The Domination System

Marcus Borg frequently uses the term "domination system" to describe the oppressive conditions that existed in biblical times, and which was opposed by many of the Old Testament prophets as well as by Jesus. In The Heart of Christianity, for example, Borg writes:

The issue is what is commonly called "systemic injustice"--sources of unnecessary human misery created by unjust political, economic, and social systems. Its opposite, of course, is "systemic justice," also known as structural, social, substantive, or distributive justice. The test of the justice of systems is their impact on human lives. To what extent do they lead to human flourishing and to what extent to human suffering?

This is what the political passion of the Bible is about. Its major voices protest the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and empires that dominated their world. They do so in the name of God and on behalf of the victims--slaves in Egypt, exiles in Babylon, exploited peasants in the time of monarchy and again in the time of Jesus, and the most vulnerable in all times--widows, orphans, the poor, and the marginalized. And in the name of God, the major figures of the Bible advocate a very different vision of our life together.
I believe that this vision of social justice represents an important component of a divinely inspired faith. A theology that does not express its commitment to God by seeking to end social injustice is, in my view, a hollow faith. By their fruits shall you know them, in other words. What are the fruits of a committed, progressive religion?

Systemic injustice is not a distant memory of biblical times; while we may not have absolute monarchies and peasant-based economies in the modern West, what we do have are newer, updated expressions of the "domination system", rooted in economic exploitation and manifesting itself through economic inequality, imperialism, and war. While persons of faith may disagree on how to accomplish the goal of social justice, the reality of injustice continues to pervade the world, and it must be addressed.

I think that Americans have a special responsibility in addressing this problem. As the most powerful nation on earth, the empire that we live in is particularly influential in the domination system that prevails on the planet. In 2006, we find Americans living in a society where, according to a recent news article, CEOs earn 262 times the pay of the average worker; where their government continues to be engaged in a destructive and pointless war in the Middle East; where millions of its citizens have no health care.

The prophet Isaiah wrote "learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (1:17) Several of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible emphasized social justice as an important part of their message And what of Jesus, in the Christian tradition? Borg argues that Jesus was executed, essentially, that "the domination system of his day killed him," because Jesus in fact challenged this system. He argues that some of the Beatitudes had political implications. For example, as Luke reported, Jesus said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
This tradition of social justice is an important component of the western religious tradition, one that I believe that a contemporary, postmodern religious sensibility must retain if it is to be relevant and if it is to heed the Divine call.

Divine love and the religious life

My own theology owes a great deal to process thought, as I have mentioned before. To elaborate on this point a little further, I wanted to convey some of the ideas of God's responsive love, as defined by process theology. Process theology defines divine love as being both creative and responsive. I specifically want to focus here on the responsive aspect of this love.

In Cobb and Griffin's book Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition, the authors distinguish between God's unchanging attributes and that of God which does change. These ideas are bit dense and philosophical:

Process theism is sometimes called "dipolar theism", in contrast with traditional theism with its doctrine of divine simplicity. For Charles Hartshorne, the two "poles" or aspects of God are the abstract essence of God, on the one hand, and God's concrete actuality on the other. The abstract essence is eternal, absolute, independent, unchangeable. It includes those abstract attributes of deity which characterize the divine existence at every moment. For example, to say that God is omniscient means that in every moment of the divine life God knows everything which is knowable at that time. The concrete actuality is temporal, relative, dependent, and constantly changing. In each moment of God's life there are new, unforeseen happenings in the world which only then have become knowable. Hence, God's concrete knowledge is dependent upon the decisions made by the worldly actualities. God's knowledge is always relativized by, in the sense of internally related to, the world...

This divine relativity is not limited to a "bare knowledge" of the new things happening in the world. Rather, the responsiveness includes a sympathetic feeling witht he worldly beings, all of whom have feelings. Hence, it is not merely the content of God's knowledge which is dependent, but God's own emotional state. God enjoys our enjoyments, and suffers with our sufferings. This is the kind of responsiveness which is truly divine and belongs to the very nature of perfection. Hence it belongs to the ideal for human existence.
At least two key points are packed into those two paragraphs. First, the authors identify God's responsiveness as a major component of divine love. God feels what we feel and experiences exactly and perfectly what we experience. God is able to do this because of the principle of panentheism--we are part of God, and God therefore includes us as part of her existence. Second, because God is perfect and divine attributes represent the highest ideal, then divine sympathy serves as the standard for human behavior--we are necessarily called by God to be sympathetic to what other people experience, even if we as fallible humans can only imperfectly experience what God can experience perfectly.

