God in the Flesh
John Sanders and Process Theology
This page seeks to bring into conversation the pioneering work of John Sanders and the perspectives of Process Theology as each address issues related to God, language, cognition, religious experience, theology, and the Christian faith. The page is intended as a springboard for discussions. John and I are colleagues at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas; and some of our students have asked for a page on this website along these lines. This is that page. I hope that I’ve done justice to John’s work, and also that he will correct any errors, as his time allows, in conversations with students. I also hope it will introduce readers of this website, heretofore unacquainted with John's work, to a very important theologian for our time. Most of my knowledge of John’s work comes from a decade of hallway conversations, not a careful study of his writings. This is unfortunate but true. We've both been very busy in our respective worlds of Open Theism and Process Theology, and we've not read much of one another. Still, we have learned a lot from each other and will continue to do so. To learn more about John’s work on his own terms, there is no better place to turn than his own website.
John Sanders and I teach at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. We have many students who want to explore connections between Process Theology and John's own theological perspective, which weaves together biblical, linguistic, and philosophical insights under the rubrics of "open theism" and "cognitive linguistics."
Some of the student interest comes from a course that John teaches called Concepts of God. They read one of his books, The God Who Risks, and recognize that his understanding of God bears resemblance to the process perspective as they glean it from various sources, including this website.
The students are right to sense the similarities. John and I both think that God loves all creatures and adjusts to new situations in order to provide them with fresh possibilities for satisfaction relative to circumstance. We both envision God, not as Being Itself but rather as a Person or Agent who is filled with wisdom and compassion. We both think that the future is open, even for God. We both think that God knows what is possible in the future but not what it is actual until it is actualized. We both think that God's love resembles that of a nurturing parent rather than dominating taskmaster. We both believe that our images of nurturing parent and dominating taskmaster are metaphors, best understood figuratively not literally. We both believe that metaphors can be carriers of wisdom, and that some metaphors carry more truth than others. We both believe that metaphors and concepts do not drop from heaven, but instead originate out of embodied experience. We both believe that truth itself is a journey, not a set of propositions in a book. We both know that we are on that journey and do not have final answers. We both believe that the journey is enriched, not diminished, by openness to the points of view of others and dialogue.
In these ways John shares many views with me and most other process theologians, at least when it comes to God and the Christian life. We arrive at these convictions differently, but the convictions are quite similar. Thomas Oord, who is both an open theist and a process theologian, has coined the phrase Open and Relational Theology to name a conceptual horizon that includes open theism and process theology, along with other points of view. When students ask, I say that we are both Open and Relational Theologians. The term "relational" is used often by process thinkers to name what is important to them, and it is also used by open theists. (For an explanation of relational power in a process perspective, see C. Robert Mesle's Relational Power in JJB.) Still, there are some significant differences in our methods, audience, and style -- albeit complementary rather than contradictory.
Differences in Method, Audience, and Style
I am shaped by the Wesleyan idea that there are four sources for theology: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. When it comes to thinking about God, I draw from philosophical reason (especially the philosophy of Whitehead) and experiences with people of other faiths, especially Buddhism. In terms of audience, I write for the spiritually interested general reader, not for Christians alone, because I am interested in appealing to people who are religiously unaffiliated (spiritual but not religious) and to readers in China, where I do much of my work. And in terms of style, I am inclined to write theopoetically. This means that I often use images and narratives, and my aim is not so much to convince people through arguments as it is to evoke sensibilities (attitudes, intuitions, perspectives) which may or may not resonate with them.
By contrast John comes from a strong evangelical background that places emphasis on scripture as the primary if not exclusive source for religiously relevant wisdom. While John appeals to reason, tradition, and experience in a thoughtful way, and while his more recent work is steeped in cognitive linguistics, his approach is still deeply scriptural. He seeks to ground his ideas in Biblical revelation, writing primarily for Christians who likewise want to ground their beliefs in the Bible. In terms of style, John typically writes prosaically not poetically, although he can certainly tell a good story. He seeks to convince readers through argumentation -- displaying contradictions and tensions in contrary points of view, being very clear about his claims, always seeking clarity and avoiding vagueness.
