Thursday, June 19, 2008

Searching for an Adequate God

My church newsletter article this week:

Searching for an adequate God. That is what I am doing this summer. As I have long noted online and in my Sunday messages, I do not find adequate the traditional Christian concept of God. My problems with God began early in life when I found myself doubting biblical miracle stories and the theological notion behind them that God can and does occasionally step into our world and "violate" the normal rhythms of nature. I have this hard-core common sense notion that walking on water is just not possible. Same with the sun being made to stand still, dead people coming back to life, etc.

Eventually, my childhood skepticism led to more in-depth reading in theology but this only increased my problems with traditional Christian theology. I discovered, for example, that we don't really have free will. Whether it is Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin, for all of the theological "greats" in Christianity an all-powerful God not only has the power to determine all events in the world, he actually does. (It's always a he for these guys.) We think we have the power to make choices, but it is just a mis-perception. So Luther could say that because God's will is eternal and changeless: "it follows, by resistless logic, that all we do, however it may appear to us to be done mutably and contingently, is in reality done necessarily and immutably in respect of God's will." In other words, we think we have free will but we really don't.

Christian theologians have wrestled with free will for centuries. The problem is that to give us true free will is to limit the power of God. Things could happen that God isn't in control of. So the answer is to say essentially that within the powers of our perception we have free will, but in the mind of God all that we will do is already known and part of the divine plan. And yet, these same theologians will argue that it is just that some are saved and some are damned for their good and bad deeds, even if they really don't have any choice in the matter. It is all for the glory of God. The 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards said that the doctrine of election of sinners to eternal damnation was "exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet." For God and for those elected by God to go to heaven, who can enjoy watching their fellow humans being tormented in hell.

It gets worse when you consider the problem of evil. If everything is part of the plan then God is ultimately responsible for evil in the world. God allowed evil to enter the world and could do something about it if he wanted to, but chooses not to. Except when he does and responds to the prayers of some Christians and makes storms move somewhere else or heals some children of cancer but not others. I have found no satisfactory answer in Christian theology to the question: why do bad things happen to good people.

Right now I am re-reading a book by David Ray Griffin called Reenchantment without Supernaturalism. Griffin is a Process theologian. Process theology is one modern attempt to rescue God from a pre-scientific worldview. In Process theology God is not all-powerful and does not ever intervene supernaturally in the world. God is present in every decision we make as the "initial subjective aim," a persuasive influence whispering in our ear, so to speak, about the best possible outcome for every occasion. In the midst of the wide variety of choices we face in every decision we make, God is there in every one. The decision is always ours; free will in intact; but the persuasive influence of God is always felt. Whatever decision we make, good or bad, God is there in the next moment as an influence for good all over again.

I like this way of thinking about the way God works in the world. I also like the way Process theology talks about God as the soul of the universe. God is the keeper of all the painful and joyous memories, taking it all in and giving back love and wisdom in the form of an ever-present lure towards a better future.

But I am still searching. This summer I am going to do some reading, some gardening, some fly-fishing, and see if I can find an adequate God. I'll let you know what I find.

Update: I should say that Searching for an Adequate God is the title of another book on process theology.


Mystical Seeker said...

I discovered process theology about two decades ago, and it was what made it possible for me to believe in God again. The book that changed things for me was a book Griffin co-wrote with John Cobb, "Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition."

liberal pastor said...

Thanks for the comment. I read that book some time ago; I will have to give it another look. I, too, came across PT a couple of decades ago while at seminary. I wrote a paper comparing Whitehead to Tillich on some aspect of their writing I don't remember. What I do remember is that the prof told me I didn't understand either of them. Probably true! But I keep trying.

progressivechurchlady said...

Could I please borrow one/more of these books when you are done rereading them? (I'm trying not to buy as many books now that I've managed to pare down some.)