|by Tom Bohache|
|To Err Is Human: Religion's Errors About God
Last issue I introduced the concept of process philosophy as explored in the recent book She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World by Carol P. Christ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). In this column, I'd like to explain in more detail what process theologian Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) called the "six great errors of theistic religion." I believe, with Christ, that if today's spiritually aware people would reflect upon these errors and work on avoiding them, we would see a brighter and better world, which after all should be the point of any realistic and worthwhile spirituality.
Hartshorne's life spanned the twentieth century in its entirety. He was a philosopher and theologian, some times a Christian, other times simply a spiritual quester. The more he examined the great religions of the world, the more he saw the same errors repeated over and over again. He articulated six of them:
(1) God as absolutely perfect and therefore unchangeable. Greek philosophy, specifically Plato, has theorized that the Divine, in order to be the Source of All, has to have been without origin, perfect, and unchangeable. Process philosophy sees creation and all of life "in process," forever changing, evolving, and becoming. All of the creation is interconnected; each creature is affected by every other creature. A process world is unpredictable. Consequently, the One who presides over this creation cannot be unchanging, but must evolve along with its creation.
(2) God's unsympathetic goodness. Because traditional theistic religion sees God as unchanging, it also holds that God, although good, must be "unsympathetic," that is, unmoved by what occurs in creation. This must be so because for God to be compassionate and sympathetic would mean that God could change based upon what is happening to God's creatures. To feel pain with the suffering evokes a change in the Godhead; to feel pride or joy on behalf of what God has created causes God to feel something that would alter God in some way. Process thinking proposes that such unsympathetic goodness is not only an oxymoron but a myth. If God really is intimately involved with creation (as most faiths teach), then God must feel something. God must be affected by events such as the Holocaust or genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. God must be changed by what humans do to the earth and to one another.
(3) God's omnipotence. If God is changed by what happens in the world, if God does feel the pain of creation, then, according to process thinking, it is an error to believe that God is omnipotent (all-powerful), for surely a good God who feels with her/his creation would do something to "fix" thingscure sickness, mend brokenness, eradicate evil. Instead, God's goodness and God's omnipotence exist in uneasy tension with each other in most faiths. This tension results in two age-old problems: (a) If God can step in at any time and has the power to change anything, then humans do not really have true freedom, choice, or free will; and (b) if God has power over everything, then evil must be part of God's will for creation. Many religions solve these problems with Error #5, below. But process philosophy suggests that, instead, suffering and misfortune is random, resulting from human choice that God is powerless to stop because the Divine established free will as part of the evolving creation; moreover, if creation is an ongoing process of separating order from chaos, then evil may be seen as part of the chaos that has not yet been ordered by an evolving creation.
(4) God's omniscience. The belief that God is omniscient (all-knowing) goes hand-in-hand with God's omnipotence: If God is in total control, God knows what will happen before it happens; s/he "wills" everything out of the Divine Knowledge. But, again, process theology sees this as a contradiction to God's goodness. If God is good and wills good for his/her creation but yet knows what will happen, then God takes on sadistic or uncaring qualities. The process view envisions a Divine Presence who is constantly surprised by what evolves in creation, who delights in change and diversity.
(5) Immortality as a "career" after death. Many of the world religions see our lives on earth as simply a way station anticipating death and afterlife. What occurs here does not matter because we will be punished or rewarded in the next life (whether that entails reincarnation or heaven/hell/purgatory). In this way, religions are able to gloss over human suffering without a satisfactory explanation and still keep God all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. "God's ways are not our ways; we will know in the sweet by-and-by." Nevertheless, process philosophy sees such a view as a cop-out and a wasting of life and all of its richness. Process thinkers suggest instead that we are here on earth to make a difference, that we are here to contribute to the process of creation. To simply give up our power to create change and postpone true happiness and the possibility of perfection to an afterlife wastes God's creative life and love. When people begin to believe in their role as co-creators with the Divine, as true agents of change, they are able to empower a better world, a cleaner environment, and healthy relationships between all forms of life.
(6) Revelation as infallible. Perhaps this is the greatest error of all, for it suggests that what is revealed by God can never change or be superseded. Fundamentalisms in the great world religions are usually convinced of the absolute truth of what they perceive as Divine Revelation. Process theology offers an alternativeseeing truth as relative, contextual, and conditioned by time and place. Moreover, as creation evolves and as the Creator evolves based on the becoming of her/his creatures, that Creator's revelations may change, becoming deeper and more complex simply by virtue of the way creatures affected the Godhead and its attitudes and feelings.
As you can see, each of these errors is interconnected with the others, as one might expect, since they are part of a critique by a philosophy that commends the entire creation as interconnected. I hope my description of these errors has raised questions for the reader. I believe that spirituality is a series of endless questions and very few clear answers. The joy is in the search, in the becomingyes, in the process!
For further reading: John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology (Westminster, 1976) Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (Yale, 1948) Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (Macmillan, 1929)
The Rev. Tom Bohache, Pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Rehoboth, is a speaker, teacher, and writer on the intersection of sexuality and spirituality. E-mail him at email@example.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 3 April 8, 2005