According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, 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
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

July 4th Thoughts on Church & State

Can Christians be a people of justice rather than looking for the state to give justice? The first task of the Church is not to make the world more just but to live out to the world what grace-filled justice is that it may show to the world justice to the invisible people of the world desperately fleeing from evil seeking justice to protect and help, feed and clothe.

Christians are to be an alternative to the world. The Church of God embodies the witness of an alternative reality - of the people of God telling the world you are loved, you are cared for, you will not be harmed - neither you nor your children.

American cannot be a nation of nationalism, militarism and capitalism at the expense of its populace – and particularly Christianity cannot be aligned with a government espousing harm and destruction to those whom it serves or under-serves.

America cannot be a nation which runs on fear. It cannot be a democracy that is governed like those nations committed to ruling in fear and injustice. It must be a nation committed to grace, mercy, and grace-filled justice. A true democracy that is representative of Christ must be shown the way by churches of Christ telling of Another Way. A Way that follows Jesus in ministries of helps, healing, peace, and refuge. A Way of personal and community redemption. This is the path of the Church and can be the path of any nationalised democracy seeking wholeness, unity, and service to mankind.

R.E. Slater
July 3, 2019

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Bruce Epperly - The Future of Process Theology

The Future of Process Theology: Personal and Planetary Meditations

Bruce Epperly
July 2, 2019

The upcoming conference focusing on the “Future of Process Theology,” to be held July 24-26 in Fairbanks, Alaska, has inspired me to articulate my own future vision for process theology as it continues to interact with our postmodern, pluralistic, and increasingly interdependent world.

I have been a process theologian, amateur and professional, for nearly fifty years. I first encountered process theology as a student at San Jose State University in Richard Keady’s and Marie Fox’s classes in 1973. Looking back, I can assert that I might not be an active Christian, indeed, a theologian and pastor, apart from the impact of process theology on my understanding of God and the relationship of Christianity with other world religions. Process theology is more than an intellectual system to me; it is a way of life that shapes my ministry, teaching, politics, marriage and family life, citizenship and spirituality. The open-spirited, possibility-oriented vision of process theology has inspired me to adventure and given me courage to face adversity, trusting a way will be made when I see no way forward. For me, process theology addresses the totality of experience and provides a life-changing vision of God, the world, Christian faith, and spiritual experience.

Once upon a time, as every good story goes, I was a novice process theologian, studying with John Cobb, Bernard Loomer, and David Ray Griffin at Claremont Graduate School and Claremont School of Theology. Now, forty years after completing my doctoral dissertation, I have become a member of the older generation of process theologians, a mentor to present and future process theologians, lay, academic, and clergy. Though my process mentors remain John Cobb and David Griffin, I have claimed my vocation as a theological and spiritual artist, shaping the contours of process theology, spirituality, and ethics as a writer, pastor, professor, and mentor. I have discovered that one of my vocations over the past few decades has been to convey the wisdom of process theology ways that are understandable and convincing to laypersons and pastors, expanding the impact of process theology beyond the academic community.

In the wake of the sixteenth century Reformation, Protestant theologians proclaimed that the reformed church is always reforming. In a similar fashion, I believe that process theology is always in process, navigating its way through a changing world, innovating and adapting, and, as Alfred North Whitehead says, initiating novelty to match the novelty of the environment. I believe that the future of process theology is evolving and widening, with no and final sure destination. Faithfulness to the insights of Whitehead, Hartshorne, Loomer, Meland, Cobb, Griffin, Ogden, and others, inspires the continuing creation of theological novelties to match the shifting novelties of our time. Not novelty for novelty’s sake, but as a reflection of the call to creative transformation as a catalyst for changing the world.

As I look at the future of process theology, my perspective is that of a North American Christian process theologian, grounded in my theological-spiritual home and open to the wisdom of other paths of faith. While process theologians are always pilgrims, journeying to new lands and learning new things, my lens is that of the church, seminary, and interactions with seekers and persons of other wisdom traditions. Though rooted in the North American church, I seek to have a global vision. Christian process theologians seek the creative transformation of the church while recognizing the importance of sharing broadly articulated visions of process thought to seekers and questioners of our time.

My vision of the future of process theology can be described by the following affirmations:

• The future of process theology is global. God is the inner energy and wisdom of all creation, the principle of creative transformation giving life and growth to all things, the reality in whom we live and move and have our being. Revelation and inspiration are everywhere. God’s presence and witness is universal, thus liberating us from the parochialism of denomination, culture, and nation. Process theology invites us to articulate theologies of stature in dialogue with other wisdom traditions and the secular world. Process theology is always emerging – new every morning – learning and sharing, growing in wisdom and stature.

• The future of process theology is integrative. Holographic in nature process theology takes us beyond opposition to contrast and will continue to break down walls of separation and isolating siloes of faith and science, religion and medicine, intellect and emotion, conscious and unconscious, Christianity and other faiths.

• The future of process theology is multi-disciplinary, inviting us to find points of contact between the various academic and professional disciplines. Connection is everything, truth is relational, and what happens in the laboratory, library, archeological dig, and church are interconnected.

• The future of process theology is interspiritual. One can be profoundly Christian, rooted in the way of Jesus, and still be evolving as we embrace the gifts of other wisdom traditions, as well as atheistic and agnostic critics. Hybrid or fluid spirituality invites us to explore the spiritual practices of other faiths as well as their visions of reality, recognizing both differences as well as commonalities, and places of personal edification. The Christian faith of future must be spiritually fluid, centered on Christ, whose wisdom embraces truth in its many manifestations and pathways. Profoundly incarnational, process theology and spirituality live out John Cobb’s affirmation that Christ is the way that excludes no way.

• The future of process theology is holistic. Relational in spirit, process theology joins mind and body, cell and soul, promoting healing and wholeness at every level of life. The heavens declare the glory of God, right whales sing praises to their Creator, and the cells of our bodies vibrate with Divine Wisdom. The whole and part are connected, and this means that we need to expand the horizons of healing and spiritual experience to embrace the environment as well as global medicines, healing practices, and unexpected cures and healings.

• The future of process theology is political and liberating, challenging us to join national affirmation with global interdependence and moving us from individual and national self-interest to world loyalty. There is no “other” as we welcome the diversity of human culture and experience. Political policy, from a process perspective, promotes relationships, beauty of experience, and expanded circles of concern. Politics is about healing and wholeness embracing the interdependence humankind and the non-human world, and balances national integrity with world loyalty.

• The future of process theology is ecological, inspiring us to love the earth, reverence the non-human world, and claim our role as God’s companions in healing the earth. Process theology inspires ecological economics focusing on sustainability, relationships, and meaning. The world is an incarnation of Divine Wisdom, the body through which the Divine Spirit flows and grows, calling us to be partners and companions with all creation, seeking to heal our planet.

• The future of process theology is mystical. We are all mystics. The “sighs too deep for words” of God’s Spirit well up from with us, though we are often unaware of this ubiquitous inspiration. Awakening to the real presence of God in all creation and ourselves is at the heart of process spirituality. Process mysticism inspires us to discern God’s call in every moment and invites us to update our spiritual practices for our setting. Mysticism is holistic, and not siloed to the monastic life: mysticism inspires contemplative social transformation and prophetic healing, challenging injustice so that all can experience the fullness of God. Mysticism experiences divinity on a summer day, observing with Mary Oliver the intricate machinations of a grasshopper eating its lunch, and launches forth in appreciation and affirmation of the Holy Here and Holy Now, embedded in every moment of life.

Process theology has a future. But, with the diminishing impact of seminaries and the marginalization of process theology on many seminary faculties, we need to imagine the future in novelty ways and discover novel ways of communicating process thought in the larger society, to lay persons and professionals alike, to those within the church and to the church of the open spaces. Not bound by seminary walls or church sanctuaries, the future of process theology lies with intellectually-lively pastors, inspired laypersons, and insightful environmentalists, economists, health care providers, and innovative theology thinkers, willing to go beyond jargon and technical language to incarnate the wisdom of process theology in daily life and the intricacies of ecology, economics, and education.


About the Author

Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books in the areas process theology, scripture, healing and wholeness, pastoral excellence and well-being, and spirituality.

