Search Results for: coercive

O is for Open & Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

With Imagination, Anything is Possible: Process Theology, MacGyver and Non-Violence

MacDoes God ever call us to injure other people? Again, I think the answer is affirmative. If killing Hitler could have stopped the Holocaust and shortened the war, Bonhoeffer was right to support that project. On a much lesser scale, Jesus used violence to cleanse the temple.

Whitehead pointed out that “life is robbery.” For one creature to live, other lives are sacrificed. Certainly human life involves enormous killing of other creatures. That is the kind of world we live in.

The above passage comes from an essay by written by John Cobb. John Cobb is perhaps my favorite theologian and philosopher of all time. In fact, there is a good chance that he may even be my favorite writer of all time. I agree with so much of what he says and writes about in fact (concerning God, ecology, interpreting Whitehead etc…), that I have often wondered if there was anything I might disagree with him on. Well, as it turns out, I disagree with him on killing hypothetical people.

Full disclosure, at this point in time I resonate (and have for a while now) with radical streams of Christianity that subscribe to non-violent, semi-violent, non-lethal, and/or anti-violent resistance; i.e. peace theologies such as those found in Mennonite, Quaker and some liberal/mystic Catholic traditons, for instance. I think one of the things that has captured my imagination so much about these types of radical ideologies is their emphasis on undying, unconditional love, and forgiveness, which of course, according to proponents of these types of radical peace theologies, is found to be exhibited and modeled in Jesus.

So, suffice it to say that I was really disheartened to learn, while watching a lecture by Bob Mesle which he gave at Claremont recently, that John Cobb would be willing to kill 15 people if it meant saving the whole planet. Now, to be fair, Cobb was responding to a hypothetical either/or scenario and he did clarify by saying that he couldn’t imagine a case in which this would ever be true.

The hypothetical situation Cobb was responding to sounded like, to me, a process version of the trolly problem found in ethics text books. According to the process view, relational power opens up possibility while coercive power closes down possibility, but it may indeed be so, according to John Cobb, that the best possibilities we are left with in a given situation may be the least of some perceived “evils.” For example, in the case of the trolly, choosing a track that will kill one person in order to save five.

So, here is where I start to wonder.

One of the reasons I have come to appreciate process thought so much is because of it’s unique emphasis on openness, creativity and novelty. So, it was absolutely baffling to me when I heard a room full of Claremont academics seemingly fall into the binary trap of the trolly problem. It seems to me that hypothetical either/or situations, like the one found in the trolly problem, are problematic if only because they don’t leave room for a few things that are so absolutely critical in process-relational thinking, namely: improvisation, openness, and creativity; or what I like to call “the MacGeyver Possibility.”

In the trolley scenario, we’re faced with the impossible choice of having to decide on killing 1 person to save 5 people by pulling a lever which alters the runaway trolley’s course.

Anyway, my theory (and I’m sure it’s not original) is that by adding MacGeyver to the trolley problem/equation, the outcome could indeed change because there is a significant chance that the 1980’s fictional TV hero could figure out a way to stop the trolley completely, using only a tooth pick and a swiss army knife.

Leaving room for the MacGeyver Possibility makes sense, I would think, if one was coming from a process-relational perspective, especially since, according to folks like Cobb, God lures us to act in a certain way that would be thought best in any given circumstance. Cobb writes:

“By introducing possibilities of such action that go beyond what the situation would otherwise allow, God expands our freedom. Violence as we ordinarily understand it restricts the freedom of its object.”

The words Cobb writes above seem to me to speak very much to what is going on in the MacGeyver stories. One of the reasons MacGeyver consistently seems to get out of perilous situations is because he’s able to overcome what gestalt psychologists call “functional fixedness.” So, essentially, MacGeyver is able to look at objects (or situations) and not get hung up on their typical functional purpose. Rather, he is able to see an objects potential role in solving a problem. MacGyver demonstrates a remarkable lack of fixation. The objects in MacGyver’s environment can have many different purposes other than their typical purpose; in Cobb’s terms, MacGeyver ‘expands the freedom of objects around him.’

