Process theology part 3 – Omnipotence and the problem of evil

Evil is a major problem in our world today. With the increasing number of mass shootings, the threat of terrorism, and the growing environmental crisis, evil is on the forefront of our minds. Many Christians have explained evil in such a way that it ends up blaming God as the cause. Perhaps no question is as pertinent as the question: How can both a good God and evil exist? In this post, I will first explore two of the more common ways Christians have traditionally answered the problem of evil. Then, I will explain how process theology answers this problem. Lastly, I will argue that a process theodicy is indeed a better way to understand how both a good God and evil can exist.

Many people throughout history have asked why there is evil if there is a good God who is in control of everything.[1] Christianity has answered this question in several different ways and the theological name for this has often been referred to as theodicy. Theodicy stems from the combination of two Greek words for “God” and “justice,” and is the way a person explains how there can be a good God in light of the evils of this world.[2] In other words, theodicy is the attempt to give a reason how God and evil are compatible.[3] In his book God, Power, & Evil, David Ray Griffin gives a straightforward summary of the problem of evil by using eight simple propositions:

  1. God is a perfect reality. (Definition)
  2. A perfect reality is an omnipotent being. (By definition)
  3. An omnipotent being could unilaterally bring about an actual world without any genuine evil.
  4. A perfect reality is a morally perfect being.
  5. A morally perfect being would want to bring about an actual world without any genuine evil.
  6. If there is genuine evil in the world, then there is no God. (Logical conclusion from 1 through 5)
  7. There is genuine evil in the world. (Factual statement)
  8. Therefore, there is no God. (Logical conclusion from 6 and 7).[4]

The above argument has been used by many to provide evidence that God does not exist (proposition eight).

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Though Christian theodicy has taken on more than two forms, I will explain what I believe are the two primary ways that Christians have answered the problem of evil. One of the dominant ways that Christians have answered the problem of evil is by arguing that genuine evil does not exist. While no one outright denies evil, those who have found this answer compelling will argue that the evil we see is only “apparent evil.”[5] In other words, the evil that humanity calls evil is only apparently evil from our limited, finite perspectives.[6] Those who argue for this theodicy believe that God is all controlling – meaning everything that happens is controlled and willed by God.[7] The evil we see around us is not genuine evil but rather only apparent evil because it contributes to the overall good.[8] This theodicy is most popular in Calvinism where God is viewed as an all-determining deity. Many very popular and influential Christian theologians including Augustine, Luther, Aquinas, and Calvin have argued some variation of this theodicy.[9]

The second answer to the problem of evil that many Christians have given is what I will call the “free-will theodicy.” This theodicy argues that God and evil exist because God self-limited Godself in order to allow humans to have freedom.[10] One theologian explains this theodicy by writing:

God could have prevented Auswitch, Hiroshima, Wounded Knee, and the current mass starvation in the world. But to have done this to avoid momentary pain and suffering would actually have hindered the realization of the long-term purpose, the development of moral and spiritual qualities through free decisions.[11]

In other words, the “free-will theodicy” argues that evil exists because it is a necessary byproduct of human free will.[12] While the all-determining theodicy believes God directly controls everything that happens, a free-will theodicy does not believe that evil is caused directly by God but is rather the necessary result of allowing free choice to humans. Some traditional theists would even go so far as to declare that suffering exists because it is a needed part of our spiritual journey and suffering brings necessary growth.[13]

Process theologians believe that God’s power is always persuasive and never unilateral power. In this view, evil exists because God cannot stop all evil. One critique that process theology raises against more traditional Christian theodicies is that if God could act unilaterally to prevent evil, than God should. Process theologians argue that traditional theodicies leave God culpable because God does not act to prevent evil even though God could prevent evil. If a parent decided to allow a car to hit and kill their child even though they could have prevented this, we would believe that parent to be culpable.[14]

Omnipotence:

If God’s power is omnipotent power then “it must be the power to determine every detail of what happens in the world.”[15] An omnipotent deity is a deity who has all the power.[16] This is the crux of the problem of evil because an omnibenevolent (all-good) God would not want evil to exist, and an omnipotent (all-powerful) God would be able to create such a world.[17] As mentioned above this has led an unknown number of people to believe that God cannot exist (proposition eight).

