Why I Am Not a Process Theologian
Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson once quipped that the only thing wrong with process theology is that it is such an attractive alternative to Christian faith. I agree.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying people who believe in process theology cannot be Christians. Lots of people are Christians whose theology is profoundly messed up. Maybe the majority of Christians’ theology is profoundly messed up!
What I am saying is that insofar as a person believes in process theology they are Christian in spite of their theology, not because of it. But, again, I would say the same about lots of Christians and their theologies. Don’t get me started…
So why did Jenson say that and why do I agree?
I can’t speak for Jenson, but I suspect he said it for the same reasons I would. (I’ve read enough of Jenson and have been with him enough to be able to make an educated guess.)
But first, before I explain, let me say that many, many people I know who think they believe in process theology really don’t. Like many theological labels and categories, over time, “process theology” has been stretched to cover much, much more than it originally covered. Many people who claim to believe in it simply don’t know what it is, historically-theologically, or what it entails logically.
When I talk about “process theology” I mean the type of (so-called) Christian theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (sometimes as modified by Charles Hartshorne) and expressed above all, prototypically, by John Cobb, David Griffin, Norman Pittenger, Delwin Brown, et al.
In other words, “process theology” is not just any relational theology. It is a type of relational theology, but not the only one. And, I would add, not the best one. (For example, Jürgen Moltmann’s is a relational theology and, in my opinion, much better than process theology.)
Many people have taken a course that included a little process theology or have read a book by a process thinker or just heard about process theology and jumped on the bandwagon without really knowing all that it involves. So—just because you call yourself “process” doesn’t mean you are.
So what are the essentials of process theology? My description will be of an “ideal type” based on the consensus of the most noted and influential process theologians (some of whom are mentioned above).
First, process theology assumes that to be is to be in relation. It is a relational, organic worldview.
Second, process theology avers that God is not an exception to basic ontological rules but is their chief exemplification.
Third, process theology asserts that omnipotence is a theological mistake; God is not and cannot be omnipotent. God’s only power is the power of influence (persuasion).
Fourth, process theology is a form of theistic naturalism; it does not have room for the supernatural or for divine interventions (miracles).
Fifth, process theology denies creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, and affirms classical panentheism—God and the world are mutually interdependent. There is a sense in which God is dependent on the world (beyond self-limitation).
Sixth, process theology refers to God as “dipolar”—having two “poles” or “natures”—one primordial and one consequent. God’s primordial pole is potential only and consists of ideals. God’s consequent pole is actual and consists of God’s experience. The world contributes experience to God. God has no primordial experience. (Theologian Austin Farrer referred to this as process theology’s lack of “prior actuality in God.”)
Seventh, process theology regards God as radically temporal; God learns as history unfolds and how history unfolds is ultimately up to creatures (actual occasions). (“God proposes but man disposes.”)
Eighth, process theology reduces God’s creative activity to bringing about order and harmony insofar as possible. God is not the actual creator of the world or any actual occasion (the basic building blocks of reality). God can only create, however, with creaturely cooperation.
Tenth, process theology denies any guaranteed ultimate victory of God or good over evil. The future is “more of the same” so far as we know. Ultimately, that is up to us, not God. God always does God’s best, but he cannot guarantee anything.
Now, if that is an accurate brief summary of the essential points of process theology, which I believe it is (allowing that there are people who call themselves “process” who may disagree with one or two points and who may add to it something others would not), here is why I think it is not a form of Christian theology.
First, process theology’s ultimate authority for belief is not divine revelation but philosophy and, in particular, Whitehead’s organic metaphysic (sometimes as altered by Hartshorne). That becomes the “Procrustean bed” on which revelation must fit. It is not merely influenced by or integrated with that philosophy; that philosophy is its very soul and foundation.
Second, process theology’s Jesus Christ is not God and Savior in any recognizable sense. Its Christology tends to be either adoptionistic or Nestorian (as in the case of Norman Pittenger).
Third, process theology has very little, if any, room for the Trinity. Attempts by process theologians to include the Trinity in their theology have been weak and mostly modalistic. (Catholic process theologian Joseph Bracken has attempted to develop a trinitarian process theology, but I’m not convinced it works.)
Fourth, process theology denies miracles including the bodily resurrection/empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
Fifth, process theology constitutes radical accommodation to secular modernity.
Sixth, process theology denies the efficacy of petitionary prayer.
Seventh, process theology has no realistic eschatology.
Eighth, process theology makes God dependent on the world and not as a matter of voluntary self-limitation (as in the case of Moltmann, for example).
Ninth, process theology reduces salvation to actualization of God’s “initial aim” and thereby falls into a kind of Pelagianism (except that for most process theologians everyone is or will be “saved” in the traditional sense of reconciled with God).
Tenth, process theology is so esoteric as to be impossible for most people to understand. It uses conventional Christian language but means something so different that only people steeped in process philosophy could possibly guess at its meaning. The meanings bear little resemblance, if any, to orthodox Christianity.
Is there anything redeemable in process theology? Not that I cannot find elsewhere.
Why is process theology so popular? I think it’s because it seems to solve the theodicy question. If process theology is true, there is no theodicy question. Evil exists because God is not omnipotent and creatures, having free will and some degree of self-centeredness, often resist God’s initial aim for them. I’m not sure that begins to explain evils such as the holocaust.
But process theology solves the theodicy issue at too high a cost. The God of process theology is hardly worshipful. In order to be worshipful God must be both great and good (but not one at the expense of the other). The God of process theology is not great enough to be worshipful. He/she/it is great enough to be admirable but not worshipful.
A better solution to the theodicy issue may be found in God’s self-limitation in creation. This is the alternative presented by Moltmann, among others. I highly recommend Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame? for those attracted to process theology but wanting a more orthodox alternative. (For those who object that Boyd is an open theist, this particular book does not depend on that.)