According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Monday, January 9, 2012

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki - "What Is Process Theology?"


In an attempt to understand what process thinking is I am submitting Marjorie Suchocki's conversation (circa 2003). I will try to present more up-to-date formulations as they are discovered. Generally I have noted the following:

Positively, there is a lot to like here such as the idea of dynamic inter-relationship between God and creation, and man with God; the idea of a common good being created in every instance for transformative change; the unnaturalness of sin and evil present within man and creation; that creation has its own "freedom of will" (known scientifically as "indeterminacy");  and the hope that process philosophy presents opportunity for relationship between divergent religions, races, cultures and sociological groupings seeking community and commonality.

Negatively, justification by faith is separated from God's wrath at Jesus' crucifixion; that ex nihilo creation is intertwined into a co-dependent environment with God's relationship to His creation (the negative side of panentheism); that mankind's hope rests in the doing of a common good rather than recognizing that it is through Jesus that this common good can enact and respond through mankind; that Jesus is reduced to an example of the common good, rather than as the transformational (or salvific) energy for that good; and that man's religious aspirations are seen more as hopeful transformers for the world rather than through Jesus Himself in His person and work. Consequently, Christianity is reduced to merely one of the world's religions rather than as a living faith which bisects all of man's religions through the person of Jesus who is more than just a common example of good, but as a living, transformative Savior.

It is my further assertion that in developing an updated postmodern version of "Classic Theism" through an admixture of Open Theology and Relational-Process Theology, that its future form will look more like "Open Relational Theism" without the more liberal side of process theology's more pagan philosophical foundations underpinning it by denoting substantive differences between each system from the more pervasive elements common to both systems as noted in a previous blog  - http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-and-what-of-process-theology.html. In this way Emergent Christianity is attempting to uplift Reformational theologies as held by traditional Evangelicalism into more rounded, less angular, content and resultant worship and practices. And it is in this way that Christianity might begin to interweave post-modernistic thought-and-philosophy more tightly into its neo-modernistic church structures, doctrines, and dogmas presented by a post-Christian, polypluralistic, more secular world process and culture.

R.E. Slater
January 9, 2011
edit March 3, 2014

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


What Is Process Theology?
A Conversation with Marjorie

by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki
2003


1.     In a nutshell, what did you say it is?


Well, some nuts are hard to crack, but try this: Process theologies are relational ways of thinking about the dynamism of life and faith. Process-relational theologians integrate implications of a thoroughly interdependent universe into how we live and express our faith. We are convinced that everything is dynamically interconnected; that everything matters; that everything has an effect. Such insights can be adapted to many faith traditions, but this particular booklet applies them to Christian faith.

2.     Is there a difference between process theology and process-relational theology?

No, I am using the terms interchangeably.“Process” indicates the dynamism in this way of thinking, and “relational” indicates the supposition of radical interdependence.

3.     What sources do process (or process-relational) theologians use?

Like many Christian theologians, we draw from Scripture, the long faith tradition, philosophical categories, and our own experience. The philosophical categories we use are those of process philosophy, especially as developed by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. But I caution you to notice (should you decide to investigate further!) that these sources and categories can be used by process-relational theologians in a great variety of ways!


You will find that within Christianity, process philosophy has appealed most to liberals, but there are also evangelicals who find it useful. Some Unitarians use process philosophy without appropriating much from Christian scripture or tradition. Further, Jewish and Buddhist thinkers have made use of process philosophy, operating with quite different scriptures and traditions. My answers here reflect my personal experience as a committed “oldline” Protestant who finds rich meaning in the affirmations and symbolism of the Christian tradition, but sees the need for quite radical revision of some inherited teachings. Thus this booklet presents a Christian process theology that makes the most sense to me, but you will find some of these other ways of developing process theology in the attached bibliography.

4.      But aren’t Scripture and tradition clear enough to stand on their own?

To study the history of any faith tradition is to see how that faith adapts to the “common sense” of its particular time and place. Tradition is like a flowing river that continuously carves out new paths. Once I saw a detailed map that showed how the Mississippi River had continuously changed its course throughout its history. It still goes down to the sea, but how it goes down to the sea is a varied story. It’s the same with tradition. It all leads to the expression of God’s work with us, but how it expresses that work varies from age to age. If we stare at a single spot in tradition, and see it as if it were the entirety of it, we get the illusion that tradition stands still. It’s tempting to reduce the whole tradition to what happened at Nicea in the 4th century, or with Aquinas in the 13th century, or Luther in the 16th, or Wesley in the 18th. But the tradition is much richer than any single period! It is constantly moving, and we who are a part of that tradition are responsible for knowing how it has developed, and for contributing to its contemporary flow.

The same is true of biblical understanding. The texts are given, but how they are interpreted varies enormously from age to age. Just think of the way several great streams of Christianity interpret those baptismal texts! The texts are the same; the interpretations are quite varied and even contradictory. So how we draw from Scripture is also an adventure. Scriptural understanding blends studies of the actual texts together with the history of the way those texts have been interpreted in the tradition. Scripture may look like a steady state sort of thing, but it is actually a dynamic story of varying interpretations and applications through history.

Both Scripture and tradition are formative for the Christian tradition, deeply contributing to the changing shapes of Christian theology. But in using Scripture and tradition, we all use other categories to help us interpret them—even when we think we are not! Process-relational theologians join those who claim we should be clear about how experience and philosophical suppositions affect the way we interpret Scripture and tradition.

5.     But doesn’t that dilute Scripture and the tradition?

Philosophy (the methodical use of reason to interpret the world and/or our experience within it) has always been involved in interpreting Scripture and creating the tradition. It’s not a question of whether philosophy will be used, but which philosophy will be used! Process people think that Scripture speaks deeply about a relational world to whom and with whom God also relates. So why not use a philosophy that is relational—like process philosophy?

6.     And experience, please?

Theology is always filtered through one’s own experience! One of the great differences in theology since the 19th century is that we increasingly began to recognize the role of our own subjective experience in how we develop theology. On the one hand, we always bring a perspective that is shaped by things such as our social location, our gender, our nationality, and so forth. But we also bring our religious experiences into the mix—that is, our interpretation of the presence of God in our own lives. To ignore this experience is to pretend that theology is just some head trip that may or may not relate to the way we live.

So, then: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all enter into the way process-relational theology is formed. It becomes the “stuff” from which we express our faith that God is with us for our good.

7.     So you use these four sources, but what exactly is process philosophy?

Process is a relational philosophy. There have been various relational ways of talking about the world since “way back when,” but most philosophers talked as if the ideal thing should be something solid that doesn’t depend on anything beyond itself. To be in relation was considered a lesser value than total self-sufficiency. In the 20th century we began to see that the ability to relate to another wasn’t just a happenstance of the way things are, but is the core of the way things are. To exist is to be in relation. Does God exist? If you say yes, then God must also be in relation. To whom? To everyone and everything!