The idea of God having unilateral power stems from Greek philosophy.[18] Christianity became a religion of the Gentiles and was heavily influenced by the Greeks – so much so that the New Testament was written in Greek. Process theologians critique the idea of an omnipotent God in many different ways. First, some process theologians such as David Ray Griffin in his book God, Power, & Evil, argue that one can believe that God is indeed omnipotent, but then reinterprets the definition of omnipotence to mean perfect power or greatest conceivable power – though not unilateral power.[19] Another way process theologians understand the idea of omnipotence is that it is not and cannot be an accurate description of God.[20] Thus we should reject this word completely (including proposition two). Process theologians would echo the popular statement by Alfred North Whitehead, one of the founders of process philosophy, by declaring:

“They [classical theist] gave unto God the properties that belonged unto Caesar.”[21]

Process theology stems from the philosophical work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne who taught that perfect power is always persuasive and never coercive.[22] That is not to say that God chooses to use persuasive power, as some might argue, but rather God cannot use coercive, unilateral power – it is not a choice.[23] Of course some would argue that this places false limitations upon God, but process theologians disagree. Process theologians believe that God’s power is not and cannot be unilateral power, but is rather the greatest conceivable power – the greatest power any one being can possibly have.[24] Process theologians deny the idea that “It is possible for one actual being’s condition to be completely determined by a being or beings other than itself.”[25] Basically, the idea of actual beings having at least some self-determining power while one actual being has all self-determining power is a metaphysical impossibility.[26] As actualities, humans have the power to make choices and thus shape the present and future. If humans have at least some self-determining power, than no single being can have all the power to control them.[27] Griffin argues that if any single actuality or being can be totally determined by another, than that actuality has no power.[28] This metaphysical impossibility has led process theologians to believe that God cannot have unilateral, coercive power, but only the highest conceivable power. The highest conceivable power, which in relationship to all actual beings, must always be persuasive power.

What about evil?

Process theologians suggest that evil is not necessary.[29] God’s aim and lure in the world is always for good, beauty, complexity, and is never for evil.[30] Evil exists because other actualities have self-determining power and have freely chosen not to follow God’s initial aim. Process theologians believe that in order for God to stimulate more complex creatures, the possibility of evil must always be equal to the possibility of good.[31] In other words, God took huge risks by creating more complex creatures. The more complex a creature, the more possibility they have for good or evil. Griffin explains this by writing:

Only in those forms of life to which we attribute a significant capacity for suffering do we suppose there to occur a significant level of enjoyment. Only those creatures that have the capacity for enjoying the higher forms of value sometimes find their experience so miserable that they commit suicide.[32]

Process theologians suggest that “evil is not necessary” but “the possibility of evil is necessary.”[33] In process thought evil does not exist because God wills it or because it is a part of God’s plan. Evil does not exist because it will be used for good, though that can be true at times. Nor does evil exist because God self-limited Godself. God chose to create knowing that in stimulating creation to greater complexity God would risk the possibility of evil. Yet God is not culpable in that God does not stand by and allow evil while being able to prevent it rather God is always working to prevent evil.

 

[1] John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 69.

[2] David Ray Griffin, Evil Revisited (New York: State University, 1991), 198.

[3] Ibid, 211.

[4] David Ray Griffin, God, Power, & Evil (Louisville: Westminster Press, 2004), 19.

[5] Griffin, Evil, 197.

[6] Ibid, 197.

[7] Ibid., 197.

[8] Ibid., 79.

[9] Ibid., 197.

[10] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 74.

[11] Griffin, Evil, 15.

[12] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993), 74.

[13] Ibid., 73.

[14] Ibid, 59.

[15] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes (New York: State University, 1984), 11.

[16] Mesle, Process, 28.

[17] Griffin, God, 262.

[18] Mesle, Process, 28.

[19] Ibid., 252.

[20] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 53.

[21] Hartshorne, Omnipotence, 14.

[22] Mesle, Process, 8.

[23] Ibid., 8.

[24] Griffin, God, 261.

[25] Ibid., 264.

[26] Ibid., 265.

[27] Ibid., 268.

[28] Ibid., 268.

[29] Ibid., 69.

[30] Ibid., 69.

[31] Griffin, Evil, 28.

[32] Ibid., 27.

[33] Cobb and Griffin, Process, 69.

Process theology part 2 – attributes of God

God has been given many different attributes as humans wrestle with ways to understand and explain who God is. Several of the most common attributes have been:

  • Impassibility – cannot experience emotions such as pain, suffering etc.
  • Immutability – changeless
  • Omnipresence -present everywhere
  • Omniscience – all-knowing
  • Omnipotence – all-powerful

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Process theologians argue that these attributes have been falsely given or at least wrongly defined, and that this has led to a grave misunderstanding about God’s interaction with the world and why evil exists. In this post I will explore each of these attributes very briefly from a process theological perspective. (Since omnipotence is the most difficult attribute to see differently, and the attribute that most informs how one answers the problem of evil, I will attempt to explain why process theologians argue that omnipotence is a false attribute while dealing with the problem of evil in the next post.)

Impassibility:

In classical theology God “is not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions.”[1] As I shared in the last post (part 1), at the very foundation of process philosophy is the belief that all of reality is relational, and because all reality is relational, God must also be relational. By definition a relational entity must be able to affect and be affected by others.[2] Central to Christian theology is the idea that God has incarnated Godself in Jesus who suffered and was crucified on a cross. In other words, God suffers in Jesus who hangs upon a cross. How could one suffer and not be changed? It is impossible. Process theologians deny the impassibility of God and instead see God as one who not only affects, but is also affected by others.

