Process thought informing mutual ministry

Process thought informing mutual ministry

a tentative inquiry

By Boyd Wilson

Reflections during study leave, 1997




1. Whitehead and others: thinking from a different angle

2. Why start with “thought,” not “theology”?

3. The local context of mutual ministry

4. The context of western culture and church

5. How and where is God perceived in context?

6. Appropriate language and structures for local response



This offering emerges from a period of study leave in the months of August to October, 1997. It is drawn from the first phase of a programme of study and reflection: a time of reading in the Kinder Library at the College of St John the Evangelist, Auckland.

This work, along with my Malkuth parables and Kopua retreat journal published in the same volume by DEFT, is unashamedly rural in setting. It aims to stimulate inquiry among base communities of Christians seeking to explore what it means to be human and to be Church within the full compass of the story of local creation. Thus it must, to avoid charges of patronage and presumption, offer more questions than answers. Since this work is built around belief that the sort of philosophy and theology which will make all the needed life-giving connections in the emerging era will be generated at the grassroots of society, it will risk charges of imprecision by avoiding the technical jargon, footnotes and so on expected by a “technical” readership in academic and ecclesiastical halls.
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Long ago, Abram and Sara set out to achieve what countless young people have sought: to discover themselves, and, in so doing, discover what is “really real” in life in this world. They first assumed that such cradles of civilisation as the city states of Ur and Haran were where it must be all at. But, no, it was not until they had journeyed on into the primitive, earthy emptiness of ancient Canaan that they were in the sort of space where revelation could embrace and infuse them. Central Otago presents some similarities with that land.

This is an exciting time in which to be members of small, uncertain, remote, scattered, Christian faith-communities set in Central Otago’s wild landscape as western culture lurches for lack of a vision founded on something more worthy of faith than monetary consumerism.

Our gifts include our very lack of certainties, our context of ranges of rocks many millions of years old, an ancient ecology of adaptation in which the Johnny-come-lately human species sometimes seems almost incidental, the unavoidable truth that the “settler church” transplanted from the flux of agricultural-industrial revolution in imperial Britain in the nineteenth century is perceived within the local culture beyond our stained glass to have had little relevant to say for at least a generation, the consequent certainty that an authentic future expression of Church in Anglican tradition cannot be structurally in the strict, present mould even if we should wish it to be.

We are able to literally see further ahead, behind and to our sides than most individuals within the blind march of culture. It is the sort of space in which it is possible to focus in each direction on the truths deeply hidden in the presented story of mountain, soil, river, township, person. Being able to see doesn’t mean we necessarily do see more clearly. We, no less than people whose objective view is of faceless crowds queuing amid grey buildings for their next meal, must think intentionally, critically and faithfully if our thinking is not to be in vain.

God knows, I lay no claim to scholarship. This offering is not only tentative but also is cursory. Those who wish to study in real depth the philosophy and theology flowing from the work of Alfred North Whitehead are referred to the bibliography. Purist devotees of process thought may question inclusion of the thinking of (among others) Teilhard de Chardin. So be it. Just as sheep separate to travel by several, criss-crossing tracks in a common direction along a hillside, and all arrive as a unified mob at the goal, my intention is to go with the general flow rather than seek to exclusively define one track among the many.

As we contemplate what it may mean to be precisely ourselves, in precisely this place, at this time, within the 15-billion-years history since the world’s emergence as molecules within mystery, we cannot usefully begin by dissecting the anatomy of truth as if creation was, after all, just a machine.

However, I suppose I must name at the outset one departure point for all that I have bundled, rightly or wrongly, under the heading, “process thought.” It is that what’s “really real,” the place where true hope and freedom are found, the holy encountered, is not in the positions of participants in the great web of creation-redemption but in the awesome mystery within the relationships. An approach to reality which begins with objects and control can never achieve more than peripheral glimpses of this hope and freedom.

It matters little to me whether the mode of thought is labelled “process,” “organic,” “ecological” or whatever. As may become evident in the final document of this series, the view is that the same truth, the same dynamic Presence, is encountered by those who give faithful attention and respect equally when considering the grand scheme of relationships we call the cosmos and by those who ponder the ecology of micro-organisms in a teaspoonful of topsoil. It will be shown, I hope, that, in each realm of relationship, the human species has a vital vocation and that the community of Christ is the vocation’s key focuser and enabler.

1. Whitehead and others:
thinking from a different angle

The label, “Process Thought,” derives from the title of the best known book by Alfred North Whitehead, “Process and Reality, an Essay in Cosmology” (first published, 1929; corrected edition, Macmillan, 1978).

To approach Whitehead as if he was merely tweaking the norms of western thought, grafting into a structure otherwise perceived as unchanged in roots and branches, would be a bit like saying that the message and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth amounts merely to a footnote to Lao Tsu, Moses and Aristotle. Whitehead himself (never one to hide his light under a bushel) was fond of saying that the whole history of western philosophy until his metaphysical thinking flowered in the early decades of the twentieth century consisted of ” . . . mere footnotes to Plato.”

The radical divergence may be approached from a point in the history of western thought during the 5th century before Christ. The Greek thinkers Heraclitus and Parmenides were radically at odds in their perceptions of reality. Heraclitus held that reality was essentially in flux and motion: you can never step into the same river twice; change is inevitable and reality is relational; no matter where you stand in the flows of space and time, you witness the becoming of creation. Parmenides, on the other hand, held that the appearance of change and flux is only superficial; beneath that appearance, he believed, was the absolute unchangingness of being; the material world was made of passive, dead building blocks moving in the void; what is dead in an environment of literal nothingness cannot, after all, be dynamic.
Cutting short (and grossly oversimplifying) a long story, the Greeks tended to favour the Parmenides line. How did they explain the evidence of flux and change in their own lives and environment? Their response (if not a legitimate answer to the question) was to construct a worldview in which the material world of which they were part was sharply separated from the concept of a spiritual world. The material world was held to be vastly inferior. How you treated the “dead building blocks” of the material world mattered relatively little. Pursuit of the “really real” could be concentrated in the separate spiritual world. This dual worldview was enshrined by Plato and came to dominate western thought via Aristotle. Among other effects, it may be seen at work today in the spiritualising of “The Market,” the pursuit of which (we seem to be asked by some to believe) is the greater or higher good: if the planet is despoiled and people are degraded in the process, then these are matters of relatively small consequence because they are material effects.

