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.

Share

Occupy Theology: Marx and Whitehead

In this special episode Deacon Jeremy Fackenthal & Tripp Fuller talk Marx and Whitehead at the 2012 Emergent Village Theological Conversation for 2012.

The “Inverse Theology” that is referenced is from Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno.

Also referenced is the popular blog from last month “Undercover Boss” by Stephen Keating 

Share

The Limits of Language: Lindbeck and Whitehead

Part 1

I like reading Linbeck.* I used to say that I love Lindbeck but I ran into two snags:

  •  I had no idea what people did with Lindbeck. I did not realize that it often led to retreat into a neo-Catholic expression.
  • I did not (and still do not) fully understand that there is some inherent wrinkle in his idea that language creates our religious experience that implies a one-way limitation of language – not allowing our experience to change language and that somehow limits God. Like I said, it is a philosophical wrinkle that is a bit technical for me.

Having said all that … 

What I am a big fan of is his critique of language. He has a riveting analysis of the way that religious language functions in our communities and personal experiences.  I was prone to like Lindbeck because of my deep appreciation for Nancey Murphy’s book “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism”. I was primed for what Linbeck brings to the table.

To become religious–no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent–is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with the religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor is that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways. p. 35

Then I found out that saying you appreciate the post-Liberal approach is like saying you cheer for the New York Yankees in Boston. I get the concern with the descendants of Lindbeck’s work … but I am still suspicious that he is right about how language works in our faith communities.

Fast Forward: I was reading some stuff to get ready for the 2012 Emergent Village Theological Conversation and I stumbled onto a section of Whitehead’s thoughts on religious language.** I got to a section called “Doctrine and History”. After dealing with the fact that language does not have a one-to-one correlation and that all language thus requires interpretation, the author explains:

“The language of a tradition and the central doctrines that reflect and support that language are the prime turbulence of the particular mode of existence characterizing that tradition. Furthermore, as human existence is shaped in specialized ways during the course of history, experiences occur that are not possible to persons shaped by other traditions.”

I resonate with the idea that a person is shaped by the language one is groomed and conditioned by – and that would both empower and naturally shape the experiences that one has and the interpretation of those experiences … even (or especially) the religious experiences.

It just makes sense that because religious in a communal endeavor – one is always a part of a community that has a tradition and set of practices/beliefs – that it determines, at some level, both the types of experiences one has , can have and how one translates or interprets those experiences.

 This is a vital assertion for the 21st century! We no longer live in the monopoly of Christendom or the frameworks of the Colonial Era where one tradition imported and imposed foreign expectations and alien interpretations on another.

With works like “The invention of world religions” by Masuzawa  and “God is not One” by Prothero (among many others) we are entering a time in world history (and thus church history) where we need to come to terms with two things that both Lindbeck and Whitehead are pointing out:

  • Language is both inherited and powerful in shaping our experiences and subsequent interpretations of those experiences.
  • Language used in doctrines like ‘the Church’ and ‘Eucharist’ actually facilitate the ability to have certain experiences that are simply not available to those outside the community or language game. Practices like Yoga or Ramadan would be the same for those in different traditions. That is why North American Christians who do yoga are not having the same experience as those in India.

We live in an era where the realities of inter-religious education, cross-denominational communication and trans-national citizenship are going to challenge all of our inherited traditions and conceptual frameworks.

If we are unwilling to do so and insist on simply repeating the same rote answers week after week under the misguided impression that we are being faithful to the tradition … we are in danger of an irrelevance that leads not only to extinction but ultimately failure to accomplish our great commission.

 

 

* George Lindbeck wrote “The Nature of Doctrine” and along with Hans Frei (author of “Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative”) is credited with starting the Yale School of thought. One of the most famous proponents of which is Stanley Hauerwas famous for his books like  “Peaceable Kingdom” , “Resident Aliens” as well as other things.

 

** Alfred North Whitehead was a 20th century philosopher who is credited for helping to come up with what became Process-Relational thought.

