Theology – Process Theology

Uncontrolling Love mini-blogs

The is running a series of articles by individuals in dialogue with Thomas J Oord’s latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.

The first essay speaks about God’s interaction with modern medicine:

The author is clear and affirms the importance of faith in the healing process. However, he very firmly states that human emotions, state of mind and expectations all play a role in the healing process (203). It is therefore reasonable to conclude that while, in some instances, two individuals may have equally strong faith in God, that cancerous cells, genetic malfunctions or ingrained unhealthy habits may prevent bodily healing, even when many prayers are offered for the saints of God so afflicted. Yes, God does initiate the healing process, but healing rarely occurs in the absence of “creaturely cooperation” (214).

If the body is already too diseased prayers of faith may be uttered, but the mortal body will continue to degenerate until death occurs. Oord points out that sometimes the body’s organs are simply too diseased to cooperate with “God’s healing gifts” (214) and the individual dies.

The Doctrine of God

By Guest Blogger Blair Reynolds

(article original published 2006)

Classical theism, the reigning doctrine of God in Christendom, affirms that God is void of body, parts, passions, even compassion, wholly simple, wholly immutable, independent, immaterial, the supreme cause and never the effect. What creatures have, God does not. I challenge this doctrine, on five grounds.

First, I find it unbiblical. Now, in so saying, I realize the Bible is not a book on metaphysics. God’s salvific revelation occurs in history, not nature. Nevertheless, I feel Scripture implies a metaphysic wholly other than that found in classical theism. Granted, many biblical passages speak of God as immutable.

But wait a second; many others do in fact speak of God as changing (e.g., Hosea 11:8, Amos 7:3, Jeremiah 18:8, Exodus 32:14). Indeed, the prophets function so as to alter the operations of YHWH’s will. Malachi 3:5-7 is often taken to be an affirmation of a wholly immutable God (“I, the Lord, change not”).

But this is followed up by saying, “Return to me, that I might return to you.” Taken together, these passages mean, at least to me, that God enjoys a fixity of purpose, and in that fixity, does not vary.

But rather than denying change, such fixity insists upon it. Hence, if we change in such-and-such a way, then God, too, will change in an appropriate manner. And the biblical metaphors for God are all anthropomorphic in nature.

God shares the creaturely characteristics of will, memory, emotion, anger, disappointment, etc. Quarrel all you want with these metaphors, as but a mere concession to our feeble intellects. Still, the fact remains they mean God undergoes changing affective states analogous to pleasure and displeasure in ourselves.

If these metaphors do not fit the reality of God, then they are useless and should be dropped. The Incarnation, if it is at all revelatory of God, reveals his general modus operandi with creation.

God is incarnate throughout the entire universe, which functions as his body. And the biblical predication of God is generally relative predication. It’s hard to be a creator, without a creation; a king, without subjects; a father, without children; a lover, without someone to love.

Second, there is the matter of epistemology. Knowledge, I think, demands two things. No. 1, we must generalize from the familiar to the unfamiliar. No. 2, to have knowledge, real knowledge, we must have empathy, a knowing from “within.” Now, if there is one “within” I am most familiar with, it is human experience.

So, I think that unless there is a genuine analogy, a true likeness, between ourselves and all the rest of reality, from the atom up to God, then we haven’t got an inkling as to what is going on. Now, one major characteristic of human existence is that we are continually changing, evolving.

The traditional notion of the “self” as something permanent is a myth. Rather, the “self” is best thought of as a name for a society of perishing occasions. Moment to moment, we are different persons.

No thinker thinks twice. God, then, I see as the most changeable that there is, the supreme effect as well as cause. And in so saying, I am not overlooking the fact that there is consistency in God. There is an absolute or abstract dimension to God.

It is what God always does. God always seeks to maximize beauty, is always omniscient, empathic, loving. But there is also the matter of the relative nature of God, God in the concrete, God as continually changing.

We must, however, be careful not to focus just on the common thread running through various occasions, overlooking their key differences. Well may God always seek to maximize beauty; but what is beautiful in one context or era may not be in another. Well may God always be omniscient; but as new things happen, God’s knowledge is increased, if for no other reason than that he has moved from knowing X as merely potential to knowing X as a definite, decided matter of fact. Another major characteristic of human existence is that we are social, relational beings who arise out of our relationships.

Reality is like a spider’s web; you tweak it here and it giggles there. God, then, is indeed the supreme effect as well as cause. As much as God creates the universe, the universe creates God.

