Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed -- A Review
PROCESS THEOLOGY: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: T&T Clark, 2011. Ix +177 pages.
Christianity is one of the more complex faith traditions, with its embrace of doctrines such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, so even on a good day enquirers can be left perplexed. Process Theology, which takes much of its inspiration from the philosophical musings of a British mathematician/physicist, can leave even those acquainted with and comfortable with basic Christian doctrines perplexed and confused. Thus, a primer that would translate and explain for the uninitiated the intricacies of this theological system is most welcome. This is especially true at a time when many Christians are looking for a system that makes sense of the world of the 21st century, especially concerning the relationship of faith and science. Although many people continue to embrace premodern religious beliefs, many others find these beliefs, especially relating to a divine being that supernaturally sweeps in and adjusts things from outside the universe to be incompatible with reality as they know it. Of course, it’s not only science that poses challenges; it’s the problem of evil as well. Process Theology, with its sense of openness to the future and its rejection of an all powerful divinity seems to offer a more compelling vision – if only we understood the vocabulary!
In this book Bruce Epperly, himself a Process Theologian who studied at one of the leading centers of Process Theology (Claremont), but who also writes with a pastor’s heart, provides us with a primer that seeks to translate and explain the ideas and vocabulary that form Process Theology. One of the reasons why this system is both controversial and difficult to understand is that it starts with a modern philosophical system that challenges traditional ways of seeing the world and the divine. It is a system that is rooted in the thought of a scientist/mathematician who chose to wrestle with the relationship of faith and science, seeing them not as irreconcilable enemies, but as conversation partners. To do this, however, Alfred North Whitehead didn’t privilege the biblical and theological traditions of historic Christianity. He also rejected the Greek philosophical systems that had served as the foundation for Christian theologizing for centuries. His was a system that asked of religion questions raised by the modern world, and for many of us this has been not only challenging but off-putting. It’s not easy to let go of cherished traditions. It’s also difficult to let go of a belief in an all-powerful deity. But, as Schleiermacher pointed out a century earlier, the questions raised by modernity won’t go away.
The challenge posed by Process Philosophy and Theology (and we might want to put theology in the plural, for there are a variety of expressions, as Bruce notes in an early chapter of the book) is the vocabulary. To understand process thought you have to learn a new vocabulary, one that is philosophically rooted. Words like dipolar, panentheism, and prehension aren’t part of our normal vocabulary, and yet their important to this system. Bruce attempts to translate these terms, but he does say that many Process thinkers insist that this system is unique enough that it needs a different vocabulary to distinguish itself from other systems.
One could say that Process Theology isn’t one of the most user-friendly theological schools on the market, but Epperly believes that it holds out great hope for the church in this modern/post-modern age. He believes that this is a system that speaks to the moment in which we live, offering a vision of God that makes sense of scientific challenges and moral questions and that speaks to those for whom traditional models of faith no longer work. This includes people living both inside and outside the confines of the Christian faith.
Before taking a look at the substance of Bruce’s introduction to process theology, I should note that I have long been leery of Process Theology. I’ve found its vision of God to be less than inspiring, perhaps because I grew up believing in an omnipotent and omniscient God, who had the power to do whatever God chose to do. I understood why theologians such as John Cobb were concerned about questions of theodicy (defense of God in the face of the presence of evil in the world) and sought to find an answer to these questions, but I found in their answers a diminishment of divine power. Over time, even if I didn’t become a devotee of Process, I began to better appreciate their positions on such issues as divine power, transcendence, and the belief that God does not change (impassability). I suppose I still want more transcendence than Process allows, but I find that it makes a lot more sense of the world than I once thought. Therefore, while I’m not ready to jump in with both feet, I have found much more to like about this system, and want to better understand it. Therefore, I am very pleased that Bruce has taken on this project.
One of the reasons why Epperly became a Process theologian is that the conservative evangelicalism of his youth no longer made sense. He shares that had he not discovered Process theology he may have lost his faith, but upon discovering this theology while a student at San Jose State University, he found the key to making sense of the scientific challenges to Christianity as well as questions raised by the persistence of evil in the world. He was attracted both by its rationality and the way it lent itself to mysticism. Process theology, which took on a salvific purpose for Bruce, offered a vision of God and the world that sought “to transform people’s lives by providing an insightful vision of reality that enables persons to find meaning, inspiration and challenge” (p. 3).
Among the key elements of process theology that make it attractive to the modern age is that it presumes that God is present in and with the world. Although it affirms the doctrine of divine transcendence, it puts its emphasis on God’s immanence in and with the world. The philosophical term that perhaps best describes this theological vision is panentheism, in which God is in the world and the world is in God. They are not one and the same as in pantheism or monism, but God and the world are intimately related to one another. This appeals to many because God is not a distant being who on occasion rushes in to set things right.
