Nobody Is Anybody without Loving Another—Not Even God

In the whole New Testament there are only three statements that try to say in just one word what sort of peculiar being God is. One says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Another says, “God is light” (1 John 1:5). And finally there’s this one: “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

What’s intriguing about these three statements is that none of them says that God is an invisible somebody with amazing abilities. That’s how we tend to think of God when we pray—if we pray—and of course it’s how these early writers tended to think when they prayed too. They wouldn’t have prayed to a something. It had to be some very peculiar sort of somebody. But even back then they were beginning to realize that God was much harder to pin down than Harry Potter in an invisibility cloak.

And when they started to say, “God is love,” and connected that to the self-giving life of Jesus, they and their readers wound up eventually saying that God is not just one sort of somebody, not just one sort of person, but this uniquely interpersonal relationship: love—love that endures the worst and keeps coming back inexplicably. They called that idea “Trinity,” which is a doctrine that baffles a lot of people. But all it does is point us to what it might mean if we really believe God is love.

They were saying that nobody is anybody without loving another—and that goes even for God. Love is not just something somebody does. Love is what makes somebody somebody, what makes even God a relationship of somebodys.

Being Here & God

What if God is the boundless, uncontainablely meaningful,* newly relational** way of being here?***

What if the most important thing God is doing is drawing my bounded way of being here toward uncontainable meaning and new relationality?

What if faith in God means trusting how my bounded way of being here seems indeed to be drawn toward uncontainable meaning and new relationality by this boundless way of being here, God?

What if faith in Jesus means trusting how the story of his fully human life newly enlivens us to be thus drawn by this boundless way of being here?

What if this caught on as the most important way to think or speak of God—with everything else becoming more or less optional?

Would believers in God become more helpful and less hurtful to the rest of the world than they seem to be now?

That's my wager: We would all be better off if more of us began to awaken trustfully to God in this way.****

————————————

*Uncontainably meaningful: I don't mean to deny devastating experiences of senselessness. Natural disasters and human atrocities call every attempt at meaning-making into question. But I must confess that, when things seem meaningless, I keep finding deeper meaning to being here that is not contained by how things seem immediately. (Trusting in deeper meaning is why we have any sciences.) I have not been disappointed so far. I continue to find deeper meaning. I continue to find all that is involved in being here to be uncontainably meaningful. It's an endless, sometimes devastating process, but just as endlessly worthwhile.

**Newly relational: As everything involved in being here seems to pass irrevocably, I awaken to the deeper meaning that everything involved in being here is newly relational. Everything passing enables new ways of relating to be here. What passes is past, yet it persists as a finished aspect of the novel relationality of being here. Novel relationality, itself uncontainably meaningful, gives continuing, uncontainable meaning to all that passes even in the face of death. (This is process thought in a nutshell.)

***According to the Bible, God is here uncontainably (Exodus 3:13-14; Psalm 139), renewing steadfast love “every morning” (Lamentations 3:22-23), the uncontainably new beginning way and end of all things (Romans 11:36) in whom all of us live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Wherever else God may be, God is always newly here.

****That is the wager that creative Christian thinkers have been exploring since 1799, with the publication of Friedrich Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958): "The usual conception of God as one single being outside of the world and behind the world is not the beginning and end of religion … The true nature of religion is neither this idea nor any other but immediate consciousness of the Deity as ... found in ourselves and in the world. Similarly the goal and character of the religious life ... is the immortality which we can now have in this temporal life … In the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal is the immortality of religion." (101). These creative Christian thinkers have called themselves by a variety of labels—liberal, neo-orthodox, existentialist, process-relational, post-liberal, postmodern, radically orthodox, etc.—but the general public simply calls them all liberal. After all, what else does one call a Christian who doesn't seem to care much whether the Red Sea actually parted or whether water was ever turned into wine? While they often disagree on many details, they tend to agree on this: Whatever happens now, whatever may have happened long ago, what matters most is how our bounded ways of being here are being drawn toward uncontainable meaning and new relationality by the boundless way of being here, and this boundless way of being here is the one our ancestors aptly called God.

Portrayals of God in the Bible—Fr. Charles Allen

Overview

Sometimes the Bible presents God as a person like you and me, with much more power and knowledge, but not quite omnipotent or omniscient, subject to extreme mood-swings. God might not be the only person like this, but God demands exclusive loyalty. That's one recurrent portrayal.

At other times the Bible presents God as sheer Existence or Being, the beginning, way and end of all things, including all persons and beings. God is portrayed as ever-present, yet so beyond every thing, person and being that it's not clear how to speak of God at all. That's another recurrent portrayal.

But no writer assumes that God cannot be addressed in prayer and worship, and every writer seems to assume that God responds to prayer in some way, often unspecified. Even if God is sheer Existence or Being, there's something somewhat "dialogical" in worshipers' interactions with ever-present Being.

God is repeatedly assumed to have the ability and wisdom to respond accordingly to every being. This is the Biblical origin of terms like omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, etc., but those "omni" words can be misleading when divorced from their Biblical origins.

Through the centuries, popular notions of God start with the first ("biggest guy") version of God and then try to combine it with the second ("ever-present Being") version. This can look pretty incoherent and is subject to quite a bit of ridicule. This is the notion of God attacked by the most outspoken atheists.

But more contemplative notions of God have been influential over the centuries too. They start with the second ("ever-present Being") version, considering the first ("biggest guy") version to be a symbolic way of portraying the second version. This does not look incoherent, but it's rarely discussed in popular debates.

Key Passages

Genesis 1:1-3:24
Things to notice:

*In Genesis 1:1-2:3 Elohim (God/s) orders chaos in a systematic manner by speaking, also calls upon the creativity of the waters and the earth to "bring forth" all sorts of species. Elohim apparently orders all that exists. Genesis does not say that there was absolutely nothing before Elohim began to create, only that everything was a huge mess (Hebrew: tohu wabhohu).
*In Genesis 2:4-3:24 YHWH (the One-Who-Is) does not appear to be all-powerful or all-knowing. YHWH brings life to an already existing earth, somewhat haphazardly, focusing on Adam, then eventually figuring out that Adam needs another like him (though perhaps Adam was not a "he" until there was a "she"). This name change (from Elohim to YHWH) plus the difference in character have been taken by most scholars to mean that two earlier stories (Priestly and Yahwist) were combined by a later editor.
*The serpent is not identified as Satan or the Devil (that's a much later interpretation). What the serpent predicts is literally true: Adam and Eve don't literally die (as YHWH threatened) but instead become like God, knowing good and evil. YHWH later admits that the serpent's prediction was literally true: Adam and Eve did become like "one of us."
*YHWH seems a bit limited, to say the least—small enough to walk in the garden, appearing not to know where Adam and Eve are or what they have done, feeling threatened that Adam and Eve had become like God.

Genesis 4:25-26
Things to notice:

*In this passage, the name YHWH goes all the way back to the first family, contrary to Exodus 6:2-8. This is one reason that most scholars conclude that several different narratives, written at different times, were combined into one huge narrative. This one is the Yahwist version. Others are the Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly versions.

Genesis 18
Things to notice:

*YHWH is said to appear to Abraham, but what Abraham sees is three men (maybe two are men—18:22—or angels—19:1).
*YHWH appears to know about Sarah's laughter, although she thought she was out of hearing.
*YHWH has heard rumors about Sodom and Gomorrah, but apparently "must go down and see" if the rumors are true. This doesn't look like omniscience.
*YHWH appears uncertain about whether to let Abraham know YHWH's plans, but finally decides to do so.
*Abraham asks YHWH to be consistently just and forgiving, not to punish the innocent along with the guilty. He actually haggles with YHWH over the number of innocent people, and YHWH concedes. (Why did Abraham stop at 10 innocent people? Isn't one person enough? And why does YHWH seem to need convincing about this?)

Genesis 32:24-33
Things to notice:

*Jacob ("Heel-Grabber") wrestles with a man who is later said to be El or Elohim. The man can't win without hitting below the belt—literally!
*The man apparently can't get away until he meets Jacob's demand.
*The man declares Jacob the winner, renames him Israel ("God-Wrestler") but won't give his own “wonderful” name.
*Jacob says he has seen Elohim face to face and lived. Exodus 33:20 says this isn't possible.
*This doesn't look like omnipotence.

Exodus 3:1-15
Things to notice:

*This is one of the most important passages. The divine name, YHWH, is left undefined, but associated with sheer existence. Later theologians conclude that God is not a being, but simply Being, or the Ground of Being who can nevertheless be addressed the way we address another human being.
*Fire is considered a sign of YHWH's presence (not just any fire, but fire that burns without destroying). What might make this exceptional sort of fire an apt symbol?
*According to this passage, this is where the name YHWH was first revealed, contrary to The Yahwist version in Genesis 4:25-26. This passage is considered to be from the Elohist narrative.

Exodus 6:2-8
Things to notice:

*Here YHWH explicitly denies that Moses' ancestors knew the name YHWH, contradicting Genesis 4:26. This is considered to be from the Priestly narrative.

Exodus 32:1-34:7
Things to notice:

*YHWH appears to throw a temper tantrum, while Moses is the model of sanity.  Moses changes YHWH's mind by reminding YHWH of past promises. What sort of God throws tantrums and can be talked out of them?
*Although Moses is said to speak face to face with YHWH in Exodus 33:11, YHWH says no one can see YHWH's face and live in v. 20. Both of these statements occur in the Elohist narrative. Instead of YHWH's face, Moses sees the behind!
*“YHWH, YHWH, Elohim merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). So is God more merciful than punitive, or vice versa? Love lasts 1,000 generations, while punishment lasts only 4. Jonah 4:2 drops the punitive part: "you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing."

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Things to notice:

*This is the core affirmation of Judaism.
*Jesus combines this with Leviticus 19:18 to sum up the teaching of Torah.
*Later Jews and Christians, under the influence of Greek culture, read this more contemplatively: "Being (YHWH) is divine (Elohim), only Being."

Deuteronomy 32:8-9
Things to notice:

*Is the Most High the same as YHWH (the One-Who-Is), or is YHWH assigned to Israel by the Most High? If the latter, then who is the Most High?

Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6
Things to notice:

*This is not the Devil. Hasatan is YHWH's prosecutor, a member of the divine council.
*YHWH acknowledges that the prosecutor already has the power to carry out his cruel experiment.

Job 23
Things to notice:

*Compare this to Psalm 139.

Job 38:1-42:7
Things to notice:

*YHWH overwhelms Job by describing the vastness of creation, but this doesn't answer any questions.
*Job may not have repented. The translation here is difficult. NRSV translation: "therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Alternate translation: "therefore I withdraw my words and have changed my mind about the human condition."
*YHWH prefers Job's protests over his friends' explanations.

Psalm 82
Things to notice:

*This psalm seems to take for granted that there have been other Gods besides Elohim (God/s).
*Elohim demands respect and dignity for the weak, and accuses other gods of neglecting this.
*Again, it's not clear if the Most High is the same as Elohim or not.

Psalm 139
Things to notice:

*YHWH appears here to be all-knowing and omnipresent. The psalmist's hatefulness, toward the end of the psalm, seems jarring to today's readers.

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Things to notice:

*Another example of changing God's mind.
*Jonah's description of God's mercy echoes Exodus 34:6-7 but drops the part about punishment.

Isaiah 44-46
Things to notice:

*Written in 545-539 BCE, these are considered the clearest expressions of monotheism (belief in only one God) more or less as we know it today. There simply are no other gods. Everything that exists comes from El/YHWH (the names are used interchangeably).
*"To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, as though we were alike?" This raises a dilemma: God can't be compared with anything else. But all the terms used to describe God were originally used to describe other things. How, then, can they describe God? To say that God is literally personal would be to compare God to a creature, which is forbidden. (But the same problem arises if God were said to be literally impersonal; impersonal things are creatures too.) God can't be literally anything we otherwise know.
*This gave rise to what is called apophatic theology (or negative theology), where God is said to be experienced as utterly incomprehensible (note the tension—experienced, yes, yet experienced as utterly incomprehensible!). St. Thomas Aquinas: "by the revelation of grace in this life we cannot know of God 'what he is', and thus are united to God as to one unknown" (Summa Theologiae I-I, Q. xii, a. 13).
*It also gave rise to the idea that any description of God must be non-literal. It must be considered analogical, symbolic, metaphorical, etc. An official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that we cannot speak of God at all without using analogies where "there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater" (Fourth Lateran Council, Canon 2, 1215 CE). "A term is predicated analogically of creatures and of God when we know from creatures that it must be true of God too, but also know that how it is true of God must be beyond our comprehension" [Denys Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 211].
*This still doesn't answer how we can decide which analogies, symbols, metaphors, etc. are to be preferred to others (if they're all equally preferable, we seem to be saying nothing).
*Paul Tillich suggests that non-literal language is truest when 1) we find it to have "the power of expressing an ultimate concern in such a way that it creates reply, action, communication," and 2) it "expresses not only the ultimate but also its own lack of ultimacy" [Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1957), pp. 110, 112].

Acts 17:16-34
Things to notice:

*The technical term for Paul's view of God here is panentheism—God is not everything (that would be pantheism), but everything is in God and God is in everything. Notice the difference in spelling between pantheism and panentheism. The "en" part is crucial.

