Theology OUT of the Box

Summers in high school, I used to teach Vacation Bible School. We used popsicle sticks to create little Noah’s Arks. We played Pin-the-Animal-to-the-Ark. We ate a snack of animal crackers. It might not have looked like it, but we were doing theology. We were reinforcing a certain understanding of our big picture relationship to the world and to each other. That’s what me and the kids were doing, those sweet summer days….

It all comes back to me, all these years later, as I reflect on how, just this past week, I went to my local Lefont Theater, got buttered popcorn, got gummy bears, got chocolate, got water, found my seat and prepared my meal of goodies, ate too much of it while I endured ages of previews, and then, finally, saw the main event: Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah.

It is by sheer contrast that the Vacation Bible School memory comes back to me. Because there is nothing sweet in that movie. What you have instead is a graphically-depicted world that has turned morally depraved. You have a God who is all-powerful, who could have intervened in the ages before Noah to prevent the world from ever turning bad, but He does not. He chooses to intervene in Noah’s time, when the world is way past the tipping point, and his intervention takes the form of an apocalypse. Lots of screaming in that movie. Practically all life destroyed through a massive flood. You also have human beings, Noah and his family, who suffer each moment of the story as it unfolds, but God is above all that suffering, God is like the grey sky churning with clouds that Noah in the movie lifts his eyes to continually, pleading for help, pleading to understand, but there is no answer. The mysterious grey skies just churn away. God is above it all. God has a plan.

This is what I call theology IN the box. I was in the box during those sweet Vacation Bible School days, but didn’t really know it. I started to, however, when my Dad died and I lifted up my eyes to the same churning grey skies that Noah might have lifted his eyes to, and I pled for help and pled for understanding like Noah might have, and none of it came my way. God could have intervened so that my Dad didn’t die when he was just 60 fricken years old, but God did not intervene; he, with all his ultimate power, was a greedy miser, a Scrooge, a Grinch.

You see, this is the problem with the God of Vacation Bible School, the God of the movie Noah, the God that pervades the Western world, the God that so many of us imagine when the word “God” is spoken: the traditional God. This God is erratic. This God is demonic. Theologian Robert Mesle puts it like this: “In the Bible, and in much of Christian thought, God has been described as directly willing and causing great evils: war, slavery, plague, famine, and even the hardness of human hearts. At the very best, God has been depicted as standing by and allowing needless suffering that ‘He’ could easily have prevented.” Robert Mesle goes on to say, “To defend our ideas of God, we are driven to turn our ideas of good and evil inside out to explain why it is really good for God to allow such great suffering.” Here’s one specific example of that which animates so much of politics today. God doesn’t eradiate poverty? Well, it must mean that it’s all a part of God’s plan, and who are we to fight against God? So let’s all vote for politicians who support public policies that rob from the poor and give to the rich.

See what I mean? That’s what theology IN the box is all about. Right and wrong turned inside out.

I am tired of theology IN the box. Aren’t you?

And in fact, a lot of us are. A couple years back, New York Times writer Eric Weiner used the opportunity of the oncoming Christmas holidays to raise the question of what he called “the sad state of our national conversation about God.” “For a nation of talkers and self-confessors,” he writes, “we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?”

That’s another consequence of theology IN the box. It’s polarizing. True Believers who refuse to question the Vacation Bible sweetness of their God concept, and the Angry Atheists who are equally committed to the Vacation Bible God concept but reject it absolutely.

But what about the rest of us? “The rest of us,” says Eric Weiner, “turns out to constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones [N-O-N-E-S], the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones. Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. On average 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power; this holds true for most Nones.”

And then Eric Weiner says this, which takes us closer to our topic for today of theology OUT of the box: “Nones [he says] don’t get hung up on whether a religion is ‘true’ or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that ‘truth is what works.’ If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people—more loving, less angry—then it is necessarily good, and by extension ‘true.’ (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: ‘It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.’)”