“The reason the Aristotlean model of the universe remained unchallenged for so long was precisely this lack of interest in the material world, and the strong hold of the Christian Church which supported Aristotle’s doctrines throughout the Middle Ages.”
– Fritjof Capra, “The Tao of Physics,” (revised edition), Fontana, 1983, underlining mine.

It may seem illogical that a pre-Christian pattern of thinking from 2000 years before Darwin and Einstein debunked the idea that the world is merely a profane machine (not to mention subsequent discoveries about vast mystery in relationships in realms such as quantum physics, deep ecology, sociology, psychology and DNA) should still hold dominance in the thinking of New Zealanders as the third Christian millennium looms. In fact, it may be that Parmenides’ legacy of assurance that there is an underlying source of permanence beneath change in a dualistic world ceased quite some time ago to command society’s common faith. The problem, rather, may be that society lacks a more viable focus for common faith as “the powers that be” march steadfastly down Parmenides’ road because it is the only one they know, no radically alternative mandate is offered. And Christianity is commonly perceived as so compromised by the Parmenides-Plato-Descartes-Newton-Kant succession, so Christ-less in dualistic individualism, as to deserve to be tossed out as baby with bath water from the culture’s common subconscious. Never has a society had ready access to so much trustworthy information about how to build a just, joyful and sustainable future. Seldom has a society exhibited so many symptoms of despair.

Whitehead and thinkers bracketed here with him offer a more integrated and excitingly hopeful approach to what’s “really real.” In this approach, the Church looms large: not with the sort of “icing-on-the-cultural-cake” role its accusers claim it accepted from when it became the establishment religion of the Roman Empire until it was overtaken by twentieth century post-modernism; nor with the “unchanging-refuge-just-outside-the-real-world” role we can easily accept in the full context of community today (Parmenides’ changelessness of being again); but as leaven dispersed in the whole lump of creation, local and global.

Alfred North Whitehead, 1861-1947, has been called probably the twentieth century’s greatest polymath. (Birch, 1990). Before crossing the Atlantic (aged 60) to develop his metaphysical thought at Harvard, he collaborated with Bertrand Russell. That, to my small and untutored mind, implies just about as much mystery as the doctrine of the Trinity, so there will be no further mention of mathematics here! I first encountered “Process and Reality” as a young man immersed in farming and marriage in a rural community during the early 1960s. Trained as a Department of Agriculture officer to treat the world as if it really was a machine during my working week, while giving a nod to God on Sunday, I was amazed. Never again could I live with the mechanistic materialism of Newton, the individualism of Descartes, and the spirituality of a church which seemed to draw more on both than on Jesus and biblical tradition, as if they were separate, unchallengable realities. My own thinking about the world and God and the Church proceeded to develop in small, isolated and organic ways, oblivious to development of streams of thought and theology by minds vastly greater than mine – mostly in the United States – drawing on Whitehead.

In contrast to Descartes (an individualistic, mechanistic materialist who defined a substance as, “that which requires nothing but itself to exist” and thus blinkered modern natural science so it tended to devalue all that is neither measurable nor controllable), Whitehead’s worldview offers no validity to independence of anything from any process of transformation. The “really real” becomes really real through involvement in mutually interdependent relationships. All reality happens in a chain of “occasions,” each having its own unique integrity, yet each connected to those before and after it in a sequence of transformation (as in the frames of a movie film, each imbued with the fullness of its moment). And each occasion (regardless of the extent, if any, to which people are conscious of it) embodies enjoyment and celebration. This is equally so of the life within a molecule and the life within a human family. Human consciousness of all this reality, says Whitehead as I understand him, grasps only a tiny bit of all the enjoyment and celebration going on in creation all the time. That was certainly in harmony with my experience as a participant in the vastly intricate web of life that is land. I mean that in the sense of there obviously being vastly more to life (even the life of one square meter of a pasture) than meets the eye. Of course, no one who lives within land needs to be told that not all these “enjoyed occasions of celebration” are ever-so-lovely-and-life-giving. In the narrow sphere of human community, a funeral is a “celebration” of death and grief. Rather, we may be better to think of what the Bible understands as the passionate abundance of life, in all its surprises and joys and pain.

One other Christian thinker who influenced me deeply during that period of trying to integrate in a fragmenting world was the French Jesuit priest, biologist and palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Pere Teilhard seems to have worked quite independently of Whitehead (indeed, of just about everyone else, including his Roman Catholic hierarchy which banned publication of his work until after his death). While Whitehead’s view is grandly cosmic, never in danger of getting lost in banal detail, Teilhard soars even higher. While Whitehead observed with the disengaged eyes of a scientist that, “God is not before but with all creation” (1978, p.343), Teilhard wrote in “The Mass on the World” (p.25), “At this moment when your (Christ’s) life has just poured with superabundant vigour into the sacrament of the world, I shall savour with heightened consciousness the intense yet tranquil rapture of a vision whose coherence and harmonies I can never exhaust.” While notable Christian followers of Whitehead (e.g. Hartshorne, Griffen, Cobb, Birch, Suchocki) developed process thought into coherent theology, it is Teilhard who best draws one into a view in which Christ is all in all.

Even then it may not be possible to pass through the process doorway toward truth while carrying some heavy baggage. If you cannot let go of the notion that you belong to an enlightened elite to whom other human persons, and beings of other species, should respond as cogs respond to an engine, you will not get through. If you cannot accept the general theory of evolution you will not get through. If you insist that the earth’s fulfilment is as a factory farm, created for and tamed and managed by the human species, you will not get through. If you insist that truth must be pursued with utter objectivity – that the subjectivity and mystery of, say, values and the content of a loving relationship belong in another place altogether – you will not get through. If you believe that ultimate reality is built of unchanging blocks to an eternal design enshrined in dogma, you will not get through. If you think that your mind and/or your spirit may be (or should be) on a different and higher plane than your body, you will not get through. If by “God” you mean a wholly transcendent, “unmoved mover” of reality, you will not get through. If you must believe that the Divine is to be encountered only or even mainly within the structures of, or under the spotlight of, organised religion, you will not get through.