Romans 11:36
Things to notice:

*This can be read as another version of panentheism. God is the beginning (from), way (through), and end (to) of all things. God is not literally another thing, not an extra being like the other beings, only bigger. Almost every early Christian writer quotes this passage when introducing the idea of God.

1 Corinthians 8:5-6
Things to notice:

*Paul is beginning to associate Jesus with at least an aspect of God, before any of the Gospels were written. This really complicates things! Are Christians still monotheists? Is God now interpersonal instead of personal?

John 4:24
Things to notice:

*This is one of only three sentences in the New Testament that begin with "God is..." God is spirit (or breath or wind).

1 John 1:5
Things to notice:

*This is the second of three sentences in the New Testament that begin with "God is..." God is light.

1 John 4:7-21
Things to notice:

*This is the third of three sentences in the New Testament that begin with "God is..." God is love—not "God is loving," or "God loves," but "God is love," not exactly a single person but an interpersonal, mutual relation.
*Notice that all three NT occurrences of "God is..." use non-personal analogies (or symbols or metaphors): God is breath/wind/spirit, God is light, God is love.
*All who live in love live in God, and vice versa (a majorly inclusive statement!). And those who do not live in love do not even know God, even if they insist that every word of the Nicene Creed is true (of course the writer knew nothing of that creed).
*This later became a popular way to speak of the Trinity: "God is love. Why should we go running round the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth looking for him who is with us if only we should wish to be with him? Let no one say 'I don’t know what to love.' Let him love his brother, and love that love … Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love … And if a man is full of love, what is he full of but God? … Love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love. And what is love but a kind of life coupling or trying to couple together two things, namely lover and what is being loved? This is true even in the most fleshly kinds of love … So here again there are three, lover and what is being loved, and love." Augustine, On the Trinity, trans. by Edmund Hill, O.P. (Brooklyn: New City Press, 1991), pp. 252-255 (8.5.11-14).

Summing Up
So—What's the Biblical definition of God?
It's complicated!
There are several approaches.
Some make more sense today than others.

If God is ever-present Being, symbolized and addressed interpersonally, then it's not easy to say what would count against affirming God's reality or presence.

If God is the temperamental "biggest guy" with lots of extra powers, like a comic book superhero, then it's easy to make believing in this biggest guy look silly.

God-Talk in an Uncontainable World

Why do people engage in God-talk, in talking about God and to God? There are lots of bad reasons for this that can make people easy to ridicule: "The tornado missed my trailer—too bad about yours." "I prayed and got better—maybe your prayers weren't as sincere." But other reasons are more intriguing.

The main reason I keep engaging in God-talk is that, fundamentally, I have been trusting a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence all my life, sometimes in opposition to what others have expected of me, sometimes challenging even my own most settled values, often despite how my and others' lives seemed to be going. It's not the result of mindless indoctrination. Trust in this sense of uncontainable meaning and presence is the faith that moves everything I do. I'm not interested in any lesser brand of faith.

That does lead me, provisionally and carefully, to trust what certain noteworthy others say about God, in canonized sacred writings and later reflections, so far as their God-talk seems to flow out of their sense of uncontainable meaning and presence. Indeed, the fact that the God-talk of certain others (not all of them) reflects that sense is the main reason why I call it God-talk, alongside meaning-talk and presence-talk.

That sense also leads me to trust some emotional responses, though again provisionally and carefully. Strong emotions can sometimes be appropriate responses to a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence, though they can also be no more than irrational reactions. One of those strong emotions is compassion, which, far from being irrational, is a fundamental motive for rationality. We care about truth and honesty because we care about others. While stories of compassion persisting in the face of suffering prove nothing about compassion's ultimate source, they can still evoke a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence.

That accounts for most of my God-talk these days. The sacramental, Eucharistic worship of my Anglo-Catholic/Episcopalian tradition is among the most intense settings I have found for awakening and energizing a sense of uncontainable meaning and presence. Praying, reciting, scripture reading, singing, chanting, looking, smelling incense, moving, tasting, eating, touching—all conspire here to point beyond themselves to the uncontainable meaning of ever-present power perfected in apparent weakness and brokenness. I provisionally trust others' ingenious combination of these elements, not because they are beyond question, but because they awaken me to what I can't seem to escape, uncontainable meaning and presence. I use, explore and critique cruciform, Trinitarian God-talk for the same reasons. I can't seem to escape being some sort of Christian, nor would I wish otherwise. It's why I eventually realized a vocation to the priesthood.

Now of course all of that could simply be about me and my subjective experience, or my faith community's common subjective experiences. For the past 200 years some very devout and admirable people have been content to say that this is all their God-talk entails—it's about how we feel, not about what's real. But I'm not satisfied with that. For me, to say that all this simply subjective experience would seem to deny that the meaning and presence I seem to sense are uncontainable. Their seeming uncontainability is what draws me to these experiences so deeply. To call them simply subjective would make them easily containable, and I wouldn't take them as seriously any more.

To trust these experiences as clues to something more than me, I need at least some inkling of how quarks, galaxies, people, suffering, compassion, and this uncontainable meaning and presence might all credibly work together. There are numerous, reasonable attempts at this, indeed a whole publishing industry, on religion in a culture after Darwin. Like many of these writers, I have found process thought and process theism to be especially promising, not least because it does not try to explain suffering as part of some horrendous divine plan. Here's a simplified version:

An Uncontainable World: Process Thought and Process Theism

"We seek the general notions which apply to nature, namely, to what we are aware of in perception ... For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyse how these various elements of nature are connected ... What we [seek] is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known." “The immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence of nature. It is nature as an event present for sense-awareness, and essentially passing.”—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28-29, 14 (online here.)

Contemporary process thought originally set out to be a way of framing a unified concept of nature that does not undermine the only way we arrive at such a concept—through our experience of nature. Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, William James and C. S. Peirce shared that concern. Even the anti-theist Bertrand Russell seems to have been a sympathizer here. Some process thinkers (e.g., James, Peirce, Whitehead, but not Dewey or Russell) concluded that this could lead to reframing the concept of God in a way that does not need to make God, or peoples' alleged experience of God, look unlikely either. We'll come back to that.

Process thought uses lived experience to challenge the largely unquestioned assumption that constant-things-plus-constant-properties are all that can exist. (This really is almost a dogma beyond question in most Western thought.) Instead, process thought views all things and persons and even properties as uncontainably flowing patterns in the uncontainable flow of reality as such. That's true of quarks, galaxies, experiences, selves and whatever else there is, without exception. Why? Because it's true to what is most constant in experience, namely, that constancy itself is experienced as an abstraction from experience's constant flow. Every experience flows faster than we can track; what we can track, what shows up as more or less constant, are somewhat recurrent patterns (which are not holding completely still either). That applies to what I just said. "Every experience flows faster than we can track" is a somewhat recurrent pattern that never holds completely still, constantly true, but never true in exactly the same way.

Maybe you've never noticed this. Much of our everyday language downplays it, partly because it's unsettling. We're more comfortable with constant-things-plus-constant-properties. Many sciences ignore this, because they tend to limit themselves to what can be tracked—recurrent patterns abstracted from this uncontainable flow. But once you start to notice reality's uncontainable flow, it becomes undeniable. We experience this before we even think about employing the humanly established methods of science or even logic, or the everyday categories of changeless properties attached in some inexplicable way to changeless things. Every experience, every thing or property experienced, flows faster than we can track. It can take a lifetime to appreciate the implications of this, and much of my spirituality is devoted to that. (Buddhists, by the way, have for centuries formed their own spirituality around insights like these. But process thought is mostly a Western movement more open to theistic interpretations than much of Buddhism cares to be.)

When all things and persons are seen as flowing, uncontainable patterns in the uncontainable flow of reality as such, it's easy to see how empathic, intimate relationships with the ultimately real (and with everything else along the way) are available to each of us. We're all flowing uncontainably in the uncontainable flow of the ultimately real, reality as such. This makes oral cultures' tendency to personify the forces in their surroundings look more insightful than moderns have tended to assume, because we all share so much liveliness in common even in our differences. The differences are as real and as great as we need them to be, but still somewhat relative. What we call lifeless or lively, impersonal, personal or interpersonal, becomes partly a matter of convention, of how we choose to see others—as competitors only, or as potential neighbors of endless variety.

When we make the eminently reasonable choice to see everything we experience in process terms, seeing varieties of liveliness everywhere, it makes good sense to interact with reality as such, the ultimately real, in lively terms—not only in impersonal terms but also in personal and interpersonal terms, provided that we pay due attention to the major differences involved. And that is where God-talk arises—where it seems to have arisen historically and where it seems to arise and get renewed today.

We can trace, for example, how the writers of the Bible, in a more animistic and anthropomorphic milieu, moved from thinking of God crudely as one of several temperamental, superhuman agencies in the world to thinking of God more contemplatively as the uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things (Romans 11:36—cited by almost every major Christian writer afterwards) drawing meaning out of shattered dreams. The second half of Isaiah is one of the earliest texts to recognize this, and to recognize further that no terms could be applied to God literally. Instead the impersonal, personal and interpersonal terms used for lesser things had to be stretched and understood figuratively—metaphorically or analogically. By the time of Jesus and Rabbi Hillel and Philo, you could figuratively call God a rock, a fortress, a fire, a shepherd, a parent, a lover, or eventually even love itself (an interpersonal analogy) or reason itself (logos), as long as you remembered that you were evoking the majorly different beginning, way and end of all things, reality as such, the ultimately real. But these figurative expressions weren't considered false. They really pointed, however inadequately, to the uncontainable liveliness of all things, and to the uncontainable liveliness of the beginning, way and end of all things, God. Or so many influential people of faith presumed.

There's a major implication here that has only recently been recognized with any consistency. If all things flow uncontainably, not just the beginning, way and end of all things, then there's no place for an all-controlling power. The uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things does not, and by definition cannot, contain the uncontainable, lively flow of anything else. So process theists avoid using words like "omnipotence," when they speak of God. They view God, the uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things, as uncontainably powerful, but that's not controllingly powerful. The process world is an unforeseeably creative world. Unforeseeable things, including unforeseeable conflicts and disasters, happen when all things flow uncontainably. Even uncontainable awareness cannot foresee them. They can be drawn into closer cooperation afterwards, but they are not preventable by any conceivable power, not even the uncontainably greatest power. With this recognition there's no need to explain away disasters—they're an inevitable byproduct of a multiply creative world, not part of any horrendous plan. I view that as a major selling point. But others see it as paying too high a price.

There are, in fact, both theists and atheists who insist that only an all-controlling being can be called God, and they will predictably object to the process theists' version of God. But process theists reply that, to them (and to me), all-encompassing, all-attracting, non-controlling, uncontainable power is the only power worthy of worship and imitation in an uncontainably lively world. And they point out that this is the power embodied in the canonical stories of Jesus of Nazareth. There, "power is made perfect in weakness," in self-giving compassion, according to St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9; Philippians 2:5-11). Other theists, and their nontheistic critics, have trouble making room for such a statement, or the story behind it, because they start with the concept of an all-controlling God. Process theism starts with power made perfect in (apparent) weakness. All-encompassing, all-attracting, non-controlling, uncontainable power can look weak to the impatient, but it will always outlast and refashion whatever harm occurs.

Process thought insists, credibly, I maintain, that nothing we have discovered since ancient times counts against this ancient insight into the uncontainable liveliness of all things, and of the beginning, way and end of all things, God. This uncontainable liveliness can make room for any number of containable, mechanistic models popular in today's sciences. As models (which are always somewhat figurative abstractions), they, too, really point, however inadequately, to the innumerable variety of recurrent patterns in the uncontainable liveliness that produces and adapts them. We are talking about something real when we speak somewhat mechanistically of fundamental particles, and we are talking about something equally real when we speak somewhat animistically of fundamental, lively moments of uncontainable flowing. There's no inherent conflict in speaking both ways, as long as we notice how we are stretching ordinary words to point to the extraordinary—reality as such flowing uncontainably.

Why Some of Us Find God's Reality Undeniable—Fr. Charles Allen

However else we might try to describe God, Isaiah, Jesus, St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, Alfred North Whitehead, all the Southern Baptist, Catholic, Reformed and Episcopalian theology professors I ever studied with, and countless other theists (God followers) would all agree on this: God is no less than the uniquely inescapable and all-inclusive presence wherein you, I, others and everything else participate. If we think of God in any lesser terms, we're failing to think of God.

The reality of this presence is undeniable to those who notice, because the relevant evidence is ever-present in every moment.

The reality of this presence is of course deniable to those who do not notice. Those of us who do notice (or who think we notice) find it puzzling that anyone would fail to notice. We are doubtless just as puzzling to those who do not notice.

Not all those who notice call this inescapable and all-inclusive presence "God" (read the Tao Te Ching, or Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh), so those of us who do so need to explain ourselves further. This is not a proof, just commending a way of articulating what's happening.

Those of us who speak of this presence as God do so because we seem to find ourselves participating in a hyper-intimate interaction with this presence. The interaction defies easy classification, but calling it a sort of dialogue still seems appropriate. This is also why praying seems appropriate.

Because of this hyper-intimate, quasi-dialogical interaction, it seems appropriate to use personifying language to speak of it; in fact, to use only impersonal language to speak of the interaction would seem to miss something crucial.

But even though we find personifying language inescapable, we realize (or ought to realize) that it is impossible to classify this interaction as one more example of a dialogue between persons like you and me. This uniquely inescapable and all-inclusive presence is not less than personal, but not simply another person either.