  • “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed”
  • “Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Planetary Healing”

  • “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God”
  • “Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure”
  • “Process and Ministry”
  • “Process and Pastoral Care”
  • “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective”
  • “Process Theology and Celtic Wisdom”

He is featured on the weekly progressive-process theology podcast, “Faith on the Edge: Equipping Congregations to Face Our Century.” (

Monday, June 17, 2019

Is Research into Religion a Fool’s Errand?

Trying to explain religion from a non-religious point of view can be as difficult as it is complex. To the big question of whether religion has helped the world it seems it may not be as humanitarian as it thinks of itself as. To the other question as to whether religion helps mankind live better with itself this too seems doubtful when reaching across a mosaic of differentiating cultures and unreforming societal thinking and behavior. 

Would the world be better off without religion? To this we may only be able to say that "religion" would only replace itself with another sort of "religion" as it is a large part of the human condition. If we cannot rid ourselves of ourselves than to remove religion would be just as impossible as witnessed by atheistic societies seeking to remove all forms of religion with superseding forms of nationalising state behaviors.

We might enlighten ourselves but only some few can do this in a way which is heart-broadening into the larger cultural contexts we find ourselves in. For those who try it may be a fruitless task if society as a whole refuses to give up its own identity of itself, or needs to follow group expectations, and so forth. As much as we think of ourselves as malleable, as adaptable, cultural mores have become the bedeviling factors which refuse to change either easily or willingly. And so, it is into this context that Connor Wood wishes to explore in hopes of expositing some bit of hope or help exploring the same questions with other who similarly venture within their minds and souls seeking answers to the question, "How might we become more uplifting-evolving civilization than we have shown ourselves to be."

R.E. Slater
June 17, 2019

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

Tradition and Innovation as Worldviews:
Is Research into Religion a Fool’s Errand?

by Connor Wood
June 13, 2019

Here’s a scenario. Let’s say that you, an enlightened resident of a modern country with electricity and anime and internet access, went back in time to the colonial Caribbean, where enormous plantations forced slaves to work under the scorching sun to produce nearly all the world’s sugar. Imagine that you also had, right at your fingertips, all the information you could ever need to logically prove to the owners of the colonial plantations that – despite their deeply held beliefs – slavery was actually pretty bad for slaves. Let’s further say that, as you step out of the time machine, you’re blissfully certain that as soon as the plantation owners hear your airtight argument, backed up by facts and evidence, they’ll immediately realize their error and emancipate their slaves.

But really, of course, it’d be about thirty-five minutes before you got hacked to death by sugarcane machetes. Why? Because slaveholders’ warm, fuzzy beliefs about slavery were motivated cognition – jargon for “believing in things for emotional and usually self-interested reasons.” If someone believes that it’s raining, but I open a window and show that it’s not, he’ll just change his mind. But if that same person believes that forcing hundreds of malnourished slaves to work 14-hour days in blistering heat until one day they drop dead is perfectly okay, then there’s not much I can immediately do, in terms of marshaling evidence and reason, to convince him otherwise. His beliefs about the current weather are just inferences from evidence, but his beliefs about slavery are motivated. He has extrinsic incentives to believe them.

I’m bringing this up because I’ve started recently to wonder whether I’m on a fool’s errand. In trying to study and write about religion in ways that make it more intelligible and legible to scientifically minded, educated, technocrat-y sorts of people, what am I really expecting to accomplish? Do I think it’s possible to change anyone’s mind?

Let’s just say that overwhelming gobs of objective, empirically sound evidence supported the clear conclusion that, in fact, religion is more or less impossible to get rid of, and moreover that rationalist attempts to get rid of it generally produce extensive harm in the form of disrupted communities, impaired life cycles, the breakdown of cumulative culture, and other social and psychological problems.

In fact, a good amount of evidence does support these conclusions, but I wouldn’t say that it’s overwhelming. An independent researcher acting in good faith could be perfectly justified in not drawing these conclusions. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the evidence was that good. That compelling.

Cool Science, Twitter, and Religion

Would it change the technocratic view of religion? By “technocratic view of religion,” I mean something like the opinions about religion held by your typical rationalist – heuristically, a voracious reader of blogs like Slate Star Codex and Less Wrong, or a Silicon Valley coding whiz with a major presence on Reddit, or a big data nerd who gets in violent Twitter debates about Bayesian versus frequentist statistics, or someone like that. Obviously these aren’t all overlapping categories, but they do share something in common: a view of religion that, on average, consists of a set of gut-level assumptions, semantic associations, and socially learned biases to the effect that religion is Out Of Date and, probably, not just neutral but actively inimical to technological, epistemic, and social progress. (It goes without saying that the claims of religion are also seen as obviously false.) 

Sure, some rationalists might acknowledge that religion can have social value. But this is a minority position. Overall, the technocratic view of religion sees nothing wrong with the sudden, rapid decline of religious faith in the U.S. over the past decade, or the long, continual slide of Europe into post-Christianity. After all, compare these largely secular societies with more religious countries. Who’s got better health care, infrastructure, life expectancies, and functioning civil societies? Iceland has a church attendance rate of only 10% and a Human Development Index of .935 (on a scale from 0 to 1), while Nigeria is only 1% atheist and has a Human Development Index of .532(putting it 157th out of 189).

(We won’t get into the logical and statistical problems of comparing countries by levels of atheism against development indicators, such as the ecological fallacy or issues with historical path dependency that make cross-sectional comparisons quasi-worthless. Technocrats mostly take these comparisons at face value – inasmuch as these comparisons seem to demonstrate that religion is, at best, unnecessary for social well-being and civil society – so I won’t argue here.)

So that’s the technocratic view of religion. My thought experiment is, let’s say that I could irrefutably demonstrate that religion is objectively critical for human well-being in any core way, or that the excision of religion from human life would predictably lead to massive social and political problems over the scale of two generations.

To reiterate: I don’t have this evidence, and no one else does, either. I’m just imagining that I did.

Would my irrefutable proof of the necessity of religion for human well-being actually have any effect on what readers of rationalist blogs, or Twitter-savvy social science professors, or Silicon Valley mavens, or attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival, or mostjournalists, personally think about religion?

No. I bet it wouldn’t.

The reason isn’t because technocrats are bad people who reason in bad faith, as I realize (belatedly) that my spiel about slavery in the Caribbean in the first few paragraphs may have set you up to think. So to make myself clear: I am not comparing technocrats to slaveowners. Not on the level of moral judgment, anyway. I happen to believe that history will judge our current Silicon Valley overlords harshly, but I don’t think their excesses are as obviously bad and cruel as whipping kidnapped African people to make them cut and process more sugarcane until they die. Not many excesses are.

What I mean is just that, like Caribbean plantation owners weren’t going to change their minds about this awful but – for them – economically profitable system based on anything as disinterested as objective evidence, rationalists and technocratic skeptics of religion have motivated reasons not to change their minds about the value of tradition or religion.

Farmers and Foragers

I’ve written here before about forager versus farmer mindsets. Roughly, a forager mindset values individual initiative, exploration, loose social ties, and mobility. It’s useful for many hunter-gatherer societies, because their economic life depends on constant exploration and movement. As a result, their social structure is often a “fission-fusion” model, characterized by the constant cycling of individuals in and out of different bands. In a foraging social world, if there’s a conflict between people, one of the parties often leaves the band and joins another one. Problem solved.

By contrast, farmers are tied down to the land they work, so they don’t have the luxury of just moving away. Their work is often highly interdependent and rule-based, so innovation and exploration become de-emphasized, with farmers relying instead on highly predictable routines and mutual coordination. Farming societies are more hierarchical, too. Storing grain or crops in sedentary, permanent settlements leads to inequalities in wealth, and farming economies are complex enough that formalized leadership structures become useful for setting measurement standards, coordinating markets, and so forth. Moralistic, authoritarian religions with formalized hierarchies and doctrines about afterlife punishments are effective for establishing and perpetuating these farmer values, so farming civilizations often have elaborate, formalized religious systems with strong priesthoods.

(See my previous posts on big gods for more about this relationship between economics, social structure, and religious values.)

