With Imagination, Anything is Possible: Process Theology, MacGyver and Non-Violence

MacDoes God ever call us to injure other people? Again, I think the answer is affirmative. If killing Hitler could have stopped the Holocaust and shortened the war, Bonhoeffer was right to support that project. On a much lesser scale, Jesus used violence to cleanse the temple.

Whitehead pointed out that “life is robbery.” For one creature to live, other lives are sacrificed. Certainly human life involves enormous killing of other creatures. That is the kind of world we live in.

The above passage comes from an essay by written by John Cobb. John Cobb is perhaps my favorite theologian and philosopher of all time. In fact, there is a good chance that he may even be my favorite writer of all time. I agree with so much of what he says and writes about in fact (concerning God, ecology, interpreting Whitehead etc…), that I have often wondered if there was anything I might disagree with him on. Well, as it turns out, I disagree with him on killing hypothetical people.

Full disclosure, at this point in time I resonate (and have for a while now) with radical streams of Christianity that subscribe to non-violent, semi-violent, non-lethal, and/or anti-violent resistance; i.e. peace theologies such as those found in Mennonite, Quaker and some liberal/mystic Catholic traditons, for instance. I think one of the things that has captured my imagination so much about these types of radical ideologies is their emphasis on undying, unconditional love, and forgiveness, which of course, according to proponents of these types of radical peace theologies, is found to be exhibited and modeled in Jesus.

So, suffice it to say that I was really disheartened to learn, while watching a lecture by Bob Mesle which he gave at Claremont recently, that John Cobb would be willing to kill 15 people if it meant saving the whole planet. Now, to be fair, Cobb was responding to a hypothetical either/or scenario and he did clarify by saying that he couldn’t imagine a case in which this would ever be true.

The hypothetical situation Cobb was responding to sounded like, to me, a process version of the trolly problem found in ethics text books. According to the process view, relational power opens up possibility while coercive power closes down possibility, but it may indeed be so, according to John Cobb, that the best possibilities we are left with in a given situation may be the least of some perceived “evils.” For example, in the case of the trolly, choosing a track that will kill one person in order to save five.

So, here is where I start to wonder.

One of the reasons I have come to appreciate process thought so much is because of it’s unique emphasis on openness, creativity and novelty. So, it was absolutely baffling to me when I heard a room full of Claremont academics seemingly fall into the binary trap of the trolly problem. It seems to me that hypothetical either/or situations, like the one found in the trolly problem, are problematic if only because they don’t leave room for a few things that are so absolutely critical in process-relational thinking, namely: improvisation, openness, and creativity; or what I like to call “the MacGeyver Possibility.”

In the trolley scenario, we’re faced with the impossible choice of having to decide on killing 1 person to save 5 people by pulling a lever which alters the runaway trolley’s course.

Anyway, my theory (and I’m sure it’s not original) is that by adding MacGeyver to the trolley problem/equation, the outcome could indeed change because there is a significant chance that the 1980′s fictional TV hero could figure out a way to stop the trolley completely, using only a tooth pick and a swiss army knife.

Leaving room for the MacGeyver Possibility makes sense, I would think, if one was coming from a process-relational perspective, especially since, according to folks like Cobb, God lures us to act in a certain way that would be thought best in any given circumstance. Cobb writes:

“By introducing possibilities of such action that go beyond what the situation would otherwise allow, God expands our freedom. Violence as we ordinarily understand it restricts the freedom of its object.”

The words Cobb writes above seem to me to speak very much to what is going on in the MacGeyver stories. One of the reasons MacGeyver consistently seems to get out of perilous situations is because he’s able to overcome what gestalt psychologists call “functional fixedness.” So, essentially, MacGeyver is able to look at objects (or situations) and not get hung up on their typical functional purpose. Rather, he is able to see an objects potential role in solving a problem. MacGyver demonstrates a remarkable lack of fixation. The objects in MacGyver’s environment can have many different purposes other than their typical purpose; in Cobb’s terms, MacGeyver ‘expands the freedom of objects around him.’