John will be the first to acknowledge that I am more tolerant of vagueness than he. Whitehead once quipped that the most important things in life -- love and hope and faith -- are vague. It is interesting that he said this, because he was a mathematician and fully acquainted with the world of clarity. But when it came to religious matters, he tended to lapse into poetry, as is evident in Part V of Process and Reality on God. It is deeply poetic. For good or ill, I find myself drawn in this more poetic direction when it comes to talking about God. If God prefers precision, I can only hope that God forgives me.
Argument Theology and Evocative Theology
There may also be a difference in our respective understandings of the task of theology. If theology refers primarily to talk about God and matters of religious belief, then John is much more of a theologian - and a much better theologian -- than I am. He truly is one of the leading theologians in America today, and his books have been translated into several languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and Romanian.
For my part, I find myself wanting to talk about many things besides God and religious belief, as is obvious from my books and also this website. And I am not as interested in presenting arguments as is John. My aim is evocation not argumentation. The subject matter of JJB is life in all its manifestations: music, animals, ecology, violence, poverty, psychology, language, sports, dance, dialogue, and culture. And when it comes to religion, many of the articles focus more on religious experience than on questions of belief -- although there is also talk of religious belief as found in the section called "Reflecting on Big Questions."
John and I both believe that there is a world beyond words: other people, animals and plants, hills and rivers, trees and stars, and also, importantly, subjective states such as hope, fear, love, hate, desire, and pleasure. We also believe that God is more than a word - far more. We believe that words, if not taken as self-enclosed entities in their own right, can illuminate worlds beyond words. This means that when it comes to the subject of religion, we both know that religion is about more than formal belief and also more than observable practice. It is also about what people directly experience.
In any case, my own focus as a process theologian is on religious experience, and I define experience very broadly. I speak of eighteen forms of religious experience, many of which are not theistic; see The Whiteheadian Wheel of Spirituality: Eighteen Forms of Religious Experience. At a personal level, this focus on religious experience comes from the influence of Buddhism on me (see Can a Christian be a Buddhist, Too?) and, equally influential, the tradition of phenomenology in Western philosophy.
Whereas John is shaped by the language-oriented traditions of Analytic Philosophy that emerged in England in the previous century; I am shaped by the phenomenological traditions of Continental Philosophy that emerged in Germany and France in previous century, especially Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. The analytic traditions typically focus on language; the phenomenological traditions focus on experience. This is why I am drawn to Whitehead. He believed that experience is more fundamental than language as a subject of philosophical reflection. I do, too.
Theology and the Spirit of God
The range of subjects in JJB illustrates an idea very important in process theology: namely that the spirit of God is present in all of these areas of life and indeed in the whole of life. It also exemplifies the influence of John Cobb, who defines theology, not as talk about God or a defense of traditional beliefs, although that has its place; but rather as thinking about important matters from a Christian perspective. Sometimes those important matters concern God and religious belief, but they can also be about many other matters: interfaith dialogue, mental and physical health, global climate change, and the need for a new economic order, for example. Cobb addresses all these issues in his theology, and I am influenced by his example.
For me, however, there is one task of theology is extremely important, but which goes beyond addressing issues in a distanced, discursive way. One task of theology is simply to help people become mindful of where God is already present in life or (as in the case of injustices) needs to be present. In this sense I think theology can be done by means of music and art, acts of kindness and political action. Such theology is more evocative than argumentative, more poetic than prosaic. It is a way of living. Jesus was a theologian in this sense. His theology was in how he lived in response to others and to the Abba he loved.
