Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Liberating God- An Open System -- Bruce Epperly

Who is God?  What is the nature of God?  How do you understand God?  Is God the great decider, who determines every aspect of your life?  Or is God the one who walks with us through life, guiding us, consoling us, and empowering us?  Bruce Epperly brings his second essay on Process Theology to this blog.  In sharing these essays, I'm not endorsing Process thought, because I'm still working through it and probably am closer to Open Theism than Process at this moment.  That said, I'm looking forward to reading these essays and Bruce's new full-length treatment of Process Theology because I think it has promise for the present day theological questions, but unfortunately many works on Process are so philosophically dense they're difficult to understand.  So, I invite you to consider Bruce's vision of the liberating God of Process Theology -- even if you don't even know who Alfred North Whitehead is!   


Liberating Process #2:
Liberating God- An Open System
Bruce Epperly

For the next few weeks, we will be reflecting on process theology’s understanding of God. For many people, God’s perfection is defined in terms of changelessness. God is utterly complete. God knows the past, present, and future in one all-encompassing eternal now. Since God is always active rather than passive, God’s awareness of the world is creative in nature. Accordingly, the God who knows the future also creates the future. In the spirit of Rick Warren, all of the important events of our lives – from DNA, family of origin, and critical events, both positive and negative – have been determined by God without our input.

For many people, this image of perfection is good news. They define perfection in terms of changelessness and independence. An unchanging God, who knows and determines the future, is the ultimate source of security, even if that security is bought at the price of a god who causes cancer, car accidents, childhood trauma, and planetary cataclysm. But, a God who determines everything is morally ambiguous, at least from our standpoint. Whatever God does is good, from this standpoint, even if God’s action involves malignancy and catastrophe. While some suggest that we can never judge God, surely this image of God as all-determining fails the test of good parenting, established by Jesus. It is difficult to say that a god who causes childhood cancer represents any type of positive parenting, even if we believe that such action is for our own good and creates character in the human parent and child who must endure pain, anxiety, and serious medical interventions. Is a god who has determined pain and tragedy in advance truly on our side?

The problem with unchanging perfection is simply that “it doesn’t change.” Imagine a god for whom nothing new happens, who can’t revise “his” plans, and who is locked into “his” previous decisions. This god lacks the creativity and freedom that we attribute to one another. Such a god could hardly be interesting even to godself! A god, for whom nothing new occurs, who is not occasionally “surprised” by the events of life, lives in a perpetual “Ground Hog Day,” in which – like the movie’s protagonist – God must relive the same events over and over again.

Process theology suggests another option – an open-source, open-system vision of the universe in which God and the world exist in a dynamic, growing, and evolving partnership. A god for whom new things occur is a god that is open to creativity, love, and adventure. Rather than being caught in the past, God’s mercies are new every morning. God is constantly doing new things in relationship to the world. In the dynamic call and response of God and the world, God calls, we respond, leading to more activity on God’s part. A god who is liberated from changeless perfection is able to plan new things and embody them in new ways. We matter to a god who is lively and intimate in relationship with the world. Our prayers can make a difference and so can our actions because we add something new to God’s experience of the world.

Some ask if a changing god lacks the fidelity many associate with changeless perfection. If God has not chosen the future, can God be counted on to save us when we are in distress? This is an important question, and process theology asserts that fidelity is not a matter of determinism but companionship. The process God can’t ensure a happy ending, but this God is constantly and consistently faithful in seeking our well-being. This God doesn’t cause cancer, but works within the responses of physicians, both Western and complementary, the prayers of loved ones, and the persons living with cancer to bring about healing and wholeness. God can’t guarantee a cure, but God can guarantee companionship and care.

The Living God is an open-source, open-spirit, open-relationship divinity. Liberated from unchanging perfection, God can do new things to bring healing, wholeness, and justice to the world. God is not the source of the status quo, but the gives us the prophetic vision that seeks the well-being of all creation. This divine dissatisfaction with injustice gives the vision and energy for life and liberty to those who have been oppressed and hope of healing for those who suffer. An open-spirited God for whom the future is open is truly on our side as we seek beauty, healing, and justice for ourselves and others.

(For more on process theology and spirituality, see my Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed and Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living.)

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I want note that Bruce will be at Central Woodward Christian Church in September -- for a one day (Friday) pastor's conference and then the 2011 Perry Gresham Lectureship for the General Public (Saturday, Sept. 16). If you're in the area, please keep this in mind.

Mystical Seeker said...

I agree that this is a nice summary of process theology, and I agree also that a lot of writing on process thought is way too dense.

Philip Clayton said...

Bruce, that's beautifully put. Bob still worries that process thought is too dense and wonders whether it can speak to the church. But what you write is a vision that for many of us resonates with the scriptures and with our experience in a scientific age: "Process theology suggests another option – an open-source, open-system vision of the universe in which God and the world exist in a dynamic, growing, and evolving partnership."

-- Philip

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


My concern is that much of what I read, including the most recent definition of Process in the Cambridge Dictionary of Theology is too tied up in philosophical/theological jargon. I should so, however, that I found your definition of panentheism quite accessible!

This is why I'm looking forward to Bruce's book! I'm hoping it gives us something that is accessible to the non-specialist.