Roger Olson’s Not a Process Theologian (But He Should Be)

(Offered by guest Blogger Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology. Clayton earned a joint PhD in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Yale University and has held visiting appointments at Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Munich. He has published over 20 books and hundreds of academic and popular articles.)

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It’s not that Roger Olson wrongly describes process theology. It’s that he has set up a battle to the death: Christian or process. Scripture or secular modernism. When you build battles like this, someone’s going to get hurt.

Olson’s recent Patheos post “Why I Am Not a Process Theologian,” may look at first like a simple academic exercise. All he wants to do, you might think, is to get clear on 10 things that all process theologians affirm. There’s nothing wrong with this; we all love Top Ten lists; there’s even a website devoted just to lists like this.

If this were a session at the American Academy of Religion, I would quibble with four or five of Olson’s formulations. But no matter. Of academic quibbles there is no end, and much quibbling is wearying to the soul.

The quibbles don’t matter, because the focus of Olson’s post has nothing to do with trying to get process theology right. Its goal is to tell us why we, as good Christians, should never turn to process thought as an ally. Ever. And people are listening to Roger Olson. So far, close to a thousand people have shared his post with their followers on social media.

I have a much more simple take on process theology. Its main conviction is that God is influenced by his relations with us. As one process thinker says, “God is the Supremely Related One.” Like us, God too is in process. There are “pure” versions of process, which talk a lot about a philosopher named Whitehead and are hard to understand. Far more interesting, though, are the “impure” versions — the ones that emphasize in lots of different ways that God is relational to the core. Process theologians push against the boundaries of classical orthodoxy in the name of a genuinely relational God. They do this not because they love Whitehead more than Jesus, but because they see in Jesus’ message an emphasis on relational love — a message that a lot of classical theologians seem to have forgotten, but that process theologians have moved front and center.

Olson comes at it from a completely different angle. His goal is to deconstruct process thought by listing its 10 most egregious sins. Lest anyone should miss the point, his criticisms grow increasingly acerbic: “Is there anything redeemable in process theology? Not that I cannot find elsewhere.” Which amounts to saying: There is nothing redeemable in process. Nothing.

In case you may have walked away from this post unsure of Olson’s final judgment, he makes it amply clear in responding to the comments from readers. “Hard core” process thinkers, he suspects, cannot be Christians, not even second-rate ones: “I’m not sure a hard core process theologian who denies the ontological deity of Christ, for example, can be a Christian.” Those are harsh words.

What should disturb you about Olson’s position is not that theologians disagree; that’s hardly news. What should disturb you is that the entire point of posts like this one is to draw a line in the sand. Open theists, at least the moderate ones, can be Christians, but “hard core” process thinkers can’t. Some are in, and some are out.

If I were to respond within either/or, I would just repeat Roger Olson’s mistake. So let’s describe it as a continuum. On the one end are those (like some of Olson’s commentators) who define Christian discipleship in terms of the Nicene Creed, appealing to “the truth once given.” On the other are those who define Christian identity only in terms of the present context.

For Olson, it appears, you can only be on one end of the spectrum or the other. You can base your faith on “divine revelation,” or you can force your faith onto the “Procrustean bed” of Whitehead’s metaphysics. If you make use of Whitehead, that philosophy becomes your “very soul and foundation.” Ouch.

To the 1000 people who have shared Roger Olson’s piece with their social media followers, I make this plea: please don’t define your discipleship by drawing lines in the sand. Jesus offers an amazing message and path for the complex world of the 21st century. Its depths are unfathomable; no theologian or creed will ever give us the Final Formulation of what his message means. We need to draw on every resource that we can find. If we spend our time drawing lines in the sand, proclaiming “in” and “out,” we silence voices that could help us interpret that ancient message for today’s world.

Talk of “all” and “none” doesn’t help with this appropriation; they shut down dialogue. Olson loves neat, exclusive categories: “All open theists believe God is omnipotent and will intervene to conquer sin and evil (eschatological realism).” But this just isn’t true — unless theologians like Olson legislate for us who can be an open theist and who can’t. Categories today no longer work like the old “isms”; our world isn’t so neat and tidy. Younger Christians in particular are increasingly skeptical of ultimate dichotomies of this sort.

In the comments, Olson counsels his followers away from process and toward a moderate open theism. I offer the opposite advice: draw on every resource you can find that helps show how Jesus’ message is relevant to today’s world. If a philosophy or theology helps you to live authentically as a Jesus follower, explore it. Let no authority figure tell you what may or may not count as a redemptive analogy.

Contrast Olson’s advice with the vibrant Christianity portrayed in Peter Heltzel’s fantastic new book, Resurrection City. As the blurbs note, “Peter Heltzel paints a prophetic picture of an evangelical Christianity that eschews a majority mentality and instead fights against racism, inequality, and injustice, embracing the concerns of the poor and marginalized, just as Jesus did.” That’s redemptive. Following Heltzel, let’s do theology in the city streets, a theology that looks and sounds a lot more like jazz improvisation. The distinctions may be raw, even messy. But the results of open-ended Christian reflection are often vibrant and powerful. And what more expresses the open-endedness of the Christian life than a theology of process?

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • DougH

    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that
    whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I’d say that’s a pretty strong relationship on God’s part.