Couple things here. First, the idea of “truth is what works.” When we talk about being in search of a God idea that is better than the traditional one, yes, the “truth is what works” maxim is helpful. If a God concept confuses your sense of right and wrong, if turns you into a True Believer or an Angry Atheist, if it walls you off from your life rather than helps you engage it more creatively, then that God concept is going in the wrong direction, the direction of falsehood. But if a God concept illustrates the true meaning of love and compassion, if it turns you into someone who has Holy Curiosity, if it brings you into true abundance and hopefulness in your life—well, that’s what I call, “it works.”

It also works if you can joke about it. Just like G. K. Chesterton said.

Here’s a joke that immediately introduces us to theology OUT of the box. It’s called, “God will save me.” A big storm approaches. The weatherman urges everyone to get out of town. The priest says, “I won’t worry, God will save me.” The morning of the storm, the police go through the neighborhood with a sound truck telling everyone to evacuate. The priest says, “I won’t worry, God will save me.”?The storm drains back up and there is an inch of water standing in the street. A fire truck comes by to pick up the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.” ?The water rises another foot. A National Guard truck comes by to rescue the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.”?The water rises some more. The priest is forced up to his roof. A boat comes by to rescue the priest. He tells them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.” ?The water rises higher. The priest is forced up to the very top of his roof. A helicopter comes to rescue the priest. He shouts up at them, “Don’t worry, God will save me.”?The water rises above his house, and the priest drowns. ?When he gets up to heaven he says to God, “I’ve been your faithful servant ever since I was born! Why didn’t you save me?”?And God replies “First I sent you a weatherman, then I sent the police, then I sent a fire truck, then the National Guard, then a boat, and then a helicopter. What more do you want from me!!??”

That’s the joke, and before I show how it illustrates what theology is like when you get OUT of the box, I better do my job and tell you the name of this particular theology. It’s called “Process Theology.” Historically, much of it is home-grown; it emerges out of Unitarian Universalist thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spoke of the “deep power in which we exist, [how] when it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.”  Then there is the great Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century, Charles Hartshorne, who titled one of his books as follows: Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Are you getting a sense of where we are going yet? How we’re moving away from the idea that God’s power is a power to supernaturally intervene in history?) And then there is the thinker who is considered to be the father of Process Theology, not a Unitarian Universalist but, says Wikipedia, a “friend”: Alfred North Whitehead.

Listen to something Whitehead once said: “When the Western world received Christianity, Caesar conquered, and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers… The brief [vision of humble and patient love that came from Jesus] flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly … but the deeper idolatry, the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”

That’s exactly why the priest in the joke does what he does. Why he constantly refuses help. Why he’s so upset at God in the end. God is supposed to barge into history like an imperial, all-powerful Caesar, to intervene supernaturally. That’s the kind of power the priest is convinced God has. Hard power to force things. Hard power that is coercive and violates natural laws and others’ freedom. The priest is stuck on this idea of power—even though, as Whitehead suggests, Jesus himself offered people a completely different sense of divine power: Power that is persuasive and patiently but steadfastly calls people to a better vision of life, which they can follow, but only if they choose to do so.

The joke takes the side of Jesus. And Whitehead.

The priest never got it. But we can.

I won’t speculate on how Jesus came to this conclusion about God. But as for Whitehead, he came to it in big part because of the findings of the most successful and battle-tested theory in all of contemporary science: quantum mechanics. The fundamental particles that make up everything, says the genius physicist Werner Heisenberg, “are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” In other words, it’s only when Noah chooses to build the Ark that a certain direction into the future begins to be born, and with each subsequent choice, the world of actualities expands…. But there is never a point where any being could know everything past-present-future. It’s impossible. A being COULD be able to envision all possibilities. That would be God. But even God cannot know what the actualities will turn out to be. Actualities require choices and choosers. That would be us. That’s what history is for.

The problem with the priest in the joke—and with people who are still IN the theological box—is that they conceive of God as some kind of super person whose hands are just like ours but bigger and stronger. We use our hands to pick our kids up when they have fallen, and God uses God’s hands to send all the animals, two of every kind, into the Ark. Think like this, and you will drown. You will wait for God to come save you. All sorts of real help will come on by, but you’ll ignore it. And you will drown.

We’ve got to turn from that, and turn to theology OUT of the box.

