Process Theology and Frederick Buechner
For more information on Frederick Buechner,
see the Frederick Buechner Center
The process world of Alfred North Whitehead is a story unfolding in time with no pre-determined outcome. Many influences are at work in the writing, like strong-willed characters colliding against each other. And yet, every becoming moment of the story also includes a divine urge toward intense harmony. Whitehead calls this Beauty. In fact, the "poet of the world" lures us always and forever toward Beauty. The divine poet beckons and persuades and lures us forward with enticing possibilities, but can never strong-arm a character's action. So, in sense, God works as the improvisational writer works—not as an all-powerful tyrant over characters and plot, determining the outcome from the beginning, but rather as a the poet of possibilities, luring the narrative into realms of richly contrasted Beauty.
-- Patricia Adams Farmer, Novel Theology: Confessions of a Whiteheadian Novelist
Truth be told, the characters in my novels run the show, giving real meaning to the term “character-driven.” (How I envy those who can plot every jot and tittle and stick to it! But, alas, my characters prove uncooperative.) Of course, I do work from an outline, and yes, I lure my characters in that direction. But they do have a will of their own and a definite say-so in the plot. So I listen and write and let the narrative take its course, constantly readjusting my outline as events unfold. The end result is usually quite different from anything I imagined when I started.
Patricia Adams Farmer, Novel Theology: Confessions of a Whiteheadian Novelist
Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world —
the fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross.
-- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
Ten Reasons to Like Frederick Buechner
1. He does not write systematic treatises.
Buechner's theological efforts are never systematic treatises but instead short, highly literary productions in most of which he draws explicit links with fiction-writing generally and his own fiction in particular...Buechner's 1969 Noble Lectures at Harvard published in 1970 as The Alphabet of Grace, comprise a slender volume which is one of his most important and revealing works. Here the intimate relationship Buechner sees among fiction, theology, and autobiography is first made clear and fully embodied; and the book itself is a thoroughly lyrical piece.
2. He knows about rainbow trout and thunderstorms.
"I have no desire to analyze what makes Buechner's writing and preaching so extraordinary. Neither do I want to account for Bob Dylan's raspy mystique, the peculiar beauty of a rainbow trout in a riffle, or a thunderstorm's magnetic terror. I simply want to enjoy them. They all knock me out of analysis and smack me clear into pleasure and awe."
3. He sees into the heart of everyday life.
In the words of The Reverend Samuel Lloyd, former dean of Washington National Cathedral Buechner's words "have nurtured the lives of untold seekers and followers" through "his capacity to see into the heart of every day."
4. He is honest about suffering and conflict.
“It is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name....That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.”
5. He believes love is more powerful than hatred.
“If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”
There is ... in the Galilean origin of Christianity, yet another suggestion which does not fit in very well.... It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.
6. He knows the place where gladness meets the hungers of the world.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
We are called to ask questions at a different level. What about the assumptions that shape this ordinary understanding of morality as service of the common good of my community. Asking this question may be thought of as another dimension of ethics. We may call it the ethics of thought.
7. He understands kindness.
"When Henry James, of all people, was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William's son, he said something that the boy never forgot. And of all the labyrinthine and impenetrably subtle things that the most labyrinthine and impenetrable old romancer could have said, what he did say was this: 'There are three things that are important human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.'
8. He is delighted by beauty.
Glory is to God what style is to an artist. A painting by Vermeer, a sonnet by Donne, a Mozart aria — each is so rich with the style of the one who made it that to the connoisseur it couldn't have been made by anybody else, and the effect is staggering. The style of artists brings you as close to the sound of their voices and the light in their eyes as it is possible to get this side of actually shaking hands with them.
9. He understands the psychology of sin.
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Johnny wants to punish those who have made the world such a messed-up place. His parents, the assholes in school, the military-industrial complex, God, himself -- it doesn't matter. His anger is both particularized and generalized. He wants to get even with the assholes and he wants to level cities.
10. He trusts in a God of fresh possibilities.
“To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness - especially in the wilderness - you shall love him.”
God is reaching into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time. But the fingers of God are not things you can see with your eyes. They are fresh possibilities for healing and wholeness, for love and wonder, that you discover in your imagination. Often they are mediated by others. You get them from a friend, an enemy, a fairy tale, a liturgy, a memory, a struggle. They come in surprising ways. Christians call them grace. Always they are healing and hopeful: the best for the situation at hand. The best may not be the ideal. In the middle of a wilderness, the best may be sheer survival, or humor, or courage, or sleep. But always it is a realized hope, a fresh possibility. Faith is trust in the availability of fresh possibilities.
A Whiteheadian Thank You Note
Dear Frederick Buechner. Thank you. So many of us in the process community are nourished by your writings. We agree with Brian McLaren. Your writing combines Bob Dylan's raspy mystique, the peculiar beauty of a rainbow trout in a riffle, and a thunderstorm's magnetic terror. We call it beauty.
Some of us are Christian, some Jewish, some Muslim, some Buddhist, and some are not affiliated with any particular religious tradition. We know that you are a Christian, and that many of your readers are Christian. But we want you to know that your writings appeal to many of us outside the Christian community as well. We offer this multi-faith thank you note.
For the Christians among us, you help us find fresh ways of appreciating the Good News from which we want to live our lives. You give us fresh insights into the depths of a life that is sensitive to mystery, depth, sin, and the grace of everyday life. You remind us that the life of discipleship is not distant from everyday life, but rather in the thick of it: moment by moment, mistake by mistake, confusion by confusion, struggle by struggle, love by love. Often we feel like characters in your novels.
