Process Theology & Joe Sixpack – December 2008

Question: What would a church that took process theology very seriously look like, and what would it do? Or, put more specifically, what impact does process theology have on (say) mainline protestant ecclesiology? Process theology is great and all, but how does it see the nature and purpose of the Church, where the “rubber meets the road,” so to speak?

Publication Month: December 2008

Dr. Cobb’s Response

I will make a quick response to the second of these thoughtful questions before turning to the first. I think it is true that “Joe Sixpack” is unlikely to read much process theology. Indeed, he is unlikely to read much theology of any kind. However, if he should at some point be inclined to do so, it is important that material be available. If, for some unanticipated reason, he wants to know about process theology, I recommend Bob Mesle’s book by that name. It may be that the concepts will be unfamiliar to him, but I doubt that he will have any difficulty understanding them. I have tried my hand at making process theology accessible by presenting it in story form in Praying for Jennifer and Doubting Thomas. The magazine, Creative Transformation, may not be geared to Joe Sixpack, but most of what is written there should be quite readable by that portion of the congregation that reads nonfiction of other kinds. And it contains material for children as well.

Actually, Process & Faith has quite a lot of material geared to different age levels of lay people. My guess is that more has been done to make process theology available than any other theology oriented to the old-line churches. The gap between writings geared to the scholarly and intellectual communities and that geared to Joe Sixpack is a large one. We continue to look for help in reaching people at many different levels of interest.

Probably Joe Sixpack is more effectively reached through liturgy, and especially the preaching and the hymns, than by discursive writing. I think that in the more liberal churches a great deal of the preaching is actually congenial to process theology, and I will not discuss that further.

There is a wide range of hymns in many of our hymnals, trying to satisfy a variety of tastes. Even so, many Christians prefer music that is not well represented in the standard hymnals. In this larger literature there are many hymns that are very congenial to process theology. Ruth Duck’s hymns are a particularly good example. Jim Manly is a hymn writer who has been influenced by process theology. One of his hymns, “Spirit,” is now found in a number of hymnals. But there are many hymns written long before process theology came into being or in more recent times with no awareness of process theology that can be sung with gusto by those of us who have accepted this theology. Joe Sixpack may actually find the ideas of process theology quite congenial.

I have moved into the discussion of what a church would be like if it fully adopted process theology. The first very simple answer is that the preaching would express the process view of God and the world, and that it would sing more of the music that has been written by those writers whose thought is particularly congenial to process theology. The whole of the liturgy would be reworded and rethought from a process perspective. Paul Nancarrow writes frequently in Creative Transformation on this topic.

Process theology shares the concern of feminist Christians with respect to the sexist language of the liturgy. It encourages the shift to inclusive language. The hymnal of the United Church of Christ (New Century Hymnal) shows that this can be done, and other hymnals have moved in that direction.

The liturgy would also be checked to make sure that it encourages attention to the nonhuman world. Sadly, most church liturgy so focuses on human beings and the human relation to God that the wider creation plays only a background role. It is not enough to have on earth Sunday each year. The church to which I belong joined an international movement to have a liturgical season focusing on creation in the fall.

The language of the liturgy should also avoid any language about Jesus that is inconsistent with understanding him as a fully human and historical person. This in no way opposes emphasizing Jesus’ unique role or the unique way in which God worked in and through him or a real presence of Jesus with us today.

Perhaps a more distinctively process reform would be to remove all language affirming or implying God’s total control of what happens. This may sound like a radical proposal, but it is in fact only asking that we return to the dominant expression of the Hebrew Bible and of the Greek New Testament. The substitution of “almighty” for “Shaddai” began in the Septuagint, was extended in the Vulgate, and informed almost all the subsequent translations. From the process perspective, the frequent appearance of this word in the Bible does not reflect the intentions of the authors and has done great harm.

Probably Joe Sixpack assumes that Christians are supposed to believe that God is all powerful. Process theology affirms that God’s power is very great, that nothing comes into existence apart from God, that God is the reason that there is life and thought and love, that God works creatively and savingly in every moment. But it also asserts that every creature also has power, however insignificant it may be in comparison with God’s. This is a more biblical view. I think that Joe Sixpack can understand the difference and probably does not really accept the full implications of the idea that God has all the power. He may be relieved to find that as a Christian he need not believe that God is the cause of everything that happens.

In fact even liturgies that speak of God as “almighty” often give the impression that human beings have great responsibility for themselves and their actions. Nevertheless, hymns and liturgies would be checked to make sure that while God’s initiative and primacy in events is affirmed, human response and therefore responsibility are not minimized. As a youth I liked to sing about God as potter and myself as clay. I do not now favor that image. But even as I sang the song I understood that God would not mold me without my desire that God do so. To ask God to mold me exaggerated the passivity of the process I was requesting, but it did not really abrogate my role.

The issue of divine omnipotence is sometimes focused on future expectation. The apocalyptic understanding that whatever we do, in the end God will bring about what God wills gets expressed in many liturgies. Process thinkers regard hope as very important. But we oppose expressions that imply that God’s purposes will be realized regardless of what human beings do.

A church that adopts process theology would encourage complete openness about one’s real beliefs on the part of all its members. No topic would be off the table, but the community as a whole would seek to understand what it means to be Christian. The proper authority of leadership would be respected, but there would be no authoritarianism. Every effort would be made to replace competition with cooperation and to pay attention to the special needs of those who have difficulty in asserting themselves.

But beyond general changes of this sort, process theology does not want there to be a single type of church life or even of understanding of the church. The whole spectrum from Quaker silence to Unitarian critical thought, from Pentecostal celebration of the presence of the Spirit’s presence to “high church” styles can and should continue. From a process perspective, people, communities, and cultures have diverse needs and potentialities, and process theology celebrates the diversity. On the other hand, process theology encourages critical reflection about the underlying assumptions and implications of each style and about the dangers of distortion.

For myself, to be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus and to seek to body forth as far as possible the basileia theou (I prefer to translate this as “divine commonwealth” rather than “Kingdom of God”) he proclaimed. I can do this best by participating in and supporting a countercultural community that places mutual acceptance, love, and care for all God’s creatures above status and possession of goods or narrow nationalism, and that tries to identify with the poor and oppressed both in its membership and throughout the world. I especially rejoice when the members of such communities seek fuller understanding of the complexity of the world in which they live so that their efforts to bring about a more just society are informed. I find God working in and through the participants in such communities and seek to open myself to God’s working through me as well. I think that something of this kind can be found in many types of churches, and in some communities that are not usually called churches. Of course, I know that all fall short, as did Jesus’ own disciples and the participants in the communities called into being by Paul. I fear that some groups that understand themselves as churches fall very far short indeed and are experienced more as places of moralistic judgment than of acceptance and love.

I do not suppose that only process thinkers can subscribe to this vision of the church. Nor do I assume that all process thinkers, even all Christian process thinkers, share this vision. But I do believe that it correlates well with process theology.