Friday, December 20, 2013

The Clash of Being and Becoming

The church needs to recognize that things have changed and times are changing and people are changing.
     [Frank Schaefer, former Methodist Minister]

Everything flows, nothing stands still.
     [Heraclitus of Ephesus]

The trigger for this note is the first quote. A story in the New York Times this morning relates a conflict within the Methodist Church. Frank Schaefer, one of its ministers, was expelled for violating the rules of the Methodist Book of Discipline; the context was gay marriage. The Rev. Schaefer clearly voiced his own convictions, no doubt feeling that they are self-evident and should therefore command universal assent. But that is because we are now living in an age in which Becoming has achieved at least a temporary dominance.

Having been brought up in a tradition in which Being is the ultimate anchor and reference, I’ve found it odd that our times are so enamored of Becoming. It’s everywhere. It neatly matches the spirit of an Age of Progress. That age itself takes its inspiration from the theory of evolution—which seemingly provided, in the nineteenth century, a plausible alternative to explain Life, at minimum, and, by extension the whole of reality as capable of explanation without God. Heraclitus, who anticipated the rise of Hellenism by some handful of decades, gave Becoming its brief motto; he had no access to Darwinism yet, original or neo, but still believed that reality had always been, would always be, but never the same at any moment. Job One, therefore, is adaptation—and the early bird catches the juiciest worms.

I’m speaking here of fashions—fashions in thought. “Being” is associated with God, “becoming” with matter. Nothing wrong with becoming, per se, of course. It’s a matter of observation, another way of saying that energy is present and acts in Time and Place. No time, no change. My musing centers, rather, on the promotion of this concept to a very high rank. Why is that? Perhaps because in our current social life the transcendental is effectively silenced and mere motion and change have been promoted and are evoked to justify change. Cultural epochs are marked by one or the other side of this pairing; Becoming is king now, but we are moving toward Being again.

I think this because I am convinced that we’re now passing through what might be called an anti-Renaissance; the twentieth century represented an important segment of it. Therefore philosophers—Whitehead comes to mind and, for me, also David Bohm, the physicist, in his cosmological writings—are struggling in some way to reconcile Becoming with Being. But, such is our time, they begin by looking at physical reality first in their attempts at explaining the “mystery.” The mystery is consciousness, agency. They are headed back toward a comprehensive answer but do not quite arrive.

The curious thing is that Being and Becoming are readily reconciled if one begins with consciousness, with agency, the most fundamental experience all of us share. Trying to explain what we are, we discover a hierarchy in which Being is more fundamental than Becoming, hence on a higher plain. And even that which always flows and moves must first be before it changes and thus because something else that still is. Even the flux is, first of all, before it is transformed. Reason, which is irreducibly part of awareness, then leads us to add another dimension to reality beyond the three of space and time. And with a transcending dimension added, the conflict disappears. Bohm discovered an “unconditioned order,” read intelligence, as a complement to the “conditioned order,” read matter. Whitehead discovered an evolving God. Close. But we’re not there yet. Anti-Renaissance still has a ways to go.


  1. I guess we are becoming, if slowly, more aware of the transcendent... I couldn't resist that one!

  2. Good pun, Monique. We laughed a few times here too when talking about this -- and becoming surfacing every third sentence. Keeps you humble.


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