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Archive for the ‘Process Philosophy/Theology’ Category

Tucson, Arizona is about an eight hour drive from my home in southern California, but the long weekend of the Thanksgiving holiday afforded me the time to make the trek. While visiting good friends there, I had the pleasure of attending St. Francis in the Foothills Methodist church on Sunday. David Wilkinson is the pastor there, and we share a love of process theology though he was a student of John Cobb long before I became aware of Claremont and process thought.

Pastor David drew his sermon from the New Testament story of Paul addressing a gathering  – including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – in the Areapagus where he claims that the “unknown god” Athenians honored was the same as the creator God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:16-28). One of the main points David made in his commentary was that the term “God” was better understood as a verb than as a noun, and that the God who could never be fully known would not be pinned down or boxed in but must be followed into an unknown future.

In their book Tending to the Holy, Bruce and Katherine Epperly write that by “invoking Stoic philosophy to undergird the life-changing wisdom of Christ’s message and resurrection, Paul affirms that divine revelation is universal despite its variability from culture to culture. Paul recognizes that God is truly present in the pluralistic theological and spiritual environment of the Areopagus.” (25) In this text on preaching and teaching, the Epperlys assert the need for public ministries to affirm the “ever-present, dynamic, and intimate reality” of divine inspiration. (24) Oddly enough, such an awareness of divine presence seems hardly to be spoken of in many churches today where politics and sexual morality take precedence.  

Back home here in California, you can find me most afternoons at one of the local dog parks with Cotton, and today we met a woman with an Australian Shepherd named Benji (we humans never learn each other’s’ names!) After sharing where I was attending school, our conversation quickly moved to a deeper level, and Benji’s “mom” told me she was a “recovering Catholic” who had little patience for a church who saw women and other faiths as “less than.” She described herself as “spiritual” and as someone hungry for a community of faith, but she wondered what the church could offer to skeptical people who reject exclusivist and misogynistic doctrine.

The Epperlys describe the responsibilities of a Christian pastor in this way:

To share the gospel so that congregants may experience the fullness of God in their lives, discover the life-transforming presence of Christ, discern the guidance of the Spirit, find comfort in times of uncertainty and pain, and commit themselves to becoming God’s companions in the quest for shalom in their local and global communities. (28)

I think if more churches did just this, we wouldn’t be bleeding out membership and headed toward irrelevancy.

 

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In the same way that tides ebb and flow, I’ve learned that my faith life can display the same kind of movement. There are times when God’s grace is surely at “high tide,” and I’m drinking from a fire hose with dreams and synchronicities abounding. Those times are heady and seductive, leaving the “low tide” periods that much more dry and distressing.

As someone who’s struggled with depression off and on throughout my life, those periods of low tide sometimes leave me wondering if God even remembers that I’m here. I’ve often joked with friends that I suspect, at times, that God may have “lost my file,” as if there’s a cabinet with manila folders all neatly labeled with each of our names in permanent Sharpie markers.

I’m just emerging from one of those dark times, and it’s been quite a rough patch.  So it surprised even me when I found myself making an impassioned declaration of faith in class the other day.

I had given a presentation where I talked about process theology’s view of Christ as “creative transformation” and Jungian psychology’s journey of “individuation” toward the archetypal Self, highlighting the ways in which I found both systems of thought complementary. I talked about Jung’s idea of the “collective unconscious,” and how it is from this shared unconscious that is both within and beyond our individual psyche that the symbols in dreams emerge, symbols that often have a “numinous” or sacred quality. Many of us who do active dream work know without a doubt that those dreams can be, in the words of Bob Haden, “letters from God.”

A fellow student asked if Jung saw this “collective unconscious” as divine, and if Jung believed in a divine “being” or not. Since Jung tried to limit his discussion to the psychological aspects, it’s not easy to pin him down on that question, but Jung did say to a BBC interviewer that he didn’t believe God exists, he knew God exists. Still, I struggled to clearly answer the question.