In this sense, then, MacGyver could be classified as a strong divergent thinker. Objects then, for MacGyver, are essentially pieces of a larger puzzle that fit together to form larger tools. Objects don’t just have one purpose for MacGyver. This type of thinking, or restructuring, is what makes it possible for MacGyver to use nonviolent (or at the very least, semi-violent) methods to move from initial states to goal states.

To bring this all back to theology then, I imagine the God of process-relational theology to function very similarly. I mean, If MacGyver can assemble a slingshot out of a mattress to get himself out of a tricky situation, I’d say it’s indeed possible for God and/or humans not to have to kill hypothetical people (or real ones for that matter) when faced with tough dilemmas that life will inevitably throw our way.

Cross-posted on turri.me

Art Credit: Unknown Artist

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Jesus Isn’t Superman

As you may be aware, with the release of the Man of Steel movie earlier this year there was a major push by evangelical marketing types to get preachers to focus on the messianic imagery that had been intentionally spliced into the movie. Comic-Con- Superman A_Cala

This is not my concern (although insights about that whole phenomenon would not be discouraged).

My concern is with the real and inherited christologies that show up around both Christmas and Easter. I am content most of the year to naively pretend that we all are basically talking about the same thing when we use the name of Jesus. That fiction is often shattered in Advent and Lent as we build up to the high holidays holy days.

I have often been given opportunities in recent years to introduce lay people to the concepts of ‘christology from below’ (instead of the dreaded  ‘low christology’)  and to illuminate the dangers of starting – not with a cosmic christ – but with a pre-incarnate Jesus. [selah]

Most people have never thought about the difference and the importance that it might make in how they both believe and worship … let alone live their christianity.

What I am hoping to do here is to offer you a gift exchange:  you get something from Homebrewed and in exchange you help me out with something!

The offering: The current ‘Barrel Aged’ Homebrewed Podcast is a chat with John Cobb about Advent and Incarnation.  It is in my top 10 favorite episodes that we have ever done and I got Tripp to post it specifically for this conversation. It is a delicious audiological delight. 

The request: What I am asking in exchange is for ya’all to help me come up with and clarify a list I am working on for the conversation this week at my church.  We are starting a new series called ‘Jesus Isn’t Superman’ and I am coming up with tweets to get people thinking.

Here is what I have so far:

Jesus didn’t crash on earth sent from a distant planet – Jesus was born of a women. #JesusIsntSuperman

Jesus doesn’t get powers from the yellow sun – Jesus’ power is in his relatedness & availability to God’s spirit. #JesusIsntSuperman

Jesus isn’t Christ’s Clark Kent secret identity that can be taken off when its time to walk on water. #JesusIsntSuperman

Jesus wasn’t an alien pretending to be human & secretly had a fortress of solitude to retreat to. Jesus was fully human #JesusIsntSuperman

 

So you can either post your thoughts or tweets here – or if you tweet them I will try to move them over here later.

Thanks in advance, I look forward to hearing your contributions! 

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Have Yourself a John Cobb Advent! #FANiac

Cobb LogoJohn Cobb is the world’s foremost Process theologian & Tripp’s personal hero.  He has been on the podcast a number of times but this time we are going to talk about Jesus, the season of Advent, & a Process understanding of the Incarnation.  We hope you enjoy it & go subscribe to the new Barrel Aged podcast stream so you get the next Advent podcast.  Here’s the feedburner feed.

Want to read some of Cobb’s Christology? Then go check out Christ in a Pluralistic Age.

With over 5 years of interviews under out belt – having gone from just friends listening to 50k – realizing that there are a ton of people who can’t get the best interviews from the past – let us introduce you to Homebrewed Christianity Barrel Aged podcast. I will be re-releasing the best interviews from the early days, super-short new intros, and hopefully doctored audio. In order to keep getting these podcasts you will need to go subscribe to the Barrel Aged podcast stream HERE. While you are there review us and share the word.

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Go Subscribe & Review the Stream

 

Come Join Tripp & Jonnie for the Conference, Live Podcast and Craft Brewery Fun.

