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.

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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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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.

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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.

 

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Is God Unique? a response to Tony Jones

Tony Jones posted a question on his blog about the uniqueness of the process god.

As you may know, I responded to Roger Olson earlier this week and I have been talking about how much appreciate ‘al‘s -setting-sun

  • relation-al
  • incarnation-al
  • mission-al
  • practic-al
  • radic-al

I would add pentecost-al

So as someone who is newly converasation-al with process thought, here is my response to Tony’s question.

I would love your feedback – or, if you feel like it, go over and post on Tony’s blog. He is going to respond Friday and Tripp and I are recording the Process/Olsen TNT podcast response.

______

I am continually surprised that this misunderstanding seems to be the sticking point for those who are theologically educated!

For the person in the pew the contentious issue is the nature of God’s power. For the theologian, it is God’s uniqueness.

Let me just say un-categorically that the answer to this question is “Yes. God is unique.”

Process affirms that, both ontologically and in the incarnated revelation of Jesus. God is unique and Jesus is a unique expression that.

Here is how process gets there:

  • God is not an exception to the way the world works  but it’s highest exemplification.
  • God both affects and is affected  by the world.
  • While the world (and all that exists) is contained within God,  God is not completely contained or explained by it. The relationship is not symmetrical.

So in just those three simple points it is clear that God is unique!  Also, God unlike other actual entities does not expire.  This fourth point is perhaps the greatest distinction of uniqueness.

I really don’t know how it could be any clearer that the process God is both unique and distinct! There is no reason that this should be a sticking point for Christian theologians.

I confess that I am baffled as to why this continues to be a last-ditch objection to adopt a process thought as a conversation partner in the theological endeavor.  from the very first moment God is unique–the Alpha and the Omega–it is just that the Omega is different from the Alpha  in that the experiences of the world have impacted the real and  living God.

Someone is going to have to explain to me how this picture of God is NOT unique.

 

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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. 

 
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TNT: a Homebrewed Stew of Topics

This edition of the Theology Nerd Throwdown is a smorgasbord of subjects – a cornucopia of concepts – a torrent of topics… you get the idea. 

First up is the 30 second definition blind challenge when Bo has to define 3 terms or concepts. This week’s words are:  anointing, perichoresis and glossolalia.

Then we chat with Micky Jones about the concept of post-cynical christianity suggested by Jim Wallis.

We take a little break for the High-Gravity broadcast and then pick up with the Bible &  Tillich, Hegel, and Process.

Our guest this week was Jonnie Russell who guest blogged last week. He was visiting for the High Gravity conversation.

One production note: Bo forgot to bring the Mp3 call with Micky for Tripp to hear – so he is commenting blindly. THEN something went wonky with the sound and Bo’s audio on the call to Micky was muted so all of Micky’s comments were edited together to sound like a unified piece.

Blogs that will be tied into this episode will be:

  1. Micky’s post on post-cynical christianity
  2. Bo’s pentecost’s initial aim and historic drift
  3. a Radical Theology cliffs-note

 

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The Problem With Prayer

As a pastor I get to talk with a lot of people. The issue of prayer comes up more often than any other topic. I think I understand why but when any pattern is this consistent it piques my attention and compels me to dig a little deeper.Dark-Clouds

The problem, of course, isn’t for those for whom prayer is an automatic and assumed activity–nor for those who see no point in it. The problem, and thus the need for conversation, resides in those who are thoughtfully attempting to address how exactly a real God really works in the world.

 To use a bowling analogy, there seems to be an illusive sweet spot we want to aim at between two proverbial gutters on either side.

 The gutter to the left is a mechanistic view that too easily degenerates into prescriptive and formulaic constructs. The universe is not a machine and is not fueled by an individual’s personal piety, sincerity of prayer, amount of prayer, particular words and phrases, or purity of beliefs/doctrine.

The problem with many popular approaches to prayer is exposed when prayer appears not to work because certain outcomes were not achieved or no tangible evidence was produced. The difficulty then is the amount of time and energy one needs to invest to explain why prayer doesn’t always work. The explanations always seem to fall into the same worn ruts  involving God’s sovereignty, will and power. In the end these will always fail because God, after all, is not a machine and faith is not the product of an assembly line or factory.