The philosophy takes relationship a little bit further. Process thinking says that to be related to something is to be internally affected by that something, and to affect something else in turn.

Relationship is itself a dynamic process! To exist is to be affected by others, and to have an effect on others. Again, does God exist? If you answer yes, then God is affected by others, and has effects on others. Which others? All others!

Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne are the two major philosophers of the 20th century who most fully developed this kind of philosophy. Process theologies usually draw from either or both of these philosophers.

8. So what does this mean for the way process-relational theologians talk about God? Is God still the Creator?

Of course! But as you might expect, how we talk about God as creator in relational categories differs from the “creation out of nothing” that has been so dominant in most of the Christian tradition. If God is in relation, then God is always in relation. Process does not have a way to talk about there being absolutely nothing except God. Process-relational thinkers tend to take Genesis 1 more seriously than does the tradition, for Genesis 1:1 does not speak of God existing independently and apart from anything else. In Genesis, there appears to be a primeval chaos with which God works, and from which God brings order—creation—into existence.

In the relational categories of process thought, God creates with the world. We actually think this is a much stronger way to express God’s power. A children’s fable once told about a rivalry between the wind and the sun. Which one would be able to remove the coat of that man down there on the road? The wind thought that it could, and so it blew and blew and blew with great force. Unfortunately, the strength of the wind was such that the man just drew his coat more firmly around himself. Then it was the sun’s turn. The sun just beamed its rays down upon the man until finally he grew quite warm—and removed his coat. In process terms, the wind worked coercively, trying to force its will upon the man, but the sun worked persuasively, luring the man’s cooperative action. To be able to elicit the willing cooperation of another is a far greater power than simply to force the other to do as one wishes.

God creates through persuasive power. Don’t we experience it that way? We don’t see God yanking things and people around as if they were puppets! The tradition accounts for this by saying that God gave people freedom. Process people think that freedom isn’t an occasional thing limited to just some aspects of creation, but that something like freedom pervades all existence. Every part of God’s creation has some element of freedom. What we call “freedom” ranges from very low levels of indeterminately random events to very high levels of conscious decision-making. And there are many grades in between. God works with each element in existence, in every time and place, offering possibilities for achieving the good. Finally, the world determines what it does with God’s possibilities in every moment. Freedom means the ability to participate at some level in what one becomes.

If we take freedom seriously, then we must talk about three powers of creation. There is the power of the past, which simply means that where we are and when we are makes a difference to who we can become. We must take account of these past influences, because we simply do not exist in a vacuum. We exist relationally. In a sense, we take the creative influences of the past into ourselves in every moment.

But we also take the creative power of God into ourselves at every moment. In this second creative power, God offers us a future, a way of becoming oneself that is not quite like any other way ever achieved before. God’s creativity is the power of transformation, of hope, of a new future. God’s influence toward the future takes account of the past that affects us, offering a way of dealing with that past.

And the third creative power, of course, is ourselves. Finally, we decide what we will become. We are responsible for dealing with the actual past received from the world and the possible future received from God. The world as we know it is, in every moment, the end result of this creative process: the power of the past, which is the power of the world; the power of the future, which is the power of God, and the power of the present, which is our own power to integrate these influences into who we are becoming in every moment. Our freedom is to take these three creative powers and to use them. The choice of how we use them is ours.

So yes, God is by all means Creator, calling the world into existence in every moment. But God creates with the world, not independently of the world. The world enters into something like a creative dance with God, emerging anew in every moment as it takes its past and God’s future into its becoming self.

9.     Well, what about evil? Doesn’t evil ruin this notion of a “creative dance”?

Your question comes too quickly! What is evil? Is it the same as what we call sin? Traditionally, evil has been understood to be the destructiveness that seems to be built into the nature of things. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes are not evil in themselves, but they certainly can have evil effects—“natural evil”—for living creatures! Illness and death have also been called “natural evils.” All living creatures are by definition mortal; hence all will die. Is this what you mean by evil? In a process universe, every creaturely becoming takes place in a myriad of other creaturely becomings. There is necessarily a measure of conflict built into the system, particularly given our interdependence. For process thinkers, this is all part of the dynamism that makes existence on our planet possible. Thus, the fact that sentient creatures experience pain is part of the price of our existence.

Sin, on the other hand, has been understood as moral evil, or choices that go against God’s will—“missing the mark” is a frequent biblical meaning for sin. The Christian tradition has often combined these two senses of natural and moral evil by suggesting that sin is the originating cause of all evil, including natural evils of calamity, illness, and death. While process theologians tend to agree with the “missing the mark” interpretation of moral evil, they disagree with the claim that moral evil is the reason why we have natural evils.

10.  Do you mean that process theologians don’t hold with ‘Adam and Eve’?

Ah, Adam and Eve. A quick summation of the tradition might be helpful here to highlight some of the differences between process theologies and the long tradition of “original sin.” For much of Christian history, all sin and evil was traced to the disobedience of a first human pair. Their disobedience resulted in a corruption of their very nature. Prior to this failure, Adam and Eve presumably lived rationally, so that their minds always governed what they felt and did. What they felt and did was always orderly and good in a perfect love for God, and love for the world in and through God. Following disobedience, this orderliness was overturned, and proper love lost. Consequently, Adam and all his progeny are afflicted with un-ruliness. The mind no longer governs the body rationally, and all manner of evils follow.

But process cannot follow this view. All the evidence suggests that humans are part of a great evolutionary process, and that God creates in and through this process. “Creative transformation” is another name for changes that emerge in evolution. Instead of talking about a perfect first human pair existing about 6000 years ago, we talk about the long evolutionary history of our race, and the role that aggression and violence have necessarily played in our development—sometimes for our good, sometimes not. But as relatively weak creatures on the animal scene, it was important for us to live by our wits, and to struggle for our food and shelter. The ability to fight was important to our survival, and we used it—and still use it—to shore up our defenses and build up our own interests. The capacity to do this takes many forms. In positive forms, we blend our own interests with the interests of the wider communities within the world. In negative forms, we secure our own interests against all others—greed and rapaciousness are illustrations of this. Process-relational thinkers affirm that God calls us beyond violence toward communities of well-being.

Another difference between process and traditional views concerns the role of reason. Like the tradition, process thinkers value reason highly, but not in the same hierarchical order. Reason is part of the mind-body integration of what it is to be human. Reason is valued as part of the whole of who we are. What threatens to overwhelm us is not our bodies or emotions—they are who we are!—but our tendencies toward the many forms of violence. The tradition sought to control bodily urges and desires; process thinkers seek to control the human capacity for violence.

