Thursday, March 13, 2014
Whitehead's God: Between Radical & Confessional Theologies
For those who care to go into this kind of discussion, the core theological question up for debate is this: how immanent and/or transcendent is Whitehead's God?
I'm certainly not going to try to answer this with any sense of finality (although I've discussed my approach in other posts). What I primarily want to do here is to point out the difficulty of this issue when we have, broadly speaking, two types of theologians reading Whitehead in different ways today: those who resonate with Radical Theology and those who are committed to Confessional Theology. This is exciting to me, even as it brings new challenges to process theology. I'm not claiming that there is a full-blown contradiction between these two approaches, and perhaps there's a way to bring these two approaches closer together. Even so, they are starting out with different assumptions and concerns that certainly shape their contrasting readings of Whitehead's theism.
At the risk of oversimplifiction, there's a sense in which Radicals tend to read Whitehead primarily through a poststructuralist lens (Derrida, Deleuze, Butler) while Confessionals read him primarily through the lens of tradition and scripture. This makes for a rather striking difference between the two.
One could always follow the "Whitehead without God" approach (Bob Mesle, Donald Sherburne). One can also see Whitehead's God as nothing more than a cosmic function - and therefore wholly "secularized" - that is necessary for a coherent process worldview but totally uninspiring for spirituality or religion (Steven Shaviro's reading in his "Without Criteria"). Personally, I think there are serious problems with these interpretations (that's for another post) and they remain minority reports within the process community. Having said that, let's consider two streams of process theology, what I'm calling the Radical and Confessional paths.
naïve at best, or imperialistic and oppressive at worst. Or some of us might instead be able to see the two as constrasting rather than contradicting and perhaps look for a way to learn from both, even if we share the more basic assumptions of one or the other. If the Radical approach is helping to keep Whitehead relevant to postmodern intellectuals, religious skeptics, and academics - perhaps even effecting a "Whiteheadian revolution" or a "return to Whitehead" in contemporary philosophy and science - the Confessional approach tends to have much more traction for pastors and laypersons. This distinction seems to me to exemplify the challenge of identifying the task of theology today: is it important to do theology primarily for the sake of the life of the confessing church, or can we (should we) move on and do theology primarily because of its continuing politically subversive and ethical power for society? This is not a question just for those of us in the process community, but rather for any theologian who finds herself in this predicament, between the Radical and the Confessional.