But then I said, “look, I don’t know what to say about the collective unconscious, but what I do know is that there’s something bigger than me that loves me.”

That, my friends, was a moment of pure grace.  

In a chapter on “wonder, love, and praise” Bruce Epperly writes in Tending to the Holy that Charles and John Wesley had a “lively sense of grace” and believed that “grace was the first and the last word of Christian experience.” (p. 22)

It was a wonder to me when those words came out of my mouth after the despair I’ve felt in the last year. Yet I think Charles Wesley was on to something when he penned these lines to his hymn “O the Depth of Love Divine”:

Sure and real is the grace, the manner be unknown;
only meet us in thy ways and perfect us in one. L
et us taste the heavenly powers, Lord, we ask for nothing more.
Thine to bless,’ tis only ours to wonder and adore.

 

 

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Earlier this week, the state of California defeated Proposition 37, a law that would have required the labeling of any foods that contain ingredients which have been genetically modified. Powerful corporate entities in the food industry poured money into the fight against this “Right to Know,” frightened consumers with the boogeymen of outrageous costs, and dismissed any health concerns as pseudo-science.

Yet in my opinion, genetically modifying any organism violates what I think of as the “sanctity of species” and is therefore unethical and immoral. I do not want to support such permanent alterations of species in any way and I consider it an infringement of my religious freedom to prevent me from making an educated decision about such things. But it’s not just my personal preference that matters here. It all comes down to whether or not we will foster technological, scientific, and economic models that are in direct conflict with what we are discovering about the nature of reality.

 

Once ours scientists learned how to split atoms, what they found there is that,

Matter is no longer material; the atom is formed of protons, neutrons, electrons, and twenty or more other particles. We cannot ask what these particles are ‘made of’, since they are not ‘substances.’ We may speak of energy, waves, particles, but we are actually dealing with fleeting episodes in the microcosm that are not permanent. Our picture of reality, then, is not yesterday’s matter but today’s relationships, processes, and events. Instead of an edifice of hard building blocks, ultimate reality is relational. (Levi A. Olan in “The Prophetic Faith in a Secular Age,” in Jewish Theology and Process Thought, ed. David Ray Griffin and Sandra Lubarsky, 27)

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism or “process philosophy” is grounded in this awareness that reality is made up of experiences and that everything that exists is relational and interconnected. Reasons why his thought is seen as “ecological” include that in his system of thought, every organism has some degree of experience or subjectivity, and has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. Ecological science points to this same awareness, and sees organisms and their ecosystems as being interconnected, relational, interdependent, and wholistic.

Olan describes reality as one of “self-enfolding creatures as well as the infinite whole in which we are, somehow, included as One…Whitehead implies that reality is comprised of ourselves, others, and the whole is the sense of deity, or, as he describes it, ‘the intuition of holiness,’ which is the foundation of religion.” (28) Reality, then, and every organism in it, has a ‘holiness’ or ‘sanctity’ of its own.

On the other hand, the modern technology of genetic modification is based on an outmoded world view – basically, scientific materialism – in which organisms (and, to some degree, even humans) can be reduced to merely machines with interchangeable parts – so who cares if the gene of a toxic plant is spliced into the DNA of a type of corn we will later eat or if the gene of an insect is injected into the DNA of a pig? But if we see each species as a whole, as something with intrinsic value and integrity, with patterns of wisdom that guide its functioning and life experience, then genetic modification violates this sanctity of species.

As Olan writes,

Western civilization today, it seems, is not in harmony with the basic character of the universe as the new science describes it. Materialism dominates our culture at a time when the universe is disclosed to be non-material. Fragmentation is increasingly the mode of human organization, while the universe is revealed to be an integrative unity. The major drive of western culture aims at separating the part from the whole. (32)

But the parts cannot be ethically or morally separated from a whole in which everything is interrelated and interdependent, and we shouldn’t act – or eat – as if they can be.