What, then, is sin in process views? It is, as the tradition claimed, “missing the mark.” And what is the mark? The mark would be the fullest development of what we can be, individually and communally, in expanding circles of caring to God, self, and neighbor. To talk about sin is to talk about the refusal of love from and to God and from and to neighbor and even from and to oneself. Still another way of talking about sin is to say it is unnecessary violence.

In a process view, one must talk about communal as well as individual sin. We live interdependently, and we act interdependently. Individual sins are magnified when exercised through our communal identities, creating great evils through such things as oppressive systems of exploitation, wars of aggression, economic systems based upon greed, or systematic decimation of our environment for the sake of profit.

Because we believe God is always calling us toward the good, we believe that God calls us toward transformation from violent ways of imposing our wills on other creatures toward ever-new cooperative ways of creating good on this earth. When we fail to heed God’s call, we fail to contribute as best we can to the commonwealth of all. This failure is sin. Sin—whether personal or societal—has ill effects that spiral beyond its origins in this interdependent world.

11.  But you said God is related to the world. How does God relate to sin? Is this where traditional notions of “justification by faith” come in?

Process thinking holds that God is the most relational reality of all. If God relates to all the world, then human choices to damage others—be it humans, animals, or the environment—are felt by God. God feels everything that happens in just the way that it happens—God feels victims and violators. Our long tradition thought of God as observing evil, but not feeling it—indeed much of the tradition thought that God could not feel anything at all!

This was what the doctrine of “divine impassibility” was all about. But if God is relational, then God feels, and feels perfectly. The issue is not whether God feels the world, but what God does with God’s feelings of the world!

Think of the traditional Christian image of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. One part of the Christian tradition could not imagine that God could experience pain; therefore, it formulated theories of God’s abandonment of Jesus on that cross. The cross then became God’s wrath, poured down on the God-forsaken Jesus because he was bearing the sin of the world. Thus there is a strong element of the Christian tradition that views Jesus death as suffering inflicted by God on the God-Man Jesus instead of us as punishment for our sin. “Justification by faith” was taken to mean God’s action through Jesus of clearing the slate of sin for all who were united to Jesus through faith. Our sins were transferred to him, and therefore would no longer be counted against us.

Process-relational thinking need not go in this direction, for several reasons. First, we cannot separate God’s presence to the world even for a moment, much less for three hours on a cross. God was with Jesus on that cross. Second, to the extent that process-relational theologians view unnecessary violence as sin, violence cannot be that which saves us from sin! To attribute such action to God is like taking the most vile aspect of our own vengeful spite, and projecting it onto God.

How, then, do process-relational thinkers view that crucifixion? The Christian tradition is a many-splendored thing, and while viewing the cross as God punishing Jesus for our sins has achieved some dominance, it is by no means the only Christian response to the cross of Christ. Abelard, living in the twelfth century, argued that God saves us by revealing through Jesus Christ both God’s nature and that which human nature is called to be. This revelation is healing and empowering for us, and Christ becomes our teacher. Process thinkers tend to side with Abelard. Jesus reveals who God is to us and for us. The cross does not represent vicarious sacrifice, but the revelation that God is with us even in our deepest pain.

God feels us. Jesus did indeed suffer the pain of sin—crucifixion is a vile sin. Because it is morally evil to crucify persons, Jesus died because of sin. But this is different from saying that Jesus died for sin. Jesus reveals that the sins of all humans affect God. If God feels the world, then God feels the sins of the world. If Jesus is understood to be a representative of God, then by his crucifixion he reveals that God feels the effects of our sin.

12.  So does the process God simply writhe in agony throughout eternity?

While God must feel the world, what God does with the felt world is entirely up to God! Because of the philosophy we use, we relational theologians can maintain that God judges evil within God’s own nature, and transforms evil through this judgment. God integrates the feelings of the world into God’s own self, transforming those feelings in the process until they are conformed to the divine character. If the Christian tradition speaks of God in crucifixion, it does not stop there—it speaks of resurrection. Process theologians think of God as the resurrection in a variety of ways, the most important of which is the creative transformation that God works for the world within the divine nature. Some process thinkers understand this to be the resurrection of the world into God for a judgment that saves, arguing further that this internal transformation within God has an effect on what creative transformations are yet possible within history. Other process thinkers argue that while God feels the world, what can be called resurrection—or creative transformation—happens for the world not in God, but only in history.

13.  Is this how you deal with resurrection? What do you process-relational theologians think about Easter? Was there an “empty tomb”?

If we take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be a revelation of God for us, then the resurrection is a vital part of this revelation. Resurrection reveals that sin does not have the last word, but God does. God is the power to answer our sins not by succumbing to them, but by transforming them.

Because I see resurrections all the time, and experience them within my own life, I can talk about resurrection confidently. If you push me to say that all the molecules in Jesus’ body were summoned together and the processes of death reversed and Jesus just got up out of that grave and went through a few walls and that’s what resurrection is all about, I think you’re missing the point. I can’t tell you how God raised Jesus within history. I, like most theologians— process or not—am convinced that resurrection is something utterly different from resuscitation. Resurrection cannot be reduced to molecules revivifying! Resurrection is the power of God to overcome evil, to bring hope to otherwise hopeless situations, to make creative transformation possible no matter what. Womanist theologians say that “God makes a way out of no way,” and this is what I think resurrection is all about. The resurrection of Jesus is like a great shout telling us that no evil is greater than God, or can overcome God’s power of resurrection. Because of this revelation—however God brings it about—we know we can trust God no matter how bleak situations may seem. God is there, offering us a future that can change history—whether our own or the whole world’s—toward the good. Resurrection tells us that hope is grounded in the reality of God.

14.  So then, for process-relational theologians the importance of Jesus is his revelation of the nature of God? We hate to ask, but how could Jesus have given such a revelation? Don’t you see him as just another man?

One at a time, please! For process folks, Jesus represents God for us, because we see him consistently responding positively to God’s moment by moment call to him. That call is that he live as God would have him live in each and every situation. He conforms himself so thoroughly to the will of God that in and through his person and his actions, we see clearly what God is like. We learn through him that God’s will is toward love, compassion, justice, kindness. Because we trust that God’s character is revealed through Jesus’ life, we can trust God as well!

As for how he could reveal God, the dynamics are the same dynamics operative in every aspect of creation: the power of the given past, the power of God’s call toward a possible future, and the power of subjectively integrating the two. We presume that God used the power of Jesus’ Jewish past to offer him the possibility of living according to the love of God in every moment. So far as we know from the record, Jesus responded freely and positively to the call of God. He lived God’s love, and thus revealed God. This was not a “supernatural” revelation, but a revelation through the natural processes of existence.

