Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The God Revealed in Jesus: Suchocki's Process Perspective

In this post on Marjorie Suchocki’s excellent book God-Christ-Church, I want to show how she develops a process Christology in close dialogue with the tradition. What is striking about her approach to theology is her ability to hold together a realist interpretation of the central beliefs and symbols of the Christian faith while not leaving behind her progressive, philosophically rigorous, feminist convictions.  First we'll look at Suchocki’s method and then her understanding of the the person and work of Jesus.

As a Methodist theologian, it is clear that Suchocki’s theological method is founded on the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  When she develops her doctrine of God, she especially emphasizes reason and experience. With her process Christology, she builds on this process doctrine of God to think with the Christian scriptures and tradition about the person and work of Jesus Christ. She clarifies this overall line of thought by differentiating between general and special revelation. Rightly pointing out that these are Christian categories, she then argues that because all knowledge is situated and contextual, any distinctly Christian process theology first depends on the biblical texts (as well as tradition) that shape their ultimate concerns – that is, “Special revelation…is prior to general revelation.” In this, I think Suchocki is right to acknowledge that engaging in process philosophy is not a purely objective activity for her. It is always informed by her Christian “frame of reference.” I would add that Whitehead himself was already shaped by the Christian tradition, and this is certainly reflected in aspects of his philosophy.
Marjorie Suchocki

Suchocki’s explanation of the person of Jesus as the Christ is similar to John Cobb’s Christology, although she is somewhat more pluralistic (that's for another post). She points out that process thought, unlike the creedal tradition, is able to coherently affirm that God was incarnate in Jesus, that he was both truly human and divine, in the sense that he was “co-constituted by the divine and human aim.” This was in large part because God uniquely provided Jesus with initial aims that had a special content, a “full communication of the nature of God.” This special content in the initial aims that uniquely revealed the nature of God was made possible, not because God unilaterally initiated a revelatory event, but because of the particular covenantal history of Israel that Jesus as a Jew was constituted by. This made it possible in the contingencies of history for such a decisive event to occur – “the ‘fullness of time’ is absolutely central,” Suchocki argues. Jewish covenantal history progressively revealed a God of love and justice, but first century Palestine also created messianic expectations of a reversal of the imperial order. Jesus “himself is such a reversal” of the religious status quo and imperial order. Furthermore, Jesus also had to be continuously receptive of God's initial aims in order for such a revelatory event to take place, to adopt them fully rather than to merely adapt to them as most other human beings do. So the incarnation of God in Christ occurred because the cumulative history of Israel that God was decisively working through provided God with unique possibilities to offer Jesus who then responded perfectly, adopting the divine aim as his own.

Suchocki then moves beyond the revelatory life of Jesus to consider the revelatory death of Jesus on the cross. She argues that the difficult symbol of the cross of Christ “is at the heart of the Christian faith.” But the tradition has always struggled to articulate how this is so: what does the cross actually mean for sinners and the oppressed? How is it continuous with Jesus’ revelatory life that showed a God of justice, love, and compassion? Fortunately, the church did not take a stand on a particular theory of the atonement since there are multiple images in scripture. This provides flexibility in new contexts for new understandings of the cross. Unfortunately, the tradition – especially after the Protestant Reformation – emphasized a penal model of atonement in which Christ became the substitute for sinful humanity, taking upon himself at the cross the punishment due for human sin from a wrathful omnipotent deity. But the tradition also had thinkers like Abelard in the 12th century who emphasized a 'moral influence' theory of atonement. This is where Suchocki picks up her approach to the cross.

The death of Jesus can be seen, at least in part, as a revelation of the nature of God for us. On the cross, Suchocki says Jesus experienced ‘Godforsakenness’ (echoing Jurgen Moltmann) in his incredible pain – but he nevertheless continued to model love, forgiveness, and justice in the darkest hours of his life when most would be without the ability to do so. In the midst of dying a cruel death in which he experienced the absence of God, Jesus continued to forgive his enemies and show care for loved ones. As Suchocki writes, “Jesus continues to love, through deepest pain, in a great reversal of what one would normally expect…through the cross we see not only that God’s love is stronger than death, but that God in love endures the pain of death, and that God’s love is unconquered by death.”  As in Jesus' life, he turns everything upside down in his death by embodying a 'topsy-turvy' kingdom.

