Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Beyond Control–Embracing the Divine Embracing: Charles Hartshorne and ProcessTheology (UU Sermon Jun 17, 2012)

 Sacramento, California


#8 Mother Spirit, Father Spirit; #16 ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple; #15 The Lone Wild Bird; Doxology (English & Spanish; tune Old Hundredth);


1) This reading comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, in the Hebrew Bible.  In this passage, God is speaking to Moses, offering a covenant to the Jews:

“I call on heaven and earth to witness . . . today that I have set before you life death, blessing and cursing:  therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”

2)  This reading comes from Paul Monette’s essay, “Priests.”  A well-known gay activist and writer, Monette died of AIDS in the year 2000.  The essay appeared in his book Last Watch of the Night.  He writes:

There is no God, I’m sure of that.  But the more they’ve sought me out, the more convinced I am that there are holy men and women.

So I send blessings, such as they are, to all my priests who

constitute the Resistance.

And if they like, they’re welcome to include me in their prayers.  Can’t hurt. None of us will free the world of intolerance alone.  We need the people of God, especially if God isn’t there.


I’d like to talk about the Divine this morning.  With all respect to my late father and all the fathers in the room, I won’t be affirming the old idea of God the Father.   With apologies to those guys among us with long white beards who like to rest in long robes on recliners that feel soft as clouds, I’ll talk about a different kind of God, a much more complex organism.

First I’d like to invite you into an exercise in imagination.  Imagine that the universe is held in one large cosmic web.  This cosmic web embraces everything—all planets and stars, the earth, human beings, including every one of us.  As each person lives and acts, this web embraces those actions, and is enlarged by them.  As we create new things, this web becomes enriched by them.  Now imagine that this universal web has a sense of awareness.  Imagine that this all-embracing web has an attitude toward this creation it embraces.  Its attitude is one of expectation, curiosity, anticipation.  Its attitude is one of welcome and acceptance.  Imagine that it has hopes for us.  Imagine that it tries to lure us toward ethical actions such as generosity, kindness, and compassion.  It calls us to promote goodness and freedom and beauty.  It calls us to make life-affirming decisions.  Imagine that this cosmic embrace of all, is a loving embrace.  This embrace is the divine.  As we are ever-changing, as all creation is ever-changing, so is this loving divine embrace.

This is one way that I try to explain process theology.  This modern school of thought was developed by a philosopher and theologian by the name of Charles Hartshorne.  He was born in June of 1887 and passed away in 2000, at age 103.  I first read about him when I took a divinity school course at the University of Chicago, where he had taught years earlier.   He taught also at Emory University in Atlanta until he faced mandatory retirement.  Then he and his wife moved to Austin, where he taught at the University of Texas until he was 91.  His wife, Dorothy, was a classically trained soprano, and served as his editor.  She died five years before he did.[1]

Charles Hartshorne was a feminist, an opponent of capital punishment and automobiles, and a fan of bicycles, living simply, and song birds.  He was a trained ornithologist.  His 1973 book was entitled Born to Sing:  An Interpretation of World Survey of Bird Song, and it included 5,000 species.  He said that some birds sing just for the enjoyment of it.  This was a radical idea for a scientist, he said, but a common thought among musicians.  He said it’s arrogant for humans to think we are the only ones with active minds.  Born in a small town in Pennsylvania, Hartshorne was descended from Quakers, and his father was an Episcopal clergyman.  He recalled:  “No one in my family disbelieved in religion, and no one disbelieved in evolution, either.”

Hartshorne was a student of Alfred North Whitehead, a British mathematician and philosopher whose writing brings me to tears …because I can’t understand it.  Fortunately, Hartshorne built on Whitehead’s philosophy, and from it he derived process theology.

Secular academic philosophers looked down on Hartshorne because he believed in God.  Yet orthodox religious thinkers considered him a radical—and he was.  Of course, he was a Unitarian Universalist, for the last seven decades of his 103 years.  Charles and Dorothy spent their last years as members at First Unitarian in Austin.

Before I talk about process thought, here’s my little summary of the old school, the classical Christian cosmology of  the past umpteen centuries.  This doctrine says God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.  First, it says, God is omnipotent, or all-powerful.  In control of everything.  Second, God is omniscient, or all-knowing.  God knows everything that will ever happen.  He knows that because he’s in control of it.  Past, present and future have been determined, by him.  Of course, this God was always thought of as male.  Third, God is benevolent.   God is all good.  Not only does God have a plan, it’s a loving plan; it’s the perfect plan.  Father Knows Best.[2]

This theology seems okay if your life is going well.  It seems okay until you suffer.  Until something bad happens to someone you love.  Then, you ask:  how can this all-controlling, all-knowing God also be all-good?  If God is in control of everything, then he’s in control of the bad things that happen just as much as the good things.  How can God love people and let them be hurt?  How can God love the world and let it go up in flames, through wars and violence, and environmental abuse?

