Process Is Poised For A Comeback

Three things have been rattling around in by cranium while I was away this Spring.

1. The cicada’s came back. Every 17 years the Periodical Cicada Brood II emerges to rollick in the Eastern half of the U.S. for a brief but frenzied round of sex and gluttony. We will not see them again for 17 years. It is a phenomenon that always garners it’s fair share of bewilderment and awe.

cicadas

It is appropriate that this baffles most of us. We are set to think in perennial terms and oddities like this don’t fit that narrative. Underneath the soil right now is a massive swarm that we will not hear a peep from until 2030.

2. I was listening to an episode of Smiley and West’s weekly radio show while I was fixing up my parent’s house. The guests were Maceo Parker and Bill Ayers (interesting mix eh?). It was pointed out that sometimes, things just take time. Ayers’ example: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. It was not until 1963 that the march in Birmingham took place.

Ayers points out that not everything happens in quick succession. He said this in reference to the Occupy flare-up last year and why it appears that not much has come out of them.

3. Tony Jones had the response to Jack Caputo’s address at the Subverting the Norm conference. Point 2 of Tony’s 13 points was :

Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.

 

I know that Process thought will always be on the periphery. It will never be mainstream… and I am o.k. with that. Some things just work better as ‘catchers’ on the outside of the whirlwind.

Here is the thing: many Mainline, progressive or emergent church expressions don’t make that many converts. Some may even think that evangelism is wrong/trite/passé/ or coercive.

You know who does make a lot of converts? The evangelical-charismatic branch of the family. They do.

But not all of their kids or converts find the theological answer persuasive or satisfying after a while. So there is always a large supply of folks cycling out of the evangelical spin-cycle looking for better frameworks and answers … and it just so happens that Process thought can provide that.

 

Process thought interacts with both Biblical Scholarship and Science with flying colors.

Process even has a built-in interface for engaging other religions. It’s perfect for the pluralism that our world and time are calling for.

Yes – you have to learn some new words and it is admittedly clumsy to transition into from a classical approach. We all acknowledge that. But … and I can not overstate this … if your unhappy with the frameworks that you inherited, what have you got to lose?   Your faith?

If the alternatives are to either:

A) close your eyes and choke-down the medicine

or

B) walk away from the faith altogether

Then what is the harm is picking up some new vocabulary and concepts that allows you to navigate the tricky waters of the 21st century?

I mean, what else are you going to do for the next 17 years while we wait for the cicada’s return?

 

___

I have been enjoying 2 big books while I was away:

Modern Christian Thought (the twentieth century) and Essentials of Christian Theology – both have significant sections of Process influence.

 

Cicada Picture: H. Scott Hoffman/News & Record, via Associated Press

Share
If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!

25 comments
Beddard731
Beddard731

Can Radical Theology be choice C?

thinking_reed
thinking_reed

I don't think a majority of Christians will ever adopt process theology lock, stock, and barrel. For one thing, there's too much forbidding jargon and conceptual esoterica that usually goes along with it. But central process or process-friendly ideas have been incorporated into a lot of contemporary theology that would not consider itself "process." I'm thinking particularly of the focus of divine empathy and suffering, relationality, historicity, and a "horizontal" evolutionary picture of the wold (as opposed to a static, "hierarchical" ontology).  Arguably, "classical" theism waned during the 20th century within mainstream theology.

This isn't to say that process theology deserves all the credit (or blame) for this state of affairs. These themes have been the common coin of thinkers not always directly influenced by the Whiteheadian tradition (I'm thinking, among others, of Pannenberg, Moltmann, feminist theology, the recovery of trinitarianism, the religion-science interface, etc.). To some degree there seems to have been a convergence on some of the themes that process theology regards as most important.

castaway5555
castaway5555

I first encountered and fell in love with Process in the late 60s with Norman Pittenger, and have used Process my entire ministry. Your comment about Process on the fringe is likely accurate for the following reason: 1) in the eyes of evangelicals, it doesn't have a god big enough to match the hyper-sell; for liberals, it may have just too much of god, and may be theoretically a bit too complex. Anyway, thanks ... and God be praised for Process; it's has been a substantial teaching and preaching tool for me.