Hartshorne, in his book Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, suggests yet another implication of this. Our memories, Hartshorne, points out, are with God, and remain with God perfectly forever. Hartshorne wrote that he had a happy childhood, yet "I have only a few faint memories of it now." It is not his memories, faint as they are, that make his happy childhood real. Hartshorne cites Alfred North Whitehead's concept of "the objective immortality of the past":
Once an event has occurred it is a permanent item in reality. The "accomplished facts" that constitute the past cannot be de-accomplished or nullified. If they could, historical truth would be impossible or meaningless.
God plays a vital role in the permanence of the past. As Hartshorne puts it, "What in us is extremely partial, feeble retention of the past may in God be complete, ideally vivid and adequate retention. My happy childhood was a gift the world and my parents offered to God. God does not lose what God has once acquired. So who makes history true, if it is true, is the really preserved past as it is in God, who is the final "measure of all things..."

In saying that his happy childhood was a gift to God, he expresses the idea that we actually contribute to God's experience by our own experiences. Thus we express our love for God by living our lives to the fullest and responding most fully and completely to God's call.

From a Christian perspective, one could say that Jesus lived his life as fully as possible in response to the creative aspect of divine love, and it was by his example that we can see how to do the same. Thus, from the perspective of my theology, it was his life, and not his crucifixion and alleged resurrection, that matters. The idea that he "died for our sins" and supposedly gives us eternal life is meaningless from this point of view. Religion, as I see it, is about how we live the religious life in the here and now--and thus enhance God's experience--and not about the afterlife (Hartshorne did not believe in a personal, or subjective, immortality. I am an agnostic on that question.) How can we best listen to the possibilities that God, in her creative nature, offers to us, and thereby respond to God's call at each moment of our existence? This is what, in my theology, defines the purpose of religion.

Years ago, when I lived in Colorado, a pair of fundamentalist proselytizers came to my front door and asked the question if I knew if I was going to heaven when I died. I didn't really answer the question--I just told them I wasn't interested in what they had to say and ended the conversation. What I could have answered was simply that the question is irrelevant to me. I neither know nor care about what happens to me in the afterlife, if there even is an afterlife. I am much more interested in how we live our lives in this world--because what we do matters, deeply and intimately, in God's own experience.

According to the New Testament, Jesus said that we are to love God with all of our heart. As I mentioned at the outset, process theology believes that divine love consists of both a creative side and a responsive side. God's creative side is constantly offering us the best possible courses of action at each moment in accordance with the conditions that exist at the time. It is then up to us to listen to those calls and respond accordingly; and if we do so, then we are expressing our love for God. That is because, by doing so, God's responsive side is then affected in the most positive way possible by the choices we have made. If we can say that we have done that, then, from a Christian perspective, we we can say that we have emulated Jesus as a role model. What more can God ask of us than to respond to what God offers us?

What does pluralism mean?

It was suggested in a comment to one of my postings that it contradicts the principle of pluralism to criticize any practice of another faith. However, I would distinguish between what I would call pluralism, which values other faith traditions, and a mere relativism that considers every religious practice acceptable. Using these terms (which may not be the most accurate, but for want of better terminology that is what I will use), I consider myself a pluralist; I do not consider myself a relativist.

I believe that pluralism recognizes the value of various religious traditions as means of mediating the experience of that which is Greater than us--whether we call that the Divine, or the Real, or the Ultimate, or whatever. Each of these various traditions expresses finite, human means of characterizing this experience, filtered through the various cultural and historical lenses of the times and places where these traditions developed. Humans, as finite beings, can never fully comprehend the Divine, which is infinite. Thus humans must necessarily mediate their experience of the divine, often through myths, legends, scriptures, and practices--and these necessarily reflect the culture from which they came. Thus we have various religious traditions across the world. As finite human endeavors, religions can express that which is sublime, but, unfortunately also the foibles of human beings and their civilizations.

It is this combination of the sublime and the flawed that has to be accounted for in religious pluralism.

We can look at other faiths and appreciate their deep religious value for their participants, while at the same time criticizing certain practices that may emerge from those traditions. For example, Hinduism offers a deep and meaningful means of communicating with a greater presence. But by the same token, that doesn't mean that the caste system that emerged out of Hindu cultures is therefore acceptable simply because it was traditionally integrated into the Hindu faith. Similarly, I believe that Muhammed's prophetic voice for monotheism was an important stage in human religious history, and I believe that many devout Muslims have found a connection with God through Islam; but that doesn't mean that I cannot criticize the Sharia (which emerged long after Muhammed's death) for its repressive views on women.

