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On Following Jesus: To Process or Not To Process?

January 4, 2014

It isn’t just traditional Christians who seek to follow Jesus, in case you weren’t aware.  Others follow him in significant ways, as part of a “liberal” or even “humanist” church community, or as a model in their personal ethics and ways of relating to others.  And virtually everyone is aware of Jesus’ powerful influence, largely but not exclusively through Christianity, on Western culture.  So are ways of following Jesus, and frameworks for understanding him and the one he called “Father” practical issues? Are they relevant to both personal and societal concerns? You bet!   

Some along the orthodox-to-unorthodox spectrum of Jesus followers also knowingly follow “Process Theology”. (It’s not always capitalized, btw.) Along the spectrum (conservative to progressive/liberal) of Christian community, there is some lively discussion surrounding Process, both as a way of understanding God, and as a movement of sorts.  Why? What’s going on here? And is it gaining momentum? 

If you read this blog much, you know that I sometimes mention and make plugs for Process Theology.  In order to get quickly into the meat of the current post, I’ll refer those to whom it is new and are interested, to a good summary under that title on Wikipedia, here.  The two blog articles I’ll be discussing also, between them, give a good overview.  Here, I’ll just say that most “trained” (theologically well-educated) advocates of Process consciously know that, at least in its classic or older forms, it is an alternative view to Christian orthodoxy, in terms of God and God’s power and way of operating and relating to us.  Along with this come alternative views of virtually all theology, as those points flow from one’s understanding of God.

I regret that I’m a little late in linking to this recent online discussion about Process that I’ve found fascinating, informative and important…. I just discovered it myself. Don’t hesitate to still add your comments or questions on either of these posts as I have myself, although “late to the party”… I expect others to be still finding them or watching further comments.  Here is the setting for the two blog articles and discussions:

Roger E. Olson, who is an Evangelical (distinct from a true Fundamentalist) Seminary Professor and widely influential author and blogger, last month posted an article (here) titled, “Why I Am Not a Process Theologian”.  It drew a lot of thoughtful comments, along with some challenges.  Several days later another Patheos blog, that of Christian Piatt, posted a response to Olson’s article (here).  The response is by Philip Clayton, a theologian himself, who personally knows Olsen, and is president of Claremont School of Theology and Claremont-Lincoln University.

If you have any substantial interest in religion, in Christianity, or in understanding some of the direction of Christian beliefs and practices (I know this “future of” topic draws a good percentage of my readers), you should take the time to read both the articles and, if at all possible, some or all of the ensuing discussions.

Why do I say this? Among other reasons, this discussion involves critical questions that have perpetually dogged virtually everyone for as long as we know.  Such as the reason for evil and suffering.  Such as the future of humanity and the earth.  I could go on.  What is being discussed, as you read these articles/discussions, are not just esoteric points for those with too much time on their hands or a penchant for the philosophical (although it does draw in those as well… and I’d not exclude myself, though my “end game” is real-world effects).

Rather, the points have to do with guiding the ways we take important parts of the Bible, if certain beliefs are required to establish relationship with God or to call oneself “Christian”, etc.  The label of “Christian” is the less important issue to me than concepts of salvation (or if such are even needed), but still of some significance. It is more a focus of the back-and-forth than is the issue of relationship to God itself. However, it is the issue of relationship which Philip Clayton focuses on in summarizing what Process Theology is most about to him, calling it basically a relational theology, as in this statement:

Its main conviction is that God is influenced by his relations with us. As one process thinker says, “God is the Supremely Related One.” Like us, God too is in process.

Now, right away this does sound unorthodox to probably most people, even if they are not Christian.  And I’d say that it is.  That doesn’t bother me.  I value many of the thoughts of those generally considered “orthodox” (though the definition itself is “in process”, or ever-evolving, however more slowly in recent centuries than in early Christianity).  I was raised and lived, mostly-happily, many adult years on that basis.

When you read Olson’s article and Clayton’s response, among the things which may stand out is this:

God is either all-powerful or God is not.  And it makes a lot of difference.

