An Overview of Process Theology

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Process theology is a specific sub-discipline that emerged over the course of the twentieth century within the overarching discipline of Christian theology. The purpose of the essay is to develop an overview of process theology. The essay will be organized into four main parts. The first part will consist of a simple introduction to the subject at hand. Then, the second part will consider convergences between process theology and more orthodox theological conceptions, and then the third part will consider divergences between process theology and those conceptions. Finally, the fourth part will consist of a critical reflection on the value of process theology for the general interpretation of the Christian tradition and the Christian faith. 

Introduction to Process Theology

To start with, then, a key point that can be made here is that process theology is strongly grounded on the metaphysical philosophy developed by Alfred North Whitehead. This philosophy was in itself distinctly theological in its cadence, insofar as it made explicit attempts at trying to formulate a new idea of what God is. For example, a couple of Whitehead's classic formulations include the following: "It is as true to say that God is permanent and the World is fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent;" and "It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God" (348). The main gist of such statements is that Reality as a whole is in fact an ongoing and unfolding relational process between God and the World—a process in which neither God nor the World have ultimate primacy, but in which God and the World are radically and utterly interdependent with each other. 

Process theology is essentially the development of Whitehead's basic philosophy along Christian lines and with the assistance of Christian concepts. This formulation in itself reveals one of the internal ambivalences of process theology: namely, that it does not begin with the Christian Bible and then proceed to interpret the text in a philosophical way, but rather begins with Whitehead's philosophy and then seeks to translate and develop that philosophy in terms of Christian language. This has led to some controversy over whether process theology really is Christian at all, as will be seen below. What can be said for now, however, is that the convergence of Christianity and philosophy is nothing new: all throughout history, from the ancient Greeks to the medieval philosophers to present-day thinkers, efforts have been taken to bring the Christian religion into congruence with a given philosophical system. In this context, process theology can be understood as a sophisticated and especially recent attempt to bring it into congruence with the philosophy of Whitehead. 

Convergences of Ideas

One of the main ways in which the premises of process theology strongly converge with the premises of the Christian religion consists of the basic idea that God is relational and deeply affected by what goes on in His world. For example, Heschel has pointed out that the Old Testament prophets were primarily profound because in them one could hear the actual sentiments of God Himself—which is to say, that God had a feeling of deep concern for what happened to his world in general, and to the chosen people of Israel in particular. Regarding a particular tragic passage of the prophet Jeremiah, Heschel has written the following: "These words are aglow with a divine pathos and thus can be reflected, but not pronounced: God is mourning Himself" (141). Heschel is a deeply respected rabbi, and not just some random revisionist; and in his eyes, this relationality and deep pathos of concern are intrinsic to the nature of the biblical God, to the point that it would even be blasphemous to suggest that He was detached from or disinterested in His world. 

Likewise, Miles has argued that when one is told that man is created in the image of God, this must be taken in not only a literal but also a reciprocal way; that is, it should be taken to imply that God needs His image in order to understand Himself. As Miles has suggested, "One of the very earliest statements any biblical writer makes about God is that mankind, male and female, is God's image—an unmistakable invitation to make some sense of God in human terms. God rarely says of himself that he is mysterious and more than once implies the opposite" (14). Over the course of his work, Miles makes the clear case that God understood Himself, progressively, over time, as a result of his evolving relationship with humankind. This is a more radical formulation of the divine pathos discussed by Heschel; however, it is logically congruent with that argument; and moreover, this entire picture of the God of the Bible is also highly congruent with the basic vision of process theology. 

To make the same point in an inverse way, it should perhaps also be pointed out that some other philosophical notions that have historically been intertwined with Christianity are decidedly not congruent with the picture of God as it emerges in the Bible. For example, the idea of a God who is indifferent, unchanging, and unmoved by the plight of humanity is a distinctly Greek conception of divinity that would seem to have little to do with either the Hebrew Bible nor the Christian Gospels; rather, this would be a formulation that seeks to reduce the prophetic God of the Bible to the rational God of the philosophers (see Shestov). A main idea to keep in mind here is that the Christian religion has always been filtered through the prism of one philosophical framework or another; and insofar as this is the case, the suggestion could easily be made that the categories of process theology fare considerably better, in terms of fidelity to the biblical picture of God, than do the categories of (say) ancient Greek philosophy. 

