Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading two books by process philosopher and theologian John Cobb. I’m exploring process theology in the hopes of finding a notion of God that both works and makes some kind of sense, and so far I haven’t been disappointed.
Let’s assume that in each moment, people (at least) have the freedom to “actualize” any number of a limited set of possibilities.
For example, right now I am sitting on the couch in my living room. I could scratch the itch on my head, I could keep typing, or I could stand up. I have several options to choose from, but these options are limited. I could not, in this moment, decide to be on the other side of the globe; I could not decide to sprout three more arms; I could not get up and go to the kitchen and keep typing on the couch. In each moment, there is a limited range of possibilities open to me.
Although this may seem like common sense, it is a controversial claim from the perspective of modern science. Some scientists think that everything is predetermined by mindless particles and natural laws, leaving no room for human (or divine) “possibilities” or actions of any kind. But let’s assume for the time being that this vision of the world is incomplete.
Where would God fit in? Is God a really powerful, invisible, supernatural person who tampers with our world, breaking natural laws and limits at will? Or is this a Deist God who set up our laws and no longer interferes?
Process theologians reject both options. If we assume that natural laws and the past give us a limited range of possibilities, then God could nudge us towards the best possibilities within our natural limits. God need not chose between upholding natural laws and making a difference in the world. But how might this work?
My favorite example is the conscience. Many people say they have a sense of which actions are morally right and which are wrong. No doubt, much of this is cultural conditioning. Yet many people are able to judge the morality of their native society, as if there is some greater moral sense that transcends any set of ethical or social rules. Perhaps the conscience is the call of God, drawing us (but not forcing us) towards goodness.
Or take art: I know that many great musicians talk about being “carried along” by the music, pulled forward as if by some external source. The Greeks, for example, spoke of the “muses.” I know ardent atheists who turn mystical when talking about the creative process. They are convinced that there is something outside of themselves that pulls them towards the right note in each creative decision. Perhaps creativity is the call of God, pulling us towards beauty and novelty.
Last example: consider evolution. Many scientists are happy to explain the process of evolution without reference to anything beyond nature, and perhaps they’re right. Alternatively, perhaps God is calling creatures, from the simplest to the most complex, towards greater life and consciousness.
In process theology, God is present to everything in every moment, accepting the limits imposed by the past and calling the world towards its best possible future. God is always calling, but the divine call can always be ignored, and often it is; God’s will is not always done “on Earth as it is in heaven.” God does not bust into our world here and there like a helicopter parent or a fascist tyrant, forcing things to go according to the divine plan by supernatural intervention “from the outside.”
Can I live with this view of God? That’s a question that deserves its own post (and will get it next weekend), but the short answer is probably. It’s the best I’ve found so far. A process God does not dismiss modern science because it locates God’s action within (rather than outside of) nature. It does not ignore pointless suffering or diminish the goodness of God; God cannot stop bad things from happening according to this model. Devotion to the God of process theology is about hearing and actualizing God’s call towards life, beauty, and goodness in each moment, which gives faith in God more relevance and substance than preoccupation with “me-and-Jesus” style spirituality. I like that because listening and acting is a more sustainable kind of spirituality than a constant search for spiritual warm-fuzzies.
As long as the process assumption about consciousness can hold, process theology paints a picture of a God who is real, makes a difference, and is worth caring about, all without dodging the critical questions that we modern people tend to ask about God.
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