Theologies Intersecting Unitarian Universalism: Process Theology
Kingston, February 4, 2007
The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson
As with many professions, entry into the ministry requires specialized training; among other requirements, one usually goes to a theological school after receiving one’s college degree. Because I have had several careers, I hold two post-graduate degrees: or to put it a bit more lightly, I am a doctor of philosophy and a master of divinity. I love that: master of divinity. Like that old cartoon Masters of the Universe. Divinity, philosophy, theology – what does it all mean? If someone asked you if there was a Unitarian Universalist “theology” what might you answer? If someone asked you what theologies have influenced our Unitarian Universalist tradition, what might you answer? Hmmmm. Today begins a series of examinations of the theologies that have, and continue to influence us and manifest in our ethical and spiritual practices. Why? Because it’s important to know the streams that feed our river. They are part of who we are.

What is theology? The word means inquiry into matters about god, spirituality and religion. What is philosophy? Definitions of philosophy vary and differ among themselves, but one might understand philosophy to be “rationally critical thinking, of a more or less systematic kind about the general nature of the world (metaphysics or theory of existence), the justification of belief (epistemology or theory of knowledge), and the conduct of life (ethics or theory of value). “ (Anthony Quinton in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy) Are we doing philosophy? Are we doing theology?

Today I want to explore matters of ultimacy as they relate to an understanding of meaning in life and the conduct of living. Unitarian Universalism is about each person coming to a dynamic, non-static understanding of ultimacy as it relates to meaning in life and the conduct of living. Each of us arrives at this through his/her own experience, filtered through the mind and heart, fed by tradition and heritage, and tested in community. Process theology is a systematic theology that speaks to Unitarian Universalism. I cannot give you a brief, simple definition of Process Theology because I’m not sure one exists. What I can give you is my understanding of it as it meets Unitarian Universalism, with the knowledge that any understanding is also an interpretation. For today suffice it to say three things: first that Process Philosophy, out of which Process Theology grew, understands reality as a process rather than a static; as a being-becoming rather than a being. I can tell you, for instance, that I am. I am here, now in this moment. But even as I say that, the moment is passing and I am becoming into the next moment. Reality doesn’t stand still, absolutely and without changes.

Second, reality is a process and part of that process is interdependence and interconnectedness. Interconnection means we are the totality of the universe expressed partially. My thumb carries my DNA and thus expresses the totality of me, but only partially because it is not the whole of me. In Woman and Nature, an early work by Susan Griffin, she writes: “Because we know ourselves to be made from this earth. See this grass. The patches of silver and brown. Worn by the wind. The grass reflecting all that lives in the soil. The light. The grass needing the soil. With roots deep in the earth. And patches of silver. Like the patches of silver in our hair. Worn by time. This bird flying low over the grass. Over the tules. The cattails, sedges, rushes, reeds, over the marsh. Because we know ourselves to be made from this earth. Temporary as this grass. Wet as this mud. Our cells filled with water.” “Picture the universe like Indra’s net, an image from Hinduism. Indra’s net is an interconnected web of countless strands, and at every intersection there is a jewel drop of water that reflects the whole.” (Rebecca Parker) I took a picture of a spider web in the early morning rain and on the web are raindrops. If you look very closely, in every drop you can see a reflection of me standing there taking the picture. That’s an example of Indra’s net. “ Process philosophy sees the universe as a plentitude of these jewel drops, each holding the world in precisely the way the whole is reflected at that point of intersection. Picture this jeweled net as a spider web covered with dew. Picture the web lasting only for an instant, then disappearing, and in the next instant reappearing again, only not the same as the previous moment. It is slightly different. In each moment the whole is configured in a different way, and over time – over a series of blips – the net appears to be in motion, shimmering or undulating.” (Rebecca Parker)

Third, “Reality is not, finally, caused by action, decision, will, or the influence of something outside of itself. The subject determines itself, and the observed world arises from a constant unfolding of countless individual acts of self-determination within a vast field of connection and a plentitude of possibilities.” (Rebecca Parker)

