Postcards from Claremont: Process Theology & Emergent Church

Postcards from Claremont: Process Theology & Emergent Church February 1, 2012

Emergent Village 2012:  Process Theology and the Emerging Church, Day One

What a day of rejoicing – process theologians and emerging Christians in conversation. Theological energy was bursting forth and passion for ministry was palpable.  For a long time, I have felt that process theology is an ideal companion to emerging Christianity.  While many emergent Christians have been influenced by the deconstructionist postmodernism of John Caputo and Peter Rollins, I believe that the multi-sensory, multi-theological, community-oriented vision of emerging Christianity needs an equally dynamic, multi-faceted, relational, and imaginative theological vision.  Transformation always involves destruction, but it also involves growth and construction.  This is the spirit of process theology.

On day one of the conversation, the dialogue was lively, inspired by the insights of Claremont School of Theology’s Professor Monica Coleman in dialogue with Doug Pagitt and Julie Clawson.  During one of the breaks, a theologically inclined businesswoman, mother, active in a Northern California house church struggled with the question of divine omniscience – that is, God’s all-encompassing awareness. “I want to hold onto the belief that God knows everything in the future, but process theologians dispute that.  What’s the problem with God knowing the future?”  Her question was theologically nuanced and important.  It represented the divide between theologies that focus on eternity and independence and those that focus on change and interdependence, those that believe perfection involves completeness and those that see perfection as every growing, ever evolving, and ever expanding.

My response struck the heart of emerging Christianity.  Emergence is about novelty, about new things coming into being.  Shouldn’t this apply to God as well? A God of emergence is constantly doing and experiencing new things. Process theologians believe that a God who knows everything actual as each moment emerges is more alive and active than one who knows – and in theory, has planned – the future in advance.  Process theologians believe that God has a clear vision of future possibilities, but only as possible, not yet actualized.  God has a positive vision, appropriate to each moment, but it awaits our embodiment and unique response.

A God who knows everything in advance can experience nothing new and can change nothing beyond what God already knows or has chosen.  Accordingly, God has fewer options than we do.  For us, the future as we experience it is open, provides opportunities for innovation, and is full of surprises.  For the God who knows everything in advance, life is a perpetual Ground Hog Day – repeated over and over again; whether moments of joy or moments of trauma, genocide, and abuse.

If the world’s future is already known by God, then our prayers make no difference in shaping the future or bringing something new to God’s experience. Our actions add nothing, nor do they matter.  An open future for God and us makes room for our creativity and our role in shaping the world.  It invites us to claim our role as God’s partners in healing the world – a world which is lively, unsettled, up for grabs, yet hopeful and filled with wondrous possibility for those who join God’s movement toward planetary healing.  This is a world where emergence truly matters!

(For more on the process vision, see Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.)

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  • I am currently reading your book and loving it so far! I’m a little bit late joining the process party (you’re talking to a guy who, despite being a Christian for over 11 years, just recently discovered neo-orthodoxy!), but after listening to Homebrewed Christianity for a while I finally decided to see what it’s all about. I like the idea how God is guiding us through history through suggestion rather than coercion. It sure beats trying to explain how God could allow the Holocaust to happen!

  • Sarah

    “God has a positive vision, appropriate to each moment, but it awaits our embodiment and unique response.” — Best answer I have heard to this perplexing issue. Thank you!

  • Good report Bruce, thanks. I’m just curious, anyone else out there besides me who was brought into process related thinking in the 70s through the teachings of Gordon Olson, Harry Conn, (Moral Government, etc.)?

  • Baron

    Hi 🙂
    Something I find interesting is that the word omniscient in the bible has just been scribbled out.. You’ve done brilliantly at placing God at your eye level, too bad it’s all in your head!? If you’re not going to take what the bible teaches, then please create your own religion and stop trying to recreate Christianity. We serve an amazing God who is so far beyond your dribblings of “Ground Hog Day”, which is your perception and a very human one at that!

    In love and may God bless you with better understanding in the word FAITH!