Process & 20th century Theology – February 2008

Question: I’ve found a lot of synergy between process theology and the works of some neo-orthodox thinkers, particularly Bonhoeffer. Of course, it seems to me any ‘theologians of the cross’ are going to have a lot of common ground with Whitehead’s ‘co-sufferer who understands’ but when I read Bonhoeffers’ ‘this-world Christianity’ and his God who condescends and allows us the opportunity to get down and suffer with him rather than acts as some divine puppet master or deus ex machina (which he constantly rails against) I am constantly reminded of the whole process movement. I also think in connection with this the Teilhardian John Haught who contends that ‘that which is most ultimate is that which is self-emptying’, who finds connections between the revelation of God in Christ Jesus and the Tao of philosophical Taoism. Is this Bonhoeferrian and Niebuhrian synergy just my own projection. I know Niebuhr quoted Whitehead positively once, but he was also critical of him in The Nature and Destiny of Man,(but that was probably because Niebuhr was suspicious of any and all metaphysical ‘systems’, he was a Kierkegaard fan after all). Bonhoeffer didn’t know anything about Whitehead, but he WAS a fan of William James, and studied him in the States, and so there may have been more kinship than one would first suspect. Am I just projecting here? Has anyone else written about or thought about Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’ or his emphasis on the God that condescends over the Deus Ex Machina in connection with the conception of God found in process theology?

Publication Month: February 2008

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This is a complex question, but it provides an occasion for locating process theology in the context of the major stream of mid to late twentieth-century theology. It was often viewed as an outsider to the central theological discussion. The truth and error of this view are worth sorting out.

It is true that for the most part the discussions at Chicago were rather far removed from those in Germany and on the East Coast. People like Wieman, Meland, and Loomer were asking what can be said of religious importance in a thoroughly naturalistic context. The naturalism in question was not the mechanistic one of the nineteenth century but the “new naturalism” that they believed developments in the sciences required. They were empiricists, but they followed James in his radical empiricism. They believed that the new naturalism and the approach of radical empiricism opened the way for religious inquiry that is fully continuous with science.

These were not the questions being discussed in central Europe or the East Coast. There, for the most part, “naturalism” was the kind of naturalism the Chicago faculty rejected, and “empirical” was limited to what was given in the kind of empiricism they also rejected. They continued a tradition that set theology apart from naturalism and empiricism. Accordingly, there was not so much a direct conflict between what was affirmed in the two communities of discourse as near irrelevance.

Of course, there were exceptions. Although the Chicago faculty was radically opposed to supernaturalism and detected it in much “neo-orthodox” writing, there were people in the mainstream tradition who were hardly tainted by what they opposed. Reinhold Niebuhr was especially appreciated as a brilliant historical analyst with keen insight into the practicalities of the religious life. Bernard Loomer particularly admired and used his thought, but in this he was representative of the faculty from whom I studied in the late forties. Bonhoeffer was also appreciated, especially his latest writings, which also eschewed any hint of supernaturalism. Nevertheless most of the writings of this faculty seemed largely alien or irrelevant to the mainstream writers.

There was some attention to Whitehead. The questioner mentions Reinhold Niebuhr’s references as also Bonoeffer’s interest in William James. I was impressed that at crucial junctures in H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Meaning of Revelation there appeared quotations from Whitehead. This book was highly esteemed at Chicago.

One man successfully bridged the gap between the two communities of discourse. This was Daniel Day Williams. The basic structure and assumptions of his thought came from the Chicago side. But unlike most of the Chicago writers he was immersed in the details of Christian doctrine. Two books are of great importance. God’s Grace and Man’s Hope takes Wieman’s thought as basic and from that perspective wrestles with the understanding of grace and hope. In writing on these central theological topics he entered into the current discussion and his work was appreciated there. The second book important in this respect was The Spirit and the Forms of Love. This book follows Whitehead more closely than Wieman. It was widely recognized as a masterful theological study of this crucial topic.

