Relationship, Freedom, Change, and Interdependence in the Web of Life by Carol P. Christ


carol p. christ photo michael bakasMarjorie Suchocki says that feminist theology needs a metaphysics, a coherent world view that can hold together what we might otherwise be seen as a series of unrelated assertions made by feminists. Metaphysics is one of those terms that make most people cringe. If they have any idea at all what the word means, they might categorize metaphysics as the most abstract and out of touch with reality aspect of philosophy. In the Platonic tradition where ideas precede reality, metaphysical truths are revealed by rational contemplation of transcendent principles that precede the world. “I think, therefore, I am,” Descartes said. This notion of metaphysics makes me cringe too.

In process philosophy metaphysics refers to the fact that the world is governed by and expresses certain fundamental principles. This does not mean that ideas are more important than reality. Quite the opposite, metaphysical principles are conclusions reached through paying close attention to the world. Metaphysical principles are one of the ways we explain how the world works to ourselves. Because our explanations are always limited by our perspectives or standpoints, metaphysical principles as we know them are not certain and unchanging. This means that we should think of metaphysical principles in philosophy or theology not as not as “the complete and final truth about the world” but rather as “the best understanding of the world I have at this point in time from my standpoint and in conversation with others.”

For process philosophy the most essential of these principles are relationship, freedom, change, and interdependence. We are born into relationships with our mothers and the world. Our presence changes the lives of those who care for us, and we are shaped by the way they choose to relate to us. We change and are changed by every other individual we meet in the course of our lives. Our freedom exists within the context of relationships, and because our choices affect others as well as ourselves, our choices are important. These fundamental principles are expressed not only in human life but also in the world as a whole. We are all interconnected in the web of life.

Everything changes and is changed. All individuals in the web of life, human and other than human, affect and are affected by the others. We live in an interdependent world permeated by freedom. If this is what a process metaphysic means, I find more reason to rejoice than to cringe, because the process metaphysic makes sense of the world as I experience it.

For process philosophy, divinity is not the exception to metaphysical principles, but rather the most comprehensive example of them. As the most relational of all relational beings, and the most sympathetic of all sympathetic subjects, Goddess or God feels all of the feelings of the world and responds to them with perfect understanding. This also means that divinity changes with the changing world. When the world rejoices, divinity rejoices; when individuals in the world are violating each other, divinity feels the sadness and anger of the world and seeks to inspire a better way. The only thing that is unchanging in divinity is that Goddess or God will always respond to the world with love and understanding, and always desires the flourishing of the individuals within it.

Because there is real freedom in the world, God or Goddess cannot be in control of everything. Process philosopher Charles Hartshone calls the notion of divine omnipotence the “zero fallacy.” If God* has all of the power, then God has the power to determine the course of history. But if God has all of the power, then we have zero or none, and in fact there is no history, but only a divine dance with not even an audience to watch it. If God does not have all of the power, and the world has some power, then the power that God does not have must be sufficient to affect the course of events. If this is so, then God is not able to control the course of events, but only to influence them. The divine power is always a power of love and understanding, but this power is the power to persuade or inspire, not the power to produce the outcomes God might prefer.

Hartshorne’s discusses of God’s relationship to the world using the image of the world as the body of God. In his model, the cells of a body are independent individuals–not under the full control of the mind of the body, yet connected as parts of single body, influenced by the mind. So too, individuals in the world—human and other than human—are independent, yet interconnected in the body of God, influenced by and capable of being inspired by the divine wisdom. The divine body is the earth-body, but also the body of our universe and all other universes.

With process philosophy as a firm foundation, I fell confident that it is right to think not only about God or Goddess, but also about everything else in the world through the lens of change, relationship, freedom, and the interdependence in the web of life. The notion of Goddess or God’s power as persuading or inspiring but not coercing makes sense to me. The idea that God or Goddess is not in control of everything answers questions about evil. We may perceive death, disease, and natural phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods as evil, but in fact, they are among the conditions of life as it developed on our planet. We may ask why God or Goddess lets them happen, but in fact divinity did not create the evolutionary process; other individuals did, beginning with the atoms and parts of atoms that came together as they were swirling in space. The real evil in our world is created by human beings. The process worldview places the responsibility to change the world firmly in our hands.

