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!