Thursday, March 13, 2014

Whitehead's God: Between Radical & Confessional Theologies

As a process theologian, I often find myself in the position of needing to explain or even defend the God that Whitehead affirms.  I have these conversations with fellow academics and intellectual types who just can't see how some of us can still call ourselves theists after the 'death of God,' as well as fellow Christians who struggle to see how one could reconcile process panentheism with the God of the Bible.  While the former group tends to be extremely critical of any hint of transcendence (whether in reference to God or otherwise), the latter group gets uneasy with the process theologian's special emphasis on God's immanence.  For the former, transcendence is more-or-less relativized - if not entirely eliminated - by immanence.  For the latter, it is usually the other way around: God is infinitely transcendent and created everything out of nothing.

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.

On the one side are those who read Whitehead's God in ways that strongly emphasize immanence - a kind of Radical theology, perhaps, usually with the help of Deleuze's poststructuralist philosophy of immanence.  Few process thinkers go so far as to deny God's transcendence entirely (although see Kristien Justaert's process pantheism in "Theology after Deleuze"), but the concept as more commonly understood is very much relativized by a more immanent God.  This is rapidly becoming an influential way of reading Whitehead (I can confirm this based on my experiences at both Drew and Claremont where most students of Whitehead tend to lean this way).  My former professor Roland Faber, signaling a stronger shift towards immanence with his Deleuzean reading of Whitehead, argues for "trans-pantheism" as opposed to the more standard reading of Whitehead's panentheism.  He digs deep into the Cusan paradox of God as "Not-Other" and places a stronger theological emphasis on Whitehead's immanent creativity.  He interprets the later Whitehead as seeming inclined "to replace any remaining connotations of God's transcendence with a totally immanent divine creativity" (Process & Difference, 216).  As with John Caputo's radical theology, Faber will also say that God does not exist but insists as the interrupting event of the new.  For Faber's radical process theology, God is always "In/difference": the insistence on difference and relationality of all differences.  For the Radical approach, questions of Christian doctrine (Christology, Trinity, Revelation) tend to be secondary (at best) to the political and ethical implications of theology.  The thinking here is that an immanent theology is better equipped for this-worldly activism based on democratic practices, over against difference-denying oppressive forms of hierarchy that are rooted in transcendence.

On the other side are those who read Whitehead's God in ways that try to maintain more traditional theological intuitions of transcendence.  I see this as a kind of Confessional trajectory for Whiteheadians that has been much more common for Christian process theology over the last fifty years.  Confessional process theologians are not necessarily Orthodox in their beliefs, but they tend to have a stronger concern than the Radical process theologians to maintain ties to the Christian tradition and to more thoroughly align their theology to the Bible.  John Cobb is an obvious example here, especially evident in his rather high Christology in which he intentionally remains close to the creedal confession that Jesus was "fully God and fully man." By reading Whitehead's God as a balance of immanence with transcendence, he can affirm that God is the most powerful reality in existence, that our existence is radically contingent upon God as our Creator, and that we depend upon God's grace.  Attempting to do justice to key themes of the Bible and Christian piety, Cobb will claim that because God is always working for the good in the world and truly loves her creation, God can genuinely reveal herself in particular ways, our prayers can be answered, people might even sometimes be healed through God's action in the world, and that death ultimately does not have the last word.  Unlike Radical process theology, Confessional process theologians unequivocally affirm God's existence as a real being (e.g., David Ray Griffin's cumulative argument in his Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism).  A neo-Whiteheadian approach, as in Joseph Bracken's theology, pushes even closer to traditional commitments and asserts a stronger ("asymmetrical") sense of transcendence than even Cobb.  Like Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle and Augustine did with neo-Platonism, Bracken will use Whitehead as a general philosophical framework for special revelation in scripture and tradition, allowing the latter more authoritative sources to revise the former when necessary.  The doctrinal results for him are an orthodox view of the Trinity, creatio ex nihilo, and bodily resurrection.

Some of us might cringe at the Radical approach, others at a Confessional approach.  To Confessionals, the Radical approach might sound even more esoteric and complicated than Whitehead himself and irrelevant for practical or spiritual life outside of the academy.  To Radicals, the Confessional approach might sound outdated and 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. 


  1. Great analysis! To the extent that I fit, I'm closer to the confessional side of your scheme, although I am always open to learning something I might think helpful from the radical side.

    1. Dr. Oord, thank you so much for taking the time to respond. Your work, in my mind, is actually a model of someone on the Confessional side who takes the Radical approach seriously.

  2. I think the question at the end is interesting, but I wouldn't spell out the alternatives as in some way standing in opposition to each other. Doing theology for the sake of the life of the confessing church can never be separated from the desire to become a politically subversive and ethical power for society. A better question would perhaps be to ask how the church can become a body for this power without simply repeating its old habit of lording it over people. Your question seem to suggest that theology can function on its own while I want to situate it within a body, so I guess that I am confessional in that way, but I would also situate myself together with the more radical strand in your schema. So my question to you is whether these boundary markers are really necessary? Can we not do theology within the confessing church with the aim of disrupting our own lives, in order to become an embodiment of a weak power that can be politically subversive in the world we live? I struggle with these issues myself and I'm trying to work out a way of reconciling my seemingly schizofrenic approach to them and my hope is for new possibilities to arise and today you got my mind working, so thank you, great post! You can read some of my further thinking on this topic at

    1. Josef, thanks so much for the comment. This is an important issue and I'm so glad you are engaging this part of my post. My question at the end doesn't mean to imply opposition but methodological priority. If I understand your comment, I agree with you - church theology can't ignore political theology. They go together. There is no absolute separation, my experience, where we *begin* constructing our theologies is crucial. Radical theology is not typically committed to the life of the church - if their work does not have traction in the church, so much the worse for the church! It must, however, have political and ethical traction first and foremost. See the work of Sharon Betcher, who I respect, but she lays her cards on the table as a radical "secular" theologian - she is not doing theology for the church but for 21st century post-religious, post-Christian individuals who think theology can help with ethics and politics. Many of those who I study with or have studied with in theological schools are doing theology for political and ethical reasons first and foremost as well. Whether it is relevant to the church is of secondary importance, at best. On the other side is someone like John Cobb who can write both a political theology and church theology because he's a Christian, first and foremost, and that implies both the communal worship of God and the work for justice/love of neighbor.