In both systems God is love (and loving toward us).  In Process, God only has persuasive power to influence human events; and similarly, uses only natural processes in biological evolution.  God does not have coercive power, that is, to interrupt or even temporarily suspend natural order or human will.  So don’t expect God to always be able to stop a holocaust (though God may have stopped some and we were unaware).  Rather, God is integrated with the natural order and uses it, in a gradual way.

To Olson, representing one strain of orthodox Christian God-understanding, it is vital to preserve the thought that God can and at least occasionally does intervene in human affairs.  So the supernatural/natural distinction is preserved and is central in orthodoxy, whereas it is not in Process.  This enables God (for almost all orthodox believers) to create “out of nothing”, to work miracles and give revelations to certain prophets and others to provide us authoritative Scriptures (among other things God does “supernaturally”).

Now, Olson comments that

My experience is that process theology exists almost exclusively among liberal theologians and students and others under their influence–e.g., seminary students and graduates of so-called mainline Protestant seminaries.

In this remark, he introduces what I’d also say indicates a fairly clear “dividing line” between Process thinkers/believers and even their “cousins” among Evangelicals who hold to some version of Protestant “Open Theology”, as does Olson himself.  It is indeed “liberals” and those in many of the mainline seminaries, who do not embrace the idea of supernaturalism in any of its forms who hold to Process in one form or another.  (I’d position myself here, incidentally.)  The simplified reason is that Process represents a carefully thought-out form of alternative framing of reality to supernaturalism (or classic theism as well as deism).  It does not deny a spiritual realm or the unity of all things as a description of “God”.  This God has traits of what we call “personality”, particularly love.

Yes, its detailed thought forms can be “esoteric” as Olson says more than once, can be complicated to follow if one reads certain Process works.  But so can deeper thinking of orthodox nature, for example on the Trinity or nature of Christ.  I know both “sides” fairly well, and honestly can’t say there is a clear difference as to complexity of abstraction that can get involved if one digs deeply.

But something that Process accomplishes much better than orthodoxy is retaining our intuitive sense of God, and a God of love.  This while also affirming that the approach  we call the “scientific method” (though not the strict materialism sometimes accompanying it) can be used in all arenas, on all research questions, with the expectation that it will help us better understand both the natural world and God.  

Orthodox theologians and scientists often try to assure us that religion and science are compatible or complementary, but they have not been able to assure us how we may know when/where God may have suspended natural laws, or will yet do so…. That, I believe, is the bottom line as to why so many scientists opt for strict materialism and Christian scientists generally keep their science and religion well separated.  

What are your thoughts on either Process vs. orthodoxy in general or the articles and discussions mentioned above, specifically?

A final note: It was interesting to me that neither of these articles on Process noted the issue I raised above in regards to science.  However, Process does very often speak about this issue and seeks regularly to support science, particularly as it relates to “stewardship” of the earth and earth’s survival and well-being.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2014 3:45 am

    I think an interesting question is what we mean by supernatural.  It seems quite plausible that there is a “natural” reality that is not empirically accessible, except in altered states of consciousness, and even there perhaps rather incompletely.

    Consciousness itself is absolutely inexplicable in materialist terms, and I tire of the flippant use of “epiphenomena” to dismiss the issue that consciousness poses.  It is analogous to those who dismiss the evidence for self healing that is overwhelming in front of them (the placebo effect is far more than a delusion to be subtracted from the equation to determine drug efficacy).


    • January 5, 2014 11:11 am

      Well put, Norlyn. Excellent point about what may be natural but yet not measurable, at least not by our current means. It’s fascinating, however, that we are managing now to measure or track much more subtle effects within what is often called “paranormal”…. Which may soon have to be adjusted some in that we CAN now quantify and explain much (such as in “remote viewing” or “resonant sensing”) that we couldn’t until the last couple decades or so. It seems there will always be that cutting edge of the still-mysterious. Some Process people refer to keeping this mystical element in our theology, calling it “re-enchantment” (relative to liberalism’s tendency to pure naturalism).

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