Monday, March 2, 2009

Transforming Theology Reponse Part #2 - Wherein I struggle painfully with process theology

Photo: As one of God's simpler creatures, Linden is also deeply suspicious of process theology

Ok, so I finished the book, typed up 10 pages of quotes from the book to harvest from when I wrote about the rest of the book, and then decided to look up "process theology" based on a teeny little aside on page 74 where Dr. Suchocki mentions that she is a process theologian. I swear my intention was only to find out what that was... but reading about it has pretty much derailed me from further commentary on the book for now. Gotta dig into this problem first.

I know everybody and their dog probably already knew what process theology was, but I didn't. Really. Still not sure I do, to be honest, but I'm a lot better informed after a couple of hours of google searching and pawing through my bookshelves trying to figure this out. I realized I'd read about Alfred North Whitehead in one of my undergrad philosophy courses, broke out my beloved (if largely incomprehensible) W.T. Jones A History of Western Philosophy:The Twentieth Century to Wittgenstein and Sartre, and doggedly slogged through the pages on Whitehead. One quote from Whitehead stands out both for its beauty as well as how thoroughly it misunderstands most people's lived experience of religion:

"...religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present fact; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest."

Yeahhhh. Dude... have you ever been inside an actual church??

Ok, I'm being a grouch... it's a lovely passage, if completely detached from reality. But in my defense, I'm reading this book on prayer, and when I get back to actually talking about the book, you'll see that I continue to be wooed by the beauty of the language, particularly the language on repentance, and by Dr. Suchocki's concept of how God is in relationship with us in prayer. I dig these ideas... but they're hanging on a conceptual foundation that I am having real issues with.

I've read/skimmed several articles on process theology (I particularly recommend D.W. Diehl's detailed yet very readable explanation here [mostly because I think it's among the most balanced articles I've grabbed off the net today], as well as John B. Cobb's article here, which is not particularly neutral but does a really good job of explaining the view of God in process theology), but for the purposes of this blog, I'm gonna stick with good ol' Wikipedia to list the main points with which I am struggling. Wikipedia lists some of the main characteristics of process theology as the following:
  • God is not omnipotent in the sense of being coercive. The divine has a power of persuasion rather than coercion. Process theologians interpret the classical doctrine of omnipotence as involving force, and suggest instead a forbearance in divine power. "Persuasion" in the causal sense means that God does not exert unilateral control

  • The universe is characterized by process and change carried out by the agents of free will. Self-determination characterizes everything in the universe, not just human beings. God cannot totally control any series of events or any individual, but God influences the creaturely exercise of this universal free will by offering possibilities. To say it another way, God has a will in everything, but not everything that occurs is God's will.

  • God contains the universe but is not identical with it (panentheism, not pantheism or pandeism). Some also call this "theocosmocentrism" to emphasize that God has always been related to some world or another.

  • Because God interacts with the changing universe, God is changeable (that is to say, God is affected by the actions that take place in the universe) over the course of time. However, the abstract elements of God (goodness, wisdom, etc.) remain eternally solid.

  • Dipolar theism, is the idea that God has both a changing aspect (God's existence as a Living God) and an unchanging aspect (God's eternal essence).

So what I'm struggling with is that my received idea of God as unchanging is really, really deep within me and within my understanding of my faith. As I mentioned yesterday, it's always struck me as incredibly awkward that I believe God is immutable and omnipotent but I also pray to Him AND I possess free will and am accountable for my sins. It's one of those tensions I just live with, though... one of those good ol' paradoxes of the Christian faith that you just don't kvetch about too much... the sort of thing that I file under "Mystery" and that keeps my faith faith rather than science or math.

In terms of my lived faith, though, I often do live and act as though God could change at any time, or at the very least as though God is constantly present to me and with me. One tenet of process theology is that our actions affect God... that He actually feels all the events in the world and everything that is done in the world is done to Him, since the world is part of Him. I tend to extrapolate from the verse that mentions the Spirit "interceding with groanings too deep for words" to my lived belief that God does feel what I feel, but through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, who is God's presence living within me.

Some of the articles I read state that process theology is non-Trinitarian... it denies the divinity of Christ, and in some of its expressions chucks out the Holy Spirit, too. How is this Biblical??? I haven't dug into that too much to see which process folks would argue that they DO in fact defend the Trinity, but the thought is greatly disturbing to me.