Over time, as circumstances change, theologies and practices may evolve to address changing conditions. In some cases, the political or social situation that believers find themselves in forces them to confront their religious ideals and to evolve new responses in the face of various challenges. And in the modern world, we are confronted with challenges from several fronts, including the rational understanding of the world that science has given us, the moral imperative of various human liberation movements such as feminism and the gay rights movement, and the social injustices perpetrated under capitalism in modern society. These radical changes have forced believers to re-examine the Christian paradigm that dominated over past centuries. Religions can and do undergo reformations. Sometimes these reformations are painful.

Judaism, for example, evolved in the centuries before and after Christ, in response to changing conditions--including the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Judaism may not have originally believed in an afterlife--certainly it did not as expressed in the early writings of the Bible--but the concept emerged in the face of such events as the Babylonian exile (and even in Jesus's lifetime, the Saducees possibly did not believe in an afterlife, although apparently the Pharisees did). The same can be said for Satan--the concept of which did not exist when the Torah was written, but was found later in Jewish thought. Perhaps most significantly for modern Judaism, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD forced Judaism to evolve away from the practice of animal sacrifices, and a new form of Judaism emerged as a result.

The point is that religions inevitably change to meet evolving circumstances. If religions are the product of human cultures in response to an experience of the Divine, then as human products, they sometimes get things wrong. Some practices that may have made sense at one time come to be understood as repressive or morally unacceptable. When this happens, it becomes appropriate to ask whether it is necessary to evolve theology to meet the challenges to the old paradigms.

That is how I can criticize certain conceptions of God that I believe represent an outdated paradigm. The idea of God as an interventionist patriarchal master who doles out favors according to his whims, for example, makes no sense in the modern world. It makes no sense because, first of all, it contradicts our modern understanding of how the world works--we know that the world acts according to physical laws. (Lightning bolts don't come out of the sky to strike people dead for uttering words of blasphemy--even believers in an interventionist God realize this at some level.) We also know that the universe has evolved in a creative process that goes back to the Big Bang and which includes the evolution of life on this planet. We know that horrible evils have taken place in the world that make no sense if one is to believe in an interventionist God (when the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner looked at the reality of the Holocaust, for example, he realized that the notion of an interventionist God became utterly untenable.) And we know that injustices have been perpetrated on women, gays and other outcasts of society, often with religious justifications.

I believe that the old paradigm of the interventionist male God authority figure has negative consequences, both for religious communities and for the world at large. One of the steps towards building a more just world is, in my view, to put aside the old oppressive stereotypes of God as a male "Lord" and master, and instead introduce into our conception of God one who instead incorporates both the masculine and the feminine, who lives among us and who shares our experiences. If our concept of the Ultimate reality is oppressive, then it is harder for us not to apply oppressive values in our worldly and community life. Does it mean that I think that those who continue to use traditional ways of conceiving of God are not able to experience the Divine? Of course not. Religions throughout time have often enriched and enhanced the human experience, regardless of the fine points of theology. But by adapting our conception of God according to a new paradigm, we respond to God in the ever continuing process of revelation that God offers to us, the process of Divine call and human response.

Creation as a process

I obviously can't expect everyone who is interested in building a new religious paradigm to share my own theology in all of its myriad details. What I can do is talk about my own perspective and what inspires me; whether or not everyone is inspired by these same ideas isn't necessarily the point. I have mentioned before that I am a panentheist--as are people like Marcus Borg and Matthew Fox. My brand of panentheism has been deeply influenced by process theology, which was developed by Christian theologians who were influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.

Process theology is often a difficult system to convey, especially since any explanation of it tends to use a lot of Whiteheadian terminology ("prehension", "concrescence", and so forth.) I did find a nice summary of creation, as it is understood by process theology, in the book Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. I particularly like her description of creation (and God's role in the evolution of the universe) as "call and response". One paragraph that nicely summarizes this understanding of the creative processes in the evolution of the world is the following:

...God...exists in creative response to relationship. The joys of creatures become the joys of God, and the sorrows of creatures the sorrows of God. Further, in process modes of thought, God is not just the passive participant in the life of the cosmos, but the creative lure of the whole process of existence. God offers to each element in the world a way that it might most creatively respond to the influences it receives, and the world takes that influence into itself, becoming as it will, offering the result to the universe--and also back to God. God takes the results of the world's becoming into the divine nature, there values it, integrates it judgmentally into the divine self, and on the basis of what the world is becoming and God's own character, offers a possibility back to the world for the good once again.
Several key points are summarized in a nutshell in this paragraph. One of those is the panentheist understanding that we are within God, and that therefore God completely shares in all of our experiences--our joys and our sorrows and everything in between. The idea that God experiences everything that we experience has an amazing implication--that we are never alone! One of the interesting implications of this is a concept in process theology called objective immortality. As John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin wrote in Process Theology: an introductory exposition,
If God is responsive to us, then our joys and deeds affect deity itself. However rapidly their worldly effects fade in the course of time, their importance is established in that they have mattered in the divine life. This divine life is neither eternal, in the sense of timeless, nor temporal, in the sense of perpetual perishing. Instead it is everlasting, constantly receiving from the world but retaining what in the world is past in the immediacy of its everlasting present.
In other words, God not only experiences what we experience as we are experiencing things, but--because God never forgets--our experiences are with God forever. We are objectively immortalized in God, whether or not we experience personal (or subjective) immortality. I am personally an agnostic on the question of whether there is life after death, but I love the idea that every thing we do enhances the divine experience and remains with God forever. This means that everything we do actually does matter in the most important way possible, because everything we do affects God eternally.

The notion of creation that Suchocki described in the earlier quote above talks about the give and take between God and the universe in the process of creation. Unlike the patriarchal father figure who intervenes in the world, we have instead a God who issues a call to each element in the universe (each "occasion of experience", to use Whiteheadian terminology), and to which each occasion of experience then offers a response. That response then engenders another call from God, to which the elements of the world respond once again, and so forth. Each occasion in this process incorporates and builds on everything that has already happened. And thus the universe evolved through a process of co-creation between the God and the universe. God is a co-creator, in other words, rather than an omnipotent father figure.

Charles Hartshorne, who includes the notion of omnipotence among the "theological mistakes" that he lists in his book Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, writes "Tyrannical people may worship a tyrant God, but why should the rest of us do so?" As Hartshorne puts it in that same book,
The only livable doctrine of divine power is that it influences all that happens but determines nothing in its concrete particularity. "Knowing" afterwards exactly what God has willed to happen is useless. We can, I believe, know the general principle of God's purposes. It is the beauty of the world (or the harmonious happiness of the creatures), a beauty of which every creature enjoys its own glimpses and to which it makes its unique contributions, but each created stage of which only God enjoys adequately, everlastingly, and as a whole, once it has been created.
Believing that we are co-creators with God in the ever continuing process of creation can have remarkable implications, both for theology and for how we view our lives. Knowing that we are influenced by all that preceded us and will influence all that follows--and that we will influence God eternally--how can we, as co-creators with God, listen to the possibilities that God offers us when she issues her call, and then respond in the best possible way towards building a better world?

The purpose of prayer

Marcus Borg, in chapter 11 of his book The Heart of Christianity, makes the surprising confession that he participates in prayers of petition and intercession. I say that this is surprising because in chapter 4 he presents a panentheist conception of God that specifically denies that God intervenes in the world.

I have to admit that I find Borg's position on this subject inconsistent, and it represents yet another example of where he clings to aspects of the old paradigm that he claims to have superseded. We see this same problem with Borg in his admission that he recites ancient Christian creeds that he doesn't believe to be literally true. Borg does more or less admit that the idea of praying to God to intercede on someone's behalf makes no logical sense, given his theology of panentheism. He points out, for example, that the idea of a God who intervenes in the world makes little sense in the face of such horrors as the Holocaust. Yet, he claims, prayer--at least prayer for the health of others--somehow works anyway, although he admits not to knowing the mechanism.

If you pray to God to heal someone, and you don't think that God intervenes to heal people, but people mysteriously get healed anyway, then who or what is doing the healing? And what was the point of praying to God if she wasn't the one doing the healing? Is there some minor deity listening in, a sort of cosmological NSA tapping our prayer lines, who decides to intervene since God will not?

Many people pray for the healing of loved ones in times of sickness of injury. The "miracles" involved with healing an illness are beyond our ability to observe them. There is no way for us to monitor the microscopic processes in a human body in such a way as to observe that a healing occurred because "miracle" has taken place rather than as a result of normal body chemistry. If a healing is "miraculous", is it because God flipped some quantum switch in a couple of atoms somewhere? Thus healing is a convenient focus of the "God of the gaps"--the theological notion that divine intervention occurs in the gaps of our knowledge and understanding. There will always be in the foreseeable future a "gap" in our ability to perceive human healing processes, and since illness and healing are so intimately bound up with human hopes and fears, it is a conveniently self-justifying source of intercessionary prayer. And if someone doesn't get healed, the believer can always just say that God answered "no" to the request.