Personifying language is thus both inescapable and inadequate. Some thinkers call this way of speaking analogical, others metaphorical, still others symbolic. All would insist that it's still a crucially realistic way of speaking, not just an optional way to generate warm, fuzzy feelings.

Noteworthy Christians in almost every generation have known this. They have not always kept it consistently in view. That's what distinguishes many currently practicing Christians from their ancestors.

Opening to the Boundless: An Account of Contemplative Faith—Fr. Charles Allen

Here's what I think I have learned from studying and reflecting on my faith tradition while learning to appreciate others:

Faith traditions can begin for all sorts of silly reasons—for example, attributing weather to the moods of one or more temperamental, very powerful personal beings with whom we can bargain. If that's how they remained many of us would ignore or even ridicule them, as we learn more about how the world works.

But as detractors often fail to note, that's not how they remain. As faith traditions spread and endure they always attract more reflective followers who develop a more contemplative faith that is not silly at all.

Contemplative faith happens whenever something bounded seems open to the boundless, as both boundlessly here and boundlessly good: what may first seem most remotely abstract or forbidding comes to seem most intimately concrete and inviting.

Faith traditions often begin by responding to their surroundings in personal terms, but as they become more contemplative they all turn to more-than-personal terms (like "the boundless" or "being" or "being-here-now"); some remain theistic (that is, they retain words like “God”); some become nontheistic, avoiding terms like “God” altogether; hardly any seem to turn to less-than-personal terms, however.

All come to recognize that, while no terms adequately describe the boundless, some terms are more informative than others (e.g., "the boundless" or "being" or "being-here-now" seems more informative than "fingernail clippings").

Faith traditions that remain theistic come to realize that terms for personal and interpersonal presence (being-here-now) are themselves elusive terms that defy objectification, that is, there seems to be something boundless about them, making them compatible with the more-than-personal.

To paraphrase St. Paul, the boundless may be one from which, through which and in which all things are (Romans 11:36), but so, in a way, are you. All you'll ever know of what isn't you happens in and through you, and in a way even from you (though largely unexpectedly). You can never be an object for yourself the way you can be for others, not if you're you. Nor can I. Nor can we. There's something boundless about being you, me and us, here and now. Physics and other natural sciences, as we know or can imagine them, have nothing to say against this (and of course vice versa).

Such insights may never occur to casual theists, that is, most theists (!), but they have occurred frequently to contemplative theists for centuries, and if they had not occurred frequently it is doubtful that the three major theistic traditions would even exist today in any recognizable form.

Theistic arguments or "proofs" generally try to show how anything bounded opens to the boundless as its all-inclusive setting. Anselm: our very thought of the boundless, if it's really about the boundless, opens to the boundless beyond all thought. Aquinas: bounded causation opens to boundless causation; bounded goods open to boundless good.

Such attempted proofs are persuasive when something bounded already seems open to the boundless, but hardly ever otherwise, and they provide no support for casual theists, only for contemplative theists.

In each of the three major theistic traditions there is a different focus on something bounded that seems to open most effectively to the boundless: in Judaism, a holy people; in Christianity, a holy person-in-communion, in Islam, a holy recitation.

Nontheistic traditions likewise focus on something bounded, often a cluster of practices, that seems to open most effectively to the boundless. (For them the boundless is more like here-and-now than I-and-you. But does being-here-now ever happen without I-and-you? Has it? Can either nontheists or theists afford to be competitive or exclusive here?)

All faith traditions can turn dangerous when they forget a) that opening to the boundless is itself a bounded opening to the boundless, and b) that the point of focusing contemplatively on something bounded is to open us not to itself but to the boundless. When they forget this they abuse not only others but themselves.

This is why people in and beyond specific faith traditions need to enact protections against such abuses (keeping religions disestablished, for example). Such protections are in everybody's interest.

When devotees of differing faith traditions remember all this, however, they begin to open themselves to differing, bounded ways of opening to the boundless. They begin to fulfill their deepest insights. They deserve recognition and encouragement for this, not indifference or disparagement.

I say all this, mind you, as someone who opens to the boundless in terms of "the Communion of God's Spirit in Jesus Christ." I've been doing that for over forty years. For me those terms, while bounded, seem to open me most effectively to the boundless, partly because they intentionally convey a certain openness and instability (not God alone, not Spirit alone, not Jesus or the Christ alone, not the sum of all three, but their Communion—one that includes you and me and others here and now). That Communion is intrinsically open to differing, bounded ways of opening to the boundless, since communion without such openness is no communion at all.

Common Worship—Fr. Charles Allen

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”—Acts 2:42 (describing the first community of Christ-followers).

On Sunday evenings we at GraceUnlimited continue the practice of the earliest followers of Jesus, gathering to open ourselves to his living, God-filled, all-embracing presence in our singing, praying, interpreting scripture—and in sharing the thanksgiving meal he started. (If you’re a history nerd check a few more quotes below the *******.)

We call this way of worshipping “Eucharist,” which is a Greek word that means “thanksgiving.” St. Paul, the first Christ-follower to write anything down, said that when we do this, we are Christ’s broken body sharing Christ’s broken body:

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”—1 Corinthians 10:16-17.

We are Christ’s broken body sharing Christ’s broken body. I know, the imagery of eating flesh and blood sounds grotesque. But it was an ancient way of saying that we are “internalizing” the Jesus-like, embodied presence of the God who heals our brokenness by sharing it. We’re not just remembering Jesus, or God, or just thinking about them (as if they were somewhere else and not right here). We’re actually living Jesus’ God-filled, broken life in our own shared, embodied and broken lives.

That’s an outrageous thing to say! Do you have to believe it? Frankly, I don’t know if anybody ever believed it 100%. Who ever believes anything 100%? Besides, at GraceUnlimited we don’t think of faith as signing up for a list of settled beliefs. We think of faith as opening ourselves, trustfully, to more than we can ever define. It’s living into an immeasurable presence that won’t let us go. We call that presence “mystery,” not the kind of mystery that gets solved, but the kind that deepens the more we explore it.

So no, nobody’s insisting that you have to believe all this. But you are invited to open yourself to what it might mean to be Christ’s broken body, gathering to share Christ’s broken body in broken bread and poured-out wine, and departing to keep being Christ’s broken body in the world around us. Mystery.

A few hundred years later St. Augustine commented on St. Paul in these words that we repeat every Sunday at Common Worship: “Your mystery is laid on the table of the Lord. Your mystery you receive. Be what you see, and receive what you are” (Sermon 272).

Be what you see. Receive what you are. Don’t just remember. Wonder. Live the God-filled, broken life of Jesus in your own life.

 ***********

The Didache (probably written before 100): “On the Lord's own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks” (ch. 14).

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (around 107): "Take care, then, to keep one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the priests and my fellow servants, the deacons." (Letter to the Philadelphians).

Justin Martyr (around 150): “And on the day named after the sun all, whether they live in the city or the countryside, are gathered together in unity. Then the records of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as there is time. When the reader has concluded, the presider in a discourse admonishes and invites us into the pattern of these good things. Then we all stand together and offer prayer (67). When we have ended the prayers, we greet one another with a kiss. Then the brothers and sisters set out before the presider bread and a cup of water and mixed wine, and, taking these, he offers praise and glory to the Father of all things through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and makes thanksgiving at length for being counted worthy of this gift from God. When he has finished the prayers and the thanksgiving, all the people present sing out their assent, saying amen [“let it be so”]. … And when the presider has given thanks and all the people have sung out their assent, those called deacons by us give to each one of those present to partake from the bread and wine with water over which thanks have been said and they are carried away to those who are not present (65). Those who are prosperous and who desire to do so, give what they wish, according to each one’s own choice, and the collection is deposited with the presider. He aids orphans and widows, those who are in want through disease or through another cause, those who are in prison, and strangers who are sojourning here. In short, the presider takes care of all those who are in need (67)” (First Apology).

Faith Is Not Believing Without Questioning—Fr. Charles Allen

An opinion hath spread it selfe verie farre in the world, as if the waye to be ripe in faith, were to be rawe in wit and judgement; as if reason were an enimie unto religion … [But] ‘Judge you of that which I speak,’ saith the Apostle [1 Cor.10:15]. In vaine it were to speake any thing of God, but that by reason men are able some what to judge of that they heare, and by discourse to discerne how consonant it is to truth.”—16th Century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 3.8.11-12

Could it be that our world could use a few more Hookers? (Yes, that’s a shameless double entendre.) There’s a tendency in our modern culture to equate faith with unquestioning belief: you believe something without having looked at any reasons for or against believing it, and then you treat it as if it should be off-limits to questions like that. This is what upsets vocal critics of faith like the new atheists. I think they are right to be upset about this. It may be harmless in most cases, but it’s also a breeding ground for fanaticism, terrorism, super-patriotism and other ills that beset our world.

But I and countless others like me will never speak of faith as a matter of believing without questioning, because we see God as the ever-present reality who constantly eludes any final descriptions, even those of our favorite creeds. For us faith is not believing in something absent but trusting in an ever-present reality beyond our grasp or control. It does not have to worry about the existence of such a reality, though it may wonder about its ultimate character. It is an inkling that this reality in which we already find ourselves immersed is also our ultimate good. It is a kind of “knowledge,” or awareness, but not the everyday kind: the more we know of this reality “in which we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), the more we realize that it is too vast, too intimate and too engaging ever to be adequately described. The very scriptures and traditions we inhabit, and which inhabit us, speak to us most faithfully, not when we look to them for final “answers,” but when they awaken, transform and deepen this inkling of the ultimate goodness of the reality in which we live and move and have our being.

Now whenever I say something like this, somebody almost always responds that I’m offering a “liberal” or “academic” redefinition of faith. That simply is not true. It may be a minority voice in a world where most people, religious or not, would rather not think, but it’s still a voice that’s been around for quite some time. Christian thinkers understood faith in this way well before the rise of modern science—not all of them, but many of them, like Hooker.

John Calvin, another 16th Century theologian (not known for being liberal), concurred in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He claimed: 1) Faith is a form of knowledge, not blind belief: “Is this what believing means—to understand nothing, provided only that you submit your feeling obediently to the church? Faith rests not on ignorance but on knowledge … It is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate”(3.2.2). 2) Faith’s “knowledge” is not comprehension but an assured recognition of something incomprehensible: “When we call faith ‘knowledge’ we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond itself and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, in does not comprehend what it feels. But while it is persuaded of what it does not grasp, by the very certainty of its persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity. … For very good reason … faith is called ‘recognition’, but by John, ‘knowledge’. … [But] the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension”(3.2.14).

Over the past fifty years many people of faith have been influenced by Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957). Faith, Tillich said, “is the state of being ultimately concerned,” “an act of the personality as a whole,” concern, above all, “about what is experienced as ultimate” (1, 5, 11). Faith can of course be idolatrous when misplaced: “In true faith the ultimate concern is a concern about the truly ultimate; while in idolatrous faith preliminary, finite realities are elevated to the rank of ultimacy” (13). For example, it is idolatry to be ultimately concerned about my own faith tradition, my tradition’s scriptures, or even my own beliefs. None of these are the truly ultimate—at best, they can help us to participate in the truly ultimate, but only when we let them point beyond themselves. Only the truly ultimate deserves the name of “God,” and if we hear stories about God in our scriptures, they are true stories only insofar as they point us to the truly ultimate beyond all our limited concepts of God (53-55).

Now, let’s admit, Tillich is most definitely an “ivory tower” figure, and he is perceived by many as “liberal” (though he always rejected the term as too bourgeois). But is this really an illicit attempt, as Sam Harris charges, to change the meaning of the term from what pre-modern religious leaders meant? (See Harris, The End of Faith [New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004), p. 65.) As it turns out, “ultimate concern with the truly ultimate” seems to be a theme that Tillich (a Lutheran) borrowed from Martin Luther himself: “What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”—From The Larger CatechismHarris can reject this as a definition of faith, but he needs to recognize that this is no modern reinvention of the term. It’s hundreds of years old. It was once required reading for young Lutherans.

Harris may of course be right that the majority of religious people have always preferred to think of faith as unquestioning belief, but doesn’t that simply confirm Tillich’s point that we have a tendency to settle for idolatry? And isn’t it a central point of theological education to teach people to stop making idols of their own cherished ideas? Isn’t that also a central point of preaching, at least in Churches like mine that always required an educated clergy? (Alas, many do not require this any more.) Furthermore, if we’re going to discuss an idea, shouldn’t we start with what the most informed people say it means? If we want to discuss reason and science, do we look to childhood impressions for our definitions, or do we look to mature reflections of people well-versed in both? So why is it OK to stick with childish impressions of faith and God? Again, let’s admit, those of us who want to move beyond childish impressions may be a minority voice, but we are, and always have been, much more numerous than “Tillich’s blameless parish of one” (Harris, 65), and we are not giving up or going away.

A Heavenly Reconsideration—a Poem by Wesley Sexton (Butler ‘16)

I can’t say lamb anymore
than I could have said damn to my mother
as a 3rd grader, though I tried once,
quoting my older brother,
and still I was sent to my room
without supper. I think Jesus came
not just to say so many true things
and wear a thorny crown but also to point
to the godliness of our world – this one,
not the one A&E* fell out of, but the one
they fell into. No one wants us lying in bed
of an afternoon, hands crossed over our chests.
Our proper place is under the yellow eye,
amongst grey-birds & stick-bugs, filling our bodies
with as much green as possible. For this,
God sits beside every unburied tomb
singing wildly in the mouths of bees,
the song of our resurrection if we knew
only to look for it in this world,
the one God himself inhabited
and asked us so enthusiastically to love.

