More Franchises - A Second Cup
United Church of Canada
June 19-20, 2010
Toronto, ON Canada
Workshop List (PDF)
George Hermanson http://www.georgehermanson.com
(Part Two by James Murray follows below.)
We live in a complex world of pluralism. Institutions and ideas are questioned. This creates a tension, because our world as we have known it is challenged by other ideas. There is a tension caused by differences of color and cultures. Because our reality is changing, for some this is a threat to our way of life, and for others a time to celebrate for it brings more color and vividness. In our theological world we often frame the issue as conservative verse liberal, theist or non theist.
Because of this problem in metaphysics, faith has become distorted and until it finds a new world view, we will not arrive at an synthesis. Theologians actually helped remove God as an active agent in history. It is true that within conservative circles the doctrine of revelation allows for God to intervene in history. This means, though, religious knowledge becomes privileged knowledge. So modern liberal theologians had to deconstruct theology to save the possibility of religious experience. But they, in turn, by the linguistic community and mythical and metaphorical turns, made God a distant actor, not present reality. Faith becomes a private experience and is not testable except by action of the believer. The foundational mode of religion was not sustainable.
As classical metaphysics became obsolete, conservative and liberal theology reacted differently Conservative theology retreated into biblical literalism, retaining a God-concept based on classical metaphysics Liberal theology deconstructed theology, rejecting any God-talk based on classical metaphysics Neither liberal nor conservative engage a new, root philosophy of reality
The postmodern alternative is to view everything as energy in motion. Very little of our thinking has probed this issue of metaphysics, and the result is often ill formed as a result. We can see this in the New Age focus on the power of ideas. Process/Relational theology offers us a sound theoretical metaphysics and looks at the world as energy in motion. What is real in this postmodern worldview is a product of relationships which are always in the process of becoming. As Whitehead points out in the Adventure of Ideas, ideas are propositions which can effect the becoming of the individual. Ideas shape who we can become both as individuals and as a society. (For more on that check out Marilynne Robinson’s book on this issue. (Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson, Yale University Press, 158 p) This leads me to Peter Drucker, the business theorist, who said the first question any organization needs to ask is: “What is your business?”
Now it would seem self evident that we know what we are about. However, it isn’t. We have as many theories about being church as there are people. We throw words around like emerging, missional. We seek a magic bullet. How we frame the issue reveals our foundational view. For some it is a question of survival; we must grow. For others, it is to be the same as it was years ago. For others, it is to speak to power words of justice and compassion. For others, it is to support what they think are the values of traditional society. For others, it is to have correct unchanging doctrine - this is what you must believe. For others, it is to enhance their sense of God and have a spirituality that sustains them in their daily living.
Our business is to help people experience God What are the images and words and theologies that will help us to have such a relationship with God that deals with the reality of this post-modern world we inhabit?
As John Cobb Jr. puts it: “The church takes as it mission working with God for the salvation of the world ... assumes the world needs saving ... God cares about the world ... God is already working in and through the world through creatures and especially human beings toward the salvation of the world.” As Marjorie Suchocki puts it: “ God works with the world as it is to lure it to where ought to be.” “God is the supremely related one.” A final note: “God is in the world and the world is in God and God is more than the world.”
Of course to use this one has to ask what is meant by God? What is meant by salvation? This is where the process/relational theology helps. All theology affects what one preaches. We all have theologies that are assumed. We may have learned them in Sunday School, or by listening to sermons, or participating in some reading for a discussion group. The assumed theology is always the default position.
As well, we have assumed philosophical understandings. Most people use the modernist approach of unrelated bits of matter in motion which is incapable of describing what it means to live in the post-modern world where everything is inter-connected energy in motion.
