A/Part: God as Presence, Partner, and Process

Last Sunday, Sean ended his sermon on Humanist Becoming by remind us of this picture.

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It is the image that Carl Sagan describes as the pale blue dot of earth.

“Look at that dot.” He says.
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization,
every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there— on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

It is a reality both terrifying and reassuring – clarifying, and mind-boggling. Astronauts looking back on the earth from space describe their first glimpse of our pale blue dot as a transformative experience –  so much so they have a name for it, they call it the “overview effect.”  It is an experience of mental clarity,  they say, when you are
“overwhelmed and awed by the  fragility and unity of life on our blue globe.”

They say that when they look back and see the earth as a unified whole, just floating there in space, they realize how absurd it is that there remains such inequity – how ridiculous it is that we would not all be working together, caring for each other –
because we are all so clearly in this rare shared experience on this one small speck
in the midst of this vast universe.

I know Sean keeps telling us that the secular age is a world disenchanted, but when I see this, I am awestruck – and mystified. It is more magical and enchanting than anything else I could imagine.

What greater marvels could there ever be?

————–

Scientist Mike McHargue had been already on a long journey of faith by the time he tells about his first encounter with this powerful image.

He had been a faithful Southern Baptist, and also a dedicated scientist. He’d done his work to reconcile these things, and it had been work. But somehow despite the arguments thrown his way from fellow scientists evangelizing atheism, and even from friends who challenged him to read Richard Dawkins (and he did), still he maintained a sense that God existed.  And he meant God in a classical sense – as Isaac Newton would have put it – God as a “Being who governs all things as Lord above all.”

When he went looking for Carl Sagan, he imagined that if anything, what he found in his insights would help him strengthen this faith, that he would find an even deeper understanding of God.

But instead, he says, it became his faith’s undoing.

“Nothing ever had shifted my perception of reality so violently,” he writes. Reading Sagan’s words and seeing this image – he felt “wrecked.” His beliefs were “wrecked.”

“‘For God so loved the world’” he writes, “seems absurd from the Voyager’s vantage point. Earth is a waterlogged pebble, one planet among countless others. What possible significance does the salvation of human kind hold?”

——————

In my Methodist seminary,  filled predominantly, as I told you a few Sundays ago, with Christian pastors-to-be, here was an almost universal appreciation for the topic that Diane asked me to preach on today – process theology.  And just as universal, was the acknowledgment that it is nearly impossible to preach on process theology.

Thanks Diane.

There are probably many reasons why my fellow seminarians – and given how infrequently most lay folks seem to have heard about it, most clergy people – feel this way.  Not the least of which is process theology’s struggle to meet McHargue’s crisis of faith – which I’d call, a longing to experience transcendent love.  Traditional notions of God are built to respond to that longing.  But process theology can feel…well, as Stephen Dunn acknowledges in his poem, “At the Smithville Methodist Church,” it’s hard to tell your child, “evolution loves you.”

Process theology is not simply about evolution, of course, but as I describe it, you will see that there are similar challenges. Process theology arose out of liberal theological impulses seeking to make sense of the idea of God given new scientific discoveries – an impulse to understand God in our secular age.

Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician, turned his attention to philosophy in the early twentieth century. His most significant work, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, came out in 1929, and is not, let me be clear, light reading – which is another reason I’m guessing pastors have been reluctant to preach it. They first had to get through it.

Whitehead acknowledged that new scientific understanding made it impossible to imagine the universe in a mechanical, linear paradigm with a God entirely external and superior – all powerful, never changing – the way Newton had.

In place of this old paradigm, Whitehead proposed that we understand God, and the universe, and life itself not as objects, but as events. Instead of life and God being nouns, Whitehead imagined them as verbs – dynamic and interactive and interrelated energies and actions– constantly changing but also creating and recreating by way of their interchange.  Whereas we had come to understand each element in life, each person, each animal – everything – all as independent entities, Whitehead asserted that there was no such thing – there is no way to understand any portion of life without considering, as he says “the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.”

