Monday, April 18, 2011

What's the Big Deal About Process Theology?

At Claremont School of Theology where I am doing my graduate work in theology, there is a lot of talk about something called process theology – we have a PhD in process studies, the famous Center for Process Studies, and plenty of events and classes on the subject. Process theology consists of a rather complex metaphysical system that is based on the philosophy of the early 20th century British mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s most famous student, Charles Hartshorne (who passed away in 2000) helped popularize his thought amongst Christian thinkers with books like Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Hartshorne’s most famous student was John B. Cobb Jr., who is the most well-known process theologian alive today, author of something like 40 books including A Christian Natural Theology and Christ in a Pluralistic Age. Cobb taught theology at Claremont School of Theology for decades, is now in his 80’s, and lives in a Christian retirement home with his wife about a mile away from my CST apartment. Some have called him the most important liberal Christian theologian of the 20th century. That’s probably not too far from the truth. The man is brilliant and a deeply inspiring religious figure. I've (half) joked at times that he's like a god here on campus.

But what is process theology? Like I said, it’s complicated (click here for an excellent article from another famous CST process theologian, Marjorie Suchocki explaining it). For process theology, dynamic relationality as the highest metaphysical principle is key – and thus it is sometimes called relational theology. As such, the deep, holistic interconnectedness of all reality is central to this theology. I will briefly point out some basic ideas that I generally think are quite helpful from process theology as it relates to the Christian doctrine of God:

1) “Omnipotence? No.”: God’s power is not coercive, but persuasive. If God is love, s/he cannot coerce – ever. That means God cannot ‘intervene’ or act like the puppet master to do whatever s/he wants to the world. Rather, at every moment God is luring creation towards the greater good. Creatures (even non-humans) can respond well or poorly to this lure. Physical healings, though not impossible for process metaphysics, are thus rare. This idea of God’s persuasive power can be helpful when considering theodicy – since God is literally unable to always prevent evil. God never desires for the innocent to suffer, whether from illness, oppression, or natural disasters, and is always working in every moment for the good of all creatures.

2) “Omniscience? Yes and no.”: The future is truly open and undecided – for us and for God. God certainly knows all that there is to know – the entire cosmic past and everything that happens at every moment in the present. God also knows the general possibilities for the future, but nothing is known for certain because creatures are truly free to create that future in response to God’s lure. God is thus not outside of time, but travels with creation through history. This idea is quite biblical, especially if one takes the Old Testament theology of covenant seriously.

3) “Impassibility and immutability? Not exactly.”: God experiences the world, is affected by the world, and is thus changed by the world. God experiences everything from joy to suffering with the world’s joys and sufferings – “God is the fellow sufferer who understands”, as Whitehead wrote. God’s experiences change and then God really responds to our truly free actions. Creatures actually make an impact on the life of God. Yet certain aspects of God never change: God is eternally loving, for instance. Nothing the world does will change this.

4) “Omnipresent? Yes, yes, and yes!”: Much more than tradition theism, process theism emphasizes immanence. Process theology is a form of panentheism – all (‘pan-’) in (‘-en-’) God (‘-theism’). This is not to be confused with pantheism ("all is God"). Panentheism maintains a sense of transcendence. Because God is infinite, anything finite must exist within rather than outside God – since there is nothing ‘outside’ infinity! So the world exists within God, participating in the life of God, even as God participates in the life of the world. This implies a deep sense of interconnectedness and mutuality. The God of process theism is never absent from the world, but is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Not just humans, but all creation is shot through with the loving presence of God.

Recommended readings on process theology:
1) The Process Perspective (by John Cobb): easiest intro to process theology available.
2) Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (by C. Robert Mesle): A bit more comprehensive than the previous book. An excellent, classic work.
3) Christianity and Process Thought (by Joseph A. Bracken): A neo-process theology written for nonspecialists. Unlike some process thinkers, Bracken argues for a trinitarian process theology.
4) In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being (ed. Philip Clayton): written by my advisor, the neo-process theologian Philip Clayton. A comprehensive survey of the theology of panentheism, including process views.
5) The Crucified God (by Jurgen Moltmann): Not a process theologian, but Moltmann establishes the theological grounding for a 'suffering God' in his theology of the cross.
6) The Openness of God (Pinnock, Sanders, etc): Not process theology either, but similar in many ways. This is the classic book on "open theism" - evangelicalism's closest approximation to process theology.

No comments:

Post a Comment