If, on the other hand, you hold that to be human and educated and secure and Christian is to be no less interdependent within an organic milieu embracing all that breathes and even non-organic molecules; if you accept that all species within the web of life (humankind not excepted) have evolved, are evolving and will either continue to evolve or become extinct; if you celebrate the piece of creation around you as holy ground in which you see life happening wondrously; if you put utmost value on the subjective language of trusted journeying in relationship; if you claim a wholeness of body-mind-spirit as a sort of first-fruit of a healed creation; if you see God not only as “beyond” but also as involved and vulnerable within earthed relationships; if you and your local church pay attention at the place where scripture and tradition help the world to recognise and respond to the Divine who already indwells it: . . . then the sort of thinking mentored by Whitehead and those associated with him may draw you into the greatest joy.

One last caution: I do not wish to imply that process thought offers all the tools everyone needs in order to find a faithful road ahead. Nor, in contrasting the thought of, say, Heraclitus and Whitehead with other thinkers in the interests of clarity, do I mean to imply that those others have offered no truth.

“And the rhythm of the universe is in the mystery of the dance between past, present and future.” – Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, 1982

2. Why start with “thought,”
not “theology?”

The implied question might be, “Why not start with God?” It is a good question. But in the context of this tentative and limited inquiry, it could lead to a false trail. The next questions would be, “Describe this God you are starting with,” and, “Where and how is this God encountered?”

Sincere Christians display an amazing diversity of answers to such questions. We may able to recite the “Glory to God in the Highest” and the Nicene Creed in unison, and even be able to answer some catechism questions relating to them. We may meekly chorus our “Amens” to statements that the celebrations on the greatest feast days and holy days of the Church (Christmas-Ash Wednesday-Good Friday-Easter-Pentecost) are not of fading memories of events that each happened once nearly 2000 years ago but, rather, respond to a God who is vibrantly present and involved here and now in the saving truths of our faith.

But listen to a random sample of true believers as we each address God in public prayer! To a critical observer, one person’s prayer may seem to be addressed to a remote and austere figure idly playing some sort of computer game with the universe and with people’s lives; another’s to a kindly but rather deaf and demented old gentleman to whom the symptoms must be spelt out very carefully if he is to be relied upon to diagnose and prescribe accurately; a third’s prayer may sound remarkably like a toddler’s conversation with a cuddly toy; and seldom will the critical, unchurched observer witness any sign that prayer might be a conscious, responsive process of sharing within the life of the infinite Divine who is already closer to us and the situations of our concern than we are to ourselves. I don’t wish to discourage participation in corporate prayer. If all forms of address were carefully vetted by the world’s leading mainstream theologians who were instructed to accept only those achieving 100% approval, I am sure the Prayers of the People would be eliminated from Sunday liturgies altogether! We do not often get it precisely and mutually right in interpersonal communication either, but that doesn’t mean that we all should take vows of silence. My point is simply that (whether in spite of or because of the Church’s attempts to enshrine a common doctrine of God, and certainly influenced by Greek and other non-biblical modes of thought and some deliberate use of fear of a “hellfire-and-damnation” heavenly judge in order to fill pews and offering plates) Christians are really very mixed up about what God is like, where and how God is to be encountered, even whether personal encounter is desirable.

Our common faith is not in question here. Nor is our intelligence. But grassroots Christians have been conditioned through the generations to respond to questions of ultimate importance not out of their own reasoning informed by shared faith but with clichés learned by rote.

Thus, when a “brand-named” theology is mentioned (regardless of whether the label reads “evangelical,” “liberation,” “process” or any of a dozen others) the conditioned response is to approach it as if it were a “package” obtained from “experts” closer to “God,” and to be “learned.” Further, we have learned through the centuries to assume that “God” is somehow more “concentrated” where Christians are being “churchy.” If this inquiry was within a group of agnostic, unchurched seekers after truth, it might be feasible to begin with an open, honest, theological position. In the Church – even in groups of Christians moving with excitement into very different ways of being Church than pilloried above – it would not be helpful to begin with a theology of process because it would meet with an institutional language which has become too compromised to receive it without pollution.

In our exploration of mutual Christian ministry, seeking primarily not to defend our religious ground but to celebrate and extend the redemption of all creation around us, we do not yet have a sufficiently uncompromised language. The work of exploring as participants God’s involvement in the local world must be done at the local grassroots. There is no kitset with clear instructions and all the parts for an authentic theology, faithful both to the cornerstones of Christian tradition and to local context.

So we start with critical thought: a concept that has some freshness within the culture; a starting point from which we may journey, no less in faith, more deeply into the abundance of God than if we were to begin from inside our religious enclaves. It involves hard work, some groping in the dark, some risk of going beyond some false trail’s point of no return. Above all, a journey into God which begins with critical questions outside our stained glass windows instead of with memorised answers to questions the world around us no longer asks, requires of us more faith than ever. This journey is not for the faint-hearted.

” . . . no one really teaches anyone anything. We can teach others how to learn. We can lead them to a path of discovery for themselves.” – Charles Birch,1990, p7.

“There is only one subject matter for education, and that is life in all its manifestations.” – A N Whitehead, 1949, p.18)

3. The local context of
mutual ministry

“Mutual ministry” is a catch-phrase used in the Diocese of Dunedin and some other places to describe interdependent ways of being the local church. Elsewhere, similar styles of ministry are labelled “total, “local,” “shared” and combinations of these. Marks of mutual ministry include the local faith-community’s understanding that it “owns” the ministries of word, sacrament, healing and so on by right and by vocation. Ministry is said to be primarily authorised in the people’s common baptism. All Christian ministry is said to be the work of Christ who is “with us always”, so uncritical dependence on authoritarian, “trickle-down” ecclesial power structures as deliverers of agenda and dogma is distrusted. Local leadership is within the process of faith-community, never set over it. Individual vocations are raised up prayerfully within that process. The vocations include those of ordained priests and deacons whose gifts are held to be mutual with, not “higher” than, the vocations of others in the ministering community. .

