"You have to make it up as you go" is the general credo of the Keep Going Song, and this credo makes such good sense to process theologians. Process theologians believe that in every moment of our lives there is a need, an existential requirement, to make up our response to the circumstances that are given to us. Even the great Compassion in whose heart the universe unfolds, even God, has to make things up in light of the circumstances given to her, and we must do the same. This Compassion dwells within each of us, moment by moment, as an inwardly felt lure to make things up in the best way we can, given whatever circumstances face us, some of which are of our own making. To err is human, to make things up is divine.
It Takes a Village
But happily, we can be encouraged by others in the process of making up our response, and they can encourage us, too. That's what the Bengsons are doing in the Keep Going Song. Along with the hills and rivers, trees and stars - along with friends and family, and strangers, too - along with the great Compassion with us and beyond us - they, the Bengsons, are helping to create a Keep Going community. And in our listening and sharing their song we are helping them, too. We are all congregants in the church of Keep Going. Our hope is to Keep Going in a spirit of love, wishing the best for each and even for all.
And Red Birch Trees
Nature plays a special role in this impulse to Keep Going. Not nature in general but nature in specific. For some it will be a particular field, for others a particular garden, for still others a particular tree, such as the red birch tree in the beautiful song Red River Birch: "When the worst comes howling, when the congregation's scowling in the pews, just think of the great Miami washing through the church, and rest your head under the red river birch.. Let "the breadth of bird song" be the way that God speaks to you. Let the birch tree be the place "where my God speak words I can understand." Especially if the church is filled with hatred and judgmental eyes and criticism, let the birch be your church, say the Bengsons. Let nature be the medium through which you receive God. Here, too, is process theology: the Life in whose heart all lives unfold is in all life, not human life alone, and sometimes it is through the more-than-human that we come closest to God.
Always we are lured by this Compassion, by God, to seek the "best" for others and for ourselves: the most harmonious and intense, the most loving. This "best" is inner comfort, yes, but it is also material well-being. It includes hand soap and movies and enough money to have and make a life. As Money Coming In makes clear, our need for material well-being is not unspiritual. It is natural and earthy, indeed royal in its way, albeit not throne-like. And any belief in God that avoids the need for material comfort is trapped in dualism of his own making: a dualism between the "spiritual" and the "material." Money Coming in reminds us of how irrelevant this kind of God is to actual condition of so many people's lives, especially those who are poor or who struggle for the basic needs of life: food, clothing, shelter, health care, education. The God of process theology is not trapped in this dualism. She feels the feelings of each and all, including those whose fundamental prayer is simply for money to come in.
For this God it all begins with feeling the feelings of the world, with a deep listening. Following the philosopher Whitehead, process theologians believe that something like feeling, like prehending, goes all the down into the depths of matter. Where there is energy there is feeling and where there is feeling there is energy. And it is all felt, all of it, by God: theJoy & Grief. You hear these feelings in the voice of Abigail as she sings Joy & Grief, showing how they flow together, feeling joy in the grief and, sometimes, grief in the joy. And so it is with God as understood in process theology. She is not trapped in the dualism of 'happy' or 'sad.' She knows they are so often two sides of one song.
I say "she" because this is the pronoun the Bengsons for God in their album. They are avoiding images of a patriarchal god in the sky who is all about male authority and indifferent to, or, worse, disparaging of, the sexual and gender power of all that is not male-defined. Theirs is a God whose inner beckoning invites each and all to recognize the holiness, the sovereignty, of their own bodies and lives as holy spaces. Hear the lyrics of The Sovereignty Hymn: "God gave me this body when she made my body to be like Her body, joyfully."
And Letting Go
This is not to say that life is all about clinging to the body or positive. self-affirmation. The Bengsons have a spiritual range that well includes what process theologians a sense of what process theologians call perpetual perishing: the fact that all things pass, including of course our bodies but also our joys and our lives. Finitude is the price paid for beauty (harmony and intensity) and beauty is the gift of finitude. Given periods of beauty may last for a very short time or for a longer time, but always they have an end as well as a beginning, which means that we must let them go, as in Everything is Falling/Let it Fall.