The classical way of doing theology, in a formal way, is to understand we know God by experience, tradition, scripture, and reason. In the post-modern paradigm, we begin with a sense of God, and as with all feelings, we bring those feelings to consciousness. We build models to speak of how we know God. Not all models we have been given help us have a sense of God. Some models of God give us a God unworthy of worship. All models are means of expressing deep feelings and the model gets tested by present experience - the questions of our time; tested by reason - can we hold this idea? They are tested by tradition-how is this model faithful to the past and how is it a better way of affirming the past? The model is tested by an examination of scripture - can we find in scripture hints and confirmation of the model?
To fully develop a post-modern theology we need to deconstruct our world-life-view. We do that by is seeing how dependent it is on what is called modern consciousness. The first aspect of that dependence on the modernist assumption is the putting of human reason at the center of experience. What that does is split knowledge into two realities - that which is testable and that which is not. This has had the effect to make things like beauty, love, emotions dismissed as not being real.
The second aspect is the split between absolutism and relativism as an either/or proposition. This is seen in the debate of whether a religion is an absolute truth, which makes others untrue, or religion is a matter of taste or acculturation and therefore lacking in any authority.
I have found Process theology to be the best model as a postmodern theology. It connects our world-life-view with the social-historical study of the bible. This means asking questions about the location, issues of the time of the writers. It will examine the way those events are interpreted by the writers, and the broader principles that shape the interpretation and are influenced by what has happened are to be understood in this way.
A Christian process theologian holds that this particular past is especially illuminating of the present as well. We can learn from it only as we understand the difference between its time and our own time. We will examine the text by our issues and we let the text examine our time. We will find meaning for our time as well. Usually we can affirm that meaning. Occasionally we must argue against the text. Our task is to wrestle with it, not to treat it as sacrosanct.
For a process/relational theology the content of the message will emphasize God being with us, compassionate and directing, using our freedom and responsibility, and calling us to use these for the good of others as well as ourselves. It will emphasize that, although God is always an important factor in what happens, God does not control it. We discern God’s presence in particular aspects of what happens, not in the outcome as a whole. God is in us and we are in God but also that we are members one of another, and that our lives are interwoven with the wider natural context as well.
Bernard Loomer asserted that there were two primary kinds of power – unilateral power and relational power. Unilateral power is by nature coercive- it is the cosmic moralist, ruling like an absolute king. This is the default position of many. This God gives, but does not receive; acts but does not listen; demands but does not compromise. This makes spirituality difficult for it ignores our desires. As well ideas of creativity and freedom are not real in the sense we have them but are only given at the whim of the one in power. The God model of process/relational is God has only relational power. What is said and done has effect on how God will respond. It gives, but also receives; acts but also responds; has a vision but is open to change and transformation. Freedom, creativity, are intrinsic to each actual entity and relational power works to value that up by offering a dream or aim to each actor. The future is created out of response and anticipation. This idea of Relational power is dependent on diversity, actually welcomes it, and offers novelty to each nano second of experience.
Process theology affirms that God has a vision, appropriate to each moment of experience and, in the broadest sense, for the vast expanses of planetary and cosmic history. God is omnipresent, in all things thus no God forsaken places. In each moment God presents the world with possibilities. God then offers encouragement to achieve the dream. The dream of God is not one of forcing an idea but to does inspires the world with dreams, visions, and possibilities.
This idea suggests God actually experiences us, and what we have done. Needs us. What we do matters and is that which God has to work. We touch God by our dreams and actions. There is a call response built into our relational world and the world becomes through it. This means what we do and how we respond to God’ aim matters and determines what the world will become.
This is a listening God. Before God speaks God has had to receive. This makes prayer, silent, spoken, acted, our living efficacious. What we do limits God but God is not defeated. For in each moment the dream revised is offered back. We can refuse but God does not stop, for there are some who listen and they become for us guides.
The worship service is a central part of church life, for it both reflects and is reflected in other parts of life. If the liturgy and sermon speak of how we are members one of another, it is of great importance that this community of belonging be experienced throughout the life of the church. If God leads by persuasion and the preacher expands the sense of freedom and responsibility through offering new proposals, then relationships throughout the church should be mutual help and support grounded in mutual affection. Structures are needed, but they will be adjusted to fulfill real needs rather than to maintain the authority of some over others.