This is the process in process theology – although it wasn’t really until the arrival of Charles Hartshorn that Whitehead’s work turned from philosophy to theology – as Hartshorn made the claim that the whole of Whitehead’s creative interchange – is God – which is a reality that contains all of us, but is larger than any of us.  I am a part of God, in this system, and God is a part of me – you are a part of God, and God is a part of you.  And God is a part of everything, and everyone, past, present, future – the whole Universe.

Which is not to say that all of these parts are equally endowed with agency and awareness, but that all parts, to some degree or another, participate in the creative and dynamic interchange of life.

As that incredible quote from Annie Dillard goes “We are here to abet creation.”
Abet – as in, aiding and abetting.  We are here to assist creation, facilitate it – we are responsible for it. Not to stand separate, but to join in partnership with all of it, and with all the other forces, or events.

God is not just in this partnership – God is the partnership. God is the acting, the exchanging, the becoming – the energy and the novelty, the discovery – this is God not as love the noun, again, but as love, the verb.

If you wondered last week, what Sean meant when he spoke about a non-supernatural theism process theology is a great example.  There’s nothing supernatural in this God – “God is in the cosmos,” and God is also more than the cosmos.

Which doesn’t mean that process is simply a re-enchanted materialism. It just means that there is more to the universe than than simply a bunch of lifeless particles.

Our universe is – as Unitarian Universalist minister Gary Kowalski says,  “an ensemble of interrelated and dynamic happenings – from the energy that maintains a simple chemical bond – to the complex flow of information through a termite mound, or a coral reef – all of these are in constant change and interaction with all the others.”  And in all of these events, God is the link. The event in all events.  “Amid a multitude of partial and imperfect relationships,” Kowalski says, “God is the one to whom we are all perfectly related.”

It’s hard to overstate just how radical Whitehead, Hartshorn, and eventually John Cobb, and Henry Nelson Weiman, and all the other process theologians – how radical this understanding of God was – and is, still.

For example, in process theology, God is no longer omniscient, or all knowing.
God can’t be – because in process, novelty is the whole point – we are co-creators, as Diane said in her chalice lighting, God is creating us, and we are creating God.
God is the source of constant creativity, constant possibility – as scripture says it, “Behold, God is doing a new thing.” Except, using process framing, we might instead say “God is the doing of the new thing, the creating of the new thing.” Remember – verbs, not nouns.

Perhaps even more radical, in process, God is no longer omnipotent, or all powerful.
Because the whole process has power, and it is not directed by God – the exchange is something beyond anything we could call God’s intent.  Which isn’t to say that process doesn’t allow for God to have a will. It’s just that God’s will is expressed not in the classical sense – hierarchically, or patriarchally, but rather through persuasion, and relationship, co-creation. God is that energy that lures life toward the good through relationship – it is that force that moves through life by way of partnership, and co-discovery, in service of the greater and greatest common good.

—————-

When Mike McHargue’s faith was wrecked by Carl Sagan, he didn’t stop attending his Southern Baptist church, or stop teaching Sunday school. He became instead a closet atheist – epitomizing that quote from Julian Barnes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

In place of religious transcendence, however, he instead leaned into that once-devastating image from Carl Sagan, and towards astronomy more fully.  As he says, “when church lost its meaning, my cathedral became the night sky, my chosen worship instrument, a telescope.”

Along the way, he started to realize his prior notions of God and his desire to believe had been hampering his understanding of more advanced scientific concepts, as he’d been trying, subconsciously for the most part, to make sure it all could fit together. Newly freed by his unbelief, he immersed himself in quantum theory, and physics, and the greatest mysteries of our universe.

In McHargue’s recent book, the title of which – Finding God in the Waves, gives away the end of this story he starts his tale by quoting quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg, who says, “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting for you.”