Heuristically, the farmer-forager distinction is useful for thinking about the cultural tensions in today’s world, particularly with regard to religion. What I’m calling technocrats – or rationalists, or libertarianish educated professionals, or whatever the best term is* – live a kind of modern-day foraging lifestyle. They usually have a lot of autonomy and self-direction at work, which itself tends to be pretty variable and to reward creativity and innovation. They need to be mobile, since good professional jobs often turn up in distant cities. Moving from hometowns to college to graduate school to first job or residency or whatever, they get used to uprooting themselves regularly, and their values reflect the resultant mobile mindset. Their ethics are highly individualistic, focused on autonomy and tolerance and not inhibiting others’ self-direction. They distrust tradition, not because they’re immature nonconformists, but because tradition would inhibit success within the social ecology they inhabit.

You can’t be ready to move to New York on the drop of a dime and then Washington, D.C. a few years after that if you’re too invested in your hometown. It’s hard to be a supercharged innovator if you regularly practice a millennia-old religion. Good luck fitting in with your skeptical, rationally minded peers if you accept the essentially arbitrary authority of some hoary religious doctrine.

In other words, today’s cognitive elites have a vested interest in ideologies that promote mobility,  innovation, and autonomy from tradition. They materially benefit by ignoring or spurning religion.

These incentives are a lot more complicated than they might seem, too. It’s not that educated urbanites / rationalists / technocrats rationally calculate that religion rand tradition would prevent them from being effective manipulators of the postindustrial, globalized, professional economy. More often, they feel a strong – and sincere! – moralaversion to religious authority and tradition. Why? Their social worldviews are built up out of thousands of interactions with people who all face the same incentives and strategic pressures that they do. Moral sentiments are shaped in an emergent way by each person’s interactions with her social network. People learn what’s right and wrong by observing their high-prestige peers, and by paying attention to the consequences of acting and saying the right things versus the wrong things within the social contexts they identify with (or aspire to).

Moreover, despite the fact that moral beliefs are objectively very different in different societies or subcultures, our brains don’t process prescriptive morality as being culturally contingent and variable. In fact, the (non-) acceptance of different, valid cultural standards is one of moral psychology’s key criteria for differentiating between mere conventional beliefs and true moral emotions.

In other words, if you have a moral belief about something, then your instinctive belief is that it applies everywhere, without exception.

Thus, traditional values, authority, hierarchy, and religion might actually be highly adaptive for inhabitants of farming societies or, in our modern world, holders of blue-collar occupations that feature a lot of routine and rule-following. But if you’re a highly educated, mobile technocrat-y type person, your instinctive belief is that religion and traditional authority is bad for farmers and working-class people, too. Because they’re bad for all people.

Incentives and Social Change

Okay, so given all this, would powerful evidence that farming-style values (including moralistic religion and the acceptance of traditional authority) are necessary or valuable convince rationalists/technocrats/educated urbanites – who are presumably the major audience for intellectual products such as evolutionary social science – to, en masse, become advocates of G.K. Chesterton-style traditionalism?

No, it wouldn’t. The strategic and social incentives for maintaining a libertarian, autonomy-maximizing value system are just too great, within elite, rationally minded, professional social circles.

This leads to some absurd consequences, such as conspicuous mismatches between explicit knowledge and implicit attitudes. Plenty of my highly educated, professional friends are perfectly willing to acknowledge in conversation that conservative or religious values can be good, even indispensable, for certain kinds of people, maybe even a lot of people. But their value systems don’t change on the basis of this acknowledgment. They’re still members of a social world where tradition and religion bear net costs. So they carry on, in all practical domains of life – from voting to sharing news stories from Vox on Facebook – exactly as before.

But do I even want people to convert to G.K. Chesterton-style traditionalism, anyway? No, because not everybody can or should be a traditionalist, just like not everybody can or should be a progressive. Despite the insane polarization of American politics over the past five years, I still believe that society needs both farming and foraging types. So is my goal just to increase the quality and rigor of public and academic conversation about religion, tradition, and human psychology? I don’t know. “Increasing quality and rigor” seems like a pretty watery, feel-good type of objective. It doesn’t seem to get much done.

Maybe the problem is that I don’t know what should get done. Really, if I believe that tradition and authority and all those farmer-type institutions are necessary for civilization, I should want a higher proportion of people to actually hold those values. But you can’t convince people to hold particular values by rational evidence, no matter how compelling that evidence is. Values emerge, as I mentioned above, from social experiences such as strategic uptake of behaviors and beliefs from respected peers, long-term exposure to cultural systems during childhood, and things like that. In other words, only cultural processes can effect cultural change, and peer-reviewed papers in evolutionary social science journals don’t really count.

A Case for Optimism?

But maybe I’m being too pessimistic. A recent post at Slate Star Codex reviews Joseph Henrich’s book The Secret of Our Success. Henrich makes the case that unquestioning obedience to cultural authority is what enabled humans to spread across the globe and become the most successful vertebrate species ever. The review comes to some interesting conclusions:

One of the most important parts of any culture – more important than the techniques for hunting seals, more important than the techniques for processing tubers – is techniques for making sure nobody ever questions tradition. Like the belief that anyone who doesn’t conform is probably a witch who should be cast out lest they bring destruction upon everybody. Or the belief in a God who has commanded certain specific weird dietary restrictions, and will torture you forever if you disagree.…There’s a monster at the end of this book. Humans evolved to transmit culture with high fidelity. And one of the biggest threats to transmitting culture with high fidelity was Reason.

The author of Slate Star Codex – pseudonym Scott Alexander – isn’t exactly, like, a First Things-style Catholic reactionary. He’s a rationalist par example, with tremendous cognitive and educational resources, a congenital mistrust of inscrutable traditions, and a pretty autonomy-focused ethics. If Henrich’s book could get Alexander to question whether post-traditional rationality is always the best strategy, maybe there’s a space in the rationalist/progressive/science geek/educated elite world** for evidence-based argumentation about the relative merits, or cultural and psychological functions, of religion, after all.

The point is that I don’t know. I’m using this space to try to think through what it is, exactly, concretely, that the scientific study of religion is supposed to accomplish. Most of the funding pitches (including my own) in the field appeal to stopping terrorism or something like that, because science is ultimately instrumental. It often seems as if the whole cognitive science/cultural evolution of religion hinges on the idea that (1) religion causes social problems, particularly terrorism, and (2) by understanding it better we can neutralize it and solve those problems.

If, therefore, you examine the evidence for a decade or so and come to the conclusion that this view of religion just isn’t true – that religion is a fundamental feature of human life and cannot simply be rationally managed away, and may even be pivotal for solving perennial, key psychological and social problems such as self-regulation and social cohesion and the production of meaning – then you’ve broken the axioms of the entire discourse. What you’re saying isn’t interpretable within the framework. It’s like trying to describe quantum chromodynamics using birdsong.

But Alexander’s review of Henrich’s book offers a hint that maybe there could be a common epistemic framework after all. Some of the information may be assimilable across our cultural, social class, cognitive farmer-forager divides. I’d like to think so. I’m still not sure where that leaves my own work. I’m not complaining – I love my work. I’m just trying to figure out how and in what ways it matters, and how to be better at it without being partisan.

Conflict Is Real

The political philosopher and economist Thomas Sowell argues that an optimistic view of human nature leads naturally to the belief that all conflicts are based on misunderstandings. Clear up the misunderstanding, and the conflict will be resolved. But a pessimistic view of human nature leads to the conviction that conflicts are, sadly, rarely reducible to simple misunderstanding. Quite the contrary: many conflicts really are just zero-sum clashes between groups or individuals with fundamentally opposing interests. For example, militant Palestinians and militant Israelis are both heavily armed ethno-cultural groups with very different identities and histories that want the same land. There’s only so much land, and they both want it. This problem isn’t going to be easily solved if all parties simply sat down and practiced the kind of responsive listening and affirmation that couples are forced to learn in therapy. It’s a deep, bitter conflict, based on incompatible, mutually exclusive motives.

It seems to me that reality often bears out the more pessimistic vision. In our cultural clash between educated, forward-thinking neo-foragers and conservative, tradition-bound farmers, I see real conflict. All the Model UN meetings in the world won’t change the fact that the value systems that work for routine-based labor and sedentary settlement patterns just don’t work for innovation-and-initiative work in mobile social environments, and vice versa. Even if neo-foragers cognitively grasp the sources of the value gap between themselves and neo-farmers, they can’t very well just drop their socially fluid, anti-traditional values if they still want to function well in the knowledge economy.

