Questions from a Post-Evangelical Seeker to Open and Relational (Process) Theologians
Dear Open and Relational (Process) Theologians,
I'm on board with so much of what you say. People ask me what I believe and I say "I believe in a God of Essential Kenosis."
I once believed in the other kind of God, the authoritarian bully-in-the-sky, but that's past me now. So many of my evangelical friends, especially the older ones, believed in the bully. That's why I'm a post-evangelical.
But I still have questions. I've been reading a book by British writer, Alexander McCall Smith, and I came upon the passage shared above. It raised some questions for me.
What if the God of open and relational theology is a God whom people rightly want to believe, because such belief helps them live good lives and live with a sense of purpose, but this God doesn't actually exist? Would it matter in the big scheme of things? Is it enough that they believe in a God of love, even if this God is non-existent?
And what if, in their hearts, these people know that God might well be non-existent even as, at other moments, they also believe in God's existence? Do you think some people might believe in God's existence sometimes, but not in others? Or even believe-and-not-believe at the same time, albeit unconsciously?
I may be in this position. I feel that I believe-and-don't-believe.
Hoping for a response,
Notes for a Lecture Not Yet Given
God may be real but not exist; God may be real and also exist. Either way ideas of "God" have evocative power, positive and negative, Contemporary isdeas of God are, in Whitehead's words, "lures for feeling."
So here's the question: What does “existence” mean?
Suggestion: It means being able to exercise agency (make decisions) and to experience (be aware of, prehend) things.
Things can be “real” but not exist as decision-makers and prehenders. They can be real but not actual.
To be “real” is to be perceived or experienced as an object of conceptual, physical, intuitive, recollective, anticipatory, emotional, or imaginative experience. It is to be "really" experienced.
Unicorns, highly abstract mathematical entities, and characters in movies are real in this sense, but they do not exist as agents and experiencers in their own right.
The God of open and relational theology is “real” in several of the senses, even as this God may or may not exist. God is 'alive' in intuition, imagination, hope, and memory. Not unlike the way that characters in movies are alive in our imaginations. In these ways God functions in human life as a lure for feeling.
The philosopher Whitehead speaks of a lure for feeling as a proposition and proposes that propositions are not necessarily linguistic or logical. Propositions have great power in human life, and perhaps also in other animals and forms of life, too. They are evocative.
God the bully is an evocative proposition, and so is the God of essential kenosis or nurturing love. Both propositions have great power.
What is important to many advocates of open and relational theology is that a God of nurturing love (the God of open and relational theology) be evocatively experienced as real, because it is this kind of God who provides genuine comfort in times of need and can inspire people to help create a better world.
Evocative experiences occur as much if not more through ritual, prayer, and the dynamics of ordinary life (friendships, struggles) as through logical argumentation.
It may be possible to believe in the God of open and relational (process) theology even if, as it turns out, this God does not exist.
In the act of believing there is not a sharp distinction between what is 'real' and what is 'actual.' What is real 'seems' actual even if, in fact, it is not. Think of Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker.
This is not a new idea. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerback proposed something like this in the 19th century. Except Feedback saw God as a human projection. It is possible that propositions have multiple sources and emerge as much from a collective unconscious as from any kind of conscious projection. They aren't simply 'invented." They arise; they come to us.
Open and relational theologians are engaged in a cultural battle with what post-evangelicals call bully-in-the-sky theologians, and the debate is about what which lures for feeling are best embraced in our time of need: authoritarian lures or nurturing lures.
Amid the debates the open and relational (process) theologians argue for the existence (actuality) of the nurturing God. Or at least they will say that this God's existence is as plausible as other perspectives.
Still, it is possible that neither God truly exists, even as both are real.
A third position is that "God" does not name any actuality at all, whether nurturing or authoritarian, but rather a deep energy of which all things are manifestations, not unlike Whitehead's notion of Creativity.
This way of thinking says that the whole idea of God 'existing' is wrongly conceived, because God is not a being among beings. Even here, the idea of God as creativity is a proposition, a lure for feeling. It may or may not have the evocative power of God the Loving One or God the Ruler. To many it seems for Eastern than Western.
A unique feature of the process version of open and relational theology is that it says "yes" to the idea of an ultimate energy of which all things are manifestations and also "yes" to the God of Love as affirmed by open and relational theologians, seeing them as different but both real.
Creativity is the ultimate reality, so John Cobb proposes, and God is the ultimate actuality. Hence the notion of multiple ultimates. As the ultimate reality, Creativity is not a mere potential or abstraction. It is the very activity of 'existing' found anywhere and everywhere, plus more. There is more Creativity in the future than exists in the present and past. It is not unlike notions of continuous creativity in East Asian philosophies; or the notion of Pure Act in Aristotle, albeit without the notion of stasis.
Process theologians believe that, in addition to Creativity, the God of nurturing love truly exists. When we pray, someone is listening (prehending) and making decisions in response. God is, in the words of Thomas Oord, kenotically loving.
The question remains: Is it necessary to believe that the God of nurturing love actually exists? Or can people both believe and not believe at the same time? Let's see what other open and relational theologians say.