I am a big fan of the New York Times
columnist, Tom Friedman. On February 24 his
column was devoted to reasons for us to end our addiction to
oil. This isn’t a new theme, but a particular phrase in his
column caught my attention – frozen in time. Friedman was
talking about the so-called stability of the Middle East
dictatorships where Western and, yes, Asian attitudes have
treated the Middle East “as if it were just a collection of big
gas stations”. These attitudes, and I quote, “enabled the Arab
world to be insulated from history for the last 50 years – to be
ruled for decades by the same kings and dictators.” He goes on
to talk about the deficits of education, freedom, and women’s
empowerment that resulted from the stability of the
As much as I.m a fan of Friedman I.m also a fan of stability.
Comfort and convenience
rule my world. My sweet husband reminds me I didn’t used to be
like this. When I was younger I craved adventure and was always
willing to try new things – ranging from employment to travel to
entertainment to food to new people. I was a collector of
experiences. Nowadays the only things I collect seem to be
doctors and prescriptions. So, reading Friedman, I found myself
in the strange position of being able to sympathize with the
kings, dictators and other members of the dominant culture who,
for whatever reason, value stability and have the power to
I used to feel guilty that t I found myself placing such a high
premium on stability. But
I.ve come to believe that this is a human yearning in response
to our fear -- or maybe our
suspicion -- of change. Things might change for the better, but
they also might change for the worse.
Do you remember when we talked about the necessity of having
gates built into the walls
that define our community? These gates enabled people to freely
come and go, and were a necessary component of a healthy
community. What happens if we don.t have any gates? What happens
to anything in a closed container? Eventually it’s transformed
into something else – it changes it’s state.
I’ll show you what I mean. Here I have a glass of ice cubes
covered by plastic wrap. I’m
going to leave it alone while I talk to you and we’ll see what’s
happened when I’m finished.
Back to Friedman. Tom Friedman points out that the Middle East
has been insulated
from history for the last 50 years. This 50-year number
triggered my memory that we Unitarian Universalists are
celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. And I wondered if
we, too, are frozen in time. This is our 50th anniversary and
we’re still struggling to define who we are and articulate it to
those outside our gates. We have been a denomination for 50
years, and our congregations still look much the same as they
did in the 1960s – minus children. Our worships tyle hasn’t
changed – really since the 1700s -- except that the sermons have
gone from 2 hours to 20 minutes tops. We seize up when anyone
utters the words „multi-media.. We have a lot of the
characteristics of a people frozen in time.
To tell you the truth, I could be comfortable with staying
frozen in time. I like my
position in the dominant culture and the comfort and security
and insulation it affords me, and believe me, I don’t want to
change. But two factors contributed to my recognition of the
futility of this wish: first, I try to keep up on what’s
happening in the world and it isn’t good. The disparity between
the have and the have nots is growing, and there are more – lots
more – have nots who will eventually get tired being the
underdogs. At that point our Empire will crumble, and that, my
friends, is a prophecy you can take to the bank.
The second factor is that I discovered process theology. In a
nutshell, process theology
proclaims that the universe doesn’t stand still. The universe
isn’t frozen in time. The universe is in a constant process of
motion and change. Since we are part of the universe, it follows
that we, too, are in the process of motion and change whether we
know it or not. I find that strangely comforting.
I want to give you a short overview of process theology because
I think it will ground our
future meditations on change. The three high priests of process
theologians are Alfred North Whitehead (who I quoted in our
opening words today), Henry Nelson Wieman, and Charles
Hartshorne. Let’s start with the definition of God as “the
process of creative interchange discernible in human affairs.”
The creative interchange discernible in human affairs. I can
live with that. This interchange alone, Weiman believed, makes
for the growth of human good; he called for trust in that
So now that we have a working definition of God – at least for
the next 5 minutes -- here are six of the major concepts of
1 - God is not omnipotent in the sense of being coercive. The
divine has a power of
persuasion rather than coercion. Process theologians interpret
the classical doctrine of
omnipotence as involving force, and suggest instead a
forbearance in divine power. "Persuasion" in the causal sense
means that God does not exert unilateral control.
