© Jeremy D. Nickel 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 24, 2010
Ever since I was a child I have had an innate sense that there is indeed something larger than me. It was the ground of being and the source of meaning, the pull towards good and away from bad, and it was hidden and inviting all at once and I wanted to know more. I naturally began equating this feeling with the term "God" because that was the name I was taught. But the more I learned about god, the more it became clear to me that this word actually meant something very different to most people than what I meant.
And it was equally clear that there was a lot of confusion and disagreement about god anyway. Some people seemed to think that god had a body just like us; well, at least just like me, because these people also thought that god had a gender and that it was male. And also, god was old and lived up in the clouds and was white and had a long flowing beard. This was finally my tip that people truly knew nothing about god, for even then I recognized that this was way too similar to the description of another figure I was quickly learning was an adult fantasy played on children, this god sounded like Santa Claus' long lost twin brother!
And then as I got a little older and started asking questions, I learned that other people had completely different ideas about this word god. And since I was raised a Unitarian, well, I learned about all of them. Some even had bodies like the old white guy god, but they were much more interesting: multiple arms, two-sided heads; their bodies came in exotic colors like sky blue and blood red, and they fought and loved and laughed just like us. But still other gods had no body at all, and so people used other terms to describe them like light and energy. And I found it all very interesting, but honestly none of it was helping me to understand how to get to know the god I already knew in the first place anyway.
Largely my life since then has been a self-propelled journey through spiritual systems as I conducted my own field research. I embraced Quakerism for several years, finding great pleasure in their meetings and the idea that god was somehow inside of us all. In college, as any good student does, I became an existentialist, and what attracted me to this way of thinking was the idea that existence preceded essence, that is, that we the created have a part to play in the meaning of things. I found this not only empowering but heard a ring of truth in it, at least for me. The ideas at the core of Buddhism and Hinduism also held much truth for me: that much of the world was illusion and that the goal was to disable the ego and embrace reality. I continued to quest for years through these systems, finding much to like, even more to argue with and, in the end, like a good UU, having more questions than anything else.
By the time I enrolled in Seminary I was fully lost at sea. I clung only to my barest theological essentials, my stripped down core, and hoped that somewhere on that holy hill in Berkeley I would find a clue. And now it is my immense pleasure to share what I have discovered with all of you. One final caveat: the world of process thought is a large and varied one. What I hope to do today is to offer only the briefest of sketches on a few of the aspects I find the most interesting, but in no way do I offer a comprehensive description of all that this theology has to offer.
The first thing I want to tell you about the process god is that rather than being viewed as a perfect human located somewhere in physical space, with a body that can act and a mind that can think, the process god is rather simply the holder of all possibilities.
One of the things that is so convenient about having a god that is merely a perfect human is that it is relatively easy to picture this god, and thus it becomes real for us. This is not so true with the process god. Like so much of the real nitty gritty of theology, it is much harder to pin down and get a picture of. So I have searched high and low for images and metaphors that can help bring this god that is merely all possibilities alive for you in your minds eye. And what I have settled on is the image of a vast ocean that you are looking at not from the shore, but rather from high above, and for as far as you can see in all directions there is only water.
I mean for you to picture an active ocean, churning with froth, alive with giant waves tipped with white foam and the whole mess of it whipped and battered by wind. Now try and make the metaphorical leap with me to understanding that ocean to represent god. This god that is represented here is not the god you have possibly been told about in the First or Second Testament, not the god of the Qu'ran or Bhagavad-Gita. No, 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. And that is why I have chosen an active ocean, for I mean the tips of the waves to represent that small minority of possibility that actually rises to the surface and punctures the veil between what is and what may be to become real. That ocean, that dynamic meeting point of water, wind and energy is all of life, pulsating, dancing, striving to be and in some instances moving from possibility to reality.
And this is why we call this Process Theology. It is in that interaction between the holder of all that is and we the created that is the process in question. That movement from possibility to reality is where life for you and me really happens. Only god holds it all. We experience and shape what becomes. We live and interact on the surface of the waves, where things become real.