Training for both the lay and ordained ministries of the community may be mentored from outside its local context but happens inside it. The local church is locally defined – a revelation to a faith-community accustomed to being arbitrarily redefined every few years by successive professional clergy whose theological formation has not been influenced by the ways in which the Divine is encountered in the whole story of this particular context of people, land, factory – everyone and everything. The ministry of Christ is understood to embrace not only that to the local church but also that of the local church to this entire local environment and beyond.

Mutual ministry may welcome the participation of a resident “paid-professional” clergy person but cannot be dependent on it. Most often, the development is in communities where church members have stated their inability or unwillingness to continue to fund stipends. The transition to mutual ministry may be thus triggered by negative and defensive feelings; chosen not because it is the preferred way, not because of a deep feeling that it is God’s way, but simply because no other way of continuing to be the local church in Anglican expression seems to be available. Yet, once a commitment is made, hope and vision and energy have a way of bubbling up out of the negativity.

Nearly all such developments at this stage are in rural contexts. This is not because the principles are invalid in suburbia. It is simply because the old model (caricatured as “minister ministering, congregation congregegating”), to the extent that it ever did work well in truly rural communities, tended to break down completely first in the country under the combined onslaught of depopulation and post-modern society’s clear judgment that the local church is locally irrelevant to ordinary life. For a wider readership involved in urban contexts, it may be as well to take references to “land” in this essay in the biblical sense, including factory, shop, theatre, school, hospital and the rest of the environmental ground of being.

Mutual ministry is not a development of congregationalism in which the local church acts as an autonomous unit. In the episcopal tradition of Anglicanism, each local church is organically part of the diocesan family, connected, covered, mentored, responsible, accountable.

Much more comprehensive accounts of mutual ministry, its origins in modern church history, its theological credentials and the differing shapes and directions it has adopted in different contexts, can be found elsewhere.

The point immediately highlighted by process thought is that the local, mutually ministering faith-community in a valley is not only organically part of the wider community of Christ beyond its little people-catchment; it is also organically part of, involved in, called into, the whole process of life in that place.

Mutual ministry, by definition, is founded on the same relational principle which is a cornerstone of process thought. The process of being a ministering community is always becoming; the process can never arrive at a static, fixed arrangement of being and retain an integrity of life. Commitment to mutual relationships in the becoming of Christ’s ministry means that there is always a freedom of possibility at any point of the journey. Because it is earthed in context, the becoming is messily organic – as unlike a model involving rigid control structures focused on measurable goals as a local, three-generations family is unlike a group assembled in the district only to build a bridge.

Whitehead’s insistence that reality consists of related “occasions,” each with unique validity, and each embracing “enjoyment,” should not be taken to mean that each occasion is equal in potency to every other. The “occasions” occurring in a molecule in the spacebar of my computer keyboard do not have the same potential in freedom, the same indwelling of mystery, as the “occasions” occurring in a molecule of a cell of my brain. The fact remains that, without both brain and spacebar, you could not be incorporated in this conversation as the reader of what I am attempting to open up for you. If I were to say, “Well, it’s only a thing,” I would be devaluing the spacebar’s valid meaning and purpose, and my own meaning and purpose would be inhibited by my aloofness from the working relationship.

The principle of mutuality within the full spectrum of context holds true for the relationships between individual Christian and environment (no longer can salvation be deemed mutually exclusive), for those between Christian faith-community and everyone and everything else in the district (no more acceptance of the notion that the Church has a defined “place” set aside in the cultural scheme of things), and also for the mutual relationships between members of the ministering community itself (the unique integrity of the giftedness of each person is recognised in love and respect, without lapsing into the sentimental fiction of holding that every one contributes equally to the whole).

Thus, there are some quite direct connections through which process thought may inform mutual ministry.

Elsewhere, I have used the phrase, “land-inclusive community.” to describe a model in which people and land are mutual participants in a dynamically evolving web of life, forming and informing one another. I develop that understanding in the “Malkuth” parables and study guide.

What, then, does process thought suggest to the mutually ministering faith-community as vocational priorities in its local context?

1. It will be intentional and disciplined in seeking to “stand under” the whole of what is meant when people say, “this place,” “our community.” It will hold a growing, compassionate feeling for the geological story; the ecological story of all local life; the lives and relationships and faith of the people who have lived and passed through this way: some leaving definite memories, some a mere hint, some praiseworthy, some rogues, many just ordinary, but each contributing in the context of every other molecule in the environment to local meaning.

2. It will hold the whole story up before the great truths of faith conveyed in the scriptures: the truths of creation and Creator then and there, here and now; of values and prophesy and the vocation of humankind; of the figure of Jesus; of sin and salvation and freedom and redemption, resurrection and the coming of the Spirit then and there, here and now; of the whole of life being caught up in all of this and drawn toward an ultimate meaning and purpose in God.

3. It will have a precious place and time set aside for regularly renewing the Christian faith-community’s special relationship with God in worship. But worship will also be seen as a whole-of-life vocation, a scattered liturgy in the space of the whole, local district and offering the whole local story in attentive conversation with God seven days a week.

4. It will celebrate life passionately. In Whitehead’s language, it will enter into the enjoyment of every local occasion. From the birth of a baby to the emergence of a blade of grass, it will give thanks for all things. This doesn’t mean celebrating only the “nice” occasions and turning a blind eye to the rest. Entering fully into every local occasion will mean entering with real compassion into suffering and death and the actual manifestations of the alienation of sin. It will find itself able to celebrate these with real passion in the light and presence of the gospel who is Jesus. Equally, good news far outside the orbit of conscious Christian faith will be recognised as godly and celebrated in Christ.

