A Process Response To Tony Jones’ 5 Questions

By Austin Roberts – follow Austin’s blog imago*futura here 

Tony Jones’ love of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology is absolutely contagious. His status as a ‘Moltmanniac’ strongly influenced my master’s thesis topic that I wrote at Claremont with Philip Clayton a couple of years ago, which was a comparison of Moltmann’s eco-theology with John Cobb’s. If it were not for Jones, I would not have fallen in love with Moltmann’s social Trinitarian theology. But perhaps to Tony’s disappointment, Moltmann then led me deep into the world of process theology. As any close reading of Moltmann’s God in Creation or the Spirit of Life will suggest, the later Moltmann is profoundly influenced by Whitehead (see my post on the topic here). I still love Moltmann, having read most of his work, but I’ve moved closer to the process theologies of Clayton, Cobb, Joseph Bracken, and Catherine Keller, my professor for my doctoral program at Drew.Today, I would join Clayton in describing my own view as neo-process theology. I would not resist the label of process theologian for a minute, but I try to draw on a deeper well of philosophers and theologians than just Whitehead. With Bracken, I’ve learned to draw on Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard de Chardin, and Meister Eckhart; with Clayton (and Tripp Fuller), I’ve learned to draw on Wolfhart Pannenberg and a bit of Schelling; with Cobb, I’ve learned to draw on liberation-political theologies and to think interreligiously as a Christian; with Keller, I’ve learned to draw on poststructuralists like Derrida and Deleuze, feminists, postcolonialists, and the Christian apophatic tradition (especially Dionysius and Nicholas of Cusa). In my own studies this semester, I’ve been relating my process thinking to Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Hegel, and René Girard

I say all of this in response to some of Tony’s questions that he has posed to those of us in the process camp. Let me respond to them one by one:

1) Do we get nervous about being so deeply rooted in Whitehead? Not at all, but that’s because I think Tony perhaps isn’t aware of the depth of philosophical engagement that process philosophers have been involved in for the last sixty years or so. Process philosophy in the most general sense is of course older than Whitehead, who is the philosopher to provide the most systematic synthesis of this way of thinking. Process theism is deeply related to Plato, with his understanding of God as persuasive in power and creating the world out of unformed chaos rather than nothing. Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa both arguably developed embryonic process-theistic relational ontologies – with Cusa even denying omnipotence. The process ontology of interrelated becoming events connects back to Heraclitus and resonates with much Buddhist and Taoist thought. The process cosmology was developed with the theories of Einstein in mind. We find analogies for process thinking in much of the American pragmatist tradition of Peirce, Dewey, and James as well as in poststructuralists like Gilles Deleuze and Judith Butler. On Deleuze, who is now reportedly the most influential poststructuralist philosopher in the English-speaking academic world today (in terms of research and dissertations being published), rivaling even Derrida’s dominance over previous decades, his entire cosmology (or “chaosmology”) is explicitly developed on the grounds of Whitehead’s magnum opus Process and Reality, which he called “one of the greatest books of modern philosophy.” Let me also mention that Whitehead is no small-time philosopher these days. Aside from a deep interest in his work amongst Chinese philosophers over recent decades, according to Catherine Keller, he is increasingly one of the most written-about philosophers in Europe today for dissertation topics. So Whitehead is hip, make no mistake. (; Having said all of this, I think I’ve made my case that process theologians have moved beyond any Whiteheadian orthodoxy. We’re a diverse bunch and draw on lots of different philosophers and theologies today. Keller is clearly one of the leaders of process thought today, and I have rarely known someone who is so intellectually diverse and cutting edge.