In this sense, then, MacGyver could be classified as a strong divergent thinker. Objects then, for MacGyver, are essentially pieces of a larger puzzle that fit together to form larger tools. Objects don’t just have one purpose for MacGyver. This type of thinking, or restructuring, is what makes it possible for MacGyver to use nonviolent (or at the very least, semi-violent) methods to move from initial states to goal states.

To bring this all back to theology then, I imagine the God of process-relational theology to function very similarly. I mean, If MacGyver can assemble a slingshot out of a mattress to get himself out of a tricky situation, I’d say it’s indeed possible for God and/or humans not to have to kill hypothetical people (or real ones for that matter) when faced with tough dilemmas that life will inevitably throw our way.

Cross-posted on turri.me

Art Credit: Unknown Artist

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!

How (not) to speak (about the power) of God

I appreciated many things about the most recent TNT episode in which Tripp and Bo dealt with some of the questions and common misconceptions of process theology and its differences from other theologies like Arminianism and open theism.  I also enjoyed the exchange between Tripp and Brandon in the comment section.  This podcast and blog is one of the best places out there for constructive theological conversation.  I have read Whitehead and studied process theology in some depth now, and I’m very impressed and challenged by much of it.  Getting to hear from John Cobb in person on a number of occasions was a highlight during my time at CGU.

I am not very interested in making statements about what counts as orthodoxy and what doesn’t, but I am concerned about giving past theological ideas a fair reading.  When treating central doctrines of the faith with scrutiny, therefore, I feel that the burden of proof should be on the innovator more so than on the tradition.  Of course, this does not mean that we cannot innovate.  On the contrary, innovation is essential, but problems occur when we do this without charitable consideration of those who have come before us — as Tripp and Bo know (that’s why they let people like me express somewhat divergent opinions on their blog!).

For guys who are as theologically astute as Tripp and Bo, however, I was a little surprised to hear what I consider to be a rather trite dismissal and caricature of the classical tradition’s way of talking about God’s power.  Specifically, I want to take issue with the claim made by process theology that “Constantinian” Christianity gave bad compliments to God that were better reserved for Caesar – omnipotence in particular.  The trouble is that oppressed Christians with minority and marginalized status under the rule of the Roman Empire gave “Caesar” attributes to God to distinguish themselves from Greek polytheism long before the church’s integrity was compromised by imperial power.  And they weren’t voluntarists (i.e., those who believe that God can do whatever God wants).  Now, this by itself does not mean that the early Christians were right to talk about God in the way they did, but I’m simply making the point that such supposedly misleading “compliments” predated the creeds and the councils, and were not made for the reasons that Tripp and Bo’s comments implied.  Yet the question still remains as to whether the early church was justified in how they conceived of God, and that’s what I want to consider first.

In the podcast, Tripp used the example of parenting to illustrate the problem of evil with respect to God’s power and God’s character.   The scenario was described in which a parent standing idly by watches while his or her child runs into the street, fully aware that a car is coming down the road and not intervening to save the child.  Clearly, by the standards of our finite, human and historical existence, this kind of parenting is unimaginable.  The conclusion is drawn then that if God fails to intervene in the world when God’s children are in imminent danger, God is a bad parent.  Therefore, if God is to remain good, it must be the case that God cannot “intervene.”

In order to arrive at this position, a comparison is made univocally to God’s relationship with human beings in history and space-time in general.  That is, it is assumed that human relationships between parents and their children are similar enough to the relationship between God and human beings for this exact parenting comparison to be used when talking about God.  According to the classical Christian way of talking about God though, and as Brandon Morgan points out, this direct comparison is a mistake.

As finite beings, all of our language is only fit to describe finite reality.  This leads some to conclude that all attempts to say anything positive about God are in vain.  But those like Thomas Aquinas for example, and Pseudo-Dionysius, insisted instead that one could indeed ascribe certain attributes to God by following a process of affirmation, negation, and remotion when talking about God (e.g., “God is like a parent in some respects, but only in limited correlation or proportionality, not directly”). This method of theology became known as the via analogia, or the “analogical predication of divine names.”  Thomas also has an account of God’s agency in the world in terms of secondary causality, which is a non-zero sum way of granting freedom to creation and human agents for participation in the purposes of God without infringing upon natural ends.Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

