How God Works
Through goals that call us
not fists that compel us
by Donna Bowman
There used to be a little feature in the local newspaper every Sunday, in the
society pages, that recounted how couples met. It was always about two people that had
been together for many decades. A lot of the stories went back to the World War II era, or
shortly thereafter. He was a GI; she was a USO volunteer. They danced. He told his buddies
“That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Every week, some variation on that story -- a story most of
us have been asked to tell at one time or another, by our kids or by new acquaintances.
Those stories always used to remind me about the old trick question: How many of your
ancestors died in childhood? I’ll wait for a second while you think about it. The point to that
question was that for us to be born, everyone in our lineage had to survive long enough to
reproduce -- and for long stretches of our history, that was beating the odds.
When we look back to the circumstances that led to our being here -- the coincidences that
had to align for our parents to meet, and our grandparents, and on and on backward in time
and wider in space -- it is alarmingly evident that every single one of us is highly unlikely. We
are a collection of billion-to-one moonshots. To anyone watching from two or three
generations back, our future existence is overwhelmingly improbable. Standing there, with an
uncharted future hazily taking shape in front of us, there is no path that gets from there to
But from here, where we stand, the path exists, written in the lives of everyone in our family
tree. We look back and cannot help seeing it all as, at one level, inevitable.
The difference between the two points of view is captured in the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s
theory of causation. To Aristotle, the world could not be fully explained by the kinds of causes
that precede effects -- by cue balls smashing into billiard balls and sending them careening off
at mathematically-predictable angles. He called that efficient causality, the kind where if you
push someone, the next instant they will fall down. But how does that explain the way an oak
tree grows from an acorn? Isn’t it the case, in some mysterious way, that every acorn has the
goal of being an oak tree -- and that if conditions are right, it will develop along the lines of
that goal? Aristotle linked the oak to the acorn in a system he called final causation. The goal,
despite not existing in the physical world, exerts a pressure on the physical world, shaping it
toward a certain outcome -- not by pushing from behind, but by pulling from ahead.
We cannot help but feel ourselves to be the goal of the world’s past history. But I don’t think
this is sheer hubris. Part of why we feel like life has been shaped to bring us into being is that
we ourselves feel a pressure, a pull, a tug -- a call. Goals that we choose call to us; Teri asks
me to preach today, I say yes, and every day since I have felt the pressure of that task I set
for myself calling me to the lectionary text and to the keyboard. The flourishing of those who
depend upon us, our children and others we care for, calls to us; we perform that
maintenance that optimizes conditions, creating an environment where like acorns, their own
final causes to draw them to completion. Ideals deep within our character and worldview call
to us; we perform our acts of service, small or large, because a vision of a world without
hunger or want tugs at us, shaping our desire and our behavior.
And uniting all these pulling, tugging, shaping goals is a presence that hovers just beyond the
present. That’s the way the process theologian and historian Lewis Ford thinks of God. In his
book The Lure of God he asks us to think of God as future possibility. Like the kingdom of
heaven in the gospels, God embodies and presents to us an ideal that puts our present into
perspective, and shows us what we should be working for. God is the call to the next moment,
and the next, and the whole sequence of moments between now and the fulfillment of
Some of us have heard that call come with the simplicity and innocence of little Samuel.
There is something we have to do, a role we have to fulfill. Step up and do it. We may not
even recognize to what we are responding when we act; there is nothing mysterious or
otherworldly or visionary about it. Only afterward, or from the perspective of someone else, do
we ask the question: who called me?
But often we challenge the call. Stepping forward, committing ourselves, following that lure --
it’s a conscious decision. Often we look to the past for confirmation, the way Jesus proves
himself to Nathaniel by revealing that he knows his past words and actions. And yet the
miraculous confluence of events in the past that led us to this moment, Jesus promises, is
nothing compared to what we will witness when we witness the glory of God, the reality of that
ideal vision, in the future.
Central to the process perspective, as represented by Lewis Ford and others, is that the path
between us and that future does not exist. We blaze that trail with every step we take; we
create the way that transforms our present into a stage on the way to God’s kingdom. And
that means that no matter how we receive the call, whether faint or clear, with signs and
wonders or without, it reminds us of our agency. We are summoned to respond -- and that
means we are responsible.
Many cultures around the world venerate or even worship their ancestors. And when you think
about it, that’s hardly surprising. They made us possible. Seen together, in that great
spreading family tree, they support our life as certainly as does the air we breathe and the
water we drink. They answered the call. They believed in the possibility of us. We now take
our place in the web of responsibility and gratitude that links past, present, and future. The
call rings out, pulling us toward God.