To rebalance our understanding of Providence

    1. To rebalance our understanding of Providence

This section is more properly theological. For some, the ideas presented in this section might come as a relief; for others, this material might be more disturbing. As I always say, take what you need; leave what you don’t.

I maintain that we who take our spiritual life intentionally are on two journeys. One – the most important – is our deepening relationship with God. The other is the theology we use to make sense of that relationship. They are two separate but correlated journeys. The second provides the meaning structure for the first; and the first provides the existential, concrete foundation and corroboration for the second. As long as each journey helps the other, there is no problem. The moment, however, that the theological language we use no longer manages to account to our satisfaction for our experience, or the moment our experience challenges our theology, we most probably need to rethink our theology. I am reminded that the ancient Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason.

The radically new situation in which we find ourselves will test both our relationship with God as well as the language we use to make sense of it. In this section, I would like to suggest some ways to make sure we do not get discouraged by the challenges to both journeys which this pandemic offers.

Again, because this section will be dealing with theology more than with spiritual practices per se, despite their linkage, there will be more content, and that content originates from my experience and my theological frame of reference. As before, take what you need; leave what you don’t. I am merely proposing approaches to theology which might get some of us unstuck at certain points.

      • Grasping the uselessness of the question “Why?” (“Why me, God?” “Why her, God?”)

When tragedy hits, our natural reaction is often “Why me, God?” as if God had willed the tragedy on me, or at least had not willed it away. A review of the story of Job can be instructive. Job’s well-meaning friends offer him the same kinds of explanation we typically hear still today in some quarters: God is trying you; God is punishing you for something you did; God’s will is inscrutable; God is teaching you an important lesson. Even God, in the Job story, condemns Job’s friends for their inappropriateness. Unfortunately, many stories in the Jewish Testament – and some texts in the Christian Scriptures – perpetuate the belief that God plays a considerable interventionist role in human lives.

Progressive theology proposes an alternative to the external divinity who intervenes from time to time in world affairs. The starting-point I currently find most satisfying is to imagine that this Universe is the concrete actualization, in space and over time, of God’s infinite potential. If this is plausible, then everything and everyone is, in some fashion a concrete expression of God. (For some heady metaphysics of finitude that grounds this view, I suggest Beatrice Bruteau’s God’s Ecstasy). Contrary to a lot of the Platonic and neo-Platonic – and Gnostic – metaphysics which has for so long grounded the Church’s negative view of matter and the world, this view honours matter and God’s intimate presence in it. (For some further meditation on this, please see this other section of this website.)

This view invites us to replace the “potter and pot” metaphor for creation with the “dancer and dance.” In the first metaphor, once the potter finishes his work, the pot is separate from the potter, while in the dance metaphor, we are the dance, and the dance doesn’t cease so long as the dancer dances. This joins the very ancient Christian notion of “perichoresis,” or the Divine Trinitarian Dance. (For more on this, read Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance or watch this YouTube video  ).

        • We can replace the “puppeteer-God” with the “accompanying God”

The danger of the potter metaphor is that it places God right outside God’s creation. This creates immense problems for theology to explain a number of things: How does God actually intervene in world matters? How can a loving and all-powerful creator allow evil – natural and human? How does God select when and how “He” intervenes? Why does God intervene in some situations and not in others?

It’s true: a lot of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures portrait God as intervening, now punishing, now rewarding, now instigating war, now ceasing it. In fact, there are a large number of edifying texts that are firmly convinced that God rewards the just and punishes the unjust. If we place this literature back into its context, it makes sense given the understanding of the way the cosmos works at the time: intervention from “God” “above” in the dome of the heavens, just above the fixed stars and the waters if the heaven, seemed to make eminent sense. Whatever else one might say about this literature, it surely describes a God intimately involved with God’s creation, trying to move it in the direction of compassion, forgiveness, and distributive justice! Our current science can simply not support thetraditional way of imaging God’s involvement with creation.