*Adam and Eve

 

Questions from a Friendly Skeptic—Fr. Charles Allen

    

Most of these are questions sent to me several years ago by a friend who was just getting to know me (I think they were recycled from a new atheist website.) He was and is an atheist who had once been a very, very conservative evangelical minister. We're still friends, though we realize that on some subjects we're simply at an impasse. The questions here are common enough in popular debates, so they're worth answering, and I did. I've tweaked the answers occasionally since then, whenever I noticed that I hadn't been as clear as I could have been. I hope my answers are not unfriendly. If so, I apologize. I do have opinions. If I say unflattering things about Bible-thumpers, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists, I'm not identifying you, the reader, or anybody else with those a simplistic caricatures, though I do encourage you not to identify yourself with either of them. Incidentally, there was a conservative evangelical minister included in the initial exchange. He found my answers completely unacceptable. I'm not surprised. Episcopalians liked them—no surprise there either.

1. Why is God called loving or merciful when, in the Old Testament's stories of the Israelite conquest, he specifically orders his chosen people to massacre their enemies, showing no mercy to men, women, even children and animals?

That's a problem for literalist Christians who believe that every snapshot of God in the Bible is 100% accurate. That’s not what I or my church believe. Furthermore, that's not what early Christians believed. They were not literalists. Literalism is the invention of "Bible-thumping" Protestants (not all Protestants) in the last 400 of Christianity's 2,000 years. They rejected all the traditions that helped people make sense of the Bible. The first Christians called God loving, not because they were literalists, but because they read their Bibles through their shared experience of being inexplicably embraced by God, despite their own enmity, as Jesus, the rejected one, began to animate their lives. You undoubtedly consider the experience an illusion, but for the moment that's beside the point. It was their experience, illusory or not. The Bible was a commentary on that shared experience from different angles, but the shared experience, the core of their living tradition, came first. When a passage showed God behaving nastily, early Christians assumed it had to be a caricature. That's how the Bible should be read today, though Bible-thumpers, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists, have forgotten this. Because I approach the Bible in that originating way, I have no problem with how today's most reputable scholars approach it. And I readily recognize that different writers of the Bible viewed God differently, in terms of their own agendas. Some thought God could not tolerate religious differences (these were the writers and editors of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings). Others, like Second Isaiah, the writer of Jonah, and St. Paul, emphasized God's ultimate mercy for everybody over temporary wrath against wrongdoing. The writers of Ephesians and Colossians (probably not Paul) seem to have been universalists. So again, Christians in the first few centuries believed Jesus' ongoing life fulfills the spiritual meaning of the Bible and simply ignored the literal meaning. (Examples: St. Paul allegorizes the Genesis stories of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-5:1. St. Augustine, following his own teachers, taught that no passage should be taken literally if it makes God look immoral—On Christian Doctrine 3.10.14; 3.15.23.) It's only in the seventeenth century that entire churches full of Bible-thumpers tried out the idea that every passage of the Bible was equally, clearly and literally informative about God and that it could therefore be immediately understood without listening to any other interpretations. It was a lousy idea. I have no problem calling God loving because the living traditions that produced the Bible, and the Bible itself, teach me that nasty-looking stories about God can't define God. That's a typically Episcopalian answer.

2. Does it make sense to claim, as the Bible does, that wrongdoing can be forgiven by magically transferring the blame from a guilty person to an innocent one, then punishing the innocent person?

No, it doesn't make sense. But don’t assume that the Bible claims this (more here). As I read the Bible, God and God's servants may suffer and bear the harmful consequences of human wrongdoing, in order to keep working with us, and that's a major sacrifice. But it doesn't require punishment for punishments' sake, whether directly inflicted or transferred to somebody else. Most reputable historians and biblical scholars agree that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement was later developed by Anselm, Aquinas, and the first Protestants. It never showed up in Eastern Orthodoxy.

3. Why does the Bible routinely depict God as manifesting himself in dramatic, unmistakable ways and performing obvious miracles even before the eyes of nonbelievers, when no such thing happens in the world today?

Because the writers of the Bible exaggerated. There's no reason to assume that God's presence was ever unmistakable. People today, like me, report experiences of a sacred presence that can shake up their views of the everyday world. I'm not talking about dramatic visions or voices—more a constant, subtle awareness of an inescapable presence. We find it natural to assume that people had similar experiences back then, some decisively more vivid than any of mine. I’m in no position to dictate what they actually saw or heard. Maybe it was beyond what I now think possible. I wasn’t there. Still, as their stories circulated they got embellished. Sometimes, as in the Talmud, everybody seemed to know that the stories were embellished in order to make a point, and they didn't have a problem with that. Did you ever notice that Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, never refers to Jesus' alleged miracles, unless you count his rather mystical experience of the living Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. But even there he denies that it was physical: "risen" bodies are spiritual, not physical. The Gospels report all kinds of miracles, but they came decades later and show definite signs of embellishment. But again, given storytelling practices like Midrash in the Talmud, there's no reason to assume that anybody was being fraudulent. Embellishments were ok, as long as they made a point. In any case, reports about past miracles are no substitute for experiencing an inescapable sacred presence here and now.

4. Why do vast numbers of Christians still believe in the imminent end of the world when the New Testament states clearly that the apocalypse was supposed to happen 2,000 years ago, during the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries?

There are also vast numbers of Christians who don’t believe this and never did. Again, you're assuming that American, ultra-conservative, Bible-thumping Protestants represent the majority of Christians. They don't. Though I agree that their numbers are depressingly vast. I don't know why they hold on to that belief. I tried to embrace it myself for a few years in the 1970s, but it just didn't take. Paul clearly believed it would happen soon, maybe while he still lived. He was mistaken. Despite an escape clause (nobody knows the day or the hour), Jesus is reported to have said that all this stuff would happen within the lifespan of his generation. It didn't. Bible-thumpers have a problem admitting this, and ex-Bible-thumpers-turned-militant-atheists think admitting this disproves the Bible. It does, I admit, help disprove a Bible-thumping view of the Bible, but as I keep reiterating, I don't belong to either group. Many New Testament scholars think that Jesus originally preached that God's reign is already arriving, but it's germinating like a mustard seed, fermenting like yeast. Of course it's always guesswork when people try to separate the "original" Jesus from the narrated Jesus. People look for his bombastic return today because they want somebody to step in and prove them right. I'm not counting on that. I don't need proof to be convinced that the best way to love God is to love (and thus respect!) others who will never be just like me. We probably agree about that, except for the God part.

5. Why do Christians believe in the soul when neurology has found clear evidence that the sense of identity and personality can be altered by physical changes to the brain?

Because many Christians ignore the Bible when they talk about souls. Later Christians borrowed the idea of an immortal soul from their Greek influenced culture. The Bible seems mostly to deny a soul/body dualism. Paul insisted that any life beyond this one would have to be embodied in some incomprehensible way ("spiritually"). I believe that my own self wouldn't exist now as it does without my own body, and that changes in my body can change who I am. But I can also make changes in my body happen. I'm doing that all the time. I'm not just a passive byproduct of my body, even though I constantly depend on embodiment. Neurology is no threat to this. Anybody who says and means "I" or "You" already believes that selves are more than third-person descriptions, neurological or otherwise. And "self" is just a modern substitute for "soul."

6. If it was always God's plan to provide salvation through Jesus, why didn't he send Jesus from the very beginning, instead of waiting thousands of years?

I don't assume that God foreknew exactly what role Jesus would play all along, or even that there would be that specific human being named Jesus. Most biblical passages portray God as one who keeps altering plans in response to human decisions. The goal of reconciliation doesn't change, but the way of reaching the goal does. Jesus' life embodied the reconciliation that God has been working toward ever since there has been a need for reconciliation. It didn't start with Jesus or even with Abraham. And it doesn't end there either. The basic biblical storyline is that God's plan is to do whatever it takes to foster reconciliation. I believe that continuing to embody the communion of God's Spirit in the living Jesus is my way to do this and that it's worth sharing with everybody. But God will keep doing whatever it takes. That's how the story goes.

7. Don't you know that Jesus is mostly (maybe totally) a made-up character? Doesn't that disprove Christianity?

I and other progressive Christians do recognize that many early stories about Jesus mix fact with fiction. Scholars often disagree about which is which. In the first century world this mixture was an accepted way of making the past come alive in the present. (Google "midrash.") Can we prove that Jesus existed? No. We can’t prove that St. Paul existed either, though I don’t know of any historian who doubts that. Historically speaking, all we can credibly show (I wouldn't say "prove") is that, starting in the first century, people's lives were utterly transformed by stories of this amazingly embracing person who seemed to be embracing them even more amazingly after his execution. Again, we recognize that this impact of Jesus on his first followers inspired a whole variety of creative ("made-up") storytelling. For them, as for us today, he was not just a figure of the past but a living presence animating the very stories they wrote. So it's no surprise if many stories about him were embellished to convey how radical his impact was and is. We're not troubled by polemical, mostly self-published writers who argue that he never existed, since they are not taken seriously by the majority of secular historians. (Google "peer review.") If secular historians start taking them seriously, we'll pay more attention, but right now they have about as much credibility as people who deny Barack Obama's U.S. citizenship. We have no reason to doubt that Jesus' all-embracing life among his followers awakened them to the all-embracing life they called God, that his faithfulness to that life got him executed, and that afterwords his followers were surprised to experience him as even more all-embracingly alive. That's the basic storyline that his earliest followers, like St. Paul, preached, and that we still preach today. That's the storyline you'd have to discredit in order to discredit Christianity as we practice it. I have more to say about that here: Jesus As an Historical Figure.

8. Since the Bible states that God does not desire that anyone perish, but also states that the majority of humankind is going to Hell, doesn't this show that God's plan of salvation is a failure even by his own standard? If this outcome is a success, what would count as a failure?

The Bible is not clear even about the existence of Hell, much less about how many people might wind up there. Some New Testament writers were universalists, as were many of the Church Fathers, as I've already said. So again the way this question is framed is wrong from the outset. A fairly consistent theme of the Bible is that God never stops working toward reconciliation, though perhaps we never stop trying to avoid it. Is that a failure on God's part? That would depend on God's expectations, and ours.

9. Why didn't God create human beings such that they freely desire to do good, thus removing the need to create a Hell at all? (If you believe this is impossible, isn't this the state that will exist in Heaven?)

We've already dealt with misconceptions about Hell. You seem to equate freely desiring to do good with being programmed to do good automatically. That's not freedom. And I don't speculate about afterlife, since the New Testament never provides details outside of parables and Revelation's bizarre visions. Genesis, in ancient, flat-earth terms, depicts God repeatedly summoning multiply creative community from a chaos that already existed, with further chaos and conflict as inevitable byproducts of that. The common vision of both testaments is that reconciliation can exhaust and outlast any chaos or conflict. I don't know if reconciliation needs to come to an end in this life or beyond. Maybe participating right now in everlasting reconciliation is a better glimpse of paradise than someday singing celestial campfire songs.

10. Is it fair or rational for God to hide himself so that he can only be known by faith, then insist that every single human being find him by picking the right one out of thousands of conflicting and incompatible religions?

Does God hide? Or is God by definition the ultimate, ever-present and utterly engaging reality too intimately involved with us to be observed the way we observe ordinary objects (which are limited by definition)? In that case, maybe it's not God who's hiding but we who are looking too far away. My experience confirms that most of us are indeed inattentive about the constant, inescapable, unsettling presence of the sacred, which some of us rightly continue to call God. We also tend to suppress anything in experience that seems immune to our efforts to control everything—we suppress our deepest feelings but also our deepest awareness that we can't escape a relentless summons to community where none of us gets to call the shots. When we do that God isn’t hiding. We are hiding from God just as we hide from ourselves and anything unsettling. But what's more than fair, the biblical storyline goes, is that our hiding doesn't keep God from working with us toward reconciliation, regardless of the religious or irreligious choices we make. On top of that, I don't think God is as concerned as some of us are about our getting all our beliefs exactly right. If they move us toward reconciliation, they're good enough for God to work with. Paths can differ in theory without being incompatible in practice. You can find as much to support that view of God in the Bible as you can find to support a narrower view.

11. If you had the power to help all people who are suffering or in need, at no cost or effort to yourself, would you do it? If so, why hasn't God done this already?

God is helping already, just not controlling. The underlying theme of the Bible is that God always has and is still doing just that—not controlling, but helping: God never stops doing whatever it takes to work with all of us toward reconciliation, though one might say that this costs God everything. According to the basic storyline, from the beginning God summons multiply creative community from primal chaos, where multiple, uncontrollable and unpredictable responses inevitably produce more chaos, conflict and pain. That's an unpreventable consequence of summoning multiply creative community from chaos. But, the storyline narrates, God bears all consequences with us, whether devastating or delightful, on the way into further, multiply creative community (with its further chaotic byproducts). That's the basic storyline of Jesus' life and presence, but also the basic storyline of God's life and presence in Israel long before Jesus' birth. The storyline shows us that, ultimately, the only effective power God seems to have with a multiply creative community is the power to keep summoning every bit of it from chaos into further community, no matter how many unforeseen detours that involves, and the storyline shows us many unforeseen detours. You can call this power a kind of "sovereignty" or "omnipotence" (the power to summon multiply creative community from chaos is immeasurably greater than any other power—certainly greater than any ability to control the uncreative), but I find those terms misleading. God is helping all the time, helping immeasurably. We can help too, and that should be our focus.