Immutability:

Immutability is the belief that God cannot change.[3] Early Christian theologians – influenced heavily by Greek philosophy – believed that God’s perfection must mean that God cannot change. Process theologians argue that God does indeed change because God, like everything else in the cosmos, is relational (see previous post on more concerning this). In essence, God is not the “unmoved mover,” but the “most moved mover.”

Omnipresence:

Omnipresence is an attribute that both process theologians and traditional theologians agree upon. Process theology may differ slightly in that process theology often leads to panentheism. Panentheism is not to be confused with pantheism, and is not exclusive to process theologians as some non-process theologians would also consider themselves panentheists. Pantheists believe that “all things together are God” while Panentheists believe that “all things are in God.”[4] Process theologians tend to view the entire cosmos as part of God, though God is not limited to any one part of the cosmos. In a process perspective the interconnectedness of all things is central, and this includes God’s interconnectedness to all of creation.[5]

Omniscience:

Omniscience, or all knowing, has been traditionally interpreted to mean that God knows everything past, present, and future.[6] Omniscience is an attribute that process theologians tend to keep, but they redefine this (similar to open theists, but with slight variations). Many have understood God to be outside of time. One way to understand this is to think of God as viewing time like we read a book. God can turn the pages from past, present, or future as God looks on from beyond. Process theologians agree with traditional theology in that God knows the past completely and the present perfectly as it unfolds, but differs in that they believe even God cannot yet know the future.[7] Since actualities (e.g., humans) have some self-determining power and are partially self-creative, the future is not yet determined and thus cannot be known as determined.[8] In this regard, process theologians believe that God’s knowledge is omniscient in that it is perfect knowledge – full knowledge of all that can be known including complete knowledge of the past and present, and full knowledge of all future possibilities. One process thinker explains this by writing, “if God has perfect knowledge of the world and of me, God will know exactly what all of the possibilities are and how probable they are. But even with perfect knowledge God could not know what I will choose in the future because that choice has not yet been made and it is a real choice.”[9] Process theologians argue that if God knows the future as determined than real freedom would be impossible.[10] Hartshorne summarizes this by writing, “future events, events that have not yet happened, are not there to be known.”[11]

Next post I will explore the attribute of omnipotence and the problem of evil from a process perspective.

 

 

[1] “Impassibility of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2016. http://www.theopedia.com/Impassibility_of_God

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] “Immutability of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2014. http://www.theopedia.com/Immutability_of_God

[4] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1993), 137.

[5] John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 52.

[6] “Omniscience of God,” Theopedia, accessed June 9, 2014. http://www.theopedia.com/Omniscience_of_God

[7] Cobb, Jr. and Griffin, Process Theology, 52.

[8] Ibid., 52.

[9] Mesle, Process Theology, 37.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes (New York: State University, 1984), 39.

Process theology part I

Process thought begins with the understanding that everything in the world is relational and changes – nothing stays the same. Eastern wisdom traditions tend to focus much more upon the impermanence of all things, and perhaps there is something there we in the west, can learn from.

Since everything is relational (which I take to also mean interconnected) then everything that happens is influenced by something and the results affect everything else. Every choice we make affects others, some choices, e.g. decided to strap a bomb on our back and detonate it, have a greater affect upon others.

If we start our discussion on process theology (sometimes referred to as process-relational theology) here, where it makes sense to most people, then it is easier to understand how process theology builds upon this at it seeks to understand God. God is affected by others choices and thus God changes. Many religious people may be quick to reject this idea because the idea of the changlessness of God has been such a huge part of our embedded theology.

Biblically, we can find many places where God changes. Probably the clearest example is when God is discussing with Abraham the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. But there are others places. For example, after Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, the people had build a golden calf and God became so angry that he said he would consume them. After Moses stood up for the people, we read, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Ex 32v14). We read of a similar time where Moses influenced God to change God’s mind toward the people in Numbers 14. Clearly, God does in fact change and perhaps we have more influenced upon this than we realize.

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What I find to be the most compelling part of all this is the idea that everything is relational and influenced by each other. Our environment is influenced by the decisions of ourselves and others. Our families are shaped by the decisions of those within and those outside. Once we begin to understand the relatedness (or interconnectedness) of all things, then we begin to see Reality in a whole new way!

 

 

 

 

The God of Jesus

Who is the God of Jesus?

Unfortunately many view God as a monarchical ruler, but Jesus understood God as Abba – the Aramaic word for father. When a person explores what Jesus meant by Abba, it becomes apparent that it is a vastly different picture of God than many have today.