 

 

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Wikipedia quotes Isaac Newton as saying about “non-locality” or “action at a distance” that it is “so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.” On the other hand, Albert Einstein, certainly someone with quite a well-developed “Faculty of thinking” called the exhibited “non-locality” of quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance.” Meanwhile, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program, which ran from 1979 until 2007, was established so as to “to pursue rigorous scientific study of the interaction of human consciousness with physical devices, systems, and processes common to contemporary engineering practice.” PEAR showed up on the public’s radar screen some years back in relation to its experiments in “remote viewing,” heavily discussed in Lynne McTaggart’s book The Field.

While many of us have experienced the power of prayer, the majority of people in the Western world with its post-Enlightenment worldview grounded in scientific materialism dismiss such ideas as distant healing and the efficacy of prayer as so much gobbled-gook and supernatural mumbo jumbo.

Even modern theologians and religious scholars, heavily wedded to rationalism, focus on a “historical Jesus,” and wave away any notions of healings and seemingly miraculous events. In his book, Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church, Bruce Epperly puts his finger on the unsatisfying nature of such dismissals when he writes that,

Totally deconstructionist or one-dimensional naturalistic visions of the gospel narratives fail to address the life-transforming experiences of first-century followers of Jesus as well as the profound interdependence of mind, body, and spirit: they also neglect God’s activity within every ‘natural’ process. (75)

Though I have been a fan of such writers as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan for a long time, I’ve often noted – as Dr. Epperly does – that they seem not to take into account the insights of “process theology, quantum physics, recent medical research, and global complementary and energy medicine, all of which allow for surprising acts of God and lively releases of divine energy arising from the interplay of ‘natural’ causes.” (75)

Years ago, while a student at the Atlanta School of Massage, I learned various healing modalities – alongside Swedish and deep tissue massage – that focused on the energy fields of the body. Though I could not explain why they worked, I knew that I experienced a greater sense of peace and wholeness after such treatments. Later, while supporting a fellow church member and her family as she died of cancer, I witnessed firsthand the calming effects of therapeutic touch and prayer. As well, I’ve known for a long time that “healing” doesn’t always mean “curing.”

There were times when I’d run into a more conservative Christian who would claim that any such healing work not done directly in the name of Jesus was of the devil.  Jesus ran into the same kind of narrow thinking when he healed a demon-possessed man and was accused of doing so through the power of “Beelzebul.” Jesus set them straight with the illustration that Satan cannot throw out Satan, for a house divided in such a way cannot stand. He went on to point out a tree is known by its fruit and anyone who insults the Holy Spirit is in serious trouble. (Matthew 12:22-33)

I agree with Dr. Epperly that we “must somehow redefine our understanding of the natural world to include non-local causation (action at a distance), paranormal phenomena, and healing energy.” (74)

 

 

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In Christ in a Pluralistic Age, process theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. builds a strong case for understanding the Logos as “creative transformation” and using the term “Christ” to indicate the incarnation of the Logos in creation. In popular usage, “Christ” seems to be understood merely as Jesus’ last name rather than as a descriptor of either his role or his impact on his followers. But Cobb asserts that “’Christ’ does not designate Jesus as such but refers to Jesus in a particular way, namely as the incarnation of the divine. It does not designate deity as such but refers to deity experienced as graciously incarnate in the world.” (66)

He draws from the artistic world to illustrate how Christ can dynamically move from a strictly external image to an internalized force, but insists that it cannot only be in art that this is true. “If creative transformation is Christ,” he writes, “it must be discernible in all life.” (63) In discussing creative transformation and novelty, Cobb talks about a “continuing restlessness in the human race” that leads us toward “spontaneity, growth, and self-transcendence.” (69-70)

Most of my adult life has been characterized by this “continuing restlessness,” and over the last several years, my process of discerning God’s call for me in that restlessness has been through a Jungian practice of dream work and examination of synchronicities, or meaningful coincidences.

