More Musings on the Process-Openness Debate

As I stated in a previous post, Pinnock’s main critique of process theology is that it is more committed to the philosophical presuppositions of Whitehead and Hartshorne than it is to the biblical text itself. I’m on board with him. I’m not in a place where I am going to favor modern philosophical metaphysics over the biblical metaphors and imagery. Indeed, I’m realizing that nearly all of the implications that I affirmed out of a process-relational theology can be affirmed within the openness view:

Whereas process theology understands existence in terms of being in relationship with an “other” and therefore sees God and matter existing in some sort of eternal dualism, open theology affirms creation out of nothing based not on Gen. 1, but instead on passages like Hebrews 11:3. God does not need an “other” to exist relationally because he exists in perfect community within himself (a point that Pastor Brian graciously emphasized in response to my first post on this subject). Open theology is inherently trinitarian in this respect. All this to say, there is nothing in open theology’s understanding of creation that would rule out theistic evolution which is a main concern for me.

I’ve already mentioned that open theology is founded on the notion of God as primarily loving and relational. Therefore, one does not need to be a process theologian to avoid the disgusting assumption that God has predetermined everything making us merely automatons with only a “perceived” freedom.

What’s more, understanding sin as harm or violence really comes out of one’s reading of the commands of Jesus. A serious reading of each command through the lens of the harm ethic yields positive results. Again, process theology is not needed at this point.

Panentheism is the only aspect of process theology that cannot be affirmed by open theism since open theism holds to a strict ontological difference between God and his creation. I hold to what is known as Christian panentheism which still distinguishes between God and creation but understands all of creation to be infused with the creative activity or energy of God. This understanding of God’s relationship to the world is popular in Eastern Orthodoxy. The language of panentheism is helpful in articulating the imminence of God as well as our dependence on his continued creative activity. It also is helpful in the ecological conversation. If God is as intimately involved in the workings of the cosmos as panentheism holds then we ought to think twice about the way that we interact with the planet. This is, I suppose, a small departure from strict open theism, however, for the reasons I articulated above I’ve sort of excused the departure.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that at this point in my journey open theology is more attractive to me than process theology.

However, the most stinging critique of open theology from a process perspective is its failure to “fully” deal with the problem of evil. It must be mentioned here:

Process theology limits God’s power to strictly persuasive which means that he can never act unilaterally. In other words, God’s only hands are our own hands. God can only act in the world by persuading us to pursue the good in all things. Limiting God to only persuasive power makes us, as opposed to God, responsible for most evil in the world (natural evils happen independently in process thought as a result of the interdependence of creation). Evil exists because humans fail to respond to God’s wooing towards a more loving, peaceful reality. Although it does not take the biblical narrative seriously, this is the single most attractive part of process theology for me right now because of its ability to deal with evil. Open theology, on the other hand, although still affirming God as primarily persuasive, sees God as possessing the ability to act unilaterally or with coercion (which is why open theism can still affirm miracles–understood as a break in the natural order of things caused by God’s intervention). For the sake of love God has chosen to limit his power so that he can engage in meaningful, loving relationships but the power to coerce still exists in God within the open view.

Process theology’s critique follows logically:

“If we believe that God is all-powerful we are driven against all our best values and common sense (whether we mean to or not) to argue that rape, famine, plague, child abuse, and cancer ultimately must be good in God’s eyes or else God would have prevented them. At the very best, we are driven to say that it is good for God to allow us to rape, starve, abuse, sicken, enslave, drug, and destroy ourselves and each other in the name of freedom. We are forced by the old idea of God’s power to say that what is morally right for us (protecting the innocent, healing the sick) is morally wrong for God to do (except one time in ten million when God graciously performs a miracle)” (Mesle 22).

This, as I noted above, is a tough critique to swallow. Open theology does not explicitly have an answer when it comes to understanding why God allows evil to occur if he could technically stop it. The two philosophical alternatives, however, are not really options for me given the witness of Scripture. Classical theism sees God as the author of evil since he predetermines everything. Process theology limits the power of God so that he is not culpable.

What can be said at this point is that we are not the only ones to have struggled through this difficult question. Pinnock says it well: “I am forced to say that God has made a commitment to the creation project that constrains his actions. The positive side of it for me is that I line up with Israel’s counter-testimony, which bombards God with questions–How long, God, will you hide your face? Why do you stand far off? Where are you when we need you?” (149). These are questions asked by a community who understands that their God is powerful enough to intervene but for some reason is not. What we can learn from Israel’s relentless questions and the fact that we find them in our canon of Scripture is that God approves of his people asking him difficult questions. In our apparent confusion and disillusionment, God invites us to wrestle with him. There is some solace here.


C.S. Lewis, Parades and Biblical Theology

In an attempt to better understand the conversation between process theology and open theology I’ve undertaken a bit of a reading project. The plan is to finish Clark Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness before tackling C. Robert Mesle’s Process Theology: A Basic Introduction. I’ll be blogging thoughts, interesting findings, struggles and questions along the way. Here’s some interesting stuff to get things started:

“At least since creation, the divine life has been temporally ordered. God is inside not outside time. He is involved in the thick of, and is not above, the flow of history” (32).