Theologian John Cobb writes, “But a very important difference between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures of his time was the shift from monarchical language to family relations.”[1]

Let us try to understand what Jesus had in mind when he used the word Abba. While the Christian Scriptures were primarily written in Greek, many believe that Jesus spoke primarily Aramaic and Abba was most likely the word that Jesus himself used when he referred to God. Cobb suggests that Abba is baby talk.[2] It is difficult to be certain of this, but if correct, a more accurate translation may be that of “daddy.” What is most important in understanding Jesus’ use of the word Abba, is that “The normal relation of the father to the infant is one of tenderness and unconditional love. It was unconditional love rather than controlling power that dominated Jesus’ understanding of God.”[3] Jesus did not understand God as ruler or king and in fact never spoke of God in this way, yet it has come to dominate the consciousness of many religious people today.[4]

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A person’s view of God greatly shapes how they understand the central teaching of Jesus which was that the “kingdom of God” has come. If a person views God as ruler or king then this message will be understood a certain way. If a person understands God as a loving and caring parent, then this message will be understood very differently. The phrase “kingdom of God” has been translated from the Greek phrase basileia theou.[5] Since basileia is best defined as “a politically defined region,”[6] it can be interpreted differently. For example, if a person views God as a monarchical ruler or judge, then basileia would surely mean the region or area where the king ruled. In a similar way it could be seen as God’s empire. This is certainly how many interpret the phrase “kingdom of God” today. If, however, a person looks at the phrase “kingdom of God” with a view of God as a loving parent, then they will arrive at a very different understand. Cobb suggests that if God is seen as a father, then “We might describe a father’s basileia better as the family estate.”[7] Of course, this is still open to different ways of understanding depending on the type of parent who owns the estate.

We come back once again to the view of God that Jesus held. Jesus’ Abba was not a distant, angry, or demanding father who ruled with an iron fist, but was rather a loving and compassionate father who cared for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable. Thus, “kingdom of God” or the of basileia theou means “the realm, or community, or commonwealth in which God’s will is done.”[8] The invitation is to become a part of that community or commonwealth right now. Two ideas surrounding this must be addressed.

First, Cobb addresses the belief of basileia theou as an eschatological reality. The “kingdom of God” or community is not something that will happen sometime in the future; rather it is a present reality. Second, if the invitation is a present reality to become a part of a community that cares for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable, this brings with it a change of attitude, perspective, or way of living. This change – often referred to as repentance – is an essential part of the gospel message. Cobb summarizes the Synoptic Gospels well by stating that the heart of the message was: “reorient yourself radically; the basileia theou is at hand.”[9] The good news demands a shift, a change, or a reorientation of how a person lives so that they see with new eyes, but this shift cannot happen until a person understands God as Abba.

If the good news is an invitation to reorient our lives to enter into Abba’s commonwealth here and now, this inherently has affects on the individual as well as the community. Once a person is able to see God as a loving parent who desire’s to see them flourish (and not an angry dictator), they then cease to defend, hide, or pretend. Salvation is not simply extended by an intolerant God because of a blood sacrifice by His Son, but salvation is an invitation to enter into the healing process or to become more whole. Of course this invitation extends to all, but we must first we must experience this for ourselves.

The good news means that each person is a beloved child of God. If God is Abba, or father, then clearly that means we are His children. Cobb addresses the struggle of non-gendered language when referring to God and chooses to use the male masculine pronoun, though he realizes that this is also limiting because God is also mother. Cobb suggests that not using personal pronouns tends to inhibit an understanding of a personal God. This is something I had not previously thought of, but is beginning to make some sense. I don’t have a problem using the pronoun “she” or the word “mother” when referring to God, but I also understand that it is not common or widely accepted. Thus, perhaps a male masculine pronoun may more accurately reflect an intimate parent, limiting as it may be, than refusing to use any personal pronouns.

Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God and that they cannot and do not need to do anything to “become” this is the first of two steps in the gospel message. The second step is to reorient your life according to this truth. In my opinion, the first step is the hardest and since the second is a natural overflow, I tend to focus more upon the first. Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God is the hardest step because so many religious and non religious people alike understand God as a monarchical king who demands perfection. Because none of us are perfect and we have all “sinned” the idea that God demands a payment of sorts to make up for this “flaw” is prevalent in much of Christianity. Concerning this Cobb writes, “The idea that his mission was to die to appease the wrath of Abba was as remote from Jesus as devil worship, and its effect on the Christian world since Anselm has been poisonous.”[10] Theologically this view is called penal substitutionary atonement, and I agree that it is a poisonous view that has done much harm in our world.

God, according to Jesus, was a loving, caring, and personal parent. God was close, not distant, involved not disengaged, and always works through persuasive love and never through coercive power.

[1] John Cobb, Jesus’ Abba, xx.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 23.

Stages of Spiritual Growth

Roughly 5 years ago I began a process that took me into a deep internal struggle. The worldview which was handed down to me no longer worked and as I was pursuing ministry, involved in leadership at my church, and finishing up my undergrad degree in Biblical Studies. It became more and more apparent that the ground beneath me that once seemed so solid was quickly falling.

This experience lasted for more then several years, and if I’m honest I am probably still journeying through bits of it. It was a faith crises of sorts, and through this struggle I have discovered a deeper, but very different way of being a person of faith and spiritual conviction. Along the way, I learned about the stages of faith. Both James Fowler and Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck have written about this spiritual developmental theory. My only regret is that I did not discover it sooner. M. Scott Peck gives four simple and important stages to spiritual development. These stages are as follows:

stepsSLANTED-copy

Stage I: Chaotic – antisocial.