2) As one who continues to learn from (and disagree with much of) Aquinas, I don’t agree with Bo’s comments about not needing him today – but then again, I’m not a practical theologian, so I’m not going to speak for him here. As a philosophical and constructive Christian theologian, I am absolutely committed to taking the tradition seriously. That’s why I have been trying to engage with people like Aquinas, Eckhart, Cusa, Dionysius, Barth, Tillich, and Moltmann. On the issue of respecting the past while being open to transforming it, I follow John Cobb’s distinction of secularism and secularizing that he outlines in his Spiritual Bankruptcy (see my post on that here). While secularism is a perspective that neglects the wisdom of the past in favor of almost exclusively standing on present knowledge, secularizing is a dynamic of respecting the past, committing to a particular tradition, and taking its accumulated wisdom seriously, but critically engaging it and being willing to transform it when finally deemed necessary. Cobb sees Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and Paul as great secularizers. I think Cobb’s Christ in A Pluralistic Age, agree with its conclusions or not, exemplifies such respectful, secularizing engagement with the wisdom of our Christian tradition.

3) I certainly wouldn’t say that process theologians are the first to get the gospel right, no. I would say that the way we understand divine power as omni-potential and persuasive rather than omni-potent and coercive makes more sense to me of the picture we have of Jesus in the gospels. Classical theism generally denied that God has the power to act in a way that would contradict God’s nature, and process theists simply add to this that if God’s nature is truly primarily defined by love (as even Barth in fact states, 1 John 4:8 being one of the two abstract definitions of God in the entire Bible), then God does not have the power to unilaterally intervene. In that sense, God can be said to be omnipotent, but unilateral power contradicts God’s nature and it is thus impossible for God to act in that way. After the horrors of the 20th century, from Hiroshima to the Holocaust, process theism’s notion of power is extremely helpful for the problem of evil. While it does complicate the issue of resurrection and miracles, so central to Christian theology, it certainly does not exclude them. Unlike most forms of progressive theology, the process God literally, specifically acts in the world.

4) I believe process theology can strongly affirm God’s unique identity, contra what Tony has argued. This is the most misunderstood part of process theism, with both Moltmann and Tillich joining the ranks of theologians who believe that Whitehead’s God is dissolved into the cosmic process. I firmly believe that this is a tragic misunderstanding. First of all, Clayton and Bracken are what you would called “asymmetrical” process theologians who affirm creation out of nothing. This provides a clear image of a God who is ontologically distinct from creation, who is infinitely other. But what of those like myself who don’t affirm creation out of nothing? Moltmann in particular thinks this is the big problem with process not giving a place for the uniqueness of God, so he tries to maintain creation out of nothing. God is unique in that while God is always in creative relation to some world, God did not have to create this particular world. Our world is radically contingent upon the Divine Other who graciously chose to take the risk to lure this kind of world forth rather than one that could not produce conscious, complex beings like ourselves. God is also unique, in Marjorie Suchocki’s words, as “The Supremely Related One.” God is the most effective power in reality as the necessary ground of order and novelty and is omniscient of the entire past and present of creation. Furthermore, God’s primordial nature (which Whitehead almost always talks about when speaking of God) is God’s radically transcendent and eternal pole, the source of infinite possibilities for creaturely becoming, as opposed to the consequent nature, which is God’s immanently related temporal pole. And as Catherine Keller explains, following Nicholas of Cusa’s logic, rather than God’s difference being diminished in relation (which is always the concern for non-relational substance thinkers – even in Tillich, despite his intentions to be relational), process theologians believe that, once you get rid of substance metaphysics, difference heightens in relation. This insight is why process theology today has been so reenergized by the apophatic tradition.

5) I admit, many process theologians eagerly relativize the incarnation. No argument there. But others do not. Cobb believes Jesus is the center of history, the decisive revelation of God who saves us from sin through his life, death, and resurrection. Cobb’s atonement is a type of Christus Victor mixed with Abelard’s moral theory. He can say that Jesus, because his subjectivity, his ‘I’, was co-constituted by God by perfectly responding at every moment to God’s call or lure for his life, he is qualitatively, not just quantitatively different from other humans. Cobb thus even says Jesus is both God and human, quite literally, since in a process-relational rather than classical substance paradigm there is no problem with two things (God and Jesus) occupying the same space at the same time. That’s not a low Christology – it’s an attempt to take the creeds as seriously as possible in our contemporary world! The incarnation is literally true, unique, and universally important. Bracken is very similar, though a process social Trinitarian, and Clayton can say much the same of Jesus with what he admits is an adoptionist Christology in his book The Predicament of Belief. But Christ remains uniquely the incarnation of God for him, unlike any others, and saving through his work.

