Between Radical & Confessional Theologies: Whitehead’s God

Guest-post by  Austin Roberts.
He is a PhD student at Drew University, studying with the incomparable Catherine Keller.  
[listen to her podcast here
You should 100% follow his blog and you might want to read his book on eco-theology Process pairing Jürgen Moltmann and John Cobb

As a process theologian, I often find myself in the position of needing to explain or even defend the God that Whitehead affirms.  I have these conversations with fellow academics and intellectual types who just can’t see how some of us can still call ourselves theists after the ‘death of God,’ as well as fellow Christians who struggle to see how one could reconcile process panentheism with the God of the Bible.

While the former group tends to be extremely critical of any hint of transcendence (whether in reference to God or otherwise), the latter group gets uneasy with the process theologian’s special emphasis on God’s immanence.  For the former, transcendence is more-or-less relativized – if not entirely eliminated – by immanence.  For the latter, it is usually the other way around: God is infinitely transcendent and created everything out of nothing.

For those who care to go into this kind of discussion, the core theological question up for debate is this:
how immanent and/or transcendent is Whitehead’s God?

I’m certainly not going to try to answer this with any sense of finality.  What I primarily want to do here is to point out the difficulty of this issue when we have, broadly speaking, two types of theologians reading Whitehead in different ways today:

  • those who resonate with Radical Theology
  • those who are committed to Confessional Theology.

This is exciting to me, even as it brings new challenges to process theology.  I’m not claiming that there is a full-blown contradiction between these two approaches, and perhaps there’s a way to bring these two approaches closer together.  Even so, they are starting out with different assumptions and concerns that certainly shape their contrasting readings of Whitehead’s theism.

At the risk of oversimplifiction, there’s a sense in which Radicals tend to read Whitehead primarily through a poststructuralist lens (Derrida, Deleuze, Butler) while Confessionals read him primarily through the lens of tradition and scripture.

This makes for a rather striking difference between the two.

One could always follow the “Whitehead without God” approach (Bob Mesle, Donald Sherburne). One can also see Whitehead’s God as nothing more than a cosmic function – and therefore wholly “secularized” – that is necessary for a coherent process worldview but totally uninspiring for spirituality or religion (Steven Shaviro’s reading in his “Without Criteria”).

Personally, I think there are serious problems with these interpretations (that’s for another post) and they remain minority reports within the process community.

Let’s consider two streams of process theology, what I’m calling the Radical and Confessional paths.

On the one side are those who read Whitehead’s God in ways that strongly emphasize immanence – a kind of Radical theology, perhaps, usually with the help of Deleuze’s poststructuralist philosophy of immanence.  Few process thinkers go so far as to deny God’s transcendence entirely (although see Kristien Justaert’s process pantheism in “Theology after Deleuze”), but the concept as more commonly understood is very much relativized by a more immanent God.  This is rapidly becoming an influential way of reading Whitehead (I can confirm this based on my experiences at both Drew and Claremont where most students of Whitehead tend to lean this way).

My former professor Roland Faber, signaling a stronger shift towards immanence with his Deleuzean reading of Whitehead, argues for “trans-pantheism” as opposed to the more standard reading of Whitehead’s panentheism.  He digs deep into the Cusan paradox of God as “Not-Other” and places a stronger theological emphasis on Whitehead’s immanent creativity.  He interprets the later Whitehead as seeming inclined “to replace any remaining connotations of God’s transcendence with a totally immanent divine creativity” (Process & Difference, 216).  As with John Caputo’s radical theology, Faber will also say that God does not exist but insists as the interrupting event of the new.

For Faber’s radical process theology, God is always “In/difference”: the insistence on difference and relationality of all differences.  For the Radical approach, questions of Christian doctrine (Christology, Trinity, Revelation) tend to be secondary (at best) to the political and ethical implications of theology.  The thinking here is that an immanent theology is better equipped for this-worldly activism based on democratic practices, over against difference-denying oppressive forms of hierarchy that are rooted in transcendence.

On the other side are those who read Whitehead’s God in ways that try to maintain more traditional theological intuitions of transcendence.  I see this as a kind of Confessional trajectory for Whiteheadians that has been much more common for Christian process theology over the last fifty years.  Confessional process theologians are not necessarily Orthodox in their beliefs, but they tend to have a stronger concern than the Radical process theologians to maintain ties to the Christian tradition and to more thoroughly align their theology to the Bible.

John Cobb is an obvious example here, especially evident in his rather high Christology in which he intentionally remains close to the creedal confession that Jesus was “fully God and fully man.” By reading Whitehead’s God as a balance of immanence with transcendence, he can affirm that God is the most powerful reality in existence, that our existence is radically contingent upon God as our Creator, and that we depend upon God’s grace.  Attempting to do justice to key themes of the Bible and Christian piety, Cobb will claim that because God is always working for the good in the world and truly loves her creation, God can genuinely reveal herself in particular ways, our prayers can be answered, people might even sometimes be healed through God’s action in the world, and that death ultimately does not have the last word.