The strength of community will be tested in various ways. Process theology calls for inclusiveness and affirmation of others, whereas some bring with them to church beliefs and feelings that lead to exclusion. The issues were once chiefly about race. Today they are more likely to be about sexual orientation. Whatever the issue, process theology will seek to draw a circle that takes in all who want to participate in the community’s life. It will also emphasize that there are many communities arising out of different traditions that have a valid message and equal status before God. It will seek not only to be an inclusive community itself but also to show its appreciation of other communities and to work toward a community of communities of which it is but one.
A church informed by process theology will not only be a place of warm community, serious study, and honest interaction. It will also be a place where concern for the wider world, both human and natural, will not only be affirmed but also be expressed in shared actions. This happens most naturally in responding to the practical needs of people in the larger community and taking steps to reduce the use of scarce resources.
All of this has implications for a church. James works in a church that was a Community of Concern. Using this model he persuasively is offering a dream for the future. It may not be heard and process/relational theology says that does not matter, for it is like pebbles tossed into a pool, there are ripples. Given this theoretic outline James will share how it has guided him.
The seven questions for theology:
- The first issue is who is God and how is God related to the world?
- Then we move into a second level of reflection. Who is Jesus the Christ? Note by that very phrase we are asking about his teachings, his life and his mission. To that we have added secondary questions - like the virgin birth and the way the early church understood him.
- Who is the Holy Spirit? (the Trinity - which is how God is related to the Spirit and the Son)
- Anthropology - what does it mean to be human? How are we related to animals and the natural world and what distinguishes us?
- The meaning of sin? The meaning of salvation? The role Jesus has in redemption and our role? ( soteriology)
- What is the church? (ecclesiology)
- The meaning of hope in the present and for the future after death. How does Jesus as the Christ fit into this? (eschatology)
To give robust sermons, then, means getting a fix on our operative theology and through our reflection make our theology healthy and strong.
Resources for this paper are John Cobb Jr., David Ray Griffin, Marjorie Suchocki, Bruce Epperly, Catherine Keller and Philip Clayton.
Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry ~ Bruce G. Epperly & Katherine Gould Epperly
Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (Paperback)~ Bruce G. Epperly
On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process Catherine Keller Fortress
Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society by Philip Clayton ( Fortress)
God's Presence Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki
Reclaiming the Church by John B. Cobb jr. Westminster
Two Great Truths -David Ray Griffin - Westminster
Process Theology -John Cobb Jr. and David Ray Griffin - Westminster
Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World By John B. Cobb, Jr., Bruce G. Epperly, & Paul S. Nancarrow P & F Press, 2005. Claremont, CA
1 Corinthians By David J. Lull Chalice Press, 2007
Adventures of Ideas by A.N. Whitehead The Free Press, 1933. Paperback edition: 1967
Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution Edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. Eerdmans
Christ in a Pluralistic Age by John Cobb, Jr. Wipf and Stock, 1998
A Christian Natural Theology, Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead by John B. Cobb, Jr. Westminster John Knox Press, Second Edition, 2007
Divinity and Diversity by Marjorie Suchocki Abingdon Press, 2003
Earth, Sky, Gods and Mortals Developing an Ecological Spirituality by McDaniel, Jay
The End of Evil, by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki Wipf & Stock, 2005 (SUNY Press, 1988)
The Fall to Violence, Marjorie Suchocki Continuum Publishing, 1994
God and Power By Catherine Keller Fortress Press, 2005
God-Christ-Church Marjorie Suchocki Crossroad Publishing, 1982
In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being Panentheistic Reflections on God's Presence in a Scientific World -Philip Clayton & Arthur Peacocke, Editors W.B. Eerdsman Publishing, 2004
Living From the Center Jay McDaniel Chalice Press, 2000
Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life Jay B. McDaniel Westminster John Knox Press, 1989
The Old Testament and Process Theology, Robert Gnuse Chalice Press
Power of Affirmative Faith, The Bruce G. Epperly Chalice Press, 2001
Process Theology A Basic Introduction C. Robert Mesle Chalice Press, 1993
Revelation, Chalice Commentaries for Today Ronald L. Farmer Chalice Press, 2005
Romans John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Lull Chalice Press, 2006
Saving Paradise Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker Beacon Press, 2008
The Whispered Word, Marjorie Suchocki. Chalice Press, 1999.