In the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner asks a similar question.  Kushner wrote the book in order to come to terms with the death of his young son by an incurable disease.  A loving God surely couldn’t have done that, the rabbi says.  Either God is good, or God is in absolute control, but God cannot be both.

Another example:  the Rev. Dr. Bill Jones has written a book whose title is a question:  Is God a White Racist?  Jones is an African American Unitarian Universalist who says that if God is in control of everything that has ever happened, then he must have made slavery happen.  If he did, then he cannot be good.

Unfortunately, many people still depict God as all-controlling and all-good.  I can understand the urge to explain the unexplainable.  If there’s not a cosmic plan, life can seem too scary, too confusing.  We don’t want life’s events to feel random.  Everything must have a reason.  God must have willed it.  This is the meaning of omnipotence and omniscience.

This idea goes hand in hand with predestination—the idea that nothing is up to chance, there is no free will in creation, even in human life.  You may have heard the joke about the devout woman who tripped at the top of the stairs in her house and tumbled all the way down.  She pulled herself up, smoothed her skirt, and exclaimed, “Well, thank goodness we got that over with.”

The early Christian thinker St. Anselm said that God is perfect, complete, and unchanging.   Hartshorne argues that an unchanging God would be abstract and remote, unconcerned about us, unrelated to us, and unaffected by what happens to us.  In contrast, process thought says that the Divine does relate to the world.

Here is the nature of that relationship, as Hartshorne taught it:  God “creates the conditions that provide the optimum balance of order and freedom.”  God set the stage, got things going, set some basic limits, and granted free will to the cosmos.  This includes all the elements and living creatures, especially us.  By chance interactions and by conscious choices, this diverse parade of creation will “determine the details of what happens.”  The writer Norman Mailer wrote of “a God who lives… without any pre-arranged guarantees,” one “who is no more certain of the [outcome] than we are.”

As nature evolves, as the universe continues to unfold, the Divine Life unfolds.  As our lives unfold, the Divine Life grows.   It is tied up in our own lives.  In the Christian Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:  something as small as a sparrow does not fall to the ground without the notice of the Divine Life.  God knows us so well, Jesus says that “the very hairs of your head are numbered.”  As we age, the Divine numbers those hairs as they fall, and kindly watches new hairs grow in places where we didn’t use to have any.

Rabbi Kusher, in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, says that God does not will or cause misery or loss, does not cause cruelty to happen.  And in fact, when bad things happen, God grieves with us.

The Divine Life is the source, the observer, and the companion of all that unfolds in the universe.  God is a creator and a spectator.  God is the initial artist but is even more an appreciator of art.  God is an instigator of creativity and a stakeholder in how creation unfolds.

Process thought helps me see why many spiritual writers have depicted God as a loving parent, rather than as an absolute ruler.  I interpret process thought in this way:  As a parent brings forth a child, the divine has brought forth all of us, and all forms of existence.  The parent nurtures and nourishes the child.  As a parent watches the child grow and change, the parent is changed.  As the child learns and creates, the parent is enlarged and enriched.  As the child finds happiness and enjoys goodness, the parent feels joy.  As the child encounters misfortune or suffering, the parent’s heart aches.

The parent can imagine and know all the choices the child might make and all that could befall the child.  As the child makes wrong choices, the parent winces.  If death or another tragedy should happen, the parent suffers.  Yet even if the child’s life ends, the relationship between child and parent is not cancelled out, for the parent has been forever changed by the relationship.

The parent can imagine what the child’s future might be like, but as the child develops, the parent has less and less control.  The parent is not an absolute ruler over the child; if it were, then it would not be a parent, it would be a tyrant.  In process thought, this is how the Divine relates to the life of the world.  God is not in control, God is in relationship.

Process theology has redefined the old concepts about God’s omniscience.  To say that God is omniscient means that the divine sees all that happens, and is enlarged by it.  It means also that God knows everything that could happen in the future, but that future is not predetermined. God knows how nature might evolve, but waits to see what nature does.

As quoted by the Rev. Herbert Vetter, Hartshorne’s wife, Dorothy, said:  “[W]e can consider a human life as being like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we close the book, the story does not disappear.  It continues, and likewise our contribution to others becomes a part of God’s life that goes on and on.”

