Process Theology & Teen Suicide Prevention – November 2010

Question: Is process theology’s Christ intimate and approachable to youth? How can process theology’s Christ help prevent teen suicide?

Publication Month: November 2010

I am sure that Christ is doing what is possible to discourage youth from killing themselves. But we in the process community know that many other factors enter into what actually happens. The question is whether understanding Christ in the process way might help some youth overcome their despair and endure the misery of their situation.

Although teen suicides are not limited to gays, I will consider this specific situation to give some concreteness to the discussion. It is easy to understand the misery and despair of many adolescent boys who discover that they themselves belong to that despised group. Of course, there are high schools in which the topic of sexual orientation is discussed openly and those boys who find themselves attracted to other boys find sufficient acceptance and companionship to lead fairly happy and normal lives. But there are many others in which those who are inclined in this way conceal their orientation as much as they can and hardly know that there are others like them in the school. They feel totally isolated. Further, many of them have heard comments by their parents that lead them to assume that they would have no support there. And, sadly, in some cases, they have heard statements in church that only make matters worse. If despite efforts to conceal their orientation they are found out, life may become even more hellish. And there may be no belief that the future has anything better to offer. They are likely to internalize the contempt expressed by others and to consider themselves contemptible. Under such circumstances suicide can easily seem the best choice even if God is luring them to keep up the struggle.

Let us hope that this extreme is becoming less common, that most adolescents are aware that even if their immediate context is intensely homophobic, there are others that are not. There is reason for hope. Even so, adolescents are likely to experience their own actual contexts as decisive and find it difficult to base decisions on long-term hope.

Now the question, I think, is whether a youth who is exposed to process ideas about Christ would be helped to endure his situation and refuse the choice of suicide. To some extent, surely, in would make a difference. First, process thinkers are among those who call attention to Jesus, support of those who are marginalized, maligned, and oppressed. The boy will be encouraged to think not only that he is loved by God, but that in his isolation and pain, the God whom Jesus represents is especially with him. Further, being different from others does not separate him from Jesus but rather unites them. Since Jesus was crucified, this does not guarantee a happy outcome, but it certainly works against the internalization of social contempt. To be with Jesus in Jesus’ suffering is a noble rather than contemptible existence. If one does not internalize contempt, one is less likely to kill oneself.
Process thinking does not minimize the importance of sexuality, but it does not regard one’s sexual prowess as a measure of one’s stature as a human being. It warns against the idea that a boy’s true masculinity is demonstrated by his “conquests.” Even if a particular homoerotic youth judges it unlikely that he will ever find the full companionship for which he longs, this in no way separates him from the celibate Paul or the celibate Jesus or the many celibate heroes of the church. The celibate life does not have to be a failure; it can be a triumph.

However, process thinkers do not hold celibacy as in itself desirable. In faithfulness to both Jesus and Paul, they reject the legalistic approach to sexuality. In conformity with the generally positive biblical view of sexuality, and in accordance with the affirmation of the body and its desires that is part of their worldview, they encourage each person to find sexual fulfillment in ways that enhance the life of the larger community. The boy may see no possibility of this at the time, and may be quite correct in that negative judgment. But understanding that this is the failure of the society rather than his own may change feelings about it sufficiently to enable him to endure. He may even feel some compassion for those who are caught up in destructive legalisms, although that is asking for a great deal of an adolescent.

Does process theology encourage a teenager to “come out” in a hostile environment. Ideally, yes. Clearly openness about who one is is preferable to living a lie. But in this respect also process thought is against legalism. It certainly does not aim to make one guilty for concealment in a dangerous context. It offers the possibility of honest prayer even in a situation in which deception is needed in human relations. To be honest with oneself in the presence of an accepting God overcomes much of the burden of the lie. On the other hand, coming out may be an occasion of growth both for the one who does so and for others who are thereby forced to deal in a different way with the question of homosexuality. It may also lead to finding companions with the same sexual orientation who can support one another and create a new community.

Obviously, process theology is not the only theology that would have these positive effects on a despairing youth who took theological ideas seriously. I am glad of that, since the chances of his encountering a specifically process theology are quite poor. Our claim in this respect is to give leadership in clarification of progressive theology in general and giving it a deeper grounding in philosophy as well as the Bible. The teenager considering suicide is rarely concerned about this deeper grounding.

If we are to make claims to uniqueness, they would probably consist of combining with this progressive teaching some elements that are found today more often among “evangelicals.” I refer to a sense of divine presence. Again process theology claims to provide a conceptual grounding for this experience, but that is not what the boy is likely to want at this point in life. The process theologian can and should say repeatedly and intensely to the despairing teenager, the loving God is with you and in you, and that God feels with you the pain that is your daily experience. If the boy responds that he does not feel God’s presence, we can respond only that God is there and that believing in God’s presence increases the likelihood of “feeling” it. We can also point out that life itself is the working of God within one, as is every impulse to dare to live despite all the pain that involves. To experience life is to experience God. To will to live is to accord oneself with the God within one.

It may help also to assure him that even when there seem no good possibilities, God is calling him and empowering him to find those that include some little glimmers of light and openings into new possibilities. God does not give up on him even when he wants to give up on life. To know God’s presence is to sense these small fragments of goodness that break the stranglehold of evil.

I would even add one more element. For some people there is a longing for the presence of Jesus as well as of the God we have come to know through Jesus. Process theologians do not emphasize the vivid presence of past events, partly because to do so seems contrary to the common sense that is shaped by modern thought. It is generally supposed that the past is present only as mediated through intervening events. The remote past is, then, present only in the most attenuated way.

Whitehead, however, believed that in addition to the presence of the past mediated through contiguous events, there is an immediate prehension of past events. This is not true of simple physical feelings through which energy is transmitted. But is is true of hybrid physical feelings, which are feelings of the conceptual poles of past events. Current circumstances can bring particular past events in one’s own history quite vividly alive. To what extent other past events can take on importance in forming present events is an empirical question. That is, Whitehead’s metaphysics allows for the possibility.

I once published an article on “The Presence of the Past” in which I explored the meaningfulness of claiming the presence of the historical Jesus in the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper. I would want to encourage a desperate young man, for whom this seemed helpful, to believe that Jesus is present with him in his suffering. Once again, I doubt that he would be interested at this point in the distinction between simple and hybrid physical feelings! But when dealing with people in desperate straits I would not hesitate to believe that their despair itself could bring Jesus closer.