In other words, while it is fitting to say that God loves us like parents love their children, this love, and this parenthood, are not im-mediately comparable to our finite and human experience of love and parenting.  All the more so when we get into specific human experiences like kids playing in traffic.  The idea that God could intervene to stop traffic is not the same kind of intervention that Christians hope for in the resurrection or in the eschaton.  The same goes for talking about God as a “ruler,” or as anything else.  Thus, when assessing and the nature of God’s character with respect to God’s power, we cannot rely too heavily on any one human analogy.  Only in the resounding overflow or of a plurality of names does the nature of God become even partially revealed.  Thus, whatever one makes of traditional accounts of God’s omnipotence, it does not equal “arbitrariness” or Caesar-style trumping power. 

Secondly, The problem of evil has troubled me deeply, and still does.  I do not feel resolved about it at all.  My dissertation is largely about this very subject.  But I think our refusal to tolerate a fair amount of mystery and childlike faith when it comes to explaining suffering has as much to do with our anthropocentric view of reality as it does with any possible deficiency in God’s character or power.  Much as I want it to, God’s goodness does not necessarily depend on what is good for humans and from our point of view right now.  I say this as someone who is as existentially disturbed by meaningless horrors in history as the next person.

Process folks like to recite the Philippians 2 hymn, but only the first half of it.  Yes, God’s power is most demonstrated in the self-emptying love of Christ on the cross.  In this sense, God can rightly be called a fellow-suffer who understands.  And on this same cross, the power of Caesar is judged, criticized, and exposed as fraudulent.  But only in the resurrection is the power of Caesar truly undermined, which Paul attests in “part two” of the Philippians hymn.  And according to Paul, the power of God is disclosed not as weakness, but in weakness – in becoming weakness, namely.  For without decent, there could be no ascent (metaphorically).

Similarly, the reign of God is known not so much by non-coercive power, but by power from below – power from the fringe.  There is a difference here. I am weary of any dualism between nature and super-nature as well, but if the resurrection isn’t meant to be a coercive rupture of the “as is” structure of reality, I don’t know what is.  I suggest, therefore, that Christians are better off not by taking issue with the idea of God having coercive power as such, but with God having top-down power.  It’s a false binary if we’re forced to choose between a Caesar-God and a persuasive God.  God’s top-down action is weak, but bottom-up, it’s strong, transformative and quite forceful.  This doesn’t need to mean it isn’t loving.  Somewhere herein lies an all-important distinction that might just make a way for a real eschatology without giving up the integrity of the physical universe.

Pastoring the Process

What a week! On top of interacting with concerns of Roger Olson and Tony Jones about process thought, I have received amazing emails, tweets, blog and Facebook comments.

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Here are the 4 biggest themes that emerged from those interactions.

 

How does Process affect your field of Practical Theology?

The first thing to understand that Practical Theology is kinda sociology with a theological lens. We use interviews, case studies & ethnographies (qualitative methods) to investigate how religion is lived out on the ground.

So a Practical Theologian does not need to subscribe to any particular school of thought per se. We do have to locate ourselves philosophically but no one approach is required.

Having said that … I am primarily concerned with pastoral theology and as a pastor, process theology has deeply impacted the way that I think, believe, lead and facilitate my interactions with the community of faith.

 

Doesn’t it seem weird to base so much on the philosophy of one guy in the 20th century?

Not exactly. Once you understand that all of christian history and specifically western theology is based and embedded with philosophy from day 1. If you don’t know how the Gospel of John or the Nicene Creed is laced with philosophical frameworks, this will be eye-opening to you.

Having said that, the philosophical approach that come from thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead is notable in a number a ways. It is naturalist (vs. empiricist) and it is advantageous in the areas of:

A) creation-care

B) give and take (symbiotic) relationship we have with the earth & the rest of creation

C) the realistic (not idealistic) way that things are after the industrial revolution

D) emergent thought and evolutionary history

When you put that all together, THEN add the fact that Whitehead had a Bible – what you end up with is an approach that is far more compatible with the way that the world actually works than anything we have inherited from centuries past.

 

Does it really matter?