Divergences of Ideas

There is thus a basic sympathy between process theology and the Christian religion, insofar as both understand God to be in a relational and interdependent relationship with humankind and the world. This, however, should not be allowed to overshadow the key divergences that also exist between process theology and more orthodox conceptions of the Christian religion. For one thing, it would seem that process theology actually rejects the special divinity of Jesus Christ. As Olson has put the matter: "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" (paragraph 13). This would be a deal-breaker for many if not all more orthodox Christians. 

Moreover, this could be seen as one instance of process theology's more general submission to the voice of reason. Process theology ultimately does not take biblical revelation as its original criterion of truth; rather, it is firmly grounded on the reasoning that undergirds Whitehead's rational philosophy. In principle, this means that if parts of the biblical picture of reality contradict the premises or implications of that philosophy, then those parts must be either discarded outright or interpreted in a metaphorical way that brings them into congruence with the philosophy. From a religious perspective, this would not really be an acceptable move, insofar as it would imply that one's real "god" is not revelation but rather just reason (see Shestov). Or to put the same matter in different words: it would imply that one is primarily a philosopher and not a man of faith. 

Process theology also puts forth numerous notions about God that may or may not be congruent with the biblical picture, but which have surely been rejected by almost all more orthodox Christians over the course of history. For example, process theology provides a radically simple answer to the traditional problem of evil: "if God is all-powerful then God has the ability to prevent unjustified suffering; if God is perfectly good then God has the motive to prevent unjustified suffering; but unjustified suffering apparently exists; therefore, there is reason to believe that God is not all-powerful or not perfectly good;" and process theology reaches the conclusion that God is not in fact all-powerful in any traditional sense of the word (Viney, section 5). This conclusion would in fact seem to be congruent with the conundrums that God repeatedly seems to encounter over the course of the pages of the Bible. However, it is a conclusion that would be rejected by most more orthodox Christians; and it would also seem to deny any notion of there being a mystery inherent within evil itself. 

Critical Reflection on Value

The reader may have noticed that over the course of the above discussion, some ambiguity has emerged regarding what can fairly be called a convergence and what a divergence between process theology and Christian religion. This is due to the fact that in some ways, process theology would seem to contradict several seemingly universally accepted notions about the nature of God, but in a way that is congruent with the picture of God that emerges within the Bible itself. For example, the Bible does in fact present a radically relational, highly emotive, continually changing, and possibly not all-powerful being as the object of all worship. In this sense, process theology would almost seem to override centuries if not millennia of misunderstandings of the God of the Bible that have been introduced through the incorporations of philosophical ideas that are fundamentally not congruent with the vision of the Bible. 

On the other hand, however, when conflicts do arise between reason on the one hand and revelation on the other, it is undeniable that process theology tends to resort to reason as the ultimate arbiter of the matter. Process theology, for instance, denies the special divinity of Christ or the existence of literal miracles, due to the simple fact that there would be no way to square such phenomena with the philosophical system developed by Whitehead (see Olson). To be fair, this is also a move that has been made by several other denominations of Protestant theology, in the face of the modern pressure to make rational sense and not say things that would strike the reason as obviously absurd. This ignores the basic religious point, however, that the God of the Bible is perhaps meant to strike reason as absurd, and that this precisely what separates the religious view of the world from the rational view of the world. Insofar as process theology values reason more highly than revelation, it would thus seem to be a philosophy like any other that goes against the basic spirit of faith implied by the biblical worldview, no matter how valuable its categories and concepts may be in dispelling several confusions and misconceptions about the biblical picture itself that have accrued in popular consciousness over time. 

Conclusion

In summary, the present essay has consisted of an overview of process theology. Two main conclusions have been reached here. The first is that by strongly restoring the relational character of the God of the Bible, process theology does the Christian religion a great service, since this understanding has been obscured over time as the result of the injection of ancient Greek philosophy into the biblical worldview. The second, though, is that process theology first and foremost answers to reason and not to any higher authority regarding the nature of truth; and this means that ultimately, it seeks to be a kind of philosophical alternative, as opposed to merely philosophical clarification, of the Christian religion.

Works Cited

The Bible, NRSV. New York: HarperOne, 2009. Print.

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets. New York: Harper Perennial, 2001. Print. 

Olson, Roger E. "Why I Am Not a Process Theologian." Patheos. 4 Dec. 2013. Web. Jul. 5 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2013/12/why-i-am-not-a-process- theologian/>. 

Miles, Jack. 1996. God: A Biography. New York: Vintage. Print. 

Shestov, Lev. Athens and Jerusalem. Trans. Bernard Martin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. Print.

Viney, Donald. "Process Theism." Stanford Encyclopedia. 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 5 Jul. 2016. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/process-theism/#DivPowProEvi>. 

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, 1979. Print.