You’re scratching your heads, maybe thinking “So what?” Well, with the idea that reality is an open process, not fully pre-determined by anything that went before, existing in a web of interconnection comes an understanding of the divine and an understanding of humanity. Process thought invites us to be responsive to the world. Can you see how this way of thinking fits with our Unitarian Universalist principles, particularly the seventh, which affirms the interconnected web of life of which we are a part? We can act in ways that enhance and increase our interdependence or we can act in ways that diminish and devalue it. That it is up to us is both profoundly hopeful and profoundly frightening. Unitarian Universalism has traditionally understood humans to have such possibility and in this place also intersects with Process Theology.

Where are you here? Do you believe that the past pre-determines the present or do you look to human agency and freedom? Or perhaps a combination of both: the past influencing the present but transformation still possible? It matters what we think and believe because our thoughts and beliefs affect the outcome. To put it concretely, do you truly believe that peace is possible, recognizing that it means humans will change, or do you despair that we are doomed to repeat and relive the aggressive parts of our natures? It matters what we believe about peace because it affects the ways in which we will promote it. These process ideas about reality, interconnection and self-determination have an application in our lives. It’s about faith coming fully to life in relation to our needs and opportunities.

Faith is a mode of existence; a matter of emotions, attitudes, commitments out of which our behavior arises. Our conscious beliefs either support our mode of existence or they do not. You know that it is a deeply held UU tenet that one’s deeds speak louder than one’s words, which is why it is so important to us to walk the talk. Our lives are the reflection of our beliefs, no matter what we say we consciously believe. Along with conscious beliefs, Process Theology maintains that humans have “pre-reflective” beliefs, some kind of knowing that we trust to be true. Alfred North Whitehead, one of the most influential of the Process philosophers said that truth consists of “ evolving notions which strike more deeply into the root of reality.” Deep within our being, it is said, we “know” there is a sacred reality which is valuable. We “know” our lives have meaning because of our relation to this. Our wholeness needs our conscious beliefs to correspond with this “pre-reflective” knowing. (Cobb and Griffin) That valuable sacred reality, in relation to which our lives have meaning, among us goes by a variety of names. Some call it god; some call it spirit; some understand it as the laws of the universe; some as energy, and so forth. Let me tell you what this means to me. I call my knowing intuition, and I mean to describe a kind of knowing that comes not through the mind or senses. For me, this is a knowledge of a reality beyond my own individual being, a reality that continues even after I die. I call it life and hold it sacred and my connections with it are sacred and when I live in ways that respect and enliven those connections I am living ethically and happily. It always comes back to interconnection and my power as a human to choose how I live and act. What do you call your sacred reality?

This is where god comes in. Process Theology has a concept of god. It does not, however, concern itself about whether or not god exists. Rather it wants to present a convincing notion of deity that illumines human experience and is congruent with our understanding of the world. This approach in itself might feel familiar to UU’s. When I say god, please understand that word however you wish, even if you wish to reject the idea altogether. In Process Theology god is not: the divine lawgiver and judge; the unchanging passionless absolute; the controlling power; the preserver of a status quo based upon a moral order which god has set down; the male-dominant-independent-inflexible figure. God is understood as creative-responsive love. Process Theology asserts that the religious drive of humanity is to be in contact and harmony with the sacred reality we pre-reflectively know. God is in that reality insofar as god is creative-responsive love. Love is relational; love is responsive. When one loves, one responds to the loved one; one feels with the loved one and wishes for them happiness. If such love resides at the core of reality, and Process Theology calls it god, then god must be in relation with and responsive to humanity. Remember that Process Theology says reality is not static, but being-becoming. The present is not completely determined by the past but can define itself. Thus the interactive relation between god and humanity has creative possibilities. “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order,” said Whitehead. God is the source of change and order and with humanity is a co-creator of the present. Relatedness to god implies a continual, creative transformation. We’re not here in this world alone. Because there is love at the core of reality, there is a call to justice. The Process god promotes what we experience as good and enjoyable. It is a moral aim because the love is for all to enjoy. Ethics arise from the desire to behave in ways that ensure all experience and enjoy this good. Persuasion and not control is the divine way. This god provides an impulse for us to actualize the best possibility of any occasion, but this god does not control the outcome or the choices we make. We are drawn to a loving way but for one reason and another may not actualize it. Thus evil can come into being through our choices but it cannot cancel out god’s creative-responsive love. No matter the evil, god acts persuasively among the wreckage to bring out whatever good is possible. Human actions have an effect upon god because this god responds to us. This god is not changeless. Process Theology would counsel us to trust that love’s persuasive call is wise and good and to sensitize ourselves to it and be led and guided by it. Even when, or especially when, we cannot foresee a favorable outcome.