5. Standing under the local story, the faith-community will recognise and struggle with issues of wholeness, hope and justice for individuals, groups, society as a whole and of the integrity of all creation. There will be a commitment to the costly work of healing. If necessary, it will be accepted that some sources of communal dis-ease, deeply embedded in the local story or inflicted by external powers of oppression, may need to be held up and struggled with for generations. One of the learnings from standing under the whole local story is that a human generation is scarcely a flicker in time.

6. This faith-community’s taproot will go down deeply and centrally to draw on God in word, in prayer and in sacrament. It will recognise a need to withdraw for refreshment and reflection at regular intervals. But it will also have a vigorous and open system of lateral roots. These, like those of some legumes, will both draw godliness from and give godly life to the whole web of life in their compass.

7. It will be seen from outside its membership to share in a special quality of joy and community in commitment to celebrating and extending God’s process of reconciling creation. It will be open to and welcoming to all, not an inward-facing huddle.

8. It will be unashamed of owning more open questions than glib answers about the ultimate meanings of life and faith

9. It will neither avoid evidence for evil nor seek to attach that evidence to any spiritual or temporal scapegoat. It will acknowledge a vocation to hold before God the sin of society and to respond to God’s call to participate in the atonement of love.

10. It will celebrate diversity of gifts and understandings within its own membership, and seek to work in partnership with others committed to faithful action in the world, Christian and otherwise.

The movement may be toward what Whitehead had in mind when he urged, “. . . a return to the Galilean simplicity.”
Somewhere in the world (I cannot remember where, or who told the story) in a semi-arid land where the desert encroaches as people must gather firewood to subsist, the Christian faith-community has a very special liturgy each rainy season. The land is blessed with holy water. Each person receives three consecrated gifts of the earth: bread, wine, and the seedling of a tree. The trees are planted as part of the liturgy. It is of a species able to survive here, protect and enrich the soil, make a profound change to the micro climate, change the whole contextual journey from one that was from death to death to one that is from life to life. In worship, the world is sanctified, healed, made whole.

4. The context of western culture and Church

The earth’s human population at the time Jesus was born is thought to have been around 250 million. It took about 16 centuries for the tally to double, reaching around 500 million. It doubled again to reach a billion during the next two centuries. When I was born in 1935, the world population of the human species has about 2 billion persons. Since I was born, the human population of the world has tripled. My lifetime is a mere blink in history.

I remember the peace celebrations at the end of World War 2. It is estimated that more people have since died as a result of war than in all previous human history. I remember the first TV pictures of children starving in far-off, drought-stricken lands. I am told that in spite of responsive aid, there are more hungry children in the world than ever before. I remember the oil shocks of the 1970s, the Club of Rome reports, the DDT tragedy, the Brandt Commission; the discoveries of global warming, ozone depletion and the effects of human activities on them; the grossness of the “Green Revolution.” We all understood that creation is finite, that a civilisation based on non-renewable resources obviously cannot be sustainable for ever, that technology is wonderful but not magical, that the bottom line of all economics is “nothing for nothing,” that the yawning rich nation – poor nation gap, and the growing rich-poor gap within nations, not only are unjust but also spell ultimate disintegration of society and the planet’s rejection of our species.

The shapes of the projection curves based on incontrovertible facts may have changed a bit because of new information and technologies but, as far as I know, they still reach the same ultimate conclusions, give or take a generation or two. History says clearly enough that serious issues about vision and justice that are not dealt with decisively don’t go away. And the facts are not hidden; our society has access to more information than earlier generations could dream of. Yet the culture of which we are a tiny crumb in rural New Zealand no longer seems to know these things in its bones. Why not?

One reason is shock. The facts of life were just too big to handle within the minimum biblical social vision of two to three generations. Victim support workers know that people in shock survive by choosing to live apathetically in tiny capsules of time, not even one day at a time. A family sheep farm when I left school commonly carried around 800 breeding ewes. The common aim of management was to leave the land in better heart for the following generation. Today, three times that tally of sheep is needed to keep a family precariously on the land. Physical and mental stress levels are greater. The joy has gone out of the work. These are people who know that God doesn’t make more land. Nor can the energy from the sun available to drive each hectare of pasture system be boosted by turning a knob. Clearly, the number of sheep on a family farm cannot triple again in the next generation. Few in the next generation now want to continue the farm anyway. The common aim of management is to hang on for one more year. The children’s children will just have to look out for themselves!

Meanwhile, the meaning of the words “The Economy” in today’s daily media no longer seems to imply much relationship between money and earth resources and human skills of husbandry and craftsmanship, let alone with the most basic needs of the planet’s people for food, clothing and shelter. Rather, this creature, The Economy, is driven primarily by gross consumption of whatever is measurable in monetarist froth. There are no values in this ratrace: a dollar generated by exploitative pornography has the same worth as a dollar generated by buying a tree seedling which will grow into something wonderful after a century. There seems to be more knowledge in the world than ever before, and less wisdom.

Meanwhile, there are the horror statistics of domestic violence, family breakdown, teenage suicide, material poverty and so on; the irresponsibly cynical mandates of many so-called democratic governments. These are symptoms of a society sadly lacking in the resources, both spiritual and material, needed to sustain a life of passionate hope and justice.

Of course, there is good news in the world, too. There are winners. But we are looking here toward the children’s children of everyone. Our culture’s blank refusal to take that visionary challenge into its heart – its compliance with monetarist consumerism even though it doubts whether there’s much beneath the froth – imply an immense hunger.

Global and national strategic responses are far beyond my scope and competence. However, it seems to me that process thought does have much to offer in the conversation among those who wish to explore a just and sustainable future for the planet. It will certainly show the emptiness of claims that all will be well if people simply place their faith (yes, faith) in technology and the monetarist marketplace.

More to the point, since grand and global schemes of management seem beyond the culture’s will, the only remaining way forward is through the leavening of the whole cultural lump, starting with just the sort of local, grassroots, mutual, faith-community process addressed in the previous chapter.

Some North American farming communities include the Old Order Amish. These are Christians who live very simply in close community with one another and the land. Their old-fashioned dress, speech and lifestyle draw a reputation for contributing nothing more valuable than some quaint colour to wider society.