In trying to sort through my visceral reaction to this, I grabbed the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Catechism of the Catholic Church off my bookshelf. These two books form the bedrock of my formal theological training (what there is of it), and so my first instinct when I bump up against some theological idea that "just ain't right" is to look it up in these books. I know that these two documents are supposed to be diametrically opposed, but I swear that in my experience they have so very much in common on the basics. When I was in the process of considering Catholicism, one of the real selling points to me was the remarkable amount that Catholicism and the Reformed tradition had in common (admittedly my expectations on this point were low). This is true on the topic of God's immutability. The Westminster Confession of Faith states at the beginning of Chapter II, #1

"There is but one only iving and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable,(emphasis mine) immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free,(emphasis mine) most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will,(emphasis mine) for his own glory."

and in #2

"God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made...(emphasis mine)"

In Part One, Section Two, Chapter One, Article I of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Catechism quotes the Fourth Lateran Council:

"We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal, infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, (emphasis mine) incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple."

Ok, maybe this is boring... my point is that this idea of God as changeable may have echoes in how I practice my faith, but it doesn't work for me as a concept. The assumption that God Himself is unchangeable is just too deeply embedded in my ideas of God and how God works in the world. He is however, infinite, and so the things I may see as God's "attributes" are really my attempt to make God seem like me, like something I can understand. The fact that He behaves differently than I expected doesn't mean He changed, it means I was wrong to think I could understand Him as I understand another human being or myself. And I can live with that. I can live with the fact that "He works in mysterious ways" because He is Mystery... far far far greater than my ability to conceive of Him, and yet relating to me intimately second by second through the Holy Spirit.

Phoooo. Is anyone reading this? Am I making any sense?? Anybody wanna tell me that I'm totally wrong about process theology and it's really the Coolest Thing Ever?

I promise I'll get back to the book (hopefully tomorrow night), despite the struggle I'm having with its premise.


Ben Masters said...


First, here's a big, affirming Yes to raising these issues. I even read the catechism parts because you're engaging in a very interesting and valid set of questions. Hoo-rah!

I wanted to respond to your first post about Suchocki, since it reminded me of two things. First, I thought of Henri Nouwen discussing the primacy of prayer in peace work, in which he says that prayer moves us into the "house of God", which is the house of peace and the place in which our actions are moved by the ways of God. Second, it reminded me of what Pete Rollins said the other day about creating alternative liturgical spaces to become the people we want to be (or something like that). The implied necessity for prayer makes sense on the one hand and opens up some very cool possibilities; on the other hand, it seems frustrating and rather too much work to be undertaken, making me wonder why God just doesn't act from omnipotence instead of requiring prayer. It sounds like some of the same stuff is coming up for us, and maybe that I should read that book. :-)

Regarding process theology, I've always been a little wary. While it offers new and potentially refreshing language to respond to contemporary and perennial challenges, I'm aware of the space it opens to make God over in our own image. Of course, all God-talk does this: we can't describe the mystery without accessing the language of our contexts, and (as the Reformer within would say) we're all prone to the sin of idolatry. But process theology seems to do this in a way that makes God... manageable, I guess. Like, if we do the right things then God/we/the earth/etc. will flourish and everything will be OK. It's the same uneasiness that comes over me when people start talking about realizing the reign of God right now, rather than acting as faithful as we can be to that vision while we wait for God to bring it about fully (I mean, it's God's reign, not ours). While it's true that good things get done, there's the potential to subsume God into an agenda. Like, if I don't do this particular thing, then I limit God's redemptive action in the world? But then I'm still left with the problem of God's sovereignty, my free will, and how God's redemptive action gets worked out. But maybe it is supposed to be a paradox. Regardless, I'm another Reformed person who, no matter how progressive I am, doesn't want to assume that the Sovereign One is endorsing my actions. It keeps me (theoretically) humble while I wait for some answers.

Well, that was long. I hope it's food for thought; your words have certainly been that for me. Keep on plugging!

P.S. Thanks for the really nice facebook message. I haven't responded because sometimes I obsess over which words to choose. But sometimes "thanks" is enough.

Marcy said...

I'm reading! (have been for a few weeks now). I appreciate the summary of your research on process theology. I've only recently come across the term (in relation to evolution) but I didn't really know what it referred to.