One of the most compelling books I have read on the matter is Philip Clayton’s God and Contemporary Science. In this tightly argued book, this Christian theologian concludes that we may speak of God intervening in the universe in only five ways, given the nature of the universe and the laws of physics: God can create, because creation is a metaphysical, not a physical act; God can sustain creation, for the same reason. God can also collapse quantum probability waves, and set the initial conditions in iterative processes (chaos theory) because those acts involve information and not energy (which is a fixed quantity and cannot be added to from “outside” the universe.); and finally, God can influence self-sentient beings who are open to God’s influence (again information and not energy). That’s it. But what an affirmation of what our mystics have known for centuries: we are the hands and feet of God, and God does “speak” to us!

This is actually good news. It joins what Process Theology has been telling us for a hundred years: God experiences all events in the universe and “suggests” its next best state; the universe somehow proceeds and God experiences those next events. This is a very crude description of a very complex theology, but the point is this: God is always luring everything to its fulfilment in the future. God’s dynamic presence is universal and constant. It is generic and always aimed at moving everything toward its blossoming. Think of the sun: the sun always shines, whether we see it or not. It shines equally on everything. (Remember the author of the Gospel of Matthew has his Jesus say that God makes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike…). The definition of “love” I prefer is this: “affirming the Other into the fullness of their being, whatever that is.” Love is thus an act of will. God is constantly affirming God’s creation into the fullness of its being, whatever that is. Thus, we reclaim the foundational notion of God’s Love.

      • Reframing the world as “autopoietic” – self-governing – within the generic dynamic of God’s Love

Our new scientific understanding of the universe sees it unfold in creative, emerging ways without requiring an “outside” intervention. This is known as “autopoiesis” = self-governing, self-creating. (Books by Brian Swimme, Paul Davies, John Gribbin, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacock, and others can give you a better sense of this beautiful new construct of or understanding of the universe.)

God’s role does not disappear in this view of the universe – far from it! – but it is different from what traditional theology taught us: God’s Spirit pervading the universe is like some supra-personal force field which permeates all things and nudges it toward it fulfilment, growth, blossoming. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Mt 5: 44-45)

      • Imaging God as Present and enduring with us

I have become increasingly comfortable with this image of a perpetual divine presence in all things, at all times. The universe “happens” to God; the universe also happens “in” God. From our point of view we live in the Divine Milieu. We remember Paul’s words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39). A notion of God who is both fully transcendent and fully immanent allows this.

For me, therefore, even in the midst – perhaps even especially in the midst! – of this great social upheaval, I can experience God’s Presence in a myriad small ways, all related to the fruit of the spiritual practices described above. I can re-imagine God suggesting, luring, and cajoling me into certain forms of action appropriate for these times (developing these pages, for instance). I can imagine living, moving and having my being in this loving God.

      • Re-thinking intercessory prayer

Finally, what many of us need most is an understanding of how intercessory prayer works. “Prayer” itself is easy to understand: it is any practice that aligns us with the great Work of God; that opens us to new ways of “hearing” God’s “Voice” within; that sees my life unfold within the broader life of this universe and of God. Intercessory prayer had become for me the stumbling block: if God doesn’t – can’t – intervene in daily life, how can I pray for people and situations that cause me pain and concern?

If prayer in general is characterized by aligning myself with the great dynamic of God’s Love. If Teilhard is right, and Love is at the root of the great force of evolution, then Love is truly a form of energy. By raising our concerns for people and situations, by intending with all our might that they heal and blossom, then we are adding an infinitesimally small – but not zero! – amount of energy to the great dynamism of God’s Love. (This does not violate the Law of Conservation of Energy because that energy, in all its forms – including God’s – is contained within the universe!) (I remain sceptical but intrigued by the work of Lynn MacTaggart on the power of intentionality in groups… See her The Power of Eight.)

Moreover, as Marjorie Suchocki, a process theologian, pointed out in her In God’s Presence, it is better for God to experience a universe that contains my prayer than one that doesn’t, because God can do more with it. That’s enough to convince me that I should follow Paul’s advice and “pray without ceasing.”