Who Cares? – March 2000

Question: How is process theology an improvement on any other theology and do people in the pew really care about theology anyway? Isn’t it all about “programs” today?

Publication Month: March 2000

Dr. Cobb’s Response

It may well be that most people in the pew think they do not care about theology. The word “theology” is a turn off. Most people think of it as something a few professionals busy themselves with — quite irrelevant to the life of the church. So the answer is that most people in the pew are not especially interested in a different theology.

On the other hand, most people in the pew do have beliefs that influence their lives. Often these beliefs come out when there is a tragedy. People wonder why God took their child or permitted her or him to die. Sometimes they are angry with God.

Obviously, underlying that response to a child’s death is the belief that God is responsible for what happens or at least has the power to prevent it. To process theologians it seems that this generates an unhealthy religious situation. We think that it is better to think of God as always working for the best in every situation but as never, unilaterally, determining the outcome. Then, when a child dies, we do not suppose that this was God’s will. We see God at work in the attempts to save the child’s life rather than in the death. We think God suffers with us in our loss and works in us to bring what healing is possible.

Most people in the pew associate God with some set of moral rules. The most intensely felt of these often deal with sexuality. This comes out in the amount of opposition in our churches today to blessing homosexual unions. This may express psychology rather than theology, but many people in the pew suppose that they are siding with God.

Process theology teaches that God wants us to enjoy life. Sexual expression and fulfillment are in accord with God’s purposes when they bring enjoyment to all concerned. Of course, this is not a simple matter. Our immediate enjoyment needs to be subordinated to considerations of long-term consequences. Most process theologians believe this means that, in general, sexual activity outside long-term, loving, committed relationships is to be avoided. But this is not because it violates a moral law laid down by God. It is because, in the long run, it is likely to reduce the chances of the kinds of relationships we most prize.

If we think in terms of a loving God seeking our well-being instead of a ruler laying down laws for our lives, we will see that God wants the best for homosexuals as for heterosexuals. This best will rarely be heterosexual marriage or life-long celibacy. It will not be promiscuity either. Hence we will conjecture that God often calls gay people to find long-term partners.

Do people in the pew care about theology when it is understood to make these kinds of differences? I think so. Is process theology an improvement over those forms that imply God’s total control and moralistic relation to believers? Obviously, process theologians think so, while those who affirm God’s total control and moralistic demands think not.