Starting today, I’ll be at a conference at Pomona College called Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization, which will draw about 1,500 participants from around the world, including many from China. I got involved in it because, for my whole career as a pastor, I’ve been much influenced by the core subject matter of this event: the work of Alfred North Whitehead and the scholars such as Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb who followed him in what is known as “process thought”.
Whitehead was an early 20th century mathematician and philosopher who also delved into theology. He was convinced that quantum mechanics necessitated a new philosophical system that would be complementary to the new physics. His work does not fit neatly into the tradition of analytical philosophy that prevails in most universities. He described a universe consisting of relationships rather than of discrete objects. He viewed the cosmos as something like an ecosystem. He imputed a kind of aim, purpose, and choice-making quality even to subatomic events. For him, God was the process of creativity coursing through all events. As such, God was omnipresent, but neither omnipotent nor omniscient, because creative possibility precluded such determinism.
Throughout my career, his ideas have provided a framework for my preaching, teaching, writing, and personal spiritual practice. The neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, taught to us in the Presbyterian seminary where I studied, had no appeal. It was an elaborate apologetic for taking the fanciful stories of the Bible literally. I needed an alternative structure of theology that was compatible with science and common sense, a scaffold on which the traditions of Christianity could be re-interpreted for our time. Religion in the Making by Whitehead, and his other works, gave me what I needed.
The same is true for many other theologically progressive Christian pastors and teachers. Whitehead’s ideas have mattered to us, and to the people we serve in our churches and in the wider public. Whitehead’s understanding of the ubiquitousness of aim and purpose and choice at every level of the cosmos, not of a universe set in determinate motion by a Prime Mover – his understanding that reality is a web of relationships, not a cosmic billiard table with balls bouncing off of each other – these ideas have suffused progressive Christians with a worldview that is fundamentally ecological. It has made us allies with others working for a new global civilization that lives in harmony with nature. Process thought is not a merely speculative exercise. It is not a matter only for obscure journals and ivory-tower disquisitions. It is a set of ideas that matter in the real world, structuring the thoughts that form the words that direct the hands to build cities where birds and humans breathe the same clean air.
In 1980, President Reagan appointed James Watt as the US Secretary of the Interior. Watt’s actions to weaken environmental regulations were a direct consequence his embrace of fundamentalist Christianity. He believed that the soon-approaching end-times at Jesus’ second coming mooted any need for long-term environmental protection. Many members of Congress share these ideas today. Ideas that matter: ideas that influence whether or not life on this planet will survive or thrive.
Happily, things are changing in the world of evangelical Christianity. There’s been a lively environmental movement in that community for many years in the U.S. A few weeks ago, I hosted a meeting bringing evangelical and progressive environmental activists together with a young scholar at USC, Emma Bloomfield. Her PhD dissertation in communications is about the rhetoric used by evangelical “creation care” activists. I was most impressed with what she learned about dispensationalism – the evangelical/fundamentalist belief systems regarding the “end-times”. “Creation care” evangelicals tend to interpret the second coming of Jesus in a manner distinctly different from the ideas that shaped James Watt’s environmental policies. They expect that when Jesus returns, he’ll want to know if Christians were good stewards of the earth. The ideas of “creation care” evangelicals matter: they can influence other evangelicals to re-interpret dispensationalism in a way that leads to better practical outcomes for the planet.
To get a sense of what “Seizing the Alternative” is about, get connected to our website, http://www.pandopopulus.com , which will continue long after the event as a platform for sharing ideas that matter.
Jim Burklo is Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, and the author of several books, including Souljourn. He blogs regularly at Musings.
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