Whether or not we are aware of it, all of us think theologically whenever we try to discern the meaning of our lives, fathom the reality of suffering and tragedy, and discover our place in the universe. Despite the universality of theological reflection, the technical language and conceptuality employed by most theologians is often perplexing to educated laypersons and pastors, who are tempted to ask what difference theology makes in the living of our days. This critique is often leveled against process theology which, despite its claim to arise from reflection on human experience – everyday, scientific, and religious – remains shrouded in highly technical and obtuse philosophical and theological language. George Bernard Shaw once noted that the professions are conspiracies against the laity, and this complaint can surely be leveled at those who employ the intricate and often obscure language of process theology. Laypersons often shake their heads in bewilderment as they hear process theologians try to explain their theological insights with words like “concrescence,” “prehension,” “primordial, consequent, and superjective natures of God,” and “hybrid physical feelings.” While process thought’s esoteric language is intended to reflect the novel world view articulated by process theology, many readers barely get through the first paragraphs of works by Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and their followers.
Still, I am convinced that process theology can be accessible to laypersons and pastors. Any theology which claims to describe the ultimate generalities that characterize our lives must ultimately mirror people’s language and ordinary experience. In over thirty years of professional life, I have joined classroom and pulpit, computer and hospital bedside, and contemplation and action, as a seminary and college professor, administrator, pastor, and process theologian. I have learned that theology, at its best, seeks to transform people’s lives by providing an insightful vision of reality that enables persons to find meaning, inspiration, and challenge. I have found this connection between vision and practice especially to be true for the movement in contemporary theology, described as process theology. Once persons begin to understand process theology’s innovative ways of describing God’s relationship with the world, the problem of evil, human creativity and freedom, and the non-human world, they recognize the significant contribution process theology makes to religious life, social transformation, and ethical behavior. They also discover how different process theology is from more traditional theologies and the theology they often grew up with.
I have found that theology matters most when it addresses “matters of life and death.” When people try to make theological and personal sense of life’s inevitable challenges to our spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational well-being, then theology comes alive and can change peoples’ lives. An accessible theology responds to the perplexities that threaten to overwhelm us intellectually, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually as we face what Episcopal priest Alan Jones has referred to as the “unfixable” events of life. The following encounters in the course of my professional life reveal why theology is important and why new ways of looking at God, the world, and ourselves can transform peoples’ lives and inspire hope and creativity in difficult situations.
Helen knocked on my seminary study door one rainy winter afternoon. She immediately confessed that she had trouble believing in the God of her childhood, whose character had been unquestioned throughout most of her life. When Helen’s nine year old daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, she sought the counsel of her conservative Baptist pastor, who challenged her to “Have faith in God,” and then added, “Remember, Jesus’ words to the woman with the flow of blood, ‘your faith has made you well.’ If you just trust God, your daughter will get well.” When her daughter’s condition continued to deteriorate, he suggested that her “lack of faith” and “questions about God’s nature” might be the reason for her daughter’s tenuous health condition. He also counseled her that “God has a plan for everything and that her daughter’s illness was intended to test of her family’s faith. If they passed the test, they would all be spiritually stronger, and her daughter would recover.”
As her daughter’s condition continued to show no improvement, Helen’s pastor’s theological counsel no longer worked for her. Trying to make theological sense of her daughter’s condition, Helen realized that according to her pastor’s viewpoint, “Either I’m to blame, or God’s testing us beyond our abilities.” And, then, she became angry, “How can God hurt my daughter as a way testing my faith? It’s not fair. A loving God would never hurt a child to test her parents.” Helen’s search for a cure took her to a new age healer, who promised that “if you focus on positive affirmations, you will find peace and your daughter will get well”; but then, like the Baptist pastor, berated her for her “negative thinking” when her daughter’s condition remained tenuous. As if to take Helen off the hook for her spiritual immaturity in this lifetime, the healer added one more explanation for her daughter’s condition: “Perhaps her illness is the result of something that happened in a previous lifetime. Your daughter is sick because you and your daughter may have made a spiritual agreement to deal with issues of suffering in this lifetime. Perhaps your daughter chose to be sick so that she could learn certain spiritual lessons.”
