Study Process Theology First – June 2009

Question: I have a personal question that may apply to other readers. I am a graduate student in a Liberal Studies program that is entirely online. Distance education meets the demands of my life, which include caring for a disabled member of my household while working. During the course of my studies I became interested in and then absorbed by a Christian process perspective. I have done quite a bit of reading on my own–including you, of course, and Whitehead. My program allows me to take a number of courses from other graduate schools, and I am searching online options. My question, then: For someone beginning to study process seriously under my constraints, would you recommend focusing on scripture as a starting point? I know you are a Pauline Christian–would a study of Paul be a good place to start? Or would you recommend starting from a more contemporary viewpoint? I’ve found a couple of online classes that offer a contemporary process perspective.

Publication Month: June 2009

Dr. Cobb’s Response

You have a challenging situation, and I am in poor position to advise you concretely. I do not know what courses are available. If you found an on-line course that approached the study of Paul or other biblical materials from a process perspective, I would recommend it. But I do not know that such a course exists. Most studies of Paul would not be asking the questions that bring out his process views. That does not deny, of course, that much of great value can be learned about Paul from other perspectives.

There is now a fairly good body of material written on the Bible from a consciously process perspective. In an earlier generation, Amos Wilder and John Knox were in the process family. Wilder’s student, William Beardslee continued this tradition. Beardslee’s work recently inspired Chalice Press to publish a number of commentaries from a process perspective, including the one I wrote with David Lull on Romans. Russell Pregeant has written an introductory text on the New Testament as a whole, Engaging the New Testament, also from the process point of view. There is plenty there for a course. There is also good work on biblical hermeneutics from a process perspective. I recommend especially Ronald Farmer’s book, Beyond the Impasse. Biblical study with process-oriented teachers would be an excellent way to go deeper into what it means to think as a Christian in a process way.

The difficult question is whether simply studying the Bible would help one understand process thought. I would like to say “Yes,” but I am not sure that it really would. Let me consider both the “yes” and the “no.” The “yes” is almost inescapable at one level. Process thought affirms that reality is constituted of events. Most of the Bible tells about events. The Bible orders events in terms of their historical connections. For process thought events are connected in the way history generally implies. That is, each event is what it is largely, but not entirely, because of the way previous events have been. The “not entirely” opens the way to the recognition of an element of human responsibility. Those shaped by the Bible almost always think this way, as Whitehead does.

The biblical authors also see that the human situation changes, even in quite important ways during the course of history. Today we call this understanding “historical consciousness.” We do not judge people in past epochs by the same criteria that we judge ourselves. To understand them is to understand their context and the view of the world that context provided them. Obviously the biblical understanding of history was different. It was shaped more by a sense of a series of covenants with God. But the more general point remains. Those shaped by biblical thought see how the present has grown out of the past and yet differs from the past. It leads one to understanding oneself also in one’s historical context. Contemporary process thought has its own version of this kind of thinking.

In the Bible one finds that “facts” and “values” are inseparable. It is true that there are some stories that tell of rather strange behavior in a quite neutral way. But overall there are expectations that are partly met and partly missed. Human events are evaluated. How they are evaluated develops over time, and these changes are a very important part of history. This is highly congenial to process thought. In the Bible there is interest in individuals but they are always seen as participants in communities. Much of the evaluation of their work is in terms of their relations with one another and with the community as a whole. This is also the view of process thinkers.

In the Bible the great divide is between God and creatures. God has concern for all the creatures, but human beings have a very special role. We have responsibility for other species of creatures in a way that no other creatures do. We are special, but we are part of the creaturely world. Along with all the other creatures we owe our existence to God. This is also the teaching of Whitehead and other process theists. What then is the No? The realistic fact is that although few would deny what I have said, many hold that at least some of it is theologically unimportant. For example, consider the greatest New Testament scholar of the second half of the twentieth century, Rudolf Bultmann. He would point out that all ancient cultures had a strong sense of tribal or group identity, that what is distinctive and important in the Bible is the rise of the individual. He described the Old Testament as the history of failure. Only the Christ event brought the possibility of individual salvation, and this is fundamentally ahistorical. Obviously he found grounds in the gospels and Paul for his existentialist account. And positively, there is much in his interpretation of Jesus and of Paul that process thinkers find attractive. But if one studies the Bible through Bultmann’s eyes, one will not come away with a process view in a broad sense.

In the study of the Old Testament the most widely used text in the United States for some decades was Bernard Anderson’s Understanding the Old Testament. In the early editions of that book, he treated all talk of nature as reflecting the influence of Canaanite religion. Only historical matters belonged to authentic Israelite religion. I am glad to say that he moved sharply away from this extreme anthropocentrism, but if one studied the Bible from the point of view of the early versions of his book, one would certainly miss the relation of human beings to the natural world that links the Bible and process thought.

In writing the commentary on Romans with David Lull, I learned that the English translations on which, in my ignorance, I am dependent already express nonprocessive biases. In process thought, each occasion is constituted in large part by the presence in it of God and of past occasions. Paul talks repeatedly about how we are in Christ and Christ is in us. The Holy Spirit is also within us. We participate in the suffering and death of Jesus. In the community of the followers of Jesus, we are members one of another. Some of this comes throughiin the English translations, but much of it is obscured. This is because for substance thinkers, no two entities can occupy the same space at the same time. To make Paul make sense, the translators have toned down the language about one entity participating in other entities. The heart of Paul’s theology is that we participate in the faithfulness of Jesus, but one would not guess this from the standard English translations.

For many years I thought that the biblical writers affirmed that God is almighty, and that, in denying this, process thinkers had to go against the general biblical view. I am still puzzled that I did not sooner learn that this is not the case. The term “almighty” that appears extensively in several books in the Hebrew scriptures is not a translation of any Hebrew word. It substitutes for a proper name (Shaddai) for God, one that has no connotations of omnipotence. We have Jerome’s Vulgate largely to thank for this misdirection of Western “biblical” theology.

So, I guess that my answer is that unless one is already well attuned to process thinking, or has a guide who is, one is not likely to learn it from the Bible. People bring their assumptions to the text, and since the great majority of Christian translators and interpreters have been shaped by Greek modes of thought, the distinctively Hebraic thought of the Bible is often obscured. Perhaps eventually process-oriented scholars can liberate the Bible to speak its message more purely in English.

Back, then, to the quite simple question. My advice is to study process theology first. You can then study the Bible on your own, especially if you can read it in the original languages, and I expect you will find a great deal of congeniality. Meanwhile, of course, for any Christian, Bible study is important, and one can learn a great deal about the Bible from many scholars with varied interests and approaches. Among the best known current leaders in the field, I recommend Marcus Borg for the New Testament and Walter Brueggemann for the Christian Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. Their work is highly congenial to process theology.