Sunday, June 26, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Epperly's "Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed"

Of the seven or eight other introductory texts I have read on process theology, "Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed" by Bruce Epperly is the best overall, even though it does not replace the others. This is indeed a bold claim to make for someone who loves the works of John Cobb and Marjorie Suchocki, both of whom have written many classic books on process theology. But one of the greatest strengths of Epperly's introductory level book is in his synthesis of many of the most important ideas of other leading Christian process-relational thinkers from the last few decades, including Cobb and Suchocki, but also David Ray Griffin, Charles Hartshorne, Catherine Keller, Bernard Loomer, Thomas Jay Oord, Rita Nakashima Brock, Robert Mesle, Lewis Ford, Jay McDaniel, Monica Coleman, and last but definitely not least, Bruce Epperly himself. Additionally, he quotes widely from the complex works of Alfred North Whitehead throughout the book, highlighting some of his most memorable passages and explaining them in a way that makes them more accessible. A second strength of this book is due to Epperly's emphasis in practical theology. He is concerned, first and foremost, with the way in which process theology works within the lives of individuals and communities, impacting churches and preaching. This adds up to a real gift in clear communication, but also great sensitivity to the actual lives of people outside the academy, leading him to concentrate less on complicated academic debates and more on issues like prayer, life after death, ethics, and holistic healing practices.
Bruce Epperly

Here are a few things that stood out to me about the book:
1) Epperly goes through every important area of Christian theology and explains the various ways that process theologians understand them - christology, soteriology, sin, anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the trinity. This is pretty much standard for process theology intro books, but Epperly is particularly clear and thorough in his explanations of the various process interpretations of systematic theology. Beyond the basic areas of systematic theology, Epperly also explains process views of miracles, scripture, revelation, and mystical experiences.

2) A very helpful overview of process ethics is included on issues like abortion, euthanasia, ecology/animal rights, and economics/justice (which draws heavily on Cobb's work). Such a wide variety of important issues are not always a part of other introductory level process texts, so this was a great addition to the book.

3) As previously mentioned, Epperly synthesizes other key process thinkers in this book and summarizes many of their most important contributions to the process theology conversation: Cobb's logos/Wisdom Christology and work in ethics; Suchocki's theologies of original sin, eschatology, and prayer; Epperly's own work in holistic healing practices and eschatology; Griffin's work in the area of theodicy; Oord's work on a theology of love; Coleman's Womanist theology; McDaniel's work in ecology; etc.

4) Lastly, in the final chapter of the book, Epperly considers the possibility of the "amorphous, yet dynamic" emergent church movement adopting a process theology framework. He argues that process theology provides the flexibility that the emergent church is committed to while avoiding relativism, purely apophatic spirituality, and deconstructive postmodernism (most forms of process theology are contrasted as 'constructive postmodernism'). It encourages as much openness to other religions as possible while remaining rooted in a (constantly evolving) tradition - a kind of 'confessional religious pluralism.' Indeed, citing Brian McLaren, Epperly believes process theology can provide a truly inspiring philosophical and theological grounding for a "New Kind of Christianity." Although only a few self-identified emergent Christian writers/leaders/pastors are explicitly aligned with some form of process theology at this point, there are certainly overlapping emphases with process in many emergent/emerging books and blogs (one thinks of Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, which in many ways is like a more accessible version of Oord's The Nature of Love). As such, Epperly's invitation to emergent Christians (who are largely post-evangelicals) to consider process theology as a viable option in their search for new forms of faith makes a great deal of sense for anyone familiar with McLaren or Doug Pagitt.

While process theology is anything but easy to understand for many beginners, Bruce Epperly has done a fantastic job of making it accessible without oversimplifying the incredible depth of process thinking.

Alright - now go buy the book!

