With its idea that the flower "flowers" in spontaneous self-creativity, Zen Buddhism can help us better appreciate the spontaneity of flowers and the spontaneity of God. Faith isn't assurance that all things unfold according to a plan; it is openness to the flowering.
"It is all too easy to think that the vision of order which comes to me is itself an appropriate response to the ultimate source of order. While the urge to attain the millennium has been a powerful motivation to action, it also has demonic potential, as a particular vision of order is projected as the ultimate and only valid one. The peace which is not dependent on any particular order can be a much needed corrective here."
- William Beardslee
Sometimes hope gets in the way of Hope. We find ourselves grasped by the image of a hopeful future where the world is more just and sustainable, vibrant and peaceful, and our image becomes an idol in our imagination, leading us to think we can engineer this better world into existence through strategic planning. Unwittingly, our will to hope is transformed into a will to power. We lose sight of the role spontaneity and surprise take in the emergence of better futures; we stop listening to others whose points of view differ from our own; we subtly impose our will on others, all in the name of "going good."
We forget that Hope is always more than our image of hope and that God is more than our concept of God. Thomas Oord has written a book called The Uncontrolling Love of God. Its thesis is that God cannot control the world, God cannot engineer the world into conformity, because the world has power, self-creative spontaneity, of its own. And God has spontaneity, too. The universe is a vast and evolving network of mutual spontaneity, beckoned into Hope by divine spontaneity. Let me define my terms:
By Hope with an upper-case "H" I mean flourishing. I mean a state-of-affairs in which something like wellness or flourishing is realized by other living beings and ourselves. Hope transcends history but is immanent within history. Wherever in the past or present we see wellness or flourishing, we see Hope: the laughter of a child, the blossoming of a flower, a good life, a good death. And when we anticipate a future in which there will be flourishing of some sort, we likewise anticipate Hope. Hope is an object of anticipation. It is future flourishing.
By hope with a lower-case "h" I mean the images in our imaginations which represent, for us, flourishing or Hope. It can be for personal happiness or for healthy personal relationships, or for what William Beardslee calls "a vision of a better world." We can hope for beloved communities, for example, and for civilizations in which people live with respect and care for one another and the natural world.
By God I mean that in the nature of things which inspires and animates Hope with an upper case "H." God is found wherever Hope is found, and God is in the flourishing.
By concept of God I mean the images in our imaginations which represent, for us, God as the source and inspiration of Hope. We may conceive God as a person, as an energy, as a force, or as a community of persons, as in the Christian concept of the Trinity. In each instance there is a concept in our imaginations of the source and inspiration for flourishing: a concept of God.
Hope and God go together. When we trust God, we trust Hope and when we trust Hope we trust God.
Back, then, to the problem. When our vision of a better world becomes an idol in our imagination, such that we try to control everything through strategic planning, God is lost and our hope becomes an obstacle to Hope. We become too controlling, too cut off from that side of life which cannot be controlled, some of which is very good. We lose sight of spontaneous flourishing beyond our control. If we are in this situation, certain types of Buddhism can help us break free of the idolatry, such that we can plan in a different way, knowing that there more to life than planning. I will call it cooperative planning, because it cooperates with others and with the spontaneities of life itself.
Consider Zen Buddhism with its practice of meditation. Zen meditation helps us find a place within ourselves and life which is trans-descendent: that is, which is deeper than reflective analysis. This free mind is not quiescent or passive and it is not really a place in any ordinary sense. It is a living experience beyond words and letters, from which thinking emerges. It is not not-thinking, such that thinking becomes an enemy; it is without-thinking from which thinking emerges. It is a form of what process philosophers call experience in the mode of causal efficacy, free from conceptual prehensions yet filled with vitality. As we are in touch with the placeless place of free mind, we understand that there is more to us, and to life itself, than planning. We are inwardly disposed to be sensitive to the spontaneous side of life.
Another contribution from Buddhism is more philosophical. Buddhists from the Zen-influenced Kyoto School of Japanese Philosophy remind us that, deeper than the objects of our imagination, and even deeper than our hopes, there is a groundless ground from which all things spontaneously emerge as self-actualizations. Whitehead called this ground Creativity; certain forms of Buddhism call it Emptiness.
This groundless ground is not God. It is not a source of hope or a call to hope. It has no preferences. And yet in some sense it is deeper than all that is, and deeper than God. The Kyoto School encourages us to recognize, to awaken, to this groundless ground and to a certain kind of Peace that emerges from the awakening.
