Magazine article Cross Currents

The Lure and Necessity of Process Theology

Magazine article Cross Currents

The Lure and Necessity of Process Theology

Article excerpt

What is process theology? Where did it come from? And why should Claremont School of Theology make a deep investment in sustaining it? My assignment is to address these questions, with particular reference to John B. Cobb Jr. role in the process theology movement, something I do with deep appreciation for a treasured friend and Christian intellectual.

John Cobb is the chief builder, thinker, and leader of process theology, but process thought is based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshome, and there was a tradition of process theology at the University of Chicago before John came along. From the beginning it was a high-flying enterprise with a complex, opaque, esoteric, and scholastic jargon, because Whitehead was a metaphysical philosopher who developed a technical vocabulary for his system. But for all its forbidding intellectualism, process thought as developed by John Cobb and many others is also practical, ethical, spiritual, beautiful, and at least implicitly, postmodern. Otherwise it would not be the dominant school of thought in liberal theology today, and we would not be seeking to ensure its future at Claremont School of Theology.

For the sake of making sense later on, I'm going to begin with a fairly strong dose of process metaphysics. Process thought is defined by its metaphysical claim that becoming is more elemental than being because reality is fundamentally temporal and creative. Broadly speaking, it includes all theologies and philosophies that conceptualize becoming, event, and relatedness as fundamental categories of understanding. Thus, Heraclitus and Theravada Buddhism belong to the process tradition, as do Hegel, Schelling, Bergson, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Samuel Alexander, C. Lloyd-Morgan, and Teilhard de Chardin.

But more narrowly and conventionally speaking, process thought is the school of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. White-headian philosophy presents a picture of a divinely influenced universe oriented toward beauty and the intensification of experience, in which the universe demonstrates an inherent tendency toward increasing complexity, self-organization, and the production of emergent wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. From a common sense standpoint, the world consists of material things that endure in space and time, while events are occurrences that happen to things or that things experience. In the process view, by contrast, events are the fundamental things, the immanent movement of creativity itself.

Whitehead's intellectual career had three phases, which corresponded with his teaching appointments at Trinity College, Cambridge; University College, London; and Harvard University. From 1885 to 1914, he explored the logical foundations of mathematics; from 1914 to 1924, he worked on the philosophy of natural science, especially theoretical physics; from 1925 to his death in 1947, he concentrated on metaphysics.

In his book Science and the Modern World (1925), Whitehead first expounded the argument for which he is best known, that God is the source of cosmic order. The following year, in Religion in the Making, he described God as "the binding element in the world," contending that human consciousness is universalized in God's being. In 1929, Whitehead published his great metaphysical system, Process and Reality, which described the fundamental units of reality as "actual entities" or "actual occasions." (1)

Whitehead argued that the basic units of nature have experiential features; actual entities are experiencing subjects that realize some value and pass out of existence in the process of being succeeded by similar entities or occasions. The irreducible constitution of the things that make up the universe is their experience. Individuals do not have feelings; they become through feeling. The subject emerges by feeling its way into being; or more precisely, one's experience conies into being by feeling the feelings of one's world. …

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