Classic theological tradition has always claimed that what becomes reality is not only known by god but also controlled by god. This is basically the position you get stuck with if you claim that god is perfect. This is why most Judeo-Christian traditions have such a complicated relationship with the idea of free will. They need to protect the ego of their perfect god. Their god that not only knows all, but couldn't be seen as an entity that would be unaware of anything. And if god is aware of it, it is because god preordained it. It is really no free will at all. But not so with Process Theology. Here we have a real role for creation; we are the actualizers.
Process asks: does god have to be the possibility and the chooser of what becomes real to be perfect? And it is precisely there, at this unexamined and faulty definition of perfection that process steps in and quickly departs from classic theological thought when it makes the audacious claim that it is the action of creation, not the will of the divine, that chooses what is actualized and what is never to be, true free will. So although the process god is the container of all possibilities - that dynamic frothy ocean containing absolutely all that is and could be - we the created are the ones who make this world through our decisions.
I think that this new idea of perfection - that allows for partnership with creation - finally answers the question of how to balance god's omnipotence with human free will. God still is quite literally all things and is all-powerful in the sense that nothing happens without god's knowledge, but creation will guide the course, will choose what becomes actual and what remains merely a possibility. Or, to paraphrase the great Process theologian John Cobb, god has a will in everything, but not everything that occurs is god's will.
But where does that leave god then - just a completely helpless observer of events? Not in the least, as Process has another important component. Along with being the holder of all possibilities, god is also the lure towards the most beautiful outcome in any one moment. That is, while we in creation are stumbling through life making our decisions, actualizing some possibilities and not others, god is working behind the scenes, attempting to draw us towards the most beautiful, the most life-affirming possibilities.
I like to think of this role of the process god as the great flirter. You see, god has no ability to make any one outcome happen. God has no hands, no feet but ours; but god does know which possibilities will lead to the most beautiful results, and so tries to tip the balance through epic divine flirtation. Those tugs at our heartstrings during a difficult discernment, that moment when you just feel that this is the right decision, that bodily quaking that comes in the silence and can not be ignored - the divine flirt is at it again, luring you towards the greatest outcome, it is up to you to listen or not.
Finally, there is one more thing about this god I want to tell you about today. Besides not having a body or mind, another thing you should know about this god, is that it not only contains all possibilities for the future, but also that every unfolding moment is really only a creative reshuffling of what has already been. Not only are you the sum of all that you have done and said and been, but you also contain the sum of all that has ever been; every piece of history is contained within you and all of creation is connected in this way.
The process term for this is "inter-relatedness" and the easiest way to understand it is to think of our own birth. Every child is inter-related to their mother in that they were once a part of her body and also in that they have inherited traits from her influence but, although it takes a few years of development (and for some possibly a little therapy to figure this out), we are not our mothers despite the fact that essential aspects of her have become part of who we are. In this way all things and all people are inter-related. Every successive moment is giving birth to the next moment and so was once a part of that previous moment. It also inherits traits from that previous moment, just like we did from our mothers.
This takes our Unitarian Universalist notion of the interconnected web of life to another level. In the process formulation, that web extends also backwards in time and includes god - a god that is not a disinterested or unaffected part of the web either, as we have learned.
Now here is why I think this all really matters, where I get really excited about the implications for the divine-human relationship represented by all of what I have said today: If we are truly connected not just to each other, but to a god who is affected by the results of our choices, then my actions, your choices, and the movement of creation affects god. I can make god proud, I can let god down, I can even hurt god by stubbornly plugging my ears to the lure and forcing my own way through life. But I can also make god sing with joy, I can delight god with my choices and with the world that we co-create together.
I find this so much more empowering than the idea of a changeless god that exists outside of experience, that is shielded from any true knowledge of what it is to be created rather than just creator. I find also that this model of god is challenging; my actions have a much higher stake in the future of this world. So many people stuck in a more classic relationship with their god believe that this omnipotent creator has ordained all events of their lives. Things happen to them and it is god's judgment, good or bad. This is an exhausting and fully unempowering way to go through life.
The process god offers an entirely different vision. Life does not happen to you; you are the co-creator of every moment. We are all born into life situations chosen not by god's will, but by the effects of the choices made in every moment before our birth. It is our call then as created beings to see our life's work - whatever that work may be - as being a partnership with all that we are inter-related to, to co-create as much beauty as we can in this troubled world. And may it begin with you.
May it be so.
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