Jonathan Foster, Rene Girard, and the Four Hopes of the Process Movement
The Four Hopes of the Process Movement
A consensual God empowers us to participate with love in crafting a more imaginative and hopeful way. Does our world not need a more imaginative and hopeful way?
- Jonathan J. Foster, A Theology of Consent, Mimetic Theory in an Open and Relational Universe
What is the more imaginative and hopeful way? At the Cobb Institute we speak of it in terms of four interrelated hopes: whole persons, whole communities, a whole planet, and holistic thinking. These hopes are what we in the process movement are about. We are not simply about understanding the universe as an interrelated and evolving whole, we are about living in the world in an open and relational way.
How might these hopes be realized in the world today? How might people become “more whole” and how might they help build, and live within, "whole communities" that take care of other animals and the planet, even as they take care of, and included, the most vulnerable of people in loving ways?
This is the underlying question that drives Jonathan Foster’s Theology of Consent. He turns to, and brings together, two sources.
One is the process-influenced, open-and-relational idea that God is Love, as combined with the image of an open and relational universe where everything is gathered together in a nexus of radical inter-becoming, In his view and in those of all open-and-relational theologians, the twin ideas (a) that God is Love, not a bully in the sky or a dominating king on a throne, and (b) that we live in a world that is always already knitted together in countless amazing ways, help us realize the four hopes. These two ideas must be presented in aesthetically compelling ways, such that they touch the heart and not simply the mind. We need to live relationally.
But this source is by no means enough, says Foster. We must dig into, and come to understand, the psycho-spiritual impulses within ourselves that lead to so much violence, and we must do our best, if we can, to wean ourselves of them. Or, to use process terminology, to be creatively transformed into more loving ways of living. What are these devils that ensnare us? Here Foster turns to the thought of Rene Girard. The inner impulses that so ensnare us are our own desires for revenge, our own resentments of others, our own impulses to scapegoat others, as learned from others through a process of conscious and unconscious mimesis. We imitate others who do the same and thus create, for ourselves and others, a culture of negative mimesis.
Moreover, add Girard and Foster, this culture is cultivated by organized religion. Not so much mindfulness-based Buddhism or naturalistic Daoism or shamanistic Shinto or non-violent Jainism, but rather Abrahamic and more specifically Christian religion with its image of an all-powerful, dominating father figure who demands what Foster calls unchosen sacrifice, as symbolized in the image of Jesus involuntarily being placed on the cross by a pre-determined divine plan. In short, the psycho-spiritual roots of our problems are religious as well, carried by images and stories we trace to our origins.
Is there an alternative origin story? Might we enter new possibilities for positive mimesis; the mimesis of wonder, of reverence, of playfulness, of forgiveness, of tenderness, of a sense of mystery and positive connection with others. Such are the hopes of the process movement with its openness to novelty and to positive forms of spirituality: see Spirituality and Process. In process philosophy the universe of inter-becoming includes a capacity within each actuality to "feel the feelings" of others consciously and unconsciously, and to be affected by others in ways both healthy and unhealthy. Moreover, we can "consent" to the positive feelings and live from them. We are, after all, free. Thus, the significance of the title of Foster's book: Theology of Consent. This book is a very important contribution to the process movement and to the possibility that, with chosen service, with a willingness to say "yes" to love, we might just make it through the impasse into something like what Jesus calls the basileia thou theou.
But it will not be easy. We cannot sail our way into novelty without being honest, painfully honest, about the negative mimesis inside us. In the language of Jung, we must own the shadow. (This owning is, in fact, one of the dimensions of process spirituality.) We cannot consent until first we take stock of our hearts. Foster helps us do both: take stock and, in humility and a spirit of love, move forward,
Theology of Consent: Mimetic Theory in an Open and Relational Universe
Introduction In this writing, I intend to bring together mimetic theory with open and relational theology, an intention as important as it is challenging.
First, “important” in that humanity needs pathways back into better origin stories to help us gain access to better future stories. The past is never just the past, for we constantly tote its interpretations right into the present, bringing to mind that Orwellian line “Whoever controls the past controls the future.”1 We are in desperate need of fresh ways to decode what’s gone before, to help us locate ourselves within commonality, cooperation, interdependence, and (dare I use the word love so soon?) yes, love.