Third, there is the matter of meaning, value, significance. If God is wholly immutable, as classical theism argues, then, saint or sinner, it’s all the same to him, he remains blissfully indifferent. If nothing can make any real difference in God, then his love and wisdom can make no difference in his decision-making process.

But who can put any real faith in such a cold, dehumanizing God? And if God could be just as happy, whole, and complete, without a universe as with one, then why did he bother to create it in the first place? How would we be anything other than meaningless and insignificant to him? And how could we think of God as loving?

Love means, at a minimum, to derive part of the content of your being from the loved object. And how could God deliver us from the evil of evils, that the past fades? We acquire satisfactions, only to lose them. So, why bother to do anything, when it’s all going to go up in smoke soon enough?

If God is wholly immutable, he is, then, helpless to deliver us from this evil. On the other hand, if God is supreme effect, if we can pass our experiences over into God, then everything is of significance, because everything is preserved and enjoyed in God’s memory forever.

Fourth, there is the matter of divine transcendence. Classical theism sought to affirm transcendence, but at the price of immanence. God, in Thomism, exists wholly outside of creation, wholly unrelated to anything going on.

Hence, we are left with the tragic situation of a world that never really gets into the life of God, because he is not about to react to it, and a God who never really gets into the world, because he would then be affected, conditioned, by it.

The universe, then, has meaning only in the negative sense of a kind of holding tank to be escaped from if we are to attain to what is of ultimate value. Thus Christianity becomes a static, world-negating religion. And then, is God truly transcendent? The classical model of God pictures him and the world as two wholly separate circles that do not intersect.

The world of time, change, materiality, contrasted over and against the divine world of immaterial, changeless simplicity. Well then, what do we call the whole of reality, the whole shooting match? Meta-God?

Because by that it would seem that God is but one limited aspect of some larger, more inclusive whole or reality that includes him and then some. Put another way, classical theism argued that no reality can stand over and against God, on an equal footing, so as to exclude him.

But, ironically, that is exactly what classical theism ended up doing: The whole world of materiality and change is, at best, an anti-God principle, the complete and total antithesis of God’s own nature.

I think a better solution is to say that God is the chief exemplification of all metaphysical principles. Loosely put, what holds for creatures also holds for God, but to the nth degree. And this huge quantitative difference makes for a qualitative one as well.

Everything in the universe is a part of everything else, is incarnate throughout; but only to a very limited degree. We, for example, directly interact with little more than our own brain cells.

In sharp contrast, God’s body, the universe, is wholly internal to him. Hence, God enjoys an unsurpassably direct and immediate empathic response to any and all creaturely feeling. We are total strangers to sensitivity on such a grand scale.

Fifth, and finally, there is the matter of what is sometimes called the “monopolar prejudice” of classical theism. Now, it sure seems to me that the church fathers, and many Christians today, set up checklists of seemingly contradictory divine attributes, such as being-becoming, and cause-effect.

Then they go down the list, ascribing only one side to God, the side that squares best with certain Hellenic notions that the “really real” is wholly simple, immaterial, and passionless.

To me, this is lopsided. Nothing real can be described by reference to only one side or pole, and each pole represents a virtue. If it is good to be independent and not deterred by others, it is also good to be deeply moved and affected by the feelings of others.

I think that creation is God’s own eternal evolution from unconsciousness into self-consciousness and self-actualization. We should rejoice in the fact that we have a genuine significance in the life of God.

Answered Questions – Open Theism Nearing Process Thought

From a Reddit Question and Answer with Greg Boyd:

Hey Greg! As a theology student, I’ve been very influenced by you in my own journey, and you helped me deal with many important theological issues during formative and important times of my life. So thanks! :)
So, here’s my question (which I hope will be answered tomorrow): You’ve written widely about the Warfare Worldview, and about the problems with the classical theological tradition and its “Blueprint worldview”, with its various explanations of evil and the sovereignty and omniscience of God. In books like “God of the Possible”, “God at War” and “Is God to Blame?”, you’ve pointed out the vulnerability and pitfalls of these theological traditions, in which we seem to have to justify even the worst cruelties in the world as “simply a part of God’s plan”.
With all that in mind, however, I’m wondering if you’ve anything to say about the problems and vulnerabilities of the theologies that elevates free will, spiritual warfare and human agency too much? Is there not a very real risk that people who are not as theologically nuanced as you will feel a kind of constant stress that prayer, spiritual warfare and “just a little bit more church work” could solve all the problems around them?
PS. And as a related question – despite your criticism, can you still see merit in the many, many spiritual giants who have simply assumed that God is guiding everything that happens to them?