Most deeply, this is how I understand theology as well. It is not so much an application of ideas as it is a response to what life presents. On this view, of course, everyone is a theologian. The more formal kind of theology, whether discursive or poetic, is of secondary, not primary, importance. On this, John Sanders and I heartily agree; and we also agree that theology can help point us toward the virtues. His own interest in the virtues implied by open theism (see the Youtube videos on the left) is illustrative of how he bridges the gap. To my mind, John's work on the virtues is part of the most important work he does, and we all have much to learn from him.
Three Areas of Potential Philosophical Disagreement
But back to theology more narrowly defined. There are at least three ideas in process theology (perhaps many more) with which John may disagree.
The first is that God has physical feelings. This does not mean that God has a body located in space or time, but rather than God feels the feelings of every living being in the universe in a way that resembles the way we feel, and are moved by, the happenings within our own physical bodies. (In psychology this kind of feeling is called proprioception.) For process theologians, the universe unfolds within, not outside of, the ongoing and everlasting life of God, and God feels this unfolding through experiences in the mode of causal efficacy or physical feelings. God's physical feelings are God's empathy: God's direct experience of what is happening in the universe, God's sharing in the subjective states of any and every living.
John speaks of God as knowing what humans (and by implication other animals) feel but does not speculate on what kind of knowing it is. Process theologians propose that this knowing is not simply a matter of inference or even perspective-sharing, but rather intimate state-sharing. For process theologians in the Christian tradition, such intimacy is part of what is revealed in Jesus' death on the cross. As Jesus died on the cross, so Christians believe, God shared in the feelings of dying -- and does the same everywhere at all times. I do not know if John believes God knows by direct experience; this may be an area of disagreement.
The second idea is that God does not assign intrinsic value but instead recognizes it. We process theologians believe that even if God did not exist, all living beings would have what we call "intrinsic value." In process theology a living being is a creature whose survival and well-being matters to itself, consciously or unconsciously. Intrinsic value is this self-mattering. Of course a living being may also have instrumental value; for example, a human being may well be valuable to others and to God as well as to himself or herself. But a human being does indeed have value in and for herself, even if she is not valuable to others. Imagine a woman who has been abandoned by her family and sits alone in a jail, unloved by anyone. In process theology we propose that she has intrinsic value and that her value is not assigned by God. It is part of her very existence. Process theologians believe that the ethical life lies in being sensitive to this kind of value, not only in human beings but in all living beings. What makes God good is not that God assigns value to life, as if it would not have value otherwise; it is that God recognizes, takes delight in, and celebrates the value of life, which carries such value in its own existence. Again, I do not know if John would agree with this idea that value is inherent in life, and not a projection of God onto life.
The third idea is that different religions may have awakened to different ultimate realities, all of them real. The idea begins with Whitehead, who proposes that every actuality in the universe -- from the smallest puff of energy in a distant galaxy, through a living cell on planet earth, to God as the inclusive whole of the universe -- is filled with some degree of self-creativity in the way it appropriates influences from others The actuality receives influences from others and then creates itself, in the moment at hand, by responding to those influences consciously or unconsciously. Whitehead sought a name for this self-creativity and he called it Creativity. In Whitehead's philosophy this Creativity is the ultimate reality of the universe and God is its ultimate expression. John Cobb puts it this way: Creativity is the ultimate reality and God is the ultimate actuality. This means that there are at least two ultimates, each ultimate in a different way. This idea has led process theologians to consider the possibility that different religions may have awakened to, and be centered in, different kinds of ultimates. Buddhists, for example, have awakened to still another kind of ultimacy: the absolute interconnectedness of all things and (in Zen) the primacy of the present moment of experience. Daoists have awakened to the fact that the universe itself is a flowing reality rather than a static substance, and there is something ultimate about the flow itself. The Abrahamic religions have awakened to the ultimacy of God as one in whom we can place our deepest faith and who loves all creatures deeply. Interconnectedness is ultimate in its way; the fluidity of the universe is ultimate in its way, and God is ultimate in God's way.