Unlike Radical process theology, Confessional process theologians unequivocally affirm God’s existence as a real being (e.g., David Ray Griffin’s cumulative argument in his Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism).  A neo-Whiteheadian approach, as in Joseph Bracken’s theology, pushes even closer to traditional commitments and asserts a stronger (“asymmetrical”) sense of transcendence than even Cobb.  Like Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle and Augustine did with neo-Platonism, Bracken will use Whitehead as a general philosophical framework for special revelation in scripture and tradition, allowing the latter more authoritative sources to revise the former when necessary.  The doctrinal results for him are an orthodox view of the Trinity, creatio ex nihilo, and bodily resurrection.

Some of us might cringe at the Radical approach, others at a Confessional approach.  To Confessionals, the Radical approach might sound even more esoteric and complicated than Whitehead himself and irrelevant for practical or spiritual life outside of the academy.  To Radicals, the Confessional approach might sound outdated and naïve at best, or imperialistic and oppressive at worst.  Or some of us might instead be able to see the two as constrasting rather than contradicting and perhaps look for a way to learn from both, even if we share the more basic assumptions of one or the other.

If the Radical approach is helping to keep Whitehead relevant to postmodern intellectuals, religious skeptics, and academics – perhaps even effecting a “Whiteheadian revolution” or a “return to Whitehead” in contemporary philosophy and science – the Confessional approach tends to have much more traction for pastors and laypersons.

This distinction seems to me to exemplify the challenge of identifying the task of theology today: is it important to do theology primarily for the sake of the life of the confessing church, or can we (should we) move on and do theology primarily because of its continuing politically subversive and ethical power for society?  This is not a question just for those of us in the process community, but rather for any theologian who finds herself in this predicament, between the Radical and the Confessional.

Ready for the Road Trip? process prep

in just a few shorts days folks will start to wander on down to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, to the Claremont School of Theology for the 2012 Emergent Village Theological Conversation.

You can follow along and ask questions on Twitter at #EVTC where the main sessions will also be streamed live.

Some of you will be looking to download some last minute audiological goodness for your journey.
Here are some suggestions:

Philip Clayton was interviewed on Doug Pagitt’s radio show. Link is here [all of these are also available on I-tunes]

 Process Poetics with Catherine Keller

John Cobb on Christology (an early HBC interview)

Monica A. Coleman  on Process and Pluralism

Bruce Epperly on Process 101

TNT: Conversation Preparation all about the conference.

Robert Mesle introduces Whitehead’s thoughts


If you are looking for some reading on the flight here is Epperly’s Guide for the Perplexed on KINDLE!!  available for instant download for 9.99.

Coming to Jesus with Daniel Kirk & Philip Clayton: Homebrewed Christianity 3-D

 What does coming to Jesus look like today?  We may not have the answer but we do have a seriously fun and enlightening conversation.

During the American Academy of Religion a herd of theology nerds gathered in the home of Mark ScandretteJesus Dojo extraordinaire – for some live Homebrewed Christianity podcast fun.  Daniel Kirk (New Testament Prof at Fuller Theological Seminary) and Philip Clayton (Philosophical Theologian and Dean of Claremont School of Theology) were our featured contributors but the crowd Deacons who gathered made the entire experience a blast. On top of the podcast we all enjoyed the wonderful food provided by the Scandrette family, the huge bottle of Bullet Bourbon from Rebekah, 3 amazing homebrews from Kirk, and some great questions at the end. 

We hope you enjoy the live brew.  If you dig it you should make plans to join us February 12 at Claremont for John Caputo going 3-D or holla about hosting a show in your own home\bar\church.

If you are wise….and of course you are…you should get Kirk’s new book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? and Phil’s freshest The Predicament of Belief. 

Crossed Out – have we overdone the crucifixion?

In tomorrow’s TNT I am planning to ask Tripp if he thinks that too much has been made out the the cross. “Have we over-focused on the crucifixion?” [the link to this episode is here]

 I think that we may have overdone it on the cross. It is out of proportion.  I want to I hear more about the empty tomb (resurrection) and the coming of Holy Spirit (pentecost). 

Just this week I have run into multiple conversations on the subject. They are all good on their own – but it is the larger picture that I am concerned about. From Daniel Kirk’s fantastic post about Luke-Acts, to Kurt Willems and Tony Jones or Roger Olson.  It can seem like , for Protestant Evangelicals – it’s ‘all atonement theory – all the time’.

Last week my friend A.J Swaboda said “Discipleship is photo-shopping the cross into every picture and angle of my life.”  I asked him if the empty tomb  wouldn’t be more appropriate. He said (wisely) that you can’t have one without the other.