I'm not really qualified to comment on theological matters, my area of expertise being twenty years of teaching piano lessons. On the other hand, my experiences working with students have shown me that the best way to help an individual to grow is to meet them on their level and to patiently walk them through each step in their development (as opposed to rapping their knuckles with the baton as one of my childhood teachers used to do. lol). I know my views of God and spirituality have been affected by this role I've played, and it's not hard for me to imagine God and individuals interacting in a teacher/student relationship. A process, for certain.

I suppose I relate most to your idea of being resigned to live with mystery, because our small selves will only ever comprehend just a slice of ultimate reality, anyway. I tend to view all theology as our attempts to put names and labels on the small pieces of reality we've experienced, to force it into orderly boxes because of our own inherent need for such organization, not because reality actually lends itself to such itemization. So I guess I hold most theological ideas pretty lightly; nothing I read upsets my cart too much. I feel free to identify the bits of truth when I see them, even if some other parts don't quite jive in my mind.

Moff said...

Marcy and Ben, I honestly could not have hoped for more thoughtful responses. Thanks!!

Mike Croghan said...

I resonate quite a bit with both Ben's and Marcy's response, and I don't know that I have anything to add, really. But I guess what I can do is be debbil's advocate and respond in a way that is much more blunt and jerk-like. Maybe that will help. ;-)

Totally agree that process theology assumes *way* too much human comprehension of God. *Way* too little appreciation for the essential mystery of God. *Seriously* needs a dose of epistemological humility.

But you know what? Here's my opinion of the Westminster Confession: Assumes *way* too much human comprehension of God. *Way* too little appreciation for the essential mystery of God. *Seriously* needs a dose of epistemological humility.

And can you guess my opinion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

I'm being very snarky, and I hope you know that I think there are *huge* gifts and insights in all of these theological/doctrinal opinions. But good gosh, they're all just human opinions.

In particular: I think it would be a big mistake to accept process theology hook, line, and sinker - or even to fully and uncritically accept the basic premise that God is changeable, without wrapping around that premise all the other stuff that process theology also claims. But at the same time, clinging to a certainty that God is immutable - even if both the Presbyterians and Catholics are officially without doubt on that score - seems like immense hubris to me, and equally a denial of God's mystery.

How the hell do we know God is immutable? Have the Catholics and Presbyterians actually read the Old Testament? (Again, I'm being snarky - of course they have. They just think Greek philosophy is more important. Sorry, snark again.)

Because the God described in the OT is *definitely* not immutable. I could come up with 20+ stories of God changing God's mind by a quick flipping through the Pentateuch alone. And God keeps up that behavior throughout the Writings and the Prophets.

That said, the God of the OT is also frequently portrayed as a petulant, petty tyrant, so what can we conclude from this? I'm not sure. But the Greek philosophy that came up with the idea of God's immutability has its issues as well.

So I guess I think Marcy said it best: hold most, if not all, theological ideas lightly. To me, this applies as much to the idea of God's immutability as it does to the idea of God's changeability.

Really, really good questions, Amy! :-)

Moff said...

LOVING your response, Mike. My purpose in bringing up the Westminster Confession and the Catholic Catechism was more to try and understand my own strong aversion to the idea of God's changeability, since these documents are both so influential in forming my patchwork theology. I probably wasn't clear about that.

I do believe that both documents assume a heavy-handed "knowing" of God that is flat out impossible, and I am absolutely against that.
I still assert that it's important to me that God be unchangeable. I reference those texts to provide myself some context for my belief, but I'm not chucking the belief, although indeed I will hold it as loosely as I can.

As kind of a side note, I remember when I was becoming Catholic having this sudden revelation that most Truly Reformed people I know effectively treated the Westminster Confession and the writings of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, etc. exactly the same as Catholics treated papal encyclicals and the Catechism. "Sola scriptura", my booty.

Ken Tennyson said...

Maranda and I both are pretty heavily oriented toward process thought, we should chat sometime over coffee. Not feeling energetic enough to post though, I have a boy in the bath that needs his hair washed... Later

P.S. Check out "openness theology," it is a a little softer take on many of the same concepts, not as philosophical and more down to earth.

Roshi Doshi said...

I too came across the term "process theology" and did the wiki thing. Amy, you've done far more for my understanding than my research did. Thank you for that. My pastor and I discussed process theology and she said she liked some of the ways it presented God but she didn't have as much faith in people as process theology has. I'll be interested to hear more about your take on PT. I'm going to go investigate "openness theology". Namaste