When Echoes of the Past haunt Hopes for the Future
"Embracing open and relational theology is like navigating through uncharted waters. I often find myself caught between the old and the new, questioning my beliefs and wrestling with the echoes of the past. It's a transformative journey, albeit a challenging one, where I'm learning to see God as a source of love and compassion, even as the echoes of the authoritarian God still reverberate within me. What should I do with the echoes?"
The interior journey from thinking of God in authoritarian terms to thinking of God in nurturant terms is more than weighing the pros and cons of the two ways of thinking. It is, for many, a difficult process involving hope, fear, guilt, and fear of ostracism. What propels this journey is what some philosophers call aspirational reasoning. It consists of people imagining what life would be like if they envisioned themselves and the world in light of a nurturant divine reality, even as they have been conditioned to think otherwise. In a sense, they are imagining themselves to become a new kind of self, different from who they were and in some ways still are.
For many Christians who grew up in authoritarian settings, but also some others, this kind of imagining is important and, at times, a bit intimidating. One value of open and relational theology in its various formulations (process theology, open theism, narrative theology, for example) is that it provides plausible images of God as a nurturing source at work in the world and cogent critiques of authoritarian alternatives.
Still, the struggle is, for many, a journey with stops and starts, and without a clear end. Even when people have, in their minds, moved beyond the authoritarian images, the old images can continue to influence them. They may think of God as a loving and nurturing presence, or at least think that they think that way, while also hearing voices in their minds of the other, more authoritarian God.
As Alex puts it, "Embracing open theism is like navigating through uncharted waters. I often find myself caught between the old and the new, questioning my beliefs and wrestling with the echoes of the past. It's a transformative journey, albeit a challenging one, where I'm learning to see God as a source of love and compassion, even as the echoes of the authoritarian God still reverberate within me."
If you find yourself in a situation similar to Alex's, the key, I believe, is not to expect otherwise, to recognize that the spiritual pilgrimage is an ongoing process, and to be patient with yourself. It is not to pretend that, once the authoritarian God has been, as it were, left behind, the matter will be settled. You may live your whole life with these voices in your head, including echoes of the authoritarian God.
True, you may prefer the wisdom of the nurturant voice. You may declare to yourself, and also the surrounding world, that you once thought one way and now you think another. You may speak of before and after, as if before is now gone. Still, you will hear both voices. The better way is to learn to live with both voices, accept the struggle, and choose sides without demonizing the other side. The past will always be part of the present; it cannot be completely abandoned. If you become too certain that the old God has been left behind, you may become angry in unhealthy ways. You may pretend that "others" think in the "wrong" way and that you think in the "right" way. You may undertake a campaign to bring the world over to your side.
There is something inevitable about this. We all try to persuade others of ways of thinking we find hopeful and healthy; we are all advocates for things we find important. But there is also something to be careful about. When you try to bring others to "your side," you can easily fall into an us-versus-them dichotomy, where the others, who have not yet "seen the light," are reduced to being advocates of what you call "bad theology." You cannot listen to them in generous ways, on their own terms, because they represent a way of thinking you think you think you've left behind.
Navigating this transition requires acknowledging the complexity of your own beliefs and recognizing that others may be on different paths. They are on journeys, too, even if they don't know it. Navigating the transition also involves embracing uncertainty and allowing for diversity in thought and belief without succumbing to the urge to impose one's newfound perspective on others. It includes doubting your new beliefs, complemented by a recognition that in many ways nobody really "knows" God.
There is a movement afoot among post-evangelical Christians to help people find God after they deconstruct their old, authoritarian beliefs and, for that matter, rigid ways of being religious. I am not a post-evangelical, and I was never brought up with images of the authoritarian God: the bully in the sky. But I appreciate the movement and support it. The point of these remarks is to suggest that God after deconstruction also carries some remnant of God before reconstruction, and that this state of affairs is natural and livable.
- Jay McDaniel
Reconstruction is a Journey
There are many kinds of aspirational transformations in human life: from addiction to sobriety, from loneliness to friendship, from isolation to community, from hatred to love, from resentment to forgiveness, and from injustice to justice.
Here my focus is on a specific type of aspirational transformation: the internal shift from perceiving God as an authoritative power to conceiving God as a nurturing power. I borrow this phraseology from John Sanders in his book "Embracing Prodigals."
Sanders uses the word "authoritative" rather than "authoritarian" because he wants to be even-handed in his presentation of the authoritative point of view. Here, however, I will use the terms synonymously. An authoritarian God is a being whose primary preoccupation is with reward and punishment, who is exclusively concerned with maintaining order in the world, and who has the power to do whatever "he" wants to do. An authoritative or authoritarian God seeks to control the world but also knows the future in advance. A nurturing God is a being whose primary preoccupation is with the well-being of creatures, who is open to novelty as well as order, whose power lies in nurturance, not coercion, and for whom the future is not yet known. A nurturing God works with the world to help bring about optimum futures, relative to the circumstances at hand. These are my caricatures, not those of John Sanders, but his point is that something like these two alternatives pervades the consciousness of many around the world.
