Perspectives on John: Process Theology

Perspectives
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

Learning new things

College was an interesting experience for me made more interesting by the fact that I could not make up my mind about what to study and could not seem to find a school to study it in. As I have said before, I went to college on the six-five-four plan: six total years with five varied majors at four different schools, which gave me a considerable opportunity to take classes in a variety of disciplines. At nearly every school I attended, seminary included, I took at least one philosophy class and often as possible, more.

Looking back, I think the fascination I had philosophy stemmed from a desire to make sense of the diverse ways people around me seemed to think. In any given environment, there could be as many different methods for approaching life and its joys and struggles as there were people experiencing them. Something about the idea of being able to understand or perhaps even sense those ways of thinking drew me to continue taking philosophy and when I could not take a class, buying and reading books about it.

In truth, much of what we regard as theology and theological thinking actually owes its origin to philosophy. From the earliest expressions of Christianity – the writings of Paul – to the current theological age, our understanding has been colored, explained, and expounded on through the lens of philosophy. Most of the first five centuries saw the use of Hellenistic categories and thought forms to explain and express the developing message of Jesus to the pagan world of the Roman Empire.[1] Early church fathers like Origin and Augustine used the work of Plato and at times allow it to control their understanding of Christian doctrine.[2] Thomas Aquinas the medieval church doctor and scholar referred to Aristotle’s philosophy as the handmaid of theology though critics say his philosophy was closer to that of pagans.[3] Modern theologians, particularly in the twentieth century, have not abandoned this practice, if anything, they have expanded it as an interpretive lens to view both theology and Christian thought, seeing in it certain explanations for the thought patterns and methodologies used to explain and define Christianity and its doctrines.

No branch of theological exploration owes more to philosophy than that of process theology. Given that understanding, it is no surprise that process theology can be quite difficult to grasp, especially since the philosophy can be overwhelming to those who have not been exposed to the basic disciplines. I would equate process philosophy to being almost like learning a new language and a new math at the same time. It’s hard to make the math add up without the languages and even harder to make the language intelligible without the math. With that in mind, we will delve now into an attempt at scratching the surface of process theology. As with our other sermons in this series, we will try to define it first and then look at a possible application in the context of the Gospel of John.

What is Process Theology?

Process theology began not as an expression of faith but a philosophy, born in the mind of Alfred North Whitehead, a British mathematician turned speculative philosopher when he came to the United States to teach at Harvard University.[4] This philosophy was based on reality being made not of objects and things but of what he called “occasions”, better understood as drops of experience. Rather than seeing life as a continuous chain of being, Whitehead saw it as a happening in relation to other happenings.

God was a part of Whitehead’s understanding of these happenings as a great “cosmic organizer”, the one who unifies the created order as much as that is possible in Whitehead’s system. For Whitehead, however, God was not the traditional God we envision and understand in most denominational circles. For Whitehead, God is neither omnipotent or timeless and not only contains the world but is contained within it. Whitehead wrote, “…it is as true to say that the world creates God as that God creates the world.”[5] In Whitehead’s view, God is superior to the world but is always evolving and capable of becoming superior to God’s previous being, becoming superior to himself and evolving with the creation the God has created. At this point, the philosophy appears to overtake the theology and critics of Whitehead leveled such charges at him in that regard. Whitehead was regarded as philosopher and student of natural religion but not a Christian in the traditional sense of the word.[6]

That said, a group of theologians, beginning sometime in the 1960’s or 1970’s, began to assimilate the process thought of Whitehead into what we call process theology. The United Methodist Church, along with other mainline churches, began working with Whitehead’s philosophy to find applications in theology. Among the proponents were Claremont Graduate School, specifically John Cobb, Jr., a professor of theology and United Methodist minister. Cobb was among the first to develop theories on process theology, with his books A Christian Natural Theology (1965), God and the World (1965), and Christ in a Pluralistic Age (1975).[7]

In his book Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, Cobb defines the basics of this new way of thinking. Within process theology God has two ‘poles’ one which is “eternal, unchanging, and not of this world” and the other which is “temporal, changing, and of this world.”[8] In this way, God does not act alone in shaping and changing the world but we act alongside God. Process theology also attempts to tackle the problem of evil in the world by recognizing that while God does not stop evil because God gives us free will, but God can be a God who abides with us in that suffering rather than leaving us to suffer alone. The problem of evil is overcome in Cobb’s eyes by denying God’s omnipotence, instead stressing God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive, that God can influence creatures but not determine what they become or do.[9] In this case, God’s role is to liberate and empower rather than rule over. As one writer wrote,

 It is the side of theology viewing God as working “within and through nature.” God creates a process and then directs the steps that obtain the goal.  He does not interfere, just observes.[10]

In some ways this is still confusing. Both Whitehead and Cobb speak and write as academics and use the high-level language common to the academic world. This makes process theology both intimidating and difficult to grasp. The intellectual, philosophical basis for process thought is something that takes years to read and begin to understand. A simplified explanation for process theology may be found in the writings and work of Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, a United Methodist and professor emeritus from the Claremont School of Theology, who writes,

