On (the ground of) Being: A Primer

 

I came into seminary not sure how to reconcile my increasing suspicion that humanity was possessed of ultimate free will, with my classical understanding of God. I had essentially relegated God to watchmaker status in order to tone down the cognitive dissidence. 

 

In attempt to make better sense of it all, my first semester at Union I took a seminar on Process Theology. I was interested in the topic but didn’t know I was jumping so far in to the deep end in my first semester! Wading through Whitehead’s Process and Reality, encountering terms like “concrescence,” “consequence,” “lure,” I found new ways of understanding God in relation to the world and vice versa. 

 

For me the fundamentals at the heart of Process Theology came up a little lacking. But it was through this class that I encountered Tillich’s conception of God as the Ground of Being. And here I hung my metaphorical shingle and got down to business. 

 

Briefly explained, God, as the ground of being, is the subsistence through which all existence arises. It’s a life-giving relationship to all creation, and a reciprocal one. In human terms, we are rooted and growing in and through God; likewise God is rooted in us. I stop myself here because I could go on and on about what this means for other areas of theology, for our practical way of being in the world. This conception of God has, for several years now, informed how I “do” theology. 

 

Another byproduct of my Process Theology class was being introduced to Open and Relational Theology, or Free Will Theism. Process Theology, in my interpretation, gives humanity ultimate free will and volition at the expense of God’s work in the world (Process Theologians will argue with me here, but this is how I interpret some of the broader strokes); Open Theology accounts for ultimate free will, randomness, and the unknown while still giving God the prominent place in the system. (I have a whole class developed on the topic of free will - coming soon! - so I will leave this explanation pointedly succinct.) 

 

In seminary I became a bit of a one hit wonder, tying everything back to free will trying to give myself any excuse to delve deeper into these new interpretations I was exploring. I still do this to a certain extent - I just finished Sam Harris’ book, Free Will, where he denies, from a scientific perspective, that we have anything remotely resembling free will. A couple months ago I finished a book that is more closely in line with my current stance, Thomas Jay Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God

 

I intend to do a more complete review of the material in this book but one point is relevant to my discussion here: Oord critiques Ground of Being theology (Tillichian theology) as not being sufficiently personal. I would argue the exact opposite. Both Process and Ground of Being theology are panentheistic - that is, they suggest that God is in all things. God is birthing all of creation and coming alongside that creation - co-creating in, through, and around us; simultaneously God is encapsulating all this activity. 

 

In essence (as I understand and interpret this theology), God is continually giving us our being. That’s why, at least in the way I interpret Tillich, I find this theology to be incredibly personal. Prior to my exploration into these theologies, I dealt with the problem of free will by being more of a deist: God may have been ultimately responsible for setting the world into motion but subsequently we were left to our own devices. 

 

I’ve done just about a 180 from this opinion and feel that a combination of attributes from Process, Open, and Tillichian theologies help us make better sense of God’s work in the world and our call to join in this work. And isn’t that the point of theology? To equip us to put faith into action.