Why Process Theology Is an Alternative to Christianity
This past Sunday (March 3, 2019) my local city newspaper included on its editorial page a column by a local pastor urging that an “outmoded” idea of God be discarded in favor of a better one. It read like a sermon, so I assume it was some version of one she preached to her congregation. She began by mentioning the Transfiguration narrative because it was Transfiguration Sunday. But that was her text (or pretext) for launching into a talk about two views of God—one “outmoded” and the other better for political and personal reasons. And she claimed the new, kinder, gentler idea of God (my words) is also more biblical than the outmoded idea of God.
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The “outmoded” picture of God she offered up is that God is secretly “in charge” of everything that happens and uses “coercive power” to control people and events. That “God” is, she said, “dictatorial” and “despotic.” She did not name any names, but perhaps she was thinking of the God of Calvinism. (She is Presbyterian.)
The only alternative to that outmoded picture of God that she offered is of a God who acts relationally and persuasively and does not “coerce” anyone or anything. She indirectly dismissed the traditional divine attribute of omnipotence.
As a student and at least “wannabe” scholar of modern theology I recognized her talk/sermon/essay as rooted in and expressive of what is generally known as Process Theology. It is taught in many so-called “mainline Protestant” seminaries. It is a distinctly modern type of theology rooted in the ideas about God and the world of philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.
Process theology “bloomed” in the 1970s especially in the United States. It’s main interpreters and promoters included theologians John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, Delwin Brown, Schubert Ogden, Daniel Day Williams, and Marjorie Suchocki.
In 1979, while in seminary, I took a course in “Process Christology” at Luther Seminary’s extension “Shalom” in Sioux Falls, S.D. It was taught by a theologian on the faculty of Augustana College. We read, among other volumes, Process Philosophy and Christian Thought edited by Delwin Brown (Bobbs-Merrill, 1971). I kept up a lively interest in Process Theology ever after that and wrote a chapter on the subject in 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (with Stanley Grenz) (InterVarsity Press) and The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (InterVarsity Press). Over the years I got to know several process theologians and devoured numerous books and articles by process thinkers.
All that is simply to say I know process theology when I see (or hear) it.
The late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson is recorded as having said that the only thing wrong with Process Theology is that it is such an attractive alternative to Christianity. Of course, many, perhaps most, process theologians are Christians. I don’t think Jenson meant to imply otherwise. Both of us (although I hesitate to speak for him) believe(d) one can be Christian while holding to a theology that is seriously defective and problematic from any orthodox version of Christianity.
First, the essay/sermon/column presented a false either-or with an excluded middle. Well, many excluded middles. One need not throw the baby of divine omnipotence out with the bathwater of a “dictatorial” and “despotic” idea of God. There are many Christian (and other) views of God that fit neither model. I think, for example, of Jürgen Moltmann’s vision of God as self-limiting (but still omnipotent) love. I think, for example, of Robert Jenson’s own Karl Barth-inspired view of God in several books such as God after God (Bobbs-Merrill) and The Triune Identity (Fortress Press).
Second, the essay/sermon/column presented an idea of God that would, by logical extension and implication (as with all Process Theology) rule out miracles including especially God’s promised intervention at the end of history as we know it, in the future, to finally, once-and-for-all defeat evil. A God who has no other power than persuasive power leaves the future in our human hands. The old saying “Man proposes, but God disposes” has to be revised as “God proposes, but man disposes.” Our hope, then, is in ourselves, not in God.
In my own, humble opinion, the amputation of realistic, future eschatology (whatever the details may be) is one that effectively kills the patient of biblical, orthodox Christianity.
All that is not to say the pastor-writer of the essay/sermon/column is not a Christian. All I am saying is that her theology, Process Theology, is very seriously defective—biblically, in terms of Christian orthodoxy, and experientially (for hope).
So why does it matter? A person who drinks deeply at the wells of Process Theology, like a person who drinks deeply at the wells of Calvinism, ironically, cannot pray petitionary prayers hoped to make a real differences in what is going to happen. And that practice is central to Jesus’s own message (viz., importunity in petitionary prayer to God). A God who has only persuasive power, like a God who is all-determining, is not a God one can pray to to change the course of life and history.
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