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*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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Process Is Poised For A Comeback

Three things have been rattling around in by cranium while I was away this Spring.

1. The cicada’s came back. Every 17 years the Periodical Cicada Brood II emerges to rollick in the Eastern half of the U.S. for a brief but frenzied round of sex and gluttony. We will not see them again for 17 years. It is a phenomenon that always garners it’s fair share of bewilderment and awe.

cicadas

It is appropriate that this baffles most of us. We are set to think in perennial terms and oddities like this don’t fit that narrative. Underneath the soil right now is a massive swarm that we will not hear a peep from until 2030.

2. I was listening to an episode of Smiley and West’s weekly radio show while I was fixing up my parent’s house. The guests were Maceo Parker and Bill Ayers (interesting mix eh?). It was pointed out that sometimes, things just take time. Ayers’ example: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. It was not until 1963 that the march in Birmingham took place.

Ayers points out that not everything happens in quick succession. He said this in reference to the Occupy flare-up last year and why it appears that not much has come out of them.

3. Tony Jones had the response to Jack Caputo’s address at the Subverting the Norm conference. Point 2 of Tony’s 13 points was :

Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.

 

I know that Process thought will always be on the periphery. It will never be mainstream… and I am o.k. with that. Some things just work better as ‘catchers’ on the outside of the whirlwind.

Here is the thing: many Mainline, progressive or emergent church expressions don’t make that many converts. Some may even think that evangelism is wrong/trite/passé/ or coercive.

You know who does make a lot of converts? The evangelical-charismatic branch of the family. They do.

But not all of their kids or converts find the theological answer persuasive or satisfying after a while. So there is always a large supply of folks cycling out of the evangelical spin-cycle looking for better frameworks and answers … and it just so happens that Process thought can provide that.

 

Process thought interacts with both Biblical Scholarship and Science with flying colors.

Process even has a built-in interface for engaging other religions. It’s perfect for the pluralism that our world and time are calling for.

Yes – you have to learn some new words and it is admittedly clumsy to transition into from a classical approach. We all acknowledge that. But … and I can not overstate this … if your unhappy with the frameworks that you inherited, what have you got to lose?   Your faith?

If the alternatives are to either:

A) close your eyes and choke-down the medicine

or

B) walk away from the faith altogether

Then what is the harm is picking up some new vocabulary and concepts that allows you to navigate the tricky waters of the 21st century?

I mean, what else are you going to do for the next 17 years while we wait for the cicada’s return?

 

___

I have been enjoying 2 big books while I was away:

Modern Christian Thought (the twentieth century) and Essentials of Christian Theology – both have significant sections of Process influence.

 

Cicada Picture: H. Scott Hoffman/News & Record, via Associated Press

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7 Reasons to Subvert the Norm in April

I can’t wait for THE most epic nerdy event of the year – Subverting the Norm!  This April 5 & 6 an amazing collection of thinkers and practitioners will be gathering at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri for a conversation every Homebrewed Christianity Deacon dreams about.  The speaker line up is packed full of Podcast favorites, at least 7 Deacons are presenting papers, Bo and I will both be there & one of the 3 JC’s will be in the house… Jack Caputo!  Plus in just two days you will know the answer to the conference’s centering question, Can Postmodern Theology Live in the Churches?

Since the early bird registration (89) ends February 28th I thought I would give you 7 reasons to go ahead and get your ticket NOW!

  1. Caputo
  2. I will be attempting to save Peter Rollins soul. The rumor I heard is that Pete, Barry, & Kester are going to attempt the same to me on behalf of Radical Theology.
  3. I will facilitate a round-table conversation where we finally figure out exactly what the “Death of God” means & how it impacts the church today.
  4. Barry Taylor (& other peeps at the conference) will be joining us for a live Theology of Rock podcast titled “God in Spandex, Midgets dancing around Stonehenge, and our foil wrapped cucumber cocks.”
  5. You can stay an extra day and hear me introduce Process Theology & preach at National Ave. Christian Church (DOC).
  6. Subverting the Norm & Phillips Theological Seminary sponsored the podcast so you get it for free. Share some love and come to the conference!