Williams in this way showed that one could belong to both communities of discourse. Grounding oneself in the nature of reality as that could be understood from the process side, helped shape insights with respect to theological questions that were also discussed without this grounding. As the dominant theological conversation partner became Bultmann and his followers, Schubert Ogden assumed the dominant role among process thinkers. When liberation theology changed the nature of the discussion, Delwin Brown was the first to become deeply involved.

Being grounded in a basic vision of reality that connects with the sciences has meant that changes of theological focus have functioned more as changes of emphasis than as fundamental alternatives. For many theologians the shift from existentialism with its highly individualistic focus to liberation theology with its focus on social and even international issues meant a shift with little continuity. For process thinkers what one had learned about the structure of existence did not need to be rejected in order to appreciate the overriding importance of overcoming the oppression of the poor.

The situation was somewhat different with respect to what we had learned from Reinhold Niebuhr. The topics of liberation theologians overlapped extensively with his. At some points what was said was compatible. But at other points, we were forced to recognize the Eurocentric character of the historical understanding we had learned from Niebuhr. We could see that in this respect Whitehead was better, although far from perfect. We could see that there are difficult questions with respect to what can be hoped for, but at this point most of us stayed closer to Niebuhr than to the greater optimism of the early stages of Latin American liberation theology. For process theologians there are no beginnings or endings, except in the sense in which we can say that every event is both a beginning and an ending. The process perspective leaves many options open for consideration on historical and religious grounds. But it also limits the range of possible positions and favors some over others.

The questioner speaks specifically about God’s suffering and the cross. There are, of course, process traditions, such as that of Wieman, in which it cannot be literally stated that God suffers with God’s creatures. However, for both Whitehead and Hartshorne and the process traditions that follow from them, this is, as the questioner suggests a point of agreement with many theologians who emphasize the cross. When I went to school most theologians were still affirming God’s impassibility. However, those who, like Bonhoeffer and Moltmann have insisted on God’s suffering have changed the overall climate. The emphasis on God’s suffering with us, which once separated process theology from mainstream theology, is now much more a point of contact.

Despite all this, process theology’s close ties with philosophy, still lead many theologians to distrust it and even perceive it as a threat. Some theologians recognize that rejecting metaphysics entails that theology is a matter of shaping language rather than describing reality. This contrasts sharply with the way that those of us in the Whitehead-Hartshorne tradition speak of God. The mainstream is not so rigorously consistent on this point and some element of realism lingers its thought, but it is uncomfortable with our tendency to make literal claims about God, even when we recognize that they are hypotheses. It is far more common to emphasize the gulf between God and our ideas of God and to treat our language about God as symbolic in a special sense. We know that there is value in this concern not to claim too much, but we think it is used too easily as a cover to avoid responsibility for what is affirmed.

One of the points on which we tend to speak quite emphatically and straightforwardly is in the denial that God unilaterally determines any creaturely event. In this sense God is not all powerful or omnipotent. This denial is offensive for those who understand theology to be in the service of the church’s existent language. In that language, “almighty” plays a very large role. Even some process theologians want to preserve the use of the word by redefining it. Other theologians typically prefer to leave it somewhat vague and acknowledge the paradoxical character of the church’s teaching. They are not interested in sharing in the efforts of process theology seriously to distinguish what in each situation is the working of God and what is not.

Obviously, this is connected with our confidence in some of the analyses of process philosophers. If one deals with questions of this sort without philosophical clarification, one is more closely tied to the authority of past formulations in theology and in the liturgy. If pressed for systematic clarity these lead to the view that whatever happens is what God wills to happen. Many theologians want to avoid this conclusion, but they prefer to leave the matter paradoxical and to affirm the value of paradoxes. When process theologians offer coherent explanations, this is usually resented more than appreciated.

I am sure there are other ways of describing the relation between process theology with its base in process philosophy and the mainstream of Protestant nonphilosophical theological work. Since I write from the process perspective, I am probably not fair to the others. My own judgment is that incorporating philosophical ideas justified by the new naturalism and radical empiricism has been a great strength of process theology. I wish that the prejudice against use of synthetic philosophy would decline.