    • Evelyn

      And note how his first love is the world, not the church, or theologians!

    • John Osborn

      Indeed, not sure what that has to do with process theology though, considering it’s not the only or even the most relational theology out there

      • DougH

        It has to do with any theology that claims that God is not emotionally invested in us and therefore impacted by what happens to us and what we do to each other. Whatever those theologies may claim, the Bible itself is clear that God cares deeply about our welfare.

  • Donald Sensing

    Ancient Greek philosophers are still screwing us up. Even the Gospels writers seemed to think there was already a problem with Greek philosophy infiltrating the Hebraic-Christ-follower understanding – I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the beggar Jesus healed in Mark 10 is named Bartimaeus, or “son of Timaeus,” the proper name being one of Plato’s works. And the beggar is blind. Gee.

    I consider myself a fairly conservative Bible reader and pastor, but like the author I am weary of all the barriers Christians erect for each other. Pretty much all Jesus had to say was love God, love neighbor, believe in him. We are having a hard enough time doing just that without becoming “whited sepulchers” ourselves, who do not go in nor allow others to enter the Kingdom.

  • trippfuller

    Great response Philip!

  • mariannea

    Well said! It seems very traditional-evangelical/NT-alone Christian to evoke a God who is not actively in relationship. Sometimes Christians forget that God is not JUST Jesus and the Gospels. It also reminds me of something I learned in a mind-blowingly awesome OT class, and that is that we need to balance our steady diet of salvation theology with some Creation theology. It seems very clear that we were created by God to be in relationship with God; we might even view “capable of being in relationship with God” as what it means to be created in God’s image. And then there’s the Trinity–could there be a stronger statement about God as process, and the nature of God in relationship, than the Trinity?

  • Mike Mayer

    Thank you. I hate being told by one group or another that I am not a Christian because I do not believe as they do. Ironically this also include atheists who tell me I cannot claim to be Christian when I use language and express a faith outside the neat tidy package they want to place all Christians into.

  • Brian MacArevey

    Amen!

  • Bruce Hanson

    Wonderful piece Philip! One of Roger’s statements that caught my attention is that unless God is omnipotent and complete, he is not worthy of being worshipped. Hmmm… this feels wrong in many ways. Is this God on a pedestal, as our idealization? (I just watched the movie Elizabeth I which illustrates the difficulty with and perhaps one source for this notion of nobility.) What indeed is the God of love? Self-limitation creates so many problems theologically, as in questions said in distress like,”why did God let this happen?” Instead the God of influence might suggest how we might see the creative power and redemptive possibility in all events, not justification for why it happened (which is often unanswerable), but what happens next? As a community of Christ, I would rather look to the future of how do we live?

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    Thank you, Philip. Extremely well put… direct, clear and challenging without being disrespectful or insulting.

  • ribchwi

    Was Augustine serving Plotinus, because he made use of Neo-platonic philosophy?
    Did Aquinas worship Aristotle, because he made use of him?

  • Jeff

    Perhaps process theology can better interpret the message of Jesus Christ than orthodox Christianity, but the more important topic is contained in the question of Flaubert’s St. Anthony: “who was Jesus Christ?” It is in answering this question that I find process theology inferior to orthodox Christianity.

  • Plotinus992

    Really? Who the **** cares about questions as to who is a ‘proper’ Christian or not? As if we have anywhere to stand on this question. This is one of the reasons people tire of Christian theology – it gets regularly stained by in-fighting. Sheep and Goats come to mind.

    I agree with Clayton’s plea and advice:

    We need to draw on every resource that we can find. If we spend our time drawing lines in the sand, proclaiming “in” and “out,” we silence voices that could help us interpret that ancient message for today’s world.

  • john8

    I think you are misrepresenting his point. I didn’t study his blog but I did read it, and I came away with the idea he is only speaking of process theology ‘proper’, and wasn’t saying anyone who believes in a relational God is included in his remarks.

    It seems to me you are doing a similar thing in saying ‘Process theologians push against the boundaries of classical orthodoxy in the name of a genuinely relational God’. I am more in the camp of classical orthodoxy, yet I also believe in a ‘genuinely relational God’. It seems you want to box me into and either/or position instead of the both/and position I take.

    I don’t know a lot about Process theology, but it seems to me that is the crux of it. God cannot be the ‘Orthodox’ God and be relational. And here’s the rub to me – it’s not because of what Scripture says, it’s because man is judging God’s relational aspect by virtue of how man relates. ie, God must relate like man relates, therefore God must change and react like man does, therefore God is in ‘process’.

    This discounts the fundamental revealed truth about God, that He is ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. He is not like us. That’s why he can be both sovereign, immutable, omniscient, etc. and genuinely loving, relational, have emotion etc. But again, as it seems to me, Process theologians discount the holiness of God b/c they can’t understand how this can be a both/and situation so they throw out the side they like the least (‘orthodox’).

    so yes:
    And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. Exodus 32:14

    but also Numbers 23:19
    God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.

    and
    I Sam 15:29
    And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.

    and his holiness is not that he’s just a little different than us:
    Isaiah 55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    (and please do look up the context)

    So what I am suggesting is let God be God. He is both ‘genuinely’ relational and unchanging. He repents/relents, yet He does not do so as man does.


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