© DeAnna Alm, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 19, 2012

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Listen to Audio Version of Sermon (mp3)

"Do you believe in God?" For some people, the answer is a simple, "Yes, of course," or "No, of course not." For others, it could be the starting point for a day's worth (or perhaps a book's worth) of discussion about the need to absolutely define God before one could commit to stating whether one believes in him or her or it or them. There are also those who might respond with a "Geez, nosy much?" and walk away in the opposite direction.

For most of my life, I would likely have been one of that last group. I had the feeling that there was something out there, but what it was I really didn't know, and with all that uncertainty came a distinct lack of interest in discussing it with anyone else. After all, I didn't have any rigorous way of defending my amorphous feeling of "something" to those who didn't believe, but I didn't agree with a lot of what my theist friends professed. In the end, it was a lot easier to push away thoughts of if and what God might be, and deal with the everyday issues of paying the mortgage, planning family dinners, and arguing with my 10-year-old about why there's no escape from learning your multiplication tables.

In October 2010 Reverend Jeremy Nickel introduced us to the idea of process theology. He asked us to picture a giant, boundless ocean, roiling with waves and foam and stirred by an ever-changing wind. This, he said, is a way to think of God. He said, "This is not a god that thinks and acts in the world, but rather a god that is simply holding all possibilities. Every drop of water in that seething ocean is a possibility, moving around and waiting to be actualized." The tips of those waves "represent that small minority of possibilities that actually rise to the surface and puncture the veil between what is and what may be to become real." The "process" of Process Theology is the interaction between the holder of all possibilities - this divine ocean - and we, the created. That which we might call God holds all possibilities, but we, through our thoughts, decisions and actions - our free will - we decide which possibilities are brought to reality, and those decisions affect the decisions of those who are alongside us and who come after us.

Jeremy's words and the ideas in the sermon touched me intensely and profoundly. It felt true in some ineffable and inexpressible way. But what was I to do with this new light inside? How was I to feed this small flame, so it wouldn't gutter out in a wisp of smoke? Well, good liberal arts major that I am, when in doubt, research!

The father of Process Theology is generally considered to be Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosopher who published a series of his lectures as Process and Reality in 1929. That book and his Philosophy of Organism inspired other writers to develop their ideas about process theology, most notably Charles Hartshorne [pronounced Harts-horn]. Hartshorne's book Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes is the source of the majority of my current understanding of process theology, and it is from that book that I have drawn most of the information that I will be sharing with you today.

Hartshorne begins his book with a chapter titled, "Six Common Mistakes About God." He lists those mistakes as:

  1. The idea that God is absolutely perfect and therefore unchangeable;
  2. The idea that God is omnipotent, i.e., perfect in power;
  3. God is omniscient - if God is perfect, then he must have perfect knowledge of all we have done and all we will do;
  4. God's unsympathetic goodness - the idea that God's love benefits us, but God receives no benefit from what good he has produced;
  5. The idea of immortality of the individual or, as Hartshorne puts it, "Immortality as a Career after Death"; and
  6. Revelation as infallible.

Before you all start eying the exits, be assured that I am not about to start on a book report that covers all six of these ideas. Hartshorne's book is available through the Alameda County Library in case you are interested in reading it for yourself and finding out more than I have time to share today.

I will share with you a few of the ideas that most appealed to me about process theology as I understand it. The first is that it allows for the existence of a creative, divine force that one might seek to follow while still allowing for the existence of free will, which thus allows us to acknowledge (and attempt to fight) the existence of evil in the world. Illness and death can come about from the physical laws of the universe in which we live. Genocide and war and our personal tragedies are not written off as "God's will" but rather can be seen as the result of actions taken by fallible human beings who have free will, but do not always choose to use it in the best way possible.

There is no way I can make myself believe in an omniscient and omnipotent god who COULD stop evil from occurring in the world but chooses not to, either to punish us or for some other less punitive but more inexplicable reason. I can and do believe in a force for creation that can be strengthened and improved by the choices that we make.