_JacquiB
_JacquiB

Bo, you nearly had me in tears with this one. That "what have you got to lose" place sounds awfully familiarI. And still don't feel like I have any reasonable clue about what this process stuff is all about, but it's the only thing that makes any kind of sense without compromising all intellectual integrity. It sucks to be wrestling so passionately with questions most people don't even see the point in asking. I look at things that my mainstream buddies think are the most important and they don't even register on my meter anymore and I sit in my church among the people I love and think, "if that's what Christians believe than what the hell am I?" And there have been times when I wish I could still believe the things I used to, because in a lot of ways it's a lot easier. Having an absolute answer for everything was super handy while it lasted. And frankly it took a lot less faith to believe in a "don't make me come down there" God who would eventually get fed up and magically make everything fantastic than this eschatology that actually requires so pretty costly participation. But I've been changed by what I've seen and known and I can't go back there, so as challenging as it is, I know I've got some bugs hiding out under the surface, too. I'm up for seeing where it takes me, because really, at this point, what have I got to lose?

George Hermanson
George Hermanson

We just finished an event with Jay McDaniel and what was enlightening was those who had not experienced process thought ended in saying - wow - that is who we are!! I agree that it takes time and I have seen the growth in Canada for Process theology to become the default position. At one time I could count on two hands those in this school of thought -beginning in 1967 when I graduated I ran into about 6 who thought in this mode, but it has expanded.

Ryan Slifka
Ryan Slifka

I don't know if I agree with this. I wouldn't consider myself a process theologian, but I recognize it has its merits. I think the issue process often has is that it is asking people to take on a whole new metaphysical system in order to hear the gospel (or, in some cases, process is seen as the gospel). In my experience, it has a tough time reaching people where they already are. I think where there is success for process theology it is less the theology itself--it is used as a hermeneutic for interpretation and tool to proclaim the gospel, the medium rather than the message. I am not sure if process has enough critical mass in the service of the church in this way to make a comeback at this point.

Will Houk
Will Houk

Don't call it a comeback, it's been here for years. A little LL Cool J for your Tuesday.

willhouk
willhouk

You have described a lot of my journey here Bo. The Evangelical narrative of Christianity is just not working for me anymore. I'm glad I found you guys and this whole Process theology thing. I can't say I fully understand Process but that's why I'm participating in the High Gravity group this summer. That's been amazing btw. I like what I've read so far. I was just talking with a friend the other day about how I feel like the Emergent movement had a lot of great contributions but I can't pin down what it actually is. I feel like Process theology has some more concrete points be made, and it seems like a cool framework for Christian thought.

This may be the wrong place to ask this question but I've been wondering it for a while now. I read somewhere that Hegel has an influence in Process thought. Is this correct? If it is correct is it his dialectic that is the influence. What I'm thinking of is the process of human thought that Hegel described in the Thesis-Anti Thesis-Synthesis. The thesis and anti-thesis create a conflict and it gets resolved in the synthesis and the synthesis becomes the new thesis, then the process starts again. Is this the influence that Hegel has on Process Theology?

jeffreydean225
jeffreydean225

Bo - Thanks! I needed the statements above! My journey personally is leading me in all different directions at the present. I know one thing....the old way doesn't work anymore. I will be going back and reading all the posts here and some of the books you recommend. Thanks for providing an alternative to the mainstream. You rock buddy, Jeff


BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@thinking_reed Great thought here!  3 quick responses: 

1 - I don't think that a majority of Christians will ever adopt Process. That is is why I said it would always be periphery. I'm saying that it can be there to catch those who are cycling out of the big mainstream middle. 

2 - I admitted that one is required to learn new words and concepts. 