Share

God is great! Jesus is super … but is he unique?

Over the next month we will continue ramping up for the Emergent Village Theological Conversation for 2012. We are very excited about bring the Emergent camp (who we love) into dialogue with Process thought (which we love) in a live-interactive-open ended- relational engagement.
These blog posts may come from the reading in preparation for the conference but I want to be clear about two things:

  • We are not under the impression that everyone is on board with the Process thought 
  • We love to hear from other perspectives at they illuminate, challenge and respond to this ongoing exchange.

I was reading something that other day that really excited me. It was a comparison of the existential approach of someone like Rudolf Butlmann and the “powerful and illuminating analysis of post-christian existence” with the approach of someone like A.N. Whitehead in his book “Religion in the Making”.
It was particularly this sentence which caught my attention:

Bultmann’s belief that through Jesus’ death and resurrection a change was effected in the human situation at the most fundamental level can be examined as a historic hypothesis without introducing any ad hoc notions of a unique act of God.*

Fairly straight forward stuff, but it piqued my interest enough to go back and make sure that I understood the whole section leading up to it. What is interesting is that just before the above quote is this little nugget:

In such a context (exploring distinctive Western structures) the role of such historical figures such as Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus can been seen a bringing new structures of existence into being.

“Whoa! Hold it right there! I like it when you say wonderful things about how great Jesus is … by why do you have to include those other people?” I can hear my conservative and evangelical friends saying.
This is not the only time I have seen something like this and had the same reaction. (God is not One by Stephen Prothero springs to mind). It can almost be framed in this simply rubric

  • God is Great!
  • Jesus is super.
  • don’t elevate anyone else or Jesus won’t seem unique

I remember giving that original Homebrewed interview with John Cobb (ep. 38) to some friends and how uncomfortable they were (across the board) that Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, and Siddhartha Gautama may have been as open to the will of God as Jesus was.
According to Cobb, what makes Jesus unique is not simply that he was so open to the call of God but what God had called him to. In my circles you have to tack Bible verses on to the end of every major point, so I referenced Romans 5 that what God did in Christ satisfied something in God and changed humanity’s relationship to God. Was that enough? That God did something unique in Jesus … or does there also have to be an absence of affirming what may have done in others?

The other night I was talking to a college student from a different continent. She asked me why there was so much confusion in religion and if it “was the work of the evil one?”. I tried to explain how religions grew up in relative isolation during a much simpler time and they were simply not equipped to handle the complex world we now find ourselves in nor are they meant (or even attempting to) answer each other’s questions. They are just not set up for it.

Religions developed in a simpler time and are not set up for a) this level of complexity or b) this much overlap. There is going to continue to be a need for work to be done within each religion and between the religions (or traditions/communities). What will be the Christian contribution?

We all agree that if there is God that God would by necessity be great! Even those who don’t think that the God of Abraham is Allah and Jesus’ Abba will agree with that. Almost everyone agrees that Jesus was extraordinary. Even those who are not so sure about the accuracy of the historical record will acknowledge his impact. But was Jesus unique? Can we affirm something great in other figures without diminishing him?

Unfortunately those who have inherited an unquestioned view developed in Christendom’s monopoly will just quote John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 as if that settles the matter. A pre-existent Christ came down in Jesus and that is all you need to know.
This is why I am so intrigued to have Process theology as conversation partner. I am excited to hear what John Cobb has to say on Thursday morning at the Emergent Theological Conversation when we talk about Pluralism. I have been reading a lot of Cobb and when talks about the way that God was present in Jesus … it makes more sense than anything else I have ever heard on the subject. I would be interest in your thoughts. How does your tradition handle this? What will the future hold in this arena? Is the Christian tradition capable of this give-and-take of the 21st century?

