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I, Virginia Bergman, pledge not to vote for a male presidential candidate in 2016 just because he's male.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

More on Teresa and Process Theology

It’s been a week since I posted my take on Mother Teresa’s loss of faith, and the media buzz continues with yet more commentary from atheist and orthodox on Teresa’s bleak life.

In Newsweek’s feature, “On Faith,” atheist Sam Harris offers an unsympathetic response to excerpts of Mother Teresa’s letters. “Christianity,” Harris says, “amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man—his son, incidentally—in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others.”

Harris adds: “The notion that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that his death constitutes a successful propitiation of a ‘loving’ God is a direct and undisguised inheritance of the scapegoating barbarism that has plagued bewildered people throughout history.”

Harris diagnoses Mother Teresa’s despair as “run of the mill depression,” and he calls confessors and superiors to account for responding to her pleas for help by encouraging martyrdom.

Immediately after reading Harris’s piece, I turned to an op-ed in the New York Times by the Rev. James Martin, author of “The Lives of the Saints.” And sure enough, the Rev. Martin confirmed that at a confessor’s suggestion, Mother Teresa had apparently found solace in identifying with the suffering of the crucified Jesus.

In a 2006 interview with TruthDig Harris connects his concern about the dangers of martyrdom with those deluded Islamic faithful who chose to fly planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11. Harris says, “We can no longer ignore the fact that billions of our neighbors believe in the metaphysics of martyrdom, or in the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, or any of the other fantastical notions that have lurked in the minds of the faithful for millennia—because our neighbors are now armed with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.”

In introducing Harris, Truthdig explains his fame/notoriety: “With the publication of his 2004 New York Times bestseller, ‘The End of Faith,’ a full-throttle attack on religion, Sam Harris became the most prominent atheist in America.”

Truthdig mentions Harris’s degree in philosophy from Stanford, where he’s currently completing a doctorate in neuroscience, and it also suggests that Harris has studied Eastern and Western religious disciplines for 20 years. Regrettably, many of his comments in Truthdig’s lengthy interview indicate that Harris has had little or no formal theological education. For one thing, he seems oblivious to modern day biblical criticism routinely included in seminary curricula. He also appears to be unaware that many thoughtful Christians rejected his interpretation of their tradition, including the element of martyrdom, long before he got around to it.

Some of us even found a spiritual home in process theology. For the uninitiated, process theology is derived from Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophical ruminations. My background in philosophy is limited to the introductory course in undergraduate school; however, I do have a theological education from an accredited seminary, whose instructors were undaunted by Whitehead’s integration of findings from quantum physics with his philosophical principles.

As a refresher, I recently reviewed “Process Thought and Its Applications,” in which theologian John Cobb, Jr. offered two theses: “First, the three dominant intellectual traditions of the modern West ― materialism, dualism, and idealism ― are leading us all to destruction. Second, process thought is the most adequate and promising alternative.”

In this article, Cobb nails materialism, dualism, and idealism for attitudes toward nature that are contributing to the global warming crisis. But he lets the church off the hook for repenting and becoming more ecologically sensitive ― coincidentally, Pope Benedict recently urged young Catholics at a youth rally in Loreto, Italy to take the lead in caring for the planet.

Process theology gets the gold star for an ecological attitude that acknowledges human beings are of nature ― not apart from it ― and we obviously cannot survive outside nature’s web of relationships.

Adherents of process theology believe the ecological web of relationships is the essential context of our faith. Noted process theologian Charles Hartshorne envisioned God’s relationship to the natural world as like that of the psyche or soul to the body, or most particularly to the brain, maintaining that all of life exists within God, and that we are as interconnected as cells within the human body.

To be clear: the God of process theology is not some big, macho guy in the sky who keeps a ledger of our good deeds and our misdeeds, handing out rewards and punishments accordingly. Instead, as process theology would have it, God relates to us in a consistently loving manner, respecting our free will, while continuously inviting each of us to act in the best interests of all of life ― including our own.

That should effectively rule out any kind of propitiating blood sacrifice, as described by Sam Harris, and the related dangers of martyrdom. It might even lead orthodox Christians toward focusing a little more on the life and teachings of the historical Jesus, instead of the cruel manner in which he died.

NOTE to readers: My schedule won’t permit me to update Katalusis again until next Tuesday, September 11, so have a great week and please check back in.




  1. Greetings, a comment or two if I may.

    I notice that whenever someone critiques Harris's book, the objection is inevitably raised that he's ridiculing some caricature of Christianity, that "many" Christians don't in fact believe the things he accuses them of believing.

    On some level, this is true. Like almost every large religious sect, Christianity is a multi-headed hydra, with so many varieties of belief, they probably make Constantine turn in his grave.

    It is unfair, however, to expect Harris to take on every form of Christianity. Instead, he addresses his works to that large body of Americans who believe things such as:

    - Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years (44% of Americans)

    - The Bible is the literal word of god (31% of Americans)

    - Creationism is true, and not evolution (43% of Americans)

    Process theology sounds all fuzzy and warm, and I hope it helps leaven the more rigid forms of faith that seem to permeate American society. But until it does, Harris's critique is more than apt.

  2. Your comments on process theology and Charles Hartshorne caught my attention. Let me, in turn, direct your attention to a cosmology that builds on Whitehead's "philosophy of organism" explicated in detail at www.starlarvae.org.

    The neo-atheism of Harris and Dawkins is a welcome development, and I say this as a theist!!

    Theism has been hijacked by charlatans, and if it takes an atheist revivalism to get the thing back on track, so be it.

  3. Sorry about jumping in an commenting on a posting that is month old, but I just ran across this and I wanted to comment on it.

    I completely agree with you that Harris is truly showing his ignorance of the diversity and variety of Christian faith. When he asserts that "Christianity amounts to the claim that..." and then proceeds to describe something that not all Christians believe, he is clearly showing that he doesn't know what he is talking about.

    Contrary to the previous commenter who said that "it is unfair, however, to expect Harris to take on every form of Christianity," it is in fact utterly fair to expect him to do so. He is making gross generalizations about what Christianity per se supposedly is. If all he were doing were criticizing what some Christians believed, I might be on his side, since I don't have much use for certain brands of Christianity myself. But when you make a definitive statement that supposedly captures what a faith is about, your definition has to account for the diversity within that faith. Otherwise, you are just blowing smoke and showing your ignorance. And that is precisely what Harris does.

    I am a huge fan of process theology myself, by the way.