Process Theology Revisited

This is the Introduction to a blog series I want to do in regard to revisiting (for me), Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy and its offspring, Process Theology. Process philosophy has a lot of similarities to Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism with its integration of Taoism. In that regards, process philosophy is a Western version. Process theology, introduced God to this philosophy, an insertion Whitehead himself later embraced.

I had two problems with process theology. First, it used a concept of a personal god, a very Abrahamic concept of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions.Second, it was God calling humans to be “good” (a.k.a. altruistic). Coming from a Taoist perspective of a non-personal ground of being, variously understood as well as it can be put into words, as no-thingness, the Buddhist Void, or Zen’s Emptiness and which have more similarity to theologian’s Paul Tillich’s ground of being, I will first give an introduction to Process Theology, then come back to these two objections, proposing for the second objection especially two “solutions.” To get there we need to have an understanding of 1) what process theology says. 2) Our selfish and unselfish DNA (aka, genes). And Jeremy England’s Dissipation-Driven Adaptation, which I discuss in my recent Guru book, pp 108-118.

Below is a slightly edited version I posted online in 2011 on my Horses-Helping-Troubled-Teens.com website, Process Theology:

“Process theology is derived from process philosophy originated by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). Whitehead was a mathematician and contemporary of physicist, Albert Einstein. Being unhappy with Einstein’s “messy”, non-linear mathematics in deriving his Theory of Relativity, Whitehead rederived it using a linear model. He retired from his professorship in mathematics at the University College of London and accepted a position at Harvard University in philosophy. This is where and when he derived his process philosophy. His ultimate aim was a theology that was consistent with what science, and especially quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s indeterminacy principle, told us about reality and the universe. Process philosophy is based on the idea of becoming as opposed to being. The latter espoused by the philosophies of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

Theologians took Whitehead’s process philosophy and derived from it process theology. These include Henry Nelson Wieman and Charles Hartshorne, who developed it initially. It was made into a systematic theology by John Cobb and David Griffin, and further expanded by nurmerous others, including Marjorie Suchocki, Catherine Keller, and the Claremont Center for Process Studies.

As Whitehead pointed out, “whatever suggests a cosmology, suggests a theology.” Below are some of the basic concepts of process theology:

Process is Primary

The universe, creation, god, humans, even rocks and electrons are all in process. Process is primary, fundamental. Change is the nature of reality. There are unchanging principles of process, such as pointed out by chaos and evolutionary theory, and abstracts of form. To be actual, to be real is to be in process. Anything that is not in process, is an abstraction from process. (Contrast this to Plato’s ideas or forms, in which the abstractions were the real, or Aristotle in what was real was unchanging.)

Diversity or Pluralism

Unlike Plato who viewed differences between things as imperfect copies of the ideal form, process theology views pluralism or diversity as the reality. Just as Darwin recognized that differences between individuals were the raw stuff of natural selection and evolution, process theology views diversity as the raw stuff of becoming or process. Diversity is good.

Relational and Interconnectedness

Process theology is a relational theology. Coupled with diversity (above), it moves us beyond Jeffersonian tolerance to engagement: we influence one another. What happens to me and what I do matters to you because it affects your own becoming and process, and visa versa. Same with God. He feels all of creation: its/our pain, sorrow, happiness, etc. He experiences it for each of his creatures.

Panentheism

Panentheism means everything in God and God in everything. God is not “out there”, she is in all of creation. She is both transcendent and immanent.

Free will

Free will and self-determination are components of reality, be you electron, rock, or human. The past is incarnated into the present becoming for each actuality. But how that past is incarnated is determined at least partially by our interactions with others, our environment, and our abilities to make changes.

God is not Omnipotent

God is not all powerful, or all knowing for that matter. I passed a sign the other day of a little country Baptist church. It read something like, “God is in control, so obey his laws.” Another read, “Faith is following God’s commandments without question.” God is not in control. What happens matters to Him and affects him, but he doesn’t control it.

God Changes

God is not Aristotle’s unmoved mover. Just as everything in the universe is interdependent and interconnected, so too is God. True to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are in relation with Her. God responds to creation and creatures, i.e., God changes. How? By luring us to greater “enjoyment” (a Whiteheadian term).

God’s Activity in Creation

God does not intervene or interfere (or punish) in Creation. Her activity is through the lure/love (above). (I’m still struggling to understand this aspect.) We are free to choose, but we are responsible for the consequences. Whatever decisions we make, and no matter how they come out, God starts where we are, calling us to greater enjoyment. He calls all of creation to greater enjoyment. (Of course, if you are only a cockroach, how much enjoyment can you experience? How about a rock?)

Comment

If this is true, (how God is active in the world), and we live in a world governed by the laws of nature and physics, then who are we praying to? Why pray? Are we praying to gravity, entropy, etc.? S. Hawking’s recent comments about not needing God to explain creation bear on this point.

Creation Ex nihilo

This means creation from nothing. Process theology rejects creatio ex nihilo. Rather it confirms creation out of chaos, which was suggested by both Plato and Old Testament writers.

Additional Readings

Cobb, J. and D. R. Griffin. 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition.

C. Keller. 2008. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process

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