3 - you are right about the interface. Tripp does Process & and Pannenberg. Lots of folks see the influence in Moltmann. Feminist theology has been super influential in many Process circles (and influenced them as well). Clayton does the religion-science thing.  So yes - you are 100% correct. 

-Bo  

_JacquiB
_JacquiB

@castaway5555 I wasn't around yet to experience the first wave of Process to know how it all went down, and I can't say that I understand it well enough now to claim that I've "used it in ministry," but I really appreciate your comment for it's simple explanation. (So I thought I'd give a very wordy response...)

At first, I thought believing these things is so lonely and will always be lonely, because no one is even willing to listen to the thought that God might not be all they had previously believed. But then, as I wrestled with it some more and stuck my neck out a time or two, I realized it's all in the messaging. (I think this is where the pastoral part comes in...the whole meeting people where they are bit.) As my pastor would say, it's a job for a scalpel, not a machete. And in all honesty, the picture Process paints of God is an appealing one, and it calms some of the anxiety people know they have but don't want to acknowledge about other systems of belief not really making sense (and on some level, I think we all know when this is the case).

So instead of leading with "God might not be as 'almighty' as you thought, God didn't really 'send Jesus to die for your sins,' and 'everything happens for a reason' doesn't mean God is pulling puppet strings," I start with things like "God is always invitational, inviting you forward into something, not back into a past that doesn't fit you," or "God would never 'will' that you suffered that abuse. That was not part of God's plan for you, not matter what anyone else tells you, God did not choose to sit on his hands while you suffered." People don't balk at these ideas; they're hungry for them.

Not everyone can wrap their heads around marrying their view of God with the Theory of Relativity (though Rob Bell certainly made what I think is an interesting case for Process by doing so), so if that's the only way we can communicate Process, then yes, we're going to have a problem ever being anything other than the fringes. But we're also doing a disservice to those we're called to care for if we can't communicate it in a way that is loving and appropriate for each situation, because there is too much freedom in it to keep it for ourselves. There has to be a way to communicate that saying "God can't" doesn't make God too small, because persuasion is always more powerful than coercion, and that acknowledging the everything-ness of God is not too much God when that God is not remotely interested in micromanaging your moral affairs.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@castaway5555 I love this comment SO much. thank you :) I look forward to being across a table from you in the near future -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@_JacquiB Your honesty is always breath-taking. THank you SO much for being as forthright and clear as you are... it helps me so much.  -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@George Hermanson good to hear :) makes my dual-citizen heart glad -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@Ryan Slifka Sure, people who are comfortable are not likely to migrate. Why would they? 

What I am talking about recognizing the potential in a perpetual migration out of a convert making machine. That is always happening. 

But I agree with much of your comment -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@willhouk Good stuff.    Tripp and I record a TNT this Thursday ... yours will be one of our topics :) -Bo 

Jeremy R
Jeremy R

@BoSanders@jeffreydean225

I don't think I'll ever understand this fascination with process thought. No ontological framework is more Christian than another. Sometimes you guys sound like the proponents of radical orthodoxy. Both theological schools "Christianize" a certain ontological framework and believe that it unlocks the keys to understanding the gospel. Both schools also have a "fall" narrative built into their narration of the history of theology (i.e. if only we hadn't adopted or forsaken a certain neo-Platonic metaphysics then the gospel would have been preserved). While I don't believe that all ontologies are created equal, it's strange the way in which you frame this conversation because theology is turned into an apologetic tool for disaffected evangelicals. It is a stop-gap to keep people within the church and it offers them a friendlier, more acceptable interpretation of Christianity. As a bonus, process theology also doesn't earn you the scorn of your non-Christian friends! Don't get me wrong. I think evangelicalism is a failed project, theologically and ethically.

However, I'll never understand why we need process theology if we have liberation theology. Is there something liberation theology stands to gain by incorporating process thought? I know many process folks will attempt to incorporate liberation theology insights but it feels as if they are usually dropped off in favor of the particular metaphysics of process theology. 