100% Yes! Are you kidding me? When people question the nature of God’s power – why God doesn’t do the things that a god is supposed to do – when God, who could do anything if ‘he’ wanted to, doesn’t do them … both the world and the faith that we have inherited doesn’t make any sense.

Giving people both a permission to ask questions and a framework to process different approaches is a gift in the 21st century.

There is no school of thought that I have found more fruitful in engaging than process. Engaging biblical scholarship is a great starter. Asking big question about the nature of human violence (like memetic theory) is a catalyst. The pièce de résistance is found an alternative framework that not only asks different questions but allows for different answers.

 

Does it change how you pastor? 

Absolutely! If the nature of God’s power is not coercive but persuasive, then it affects everything.

  • The way you view administration
  • The way you counsel people
  • The way you preach
  • The way you recruit help
  • The way you pray
  • The way you empower & delegate
  • The way you do hospital visitation
  • The way you respond to criticism
  • The way discipleship is defined*
  • The way the community conceives of itself and participates
  • The way you perceive outsiders

I actually can not think of one aspect of church-life that is untouched  by this upgrade in operating-systems.

 

As you can tell, I am having a blast, so feel free to keep the conversation rolling! What else do we want to address? 

 

* In last night’s response “Is God Unique?” I made the case – based on the Advent podcast with John Cobb – that following Jesus in discipleship looks a little different. 

Jesus was as open to and as faithful to the will of God as Mother Theresa was to her calling, Francis of Assisi was to being Francis, maybe even Buddha was to be Buddha … That is not what makes Jesus unique.

WHAT makes Jesus unique is WHAT God called Jesus to. It is possible that all of these people were equally open & available to god as Jesus was. The difference is what God called Jesus to.

Jesus played a unique role in human history. No has ever – or will ever – play that role. What God did in Jesus has impacted all of humanity. Jesus is unique.

NOW having said that … the art of following Jesus is being open to and available to the presence of God the way that Jesus was open to available to the will of God is Jesus’ life.

Being like Jesus is not doing what Jesus did (walking on water) but being available to God the way the Jesus was available to God. This is discipleship.

 

A Newbie Response to Roger Olson

Roger Olson blogged about why he is not a Process Theologian.  Since I am a newbie to Process Thought, I thought it would be fun to respond to the post point-by-point.  My responses are in bold.

In the days to come, people who do this for a living (instead of a hobby) will respond more deeply and more accurately than I have here. 

 

First … let me say that many, many people I know who think they believe in process theology really don’t. Like many theological labels and categories, over time, “process theology” has been stretched to cover much, much more than it originally covered. Many people who claim to believe in it simply don’t know what it is, historically-theologically, or what it entails logically.

I am up for the challenge. I might be who you are talking about. Let’s see how this goes. 

When I talk about “process theology” I mean the type of (so-called) Christian theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (sometimes as modified by Charles Hartshorne) and expressed above all, prototypically, by John Cobb, David Griffin, Norman Pittenger, Delwin Brown, et al.

Good so far – that is what I thought it was.  

In other words, “process theology” is not just any relational theology. It is a type of relational theology, but not the only one. And, I would add, not the best one. (For example, Jürgen Moltmann’s is a relational theology and, in my opinion, much better than process theology.)

Sure. We know plenty of people who prefer Moltmann or the Open Theology of someone like Greg Boyd. No worries there. 

Many people have taken a course that included a little process theology or have read a book by a process thinker or just heard about process theology and jumped on the bandwagon without really knowing all that it involves. So—just because you call yourself “process” doesn’t mean you are.

Agreed. We try to say this all the time. Of course we say from a purist sort of qualification and you mean as as dis-qualification – but so far so good. 

So what are the essentials of process theology? My description will be of an “ideal type” based on the consensus of the most noted and influential process theologians (some of whom are mentioned above).

Let’s do this! 

First, process theology assumes that to be is to be in relation. It is a relational, organic worldview.

Yep. In fact, I would ask, “what was the other option?” 

Second, process theology avers that God is not an exception to basic ontological rules but is their chief exemplification.

This is a major distinction and one that I find very attractive. But you are right – it is a significant departure. This is why I talk about Process Thought as a not just a new program to download but a new operating system that reformats ones’ theological hard-drive.