The gutter to the right might be called ‘cosmic coincidence’. One of the difficulties to being a person of faith is that it can be impossible to convince someone who wants to be cynical with enough persuasion as to disavow them of their skepticism. Somehow the concept of belief itself is elusive enough and just abstract enough to not provide the traction it takes to overcome the unqualified need for proof.

  It is the narrow ground between these two gutters that I am attempting to navigate. I want to throw out a theory and get your feedback on.

My theory is that both the beauty and the power of prayer–and subsequently God’s work in the world– resides in the fact that God’s power is a low-level signal  being broadcast in the world on a weak enough frequency that two things happen:

  1. the transmission is subtle enough that those who wish to tune it out are capable of doing so. God’s work is not so obvious or overpowering that one is accosted by its blatant effects and thus would have to be in denial not to see it. The work of God in his gentle,  subtle, hidden, elusive at times and, as Jack Caputo says ‘weak’.
  2. at the same time, however, the work of God in the world is just consistent enough as to allow some to codify it and become prescriptive as to the optimal way to pray. Prayer works just enough of the time for just enough of the population for people to come up with formulas as to its power and how to tap into that.

 

Prayer is like poetry in this sense. Neither is so predictable as to allow themselves to be reduced down to a formula that can be perfected with simple repetition.

but at the same time–both poetry and prayer carry enough consistency to allow for them to be thought of as persuasive.

 

This is the beauty of prayer for me. I am not praying to an interventionist God behind some supernatural veil asking for that Almighty but temperamental  being to puncture the membrane of the natural world and act in a coercive way.  The ancient images of God as warrior, puppet master or unseen mover don’t stand up to any level of scrutiny after the 20th century.

 We know then what prayer isn’t… So what is it?

 Prayer is the partnering of an open heart to participate with a God who is broadcasting a weak signal in the world  and which provides to every moment positive possibilities for every living thing  to bring about a greater good and beautiful flourishing. As we participate in those positive possibilities we open up greater and more abundant possibilities in subsequent moments. As we resist the potential opportunities provided in the weak signal, we close down and crush possibilities for more abundant flourishing and beauty down the road.

In this way we acknowledge that prayer has just enough going on within it that those who prefer the formulaic or even mechanistic approaches of the past will continue to have just enough data to remain insistent. We also acknowledge that prayer will continue to be just elusive enough that those who wish to tune out the signal that is being broadcast by the divine to feel justified in doing so.

Prayer is the poetry of Spirit.  It is not a math formula, a building blueprint, an assembly-line product or a battle plan. Nor is prayer a Christian form of meditation simply useful for aligning one’s heart and mind to the current running in the stream of the universe.

Prayer is a participation in an invitation to partnership that is being broadcast on a weak frequency in the world.

-Bo

________

I would love to hear your thoughts on this … I just have two requests: 

  1. Be careful using personal (private) experiences like speaking in tongues or being slain in the spirit as irrefutable evidence of the former ways of understanding that I am attempting to move us on from. 
  2. Don’t talk to me about miracles in S. America, Africa or Asia unless you are from those regions please. I will explain why I make this request in a post next week.  

 

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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

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TNT: Heaven Hell and Human Trafficking

Slave Free Earth Co-founder Will Henderson stops by HBC Headquarters for throw-down about human trafficking, global sex slavery and emerging as a progressive.  It is an explosive conversation.Slave Free Earth logo

You can join the  Slave Fee Community at SlaveFreeEath.com and pledge to be a 7 community member.

Cathy and Will Henderson were on the HBC podcast last Fall. They are both deacons and ongoing sponsors of the podcast!

 

If you are interested in the issue of  human trafficking – make sure to get our interview here and read this survivor story.

 

This episode is sponsored by the Subverting the Norm Conference 2 in Springfield Missouri April 5th and 6th. Thanks to both Drury University and Phillips Theological Seminary for sponsoring the conference and making it the most affordable two-day event of the year.

*** 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!***


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