The conflict, then, is perpetuated by really big, totally impersonal, macro-social and macroeconomic processes, in which we’re all – neo-farmer and neo-forager alike – caught up.

I don’t know where that leaves us. I’d love to know that crisp knowledge about religion and tradition – including knowledge that disconfirms the technocratic world’s prejudices – could have real effects in terms of better policies, putting brakes on cultural polarization, etc. But I mostly currently see an increasing scientific understanding that religion plays a key role in things like social cohesion and self-regulation, without any shift in the normative judgments that researchers and their audiences make. That’s because, as innovation feeds on itself, the small cognitive elite that have the chops to keep up with the constant change and creative destruction are more or less structurally forced to become less and less personally open to religion or tradition, since religion and tradition make it hard to function in a flexible, globalized economy. This is true even if a small minority of the cognitive elite keeps up with developments in my field and understands, propositionally, that religion can have benefits in the abstract. Abstraction is a different beast than real life, even for people whose jobs are fundamentally about the manipulation of symbols.

I don’t have any pithy conclusion, and this post is one of my longest ever, so instead of trying to wrap things up neatly I’ll just end here. Having written all this down, maybe I’ll get a sudden gobsmacking realization in the middle of the night about exactly how my kind of work can be useful and assimilable. If so, I’ll write that up here, too. Maybe it just means learning to be as good a public communicator as Joe Henrich. Or maybe it’s to just keep plugging away, adding brick by tiny brick to the edifice of knowledge – to defer immediate rewards for long-term ones, and to trust in the cumulative process of habit and disciplined routine to accomplish great things over many, many years. Just like a farmer.

* I realize that a lot of libertarians would shudder to think of themselves as technocrats. But the worldview similarities between rationalist libertarians and cool, Twitter-savvy academics are too profound and numerous to be mere coincidence, despite their disagreements about how big the government should be. Most obviously, both libertarians and true technocrats tend toward the forager side of the farmer-forager spectrum.

** Have you noticed that I’ve used a different combination of social descriptors every time I’ve tried to point out the audience I don’t know whether I can reach? That’s because the category is fuzzy. But it’s still a category, and it’s still useful. So I’m using a kind of conceptual triangulation to evoke a heuristic sense of the religion-skeptical worldview, rather than wasting my time trying to isolate a precise denotation of it.

Monday, June 10, 2019

BAS Library - Noah and the Genesis Flood

The flood story is one of the best-known Biblical narratives. The Book of Genesis describes God’s call to Noah to build an ark for his family and two of every animal. In time, the earth would be flooded and the world would begin anew. Questions surrounding the historicity of the Biblical narrative, however, have plagued historians and archaeologists. What do textual and archaeological sources actually tell us about Noah and the flood story? In this BAS Library Special Collection, BAS editors have hand-selected articles from Biblical Archaeology Review and Bible Reviewthat examine the Genesis flood, its interpretations and what the similar Babylonian flood stories can teach us.

Scroll down to read a summary of these articles.

BAR, Nov/Dec 1978
by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

BAR, May/June 2005
by Ralph K. Pedersen

Bible Review, June 2003
by Ronald S. Hendel

BAR, Jul/Aug 2013
by Ronald S. Hendel

The story of a great flood can be found not only in the Book of Genesis, but also in three Babylonian sources: the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis Epic. In many ways, these Babylonian flood stories are very similar to the flood story from Genesis, but in many ways they are also very different. In “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood,” Tikva Frymer-Kensky explains what we can learn from comparing the Babylonian and Genesis flood stories.

What did Noah’s ark look like? A short passage in Genesis gives us just a general description. In “Was Noah’s Ark a Sewn Boat?” Ralph K. Pedersen examines a passage on boat construction in the Epic of Gilgamesh and considers a boat type used in the western Indian Ocean for two millennia—the sewn boat. These examples provide a new understanding of what Noah’s ark may have looked like.

One of the most popular theories relating to the Genesis flood associates the Biblical event with a historical event in the Black Sea. If there was a massive flooding of the Black Sea around 5500 B.C.E., what does this have to do with Noah’s flood? In “The Search for Noah’s Flood,” Ronald S. Hendel suggests that since the Biblical narrative is associated with earlier stories from ancient Mesopotamia, the Black Sea might be a red herring.

The story of Noah and the Genesis flood has recently made it to the big screen in a special effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster called Noah. Some critics lamented that the movie doesn’t portray the Biblical account accurately. In “Biblical Views: Noah, Enoch and the Flood: The Bible Meets Hollywood,” Ronald S. Hendel points out that the Genesis flood has always had conflicting interpretations. Its Pentateuchal sources differ in a number of details, and Christian and Jewish texts have reimagined the flood story for millennia. What can we learn from these interpretations?

Film Review - The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky (actors: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz)

‘The Fountain’ Has Nothing to Do with Time

NOVEMBER 22, 2016

I adore Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. It’s one of my all-time favorite films. I get something new from it every time I watch it, and I watch it at least once a year. I’ve listened to Clint Mansell’s score countless times. The film features Aronofsky at his most earnest and operatic, and while the film flopped when it was released ten years ago, it has gone on to gain a cult following.

However, there also seems to be a common misconception with how the film approaches its narrative. It’s a problem that likely began with the film’s trailer:

As you can see from the trailer, it lays out the three narratives as existing in three time periods: 1500, 2000, and 2500. So if you saw the trailer, you would assume that’s how Aronofsky structured his film. While it’s clear that what’s happening in “1500” is Isabel Creo’s (Rachel Weisz) story “The Fountain” about a conquistador who travels to find The Fountain of Youth in order to empower his Queen, and that in the year 2000, Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is a scientist searching to find a cure for his wife’s illness, we’re left to assume that in the year 2500, “Tom Creo” (as he’s referred to in the credits) is now traveling in a spaceship of some kind with the tree that has allowed him to extend his life.
Image result for film the fountain poster hd
But that’s not actually what’s happening, and the “future” Tom Creo isn’t in the future at all. There’s nothing in the film itself to suggest that the year is 2500 or a future of any kind. In fact, all of the evidence points to something far richer but more complicated: The Tom Creo we see in the bubble is Tommy Creo’s mind.
It’s understandable that some people would think The Fountain is a story that deals with time. Some have even gone so far as to create a “linear” cut that puts the film in “chronological” order. And I get that. If this is a story about The Fountain of Youth, then one would assume that a character who discovered The Fountain in the form of the Tree of Life, would be living in the distant future.
Except The Fountain isn’t about The Fountain of Youth. It’s about death and creation and reconciling the two. The film even takes time to point out how the two are intertwined when Isabel talks about Xibalba:
Izzi: This is an actual Mayan book. It explains the Creation myth. You see that’s first father. He’s the very first human.
Tommy Creo: Hum. Is he dead?
Izzi: He sacrificed himself to make the world.
Izzi: That’s the tree of life bursting out of his stomach.
Tommy Creo: Hey, come.
Izzi: Listen. His body became the trees’ roots. They spread and formed the earth. His soul became the branches rising up forming the sky. All the remained is first father’s head. His children hung in in the heavens creating Xibalba.
Tommy Creo: Xibalba. The star, eh,
[corrects himself]
Tommy Creo: Nebula.
Izzi: So what do you think?
Tommy Creo: About?
Izzi: That idea. Death as an act of creation.
For Tommy, a doctor who has dedicated himself to stopping death, he can’t fathom how death could be an act of creation. After Izzi dies, he angrily tells Dr. Lillian Guzetti (Ellen Burstyn), “Death is a disease, it’s like any other. And there’s a cure. A cure – and I will find it.”

The arc of The Fountain isn’t about a man who found The Fountain of Youth or The Tree of Life, ate its bark, and lived to be over 500 years old so that he could rejuvenate the Tree in a dying star. To assume that the scenes in space bubble are literally happening deprives The Fountain of its central conflict, which is about Tommy accepting death and using that to fuel the creation of finishing Isabel’s novel.
When we see Tom Creo in the bubble interacting with Izzi, they’re not preludes to flashbacks. They’re thoughts interfering in Tom’s mind. For Tom, he can’t finish Isabel’s novel because to do so would be to accept her death. “Finish it,” are the worst words to him because if the novel is unfinished, then Isabel’s work, and by proxy Isabel, lives on. He literally can’t close the book on their relationship even though her dying wish was for him to finish the novel.
The climax of the film is Tom learning to accept death, something he has refused to do throughout the story because it’s too painful. When he finally accepts it, we see Tom Creo interact with Tomas’ storyline in the novel “The Fountain”. That scene isn’t Tom teleporting back in time to reveal himself as “First Father” to the Chieftain. What we’re witnessing is an act of creation. Tommy (in the present day) is finishing the story, and the “future” Tom is his mind penning that creation. He changes Izzi’s ending, which had the Chieftain killing Tomas and instead the Chieftain sacrifices himself in the presence of a figure he believes to be “First Father”.