Now, much of rural North American has socially and economically been gutted more seriously than most of our farming districts by cost-price squeeze and withdrawal of support in political economies where trust moved to urban-centered monetary consumption. The rot set in when the oil shocks of the 1970s inflated the costs of running machinery to grow grain. Now, the Old Order Amish use horsepower, not tractors, on farms just big enough to allow a living from husbandry that is careful and reverent.

There was mild surprise when careful studies showed that Old Order Amish farms were generally more efficient than large-scale, tractor-dependent operations in use of energy, even allowing for the land and work needed to feed the horses. This study involved measuring inputs and output in energy, not dollars, so it was regarded as of interest mainly to the conservation movement. But further studies have demonstrated that, while rural population has generally declined, the population of Old Order Amish has increased – on the same area of land – and maintained a good (by the group’s own standards) and undiminished quality of life. (See Wendell Berry, 1993).

I’m not suggesting wholesale adoption in other cultural settings of the theology and practice of the Old Order Amish. But there seems to be a vital message in their story.

5. How and where is God perceived
in context?

The principle that mutual ministry is about ordinary people doing theology together in context at grassroots, rather than about us struggling to conform to systems of God-thought developed in another place and in another language, has already been stated. So this chapter will skim lightly over some readings in process theology – most of them by Americans. It will attempt to leave a few signposts for other explorers, but will not deny that others may legitimately choose a different route to God altogether. In any case, I doubt that Whitehead and his followers would judge me a pure disciple of theirs in every respect; they could say truthfully that although I have found their work very helpful to my own journey, I have no wish to discard other things I value. Those other things include a greater love of and hope for the Church, in both her compromised and visible dimension and her holy and less visible dimension, than some process thinkers would allow.

First, it’s vital to get hold of the fact that when process theologians say “God” they do not necessarily hold up any of the images I learned at Sunday school. Here is a list, adapted with changes of my own from Cobb and Griffen (1976), of what God is NOT for Whitehead:

1. God is not the “cosmic moralist,” concerned most fundamentally with moral sanctions in a God-humans-other beings hierarchical pyramid of power.

2. God is not the “unchanging and passionless Absolute.” Rather, Whitehead’s God is affected by, even surprised by, what happens in the created order.

3. God is not primarily in the business of controlling the distribution of blessings and curses.

4. God is not the “sanctifier of the status quo.” Whitehead’s view is that religions have an inbuilt temptation to teach that the present order is like it is because God wills it like this; thus, obedience to God must mean preserving it like this.

5. God is not in the image of a male coloniser – hyperactive, dominant, inflexible, unemotional, unresponsive, independent.

So, where does that leave us? Certainly not with a God who can be moulded to a prescribed character, place and role, set aside, then visited when we feel like it!

For Whitehead, “God is not before but with all creation.” (1978, p.343). He means that, I take it, not just in the grand sweep of the universe but also in the sense of the creation that is a single molecule of a single clover seed. All is in God, and God is in all. God participates in each creative occasion. Each creative occasion in the world is a participation in the being of God. That is why there is celebration, enjoyment, in each occasion. God is persuasive, not controlling. God is adventurous, able to be surprised into joy; and vulnerable, able to be hurt and diminished by an occasion’s pain or injustice. “Each temporal occasion embodies God and is embodied in God.” (p.348). Mesle (1993, p.29) says, “If God cannot suffer, cannot be affected in any way, then God cannot love.”

The above is in sharp contrast with Whitehead’s portrayal of what has resulted from acceptance by Church and culture of a false dichotomy of spirit and matter, being and becoming: “The vicious separation of the flux from the permanence leads to the concept of an entirely static God, with eminent reality, in relation to an entirely fluent world, with deficient reality.” (1978, p.346).

The graciousness of the God who persuades rather than controls means that the divine involvement in each occasion enhances freedom: “God-relatedness is constitutive of every occasion of experience. This does not restrict the freedom of the occasion. On the contrary, apart from God there would be no freedom. . . . it is God who, by confronting the world with unrealised opportunities, opens up a space for freedom and self-creativity.” (Cobb and Grifffen, 1976, p.29).

Now, a quick, slick reading of some of this could lead to the suspicion that the process view leads to pantheism. If so, respectable mainstream Christians would be cautioned to stay far upwind of it. Pantheism does away with any distinction between creation and Creator. It doesn’t say that God is involved in things and things are involved in God. It says that God is the thing, and the thing is God. Whitehead, who wasn’t much concerned for theologically orthodox niceties as his thought soared freely, sometimes seems to sail dangerously close to that line. Fortunately, his immediate disciple, Charles Hartshorne, relieves our anxiety. He borrowed (from Krause) the word, “panentheism,” meaning all things are in God. God is seen as being to creation what soul is to body: infinite in mystery, not to be confined. Just as my personal enjoyment of, say, a family party is greater than the sum of what is experienced by each of the cells in my body, so is God’s being vastly greater than the sum of all the creatures contributing to it. “Panentheism is a theory that explains why there is an ineradicable sense that what happens to the world matters.” (Cobb, as author of the final chapter in Mesle, 1993).

I suspect that the answer for those attracted by the general drift of the process road to God but worried about going off course to perish in a bog of pantheism is simple. The answer (isn’t it always?) is Jesus Christ of Nazareth. If we are centrally focused in Christ, we ought to be able to explore with assurance and delight occasions of creation enjoying God and God enjoying creation outside our religious sanctuaries. Teilhard (in The Phenomenon of Man) says, “The bigger the world becomes, and the more organic become its internal connections, the more will the perspective of the Incarnation triumph.”

In “The Christic,” an essay written only a month before his death, Teilhard exults in seeing that, “the universe and Christ . . . find fulfilment in their conjunction , and out of that arises a third, universal “thing” in which our activities and understandings cease to conflict with one another.” This at least helps us to see the third Person of the Trinity as big enough and robust enough to not need to be kept in sanctuaries! Whitehead, too, has a vision of cosmic atonement when, ” . . . the complete adjustment of the immediacy of joy and suffering reaches the end of creation.. . . It is in this way that the immediacy of sorrow and pain is transformed into an element of triumph . . .” If we feel unable to get a hand-hold on this cosmic picture, Cobb and Griffen (1976) put a safety net beneath us: ” . . . Christ works in us regardless of what we may think about the exact nature of God’s presence in Jesus!”

