Rethinking God. Here’s why we should.

A New Take On An Old Idea

I’m not the only person who’s considered rethinking God. As a matter of fact it’s an idea that’s gaining traction these days. Type rethinking God into google and like me, you might be amazed at the number of sites that come up. Why so many? Well, I’d say it’s becoming more and more apparent that the idea of a traditional God has become less and less relevant for lots of us.

“Nones” on the Rise

If that sounds unlikely to you, consider the PEW Research Center’s study. It found that the number of Americans who don’t identify with any religion keeps growing. Nones (so named because when asked to declare a religious affiliation in forms they select “none”), have grown from 15% to 20% between 2007 and 2012. That’s a big uptick. Of that group, 13 million report as atheists or agnostics. But what about the rest? As the guys at PEW put it:

“many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.”[1]

How do we understand those numbers? My take is it’s a clear message that it’s time to start rethinking God.

Rethinking God or Revising God?

That may sound like an academic question, but rethinking God vs revising God is, for me, at the heart of the discussion. Take a cursory glance at those websites I mentioned and you’ll find they’re revising an idea of God we already have. Of course there’re more radical ideas, but they ultimately fall into the same revise trap too. Let’s take a look at one.

Process Theology

Around the mid to late 1920s an idea began to emerge that seemed to signal a new way of understanding God. Today it’s attributed to Alfred North Whitehead,  an English mathematician turned philosopher and Charles Hartshorne, an American philosopher. Process theology sees lots of problems with a traditional view of God. In light of the universe science shows us, it acknowledges that God can’t be an absolute being that stands apart from creation.

For process theology, if God isn’t apart than God can also be affected by what goes on in the universe. If we follow the idea we get a God that changes as the universe changes.

Everything, including God, exists in relation to each other. Each affected by the other. That means God can’t know the future because it’s being created as we speak. It also means that though process theology can still envision a creator God, that God didn’t force its will on the universe, it “persuades” in much the same way the sun persuades the traveller to part with his coat in Æsop’s fable. If that feels to you like revising rather than rethinking God, it’s a view I’d agree with.

Where Revising God Gets Us

Process theology has been assimilated into Protestantism, Catholicism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam through groups like Process Faith who “believe that theology grounded in the process thought of philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne makes the most sense of both historical faith and contemporary experience”. That means ideas like Whitehead’s get pulled back into our understanding of God 3.0 – the creator and personal God – with all the problems inherent in a God 3.0 worldview. It’s for that reason you see debates about sin and cases being made for God as creator in Marjorie Suchocki’s booklet, What is Process Theology?

What I’m trying to say is revising God can only take us so far in understanding God. Because it starts with much the same premise, it ends up with much the same God. It’s akin to rearranging deck chairs on a religious Titanic.

Some of process theology’s ideas are genuinely revolutionary. The move away from a God that forces its will on the universe for one. But it’s ability to fit neatly into existing ideas about God is what limits it. Maybe that’s because there will always be those who want to fit new ideas into an existing worldview. But maybe process theology’s a little guilty of that itself.

Think about that for a second. It’s because we’re stuck with the idea of a creator God, that process theology needs the concept of a persuasive God. But the theology could just as easily do without a persuasive or creator God. It’s idea of a God that is changed by the universe, that it exists in relation to it, is beautiful to me. Of course you can argue we can do without a God at all if it didn’t create or influence the universe. We can do that, but that means we’d be arguing that truth is only what we can see, touch and measure. And that’s about as arrogant and human-centric as an argument gets.

Where Rethinking God Could Get Us

Thousands of people throughout history have lived powerful lives based on their idea of God. Many have died for what they believed in. Many more have had brushes with something they feel is neither explained nor understood by the world science shows us.

Fundamentally rethinking God might allow us to get a clearer idea of what that something is. And of course process theology has a part to play in that.

I don’t know much about what that something is, but I’d say whatever it turns out to be, we might find it neither created us or looks after us. It won’t have a view on what we wear, eat or which day we pray on. It won’t have all the human qualities we’ve given it, but it won’t far removed from us.

Free from debates about sin and creator Gods, it might be that understanding whatever that something is helps us see the truth of our interconnectedness. Of our reliance not just on each other, but the universe from which we spring.

How might that change the way we see each other? See the world? What implications might that have on things like wars? Climate change? Global inequality?

The answers to those questions? Well, that’s what’s waiting for us if we’re brave enough and strong enough to let the idea of a traditional God go.


© Joe Britto and God 4.0, 2013. All rights reserved.