I agree with Tony Jones' assessment. I always think that theology will swing between Barth (dogmatic) and Tillich (correlationalist). Tillich was more popular in his day. However, in the long run, he will simply be a footnote in the history of theology. Process theology also seems destined for a similar fate. While Tillich brilliantly applied to the insights of his existential ontology to re-frame the gospel, process theology also adopts a popular philosophical framework to re-package the gospel. Presumably this framework will eventually be beaten out by a future ontological system that better represents the universe.

AJSmith
AJSmith

@Jeremy R @BoSanders @Jeremy R @BoSanders  Isn't it really convenient for theology that, when in the shadow of the Great War and the Holocaust that God's omnipotence becomes a problem, it simply denies it?

i.  I'm curious how you guys understand Christology. My understanding of the tradition is, roughly, that God forsook his omnipotence in the incarnation to overcome power with weakness, so that the omnipotent God could in some way partake in human sufferings, or something like that. What happens in the incarnation in process thought? I know you guys like Pannenberg, but does his stuff really fit with PT?

ii.  Anyway, does it not actually make God more perverted if he created without knowing the end, some still kind-of-powerful deity who just created capriciously, setting all these events in order? Is he not as culpable (but less useful) as the theistic God, just for inervent ignorance rather than providential malice?    

Jeremy R
Jeremy R

@BoSanders@Jeremy R 

Excellent, I prefer a strong response. I wasn't offended by the "funny comment". I just found it strange. A couple of thoughts:

1) Comparing process theology's methodology and strategy with radical orthodoxy is not the same as equating them. I would choose process theology any day over radical orthodoxy. I despise radical orthodoxy whereas I appreciate process theology but have some reservations (I've especially enjoyed C Keller's work). I'm not convinced that process theology is Biblically justified but that's another question.

2) Impotent bystander was meant to be provocative, clearly. At the same time, God is stripped of God's normal power in classical orthodoxy, rendering God incapable of preventing suffering and tragedy. From the classical perspective, the God of process does appear impotent.

3) Is theodicy an answerable question? Is there really anything to say in response? We know that sometimes people really are God-forsaken and suffer inexplicable traumas. Now, we have a couple of ways to deal with these traumas in relation to God.

A) Deny God can prevent these things by modifying our notion of divine power.

B) Deny that God cares or exists.

C) Deny the victim's experience by justifying these events by claiming that it somehow brings more good than evil or by blaming/silencing the victim.

Many modern theologies that deny God's capacity to stop traumas usually offer the consolation prize of God's solidarity/empathy with the suffering individual. In other words, "Well God shouldn't be blamed and can't stop what happened to you. But, Jesus was also executed so he knows how it feels." I recently worked with a patient in psychotherapy who said that the church has attempted to silence her questions about the justice of God (she experienced sexual molestation as a child) because it made them uncomfortable. These questions provoke intense anxiety in believers. I should be clear that I don't think any of these theological traditions have any way to explain this. Process theology fails like all theological schools do, precisely because no theory will do (recall the 'theologians' in the book of Job).

I understand how process differs from open theology. You guys merely claim that it is simply not in God's nature to do the things that would prevent suffering. As I said, it is ontologically ruled out as a possible question, given the grounding theological assumptions. Isn't it possible that this theoretical move was used in response to WWII as a means by which to avoid believer's existential angst of God-abandonment? "You weren't God abandoned. God could never have stopped that anyway!" Like I mentioned in my previous comment, it's an attempt to protect God from human accusations by shifting the terms of the debate.

Part of me is really attracted to process theology because it makes things much simpler. At the same time, I worry that it presents a picture of God that is a by-product of wish-fulfillment. Isn't the God of process the only God that could have survived the human tragedies of the 20th century by attempting to hold onto the goodness of God by letting go of God's omnipotence? Process theology is very seductive and idealizable, which makes me worry that something is being repressed.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@Jeremy RCouple of things before my response: 

a) I meant no harm with the 'funny' comment. I think lots of things are funny. You came in all caffeinated and use heavy rhetoric in a polemical way. It brought a smile to my face is all.  sorry for any offense. 

b) Thanks for the link. It was good to read. 

c) In your first comment (which we use on TNT today) you compared us to Rad. Or. - since I know of your low opinion of RO I was like "ohhhh - low blow"  ;) It set the tone. 

