One of the most interesting findings in the data collected during the biblical storytelling worship services for my doctoral research was the evolution of many in my congregation from a “meaning as reference” to “meaning as experience” theological perspective. Throughout many of our journeys from fundamentalist roots to the UCC, we have struggled to find a systematic theology that could easily explain the processes of God from a progressive perspective. Process Theology was the closest interpretive theological lens that I discovered in seminary for doing that. But in the real, everyday life of the spiritual person it can be difficult to appropriate. While the identification of a new systematic theology that evolves out of a biblical storytelling paradigm was far beyond the scope of my research, the desire to begin a process toward that end still existed. Naming performance criticism as a progressive hermeneutic for translating the ancient symbols of our faith into digital culture was an important initial step toward that end.
Relationship as “Process of Becoming”
Process Theologian, Marjorie Suchocki, has helped to clarify Alfred Whitehead’s notion of “relationship of becoming.” Her understanding of Process Theology, that “all reality is relational and power comes from reality through relation,” is liberating. But it is also intensely challenging. Suchocki’s perspective suggests that we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to engage and realize our ultimate spiritual reality by faithfully pursuing relationship with God. However, this honest pursuit in progressive contexts can reveal that the journey no longer has a beginning and an end. The journey becomes a dynamic experience of faith seeking opportunities to discover possibilities. The destination is no longer heaven or hell. The destination is a deeper intimacy with the one who called us into being, and makes us accountable for choosing our spiritual future.
Pastoral theologian Carolyn Bohler suggests that, “while our present reality may be limited by our choices in the past, the possibility of making new choices in the present can lead to a harmonic future compatible with God’s aims for the world, given what it is now. God’s best possibilities for our future, given the present, are available.” While we are not predestined to choose them, God gives us the free will to do so. Our contribution to this progressive journey is making those choices that move us forward, no matter what we chose in the past. This is the essence of Process Theology and a progressive faith.
The application of these theological processes on my research had important goals: to present a God who is present and participates in our spiritual journeys, and to help participants discern their own decisions and choices for a better spiritual reality. The influence of this presence and participation had the potential to move the congregation beyond passive faith and encourage them to actively trust God’s initial aim for their best reality.
Process Theology tells us that we can trust God because the character of “God as Wisdom” (God the Spirit in traditional theology) knows the infinite possibilities of our future and works consistently to harmonize our past and present toward a transforming future. This transforming future is the achievement of justice. The eminence of “God as Power” (God the Father in traditional theology) assures that this is God’s initial aim. It confirms that God and justice are the same things. Whether or not that justice is achieved, is the responsibility of God’s creation to choose it. It places the responsibility on us, the pilgrims, to seek revelations of God that transform God’s initial aim into God’s best actual occasion. All the while God is there, creating and wanting and offering us the best and ultimate reality.
Jesus as Model of Relationship with God
Another significant perspective of process thought is the understanding that the Jesus narratives are a testimony to the relationship between humans and a relational God. The exploration of the historical Jesus movement in my church challenged participants to deconstruct Jesus Christ as presented in the sacred scriptures. The search for the historical Jesus challenged whether we could tell the story of Christ apart from the concept of a classical theistic God. From our study of this “hermeneutic of suspicion” it became clear that Jesus the Christ was an earthly portrait of the classical theistic God. To reject the image of a classical theistic God also challenged us to reject the image of Jesus as the divine Christ. Process theology reevaluates these biblical narratives from a relational paradigm. In this paradigm, the stories of Jesus reveal the essence of “God as Presence” (God the Son in traditional theology). Yet the “God of Presence” can also be revealed through other faith practitioners, in spite of and because of our own humanity. Historical studies alone can not provide access to Jesus of Nazareth.
This disagreement raised other crucial questions in this research: from whom do we receive atonement then, if not from Jesus Christ? Some progressives believe that we can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord without subscribing to a belief in his divinity as defined by a virgin birth, sacrificial act of atonement on the cross, a physical resurrection and final supernatural ascension. But this rejection of the fundamentalist teaching of Christ’s lordship does not pose a problem of loyalty as some suggest it should. Suchocki, however, posits that since all knowledge is conditioned by perspective, then a consideration of God based on a process analysis of the world and accomplished from a Christian frame of reference influences our conclusions. Therefore the vision of a redemptive God of presence, wisdom, and power could be revealed in the testimony of Jesus Christ. This question surfaced in my research: Can process thought harmonize the dissonance between the divine Christ and the historical Jesus for progressive Christians?
I acknowledge that this harmonization may not be achievable for all progressives, especially considering the exhaustive work of the conservative and liberal Church over the last century to keep the spiritual life confined under the canopy of either a classical theistic dogma or academic intellectualism. But Process Theology can provide insight for progressives who desire to make a relationship with “God as Presence” foundational for their Christian formation. Process theology, expressed through the methodology of performance criticism, can provide a way to discover relationship with Jesus outside a classical theistic perspective. It gives the ancient sacred scriptures new authority for pursuing an authentically progressive spiritual life. This new meaning perspective allowed us to experience Jesus again for the first time. And those are stories that we love to tell!
You can follow this research here on Vital Signs and Statistics, or view videos and resources of this work at www.ExperientialJesus.com.
Marjorie Suchocki, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), 29.
Bohler, Doctoral Defense Notes.
Suchocki, Process Theology, 82.
Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 104.
Suchocki, Process Theology, 87.
Rev. Dr. Brice Thomas is the Director of Alumni/ae Relations and Adjunct Faculty at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also called to bi-vocational ministry at Harmony Creek Church in Dayton, an emerging congregation.