The Process Christian
An Invitation to Openness
by Jay McDaniel
The Life of Discipleship
In Process Perspective
Living Compassionately with a heart open to the joys and sufferings of other people and other living beings, seeking to promote their well-being, and with a special concern for the outcast, forsaken, reviled, and marginalized.
Living Prayerfully with a heart open to the presence and voice of God as discovered in a silence of the heart, the calling of each moment, and the presence of a mystery -- the Soul of the universe -- who both hears and responds to prayers.
Living Sacramentally with sensitivity to the myriad ways in which the palpable realities of earthly life -- hills and rivers, friendships and family -- are contexts for discovering the spirit of God and realizing it in daily life, especially in beauty.
Living Hopefully with a trust in the availability of fresh possibilities, no matter what tragedies unfold, and with an awareness that the future is open, even for God.
Living Creatively with gratitude for the past but also openness to the future, cognizant that God so often arrives in human life, not only in memories of what has been, but possibilities for what can be.
Living Simply with a freedom to be content with what you have, without always wanting more and more, and with a freedom to reject the false gods of appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement as a measure of life.
Living Communally with a fidelity to the bonds of relationship, locally and globally, human and ecological, cognizant that the whole of life is a network of inter-existence.
Living Courageously with a willingness to face the difficult sides of life -- the crosses to be born -- with strength and trust .
Living Freely with a spirit that is free from inner compulsions because it has made room for an open space -- a creative space -- where the spirit of God can flow freely in the heart, moment by moment.
Living Humbly with a recognition that you are one among many, not one under many or one over many, and with honesty concerning both strengths and shortcomings.
The Spirit Transcends the Letter
If you are Christian and you are reading this essay, you are fully aware that only a small number of people are process Christians in a formal or technical sense. But you may also be aware of many Christians, uninterested in process theology or disagreeing with it, that nevertheless embody the spirit of discipleship as adumbrated above.
Certainly the spirit is more important than the theology. The value of process theology is that it can provide further support and encouragement for the life of discipleship. It does so by providing a cosmological framework in terms of which all nine qualities make sense, resonating with the rhythms of the universe and the very heart of the universe, namely God. But process theology is quite incomplete without practices and without communities that nourish the traits of character identified above.
It is also important to remember that many people who travel other religious paths -- Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, for example -- embody the very ways of living identified above, without thinking of them as a life of discipleship. And of course people who travel no religious path at all can embody the traits.
There is no need to say that what is most important to Christianity is unique to Christianity. The very spirit revealed by God in Jesus transcends Christianity. This is very good news!
Jesus was not a Christian
God speaks to all people in the world and in many ways. Process Christians know this. They think the diversity of religious traditions makes the whole of the world and also the whole of God's life, richer. Divinity needs diversity.
But their own way of listening to God comes through a man. He worried, he suffered, he had fears and doubts. He enjoyed pleasures and hopes and dreams. He could be lonely and tired. He needed food and drink and companionship. He went to weddings and maybe even danced. He appreciated the spontaneity of children and the flowering of lilies in the field. He wept and we can hope laughed.
It is likely that he did indeed laugh. After all Jesus was Jewish. The religion of Christianity did not exist in his lifetime; all of his early followers were Jewish. His own healing ministry, in the last three years of life, was a reform movement within Judaism.
His hope was that people would walk in his footsteps and share in journey, helping to bring about a new
form of life in the world: a basileia tou theou in which the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven. a community of love and justice, humility and compassion, in which all people are welcomed and preoccupations with social stratifications drop away.
He may or may not have anticipated that his own life and aspirations would result in a separate religious tradition of its own which would include Gentiles, that is, people who are outside the Jewish community.
But what is clear from history is that Gentiles felt drawn to him and began to find something freeing and whole-making in his ministry. This ministry included his ministry of healing and also his death and reappearance after death.
Process Christians see Jesus' death as a window into a side of God that is neglected when people overemphasize divine power. They see his death as showing how God shares in the suffering of all living beings, all the time and also as showing that God does not fight violence with violence.
To be sure, many Christians see the death of Jesus as an atonement for human sin. They say the death of Jesus made it possible for God to forgive sins when God was unable or unwilling to forgive otherwise.
Process Christians strongly disagree. They believe that God has always been forgiving, and that it is in God's very nature to absorb the sins of the world, no matter how painful that absorption may be.
Thus they follow the lead of the great Jewish thinker, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who interpreted images of divine wrath as symbolic ways of speaking of divine pain and, accordingly, a felt relationality that lies in the very heart of God's life.
For process Christians the cross also signifies the non-violence of God, the fact that the mystery at the heart
of the universe dwells in love not retaliation. A walk with Jesus always includes a relinquishment of vengeance and resentment, a humble heart that says "yes" to life and no to violence.
Of course for Christians, including process Christians, the death of Jesus is not the final story. They believe that after his death Jesus reappeared to others, showing that there the journey of life does not end with death, and that there is always hope. Process Christians find this idea meaningful because, for them, God is a perpetual source of new and hopeful possibilities for people in all circumstances.
Even after death? Yes. At the very least every single life, human and non-human, lives on in the ongoing memory of God, appreciated for all that it was and woven into the larger fabric of a universe in process.
And perhaps, say some process Christians, the journey continues for all living beings, until wholeness is realized. The problem is not death; it is incompleteness. We can meaningfully hope that the Soul in whom all souls evolves cares for each person, each animal, each plant, each life, nurturing it into that wholeness for which it yearns. The whole of creation, groaning in travail, awaits redemption. (Romans 8:22) The whole of it!
