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Start with the Science

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Sermon video: https://youtu.be/0jCN8x6HGR4

This past spring, while the pandemic was surging and our building renovation was about half done, I was invited into conversations with some theologians and philosophers in California through the Claremont Center for Process Studies. It was pretty cool to get that invitation. I felt a bit like the country doctor invited to sit in at a medical symposium in the big city.

It was enjoyable for me to reengage with Process theology again, to learn a bit more about it all. One piece I found most interesting is the Faith and Process goal of expanding the conversation beyond their usual Christian circles. Process Theology began within Christianity. I have appreciated that goal because I have the same goal. And I was included in their circle as a Unitarian Universalist because of that goal.

I recall an informal conversation at one point when several of the regular attendees were talking about how they were confused by the Unitarian Universalist Atheists in our mix. They had heard we UUs were excited about the version of Process Theology that did not have a God component. And they wondered together how that could be. How could you remove God from Whitehead’s basic theology?

Well, I was excited by this question. I think, in that informal chatting moment, I said something in response, but not anything all that helpful. I remember saying something about how I have seen a non-theistic version of Process Theology that makes a lot of sense. And that several people in my congregation have talked about it. And I may have said at the time that I felt the secret is to start with the science and go from there.  

Of course, before I go into detail about that, I need to give a little context. Process Theology is a modern theological offshoot of liberal protestant theology. It says that everything is in process, changing and becoming. The world, the universe, is wholly and fully natural and creative. The implication here is that God, also, is in process, is changing and becoming. In Process Theology, God is not outside of the universe. God is not immutable or supernatural. This is a God who is not judgmental or controlling; instead, God is creative and loving and part of the unfolding natural universe.

You’ll notice, perhaps, the description I’ve given is very God-centric. Fair enough. Here are some key characteristics of Process Theology that are not about God: Everything in interconnected. Everything is part of the natural universe. Human beings have full free will, there is no determinism. And the biggie: events are the primary building blocks of the universe, not substances. That last one about events is where the real fun and notable distinction settles in. 

The father of Process Theology is Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). He trained in mathematics, logic, and science, but he had a spiritual bent. He developed his metaphysics about 100 years ago.

His theology was rooted in the modern breakthroughs of physics and science which had undergone seismic shifts leading up to his lifetime. In the 1600’s the church served as the custodian of science. The Holy Roman Church provided a complete worldview for science that remained safely within the framework of biblical teachings. But with Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo, the church began to lose it’s hold on the scope of scientific exploration. From that time through to Darwin’s theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, scientific inquiry continued to break free from the church’s control.

So in the early 1900’s, when Newtonian Physics began to crumble under Einstein’s explorations, Alfred North Whitehead took a remarkable step. Instead of letting his science be confined within his religion, he let his religion be confined within his science.

Science was revealing some very interesting possibilities about the basic foundation of reality as we know it. And this circles back to that key idea in Process Theology about events being the primary reality rather than substances. This is an idea rooted in physics.

We tend to think of things as things, as substances. Traditional philosophy and physics talk about how the universe is made of substances. We are organisms made of organ systems which are made of tissues which are made of cells which are made of molecules which are made of atoms which are made of sub-atomic particles. As Physicist Richard Feynman once said “All things are made of atoms.”

But ‘things’ are not all there is to the universe. Yes, all things are made of atoms, but there is also energy, for example. In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes:

“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.”

Energy is not a substance, not a thing. It is what exists between the things or in them perhaps, I don’t really know. But the relationship dynamic is essential. It is what makes that ‘mound of fine atomic dust’ into you. The relational interaction of the parts is what matters, (pardon the pun.)

The basic building blocks of life are not the things, but the relationships among the things. I am essentially, in physical terms, an organism of about 50 trillion cells. Each cell is differentiated into the various tissues and organs that make up the ten major systems of my body. But ultimately the important part is not any of those individual cells. The important part is the collection of relationships those cells have which comprise me.