So is that what we are doing? Is ‘the Cross’ shorthand for the whole story? Is it assumed that when we say ‘Cross’ we mean also Resurrection and Pentecost?

That would make me nervous.

Here is my concern: in the resurrection God spoke a new word over the world. I would like to live into that new word and participate with God’s Spirit who was given as a gift and a seal of the promise.

To obsess on the cross and related atonement theories is to live perpetually in the old word and to camp in the final thing that God said about the old situation.

It manifests in odd ways too. When my school, Claremont, was entering into a new venture of a Multi-Faith University, new logos were drawn up for each participating school. One symbol and one color for each represented religion or tradition. It is actually a cool branding that sends a message I can really get behind.

The problem is that we, as the Christian representative, got a red logo with… the Cross as our symbol. Ugh. Really?   We couldn’t have gone with the Flame or the Dove or the Bible or anything else?  What is the deal with the Cross obsession? Is it really the best representative for what the whole religion is about?

I know that Tripp is going to say something about “How the cross bearers became the cross-builders” which is a consistently good point about the historic shift. It has also takes on weird Colonial connotations that have compromised its essential message.

I’m just a little Crossed-out. It’s too much. It is out of proportion with the other elements of our faith and used disproportionally to the other symbols we have.

I would like to see us move into God’s new word for the world – and move out of our perpetual lingering in God’s last word over the old world.

5 Sessions of the 2012 Emergent Conversation

The Emergent Village Theological Conversation 2012 will carry forward some of the best aspects of previous conversations. It will also feature some innovations that appropriately reflect the topic of this year’s gathering.

Here are some highlights of what you can expect:

  • Process Theology emphasizes an open-ended and relational view of faith. The 5 sessions will integrate a format that is thoroughly relational and open-ended.

It is important that the information being presented match the organization of the conference. We want the content to match the container.

  • Process Theology introduces new concepts and vocabulary. Each of the 5 sessions will begin with a ‘keynote’ presentation from a scholar, who will then be in dialogue with two other practitioners and thinkers.  The conversation will then be expanded to the gathered participants – with each session utilizing an appropriate format for the themes of that session.

Use of technology like the Twitter-Tumbler and an empowered moderator will facilitate real-time interactions with the presenter during the session.

  • The structure of the five session are organized in a chiastic format. Monica A. Coleman will lead us in session 1 and 5. John B. Cobb will host session 2 and 4. Philip Clayton has agreed to provide the ‘hinge’ session 3.

Session 1 is Introduction with Monica Coleman
Session 2 is Expansion with John Cobb (Christian Belief and Pluralism)
Session 3 is Dissection and Doubt with Philip Clayton
Session 4 is Application with John Cobb (Economics and Ecology)
Session 5 is Construction for Ministry with Monica Coleman

  • Julie Clawson, veteran of Emergent Conversations, pointed out that most conferences don’t build in a time to question, disagree, and push-back. Great ideas are presented and insightful questions are asked … but the real wrestling is done either individually or after hours.

We still want personal wrestling and after-hours conversation, but we have also purposefully built in a session for wrestling out loud. Session 3 will let us debrief with Philip Clayton who navigates the worlds of Emergent and Process, Church and Academy in a masterful way.

  • Each session will be followed up with related break-out tracks. One will focus on ministry specific issues. Jeanyne Slettom, director of the Center for Process & Faith and co-Pastor of a process-centered congregation will be helping us with this. Another track will be theological-conceptual. The third will be a wild-card showcase.

Five times we will come together for the main sessions to hear a presentation, listen to a dialogue, participate in a conversation, and then disperse for break-out sessions.  These four expanding levels of engagement will allow for both learning and expression in each of the five chapters.

Here is a potential picture of Session 5: Monica Coleman will present ideas and stories about her ministerial experiences and context specific opportunities and challenges for ministry with a Process framework. Then Danielle Shroyer and Bruce Epperly will join her to tell a bit about their context and their engagement of Process in ministry.  Next, we will break down into smaller circles to compare notes in order come into the Question & Response time. This main-session conversation will propel us into the the breakout sessions. One breakout will have two pastors talking about preaching Process. One will be about comparing theological vocab & concepts between different schools of thought. Another will address sexuality in the church & community.

For John Cobb’s session 4 on Ecology and Economy, a conversation partner like Julie Clawson (author of Everyday Justice) and another thinker would be followed by  breakout sessions that correlate.

This is going to be a wonderful time – come to the registration page and sign-up now. Put it on you Christmas List! you might surprised who wants you to be there.

TNT: Peter Rollins at Claremont

Peter Rollins was at Claremont School of Theology a couple of weeks ago – and we recorded it!

His new book is Insurrection and he is in full form during this hour.

If you like what you hear or what to express some concern, come over here [link] and sound off.