It’s a common assertion, especially when talking about matters that have to do with the future, that God exists outside of time. This saying is usually employed in order to support the idea that God could certainly know the future because time is something only experienced by the created order. I’m reminded of an analogy that C.S. Lewis gives in Mere Christianity (which, coincidentally, I am reading right now for my Classics in Religious Literature course–yay for integration!). Essentially, Lewis asks his readers to imagine writing a book in which you write the following: “Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!” For Mary, who lives in the imaginary story world, the knock comes directly after she puts down her work. You, as the author of the book, could choose to wait hours or even days to choose to write about Mary actually answering the door. You exist outside of the imaginary story world that’s been created just as God exists outside of time. Another analogy that is often employed is the parade analogy: we are in the middle of the parade marching forward in a linear progression. We know where we have come from and we know where we are presently at in the parade route but the future remains yet to be discovered. God on the other hand is said to be represented by a woman (read as intentional feminist plug) who is watching the parade from the top of a tall building, able to see where the parade has started, is at, and will finish, all at the same time.

What I like about Pinnock’s attempt to bring God back into time (beside the fact that I think  he remains faithful to the Scriptural narrative which tells the story of a God who always acts within history) is that his understanding is much more practical and experiential. Even if God were outside of time, we can only ever experience him in time. What use is a theology that imagines a God with certain characteristics that we never actually experience as temporal human beings?

Here’s one more thought:

“In tradition, God is thought to function primarily as a disembodied spirit but this is scarcely a biblical idea. For example, Israel is called to hear God’s word and gaze on this glory and beauty. Human beings are said to be embodied creatures created in the image of God. Is there perhaps something in God that corresponds with embodiment? Having a body is certainly not a negative thing because having a body makes it possible for us to be agents. Perhaps God’s agency would be easier to envisage if he were in some way corporeal. Add to that the fact that in the theophanies of the Old Testament God encounters humans in the form of a man. They indicate that God shares our life in the world in a most intense and personal manner. For example, look at the following texts. In Exodus 24:10-11 Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abidu and seventy of the elders of Israel went up Mount Sinai and beheld God, as they ate and drank. Exodus 33:11 tells us that ‘the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’…Add to that the fact that God took on a body in the incarnation and Christ has taken that body with him into glory. It seems to me that the Bible does not think of God as formless” (34).

There’s a lot that could be said about the implications of this but, to be honest, it’s past my bed time so I’ll leave it at this: If Pinnock’s observation teaches us anything it is that we are really good at reading our understanding of God, in this case, his lack of embodiment (which is something that we’ve inherited from our ancient Greek friends), into the text rather than letting the Bible’s language and imagery inform us. This is certainly the reason why even the thought of imagining God with a body is so shocking to many of us (it was for me, at least). Oh, they joys of biblical theology!

Thoughts on Process Theology Pt. 2

In my last blog I layed down a few of the positive implications coming out of a process-relational theology. I also promised in that blog that I would follow it up with a few of my reservations about process theology. This is me doing just that.

A quick preface is needed before I get started: Over the past couple of years I’ve moved in a more open direction with my theology, a move inspired mostly by books like Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible as well as Jerry Paul’s Old Testament Theology course here at Columbia. When I heard about process as another option in terms of an open perspective on God, clearly I was excited. The reality is, however, that I still don’t know a lot about it. It makes sense, then, that the following “reservations” are really questions that have yet to be answered for me surrounding process theology.

With that having been said, let me dive into a few of these questions. One of the things that was so attractive to me about open theism over against classical theism, that is, the notion that God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, immutable (or unchanging) and, in some cases, impassible (or without emotion), was that it seemed to take the biblical narrative more seriously. What I mean is that when classical theists read passages about God changing his mind or getting angry or feeling sorry that he ever made humanity, these things are usually excused as anthropomorphisms (which, in my view doesn’t actually get rid of the problem because the anthropomorphism is still communicating something about the nature of God). Strict classical theists who hold to the notion that God has predetermined everything would say that he can’t actually be changing his mind. There is, then, an a priori commitment to the philosphical presuppositions of classical theism rather than the biblical text itself. Open theists, on the other hand, affirm what the text says at face value. If the text says that God changed his mind then God must have actually changed his mind. This attempt at doing theology bibically instead of philosophically is admittedly very attractive to me.

Here’s where process theology enters the picture. It, like classical theism, is an attempt at doing theology philosophically rather than biblically. Clark Pinnock, in his book The Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, says it well:

“Process theology is a natural theology based on the metaphysics of Whitehead, where as openness is a biblical theology not obliged to a developed philosophical schema. Process theology is a philosophical theology that explicitly draws its way of speaking about God from Whitehead and Hartshorne (cf. core doctrines such as naturalistic theism, the idea of spontaneity rooted deep down in the universe and a non-sensationist doctrine of perception). The openness model, on the other hand, is more revelation based and less dependent on philosophy” (144).

