Liberals vs. Evangelicals & Process – February 2005

Question: “In the closing pages of “Process Theology: An Introduction” you state that in the future we (process folks) may find more alliances within evangelical rather than liberal communities. Where exactly would we be more aligned with evangelicals and what exactly has the liberal tradition done to merit what seems like something of a rebuke? Has it been its (exclusive) focus on human nature or is there something else? Furthermore, what is the real difference between talking about the “word” G-o-d and talking about God?”

Publication Month: February 2005

Dr. Cobb’s Response

I appreciate this question. The statement in Process Theology: An Introductory Introduction reflects the current situation in the national meetings of the American Academy of Religion illustrates what has happened. The only sessions in which process theology as such plays a large role are those of a new group called “Open and Relational Theologies.” This was organized by Tom Oord, a Wesleyan evangelical committed to process theology, to continue the discussion between “open theologians” coming out of the evangelical community and process theologians coming out of the liberal community. These sessions have been well attended, with the majority of participants coming from the evangelical side. Few liberals, other than process folk, attend.

Now the questions are: (1) why are a good many conservative evangelical theologians interested in conversation with process theologians and (2) why are so few liberals interested? I will deal with the first question briefly and the second at greater length.

(1) Conservative evangelicals in the academy are strongly interested in theology in general. Many of them, of course, are conservative in a way that leads them to reject process theology as a whole with little examination. However, others recognize that there are internal puzzles in the inherited theology, so that some revisions are needed in order to avoid absurdities. There is an inner dynamism among these conservative evangelicals that leads them to raise many of the questions that the liberal tradition in general, and process theologians in particular, have been dealing with for some time. Many of these evangelicals are willing to set aside their negative prejudices and entertain proposals for solving their theological problems even if these proposals come from the liberal tradition.  

For most evangelicals, these proposals must be tested more biblically than philosophically. But this does not mean a total rejection of philosophy, and in any case process theologians have long claimed that many of our teachings are more biblical than those of classical theism. We are glad to engage conservative evangelicals on these grounds, even if our assumptions about biblical authority differ.

Among conservative evangelicals the ones most likely to be interested in this conversation are the Wesleyans. Wesley was certainly an evangelical, but he rejected Calvinist views of God’s total control on biblical grounds and for the sake of evangelism. Many conservative Wesleyans are restive under the dominance, and sometimes domination, of the conservative Calvinist evangelicals, who are sometimes strict fundamentalists. This movement among conservative evangelicals is today led by “open theologians”, and the dialogue between them and process theologians is a promising and lively one.

(2) The answer to the question why liberal theologians are not interested in dialogue with process theologians, obviously, depends on what we mean by liberals. If we are talking about the church, then the statement is quite wrong. Process theology gets a good hearing from open minded laity and clergy today, a better hearing, I think, than at any time in the past. Conservative church people, in contrast, are rarely interested, even of some of their theologians are. From the point of view of the church, therefore, an entirely different projection would be needed.

The difference in the role of process theology in the academy and in the church is an indication of the great distance between these. In the academy, “liberal” theology has developed a narrower meaning. It has become a label that relatively few now apply to themselves.

Historically, liberal theology developed as an effort to continue the Christian tradition in an increasingly inhospitable intellectual and cultural context by adapting its teaching to that context. Liberals appropriated the results of the natural and social sciences and showed how Christian faith, rightly formulated, could be understood in a way that did not conflict with that new understanding. Liberals appropriated the results of historical study of Christian scriptures and church history and showed how these supported transformation of Christian teaching. Liberals opened themselves to the many criticisms of Christianity and sought to reformulate the faith in ways that did not continue the evils that had been done in the past in the name of Christianity. Liberals recognized that there is truth and goodness in other religious traditions and sought to formulate Christian beliefs in a way that did not reject these. Process theology is a form of liberal theology in all these ways.

This openness has led much of the liberal movement to reject the theological task altogether. Theology is no longer appreciated in wide circles of liberalism both in the church and in the academy. In the academy, this expresses itself in religious studies, which typically contrast themselves with theology in that they neutrally describe. Its practitioners regard themselves as independent of any particular faith perspective. Many are, in fact, Christians, and some are active church members. But they do not think of their work as directly related to their faith or to any attempt to articulate normative statements about matters of religious concern. Process theology has every reason to learn from religious studies, but for the most part those active in religious studies show little interest in process theology. From the point of view of many of them, the commitment of process theology to the Bible, the tradition, and the church, as well as its normative philosophical interests, seem out of date.

Other former liberals have moved from liberal theology to liberation theology. They have become Latin American liberation theologians, feminist theologians, Black theologians, and so forth. In the broad spectrum of theologies, many of them may still be considered “liberal,” but for the most part they criticize liberalism, which they associate with comfortable middle class interests, and they state their views in contrast to it. Insofar as they identify process theology with the liberal theology they criticize, little dialogue is possible. Fortunately, process theologians have been quite open to their criticisms and have incorporated much of the liberationist spirit. Gradually, liberation theologians are recognizing points of contact and possibilities of mutual support. Among feminists there is a long history of positive relationships with process theology. The situation is improving on other fronts. But this does not mean that liberationists have become more “liberal.”

Many former liberals joined the neo-orthodox movement in the middle of the twentieth century. Neo-orthodoxy is by no means as strong today as it was forty years ago, but its basic impulse persists — to affirm traditional Christian teaching in considerable independence of our knowledge in other fields. Today this impulse is dynamically represented in post-liberal theology, in “radical orthodoxy”, and among some who make use of deconstructive postmodernism. Process theology stems from that segment of the liberal movement that did not move in that direction.