To put it another way, to whom or what do we turn when the bottom falls out? In what or whom do we trust? I recently officiated at the funeral of a baby. We stood at the grave full of sorrow and tears and unfulfilled hopes for a young life. Yet the parents were strong enough and wise enough to let love in and to see and name the gifts of this child. The funeral director lowered the coffin into the grave and the grounds keeper ever so gently shoveled the dirt back on top of it. Ever so gently, with such great kindness and sensitivity. I will not easily forget it. That is answering the call of love when the call of despair or thoughtlessness might have been answered instead. Does it matter what we believe? Does what we believe affect how we live? Teilhard de Chardin, in Science and Christ wrote: “. . . what would happen if one day we should see that the universe is so hermetically closed in upon itself that there is no possible way of our emerging from it– either because we are forced indefinitely to go round and round inside it, or (which comes to the same thing), because we are doomed to a total death? Immediately and without further ado, I believe – just like miners who find that the gallery is blocked ahead of them – we would lose the heart to act, and man’s impetus would be radically checked and ‘deflated’ for ever, by this fundamental discouragement and loss of zest.”

We want our lives to make a difference, to make a meaning beyond themselves. Such meaning is forged in the face of the sequence of moments that is life. We are beings in the world. We decide who we are in the act of existing. First and foremost we exist in community and an isolated self-identity is an illusion. The future is fully and radically open. These are the grounds for hope. Change is possible. New elements, new ideals can enter. Our community ties may be experienced as fulfillment, our participation as mutual. Both Process Theology and Unitarian Universalism offer us deep optimism about the possibilities for human existence. For that I am grateful.

Let me summarize what I said about Process Theology. I recognize Unitarian Universalism in much of this. How does it speak to you? *Reality is a process, a being-becoming. *The religious drive of humanity is to be in contact and harmony with the sacred reality we pre-reflectively know. This gives meaning to our lives. *Interconnectedness exists, as responsive-creative love resides at the core of that reality, by whatever names one calls it. Process Theology calls it god. *Through answering its persuasive call, humans and god co-create justice in the world. *Because humanity is self-determining, we can also choose not to heed its call. The result is often evil, but love persists. Thus humanity influences god, just as god influences humanity. *The present and the future are open to self-definition. Neither is finally determined by the past. Herein lies hope and inspiration.

 
 Soda Crackers by Raymond Carver

You soda crackers! I  remember
when I arrived here in the rain,
whipped out and alone.
How we  shared the aloneness
and quiet of this house.
And the doubt that held  me
from fingers to toes
as I took you out
of your cellophane  wrapping
and ate you, meditatively,
at the kitchen table
that first  night with cheese,
and mushroom soup. Now,
a month later to the day,
an  important part of us
is still here. I’m fine.
And you–I’m proud of you,  too.
You’re even getting remarked
on in print! Every soda  cracker
should be so lucky.
We’ve done all right for
ourselves. Listen  to me.
I never thought
I could go on like this
about soda  crackers.
But I tell you
the clear sunshiny
days are here, at  last.
 

Back to top - Close Window