There is a second big piece I need to add here to make sure we get where we are going this morning. A huge piece of Process Theology is our free will. Tying this back to the conversation about God, this comes out as God not being ‘all powerful’ and in control of the universe. We are really free to make choices about our lives. This comes out in the physics as well. The deeper scientists get into experiments trying to predict the orbit of an electron in an atom, for example, the more they are confounded because subatomic particles so often behave in very weird, almost chaotic ways. Expanding that up to the human level, and we’re talking about free will, choice, and agency. 

So we have these two big ideas found in modern physics and in Process Theology. One idea reveals interrelatedness, that the interaction of events is the essential element of life. The other idea that life is not predetermined, the between chaos and agency, we have free will to make choices in our lives.

Now let me tell you about ‘the lure.’ Because without the lure, everything is random and purely chaotic and yet somehow there is life.

In process Theology, God’s power is not a matter of control or dominance. God can’t make anything happen. But God is a loving power, a transformative power. God is persuasive, not coercive. God lures us toward the good, toward love, toward justice.

When we talk about how the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice … in Process Theology it would be bending because God is luring us to behave in more just ways. But in every case, it is up to us to be just.

You can think of the timeline of your life like a tree in winter. The trunk is a single line showing what has already happened, it is written. The rest of what will happen in your life has many branches of possibilities. In some theologies, God has already determined your whole life and this tree metaphor is more like a simple telephone pole to demonstrate that God has already written everything. It’s predetermined.

Process Theology strongly disagrees with that idea. Process Theology says instead that God is luring you to follow one branch in particular, but it is up to you to do that or not. When we talk about ‘living your best life’ it suggests there is a version we can choose that is better than other versions. We have options. And, we are drawn toward certain options. It is God luring us toward being and just and loving.

That is Process Theology. There is, of course, a great deal more to it, but for our purposes this morning, this is Process Theology. Events and experiences are the root element of reality. We are free to choose our path. And there is a lure toward being our best selves.

And for most people, the source of that lure is God. So how do you have Process Theology without God. Certainly, you can still have an honoring and recognition of events and experiences, of free will, even of the centrality of change in life. But how do you not include God?

I can imagine three ways to do it. I can imagine three different ways to hold a Process Theology perspective without a god element. Without there being a divine ‘will’ serving as the lure toward the good.

First, we can keep a purely atheistic and naturalistic perspective. This keeps every explanation about life solidly in the realm of science. We have found that Biology, Psychology and Sociology can provide a lot of insight into what we call “good.”

Most people want to be good people. That’s just how we, as social creatures, are. There are other forces in us that are destructive or divisive. We can see that and we can understand the value of goodness without it being entangled with some concept of God. For some people that’s enough.

Next, we can take a sematic pass on the question. We won’t use the word “god” but might refer to something like Life with a capital “L,” or the Holy with a capital “H.” This is a substitution that puts some distance from the word “god” because whatever it is we mean; it is not what most people think of when we use the word “god,” with a personality and maybe a thunder bolt. Certainly not.

And this is not merely pretending we’re not talking about God, either. This about trying to avoid the assumptions too often tangled up with the language. It is an attempt to include certain characteristics and not others in this conversation about the holy. And for some people that’s enough.

And then there is a third option. We can just talk about a mystery, an unknown. It is to acknowledge that what we know now does not yet satisfy us, but doesn’t mean we need to jump to using the word God to cover whatever we don’t understand.

There seems to be a lure. In my experience I am drawn to behave with compassion and I want to be just and good and kind – even when I am not good at it, I want to be. Why? Not sure. And for some people that’s enough.

Now, I say all that as someone who does believe in God. I am not trying to suggest you should or should not believe in any of this. I am instead suggesting you work out your own understanding as best you can in keeping with your experiences and your faith.

We are interconnected and dynamic and always expanding. We grow and learn by asking more questions and testing what we think we know. So, explore. Consider how you are drawn to behave, how you might feel a tug to be in the world in a certain way. Consider the lure to being good.

Process Theology asks us to keep seeking, to let science define the natural world while we stay true to that knowledge. And it asks us to allow the love that is God to lure us into a better way of being in the world.

And some people, it is enough to simply follow the lure; to live justly, to offer compassionate mercy, and to follow your path with humility in the face of all that is holy.

In a world without end,

May it be so