Archive for October, 2011

Perhaps the most typical understanding of John Calvin is as a theologian who asserted that God plays favorites.   You know how playing favorites works….you love all your children but the one that acts the most like you gets important slack in tough situations.    You try to manage your workplace “by the book” but you can’t help watching over that hard-working employee that gives 110%.  Even within the habitual behavior of another human being we have “favorites” things they do that we like and things they do that we do not like and our response to them indicates the preference.

The most surface understanding of John Calvin’s doctrine of election is that God plays favorites with human beings who do not really know if they are God’s favorites or not.  And so, we have to hope….be on really good behavior and hope that we are “in”.   Don’t let me interrupt this idea of Calvin if it is in important to you.  On the other hand, if you are a person of the reformed tradition say….in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and you are interested in the integrity of your tradition, what I am pulling together in this blog may be of some interest to you.

The problem with many traditional theologians is that their ideas and assertions were written in a remarkably different time.  For John Calvin, science, as we know it, was emerging (there is even evidence that he modified his thinking in order to accommodate science) but science then was not what it is today.  There is a terrific need in the church to bring today’s scientific knowledge and its questions into conversation with our faith.  If we do not …. our faith will become increasingly disconnected from those things such as medicine and technology that otherwise enrich our lives.   Process theology strives to honor the emerging world in which we find ourselves and in which God is surely still The Creator.  But there is not much connection drawn between process theology and the work of John Calvin.  In fact, many in the process community might mistakenly understand Calvin to be rigid and anti-process.

I believe John Calvin’s depth of thought and theological insight works well with process theologies assertions.  Thus, Calvin has a great relevance for continual emergence of science that so intrigues us.  I want to keep this simple so let me share three points.  The first point will be about why we are tempted to play favorites at all.  The second point will be about understanding election at a deeper level than  favoritism.  The final point will be show how the doctrine of election when understood at this deeper level, mirrors what we can know about creation as disclosed in our faith tradition and in the emerging world of science around us.

1.  The reason we play favorites is because we have a hope that our life has purpose and meaning.  One of the ways that we substantiate our purpose and meaning is by seeing what we value in others.  When we see it, we reinforce it thus making it larger and more pronounced.  When we have reinforced in others what we value about ourselves, our lives seem to have a purpose beyond just our individualism.   Playing favorites is about hoping that we have a purpose in God’s providence.

2.  The richest part of the doctrine of election is this belief that God creates each human being with intention and purpose.  As Stacy Johnson puts it, “Before we were, God was; that God thought of us and called us into being ; that God knows us by name; and that God has chosen to give us a future and a hope.” (John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century, William Stacy Johnson)  For Calvin, it is our servant like responsiveness to our neighbor and thus to God (through the church) that gives us a sense of but not a certainty of election.

3.  If election means that God knows us and calls us forward into the future, we begin to understand that Calvin is a partner to process.  For election is  very much like process theology’s understanding of a responsive God who provides a cascade of possibilities to all creatures.  Process theology critiques Calvin’s original intent out of his old world view of right and wrong or our temptation toward favorites.  In the spirit of sociological and psychological research….even the discoveries of physics and process theology asks reformed thinkers to appreciate the intricacy of responses that emanate from a human being, animal or molecule  given their matrix of relationships and circumstances.  The idea that God does not give up on us no matter the limit of our response to God’s possibilities is at least the image of a loving human parent is definitely more congruent with our belief that God is living and creating still.

Playing favorites limits possibilities to the extent that we are trying to affirm and promote our own selves. God is surely not an image of us in our most limited or selfish moments.  Being elect is not about who is God’s favorite.  Being among the elect is about having the sense that we are known and purposeful and then embarking on a discovery of  our capacities for one another in the face of God’s possibilities which are generous and abundant.


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peace symbol

Wearing the peace sign on her shirt

Her competition trains her sister to the dirt.

Wearing the peace sign on her hip,

Her stride unsaddles brother’s tenure with a rip.

Hanging peace signs from her ears,

Her tone and message echo a drill into fears.

I say…..”Peace girl….PEACE!!!!”

She says, “MY piece, YOUR piece….NEVER easy peace.”

“Good night mom.”

Good night….piece of my peace. 🙂

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I live in fear of Charlie Brown‘s teacher.  I am either afraid as a pastor that I will sound like her to my congregation.  Or, alternately, I am afraid that she is all I might hear.

There are at least two emphasis in local congregations.   One emphasis is on being well versed in the theological language of history that has been going on since the third century of our church’s life.  This emphasis prizes knowing about church fathers, the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus Christ or the sacraments.  It informs us of the Reformation as Protestants set themselves apart from Catholics. This emphasis, alone, is a voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the church.   We drone on as some sort of distant authority to a classroom of individuals who want to know not about history but about immediacy.  Such historical and doctrinal knowledge leads local congregants to the conclusion that there are appropriate or correct Christian beliefs to which members may be obligated if they are to have integrity in the local congregation.   In the end, however, the correct belief is not really all that interesting.

A second kind of emphasis in a local congregation is one that is unabashedly personal.  This emphasis does not have a conversational knowledge of Martin Luther, John Calvin, the reformation or the real differences between denominations.  While congregants might sense that they should know these details….the details seem irrelevant when compared to the emphasis upon the intense and demanding life that they are living.   This emphasis demands to know how God is working in their individual/familial life.  Ironically, it is that emphasis that has brought them to the very church that has a profound sense of its historical duty and obligation.