Complementary Pluralism or Christ-Centered Inclusivism
I shared a first draft of this essay with John prior to its publication, and he confirmed that there is in fact a difference in this third area: the question of multiple ultimates. He writes:
"You are correct that I do not accept that creativity is the ultimate reality and so do not affirm parity pluralism concerning the major religions. Instead, I affirm that God is the ultimate reality and I work from within the Christian tradition to articulate a view that holds that God works through various religions in order to reach people and institutions. This version of inclusivism seeks to find the good, true, and beautiful in various religions and identifies it via a Christological criteria. The Christian God works though assorted people and institutions, including religions, in order to redeem the world in the image of Jesus. It is open to what is worthwhile in various religions but the criteria for what is worthwhile is drawn from Christian sources rather than from considerations about the nature of creativity." (John Sanders)
For my part, I think of John's perspective as Christ-centered inclusivism. We process thinkers speak of our perspective as "complementary pluralism" rather than "Christ-centered inclusivism." Our preference for complementary pluralism is partly because some process thinkers are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu. We believe we have things to learn from each other that are not contained in our own traditions. Among the Christian process theologians, our preference for the phrase "complementary pluralism" is also because we believe that other religions may have discovered truths, inspired by the very God revealed in Jesus, that are different from, but complementary to, the truths of Christianity.
Interestingly, Christian process theologians influenced by John Cobb (I am among them) would propose that complementary pluralism is Christ-centered, too, because Christ is the spirit of creative transformation at work in the world, whom the Gospel of John names the Logos. We believe that the Logos -- the Living Christ -- has inspired different cultural traditions to awaken to different, complementary, truths, including the truth of the ultimacy of interconnectedness. These Christological differences may or may not be compatible; I do not know.
What I do know is that John and I both believe that the Christian faith can include many different perspectives. John puts it this way: "There is usually more than one legitimate way to think about topics such as salvation and God. But there are constraints—it is not anything goes." Happily, the process perspective is within the constraints John has in mind, and his perspective is well within whatever constraints we might recognize.
John Sanders and I both believe that love is an essential attribute of God. God may be more than love, but God is certainly not less. And we both know that love itself is not vapid. It calls us toward mutual listening and creative transformation. For my part, I have tried to give a hint as to what this mutual transformation might look like in Let the Blurring Begin: Open Theism and Process Theology. One thing I know. Students have asked for a page in this website where they might consider areas of similarity and difference between Process Theology and John Sanders' Open Theism informed by Cognitive Linguistics (OCTL) theology. The remarks above, and the reflections below, are that page. I turn to cognitive linguistics.
John Sanders' Recent Work: Theology in the Flesh
With its focus on epistemology, John's new book breaks new ground for a contemporary generation of Christians, especially evangelicals. It shows how concepts important in Christian theology – God, truth, sin, salvation, and community, for example – do not drop from heaven, but instead emerge from our bodily interactions with the world, as rendered into metaphors which guide thought, feeling, and action. Our minds are “embodied,” John explains, drawing insights from neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and cognitive linguistics. For those affixed to overly literal approaches to life, the book comes as a challenge; for those seeking a more flexible, humble approach to Christian life, open to diversity and dialogue, the book comes as breath of very fresh air.
A Process Response
I have appreciated John's turn to cognitive linguistics from the outset and continue to learn from it as he explains it to me. In the spirit of cognitive linguistics, we process theologians have always taken metaphor very seriously. A key idea in Whitehead's philosophy is that language functions as a "lure for feeling" in human life, and that overly literal language -- excessively preoccupied with clarity and claims to truth -- misses this point. Another is that language arises out of experience, much of which is non-verbal. And still another, not emphasized by John but important to us, is that we experience God in these non-verbal and often unconscious dimensions of experience. For us, metaphors can point to God in their own ways, but also take us into portions of our own experience where God and other aspects of life are "known" in non-verbal ways. Metaphors can tell us about God and about ourselves. We believe that much knowing is non-verbal.