As an infant we enter into this life thinking the world revolves around us. We all begin in stage I. It is a time of chaos or lawlessness in that we are not sure what is true, good, or right. At stage I we are selfish and seek our own self interests. Some have suggested that prison is a stage I institution in that it places limits on those who don’t or can’t control themselves as part of a larger society.

Stage II: Formal – institutional.

As we grow, we begin to seek stability and a sense of security. This stability is most often given in the form of large institutions and/or a person(s) of authority. We seek to know what should be, what is true, right, and good. We often learn this from religious organizations (or other places such as the military). This stage is helpful and necessary in spiritual development, but unfortunately most religious people and institutions remain at stage II.

Stage III: Skeptical – individual.

While many remain at stage II, some begin to question the institutions, structures, and those in authority. This is often reflected during the teenage years as this person begins to question their parents authority and their rules. Religiously, many who enter into stage III begin to question the doctrines, dogma, and beliefs that have been handed down to them. Many who enter into stage III believe this to be the last and final stage. The college or university are often associated with this stage.

Stage IV: Mystical – communal.

Few people enter into stage IV. One enters into stage IV when they continue to seek out the sacred and walk through the skepticism, questions, and doubts of stage III. People in stage IV may be religious or may not, but they all share some form of deep knowing and appreciation for the divine or sacred as Great Mystery. Instead of clear answers and black and white thinking as seen in stage II, people in stage IV value questions, experience, mystery, and the journey toward discovering more. While often in stage II we are very closed off and dogmatic, in stage IV people are open to experiencing new and different things and working with those who do not see things the same way. They realize that no creed, doctrine, dogma, book, or religion can fully capture the Sacred. Often they are deeply committed to their own particular wisdom tradition, but they are open to learning from others. While stage III people are more individualistic, people in stage IV see the great value of community.

Some thoughts:

Looking back, I can see that five years ago I was pushing back against a stage II environment. I was questioning, wrestling, and struggling – the “institution” (i.e., church) was not giving me answers that worked or made sense to my experience, thoughts, and beliefs. The journey from stage II to stage III often brings a crisis of faith, and many never recover or move past stage III for one of two reasons: either they are sick and tired of the whole “religious” thing and are over it entirely (they chuck it all out or see it as only a crutch), or they have no idea that there is a stage IV and have never encountered anyone who lived at this stage. Often many people at stage III associate religion or spirituality with stage II because often there experiences reflect this.

Some people are at stage I and the traditional forms of religion at stage II are exactly what they need. I believe this is why churches are growing in certain parts of the world – it is a necessary and important step in spiritual growth. But, many in the western world are at stage III and they see much of religion at stage II. In other words, it feels like a step backwards.

What I hope to be growing into (I don’t claim to be there yet) is stage IV. I have struggled with being a pastor because much of what I have known has been stage II religion. I realize that being at stage IV means that you may speak some of the same language as people at stage II, but mean different things. Thus, there is a tension because people at stage II will see you as a threat and people at stage III will often think you are at stage II because of your language.

I believe we are in desperate need of stage IV leaders, pastors, CEOs, business people, parents, counselors, teachers, etc. Our world will grow when those at stage IV have the courage to step out, speak, and lead. These people may be misunderstood, seen as a threat, or even seen by some as naive, but many of the great movements of history have been lead by people who took this risk. Stage IV people are sometimes called the mystics – they see beyond what most can see.

We need people who can see what most cannot. We need people who can help teach others to see beyond stage II or III and into another, more deeper way of being human and brings the heart and the mind together and works toward a more just and generous world.

 

 

A Christian response to Orlando

This morning I awoke to the news of what is now being called the deadliest shooting in American history.

There are 50 known people who have died and 53 injured as a result of the shootings in Orlando at a Gay nightclub.

As most people, I was horrified, shocked, and deeply angered. This shooting has been on our minds all day as we try to make sense of it.

I am part of a wonderful church community called One Church located outside of Phoenix in Chandler AZ. We are a church that includes all and tries our best to follow the life, teachings, and path of Jesus in ways that make sense to 21st century people. We are also a part of a larger movement called Open, which focuses on bringing about a more just and generous expression of faith. (We are not alone in this!)

Some have thought our church to be watering down the truth, the Bible, or the gospel. I  get this picture that they believe we have a sort of hakuna matata attitude that thinks all we need is love and we do very little work in the world. Usually this mindset is reflective of fundamentalist and conservative Christians who think that because we are open and affirming and focus on relational work in the world instead of a transactional salvation message where we escape this world, that we somehow don’t take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously.

I actually take the life and teachings of Jesus very seriously and I believe they are more difficult and challenging then I have ever before imagined!