A God who experiences pain is a reversal of normal religious expectations (one that the church itself has struggled to come to terms with!). If God was in Jesus on the cross, we see a God who not only suffers with us in our sufferings but also redemptively feels our sins. Every sin in society is therefore also a sin against God: “We crucify God.” So Jesus shows us that God loves even in the midst of our sins against God that, in fact, actually cause God pain: God loves in the midst of both our pain as the 'fellow sufferer who understands', and also in spite of God’s own pain due to our sins. In a process universe, the cross of Christ as a revelatory symbol of redemption and hope actually makes sense. Precisely because God in the consequent nature feels every sin and knows our situations in full, God can then graciously offer us redemptive possibilities in the next moment of our existence. Suchocki concludes, “Through God’s crucifixion, God provides us with a resurrection fitted to us in a love that demands our well-being. Who would think of a God whose love involves God in our pain? Revelation comes through the reversal of our normal expectations.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Exploring Process Eschatology: How is it Different from Traditional Views?

(Process eschatology is definitely not like this!)
In this post, I want to discuss Christian eschatology by comparing the way that process and traditional theologies commonly explain this doctrine.  I will primarily be drawing on Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin (the standard process text), but will also make some reference to texts by Bob Mesle, Marjorie Suchocki, and A.N. Whitehead himself (as a side note, I have also read the collection of essays edited by Joseph Bracken on process eschatology called World Without End.  I recommend it only for those interested in a much more technical and comprehensive discussion, although Bracken himself has an interesting argument for a more orthodox form of process eschatology). I begin with a consideration of Christian views of eschatology by comparing three influential perspectives of contemporary biblical scholars. This will provide an interesting way to contrast traditional and process views of Christian eschatology before outlining a process eschatology.

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet?
At the center of the Christian tradition is an emphasis on eschatology – the doctrine of ‘the last things.’ There is little doubt that this theme is derived from the New Testament itself. Although modern biblical scholars generally agree that the apostle Paul and early Christians expected a supernatural apocalypse within their lifetime, in which Christ would return, God would intervene to defeat the powers of evil, and the dead would be raised, biblical scholars continue to debate the nature of Jesus’ eschatology.  Some scholars like E.P. Sanders argue for an apocalyptic Jesus: like Paul, John the Baptist, and the early church, Jesus believed that God would literally intervene within a generation (Mark 13:30). As such, Jesus was wrong since this obviously never occurred. Depending on the interpreter, this illustrates the full humanity and perhaps the delusional apocalyptic views of Jesus as well.

Liberal vs. Orthodox Jesus Scholar
Other prominent biblical scholars like N.T. Wright agree that Jesus expected God to intervene to raise the dead and usher in the new creation, but they also argue that Jesus did not expect this to occur imminently. The Christian tradition has generally agreed with Wright. Most Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians have affirmed some sort of temporary life after death until the second coming of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the inauguration of the new creation in which the redeemed will live in communion with God forever. As we will see, this perspective is not affirmed by mainstream process theology, largely because of its dependence on an interventionist God.

Differing from Sanders, Wright, and the tradition, Marcus Borg argues that Jesus did not hold to apocalyptic expectations: no second coming or supernatural intervention by God. According to Borg, apocalyptic eschatology was probably affirmed by Paul and the early church, but not by Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, he places Jesus more firmly within the Jewish prophetic tradition, holding to a “participatory eschatology”: humans are called to participate in the ongoing work of God in history in hopeful anticipation of the future ‘kingdom of God’, an age of global justice and peace that has nothing to do with a supernatural intervention. Borg claims that although Jesus likely believed in life after death, this was not central to his gospel. It is this perspective on eschatology that Christian process theologians can most fully endorse (I should note that Cobb wrote most of his work all the way through the 90s with a view more like that of E.P. Sanders.  But he now finds Borg more persuasive).