*Hartshorne accepted the feminist criticism of male generic language and began to refer to God as He or She, though he never used the term Goddess.

Also see Process Thought, Feminist Friendly Metaphysics by Xochitl Alvizo

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–early bird discount available for two more weeks only on the spring 2015.   Her books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and the forthcoming Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.

Advertisements


Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion

Tags: , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Thanks Carol, love the breadth of your thinking, especially the wide open understanding that “divinity changes with the changing world.” But I disagree with Marjorie Suchocki. A community of feminists who support “independent assertions made by feminists” is the way we do things at FAR. Freedom of speech is the fabric (or metaphysics) that effortlessly holds our democracy together as a tolerant, coherent, highly creative society.

    Like

  2. Oops Sarah, I think we are using independent in different ways.

    One meaning of independent is separte, separable, unrelated to anything else.

    Another is freely chosen.

    What Suchocki meant is that in fact many feminist assertions whether made by one individual or by more than one can be connected in a worldview. For example if I might claim that reason should take account of feeling. I might dispute traditional theology’s assertion that divinity does not feel. I may also think that my dog and cat can feel deeply, despite what animal experts often assert. If I think deeply about this I might come to understand that feeling is valuable and that it the ability to feel permeates the universe. (This would be the process view.) It might also be helpful to me to understand that traditional philosophies disparaged feeling as inferior to reason and said that reason should control feeling. It might also be helpful to understand that traditional philosophies said that reason belonged to God and man, feeling to women, and animals were “dumb.” In other words if I understand that my thoughts hold together in a coherent alternative worldview, I will be able to defend them better.

    Since one of the principles of process philosophy is freedom, this would not mean that anyone should tell anyone else what too think, which (I think) is what you are concerned about. We all have a right to see the world from our individual standpoints and in fact this is how we should see it.

    As the quote from Suchocki is indirect I am going to change independent to unrelated — which hopefully will clarify what Suchocki and I meant.

    Thanks for the warning about the statement not being clear.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This chant started sounding in my mind as I read: “She changes everything she touches and everything she touches changes.” Of course, she is also we.Or as another chant goes “we are the weavers, we are the web.”

    Like

  4. Brava! As usual. Process philosophy/thealogy makes enormous sense. We do indeed live in a sea of change and relationships. Thanks for posting this. It’s good to be forced to think at 7 in the morning. ;-)

    Like

  5. I do cringe at metaphysics, but not at the post you have written here. Very nice.

    Now where do I go to vote for you as my Feminist Process Philosophy Representative?

    Like

  6. Thank you, Carol, for this wonderful outline of your metaphysics. I read _She Who Changes _, but this shorter version of your concepts really crystalized things for me. It helped me immensely to understand my own metaphysics and how it overlaps with yours and how it differs.

    I love these sentences and agree with them 1,00%: 1) [M]etaphysical principles are conclusions reached through paying close attention to the world.

    2) This means that we should think of metaphysical principles in philosophy or theology not as not as “the complete and final truth about the world” but rather as “the best understanding of the world I have at this point in time from my standpoint and in conversation with others.”

    3) For process philosophy the most essential of these principles are relationship, freedom, change, and interdependence. We are born into relationships with our mothers and the world. Our presence changes the lives of those who care for us, and we are shaped by the way they choose to relate to us. We change and are changed by every other individual we meet in the course of our lives. Our freedom exists within the context of relationships, and because our choices affect others as well as ourselves, our choices are important. These fundamental principles are expressed not only in human life but also in the world as a whole. We are all interconnected in the web of life.

    Like you, my metaphysical principles are first of all, relationship, then interdependence in the web of life — which flows from that relationality — then change and freedom. I guess I would order them in this way, because in our society there is too much emphasis on freedom and not enough on relationality.