Even as I type this, Russia and Ukraine are embroiled in the latest outgrowth of humanity’s psycho-spiritual push and pull that Girardians might label the contagion of negative mimetic desire. Whiteheadian-influenced open and relational theology, for its part, isn’t quite as narrow in its naming of humanity’s “push and pull,” although it has much to say about chaotic fluctuations, tension, and resolution as well as power. So yes, whether we’re informed by Girard or Whitehead, in very real ways, Putin and Zelenskyy are representative of all of us here. And all of us are legitimately in peril if we don’t (re)discover a better origin story. Origin stories can empower or disempower, encourage or discourage, take away “from” or add “to” and as such, there may be nothing more important. I’m of the mindset that all military campaigns, past and present, rise and fall upon origin stories. (Marital campaigns too.)
If there was one word that encapsulated the origin story in the West, it just might be capital-OOmnipotence. It is a mother of a word. Actually, it’s a father of a word because let’s be honest, gender is crucial here. It’s only the most masculine of cosmological fathers that could begin to describe the “All-Powerful God of Power” (redundancy is as important as capitalization). As the story goes, at some point in the past, this deity descended from, well, wherever “All-Powerful Gods of Power” descend from:A separate time and space? On high? Far, faraway? We don’t know exactly, but the point is, it’s separate from us. Furthermore, we don’t really care because we just need Him here to do His thing, variously described as vanquishing, ordering, overpowering, inseminating (believe it or not), or otherwise fixing our broken and sterile world. Yes, I believe Omnipotence is our origin story.
Except, it’s not a very good story.
It would be difficult to find anyone who suggests that absent fathers are essential to good stories. And yet, that is the structure of Omnipotence. There are several concerns we might have with Supernatural Dads from distant zip codes, but for now let’s keep it to the problem of separateness.2 From a Girardian viewpoint, separateness only serves as a billowing black backdrop of insecurity against which the lives of others, like bright lights, pop out in contrast. These flashing distractions suggest to us (masqueraders of angellight that they are) that the people we are viewing––our models––have no insecurity. We are so attracted to this perception that we imitate them. Why wouldn’t we? So painfully aware of our lack. So incredibly aware of their obvious value. We must have what they have. Even more, we must become who they are. And suddenly, our model becomes our rival. And so it goes.
Rivalry kicks humanity into a new gear, the reckless speed of which drives us to deal with our insecurity by offloading our problems onto the back of someone else. We victimize, scapegoat, and kill, only to repeat it all the next time our insecurities make any noise. It’s in this repetition, for Girard, that religion is born, yielding the surprising revelation that religion doesn’t inspire violence; much worse, violence inspires religion.3Just think:all this instigated, or at the very least exacerbated, by the theological conditioning that Godand us emerge from separate places and are therefore, separate.4 In the same way that children removed from loving environments might grow into underdeveloped adults, so communities removed from a loving origin story might form underdeveloped cultures.
Sigh… if we only knew we had a papa that was with us.5
Meanwhile, open and relational theology has its own take on the problem of separateness. They will say (I will say) that at a fundamental level, everything is relational: micro into the macro,immaterial into material, humanity into divinity, and back again. Separateness is an ontological impossibility. Therefore, broadly speaking, American Christianity, with its interventionistGod, coming from somewhere else to order everything in the beginning, only to come back at the end and destroy everything (after extracting a select group of people) is a perspective that is fundamentally opposed to reality.
Open and relational theology offers thoughts about science that align with the nature of reality: where reality might actually be infused with the divine; where the divine might actually be, as the Apostle John wrote, “love”;6 where love might actually be, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “the physical structure of the universe.”7
Yes, mimesis and open and relational mindsets are telling us, each in their own way, that where we imagine we come from is important and that the Omnipotenceoriginstory is just not very imaginative. Thankfully, there is something more interesting. More robust and substantive, too: Love. Intentional, relational, consensual, in-it-with-uslove.“To love,” as Thomas J. Oord says, “is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.”8There are many ways to unpack and embody that definition; indeed, Oord’s writing aims to do just that. And I hope, in some small way, that the work here helps the reader unpack and embody love as well. As we prepare to do so, maybe we could modify Oord’s definition in the spirit of René Girard and say, “To love is to act intentionally, in a relational and non-scapegoating response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.”
Either way, the point I underscore here and throughout this project is that love’s strength is not in its powerful ability to cover some intergalactic, metaphysical, ontological chasm to extract us from our hopeless situation. No, love’s strength lies in the astounding reality that “in the beginning,” it was already here. And if love was with us in the beginning, it will be with us in the end (and all the endings after that).
Now, that has the makings of a good story.
