Over the past four weeks, I read two books by process theologian and philosopher John Cobb. To my surprise (and joy!), I’ve found that process thought actually makes a lot of sense to me. But can I live with it?
My first impression of process theology is that it is the most intellectually viable way of imagining God that I have found so far. The process God acts in everything, all the time, within our limited possibilities – not through the kind of science-exploding interventions imagined by much of today’s popular Christianity. God acts by calling everything towards the best available option in each moment – not by forcing events to go God’s way – so God cannot be blamed for the bad things that happen in the world. We can acknowledge modern science and pointless suffering without needing to reject the process God!
But for me, this way of re-thinking God resolves at least as many spiritual problems as intellectual ones. I often struggle to differentiate with certainty between God’s voice and my own thinking. In practice, this means that it often takes some sort of rare, moving spiritual experience for me to feel confident that God (and not just my subconscious) is speaking to me.
Process theology frees me from dependence on spiritual fireworks. For process thinkers, God is found in everyday, moment-by-moment experiences. God works within us, drawing us towards the best possibilities available right now. Whenever I notice an opportunity to share kindness or realize beauty, I can call it the “call of God.” This kind of spirituality is more concerned with being sensitive to everyday experience than seeking out dramatic “religious experiences” to add on top of everyday life.
A few months ago, my spiritual director talked me into finding my number on the Enneagram, a kind of ancient personality test with nine types. Turns out, I identify most with number 3, often called “The Achiever.” I like to do things. Action – especially hard work – gives meaning to my life. But spiritual experiences – at least the type I tend to have – rarely give me detailed to-do lists. I want to do what God want me to do, but how do I know exactly what that is?
Again, process theology comes to the rescue. God wants me to realize my greatest potential for love and beauty in each moment, and God works within the possibilities that I notice. There is no way to know the best possibilities ahead of time, so there is no opportunity to get stuck in endless deliberation beforehand. Instead, in each moment I try to sense my best option, kind of like a jazz musician senses the best possible note in each moment as it arrives. This gives me skills to work on (like being sensitive to the call of love), and it is all-inclusive, giving me something to do in literally each moment.
Christians (especially of the conservative and affluent varieties) are notorious for being so preoccupied with worship, prayer, and warm-fuzzies from Jesus that they never get around to actually helping people in real, tangible ways. The Christians who care the most about spiritual highs, for example, seem to fight the hardest against more compassionate responses to poverty, race, gender, and the LGBTQ community. Is it better to care about God or compassion for our neighbors?
For process thinkers, this division is impossible. If God is “the call forward” in each moment, then devotion to God is inseparable from heeding God’s call to love our neighbors. Past ways of acting and thinking are always relativized by the in-breaking call of God in this moment, among these possibilities. Regardless of whether or not I’m 100% sold on process theology’s unique take on God, it’s hard for me to deny that this is a great way to live.
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