Beatnik Theology

Hey everyone! Yet again, I am recycling material I wrote for a class. Such is the life of a seminarian. This was my final project for my J-Term class on John Cobb and Process Theology. Enjoy!

I am relatively certain that the field of theopoetics exists because, at one point, John Cobb, Alan Ginsberg, and Homer walked into a bar. This is obviously facetious, but nonetheless, the form of epic poem as conceived in ancient Greek mythology and the zeitgeist of the Beat Generation have much in common with Cobb’s process theology, especially in terms of narrative. Though the three speak, on the surface, to different locations entirely, their concepts are not altogether dissimilar. All three focus not on the final destination, per se, of any moment, but on the journey that brings one there.

As an exercise in this, I have penned a set of poetry found in the latter part of this essay that seeks to draw these together. This, however, is something to explore later. First, it is necessary to explore exactly what is meant by Cobb’s process theology.

Cobb writes at length in works such as Is it Too Late? and Reclaiming the Church about particular issues in Christian theology and praxis, namely, the climate crisis and the state of the church (respectively). While these are certainly wise and informative, they are not the nexus of his theology, and focus more on the practical implications of process thought than on process thought itself. Therefore, they are not my area of concern here.

The primary, fundamental element of Cobb’s process theology is concrescence, if nothing else.[1] Concrescence refers to the process by which a moment happens or is actualized. It is hard to say where it “begins” and “ends” because this process is a cycle that repeats indefinitely. Some would start with God, others with the past, others with the present, but nonetheless, this does not start and end anywhere in particular. Cobb, however, chooses the human prehension of the present moment, and therefore, I will begin there..

In the present moment, every element of the past is prehended, or considered. Some of these narratives are accepted and some are rejected; some are prehended consciously and others subconsciously. For a dynamic being, in this case, for the sake of simplicity, a human, this prehension has the responsibility of shaping the next moment and creating a new present reality. This is the subjective stage of concrescence. This is the supplemental stage.

In this process of prehension, the initial aim from God, that is, God’s suggestion or will for that moment or God’s superject, is also prehended. This is the means by which novelty enters any given situation. God sends forth the initial aim from God’s primordial nature and it is accepted or rejected to varying degrees.

Once this process of prehension has occurred, the superject goes forth from the moment of prehension to create a new objective datum that is received into the consequent nature of God and becomes a part of the objective past. This is the satisfaction stage. The next moment will then have this moment, as well as all of history, to prehend in its time. This then becomes the conformal or initial stage, and the cycle repeats.[2]

I suggested earlier that this understanding of concrescence is the primary foundation for Cobb’s theology. Primary implies that there are secondary elements, and perhaps tertiary and beyond. These secondary elements are found in the process of concrescence: creation, God, Christ/Logos/creative transformation, the soul, and humanity. In a surely heretical way, they each fit somewhere in the elements of this process.

Creation can be said to be the objective past, as well as (perhaps confusingly) also the future. It is everything that has ever happened and the possibility of what could happen, but is not subjective or capable of prehension as it does not presently exist in such a way. It informs the present moment without acting on its own.

God is fairly easy to point to in this process, as there is an element named God as part of its fundamental description. God is the supplier of the initial aim from God’s primordial nature and the being into which every objective moment is received (in God’s consequent nature). In this way, God is temporal, but not spatial.

Christ, or the Logos, or creative transformation, depending on how one wishes to explore and understand the concept, could be said to be God’s initial aim. This Christ is transcendent and eternal but also does not have actuality until it becomes part of the present moment. This is the novelty I mentioned previously, the way in which God acts in our realm and creates new experiences.

The soul could be considered to be the present moment, or perhaps, the act of prehension. Cobb claims that beings that possess a prefrontal cortex have souls, and are therefore capable of prehension.[3] This is in comparison to, say, a rock, which exists in each moment, but stays relatively static throughout time and tends not to change unless acted upon by an outside force. The degree to which a being is sentient impacts the degree of prehension that occurs in its soul. This soul is, by nature, social and interconnected to all things as prehension is interconnected to all of history.

Finally, humanity is most like the superject. This is the realm in which we act and decide. We respond to our prehensions and to God’s initial aim and act accordingly. We relate to all of creation. We create a new future as we go. This is not unique to humanity, but, as one could argue that humans are the pinnacle of sentience as far as we know, then humans have the greatest capacity for creation of new moments as well as prehension.

Taking full poetic license, I have crafted characters that represent each of these five secondary elements. These are further explored in the poetry that follows, but first it is necessary to introduce each of them. Though in my earlier exploration of the process of concrescence, I began with the concrescing moment or supplemental stage, for this, I will begin with the past or the initial stage. I previously paired this with creation, and, considering Cobb’s emphasis on the climate crisis, I have constructed the character of the Prophet for this role. The Prophet calls out for change and action but is incapable of facilitating the level of change needed on its own. The Prophet is similar to an activist, not a religious “future-teller” as we might conceive.

Next, then, is God, or, as I call the being, the Sage. The Sage is keeper of village stories and/or wisdom, similar to the character found in Greek and Norse mythology. The Sage is a person seldom listened to or heard properly, but is stories, when understood as intended, have the potential to do great good.

It then follows that the Logos, as the emanation from God, should be explored. I have named this character the Muse. Like Cobb’s Logos, the Muse has no actuality until embodied in one way or another. Like Cobb’s creative transformation, the Muse is the means by which inspiration comes. Finally, the Muse is accessible by anyone and everyone, but requires intentionality.