Process theology: here are the basics:

First: everything is in God. The world is God’s body. This is just so beautiful. I just want to repeat it like a mantra. The world is God’s body. “For me,” writes Herman Hesse, “trees have always been the most penetrating preachers.” Of course. Because trees are a part of God’s body, and so are stars, and so are rivers. Humans are too, but Process Theology is not human-centered. Everything is a part of God, everything needs to be honored and cared for, not just people.

Second: even though the world is in God, it has creative independence and freedom, just like your own body does when it gets sick. Your mind doesn’t want it to be sick, but it gets sick anyhow, and you have to cope. Same thing with God. God doesn’t want the world to be sick, and yet the world has creative independence. God simply can’t enter into the world supernaturally, like a bull in a china shop, and stop this and start that.

Third: God is more than the world. God is the knower. Part of this includes possibility. God knows every possibility there is to know. There is no possible world that God is ignorant of. But as for what God knows about actuality or facts: only the ones that have happened. God is as constrained by the laws of quantum mechanics as we are. God can be disappointed. God can be delighted.

But here is the other side of God’s supreme power of knowing. This side is particularly interesting, because it goes against that image of God as some kind of imperial Caesar who is supposed to be supreme and worthy of worship because nothing bothers him, nothing moves him, he is permanently unchanged and unchanging.  But process theology envisions a God that is worthy of worship because God is affected by everything. Every pain and pleasure ever felt is felt by God. God is absolute in empathy and rapport. God, writes Carter Heyward, “will hang on the gallows.”

God will inspire, fill, overwhelm Handel with power and splendor.
God will be battered. . .
God will have a mastectomy
God will experience the wonder of giving birth.
God will be handicapped.
God will run the marathon.
God will win.
God will lose.
God will be down and out, suffering, dying.
God will be bursting free, coming to life, for
God will be who God will be.

For me personally, it means that, when I am frustrated, I hesitate not an instant to cuss up a blue streak when I pray to God. God understands. God is not a prim, self-satisfied moralist who doesn’t know what it’s like to screw up, who is judgmental, who hasn’t a clue about what real confusion feels like, or hurting others, or being hurt. This is not a Vacation Bible School God. This is a God for real, adult life.

The world is in God, the world has creative independence from God, God is more than the world. And then also this, number four: In every moment, in every place, constantly, God calls us towards the better possibilities of life. God does it because God is love; and God is uniquely suited for it because God knows how life feels, knows everything about us, is far more compassionate about our flaws and limitations than we ever could be.

The question is never, God, are you with me? The question is always, Am I with God? Am I using my freedom to position myself in a way where I can feel God’s constant, faithful call? “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” God’s call to us is to become more than we ever thought possible. But we must choose to align ourselves to it. We must learn how to listen.

And when we hear it—well, sometimes it can scare us to death. We are called to go out from the place we are completely familiar with but it no longer serves our highest good and that of the world’s. We are stuck. But God calls us out. And it can scare us to death. And so therefore we deny, we delay. But God is not some imperial Caesar. God won’t force us. God just keeps showing us the vision of what is possible. God longs for it, and we can feel that longing….

Sing it with me, this song from the pen of James Weldon Johnson, number 149 in your hymnal. Just the first verse.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Do you feel that? That deep feeling of desire for a better world? Process theology would say that you are feeling the feelings of God right in this moment. It’s one reason why music is precious—it can tap us straight into God. And here, what we feel is God’s thirst for justice. How God sees all the ways in which the world could be better, could be healed, and God wants it. God wants it.

But there are no hands but our hands. God doesn’t have hands. We do. That’s what we are for.

This never crosses the priest’s mind, that priest from the joke. That the weatherman, the police, the fire truck, the National Guard, the boat, and also the helicopter all represent ways in which people responded to the call to serve and protect, which is about love, which comes from God. Never crosses his mind. The priest wants a God who waves a magic wand and makes it all better.

But that is theology IN the box. There are no magic wands.

What we have instead is this. The world is in God. The world has creative independence from God. God is more than the world and knows every possibility and feels everything. And God loves us, wants our healing and our wholeness, sings to us every day, every night, every moment, sings us forward into greater things, sings love, sings courage.

And it is up to us to listen, and to sing back.