Alfred North Whitehead
In what follows, I will summarize one major form of process eschatology. This will require a brief explanation of two metaphysical issues: a relational view of nature and of God (hang in there with me! I try to keep it simple). This will illustrate ways that Christian process theologians affirm life after death and the redemption of creation in a naturalistic, not supernatural way.

Process philosophy views nature as made up of actual occasions of experience. As Whitehead writes, “The actual temporal world can be analysed into a multiplicity of occasions of actualization. These are the primary actual units of which the temporal world is composed…each is a microcosm representing in itself the entire all-inclusive universe.” Process theologians thus affirm a kind of relational atomism in which momentary actual occasions are constituted by their relations as experiencing subjects and then perish to become an object for new becoming occasions. Everything that exists is ultimately made up of actual occasions, while the things we normally experience with our senses that endure through time (e.g., a dog, chair, mountain, etc.) are groupings of occasions – what Whitehead called “societies.” As such, material bodies and living souls are in fact different kinds of interrelated societies of actual occasions. Souls are not a special kind of substance, as much traditional theology affirmed, but an especially complex part of nature.

John B. Cobb, Jr.
With this in mind, we can understand what process theologians say about the immortality of the soul. As it turns out, there is nothing metaphysically implausible about an individual soul continuing to live on after the death of the body – although whether it will live forever is another question. While Whitehead is more neutral on life after death, arguing that it should be decided on “more special evidence”, Cobb and Griffin are more open to it as Christians who affirm the resurrection appearances of Jesus (as for an empty tomb, Cobb is open to it but does not think it is very plausible). Christians can thus affirm the real hope of life after death.  Note that process cannot be simply dismissed as Gnostic - it is nondual rather dualistic and thus does not place matter as an evil substance in opposition to the soul as a higher, spiritual substance - as the rest of the discussion will further illustrate, we are talking about very different ideas here!  Suchocki also takes the resurrection of Jesus seriously: “If we take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be a revelation of God for us, then the resurrection is a vital part of this revelation.” As such, many process theologians affirm the eschatological significance of the resurrection of Jesus, even though they do not agree with traditional theologians that it was a supernatural event that necessarily produced an empty tomb. But there is more to process eschatology than life after death.

For process theologians, the primary problem of existence to be overcome is not death but meaninglessness due to the perpetual perishing of occasions. Without some ground of permanence, our accomplishments would finally seem to be insignificant. It is ultimately God who is this ground of meaning, since process theologians see God as not only creative as the source of novelty but responsive to the world, eternally preserving every occasion that has ever existed in her own nature. As Mesle explains, “God shares the experience of becoming of the entire universe, and synthesizes it into God’s own, infinitely vast and complex experience.” This means that occasions are given objective (not subjective) immortality in the divine life, forever preserved in their immediacy and woven into an ideal and growing harmony. As Whitehead wrote, this is the kingdom of heaven, which “is not the isolation of good from evil. It is the overcoming of evil by good.” As such, the ultimate eschatological 'fact' is the redemption of all things in God.  Suchocki is one of the few process theologians to argue that this is subjective not just objective immortality.

Beyond the hope for subjective life after death of the soul and the objective redemption of creation (soul and body) in God, there is also an emphasis on historical eschatology in process thought that coheres with Borg’s view of Jesus. In cosmic history, there is no end to the process of creation or need for a final new creation, as in traditional eschatologies. The future is radically open, and God continuously creates by luring the world toward greater richness of experience and complexity. As Borg argued, this means that Christian eschatological hope in history takes the form of participation: we are co-creators with God for the future kingdom or “commonwealth." As we respond more positively to God’s lure, we participate in God’s ongoing work for justice and shalom in creation. Cobb and Griffin conclude, “There is no divine action apart from creaturely action, but equally the divine action is the principle of hope in the creaturely action…Trusting God is not assurance that whatever we do will work out well. It is instead confidence that God’s call is wise and good.”