World Without End Joseph A. Bracken, S.J William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005
The Secular Age - Charles Taylor - Belknop Harvard Press - 2007
Why the Emerging Church Needs Process Theology.
Part 2 – Practicing Process
James Murray, www.dc-church.org
When I arrived at Dominion-Chalmers United Church in Ottawa two years ago, I was given a pile of books which the congregation had been using in their programming. One of the books was Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Church”. In his book, Warren talks about God’s authority and power over our lives, and he affirms the classical doctrines of omnipotence and omniscience. For that reason right there, most liberal churches do not touch Warren’s books. Personally, I find Warren’s books to be quite hilarious. He would start each chapter affirming some classical attribute of God that should in some way have a deterministic effect on our lives. Then in the rest of the chapter he goes on to argue around that absolute power to suggest we have agency in shaping our lives and our churches. Warren has sold over 30 million of these books, and no one seems to mind his theological tap-dancing around God’s sovereignty.
Rick Warren is considered by many to be the most influential preacher in America today. While he condemns same sex marriage, Warren does raise millions for AIDS in Africa each year. Warren is a Southern Baptist, and is typical of most evangelical conservatives. They want to affirm the power of God, and they know they should affirm the traditional theological categories, even if they don’t understand them, and even if they don’t really describe what it is they do actually believe. If the most influential evangelical conservative in America is sloppy with his theological categories, then the fact that we in Canada’s most liberal Protestant church are confused about our theology should come as no surprise.
In the June issue of the Observer former Moderator Lois Wilson said “We're so afraid of being tagged as ‘Christians’ (who are) trying to convert other people that we will not say ‘I'm a Christian and this is what it means.’” Wilson says “We're really good at social justice but really bad at our connection with Jesus."
The typical United Church member today wants the death and resurrection of Jesus to have some saving significance, but doesn’t know what to do with atonement. Most of our Bible Study groups would rather study Eckhart Tolle than the Apocalypse of John. We believe in free will, but we don’t know what that does to God’s power. The theological language most of us have to talk about our core business of helping people to experience God is sloppy at best, and at times it is completely inadequate.
A few years ago I met John Moore who is a well known media personality here in Toronto. John Moore hosts the morning drive show on CFRB, which is the top radio station in Toronto. Moore grew up in Montreal West United Church, where his parents still attend. Moore described to me that he had a typical United Church upbringing. By that he meant that by the time he was confirmed, he was a functional atheist. His Christian education upbringing had convinced him he didn’t need God, because God didn’t serve any meaningful purpose in his life. For many people like John Moore, Jesus and God are nothing more than archetypal intellectual concepts which are irrelevant to modern human existence. Greta Vosper’s book “With or Without God” reflects the failure of our traditional theologies to address the post modern context in a helpful way.
The congregation I serve in Ottawa is Dominion-Chalmers. During the late 1980’s and 1990’s it was one of the dominant conservative voices in the United Church. Allen Churchill was the senior minister at the time. As devoted Christians, the people of Dominion-Chalmers want to affirm the power of God as being central to their lives. Like Rick Warren, they are often theological sloppy. The one thing they have going for them is they have not let go of the personal relationship metaphor to describe their experience of God. They don’t tend to use politically correct phrases and inclusive language when they pray, but it is obvious they do feel the presence of God on a regular basis.