My question, then, is this: what is the advantage of doing theology philosophically rather than biblically?  Marjorie Suchocki makes clear (and, I think, rightly) that “it is not a matter of whether philosophy will be used, but which philosophy will be used.” I agree, then, that it is beneficial to have a relational philosophy while reading  a text that discloses an inherently relational God. However, the philosophical presuppositions of Open Theism are also relational in nature. It becomes clear at this point that my real question is this: what are the inherent advantages of having a process philosophy rather than just an open one?

My second question has to do with the nature of Christ’s crucifixion. I’ll quote Suchockie again:

“Abelard, living in the twelfth century, argued  that God saves us by revealing through Jesus Christ both God’s nature and that which human nature is called to be. This revelation is healing and empowering for us, and Christ becomes our teacher. Process thinkers tend to side with Abelard. Jesus reveals who God is to us and for us. The cross does not represent vicarious sacrifice, but the revelation that God is with us even in our deepest pain.”

I’m fine with process theology’s critique of penal-substitutionary atonement (which Suchocki tackles just prior to this quote in her article) and I’m fine with saying that the cross was a revelation of the nature of God as well as his commitment to be with us in our deepest pain. I don’t like, however, process theology’s reduction of the cross to merely revelation. Process theology posits that Christ merely suffered because of sin instead of dying for sin. There seems to be too much biblical evidence that would suggest otherwise (cf. pretty much all of Paul). Herein lies my question: how does process theology get around passages that discuss Jesus dying for sin (a specific example would be 1 John 2:2). This is where process theology seems to be more committed to its philosophical presuppositions before it is committed to the text which, at this point, I am uncomfortable with.

Those are my thoughts for now. It’s very possible that, upon further reflection, a pt. 3 to this reflection may occur.

Thoughts on Process Theology Pt. 1

Because most of my classes have been less than riveting this semester I’ve had to satisfy my hunger for good theology by exploring the vast expanse of the interwebs. Thanks to Dalton I was introduced to the sweetest theological podcast on the net a few months ago, Homebrewed Christianity. Process theology is a common discussion topic on the podcast and I recently began to do a bit more reading on it because I liked what I was hearing on the podcast. For those who are unfamiliar with Process theology, here’s a sweet little introduction to it by Marjorie Suchocki, a process theologian from Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California. There are a number of positive things that emerge out of a process-relational theology as well as a few things that I have reservations about (which I’m eventually going to explore in another post).

First, I like that process theology takes evolution seriously. For too long has the church held to the notion that Genesis 1 is incompatible with evolutionary thought. There have been far too many young Christians who, upon their discovery of the overwhelming evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, have been forced to choose between either the faith or the facts.  It needs to be made clear that this is an unnecessary choice. Process theology emphasizes the fact that to exist is to be in relation with. To imagine a time when God existed without another to relate to is inconceivable in process thought. God has always been creating and continues to do so. Moreover, Genesis 1 presupposes a world ruled by the primordial chaos prior to God’s creative action. Creation ex nihilo falls by the wayside at this point. I’ve already explored the implications of God creating out of the “stuff of chaos” in a previous blog.

Additionally, process theology holds to a panentheistic understanding of God’s relationship to his creation. What’s attractive to me about panentheism is that it is a happy middle ground between deism and pantheism. God is neither the absentee landlord who is utterly transcendent nor is he limited to or synonymous with his creation. Instead, he is both intimately connected with his creation as well as greater than the created order. A panentheistic understanding of God’s relationship to the cosmos allows us to affirm both the natural laws that govern our world as well as God’s divine creativity in everything and, what’s more, the universe’s dependence on his continued creative activity.

Thirdly, I love process theology’s emphasis on God as primarily a relational being. Rather than being a totalitarian god who predetermines everything in history, process theology holds to the notion that God has granted us free will and remains open to the different possibilities that can emerge out of an ultimately free creation. The pastoral implications of this are huge. Prayer becomes a necessary part of our devotion because God actually listens to and moves in response to the prayers of his people. He is not the impassible being that classical theism has made him into. Instead, he is the always vulnerable, responsive, and open God that we find revealed in the biblical narrative. The notion that God is affected by the decisions we make–that is, he feels the pain that we feel and experience, cries when we cry, is saddened when we disobey–makes him, in my view, more worthy of worship than the utterly transcendent, Stoic god of traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Fourthly, process theology understands sin as violence. This idea puts words to something that I have already begun to believe over the last few years. The commands of Jesus are not arbitrary commands. In other words, God does not exhort us to refrain from certain behavior, for example, because there are some things that break an arbitrary law that God has made. Rather, we are exhorted to refrain from certain behaviors because they are harmful to our neighbor.

Anywho, those are my thoughts. More are coming in terms of my reservations but for now I’ll suffice it to say that I’m currently enjoying all the possibilities that emerge from such an outlook on God and the world. This changes everything!