Sunday, June 12, 2011

Process(ing) Theology with Cobb & Suchocki

John Cobb
After finishing my first year at Claremont School of Theology with two different week-long process theology summer classes, I have definitely started shifting in the direction of a kind of (neo)Whiteheadian process thinking.  CST is well known for process theology, and few students graduate from here without appreciation for it.  The two process theology classes I took were a part of the Claremont summer Process Institute, "Process & Faith."  One was an introduction to process theology with Marjorie Suchocki, and the other was about ecology and Whiteheadian philosophy with John Cobb.  Both Suchocki and Cobb are the most famous and important theologians in 20th century process theology.  Cobb is actually the person who is credited with making process philosophy into process theology, while Suchocki was his student and has written some of the most important works in process theology to date (especially in the areas of original sin, prayer, and eschatology).  To say the least, it was an honor to learn from these two brilliant theologians.  They certainly had an 'evangelizing effect' on me, as I have been on the edge of committing to process theology for a couple years now.

Marjorie Suchocki
Why process theology?  First, I have been positively predisposed to process theology as an open theist (see the work of Clark Pinnock), but also through the 20th century German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann.  Open theism embraces a view of the future that is not entirely predetermined, and a more interactive God/world relationship.  I believe this view (over against Calvinism, or standard Arminian free-will theism) is more biblical and more existentially satisfying.  Process theology is very similar to open theism in these respects.  Moltmann's concepts of the "Crucified God" and trinitarian panentheism have taught me about the concept of a truly suffering God - a God who redemptively 'feels' the joys and the pains of the world.  Moltmann of course got this notion from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Only the suffering God can help."  Similarly, Whitehead (the philosopher behind process theology) writes, "God is the fellow sufferer who understands."  I won't go further into these concepts, but suffice it to say, my previous theological commitments made for an intuitive encounter with process.
Jurgen Moltmann

The second reason for my move towards process theology has to do with my undergraduate work in HSU's religious studies program. This work raised two big questions that only process theology offers a satisfying answer to, for my money: the questions of religious pluralism and theodicy.  Process theology affirms a cautious kind of religious pluralism without reducing religions to a common essence (thereby respecting their uniqueness).  I have tried for a long time, but it is not possible for me to continue to affirm the complete ultimacy of Christianity in a religiously pluralistic world. Part of this conviction is due to the recognition of the history of Christianity and the field of biblical studies (which makes certain views of the bible impossible, in my view), but also the intimate exposure to other religious traditions. The 'special pleading' (as Cobb calls it) we Christians sometimes engage in to justify certain absolute theological claims (especially in Barthian theology) is very difficult for many persons, myself included, to accept.  Even so, process theologians like Cobb maintain a Christocentric theology that I value greatly.  As for theodicy, process denies that omnipotence is either a biblical or philosophically coherent view of God.  God is very powerful, indeed, but God's power is persuasive rather than coercive.  As such, God is unable to always prevent evil.  This view avoids the extremes of both deism and Calvinism, but also the incoherent view that God ties 'his' hands behind his back sometimes to allow us freedom...but sometimes intervenes as well to override freedom.  As Suchocki said in class on this latter view, "Nonsense!"  There is nothing loving about that view of God, no matter what the payoffs in other areas of theology.

The third reason for my move towards process theology is my exposure to the science/religion debate.  Few systems are able to make as much sense of modern science and physics as the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.  There is radical compatibility between every aspect of process theology and modern science.  This is a beautiful thing, and so essential for the 21st century.  We should not have to relativize modern science in order to be Christians (though we might have to question it's reductionistic assumptions on occasion, as Cobb argues!). Furthermore, process theology encourages a view of the natural world as organism rather than mechanism - this is a paradigm shift that is so necessary today as we sit on the edge of ecological collapse due to bad, dualistic, anthropocentric metaphysics.

Thomas Jay Oord
The fourth reason for my move towards process theology is my realization that it is a highly open metaphysical system, in two respects.  First, it allows for all kinds of possibilities, even if they are not strictly probable.  Even "scientifically", there is no a priori reason to say that miracles cannot occur - some process thinkers, like Tom Oord, even argue for the resurrection of Jesus with a process metaphysic!  Although this might be a stretch for most process thinkers, they agree that it is not a violation of the laws of nature for some kind of healings to occur on occasion.  Another possibility that process explains well is religious experiences, ecstatic and ordinary.  There are good reasons for these various experiences, metaphysically speaking, and no a priori reason to deny their authenticity.  The second way that process is particularly open is to internal tweaking of concepts.  This was a big hangup for me for sometime until I read Joseph Bracken and John Haught, two Catholic theologians who have really done some interesting neo-Process work - the former maintaining the social Trinity and the latter the idea of God as "the power of the future", particularly appealing ideas for a Moltmannian like myself.
Joseph Bracken

I could go on and on, but I won't.  Process theology is a beautiful, sometimes complex, and always powerful way to think about the Christian faith.  Yes, it is certainly a form of progressive Christianity.  But that's just where I find myself these days, I suppose.

Here's my process theology reading list so far (leaving out a few that are only loosely related):

Christ in a Pluralistic Age by John Cobb
Introduction to Process Theology by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin
A Christian Natural Theology by John Cobb
The Process Perspective by John Cobb
The Fall to Violence by Marjorie Suchocki
God-Christ-Church by Marjorie Suchocki
Intro to Process Theology by Robert Mesle
On the Mystery by Catherine Keller
Christianity and Process Thought by Joseph Bracken
Adventures in the Spirit by Philip Clayton
Making Sense of Evolution by John Haught
The Nature of Love by Thomas Jay Oord

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