Frozen In Time

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 kleptocracies.

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 enforce it.

I used to feel guilty that t I found myself placing such a high premium on stability. But 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 process.

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 process theology:

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. Amen.


  © Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, 2015