With a countenance mirroring the gloom of the day, Helen came to me, as a last resort, with the question, “Am I really fully responsible for my daughter’s health? If so, I’m not spiritually strong enough to change her health condition. If this is a matter of my spiritual maturity, what can I to do to help her?” Over the course of a few meetings, she reflected on her childhood images of God as a distant judge and task master, ready to condemn us for the slightest doubt or misdeed. The Baptist pastor and new age healer both confirmed her childhood belief that illness was directly the result of our sinfulness and that somehow the impact God or karma was at the root of her child’s suffering. Together, Helen and I explored the possibility of alternative images of God and explanations of suffering which avoided the pitfalls of divine punishment and linear cause and effect explanations relating to behaviors and outcomes. We also considered the possibility that God neither caused nor wanted her to daughter to suffer, but is the source of healing possibilities and compassionate companionship. We explored the possibility that God might not be in control of everything, and that chance, reflected in the impact of DNA and the environment, as well as purpose shapes our lives. While Helen is still seeking a god she can trust to be her and her daughter’s companion as they face the medical treatments that lie ahead, she has come to realize, in her words, that “the only God I can trust is a God who loves rather than constantly tests us, and accepts our imperfections and tries to help us do better.” Our conversations about the alternative vision of God found in process theology have given her hope that she can find a God who is truly on her and daughter’s side, a God who unambiguously wants her daughter to get well.
In pondering the challenges that confront persons like Helen, other spiritual leaders proclaim that without apology that everything–from good health to personal trauma–come from the hand of God. As Rick Warren, author of the best-selling Purpose Driven Life, asserts, “God has planned every detail of your life without your input.” According to Warren, all the most important events of our lives, even the most painful ones, are “father-filtered” and intended for our growth. God not only allows us to experience pain, but places challenging and painful experiences in our lives as opportunities for growth and tests of fidelity. God smiles on us when we obey “him” completely follow the script that “he” has written in advance. Even though God is the source of tragic obstacles to faith, failure to find our purpose in life and deviating from God’s clear plan for our lives leads to meaninglessness in this life and divine punishment in the afterlife. While images of a God who plans everything in our lives may be comforting to some persons, others come to hate a God who determines everything and punishes those who don’t come up with the right responses to God’s tests of their faith.
Audrey was a refugee from a fundamentalist denomination. Now, in thirties, she had become an accomplished physicist. Recently, she had begun to ponder cosmology and the origins of the universe. While she could not accept her childhood faith’s belief in a “young earth,” no more than 10,000 years old, and its identification of evolution with atheism, she was equally dissatisfied with atheistic denials of purpose in the universe. As a physicist, she had come recognize that the “elegant universe” she studied at both the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels could not just be the result of some cosmic accident. She admitted that she believed that “there’s some sort of wisdom at work in the evolution of galaxies and our planet.” She confessed that she needed to find a world view that honored science and its methodology and yet made room for meaning in the universe. “I know that I can no longer believe in the God I grew up with, but I’m searching for something besides humanity to give meaning to the universe. Can I be a scientist and person of faith, too?” she asked. Audrey chose to audit my class on process theology and explore the possibility that God is the ultimate source of the evolutionary process. She has discovered that faith and science can complement one another and that believing in God inspires, rather than censors, human creativity and scientific discovery.
These encounters remind us that theology is not just reserved for scholars, but, as liberation theologians have long reminded us, emerges from our experiences of pain, struggle, and, I would add, personal perplexity. As I said earlier, people become theologians when they ask questions relating to life, death, suffering, and beyond. While we can’t help being theologians at such moments, the issue is whether our theologies will lead to hope or despair, and action or passivity, in times of personal and planetary struggle.
This blogpost is adapted from the book Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, by Bruce Epperly.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including his latest Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.