Process theologies and Liberation theologies both provide a valuable resource – even for those who do not subscribe to them wholesale.
You don’t have to be an adherent of these approaches to hear the critique that they raise and allow those questions to interrogate the given order of things.
In the forward to their famous book Process Theology: an introductory exposition, Cobb and Griffin outline a number of conceptions of God that Process does not affirm. The fourth example they provide introduces the problem:
God as Sanctioner of the Status Quo. This connotation characterizes a strong tendency in all religions. It is supported by the three previous notions. The notion of God as Cosmic Moralist has suggested that God is primarily interested in order. The notion of God as Unchangeable Absolute has suggested God’s establishment of an unchangeable order for the world. And the notion of God as Controlling Power has suggested that the present order exists be cause God wills its existence. In that case, to be obedient to God is to preserve the status quo. Process theology denies the existence of this God.
It is going to be important to hear the questions this raises: is God primarily concerned with order? Is God the source of that order? Or is God providing something else that challenges those established structures which limit and take away people’s ability to live fully and prosper?
They introduce the Process notion of God:
And, far from sanctioning the status quo, recognition of essential relatedness to this God implies a continual creative transformation of that which is received from the past, in the light of the divinely received call forward, to actualize novel possibilities. Although this divine power is persuasive rather than controlling, it is nevertheless finally the most effective power in reality. In Whitehead’s words: “The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.” (Adventures in Ideas 354.)
To classic virtues (properties of being) like truth, beauty and goodness, Process adds adventure and zest precisely because of who God is! The addition of adventure and zest speak to movement (change), progression and novelty. Process, if nothing else, fully recognizes the validity of time and change.
Hence, no type of social order is to be maintained if it no longer tends to maximize the enjoyment of the members of the society. Also, it is impossible for any form of social order to continue indefinitely to be instrumentally good. God, far from being the Sanctioner of the Status Quo, is the source of some of the chaos in the world. “If there is to be progress beyond limited ideals, the course of history by way of escape must venture along the borders of chaos in its substitution of higher for lower types of order.” (Process and Reality 169.) (God is said to be the source of only some of the chaos, since only some of it can in principle lead to a higher type of order and thereby a richer form of enjoyment.)
God, in a Process perspective, provides – indeed is the source of – some of the chaos that calls into question the status quo and challenges the established order that limits the prospering of creatures.
If you think that God likes the way things are and wants to keep them the same … you may not be worshiping the God of the Bible.
This was brought to my memory when I encoutered an interesting nugget at the back of another book that had nothing to do with Process thought. Terry Eagleton in After Theory illuminates an interesting Biblical concept.
In a revolutionary reversal, true power springs from powerlessness. As St Paul writes in Corinthians: `God chose what is weakest in the world to shame the strong … even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.’ The whole of Judaeo-Christian thought is cast in this ironic, paradoxical, up-ending mould.
The wretched of the earth are known to the Old Testament as the anawim, those whose desperate plight embodies the failure of the political order. The only valid image of the future is the failure of the present. The anawim, who are the favoured children of Yahweh, have no stake in the current set-up, and so are an image of the future in their very destitution. The dispossessed are a living sign of the truth that the only enduring power is one anchored in an acknowledgement of failure. Any power which fails to recognize this fact will be enfeebled in a different sense, fearfully defending itself against the victims of its own arrogance. Here, as often, paranoia has much to recommend it. The exercise of power is child’s play compared to the confession of weakness.
Terry Eagleton. After Theory (Kindle Locations 1882-1892). Kindle Edition.
What do we do with those aspects of the established order which don’t fit – or even shame – the established order? Do we want to sweep the anawim off the streets and hide them from view in order conceal the fact that the current system does not work for everyone?
Do we put down the dissenters? Do we turn a blind eye to ‘the poor’ so as to not acknowledge that the bell-curve is inverted and seems to be more of a trough?
Before doing so, we may want to consider this:
The authors of the New Testament see Jesus as a type of the anawim. He is dangerous because he has no stake in the present set-up. Those who speak up for justice will be done away with by the state. Society will wreak its terrible vengeance on the vulnerable. (Kindle Locations 1893-1894).
This idea cast a strange light on the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ when it talks about God’s will being done on earth and forgiving debts …
Eagleton uses the Book of Isaiah to make his big point about the failures of the system:
The Book of Isaiah is strong stuff for these post-revolutionary days. It is only left in hotel rooms because nobody bothers to read it. If those who deposit it there had any idea what it contained, they would be well advised to treat it like pornography and burn it on the spot.
As far as revolution goes, the human species divides between those who see the world as containing pockets of misery in an ocean of increasing well-being, and those who see it as containing pockets of well-being in an ocean of increasing misery. It also divides between those who agree with Schopenhauer that it would probably have been better for a great many people in history if they had never been born, and those who regard this as lurid leftist hyperbole. This, in the end, is perhaps the only political division which really counts.
(Kindle Locations 1916-1920).
In response, I would ask:
- What if ‘the poor’ are not an exception to a good system but are actually an indictment of it exposing the flawed gears in the machine?
- Is God interested in turning over the established order or in preserving it?
- Is God there for those who are wounded and needy or is God ashamed of them?
- Is our current system mostly good with some bad exceptions that we just need to work on and tweak? Or is the system itself flawed and in deep need of re-formation and renovation?
- Is God interested in change or simply stasis? And if so, what does God provide for that work?
These are questions that both Process and Liberation theologies ask that need to be evaluated even if one does not subscribe to those schools of thought.
The answers will impact both how one views God and how one participates in the world.
October 23, 2014 at 10:31 pm
Really appreciate this post and it’s connection between process and liberation theology. It sums up a lot of what I’ve been thinking about this past year. Being in leadership at a middle class church it often feels like these questions are not regularly raised. Instead questions of preservation and maintaining our own church status quo are the norm. The desire to sweep the poor off the streets and out of view seems present at even the most progressive talking churches I’ve been apart of. The term we use for this is “serving” or “volunteering” or “clothing drive” or “sponsor” are all things that distance us from actually knowing the poor in our midst, place us above them and support the status quo. The current systems of power and oppression support church the way middle class America does church. For all our talk of social justice and consternation over events like Ferguson or ‘failing’ segregated schools, our or prison system we ultimately prefer to talk or look the other way rather than make any attempt to change the status quo, let go of our own power and build something new in partnership with the needy.
October 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm
Thank you so much for this thoughtful response. I resonate with your analysis and lament the outcomes with you. I have recently been talking to several people who work for/ help start either non-profit groups or social services … It has been an education.
I have been tinkering with a form of critical theory that explains how people of so overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation and the power of the machine that it results in a 3 stage submission:
Ya know what … maybe I’ll just blog about this later today – this is going to get long 🙂 -Bo
October 25, 2014 at 2:58 pm
I look forward to reading that post!