It is possible that if it hadn’t been for the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus would have been viewed as another great teacher, or even have been absorbed into the anonymity of history. But he suffered the cruel violence of political torture, which was followed by the amazing stories of his resurrection appearances. All of the gospels are written because of these resurrection appearances, so that Jesus’ life and death are seen through the lens of the resurrection. The resurrection is the vindication of the way he revealed God—in his life and in his death. This revelation becomes the ground of our faith that God is the power of creative transformation in history.

15.   Hmmm . . . now you’re too much of an optimist. Look around you! Read the newspaper! How can you possibly say that God is a power for creative transformation in our world? Pretty hopeless hope, judging from today’s news.

And that’s where you’re plumb wrong! Remember, the God of all the universe works with the world, not on the world. God always offers possibilities for a good that the world can bear. That qualifier, “that the world can bear,” is not a disclaimer, just a witness to the threefold power of creation mentioned above: the power of the past world, the power of the future from God, and the power of the present, which is our own integration of these powers into ourselves. If I am being hit over the head with a lead pipe, the only possibilities for my good that are suited to me have to do with how I respond to the blow. The physiological response will be largely determined by the blow itself, but even there, we can count on influences toward healing throughout our bodies if the blow isn’t lethal. Beyond this, God offers me emotional and social responses that will work to my own and to the communal good. I need not get twisted into hatred or bitterness or vengefulness. If the blow is lethal, my earthly life will be over—but God is the power of resurrection. I will experience the resurrection life in God.

But your objection had more to do with social and political realities, not simply an individual experience. Again, God works with us all toward the communal good. We are called to responsiveness to God, to care for the common good. God works with us, and calls upon us to use all our collective wisdom and power in cooperative response.

16.   You said God works with us toward our individual and communal good. Does God have a plan for our lives?

I’d have to say that the plan is in process! Because God works with the world, God’s plans are necessarily responsive to the world. Process people can say that God works generally toward greater complexity, harmony, intensity, and beauty in the world. How this applies specifically depends upon the world as well as God. Let me give you an example: years ago I was faced with a vocational dilemma. I was perfectly happy teaching at a seminary, directing its Doctor of Ministry program, and teaching many students. As it happened, one afternoon as I was teaching a class of ministers, I received a phone call: another seminary was asking me to be its dean. I hadn’t sought this other job—it had “sought” me! What to do? I told the class, and immediately one of them put a chair in the middle of the circle, and told me to sit down. Then these pastors gathered round me, touching me, praying for me.

Following their prayers, one said, “Marjorie, you can’t make a wrong decision.” I knew at once what he meant. Because of the faithful presence of God, both options were real possibilities. If I chose to stay at the one school, God would work with me to bring about the best possibilities in those circumstances. But if I chose to leave, the same was true: God would work with me in those circumstances as well! Was one better than the other? Probably. But if I made a mistake in choosing, God would nonetheless work with me toward my own and others’ good! I could count on it! God’s plan for my life, then, was not in the “go here, do this, do that,” but in the overall direction of increasing my openness to God and to others, and acting with the best wisdom I could muster. In the process, I could trust God. Whatever the decision, there was no need to look back, or to second guess. God’s plan for my life is that I become more Christ-like: more deeply loving, more widely caring about life in community, more intentional toward the good in all my acts. And this plan can work in all manner of circumstances.

Our Christian understanding of the way God works both generally and specifically in our lives is grounded in the revelation of God that we see in Jesus Christ.

17.   You keep talking about the “communal good.” Some of what you’re saying sounds pretty individualistic to me. Is the church simply a gathering of individuals, each of whom cares about the common good?

The church is much more than that! Process thinking gives a dynamic way of taking seriously such images as being “one in Christ,” and “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

We live in an interconnected world, where we are continuously receiving the influences of others, integrating these influences into our continuous becoming. The church is created as we receive the influence of the revelation of God in Christ into who we are, weaving it into our very beings. We are literally being formed in and through the influence of God as mediated through Christ. But if this is so for each, it is so for all. This means that there is a unique sharing of identity among us Christians, binding us into the community of Christ. We are members of one another, being many and one at the same time.

There is an important ramification to this continuous emergence of the church as the community of Christ. Remember, to be is to have an effect. Each individual influences what other individuals may become. This power of influence is exponentially multiplied through the interweaving of individuals that continuously creates community. It’s sort of like the old image of the difference between a single straw and a broom when it comes to sweeping floors! Woven together into community, governed by the vision of God mediated through Christ, the church can be a more powerful force for good in the world than any single person could be.

A peculiar thing about a community of faith is that it unites people who might otherwise not come together. It usually takes us beyond our togetherness with people close to us, like family and friends, and unites us with all sorts of others. This becomes a “proving ground” for learning to care for others beyond our own circle, expanding the edges of that circle. This openness to one another’s good, and to the common good beyond even our own community, is also openness to God.

18.   So which came first, the individual or the community?

Can you accept a “both/and” answer? No individual is born in a vacuum; each person is born into a ready-made community, whether it be toward the good or toward the ill. That community shapes the child’s becoming sense of him or herself. But the growing child is increasingly responsible to some degree for what he or she does with the influence of the community. We recognize this in the church through infant baptism, formally taking the child into the shaping influence of the community called church. But that growing child—or adult, in cases of adult baptism—also shapes the continuing community. In an interconnected dynamic world, one cannot so easily separate out “individual” and “community” so as to decide which came first! It is always an interwoven relationship, so that we best speak of people as “individuals-in-community.”

19.   All right, you’ve talked about how process-relational people think—but what about things like prayer, and worship, and stuff like that?

In a process-relational world, prayer is more important than ever. If God works with the world, then prayers are part of what God works with. And think about it. Prayer actually changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what can happen. In the most simplistic of terms, if you are praying, you aren’t not praying! Your praying is an openness to God’s own desires, and this opening is something God can work with. Prayers aren’t some magic-lantern sort of thing, or some “pretty-pleasing” that we present to God. Prayers have a very pragmatic function: they make a difference to the kinds of empowering calls that God gives to us and to others.

As for worship—this is both communal and personal. Communally, it’s a joining of people together through Christ in openness to God and one another. Through this shared openness, our shared offering of ourselves in praise to God, we become woven into one another’s welfare. This weaving isn’t just a present thing—to the contrary, the liturgies that many churches use in worship also unite us to generations who preceded us. These prayers were their prayers; these readings were their readings; these hymns were their hymns. We are united with “the company of the saints” in our worship! And we today, adding our praise and prayer in new as well as in old ways, join that “company of the saints” for tomorrow’s Christians. We anticipate the future, even as we remember the past! So worship plays a peculiar role in uniting the church-past and church-future in the worshiping congregation of the present.