I hope this helps the conversation about process theology that’s been going on lately.  Thanks to Tony for engaging it so seriously!

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20 comments
Brother Corey
Brother Corey

When I first became interested in process, I read Keller's 'On the Mystery' and found the interview with her here. Now a regular listener to the podcast. Thank you Trip , Bo and friends for what you do here.

Patrick Frownfelter
Patrick Frownfelter

Wow.  Austin, I love what you here. As someone who's not fully process-oriented and a spectator in this ongoing discussion, I think you've given the most clarifying response to date on this debate within this community (with all due respect to previous posters; those were great too!)  Thank you, sir. :)

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

FYI:  Google Scholar's reports on frequency of scholarly citations since 2009;

Kant:            119,000

Foucault:       62,300

Nietzsche:     38,500

Hegel:            38,500

Heidegger:    38,300

Derrida:          26,900

Deleuze:        23,600

Husserl:        20,000

Lacan:           21,300

Zizek:             15,400

JasonDStewart
JasonDStewart

Is it fair to say that the primary allure (at least for many) of process is its answer to theodicy?  It seems to be brought up every time the discussion happens.  If so, why is process necessary for us after the holocaust and Bataan death march but wasn't necessary for Christians under the mongolian massacres or the black plague? The 20th century by no means has the monopoly on suffering.  There's obviously been some other shift is our collective philosophy that demands a unique answer to the theodicy question today but I am unsure what that shift has been.

Further though, is this answer to the theodicy issue really an answer at all?  It seems more of a giving up and is hardly comforting in any way to the sufferer since it claims (or at least seems to) that there isn't much God can do at any moment to intervene other than work in some strange slow methodical process to maybe convince everyone to act better one day.

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

What are we to conclude from this hierarchy?  Apparently, academia is working hard on Kant for answers. Foucault is a surprise runner up and perhaps should be taken more seriously also.  The Continental three of Nietzsche, Hegel and Heidegger are holding strong, while Derrida, Wittgenstein and Deleuze are hanging in there. Lagging behind are Husserl, Lacan, Gadamer and Zizek.


Go to Google Scholar and enter your favorite philosopher to see how he or she ranks comparatively since 2009.

austinroberts13
austinroberts13

@JasonDStewartyes, decisive philosophical shifts were important (enlightenment, death of god, darwin, etc) - but i think the issue is very multifaceted. i don't mean to suggest it was simply how bad the 20th century was, as if these tragedies occurred in a vacuum. many cultural-social developments (usually western) led to such questioning the problem of evil in. but that evil and tragic events took on new meanings and raised questions in a new way for 20th century persons is clear. 

however, having studied with four or five jewish rabbis/scholars throughout the years, i've learned from them that the significance of the holocaust for theists should not be underestimated.  when the jews - god's supposedly chosen people - were nearly wiped out in the modern age, when 'civilization' had been thought by many to have moved beyond such extremely bloody barbarism, and after such a tragic history of jewish exile and persecution, the holocaust can be seen as a decisive moment in history for all theological reflection. Irving Greenberg once said of post-holocaust theism/faith: "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children."  


I think a fairly recent good resource that discusses a lot of this is from a non-process thinker - Anatheism: Returning to God After God by Richard Kearney.

austinroberts13
austinroberts13

@jonestony@trippfuller@austinroberts13@HomebrewedXntyvery good, totally fair question. four things that i think about as at least potential weaknesses of process:

1) philosophical: I think whitehead, without some modification, might end up being an atomist even though he didn't want to be one. his societies of occasions don't really give reality to enduring things to avoid atomism, so Joseph Bracken could be right that this needs a constructive intervention (see any of his books for how he does this). i think this can be solved, but it's a potential problem with whitehead's own view. 

