Process Theology Related to Progressive Christianity – August 2008

Question: How is “process theology” related to “progressive Christianity?”

Publication Month: August 2008

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The term “progressive Christianity” has come into wide use only in the past fifteen years. When an old Methodist publication, Zion’s Herald, renamed itself The Progressive Christian a few years ago, it became clear that “progressive” will be the descriptor of a new movement in American Christianity.

A similar movement played an important role in American society a century ago under the heading of “Modernism.” “Fundamentalism” had come on the scene and these two forces clashed, resulting in the division of some denominations. A broader stream that can be called “moderate liberalism” absorbed much from Modernism but emphasized continuity with the tradition and inclusion within the family of more conservative voices. What we used to call the “mainline” churches followed this pattern.

Although these churches have remained committed, against Fundamentalism, to the use of “higher criticism” in the study of the Bible, their inclusion of conservatives has made it difficult for them to take strong stands on many issues. On the public scene, their voice has been eclipsed by the Religious Right, strongly supported and financed by the political right. In the 1990s, Protestants who were frustrated by the weakness of their churches and their inability to speak strongly against the conservative current began to organize themselves outside the churches. In parachurch organizations, they could take much stronger stands. The term “progressive” has become their choice of self-designation.

One stream of progressives focuses chiefly on freeing Christians from traditional theology. They see the churches as speaking a language that is at best foreign to most thoughtful university-educated people and at worst offensive and incredible. They call for a sharp break. They want the spirit of Christianity to be understood in a way that makes it immediately accessible to people of good will and open minds. That this will include people with diverse opinions is fully acceptable. Beliefs are less important than commitment to the common good. People in this stream believe that ethics is far more important than doctrine.

The first major organization in the 1990s to name itself “progressive” was “The Center for Progressive Christianity.” Its organizer and first leader was Jim Adams. I hope the description I have given above would be accepted by him.

A second stream of progressives has grown more organically out of the social gospel that dominated mainline churches in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is made up of those who accepted Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticism of the major forms of the social gospel, but also followed him in continuing the concern for justice. This group participated in the Civil Rights struggle and was receptive to the various liberation movements, ecological theology, and theologies of religious diversity. Indeed, its unity today, insofar as it has unity, is liberationist in this broad sense. Liberationists are likely to agree that commitment to the cause of the oppressed and of the Earth is more important than doctrine, but they are also likely to see such commitment as rooted in particular teachings found in the Bible and the tradition. They take theology seriously.

One organization that represents this point of view is Progressive Christians Uniting in the Los Angeles basin. This grew out of the Claremont Consultation initiated by George Regas and me just a little later than CPC. Jim Adams attended the first meeting of the Consultation and informed us of his work. The two organizations emphasize their complementarity. The name of the Consultation has been changed twice; so we came to the term “progressive” much later than Adams.

Process theology is not identical with either of these forms of progressive Christianity. It traces its ancestry to the “Modernism” that found its center at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. One strong theme in that modernism was formulating beliefs in ways that can be justified intellectually in terms of the most up-to-date thinking in the sciences and historical studies and articulating those beliefs unambiguously. A second strong theme was that the practical meaning of Christian faith at that time was seeking social justice through democratic means. As I see it, the first of these themes is primary in CPC; the second, in PCU.

Some of us have thought for a long time that process thought could offer progressive Christians the theology they needed. I was pleased when the first book identified as “progressive” theology was written by Delwin Brown. It presents a view of God that clearly belongs to the process family. However, the response from those who represent the first of the two themes identified above has not been enthusiastic.

Two contributions to the May/June issue of The Progressive Christian make it clear that many progressives may tolerate process theology but will not affirm it. Gene Marshall has written “Toward a Still More Progressive Theology.” This is a theology that identifies “God” with “Final Reality.” Any further characterization of God or effort to know God or what to expect from God, he says, should be abandoned, although Marshall does say that “Final Reality is not only Mysterious but also All Powerful.” He calls for “trust, loyalty, persistent enchantment, and love for Final Reality.” If we give a label to this kind of theology, it would be “pantheism.”

This issue of the magazine also includes a conversation between Delwin Brown and Jim Adams. Adams does not affirm process theology, pantheism, or any other doctrine of God. His emphasis is that no doctrine of God should be identified with progressive Christianity. Whether one believes in God or describes oneself as an atheist is unimportant. In general, beliefs are derivative from values, and it is these that matter.