What about the Trinity?
There are various ways to understand the Trinity in process theology. The most natural way is simply to affirm that God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are real and interrelated.
God is a name for what Whitehead calls the primordial nature of God: that timeless reservoir of potentiality which makes a timeless decision to coordinate the potentialities for the world, thereby calling the world into existence, and also what Whitehead calls the consequent nature of God: that everlasting reservoir of empathy which shares in the joys and sufferings of all beings, anywhere and everywhere. God is the creator in the sense that God lures the universe into existence in a continuous way and also the savior in the sense that God shared in the suffering and joys of the world as the great companion who brings fresh possibilities for redemption, moment by moment.
Jesus is a name for the historical figure described above -- a man from Nazareth -- who opened himself to the calling of God and who became, for the world, a revelation of God's love. Jesus is especially important in his revelation of the consequent nature of God: that is, the tenderness and empathy of God which is redemptive and healing.
The Holy Spirit is a name for the living spirit of God at work in the world through creative transformation, which is the very breath of God in human life. The Holy Spirit is present through what process theologians call initial aims: that is, God's immanent lures or desires which breath hope and life into the world, moment by moment.
God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are deeply related, each depending on one another in unique ways. What is most important, though, is not what they tell us about God but what they tell us about life itself. The idea of the Trinity functions in human life as a proposition, a lure for feeling and reflection, inviting us to recognize that existence is relational, through and through.
The idea of the Trinity is the idea of inter-being, understood as relevant even to God. No being is an island. Not even the divine being.
What About Process Theology and Traditional Doctrines?
Are you curious about how process theologians approach biblical interpretation, christology, evil, hope and eschatology, the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, Theological Anthropology, the Church and its Ministry, Religious Education, Pastoral Care, and Prayer? Click here for a bibliography.
Again...check out Process and Faith for many more options.
Process Christians as Open Christians
Imagine that you are a Christian influenced by process theology. You are, or want to be, an open Christian.
You want to be open-hearted in your relations with others: generous and hospitable, with a spacious heart. You want to be open-minded when it comes to considering new ideas and old ideas in new ways, without being defensive or dogmatic. And even more deeply, you sense that the future is not-yet-decided, and thus open, even for God. In these ways you are or want to be an open Christian.*
When it comes to forming your own views on matters, you find yourself relying on four sources, in each of which you think wisdom is present: scripture, tradition, reason, and your own experience. You follow what Methodist Christians call the quadrilateral.
You are grateful to process theology for offering ways of interpreting scripture, for learning from tradition, for using your mind, and for understanding your own experience.
Nevertheless, as a Christian, the most important thing to you is not process theology. Rather it is something you share with all other Christians. You want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and share in his journey. You want to be open to the spirit of God in your way and your time as he was in his way and his time. You want to be a disciple of Christ.
Being a disciple of Christ does not require repeating the beliefs of Jesus or imitating his every action. If Jesus happened to think that the earth was flat, you can disagree and say it is round. If Jesus walked on water, you can walk on this green earth and find it miracle enough.
Discipleship is not simply a matter of outward actions. It involves intentions and attitudes, As Paul puts it in the New Testament, discipleship lies in purring on the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16)
We cannot know if Jesus always had the mind of Christ. There may have been times when even Jesus failed to live prayerfully, or sacramentally, or compassionately. None of us, not even Jesus, are always true the selves we are called to be. We do Jesus a tremendous disservice by not allowing him his humanity. The tradition says that he was fully human as well as fully divine. Let him be fully human.
But certainly he was more open to the living spirit of God at work in the world than we are most of the time. Indeed, there were times when, amid his openness, the spirit seemed to shine through him like light through a stained-glass window. When people were in his presence they felt God's presence. In these moments, at least in these, he was not simply a child of God as are well all, but a son of God.
What kind of light shined through him in these moments? What was the reality which warmed his heart and the hearts of others, too? And which also scared the living daylights of those who had too much power, too much pride, too little love? It is often said that Jesus comforted the afflicted but also afflicted the comfortable. Whatever light shined through him must have been laser-like.
The prologue to the Gospel of John speaks of this light -- this living spirit -- as the Logos. It could as easily have been called the Wisdom of God or the Breathing of God. It had energy to it, a vitality.
Christians like John Cobb, the leading process theologian of our times, speaks of this Breathing as the spirit of Creative Transformation. He proposes that at certain points in his life Jesus was Creative Transformation incarnate.
Of course Creative Transformation existed long before Jesus was born. We see its animating power and guiding presence in the history of Israel and, for that matter, in many other parts of the world. Wherever there is truth or goodness or beauty of any kind, however unfamiliar it might be to Christians, it is of the spirit of God and from that spirit. This is as it should be. God is not a Christian. Jesus wasn't, either.
Moreover, says Cobb, Creative Transformation is not limited to human beings. It has been and is operative in the very evolution of life on earth and in the expanding universe as a counter-entropic lure leading to increased complexity and, in life on earth at least, heightened forms of subjectivity.
If there is life on other planets, it is operative there, too. The spirit of Creative Transformation is continuously present, everywhere all the time. It is as omnipresent as God because, after all, it is God.
Process Christians are people who see the spirit of Creative Transformation as enfleshed in, but not exhausted by, the life, death, and resurrection to Jesus. For process Christians Jesus is a window to the divine. We want to be open to God in our way and our time as he was in his way and his time, and thus live from his living memory.
The Memory of Jesus