Greg responds:

Thanks for sharing the kind words about my works. You raise a great point. People tend to ride the pendulum, reacting to one position by going to the opposite extreme. So yes, people can absolutely put too much stress on human free will that they minimize God’s providential rule. And this results in them thinking everything is up to THEM. And the direction some Open Theists are moving today, being overly influence by Process thought, is beginning to almost border on deism. This concerns me a lot.
As for your PS, I absolutely find merit in many spiritual giants who espoused the blueprint worldview. I have found great insights in Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth (ESPECIALLY) Barth and many many others. Bro Lawrence is one of my all time favs (“Practicing the Presence”), yet his thought is as thoroughly blueprint as it gets!

Olson Explains Why He is Not a Process Theologian

From a good article by Arminian Roger Olson:

First, process theology assumes that to be is to be in relation. It is a relational, organic worldview.

Second, process theology avers that God is not an exception to basic ontological rules but is their chief exemplification.

Third, process theology asserts that omnipotence is a theological mistake; God is not and cannot be omnipotent. God’s only power is the power of influence (persuasion).

Fourth, process theology is a form of theistic naturalism; it does not have room for the supernatural or for divine interventions (miracles).

Fifth, process theology denies creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, and affirms classical panentheism—God and the world are mutually interdependent. There is a sense in which God is dependent on the world (beyond self-limitation).

Sixth, process theology refers to God as “dipolar”—having two “poles” or “natures”—one primordial and one consequent. God’s primordial pole is potential only and consists of ideals. God’s consequent pole is actual and consists of God’s experience. The world contributes experience to God. God has no primordial experience. (Theologian Austin Farrer referred to this as process theology’s lack of “prior actuality in God.”)

Seventh, process theology regards God as radically temporal; God learns as history unfolds and how history unfolds is ultimately up to creatures (actual occasions). (“God proposes but man disposes.”)

Eighth, process theology reduces God’s creative activity to bringing about order and harmony insofar as possible. God is not the actual creator of the world or any actual occasion (the basic building blocks of reality). God can only create, however, with creaturely cooperation.

Ninth, process theology views Jesus Christ as different in degree but not in kind from other creatures. His “divinity” consists of his embodying the self-expressive activity of God (“Logos”) which is “creative transformation.” He is not God incarnate in any absolutely unique sense that no other creature could be.

Tenth, process theology denies any guaranteed ultimate victory of God or good over evil. The future is “more of the same” so far as we know. Ultimately, that is up to us, not God. God always does God’s best, but he cannot guarantee anything.

For full post, click here.

Boyd on Process Versus Open

Boyd explains the difference between Open Theism and Process Theology:

In PT, God exists eternally in relation to a non-divine world. So PT denies “creation ex nihilo”
In PT, God is bound to metaphysical principles that govern both God and the world. So God isn’t able to really interact with the world as a personal being. God must always, of necessity, respond in ways that the metaphysics of the system stipulate. This means…
In PT God can’t intervene in unique ways, like personally answering prayer
In PT God can’t intervene and perform miracles In PT God can’t become uniquely embodied, as he is in Christ.

For full post, click here.

Olson Explains Difference Between Open Theism and Process Theology

Roger Olson, a classical Arminian, defends Open Theism from those who would call it Process Theology:

So what are the differences? All open theists affirm creatio ex nihilo while process theology denies it. All open theists affirm God’s omnipotence while process theology denies it. All open theists affirm the supernatural and miracles while most, if not all, process theologians deny them. Open theists all say that God limits himself; process theology represents God as essentially limited and finite. The only point on which they agree is about God’s knowledge of the future, but even there one finds profound differences. For example, according to open theists the openness of the future even for God is due to God’s self-limitation in creation. According to all open theists, God could know the future exhaustively and infallibly IF he chose to create a world with a closed future (as in divine determinism).

For full post, click here.

Olson Defines Process Theology

Roger Olson provides a definition of Process Theology:

In spite of recent misuses of the term (and concept), historically process theology has ALWAYS meant belief that God and the world are necessarily ontologically interdependent (panentheism) and that this interdependence is NOT due to any voluntary self-limitation on God’s part. God is essentially limited, not omnipotent and CANNOT act unilaterally coercively to cause events in a supernatural way. (I could add that most process theologians are not classical trinitarians and do not believe in the classical hypostatic union or many other elements of traditional Christian orthodoxy.)

…But [Open Theism] is not process theology… as I have argued over and over to anyone who will listen, they are not the same.

For full post, click here.