Rediscovering Process Thought: An Unbeliever at the Hub of Process Theology

Before I ever applied for a Ph.D. program at Claremont School of Theology, I was aware that CST was primarily known for its work in process theology.  I had heard of John B. Cobb, David Ray Griffin, Philip Clayton and the Center for Process Studies, but that was about it.  During my graduate studies at Boston University’s School of Theology (another School of Theology sponsored by the United Methodist Church) I had read portions of A.N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Cobb & Griffin’s Process Theology: An Introduction, and various articles and compilations that touched on process thought,[1] but I had never fully grasped the influence that process theology has in theological studies.  I had considered it a peripheral theology, on par with the “death-of-God” theology of Thomas J.J. Altizer, and thought that its influence was becoming entropic.  Having spent the last two years at CST, and having taken a course with Dr. John Sweeney and spent time with students interested in process thought, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that process theology is still up and running.[2]

Having been accepted into the Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Society program at CST, and not the Ph.D. in Process Studies, I had generally considered my study of process thought finished.  I did not realize that my course “Ministry and the Problem of Evil,” which I had primarily enrolled in for the purposes of ordination in the Unitarian Universalist Association, was going to be taught by a process thinker, Dr. John Sweeney.  Dr. John Sweeney, Adjunct Faculty at CST and Managing Director of the Center for Process Studies, completed his Ph.D. from CST in process thought and religious education.  His first book, I’d Rather Be Dead Than Be a Girl: Implications of Whitehead, Whorf, and Piaget for Inclusive Language in Religious Education, was published by University Press of America in November 2009.  Dr. Sweeney, and his course, helped me rediscover process thought.

Now I should make it clear at the beginning that I do not believe many of the things that process thinkers say: I tend to promote reductive science, I do not find much value in speculative metaphysics, and I do not believe in a “God” of any sorts.  I prefer Bertrand Russell to his advisor.  This, however, does not mean I cannot appreciate the values and merits of process thought.  I enjoy that process thought highlights the interconnected nature of the universe, the emergence of novelty, and the need to create a better future.  I like that process thought takes feminism, environmental concern, and postmodernism seriously.[3]  And although sometimes it seems to me that people may be taking Whitehead a little too seriously (what I jokingly call “The Cult of Whitehead”), I find those interested in process thought most agreeable.  They are generally politically and socially liberal; they have a concern for social justice and environmental care; they incorporate issues of race, class, and sex into their philosophical dialogue; and most importantly, they are not caught in their “dogmatic slumbers.”

In my course with Dr. Sweeney I was the only one who identified as an “atheist.”  Most of our small class was composed of liberal religious persons, of one sort or the other (something I am very familiar with at CST).  Some were Ministers in the UCC or UMC, and some were just theology students interested in studying theodicy.  The first thing I noticed in class, besides the professor’s jovial demeanor, was that nobody was aghast by my identification as an “atheist.”  I have said this before and received strange looks, but in this “Ministry” class I was welcomed as an equally valid dialogue partner.  After the usual introductions, we began to look at the syllabus.  The first thing I noticed about the syllabus was a quote from Whitehead: “All simplifications of religious dogma are shipwrecked upon the problem of evil.”[4]  Images of process thought popped into my head and I realized that our professor was well versed in this school of thought.  It soon became obvious that we would have a large dose of process thought throughout the course.

The readings for the class included authors like John B. Cobb, Monica A. Coleman (a professor at CST), Stephen T. Davis, David Ray Griffin, John Hick, Harold Kushner, Robert C. Mesle, D.Z. Phillips, John K. Roth, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Daniel Day Williams, and various selections from publications through the Center for Process Studies.  All of these readings centered on the problem of evil and how process theology avoids some (or all) of its consequences.  I had never realized just how central the problem of evil is to process theology.  One might say that it is a process theologians primary concern.  The book Encountering Evil (Stephen T. Davis, ed.) was especially illuminating, as it read like a debate over evil between Davis, Roth, Hick, Phillips, and Griffin.  It pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of the various responses to theodicy.  The main responses are:

  • The free-will defense (Davis)
  • The “soul-building” response (Hick)
  • God is not all-good in the traditional sense (Roth)
  • God is not omnipotent in the traditional sense (Griffin)
  • Religious language is expressive, not literal (Phillips)

While I find all of these “responses” to theodicy problematic, I still learned quite a bit about the theological investments each of these authors have.