It is not surprising that one of our leading thinkers in process theology, Patricia Adams Farmer, is a novelist and author of The Metaphor Maker. She proposes that metaphor making is part of the very essence of our humanity. Patricia is also a columnist and co-editor of JJB. She and I have sought a metaphor for what it means to be open and relational, and we've adopted the metaphor of Fat Soul, which now has traction in different parts of the world. See our Fat Soul Manifesto, now in English and Chinese, and soon to be in Arabic.
The Need for Multiple Metaphors
In short, process theologians agree with John (1) that humans are embodied minds, always carrying the influence of bodily feelings in our psychological states, (2) that conceptual metaphors originating in bodily experience are among the most influential of building blocks of linguistic understanding, and (3) that many different metaphors can be helpful for a well-lived life. The latter has been very important to me as a way of fostering tolerance and dialogue, as it is for John Sander. In an early book -- Earth, Sky, Gods, and Mortals -- I recommended that Christians recognize that many different images can be helpful in thinking about God; I called it poly-imagism. I appreciate the fact that John leans in much the same direction. His perspective invites a flexibility of imagination much needed in the religious world today.
Varieties of Knowing
Nevertheless, process theologians do not want to limit knowing to linguistic knowing. And nor, for that matter, do cognitive linguists. To be sure, cognitive linguists focus on linguistic forms of knowing, but they know, along with process thinkers, that there is more to knowing than language.
I find it helpful (influenced by John Gardner at Harvard) to speak of at least seven forms of knowing: verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, introspective, and empathic- emotional. For many purposes, the most important forms of knowing are non-verbal: specifically empathic-emotional. Furthermore, process theologians believe we can "know" God through empathy with others and even with God, even if we do not believe in God in a formal (linguistic) way. When we intuitively sense that there is a Great Compassion embracing the universe, we know God even if we are not at all sure God exists. Formal belief articulated in linguistic terms is important, but often overrated when it comes to considering what truly motivates people. Emotions are much more powerful.
Still, there is no denying that linguistic knowing is immensely important in human life. And, of course, this kind of knowing is very important to theologians, because their primary medium is writing and speaking rather than, say, image and song. (I wish this were otherwise.)
As I began to learn more about cognitive linguistics from John, I sensed that a very constructive dialogue could occur between process theology and cognitive linguistics; and I wrote some essays toward this end in JJB which I hoped might serve as springboards for conversation. Three of them are:
I am also influenced by students at Hendrix College who were drawn to cognitive linguistics, and I have come to appreciate the way in which the invitation to explore different metaphors for God can play a constructive role in the religious life. One of them was a psychology major, Caitlyn Hendrickson, who finds the metaphor of God as a misshapen zucchini loaf helpful: God as Misshapen Zucchini Loaf: The Beauty of Divine Finitude. Her blog shows the fruits of John's influence, and I share it shortly.
What metaphors are needed in our time? What metaphors might help us find our way into a more just and sustainable future? This is the concern of many process theologians. Our commitment is to the development of communities that are compassionate, creative, participatory, ecologically wise, humane to animals, multicultural, and spiritually satisfying -- with no one left behind. We speak of these communities as the primary units of what we call Ecological Civilizations. To my mind, one of the metaphors that can help is that of the Universe as God's Body.
This is no more metaphorical, and no less, than the alternative image of God as a Disembodied Mind. My own view is that John's perspective can be deepened and enriched by a more embodied understanding of God, and that his own turn to embodied mind theory and cognitive linguistics can move in this direction. If we ourselves are embodied minds, might it make sense to think of God as the Embodied Mind of the universe, and then to propose that the universe is God's body? I have proposed as much in Panentheism: The Universe as God's Body. See also God with a Spacious Heart.
It seems to me that such an approach would enrich, not diminish, John's own notion of a God who risks, because it would further emphasize the receptive and empathic side of God: the side of God whose physical feelings are affected by the world's sufferings. So what would a dialogue between John Sanders and Process Theologians look like? I think it might look something like this:
How a Dialogue Might Unfold
building upon bullet points in John's explanation
of key ideas in Theology in the Flesh
God's Lure toward Blending
God as Abba
John Sanders: "Americans commonly think of God as either an authoritative or nurturing parent and these two models lead to vastly different doctrinal and moral stances."
