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?


CT said...

In think I'm getting cynical. There seems to be an underlying theme here. We have basically jettisoned the traditional model of God as it our experience and knowledge do not support the model. This post then tries to develop a new understanding based on one principle - what kind of God model would be the most likely to encourage/motivate us to lead good lives ? The model suggested gives us plenty of reasons to behave well. But WHY should we believe that such a God exists ? (as opposed to not exist ?) We have no evidence of divine intervention, no experience of afterlife and the God of the gaps (bits about our world we dont know or cant explain) is getting smaller. We can follow Jesus' example and teachings about life without reference to a supreme being or presence.
Just playing the devils advocate here but the construction of a model that motivates us to do good while avoiding the inconsistencies of the old model begs the question - do we need a God model at all ? Is it possible that God is so unknowable (as per the afterlife) that the whole exercise is simply an intellectual one that may be ultimately irrelevant ?