Having unpacked the first and “important” part of my opening sentence, I now turn to the second and “challenging” part. These two distinct modes of thinking, as best as I can offer evaluations of such things, are world-class theories. Additionally, while they are brought together by relationship,Girardiansare tracking the concept deep into psycho-spiritual forests while Whiteheadiansfollow it into microscopic and macroscopic worlds. In other words, they aren’t attempting to answer the same questions. Making it even more challenging is that extended conversations between mimetic theory and open and relational theology are rare: needle-like within barns full of theological haystacks. Outside of the writing from Martha Reineke and Katelyn Carver, with response by Daniel London, during the Colloquium on Violence and Religion at the American Academy of Religion in 2015, and the forthcoming work of my friend, Andre Rabe, I’m unaware of any formal attempts to synthesize the two concepts.9 Therefore, I’m grateful for the questions these theologians introduced into the conversation.
So I’m back on Microsoft Word trying to fit these two venerable concepts together, not unlike someone who might be on Logic Audio trying to blend Chopin with Thelonious Monk. It’s frustrating. The music emanating from each artist is just so different. And yet, here I am. Approaching. Considering. Listening. Playing with melodies, chord progressions, time signatures, and rhythms. Trying to create music. Better yet, trying to create the conditions for music to emerge.I’m hesitant. Undoubtedly, as I work through this, there will be some unmusical ideas, embarrassing mistakes, and wrong notes, but then again, how else does art emerge?
Where We Are Going There are three sections to this work: the first and secondorganized around my introductions to mimetic theory and open and relational theology, then the third where I offer some thoughts about what might happen when we bring together insights from each. The use of the possessive “my” in the previous sentence is not an attempt to take credit for anything as much as to distinguish that this is my take on these venerable ideas. In other words, if you find what follows unappealing, don’t blame Girardians or open and relational theologians; just flip to the bibliography and find better resources.
The modest proposal I make is that open and relational theology might enhance mimetic theory, particularly the latter’s tendency to be pessimistic, regressive, and even apocalyptic in the most violent sense of the word. Mimesis is brilliantly insightful. Oh, and potentially brilliantly depressing. Open and relational thinking might give us hope, for, in its Whiteheadian-process orientation, we see, just as in evolution, that tension is capable of catalyzing something new. It’s the inability to replicate perfectly, as Carver says, “that necessitates at the very least some differentiation, some newness, which in turn axiomatically precludes stagnation.”10 In other words, rather than trapping us, our endless replicating could provide the spark of difference that lights the fuse, that activates the launching pad, that breaks us free from the gravitational pull of negative mimesis.
I continue with the same proposal but also switch directions. I think mimesis might enhance open and relational thinking, particularly regarding religion. As I hope to show, religion, for Whitehead, emerges out of a deep sense of value. This is honorable. And good. And maybe only half of the story. Religion might emerge from value when it’s centered around healthy mimesis. But the religion that’s been packaged and sold (systematized and controlled) by the preponderance of the super-religious11 is less than value laden. I am with Moltmann in this: taking the passion story seriously means considering it as the end of all religion.12 But for this to occur, we need insight into why its meaning has evaded us for so long. Mimetic theory can give us that kind of insight.
The proposal, then, is that mimesis might enhance open and relational thinking, particularly regarding religion constructed upon negative mimeses: in other words, the majority of Christianity in the West! What we need is something new, “something opposed to strong religion,” as John Caputo says, “that reposes on the power of principals and propositions, the prestige of proper names, of properly sacred names, of sacred proper names found in sacred books.”13 Something that would capture the idea of loving our neighbor, where loving our neighbor means all humans, the whole of creation, and the Creator herself.14For God isn’t separate from us. She’s not the exception; as Whitehead’s famous line goes, rather God is the “chief exemplification.”15What’s going on with us is what’s going on with the divine. And what’s going on with the divine is what’s going on with us.
Consent It's here at the intersection of the divine and us, in the folds of creation and creator, in the permeability of creativity and the One who partners with us to harness creativity, that I am drawn to love and what I suspect might be its fundamental characteristic: consent.
Consent is the depth of love. The mystery, too, for in consent’s vulnerability room is made for relationship which can be positive or well, very negative. Admittedly, in the midst of the negative (e.g., coercion, manipulation, violence), the idea of consent is challenging. Would I suggest that love is in favor of such things? Does love, for example, coerce? Or will violence? In a word: No.“God,” as Simone Weil says, “does no violence to secondary causes in the accomplishment of his ends.”16We can make distinctions between consent and complicity, and if God is love, S(H)e’s uninterested in using violence. Even more, love is uninterested in using anything. Using is antithetical to love.