 

*p. 86 of Cobb’s book

 

Share

The Presence and Power of God in Process Philosophy

Tony Jones said, “It seems to me contradiction to hold that God gets what God wants, and that human beings have near-absolute freedom to love or not love God. Except that process theology may be a way around that (Tripp?).Well Tony here’s my attempt to summarize Whitehead in 800 words….the short answer is classical Process thought would agree with you and probably identify Rob Bell closer to Open Theism (the biblical based cousin to Process thought) since they preserve Creation Out of Nothing, see God’s power as ‘self-limited’ verses naturally interdependent with the world, and have no problem permitting divine power to ensure eschatological consummation. Hopefully this helps.

First a quote from Whitehead himself….

The sheer force of things lies in the intermediate physical process:  this is the energy of physical production.  God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization.  He does not create the world, he saves it:  or, more accurately, he is he poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.1 – Alfred North Whitehead

For Whitehead nothing just exists, everything grows together.  Everything grows out of datum and the datum themselves had their own process of becoming; so for Whitehead “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every becoming” (22).  God plays an essential role in the world’s becoming by being the “actual entity imposing its own unchanged consistency of character on every phase” so that “a definite result is emergent” from the process.2 In Process and Reality he came to describe God as having two natures.  The primordial nature, which orders the eternal objects (think Platonic forms) for the attainment of value in the temporal world, and the consequent nature, which receives the temporal world into God.  God’s di-polarity enables God to feel, know, preserve, and save the world.  As John Cobb puts it, God saves the world by transforming the world.3


In Process and Reality Whitehead recognized the necessity of God’s presence for becoming when he said, “apart from the intervention of God, there could be nothing new in the world, and no order in the world.  The course of creation would be a dead level of ineffectiveness, with all balance and intensity progressively excluded by the cross currents of incompatibility” (247). As both the ordering ground for the becoming of the world and the freedom enabling ground for its creatures, God is a constitutive part of each actual occasion.  So in addition to the experience of the past actual world, each becoming includes an experience of God.  It is important to note that this experience of God is essential for a recognizable temporal existence, but it is not require a subjective awareness.  Each moment of becoming is experiencing God, even if the occasion is not conscious of it.

The experience of God in the process of becoming has at least three elements that reveal the fabric of Whitehead’s alternative dynamic of power.  The three are the gift of possibilities, the lure for feeling, and the love of the world.  It is the past that is actual for Whitehead and yet the past alone is not capable of sustaining life or bringing about novelty.  In God the possibilities relevant for the becoming of each new moment are experienced.  These possibilities are a gift because they make freedom possible.  God is not then uninvested in what possibility becomes actualized through the creature’s freedom, but in the confrontation with a range of possibilities God is advocating for the better possibilities.  Whitehead calls God “the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire” which means God’s primordial nature participates in the initial phase of the subjective aim of each occasion (344). After an event has occurred it is experienced by God’s consequent nature in such a way that, “what is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world” (351).  At this point one can see that, for Whitehead, God’s power is not something separate from God’s love for the world. The ‘fellow-sufferer who understands’ is found reaching “toward the world both as it is and as it can be.”4

The brief description of the presence and power of God in Whitehead would not be complete if one facet was not made abundantly clear; for Whitehead the persuasive nature of God’s power is not chosen but natural.  The nature of reality is such that God has never been nor could have been coercive.  God did not chose to limit Godself prior to creation, but “God and the World stand over against each other, expressing the final metaphysical truth that appetitive vision and physical enjoyment have equal claim to priority in creation” (Process and Reality, 348). To say this does not make God less responsive and involved in the World and its history.  On the contrary, “apart from him there could be no world, because there could be no adjustment of individuality” (Religion in the Making, 158).  For Whitehead, the world is saved from banality and repetition because God is always investing Godself in the world and becoming vulnerable to the diminishment of value as well as the intensification of its expression.

1. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality corrected ed. by Griffin and Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), 346.

2. Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Fordham University Press, 1926), 94.

3. John Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology: Based on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 102.

4. Marjorie Suchocki, The End of Evil (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 152. (Here’s a free PDF of Marjorie intro-ing Process theology)

Share