John Cobb addresses the relationship of process theology to progressive Christianity in his latest column on the Process and Faith web site. In so doing, he describes what he sees as two primary streams of thought within progressive Christianity. I find this interesting because I don't find myself entirely comfortable with either of these streams.
One of them, which he identifies with Jim Adams and the Center for Progressive Christianity, reacts to the rigidity of conservative theology by virtually rejecting the usefulness of any kind of theology whatsoever. As Cobb puts it, from this perspective
Beliefs are less important than commitment to the common good. People in this stream believe that ethics is far more important than doctrine.Jim Burklo, who is also associated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, was until recently the pastor of a church that identified itself as being about "deeds rather than creeds". Put another way, this type of religion emphasizes orthopraxy as the alternative to orthodoxy.
The other stream that he identifies, which he associates with Delwin Brown, focuses more on the social gospel. Cobb also makes the important point that this second group "takes theology seriously."
Cobb writes that the first group of progressives, those who have reacted against theology, have not responded very positively to process theology. This is understandable. Those who have little use for constructing any kind of conception of God's nature would certainly not have much use for a metaphysical system like process theology. My own sympathies for process theology probably explain why I don't see the appeal of recently prominent expressions of progressive Christianity along the lines of Greta Vosper's. It probably also explains why I am uncomfortable with John Shelby Spongs' continual denunciations of "theism" without his actually specifying what kind of theology he offers in its place.
Cobb sites an article by Gene Marshall in the May-June issue of The Progressive Christian as another example of this what this stream of thought entails. I fished out my copy of that issue and took a look at the article in question. Marshal writes,
There can be no beliefs about God because God is not an object alongside other objects about which beliefs can be held. God, the God witnessed to in the Bible, is a Presence, a mysterious Presence about which the mind has no information and can have no information whatsoever.I can see why Cobb objects to what Marshall wrote. I would myself argue that to claim that we can say nothing whatsoever about God is an extreme conclusion to draw from the mere fact that God belongs to a different ontological category than ordinary objects that we experience in everyday life. Yes, I agree that God cannot be completely or accurately characterized by our own finite human imaginations. But I do believe that it goes too far to say that we can say nothing whatsoever about God. This gets back to the Blind Man and the Elephant analogy that I frequently make about human religions. It is not true that the blind man who feels the trunk of an elephant has "no information whatsoever" about the elephant, as Marshall claims; rather, the information that he does have is provisional and limited. The power of progressive theology at its best lies precisely in its understanding of the provisional nature of our God-concepts. It is why our concepts about God evolve over time--because humans are always developing new insights about the nature of their encounters with the Divine.
Cobb also notes a discussion between none other than the aforementioned Adams and Brown in that same issue of the magazine. Adams in that conversation criticizes Brown for suggesting that God could play any sort of role whatsoever in human creation. While acknowledging that Brown "has reduced God's role from designing to nudging, " Adams complains that "he still seems to agree with the creationists, the sworn enemies of evolutionary science, that God intervenes in the functioning of nature."
Again, I can see why Cobb objects to Adams's comments here. For Adams, the idea of Divine participation in the activity world of any sort whatsoever, even non-coercive participation, is fundamentally no different from traditional interventionist theism. He has thus conflated two radically different conceptions of God--the coercive and interventionist God of traditional theism, and the non-interventionist God such as outlined by process theology. (The activity as described in process theology is not really "nudging", I might add, but rather "beckoning". ) Ultimately I think that Adams's objection represents a sort of dogmatic thinking that I might expect from a militant atheist or a religious fundamentalist; but coming from a self-described progressive Christian, it is truly disappointing. In fact, there is more than one way of reconciling a post-Enlightenment understanding of an ordered and rationally operating world with a belief in the existence of God. Adams's insistence that the only way to reconcile God and science in the modern world is by rejecting any concept of divine participation in nature shows a failure of imagination on Adams's part.
Delwin Brown responds to this in the following way:
The crucial issue is, what does it mean to belief in God? What difference does it make to life? What is at stake when people say that God is, or is not? And to answer questions like these we are forced to ask a clarifying question: What do we mean by "God"?Even though I have had some reservations about Delwin Brown's formulation of progressive Christianity in his book, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?, I am more sympathetic to Brown's view than I am to Adams's. I just don't see the point in believing in a "God" about whom we have no conception and who seems to make no difference in our lives or in the universe. On the other hand, the biggest problem that I see with the stream of progressive Christianity that believes that theology does matter is that, in practice, I have found that it often accepts many of the premises of traditional Christian orthodoxy too readily, and is too unwilling to take Adams's concerns about modern science to heart. Thus we have many self-described progressive Christians who still believe in Divine miracles or that Jesus was literally resurrected, which is not something that I can go along with. Adams is correct that traditionally conceived divine interventionism is unacceptable to the modern ears of many. The way that I found out of this dilemma was through process theology. Via process theology can we believe that theology still matters, and can we embrace a conception of Divine participation in the world, while at the same time rejecting classically conceived Divine interventionism.
If we are talking about the totalitarian deity so sharply criticized by Sam Harris and others, then I, like them, am an atheist. I do not believe in that God. That concept of God leads to, and supports the continuation of, unjust social hierarchies, blind indifference to modern science, the abandonment of careful thinking, and the privileged manipulation of power by a divinely favored few. And this illustrates my point: The important thing is to ask, what does belief in God mean for understanding and living life.
I think that Adams and others who claim that orthopraxy is the sole alternative to orthodoxy ("deeds rather than creeds") are missing the point. Giving up on orthodoxy does not have to mean giving up on theology. A dynamic, living faith can be still about theology without being dogmatic. Giving up on dogmatism, rigidity, and theological authoritariansim doesn't require giving up on language about God altogether. There is indeed a middle ground.
So yes, for me, theology does matter. But the key point is this: for me, the real value in progressive Christianity is not that it offers a final word on these questions of theology, but that it offers a platform upon which a dialogue can be built. For me, religion is a continual act of dialogue by people within religious communities with each other and with God. Rather than giving up on God-talk, we embrace it in an open, dynamic fashion. If theology did not matter, then the dialogue would of course be pointless. But by the same token, this dialogue recognizes differences of opinion that necessarily exist among people of faith. An interest in theology does not necessitate an imposition of orthodoxy. We can have an orthopraxy that is rooted in a theology.