Despite love’s consensual relationship in and with all things, including the negative, I maintain its power. It is a power that welcomes and works in all things. In love’s consent there’s room for God to endure our wrath. This isn’t God’s wrath. It’s ours. In love, God consents to the consequences of our choices nowhere more so than at Golgotha.17But despite love’s inability to control, it isn’t ineffective; rather, it simply finds another way. In this, it is irrepressible. In this, it endlessly patient. In this, it is powerful. “God’s love,” as Brad Jersak says, “does not need to violate the freedom or the laws of that which exists through interventions that suspend natural and spiritual order, because love is the ground of all that exists. Love is part of that order--its essential heart.”18
Admittedly, consent is not involved in normal Godconversation. Even more, it’s avoided. To introducethe topic into theological conversations is like driving the wrong way on the busiest of religion’s one-way streets named control. At best, the authorities (officers of orthodoxy, constables of conformity, patrolmen of purity) will pull me aside and point me in the right(eous) direction. At worst, I'll be hunted down and hauled away. Omnipotent-obsessive Western Christianity cannot or will not consent to the strength of consent. And yet, this is what I claim, even now, pressing on the gas, not for the thrill of reckless driving but because:
A consensual God empowers us to participate with love in crafting a more imaginative and hopeful way.Does our world not need a more imaginative and hopeful way?
A consensual God aligns with what science has been telling us: that our universe is through and through relational.
A consensual God is biblical. It is the only way I can begin to understand a God who according to the biblical writers grieves, laments, rejoices, and hopes. Furthermore, it’s the only way I can begin to understand the potential for evil in a world that, according to scripture has been declared “good.”
Speaking of biblical, it’s consent that seems to inform the biblical messiah. He engaged with consent so authentically that two thousand years later, we are still talking about it. He didn't robotically follow God's commands. He consented: that is, laid down his life of his own volition. He didn't react to love's invitation by blaming God or forcing his own will; ultimately, in a very intentional move, he consented to the lure of what was possible even in and beyond death. He didn't demand blind obedience from others. He consented to be a part of their world, particularly those who were marginalized. He demonstrated time and time again that he was interested in others, even if it meant his reputation would be diminished. I believe consent to be the fundamental nature of God and what Jesus fundamentally chose to imitate as his desires blended with those of his papa.
Bonus bullet point: A consensual God, for what it's worth, has been my personal experience. At life's most painful and absurd depths, I have never once felt love's coercive impatience. I have always and only sensed love to be a fiercely committed co-partner.
The beauty of consent is undeniable to me. The more attention I give it, the more I realize it influences all my ideas around power, sexuality, politics, justice, liberation, peace, freedom, and––specifically, in the case of this project––around that ancient and presupposition-laden term known as sacrifice. This gives me reason to pause, for as I hope to point out, sacrifice is something of a common denominator between mimetic theory and open and relational theology. To be even more specific, both disciplines are highly suspicious of any systems framing sacrifice as redemptive. Unfortunately, to call out the myth of redemptive sacrifice is to poke the dragon. (Yes, we’re poking dragons and racing the wrong way through one-way streets!)
Despite the flashing red lights in my mirror, I lean forward. I’m on to more important things. The sirens fade even as the music emanating from the overlap of mimesis and open and relational theology increases. I listen. Noting where ideas from each weave in and out. Monk into Girard into Chopin into Whitehead.19 More than listen, I practice. Experiment. Scales and keys. Chords and enharmonics. It’s not a perfect blend. But to pursue perfection in art, like pursuing morality in life, is, I think, to miss something. I think there’s a more substantive way. And I think this more substantive way has to do with beauty.20
Beauty is elusive. Maybe this is due to its absence. Or perhaps it’s due to our absence. To be present to beauty invites vulnerability, the possibility of wounds. And yet, by faith, I believe all wounds might yet be the marks of beauty, like roads, winding deep into forest of psyche and spirit, winding deep into forest of heart and soul. Yes, evil is always a reality, but beauty even more so.
Therefore, breathe; be at one with everything.
Insecurities too. They are a part of us. They are us. We cannot defeat them. Our suppression only serves to invigorate their vitality and ensure their tenacity. Our denial only validates the honor we reserve for religions of scapegoating and violence, as if God is interested in any of our “religion projects.”21 The way forward is to embrace the un-ease that so easily puts us at dis-ease, to allow solicitudes to rattle and hum within, divine human fluctuations that they are leading us to newer and deeper instantiations of love.