Is Process Theology too Western? – April 2012

Question: Is process theology a hopelessly Western endeavor?

Publication Month: April 2012

I think there is a sense in which theology as such is “hopelessly” Western if that means inescapably tied to Christianity. What we understand by theology brings together history and philosophy in a way that Christians cannot avoid. We have to discern universal meanings in particular historical events since we assert that particular historical events have importance for all people.

Judaism and Islam can engage in something similar, but do so rather rarely. Jews have usually had less interest than Christians in addressing those outside the community. Within the community the task is to expound ancient texts so as to keep the story alive and relevant. Large scale systematization is not as characteristic of Jewish thinkers as of Christians. When, as with Philo, Maimonides, and Spinoza, they move in that direction, they can be read chiefly as philosophers.

Historical events, especially connected with the life of Mohammed, have great importance for Islam, but Muslims generally suppose that the truths revealed by him are universal truths valid at all times and places. The detailed study of texts plays a role in Islam similar to that in Judaism. And there are great Muslim philosophers. But there is little that corresponds closely with Christian theology.

If we go to primal religions or to those of India and China, finding theology in the Christian sense is even less likely. In both India and China we look instead for religious philosophy alongside study of sacred texts. So, yes, theology is hopelessly Christian, and process theology, as one form of such theology, shares this condition.

The word “hopelessly,” however, suggests some kind of hope that is being frustrated. On the whole, Christian theologians have understood themselves as Christians dealing with problems that arise for Christians. To be found relevant only by the audience one addresses is not necessarily frustrating.

The question, however, may be using “theology” in the most literal sense as thought about God. Most Christian theologians have believed that God plays a role in the world that should be visible to all. The greatest thinkers among the Greeks had written about God without any influence from Christianity. Even when Western philosophy broke with theology, for some time it maintained affirmations about God. Hence Christian theologians have developed “natural theology” as the discussion of God apart from specific historical revelation. Process philosophy has included much that could be called natural theology. Whether it turns out that this is hopelessly Western is a quite legitimate question.

It is certainly not the case that interest in divine beings is limited to the West. Most primal cultures are certainly interested in divine beings. As thought of the Indian subcontinent became highly sophisticated it did not abandon this interest. This is less true of China, although there are ideas in classical Chinese thought that are related to what some in the West mean by God.

Making the topic of “God” in the singular central, however, reflects the Abrahamic traditions rather than some sort of universal philosophy. So the preoccupation with this topic may be “hopelessly” Abrahamic. But there are loci in Indian and Chinese reflection at which contact is made with Christian thought about God. I claim that the process version of Abrahamic thought strengthens these connections.

If we mean by process theology a broad discussion from the process point of view of the place of God in diverse traditions, then I do not think process theology is hopelessly Abrahamic or Western. Whitehead’s distinction between creativity and God seems remarkably relevant to Hindu thinking, for example. There are Hindu thinkers who have emphasized Brahman, who corresponds well with creativity, and others who emphasize Ishvara, who corresponds well with God in Whitehead’s thought. In Buddhist thought the distinction between Dharmakaya and Sambhogakaya can be understood in a similar way. And this is true also in China of the Tao that cannot be thought or spoken and the Tao that can. In other words, traditional Western natural theology may have proven to be hopelessly Western or Abrahamic and Greek, but process thought breaks with this natural theology and offers a different one that currently proves useful in the East as well.

However, a stronger case can be made for the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy as a whole beyond the Western context in which it originated. We expect soon to publish a book containing essays by writers not only from the Abrahamic tradition but also from Eastern religious communities. The question is what they find useful in Whitehead’s thought. The answers make it clear that Whitehead’s thought as a whole is not hopelessly Western. The Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese contributors of these chapters all find value in diverse aspects of Whitehead’s thought.