich, considered the father of religious humanism, spoke of a ‘cosmic theism, which “interprets God as the indwelling power in the universe rather than an individual, separate power.”
No wonder this God – this creating-creator, relational, dynamic, responsive, big picture, changing, becoming God – is so familiar. And our hymnal shows it; the Center for Process Studies did an extensive review of a variety of hymnals – ours, along with hymnals from the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ – and named 349 out of 414 hymns as representing this creating-creator God – that’s 85%. And that’s not even the teal hymnal, which further reflects this god of process thought.
This God…who is an artist and reminds us, as Arthur Graham puts it, that “Each of us is an artist whose task it is to shape life into some semblance of the pattern we dream about. The molding is not of self alone, but of shared tomorrows and times we shall never see.”
Yes, this is most assuredly a god I believe in – to me, this God encompasses the transcendent and the immanent and brings us in deep relation to the wide universe. This is the God who reminds me that everything evolves – not just life forms but thought and ethics and understanding and relationships. This is the God who reminds me that truth and revelation are not static but are forever unfolding. This is the God who reminds me to be open to the eternal now, to be open to becoming. This is the God who persuades me gently with love and compassion and the promise of a new day. This is the God who accompanies me, as God accompanies all of creation, on this journey. This is the God that is at the heart of our universal translators; this is the Unitarian Universalist narrative image for God.
This is the God I pray to when I sing “our world is one world – what touches one affects us all” and when I sing “we are blessed with love and amazing grace, when our heart is in a holy place” and when I sing “when we live in deep assurance of the flame that burns within, then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin…” and when I sing “woyaya…woyaya…”
We live in a participatory universe. We do not leave things up to a remote God….we act with the divine energy…we too create out of mystery….we share in the opportunity and responsibility of creating reality. We are all artists…creators of what is, and what is becoming.
And so we draw our exploration to a close, having put a lot of narrative images into our universal translators, having considered some of theologies our hymnal reveals. We have used a lot of words… and still there are so many more. Let us enter our time of silence with these words from Nancy Shaffer:
Because she wanted everyone to feel included in her prayer,
she said right at the beginning several names for the Holy: Spirit,
she said, Holy One, Mystery, God.
But then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing that which cannot fully be addressed,
she added particularities, saying, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love, Ancient Holy One,
Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know, Gracious God,
and also Spirit of this Earth, God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou.
And then, tongue loosened, she fell to naming superlatives as well:
Most Creative One, Greatest Source, Closest Hope –
even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her probably redundant,
but then she couldn’t stop:
One who Made the Stars, she said,
although she knew technically a number of those present didn’t believe the stars had been made by anyone or thing but just luckily happened.
One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion, she said,
and no one laughed.
That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning, she said,
and the room was silent.
Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,
others began to offer names.
Peace, said one.
One My Mother Knew, said another.
Ancestor, said a third.
Breath, said one near the back.
That Which Holds All.
A child said, Water.
Someone said, Kuan Yin.
And then, there wasn’t any need to say the things she’d thought would be important to say,
and everyone sat hushed,
until someone said