When someone steals from me, my automatic response is to want to steal from them. When someone steps over me, my response is to want to step over them. When someone mocks me, my response is to want to mock them back. When someone belittles me, my response is to want to belittle them back. When someone hurts me, my automatic response is to want to hurt them back.

Violence begets more violence.

To think that violence will somehow put an end to violence is, as Walter Wink has said, the myth of redemptive violence. It is easy for me to paint with a broad brush and condemn a whole group of people because of one person’s actions. It is easy for me to judge others for something someone else did. I have done all of these and more plenty of times, but when I act out of violence, hatred, or bigotry I create more violence, hatred, and bigotry.

According to the gospel account of Matthew, Jesus states:

 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.  – Matthew 7v14-15

The way of Jesus, the way of love, forgiveness, and compassion is a very narrow and difficult way. My automatic instinct is to take the wide, easy way and react out of hate or violence. In the same gospel Jesus says that we are to love our neighbor and our enemies. No one can tell me that this is an easy task!

One of the biggest ways we do this at my church is to learn from others. As someone told me today, it is easy to throw darts at people from the outside. In other words, it is easy to cast judgment and to view the other as wrong, violent, or “sinful” when you don’t actually know them and haven’t heard their story. Because of this human tendency (of which no one is exempt), our church has invited a Rabbi, an Imam, and many other religious leaders to speak and share not only wisdom and insight, but also their stories and experiences. Not only does this begin to break down walls that divide us, but we actually find they have so much to offer and so much to teach us!

In light of the shootings in Orlando, as a religious leader and as a Christian I must state the obvious – this is an unjust act of evil. Yet, I must also state the less obvious – hate and violence will only perpetuate more hate and violence. My hope is that this act of evil only exposes this truth.

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When we take the words of Jesus to love our neighbors and our enemies seriously, this leaves no one to hate. We cannot hate Muslims, Gays, Atheists, or even people we disagree with inside our own tradition.

I believe the way forward can only be through love and compassion and that begins as we better understand others.

Instead of judgment, hate, violence, or bigotry – something we all struggle with at times – Jesus invites us to take the narrow path – the way of love, forgiveness and compassion. It is a narrow, more difficult way, but it does lead to life.

 

 

The seminarian’s unexpected experience

It’s been five years since I went back to school. The goal was to finish up my undergrad so I could attend seminary. Now, three years into seminary and only 6 classes left, I have experienced some major shifts.

CST

I chose Claremont School of Theology (CST) for several reasons. First, I was attending a Methodist Church so it made sense. Second, I was attracted to Process Theology. Third, I wanted to attend a progressive seminary that was not only open but also inclusive of LGBTQ person’s. Fourth, I saw that CST was engaged in interreligious dialogue and education and felt this was important for any spiritual leader in the future.

The biggest part of that decision was attending a place that was open, diverse, and liberal leaning. I wanted to find a place where I could explore, question, and feel free to challenge and/or change any beliefs I needed to. I know this should be the goal of any religious education, but sadly it is not.

I have gone through a major theological shift since I first went back to complete my Bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies five years ago. It seems like an eternity ago, but in the scheme of things five years is not all that long.

Yet, the theological shift has not been the most surprising to me. I had been on a journey for quite some time, and even though I was raised in a more conservative tradition, I had been drawn to people who were pushing the boundaries, asking tough questions, and inviting dialogue. Engaging in theology was not new.

The most surprising experience has been an introduction to contemplative spirituality and the idea and importance of spiritual formation. I had spent several years wrestling through many beliefs and views (my embedded theology) and had largely lived in my head. I think that was necessary for a time, as many of the beliefs I was given as a child no longer made sense to me. I grasped for something that worked and eventually realized that my beliefs, views, and ways of seeing the world will always be changing, evolving, and growing.  I think I’m coming to a point where I’m ok with that, and I think that is largely due to contemplative spirituality.

One of the first classes I took at CST was a class called Spiritual Practices. We engaged in different forms of prayer, meditation, and ways of engaging with Scripture that I had not done before. This opened up a lot for me. I always felt that meditation was for the few “elite” or those monks, and was never all that interested. Then I realized that true formation comes much more from surrender, from mystery, from experiencing wonder, and from releasing my attachment to all things (including my beliefs), than from developing a clear and systematic theology. My spiritual formation classes have become the one’s I have most enjoyed so far, and I look forward to taking a couple more before the end.

I understand that everything forms us. Education forms us deeply, and that has been a large part of my spiritual formation, one I am very grateful for at CST. How one is educated is a part of spiritual formation, and I have been educated alongside of those with diverse views, diverse ethnic and geographic areas, as well as people of different religions than mine. Surely this has all shaped me deeply. My beliefs have shaped me, my experiences have shaped me, my lifestyle (including diet) has shaped me, my friendships have shaped me and the list goes on and on. Yet, at the center of all this is contemplative spirituality, and I am becoming more convinced that this is perhaps the most needed thing in our polarized world of conservative/liberal, religious/non-religious, republican/democrat, etc. At the very least, it is what I seem to most need.

