Is There One Normative Process Theology? – October 2012

Question: Is there one normative process theology?

Publication Month: October 2012

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were one normative process theology – at least if it were mine! If someone else’s theology took on that role, I wouldn’t be so happy about it.

The above paragraph is intended to indicate the problem of claiming normativity for any one position on virtually any topic. People involved in the discussion might be pleased if their views were adopted as “normative.” But those whose views were rejected would not, and many of them would simply reject the idea that beliefs they did not share had any claim to authority.

In regard to biology and physics, to name fields in which one might be more likely to speak of normative positions, process thinkers are typically calling for reconsideration. The “normativity” of “process” cuts against any stage in the discussion being given normative status. We might say that the normative view is that the current majority view not be taken as final or as a basis for judging competing ideas. If we were told that the process view in this respect is just one view among others, we might argue more strongly that it is grounded in the best metaphysics available. To reject the idea that any particular theory is normative in the sense of claiming a privileged position is, of course, itself a normative claim. Speaking abstractly, I have to acknowledge that it is claiming a privileged position.

There are good pragmatic arguments for holding on to affirmations at a certain level even when we recognize that there are thoughtful people who do not agree to them and offer good reasons for their rejection of them. We should acknowledge what we are doing and explain why we are doing it. We do not escape the ultimacy of the relativity, but we refuse to be wholly disempowered. I think this is the general view of those in the process camp.

We hold to the general conviction that all things are in process and that claims made from any particular position in that process must recognize their relativity. But this does not allow us to call one form of process theology normative for all. Of course, I will try to persuade people to certain beliefs, and some other process theologians will try to dissuade people from those beliefs. If both of us act out of genuine conviction, this is healthy. It can help process thinking to progress, while keeping its individual practitioners aware of our limitations.

Now let me move from these abstract considerations to the actual types of process theology that individual adherents may consider “normative.” When I was entering this community in the late 1940s, there were three well-articulated camps within it, or at least three individual thinkers who had special authority. They were Whitehead, Hartshorne, and Wieman. At the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I was studying, Henry Nelson Wieman was the most influential figure. He had retired shortly before I arrived, but several of my professors had been his students or were otherwise deeply influenced by him. On the other hand, even before entering the Divinity School, I had come under the influence of Charles Hartshorne, who was in the Department of Philosophy. Despite his great difference from Wieman, Hartshorne was respected by the Divinity School faculty. Whitehead was admired as a great philosopher by both Hartshorne and those who followed Wieman. But he was not fully understood. Indeed, the Whitehead I learned from Hartshorne and the one mediated through the followers of Wieman seemed quite different.

If one had identified normative process theology at that time, Wieman’s thought would have carried the flag. There was broad consensus on the recognition that all things are in process and that the dualism of history and nature can and should be overcome. A broadly pragmatic attitude pervaded the community. But the dominant spirit was one of open inquiry and imagination rather than settling on a normative position.

If that fluidity is less apparent now than then, and if one form of process thought may appear to claim normativity, I may share in responsibility for this change. I was one of those who judged that Whitehead’s philosophy gave space for much of what both Wieman and Hartshorne affirmed and explored, but was in fact more inclusive and incisive than either. I do not rescind or apologize for that judgment. I recommend the study and use of Whitehead’s conceptuality not only in theology but also in the sciences. I do not do this in opposition to Wieman and Hartshorne, who represent for me the extremes of radical empiricism and rationalism within the process camp. But for me, Whitehead’s thought relativizes both by giving adequate space to the other.

I suppose this means that I consider a Whiteheadian theology normative in a sense that one that follows either Wieman or Hartshorne is not. But I think that followers of other process traditions, not only Wieman and Hartshorne, often have insights that are missed if one limits one’s philosophical study to Whitehead. If I affirm Whitehead as normative, I certainly do not think he is the only source of wisdom or that we do not need the thought and insights of others. One of these days, a thinker will arise who has learned both from Whitehead and from others, who is guided by a more advanced science, and is informed by what has happened in history since Whitehead’s day. If he – or she – can achieve a basic coherence out of all this, Whitehead will be superseded. Taking Whitehead as normative now is a pragmatic decision, and if it leads to discouraging explorations based on other thought forms, it will prove to have been a bad one.

Choosing Whitehead as one’s philosophical basis for theology does not narrowly circumscribe the theology. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others can employ Whitehead in developing their diverse convictions. Certainly a diversity of Christian Whiteheadian theologies is possible and desirable. Although theology is affected deeply by ideas that are developed most fully by philosophers, it is also profoundly influenced by historical and practical judgments that do not depend on the choice of philosophy.

Having normative theologies is not a bad thing. A community of people needs to have some shared understanding of what is important. That shared understanding needs articulation. One test of the articulation is how it is appreciated by the members of that community. But in the long run, a theological formulation is also tested by its credibility to others, including the next generation of the community. Simply summarizing the shared beliefs that now reign in the community is not adequate. It may simply make their problematic character more apparent.

However, one very important part of a normative theology is its self-relativization. For a Christian this means acknowledging the finitude and radical conditionedness of human beings and their communities and recognizing that other communities with different experiences are fully justified in holding to different beliefs. For a process theologian, this recognition of relativity is a challenge to formulate beliefs in a way that leaves open the possibility of other truths that other communities emphasize. This can and should be built into normative theologies. To regard one’s own normative theology as “true” in a way that renders insights that are in tension with it automatically “false” is, from the process perspective, not acceptable.

There is the danger that “normative” can suggest some kind of closure and a negative attitude to other (non-normative) theologies that leads me to resist a “yes” answer to the question. However, when I write on Christology, I suppose I am trying to write something “normative.” I hope that others will find what I say convincing – the more, the better. If I thought that there was a danger that numerous readers would feel that they are somehow “supposed” to agree with me, so that they would be inclined to do so even if my formulations were not convincing, then I would spend time in the book trying to counter any such attitude.

I want Christians to see that they can be both more Jesus-centered and more Christ-centered in such a way that they also become more appreciative of traditions other than Christianity. For me, that is normative. If people arrive at that recognition without my help, so much the better! But I believe there are a good many people who see this as a tension. They suppose that emphasizing what is distinctive about Christianity, that is, Christocentricity, tends to increase their distance from other communities, and even to heighten hostile feelings. For me what is normative from a process view is to replace that supposition with the recognition that the more Christocentric and Jesus-centered we become, the more we respect and appreciate others and are ready to learn from them.

So I am confessing that although there are, and should always be, great diversities among process theologies, there are also claims to normativity. These need to be repeatedly re-examined. Indeed, any claim that did not call for its own repeated critical examination thereby excludes itself from true normativity. But there are normative claims that, I believe, stand the test of time quite well. The fact that they too are part of a process whose future cannot be foretold does not mean that they should be rejected. Let us not be afraid of claiming some things to be normative.