Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

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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John Calvin

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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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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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While process theology has a technical language all its own.   It is  a language worth learning because of its applicability to every day circumstances.  For example, an otherwise well mannered boy on the verge of becoming a teenager has an afternoon meltdown when his parents ask him if he has completed his chores.  Not only has he not completed his chores, he is ranting about how little freedom he has and how suspicious his parents are of him.  In order to communicate all these things, he employs a sarcastic tone and tears.  How could this otherwise discouraging and seemingly futile situation be understood as a hopeful one?    With the help of process theology.  First a brief definition of terms:

  1. Enjoyment, in process thought, describes the process of realizing that each individual is one among many and that individuals arise uniquely out of the many.  Enjoyment is not so much associated with pleasure as it is with a sense of becoming in the world.
  2. Intensity is dependant upon complexity where a variety of contrasting things are brought together into a moment or experience.
  3. Harmony is characterized by individuals or circumstances that do not clash strongly with our previous experiences or understandings.
  4. Creative self determination is the process by which individuals participate in creating themselves out the material that has been given to it in the past. 

So, on the verge of adulthood, a young man, in order to enjoy himself more fully, challenges the harmony of his household.  He constructs some intensity through tears and sarcasm in order to say to the world “hey, I am not just along for the ride!  I do not want to just be told!  I want to participate in the creation that God started.”   In short, he uses the afternoon to practice taking part in his own creative process.   After the catharsis, he comes to his parents and apologizes and delivers the evening’s harmony.

 All of this might be a great frustration to his parents, if it were not so thrilling to be reminded that no child is born just once.

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