The idea of trying to “convert” others to my way of thinking is less and less interesting. The idea of arguing or debating about the correct doctrine, belief, or religion is less and less interesting. Sure, I still think there are destructive views out there that should be exposed, but what I am finding even more interesting is the idea of becoming a more healthy, whole, and compassionate human and helping others do the same. Instead of seeing different religions as either right or wrong, I see within each system either healthy or unhealthy – mature or immature – ways of being. The healthy or mature ways bring about a more loving, whole, and compassionate human…no matter what religion, belief, or world view they come from. My experience also suggests this to be true. I have met plenty of prickly, judgemental, and self-righteous Christians and some loving and compassionate people who are not Christian.

So, despite a theological shift, the thing that has most surprised me has been a curiosity and formational experience with contemplative spirituality. I went to an education center to realize that education, while being a part of formation, is not the only part or even the main part of spiritual formation.

I plan to write in the near future why I believe contemplative spirituality is so important.

This world is not my home….or is it?

One of the most destructive views, in my opinion, is the belief that we are just passing through this world.

this_world_is_not_my-11341

Why is this so destructive?

This belief leads to the idea that the whole point is to decide if your going to go “up” or “down” after you die. (Up being good and for the special elite. Down being bad and where the vast majority of the human race goes…and somehow this is couched under the idea that this is good news?) Often this idea is said  for one of two reasons.

First, this is said frequently when someone is frustrated with the way things are going or they see so much injustice around them. In other words, behind this view is often the unspoken idea that “this world is messed up and doomed. You all are screwed, but I’m glad I’m not.”

Secondly, people fear the unknown, particularly what happens when you die and they desperately desire certainty. Certainty is likely one of the greatest deceptions and yet greatest draws toward religion for most conservatives.

Not only does this produce a sort of arrogance and an attachment to one’s views (what happens when people die is pure speculation and none of us know), but it is also destructive. Before I share why I think this way, let me first say that I resonate with part of the reason behind this saying. I do think that our beliefs about the afterlife matter. Try telling a mother whose child is about to die that she shouldn’t have any hope or that she may not see her child again – not helpful or hopeful!

Hope is at the core of the Christian story, but it isn’t a hope focused on the afterlife it is a hope focused on this life. 

Again, as a Christian, I think we can have hope for some form of life after death – though I am less and less convinced it will look like streets paved with pure gold, harps, or a burning fire of ceaseless torture. I am much more hopeful than to think that only a select few will enter into “paradise” while the majority suffer. I think we will all be shocked.

In the Jewish tradition there is a phrase called tikkun olam (pronounced tee-KOON oh-LUHM) which means “the repair of the world.” It is this idea that God is working to bring about reconciliation, healing, and wholeness to the entire world and we are invited to be a part (this is how I understand salvation). This goes beyond the overly simplistic idea of individualistic human salvation (very anthropocentric). God is not just working to save humans, but the entire cosmos.

Both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible would seem to support  tikkun olam more than the idea that the world is not my home. Starting in the beginning is a story that speaks poetically about a God who creates a good and beautiful world and then invites humans to continue creating, naming, and tending to this world. Nothing is said of this being “temporary” or there being “another, better place” afterwards. According to this narrative, God takes delight when humans continue to create and continue to bring about order and beauty in this good world.

Interesting to me that those who believe that God created the world and called it good are often so quick to want to leave it behind!

The vast majority of the stories found in Scripture are stories of a God working to help bring about justice, peace, equality, and wholeness in this world. Instead of trying to escape this world or tell everyone how bad, evil, or messed up they are, it seems much more in line with God’s movement to work toward things like sustainability, equality, natural energy, health care for all, businesses that benefit all not just a few, education that encourages forward thinking, and so many other creative ways. Our carbon footprint matters. Our use of water matters. Our diet effects others. Our way of transportation matters. Where we put our trash and if/how we recycle matters. These are all issues of tikkun olam – working to bring about healing and repair. We are not “just passing through,” but are a part of this world and what we do with life in this world matters immensely.

 

 

 

 

 

Spirituality is about seeing

All religious teachers have recognized that we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see. That’s what religion is for. That’s why the Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Be awake.” [1]

It is unfortunate that for many religion has tended to teach people “what to see rather than how to see.”[2] Some people are drawn to religion because they are trying to make sense of the world. Some want security, and often they believe this is found in certainty. Thus, we see in our world today, a whole lot of religious people who “split hairs” over theological issues, doctrine, and truth claims, all the while missing the point entirely! Religion is not the same as spirituality, but healthy religion develops spirituality – they are not mutually exclusive.

What is spirituality?

Spirituality is about seeing. It’s not about earning or achieving. It’s about relationship rather than results or requirements. Once you see, the rest follows. You don’t need to push the river, because you are in it.[3]

Spirituality is about seeing, and religion should be the forms, rituals, and communities that help people see.

See what?

