Ask Dr. Cobb

August 2001 Question

I just pulled out my old program, '3 days of peace and music' (original Woodstock program), and found an interesting statement therein:

'Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can't ever forget. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect this is an extension of LOVE SUPREME since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. . . .'

My first reaction was, 'Wow!' Process theology in its infancy stage! Right there at Yasgur's farm. Cool. The first panentheist. BTW, the quote is from John Sinclair (founder of the White Panther Party, 'political prisoner', acid head, etc., etc...)."

Dr. Cobb's Response

My first reaction to this comment, was just to let it stand. It seems a bit out of my range. But I've now decided to respond.

Much Protestant theology focuses on what we believe. The left wing of the Reformation included some who emphasized personal, immediate experience of the divine, but the major Reformers did not. This highly personal experience was often appealed to as providing authoritative information, and the Reformers were rightly suspicious of such claims.

Of course, they did emphasize experience. The belief that God has saved us in Jesus Christ deeply affects experience. If one has feared that God is angry with one because one has sinned, belief in God's forgiveness comes as a great relief. But this shaping of experience by belief is quite different from the shaping of belief by experience.

The primacy of faith did not exclude direct experience of God. This point was made in some streams in the Anglican tradition and most effectively by John Wesley. These elements in Protestantism continued the experiential focus of some of the Left Wing of the Reformation, maintaining space within Protestantism for some forms of mysticism.

In the early nineteenth century Schleiermacher proposed a more radical move to the primacy of experience. At the height of the Romantic Movement, he recognized that asking people to believe on the authority of the Bible was not effective. Unless they could understand Christian faith as growing out of actual, personal experience of God, it would not be meaningful to them. Schleiermacher taught that the deepest level of religious experience was the feeling of being absolutely dependent, which was, in his view, the experience of God. Schleiermacher's theology played an important role in liberal Protestantism.

In the twentieth century, however, this appeal to immediate experience has been sharply criticized. Neo-orthodoxy emphatically returned to the primacy of faith over experience. In philosophical circles there has been extensive criticism of the idea that there is experience of any kind that is not culturally conditioned. This is true a fortiori of religious experience. The emphasis has been especially on the primacy of language. This emphasis can be used by Protestant theologians to reinforce the primacy of faith as faith in the word.

Ironically, just at the time that intellectuals reject experience as a source of knowledge, and especially of religious knowledge, widespread interest in spirituality has arisen in the culture. "Spirituality" means many things, but one element within this interest is immediate, personal experience. Some are not interested in the experience of God, but even among these, one who believes in God in the process tradition may discern that they are speaking of God. The God they have rejected is often the God process theologians have also rejected.

To say this, of course, is to presuppose that, unlike most Protestant theology, process theology affirms the direct, personal experience of God. Indeed, process theologians believe that we prehend or feel God in every moment. We know that this is rarely conscious, and we know that conscious experience of God is always also affected and interpreted through culturally shaped ideas and expectations. But we are open to reports of conscious experience of God, nevertheless. Some claimed experience seems to us confirmatory of belief that is also based on intellectual arguments and more general phenomenological considerations.

We have a case of this kind here. The positive evidence is stronger just because there is little likelihood that the experience of the "force for the unity of life" was particularly informed by traditional religious expectations. The language is not that of process theology, either, but certainly God functions in this way in the process view. The connection is strengthened by Sinclair's associating this force with Love Supreme.

Many Protestant theologians would dismiss this experience as too closely related to the drug culture. But for process thought, the fact that an experience is affected by drugs does not necessarily count against its evidential value. We believe that ordinary experience offers a misleading view of the deeper nature of things, and that other modes of experience may provide more accurate information. There are certainly serious dangers in inducing such experiences with drugs, and spiritual disciplines of various sorts are far more to be recommended. But this does not deny that what is experienced under this influence of drugs may be quite real.

I believe that Christians would do well to connect our thinking about God to elements in popular culture that resonate with many people. This is one good example. Another is "The Force" that is spoken of in Star Wars. On the whole, it is conceived in a way that is congenial to process theology's understanding of God. Indeed, these images in popular culture of a power not ourselves that makes for good, with their freedom from the curse of traditional thinking about divine omnipotence, may be more salutary than the way God is still spoken of in many of our churches.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.