What Aronofsky is showing us isn’t a guy in the distant future getting hit by an exploding nebula. He’s showing us in the abstract the act of accepting death and how it can lead to creation. Tom is now penning the end of “The Fountain” where Tomas reaches The Tree of Life, greedily drinks its sap to heal his wounds, and then is overwhelmed by the power of the Fountain, and dies in its thrall. Like Isabel’s story, it’s autobiographical. She began it as a tale about a woman hoping that her beloved could save her, but Tommy ends it almost as a mea culpa. For Tommy, Tomas is undone—much like he was—by refusing to accept death and chasing eternal life at his own peril.
Of course, how do you sell that in a 2-minute, 27-second trailer? How do you tell audiences, “Hey, all this cool stuff with bald Hugh Jackman in a bubble going through space? That’s actually an abstract representation of the character’s mind as he learns to accept death and finish his late wife’s novel. Coming soon to a theater near you!” It’s much easier to say, “Yeah, this is just three time periods. Roll with it.”
It was an easy sell that did a disservice to the story Aronofsky was trying to tell. While some may argue that The Fountain romanticizes the ugliness of death, it could also be argued that raging against the inevitable shortens our lives in ways we can’t perceive. Instead of enjoying the first snow with the person we love the most, we push them away because we can’t face the pain their death will bring. For The Fountain, we can only move forward after we’re willing to embrace the end.

Image result for film the fountain poster hd

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Marjorie -Suchocki - Original Sin Revisited

Original Sin Revisited
Marjorie Suchocki received her Ph.D. at the Claremont Graduate School, in 1974, and is Dean Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont California.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 233, Vol. 20, Number 4, Winter, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Dr. Suchocki addresses the wavering fortunes of original sin in these past few centuries and explores some of the resources of process, feminist, and black theology for a contemporary development of this doctrine.