Most importantly…since this is the 7th reason... the Mad Farmer & Brewer extraordinaire Deacon Charlie Sheldon will be sending kegs of the John Cobb #FANiac Double IPA & the  Jack Caputo Deacon-structor French Ale to the event.  During the live Podcast on Friday night all the HBC Deacons will be able to decide with their taste buds which ‘JC’ they want to tap as they take their PoMo theology into the church.  Personally I think they should both go to church.

Beer_Labels-Caputo-phone_rev03Cobb Logo

 

The Elder of Graphical Sweetness Jesse Turri designed these most awesome labels for my favorite Home Brew recipes.

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Is David Fitch right about the Church’s task?

This morning David Fitch tweeted this:

“The biggest task of today’s church is to undermine in its members the blase unexamined acceptance of secular assumptions for everyday life.”

I have been thinking about it all day. I’m not sure he is right on this one.

Now just to let you know where I am coming from:

When you put that all together, I am just not convinced of Fitch’s assertion. Here is why:

I am increasingly suspicious that secularism is both a consequence and a side effect of Christendom. It is the West’s Frankenstein if you will. We made it. Then it took on a life of its own – a life we don’t like very much and which damages our efforts and injures our cause.  I think we have to start there.

I agree with Fitch that there is a ‘unexamined acceptance” and would go even further and say that it results in an assumption that what we see is the way it is. That our current mechanisms of organization are final forms and that the ‘as-is’ structures come with a large measure of ‘giveness’.  Tripp often applies this capitalism, nation-states and democracy. I would tack on both denominations for the church and militarism for US America.

I am just not so sure that our main task is to undermine. Maybe that is where my hangup comes. I am leery of this approach because it seems like we are defaulting the ground rules in the initial move and framing the task in a conceding first move.

I might be naive here but I am just not sure that the church needs to
A) give that much ground initially
B) frame her task in the negative.
I know it’s just so much one can do with a tweet but … there is something there that gives me caution.

So what is my constructive proposal?  I’m working on it.

I would want to frame it more like Stuart Murray does in the book Post-Christendom  and acknowledge that initial concession was early on with Constantinian Christianity. Then Christendom. Then Modernity.  With those three concessions we admit that the as-is nature of existing frameworks for both church and culture are thoroughly compromised and corrupted.

BECAUSE of that. We abandon the recuperation, rehabilitation, reclamation , and renovation projects (and mentality) all together! (all 4 faces of it).

It’s over man.  Let it go.

THEN we start new and in the positive. The 21st century provides fresh possibilities and opportunities IF ONLY we will let go the idea of getting back to something or getting something back. I know we never start from scratch – we never get back to square one. But …

I don’t want to be the undermining parasite ON the big organism. That is too small a task.  I want to partner with God in the healing of world (Tikkun Olum in Hebrew).  I want to participate in the development cosmic good – until then at least the common good. 

 Help me think this through! 

PostScript: now that I started down this “re” line I can’t stop coming up with words I want to flesh out further!
Restore: no
Re-imagine: yes
Represent: yes
Re-member: sure
Resurrect: ummmm not really
Reflect: probably

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Who Is God? or the Gods John Cobb doesn’t believe in

I have been burning through my Summer reading list and I seem to have stumbled onto a rich vein of form! The odd thing is that they are all books with ‘God’ in the title. There are 5 (out of about 20) but they seem to have all ended up in the middle of stack. Here are the 5 I am chewing on right now:

- The PostModern God edited by Graham Ward

- God & Religion in the PostModern World by David Ray Griffin

- God : a guide for the perplexed by Keith Ward

- The Named God and the Question of Being by Stanley J. Grenz

- God Is Not One by Stephen Prothero

What is so fascinating to me in all of this is how widely dispersed use of the word ‘God’ can be. You can mean a whole bunch of different things when you say ‘God’ and only a fool would assume to know what another means when they invoke that title/name. [I touched on this a while ago in 'I'm not sure most Christians know that']

It made me think back to a section in John Cobb’s introductory book when he clearly outlined what he didn’t mean when he said ‘God’.  What follows is a verbatim reproduction of that section. What I would love to hear is what you don’t mean when you say ‘God’. This will be a fun little experiment in clarification done negativa,. 