12. What's the evidence for this God you keep talking about so confidently?

My evidence is nothing less than every moment of existence, sufficiently noted. When I pay enough attention, I experience every moment of existence as a relentless summons from chaos into multiply creative community: I'm summoned to arise anew from the vast mixture of community and chaos that brought me to this moment; I take all of that and remix it into something somewhat new, releasing this novelty back into the mixture; I and the mixture are momentarily renewed, somewhat; and then the process starts over, though never quite the same. It's so inescapable for me that if others deny experiencing this, I can't help presuming that they aren't paying enough attention. They're like people who try to tell me that awareness is only an illusion, failing to note that illusions can't happen where there is no awareness.

If I experience every moment of existence this way, the simplest presumption is that every moment of existence beyond my experience is this way too. And everything I now know about existence beyond my experience readily lends itself to viewing it in these terms, especially with the help of process thought. Process thought holds that any moment of existence anywhere arises anew from a vast mixture of community and chaos, remixes it into something somewhat new, releasing its novelty back into the mixture, yielding a somewhat new mixture of community and chaos. (More here) That's just what momentary existence fundamentally is, no matter where or when it happens. Every experience illustrates this. It's how we learn to identify moments as moments. And momentary existence is in turn fundamental to every other sort of existence. Every experience illustrates that too. Show me any other type of existence that doesn't depend on this momentary existence. Try to think of any supposed non-momentary existence without relying on momentary existence to think it. To presume that momentary existence could be absent anywhere is blatantly metaphysical speculation, never supported by experience. It's anti-empirical. I seem to have all the evidence anybody could reasonably demand for viewing and responding to existence itself (or if you prefer, Being Itself) as the relentless summons from chaos into multiply creative community. And that, I and countless others claim, is the fundamental storyline of the biblical God.

Faith, Doubt and Reason—Fr. Charles Allen

Every year a good number of first year students at Butler University choose to enroll in a two-semester core course called "Faith, Doubt and Reason." And every year I get interviewed by students who are writing their final papers for the first semester. Since that's likely to happen again, I thought I'd write down my answers.

Q: How do you define reason? A: Reason is, concretely, responding with integrity to all that we undergo. Aristotle called it practical wisdom (I wrote a 246-page, jargon-filled doctoral dissertation on that in the 1980s). The formal operations of logic and even scientific method are more abstract versions of this. They would never have developed if we did not recognize them as ways to respond with integrity to some of what we undergo, but they're too artificial to work everywhere. Yet even where formal operations and controlled experiments seem too artificial, we still seem to find ways to respond with integrity. There's no escaping this demand, even when we appeal to faith. Faith itself aims to respond with integrity to what we ultimately undergo. Integrity requires attentiveness, honesty, consistency, a capacity for self-criticism and a willingness to change if need be. That’s my less-than-246-page answer.

Q: How do you define doubt? A: Doubt is a form of questioning that arises when what we undergo doesn't seem to fit what is currently affirmed. Unlike Descartes, and more like C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey, I don't think reason requires us to try doubting everything at once. Nor do I think we're obliged to prove, or be certain about, what already seems true to us and other reliable-seeming people, as long as we don't suppress honest questions (doubt!). But we are obliged to be honest when what we undergo doesn't seem to fit what is currently affirmed. We may then have to modify what was affirmed or else reexamine what we're undergoing (maybe it does fit, and we just haven't figured out how). Example: After an intense week of dating  somebody says, “I love you more than anybody else.” Then the next day you see them kissing somebody else. Maybe they were lying, or maybe the other person is a sibling or cousin.

There's a kind of doubt that always accompanies what I would call undergoing God. Undergoing God always exceeds our affirmations about God. It never quite fits what we affirm, though some affirmations seem to come closer than others. It's sort of a paradox. Our affirmations mean nothing apart from moments that never quite fit them, but they mean everything when they point us toward those moments.

Q: How do you define faith? A: I've said elsewhere that, ultimately speaking, faith is not believing in something absent but trusting the present reality in which we ultimately find ourselves, even though it remains beyond our grasp or control. It includes a provisional trust in the way we have come to speak of this reality, but our trust is ultimately in the reality that seems to have prompted this way of speaking, not in the way of speaking itself. It's a way of responding with integrity to what we ultimately undergo.

That's an attempt to describe the sort of faith that, I believe, everybody lives by even when they deny it. And yes, I'm very indebted to Paul Tillich for that.

For me that faith is inseparable from my and my tradition's belief that we are all unconditionally embraced by the Communion of God's Spirit in Jesus Christ and thereby drawn to embody that Communion for everybody now and always. That Communion is, I believe, the reality in which we ultimately find ourselves, though I speak of it in those terms provisionally in order to point beyond them to the reality they can't ever grasp. Other traditions, even some secular ones, seem to fare well using very different terms, and I welcome their insights. But I as a Christian don't know of any better terms than those I've been using, and I'm committed to making them communicate better to everybody. I try to imagine a time when I might decide that some other tradition's terms were better than these, but honestly, I can't imagine that. This is my vocation, not theirs, and it's survived more intellectual challenges than most people ever encounter.

Q: Can faith, doubt and reason coexist in the same person at the same time? Why or why not? A: Yes. Because they coexist already if we pay attention: at the very moment I am able to trust the present reality in which I ultimately find myself, I'm aware that I am not that reality, and that this reality remains forever beyond my grasp, and that's a faithful form of doubt. If I don't undergo that sort of doubt, then I haven't undergone anything ultimate. My only option, if I'm to keep trusting, is to respond with integrity to this tension that I undergo. Honest faith raises doubts, and addressing those doubts with integrity calls for reason. Faith, doubt and reason are all ways of responding with integrity to what we undergo.

Q: Would you like to change any of your answers? Why or why not? A: Not now. Because that's where I am, and it's pretty much where I've been for over 40 years, and I haven't developed any regrets. I never say anything in exactly the same way, of course, but there's more continuity than discontinuity here. I'd be surprised if that ever changed. 

God: All-Enlivening, All-Sustaining, All-Embracing, Not All-Controlling—Fr. Charles Allen

For me, to believe in God is to awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing. The common reality within which I ultimately live, and to which I awaken, enlivens not just me but all things, sustains not just me but all things for as long as they live, and embraces not just me but all things for as long as they live and after they live. This is the God to whom I awaken and in whom I thus believe.

This is not a new idea: According to the earliest New Testament writer, Paul, God is the one from whom, through whom, and in whom all things are (Romans 11:36), the always-near one in whom we live and move and have our being, as he reportedly said elsewhere (Acts 17:27-28). And Paul was simply repeating an idea that he and other Jews around his time had inherited from their study of their own most sacred writings. Most church “fathers” and major theologians cited these passages at the very beginning of their discussions on God. For example, St. Augustine: “I would not exist, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you existed in me. Or is it rather that I would not exist unless I existed in you, ‘from whom, through whom, in whom, everything exists’?”—Confessions 1.2.2. For over 2000 years God has thus been regarded as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing, and whatever was experienced in this way was called God. 

But this is a new idea: While I view God as all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing, I most emphatically do not view God as all-controlling. This is where I differ, importantly, from many theists in centuries past. It makes me some sort of "process" theist (more here). That is because to be all-enlivening is nearly the opposite of being all-controlling. To enliven others is to prompt new ways of being beyond one's own control. There is nothing lively about being utterly subject to control from someone or something else. (So we should either drop words like “omnipotence” altogether or else radically reinterpret them. I’m all for dropping them.) I cannot love an all-controlling power. I cannot help but love the uniquely all-enlivening, all-sustaining and all-embracing power.

Obvious question: How do I know that reality as such is like this? What reasons do I have to view reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing? Where is the evidence, and is there enough evidence?

I have every reason to view reality as such in this way, because I have every reason to view my own immediate situation as an example of reality as such, not as an exception to it.*

I am at once intimately enlivened by where I find myself, sustained by this, and embraced by this. And so is every part of me. And so are others around me. I experience this in every waking moment, if I pay enough attention, and so can you and anybody else. How can there be more evidence than that?

This is my immediate situation, but where shall I draw a barrier between my immediate situation and the situation of everything, reality as such? Drawing a barrier anywhere seems arbitrary, as well as pointlessly alienating. It's an inherited assumption that we are entitled to shelve. We can make distinctions without making barriers of them. Artificial barriers aside, my immediate situation is no less than the intimate presence of reality as such.

My immediate situation, reality as such, obviously enlivens me, but many would question why I would view my immediate situation as likewise enlivening every part of me and every part of others around me. Are my and your atoms enlivened along with you and me? Again I would ask in return, Why should I not view what my immediate situation is doing in and around me as an example of, not an exception to, what happens everywhere else? Where shall I draw a barrier between what is happening with me and what is happening with everything else? Drawing such a barrier again seems arbitrary and pointlessly alienating.

Sure, a rock doesn't look very lively, but we know that its components are full of liveliness. The rock itself is enlivened as a somewhat recurring pattern in a whole constellation of highly lively interactions. The same goes for bigger things that look inert: planets, stars, galaxies, etc.

Again, viewing rocks and everything else in this way is simply a consequence of presuming that what happens in, through and around me is an example of what happens everywhere, not an exception. Nothing in physics or chemistry or biology contradicts this, and I would argue that it is a simpler, indeed more natural, viewpoint to adopt than other viewpoints which would restrict the liveliness in me to only a relatively few, highly exceptional cases in the universe as a whole. Such barriers again seem arbitrary and pointlessly alienating, though habitually ingrained in our culture, and the evidence of every waking moment supports my placing the burden of proof on those who insist upon drawing them.

For me, to be at once intimately enlivened, sustained and embraced by reality as such is the same as to be loved by reality as such. Lovers, after all, enliven each other, sustain each other and embrace each other to the fullest extent possible, don't they? And yet, in a way, the common reality in which lovers do this is even more intimately related to both of them.

When we love others and are loved in return, we most intensely reflect the intimately common reality that enlivens, sustains and embraces all of us and everything else. Why presume otherwise?

So I awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love, because what happens in and through and around me is no exception to what happens everywhere. Every moment of experience, rightly noted, supports this. That's enough evidence. Reality as such is ultimately Love.

It's crucial to add here that this in no way minimizes the degree and intensity of suffering around and within us, what is often called the problem of evil. There is no special treatment promised by awakening to reality as such, ultimate reality, as Love. I and those I love might still suffer immeasurably as a result of chance happenings or of others' deluded hate. With all things enlivened beyond anyone's control, there are simply no guarantees about exactly how my life or any other life will go. That would presume an all-controlling power, the very antithesis of all-enlivening power. The only guarantee is that, however my life or your life goes, it has been intimately enlivened, it is being intimately sustained, and it is now and will always be intimately embraced in all its significance by reality as such, Love, God. No preliminary or final moment of my life or your life or others' lives, however abrupt or devastating, can rob it of the full significance it already has in the Love that enlivens, sustains and embraces all things (Romans 8:38-39). Yes, we are right to grieve over suffering natural disasters and to feel moral outrage at the suffering caused by rejecting Love. But grief and outrage are not reasons for despair, because these reactions are shared by the Love that enlivens, sustains and embraces all things, and awakening to this impels us to join in what the rabbinic Mishnah calls the common task of "mending the world" (tikkun olam).

I’m suggesting that anybody, anywhere, can awaken to reality as such as at once intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing. They may or may not call this God, but I do, with ample precedents from past usage in many traditions. I also do this as one kind of Christian, and that’s no accident. Here’s why:

The first Christians placed all their trust in Jesus of Nazareth, indeed to the point of deifying him, because their experience of his life, death, and risen life among them became for them the most enlivening, most sustaining and most embracing embodiment of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love. There they discovered that such an embodiment of all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing life cannot be undone by utter rejection or even death. Jesus' post-execution, enlivening presence became for them the unifying embodiment (sacrament) of all other sacramental embodiments of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love. That shared experience was what made Christianity Christian, and it is still what makes Christianity Christian today.

It's what makes me Christian. For me, as for my ancestors, participating communally in the presently embodied life, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth remains the unifying embodiment of intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, all-embracing Love.

Others tell me that they do not view Jesus in this way, and while that always surprises me, at least slightly, I have no reason to say anything disparaging in response to this. I can't explain why this unifying embodiment in and around my life is not everybody's unifying embodiment. I can't explain why others find something else to be what I would call their unifying embodiment. I can only confess that this is where I am. And it would be unfaithful of me to feel threatened by the fact that others are not where I am. Rejecting Love is threatening; embodying Love on other terms is not.

Regardless of what we think or say about Jesus' life or some other unifying embodiment, regardless of what we think or say about the word "God," I cannot help trusting that we are all at once intimately enlivened, sustained and embraced by reality as such. That is what I fundamentally mean by awakening, as one kind of Christian, to the one God Jesus' life embodies.

