Saturday, February 18, 2012

Reflecting on Liberation & Process Theologies

In C. Robert Mesle’s Process Theology: A Basic Introduction, he shows how process theology can be developed in alignment with some of the major themes in liberation theology. A process theology of liberation is something that I have been interested in since there has been so little work done on the topic. Admittedly, Mesle only very briefly illustrates some of the ways in which process theology can support liberation thinking. Even so, his constructive approach in this book is compelling and helpful. The liberation themes that Mesle raises are all related to and grounded in the rejection of omnipotence in process thought (which I blogged about recently). As he rightly points out, while we should be careful not to overemphasize the cognitive, speculative, and theological at the expense of the practical, concrete, and ethical, “it is a fact that what we believe about God shapes our responses to [ethical] issues.”

Mesle persuasively shows how the logic of omnipotence tends to result in oppressive forms of religion. If God is all-powerful, it follows (at least in some forms of Christian theology) that God predestines individuals to their eternal fates and thus forces persons of other religions to suffer eternally. Taken to its logical conclusion, this kind of omnipotence easily becomes an excuse for violence against the religious other.  It can and has also led to the support of sexism and slavery.

Could it be that this image of an omnipotent God is a distorted projection of the powerful few on top of society to legitimize their authority and domination of the many? Whatever Paul meant in Romans 13:1-4 (and I tend to think a more nuanced reading shows that he is not attempting to legitimize any and every governmental authority), there is no doubt that it has been interpreted in conjunction with a theology of omnipotence to support the status quo in societies. As Mesle writes, it has been a tool for Christians and elites in power “for maintaining oppression.” In contrast to these views of conservative religion, process theology argues for a God who is unable to be used as a tool for legitimizing those on top who exercise power unilaterally, precisely because of the way it understands divine power as persuasive and non-interventionist. God cannot unilaterally determine, and therefore offer ideological support to any governing authority.

A God who suffers with the oppressed, as in process thought, is also a victim of every injustice and oppression at the hands of the powers that be. God never stands outside and above empires, placing the divine on the side of those on top and in authority, unaffected by the sufferings of those on the underside of history. As Whitehead famously wrote, God is “the fellow-sufferer who understands.” God is never simply on the side of the oppressor in this model. Furthermore, God not only experiences the pain and injustice of the victims in full, but also feels an even greater pain through the perfect knowledge of the good that could have been but that was tragically rejected for lesser possibilities.

Nevertheless, this understanding of God in process thought is of one who constantly works in every situation to liberate individuals from oppression and who cannot be identified with any existing social, political, or economic structures. Out of divine love and grace, the God of process theism continually calls individuals to cooperate in the work of liberation from unjust situations: “God’s primary avenue to liberation is through responsive human hearts. We can wait for supernatural miracles or we can roll up our sleeves with God and get to work.”

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