 1. God as Cosmic Moralist. At its worst this notion takes the form of the image of God as divine lawgiver and judge, who has proclaimed an arbitrary set of moral rules, who keeps records of offenses, and who will punish offenders. In its more enlightened versions, the suggestion is retained that God’s most fundamental concern is the development of moral attitudes. This makes primary for God what is secondary for humane people, and limits the scope of intrinsic importance to human beings as the only beings capable of moral attitudes. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

2. God as the Unchanging and Passionless Absolute. This con­cept derives from the Greeks, who maintained that “perfection” entailed complete “immutability,” or lack of change. The notion of “impassibility” stressed that deity must be completely unaf­fected by any other reality and must lack all passion or emotional response. The notion that deity is the “Absolute” has meant that God is not really related to the world. The world is really related to God, in that the relation to God is constitutive of the world— an adequate description of the world requires reference to its de­pendence on God—but even the fact that there is a world is not constitutive of the reality of God. God is wholly independent of the world: the God-world relation is purely external to God. These three terms—unchangeable, passionless, and absolute—finally say the same thing, that the world contributes nothing to God, and that God’s influence upon the world is in no way conditioned by divine responsiveness to unforeseen, self-determining activities of us worldly beings. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

3. God as Controlling Power. This notion suggests that God determines every detail of the world. When a loved one dies prema­ turely, the question “Why?” is often asked instinctively, meaning “Why did God choose to take this life at this time?” Also, when humanly destructive natural events such as hurricanes occur, legal jargon speaks of “acts of God.” On the positive side, a woman may thank God for the rescue of her husband from a collapsed coal mine, while the husbands of a dozen other women are lost. But what kind of a God would this be who spares one while allowing the others to perish? Process theology denies the existence of this God.
4. God as Sanctioner of the Status Quo. This connotation charac­terizes a strong tendency in all religions. It is supported by the three previous notions. The notion of God as Cosmic Moralist has suggested that God is primarily interested in order. The notion of God as Unchangeable Absolute has suggested God’s establishment of an unchangeable order for the world. And the notion of God as Controlling Power has suggested that the present order exists be­ cause God wills its existence. In that case, to be obedient to God is to preserve the status quo. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

5. God as Male. The liberation movement among women has made us painfully aware how deeply our images of deity have been sexually one-sided. Not only have we regarded all three “persons” of the Trinity as male, but the tradition has reinforced these images with theological doctrines such as those noted above. God is totally active, controlling, and independent, and wholly lacking in receptiveness and responsiveness. Indeed, God seems to be the archetype of the dominant, inflexible, unemotional, completely independent (read “strong”) male. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

Please let me know what you DON’T mean when you say ‘God’… and make sure to frame it in the negative ! 
-Bo Sanders
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Concern about the Collapse of the Mainline Liberal

There is a fascinating conversation these days about what exactly is going to happen to the the ‘Old’line (what used to be the Mainline) denominations and why exactly it has happened. Both John Cobb (a while ago) and Diana Butler Bass (more recently) have had amazingly insightful takes about it on our podcast. 

I find myself in an interesting position as one employed at a healthy and growing Mainline church that is about to begin an emergent expression this Fall with the addition of a second gathering. It has been said by numerous folks that I bring an evangelical zeal to being progressive. But when I read stuff about the bigger picture I feel like I showed up at the prom around 11.

Today I want have a little conversation with David Ray Griffin. His article ‘Postmodern Theology for the Church’ begins with possibly the best opening paragraph I have read. I will post it, break the sentences up and attempt to dialogue. I won’t get beyond the first paragraph in round 1. My comments will be in italics 

___

Many believe that the modern liberal church is dying.  Whether or not this is true, it is obvious that modern liberal churches have been in decline in both numbers and influence for some time.  