Third, process theology asserts that omnipotence is a theological mistake; God is not and cannot be omnipotent. God’s only power is the power of influence (persuasion).

Right. The nature of God’s power is not coercive but persuasive. God’s power is not unilateral but seductive.  No problem so far. Hand_ofGod2

Fourth, process theology is a form of theistic naturalism; it does not have room for the supernatural or for divine interventions (miracles).

Umm … yes and no. This is true to the degree that the super-natural is based in a pathetically antiquated metaphysics and a three-tiered universe. But ‘no’ in the sense that there is room for the miraculous – especially as testified to in the Gospel accounts. So we are 4 in and we start to get a little shaky. 

Fifth, process theology denies creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, and affirms classical panentheism—God and the world are mutually interdependent. There is a sense in which God is dependent on the world (beyond self-limitation).

Ya – read the two creation accounts in Genesis. There is no creation ex nihilo. Read church history. No Jewish person, including Jesus,  would have believed ex nihilo until two centuries after Christ. It is a greco-roman reading imported and imposed on the Jewish text. 

Sixth, process theology refers to God as “dipolar”—having two “poles” or “natures”—one primordial and one consequent. God’s primordial pole is potential only and consists of ideals. God’s consequent pole is actual and consists of God’s experience. The world contributes experience to God. God has no primordial experience. (Theologian Austin Farrer referred to this as process theology’s lack of “prior actuality in God.”)

Right. And doesn’t a classic Trinitarian understanding speak of the immanent and the economic Trinity? Am I wrong on this? If I am someone will tell me … 

Seventh, process theology regards God as radically temporal; God learns as history unfolds and how history unfolds is ultimately up to creatures (actual occasions). (“God proposes but man disposes.”)

Umm … isn’t there evidence of this in both the Hebrew and Christian testaments? I mean, it’s not completely unprecedented. I mean, you can go the Openess route and say that it is a ‘self-limitation’ or you can go the Process route and say that it just the way it is (God’s nature / the nature of reality).  

Eighth, process theology reduces God’s creative activity to bringing about order and harmony insofar as possible. God is not the actual creator of the world or any actual occasion (the basic building blocks of reality). God can only create, however, with creaturely cooperation.

Right – the interventionist notion of God is shed. This will become important as we move through the 20th century (let alone the 21st). 

Ninth, process theology views Jesus Christ as different in degree but not in kind from other creatures. His “divinity” consists of his embodying the self-expressive activity of God (“Logos”) which is “creative transformation.” He is not God incarnate in any absolutely unique sense that no other creature could be.

Ugh. This is overstated. I would venture to say that the last sentence is not well represented. If one listens to the latest Barrel Aged Podcast with John Cobb on Advent, you will hear a more nuanced and ‘orthodox’ presentation of this concept of incarnation. Jesus IS unique. 

I   would go as far as to say that Olsen gets this one wrong. 

Tenth, process theology denies any guaranteed ultimate victory of God or good over evil. The future is “more of the same” so far as we know. Ultimately, that is up to us, not God. God always does God’s best, but he cannot guarantee anything.

Half Right. Is the future guaranteed? No. It is 100% up to us? No – there is still a God in the universe. Does God work with us to bring about a preferable set of possibilities and open up options yet unseen? Yes. 

Now, if that is an accurate brief summary of the essential points of process theology, which I believe it is (allowing that there are people who call themselves “process” who may disagree with one or two points and who may add to it something others would not), here is why I think it is not a form of Christian theology.

I would give it a 90% – but let’s see where this goes. 

First, process theology’s ultimate authority for belief is not divine revelation but philosophy and, in particular, Whitehead’s organic metaphysic (sometimes as altered by Hartshorne). That becomes the “Procrustean bed” on which revelation must fit. It is not merely influenced by or integrated with that philosophy; that philosophy is its very soul and foundation.

Dr. Olson, you have to know that all of Christian theology is both in concert with and based on some set of philosophical frameworks. That is part & parcel of every theological project through the centuries. Process’ explicit reliance on this is not a disqualifying admittance. In fact, it is better than the implicit nature of other historical expressions. 