    Like you, I believe human beings have freedom and, therefore, the ability to create change in the world. What I don’t understand is why in your metaphysics Goddess doesn’t have all the power. It seems to me that if Goddess is the sum of all Her parts in the interdependent web of life, then She has all the power. But this isn’t a problem for me, because each of us has a part of that power, is independent of Her, and, therefore, has freedom to affect change.

    Am I missing something here? Is the problem because in your theology, Goddess is a person, just like we are? And, therefore, needs freedom as well? Then the difference between us turns out to be that I’m a polytheistic panentheist and you’re a monotheistic panentheist. The parts of Goddess with whom I relate (my “tutelary” god/desses) are benevolent, loving, understanding, always wanting my flourishing and that of others, and of course, they change with the changing world. As a result, I see your description of Goddess as applicable to my partial goddesses: “When the world rejoices, divinity rejoices; when individuals in the world are violating each other, divinity feels the sadness and anger of the world and seeks to inspire a better way” — that is certainly true of my “tutelary” goddesses, since among them are a goddess of love and a goddess who creates harmony out of conflict.

    The question of evil for me is then easily resolved. There are a variety of entities in this interdependent web of life who act malevolently for whatever reason. That’s how I deal with the question of theodicy. In most cases, I believe evil is the result of people who are ignorant or have been ill-treated themselves, etc. Or they’re well-meaning and have overgeneralized the goodness of something until it becomes odious (Christians call this “idolatry”. For example, love of country becoming “my country right or wrong.” –>Thanks for this example to Jack Hartjes, a wonderful Christian theologian who is my friend). I guess I believe that “evil” people tend to be mentally ill in some way or acculturated to act in ways that I perceive as negative.

    If I were a monotheist, I guess I would have to deal with my experience of Goddess as a mystery, since She is both the allness of the universe and a being with whom and to whom I relate as a mystery. But since Goddess is ineffable, this wouldn’t be a problem for me, because as a human being, I am much too finite to understand the infinite.

    Like

  7. Nancy, there are too many questions here to answer them in this space. I refer readers to my She Who Changes and Hartshorne’s Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. A short answer to one question is that if divinity has all the power we have none, then the existence of free individuals in the world is an illusion. The idea of the world as a divine dance in Hinduism suggests this answer to the question. As for divine mystery, of course we cannot know everything, but I think this idea is often used to mask really horrific ideas, such as that God demanded the sacrifice of his Son (in Christian theology) or that divinity cannot care or feel as to care or feel is to suffer and a perfect Being cannot suffer (traditional philosophy since Plato) or that a good God condemns some to hell and would have condemned all to hell apart from the sacrifice of Jesus as the Christ. For me these ideas are not mysteries, they are theological mistakes!

    Like

    • I guess it took me a long time to understand what you meant by “the idea of the world as a divine dance in Hinduism suggests this answer to the question” (namely “that the existence of free individuals in the world is an illusion”). The reason for this is that the “divine dance” for me means something else entirely. For me, the “divine dance” implies co-creation with divinity, as I said in my post on Kali. But the divine dance has so many different meanings in Hinduism (since its many different strands of religious beliefs combined under one umbrella) that it implies complete predestination for some and active participation for others. As a Shaktist friend of mine says,” You can believe anything. People with opposite beliefs can be standing side by side in the same temple, worshipping, and holding different beliefs.” In Shakta and some parts of Shaiva, however, there is the idea that the whole universe, including us, is made of divine material, and we are waking up to participate in the dance of the inseparable lovers, Shakti-Shiva, who are actually one, and can only be spoken of as different for the sake of conversation.

      Like

  8. Nancy you asked me to reply to your questions. Please note that I discuss these issues in She Who Changes at greater length.

    Nancy: Like you, I believe human beings have freedom and, therefore, the ability to create change in the world. What I don’t understand is why in your metaphysics Goddess doesn’t have all the power. It seems to me that if Goddess is the sum of all Her parts in the interdependent web of life, then She has all the power. But this isn’t a problem for me, because each of us has a part of that power, is independent of Her, and, therefore, has freedom to affect change.