The Generosity of Process Theology

This week I have been reading Bruce Epperly's excellent new book, "Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed" and came across this wonderful quote that reminded me of Brian McLaren's idea of "generous orthodoxy":

"Progressive in spirit, process theologians affirm the importance of treasuring tradition, characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church; the openness to ecstasy and healing, characteristic of Pentecostal Christians; the personal passion and love of Jesus, characteristic of evangelical Christians; the commitment to contemplative prayer, characteristic of Quakers; the emphasis on the incarnation, characteristic of Orthodox Christians; and the recognition of bedrock truths, characteristic of fundamentalist Christians.  Rather than turning from dialogue, process theologians embrace dialogue with other forms of Christian worship, practice, and theology, recognizing that God is working in diverse ways in diverse denominational and theological traditions and that each tradition both opens and closes itself to the divine as a result of its particular perspective."

I will be blogging more on Epperly's book, which I believe is probably the finest process theology introductory text in print today.  Do yourself a favor if you are interested in process theology and read this book.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Process Theology of Cobb & Bracken (pt.4)

[This is the last post, #4 in a series - click here for post #1; post #2; or post #3. For a simple introduction to process theology, check out my older post on the topic.  This series of posts goes a lot deeper than that one.]

Joseph Bracken diverges from John Cobb perhaps most significantly in his understanding of creativity, arguing that there is a logical problem with the idea that God creates but is also a creature of creativity. This seems to make creativity more ultimate than God, so Bracken relocates creativity within God rather than independent of God. Creativity is the inner nature or principle of God’s existence and activity. Its activity in the world is God’s free gift. This allows Bracken to maintain creation ex nihilo, and the doctrine of the Trinity: “if creativity constitutes the inner nature or essence of God, then God is not just one person, but three persons making up a divine community.” With social trinitarians, Bracken sees the triune life as dynamic, communitarian, and ordering the grain of the cosmos in analogous fashion. With process theologians, he sees the world as participating in and affecting the life of God. Through the initial aims, God provides freedom, novelty, and lures every occasion towards an open future. With Cobb, Bracken agrees that every occasion has some amount of real freedom, and that ‘sin’ is misused creativity (or deviation from the initial aims). This provides a basis for Bracken’s Christology: as the ‘Son’, Jesus always conformed his subjective aim in the power of the Spirit to the initial aims provided by the ‘Father’, experiencing a unique human freedom-in-community. The initial aims are always a lure to benefit the larger community. Recognizing this radical interdependence often leads to conflict with the powers that be, as seen in Jesus’ death on the cross. The Incarnation strategically provided in history “new energy and direction to the collective power of good in the world” to overcome the increasing collective power of evil (‘original sin’).

Bracken also modifies Whitehead’s societies with his notion of ‘fields of activity.’ To avoid atomism, societies must have some reality proper to themselves, so Bracken introduces semi-permanent fields of activity as an alternative. Fields are generated when actual occasions dynamically interact to co-create a common space. The world is one enormous field of activity with hierarchically structured and overlapping subfields. The Trinity is even a field of activity constituted by the perfect community of each person (who are subfields), containing the world within itself (the ‘divine matrix’) and providing it with an ordering trinitarian pattern. The kingdom of God is the overall field co-created between God and creation, more or less realized on earth based on the world’s conformity to the pattern of the trinitarian life. Bracken sees the church as a key subfield of activity within the kingdom, along with other religious communities. The world’s religions can and do contribute to what Christians call the kingdom of God, and Eastern views of Ultimate Reality should remind theists that the Godhead is also transpersonal (somewhat similar to Cobb’s sense of pluralism).

Lastly, I want to concentrate on Bracken’s eschatology because he goes far beyond Cobb in this area. While Cobb is satisfied with objective immortality, Bracken argues for ‘resurrection’ with a process metaphysic. Because the world exists within the divine field of activity, it always contributes to it and is preserved within it (objective immorality). While we are not fully aware of our dynamic existence within God, at the moment of death we receive an initial aim to become fully conscious of this truth (subjective immortality). We must be willing to take responsibility for our life as we then see it. This experience of ‘judgment’ will lead to eternal salvation if we accept responsibility. Our acceptance brings full communion within the trinitarian life (‘heaven’), but our refusal leads to self-imposed isolation within God (‘hell’). So the ‘Last Judgment’ happens all the time, not at any mysterious end of time. The ‘resurrection’ of bodies is possible because they are really fields maintaining a fixed pattern of relations among the body parts – they are not as ‘material’ as we sense. In heaven, this pattern of relations that governed our bodies from conception onwards is incorporated into the divine field, transformed, and we are reunited with it. In fact, all of creation is somehow resurrected into God.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Process Theology of Cobb & Bracken (pt.3)