Next is the soul, or the Visions in my terms. This is defined here not as a prophecy or trance-like experience, but is more in line with such things as motivation, goals, existential desires, and so on. The Visions are plural because the soul, in Cobb’s definition, is social in nature and I thus find it necessary to refer to this character as a collective.

Finally, we reach the Poet, or the character representing humanity. The Poet has a unique role in society as one that can determine the ethos and, to an extent, the fate of a generation. Humans as the highest beings we know have the potential to do the greatest amount of good or evil. Likewise, artists (such as the Poet) have so much impact on society that it can almost be said that they move the world along. The Poet characterizes and shapes the future. Though it would seem this is the beginning of change from a human perspective, this is actually the last possible element of subjectivity before a moment becomes an objective datum.

I began this explanation by calling upon the Greek tradition of epic poetry and the Beat Generation’s zeitgeist. It does make sense, then, that I make a case for its incorporation. Greek mythology, like most mythology, seeks to explain the world and why things happen. Epic poetry follows a character through his or her quest and the process of becoming a hero/ine.[4] Process theology follows everything that exists in the process of becoming itself and thus the transformation is not altogether different. Additionally, particularly Greek mythology and epic poetry incorporates the gods into the framework, making it particularly fitting for a theological discussion.[5] The one glaring exception would be, in epic poetry, there is often a final destination, whereas process theology would not argue for this.

Similarly, the Beat Generation bears much in common with process theology. The openness to spontaneity, the focus on human connection with one another and with the rest of the universe, the willingness to experiment, and the rejection of preconceived understandings characterize both.[6] The names for the characters I have chosen draw from relevant characters in this time period.[7]

It is hard to go much further into this without infringing on the necessary liberties and nuances of the following poetry. Thus follows my exercise in theopoetics as an attempt to explain Cobb’s process thought.

O Muse, sing in me, and through me tell the story…[8]

The streetcorner Prophet shouts for justice

To a ticker-tape parade of empty ears.

Immobile on its own

The prophet lives in the age of great dreams.

But following through is not a virtue

And one soldier does not an army make

(Especially when the war is undetectable by sophomoric radar).

Its words, unintelligible groans

And its pamphlets covered in foreign scribbles.

Is it because we don’t understand?

Or because we don’t want to know?

We exist in its realm

Without noticing—

There’s too much to hear so we tune it all out.

Heaven forbid

We actually be motivated to something.

Higher callings are the aspiration of starry-eyed academics.

Not I, ever the pragmatist.

I am an island.

Our apprehensions

Only take account

Of moments we have already seen

And provide different names

For the same thing.[9]

The wizened Sage

Sits on a bench in the middle of the village

And waits.

It is present, but does not intrude.

It is in harmony

With the imminent world,

But somehow beyond it,

Like light from a distant star

That only reaches the Earth after millions of years.

It keeps the stories of this village

Neither locked up nor shouted from the rooftops,

Like open secrets

That we might chance to know

If we take the time to listen.

All the while, new stories are being written,

And it knows them all.

Its identity is wrapped up in narrative

And seems lacking without.

“Listen, child,

Listen to the stories being told all around you.”[10]

Though seemingly ancient,

The Sage always has a new story to tell.

The Muse, like a drug,

Beats, beats, beats

Through veins and arteries.

Same old drug

But always a new experience.

Common sense

And modern piety

Tell us that drugs are bad.

But oh, for the way it transforms,

The novelty it brings.

Should we desire inspiration,

We would be silly to reject it.

This bodily experience

Is somehow transcendent;

This drug has no meaning

Until it’s ingested,

But takes us to somewhere

We have not yet been.

Our best ideas

Never seem to come from sober minds.

Rooted to the earth

And stretching towards the sky

Bodiless Visions grasp hands

And together draw out the prana[11]

That comes as a side effect of sentience.

Arms branching out forward and back

The past and future are of no concern.

In this moment

Their feet, their roots are their focus.

They are now.

A channel for all of history

To become all of the future,

They contemplate without dwelling

And consider without worrying.

The Visions create a melody

Of notes sung and unsung.

The next note not yet chosen

And the previous chord no longer rings in the air.

Young and hopeful and

Worldly and cynical and

Always curious

The Poet is porous

Soaking up the world around it.

Strong and courageous and

Scared and anxious and

Constantly considering

It thinks about the line

That does not yet have words.

Beautiful and honest and

Ugly and deceitful and

Never completely certain

It realizes just how heavy

These lines are.

With that, it writes.

It is all in the same city

Where the Prophet shouts

And the Sage abides

And the Muse inspires

And the Visions sing

And the Poet writes.

Each a different thread

In a tapestry woven

Of chaos and order

Each moment weaves a new story.


[1] John B. Cobb Jr, A Christian Natural Theology, second edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 50-54.

[2] Terms and explanations of the process of concrescence taken from the author’s compilation of class notes.

[3] Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology, 19.

[4] Stephen Cushman and Roland Greene, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th edition, “Epic” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 439-448.

[5] Cushman and Greene, Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 443-444.

[6] David Sterrit, The Beats: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 22-26.

[7] Taken largely from the language used in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl: Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, 57th printing (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2001), 9-28.

[8] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by George Chapman, edited by Tom Griffith (Hertfordshire, GB: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2000), book 1, line 1.

[9] Ben Gibbard, “Different Names for the Same Thing,” in Plans (New York, NY: Atlantic Recording Corporation, 2005).

[10] Denika Anderson, “Mama G. and the Immanent Music,” Wandering the Desert, November 8, 2013, http://wanderingthedesert.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/mama-g-and-the-immanent-music/.

[11] Term in yoga for life force or energy.

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