2) theological: many process thinkers are weak on developing an orthodox trinity. whitehead wasn't a trinitarian, even if he appreciated the cappadocian trinitarian thinking. while there are a lot of process trinities out there, few avoid being somehow heretical - so if that's a big concern for someone, this is a weakness. others might think it's time to rethink the trinity, but obviously this is a big risk to take. even so, this issue is something i think can be dealt with if we're willing to rethink whitehead (again, see Bracken on this, who develops a very robust process social Trinity). whitehead's own principles in fact demand that we move beyond his insights when necessary. process clearly isn't meant to be static.


3) philosophical-theological: this is controversial amongst process folks, but because whitehead doesn't think subjective immortality is very plausible, opting for objective immortality instead, this could call into question the value of creatures in and for themselves.  in the end, they only add to god's experience or life because they simply perish into her 'divine memory.' so without a modification of whitehead to allow for a more robust notion of resurrection, some of us in the process camp think whitehead (and those who follow him uncritically) doesn't do full justice to the intrinsic value of creatures.


4) scientific: philip clayton has pointed out potential problems with whitehead's panexperientialism in terms of its scientific plausibility. if he's right, the process ontology that affirms all of reality is composed of experiencing entities might requre a massive shift towards an emergentist paradigm or something else like it. this is still an open question for me. some physicists think it's very plausible, so I'm just not sure. but phil's warning keeps me humble on this aspect of process thinking.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

@austinroberts13


Austin, I'm interested to learn more about Clayton's concerns about panexperientalism. Do know where he writes about this? 

trippfuller
trippfuller moderator

Wow. I was writing tony a post on Process weakness and there were 4 of the 5 I thought of. So who did you take systematic theology with? Lol

bwalkeriii
bwalkeriii

@austinroberts13@trippfuller@austinroberts13@HomebrewedXnty I would add the absence of emphasis on God's transcendence, mystery and ontological difference as a potential weakness.  Not that there aren't ways of dealing with this perhaps, by talking about the changelessness and otherness of God's primordial nature.  But is God the highest being or something more like the ground of being?  Tillich and Rahner, for instance, guard against anthropomorphism here.

Brother Corey
Brother Corey

@Jesse Turri Glad there's another Integral nerd around! If it wasn't for process, Wilber, Fr. Keating, & Gurdjieff I would have lost interest in what presents itself as 'Christianity' long ago. 

JasonDStewart
JasonDStewart

@Jesse Turri @austinroberts13 The problems with panexperientialism are myriad but it should be remembered that the other competing views also have potentially fatal flaws.  If process hinges on it then it rests on a shaky stone but I'm not sure where you'd fine a more stable one.  When it comes to issues of consciousness and the "hard problem" of consciousness we've made practically no scientific advances since the day we decided it was probably somehow connected with the brain.  In fact it may be the one thing that avoids scientific inquiry all together since it is by de facto a subjective experience and the scientific method (as currently understood) is capable of dealing only with the objective.

austinroberts13
austinroberts13

@Jesse Turri@austinroberts13honestly, it's not something i've spent too much time with. i've read a bit of wilber, and while i'm suspicious of some of his ideas as excessively holistic, I appreciate much of what he's about - especially his obvious whitehead influence.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

@austinroberts13@Jesse TurriNice. Curious what you think about Integral Philosophy? Some of the more sophisticated thinkers, like Steve McIntosh, for instance, quote Whitehead and Clayton extensively, as well as employ emergence theory, systems theory, developmental and social  psychology etc.. Tripp thinks they're a little too sure about their story. I like it though. 

austinroberts13
austinroberts13

@Jesse Turri@austinroberts13while studying with him, he let me borrow an unpublished paper on the topic. however, i'm pretty sure it comes up in his adventures in the spirit a bit, but not in such detail. maybe trippfuller knows.

Jesse Turri
Jesse Turri

@austinroberts13 @bwalkeriii @trippfuller @austinroberts13 @HomebrewedXnty  


Thanks again for this post, Austin. 