[This is post #3 in a series - click here for post #1; click here for post #2. For a simple introduction to process theology, check out my older post on the topic.  This series of posts goes a lot deeper than that one.] 

For Cobb and Whitehead, God primarily comes in to the picture in order to understand the effectiveness of the eternal objects in the world. Through God’s ordering of the eternal objects and provision of the ‘initial aim’, the becoming occasion is lured toward an ideal set of relevant possibilities for its satisfaction. The occasion prehends God’s initial aim through its mental pole, and is free to align with it more or less based on its subjective aim. To deviate from the initial aim would be, in Christian terms, ‘sin.’ God lures each occasion to maximize beauty, zest, adventure, truth, and peace – both immediately for the occasion as well as the future. In these ways, God is both the principle of limitation and of potentiality. While God creates persuasively through the initial aims rather than ex nihilo, there is also what Whitehead calls ‘creativity’, which is “the underlying metaphysical principle of the universe, the ultimate activity, the sheer ongoingness of nature.” In order to describe anything actual, creativity must be assumed. A moment of human experience and God are both instances of creativity. While creativity is not actual, God is – yet God requires creativity to be actual. As such “questions about superiority between them are meaningless.” Cobb sees creativity as religiously significant for Eastern religions, and as a complement to Western theism.

While the God-world relationship is panentheistic, God is not an exception to metaphysical rules but “their chief exemplification,” the supreme actual entity, the ultimate instance of creativity. While God is the only nontemporal entity, God is also temporally affected by the world like any actual entity. As an actual entity, God is dipolar, but as a reverse image of other actual entities: God begins with the mental pole while others begin with the physical pole. Whitehead calls God’s mental pole the primordial nature, and the physical pole the consequent nature. The consequent nature everlastingly prehends the world, experiencing the good and bad, which in turn changes the way in which God’s primordial nature orders the eternal objects and acts through the initial aim. God’s preservation of every occasion in its subjective immediacy within the consequent nature is its ‘objective immortality.’ For Whitehead, this conscious divine preservation of values in their immediacy solves the problem of meaninglessness. Even evil can be preserved in God after being transformed and integrated into a unified satisfaction. After this, every perfected actuality in the consequent nature affects the initial aim and thus passes back into the world to be prehended by new occasions. Cobb points out that this interactive relationship between the world and God is taken for granted in the Bible.

Joseph Bracken
While Cobb’s CNT is clearly intended for an academic audience, Joseph Bracken’s CPT is written mainly for theologically engaged laypersons. Furthermore, while Cobb works hard to stay close to Whitehead with very little modification or further speculations, Bracken both modifies Whitehead’s philosophy and engages in a great deal of theological speculation. More than Cobb, Bracken aims at the mutual enrichment of Whitehead and Christianity, and so is willing to speculate more in order to plausibly include doctrines like the Trinity, resurrection, and creation ex nihilo: “Too little effort, as I see it, has been expended to somehow adjusting Whitehead’s philosophical categories to accommodate…traditional Christian beliefs.” In the long run, Bracken believes that Christianity and process philosophy can be harmonized to the benefit of both faith and reason.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Process Theology of Cobb & Bracken (pt.2)

[This is post #2 in a series - click here for post #1. For a simple introduction to process theology, check out my older post on the topic.  This series of posts goes a lot deeper than that one.] 