Another key element is its view of the openness of the future. Classical theism assumes that if God is perfect, God must know everything, including what happens in the present and the future. This perspective often, though not always, leads to rather deterministic understandings of human destiny. For process theology, the future is open. God knows what God wants to do, but God can’t determine the future, because God is dependent on our choices. That is, God responds to our choices. Now, God is always trying to draw us toward what God deems to be the good, but since God doesn’t act coercively, we have to follow God’s lead. If we don’t, and often we don’t (that’s sin), then God must adapt. Such a theological vision, of course, is much easier to integrate with evolutionary biology, but it does raise questions in the minds of many about God’s power. Is this the kind of God who we should deem worthy of our worship? On the other hand, if God has all power so as to determine the future, then is this a God worthy of our worship and service? It might not surprise some that Bruce has in several different forums contrasted the vision inherent in Process with that of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life.
The purpose of this rather brief book is to introduce the reader to process theology, its primary proponents, beginning with Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne and taking us up to the present, introducing us to figures such as Bernard Loomer, David Griffin, and John Cobb, and offer a rationale for why the reader might want to consider adopting this theological system. He covers the primary theological areas, such as the nature and purpose of God, Christology, the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, the relationship of faith and science, ethics, the church, and the afterlife. He concludes with a look at the future of process theology, which he believes is bright.
As noted earlier, process theology is rooted in the thought of Whitehead, and perhaps to a lesser extent Charles Hartshorne. Standing at the core of Whitehead’s understanding of reality is the relationship of two realities – everything is in flux and yet there is permanence. It is in the relationship of these two realities that he seeks to find God. What he discovers is that this reality is dynamic and evolving and thus it allows for creativity and for freedom – both for God and for the creation itself. This also allows for relationality in our experience of the divine, for God works in partnership with the world – down to the tiniest of cells, inviting all to live and change and create. There is, in process theology an absence of unilateralism and coercion, which is why evil occurs. It is a negative expression of freedom. Although God is responsive and creative, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have a sense of where God is going. Bruce speaks here of God’s initial aim, which serves as the guiding principle. With this initial aim in mind, God relates to us as an intimate companion and even fellow sufferer.
If God is engaging us at such an intimate level, one might wonder about the process Christology. Although there are a variety of positions on the Christological question, it would be safe to say that process theologians do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the one unique incarnation of the divine, but the Christ is, in their mind, present in Jesus in a revelatory manner, especially in his teachings and in his suffering on the cross. As for the Holy Spirit, this expression of the divine is God’s intimate presence with us – God’s energy. The doctrine of the Trinity describes the relationship of these three expressions of the divine, which he refers to as the “dancing Trinity.” Process theologians, he writes, envision the Trinity as “lively, moving, interdependent, and intimate both within itself and within the world” (p. 81).
From this important discussion of the nature of God, including the place of Christ and the Holy Spirit, he moves to what he calls the “human adventure.” He suggests that process theology offers a holistic vision of human existence, in which our experience of life is an open and evolving reality. That is, we have choices to make, and in this regard we can speak of sin, which he describes as putting our own aims ahead of the aims of the planet, as well as holding on to outworn traditions that cause us to turn away from God’s creative work of transformation. There is, however, the presence of grace that seeks to invite us back into relationship so as to experience transformation.
One of the reasons why process theology is compelling to so many is that it has offered a response to the challenges of science. Because of its vision of openness of the future, it is very compatible with evolutionary biology and even geology. Part of the reason for this coherence is that the font from which this theology emerged was a physicist/mathematician. If the science/theology question is ameliorated to a great extent by process theology, the issue of ethics might prove even more challenging. As Bruce notes, the ethical vision of process theologians is not absolutist. It is, one could say, relativist in many ways. Thus, one won’t find a command ethic – do this or do that. Instead, ethics emerge out of basic principles such as the importance of relationships, the universality of experience, and God’s vision of reality, which seeks as its aim the pursuit of beauty or wholeness. Thus, the basic ethical question is – do our actions contribute to beauty? If it addresses these important questions, Bruce confesses that one area that to which Process has given little attention is the question of survival after death. He notes that many Process theologians and their adherents have found this question to be distracting to larger concerns, and yet it persists, which requires, Bruce admits, that attention be given it.
Process Theology is modern and liberal and seeks to address modern questions. If it is to be of use it will need to be understood, and Bruce has given us an excellent translation/introduction to this important theological movement that is drawing the attention of many who once wrote it off as “unpreachable!” If you’re interested in engaging the questions raised by modernity, then I think you will find this to be a most helpful book, and perhaps it will prove salvific!