Sin has fallen on hard times. We exist in the paradox of a time with a profound realization that our problems are systemic, far exceeding individual is-tic consent or solutions, but the fundamental approach to sin in our society remains a litany of personal failures. Yet ecological disasters, fearsome instruments of war, vast systems of classism, racism, and sexism all have impact upon our lives, and we experience ourselves as caught up in such systems with or without our consent. At a time when it could be argued that we most need it, we have lost the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin as a corporate human condition preceding and affecting each individual.
The issue, then, is this: most contemporary analyses of sin begin with the personal, and transfer it to the social, but individual analysis seems hard-pressed to account for the gravity of social ills confronting us. The tradition did a somewhat better job, even though it began with a personal analysis of sin: Adam’s fall. However, it then interpreted Adam’s fall as the corporate corruption of human nature per se, so that every human being is born already dealing with the effects of sin not directly its own. Original sin conveyed a corporate problem that then yielded individual sins, Something like this would now seem necessary, but we no longer have access to the old myth of Adam and its corporate corruption. Instead, we deal with individual sins that either remain in the private realm, or if projected into the wider social realm fail to deal with the collective power of sin and its relation to individuals. While we cannot use the myth of Adam and corporate corruption, we need to go beyond the mythology to recapture its meaning in forms that address the human and indeed, the planetary situation today.
My supposition is that the individualization of sin is the trivialization of sin, and given the systematic connection between our understanding of sin and our understanding of God as the one who addresses us in our human plight, the trivialization of sin has an inexorable affect upon two areas: the doctrine of God, and the sense of individual and corporate responsibility for social ills. hi this article, however, I will explore only the second of these suppositions and that insofar as it is entailed in a reappropriation of a doctrine of original sin. I will briefly address the wavering fortunes of original sin in these past few centuries, and then begin to explore some of the resources of process, feminist, and black theology for a contemporary development of the doctrine.
Amazon Link
A Brief Contemporary History of Original Sin
Since Pierre Bayle launched his satirical attacks on Adam in his immensely popular Dictionnaire in the seventeenth century, the doctrine of original sin has never been the same. Perhaps it was the rise of rationalism, with its corollary emphasis upon the individual, or the discovery of history, or the questioning of biblical authority -- but the age-old notions of the corruption of the race through Adam’s fall itself fell from theological favor, never to be thoroughly recovered. In the seventeenth century, phenomena such as the environment and the humors became substitutes for original sin in explaining the peculiar tendency to perversity within humankind, but with the loss of corporate corruption and corporate culpability, the focus on sin began its slow shift to sins, individually committed and individually suffered.
Schleiermacher was the first theologian after Bayle to resuscitate the doctrine of original sin without reliance on the myth of Adam. While Immanuel Kant also made an enormous contribution with his theory of radical evil, his emphasis led more to individual rather than corporate responsibility, and thus continued the Enlightenment trend toward individualism. Schleiermacher, however, built a theory of the solidarity of humankind in sin upon an evolutionary view of human nature. His basic thesis was that the physical aspects of human existence preceded and provided the basis for spirituality. Our physicality involved a necessary self-preservation instinct that led to protection of one’s own self or kind over against that which was defined as other -- a view not too dissimilar from what Cornel West develops in the late twentieth century as the "normative gaze that tends toward universalization of one ‘s own kind to the detriment of otherness. For Schleiermacher, spirituality -- or the God consciousness -- involved a reversal of self-interest toward an inclusive care for all existence. An important supposition in this thinking is that all existence is in fact bonded together, interwoven in a solidarity whereby each actually is involved in the other’s well-being. That is, there is a fundamental falseness to the egotism that develops from one’s physical instincts for survival, since the ontological reality is that one’s own survival is bound up with the survival of all else. As process thought would later say, all reality is interconnected. Spiritual existence, recognition of our bondedness and therefore mutual care, is congruent with our ontological reality.
For Schleiermacher, the solidarity of the race and its mutual struggle toward spiritual existence from a starting place of sensuous existence accounts for the universal tendency of humans to act against one another’s good, and so against their own good as well. Sin is not an individual phenomenon, but a social phenomenon in the sense that each individual sin is only properly understood in relation to the backdrop of sin evidenced by the race as a whole. Further, the sin of one contributes to the deeper plight of the whole, for each one affects the condition of all. Solidarity, not individuality, is the fundamental basis for understanding sin. Thus Schleiermacher reestablished a notion of original sin apart from reliance on the myth of Adam.
Schleiermacher’s major influence in the nineteenth century was in areas other than this unique development of the doctrine of original sin and its transmission. Ritschl was one of the few theologians to expand on his insights,’ considering the solidarity of the race as the fundamental condition of religion, plunging us corporately into sin and making way for a new corporate reality of righteousness in Christian salvation. But on the whole, nineteenth century philosophical theology was not particularly interested in the question of original or corporate sin; it was far more involved in various responses to Hegel, the new prominence of biblical study and its corollary "quest for the historical Jesus," and the implications of economic and psychological developments for Christian faith. The theology of original sin lay languishing in the lurch. The alternative voices came primarily from Russia in Dostoevsky, and in America through Josiah Royce. Dostoevsky also saw all humanity existing in an interconnected web of mutual responsibility, mystical in its dimensions, where each was responsible for all. In American theology, Josiah Royce probed the communal nature of sin through what he called "social contentiousness" in the tension between the individual and the community.
It remained for Walter Rauschenbusch in A Theology for the Social Gospel to deal simply and forcefully with the social nature of sin and its transmission from generation to generation in a way somewhat reminiscent of Schleiermacher, but far more oriented toward the pragmatics of contemporary life than toward the metaphysics underlying the phenomenon of sin. Rauschenbusch presumed the solidarity of humankind, and focused upon the effects of that solidarity in the transmission of sin such that each generation is predisposed to evil. He cited both biological and social transmission of sin: biological in that we inherit a physical nature with conflicting instincts, and with a great capacity for ignorance, both of which foster inertia and/or inappropriate behavior which, depending upon the degree of intelligence and will involved, lead to sin. But by far the greater factor in the transmission of sin is our embeddedness within a ready-made social system. We draw our ideas, our moral standards, and our spiritual ideals from the social body into which we are born; these are mediated to us by the public and personal institutions that make up the society. Our norms for moral action are not drawn from a disinterested study of objective reality, but are absorbed from the social environs of our childhood. Even though these norms can easily tend to the destruction of the common good, the norms are buttressed by the authority of the dominant social group, its idealization of the structures that work evil, and by the profitableness that most often is entailed in the norms of destruction. One might paraphrase Rauschenbusch by saying that "the problem of sin is that it is profitable."
From a contemporary perspective, it is clear that Rauschenbusch’s absorbing passion was to expose the capitalistic sins of American society; he did so under a normative vision of the Kingdom of God that entailed shared rather than shirked labor, and full opportunities for self-realization for all. War, militarism, landlordism, predatory industries, and finance are the demons he named that shape social institutions toward fostering their own respectability and perpetuation at the expense of justice. The individual sins that Rauschenbusch named are drink, overeating, sexualism, vanity, and idleness -- actions that were often associated with the excesses of a victimized working class. Rauschenbusch focused almost entirely on an economic understanding of sin, and did not see the psychic structures of racism and sexism that accompany and undergird the classism of economic systems. Nonetheless, his achievement is that he built on the earlier work of Schleiermacher and Royce, showing the pragmatic working out of the solidarity of the race that Schleiermacher developed. Rauschenbusch gave the strongest statement in the first half of the twentieth century relating sin to social conditions that form us against the common good, such that each generation corrupts the next.
Two world wars and the increasing importance of existentialism interrupted the theological agenda begun by Rauschenbusch. Not until the liberation theologians began to write in the sixties would social forces of evil receive again such forceful attention in American theology. Indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian relative to political and ethical action in this century, wrote his theories of sin under the grip of Soren Kierkegaard’s more individualistic notions of the origin of sin. There is little evidence in his analysis of sin in The Nature and Destiny of Man of any indebtedness to Rauschenbusch, and as for the solidarity theories developed by Schleiermacher. Niebuhr dismissed them by saying that "the ‘cultural lag’ theory of human evil is completely irrelevant to the analysis of . . . sin (NDM 250)." Niebuhr’s antipathy toward any form of inherited sin reflected his fear that it would mitigate responsibility; hence he writes: "the theory of an inherited second nature is as clearly destructive of the idea of responsibility for sin as rationalistic and dualistic theories which attribute human evil to the inertia of nature" (NDM 262). Solidarity and its inevitable implication in corporate sin gave way to every individual’s encounter with the tension and anxiety of finitude and freedom.
Reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s development of the individual before God, Niebuhr sets the self as caught between finitude and freedom, seeking to escape vulnerability and anxiety. But this tension can only be lived creatively insofar as the individual trusts in God. Apart from this trust, the individual is pulled by the tension into either pride (the act of treating the finite as if it were infinite), or sensuousness (the sloth that causes one to retreat into the finite as if it alone were of consequence). With regard to political or corporate ills, Niebuhr tended toward a projection of the individual dilemma upon the body politic.He saw corporate evil as the gathered force of individual evils within the looser structure of a corporate body. Since the looser structure of the corporation, be it nation or institution, lacks anything analogous to mind or conscience, the corporate structure has little power of self-transcendence, and hence is governed by the unrestrained egoism that Niebuhr attributes to human nature in its finite aspects. Since sin is located fundamentally in freedom, and freedom is connected with human self-transcendence, corporate evil is something less than sin. Original sin relates solely to the individual’s flight from anxiety.
Early in the movement of liberation theologies, attention was indeed given to the problem of corporate evil. However, initial forays into the problem tended to see the issue in totally externalized terms. For example, James Cone wrote devastatingly about the sins of white society, and Mary Daly was exceeding clear in delineating the evils of patriarchy, but for both, the problem of corporate evil was "out there." Blacks and women deal indeed with the effects of the sins of others, but it was as if the corporate sins of the others totally absorbed all the sin there is. To speak of sin as also involving Blacks or women was to fall into the sin of "blaming the victim"; there was a myth of presumed innocence for all but those involved in perpetrating or benefiting from the structures of oppression.
The exception to this is the early work by Valerie Saiving suggesting that the sin of pride as defined throughout the tradition, but particularly in the works of Niebuhr, actually defined male existence, and that the sin most apt to describe female existence is the sin of a lack of centered existence. In the late seventies Judith Plaskow picked up this insight in Sex, Sin, and Grace. She critiqued Niebuhr for excessive attention to the sin of pride, and corrected him by expanding his understanding of sensuousness to describe the conditioning women receive that mitigates against their responsible development of selfhood. Susan Nelson Dunfee expanded this yet further, speaking of women’s "sin of hiding." However, in none of these writers is there any attention beyond the individual’s sin toward an analysis of social or corporate sin. They, no more than Niebuhr, had any use for the insights hidden within the old doctrine of original sin.
Meanwhile, one process theologian in particular began to address the problem. John B. Cobb, Jr., in his small publication called Is it Too Late? A Theology of Ecology, began addressing the corporate structures of evil insofar as they wreak their damage on the environment. Earlier, in The Structure of Christian Existence, he had also developed a system that can yet prove helpful in reconsidering the doctrine of original sin. In that work, he analyzed the peculiarities of the cultural transmission of structures of consciousness. He was concerned to explore and then compare the pluralism of these structures as evidenced in the various religions of the world, and to develop the unique particularities of Christian consciousness. There is no application of his work to original sin, but the insights are there: the dynamics of becoming are ontologically given for selves as for every other actuality, but the parameters of what a self may become are not an ontological given, but are in fact mediated by one’s particular cultural/religious situation. One could develop the insight as a metaphysical basis of Rauschenbush’s claim for the social transmission of sin.
There are several further developments in both Black and feminist theology that took place in the eighties that must be mentioned before moving on to the development of process/feminist resources for a reappropriation of the doctrine of original sin. Cornel West, in Prophesy Deliverance, speaks of the "normative gaze." Like Cone, he is addressing the racist structures of society, expanding upon Cone’s work by delving into the human tendency to universalize one’s own experience. One might associate the normative gaze with Schleiermacher’s analysis of the physiological development of self-protection and own-kind preservation that evolved through humanity’s long struggle for existence, although West does not make this association. Instead, he traces its manifestation in the past few centuries, and its invidious effects when it is accompanied by power. In dominant groups, the normative gaze becomes the creation of norms that idealize one’s own kind, subordinating otherness to serve the dominant group’s ends and purposes. In subordinate groups, the normative gaze translates into social inferiority, and internalized images of inferiority. In the latter case, the social and personal combine to produce variations of self-hatred, with a corollary projection of these feelings onto one’s own kind as a whole. A failure to own or develop one’s full potential as a human being is the result.
The feminist parallel to this development is Rosemary Radford Ruether’s analysis of sin and evil in Sexism and God-Talk. Unlike West, she relates her insights to the old doctrine of original sin, stating that "feminism can rediscover the meaning of the fall in a radically new way" (SGT 37). Sin is both individual and systemic: individually, the human condition is radical alienation from one’s true relationship to self, nature, and God; systemically, this translates into structures of domination and subordination that are enforced by the group in power. However, even though she goes so far as to say that alienating social structures are central to the transmission of the alienated and fallen condition of patriarchal sin, she no more than Niebuhr goes beyond the analysis of individual sin as the primal cause of social structures. Like Niebuhr, she speaks of both active and passive sin, or pride and sloth. Pride is acting on the capacity to set oneself up over against others, and sloth is the passive acquiescence, manifested by men as well as women, to the dominant group ego. Apart from the assertion that socioeconomic and political structures transmit the effects of pride and sloth to successive generations, there is no investigation of the differences and connections between individual and social sin.
What is needed at the present time, then, is a theology of sin that builds upon the work of the persons cited here, but that can develop a stronger connection between social structures and individuals, and with the ancient insights concerning original sin.
A New Basis for Original Sin
To restate the problem, original sin defined the human situation as one of universal implication in sin, apart from any conscious consent. Sins arise from the condition of sin. Whether classical theologians dealt with the nature of sin as pride, sloth, unbelief, disobedience, or any other variation, the exercise of such vices depended upon this original condition. The mechanism used to account for universal perversity was that the supposed first humans deviated from their given good, and with this deviation, corrupted the nature that was then passed on to their progeny. The plight today is that we experience an enormity to social evils, but we have no mechanism such as "original sin" to account for them theologically. Issues such as racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, handicapism, anthropocentrism, and whatever other ‘isms" we have devised toward the ill-being of peoples require more than an analysis of individual sin to account for the pervasiveness and depth of the problem. We must re-appropriate the doctrine of original sin in such a way that it speaks to our condition, and lends heuristic power to our personal and corporate forms of addressing evil.
