"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, March 16, 2012

Books Books Books! (Pt XVII): Cobb, “Process Theology”

John B. Cobb Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976)

Process Theology is a way of doing theology. "Doing theology," to me, means exploring the character and nature of God and God’s relationship with the created world. Process theology is a way of thinking about these things. A relatively new way. Or maybe somewhat new, with a little bit of "old.”

But isn't theology just theology? Why would there be different kinds of theology? I don’t think new or different kinds of theological reflection necessarily set out to say, “we’re going to create new ideas about God, just because we can and we love novelty.” I think “new” theologies spring up for different reasons.

One reason might be that people in a particular era are genuinely interested in discovering Truth, and, for whatever reason—a new self-awareness of the human condition or new scientific discoveries, maybe—they feel there are new things to say about God that haven’t already been said, or new ways to say the same things to make them more intelligible to a new generation, or just whole new discoveries of things that we couldn't have seen before because we weren't capable of seeing them.

Another reason might be that theological reflection—that which is popular—has often been done by those with power or privilege, often white males like myself. Theologies of recent decades like “Feminist Theology” or “Black Theology” or “Post-Colonial Theology” are not meant to be heretical or culturally-accommodating (as they might be accused of) but are instead a kind of justice, a fairness, a sort of affirmative action even—an attempt to “balance” out the perspective a bit with some voices that might have been previously unheard.

That’s my take, at least. “Process theology” would fall under the former of those two possibilities. Process theologians, in dialogue with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the sciences, are attempting to better understand God and Jesus and the human experience. In a way, it is an updating.

But I think “updating” gets a bad rap sometimes. It’s not necessarily an abandonment of “tradition,” but usually an attempt by those devoted to “the tradition” to truly understand the heart of that tradition and make it accessible and real for people today.

That’s not an endorsement of all the tenets and emphases of process theology. But it is an endorsement of the “process”—an effort to know God and make God known.

There’s a lot to it that I’m still not sure I totally understand, but a few ideas jump out that might seem slightly different from traditional Christian thought:

God does not “know” the future. “To say that God is omniscient means that in every moment of the divine life God knows everything that is knowable at that time. The concrete actuality is temporal, relative, dependant, and constantly changing. In each moment of God’s life there are new, unforeseen happenings in the world which only then have become knowable” (47).

Put differently, the future does not yet exist—it’s not a real thing. God may have intentions for the future, and be an excellent “guesser” but cannot know things—like the classic idea of a round square—that are not real or are illogical.

The point, I think: God and God's creation are “co-creators” of the future, interacting with one another to shape our individual and corporate lives. God creates, but God responds, too. Another implication of this is that God shouldn't be thought of as static and “unchanging” but because of God’s relationship with God’s creation, God is affected by what happens with creation and thus changes over time, just like we change over time. Okay.

God’s creation of the world involved evolutionary processes. Oh no! But...but...the eyeball! (for you, Jake. J) I think because process theology emphasizes God’s very close relationship with the created world, it is able to conceive of a God very involved in the process of creation, to this very moment.

Whereas maybe some traditional Christian “science” might make it seem like God created briefly and extensively, and then was finished, process theology seems to make God still very involved in the smallest details and changes in creation. Whether or not this means my ancestors were monkeys, I don’t know.

The point, I think: there is a deeper connectedness among humankind and between humans and the created world than we tend to think, and God is intimately a part of our lives—as opposed to a remote, distant God. Okay.

Jesus is the revelation of God, but not in essence God. This might be the more radical of the points shared here, as it might seem to tip the scales of the humanity-divinity tension many Christians (like me) hold in their thinking about Jesus toward his humanity.

And I’m not really sure I’ve totally wrapped my mind around what they’re saying. A couple maybe-helpful quotes: Insofar as we genuinely receive Jesus as the revelation of the basic truth about reality, we are more open to the divine impulses in our experience” (102).

And: “the church is the community that is consciously dedicated to maintaining, extending, and strengthening the field of force created by Jesus” (107).

This approach definitely emphasizes Jesus as the key revelation of God while at the same time suggesting Christ can be experienced everywhere, wherever people open themselves to the creative transformation of God, whether or not they know to call it Christ or not.

Jesus, according to process thought, is the Word of God and the fullest revelation of God because he was so responsive to and aligned with God. Okay. I guess that’s as graspable and logical as thinking of Jesus as fully divine and fully human (like I tend to do).

The point, I think: Jesus calls us to follow him because his way is actually more follow-able than we think; he didn’t live a life that was inherently impossible to mimic, lest we should give up in defeat, knowing we are pond scum compared to Jesus.

Rather, we should seek the same responsiveness to God that Jesus embodied, for our own good and the good of the world. I think the term above, “field of force,” is meant to conjure up the image of a pool: Jesus is the stone dropped in the water, we are the ripples. That might be a helpful way to think about it.

One other quickie that is perhaps more shocking out of context: “…we are parts of one another’s bodies.” (115) Actually it's just kind of funny out of context.

Process theology definitely emphasizes our connectedness more than our separation, which seems to lead to whatever good things come from recognizing that our actions affect others, that we are not totally self-made but shaped by those around us and who've gone before us, and that we can learn from and be shaped by “the other” who we might have previously thought had nothing to offer us. Okay. J

Those that know process theology can see I haven’t covered everything; there’s more to it, more interesting nuances and provocative implications. This book and the movement are a few decades old, though it seems like the conversation about the merits, relevancy and truthfulness of process theology is ongoing (and maybe growing?).

If any who know more about it want to chime in and/or correct me here, please do so.

I’m not a full embracer of process theology; I don’t think I understand it well enough yet to know that. But I do see the value in its approach and emphases.

I also see value in the “process” presented and taught in “Directing Tablework,” the workshop Joann is currently attending as I write this. (I’m chaperoning her high school students at a theater conference in Ellensburg this weekend.) Well, I see the value for her; I’m obviously not present. J

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