Process Theology and Islam – January 2008

Question: Can process thought help improve the understanding of Islam and build bridges to it?

Publication Month: January 2008

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Process theologians have been concerned about and involved in dialogue with representatives of other religious traditions for many years. Christians have been in the lead, but today there are members of other faith communities who use process thought as a means of understanding religious diversity and approaching dialogue. David Griffin has edited a book, Deep Religious Pluralism, which includes Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, Buddhist, and Hindu voices of this kind.

The most distinctive contribution of Whiteheadian thought to the discussion among the religious traditions is the distinction between creativity and God, as well as noting also the kind of ultimacy attributable to the world. We can see that deep religious feeling can be attached to all three. This frees us to recognize the depth of the difference between such traditions as Buddhism and Christianity and also that they are complementary rather than in contradiction to one another. Buddhism orients us to creativity; Christianity, to God. In both there have been tendencies to reverence the world as well.

At the same time this Whiteheadian vision enables us to see that there are strands of Buddhism that bring God into the picture. These are found especially in Pure Land Buddhism and in the Lotus Sutra. There are certainly strands of Christianity that bring creativity into the picture, often identified as Being Itself or the Godhead, especially mystical ones. Quite a lot has been done to sort these matters out. My book, Beyond Dialogue, contributed to this process.

Process theologians have been involved also in dialogues among the Abrahamic traditions. All of these traditions focus primarily on God; all have mystical elements that are more oriented to the ultimate that Whitehead identifies as creativity. But sorting out these distinctions contributes less to these dialogues than to dialogues with non-Abrahamic traditions.

Furthermore, process theologians are necessarily critical of the dominant and official theologies of all three of the major Abrahamic faiths. Of course, Christian process theologians devote themselves primarily to criticizing Christian traditions. But since much that they object to in Christianity is found also in Judaism and in Islam, they cannot avoid criticism of these traditions as well. This makes our role in these dialogues quite different from that in other dialogues. Our role here is to encourage some tendencies within all three traditions and to oppose others.

Even if process theology’s contribution to these dialogues is less distinctive, it does come down strongly on some disputed points. Most important may be the emphatic insistence that Christians, Muslims, and Jews all worship the same God. For us, this statement is unequivocal because we make a clear distinction between that which we worship and our way of understanding what we worship. This distinction reflects our rejection of the “linguistic turn” in philosophy. We believe that language, including religious language, has a referential element. That is, when we use the word God, we refer to a reality whose exact nature and working we know that we do not know. We are open to learning more about the one God to whom we refer. We understand that our present views may change quite drastically in the process, but this does not mean that the God in whom we believe with better understanding will be a different God.

Of course, there may be a change of “gods.” We may at some point recognize that what we earlier called “God” does not exist or is, in fact, an idol. We come then to speak of the true “God.” But this still does not mean that we understand the true God fully or adequately. Also, the problem of idolatry is found, and emphasized, in all the Abrahamic faiths.

The leading Protestant ecumenical magazine, The Christian Century, a few years ago ran a series of articles on the question of whether the God of Islam and the God of Christianity is the same. Some writers seemed to think that, if the nature of God is described differently in the two traditions, they worship different Gods. For those who have taken the linguistic term, this makes some sense. For process theologians it does not.

Process theology then on persons of faith in all three traditions to give up their absolutes. For process theology there is no possibility of absolute knowledge or absolute authority. Everything accessible to us is creaturely. This does not exclude the presence and active participation of the divine. But the presence of the divine never excludes the presence of the creaturely as well. There are tendencies in all the Abrahamic traditions to recognize this, but there are also tendencies to exempt something from this general condition of conditionedness and fallibility. From the perspective of process thought any such exemption brings in the taint of idolatry. It is our belief that, to the extent that all three traditions can free themselves from this taint, they will be able to live together in peace and mutual respect. As long as they absolutize what is creaturely, the best we can hope for is tolerance.

