Process Theology, Nightingales, and Vulnerability
A Whiteheadian appreciation of the work of Brene Brown
About Brené Brown?
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy, and is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness. She poses the questions:
How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy? -- Click here to learn more.
Are We Born for Death?
Yes, we are born for death in a certain way, and death does not simply occur at the end of our lives.
Every moment of our lives comes into existence and then passes out of existence, breath by breath. Always we are living and dying. Process theologians call it perpetual perishing.
The English poet John Keats understood this. In Ode to a Nightingale he gives us two lines, italicized below, which suggest that we, in contrast to the nightingale, are born for death.
But this is not, for Keats, the whole story. When he hears the nightingale sing, the nightingale seems to sing a song that is deeply innocent and that touches eternity. Perhaps, even as we are always dying, there are moments in our lives which touch eternity and are touched by eternity. Perhaps these are the moments when we are wholehearted, when we sing our joys and sorrows like the nightingale:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain--
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immotal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down.
In the poem Keats says that our situation as humans is different from that of the nightingale, We are born for death. Successive generations, coming after us, will have their time and, in time, we will be forgotten. We are born knowing that we die in ways that nightingales may never understand or need to understand. We are born knowing that, after a little time, it will be as if we had never existed, except perhaps to God, who is the living memory of the universe.
But this knowledge can lead us to sing deeply human songs that are rich in vulnerability, rich in connection, rich in relationality, thus touching the spiral-like heart of the universe who, like the dolphin forever emerges from the depths, moment by moment, in love.
The Finite in the Infinite
Process theology imagines God in dolphin-like terms. There is a timeless side to God but also a temporal side, always moving, always changing, never the same.
Process theology adds that the universe is immanent within this moving side of God, helping it move by moving it.
Many theologies propose that God is immanent within the world, and for process theologians this is true. God is present in the world, in a continuous way, through fresh possibilities and animating energy. As the dolphin leaps from the water, as the nightingale sings her song, they are creatively responding to the lure of God and this lure is within them.
But it is also true that the singing of the nightingale and the leaping of the dolphin become part of God's own life as they happen. In their eros, in their vulnerability, in their wholeheartedness, they touch God and help create God.
The Spiral cannot a spiral without a world to embrace. The Vulnerable cannot be vulnerable without a vulnerable world. The Perfect cannot be perfect without the imperfect which helps complete it. The Wholehearted cannot be whole without a universe to help make it whole.
It's not enough to say that God is immanent in the world. We best add that, without our vulnerability, God has nothing to love.
In living wholeheartedly we add depth to the divine life. We touch God and help make God divine.
We Are Born to be Vulnerable
Brene Brown makes a strong case that we are born to be vulnerable. She says that our very purpose in life is to be connected to others, to share in their feelings and respond in kindness.
Her words ring true to all of us influenced by process thinking. She is accenting what we call relational power. Relational power is power with others not power over others.
It is the power of a wide mind, a big heart, that can hold the sufferings of others within its horizons, without being bowled over, and hold the joys of others within its horizons, without being jealous.
It does not need to be noticed, either. It does not fall into the cult of personality, seeking fame. It is enough to be vulnerable, moment by moment.
God is Infinitely Vulnerable
We believe that even the mystery at the heart of the universe -- even God - is vulnerable. Rabbi Bradley Artson makes a strong case for divine vulnerability in his often read article: God Almighty? No Way?
Let's say that Rabbi Artson is right -- let's say that God is the ultimate example of vulnerability. And let's say that in some way we ourselves, flesh among flesh on a small and fragile planet, are made in God's image.
If this is true, then our calling as human beings, made in the image of divine vulnerability, is to grow into its od's likeness, as best we can.
It is not to become almighty. Even God is not almighty. It is to become all-vulnerable, as best we can, in a spirit of love. It is to become wholehearted.
The Wholehearted Self
Brene Brown is not talking about unhealthy vulnerability. Unhealthy vulnerability is what happens when people lack personal power and a sense of centeredness. They are overwhelmed by the suffering of others and by their own. They lack confidence to respond. In the words of the theologian Catherine Keller, their selves are too soluble.
Healthy vulnerability is a quality of what Catherine Keller calls the relational self. We are relational selves when we are kind to ourselves as well as to others, when our other-concern is complemented by self-concern.
Relational selves are wholehearted selves. Wholehearted selves are open-minded and open-hearted. They have established a dialogue between head and heart, thinking and feeling. They share in the emotional states of others and at the same time offer guidance when needed.
God is Infinitely Wholehearted
For process theologians God is wholehearted. Here's what God looks like:
God is the Spiral. God becomes "God" through felt relations with all the beings in the universe, sharing in their joys and sufferings. The colored shapes represent fresh possibilities God offers creatures, moment by moment, relative to what is felt. Process thinkers call them initial aims. They are changing from moment to moment. God is omni-adapative but steadfast in lofe. For humans they are aims to survive, and then to be wise, compassionate, creative, and vulnerable, relative to the siutuation at hand. We are made in the image of the spiral. Inwardly, we are spirals, too.
It's good to be imperfect!
If we want to talk in terms of perfections, then we might say that God is perfectly vulnerable and thus perfectly wholehearted. This perfection is if not fixed and static. It is fluid and changing with the world, like a dolphin emerging from deep waters again and again. Or like a truly loving human being, who adapts to different circumstances in different ways.
But we humans have no need to be perfect in this way. One perfect instance of wholeheartedness is enough.
Our need, as Brene Brown explains, is to accept our limitations, to risk loving others even as we fall short, to forgive ourselves as well as others, and to keep trying.
There is something beautiful in the imperfection itself. Something gloriously finite. It may even make God jealous!
But God is a forgiving God. And God is not really interested in being flattered. What matters most to God is that we share with one another, that we dwell in shalom, in our inimitably finite ways.
* The video by Brene Brown has been seen more than six million times by people in different parts of the world. You can find it on the TED talk site: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html. This JJB reflection brings the wisdom of Brene Brown into conversation with the wisdom of Whitehead's philosophy.