 

********

*"It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body."—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978), p.119. "Many biochemists insist that the line between living organisms and inert chemical substances can be drawn only arbitrarily. Viruses and genes, they say, are only highly complex molecules. But an intellectual road cannot be opened to one-way traffic only. If the distinction between organisms and molecules is, after all, an arbitrary one, then the same must be true of the distinction between molecules and organisms. Any arguments which justify biochemists in speaking of genes as 'molecules of extreme complexity' justify us also in speaking of atoms and molecules as 'organisms of extreme simplicity'."—Stephen E. Toulmin, Foresight and Understanding: An Enquiry into the Aims of Science (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961), p. 78. "Especially since Charles Darwin, it has become increasingly clear that we are part of the natural world, that we are completely interwoven with everything. We are unique in some ways, but not in others, and our uniqueness is a matter of degree rather than of kind. We are part of the same causal web of interconnections as everything else that exists ... One helpful consequence of the view that we are part of the world rather than separate from it is that, by looking at our own existence, we can learn something about the rules that apply to everything that exists. We are examples of those rules, not exceptions to them. The world is like us because we are like the world, part of the world, reflecting the same basic principles and rules as the world. We cannot understand ourselves without understanding the world of which we are a part; nor can we finally understand the world without understanding ourselves as part of it. Yes, we must beware of anthropomorphism, of simply making animals, God, and the world look like us in a self-centered way. But it is the reverse of anthropomorphism to acknowledge that we are simply instances of how everything else in the universe works, that we are not supernatural exceptions."— C. Robert Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead (West Conschocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), p. 24.

Process Mindfulness—Fr. Charles Allen

Be mindful of yourself, not as a fixed thing but as a way of newly interacting (very recurrent, very inclusive, but still a way of newly interacting).

Likewise, be mindful of others, all others, whether like or unlike you, not as fixed things but as other ways of newly interacting (more or less recurrent, more or less inclusive, but still ways of newly interacting).

Likewise, be mindful of general properties, rules and even physical “laws,” not as fixed or detachable “metathings” but as generally shareable ways of newly interacting.

Likewise, be mindful of particular events, stories and traditions that formed and are transforming you, not as fixed, stultifying things but as particularly shareable ways of newly interacting (example: the transformed and transforming “post-execution” life of Jesus of Nazareth). 

Likewise, be mindful of reality as such, the whole of reality, not as a fixed thing but as the exceedingly recurrent and uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting, whether or not you decide to call this “God” (but really, why not?).

Explore how being mindful in this way helps you integrate and renew all that you and others seem to experience.

I have been practicing this for over 40 years, and I continue to find being thus mindful to be the most helpful way to integrate and renew all that I and others seem to experience. It integrates my intellectual, emotional, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual inklings into one all-engaging exploration. For me at least, that’s every reason to keep exploring this way. (For more details on process thought, click here and here.)

Experiences of God?—Fr. Charles Allen

Here are some examples of how people have spoken of their experience of God in similar terms through the ages, though they don't all say exactly the same thing. I've also included Sam Harris's account of meditation, because he sounds a lot like Paul Tillich talking about faith, except that Harris despises faith and the very idea of God. That's why the above heading has a question mark. It's food for thought.

God is not far from each one of us, for in God we live and move and have our being.—St. Paul (c. 5-c. 67), Acts 17:27-28.

With you as my guide I entered into my innermost citadel,… and with my soul's eye, such as it was, saw above that same eye of my soul the immutable light higher than my mind – not the light of every day, but a different thing, utterly different from all our kinds of light... When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe. And I found myself far from you in the region of dissimilarity, and heard as it were your voice from on high: "I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me." ... And you cried from far away: "Now, I am who I am." I heard in the way one hears within the heart, and all doubt left me.—St. Augustine (354-430), Confessions 7.10.16

Strange, then, is the blindness of an awareness which does not consider that which it sees first and without which it can know nothing. The eye, concentrating on various differences of color, does not see the very light by which it sees other things; and if it does see this light, it does not advert to it. In the same way, the eye of awareness, concentrating on particular and universal being, does not advert to Being Itself, which is beyond every genus [i.e., transcendental], even though it comes to our awareness first and through it we know other things … Thus our awareness, ... when it glimpses the light of Being Itself, seems to itself to see nothing. It does not realize that this very darkness is the supreme illumination of our awareness, just as when the eye sees pure light, it seems to itself to see nothing.— St. Bonaventure (1217-1274), The Soul's Journey into God 5.4. (Bonaventure actually uses “intellect” and “mind” instead of “awareness” here. But in medieval thought intellect and mind were modes of awareness, i.e., experiencing.)

Religion is "to be one with the infinite in the midst of the finite and to be eternal in a moment"—Friedrich Schleiermacher, "the Father of Modern Theology," in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1988 [1799]), p. 140

The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged to details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted. The details are a reaction to the totality. ... They are interpretive and not originative. What is original is the vague totality... The primitive stage of discrimination… is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, "The Whole," "That Other," and "This-My-Self." ... This is primarily a dim division.… There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. ... There is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence... We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole. ... The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by [a] sense of deity... We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world.—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), pp. 109-110, 102.

[In our experience of God,] God can never be object without being at the same time subject. ... The same experience expressed in abstract language is the disappearance of the ordinary subject-object scheme in the experience of the ultimate, the unconditional. In the act of faith that which is the source of this act is present beyond the cleavage of subject and object. It is present as both and beyond both.—Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2001 [1957]), pp. 12-13.

All talk about God always only points to ... an experience in which the one whom we call “God” encounters us … as the absolute and the immeasurable, as the term of our transcendence which cannot really be incorporated into any system of coordinates.— Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. by William V. Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), p. 21.

[In meditation] our sense of "self"—of subject/object dualism in perception and cognition—can be made to vanish, while consciousness remains vividly aware of the continuum of experience.—Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004) p. 217.

From Experience* to Process Thought to Process Theism—Fr. Charles Allen

First, experience:

In every experience a) you experience yourself; b) you experience others, countless others, some occasionally very like you, the rest not so much; c) and if you pay enough attention you experience all as newly interacting in various ways.

Now to process thought: 

Most of our inherited ways of thinking have started out by assuming that constant selves, others, or both (“substances”) are the ultimate realities, and only then try to describe or explain how they interact and change.

Process thought reverses this tendency, claiming that these continually experienced ways of newly interacting** are the ultimate realities that offer the most economical and yet generous way to describe and account for everything else, including more or less constant selves and others.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it ... They do not deny that there are temporally stable and reliably recurrent aspects of reality. But they take such aspects of persistence to be the regular behavior of dynamic organizations that arise due to the continuously ongoing interaction of processes.”

Here’s how it works:

You are a very recurrent way of newly interacting, and so are others like and unlike you, from fundamental particles to galaxies. What seems constant is actually very recurrent, though never totally so.

Different kinds of recurrence in ways of newly interacting are what enable all sorts of ways of generalizing in the sciences and other disciplines (including process thought’s ways of generalizing), but these ways, no matter how widely applicable, never fully capture the novelty involved in every way of interacting, no matter how recurrent. They provisionally outline shareable ways of newly interacting. Thus we can make and appreciate all sorts of reliable predictions without assuming determinism. Ways of generalizing are similarly appropriate in similar circumstances, but no two circumstances are ever exactly the same.

You and others like you are not only very recurrent but very inclusive ways of newly interacting. (Your way of newly interacting includes your body’s ways of newly interacting, which include your organs’ ways of newly interacting, which include your cells’ ways of newly interacting, which include your molecules’ ways of newly interacting, and so on. Furthermore, you and all your “parts’” ways of newly interacting also include ways of newly interacting in your wider environment.) 

It’s this high level of inclusiveness that accounts for experiencing yourself and others like you as subjects, not just objects (though of course you are all objects too).

Furthermore, this high level of inclusiveness means that you are not neutral subjects, but highly involved and entangled subjects engaging others and yourself in aesthetic and moral and other evaluative terms. You and others are not simply here or there, as a mere matter of fact, but engagedly and engagingly here and there, as a matter of value. Thus, while distinguishing “facts” from “values” is contextually possible, they are never completely disentangled.

So regarding anything and everything as differing ways of newly interacting, more or less recurrent, more or less shareable, more or less inclusive, entitles you to be as scientific as you want to be, and as arts and humanities centered as you want to be, without discounting any of these ways of understanding and celebrating our world and ourselves.

Now to process theism (more here):

Process theism takes process thought one step further, or deeper, but it doesn’t claim to go beyond what we continually experience.

(So if a skeptic asks, “Where’s the evidence?” the process theist answers, “Right here and now, if you pay enough attention.” Maybe that sounds arrogant, but why not be honest? The skeptic of course has every right to counter that the process theist is projecting something that isn’t there onto experience. The only reasonable response to this, on either side, is to continue honestly paying attention to what we continually seem to experience. Maybe minds will change, maybe not.)

Process theists claim that, sufficiently noted, every experience involves not just various ways of newly interacting but also the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting, and (appealing to ancient and current precedents) they identify this uniquely all-inclusive way with God.

They recognize room for debate about whether “God” is a suitable term for the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting, but without excluding other terms they are convinced of this one’s suitability for the following reasons, among others. 

For one thing, it fits the way St. Paul and his early followers thought of God (at least sometimes):  "From God, through God, and into God are all things" (Romans 11:36). "God is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6). "God is not far from each of us, for in God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28). And that means it at least arguably fits how later Christian theologians began their reflections on God (they started with biblical passages like these before using Platonic or Aristotelian categories to interpret them).

As the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting, God is newly interacting all-inclusively, and thus directly, with everything from fundamental particles to galaxies, which of course includes you and me and others like us (all of which, remember, are various ways of newly interacting).

And this exceedingly highest level of inclusiveness entitles us to speak of God as the uniquely all-inclusive subject, not just another object.

And this also entitles us to regard our continual way of newly interacting with God as an exceedingly different sort of interpersonal dialogue, of which we can become more aware through prayer and contemplation.

This means that contemplative people over the centuries and across cultures who have reported experience of interpersonal-like communion with the divine were not always deluding themselves, although they usually did not express this in terms of process thinking, and delusions did of course happen. (For examples click here and here).

This also entitles us to speak of God’s uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting as providential, as long as we are clear about what this does and does not mean.

Providence does not mean controlling, enforcing some pre-established pattern, because ways of newly interacting are by definition beyond total control, even where one way is all-inclusively influential. Instead it means intimately influencing all ways of newly interacting toward increasingly inclusive ways.  Whether we call this a purpose or just a tendency depends on how comfortable we are with interpersonal-like analogies for our interactions with the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. Process theists call it a purpose, because they find interpersonal-like analogies indispensable.

For the same reason, providence does not mean preventing conflict and resultant suffering—sometimes devastating—or denying their reality. Instead it means (again) influencing conflicting ways to move beyond conflict toward increasingly inclusive ways of newly interacting. This will continue to happen everywhere, even if our species manages to destroy itself (which is quite possible). There will still be countless ways of newly interacting drawn toward increasingly inclusive ways by the uniquely all-inclusive way.

And again for the same reason, providence does not mean moving everything toward an utterly final goal. There are endings, to be sure, but every ending is some sort of new beginning, fraught not only with new opportunities but with new risks. This precarious ensemble of ways of newly interacting simply is the point of the ensemble, and it’s still the point for those who open themselves to the uniquely all-inclusive way.

This all-inclusive influence toward increasingly inclusive ways is not only consistent with what we have come to know about natural selection but actually requires it—ways of newly interacting become recurrent to the extent that they support and are supported by more inclusive ways (like ecosystems).

So for process theists, embracing natural selection, like embracing other generalizations in the sciences, does not in any way conflict with experiencing a transformative, interpersonal-like communion with the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting. And even when life’s occurrences devastate us, we can still awaken to this transformative, interpersonal-like, endless communion, and move on.

If you’re still wondering about this, try these practices here.

****** 

*A technical aside: Some people object to starting with experience because, they point out, we can’t really isolate experiences from the languages we use to speak of them or even think about them. Point taken, but with others who grant this point, I’m not trying to isolate anything or place it beyond question, as I argued at length several decades ago, and I still see experience, however linguistically permeated, as a good place to start from and return to, again and again. In other words, I’m happy to grant that my experiences are already interpretations, but they are interpretations that form me anew, before, during and after any interpretations I intentionally devise, and I want all these interpretations to get along with one another. Maybe, as Jacques Derrida famously said, there is no world outside the text, or as Wilfred Sellars said, all awareness is a linguistic affair, but in either case there is still a textually involved world, or a linguistic affair, happening to us in ways that we cannot fully anticipate. I call this happening “experience.”

** In process thought I don’t think we can experientially confirm any terminology more precise than what I am pointing to with the phrase, “ways of newly interacting.” Nor need we, as far as I can tell. (Followers of Whitehead and Hartshorne will emphatically disagree.) The briefest possible moment, if there be such (I wonder), is a way of newly interacting. A succession of those moments could either be called a succession of ways of newly interacting, or it could just as easily be called another way of newly interacting in its own right. Enduring things and shareable properties are both somewhat repeatable ways of newly interacting. We simply cannot experience anything more fundamental than ways of newly interacting, or so I am convinced.

Self, Others and Our Continually Differing Inclusion: A Philosophically Contemplative Theism—Fr. Charles Allen

(This is a simplified version of process theism, but it's also a bit Tillichian, a bit Hegelian, a bit Patristic, a bit Radically Orthodox, a bit postmodern, all at once.)