William James
John Cobb begins A Christian Natural Theology by explaining the basics of process philosophy – in fact, much of this book is an attempt to faithfully exegete the major works of Whitehead. Process philosophy provides a model of reality based on what must be the basic element in the universe. With William James, it describes human experience as growing by differentiated ‘drops’ rather than an undivided flow, and similarly agrees with physicists that events in the subatomic world happen in ‘bursts’, not smoothly. Whitehead thus names the basic individual entities of all reality ‘actual occasions of experience’, which dynamically flow in and out of existence. As such, there is no sharp line to be drawn between human experience and the rest of the natural world – everything is ultimately made up of successive occasions. Actual occasions succeed one another so rapidly that it is impossible to consciously analyze them individually, but we can know something about what they contain since the qualities we are aware of having in human experiences must be present in all occasions.

Becoming actual occasions in the present (subjects) ‘prehend’ all past occasions (objects) in varying degrees, synthesizing them into something unique. The past penetrates into the present, such that everything in the universe is ultimately related, although the effect of the past fades over time to virtually nothing. In this model, contemporary events have no causal efficacy on one another, so cause always precedes effect. Additionally, occasions are dipolar: the ‘physical pole’ prehends the finite past and the ‘mental pole’ conceptually prehends the mental past, which offers novel possibilities. These relevant possibilities that are felt and realized by the becoming occasion are called ‘eternal objects’, which are like Plato’s forms, although for Whitehead they are passive while ‘matter’ (which is actually energy) is active. As such, the eternal objects must be ordered and actualized by actual entities. Without the novelty introduced by the ordering of eternal objects for each occasion, the past would entirely determine the present and there would be no real freedom. For Whitehead, freedom is so essential that it is universally present even without conscious decision-making. He argues that in every occasion there is a purposive element called the ‘subjective aim’, as well as its ‘subjective form’ – how the occasion uniquely prehends the past. The subjective aim and form are largely repeated in immediately subsequent occasions. The final synthesis of the becoming occasion is its ‘satisfaction’, after which they ‘perish’ and become an influence on all future occasions.

John B. Cobb Jr.
While we are not generally aware of individual occasions, we can analyze groupings of occasions. Whitehead calls these ‘societies’, which organize occasions that are closely dependent on one another and exemplify common traits. Societies account for objects that endure through time (bodies, tables, etc) and provide stability. Another important concept for Whitehead is the ‘dominant occasion’, which is a crucial part of what Cobb calls the soul. The dominant occasion is that which is essential for the well being of the entire society, and they are not present in lower forms of life or inanimate societies. For Cobb, the soul is not a substance but a society in which only one occasion occurs at a time: the dominant occasion in the brain. The soul is relational not isolated, is dynamically constituted by experiences, and is closely related to the rest of the body. While some higher animals have a soul, the human soul differs in its peculiar intensity and complexity. But Cobb also sees humans as particular in their historical orientation, “the human potentiality for being formed by history,” especially evident in their sense of memory that provides a basis for responsibility for the past. He speculates about life after death and concludes that, while natural theology cannot talk about a physical resurrection of the body, the soul (which is the living person) can logically live apart from the body. Exactly where the soul might live on is difficult to know, though one could speculate about other dimensions of reality.

The Process Theology of Cobb & Bracken (pt.1)

Alfred North Whitehead
[For a simple introduction to process theology, check out my older post on the topic.  This series of posts goes a lot deeper than that one.]

Process philosophy originated in the thinking of the British mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in the early 20th century, and later became the inspiration for the development of Christian process theology in the mid-20th century. Although the philosopher Charles Hartshorne was instrumental in the development of Christian process theology, the theologian to do the most systematic work was Hartshorne’s student John B. Cobb Jr. With the publication of A Christian Natural Theology (CNT) in 1965, Cobb effectively launched Christian process theology. His argument that Christian theologians should return to natural theology via process metaphysics was a radical position at a time when the dominant trend of neo-orthodoxy emphasized the theological priority of revelation over knowledge of nature. While Cobb would later turn to more fully articulate major Christian doctrines (especially Christology and soteriology), CNT laid out a basic Whiteheadian understanding of anthropology and the doctrine of God.  In these posts I outline Cobb’s natural theology in CNT and then compare it to the work of the Jesuit neo-process theologian Joseph Bracken. Through an analysis of his 2006 publication, Christianity and Process Thought (CPT), we will see how Bracken has gone further than Cobb to align his process theology with more traditional expressions of Christian theology.