    Carol: My view is a relational and panentheistic. Goddess is a relational individual related to the world; Goddess is also in everything in the world. Goddess cannot be omnipotent if other individuals have power to affect the world. Goddess can influence the world but does not control what happens in the world. For me Goddess is not the sum of all the parts in the world. To me that view denies the ultimate reality of the parts. All individuals including God are in part made up of their relationships to other individuals. Goddess is in the world, experiencing it from the perspective of Her relationships with all other individuals; however God is not the world because the individuals in the world really do exist, for a time, and interdependently with others.

    Nancy: Am I missing something here? Is the problem because in your theology, Goddess is a person, just like we are? And, therefore, needs freedom as well? Then the difference between us turns out to be that I’m a polytheistic panentheist and you’re a monotheistic panentheist. The parts of Goddess with whom I relate (my “tutelary” god/desses) are benevolent, loving, understanding, always wanting my flourishing and that of others, and of course, they change with the changing world. As a result, I see your description of Goddess as applicable to my partial goddesses: “When the world rejoices, divinity rejoices; when individuals in the world are violating each other, divinity feels the sadness and anger of the world and seeks to inspire a better way” — that is certainly true of my “tutelary” goddesses, since among them are a goddess of love and a goddess who creates harmony out of conflict.

    Carol: Yes, I am an inclusive monotheist and yes I view Goddess as a person. And beyond that I see Goddess as always related, always sympathetic, always feeling the feeling of others, and always attempting to influence the individuals in the world to create greater joy, harmony, and beauty for as many other individuals as possible. For me Goddess is always good, in the sense that she never causes or attempts to cause evil. Individual here refers to the deity, people, animals, cells, atoms, particles of atoms.

    Nancy: The question of evil for me is then easily resolved. There are a variety of entities in this interdependent web of life who act malevolently for whatever reason. That’s how I deal with the question of theodicy. In most cases, I believe evil is the result of people who are ignorant or have been ill-treated themselves, etc. Or they’re well-meaning and have overgeneralized the goodness of something until it becomes odious (Christians call this “idolatry”. For example, love of country becoming “my country right or wrong.” –>Thanks for this example to Jack Hartjes, a wonderful Christian theologian who is my friend). I guess I believe that “evil” people tend to be mentally ill in some way or acculturated to act in ways that I perceive as negative.

    Carol: I tend to agree with you about why people act in evil ways. I would add that where there are a multiplicity of wills, harming others without consciously willing to do so is also inevitable. I would not call this evil in relation to the one who caused it, but it may be experienced as evil to the one who suffers it. The problem of theodicy, the problem of evil in its classical western form is posed as: if Goddess is good and all-powerful, then why does She not stop evil. The traditional answer often was, this is a mystery. My answer is that Goddess is good but that in a relational world, Goddess does not have all the power, and therefore Goddess also does not have the power to stop other individuals from choosing evil.

    Nancy: If I were a monotheist, I guess I would have to deal with my experience of Goddess as a mystery, since She is both the allness of the universe and a being with whom and to whom I relate as a mystery. But since Goddess is ineffable, this wouldn’t be a problem for me, because as a human being, I am much too finite to understand the infinite.

    Carol: The view that the divine power is a mystery is a well-worn trope and philosophical idea.

    I think it can function to cover up wrong thinking. For example, if God is good and God has the power to control everything that happens in the world, then the problem of God’s relation to evil is “a mystery.” However, if God does not have the power to control everything in the world, then there is no mystery. Human beings create evil for the reasons we both discussed above.

    Of course a finite individual cannot know everything about the world and God, but there is a big difference between knowing everything and knowing nothing. I agree with Hartshorne that if God is not good, then religion is a great fraud. You would not agree, most probably, but to throw up our hands and say everything is a mystery is to give up too soon, in my opinion.

    Carol: Finally, I am not a HIndu nor do I pretend to be an expert on HInduism, but there is a strong strand within Hinduism that views the world as an illusion, because in fact, all is one, in such a way that our individual sorrows and joys are also an illusion, maya. This is the strand of HInduism to which I was referring, the one that views the world as maya.

    Like

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: