Sunday, June 26, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Epperly's "Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed"

Of the seven or eight other introductory texts I have read on process theology, "Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed" by Bruce Epperly is the best overall, even though it does not replace the others. This is indeed a bold claim to make for someone who loves the works of John Cobb and Marjorie Suchocki, both of whom have written many classic books on process theology. But one of the greatest strengths of Epperly's introductory level book is in his synthesis of many of the most important ideas of other leading Christian process-relational thinkers from the last few decades, including Cobb and Suchocki, but also David Ray Griffin, Charles Hartshorne, Catherine Keller, Bernard Loomer, Thomas Jay Oord, Rita Nakashima Brock, Robert Mesle, Lewis Ford, Jay McDaniel, Monica Coleman, and last but definitely not least, Bruce Epperly himself. Additionally, he quotes widely from the complex works of Alfred North Whitehead throughout the book, highlighting some of his most memorable passages and explaining them in a way that makes them more accessible. A second strength of this book is due to Epperly's emphasis in practical theology. He is concerned, first and foremost, with the way in which process theology works within the lives of individuals and communities, impacting churches and preaching. This adds up to a real gift in clear communication, but also great sensitivity to the actual lives of people outside the academy, leading him to concentrate less on complicated academic debates and more on issues like prayer, life after death, ethics, and holistic healing practices.
Bruce Epperly

Here are a few things that stood out to me about the book:
1) Epperly goes through every important area of Christian theology and explains the various ways that process theologians understand them - christology, soteriology, sin, anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the trinity. This is pretty much standard for process theology intro books, but Epperly is particularly clear and thorough in his explanations of the various process interpretations of systematic theology. Beyond the basic areas of systematic theology, Epperly also explains process views of miracles, scripture, revelation, and mystical experiences.

2) A very helpful overview of process ethics is included on issues like abortion, euthanasia, ecology/animal rights, and economics/justice (which draws heavily on Cobb's work). Such a wide variety of important issues are not always a part of other introductory level process texts, so this was a great addition to the book.

3) As previously mentioned, Epperly synthesizes other key process thinkers in this book and summarizes many of their most important contributions to the process theology conversation: Cobb's logos/Wisdom Christology and work in ethics; Suchocki's theologies of original sin, eschatology, and prayer; Epperly's own work in holistic healing practices and eschatology; Griffin's work in the area of theodicy; Oord's work on a theology of love; Coleman's Womanist theology; McDaniel's work in ecology; etc.

4) Lastly, in the final chapter of the book, Epperly considers the possibility of the "amorphous, yet dynamic" emergent church movement adopting a process theology framework. He argues that process theology provides the flexibility that the emergent church is committed to while avoiding relativism, purely apophatic spirituality, and deconstructive postmodernism (most forms of process theology are contrasted as 'constructive postmodernism'). It encourages as much openness to other religions as possible while remaining rooted in a (constantly evolving) tradition - a kind of 'confessional religious pluralism.' Indeed, citing Brian McLaren, Epperly believes process theology can provide a truly inspiring philosophical and theological grounding for a "New Kind of Christianity." Although only a few self-identified emergent Christian writers/leaders/pastors are explicitly aligned with some form of process theology at this point, there are certainly overlapping emphases with process in many emergent/emerging books and blogs (one thinks of Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, which in many ways is like a more accessible version of Oord's The Nature of Love). As such, Epperly's invitation to emergent Christians (who are largely post-evangelicals) to consider process theology as a viable option in their search for new forms of faith makes a great deal of sense for anyone familiar with McLaren or Doug Pagitt.

While process theology is anything but easy to understand for many beginners, Bruce Epperly has done a fantastic job of making it accessible without oversimplifying the incredible depth of process thinking.

Alright - now go buy the book!

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