Nevertheless, process theology appropriated much of the criticism of earlier forms of liberalism, especially as articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr. This separated it from other forms of liberalism that did not do so. These other forms of liberalism have tended to take the viewpoint of the Enlightenment as normative and to limit Christian theology to what can be said in those terms. Process theology has participated in the critique of the Enlightenment and of those liberal theologians who continue to adjust Christian formulations to its principles.

This adjustment by what we may call Enlightenment liberals generally leads to attempts to solve the theological problem by affirming less and less. Too many recent liberals are much clearer about what they do not believe than about what they do believe. This is not where process theology wants to go, and we have actually had rather little serious dialogue with those liberals who do move in this direction. Of course, we support them in many of their negations, but our focus is on providing a positive Christian alternative.

We share with Enlightenment liberals in rejecting a number of traditional doctrines. For example, we reject the doctrine of divine omnipotence. But we do so for the sake of the gospel, which we believe presents us with a very different idea of divine power. We do not think that we believe less than more traditional Christians, or in a less biblical or Christian way, when we emphasize that God’s power is the power to liberate and empower us rather than to replace our power with God’s. We do not think that we believe less because we believe that God’s incarnation in Jesus makes Jesus more fully human rather than subtracting from his humanity. We do not think that we believe less when we insist that God is a living presence in our lives creatively transforming us.

We believe that God’s love is inclusive of all and that God seeks the salvation of all. We believe that this calls us to work for peace and justice everywhere. We believe that women share fully in humanity and relate to God just as men do. We believe that this means that both church and society should give them all the opportunities for self-expression and leadership that are available to men. We also believe that human beings belong to the created order, sharing this with other creatures. We believe that this calls us to give up our arrogant anthropocentrism and seek the good of the whole of creation. We believe that all this is the deeper teaching of the Bible, seriously obscured in the Western tradition. This, to us, is not a watering down of traditional teaching but a realistic and enlivening formulation of the gospel.

Another development in the latter part of the twentieth century that has separated process theology from many liberals, and also from many liberationists and post-liberals, is the linguistic turn that has played so large a role in philosophy as well as theology. This is a turn away from questions of how the world actually is and, especially, of whether there is a divine reality of any kind. Such questions are replaced by a focus on language. It is held that language is the reality that constitutes our world. Language, thus understood, does not refer to anything beyond itself. One bit of language is to be explained in terms of other bits of language.

My questioner deals with this issue directly. What difference does it make whether one speaks of God or of “God”? That is, what difference does it make whether one is interested in ontological or metaphysical reality or accepts the idea that language is the comprehensive world in which we live and move and have our being? In other words, what difference does it make whether language refers to something beyond itself or all references are internal to language?

For process theologians it makes a lot of difference, and this is what makes interaction with ordinary church folk and with conservative evangelicals natural, while making communication with many in the academy difficult. Process theologians, most believers in all our churches, and conservative evangelicals agree that God is far greater than we can think, but also that some ideas about God are truer than others. For all of us, the question of whether God controls everything that happens is a real question and not one about how language is used. The question of whether we are really loved, regardless of how other human beings treat us, is a real question. Whether there is something more than human that works for good in the world is not a matter of language alone; our existential hope depends on what answer convinces us. Whether the natural world is imperiled by human greed and exploitation is a real question whose answer does not depend on our choice of language. For those who have taken the linguistic turn, these are not real questions, since there is nothing to talk about beyond the language that we use.

Of course, we can engage in dialogue with liberals who have taken the linguistic turn. But the dialogue cannot be about God and human beings and the natural world. It has to be, first, about whether language has a referential character, and in my experience those who operate with the assumption that it does not are rarely eager to discuss the issue. As long as they are committed to this assumption, the topics process theologians most want to discuss cannot come to the table.

Much theology today is denominational. Theologians identify themselves as Lutheran, Reformed, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and so forth. Among these theologians, some are more liberal and some are more conservative. Process theologians can talk more comfortably with the liberals in each tradition than with the conservatives. And in each of these communities, some theologians make use of process thought. Still, there is no widespread eagerness of denominational theologians, even the more liberal ones, to discuss with process theologians.

Is this account a rebuke to liberal theology? Perhaps. It is also an expression of regret that liberal theology has largely faded from the academic scene. Process theology is in greater continuity with the liberal tradition than is any other lively current movement, but it also distances itself from much that is now generally understood as “liberal theology.” We claim to be a form of post-modern or post-Enlightenment theology, although we also believe this is the proper form for the liberal tradition to adopt today. We want to break with the Enlightenment not by abandoning its effort to understand reality but by proposing a major shift in the way to understand it. We think this shift can be a great gain for faith. We believe that avoiding the problems of the Enlightenment by abandoning the effort to understand a reality beyond language is a dead end intellectually and deeply destructive of religious faith.

Is our objection that liberal theology is too preoccupied with the understanding of human beings? Perhaps. Insofar as the focus on human beings is due to the radical dualism of either Descartes or Kant, we deplore it. Abandoning discussion of the world and of God is a retreat that we want to reverse. But we certainly do not disparage the study of human beings. I have already noted our great indebtedness to Reinhold Niebuhr. I should also mention the importance for us of the existentialists. We have had our eyes opened to much about human beings through the work of feminists. Obviously, I could go on – and on. The problem is not too much study of human beings; it is the study of human beings and their history in isolation from the study of the natural world and of the divine.