Brown rightly emphasizes the extent to which he agrees. Neither Adams nor Brown wants to divide the movement of progressive Christians over this issue. Brown notes that whereas Adams is concerned to free Christianity from any impediments to participation by those outside the church who share its best values, Brown has focused on helping those in the church to find a better articulation of their faith. Both tasks deserve support.

Nevertheless, I fear that in the long run whatever grows out of a progressive Christianity that does not state its beliefs will have much the same problem as the formerly “mainline” churches that also sought to be inclusive of a diversity of beliefs. The problem for progressives will be greater, since the liberal churches were able to maintain the centrality of worship. But worship presupposes that there is something worthy of trust and praise. Marshall’s pantheism offers that, but Adams wants progressive Christian groups to be open to atheism as well.

Frankly, it seems to me that there already exists an impressive community that has long embodied the form of progressive Christianity for which Adams calls quite successfully. It is Unitarian-Universalism. The most apparent difference is that Adams wants to hold on to the term Christian, whereas Unitarian-Universalists are open to those who eschew this label. Perhaps they are one step more “progressive.”

I do not mean to belittle Adams’ work. It has meant a great deal to many congregations and individuals. I am a member of CPC, in that I send a check each year to support its work. But as a process theologian, I am not at home in the anti-theological climate that seems important to his form of progressive Christianity. 
As the Chicago school or “Modernism” developed, it saw the need for clearer statement of positive belief in distinction from just rejecting Fundamentalism and understanding Christianity in socio-historical terms. Philosophical theology became important. Henry Nelson Wieman developed an important and original way of thinking of God that clearly met all the modernist-progressive requirements. I continue to recommend The Source of Human Good to those who cannot find “God” in their lives or in their worlds. Whitehead provides a vastly more complex vision of the world than does Wieman and a far richer doctrine of God, one that contains the wisdom of Wieman in a more inclusive context. But for many who have been acculturated into the modern world, Whitehead’s vision is too sharp a break, and accordingly his theism is not credible. Many could follow Wieman who cannot follow Whitehead. I rejoice when they take that step. To follow Wieman is to be able to worship God and seek to be open to God’s transforming gift. The openness to God is, at the same time, openness to the neighbor. Wieman offers grounding for progressive Christians who wish to stay very close to the empirical facts so far as their beliefs are concerned. To return, instead, to a radically non-theological form of Christianity does not seem to me to be genuine progress.

In my view process theology can integrate more easily with the second form of progressive Christianity, that which I identify as coming from the Social Gospel and being transformed by Reinhold Niebuhr and the many theologies of ecology, religious diversity, and liberation. Whereas those who follow the first stream assume that the values assimilated from the wider culture are compatible with those of the Christian community, those in the latter stream know that many of the dominant values in our culture support oppression. Oppressive values are usually rooted in belief systems to be found both in the church and in the wider culture. Many of these beliefs are taught in the university. We cannot rely on education to support the needed changes. Whitehead’s vision conflicts with that of the dominant secular culture and supports the liberative changes.

However, process theology and this form of progressive Christianity are not identical. Many progressives share the general culture’s suspicion of metaphysics. Some have biblicist, legalist, fideist, dualist, substantialist, and even supernaturalist views that a process theologian cannot share. Many have beliefs about God that are incompatible with those of process theology, and still more are content with vagueness or confusion on this topic. Nevertheless, there are tendencies in the various ecological and liberationist movements that lead in the same direction as process theology. Although currently process theology is simply one current within this stream of progressive Christianity, it has some chance of becoming an important part of this movement.

I may have given the impression that I think that process theology has all along had the answers and is simply offering them to others. This is not correct. Process theology has great difficulty addressing the unbelievers to whom the first form of progressive theology addresses itself. This is precisely because it has broken with the dominant thought patterns that have shaped most secular thinking and belief. The strategy of CPC is much more likely to get immediate results than anything process theology can offer.

With respect to the second strand, if process theology has the answers, it is only to the extent that it has already been transformed by Niebuhr and the theologies of ecology, liberation, and religious diversity. Its strength is that it has been able to assimilate much that these have shown us, in other words, it is in process. If it relied only on its distinctive sources, it would be impoverished indeed. But then it would be faithless to its own basic insights.