Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Process Theology of Cobb & Bracken (pt.1)

Alfred North Whitehead
[For a simple introduction to process theology, check out my older post on the topic.  This series of posts goes a lot deeper than that one.]

Process philosophy originated in the thinking of the British mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in the early 20th century, and later became the inspiration for the development of Christian process theology in the mid-20th century. Although the philosopher Charles Hartshorne was instrumental in the development of Christian process theology, the theologian to do the most systematic work was Hartshorne’s student John B. Cobb Jr. With the publication of A Christian Natural Theology (CNT) in 1965, Cobb effectively launched Christian process theology. His argument that Christian theologians should return to natural theology via process metaphysics was a radical position at a time when the dominant trend of neo-orthodoxy emphasized the theological priority of revelation over knowledge of nature. While Cobb would later turn to more fully articulate major Christian doctrines (especially Christology and soteriology), CNT laid out a basic Whiteheadian understanding of anthropology and the doctrine of God.  In these posts I outline Cobb’s natural theology in CNT and then compare it to the work of the Jesuit neo-process theologian Joseph Bracken. Through an analysis of his 2006 publication, Christianity and Process Thought (CPT), we will see how Bracken has gone further than Cobb to align his process theology with more traditional expressions of Christian theology.

John Cobb insists that natural theology is necessary today, especially due to his view that even theologies that explicitly reject it (e.g., Barthian theology) are always inescapably involved in some kind of natural theology. As Cobb explains, “…whether recognized or not, theological positions depend systematically on affirmations that are not private to theology.” In the history of Christianity, much of the best theology was quite explicitly shaped by utilizing the finest philosophy of the day. Thomas Aquinas is arguably the greatest theologian of the Christian tradition, and he brilliantly developed his theology in dialogue with Aristotle. In the 20th (and 21st) century, Cobb believes that the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead represents the finest philosophy of our time, rather than Aristotle or Thomism. As such, he develops his theology through process philosophy by using his Christian point of view to concentrate on particular questions. Rather than distorting philosophy with dogma, Cobb aims first and foremost to be philosophically rigorous.

One might ask, on what basis did Cobb choose process philosophy over other systems? While rejecting any illusion of objectivity, Cobb evaluates philosophical systems for theology based on two criteria: intrinsic excellence (consistency, coherence, comprehensiveness) and whether it is hostile or basically compatible with a Christian vision. In light of these criteria, Cobb finds Whitehead’s process-relational thinking to be intrinsically excellent: it is internally consistent, compatible with modern science and physics, and offers a solution to the problems posed by dualism that have dominated the modern world after Descartes and Kant. On the second criterion, Cobb argues that process philosophy resonates better with the Hebrew understanding of a relational God than did the Greek substance metaphysics of the past. Furthermore, because of his context, Whitehead’s metaphysics are “already Christianized in a way Greek philosophy could not have been. Hence it proves, I am convinced, more amenable to Christian use.” With the philosophy of Whitehead in hand, Cobb identifies his work as philosophical theology rather than philosophy due to his recognition that he depends on a “particular community of ultimate concern” to shape his perspective to a great extent. He is at the same time attempting to be critically aware of the way that his faith community shapes him so as to question its assumptions in the light of fresh thinking.

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