Sure, Borg isn't saying that God might heal Aunt Gertie's goiter even though he or she wouldn't prevent the Holocaust. He is saying that it is a mystery as to how prayer affects healing in light of panentheism, but he believes in it anyway. Here we have a huge gap in his otherwise rational, panentheistic cosmology. He claims that it is the sin of pride to claim to know that intercessionary prayer doesn't work, but I think it is the sin of pride to assert to assert that Aunt Gertie's goiter is more important than the lives of six million Jews. Even if it isn't God who heals Gertie, but some weird impersonal force of the universe that gets triggered by praying to God, how can this be logical? I have a friend who is slowly dying from a spinal disease that will eventually cause his lungs to collapse on themselves. Isn't he also worth saving? If prayer to God triggers an impersonal healing force rather than some decisionmaking by a personal deity, then why doesn't prayer help him?

Rabbi Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, described prayer as simply being in the presence of God. Kushner understood the implications of the Holocaust for the idea of a God who would intervene in the world. The idea of praying to God to ask him to intervene, whether to prevent a horrible evil, or to cure Aunt Gertie, makes no sense in the light of those historical events. Kushner understands this; Borg only claims to understand it.

Borg, unfortunately, is far more stuck in the old paradigm than he admits. He wants to affirm creeds that he doesn't believe, and pray to God to act even though he doesn't think God really acts that way. For me, such intercessionary prayer would be both intellectually dishonest and contrary to the panentheist conception of God that I hold to. Borg expresses many excellent ideas--about the nature of God, about religious pluralism, about the kinds of transformation that modern believers need to make in order to create a viable religion for the present age. But there are times when he seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, and this seems to be one such example.

More than the Bible, and also less

Many liberal Christians have sought to reclaim the Bible from fundamentalism. They have sought to achieve this by rescuing it from a literalistic interpretation, and instead appreciating the deeper truths to be found in its stories, myths, and symbols contained within. Thus one is able to, for example, appreciate the four gospels of the New Testament without believing literally in the stories of the virgin birth or the resurrection.

I agree with this perspective, but I don't think it goes far enough. The Bible certainly contains valuable and inspirational stories and myths that can serve as an inspiration to postmodern believers. But, as Bart Ehrman has pointed out so well in his book Lost Christianities, the ultimate composition of books that made it into the Christian canon was the result of a series of internecine battles between different factions of early Christianity. Before the canon was finally settled, these different factions, all of whom called themselves "Christian", often laid claim to different scriptures. The Bible, thus, reflects only those scriptures that the winning faction (the ones who got to call themselves "orthodox") decided should be canonical. The losing sides were suppressed, along with their scriptures. In many cases, these various scriptures that were once revered in the early history of Christianity have been lost forever, but many others have been preserved or discovered.

I believe that a true liberal religious sensibility would not restrict itself to just those scriptures that a winning faction chose to impose on the religious community. By revering the Bible without taking into account other scriptural writings, or by placing the Bible above those other scriptures, liberal Christians are siding themselves with the winning faction of a theological dispute within early Christianity. Yet, I believe that a postmodern religious sensibility realizes that this necessarily restricts one's spiritual reverence of scripture to one particular kind of orthodoxy. It allows the winners in a prior theological dispute to determine what we, now, should consider spiritually valuable. This is despite the fact that we now know that not only is there is nothing inherently superior about early Christian orthodoxy to the so-called "heresies" that they suppressed, but in fact this orthodoxy has created certain dogmas that have been handed down through the ages that many of us--or at least I--may now reject; these include dogmas about the nature of Jesus the man and about the nature of God, to name two.

It makes much more sense to me for us to recognize that the Bible was a flawed attempt at understanding God, that there is nothing fixed and immutable about it as a canon, and that many works that are not part of the canon can be just as much a source of reverential awe as the Bible itself. Thus, to me, one can read and find inspiration in not just the Gospel of Mark, but also the Gospel of Thomas. One is not "better" than another; these simply represent two different ways of mediating our relationship with God. They express myths and symbols, words through which our limited attempts at understanding God can be shared. The greatness of a scripture lies not necessarily in whether it happened to make the cut at some religious council a millennium and a half ago, but whether it inspires us today. Similarly, some of the books that did make the cut back then may have words that do not inspire us today--some of the apocalyptic language of Revelation, for example, may not necessarily inspire everyone today.

And who knows--maybe what someone writes today will be considered "scripture" a thousand years in the future. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking of a canon as a closed collection. By closing a canon, you shut off the evolving process of revelation. Closing a canon is part of the process of fixing a dogma. Instead of fixing a dogma, scriptures should be about the process of seeking and understanding the nature of God, and by returning to scriptures we can see how others went about that process. In that way, we realize that we are building on our understanding of God, but that we are not creating a theology out of whole cloth. From the experiences of the past, we can learn, and create new understandings of God.