  • It’s funny to judge life and health by numbers and influence. Maybe it is not the worst thing in the world to lose a little weight! Maybe downsizing and streamlining are not all that bad for the 21st century. I mean, this is not post-WWII America anymore.  These mammoth cathedrals and lumbering bureaucratic structures are from a bygone era. 

This fact has recently received terminological recognition in the change from “mainline” to “oldline” to refer to these churches.  Various analyses have been offered to explain this decline.

  • I’m always nervous when reductive thinking tries to explain a complicated situation with a primary label. I mean, if its true – and obvious – that is one thing.  My tendency is to look to a web of interpretation (anchored at many points) or to use a chemistry analogy about a concoction or mix.  

Conservative theologians offer a theological analysis, saying that the liberal churches are in decline because their theology is vacuous.  I believe that this analysis is essentially correct.

  • This is the point that John Cobb makes in that interview. They basically figured out that no matter what degree or shade someone’s belief had, we all basically did the same things. The system was set up to serve here,  give to this, and show up there. The technical fine tuning of belief didn’t make that big of a difference so … it must not really matter that much. 

Religion is based upon the perennial human desire to be in harmony with the supreme power of the universe, but modern liberal theology has had trouble speaking of the world as God’s creation and of God as providentially active in the world in any significant sense.

It has generally redefined God—indeed, if it speaks of God at all—so that God is not portrayed as the supreme power of the universe, if it attributes any power at all to what it calls God.

  • While we do certainly contend that omni-potent is not the Biblical picture of God (but a Ceasar-esque one imported from Greek philosophy and Roman politics) we can not abandon a God who acts all together if we are to have an Christ at all. I have no interest is being generically religious (a God-ian) or spiritual (a Spirit-ist). I want Jesus. If not, I would just walk away – to be honest. I have better things to do (like Sociology). Maybe that is exactly what people have done… walked away from it.  

Religion is based upon hope for salvation, but modern liberal theology has not provided a realistic basis for hope, either for individuals or the world as a whole.  Vital religion usually involves not only hope for the future but also present religious experience that is salvific in itself, and yet modern liberal theology has little if any room for such experience.

  • Two interesting things here: A) I am all for hope. Once the social gospel collapse (or the government took over many of its functions) I get why folks were less likely to really sacrifice and pour themselves out for the cause. The post-millenial expectation that was predominate 100 years ago was a bust. It was too optimistic about human progress and social change … and not strong enough on anthropology (human nature).  
  • B) Religious experience is a doozy of a topic. It was eye opening for me to move from an environment where we raised our hands, closed our eyes and sang as loud as we could (over even danced) in delight at experiencing God’s presence in corporate musical worship. I love the idea of liturgy, ceremony, and ritual. But you have to admit that epistemology and the expectation are night and day.  People want to argue with my on this point but I’m telling you that evangelical-charismatic worship is more individualist and more faithful to Schleiermacher’s liberal expectation than anything I have found in the Mainline. 

The Christian Church when it has been on the move has had a clear sense of its mission as God’s agent to bring from the power of the demonic, but modern liberal has been able to articulate no such sense of mission.

  • There may be no better point in the whole article than this. I think that greater than the massive sanctuaries, the dogged loyalty to old forms in worship, and anything else you can point to … this may be the most important element of the demise. 

A religious movement thrives when it offers a message that seems both true and important, but modern liberal theology has not been able convincingly to portray its message as either true or important.

  • My goodness this one stings. It actually hurts so much (even as newcomer) that I pour many hours and invest tons of energy into addressing this one. 

Conservative theologians say that modern liberal theology provides little more than a religious gloss on an essentially nonreligious worldview; that criticism, I am saying, is largely correct.

