Posts Tagged ‘Alfred North Whitehead’

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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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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I have just filled out my year-end reports for the my denomination and I cannot help but feel like we have fallen a bit short in the denominational goals of who we should be as a congregation after the  completion of the paperwork.

Mainline congregations receive a lot of criticism.  They are either not growing fast enough, not generous enough, nor diverse enough or not creative enough.  When things are really bad, they are not harmonious enough.  I wonder if our expectations of congregations are a not a bit out of whack.  It seems that expectations pile up like sedimentary layers of soil.  I have a suspicion that our expectations are not only weighty but also not fully unrealized.   When assessing congregations, one needs greater attention to subtlety that can make all the difference in understanding the quality of the shared life of a localized Body of Christ.  In fact, I want to suggest that growth, generosity and diversity are all related to the harmony at work in a congregation.  But I need to take a minute to be more specific about what I mean by harmony.

The term harmony derives from the Greek ἁρμονία (harmonia) meaning “joint, agreement, concord”,from the verb ἁρμόζω (harmozo), “to fit together, to join”.  The Ancient Greek culture used  the term to define a combination of contrasted elements for example a higher and lower note.

While the result of harmony is a pleasant sound…the function of harmony is to work among contrasting elements.  Bill Bishop, in his book The Big Sort details the move in our country to have people increasingly sorted into like-minded groups that can easily identified and mapped.   I think part of this cultural tendency is what has the Presbyterian Church worried that we are too homogenous or complacent.  There is perhaps a very real temptation to sort ourselves because we presume that if we are among like-minded people we will find ourselves in a more harmonious situation.  Others argue to the contrary, saying that the result is no so much harmony as it is malaise or insularity.  But harmony might mean more than just being like-minded.

Process theology makes a significant to contribution to the understanding of harmony.  Honoring the etymology (or origin) of the word harmony, process theologian, John Cobb Jr.  explains harmony within the larger idea of beauty. “When we describe objects as beautiful, we usually mean that they participate in a certain harmony of proportions and relations .  Colors and shapes or sounds are so related with one another that each contributes to the whole in such a way that the whole in turn accentuates its parts.” (A Christian Natural Theology, 2nd ed.:  Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead by John Cobb, Jr., 57).

With a process understanding of harmony, the goal is no longer to be more like each other but rather to live as a whole so that each of our parts is accentuated.  In ordinary congregational life, this can be realized in a number of ways:

  • When there is a building campaign it is not the goal to get all the congregations to give the same amount.  It is not even the goal to have each of them give a same percentage of their incomes.  Rather the goal is provide a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone can say that they have been stewards of the project.
  • When congregation members disagree there is not a move to coerce people to shared opinion, rather there is a venue for diverse opinions to be heard within the whole.
  • When members join the church they do not adhere themselves to a set model of “doing church” or its programs.  Rather the church or local congregation asks itself, “Who will we now become because this new and unique individual has joined us?”

Interestingly, as much as process theology values the highlighting of the parts it also notes the fragility of the whole.  In order for harmony to be sustained over time,”…elements [of the whole] must not clash so strongly that discord outweighs harmony.” (Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition, 64).  Harmony is tenuous and subtle.   Even if the very meaning of the word harmony might support the theology that each of us are precious and loved uniquely by God, I suspect that harmony itself would be criticized as insular.

So what is it that we expect of our congregations?  Do we expect that within the congregation we will present the world and thus assume that the world should be us?   (A bit of an extreme statement, I admit).  So, shall we humbly honor who we are within the constraints of our harmony and allow that harmony to have its full effect upon our growth, generosity and creativity.     Year end reports to a denomination seem incomplete without some specific and knowledgeable appreciation for subtly unique congregational life on which we have just gone into great detail.

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Tibetan endless knot

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Are we having fun yet?  This can be a pretty tough question to answer.  If you look up the word fun in the thesaurus you are given very few synonyms.  However the word enjoyment yields at least twice the amount of synonyms if not more. (incidentally, I  love to play on the website, http://www.visualthesaurus.com)   Perhaps the better question when assessing our satisfaction with life is “Are we enjoying it yet?”

The meaning of the word has renewed itself for me.  For a long time the word meant something like “having fun”, “liking” or “savoring” something.  So that the question about whether or not I was enjoying life was linked to my individual preferences.  Influenced by process theology, the word enjoyment has come to mean something different to me.  As I result of a nuanced meaning of the word, I have come to understand more about my life.  But what is process theology?

The work of Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher provides a close examination of the way the world works metaphysically.  His magnum opus, or great work, is considered by many to be Process and Reality. Whitehead uses remarkably specific and technical language in this work.  Each word marks a careful step in charting a deeply relational world.  Whitehead even speculates about God in this work.  The work is difficult to read but is a treasure trove for continued thinking.  Among the various disciplines interested in Whitehead is a  branch of theology known as Process Theology.  The work of John Cobb, Jr. (process theologian out of Claremont School of Theology) and others has endeavored to interpret the technical language of  Whitehead for the Christian faith community.

Enjoyment is an essential word for Whitehead and process theologians.   Enjoyment is defined as the ability to fully experience life in the moment.  Process theologians and Whiteheadians affirm that all levels of life experience enjoyment.  And the ability to experience does not mean that experiences are always pleasurable or free from pain or anxiety.  A word like fun might be more associated with pleasure.  Perhaps fun is a more trivial part of enjoyment.  When we are having fun, we are likely not challenged but rather carefree.  We certainly love and treasure our fun.

However, there is a strange correlation between the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of fun and a dissatisfaction with life in general.  Isn’t this ironic?  The dilemma around happiness, satisfaction or enjoyment can plague the human being.   Because process theology is respects the human condition it probes enjoyment.  Beyond trying to live fully into each moment, process theology asks, “What contributes to enjoyment?  What diminishes enjoyment?” It seems logical given process theology’s definition of enjoyment that when we are wishing for some other moment than the one in which we find ourselves, we preclude enjoyment.  And when we cut ourselves off from enjoyment, we are left  feeling like we have not choices in the world…that we are just going through the motions.   And could we blame one another for wanting different moments????  Some moments that we face are very difficult even threatening.  How do we know HOW to live fully into difficult moments?

One of the measures for enjoyment is the level of complexity in your life moment.   Process theology asserts that greater degrees of complexity promise greater enjoyment or satisfaction with our moments than lesser degrees of complexity.  So for example, consider a man is diagnosed with a terminal illness, his adult child has an approaching wedding that needs celebrating and he feels disconnected from his wife.   His situation (full of complexity) promises him some real opportunity to feel enjoyment and satisfaction if he can stay responsive in the midst of it all.    The woman who is eating chocolate on her sofa watching a love story may have it easier but because her afternoon lacks complexity the degree of her enjoyment or life satisfaction will likely be less.

I think process theology offers people of faith an opportunity to remember what they already know about how to get the most out of life.  Some people I know strive to make their life more complex.  They seem to know intuitively what process theology is interpreting for Whitehead.   They realize the correlation between challenge and satisfaction or enjoyment.  Alternately, some people, not by their own choice,  are in the midst of such tremendous struggle.  If they are able to stay relational and responsive,  years from now they will say “that period of my life was difficult and complex…but it made me a stronger person”.

So….are we having fun yet?  I hope so…but even more, I hope that we are enjoying the life that is emerging around us.  Look around you….complexity can be deeply satisfying….we are always hungry to be satisfied.

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