Second, process theology’s Jesus Christ is not God and Savior in any recognizable sense. Its Christology tends to be either adoptionistic or Nestorian (as in the case of Norman Pittenger).

What?  Oh my. Really? Oh no. We are going to have to do a TNT on this one.  The beauty of  ‘christology from below’ the subtle way that Cobb does it in the pod on Advent is masterful. 

Third, process theology has very little, if any, room for the Trinity. Attempts by process theologians to include the Trinity in their theology have been weak and mostly modalistic. (Catholic process theologian Joseph Bracken has attempted to develop a trinitarian process theology, but I’m not convinced it works.)

Now you are swinging wildly. Would you say this about the parichoretic view? 

Fourth, process theology denies miracles including the bodily resurrection/empty tomb of Jesus Christ.

Not exactly. 

Fifth, process theology constitutes radical accommodation to secular modernity.

Because Evangelicalism has made no accommodation to modernity or changed anything since the Apostles?

Sixth, process theology denies the efficacy of petitionary prayer.

There is no interventionist God in Process. 

Seventh, process theology has no realistic eschatology.

Realistic? Did you mean that? Did you mean ‘real’? Otherwise you will have to show me a ‘realistic’ one. 

Eighth, process theology makes God dependent on the world and not as a matter of voluntary self-limitation (as in the case of Moltmann, for example).

God’s nature versus decision –  a slight distinction. Certainly doesn’t need to be a matter of disqualification.  

Ninth, process theology reduces salvation to actualization of God’s “initial aim” and thereby falls into a kind of Pelagianism (except that for most process theologians everyone is or will be “saved” in the traditional sense of reconciled with God).

Now this is an interesting point – one worth fleshing out in throwdown. Having said that, I hope you are prepared to have your view of salvation scrutinized. 

Tenth, process theology is so esoteric as to be impossible for most people to understand. It uses conventional Christian language but means something so different that only people steeped in process philosophy could possibly guess at its meaning. The meanings bear little resemblance, if any, to orthodox Christianity.

Oh come on! Is that a real accusation? You just said esoteric. Big words and new concepts are not a problem. People learn new words all time: “I’ll have a venti Caffè macchiato barista”. 

Added:  This happens when people join denominations of change expression of church.  You can not become Lutheran, Episcopal, Wesleyan, Methodist, Catholic, charismatic, Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox , non-denominational  any other from without learning new words.

Sanctification, liturgy, vestry, sacrament, diocese, cruciform, stole, christen, laity … it just goes on and on.

SO the learning of  new words and concept thing is not a big deal. We do the same thing when we go seminary: soteriology, annotation, attribution, attestation, primary source, ontology, Turabian.

None of that is prohibitive. People do this all time when it A) benefits them (barista) and B) they enjoy it/ feel it is necessary.

If you talk to someone in the military, medical or legal fields … it is ubiquitous – then it come to religion and ‘Oh NOO! the average person in the pew has to understand EVERYthing  immediately’.   Why is that?

Is there anything redeemable in process theology? Not that I cannot find elsewhere.

Nothing redeemable? Is that a play on words because of the salvation thing earlier? 

Why is process theology so popular? I think it’s because it seems to solve the theodicy question. If process theology is true, there is no theodicy question. Evil exists because God is not omnipotent and creatures, having free will and some degree of self-centeredness, often resist God’s initial aim for them. I’m not sure that begins to explain evils such as the holocaust.

  1. It’s popular?  Nice. 
  2. You are right about the theodicy question. 

But process theology solves the theodicy issue at too high a cost. The God of process theology is hardly worshipful. In order to be worshipful God must be both great and good (but not one at the expense of the other). The God of process theology is not great enough to be worshipful. He/she/it is great enough to be admirable but not worshipful.

No. Wrong.  You sound like the person who says “Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th? Christmas isn’t even worth celebrating!”  Just because it isn’t the way you were taught it or previously understood it – doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. You should walk in the woods or come to church with me sometime.

A better solution to the theodicy issue may be found in God’s self-limitation in creation. This is the alternative presented by Moltmann, among others. I highly recommend Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame? for those attracted to process theology but wanting a more orthodox alternative. (For those who object that Boyd is an open theist, this particular book does not depend on that.)

This should get interesting.