Just as he dove most deeply into what he calls his “nerdom” of space, and astronomy, McHargue found – not God – at least not right away – but NASA.  They’d been following his writing and observations, and they invited him to come and have a private tour one of their research centers in Los Angeles.

And on this trip he found himself, to his own great surprise, trying to pray – for the first time since he’d become an atheist.  He was out on the beach, it was the middle of the night, and he was feeling still confused, and the longing he’d felt back in his crisis of faith had not gone away – if anything it was stronger.

He prayed like this – almost like the atheist prayers Sean has offered: “God, I don’t know who or what you are.  I don’t know anything about you. [I don’t know if you exist.] I can’t unlearn all the things that made me believe you aren’t real.”

He kept praying, and then, suddenly, as he tells it, it was like time stopped.  “The waves seemed to stand still, and I felt God with me, in me, and through me.  I felt connected to the source of life, and the source of all. I felt connected to everyone else, and all of humanity. And to all life on Earth.”

He goes on to say that all these words are insufficient to describe what the experience was actually like. It was the most powerful experience of his life.

While the scientist in him longed to argue himself out of it, try to rationalize, for this one moment, this one time, he just didn’t.  He just sat with it, without trying to name it, or give it meaning.  He says, even many years later, thinking about it, it still brings tears to his eyes, as he can feel once again that sense of connectedness, to everything, and this profound sense of peace, and comfort – clarity, and calm.

———————

There is so much loneliness in this life, especially in these days, so much fear. Too many of us carry stories of loss, and grief; uncertainty and suffering without any real sense of companionship, or true comfort. Even with the presence of good friends, or family, there can still remain an existential sense of isolation as we navigate the tragic gap between life’s possible beauty and its relentless brokenness.

But then, sometimes, through the haze, a presence breaks through, or tries to.
And by a presence, I do not mean simply-the presence of human hands or thoughts, or words – these are important, but insufficient. I mean something beyond the material –
some greater partnership, and process beyond objects. I mean a process and partnership that strengthens us  and pulls us out of ourselves and into the flow of it all – so that we feel both a part of everything, and yet that everything is so much more than us.

Maybe it comes, as it did for Mike, while walking along the beach in a state of confusion and longing, or maybe it comes through the telescope as we marvel at early morning meteor showers. Or maybe, it comes in that moment – even though there is no clear path for where it will all go, or how it all will work – when a community acts to offer shelter, and sanctuary for a mother and her children, and to simply trust, that this is enough.

However it is that it breaks through, this presence connects us to that reality as Albert Einstein put it, that although we experience ourselves “as something separated from the universe,” this is “a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.”

Like the “overview effect,” when this experience grasps us, even if only for a brief moment, we know, deep down, we are never truly alone.

It is not required, of course, that we name these sorts of experiences – these glimpses of our ultimate connectedness as God.

I often don’t.

But, process theology gives us one way to refuse to choose between the secular, and the sacred.  To instead knit these things together into a transcendent whole, instead of becoming immediately skeptical of these experiences, or preventing them from ever finding their way into our hearts in the first place – process theology invites us to claim them, trusting that somehow the pale blue dot – and everything that’s ever been contained on it – could be part of a whole dynamic reality that is, as Rebecca Parker says – “supreme not in knowing everything, but in receiving everything, not in controlling everything, but in imagining everything.”

If we imagine God as an entirely separate object – like Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” then it’s true, like Mike McHargue put it, “’For God so loved the world’ [can] seem absurd,” but if instead God is the life force moving through it all – the creativity and the process of our dynamic interchange, then God is the most moved – supreme in compassion, in intimacy, in understanding, in holding complexity and paradox, in manifesting still yet more possibility.

So even though we still can’t say “evolution loves you,” we can still allow ourselves to feel connected to a love, and a luring, a partnership.  To feel not separate but a part of it all, enchanted by all we are creating together.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of 19 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (13) and Josef (11) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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