Our Sunday morning Bible study has about 16 people gather each week. That’s pretty good for a worshipping congregation of only 100 people. We begin the Bible study with a check-in question which asks ‘Where did you see the Holy Spirit at work in your life this week?” At first they weren’t sure how to answer this question, but after a few months they have learned to appreciate how active God is in their lives on a daily basis. They were used to thinking of God as being present only in big supernatural interventions. Now they are starting to see God as being present in the small moments as well. They are moving from classic deistic language, and are starting to include panentheistic images as well. They are learning how God interacts in our lives through God’s whispers and dreams, which can encourage and inspire them. One of the participants is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Even though Booker can’t always remember exactly what happened during the past week, every week Booker says with great confidence “God is at work in my life every day.” It has become an affirmation and a source of assurance for him.
One of the biggest ministries I have at Dominion-Chalmers is the monthly healing service. When I arrived, the healing service only had two or three regular participants and it was viewed with suspicion by most in the congregation. It has become a forum for me to talk about the many different kinds of healing which God offers, which has expanded their vocabulary. People are encouraged to share their stories as part of the service. We still offer the laying on of hands, but the 25 or so participants also have the choice of being anointed with oil by me. The most controversial change I introduced was inviting people to light a votive candle on the altar as a way of offering a healing prayer for a loved one. After a few services we had to increase the number of candles to handle all their prayer requests.
Healing is probably one the hardest things for most mainline churches to handle. Most Liberal or progressives do not know how to describe The Holy Spirit let alone relate to it. Given the influence of Pentecostalism, even most evangelical conservatives feel their language for the Spirit is inadequate or suspect.
The Process theologian Bruce Epperly wrote in a blog recently that
“For many progressive Christians, spirituality is connected with other-worldliness and healing is connected with supernaturalism and the bombastic theatrics of televangelists. While there is much truth in these connections, a healthy faith does not live by what it denies about God, wholeness, and mysticism, but rather by what it can affirm about divine activity, personal transformation, and the relationship of spirituality and healing.”
Epperly notes that we are often more comfortable talking about the healing power of Reiki, Healing Pathways, Tai Chi and Yoga than we are about the Christian practices which promote healing of body, mind and spirit.
A recent Pew Center Report notes that 50% of persons who identify themselves as mainline Christians report having mystical experiences of self-transcendence. Sadly, the language we offer our people to talk about these experiences is often sloppy at best, and at times it is just completely inadequate. The fact we are embarrassed to talk about it in public makes things even worse.
A hundred years ago in his book Varieties of Religious Experience, William James proved that people are having mystic encounters with the Holy whether we believe in God or not. William James called for a more holistic and spirit-centered theology which has the capacity to take mysticism, spirituality, and healing seriously. Epperly says what often prevents this from happening is the fact “we have separated spirituality from social action and personal faith from social concern.
One of the ways I have been promoting a more process oriented approach to our faith has been during the season of Lent. Every year D-C has held a midweek service during Lent followed by a lunch. The service attracts a core of D-C people and a variety of people who work downtown. The first year I organized it I used Dorothy Bass’ work on Practicing our Faith. Dorothy Bass is the sister in law of Diana Butler Bass. Dorothy Bass identified twelve spiritual practices which help to shape our identity as Christians and which reflects God’s gifts of grace to us. Over the seven sessions, we addressed such topics as Sabbath keeping, hospitality, sharing our testimony, singing our faith, and forgiveness. I had guest speakers each week tell their story of faith, and how these practices had nourished their experience of God. The lunch conversations became quite animated as people were encouraged to share their own stories on these topics. By the end of the series we were getting fifty people out each week.