I experience myself and others within our continually differing inclusion.*

This experience, I'm convinced, is inescapable and fundamental. To deny it is either inattentive or self-deceptive. Its inescapability is its evidence.

And the categories—self, others and our continually differing inclusion—are at least as basic as any other categories. Any worldview that neglects any or all of them is inadequate and anti-empirical.

Even physics, which requires physicists, must presuppose these categories. All physicists, whether they notice or not, experience themselves and others—including the smallest and largest "others" they study—within their continually differing inclusion. These categories are experienced as operative whenever the field of physics happens, or whenever any other scientific field happens. They're experientially inescapable. If you cringe at calling them metaphysical categories, try calling them "protophysical."

I never experience these categories—self, others and our continually differing inclusion—in exactly the same way. My experience of myself is never exactly the same, my experience of others is never exactly the same, and my experience of our inclusion is never exactly the same.

So while these categories continue in every moment, they continue differently in every moment. That they continue never changes; how they continue always changes. They are in a process of continual, mutual renewal.

This is a form of process thought, which dares to view everything, even the tiniest bits and largest masses of everything, in terms of the continually differing inclusion of continually differing selves and others, extrapolating from these categories' experienced inescapability.

The continually differing inclusion of continually differing selves and others is also experienced as boundless. With St. Paul, I would call this boundless, continually differing inclusion God.** All continually differing selves and others have traditionally been said to arise from God, through God and in God (Romans 11:36), their boundless, continually differing inclusion. According to the Nicene Creed, even God is, boundlessly, the continually differing self-inclusion of God's continually differing self-othering (God originating God, God inclusively differing from God, God differently including God).***

Our boundless, continually differing inclusion includes the personal and the impersonal, and thus cannot be reduced to either of these categories. (That, again, is what the Christian doctrine of the Trinity implies—God is not personal without being interpersonal.)

Faith is letting myself be drawn into this boundless, continually differing inclusion, trusting this as my and all others' ultimate good.

Unfaith, sin, is fleeing (self-deceptively and unsuccessfully) from this boundless, continually differing inclusion, fearing this as my ultimate bane, denying its undeniability.

Christian faith is letting myself be drawn into this boundless, continually differing inclusion, renewingly practiced in the Body of Christ, begun with Jesus of Nazareth, whose human, continually differing inclusion of continually differing selves and others still embraces and outlives all powers of destruction. 

******

*"The primitive stage of [categorizing] … is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, "The Whole," "That Other," and "This-My-Self." ... This is primarily a dim division.… There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. ... There is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence... We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), p. 110.

**"[In our experience of God,] God can never be object without being at the same time subject. ... The same experience expressed in abstract language is the disappearance of the ordinary subject-object scheme in the experience of the ultimate, the unconditional. In the act of faith that which is the source of this act is present beyond the cleavage of subject and object. It is present as both and beyond both."—Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1957), pp. 12-13. "The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by [a] sense of deity... We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world."—Whitehead, p. 102

***"God is the mystery of a gift exchanged, and non-identically repeated. That is the mystery of the Trinity. God is not a being, but Being as such. But Being as such is word and gift as well as origin; it is community and not isolated individuality."—Catherine Pickstock, “Is Orthodoxy Radical?” http://www.affirmingcatholicism.org.uk

Interactive Nondualism: Process Thought's Reframing of the Physical/Mental Binary

[This was a sort of position paper drafted to assist a student interviewing me for his "Philosophy of Mind" course.] 

"What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature ... into two divisions, namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness."—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920) pp. 30-31. (online here)

"Beginning with a familiar Whiteheadian move, the rejection of the traditional 'bifurcation of nature' into a physical and a mental domain, the process approach operates like a gestalt switch, opening up new ways of looking at a wide variety of issues. Whiteheadians argue that the traditional mind-body problem dissolves if all basic constituents of reality are ... processes of information transfer that exhibit both ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ aspects in different accentuations according to context." (online here)

"I think that both mind and matter are merely convenient ways of grouping events."—Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (online here)

 

The whole of reality, including every part thereof, is newly interacting, newly influenced by others and newly influencing others, always and everywhere. This is my summation of process thought (more here).

In some configurations reality interacts newly in ways that have been called physical, and in other configurations it interacts newly in ways that have been called mental. (But with this outlook we might imagine a culture that never developed a "physical/mental" binary.)

So again, newly interacting remains the fundamental reality, not matter or mind—not even things or properties. Every experience, sufficiently noted, supports this.

In the context of philosophy of mind, I call this position "interactive nondualism." 

Interactive nondualism has some affinities with what has been called "neutral monism." But newly interacting is not a namelessly neutral "something-we-know-not-what." We do know what newly interacting is—we're doing it right now. Nor is newly interacting neutral "stuff," in fact not a substance at all. Substances and even properties are ways in which we abstractly identify somewhat recurring ways of newly interacting. And newly interacting has both unifying and pluralizing aspects, so it's not strictly monistic. It does undermine dualism, what Whitehead called "the bifurcation of nature," so we could call it a form of nondualism (to borrow a term from Hindu philosophy). But it's a qualified nondualism, interactively qualified. That's why I prefer the phrase, "interactive nondualism."

Here there is no "hard problem of consciousness." There is the much "softer" task of reasonably identifying various ways of newly interacting in physical terms, in some contexts, and in mental terms, in other contexts, whenever the physical/mental distinction seems useful.

In fact, I don't see any reason why the various ways of newly interacting would have to be sorted into only two subcategories like the physical and the mental. Maybe there can be as many subcategories as there are adverbs to modify "newly interacting." After all, categories and subcategories, like substances and properties, are ways in which we abstractly identify somewhat recurring ways of newly interacting. (This sounds close to what philosopher of science John Dupre calls "promiscuous realism." Dupre has more recently "come out" as a process thinker.) Some diehard physicalists will still see this as a disguised form of panpsychism or idealism. But they are assuming the exhaustive bifurcation that interactive nondualism denies.

I admit that I lean towards panpsychism myself (more here and here), but it does seem that all the arguments in favor of panpsychism work just as well for interactive nondualism. And interactive nondualism, like neutral monism, seems to arouse fewer alarms, so it's easier to defend. (Many process thinkers, notably Charles Hartshorne and David Ray Griffin, embrace panpsychism—or "panexperientialism"—wholeheartedly. Others, like Schubert Ogden and Franklin Gamwell, find panpsychism too anthropomorphic and embrace something closer to interactive nondualism.)

Addendum: Interactive Nondualism Compared with Functionalism, Nonreductive Physicalism, Emergentism, etc.

"Functionalism in the philosophy of mind is the doctrine that what makes something a mental state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part" (online here).

Interactive nondualism could easily be called a kind of functionalism, given the above definition, where "state" is shorthand for a way of newly interacting. Calling a way of newly interacting mental does indeed depend "on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part." But the way it functions would not be sharply contrasted with its "internal constitution," because the way it functions simply is its internal/external constitution, where the line between internal and external is fuzzy at best.

But note: interactive nondualism would also insist that what goes for "mental states" goes just as much for "physical states," with the same demurrals about terminology. "What makes something a [physical] state of a particular type does not depend on its internal constitution, but rather on the way it functions, or the role it plays, in the system of which it is a part."

So we could say that interactive nondualism is functionalism radicalized to apply to matter as much as mind.

What about nonreductive physicalism? Interactive nondualism is definitely nonreductive in the sense that the novelty involved in any interaction cannot be exhausted by what went before, nor by the somewhat recurring ways of newly interacting we may abstractly identify.

But since newly interacting is more concrete than any abstracted physical/mental distinction, it would be misleading, I think, to insist on calling this a form of physicalism, even a nonreductive form.

People could of course stretch the word "physical" to include all that newly interacting involves, but then they start to look like process theists stretching the word "divine" to mean the all-inclusivel way of newly interacting (see Hempel's Dilemma: “if physicalism is defined via reference to contemporary physics, then it is false—after all, who thinks that contemporary physics is complete?—but if physicalism is defined via reference to a future or ideal physics, then it is trivial—after all, who can predict what a future physics contains?”). It can be done, with reason, in either case. In fact stretching has been done repeatedly with words like "physical" and "divine." Just read the histories of either term. But when this happens, the relevant question is and has always been what might be gained by keeping and stretching a word, and what might be lost by dropping it altogether and trying something else. And while there may be all sorts of reasons for keeping and stretching a word, it becomes more difficult to object to others who wish to try out alternative terminology (more here).

Arguments for keeping or discarding words like "physical" and "mental" thus start to look like an interreligious dialogue. It's easy to support certain ways of speaking as legitimate, more difficult to insist that these are the only legitimate ways of speaking. With appropriate degrees of stretching, I can see good reasons for keeping words like "matter" and "mind" as all-embracing terms. I can also see good reasons for keeping words like "God," "Tao," "Brahman," "Sunyata" and "nature" as all-embracing terms. I can't see good reasons for insisting that any of these terms must the last word for everybody.

Maybe this could be called a form of emergentism, but in this case, if we use that term, it is not only what we have called mental properties that emerge: what we have called physical properties are likewise emergent. And in either case, their emergence is not the sudden appearance of something utterly different from what was already there, but an amplification of aspects that are always present in every way of newly interacting.

Q&A with with a physicalist philosopher:

PP: "Interacting in its ordinary meaning expresses a relation, typically between two or more objects or other kinds of entities -- people interact, particles and fields interact, etc.  You say "the whole of reality, including every part thereof is newly interacting, newly influenced by others and newly influencing others."  So what are the parts of reality that are newly interacting or influencing?  And can this view be meaningfully articulated without identifying the relata of the interactions?"

CA: Yes, we do have to identify “relata.” And I do implicitly identify them in my further discussion—as various "ways of newly interacting." Some of these ways are highly recurrent, others not so much. I use the vague phrase, “ways of newly interacting,” to speak of what have traditionally been called substances and properties. And I prefer vagueness here. Following Aristotle, in the right context I believe vagueness is a virtue, not a vice. In trying to be more precise, Whitehead and Hartshorne both seem to preserve a kind of dualism between actualities (or actual occasions) and their features or properties. I am questioning whether such a sharp distinction is necessary. It seems to me that it's not, but I could be wrong.

PP: "Your view, as best as I can understand it, sounds like panpsychism—perhaps a bit like Spinoza.  Neutral monism is—well neutral—but it's still not very process oriented, as I understand it (which may not be very well)."

CA: Well, maybe it's still panpsychism. I do lean that way, as I admitted already. But I do wonder if you're still assuming the "bifurcation" Whitehead (and I) question, assuming that, if it's pan-something but not "panphysicalism," it must be panpsychism. If I have to be labeled a panpsychist I suppose I can live with that. I do find Galen Strawson's arguments mostly persuasive, except for his insistence that panpsychism is the culmination of a consistent physicalism. Some versions of neutral monism, especially Spinoza’s, are not process oriented, but others are, especially Bertrand Russell's, who I think got his version from collaborating with Whitehead. Russell's version was in fact my first exposure to process thought as I was finishing his History of Western Philosophy as a college sophomore back in the summer of 1973: "What has been thought of as a particle will have to be thought of as a series of events. The series of events that replaces a particle has certain important physical properties, and therefore demands our attention; but it has no more substantiality than any other series of events that we might arbitrarily single out. Thus "matter" is not part of the ultimate material of the world, but merely a convenient way of collecting events into bundles ... I think that both mind and matter are merely convenient ways of grouping events. ... This doctrine effects a great simplification in our picture of the structure of the world."—Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (online here)

What’s the Evidence for Process Theism?

"Worship is a consciously unitary response to life. It lifts to the level of explicit awareness the integrity of an individual responding to reality.  … [In theistic worship] the conscious wholeness of the individual is correlative to an inclusive wholeness in the world of which the individual is aware, and this wholeness is deity.  … God is the wholeness of the world, correlative to the wholeness of every sound individual dealing with the world."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 5-6.

"The primitive stage of discrimination … is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a three-fold scheme, namely, 'The Whole,' 'That Other,' and 'This-My-Self.'"—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), p. 110.

 

A friend of mine read an online pamphlet on process theology by Marjorie Suchocki (here). As an atheist of the sort who demands empirical evidence for everything, all he could see in her account was a bunch of groundless assertions about God. In Suchocki’s defense, that was often because he did not notice the hypothetical, “iffy” context of many of her assertions. (Example: “To exist is to be affected by others, and to have an effect on others ... Does God exist? If you answer yes, then God is affected by others, and has effects on others. Which others? All others!” I emphasized the iffy part.) Her argument was basically that, if a process view of the world is true, then God, if there was a God, would have to be conceived in this way … She didn’t really try to address how we could determine if the process view is true or if God (or anything “God-like”) exists. So she can’t be said to have failed at something she didn’t even pretend to do. 

Still, I agree that one ought to have shareable reasons (evidence) for any assertion. Suchocki’s assumption is that process thought in general, and process theism in particular, are both true to experience. And my friend was right to ask how somebody might go about showing that. So I tried to respond to his demands by taking each of the assertions he considered unsupported and showing how they might be supported by a process thinker.

The evidence for process theology depends on the evidence for process thought in general. (Some process thinkers don’t address the question of God, so process thought isn’t the same as process theology.) While process thought is often presumed to be wildly speculative, it actually claims to derive all of its categories from everyday experience. But instead of focusing on particular experiences, process thought focuses on describing what seem to be common aspects of experience, aspects of experience which, as best anybody can tell, are going to show up in any experience anybody can imagine.