Interdependence, intersubjectivity, and the peculiarities of consciousness are tools provided through process thought for developing a notion of original sin in which original sin can be interpreted as inherited structures of consciousness, acting as socially sanctioned norms, that assume the ill-being of earth or any of its inhabitants. These norms predispose us toward their perpetuation, and inevitably involve us in sin. My operative definition of sin is those intents and actions that work the ill-being of any facet of existence.
I recognize the vast inclusiveness of such a definition, and hold that there is a great variance of degrees of culpability for sin, from negligible to great, but that the working of ill-being is nonetheless appropriately named sin.
Like Schleiermacher, process theology depends heavily upon the notion of an evolutionary world of interdependent actualities. Both draw from the sciences of their day: Schleiermacher on the developing notions of evolution, and process from early twentieth-century physics. There are in fact parallels between Cobb’s exploration of the structure of Christian existence, and Schleiermacher’s development of God-conscious existence, both of which draw upon evolutionary suppositions. Process thought, more than Schleiermacher, develops the dynamism involved in evolution and in the interconnected nature of existence that is essential to both systems.
A process model is a relational model, drawing on the data of physics and biology, maintaining that we do indeed live in an interconnected universe where everything relates to everything else. From the world of the physicist Freeman Dyson, we learn of the butterfly effect: a butterfly, taking off from a flower in Beijing, has an effect on the weather patterns of mid-America. We already know of the interconnected life patterns whereby oxygen generated by rainforests nourishes all the earth, or where water falling in northern mountains means green gardens in southern California. We are no strangers to the daily witnesses of interdependence. A process-relational philosophy suggests that the interconnectedness that we experience at a macro-cosmic level is also operative at a microcosmic level, and in fact accounts for the dynamism of existence itself. Everything exists in and through its creative response to relationships beyond itself. This means that everything matters: each reality receives from all that have preceded it, and gives to all who succeed it.
If there is no reality that does not participate in this dynamic process of existence, surely it sets up a structure whereby the interactive influence between the individual and society is highlighted at the personal as well as microscopic level. If each moment of existence inherits from all of the past, then the individual and corporate actions of the past have an effect on what the present individual might become. Further, one’s social location is a critical factor in this inheritance, since one’s incorporation of the past is perspectival, rooted in particularity. One receives the past already weighted in value relative to one’s own place in the sun. There is an inevitable intentionality within that which one inherits, and this inherited intentionality strongly influences the direction of one’s own intentions.
Within this process-relational model, the totality of ourselves must be considered as a matter of relationships; these relationships are internal to who we are, and not external. We inherit from a personal past, a familial past, a social and cultural and political past -- but these are truisms. Process simply points out that this inheritance is woven into ourselves, together with our own creative response to those relationships. We become ourselves in a relative freedom through the many relationships that influence us at the depths of our being. The case is easily illustrated in every instance where one whom we love encounters hardship. Our own well-being is affected by the well-being of the one we love, so that the other’s pain causes us distress. We are internally affected by the other, and therefore dependent upon the other. Process provides a model to discuss this internality of relation: we receive from the past in our innermost nature, and through our creative response to that past, we become ourselves. In our own becoming we in our turn influence others, who must take our influence into their own becoming, and so the dance of relationship fills our days with variations of pain and pleasure. Relations are internal to who we are.
Process suggests that most of the relations that we experience are much deeper than the conscious levels of our being. We, too, inherit from the butterfly in Beijing! Most of the effects of the vast network of relations impinging upon us are screened out at preconscious levels; others are projected back onto environmental phenomena; very few make their way into conscious existence.
The implication, of course, is that the relationality that makes up the personal world of each one of us encompasses all other persons, as well as all elements in the universe preceding us. On the physical level, our very bodies are made up through internal relations to atoms streaming toward us from throughout the universe; physicists become poets when they tell us we are stardust. For the purposes of this investigation of original sin, the singularly important facet of this reality is that the old views of the solidarity of the race have a basis in ontic fact. Whether we like it or not, we are bound up with one another’s good, woven into one another’s welfare. Such a reality is easy to acknowledge at the level we call collegiality, community, and family, but the deeper reality is that our consciousness is but the rim of what we receive. Freeman Dyson reminds us of the little old lady who confronted the scientific view of the origins of the universe with the retort that everyone knew the universe was really held in existence by being placed on the back of a giant turtle. "Aha," said the scientist, "and what holds up the turtle?" "You think you’ve caught me, young man," she replied, "but it’s turtles, all the way down!" In a process world, it’s relation, all the way down. We are bound up with one another throughout the earth, inexorably inheriting from each, inexorably influencing all. Our prized individuality exists through connectedness. Individual inheritance is at the same time social inheritance.
If this is the structure of personal existence, clearly there is a renewed basis for discussing the universal effects of sin. It takes us in several directions, the obvious and the implied. Obviously, we are not isolated from the ill-being of others in the world. Events in distant Kuwait affected many families; drought in one part of the world affects the food supply in another. But if such macrocosmic and obvious interrelatedness is common, the model again says these are but "tip of the iceberg" occurrences, and that there is a lessening of our own humanity with every human evil, a heightening of our good with every human joy. There is no such thing as private ill, having no effect upon others, for private ills both derive from social effects and have social effects, yielding again further private ills.
Schleiermacher spoke of a solidarity of the race through an evolutionary journey as we evolved from purely physical existence, bound up with survival, toward modes of spiritual existence, where our survival depends upon our extending our own sense of well-being to include the well-being of others. Process affirms this insight, and expands it by going deeper into the nature of interconnectedness, and by arguing that the metaphysical basis of spirituality is the increasingly complex organization of relationships until they create first consciousness, and then self-consciousness. With self-consciousness comes in-creased responsibility for the quality of relationships, and hence the basis for the spirituality of which Schleiermacher speaks.
However, while this basic interrelationality is the foundation for a process view of original sin, it requires expansion into the peculiarity not simply of subjectivity, but of intersubjectivity at the level of social institutions that organize the shaping influence of the past upon the present. For I am convinced that the dynamics of the individual alone are not enough to account for the pervasiveness of sin, and that we need an understanding of institutions and their relationship to individuals as well.
The increased complexity of relational organization does not stop with self-conscious existence, but, upon this basis, develops yet further modes of complexity in institutions. In order to push toward a comprehensive understanding of sin that undergirds and expands insights from Schleiermacher, Rauschenbusch, Ruether, and West, process thought must focus on the intersubjectivity that is uniquely characteristic of institutions. Just as there is a grouping of many actualities in the creation of the complexity of embodied personality, even so there is obviously a grouping of many persons in the creation of an institution. Personal existence becomes uniquely personal in the achievement of self-consciousness; institutional existence gains its character through its unique form of intersubjectivity, or the cooperation of many self-conscious subjects in the joint creation of a supra-personal form of existence.
The intersubjectivity works both personally and institutionally. Notice the peculiar dynamics of a new association with an institution, whereby a person encounters a whole new configuration of her or his personal past. One’s history is contextualized in a different way, being intertwined with the histories of all others in the institution, and by the history of the institution as a whole. Part of the jarring sense of transition is the ontological demand at subliminal levels of one’s being to respond to newly relevant relationships, weaving them into one’s own continuing becoming self. New associations place new demands and invitations upon one’s becoming. Personal participation in the intersubjectivity of an institution is the recontextualization of identity. But by the same token, one’s own energies become newly interwoven with the institution and those associated with it, adding a new dimension to its character which will be manifest at greater or lesser intensities, depending upon the size of the institution. The complexity in the resulting intersubjectivity is increased still further by the overarching reality of the institution, which is woven not simply through the intersubjectivity of its members, but through the tendrils of its relationship to all of its constituencies in its own unique trajectory of time.
Institutions and social organizations work through the intersubjectivity created by concentric rings of participants, governed by the dynamic force of a rather fluid mission, or purpose for its being. The peculiar power of an institution is the sense in which its central purpose is reflected a myriad of times as if in some great hall of mirrors through the intersubjectivity created by all of its participants. This reflection process need not be at explicitly conscious levels for its effectiveness; it is enough that one has absorbed the institutional purpose to whatever degree into the internal structures of one’s identity, and then, in the naturalness of a relational world, woven that purpose into the projections of one’s own influence upon others. Within the institution, this reflection-projection process creates the peculiar intersubjectivity of the institution, nuancing and intensifying the institutional purpose, and therefore creating the power of the institution’s psychic impact on society as a whole. This psychic impact is woven into the physical or material effects of the institution as it carries out its reason for being.
Agency in institutional existence is diffuse, shared, and mutually delegated. It can take the form of hierarchy similar to that which exists in an individual person, where there is a unique governing center coordinating the relationality of all its parts, or it can build upon its ontic base of intersubjectivity and act through consensual modes. The size and complexity of the institution influences the mode of agency, in that the larger the institution, the greater the likelihood that its agency will be coordinated hierarchically. Responsibility is created and shared through the intersubjectivity of the institution, but in varying degrees, depending upon the particular institutional structure. All who participate in an institution bear a real responsibility, to one degree or another, for what the institution is.
It should be noted that the intersubjectivity of an institution allows a peculiar manipulation of that intersubjectivity for individual or specialized group advantage. Its diffuse complexity of agency can mask personal responsibility; intersubjectivity can be used to hide one’s subjectivity. That is, while institutions are more powerful than individuals, exerting greater social force, their looser and intersubjective structures lend themselves to manipulation of that social force by individuals.
In any form, institutional agency is created through intersubjectivity; it is a cumbersome agency, because diffuse. At the same time, its compounded complexity of intersubjectivity gives it power that is greater than that of a single individual, even though it may be subverted by an individual. Intersubjectivity differs from a person’s subjectivity in and through this different order of complexity. It entails a multiple nuanced and mirrored and repeated intentionality of purpose that exercises its corporate influence on the rest of society, particularly those within its immediate environs.
Institutions themselves, however, are hardly the final word, for they contribute to larger groups that are more loosely organized to create a culturally defined society as a whole, bound together as a unit through mutually albeit somewhat loosely reinforced language and customs. Again, responsibility is diffuse, permeating the intersubjectivity that actually and dynamically creates the whole, of whatever proportions that whole might be. We live in a Chinese-nesting-box world of interconnected societies, all of which impinge upon the forming consciousness of every individual. Subjectivity, or the unique mode of existence that belongs to individuals, is replaced by intersubjectivity at the level of institutions and society.
The importance of this brief discussion of persons, institutions, and society relative to the notion of original sin is that all three are involved in the mediation of both good and ill, that which makes up the richness of communal existence, and that which mitigates against it. All three are routes of inheritance, receiving the past, weaving the past, and becoming the past for the future that will succeed them. Their gift to their progeny is to provide the parameters within which consciousness becomes self-consciousness, ordered into a world. This is both bane and blessing, and insofar as it is bane, it is the perpetual origin of original sin.
The psychic power of the forms of intersubjectivity that create institutions and societies lies in their being channels for a multiply reinforced group structure of consciousness, a common grid for interpreting experience in the world. Intersubjectivity itself creates the normative structures whereby we individual subjects order our lives. Further, these structures are not externally imposed, they are internally inherited through the relationality of existence, contributing to the formation of every subjectivity that receives them.
Given this structure to social existence, then, there are two basic elements that contribute to the situation of being disposed toward sin prior to one’s consent. The first element is the interconnected structure of existence, as outlined above, and as developed through process thought; the second draws from the profound insights of black and feminist theology relative to the shaping power of the "normative gaze," or the tendency to value one’s own kind as over against the other. The normative gaze, sanctioned and channeled through the intersubjectivity of institutions and society, is sufficient to shape the consciousness of persons from birth and throughout life. The background of the normative gaze is intersubjective and therefore diffuse, but its foreground is its shaping of the norms and expectations of each individual consciousness. Since it is the individual self-consciousness that is so formed, it becomes constitutive of the self, and difficult to transcend. One’s actions from this center of consciousness will then actualize the norms, perpetuating them relative to one’s own position and perspective within the grid of the intersubjective society at large. By definition, the inherited norms cannot be questioned prior to their enactment: one is caught in sin without virtue of consent. Original sin simply creates sinners.
Against this definitional understanding of original sin, Rauschenbusch’s insights may be given full rein. He spoke to the economic dimensions of original sin when social structures are used to the so-called enhancement of the few at the expense of the many. John B. Cobb Jr.’s insights concerning the devastating effects of anthropocentrism upon earth as a whole through the restriction of well-being to the human community also follow. These views drawn from process, feminist, and Black thought are also extensions of Schleiermacher’s analysis of physical and spiritual existence, albeit translated into the language of "normative gaze" and "own-kindness.
The question remains that if we can refer to inherited structures of consciousness that normalize the good of some at the expense of others, and if these structures of consciousness form persons apart from their consent, how is it that original sin entails guilt? For we suppose that some degree of freedom and responsibility is necessary for the attribution of guilt. The requirement in a process metaphysics that freedom inhere, to one degree or another, in every subject whatsoever is the route to establishing responsibility for one’s actualization of sin. The "Catch 22" -- and the reason for appropriating the name "original sin" instead of simply describing these conditions as the way of things -- is that personal action depends upon structures of consciousness which themselves involve seeds of their own transcendence. The possibility for self-transcendence through questioning one’s structured norms creates the responsibility and therefore the guilt that is entailed in the transition from original sin to sins. However -- and we are again in a "Catch 22" -- in the nature of the case, we inherit structures of consciousness from our birth onward, and hence by the time questioning is possible, the destructive norms are already internalized. The combined power of intersubjectivity creates the grooves of subjectivity.
My introduction to this topic indicated that we need to reappropriate a doctrine of original sin to illumine the ills of our day, and our own participation in those ills. The purpose of such theologizing, however, is not to wallow in the problem, but to name the problem. Naming is itself a form of self-transcendence that has the power to draw us into transformed structures of consciousness, and a wider embrace of the well-being of all earth’s creatures. Such transformations, however, must necessarily involve a transformed mode of communal existence, a renewed intersubjectivity intentionally open to multiple forms of well-being. Such a topic also requires much further development. For the present, my aim has been to explore new foundations for the old doctrine of original sin, allowing us once again to name its power. Such naming is itself a mode of transcendence that can begin the process of transformation toward the good.