In worship we also cultivate openness to God in love for God and neighbor—human and otherwise! – in all our living. Thus the worship of God involves us increasingly in actions that bring about well-being on this earth. No one person can do everything—but every single person can do something, and together we can do more than we can individually. So the worship of God involves not only our corporate actions on designated days of worship, but it involves us in individual and corporate actions toward the communal good throughout our lives. Worship, then, pervades our times.

20.   You keep talking about community, and the communal good, in the context of Christian faith—what about other faiths?

Process-relational people are convinced that God works faithfully throughout the world—throughout the universe, really—toward the good. This means that God is fully involved in all the religions of the world, calling them toward faithful modes of being community together. There’s no essential reason why there should be only one form of human community—to the contrary, all the evidence suggests that God rather delights in diversity. And while Christians gratefully see God for us in Christ and in Christian community, there’s no essential reason why God can’t work in other ways too. In a deep sense, that’s God’s business, and the business of those committed to the form of religious life to which God calls them.

Process-relational Christians tend to think that God is calling us to a new moment in the world’s history—to a moment of friendships developing across religious lines, both individually and corporately as communities of faith. Friends respect one another. They talk to one another, learn from one another, are even transformed by one another. What if God is calling the religions of the world to create new modes of caring in a world still too torn by greed, lusts for power and domination, and a will to destroy others? Our new mission may be modes of friendship through which we cooperate with one another toward the common good. And this common good involves protection and care for our planet, sustainable lifestyles for the world’s people, care for all earth’s creatures. It’s a relational, interdependent world. Perhaps God now calls us to live more fully into this reality.

21.  Whew—you’ve worn me out. I have more questions to think about—or “feel” about! But first, will you tell me something about yourself? Who is this “Marjorie” that I’m talking with?

I’m just one more person deeply affected by process-relational ways of thinking! There was a time when I felt like “Humpty-Dumpty.” All the “answers” to questions about how God works with us began to break down for me—they no longer made sense, and I felt as if I were falling off of some great wall into a chasm. But then it was as if the chasm itself were “God”—that I had fallen out of belief in categories and doctrines and into the mystery of God as present. So I looked for new ways to talk about the God I knew through chasm and Christ, if that makes sense to you! I went to school, studied philosophy and the Christian tradition, and was accused of being “just another process thinker” when I didn’t even know what “process” was! Then I discovered Whitehead’s way of thinking about the world, and it was as if he were describing the world that I experienced. So I began to use his philosophy to reshape how I express my Christian faith.

And I am deeply convinced that all our philosophies and theologies pale beside the wonder of who God actually is—I suspect God puts up with all our theologies, since none of them can adequately plumb the mystery of God, the love of God. I am a United Methodist, and I like the way Charles Wesley so often says in his hymns that not even angels can comprehend the love of God—even though they spend eternity trying! In any case, I finished school and went on to teach theology—many kinds, not just process—at three seminaries, retiring recently from Claremont School of Theology. I am the director of the Process & Faith Program of the Center for Process Studies, and also the director of the Whitehead International Film Festival here in Claremont.


Want to read more? Here are a few suggestions:

Brizee, Robert. Eight Paths to Forgiveness. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998.

Cobb, John B., Jr. and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

Cobb, John B., Jr. Becoming A Thinking Christian. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993.

Cobb, John B., Jr. Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do About It. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1997.

Cobb, John B., Jr. Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way beyond Absolutism and Relativism. Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1999.

Griffin, David Ray. God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

Griffin, David Ray. Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Inbody, Tyron L. The Transforming God: An Interpretation of Suffering and Evil. Louisville: estminster/John Knox Press, 1997.

Lubarsky, Sandra B., and David Ray Griffin, eds. Jewish Theology and Process Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

McDaniel, Jay. Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989.

McDaniel, Jay. With Roots and Wings: Christianity in a Age of Ecology and Dialogue. Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1996.

Mesle, C. Robert. Process Theology. St. Louis, Chalice Press, 1993. Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology. New York: Crossroad, 1988 (revised edition).

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996.

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.



Written in consultation with Many Wise Process People by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki
Director, Process and Faith: A Program of the Center for Process Studies
Claremont, California
Copyright 2003
All rights reserved


Process and Faith @2003
1325 North College Avenue
Claremont, CA 91711-3199
909.447.2559





J.I. Packer - An Evangelic Argument for Classic Theism

And now…kudos to J. I. Packer for this brilliant article

by Dr. Roger Olson
posted November 7, 2011

Lest anyone think I hate Packer or disdain everything he’s written, I want to applaud him for one of the best basic theology articles I have ever read. It’s so good I copied it and have kept it in my files for years (since 1986!). The article is “What do you mean when you say ‘God’?” (Remember article titles are assigned by editors and not by authors; that may not have been Packer’s preferred title.) It was published in Christianity Today in (I think) September, 1986. (My copy does not have the exact publication date on it; I can see only the year–1986.)

This is a magnificent article decrying what Packer calls “mystification” of the doctrine of God. He calls for a cautious “retooling” of traditional Christian theism insofar as traditional theism (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.) has tended to downplay the personal aspects of God’s being. But he warns that any such retooling must purge “elements of mystification” from the doctrine of God. “By ‘mystification’ I mean the idea that some biblical statements about God mislead as they stand and ought to be explained away. A problem arises from a recurring tendency in orthodox theism to press the legitimate distinction between what God is in himself and what Scripture says about his relation to us.”

In that section of the article headed “Exit mystification” Packer more than hints that God really does change his mind and that traditional theology has been wrong to say otherwise. Here is what he wrote: “To be specific, sometimes [in Scripture] God is said to change his mind and to make new decisions as he reacts to human doings. Orthodox theists have insisted that God did not really change his mind, since God is impassible and never a ‘victim’ of his creation. … But to say that is to say that some things that Scripture affirms about God do not mean what they seem to mean, and do mean what they do not seem to mean. That provokes the question: How can these statements be part of the revelation of God when they actually misrepresent and so conceal God?”

There Packer sounds like an open theist! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he was an open theist in 1986, only that this particular point about God changing his mind and the ways in which traditional theology have “mystified” those passages foreshadows an argument used by open theists.

Packer goes on in that section to call for biblical exegetes and theologians to take biblical allusions to God’s personal characteristics and interactions with creatures more seriously and not to dismiss them as mere figures of speech right out of hand. He also calls for theologians to discard traditional notions of God’s immutability and impassibility. Here is what he wrote about God’s impassibility: “Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. He might belong in Islam; he has no place in Christianity. If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosen-ness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.”