The second year was a more challenging one. I used Philip Clayton’s book “Transforming Theology”. Philip Clayton is one of the leading academic scholars on Process theology today. Clayton offers seven questions which he hopes will help the local church to explore and voice their own Christian beliefs in such a way that they can have a transforming impact on both church and society. A number of clergy and lay people had gathered at the Madawaska Institute the previous November to take a course from Clayton on his new book. I was able to invite many of those participants to be the theme speakers for the Lent series. They were asked to respond to Clayton’s questions which were things like: Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? Who is the Holy Spirit? What is sin? What is salvation? What is the Christian hope?
It was an interesting experience. A young minister offered the thesis that the church no longer needs orthodoxy. Instead, he felt the post modern age required that we have ortho-paradox. He felt we needed to hold the tensions of humanity and divinity in tension, rather than have all our categories be neatly resolved by doctrine. His call to let go of orthodoxy and dogma was warmly received by my congregation, because the experience of the living God was going to be at the heart of the tension. The most controversial speaker addressed the issue of sin and salvation. He gave his testimony of his conversion experience and his dramatic call to ministry. His testimony followed the traditional evangelical pattern, and it was beautifully done. The classic signs of the Holy Spirit were present which affirmed the authenticity of his experience. What made it controversial was this minister was openly homosexual. The majority of my more conservative parishoners were deeply offended by this. A handful of our more moderate members were very moved and thankful that he had given us his witness. It revealed how sloppy a lot of our theological categories truly are. A call to abandon orthodoxy and dogma in favour of unresolved paradox was warmly embraced, while a conservative-style born again experience offered by a homosexual was not.
When I attended QTC in the late 1980’s we were encouraged to take an aggressive approach to ‘fixing’ congregations so they would follow the enlightened path of politically correct liberal theology. At the time I could never have imagined working in such a conservative environment as Dominion-Chalmers United Church. I have been greatly influenced by Marjorie Suchocki’s idea that “God works with the world as it is in order to lure it to where ought to be.” By working with my congregation as they are, I am becoming open to where God is inviting them to go with me as we learn to reach out in mission to the community. We are learning how the presence of God’s Holy Spirit has the power to bridge the theological labels which normally would divide us.
As the United Church seeks to adapt to this emerging age, it will need to leave behind its unhelpful categories and outdated theology. As much as we like to think we are a progressive and socially forward looking church, we are actually quite far behind the game, since we have lost our ability to talk about Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the power of personal spiritual experience.
The emerging church is not something theoretical which might happen sometime in the future. According to some of the brightest minds the Church has, the future has already begun. The question this post-modern world is asking of us today is “Can you offer us a meaningful experience of God’s presence which can transform our lives?” If we can’t offer them a way to make sense of the transcendent quality of life, they will go elsewhere. By using the tools of Process theology which focuses on the power of our experiences, we can find a new way to speak of spiritual things without being embarrassed. With our sense of God’s presence renewed, we believe a new sense of purpose will emerge which can help us navigate the uncharted waters of this post-modern world, a world which God continues to love so very much.
Questions for clarification
Bibliography & Resources
Bruce Epperly blog http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com/2010/06/did-jesus-cure-anybody-bru...
Dorothy Bass, “Practicing Our Faith” Jossey-Bass, 1997 www.practicingourfaith.org
Philip Clayton, “Transforming Theology” Fortress 2010 www.transformingtheology.org
Bruce Epperly “Holy Adventure- 41 days of audacious living” Upper Room Books 2008
(A process-oriented alternative to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life)
Phyllis Tickle “The Great Emergence” Jossey-Bass 2008
Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch “The Shaping of Things to Come” Hendrickson, 2003
Reggie McNeal “The Present Future- 6 tough questions for the church” Jossey Bass 2003
Graham Standish “Becoming a blessed Church” Alban Institute 2005
Marcus Borg “The Heart of Christianity” Harper Collins 2003
Alan Roxburgh & Fred Romanuk “The Missional Leader” Jossey-Bass 2006
Brian McLaren “A new kind of Christianity” HarperOne 2010 www.brianmclaren.net
James Murray www.dc-church.org