John Cobb insists that natural theology is necessary today, especially due to his view that even theologies that explicitly reject it (e.g., Barthian theology) are always inescapably involved in some kind of natural theology. As Cobb explains, “…whether recognized or not, theological positions depend systematically on affirmations that are not private to theology.” In the history of Christianity, much of the best theology was quite explicitly shaped by utilizing the finest philosophy of the day. Thomas Aquinas is arguably the greatest theologian of the Christian tradition, and he brilliantly developed his theology in dialogue with Aristotle. In the 20th (and 21st) century, Cobb believes that the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead represents the finest philosophy of our time, rather than Aristotle or Thomism. As such, he develops his theology through process philosophy by using his Christian point of view to concentrate on particular questions. Rather than distorting philosophy with dogma, Cobb aims first and foremost to be philosophically rigorous.

One might ask, on what basis did Cobb choose process philosophy over other systems? While rejecting any illusion of objectivity, Cobb evaluates philosophical systems for theology based on two criteria: intrinsic excellence (consistency, coherence, comprehensiveness) and whether it is hostile or basically compatible with a Christian vision. In light of these criteria, Cobb finds Whitehead’s process-relational thinking to be intrinsically excellent: it is internally consistent, compatible with modern science and physics, and offers a solution to the problems posed by dualism that have dominated the modern world after Descartes and Kant. On the second criterion, Cobb argues that process philosophy resonates better with the Hebrew understanding of a relational God than did the Greek substance metaphysics of the past. Furthermore, because of his context, Whitehead’s metaphysics are “already Christianized in a way Greek philosophy could not have been. Hence it proves, I am convinced, more amenable to Christian use.” With the philosophy of Whitehead in hand, Cobb identifies his work as philosophical theology rather than philosophy due to his recognition that he depends on a “particular community of ultimate concern” to shape his perspective to a great extent. He is at the same time attempting to be critically aware of the way that his faith community shapes him so as to question its assumptions in the light of fresh thinking.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Process(ing) Theology with Cobb & Suchocki

John Cobb
After finishing my first year at Claremont School of Theology with two different week-long process theology summer classes, I have definitely started shifting in the direction of a kind of (neo)Whiteheadian process thinking.  CST is well known for process theology, and few students graduate from here without appreciation for it.  The two process theology classes I took were a part of the Claremont summer Process Institute, "Process & Faith."  One was an introduction to process theology with Marjorie Suchocki, and the other was about ecology and Whiteheadian philosophy with John Cobb.  Both Suchocki and Cobb are the most famous and important theologians in 20th century process theology.  Cobb is actually the person who is credited with making process philosophy into process theology, while Suchocki was his student and has written some of the most important works in process theology to date (especially in the areas of original sin, prayer, and eschatology).  To say the least, it was an honor to learn from these two brilliant theologians.  They certainly had an 'evangelizing effect' on me, as I have been on the edge of committing to process theology for a couple years now.

Marjorie Suchocki
Why process theology?  First, I have been positively predisposed to process theology as an open theist (see the work of Clark Pinnock), but also through the 20th century German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann.  Open theism embraces a view of the future that is not entirely predetermined, and a more interactive God/world relationship.  I believe this view (over against Calvinism, or standard Arminian free-will theism) is more biblical and more existentially satisfying.  Process theology is very similar to open theism in these respects.  Moltmann's concepts of the "Crucified God" and trinitarian panentheism have taught me about the concept of a truly suffering God - a God who redemptively 'feels' the joys and the pains of the world.  Moltmann of course got this notion from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Only the suffering God can help."  Similarly, Whitehead (the philosopher behind process theology) writes, "God is the fellow sufferer who understands."  I won't go further into these concepts, but suffice it to say, my previous theological commitments made for an intuitive encounter with process.
Jurgen Moltmann