If one thinks of a mountain to climb, a climber can make a foolish choice and tumble downward from the rock. Or she can work and strain to find better footholds to ascend, and perhaps mark those footholds for the climbers who come after her, easing their ascent to the summit. That mountain holds both the good and the bad footholds; it holds the possibility of climbing upwards or hurtling downwards or just sort of muddling about in the middle - the climber has to discern between all the footholds and make the best choices possible.

Hartshorne spends some time in his book talking about the error of believing in God's omnipotence, particularly if one is going to simultaneously make the case for humankind's being imbued with free will. Many theologians, he says, have struggled with the idea of God having a despot's absolute power - everything that happens being by God's will. Hartshorne asks, "Is it the highest idea of power to rule over puppets who are permitted to think they make decisions but who are really made by another to do exactly what they do?" But how is this to be merged with the idea of God's benevolence? Some theologians posit that God could have complete control of our actions, but chooses not to because he also appreciates the gift of free will that was given. Evil then comes solely from our personal poor use of that free will.

Hartshorne throws in the aspect of chance. Because our choices interact with each other's, there will always be both intended and unintended results. Hartshorne sums up by saying [pg 18], "It is the existence of many decision makers that produces everything, whether good or ill. It is the existence of God that makes it possible for the innumerable decisions to add up to a coherent and basically good world where opportunities justify the risks. Without freedom, no risks - and no opportunities." We have the opportunity to make the best choices possible to us that can move us toward the most positive of all the possibilities, but those choices will always bump up against the decisions made by others and the restraints of the physical world in which we live.

Omniscience is explained in short order by Hartshorne. It is not that God already knows all that will happen. It is that God, as the holder of all possibilities, knows both what has happened in the past and what the possibilities for the future are. Returning to my mountain metaphor: the mountain holds all the paths that have already been worn, as well as possible future routes yet untried. The all-knowingness is in the containment of all that might be, from the probable to the incredibly improbable.

Another aspect of process theology that I appreciate is that it does not require belief or lack of belief in an afterlife. Hartshorne is one who does not believe in a personal immortality after death, though there are many process theologians who do. He says that any immortality we have is in the addition of all our experiences to the experience of the world, and in our effect upon the sum of all possibilities. One cannot change the past, and so our past choices and the ripples they made continue on, and may continue to affect those who live after our deaths. Hartshorne states [pg 36], "God loves us as what we are, a certain very distinctive species of mortal animal, finite spatially and in careers. We are each divinely loved as rendered individual and definitely by this finitude." Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, acting mindfully with an eye toward the possible future implications of our actions is one way of attempting to live an ethical life during this go-round on Earth.

As Unitarian Universalists, we may well find appealing process theology's dismissal of the idea of infallible revelation. The idea that a human being can perfectly understand and express the boundless nature of god puts human limitations on this infinite, mystical force, and thus reduces it to something merely human, instead of a borderless, expansive force that is a part of and is affected by everything around us. Attempting to hear and to follow the call of the best of all possibilities is a lifelong effort. There will be those who seem to hear that call more clearly, and who can be teachers and examples to follow, but to select any one human or group of humans as the sole source of revelation is to immediately place false limits on the unlimited and unlimitable.

Now that I have spoken about some aspects of process theology, my great fear, of course, is that you will all walk out of here muttering, "So what?" Why did I choose to share this with you?

As I said back at the beginning, Jeremy's original sermon on process theology inspired me to think about questions I had long been ignoring. That sermon, plus the further reading I have done, has helped give me some guidance and some vocabulary for talking about what it is I do believe. One of our great UU values is the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." The search may be individual, but we learn from listening to one another and discussing our ideas.

My own personal theology and ideas about God are still fluid and not fully formed. But the ideas contained in process theology have provided me with some metaphors that are useful and meaningful for me as I attempt to listen to my own still, small voice, and as I think about whether there might be something greater than the sum of ourselves out there in the universe. Has process theology given me all the answers? No, of course not, but it has given me some new ways to think about my questions. Do I believe in God? The answer is still, "Well, maybe," but there is something about that boundless ocean containing all possibilities that is calling me to tiptoe a little further into the waves. (Pause) Anyone else ready for a swim?

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