Once we awaken to this deeper source, we may well re-awaken to the God of hope, albeit in a different way. We no longer see the God of hope as the source of all that exists, but rather as a calling presence, within us yet beyond us, who works with the spontaneities of the world, and whose vitalities are beyond our control. God becomes, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Freshness Deep Down, and we are sensitive to the freshness. Our planning takes a different form. It is not manipulating the world toward our own ends, but rather cooperating with the Freshness.
In the passage below, William Beardslee, a New Testament scholar and author of House for Hope, points out below, there is a kind of peace in this cooperation and perhaps even a joy. It is surprising, but true, that Buddhism can help Christians and others become more faithful, not less, to what Thomas Oord calls the Uncontrolling Love of God. Oord's phrase is usually interpreted to mean that God does not control us; but here, with help from Buddhism, we likewise get a sense that we do not control God. The result of this is non-control, on both sides, for life's sake and for the world's sake.
- Jay McDaniel, 3/13/22
Whitehead's Peace as a Bridge between Buddhism and Christianity
I learned a good deal about process theology and philosophy when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1940’s. Also, Charles Hartshorne and later, Ivor Leclerc, were colleagues at Emory University, where I taught, for a number of years. But early in my career my own interests as a young New Testament scholar were in the sacred history point of view of Oscar Cullmann and Ethelbert Stauffer, and the existentialist point of view of Rudolf Bultmann, and in how to relate these two points of view fruitfully. My first work was in New Testament interpretation and theology. As time passed, I came to hope that process thought could offer a better way of relating the moments of time than that which I found in Cullmann and similar interpreters, while retaining the emphasis on decision that I found in Bultmann, without dissecting time into separate moments as he did.
In the early 1960’s I turned in earnest to process thought; my first "process" paper showed how an approach from a process perspective could take human creativeness more seriously than was the case in the traditional divine grace-human response pattern as it was usually developed ("The Motif of Fulfillment," TBS).
Then I turned to the theme of hope, and in A House for Hope I showed how the urgent themes of biblical eschatology and human concern for history, as well as the weight of importance of the individual person’s life, could be reinterpreted from a process point of view. Something of the point of view of that book can be seen in the following quotation:
Nevertheless, despite its perversion and erosion, hope that is not just passive, but involves enlistment in the future, is the basic form of hope which the Christian tradition can to the present world. ... Today we see that the final end toward which hope reached will have to be transformed, in our grasp of it, into an endless movement into the future. ... The new life for which one hopes will never come to be the prevalent reality in a total way, though real changes and achievements are possible. If we think otherwise, the end will become either an excuse for otherworldliness, or else a symbol of the indefinite totality which swallows up all concrete reality. Further, a modern [person] cannot live in this hope with the unreflective security which has sometimes marked Christian faith. Hope will be real on the boundary between hope and despair. (HH 129-30).
I have continued to think about process thought and history since that time. In a recent paper I wrote:
If we are able to let the vital insights (of the biblical story) speak, we shall be able to find an open, improvisatory over-arching story, which does not have a predetermined end, and which does no allow us to regard ourselves as specially privileged, but which does set us free to commit ourselves to action and also to thought, in both cases as explorations of possibilities which are as yet unrealized (SHR24:114).
Since I wrote the book on hope, I have come to appreciate more deeply a different approach to what I called the "indefinite totality which swallows up all concrete reality." A course of lectures by Masao Abe and John Cobb’s work on Christianity and Buddhism have shown me that the Buddhist concern with detachment and its grounding in the unformed nothingness or creativity out of which definite things emerge, offers a challenging alternative to the Christian focus on a principle of formation or rightness (God).
Typically, the Christian hope for the transformation of society expects to re-channel the energies of the members of society by appeal to a vision of a better world and by some program of structural reform which will embody in actual society some features of that vision. Though the doctrine of sin has loomed large in traditional Christianity, the assumption of social action has usually been that the vision of a better world and a new shaping of social structures will enlist people’s energies in a way that will free them from the self-serving "this is mine" which is so destructive a factor in the present world. (The term "this is mine" is taken from a paper on Minjung theology by Professor A. Sung Park of the School of Theology at Claremont, CA, USA.)
The Buddhist, on the contrary, would make a radical freedom from any structures a first step; once one has recognized the pervasiveness of the negative factors, they can be re-entered, and transformed into their opposite. It is true that to a degree a vision of a better world does enter into Pure Land Buddhism in the form of a land or realm that is governed by the presence of the living Buddha. Nonetheless, we see a tendency of contrast between the two traditions in that Christian engagement with suffering tends to keep in view some alternative form or order of interrelationship, while the Buddhist vision tends to negate all forms of order at the deepest level.