The second reason for my move towards process theology has to do with my undergraduate work in HSU's religious studies program. This work raised two big questions that only process theology offers a satisfying answer to, for my money: the questions of religious pluralism and theodicy.  Process theology affirms a cautious kind of religious pluralism without reducing religions to a common essence (thereby respecting their uniqueness).  I have tried for a long time, but it is not possible for me to continue to affirm the complete ultimacy of Christianity in a religiously pluralistic world. Part of this conviction is due to the recognition of the history of Christianity and the field of biblical studies (which makes certain views of the bible impossible, in my view), but also the intimate exposure to other religious traditions. The 'special pleading' (as Cobb calls it) we Christians sometimes engage in to justify certain absolute theological claims (especially in Barthian theology) is very difficult for many persons, myself included, to accept.  Even so, process theologians like Cobb maintain a Christocentric theology that I value greatly.  As for theodicy, process denies that omnipotence is either a biblical or philosophically coherent view of God.  God is very powerful, indeed, but God's power is persuasive rather than coercive.  As such, God is unable to always prevent evil.  This view avoids the extremes of both deism and Calvinism, but also the incoherent view that God ties 'his' hands behind his back sometimes to allow us freedom...but sometimes intervenes as well to override freedom.  As Suchocki said in class on this latter view, "Nonsense!"  There is nothing loving about that view of God, no matter what the payoffs in other areas of theology.

The third reason for my move towards process theology is my exposure to the science/religion debate.  Few systems are able to make as much sense of modern science and physics as the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.  There is radical compatibility between every aspect of process theology and modern science.  This is a beautiful thing, and so essential for the 21st century.  We should not have to relativize modern science in order to be Christians (though we might have to question it's reductionistic assumptions on occasion, as Cobb argues!). Furthermore, process theology encourages a view of the natural world as organism rather than mechanism - this is a paradigm shift that is so necessary today as we sit on the edge of ecological collapse due to bad, dualistic, anthropocentric metaphysics.

Thomas Jay Oord
The fourth reason for my move towards process theology is my realization that it is a highly open metaphysical system, in two respects.  First, it allows for all kinds of possibilities, even if they are not strictly probable.  Even "scientifically", there is no a priori reason to say that miracles cannot occur - some process thinkers, like Tom Oord, even argue for the resurrection of Jesus with a process metaphysic!  Although this might be a stretch for most process thinkers, they agree that it is not a violation of the laws of nature for some kind of healings to occur on occasion.  Another possibility that process explains well is religious experiences, ecstatic and ordinary.  There are good reasons for these various experiences, metaphysically speaking, and no a priori reason to deny their authenticity.  The second way that process is particularly open is to internal tweaking of concepts.  This was a big hangup for me for sometime until I read Joseph Bracken and John Haught, two Catholic theologians who have really done some interesting neo-Process work - the former maintaining the social Trinity and the latter the idea of God as "the power of the future", particularly appealing ideas for a Moltmannian like myself.
Joseph Bracken

I could go on and on, but I won't.  Process theology is a beautiful, sometimes complex, and always powerful way to think about the Christian faith.  Yes, it is certainly a form of progressive Christianity.  But that's just where I find myself these days, I suppose.

Here's my process theology reading list so far (leaving out a few that are only loosely related):

Christ in a Pluralistic Age by John Cobb
Introduction to Process Theology by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin
A Christian Natural Theology by John Cobb
The Process Perspective by John Cobb
The Fall to Violence by Marjorie Suchocki
God-Christ-Church by Marjorie Suchocki
Intro to Process Theology by Robert Mesle
On the Mystery by Catherine Keller
Christianity and Process Thought by Joseph Bracken
Adventures in the Spirit by Philip Clayton
Making Sense of Evolution by John Haught
The Nature of Love by Thomas Jay Oord