Was Packer suggesting that a certain notion of God common among Christian theologians is an idol? Was he suggesting that he would not worship such a god (viz., one that cannot suffer)? Perhaps not, but it does sound that way. His language against divine impassibility (as traditionally understood in classical Christian theism) is very strong. What would Packer have said to this question asked of him right after he wrote that article: “Dear Professor Packer, if it were somehow revealed to you that God IS actually incapable of suffering, would you still worship him?” I suggest his answer is revealed in that statement that such a god might belong in Islam but has no place in Christianity.

Packer goes on to call for the purging of elements of rationalism in Christian theism. Most significantly, he says “theological triumphalism” is to be avoided because, although Scripture is authoritative, we cannot claim to have a complete grasp of God or ever think we have “enlisted him on our side.” He is clearly there talking about theologians who think they know too much about God beyond what is revealed.

I couldn’t agree more with Packer’s closing statement that reveals why he wrote this article. Talking about an expected coming syncretism of Christianity with other religions (something he was against) Packer concludes that “If this guess is right, we shall be badly at a disadvantage if we have not taken pains to brush up our theism, since the question of theism–whether or not we are going to think about God the Christian way, or some other way–will be at the heart of the debate. So I hope we shall take time out to prepare ourselves along the lines suggested–just in case.”

I found this article extremely helpful in 1986 and I still find it helpful. I agree with almost everything in it. But if you remove the name “J. I. Packer” from it, someone might think it was written by a postconservative evangelical! In fact, I believe IF that article were to be published today WITHOUT the author’s identity attached, many conservative evangelicals would assume it was written by an open theist or a “leftwing evangelical” and attack it as dangerous.

Personally, I do not see how the article’s central thrust can be reconciled with classical Calvinism.Classical Calvinism is closely tied to classical theism. It certainly does not believe that God can change his mind or “make new decisions as he reacts to human doings.”

This is why I DO NOT SAY that Calvinists and I worship different Gods. Typical of most Calvinists I know, Packer was (at least in 1986) inconsistent. R. C. Sproul lets Arminians be Christians (just barely) due to a “felicitous inconsistency.” So I can say that my fellow evangelicals who happen to be Calvinists are Christians (not just barely!) and worship the same God I do due to a many felicitous inconsistencies. What I mean is that IF I BELIEVED WHAT THEY DO I would have to be more consistent and believe God is a monster and not worship him–something fortunately they do not believe so they can worship him. But the only reason they do not believe it is because they, like Packer, are inconsistent.

I hope this clears things up with regard to what I mean when I say the God of classical Calvinism is a monster IF Calvinism is pressed to its logical conclusion following out and embracing its good and necessary consequences, something almost no Calvinist does. I mean the same thing THEY MEAN about me and fellow Arminians when they say our theology, if pressed to its good and necessary consequences (which most of them acknowledge we don’t do), would amount to a man-centered false gospel of self-salvation.

* * * * * * * * * * * *


What Do You Mean
When You Say
God?
by J.I. Packard
September 19, 1986
Christianity Today, pp 27-30

What does it mean to say "God"? Many today would have to answer this question as Augustine did when asked for a definition of time: "When I am not asked I know very well, but when I am asked I do not know at all!”

The doctrine of God is a confused area in Western theology. Each of its three departments - the divine at­tributes, the Trinity, and God's relation to the world­ - is disputed territory. This is basically because agreement is lacking as to how the doc­trine should be constructed and defended. Different in­tellectual methods for doing this naturally produce dif­ferent theological results.

Hybrids often prove unsta­ble, and the Western heri­tage of theism is a hybrid. It grew out of the apologetic theology of the early centu­ries in which much was made of the thought that Greco-Roman philosophy was a providential preparation for the gospel.

This theism, which found its fullest statement when Thomas Aquinas formulated it in Aristotelian terms was a blend of reasoning from philosophy and the Bible, the former appearing to pro­vide the frame into which the latter has to fit. But that changed with the Kuyperian, Barthian, and neo-Lutheran movements of this [20th] century. Each of these, in its own way, drew on Luther's and Calvin's criticisms of natural theology. But they pushed Luther's and Calvin's arguments to the point where it seemed that any appeal to reason to support or confirm scriptural rev­elation would be out of place. As a result, some as­pects of theism in its tradi­tional form have become widely suspect among main­stream theologians.

This means that when fac­ing challenges to theism, Protestant theologians have not always known what to say. They have sometimes been tempted to take up pan­icky and defeatist slogans like that fathered by the late John Robinson: "Our image of God must go." But that is not the way of wisdom. Certainly some rethinking is called for, but it is minor modification, not abandon­ment of traditional theism, that we need.

The anatomy of theism

It will help us to review the ingredients that make up his­toric Christian theism. Here is a check list of the usual items, expressed in as simple a way as the thoughts allow.

1.      God is personal and tri­une. God is as truly three personal centers in a rela­tionship of mutual love as he is a single personal deity. God is always Three-In-One and One-in-Three, and in all divine acts all three persons are involved. "He," when used of God, means "they" - the Fa­ther, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

2.      God is self-existent -and self-suffi­cient. God does not have it in him, ei­ther in purpose or in power, to stop existing. He exists necessarily. The an­swer to the child's question "Who made God?" is that God did not need to be made since he was always there. He depends on nothing outside himself, but is at every point self-sustaining.

3.      God is simple, perfect, and immutable. This means he is wholly and totally involved in everything that he is, and does, and his nature, goals, plans, and ways of acting do not change, either for the better (for, being perfect, he cannot become better than he is) or, for the worse.

4.      God is infinite, without body, all-­present, all-knowing, and eternal. God is not bound by any of the limitations of space or time that apply to us, his crea­tures, in our present body-anchored ex­istence. Instead, he is always present everywhere, though invisibly and imperceptibly. He is at every moment cog­nizant of everything that ever was, or ­now is, or shall be.

5.      God is purposeful and all-powerful. He has a plan for the history of the universe, and in executing it he governs and controls all created realities, with­out violating the nature of things. And ­without at any stage infringing upon ­the human free will, God acts in, with, and through, his creatures to do every­thing that he wishes to do exactly as he wishes to do it. By this sovereign, over­ruling action he achieves his goals.

6.      God is both transcendent over, and immanent in, his world. On the one hand he is distinct from the world, does not need it, and exceeds the grasp of any created intelligence that is found in it. Yet on the other hand he permeates the world in sustaining and creative power, shaping and steering it in a way that keeps it on its-planned course.

7.      God is impassible. This means that-no one can inflict suffering, pain, or any sort of distress on him. Insofar as God enters into an experience of suffering, it is by empathy for his creatures and according to his own deliberate decision. He is never his creature’s vic­tim. This impassibility has not been taken by the Christian mainstream to mean that God is a stranger to joy and delight. Rather, it has been construed as an assertion of the permanence of God's joy, which no pain clouds.

