The question I was asked to address is “How does Jesus shape your understanding of God?”
But I can’t separate that from this one: “How does your understanding of God shape your understanding of Jesus?”
And since this is a session on process theology, let me ask a related question: “Does Jesus’ story radically reframe a process version of God, or does a process version of God radically reframe Jesus’ story?”
To which I answer: “Yes. Both. They continue to reframe each other, radically.”
Since I grew up Christian, I can’t say which comes first.
As a Christian process theologian, I see something unsurpassably unique in Jesus, not in the fact that he somehow embodies God (because every moment does that), but in the specific story of HOW he embodies God.
For me the story of Jesus’ life is best summarized in Philippians 2:5-13: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
People were saying this, and maybe even singing it, years before the first Gospels were written. It’s a theological interpretation of the meaning of Jesus, but we’ve come to realize that the Gospels are theological interpretations too. Jesus lives an utterly self-giving, humanly divine and divinely human life whose unconditional embrace outlives and undoes utter rejection, devastation and death, and this gives rise to a community (“the body of Christ”) animated by this utterly self-giving, all-embracing life, the life of the God who is at work in all of us as we work out our own salvation. Without putting down other religious figures or texts, I want this unique storyline to keep reframing the very terms in which all of us think of ourselves, of God, and of everybody and everything else.
Let me say again that I see no need to put down other religious figures or texts, because here I want especially to emphasize something on behalf of what we could call the “Indianapolis School“ of process theology that includes Clark Williamson, Helene Russell, Marti Steussy, Ron Allen (no relation), and me. For us one of the greatest Christian heresies is supersessionism—the idea that God-with-us in Jesus supersedes God-with-us in the Jewish people.
No. Just … no.
If I were a Jewish process theologian, I might say something very similar to what I said a moment ago. I might say that I see something unsurpassably unique in the specific story of how the persistence of a holy people in the face of enslavement, exile, and even of attempted extermination, unsurpassably embodies the all-embracing life of God-with-us. I say “might” because I don’t presume to speak for Jewish theologians. But as a Christian process theologian I do in fact say that, and my Jewish friends seem OK with it.
These don’t have to be competing stories. One of them does not have to supplant the other. More than one story can be unsurpassably unique, especially when neither of them claims to be totally finished. Who God is, who the Jewish people are, and who Jesus is are all still unfolding stories. They’re not in danger of being surpassed by other stories as long as they are inherently “self-surpassing” (that’s an idea I stole from Charles Hartshorne).
Back to Jesus. It’s because of process thought, in several versions, that Jesus’ story of “power … made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9) finally gets to reshape our very idea of God.
Before process thought, Christians did try to say that Jesus’ story is God’s story made flesh, but their philosophical assumptions usually kept them from really meaning that. When Jesus suffered and died, they mostly refused to say that God suffered and died. They refused to say that God was even moved by what happened to Jesus, or to any of us, for that matter. They would say that Jesus’ human nature suffered and died, but not his divine nature. For most “pre-process” Christian theologians the divine nature can’t suffer or be affected in any way, and that’s that.
I said “most” because my friend and colleague Brent Hege reminds me that Martin Luther did interpret the ancient Christological formulas to mean that God does suffer in and through union with Jesus’ humanity: “He became a man like us, so that it could be said: ‘God died,’ ‘God’s passion,’ ‘God’s blood,’ ‘God’s death.’” This is also reflected in some early Lutheran hymns. Even so, the Formula of Concord was still careful to insist that “the divine nature can neither suffer nor die.” It wasn’t until the Lutheran philosopher G. W. F. Hegel came along that Lutherans began to reconsider this—and Hegel is a “sort of” process thinker.
Process thought says that the divine nature not only can suffer but even undergo a kind of death. God’s uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting is undergoing a continual process of ending and beginning, where every moment of God’s life could be called both—both an ending and a beginning, a “death” and a “resurrection.”
Jesus’ life, death and risen life sacramentally embodies this continual process. Again, it does not exhaust it. The Nicene creed says that Jesus is true God from true God, not all of God from all of God. God undergoes the life, death and risen life of Jesus. And Jesus sacramentally embodies the life, death and risen life of God.
The word “sacramentally” is important here. A sacrament is more than just an illustration of some timeless reality. It’s a realization in its own right, a local realization of an all-embracing reality that in process terms is anything but timeless. (I think process thought makes it easier to be a sacramental realist!)
Academic theologians of the past mostly didn’t know how to say this, as I said a moment ago. But popular spirituality said it anyway, and not just in a realist understanding of sacraments. Besides Martin Luther, and Lutheran hymns, in Elizabethan English we have exclamations like “zounds,” “sdeath,” and “gadzooks.” Translation: “God’s wounds,” “God’s death,” “God’s hooks” (meaning the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet). But official pronouncements still backed away from saying that God could suffer as God.
Nevertheless, the idea of a vulnerable, suffering, dying, risen God was floating around in popular Christianity, and when process thinkers started to speak of a noncontrolling, all-embracing power, they had a traditional, popular precedent for calling this power “God.” Alfred North Whitehead recognized that when he referred to “the brief Galilean vision of humility” that “flickered throughout the ages.”* And nowadays process thought allows even academic theologians to say that this is not just popular piety but real theology.
Earlier I said that, because of process thought, Jesus’ story of “power … made perfect in weakness” finally gets to reshape our very idea of God. Now we can add: Jesus’ story of “power … made perfect in weakness” allows us to say that the process version of God really is God.
*Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978 ), p. 520.