Process theology believes that all three traditions suffer from misleading doctrines about God’s power. Although all three depend for the meaningfulness of much of their teaching on the view that human beings have responsibility for how they act; all three also have teachings that imply or directly affirm that God determines exactly what happens. Process theology directly challenges this belief wherever it appears; and it encourages understandings of God’s power that are compatible with and support the understanding of human responsibility. We think that the idea that God controls everything has done great harm in all three communities and has harmed also their relation to the rest of the world. We think there are grounds in all three traditions to see God’s power as that of empowering creatures, especially human beings, rather than as denying power to them.

This deep conviction of the need for repentance in all three communities can contribute to dialogue by removing any tendency to view one’s own tradition as pure and perfect, with the problems lying only in the others. For us, as Christians, it is particularly important that we approach both Jews and Muslims in a spirit of confession. We have sinned egregiously against both. Some of what we do not like in the other communities is largely due to our crimes against them. Our faith in Jesus Christ, instead of inspiring us to humble service of our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, has led us to engage in pogroms and crusades to punish them for not sharing our beliefs. This has been a total and disastrous perversion of faith based on absolutizing a certain relation to particular, contingent historical events. Until we remove this beam from our own eyes, we are in no position to say much about the splinters in the eyes of Jews and Muslims. But those splinters do exist and badly need to be removed.

Christian process theologians can work with other Christians to overcome Christian prejudices against the Qur’an and Mohammed. We should deeply admire and appreciate the Qur’an. It is a truly remarkable document. We may object to a few of its formulations, but we have far less reason to object to the Qur’an than to much that is in our own Bible.

We do have one advantage in comparison with Islam. The Bible never claims any absolutist status for itself. Since it contradicts itself in all kinds of ways it makes wholly clear that whatever its divine inspiration it is a thoroughly human set of writings. In other words any open-minded approach to the Bible will quickly recognize that everything in it is historically conditioned and fallible. This is not true of the Qur’an. Its consistency and beauty of language and its claims for itself make it far harder to recognize its creaturely character. In other words, its great superiority over the Bible in many respects encourages its absolutization.

Christians are hardly in position to criticize. They have often managed to absolutize the Bible in spite of all the obstacles to doing so. However, as process theologians who strongly oppose any such absolutization of the Bible or of Jesus, we must also encourage trends within Islam to recognize that its holy book is a product of its time and place.

Christians have difficulty appreciating the greatness of Mohammed as a “prophet.” This is because, for us, the prophetic tradition is that of such figures as Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, a tradition that culminated in Jesus. Mohammed was a political and military leader, and in those capacities committed violent deeds. We have difficulty thinking of him as a worthy successor of Jesus. It is even harder to think of him as transcending Jesus.

If we are to appreciate the Muslim view we must remember that among Jews there is more appreciation for Moses and David than for those associated with the prophetic books so prized by Christians. Moses and David were political and military figures who were also of great religious importance. For Jews and Muslims those who act out their faith on the stage of history are the greatest prophets. In doing so, certainly, they engaged in violence against their enemies. But a teaching and example that can actually guide behavior on the world stage may be seen as superior to one that is applicable only in limited contexts. For this reason, despite the great reverence in which Muslims hold Jesus, Mohammed is seen as standing above or beyond him as the supreme prophet.

Christians do not need to agree with these assessments. But we should understand and respect them. After two millennia we are still confused about how to apply Jesus’ message to our own lives and, far more, about its application in affairs of state. We are hardly in position to criticize Mohammed for the way he dealt with the problems that arise in these contexts. Nor should we criticize Muslims for appreciating the greater practicability of following their authorities. We should honor them also for refusing to divinize Mohammed, as we have divinized Jesus.

Process theologians are sensitive to the importance of history in regard to all questions including the role and status of traditions. We recognize that Christianity was transformed for good and for evil by the “Enlightenment” and its subordination of religious faith to nationalism. Today we are becoming keenly aware of the evil effects on us of this movement. Nevertheless, much of the hostility directed by the West against Islam is from the perspective of the Enlightenment, including its recent expressions in the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. Much of the criticism would apply equally to the Christianity that antedated the Enlightenment. In contemporary Islam we can get a sense of what Christianity was like before the Enlightenment. We can see both the important values that the Enlightenment destroyed and that are still preserved in Islam. We can see also what we have gained. We can understand why Muslims are not eager to follow our lead. We can also identify changes that we hope they will make.