2 - Reality is not made up of material substances that endure
through time, but serially-
ordered events, which are experiential in nature. These events
have both a physical and mental aspect. All experience (male,
female, atomic, and botanical) is important and contributes to
the ongoing and interrelated process of reality.
3 - The universe is characterized by process and change carried
out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes
everything in the universe, not just human beings. God cannot
totally control any series of events or any individual, but God
influences the creaturely exercise of this universal free will
by offering possibilities. To say it another way, God has a will
in everything, but not everything that occurs is God's will.
4 - God contains the universe but is not identical with it (panentheism,
not pantheism or
pandeism). Some also call this "theocosmocentrism" to emphasize
that God has always been related to some world or another.
5 - Because God interacts with the changing universe, God is
changeable (that is to say, God is affected by the actions that
take place in the universe) over the course of time. However,
the abstract elements of God (goodness, wisdom, truth, justice,
beauty, etc.) remain eternally solid.
This is linked with Dipolar theism, which is the idea that God
has both a changing aspect (God's existence as a Living God) and
an unchanging aspect (God's eternal essence).
6 – Finally, on the subject of death, Charles Hartshorne
believes that people do not
experience subjective (or personal) immortality, but they do
have objective immortality because their experiences live on
forever in God, who contains all that was. Other process
theologians believe that people do have subjective experience
after bodily death. So the jury.s still out on death.
You may well ask if the result of all this process is disorder
and chaos? Instability. Not
according to Whitehead. Order, rather than being defined as
something stagnant, is, for
Whitehead, “the refusal of the deadening influence of conformity
and the tendency toward new forms and ordered novelty. Depth is
the result of cumulative achievements of the world that make
enrichment possible. Value, as particularized in every occasion
of reality, reveals itself in continual interaction, promoting
depth and destruction.”
Process theology – the idea of being in a continuing process of
effecting change and
being changed – undergirds and informs our Unitarian
Universalist principles, especially the respect for the
interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. It
is a hopeful theology, framing the idea of change as an
ultimately positive thing.
I embraced process theology with the fervency of a born-again
Christian. What I
understand of it is completely consistent with my experience of
the universe and of the divine. So between my study of process
theology and my awareness of the decay of the social order, I
have had to re-evaluate my lust for stability in the face of the
inevitability – in fact, the sacredness -- of change.
Implicit in all this talk of process theology is the notion of
transformation – changing
something into something else. Whether process theology is valid
lens for you depends on how you view your own life experiences.
But I.m sure all of us can agree that there have been changes in
our lives that we didn.t predict. The way we reacted to those
changes transformed us into who we are right now. So if you
share my preference to be frozen in time out of a sense of fear
of the unknown I have news for you. You’ve already been
transformed. You’ve already gone through the process of change.
I say this to you as individuals, but also to you as the Tarpon
Springs church community.
Let’s look at the glass of ice. What’s happened to the ice?
Could we say it’s been …
transformed? Well, yes! It’s changed from a solid to a liquid.
If we had different conditions it could be changed to a gaseous
state – steam. But in all states it.s still water – H20. Its
essence stays the same. One state isn’t intrinsically better or
worse than another – it’s value is derived from what is most
needed and natural at the time and place. Just because something
changes doesn’t mean that it or its essence disappears. It just
adapts to a change agent.
The change agent in our project this morning was natural law and
time. The heat in the
covered glass makes the molecules of H2O move faster, resulting
in a “yielding” – a change of state from solid to liquid. When
ice enters that "yielding" stage it starts to settle--to move
about, to fall down. This, after a long period of stability, can
be frightening. Think of calving glaciers or melting pond ice or
even spring snow that quickly turns into flood waters. But if we
can control our fear long enough we can glimpse the awesome
universe at work creating something new. I think the witness to
that creativity is what makes us human.
Change – movement – transformation -- may be inevitable, but we
have choices in how
we respond to it. We’ll start talking about some possible
responses next week. But for now I’d like you to consider that
being frozen in time really isn’t one of them. May it be so.