Dr. Watson’s Wednesdays @ Whenever about Whatever September 23, 2020
Have you ever had a crisis of faith? That is, do you ever get up in the morning and think that you just can’t “buy” into this stuff any longer? That has happened to me, so today I want to begin talking about the theological perspective that literally saved my faith.
I know that the word “literally” is literally used too much, but it is appropriate here. As a young man going through the educational process at Texas Baptist universities—not exactly hotbeds for radical thinking—I became very critical in my thinking and therefore in my “believing.”
I never was a person who had what might be called “blind faith.” I always needed something to substantiate my religious beliefs. They need to be consistent and make sense. Some folks call this “evidence-based faith,” although I’m not quite sold on the notion that there is ever any evidence per se to substantiate our faith.
I prefer instead to use the phrase “rational faith.” My religious views need to appeal to my reason and logic. This is not easy to come by, of course.
So, early on in my religious education in institutions of higher learning, I got to a point that I really wasn’t buying into much of it anymore. That’s the “danger” of getting an education in religion, even at moderately conservative Baptist schools in Texas. Even they couldn’t hide the “good stuff.”
I was introduced to what they call “higher criticism” of the Bible, which refers to applying the same analytical skills to the Bible as we would to any other document in antiquity. When you do that, when you approach the Bible scientifically and philosophically, you learn a few things about more than just a few Bible stories that they didn’t teach you in Sunday school as a kid.
I remember once, early in my educational journey, being introduced to a New Testament scholar named Rudolph Bultmann and his notion of “demythologization.” One of my favorite words of all time. Bultmann said we need to “de-myth” (my word) the Gospels by peeling back the incredulous layers of the stories, much like we would peel back an onion, so that we can discover the “kerygma”—the core message of the Gospels.
It’s not the core message of the Gospels that perturbs some people; it is the peeling away of some of the more fantastic stories, such as healing and nature miracles and exorcisms. That’s what makes people cry like they are peeling an onion. Anyway, before the class was over, two young men got up and walked out of class because they were so distraught about what they were hearing from the professor.
So, here I am from the mid-80s to the early 90s, toiling away at a couple of Texas Baptist universities—Hardin-Simmons and Baylor—growing in doubt rather than faith, when, like catching a lightening bug in a jar, I was introduced to a theological system in response to which I thought, yes, I can finally live with that!
The theological system, which I could never master, by the way, is called “Process Theology.” The word “process” probably doesn’t do it justice to it, but it works well enough. At Baylor, I was introduced to Process Theology toward the end of a semester in a class on the history of theology. I was hooked.
The very next semester I was able to take an entire class on Process theology from none other than a professor named Dr. Christian. Yep, you heard that right. Dr. Christian was about to make me into a Christian.
I hope I’ve got your attention as much as Dr. Christian had mine, especially if you have had a difficult time trying to make everything rational, sensible, and consistent. If you are comfortable with blind, irrational, faith that doesn’t require any thoughts beyond memorizing John 3:16 or putting up a Ten Commandments yard sign, then I invite you to turn this off and go back to your Facebook feed. But if you want something to chew on, perhaps for the rest of your life, then listen to what I have to say today and beyond.
First, the boring part: the name dropping. Some of the major thinkers in Process theology include Alfred North Whitehead, who was actually a process philosopher, and then Christian theologians such as Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin (who must have been a Southerner with a name like that).
In my book titled, Big Jesus, I have an entire section on Process theology, so if you have the book you can refer to it later. The more times you read or hear about it, the better chance you will have of absorbing it.
The main character in Process Theology is, of course, God, and these theologians have a lot of interesting, if not difficult to understand, things to say about God. Let’s just jump in the waters here, a baptism of immersion.
One of the most important points they make is that God is not omnipotent, which means God is not all-powerful. I know, just saying that out loud might scare you enough to stay out of a lightning storm. But let me explain. Process thinkers claim that God is not omnipotent or all-powerful in the sense of coercive power. The divine doesn’t have coercive power.
If God did have coercive power then we could blame God for everything bad that happens in the universe because God would have the power to stop anything bad from happening. But bad things happen, often to good people, and we are not inclined to blame God, are we?
For example, we don’t want to blame God for this pandemic, for the wildfires on the West Coast, the Hurricanes in the southeast, the Holocaust, cancer, or corrupt politicians, do we? So, how do we get around the notion that God has the power to stop these things, but won’t.
What the Process thinkers say is that instead of coercive power, God has persuasive power. That has a nice ring to it, does it not? Persuasion is not the same kind of power as coercion. Some of you are parents, and so you have a good idea what I’m talking about.
As parents we can try to coerce or control our children, which means they are likely to rebel if given half a chance. Or we can try to persuade them by being good role models, by setting an example for them to follow. That might be what John’s Gospel means when it has Jesus say, “I am the way.” Perhaps this is a reference to the persuasive power of the divine. I am the way, and I encourage you to follow it.
All of this is why we have to be careful, by the way, when we mindlessly say, “God is in control.” Always remember, if God is in control, if God is the giant puppet-master in the sky, then God is responsible for evil and suffering in the world. And again, we don’t want that, do we?
I’m going to stop there for today and hopefully continue with this series on Process theology next week. In the meantime, I encourage you to research this topic on your own, and if you have any questions about it, feel free to write something in the comment section.