Now if you are a confirmed atheist, you may ask:  Why do I need to believe this?  If God isn’t doing anything to me but watching my life unfold, why do I need to accept that God exists?  You don’t!  I doubt it will hurt God’s feelings as much as cruelty does, or starvation or toxic waste disasters.  But I want us to appreciate that many theists in this world are people of progressive forms faith.  They have moved away from hateful and hurtful ideas about God.  They affirm that human beings have both free will AND responsibility.   We are called to show God’s love and care for the natural world, for all people in the world, and for future generations of people.  This kind of theology has influenced many seminary professors and the ministers they have educated.  It sings in the hymnals of many denominations and religions.  A modern hymn text addresses a growing God:  you are “willing to be changed by what you started.”  The divine is enlarged by the unfolding of the world that it set in motion.

This kind of theology does not make it on TV very much or fill Cal Expo and sports stadiums.  Have you seen the colorful yard signs and posters for this weekend’s festival with a big evangelical preacher?  An estimated 40,000 people will attend.  I won’t attend, but I can assume his message is that we depend on God, and we must accept Christ in order to gain the full benefits of this dependence.  Unfortunately, you won’t see the same PR for the opposite idea:  that God is depending on us.

In the Bible, for example, God says to Moses:  “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.”  You and your people have choices, God said.  He even gave them a hint:  “Choose life!”  This is the Hebrew Bible’s way of saying:  You’ve got freedom–don’t blow it!   Other passages in the Bible depict human beings in arguments with God, even getting God to change his mind.  The people who wrote the scriptures experienced God as open and accessible.  They knew that human actions make a difference.  The future is open ended.

The Jewish and Christian traditions teach that every person is created in the likeness of God.  This means that we possess freedom and creative power.  We have hopes, and we can show love.  The late writer Norman Mailer compared the Divine to an artist.  He writes that “there is something in common between God and all of us.  We, like God, are imperfect artists doing the best we can.”

A tragic aspect of the old, classical belief about an all-controlling God is that it has not made us humble, it has made us harsh and proud.  We humans established a hierarchy of control.  God was at the top, the ultimate controller.  Who was next?  We were! After all, if we are made in God’s image, we must be in charge.  At the top of the human hierarchy were adult males, especially those with privilege.  God’s will became the will of the powerful.  Such a hierarchy has justified the domination of some groups by others. This ideology has justified our control of the natural environment, even to the point of disaster.  We have tried not to be a creative partner with nature, but its ruler.  Process theology says, in contrast, that we are part of the family of nature.   This calls for humility more than control.

As the Rev. Margaret Keip has said, we are partners—all of us are partners—in a divine adventure.

Yet the holders of the old theology and the guys at the top of the hierarchy will protest:  God must be in charge.  We must honor God’s will.  Process thought has an answer:  The divine will is not absolute control or perfect knowledge.  Rather, let’s think of the divine will as the divine expectation.  The Divine calls us to be loving, responsible and creative, but the freedom to do so is ours.

How do we know what God wants for us?  Where do we see God’s hope for us?  Hartshorne said life presents us with Divine lures. In our conscience is the lure to choose what is good and just.  In the small voice within the silence of our hearts is the lure to affirm beauty and generosity.  In the good people around us are clues to what is good in life.  Here we can see God’s hopes for our future.

The Divine Life is always unfolding, always holding new possibilities.  We hold some of those possibilities in our hands.  This idea is as old as God’s granting a free choice to Moses.  This idea of choice is the heart of liberal theology, the reason for ethics, the inspiration for democratic government among people.

The divine has a stake in how things unfold, cheering us on, dropping us clues, grieving when we squander our gifts and misuse our powers.

In other words, it makes a difference that you are alive!  You matter!  What you do matters!  It makes a difference what we do, and what we leave undone.

Our actions matter to the children around us, to the community, to the country.  Our actions matter to the whole wide world.    Our lives make a difference to the unfolding of creation.  For all our gifts and the freedom to use them, let us give thanks.  For our companions on the journey, let us be grateful, and let us be joyful companions in return.  So may it be.

[2] For a thousand years, classical Christian theology has been influenced by St. Anselm’s proof for the existence of God.  St. Anselm said that God is the most perfect being one could imagine.  God is that being which could not be surpassed by any being—God is that which is unsurpassable.  Such a being is perfect, complete, and unchanging.  Something that’s perfect cannot change.  It’s not subject to change, because if it were, then that would mean that something else might surpass it, might be better than it is. Process thought says that God is unsurpassable by any other being, just as St. Anselm proposed.  But the process God is unsurpassable only by other beings.  The Divine can, however, surpass itself.  It becomes larger and richer.


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