  • Totally unacceptable! We have good news to offer the words – and it is not that everything makes sense. Making sense is good (most of the time) but it is certainly not enough. Our commission is not just to help folks be the nicest, best, most generous versions of themselves. We can’t afford to do group therapy and call it church. Nor can we simply define ourselves and not fundamentalist or not conservative. Negativa will not suffice. What is needed is a solid articulation and dynamic organization of community and a tradition that houses a robust theology and aggressive engagement of the world that it finds itself in. 
Those are some of my thoughts. I would love to hear some of yours!   -Bo Sanders 

 

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This is the best that God can do?

It is fascinating what happens to conversations when you take away one word.  Words are like little suitcases – people put understandings or concepts in them and then carry them around as self contained units. Its so easy! They come with these convenient little handles and you can you pack so much meaning in and mean so much when you just use one little word.

This can be especially dangerous in theological conversations. That one word can take paragraphs and pages to unpack. Sometimes it can be a very liberating experience to take a word off the table. Just say ‘if you can’t use that word, how would you talk about this?’ It is an amazing excercise.

 A few weeks ago I had fun asking the question “what if you can’t use the word ‘demon’ – how would you talk about these same things?”  I am suspicious that we who read the Gospels and New Testament don’t mean the same thing when we say ‘demon’ or ‘devil’ as those in 1st century region of the Mediterranean did. 

 So it was with great interest that I had an amazing conversation this past weekend with a group of very intelligent, but non-theological folks. We were talking about God and the subject of evil came up. What was fascinating is that I did not place restrictions on the conversation, it happened organically – they just don’t use the usual words! Never once did I hear

  • Theodicy
  • Omnipotent
  • Kenosis

I started thinking “what if we had this conversation without those three words?” They are great words, and that is part of the problem! People assume that they know what is packed into the words and so they throw them around with ease (they come with convenient handles after all).

Here was my opening statement that sparked the debate:

God is doing all that God can do right now in the world. What you are looking at is the best that God can do. God is not holding back. God is doing God’s best to make the world a better place that more conforms to the divine will.

You can understand why that set off sparks. The questions, comments, and concerns started flowing.  Is God more powerful than God lets on? Has God restricted Godself? Has God willingly emptied Godself of some of God’s power?  Can God pick up that power anytime God will and God is just choosing not to? 

 There are specifically 3 groups that have shaped my thinking on this: 

  1. The Kenotic CrowdMultmaniacs mostly, but more generally people who think that God is who we have always said God to be but that some ‘emptying’ (see Philippians 2) or self-limitation has happened. God is ‘all powerful’ or ‘all mighty’ but has just chosen to act this way (free-will, etc.)
  2. The Process Perspective – Between Marjorie Suchocki, John Cobb, Catherine Keller, and Philip Clayton they have this thing covered. I thank God for Process as a conversation partner.
  3. The Caputo Contingent - with his book ‘The Weakness of God’ John Caputo shook some of us to our core and rocked our ‘foundation’.  What if God’s strength was shown in weakness?

 I have become very comfortable with the possibility that world as it exists is the best that God can do. I’m not saying that I believe that – just that I am open to that possibility.

What if God is doing all that God can do in the world right now?

What if God isn’t all-powerful but only very powerful?

Or that God’s power is a different kind of power?

What if God isn’t pretending or self-limiting?

What if God is giving all that God has to the moment?

So we don’t have to ask ‘why isn’t God stopping the genocide in Africa’. God can’t. It’s just not how it works. God is doing what God can but we are not cooperating.

Now, some will say “No, God could do more but has chosen to limit God’s self” or “God has emptied some of God’s power and given it to us as co-creators and free agents – we are misusing our power. It’s not on God.”

 I just want to throw out the question “What if this is the best that God can do?” I am comfortable with that.  

 

Looking forward to your thoughts!  All I ask is that you try not to use ‘theodicy’, ‘kenosis’, or ‘omnipotent’ without unpacking them.  

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Evil Is as Evil Does

Earlier this week I wrote about Dealing with Demons - a progressive take, and in it I mentioned that the Devil was a personification of when evil is too big and too bad for us to comprehend as a human result … we outsource to an ancient, cosmic bad guy.  Many were able to track with the demon thing but some hit a snag with the Devil thing.

