After Process – May 2013

Question: What comes after process theology?

Publication Month: May 2013

I have not thought in these terms. That is a confession of limitation. It is a good question, and I appreciate the stimulus to think about it. But I assume there is no one answer. I also assume that there are many forms of Christianity for which the question is irrelevant.

I take it that the model behind the question is historical. During my youth and young adulthood, Neo-orthodoxy was the dominant style of theology in ecumenical Protestant circles. In the seventies this ceased to be the case. Theology as such became less important than it had been, and the accents of Neo-orthodoxy no longer aroused strong positive responses. It had an impact that continues, but as an overall stance it has faded to the margins. If we ask what followed it, probably the answer would be liberation theologies. To simplify, I’ll extend that term to include ecological theology and theologies of religious pluralism. In other words, the effort to give one coherent account of the Christian faith was followed by a large number of theological treatments of urgent problems

Accordingly, the role of theology in this period was quite different. The many theologies accented their own particularity and therefore their diversity. Even more clearly than in the case of Neo-orthodoxy, their influence persists. They no longer dominate the scene, largely because people with many diverse views are generally persuaded by many of their insights. By accenting the practical nature of theology and its need to operate relevantly in concrete situations, they helped to turn attention away from theology as such.

What came after this multiplicity of theologies? If we give an answer at all, it would probably be “religious studies.” The great variety of problems and approaches has been recognized and they have been studied in the academic style. The writers are not articulating their personal convictions as Christians but describing situations and responses. Indeed, academia tries not to give special attention to Christianity. Knowledge of other religious traditions has developed rapidly. This is intentionally and emphatically not theology.

If we persist in asking what theology came after the period of multiple local theologies, the answer might be “process theology.” I, at least, would like to think so, and the question suggests something of that sort. The claim could be made that there are today few well articulated alternatives.

Process theology differs from the predecessors mentioned above by being a philosophical theology. But its philosophy enables it to assimilate and integrate many of the “local” theologies of the preceding period. It affirms the positive insights of most of the multiple liberation theologies, ecological theology, and religious pluralism. But it also does this in the context of an articulated doctrine of God and Jesus Christ, and Christian experience for which it argues in recognizably theological terms. It makes contact with more conservative forms of Protestantism that have not gone through the shifting emphases summarized above. With quite limited success it does lay claim to the ability to serve as a unifying successor.

If we locate process theology in this way, then the question makes sense. What will come next? For many sensitive liberal Protestants, what comes next is the practice of inclusion and liberation, ecological responsibility, and friendship to those of other faiths. They feel no need for explicitly connecting this to the historic faith. Theology as such is for them a distraction. What is important is action, and if information about religious belief and practice is needed, they look to religious studies as developed in the university. Because theology expresses a specific tradition, they do not trust it. They want a more inclusive or neutral perspective.

It is my hope, however, that this drift away from theology will not continue. I hope that Christians will recognize that the values they hold dear and live by are not only precious but also fragile. The society in which our children are growing up is one that worships money. If we would have them live for the common good, open to all the diversity of people and of the wider community of life, we need to communicate to them a different understanding of reality from the one they will get in school. That means we need to know and articulate what we believe. If things go in this direction, process theology should play a growing role.

But that does not mean that the ideas and emphases that now constitute process theology will forever be what is most needed. I foresee decades of acute problems stemming from climate change and perhaps from economic and political collapse. Food may become so scarce that people are preoccupied with how it should be distributed. Churches may become far more important institutions, responding to critical survival needs. The both-and emphasis of process theology may give way to a renewed either-or. Boundaries that process theology works to erase may, in new forms, become essential for survival. In short, process theology may be followed by a new “crisis theology.”

The true answer to the question is that I don’t know. Nor do I think that anyone does.