For some who have grown up with the image of an authoritative God, the image gradually ceases to work for them. They need to "deconstruct" it or allow it to melt away. The reasons it ceases to work are varied. For some, the issue is theodicy (the relationship between God and evil); for some, it is the absence of joy and life-affirmation in the authoritative perspective. They seek a new way of thinking about God and, along with it, a new way of living and understanding themselves. A journey begins.
This journey is driven by a yearning to transcend current beliefs and perspectives, guided by anticipatory motivations. It unfolds as an internal conflict, sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic, between the authoritative and the nurturing images. It involves much more than simple conscious decision-making. Instead, it engages both the heart and the head, requiring a semi-conscious effort to see the world through a different lens. Those undertaking the journey begin to think of themselves as the person they aspire to become, rather than the person they have been, and then move toward a realization of this new person, in starts and stops. This transformation takes time, often accompanied by doubts about the "rightness" of the new perspective compared to traditional, authoritarian beliefs and concerns about potential social isolation from friends and family who hold conventional views.
For many, open and relational theologies in their various forms present an inviting opportunity for aspirational transformation, offering a fresh portrayal of God as loving, not authoritative. Some Christians, particularly those rooted in evangelical backgrounds, seek harmony with biblical teachings and find resonance in the "open theism" tradition, which nurtures their image of God. Others, less inclined to rely on the Bible as the primary authority, may find process theology, with its philosophical orientation, more compatible. In both cases, aspirational transformation becomes the guiding force in the journey toward personal growth and a renewed understanding of God.
And where is God in all of this? It depends on whether God is viewed authoritatively or nurturantly. If God is viewed authoritatively, then God is against the transformation; it is, in fact, seen as sin. If God is viewed nurturantly, God is on the side of the transformation, not only because it is better for the person at issue but also because it moves closer to what God is really like. What's particularly intriguing is the proposition by process theologians, themselves in the nurturant tradition, that God resides within each person as a catalyst for creative transformation, serving as an internal driving force for aspirational change. According to this concept, God inspires individuals to explore nurturing ideas about God, fostering qualities like love, empathy, and personal fulfillment. In essence, God's nurturing aspiration coalesces with the individual's own aspirations, guiding them toward becoming more compassionate, loving, and fulfilled individuals.
I cannot adjudicate between these two perspectives from an objective or neutral perspective. I'm in the nurturant camp. As a process theologian, I do not think process theology has a lock on God, nurturant or otherwise, I know there are many ways of thinking about God, and that not all views of God's "nurturance" need to conform to process ways of thinking, Indeed, I am personally suspicious of process theologians who are too confident. However, I know many people who sometimes desperately seek a more nurturant way of thinking about God. I'm on their side. If we thought about God as a loving power, not a bully in the sky, I think we'd all be better off. and even God - the God of love - would be pleased.
God is also pleased with many other kinds of transformation: from addiction to sobriety, from loneliness to friendship, from isolation to community, from hatred to love, from resentment to forgiveness, and from injustice to justice. In process theology we speak of these as "creative transformation." We believe that God is at work in the world through these kinds of transformations. The transformation from God as controlling power to God as love can serve as a nurturant source for these kinds of transformations, too. Yes, God would be pleased.
Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming
"Becoming someone is a learning process; and what we learn is the new values around which, if we succeed, our lives will come to turn. Agents transform themselves in the process of, for example, becoming parents, embarking on careers, or acquiring a passion for music or politics. How can such activity be rational, if the reason for engaging in the relevant pursuit is only available to the person one will become? How is it psychologically possible to feel the attraction of a form of concern that is not yet one's own? How can the work done to arrive at the finish line be ascribed to one who doesn't (really) know what one is doing, or why one is doing it? In Aspiration, Agnes Callard asserts that these questions belong to the theory of aspiration. Aspirants are motivated by proleptic reasons, acknowledged defective versions of the reasons they expect to eventually grasp. The psychology of such a transformation is marked by intrinsic conflict between their old point of view on value and the one they are trying to acquire. They cannot adjudicate this conflict by deliberating or choosing or deciding-rather, they resolve it by working to see the world in a new way. This work has a teleological structure: by modeling oneself on the person he or she is trying to be, the aspirant brings that person into being. Because it is open to us to engage in an activity of self-creation, we are responsible for having become the kinds of people we are."