8.      God is love. Giving out of good will, for the recipient's benefit, is the abiding quality both of ongoing rela­tionships within the Trinity and of God's relationship with his creatures. This love is qualified by holiness (puri­ty), a further facet of God's character that finds expression in his abhorrence and rejection of moral evil.

9.       God's ways with mankind, as set forth in Scripture, show him to be awesome and adorable by reason of his truthfulness, faithfulness, grace, mercy, patience, constancy, wisdom, justice, , goodness, and generosity. For these glorious qualities God is eternally worthy of our praise, loyalty, and love. The ultimate purpose of human life is to render to him worship and service, in which both he, and we, will find joy. This is what we were made for, and are saved for. This is what it means to know God, and to be known by him, and to glorify him.

10.  God uses his gift of language, giv­en to mankind, to tell us things directly in-and-through the words of his spokes­men – [the] prophets, apostles, the incarnate Son, the writers of Holy Scripture, and those who preach the Bible. God's mes­sages all come to us as good news of grace. They may contain particular commands, even threats or warnings, but the fact that God addresses us at all is an expression of his good will and an invitation to fellowship. And the cen­tral message of Scripture, the hub of the wheel whose spokes are the various truths about God that the Bible teaches, is, and always will, be God's unmerited gift of salvation, freely offered to us in and by Jesus Christ.

Traditional theism under fire

Now, what are the present-day prob­lems with this venerable understand­ing of God? They come down to its sources and method. The positions them­selves, as stated above, are plainly bib­lical. But the Platonist-Augustinian-­Thomist tradition of philosophical theism has persistently held that knowl­edge of God's reality and of several of the above facts about him can, and should be, gleaned by rational analysis apart from the Bible's witness. This is where the uncertainty centers.

Karl Barth in the powerful Bible-­based reassertions of trinitarian theism of his Church Dogmatics, spurned the help of this kind of rational theology. (It has traditionally been called natural theology.)

This did more than any other twenti­eth-century contribution to produce a pendulum swing against attempts to wed theology to philosophy. To be con­cerned lest philosophy becomes the dominant partner in this marriage is right and proper. Barth, however, want­ed to go further, and divorce them - a different agenda altogether.

Barth himself would use philosophi­cal concepts as tools to help investigate biblical teaching. But he would not let these concepts become grids limiting in advance what God is free to say to us through Scripture.

Barth's protest, though justified with­in limits, threw the doctrine of God into great confusion. It opened the door to a selective reading of the Bible, free of coherent rational control; and operating without regard for any of the tradi­tional fixed points. That is what we face today in many quarters. The pendulum still swings between Thomist and Barth­ian extremes, and shows no sign of com­ing to rest.

Minor modification of traditional theism, rather than

abandonment, is what the present-day situation demands.


Karl Barth's theism

Barth's contribution, though disrup­tive in the way just described, paves the way for some clarifications of the doc­trine of God that we badly need.

Granted, his attack on the basis of natural theology - that is, the recogni­tion that our existence and God's have something in common - was certainly overdone. Granted, too, Barth's denial of general revelation through the creat­ed order was a mistake. (His refusal to recognize general revelation, apart from the gospel, in Romans 1:18-32 and 2:9-16, seems little short of perverse.)

Nevertheless, his polemic against the claim of natural theology, to establish for us foundation truths about God as a kind of runway for revelation, now ap­pears as a largely justified attack on nineteenth-century attempts to domes­ticate God. (Barth's break with liberal theology began around 1915, when prominent German theologians blithe­ly spoke of "using" the Christian faith “for purposes of conducting” World War 1.) And Barth's insistence that all our doctrine of God must come from the Bible was healthy and right.

So it will not be enough to dismiss Barth as eccentric and then slump back into traditional postures and parrot­ings. If Barth, with his type of biblicism, did not do well enough, we must try with ours to do better. To that end I now venture some comments on the doctrine of God as today's evangelicals have received it.

There are three important respects in which the traditional doctrine needs purging. It needs to be purged of ele­ments of natural theology, elements of mystification, and elements of rational­ism. Let me explain.

First, elements of natural theology need to be purged. Against Barth, I affirm that general revelation is a fact, and its impact will again and again produce thoughts about God that, so far as they go, are right. (Like those of Epimenides and Aratus that Paul cites in Acts 17:28.) Many are confident that rational apolo­getics (a form of natural theology) can, under God, trigger and crystallize such thoughts and insights. Unlike Barth, I see no reason to doubt their confidence.

Yet I contend that natural theology needs to be eliminated from our at­tempts at theological construction. There are five reasons.

First, we do not need natural theol­ogy for information. Everything that natural theology, operating upon gen­eral revelation, can discern about the Creator and his ways is republished for us in those very Scriptures that refer to the general revelation of these things (see Ps. 19; Acts 14:17, 17:28; Rom 1: 18-32,2:9-16). And Scripture, which we rightly receive on the grounds that it is God's own word of testimony and law, is a better source of knowledge about God than natural theology can ever be.

Second, we do not strengthen our position by invoking natural theology. On the contrary, claiming that biblical truths rest on philosophical founda­tions can only give the impression that the biblical message about God's re­demption is no more certain than is the prior philosophical assertion of God's reality. And God's reality on this sce­nario must be established by reason­ unaided by revelation. Thus revelation becomes distinctly dependent on philosophy.

Third, all expositions of the analogy of being, and all attempts to show the naturalness of theism - all "proofs" for God's existence and goodness, in other words - are logically loose. They state no more than possibilities (for probabil­ities are only one kind of possibilities) and can all be argued against indefi­nitely. This will damage the credit of any theology that appears to be build­ing and relying on these arguments.

Fourth, the speculative method for building up a theology is inappropriate. As Louis Berkhof has observed, such a method takes man as its starting point and works from what it finds in man to what is found in God. "And in so far as it' does this," Berkhof writes, "it makes man the measure of God." That, of course, does not "fit in a theology of revelation."

Fifth, there is always a risk the foun­dations that natural theology lays will prove too narrow to build all the em­phases of Scripture upon. Thus, for in­stance, in Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica,  natural theology purports to establish that there is one God, who is the first cause of everything. But nothing is said about the personal as­pects of God's being. This personal dimension is central to the biblical revelation of God, setting it in stark contrast with (for instance) the divine principle in Hindu thought.

Thomas's approach, however, en­courages the theologian, to downplay the biblical stress on it, to treat God as an impersonal object rather than a per­sonal subject, and to see himself as standing over God to study him, rather than under God, to obey him.

It seems right to limit our use of natural theology to the realm of sup­portive apologetics (showing biblical faith to be reasonable), and not to give it any place in our attempts to state what the biblical faith actually is.