I'm glad you pointed out creativity as Whitehead's "ground of being." As a visual artist, I resonate a great deal with this aspect of Whitehead's thinking. I love that he thought Kant should have started with his aesthetic Critique of Judgment. Whitehead certainly followed his own advice and developed his world on aesthetics, treating physics as superstructure, in a way...

austinroberts13
austinroberts13

@bwalkeriii@trippfuller@austinroberts13@HomebrewedXnty

Yes, if the creatio ex nihilo thing bothers you, there are ways of holding onto it within process theism, as you know. As for the other side of the argument, if dropping the language of creation out of nothing bothers you, some process folks hold onto it because what God created out of was a *relative* nothingness - events flashing in and out of existence without any structure(s).  Events in themselves are not really 'things' because they're processes/events. So sure, God created out of no-thing.  To talk about 'things' is more along the lines of what Whitehead calls societies - organized patterns/series of events.  Without societies to make what we call 'things', from rocks to cells and lower, what we'd have would be completely random events, neutral in value, and thus unformed chaos with no chance of evolving into the cosmos or planet filled with life that we have now. We genuinely needed God to decide to take the risk to be God for us, to get from no-things to things. So for me, the idea that God created out of a relative nothingness adequately gets at the important notions of contingency, radical grace, God's necessity as sustainer/creator, etc. But without the implication that there ever was a time when God could act unilaterally.

bwalkeriii
bwalkeriii

@bwalkeriii@trippfuller@austinroberts13@HomebrewedXntythanks austin, that is helpful.  You did make a strong case! I only mean to say that the issue of transcendence and ontological otherness is a potential problem. You have shown it may not have to be. The "supreme exemplification" language it seems is what turns a lot of people away. 

It was also misleading for me to say that it's a simple choice between Tillich and "highest being."  And it's clear as you indicated that Tillich and process have major differences, as Whitehead's relational and intersubjective dynamism is much more cosmological where Tillich is ontological.  

This sentence goes a long way for me:  "God is the most effective power in reality as the necessary ground of order and novelty and is omniscient of the entire past and present of creation."

I bring up ground of being vs. highest being though, because I have a hard time understanding how you can drop creation ex nihilio and still not make God the highest being rather than the one in and by whom the universe has its existence -- the latter of which strikes me as an essential affirmation of monotheism.  But, I'm aware there are those process folks who therefore keep creation ex nihilo, so again, only a potential problem. 

Good stuff.

austinroberts13
austinroberts13

@bwalkeriii@austinroberts13@trippfuller@austinroberts13@HomebrewedXnty


Bill, I thought I made a pretty strong case in my post that process theism does fine with God's transcendence, but I must not be getting at what bothers you about it. First, Whitehead's God is not the ground of being. The ground of being is more analogous to Whitehead's creativity. Process folks criticize Tillich's ground of being largely because it doesn't refer to a personal being-agent kind of God that we see in the Bible.  Process theism affirms this.  For Whitehead, God remains the supreme exemplification of relation and process in all of reality.  More importantly, in a relational perspective, otherness is only deepened.  Transcendence as a way to preserve the particularity of God is not an issue for process because *every* subject radically transcends other subjects - that is, this is a metaphysics of intersubjectivity, to quote Bracken.

As for mystery and avoiding anthropomorphism, Whitehead is misread if one understands him as building a metaphysical foundation for eliminating uncertainty. He's certainly a post-foundationalist, writing that “Philosophy has been haunted by the unfortunate notion that its method is dogmatically to indicate premises which are severally clear, distinct, and certain; and to erect upon those premises a deductive system of thought.” In his perspective, metaphysics is an ongoing “imaginative experiment" using "tentative formulations" as a strategic way to deconstruct substance categories - he's giving us a kind of strategic counter cosmology or metaphysic. Even words and phrases for Whitehead, including those made about God, are unstable, ruptured like they are for Tillich.  He calls them "metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap."

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