Process thought of the sort I would bother to defend starts with this principle: 

To be is to be interactive.
Here “interactive” is defined as “jointly influential and influenced,” or, alternatively, as “somewhat recurrent and somewhat original”—making a difference in what may be a limitless network of relationships.
(Suchocki says, "To exist is to be in relation." I like that too, but I'm going with my formulation. They seem roughly equivalent.)

I think this principle is well-founded, in fact verifiable by every experience we have or could conceivably have. Show me a state of affairs that has not been influenced and is not in turn influential with its surroundings. Show me a state of affairs that is utterly lacking in originality (or novelty). Nobody has ever succeeded in showing me any counterexamples, and that is enough to justify adopting this as a fundamental working principle until I'm shown otherwise: to be is to be interactive.

None of the above depends on any particular discoveries in, say, the empirical sciences. Still, it can’t hurt to notice how through those sciences we’ve now learned that everything that seems noninteractive on one level has turned out to be very interactive on other levels. Rocks seem noninteractive, yet they’re full of microinteractions. And even on a macro level, there are electromagnetic and gravitational interactions happening between one rock and another. In other words, current empirical sciences now presume that the objects they study are themselves interactive even when none of us are around.

So once again, to be is to be interactive. I know of no counterexamples.

That's what has to be settled first. You may say it isn't, but let's pretend it is, as I believe it to be. Here then is how I would explain and support the following sentences that my friend found completely unsupported. They are of course just as debatable as the central principle of process thought is, but they are not simply pulled out of the air.

God exists. Where’s the evidence?
Hartshorne and Whitehead claim (see above) that any fully aware individual will also be aware of “the wholeness of the world.”
And if to be is to be interactive, “the wholeness of the world” is interactive too, in fact, wholly interactive as opposed to only partly interactive.
And my very awareness of it is an interaction with the wholly interactive.
So to say that God exists is to say that we and the wholeness of the world really do interact with one another, something we experience constantly if we are fully aware.
All of this is convergent with the arguably cross-cultural experience of the sacred, the more-elusive-than-everyday reality that ultimately enables and sustains our everyday existence.
Process thought simply supplies one rather promising vocabulary for speaking of this: what better candidate than the wholly interactive could there be for whatever ultimately enables and sustains our everyday existence?
This is not an inference to something absent, but an articulated awareness of something ever-present.
Again (since the point seems to be repeatedly missed): not an inference to the absent but an articulation of the present. It’s experience, not an attempt at an explanation.
So this is the claim: To interact knowingly enough with the particularly interactive is to interact somewhat knowingly with the wholly interactive. The wholly interactive is indirectly known whenever anything else is known.
Any sufficiently attentive person can notice this. And that supplies every reason to say that the wholly interactive, God, exists.

You could still insist that the wholly interactive isn't God. But that tells me more about what you want "God" to mean, not what it can legitimately mean in light of the term's long, varied history, even among Christians. You might need to do some homework before you assume this isn't God.

God is not independent of the Universe. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, then independence from some universe (i.e. other interactions) is already ruled out. That does not mean that God is a part of the universe: “interactive with” does not equal “part of.” If anything, the universe is part of God, as God is more inclusive, “the wholeness of the world.” This is not a further piece of information somebody needs to discover, but an implication of the central principle we are working with in process thought. Again, not an inference to the absent but an articulation of the present.

God can be experienced by humans. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, then it automatically follows that God interacts with the interactions we call my experience. As I’ve said, we are at least vaguely aware of the wholly interactive every time we are aware of anything particular.

God did not create the universe from nothing. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, and if to be wholly interactive requires other interactions, then that automatically rules out a state of affairs where there are no other interactions. Genesis 1, by the way, seems to be imagining God as prompting more formed interactions to emerge from a relatively formless ones, not from nothing. That adds no further support, of course, if you don't care what Genesis 1 says.

God directs/influences the ongoing processes of the universe. Where’s the evidence?
This is simply another way of saying that to be divine is to be wholly interactive. It also follows that the ongoing processes of the universe influence God. Most process thinkers would avoid saying that God “directs” anything. If somebody said that, they mean it in a very weak, non-controlling sense. If to be is to be interactive, nobody is in complete control of anything. Everybody and everything is influenced by others, and everybody and everything has influence on others.

God makes new realities out of past events by integrating them into the present to create the future. Where’s the evidence?
Every interaction does this. If it isn’t influenced by past influences, and if it does not contribute its own distinctive influence to future interactions, it’s not an interaction. If that’s true of every interaction, it’s true of the wholly interactive, i.e., God.

When humans die they continue to exist in the memory of God. Where’s the evidence?
When human interactions and all other interactions are past, they are ALL integrated into ongoing interactions by the wholly interactive (i.e., God). Again that follows automatically if God is the wholly interactive. That is actually a fuller version of what happens when I integrate my past interactions into my present ones. If my past self continues to exist in my present, that is even more the case when it exists in God’s present. Death may put a stop to my own relatively independent integration of the past, but the wholly interactive integration of my and everything else’s past (including my subjective past) will continue.

The redemptive activity of God consists in his willingness to accept past evil, transform it into good and continue to lure each individual toward a self-authenticating acceptance of true value. Where’s the evidence?
If to be divine is to be wholly interactive, what else is there to do with past interactions, whether good or evil? To integrate past interactions with the present simply is to accept and transform them into present resources for ongoing interactions. Their value is determined by the roles they can play in ongoing interactions. Those roles are good to the extent that they contribute to the mutual flourishing of ongoing interactions, not good to the extent that they don't.

Summing up
So these statements about God all follow, at least arguably, from two basic assertions:
1. To be is to be interactive.
2. To be divine is to be wholly interactive.
And these assertions are said to be illustrated and thus confirmed in every experience, though easily missed by people who are not sufficiently aware of all they experience. They are not inferences to the absent but articulations of the present. The evidence for them is either everywhere, or else it’s nowhere.

Is there room for debate about this? I keep debating it with my more skeptical friends, so obviously there is. But it should at least be granted that none of the above sentences were simply pulled out of a vacuum. They are not the result of speculation or of wishful thinking. They are not at all like statements about Russell’s teapot (a teapot allegedly floating undetected somewhere in outer space), which nobody has ever even pretended to have experienced. Every one of them is said to flow out of the constant features of every experience of the here and now. To challenge this, all one need do is show one coherent, credible example of "to be" that is in no way interactive. Good luck with that.

Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

Reading the Bible from Wherever You Are

Fr. Charles Allen

The Bible is a collection of ancient writings written and read by people who, rightly or mistakenly, experienced life in terms of living together with God. Regardless of what you or I believe, or don't, we can begin to appreciate these ancient writings by asking and exploring the following questions:

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

2. What sort of God did they purportedly experience—distant, intimate, stern, loving, hateful, temperamental, empathic, limited, unlimited, etc.?

3. How did this address the "big questions"* we may still ask today?

4. How are the writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

5. How does understanding the writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

There are no wrong answers here. The point is a deeper understanding of your own life, in light of how others have understood theirs.

It's OK to start with any question.  

*Some Big Questions (feel free to add others): Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe? How can they really matter? How do we come to terms with death? Why are we outraged when we see injustice? How is it that reality (whatever that might be) produces beings that care and ask about what reality might be? Is this the final truth about us?—"'We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes'.  (The Selfish Gene, p. ix). ... That was no metaphor. I believe it is the literal truth ..."—Richard Dawkins, (1981), "In Defense of Selfish Genes," Philosophy 56:573. Or is there more to our lives than blindly preserving selfish molecules? What would make life more than this?

An Example:

Genesis 12:1-3: Now YHWH said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

1. How did the writer and early readers of this passage experience life in terms of living together with God?

The writer and early readers of this passage consider themselves to be descendants of Abram (his name was later changed to Abraham).

They now live in "the land that I will show you," and they believe that coming to live in this land justified any violent conquests they may have undertaken. (!)

They have become a nation that still aspires to be a great nation.

They are not totally self-absorbed—they still hope that the greatness they aspire to will be a blessing for all humanity.

They believe this aspiration comes from no less than God, and that it began with Abram's journey away from his homeland.

2. What sort of God did they purportedly experience—distant, intimate, stern, loving, hateful, temperamental, empathic, limited, unlimited, etc.?

In this passage the writer and early readers purportedly experience what they call "God" in terms of one who summons them to greatness for everybody's benefit; they trust that this summoner can make that happen, at least eventually.

Their name for God is YHWH, a name that can be written down but not pronounced orally. They associated it with the sentence that can be translated, "I am" or "I'll be" (Hebrew: "Ehyeh," Exodus 3:14).

3. How did this address the "big questions" we may still ask today?

Many of us still can't help believing that somehow our being here matters, that it makes a difference, that the difference we make can be a good thing.

Many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, not just for ourselves but for others.

We wonder:

—Do my life and your life and "our people's" lives really matter in this unimaginably vast universe?

—How can they really matter?

—Is an aspiration to "greatness" worth the harm it can cause?

4. How are the writer's and readers' experiences like and unlike my experience of living together, with or without the word "God"?

Like: Again, many of us experience life as a summons to greatness, a summons to make our lives worthwhile to us and to others.

Unlike: We know way more about how much bigger the world is than we are. This has made many wonder if our lives really matter at all.

Unlike: I am painfully aware of the countless atrocities that have resulted from people following what they took to be a summons to greatness.

Like/Unlike: My understanding of greatness has been re-shaped by the story of Jesus, who appears to win by losing. (Stories about Gautama or Lao Tzu have a similar impact, though they can't be substituted for one another.)

All said, many of us, myself included, still experience life as a summons to greatness of some sort, and many of us consider God to be the one who ultimately summons us.

5. How does understanding the writer's and readers' experiences help me address my own "big questions"?

Abram's descendants include Jews, Muslims, Christians, and even the secular movements that grew out of these traditions.

So in a way I am still a character in this storyline.

Like the ancient writer and early readers, I still experience life as a summons to make my life worthwhile to me and to others, and I still trust the summoner to make this happen one way or another, at least eventually.

I know that people have viewed life this way since ancient times, and that this aspiration is responsible for what I consider to be both the highest achievements and greatest atrocities of human history. (Here's a conundrum: the most noteworthy protesters against the atrocities this summons can produce are also characters in this storyline. They aspire to greatness which is more consistently humane.)

I know that whatever I accomplish with my life will not make up for the worst that has been done as a result of this aspiration, but still the best I can do is keep working to make my life worthwhile to me and to others.

I am drawn to the way the story of Jesus turns this aspiration to greatness on its head.

How Can We Be Progressivly, Inclusively Biblical?

 Questions to ask yourself (no wrong answers):

Do you read the Bible?

If you do, do you get anything out of reading it?

If you get anything out of reading it, what do you get?

 

Some statements to chew on:

1. "We [GraceUnlimited] listen to the Bible, not as a magical answer book, but as a living Word awakening us to God's movement among us today. We also listen to what the best of current biblical scholarship can tell us about the Bible."

2. "Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in justice."—2 Timothy 3:16. (Note, when these words were written, Christians and Jews had not yet agreed on which writings were actually "God-breathed.")

3. "All Scripture sets forth Christ … What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate or Herod does it."—Martin Luther, "Preface to James and Jude"

4. "We must ... take great heede, lest in attributing to scripture more then it can have, the incredibillitie of that do cause even those thinges which indeed it hath most aboundantly to be lesse reverendly esteemed."—Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, 2.8.7

 

Digging deeper:

What if it turns out that the Bible was written by lots of biased people who don't always agree on who God is or what God wants? Would this mean that it can't also be "a living Word awakening us to God's movement among us today"? Would it mean that 2 Timothy 3:16 was simply false?

 GraceUnlimited, like the churches that sponsor us, wagers that it's OK if the Bible's writers turned out to have the same failings we have. It's still a living, useful Word (with a capital "W"). We can look past the writers' failings to learn from how they wrestled with the same God who moves among us today.

Have you ever experienced a moment when a passage from the Bible spoke to you in a new way? If so, what do you imagine was going on when that happened? If not, why not give it a try?

One assumption that Christians and Jews share is this: Recognizing God as God requires taking part in a story that's still unfolding. It has a beginning, and it has an envisioned ending, and we're helping to flesh out the way toward that ending, creatively. But to do that, we need to know how it began. The Bible provides that beginning.

 For GraceUnlimited, the Bible is not the last word, but it's an eye-opening first word, as long as we don't expect it to do what no ancient writing should be expected to do.

 

Some Suggestions:

 —Try following a daily lectionary: http://www.dailylectio.net

 —Check out these resources that follow the readings for the church calendar: http://www.textweek.com

 —Use the sort of study Bible that's used in introductory college-level courses in nonsectarian schools (like Butler, IU, Purdue)—The New Oxford Annotated Bible, or The Harper Collins Study Bible, or The New Interpreter's Study Bible. They represent what most biblical scholars are saying.

 —Avoid relying too much on books like the NIV Study Bible, the NIV Student Bible or the Life Application Bible—they go out of their way to misrepresent what most biblical scholars are saying (alternative facts).

 —Be careful reading translations by individuals—they almost always have a theological bias. That doesn't make them worthless, but you should be aware of a probable bias.

—Fr. Charles Allen