Exit mystification

In 'retooling traditional theism for to­day, we need, secondly; to purge elements of mystifications. By “mystifica­tion” I mean the idea that some biblical statements about God mislead as they stand, and ought to be explained away. A problem arises from a recurring' tendency in orthodox theism to press the legitimate and necessary distinction between what God is in himself and what Scripture says about his relation to us.

To be specific, sometimes God is said to change his mind and to make new decisions as he reacts to human doings. Orthodox theists have insisted that God did not really change his mind, since God is impassible and never a "victim" of his creation. As writes Louis Berkhof, representative of this view, "the change is not in God, but in man, and man's relations to God."

But to say that is to say that some things that Scripture affirms about God do not mean what they seem to mean, and do mean what they do not seem to mean. That provokes the ques­tion: How can these statements be part of the revelation of God when they actu­ally misrepresent and so conceal God? In other words, how may we explain these statements about God's grief and re­pentance without seeming to explain them away?

Surely we must accept Barth's insis­tence that at every point in his self ­disclosure God reveals what he essen­tially is, with no gestures that mystify. And surely we must reject as intoler­able any suggestion that God in reality is different at any point from what Scripture makes him appear to be. Scripture was not written to mystify, and therefore we, need to ask how we can dispel the contrary impression that the time-honored, orthodox line of ex­planation leaves.

Three things seem to be called for as means to this end.

First, we need exegetical restraint in handling Scripture's, anthropomor­phisms (phrases using human figures to describe God). Anthropomorphism is characteristic of the entire biblical pre­sentation of God. This is so not because God bears man's image, but because man bears God's, and hence is capable of understanding God's testimony to the reasons for his actions. The anthropomorphisms are there to show us why God acted as he did in the biblical story" and how therefore he might act towards us in our own personal stories. But nothing that is said about God's negative or positive reactions to his creatures is meant to put us in a posi­tion where we can tell what it feels like to be God. Our interpretation of the Bible must recognize this.

Second, we need to guard against misunderstanding of God's changeless­ness. True to Scripture, this must not be understood as a beautiful pose, eternal­ly frozen, but as the Creator's moral constancy, his unwavering faithfulness and dependability. God's changeless­ness is not a matter of intrinsic immobil­ity, but of moral consistency. God is always in action. He enters into the lives of his creatures. There is change around him and change in the relations of men to him. But, to use the words of Louis Berkhof, "there is no change in his being, his attributes, his purpose, his motives of action, or his promises." When one conceives of God's immuta­bility in this biblical way, as a moral quality that is expressed whenever God changes his way of dealing with people for moral reasons, the biblical refer­ence to such change will cease to" mystify.

We should avoid like the plague any talk that suggests that

we have enlisted God on our side, and now have him in our pockets.

Third, we also need, to rethink God's impassibility. This conception of God represents no single biblical term, but was introduced into Christian theology in the second century. What was it supposed to mean? The historical answer is: Not impassivity, unconcern, and im­personal detachment in face of the cre­ation. Not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief, either. It means simply that God's expe­riences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself; and are not in­voluntary surprises forced on him from outside; apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.

This understanding was hinted at earlier, but it is spelled out here be­cause-it is so important, and so often missed. Let us be clear: A totally impas­sive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. He might belong [in some other religion, but] he has no place in Christian­ity. If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God's grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.

Problems of rationalism

The final step needed to spruce up tra­ditional theism is to purge it of elements of rationalism. Just as the two-year-old son of a man with a brain like Einstein's could not understand all that was going on in his father's mind if his father told him, so it would be beyond us to under­stand all that goes on in the all-wise, and not in any way time-bound mind of God.

But, just as the genius who loves his boy will take care to speak to him at his own level, even though that means re­ducing everything to baby talk, so God does when he opens his mind and heart to us in the Scriptures. The child, though aware that his father knows far more than he is currently saying, may yet learn from him all that he needs to know for a full and happy relationship with Dad. Similarly, Scripture, [when] viewed as torah (God's fatherly law), tells us all that we need to know for faith and godliness.

But we must never-forget that we are in the little boy's position. At no point dare we imagine that the thoughts about God that Scripture teaches us take the full measure of his reality. The fact that God condescends and accommodates himself to us in his revelation certainly makes possible clarify and sureness of understanding. Equally certain, how­ever, it involves limitation in the reve­lation itself.

But we forget this, or so it seems; and. then appears the rationalism of which I am speaking. It is more, I think, a tem­per than a tenet, but it produces a style of speech that in effect denies that there is anything about God we do not know. By thus failing to acknowledge his in­comprehensibility beyond the limits of what he has revealed, we shrink him in thought down to our size. The process is sometimes described as putting God in a box.

It is certainly proper to stress, as against the sleep of reason in the world and the zaniness of subjectivism in the church, that scriptural revelation is ra­tional. But the most thorough-going Bible believers are sometimes required, like Job, to go on adoring God when we do not specifically understand what he is doing and why he is doing it.

We should avoid like the plague any talk that suggests that we have enlisted him on our side, and now have him in our pockets. Confidence in the teaching of God's written Word is to be main­tained all the time. But this stance of theological triumphalism is some­thing quite different, and is to be avoided.

God the image maker

This review of traditional theism, and suggestions for its possible refinement, has been heavy sledding. How can it all be pulled together? Can we focus our theism in a phrase? I welcome the sug­gestion that we should speak of God as the image maker.

This phrase binds together the main theistic thrusts that our secular world needs to face. Say "God," and you point to the infinite, eternal, self-existent, self-revealing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Say "Maker," and you point to the fundamental relationship between God and us. He is the Creator, we are his creatures.

Say "Image Maker," and you point to the basis and presupposition of our knowledge of God-namely, the fact that he made us like himself. Included in that image are rationality, relation­ality, and the capacity for-that right­eousness that consists of receiving and responding to God's revelation. We are able to-know God because we are think­ing, feeling, relating, loving beings, just as he is himself.

I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but it seems fairly clear to me that pressure on conservative theology is still building up from exponents of re­ligious relativism and pluralism. This is so both within the church (where some think that the more theologies there are, the healthier and merrier we shall be) and outside it.

*I expect over the next few decades to see the quest for a synthesis of world religions gain impetus, with constant attempts to assimilate Christianity into other faiths. We may expect a genera­tion of debate-on the program of mov­ing through and beyond syncretism to a nobler religion than any that has yet been seen. That notion, which has emerged more than once in liberal cir­cles, looks like an idea whose time, hu­manly speaking, has come; and coun­tering it, I predict, will be the next round in the church's unending task of defending and propagating the gospel. If this guess is right, we shall be badly at a disadvantage if we have not taken pains to brush up our theism, since the question of theism-whether or not we are going to think about God the Chris­tian way, or some other way will be at the heart of the debate. So I hope we shall take time out to prepare our­selves along the lines suggested-just in case.