And for those among us who walk in parallel paths, we find your writings a way to learn from Christianity in ways that enrich our own walking. We live in an age of spiritual hybridity. We find ourselves willing to learn from other paths even as we travel our own. We are trying to live with roots and wings. You help us live with secondary roots in the New Testament, even as we may have primary roots in Judaism or Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, Taoism or Confucianism.
One thing for sure. We all find great relief in the fact that you do not write systematic treatises but instead do something much better. You offer us images and stories which function, in Whitehead's words, as lures for feeling, helping us grow into the people we would like to be: carriers of God's love. We grow weary of theologies that attempt to encompass the whole of things. We are not interested in boxing in life with mental frames of our own making, or even Whitehead's making. Rather we want to live kindly and creatively, trusting in a Spirit who is more than us but winds its way within us and around us. We appreciate Whitehead, not because he is a box-maker but because he is a spirit-inspirer.
Generous and Flexible Orthodoxy
Among Christians, some say our spirit is closer to jazz than to orthodox Christianity of the rigid kind. We believe that the universe is a creative advance into novelty that, as human beings, we are beckoned by God to improvise our lives in a loving way. Contrary to some in the orthodox Christian tradition, we do not believe that the future is already-decided, not even by God. Instead we believe in an open future and an open God.
To be sure, some of us believe that there is a side of God which is non-temporal or eternal. Whitehead calls it the primordial nature of God. We believe that there is wisdom in those who intuit that there is side of the divine mystery beyond time and space.
We also believe that there is a side of God which is temporal and everlasting, becoming along with the universe, moment-by-moment and day-by-day. This is the side of God that hears and responds to prayers, and that embraces all things with a tender care that nothing be lost. This is the side that means so much to a leading writer in the process tradition, Rabbi Bradley Artson, author of God of Becoming and Relationship. We find hope in a God of becoming.
But we well know that there can be a generous and creative orthodoxy that is non-rigid and deeply hopeful. Truth be told, we often see the process spirit in orthodox friends, some of whom have no interest at all in process theology. We are very glad about that. Along with our generously orthodox friends we are delighted by diversity and surprise and believe in improvisation. And along with them, we are drawn to Jesus and to the good news that we can live from kindness not hatred.
Relationality and Beauty
When you say that kindness involves imagining ourselves inside the skin of others and looking at the world from their points of view, we are with you all the way. We think that even God is kind in just this way, even as God's kindness is magnified by infinity.
That's why, to use our language, we speak of God as a relational God who is vulnerable to the sufferings of the world and shares in the joys of the world. We know that you are a Presbyterian by training, and we suppose that you believe in the sovereignty of God. Some people see sovereignty in overly monarchical terms, almost as if they were rendering unto God what belongs to Caesar. But we sense that you see sovereignty in more relational terms, rendering unto God what belongs to Christ. That makes sense to us, too. If the idea that God shares in the joys and sufferings of the world is a Fairy Tale, everywhere and all the time, we, like you, think it's true.
There's more. When you invite us to take heed of the beauty in life, because it, too, can be a window into God's life, we agree completely. For us as for you, beauty is one way that so many of us touch God. Not just the beauty of the sunset or even the cosmos, but the beauty of felt relationship amid what an orthodox friend calls the grittiness of love.
One Hand or Many Hands
We know that you may not like every aspect of process theology. You may have heard that, for us, God is not all-powerful in a sense important to some Christians. We believe in a sovereignty of love but not a sovereignty of control. Put differently, we do not think God acts, or even can act, with unilateral power, exhausting the world of its creativity. You may disagree with this, and think that the whole of the cosmos is -- or could be - controlled by the single hand of God.
To the connoisseur, not just sunsets and starry nights, but dust storms, rain forests, garter snakes, and the human face are all unmistakably the work of a single hand. Glory is the outward manifestation of that hand in its handiwork just as holiness is the inward.
Truth be told, we don't think that anything at all emerges out of the single hand of God. When we see dust storms and tsunamis, cancer cells and the Ebola virus, we see the work of countless instances of creativity (agency) in nature, not just the work of God. You may agree or disagree; either way we still like your general idea of glory.
We think that God has always been about more than the human. God has been in the business of luring the entire universe, including life on earth, into forms of beauty, and that the universe has added to this business with its own creativity.
Is the Ebola virus God's handiwork, or nature's handiwork, or both? We have to say both and then add that sometimes, for us humans, the handiwork gets out of hand. We suspect that this adds tragedy even to God's life. God loves beauty -- and God is also a kindred spirit who shares in all suffering. All of it.
Joining the Banquet
Be that as it may, we end up in a place that sounds like you. You write:
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
We believe this, too. We believe that each moment of our lives is a miracle of sorts, and that it is brought into existence, at least in part, by a desire of God that dwells deep within the heart of the cosmos. Whitehead had a technical way of naming this desire. He called it the initial aim of God. We think your word is much better: grace.
For us as for you, grace is more like the wind, or electricity, or flowing water, or a living poem, than an abstract idea in the mind. And this poem invites us to feel welcomed into the larger banquet of life. You write:
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you.”
We're on your side. We think there's a greater whole -- a banquet of love and justice -- to which we are all invited, all the time. Grace is the invitation, the lure for feeling. You help us listen to our lives and hear the call of the banquet, especially in the ordinariness of daily life. Thank you again.
-- Jay McDaniel