Besides this abstract philosophizing and theorizing, I noticed that process theology has some profound consequences for practical ministry in Christian churches.  Firstly, it changes the image of God from that of an oriental despot with coercive power, to a gentle force luring one to greater goodness, beauty, and truth.  Put it this way: this picture of God is completely different from the God of Boethius, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Edwards.  There are no “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”  Secondly, generally speaking, petitionary prayer goes out the window.  Since the process God is not “supernatural” and does not intervene “from the outside,” it makes little sense to pray for that parking spot.  It also takes away the idea of humans needing to cling to God as a crutch, constantly petitioning God for this or that.  Thirdly, it places the responsibilities of bettering this world on the shoulders of people.  It is no longer suitable to wait around for the second coming of Christ, or to look forward to the destruction of the world by fire.  People, not angels, demons, or even God, are the primary locus for change in this world.  Also, since many process theologians are ambivalent about the afterlife—with some believing in a kind of purgatory, others thinking that we only continue in God’s memory, and some believing in the cessation of individual’s consciousness—the otherworldly focus is not nearly as strong in process theology as it is in conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist forms of Christianity.

As someone who is preparing for ministry in the Unitarian Universalist Association, I take the problem of evil and suffering seriously.  My hope in entering UU ministry is to help alleviate the suffering of other sentient beings.  Although I do not believe that evil is personified in demons or the devil, I nonetheless believe that evil and suffering is something that people experience at a physical, phenomenological, and psychological level.  I do not believe evil is a “substance” or something that “exists” on an ontological level.  This, however, does not mean that I do not take the experience of evil and suffering seriously.  Because I take evil seriously, I decided that my in-class presentation would be on “defining evil.”[5]  In my presentation I went through religious definitions of evil along with providing a dichotomy between reductive and non-reductive definitions of evil.  The reductive side views evil as: psychological, biochemical, mental, unreal, mind-dependent, projected from the mind, and “just a word.”  The non-reductive side views evil as: ontological, metaphysical, supernatural, real, mind-independent, part of reality, and more than just a word.  I proposed that process theology is a tirtuim quid beyond these two positions.  It takes evil to be both psychological and ontological.  It also does not believe evil is “just a word” or supernatural.

Another interesting thing I learned in this course is what is called “process naturalism.”  As someone interested in building bridges between unbelievers and believers, I was constantly on the hunt for process philosophies that could bode well with skeptics.  Process naturalism, as espoused by C. Robert Mesle, is a philosophy that accepts many of the tenets of process theology, just without “God” being a part of the dynamic workings of nature.  As Mesle says,

“Process naturalists share virtually every value and every ethical standard with process theism, and many of these are shared with Christianity and other religions.  The only difference is that process naturalists see these values as rooted entirely within the natural processes themselves, as temporal, contingent, and ambiguous as they may be.”[6]

This kind of philosophy, akin to “religious naturalism,”[7] is much more palatable to unbelievers than any “supernatural” ideology.  Unbelievers of all stripes can agree that the natural world is all there is, that people can derive values without some supernatural source, and that the emergence of novelty does not require a “God.”  Much of the animosity felt by unbelievers towards religious persons amounts to distaste for anything “supernatural.”  Process theology, however, does not think of anything as supernatural.  The elimination of the supernatural is a shared interest between unbelievers and process theologians.

Unitarian Universalism has a very large umbrella that houses people with all kinds of different belief systems.  Although a large portion of UU’s identify as “humanist,”[8] there are many UU’s that identify with earth-based religions, Wicca, paganism, druidism, and various “heretical” interpretations of Christianity.  There are also those who identify as liberal Christians.  Some of these incorporate process theology into their beliefs.  Process theology particularly resounds with the seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism, namely, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  This interdependence is close to the process view of “interconnectedness.”  After describing a few ideas of process theology, Rev. Linda Anderson, a Unitarian Minister, sums up the connection quite well by saying,

“Can you see how this way of thinking fits with our Unitarian Universalist principles, particularly the seventh, which affirms the interconnected web of life of which we are a part? We can act in ways that enhance and increase our interdependence or we can act in ways that diminish and devalue it. That it is up to us is both profoundly hopeful and profoundly frightening. Unitarian Universalism has traditionally understood humans to have such possibility and in this place also intersects with Process Theology.”[9]

Although hesitant to label himself a Unitarian Universalist, Charles Hartshorne, one of the “fathers” or process theology, often involved himself in Unitarian congregations and meetings.  As the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society (UUHHS) says,

“Hartshorne assuredly expressed the spirit of Unitarians in his advocacy of freedom and reason and in his suspicion that exclusive loyalty to any book, church, or person is idolatrous. His liberal theistic philosophy is in keeping with the oldest and long standing traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. He graciously accepted invitations to speak from the pulpits of even quite small Unitarian Universalist churches within driving distance of his University, e.g., in Beaumont, Texas, and he delighted those in attendance at a Unitarian Universalist Process Theology Network seminar at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in 1994 with his lively, extemporaneous answers to their questions, at age 97.”[10]

Hartshorne, fond of the title “Buddhisto-Christian,” taught at Meadville-Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary.  He had a profound affect on many UU’s by introducing them to the world of process theology.  Utilizing the work of Whitehead and Charles Pierce, Hartshorne developed a panentheist understanding of the relationship between God and the world.  Like Sallie McFargue, Hartshorne argued that the world should be thought of as “God’s body.”  If people think of the world as God’s body, it should encourage them to treat the environment with care and nurture.  It is also meant to show how immanent and close God is to humanity, and how humanity is actually “part” of the divine.