But, are members of the strict process school, or Teilhard, of any help to the inquirer who simply asks to “be personally introduced to Jesus?” That, it seems to me, is a serious request, not to be met by offering either a soft and domesticated product of sickly piety, or a concept so grandly cosmic as to seem miles above the inquirer’s head. Suchocki (1982, p.104) would invite such an inquirer to, “Consider Jesus’ openness to others in relation to the sense in which God . . . feels every reality in the universe as that reality feels itself.” She goes on (p.110) to speak of the Passion of Jesus: “God’s full openness to who we are involves God in the pain of who we are, but this unsurpassable truth of God’s knowledge is the means whereby God knows precisely what possibilities will be redemptive for us in the next moment of our existence.” And Cobb and Griffen (1976, p.52) say in confronting western culture’s preoccupation with the problem of evil and belief that natural cause and effect rule a world in which there is no place for divine intervention, “The notion that there is a creative power of love behind and within the worldly process is no longer one which can only be expressed in spite of all appearances to the contrary. Instead it illuminates all of our experiences.”

My claim that Christ-centeredness assures light and protection on the journey may seem naive. After all, Christians demonstrate quite different images of Christ’s being, becoming, location and agenda in relation to what is meant by “God,” what is meant by “the world” and “church,” what is meant by “my self.” Look up, in a dictionary of theology, the list of alleged christological heresies identified by Christian orthodoxy down through the centuries. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear sincere and devout Christians espousing one or more in most churches most Sundays! Yet the fact that we are there on Sunday at all, experiencing and celebrating something real and life-giving in a sacramental action that is an utter nonsense from every other perspective in this world, surely demonstrates that God in Christ has never given us or the world up as a bad job, never consented to be reduced to our feeble attempts to squeeze the Infinite into our religious boxes. In any case, I know no other way than Christ.

The process view raises profound understandings about prayer and about ethics in relation to a God held to be intimately involved and vulnerable, a God who can be diminished or delighted by the outcome of an occasion of prayer or ethical action. Mesle (p.113) says, ” . . . we pray to that which is already in us and around us, already at work to make our prayer possible, already calling us toward health and love and life.” Later, he says, ” . . . changing the world involves changing ourselves. For God cannot work with us when we are hateful. Thus, changing ourselves does, literally, change what God can do in this world. Similarly, changing any part of the world changes what God can do. God cannot work with people who are starving or beaten or drugged in the same way God can work with them when their lives are free.” And there is a chorus urging people of faith to lead in conserving and healing nature, to repent of a past in which Christianity has sometimes seemed to dishonour the earth: “Because of the unity of life, human love is something that can be extended to the whole creation.” (Birch, 1990, p.53). “We must think not about nature, but we must think with nature.” (Rasmussen, 1996, p.120).

The process thinkers pin much of their hope on the Church, ” . . . the community that is consciously dedicated to maintaining, extending and strengthening the field of force generated by Jesus.” (Cobb & Griffen, 1976, p.101). Whitehead was a good deal happier with the germination of the Church than its later growth and form: “When the western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of western theology was edited by his lawyers. . . . the brief Galilean vision of simplicity flickered through the ages uncertainly . . . The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.” (1978, p.342). Suchocki (p.121) is more forgiving: “This response of love called forth by the presence of God is the birth of the Church. Like the disciples, the Church . . . fumbles in its trust, falters in its hope; but insofar as the Church senses the revelation of God for us an ultimate presence, the ultimate love, the Church, too, answers with its echoing form of love.” Later, (p.144) she says, “The incarnation of God in Christ must be completed by the incarnation of Christ in the Church . . . in many forms of holiness.” She was referring to the sacraments.

In summary, the process God-view is, by its very nature, fluent and imprecise. Some of the cited authors reveal a temptation to divide the insights into the three columns of the Trinity. I suspect any such attempt is doomed. That is not because one God-view is quite wrong and the other quite right. It is that God is being addressed in two quite different languages. It like the bit of truth revealed through poetry, and the bit of truth revealed through arithmetic. Both are right. But we do not feel the need to combine them in a tidy synthesis.

“It is love alone that unites and joins the soul with God.”
– St John of the Cross, “The Dark Night.”

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit around it
And pluck blackberries.”
E.B. Browning

“God’s presence is not discerned at the time when it upon us,
but afterwards, when we look back”
– John Henry Newman

6. Appropriate language and structures for local response

When contemplating reality within the fluent mystery of relationships, the appropriate language is metaphor.

Process thought, as I understand it, comes down absolutely for the view of Heraclitus that you cannot step into the same river twice. If you think you can, you have abandoned the journey of becoming so as to find security in the static haven of being. There, your sleep may be troubled by a lurking fear that you may one day awake on either side of death and discover that the haven of apparently solid things you have known and trusted was never “really real.”

To use objective, defining, controlling language is literally to lose the process plot.

It would be difficult to find a better example of appropriate language in its context than that used by Jesus of Nazareth. This is especially so when the gospel accounts are read in the light of scholarship indicating that, for example, Jesus was not drawn to switch from the imaginative language of parable to the mechanistic language of recipe so as to absolve his hearers of need to struggle for their own truth in the story. (It is thought that in many cases the gospel writers just couldn’t bear to leave they stories open-ended so they inserted tidy little, “This-is-what-we-think-he-really-meant . .” commentaries of their own.) Jesus’ injunctions to love did not mean to make a sentimental gesture of giving some “thing” without relinquishing one’s possessed ground. Vulnerability and cost were to be involved in the disciple’s committed letting go of possessed ground in order to be fully present in love within each relationship. Jesus did not understand himself as a robot, remotely controlled from heaven. Nor did he absolve his disciples of freedom and responsibility. He understood himself to be in a mutual relationship with the Father and to be incorporating his friends responsively within the environment of that love in the life of the Spirit. Jesus’ actions testify to the example of his being fully present in each occasion, supremely in his own passion and death. The gospel is not a technical instruction manual. It is drama. The medium and the message are the same: Jesus.