Then what is evil?  Where does it come from? Is it real? Is it ontological? 

Let me entertain the 3 suggestions that were brought up by responders to the blog: Augustine, Process and Relational Reality.

Augustine had a theory called “privatio boni”. Back in my apologist-evangelist days I would explain it like this:  Evil isn’t something, it is the absence of something. Like darkness is not a thing, it is simply the absence of a thing. Wherever you do not have the presence of light, you automatically have darkness – so where God’s will is not obeyed, you automatically have sin and evil.

Of course, the problem with this is that it predicated by God being “all powerful” or omnipotent. Augustine explains:

For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.

An alternative to that comes from Process thought – which does not see God’s power as coercive (able to unilaterally act however God wills) but persuasive, engaging the possibilities of each moment, complete the contingencies of the past, to bring forward the possibility of a preferable future. John Cobb explains in Process Perspectives II that there are many factors that create the multi-layered web of evil. Human sin is just one element. He also names

  • Chance and Purpose
  • Survival instinct
  • Communal Identity – and fear when it is threatened
  • Deep held but mistaken beliefs
  • Institutions
  • Obedience of authority

among others, as potential ingredients in the creation of evil.

 I want to make it clear that the systemic evil of degrading the Earth in our current situation is not primarily the result of individual sins of unnecessary wastefulness by those who know they are falling short of the ideal. The systemic evil results from our industrial-economic system. This system came into being out of a great mixture of motives. Some of them were narrowly selfish, and some of the decisions people made in the process were no doubt sinful. But not all. Some people rightly saw that the development of this system brought prosperity to nations and eventually to most of their people…

Since I believe that to some extent we all miss the mark or fail to fully actualize the initial aim, I do not exclude sin as a causal element in the establishment of this system. My point is only that to explain the rise to dominance of this system primarily in terms of sin is extremely misleading. The evil results from a mixture of good intentions, ignorance, and sin. It is also profoundly brought about by the power of the past in each moment of human experience. (p. 135)

 A third option for thinking about this is a Relational Approach. I first encountered this through reading Native American approaches to theology with my mentor Randy Woodley (who’s new book Shalom and the Community of Creation  just came out).

If you go back to the story of Eden and can resist the temptation to retroject a Greek understanding of ‘original sin’ and substance into the story, you will see that it is primarily about relationship. What happens in Eden is a fracturing and a resulting alienation in 3 directions:

  1. humans from God
  2. humans from each other
  3. and humans from the earth that sustains them.

As Genesis continues, the fractures stretch out and the impact of the alienation is greater and greater. Soon brother kills brother, generations are fractured … then tribes, peoples and societies.

I love this approach! Once you get away from the substance/material approach the whole Gospel reads differently!  God’s relational covenant with Israel and the resulting Law, Christ’s relationship to the God and ushering in a new covenant which radically altered (and began to repaired) our relationship to God – to each other – and to the earth which sustains us (where do you think bread and wine come from?)

The gift of Holy Spirit re-connects us in an inter-related family of God. The perichoretic reality of the Trinity is about the relatedness of the Godhead and not primarily about matters of substance and matter (ousia). Evil in this picture, is that which results from brokeness and fracturing, which leads to alienation, and is then complixified through  exponential increase of family systems, tribalism, social structures, societal realities and institutional frameworks … it becomes so big and so bad that it is nearly unimaginable to our mind. At this point we are tempted to outsource the badness to an ‘entity’ which is the personification of evil.

So those are three really good ways of beginning to address the problem of evil. They all have strengths and weakness – but in the end, they are better than saying ‘the Devil made me do it’.

I will end by quoting Cobb again:

 The ways in which even what is good in human nature and society can and does become destructive are so numerous and so effective that the mystery is how good sometimes triumphs over it. This is where I see the need to emphasize God’s directing and empowering call to novel forms of goodness.

John B. Cobb Jr.. The Process Perspective II (p. 137). Kindle Edition which sells for $7.63

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