Perhaps a process perspective can help us see a relationship here. If we look at Whitehead’s description of peace, we cannot help being struck by the various ways in which it approaches what Professor Takeuchi has said about peace of heart in Buddhism.
Peace, Whitehead tells us, has the effect of the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling, which arises from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. Thus peace carries with it a surpassing of personality. It comes as a gift. It is the removal of inhibition and not its introduction. Although decay, transition, and loss belong to the essence of the creative advance, peace is the understanding of tragedy, and at the same time its preservation. Peace is not engaged in concern about the future (AI Ch.20).
It is important to note how Whitehead saw at the foundation of action a peace which is in many ways analogous to the peace of heart of Buddhism. A deep kind of self-transcendence is common to both of them.
Yet we note that Whitehead’s discussion of peace lacks the powerful dialectic of negation and affirmation which is characteristic of Professor Takeuchi’s presentation. Peace for Whitehead is integrally involved inengagement with the quests for morality, for truth, and for beauty, liberating the seeker from narrow and self-serving aims in these quests. In a sense there is in Whitehead a dialectic of yes or no, in that the gift of peace comes as something beyond the specific quests while not denying their validity. Thus Whitehead believed that peace could hold in creative tension both the reach toward recognition of the formless ground of all existence ("creativity" in Whitehead’s terminology, "emptiness" in Buddhist language), and the relevance of form or order to all action (God is the source of order in Whitehead’s language).
Perhaps we could sum it up by saying that the Buddhist quest totally negates all form by relativizing it; this way leads to a freedom which is found through the path of total detachment. No underlying principle of beauty, truth, or moral order is exempt from this negation -- although in the Pure Land vision, an interrelated world of beauty, truth, and moral order is given back to the disciple in the vision of the Pure Land. In the Christian tradition, on the other hand, or at least in most of its forms, principles of order are seldom if ever so completely relativized. God as the principle of rightness is an ultimate. The actually-existing forms of order are not ultimate; but they do reflect an ultimate from which they are derived.
If we may follow the clue offered by Whitehead’s vision of peace, then these two traditions each need the other. The Christian tradition is all too prone to think that the believer can move directly into action. The unanalyzed energies of the believer are thought to be suitable to mobilize transforming actions in society, because it is assumed that those energies are (1) a response to fundamental patterns of order and (2) potentially, at least, expressions of a fundamental relatedness. This pattern provides a powerful and valid stance for confronting the destructive threats of technological society. Both the emphasis on relatedness, and the emphasis on response to patterns of order which are believed to have a transcendent source, are derived from a fundamental Christian vision of God as related and of God as the source of order. At the same time, this stance is tragically capable of being turned to destructive purposes. It is all too easy to think that the vision of order which comes to me is itself an appropriate response to the ultimate source of order. While the urge to attain the millennium has been a powerful motivation to action, it also has demonic potential, as a particular vision of order is projected as the ultimate and only valid one. The peace which is not dependent on any particular order can be a much needed corrective here.
Thus the Buddhist vision, which holds that permanent and inescapable features of existence -- transience and suffering -- cannot be evaded, but must be passed through, has much to teach Christians. But to affirm life’s positive possibilities, the interaction of the self which is freed from "this is mine" with the relatedness of human and of all existence is also essential if action is to assume a continuing responsibility. Here the Christian vision of God as the giver of order has much to offer (RT 6-8).
HH -- William A. Beardslee. A House for Hope. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972.
JAAR47 -- William A. Beardslee. "Whitehead and Hermeneutic." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47 (1979): 31-7.
PS 12 -- William A. Beardslee. "Recent Hermeneutics and Process Thought." Process Studies 12: 65-76.
RT -- William A. Beardslee. "Response to Professor Takeuchi." Unpublished paper.
SHR24 -- William A. Beardslee. "Vital Ruins: Biblical Narrative and the Story Frameworks of Our Lives." Southern Humanities Review 24(1990):101-16.
TBS -- William A. Beardslee. "The Motif of Fulfillment in the Eschatology of the Synoptic Gospels." Transitions in Biblical Scholarship. Ed. J. Coert Rylaarsdam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
VPT -- William A. Beardslee. "Christ in the Postmodern World," and "Comel West’s Postmodern Theology." Varieties of Postmodern Theology by David R. Griffin, William A. Beardslee, and Joe Holland. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989
* The passage above is an excerpt from an article that appeared in Process Studies, pp. 220-234, Vol.19, Number 4, Fall, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock and is republished with permission. Beardslee, a New Testament scholar, proposes that Whitehead's concept of Peace provides a Bridge between a Christian approach to life, focused on hope for the future, and a Buddhist approach, focused on awakening to a formless ultimate beyond goodness, truth, beauty and hope.