God as Personal
God as Embodied Mind
God as Misshapen Zucchini Loaf
Theology in the Flesh
and God in the Flesh
Jewish Process Theology
Coming to Know the God We Already Love (Bradley Artson)
The Constellation of Process Theology (Bradley Artson)
Muslim Process Theology
How the Qur'an Reveals God's Becoming (Farhan Shah)
A Process Interpretation of Islam (Farhan Shah)
When I heard the title of John's new book -- Theology in the Flesh -- I thought of a book of essays by Walter Brueggemann called The God of All Flesh. In these essays Brueggemann makes the case that the Bible is "passionately and relentlessly material in its accent." For those of us in the process tradition, this accent on materiality is appropriate in thinking about ourselves as persons and agents, and also in thinking about God as a person and agent. With regard to human beings, process philosophers believe that the mind and brain are not precisely identical, but that they have an interactive relationship. The chemistry in our brains influences our mind, and our acts of thinking influence our brains. See John Cobb on Whitehead and Mind-Brain Relations. And so as well does the entirety of our bodily experience along with the rest of the surrounding world. In this sense we are embodied minds.
It does not make sense to us to think of God as a disembodied soul, because such a perspective is too far removed from the realities of life in the world, including physical and cultural life. Whitehead speaks of a side of God which enjoys and suffers physical feelings.
Please understand. For us God is not located in one region of space at the expense of others. You cannot look at a piece of the world and say "God is here but not over there." God is everywhere (omnispatial) in some ways and nowhere (nonspatial) in others. At least this is what process theologians believe. They -- we -- resist reducing God to a single, simple location. We believe in a God who is everywhere and nowhere.
Nor can you look at a particular image in your own mind and say "This is God." We all have our images of God, even if we think God does not exist. We may think of God as a cosmic person, or a deep energy, or an uncreated light, or a still small voice within the heart. Our images may or may not carry grains of truth in them about what God is like, but none of them are exhaustive. God is always more than our images of God. This is one of the truths of apophatic theology. It is that God is never fully contained in our language or our images.
Still, images are inescapable, and we process theologians propose that it is meaningful to speak of God's embodiment in two ways: in how we experience God and in how God experiences us.
In the first place, God is embodied within all human beings (and the whole of creation) as a lure toward healing and wholeness, toward positive well-being, relative to the situation at hand. In human life the potential at issue may be for wisdom, compassion, courage, creativity, or sheer survival. It is what is best in that situation and it is literally God's presence in that person's life. Some process theologians speak of this indwelling presence as God's Breathing, because it has power in its own right. Humans feel God's lure, not simply as a possibility but as an inner urging.
In the second place, God is embodied because God experiences, and thus shares in, the bodily experience of each and every living being. This means that God knows and feels, intuitively and directly, not by inference, what it is like to be embodied. God knows what it is like to dance, cry, touch, be touched, and suffer. Christians see this side of God as revealed in Jesus, suggesting that Jesus' life, healing ministry, and death are windows into the divine life. We can imagine God on the analogy of Jesus.
This receptive and empathic side of God is consequent to the experiences suffered and enjoyed by living beings. It comes after, and is responsive to, the actual feelings of living beings. Thus Whitehead calls it the consequent nature of God. It is deeply and profoundly relational.
John's Theology in the Flesh is not so much about how God lives in a covenant with all flesh, although he believes in this covenant. Nor is it about how we might experience the living presence of God in everyday life, although I am sure that he believes God is present. Instead it is about how our concepts of God and our understanding of the Christian life inevitably emerge out of our own embodied experience. My suggestion is that, as we take his thought ever more seriously, learning from it again and again, we might find ourselves grateful for God's embodied experience, too. It is in fact the very center of our lives: where we meet God and God meets us.