Process Theology and the End of the World -- Bruce Epperly
Liberating Process #3
Process Theology and the End of the World
Harold Camping’s prediction that Jesus will return to earth on May 21, 2011, rapturing the saints who will meet him in the clouds, has gained a great bit of notoriety these days. Neither Camping’s timing nor his esoteric process of calculating the end times are particularly unusual. Christian soothsayers and sects, most of which have lacked Camping’s radio empire, have been making news in large and small ways for two thousand years. So far, all of them have been wrong, I suspect in part because their vision of God lacks the stature to embrace the Living, Loving God. Process theology presents the alternative vision of an open and relational God, who is motivated by love rather than power, a divinity whose actions are relational rather than unilateral.
The problem with Camping and others is that their vision of God is at odds with Jesus’ character and mission– first, in terms of character and, then, in terms of relationship. Harold Camping’s God – along with most end time visions of god – is defined by power rather than love. His God only loves the saved (more particularly, in Camping’s case, those whom God has chosen from eternity), and sees the earth and most of its people as expendable. While this god is just, according to Camping, he has no choice but to destroy the infidel and lost. In contrast to process theology and those, like Rob Bell, who have adopted the relational vision of God championed by process theology, for Camping, “love loses.” Love is a secondary divine characteristic, subordinate to God’s willfulness and punitive justice.
Camping’s God acts unilaterally and coercively. The end of the world comes by God’s hand, not creaturely decision-making. According to Camping, God’s timetable is already decided and cannot be changed, even if change would enable more people to turn toward God. Whatever God does, according to Camping and other apocalyptic thinkers, is right even if it is destructive of all creation. At the end of the day, Camping’s god is less moral than most parents and grandparents. How would we describe a parent who would destroy most of her or his children as an act of power? How would we describe a god whose only rationale for action is “because I said so” and “because I’m bigger than you?” How would we describe a God whose love is finite and arbitrary?
Process theology suggests the vision of God who does not determine everything and who seeks beauty rather than destruction in relationship to the world. Process theology proclaims that the goal of the universe, grounded in divine activity, is beauty. My colleague, Patricia Adams Farmer, believes that God not only embraces beauty but is beautiful in terms of God’s very nature. (See her book Embracing a Beautiful God.) Camping’s god is neither beautiful nor loving, but rules with an iron fist separating the sheep from the goats without compassion or regret.
One of my teachers, Bernard Loomer, spoke of two kinds of power – unilateral and relational. Unilateral power, exhibited in the theology of Camping and his apocalyptic companions – acts, but does not listen; compels, but does not care; dominates, but does not love. Unilateral power acts on the assumption that it can do what it wants, simply because it has the power to do so. Might makes right, end times theologies proclaim, regardless of the consequences to creation.
Process theology sees power as relational. Relational power is grounded in listening, caring, and loving. When the Bible proclaims “for God so loved the world,” it means “the world,” the arena where everything that breathes can give praise to its creator. (Psalm 150) Massive destruction of every animal species, babies like my grandson, and those of other faith traditions sounds more like the work of a demon, and not a divinity, certainly not the God of Jesus the healer, who proclaimed that he came that we might have abundant life. (John 10:10)
The only God we Christians can give heed to is the God of Jesus Christ, who loved children, wild flowers, flying birds, and who welcomed the lost and embraced his enemies. Camping and his apocalyptic companions are guilty of a theological “bait and switch.” They describe Jesus as God’s love in action and then proclaim that behind Jesus’ loving face is a wrathful, power-hungry, line-drawing potentate. As Whitehead notes, many Christians have replaced the Galilean vision of Jesus by the all-controlling and vindictive Caesar.
What about the end of the world, according to process theology? Process theology sees the universe as constantly evolving. In God’s quest for beauty, God will continually provide opportunities for growth and adventure even when humankind turns away. We can limit God’s influence on the world by our self-interest and destructive behavior. We can create our own doomsdays by consumption, ecological destruction, and nuclear warfare. God will do all God can to preserve this good earth, but we must do our part to be God’s partners in healing the world. God cannot do everything to save us in a relational universe, characterized by creaturely freedom.
God has a vision and it is relational and loving. God seeks the wellbeing of all the creation. Our world may be destroyed by global climate change or some distant solar flare. But, God will always seek to bring about a beautiful world for children, fireflies, grandparents, and dolphins, calling forth beauty from within each creation in the context of the beauty of whole. Creation groans, as Paul says in Romans 8, for healing and not destruction. God’s goal is to redeem all things, process theology affirms. God’s love never ends.
See the following books for more creative visions of “apocalyptic” theology:
Greg Carey, Ultimate Things (Chalice Press)
Ronald Farmer, Beyond the Impasse (Mercer University Press)
Craig Hill, In God’s Time (Eerdmans)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He will also be at Central Woodward Christian Church on September 16 and 17 for the 2nd Annual Perry Gresham Lecture (if you're in and around SE Michigan).