There is a vibrant movement of Christian dream work that has developed through the work of Joyce Rockwood Hudson (author of Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity) and Rev. Bob Haden (an Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst), both of whom are primary organizers for the annual Haden Institute Summer Dream Conference in North Carolina. This movement stresses the role of Divine Wisdom as the voice of God speaking to us in our dreams and through waking life synchronicities.

And so when Cobb describes Christ as incarnating the “cosmic principle of order, the ground of meaning, and the source of purpose,” (71) identifying this power only as “Logos,” I must disagree somewhat. In the Christian New Testament tradition, the word Logos is used primarily in the Gospel of John. In the Prologue to that Gospel especially – but generally in the New Testament – everything that is said about the Logos was already said in the Jewish tradition about Sophia (in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew), or Divine Wisdom, typically personified as feminine.

In her groundbreaking text She Who Is, Elizabeth A. Johnson summarizes the connection between Jesus and Wisdom in this way:

The Prologue to [John’s] Gospel, which more than any other scriptural text influences the subsequent development of Christology, actually presents the prehistory of Jesus as the story of Sophia: present ‘in the beginning,’ an active agent in creation, descending from heaven to pitch a tent among the people, rejected by some, giving life to those who seek, a radiant light that darkness cannot overcome (Jn 1:1-18). (Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is.  10th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002, 96-7)

According to Johnson, Christians in the first century, in trying to communicate “the saving significance of Jesus, ransacked the Jewish religious tradition and the surrounding Hellenistic culture for interpretive elements. Along with Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, and Logos, the tradition of personified Wisdom was ready to hand.” (95) She continues,

What Judaism said of Sophia, Christian hymn makers and epistle writers now came to say of Jesus: he is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15); the radiant light of God’s glory (Heb 1:3); the firstborn of all creation (Col 1:15); the one through whom all things were made (1 Cor 8:6).  Likewise, the way in which Judaism characterized Sophia in her dealings with human beings, Gospel writers now came to portray Jesus: he calls out to the heavy burdened to come to him and find rest (Mt 11:28-30); he makes people friends of God (Jn 15:15), and gifts those who love him with life (Jn 17:2).  As the trajectory of wisdom Christology shows, Jesus was so closely associated with Sophia that by the end of the first century he is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, not only as a child and envoy of Sophia, but ultimately even as an embodiment of Sophia herself. (95)

I think it’s crucial that we not lose this rich tradition when we speak of Christ and the Logos.

 

 

 

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There’s nothing like a good magic show. Whether it’s rabbits pulled out of hats or the beautiful woman being sawed in half, we love to see the magic. Even though we know it’s all illusion, we get caught up in the mood created by the dark theater, the dramatic lighting, the smell of the smoke, and the intense concentration of our fellow audience members. We know that the woman’s torso isn’t really disconnected from her legs that have now been wheeled to the other side of the stage, but it’s all so convincing, isn’t it? We can’t really see what’s behind that curtain, so our minds play a little trick on us, letting us think that the staged image is reality.

The human mind is a powerful thing.

In her book Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, Marjorie Suchocki writes about the idea of “radical incarnation” that exists in Christianity versus the “abstractions and conceptions of God” with which Christians are often more familiar. She points to American philosopher William James and notes that in his text A Pluralistic Universe,

[James] argues that the power of the intellect is its ability to control reality through defining it. But definitions are not reality. They are useful abstractions from the messiness of lived experience that leave the fullness of that experience behind. The power gained over the world through these abstracted concepts is so beguiling as to lead one to think that what is really real is precisely those abstractions: the rational, in pure, unchanging, controllable form. (Suchocki, Divinity & Diversity, 41)

We then make matters worse by deciding that the intellect is “the prime model of reality,” and conclude that “there must be an absolute intellect that embraces all concepts. This projected Absolute Reality, often named ‘God,’ becomes the substitute for the more unmanageable sensible reality of everyday life.” (42)

Who wants to stay in everyday life – where babies cry, adults get sick, jobs get boring or lost, parents die, and pain is an ever-present reality – when we can sit in the darkened theater and watch the magician wave his hand to make it all disappear?