That is enough to make the point that the language of imagination is not only indicated by process as a general theory of philosophy, but also that it enters in the Christ-focused community into a symbiotic conversation resonating through all time and space and yet as intimate and life-giving as the conversation between earthworm and soil.

The conversation involves feeling. So entering fully into it means getting rid of a cultural lie to the effect that feelings somehow do not have a place in communal relationship with a god perceived as an “unfeeling, unmoved mover.” This is not sloppy sentiment. It is the sort of passion which enters fully into each moment in celebration.

So the mutually ministering faith-community will adopt the language of story, the language of drama, the language of action, the language of poetry and the visual and tactile arts, the language of community.

The story is that of who the faith-community consists of: people, each person a special gift within each of layers of relationship. . It is also the story of faith, the signposts ineradicably there in scripture and tradition for those with the eye of faith. Because each of us is more than, ” . . . an island entire of itself; each . . . is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” (John Donne).

The faith-community will naturally adopt these crazy, unworldly modes of language by being, quite simply, itself, in faith. Because the faith-community process will have a special, unique integrity of its own.

That integrity will be expressed, celebrated, made manifest, affirmed and renewed, in liturgy. How? By the work of grace. By whom? By God, for worship involves the active participation of the infinite Holy One. There will always be a backbone of faithful tradition in honest Christian liturgy. That tradition will be honoured by presenting ourselves as we really are, the “really real” world just as we experience it. So poetry, music, dance, story and other images from outside the culturally imposed boundaries of the local Christian cult will have a vital role in liturgy that offers integrity of connectedness with life and hope, the world and God. But so will the deeply rooted, tried and tested roots of scripture and tradition. “Getting with it” in liturgy doesn’t mean making an entirely new start. We have been part of the only radically new start that matters for nearly 2000 years. The key difference between the hope and joy of those inside the Christian faith-community and those outside it is that those on the inside know where sustainable hope and joy come from.

“People may be alienated by outdated tradition, but in a post-modern world liturgy is new and mysterious, numinous and beckoning. To come to the liturgy is to penetrate sameness and simulcra; to discover for the first time transcendence and otherness; to experience words and images, signs and symbols, that have a reference point beyond themselves.”
– Andrew Walker, “Telling the Story,” SPCK, 1996

The integrity of the mutually ministering community will be expressed, too, in costly, honest, world-facing action. Here, the “liberation” language of Latin America, and the “Minjung” language of Korea, focus and challenge us. Injustice is not only an affront to all that it means to be human; it is also a diminishment of God. To restore justice is to restore God to God’s proper place in the wholeness of God’s creation.

An appropriate language inside a faith-community with unblinkered vision will be transparently honest and open. It will be spoken during times of withdrawal for deep reflection. It will also struggle with tough questions and issues in the wider context of the environment rather than shove them into the “too hard” box. It will listen carefully to voices from outside its internal faith-dialogue, not only because to listen in responsive love is a religious duty but also because the voice of God is likely to singing in harmony with some of those “non-Christian” voices of the community.

Finally, the faithfully, mutually ministering Christian community will have a language that will speak far more clearly to the world outside it than any words: this is the mysterious language which means the difference between rhetoric and true hope, between the self-righteousness of a fearful and lonely wimp and the joy of a team that, winning or losing, is playing the game for keeps.

“The Church in communion is the icon of the Holy Trinity.”
– Andrew Walker, “Telling the Story,” SPCK, 196, p.190

“The truths or lies of our christological claims become evident in the fruits of our lives; how we relate to one another and the world.”
– Carter Heward, in “Constructing Theology from the Underside,” Harper Collins, 1990.

(All consulted in this work, but not all cited in the text)

Amirtham, Sam (ed., 1989). Stories people make. WCC Publications.

Berry, Thomas (1988). The dream of the earth. Sierra Club.

Berry, Wendell (1993). Sex, economy, freedom and community. Pantheon Books

Birch, Charles (1990). On Purpose. New South Wales University Press.

Bohm, David (1985). Fragmentation and wholeness in religion and science. Zygon:20.125-137

Braaten, Carl E & Jenson, Robert W (ed’s, 1995). A map of Twenthieth Century Theology. Fortress.

Capra, Fritjof (1983). The tao of physics. (Revised ed., Fontana).

Chong-Seng Song (1979). Third-eye Theology. Orbis Books.

Cobb, John B Jnr, and Griffen, David R. (1976) Process theology: An introductory exposition. Westminister Press.

Darragh, Neil (1995). Doing theology ourselves. Accent.

Hartshorne, Charles. (1984). Omnipotence and other theological mistakes. State University of New York Press.

Mesle, C. Robert (1993). Process theology, a basic introduction. Chalice Press.

Morton, John (1989), Christ, creation & the environment. Anglican Communications, Auckland.

Nieburh, Reinhold (1972). The children of light and the children of darkness. Charles Scribnrs Sons.

Pittenger, Norman (1971). The Christian Church as social process. Epworth.

Rasmussen, Larry L. (1996). Earth community, earth ethics. WCC Publications.

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt (1982). God, Christ, Church (a practical guide to process theology). Crossroad.

Teilhard de Chardin (1957) Le miliue divin. Collins/Fontana
(1959) The phenomenon of man Collins
(1965) Hymn of the universe. Collins/Fount

(1978). The Heart of the Matter. Collins.

Thistlethwaite, S B, and Engel, M P (ed’s, 1990). Lift every voice: constructing theologies from the underside. Harper Collins.

Walker, Andrew (1996). Telling the story. SPCK.
Webster, Alan (in Webster & Perry, 1992). What difference does it make: values and faith in a shifting culture. Alpha.

Whitehead, A N (1930. Religion in the making Cambirdge University Press.
(1942) Adventures in ideas. Penguin Books.
(1978) Process and reality. Macmillan (corrected edition; 1st publ. 1929).



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