I have a new fear…..that the church and its congregants sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to one another. But maybe there is a translator for these two authorities in congregational life.

What is missing of course between immediacy of the self and history is a tool that integrates the two with integrity.   Between immediacy of self and history is the discipline of science.  There are timeless faith questions that are quick becoming stale and brittle.   Why if God is loving does my child suffer needlessly?  If God rewards the faithful, why is my life full of increasingly complex challenges?   If God has everything planned out for me what is the point of striving in my life?”   They become fragile questions because traditional answers to the questions have not included knowledge from our scientific world.  And yet, science has been a tool, now, for centuries chosen by human beings to enhance their lives.  Religion may have neglected this gift from God but process theology does not.

Process theology is nascent in its approach to or acceptance by local congregations because it is literally a theology that emerges only very lately, in the 20th century.   While taking tradition very seriously, process theology does not try to conserve a pristine or correct understanding of the faith.  Rather, within each of our distinct circumstances, this theology is a tool of assessment and integration so that the world, The Word and our selfhood move toward greater faithfulness.

Taking its foundation from the work of Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher,  process theology integrates religion and science in all of its manifestations such as, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, just to name a few.  It does this using distinct and challenging language, but it is not vague and monotonous like Charlie Brown’s teacher.  Rather, it is generously specific down to the detail of atom and electron.   But be warned, Charlie Brown could tune his teacher out….process theology demands that you tune in self, science, history.

Check out www.processandfaith.org 

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John Calvin

Image via Wikipedia

On this blog, I will begin a project of looking at the essentials of John Calvin‘s theology in light of  Process Theology.  Very often, Calvin is regarding as too rigid and dualistic for process thought.  I hope to counter that claim.  This will involve redressing Calvin who is often best known by simplifications and misrepresentations of his complex work.   I hope to be successful so that the Presbyterian community who regard Calvin with respect can allow the essentials of Calvin to flow into the relevance and complexity of process theology whose integrative efforts promise to minimize blind spots in our continuing Christian journey.  I would welcome conversation from other Presbyterians from The Presbyterian Church USA  pcusa.org (or other branches of Presbyterianism) as well as process theologians from Process and Faith and Center for Process Studies at center4process.org

In the event you are not interested in John Calvin …. you might still be interested in this series which will address fundamental questions that we all have about scripture, how we know God, creation, how we are redeemed by God, what makes Jesus the Christ, as well as considerations of predestination and why we pray.   Hope you will join me and tweet me often to spread the word that John Calvin is not a rigid relic from the past but an expression of faith that is still in process!


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I am no expert yogini…but I do love yoga.  I love yoga because it is slow and gentle on my 42-year-old body.  I love yoga because as I perform the stretches and breathing I acquire flexibility.  I love yoga because it is fundamentally an act of mindfulness.  When I practice yoga no matter how I try to stay focus on my breathing….my mind always stretches itself into my relationships.  Yoga moves me  from the deepest place of my human body to the farthest recesses of my relationships.

When I engage my ashtanga yoga practice, I am primarily interested in places of resistance.  Muscles that have recoiled because of my length of time in an office chair or my sudden day-long cleaning frenzy.  My ashtanga yoga practice is influenced by Melanie Fawer who was a student of the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  In her DVD Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga, Melanie will calmly encourage careful and daily practice.  She explains that while many believe they will never attain certain poses or positions, that if one practices each and every time they are given the opportunity the pose and position will come.

The physiology of the body is the foundation of her promise.  There are two types of muscles, extrafusal and intrafusal.  The extrafusal muscles are what we most often imagine as muscle fibers.  The  intrafusal are also called muscle spindles and they run parallel to the extrafusal fibers .  Intrafusal are also called stretch receptors.  These receptors are the primary pathways for how we perceive our body’s position and movement.  If muscles are jerked and stretched quickly, it is the stretch receptors that cause the muscle to contract or recoil in response.  However, stretches that are held for prolonged periods allow the stretch receptors to adjust and decrease their signals to recoil.  The result for the faithful practitioner is greater flexibility.

Some have said that relationships are what a lot of  leaders think about when they are alone.   There is  rehearsal in the mind about how the leader or the other person behaved.  Leaders think about how individuals within relationships might have behaved or otherwise responded differently.  Some say that good leaders are different because they will think not about what the other person SHOULD have done to make the leaders life or job easier.   Rather good leaders think about how their own responses could have been modified.   In essence, good leaders take a situation or moment of their lives and imagine stretching, twisting and breathing into it as many different ways as they might imagine.  Suspending a voice of judgement, good leaders effectively  remain more open to even the most complicated and resistant of relationships.

If our physiology is of divine design….perhaps there are clues there for our spiritual lives as well.   I grow weary of feeling recoiled and tight against all that is complicated in my life.   I am at least the leader of my self. Can I be a good leader for myself?  Can I stretch my spirit through complicated resistance and enjoy an oxygenated, purposeful peace?

Otto Scharmer in a recent global classroom experience of  the Presencing Institute, reminded us that it has been said, ….if we wonder what our purpose is in life, we can find the answer by going to the places of greatest resistance.   I am sure this involves a stretch.

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