You had said in response to another post “What if radical orthodoxy is just another way for evangelicals to feel better than other evangelicals by being hip with ancient church and some sort of pseudo-Catholic theology that smuggles in Christian superiority/imperialism through the backdoor?” 


OK - so -  on to your second comment: 

You say “Perhaps process theology is right that God is just an impotent bystander” - but Process is NOT right ... because that is not what Process says. God is not impotent. It’s just that God is not ALL-mighty. God is still powerful - just not ALL-powerful.  That you would even say impotent means you haven’t got it. it seems you are still using a classic definition of power.  Of course you are going to think Process comes up lacking if you do that... 

A cheap way?  really?  cheap?  This, by the way, is why I think your comment funny. This. 

Process doesn’t “avoid” the question of theodicy. It takes it head on.  I wonder if you gave it a fair reading at this point. ‘cheap’ and ‘avoid’ make me question. 

I would also contest that the theodicy question is an unanswerable one.  My confusion with your apparent approach is about how Liberation Theology gets this any better? If you concern in harmed children (I read your post) they still get injured wether Liberation, Process, Radical or Classical theology is in place. It doesn’t stop the harm. So to hold Process to that standard ... 

Caputo in the Weakness of God does a fantastic job and I (for one) find great resonance with Process in it. 

Here is what I am saying: There is a problem if God has something is the toolbelt and is just not using it (my critique of Open Theism). But Process says that is just not the nature of God’s power - it is not a tool available to God. What if Process is saying “There is no coercive intervention. It’s just not how it works.” Then Caputo’s ‘weak forces’ is a great conversation partner. 

-Bo 

I responded a little stronger that I normally would but I wanted to be clear and it seems like you are up for it. 

Jeremy R
Jeremy R

@BoSanders@Jeremy R@jeffreydean225 

Since it appears that you guys are planning to address my "funny comment" on the TNT podcast, I have one more question about process theology and theodicy.

Perhaps process theology is right that God is just an impotent bystander who does not control history because that is not the nature of God. However, process theology seems like a cheap way to avoid the question of theodicy by claiming that if God prevented abuse and injustice it would violate the non-coercive nature of God. Isn't process theology really just a defense of God? Doesn't it attempt to apologize for God and the ugly state of the universe by ontologically ruling out the possibility that God is somehow complicit in the sin that devastates this world?

We should remember that radical theology (in both its Christian and Jewish versions) very much arose in response to the atrocities of the twentieth century. Of course, Altizer attempted to tie the death of God theologically to the cross of Christ while others saw the death of God as a reflection on the various historical, cultural and technological changes that revolutionized society (see Vahanian's work and Bonhoeffer seems to be gesturing towards a similar position in Letters and Papers). Whereas radical theology accepted the death of God, process theology attempted to "save" God by immunizing God from critique with its process metaphysics. I feel as if something is very existentially unsatisfying when a theology prevents its adherents from bringing laments against God. 

I would acknowledge that the theodicy question is an unanswerable one. I'm just really skeptical of the ways in which process theology addresses the most fundamental question of religious experience. 

If you're interested, here's a post that I wrote on AUFS that explores this conversation in more depth: http://tinyurl.com/kzbzuql

Be curious to hear your guys address that question. 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@Jeremy R @BoSanders @jeffreydean225 This is one of the funniest and best comments that I have ever received on a post!  2 reasons that is true: 

1) you are clearly a well read person with a lot of good things to say. 

2) Your level of presumption is actually hilarious. You say things that are truly enjoyable in their vigor. 

I sent this to Tripp and we are gunna read it on this week's TNT. SOOOO Much to talk about :)  -Bo 

Trackbacks