See the Divine, Ultimate Reality, the Sacred in all things, to see that everything is connected. To see that we are all living in this Sacred Presence or this Flow.

Religion should help foster this awareness, informing us that this already exists, but much of religion has instead produced forms, rituals and communities that try to control what people see, how people see, and what they cannot see. In essence, some feel the need to control and push “the river” rather than inviting people to see and enjoy the river. You don’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops, pray for hours each day, attend church every Sunday, or read Scripture ever day in order to see and enjoy the river. Your don’t need religion in order to be spiritual, but healthy religion can deeply enhance this “seeing.”

The difference between healthy and unhealthy religion has to do with control. Unhealthy religion tries to control what you believe and what you see. Healthy religion understands that whatever the Source of all things is (God, Ultimate Reality, the Universe, the Sacred), it is ultimately Mystery and cannot be contained.

Religion…has not tended to create honest humble people who trust that God is always beyond them. We aren’t focused on the great mystery. Rather, religion has tended to create people who think they have God in their pockets, people with quick, easy, glib answers. That’s why so much of the West is understandably abandoning religion. People know the great mystery cannot be that simple and facile.[4]

mountain-sunrise-background-wallpaper-1

Perhaps God is not so much a “being out there” who can be clearly defined, contained, understood, and controlled as much as God is a flow – or a dance – we are all invited into. Perhaps God is more like a sunrise on a beautiful morning. When those first rays of sunlight hit your face, something beautiful happens. For a moment, you feel at peace. You feel connected, centered, and invited into something far deeper than yourself. It is Mystery – you cannot describe, contain, or control the Sun. It’s simply there for you to enjoy.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, 29.

[2] Quote taken from Richard Rohr.

[3] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, 33.

[4] Ibid., 35-36.

The False Self

We all have both a True Self and a False Self.

Being able to tell the difference is everything.

Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves…There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness.               – Thomas Merton

falseself

My spiritual journey has lead me to contemplation, which seems to be the best route (the only route I have found) that exposes the False Self and helps you walk into your True Self – the core of spirituality.

According to one of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, In contemplative prayer we move beyond language to experience God as Mystery. We let go of our need to judge, defend, or evaluate…During contemplation we come to know that there is no separation between sacred and secular. All is one with Divine Reality.

The spiritual journey is meant to be a pathway to discover our True Self – that self that is hidden within, often behind the mask of our False Self. The False Self is that part of us that we prop up that makes us look good to others, hence the image of a mask. It is not actually who we are (our True Self), it is something we hide behind, but it is something we unconsciously fight to keep propped up so we don’t have to deal with all the junk within. If I can’t be as good, smart, or successful as I want to be, I at least want others to think that I am.

The path to uncovering the False Self means we have to be honest and vulnerable in order to expose the weak part of us – no one likes this!

In The Gift of Being Yourself, Psychologist David Benner writes Our false self is built on an inordinate attachment to an image of our self that we think makes us special…Initially the masks we adopt reflect how we want others to see us…Few things are more difficult to discern and dismantle than our most cherished illusions. And none of our illusions are harder to identify than those that lie at the heart of our false self. The false self is like the air we breathe. We have become so accustomed to its presence that we are no longer aware of it.”

The False Self is an illusion, an illusion that is prevalent in every person, and is largely unrecognized. While many non religious people are unaware, religion can actually be a place that bolsters the False Self. I think this happens more times than not.

Immature or lower levels of religion prop up the False Self by creating more labels, divisions, doctrines, and dual (either/or) ways of thinking. Contemplation slowly breaks down these walls and divisions and brings a non dual (both/and) awareness. Often the False Self is that part that feeds off certainty and security. No wonder the False Self is well fed in the religious mind!

  • How do you expose the False Self?

Ask yourself what you feel the need to constantly defend and there you will find the False Self.

Those things, ideas, beliefs, images we are attached to are sure signs of our False Self, hidden within. Dr. Benner writes, “the false self needs constant bolstering. Touchiness dependably points us to false ways of being. And the more prickly a person you are, the more you are investing in the defense of a false self.”

Do you feel the need to consistently defend your own self-importance, self-worth, intelligence, success, views, or beliefs?

Those things we are attached to  are obstacles to finding our True Self – that part that doesn’t need to defend, compare, divide, or fight against. These attachments keep us from becoming vulnerable and keep us from dealing with our own shame, insecurities, and feelings of inadequacy.

My own journey as lead me to uncover my False Self in unexpected ways – in my own insecurities and feelings of inadequacies. I want so badly to appear smart, intelligent, accomplished, and put together. I constantly, and most often unconsciously, compare myself to others who are smarter than I, more charismatic than I, and the list can go on and on.

One of the most helpful tools I have discovered along the way is something called the Enneagram (I will share more about this in the future). I will also share steps to take to enter more fully into your True Self, or at least the path I am on, which is largely a path of knowing and accepting.

Stay tuned!

 

 

the in-between space when the old no longer works and the new is not yet clear