While I am not a UU that subscribes to process theology, I think that it can be helpful in personal ministry and counseling.  If someone came to me asking for help, feeling like God is condemning and punishing her, I would encourage this person to rethink what God is like.  I would not “proselytize” or “evangelize” this person in hopes of converting them to process theology, I would simply suggest that God may not be so angry with them.  Even though I do not believe in God, I would promote any theology that that does not utilize guilt and condemnation over one that does.  It is my opinion that having a picture of God as a sovereign despot, who is ready at any time to condemn you to hell, is psychologically and socially unhealthy.  Hence the psychological and emotional rollercoaster that people like Augustine and Martin Luther felt.  Augustine almost went mad with his “wretched lust,” and its corresponding feelings of guilt.  Luther would have yelling bouts with the devil in the cell of his monastery.  I do not think these men, or their theologies, should be mimicked or promoted.

The rest of this article is located here (starting at pg. 6).
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[1] The Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action series, or what has come to be known as the DAP (Divine Action Project), talks quite a bit about process thought.  I speak about process thought in an article I wrote on the DAP, see my: “Falsifiability and Traction in Theories of Divine Action,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 45 (3), September 2010, 575-589.

[2] Even though process thought is up and running, it is still not as widely accepted as many other types of philosophy.  As Dr. Sweeney said in 2005, “Basically, process thought is not well received—reactions range from passé to hostility, and I have encountered both ends of this continuum, as well as a number of responses in between. There are several factors involved in this range of responses, but only three will be mentioned here—these are the three resistances that I have encountered most frequently in my teaching: (a) the technical vocabulary, (b) the challenge to tradition (views of God, substance thinking), and (c) the “we can explain everything” approach.” Transforming Foundations—Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific, prepared for “Science and Religion: Global Perspectives,” June 4-8, 2005, in Philadelphia, PA, USA, a program of the Metanexus Institute.

[3] For more connections between unbelief and process theology see my, “Unbelievers and Process Theology,” located at: http://www.stateofformation.org/2011/09/unbelievers-and-process-theology/

[4] A.N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), 77

[6] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1993), 131

[7] Some well known religious naturalists include: Ursula Goodenough, Gordon Kaufman, Stuart Kaufmann, and Jerome Stone.

[8] James Casebolt and Tiffany Niekro, “Some UUs Are More UU than U: Theological Self-Descriptors Chosen by Unitarian Universalists,” Review of Religious Research 46.3 (2005): 235-242

[9] “Theologies Intersecting Unitarian Universalism: Process Theology,” Kingston, February 4, 2007

The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson, found at: http://www.uucckingston.org/Sermons/theology0207.html.  For a bibliography of articles showing connections between Unitarian Universalism and Process Theology see: http://www.ctr4process.org/publications/Biblio/Thematic/Unitarian.html.

  • http://firstbaptistnewark.com Mark Farmer

    I enjoyed reading this, Kile. Thanks for posting this fresh “insider” perspective. I discovered process theology during a Claremont summer course in 2011 with John Cobb. It was life changing. Am currently reading Gordon Kaufman’s Jesus and Creativity, and find it very similar to Cobb’s thinking. Best wishes for your continuing studies and future ministry.

  • Marshall Lewis

    I really enjoyed your article. I’m writing a paper on Religious Naturalism (focusing on Goodenough, Crosby and Rue) and am interested as well in “building bridges.” I had never heard the phrase process naturalism — I’m looking forward to looking up C. Robert Mesle. Thanks for pointing me into some new directions.

  • NateP

    Kile, very intriguing post here…but I’m even more interested in your story, namely how you came to be an atheist getting a PhD at Claremont.

    I’m interested mostly because I was on a similar path. Bachelors and masters degrees in theology, then a complete loss of faith, right before it was time to apply for PhD programs, and then my heart was no longer in it. Wondering what went differently for you…or have you always been a non-believer that just happened to religion academically fascinating? I’ve met many people in that camp, but as a now ardent atheist, I don’t see how anyone could stay sane in that situation. Wondering if you’d care to share your perspective on that.

    As about Process Theology real quick…I found your article because I’ve been going back through books of Cobb and Hartshorne, trying to rediscover what I originally liked about Process…but finding it hard NOT to see it as a theology that is AD HOC from first to last, only existing to shield faith from any accountability… in other words, when does a theology actually have to comport to real-life evidence of any kind, rather than espousing only philosophical pleasantries? I ask the very same question of Tillich fans…how does conceiving God as “ground of being” help anyone if they’re still not wrestling with hard evidence of any kind? What are your thoughts?


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