Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Trinitarian Panentheism of Joseph Bracken

Joseph Bracken S.J.
This is a followup to my recent post on the relational theologies of Jurgen Moltmann and John Cobb.  In that post, I stated my belief that Moltmann and Cobb are essential dialogue partners for the emergent church, even if some of their positions can be challenged.  I'm writing my master's thesis on these two theologians, and a final section of the paper will put forward Jesuit theologian Joseph Bracken's relational theology as an interesting synthesis of the best insights of Moltmann and Cobb.  My argument is that if one wanted to bring together the better insights of Moltmann and Cobb into a single system of thought, Bracken represents one of a few excellent options.  I could also point to Philip Clayton and John Haught who, in their own ways, also provide some kind of synthesis (intentionally or not).   But here I wanted to just concentrate on Bracken.  His work is often philosophically complex and challenging to read, although you can get a pretty good understanding of his thinking in his more accessible book, "Christianity and Process Thought."  Like Cobb and Moltmann, Bracken is a church theologian, a constructive postmodernist, a panentheist, and Christocentric.

I will illustrate the way I see Bracken as a synthesis of Cobb and Moltmann in a few ways (although there is much more to be said, this is enough for a blog post): 

Eschatology and Futurity: While Cobb is really only concerned with affirming objective immortality (we live on in the memory of God, though not as individual subjects of experience), Moltmann thinks that subjective immortality and an eventual bodily resurrection is absolutely necessary.  In terms of the whole universe, Cobb has a God who everlastingly creates a physical world, even after this universe goes out of existence.  There is no final and perfected state of the cosmos, but an ongoing adventure of creation sustained and initiated by God.  For Moltmann, the "coming of God" brings the created universe to its completion - the new creation of all things, the resurrection of nature and humanity since the beginning of the cosmos.  Bracken brings these together by affirming subjective immortality and the 'physical' resurrection/transformation of the cosmos - but there is no waiting for the end of time for any of this to happen.  In his panentheistic model of the God-world relationship, everything in the cosmos are always being incorporated into the divine life at every moment of history.  For humans, at the moment of death, Bracken argues that they will become fully aware of the truth that they (both body and soul) have always already been within the life of God.  So the 'Last Judgment' happens all the time, not at the end of history.  This is possible in a Neo-Whiteheadian framework because the final real things in the universe are 'actual occasions of experience', or something like spiritual atoms; human bodies are 'fields of activity' that provide the environment for these spiritual atoms that constantly come and go, in and out of existence - but even these are not as 'physical' as they seem.  In other words, there is no dichotomy between physical and spiritual, so there is no need for a decisive single act at the end of history.  Resurrection happens at every moment of history, and when the universe ends (as physicists predict it will), nothing will be lost.  Everything will have been saved and transformed for ongoing life within God.  One final issue I want to note is that Bracken is able to partially affirm (with reference to process theologian Roland Faber) Moltmann's argument that God is adventus/'the power of the future': God 'comes' out of the future to creation, in that God is the source of future possibilities that could not have simply developed out of the past.  God gives creatures direction out of the still indeterminate future, as Bracken explains: "The future simply as an abstraction could not determine the present.  Only a God who is already in the future in terms of a vision of possibilities for the future can give a created subject of experience both the direction for the future that it needs and the power actually to make that decision."  So there is actually a time reversal in this view, and the future advances towards the present rather than merely developing out of the past.  God's future constantly confronts the present, felt sometimes as a near contradiction to the past, but never without taking account and including the past to be creatively transformed (to use Cobb's favorite phrase).  But Bracken argues that Moltmann's neo-apocalyptic understanding of this concept is unnecessary and philosophically unpersuasive.   

The Trinity, Pluralism, and Creation: While Cobb thinks the Trinity is ultimately of secondary importance for Christians, Moltmann places it at the center of Christian theology.  Bracken is, with Moltmann, a panentheistic social trinitarian, but he provides a unique Neo-Whiteheadian philosophical framework for talking about the Trinity.  He does this by revising Cobb's process metaphysics and appropriating the powerful social/relational vision of the Trinity that Moltmann so persuasively argues for.  Like Moltmann, Bracken sees in the Trinity a model for human relationships at every level of society, as well as a holistic ecological paradigm.  But like Cobb (and unlike Moltmann), Bracken affirms a 'deep' religious pluralism, and while Cobb utilizes Whitehead's notion of 'creativity' for his theology of religions, Bracken creatively uses the social Trinity to ground this same belief.  Finally, Bracken is able to modify Cobb's metaphysics in order to affirm creation ex nihilo with Moltmann.  He is concerned to preserve this for a number of reasons, including scientific understandings that seem hard to reconcile with the process understanding of some physical world that eternally co-exists with God, as well as God's freedom to choose to create out of love.

    No comments:

    Post a Comment