Process is a relational philosophy. There have been various relational ways of talking about the world since “way back when,” but most philosophers talked as if the ideal thing should be something solid that doesn’t depend on anything beyond itself. To be in relation was considered a lesser value than total self-sufficiency. In the 20th century we began to see that the ability to relate to another wasn’t just a happenstance of the way things are, but is the core of the way things are. To exist is to be in relation. Does God exist? If you say yes, then God must also be in relation. To whom? To everyone and everything! The philosophy takes relationship a little bit further. Process thinking says that to be related to something is to be internally affected by that something, and to affect something else in turn. Relationship is itself a dynamic process! To exist is to be affected by others, and to have an effect on others. Again, does God exist? If you answer yes, then God is affected by others, and has effects on others. Which others? All others![11]

Beyond the philosophy (and perhaps in this simplified explanation), there may be something within process thought to shed light on certain aspects of the bible.

An application

With this simplified explanation, we might be able to look at the text today as a relational-process moment for the Samaritan woman as she encounters Jesus. First, Jesus engages the woman, something would not have been done under normal circumstances and asks for something to drink. Notice what the woman says in verse nine as well as the author’s parenthetical note afterward, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.)” This engagement is a sign of Jesus desire to effect change in the life of the Samaritan woman and the relationship that he engages her in, temporary as it may be in the story, has a profound effect on her life.

Second, Jesus begins to talk about the relationships that this woman has sought and had in the past. He notes, (through supernatural means in the story), that this woman has had five husbands and the man she currently lives with is not married to her (vv.16-18). As Jesus has just been talking about drinking a spiritual water that never fails to quench one’s thirst and leads to eternal life (vv.11-15), he is talking about a relational connection between the woman’s longing spirit and a spiritual life that will no longer be bound to the difficult human relationships she has sought out and had.

Third, Jesus, through his relationship with God, introduces the Samaritan woman to the idea of relating to God as Spirit. Ultimately, this is the primary relationship the text is trying to reveal – that of the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of God to man. In the language of process theology, we might call this the idea of panentheism or God found in all things. It is the idea that God is not only creative force in the universe but exists within all the aspects of his creation. As stated above, God also enlists us to be co-creators and continue the work of stewardship and connection to God and one another through this connective, relational work.

The entire chapter hinges on the idea of worship and what is proper worship. Jesus, in the course of his discussion with the Samaritan woman, eventually brings to light that eventually neither those who worship in Jerusalem or in Samaria will worship in the temples of their forefathers. That way of relating to God was something from ages past born of a system of sacrifices that harken back to the days of those who lived centuries before. This new relationship with God or better put, a new way of relating to God, is something requires no buildings (a good thing, since at the time of this gospel’s writing the temple had been destroyed) and no intermediaries save the teachings of Jesus to show us how.

While the philosophy might get a little heavy and the theological language a bit confusing, this underlying idea of relationship. In her book, On the Mystery, Catherine Keller writes, “Theology as process remains – like every living, breathing organism – open-ended.”[12] This mirrors the relationship we have with God in that our relationship with and to God is much like it is with anyone else, it changes. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes frustrating, sometimes joyous. It is this recognition of God as a relational partner that I believe helps process theology bring value to the Christian discussion.

Even if we never quite get all the philosophy.


References

Cobb, J. B. (1969). God and the World. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Cobb, J. B., & Griffin, D. R. (1976). Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Gill, J. (2013). God on trial: a process perspective. Encounter, 73(3), 31-37.

Keller, C. (2008). On the Mystery. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Mangrum, R. (n.d.). Process Theology and the Old Testament. Retrieved from Study to Shew Thyself Approved: http://studytoshewthyselfapproved.org/process-theology-and-the-old-testament/

Murray, L. A. (2014). Practical wisdom for living: the future of process theology. Encounter, 71(1), 25-37.

Olson, R. E. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press.

Poling, J. N. (2009). Toward a constructive practical theology: a process-relational perspective. International Journal of Practical Theology, 13(2), 199-216.

Process Theology. (n.d.). Retrieved from Theopedia: https://www.theopedia.com/process-theology

Suchocki, M. H. (2015, Jul). What is Process Theology? Retrieved from Process and Faith: https://processandfaith.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/what-is-process-theology.pdf

Whitehead, A. N. (1978). Process and Reality. New York: Free Press.

 


[1] (Olson, 1999, p. 599)

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] (Olson, 1999, p. 600)

[5] ibid

[6] (Olson, 1999, p. 601)

[7] (Olson, 1999, p. 601)

[8] (Process Theology, n.d.)

[9] (Cobb, God and the World, 1969, p. 90)

[10] (Mangrum, n.d.)

[11] (Suchocki, 2015)

[12] (Keller, 2008, p. 10)

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