BS -- Susan Nelson Dunfee. Beyond Servanthood. University Press of America, 1989.
CF -- Freidrich Schleiermacher. The Christian Faith. Harper & Row, 1963.
Eth -- Dan Rhoades. "The Prophetic Insight and Theoretical-Analytical Inadequacy of ‘Christian Realism.’" Ethics 75/1(October 1964).
IAD -- Freeman Dyson. Infinite in All Directions. Harper & Row, 1989.
NDM -- Reinhold Niebuhr. The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941.
PD -- Cornel West. Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. The Westminster Press, 1982.
SCE -- John Cobb, Jr. The Structure of Christian Existence. The Westminster Press, 1967.
SGT -- Rosemary Ruether. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Beacon Press, 1983.
SSG -- Judith Plaskow. Sex, Sin and Grace. University Press of America, 1980.
TE -- John B. Cobb, Jr. Is it Too Late? A Theology of Ecology. Bruce Books, 1971.
TSG -- Walter Rauschenbusch. A Theology for the Social Gospel. Abingdon, 1945.

1Julius Mueller also developed a work on original sin that harks back to Originistic theories of pre-existent souls; however, this thesis entails many of the problems of a mythic Adam, which truncated its twentieth-century influence.
2See Dan Rhoades, "The Prophetic Insight and Theoretical-Analytical Inadequacy of Christian Realism’," Ethics, LXXV/1, October, 1964.