The Problems With Process Theology

The Problems With Process Theology May 5, 2024

Art by Peter Herrmann.

The word science often conjures up images of people in lab coats working with microscopes. It is likely to seem quite strange then to consider theology as a science, yet that is precisely what no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas considered it.

If science is concerned with proximate causes and effects, and if God is the ultimate or first cause, then the study of God (theology) is queen. This queen has produced several princes, some greater than others. One of the inferior princes is called process theology.

In this essay, I will examine what process theology is and its history. I will conclude by arguing that process theology is neither biblically nor philosophically sound and, therefore, ought to be rejected by Catholics.

Process theology results from the work of philosophers Charles Hartshorne and Alfred N. Whitehead. It appears that both men were influenced by changes in science, particularly physics. Abandoning the static and inert Newtonian universe for a dynamic and evolving one suggested by quantum mechanics, Hartshorne and Whitehead argued that God, too, was capable of evolving. It is an understatement that such a philosophy is a significant departure from the classical views of God, and, as we shall see, the God proposed by process theology differs drastically from the biblical God understood by Catholicism.

The name process theology comes from the theory’s premise that God is subject to the temporal processes occurring in the world. As such, the God of process theology is part of an eternally changing universe. This aspect of process theology seems to echo Pantheism. From this, it follows that such a God is infinite (although qualifiedly) and powerful but not omnipotent. 

Charles Hartshorne argued that God is “dipolar.” That is to say that the concept of a perfect God cannot be limited to a particular set of characteristics because perfection can be embodied in contrary and even contradictory characteristics. For example, a perfect God cannot possess absolute control because in possessing such power, He would be dictatorial. Therefore, according to process theology, God must be both powerful and willing to allow His creatures to resist that power. 

Where process theology claims that God exhibits the power of persuasion, not the attribute of omnipotence, Catholicism asserts that God is logically omnipotent. That is, God can do anything logically coherent (He cannot create a square circle). The basis for God’s omnipotence is that God is the necessary being. A being that exists necessarily possesses every perfection of being – including omnipotence.

A second point of contention between process theology and Catholicism involves the immutability of God. Process theology suggests that while God is not identical to the universe (Pantheism), God is affected (i.e., changed) by events and actions that take place in the universe. The belief in a mutable God directly contradicts the Bible and philosophy. 

Scriptural support for God’s immutability is ubiquitous. “I, the Lord do not change.” (Malachi 3:6), and again, “God is not a human being who speaks falsely, nor a mortal, who feels regret. Is God one to speak and not act, to decree and not bring it to pass?” (Numbers 23:19). These verses support philosophical arguments for God’s immutability.

For a thing to change, it must be caused to do so by another. A tree causes a seed that causes a tree, and so on. This somewhat effete example is true of everything in the universe. However, this chain of cause and effect cannot be infinite. Therefore, there must be a cause of change that itself is not changed. Said differently, if God is mutable, it would be necessary for something outside of God to cause a change in God. In such a scenario, God ceases to be God.

A third point of variance between process theology and Catholicism involves the immortality of the soul. Charles Hartshorne posited that people do not experience subjective immortality but rather objective immortality.

Objective immortality is the belief that an individual’s experiences live on forever in God, who contains all that was. Upon death, the person “lives on” in God’s memory. Here again, echoes of Pantheism appear in process theology. Subjective immortality is an alternative to objective immortality and the view adhered to in classical theology. This position argues that the self, as an individual soul, survives the death of the body. 

The biblical data certainly supports the belief that the individual soul survives death. Perhaps the most dramatic support is provided by passages indicating the resurrection of the dead. “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth.” If all that survives death are God’s memories of us, it is unclear how or what will “hear His voice and come forth.” (John 5:28-29).

It seems to me, however, that the most compelling biblical support for the soul surviving death appears in John’s Gospel. In dialogue with His apostles, Christ says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?”. (John 14:2). If all that we are survives only as a memory in the mind of God, what need is there for the “many dwelling places” in Heaven?

The final point that makes process theology incompatible with Catholicism centers on the interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ. Like many other teachings of process theology, there is no fixed doctrine regarding the Resurrection. However, one well-received theory in process theology is that belief in the Resurrection is “optional.” One of the more prominent supporters of process theology, David R. Griffin frames it this way, “Christian faith . . . is possible apart from belief in Jesus’ resurrection in particular and life beyond bodily death in general, and because of the widespread skepticism regarding these traditional beliefs, they should be presented as optional.” (Griffin, David Ray. A Process Christology. 1990). 

It is tempting to rebut this opinion by simply stating that skepticism about a claim does not change the truth value of that claim. However, Saint Paul provides the strongest argument against this view of process theology. “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14). If the Resurrection is “optional,” then so is Christianity. 

In the preceding exposition, I have sought to argue that process theology is incompatible with Catholicism. While the above does not exhaust the views of process theology, I think the arguments provided are sufficient to show why Catholics ought to reject its teachings.

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