When we sit in church where we might smell the incense, stare at intricately stunning stained glass, taste the Eucharist on our tongue, and sing and sway to hymns that transport us to a larger Reality, isn’t it often tempting to want to make that Reality absolutely pure, absolutely clear, absolutely powerful, absolutely wise, and absolutely untouched by the darkness and despair we see all around us, the messy stuff that lies behind the curtain?

But maybe that seduction is a danger.

“As James pushes the notion of absolutism to its extreme,” Suchocki writes, “he shows how it yields the notion of a God totally disconnected from the world…” Once we define God with attributes “so foreign to finite experience” we end up with a God who cannot meet human experience.

James argued that the conceptual God of Absolutes belied the intimacy and reciprocal relation that appears to happen between God and human beings in religious experience…If we take mystical experience seriously, James said, it witnesses to a possibility within the human spirit for an openness to that which is more than the self, and yet which empowers the self: God. The witness is not to a remote deity, but to an immanent deity at the very edges of the self. Such experience suggests that the God constructed through absolutes is hardly more than an invention of the human mind, whereas the God at the edges of the self confronts us in the midst of our reality. (42)

In the midst of our reality. Right here. Right now. In this very darkness.

 

 

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 There are few hours in life more agreeable
than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

~Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
(quoted on p.39 of The Metaphor Maker,
by Patricia Adams Farmer)

 

Though it was never accompanied by much ceremony, I grew up drinking tea. It was a habit of my mother when I was a child to have a cup most every evening, and it’s still a ritual we both enjoy to this day. And though we have no roots on the other side of the pond, we drink it British style, with milk. Though Mom has of late been foregoing any kind of sweetener, my preference is to add a spoon of honey from the Webb’s bees in Clarkesville, Georgia.

After my sophomore year at Purdue University, I left the dormitory for apartment life, and my roommate Laurel and I would commiserate about boys in our small eating area off the kitchen. Those conversations always seemed enriched by a cup of tea and a Pop-Tart. Hot tea soothed broken hearts and sometimes we held onto those best-friend rituals as if they were lifesavers. They were lifesavers.

In The Metaphor Maker by Patricia Adams Farmer, recent college graduate Madeline finds a sweet job in Eve’s tea shop where tea is held in very high regard.

Eve went to prepare the tea, which was easy enough since she had already put on the kettle for herself. As she poured the boiling water over the dry leaves, she felt the significance of such a simple ritual. The very act was like a thread of history, linking Eve to her mother and to past generations, all of whom found comfort from the woes of life – toothaches to heartaches – with a calming reassuring cup of tea. (86)

Between the years of 2006 and 2009, I lived in the north Georgia mountains near the small town of Clarkesville and it’s the place I consider the home of my soul. During that period, I wrote a twice-monthly column for the local newspaper, and in one of those essays I described a recent visit to a monastery.

I spent a few days earlier this year in silence at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.  It had been a very hard and sad December for me – for a lot of reasons – and once we rang in the New Year I just felt the need to leave behind all the distractions of telephone and email for at least a few days.

The Monastery was established in the 1940’s when a group of Trappist monks traveled to Georgia from Kentucky to build a new community.  It’s a beautiful place with a lake, ducks and geese, and the beauty continues inside as well, especially in the cathedral with its soaring ceiling and stained glass windows.

Retreatants that come to the monastery are welcome to join in any, all or none of the worship services led by the brothers, but what felt most holy to me was the last service of the evening that began with the monks’ chanting in a deep darkness broken only by candlelight.

When your soul is carrying heavy burdens, the evocative beauty of holy ritual can lift those burdens like steam rising from a comforting pot of tea.  Holy moments of synchronicity kept tapping me on the shoulder, showing me over and over again that God saw me and knew my heart.  And after a Divine accident put a book in my path that brought tremendous healing, I knew once again that I had been touched by Grace.

Tea and Grace. Sometimes that which is most simple and earthy can be accompanied by that which is most holy.

 

 

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