And Trust in Novelty
To be sure, perpetual perishing is not the whole story, either. The universe is a creative process of perpetual perishing and also, at the same time, a creative advance into novelty. The new emerges out of, and only as, the past faded. This means that growth is as essential to the way things are as is perishing. Such is the wisdom of A List of Things that Grow: apples, bananas, tomatoes, avocadoes, hair, toenails, and children.
Amid the growth there is also a need for rest, for sabbath, for Shabbat, for the silence of deep listening. While in the Jewish tradition the sabbath is the seventh day of creation, in the Bengson's album, the song Shabbat is the first song on the album. It comes before, not after, the good work of listening to their music. It is an invitation to pause and to ponder, without lyrics but with sound, inviting that rarest of traits in these times, equanimity.
There is not a single understanding of "faith" that winds it way through the Keep Going album, but there are very strong hints that faith is trust in the availability of fresh possibilities, honesty to feelings, openness to community, appreciation for the fact that life goes on, a sense of companionship with the wider network of life, and, within and beneath, a sense that there is something in the universe that keeps going on even amid our own hardest of times come knocking at our door (Hard Times and Sept. 9).
What keeps going? Process theologians speak of it as God, and it seems to me that, in some of their songs, the Bengsons do, too. There is no need to think of this, the One to whom they address their prayers, is all powerful, capable of preventing all hatreds and tragedies. But there can be a sense that this - the Great Keep Going -- is, to use the language of the Psalm, steadfast in love, steadfast in its faithfulness to life and its continuation.
For a Hundred Days
With this in mind, we can keep the faith that while whatever beauty we know and enjoy in life, however fragile, may fold into that larger life, that larger Keep Going. Our joys may last but a hundred days, as the Bengsons make clear in their marvelous folk-punk-opera a Hundred Days. Hundred Days is a metaphor for the stages and phases of a person's good life, however finite. A good life includes both grief and joy, rage and pleasure, fear and love, and all is folded into the Great Keep Going, into God, with its freshness recycled into the evolving world, taking the form of new growth. We are, says process theology, a series of hundred days, and we are slightly new and different with each epoch. But always we can live our hundred days with whatever beauty we can muster, in community with others, including the earth, and then let go, trustful that ours is not the only, or the last, hundred days. Birch trees and other animals, young people and old people - all are composed of their hundred day lives. Faith is not faith that things will live more than a hundred days, it is faith that in each and every hundred day period, there is something deep and rich and renewing, companionable and loving, that shares the days with life even in its everlasting life.
One bright pleasure amid the grimness of the pandemic has been the serendipity of hearing from people you’ve lost touch with and had forgotten how much you liked. You get to learn where they’ve been sheltering in place, and how they might have been changed by this age of upheaval and displacement. I was pleased, for instance, to receive an email about Abigail and Shaun Bengson, who have come up with a show of exultant ambivalence for the Actors Theater of Louisville. It’s called “The Keep Going Song,” and it streams through Oct. 8 on a pay-what-you-can basis.
* . That mostly all-sung show, delivered in a gutsy pop-folk style spliced with gospel laments and hallelujahs, was about how — or if — love can survive in the shadow of our awareness of death. So I was curious about the states of their hearts and minds in a year when the imminence of mortal disease is as pervasive as fog.
But there is a sense that the melody, heard or unheard, never really stops. The Bengsons use synthesizers and keyboards to layer sounds and rhythms that keep repeating, which extend to an epilogue that’s as infectious as a kindergarten ditty, a list song about things that grow.
That includes trees, leaves, people and thoughts, not to mention the music to which this roster is set. I guarantee it will keep expanding in your mind later in ways that should drive you mad. But for me, it felt like some much needed reassurance.