That's great, but what about process theology?

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I sometimes feel like a broken record when I complain about authors on religious topics who ignore process theology, but it after reading Robert Wright's column in today's New York Times about how to reconcile faith in God with evolution, I once again found myself thinking, "That's great, but what about process theology?" One of the reasons I find process theology intriguing is that it addresses two theological questions that I think have to be resolved if belief in God is to be tenable: how to reconcile science and religion, and how to reconcile the existence of God with the problem of evil. Thus whenever an author gives an ostensibly comprehensive analysis on either of those two subjects for public consumption, and yet in so doing ignores process theology altogether, then I find myself objecting that the treatment of the subject matter is really incomplete.

Wright argues in his column that the only way for believers in God to also believe in evolution is to subscribe to a kind of deistic biology, in which God created the mechanism of natural selection and then subsequently just sat back and watched:

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).
This isn't much different from other kinds of deism, and while it is true that this would indeed be one solution to the problem, another possible solution he doesn't mention and yet which is offered by process theology, suggests that God is actively involved in all the processes of the world (including biological evolution), but not in a coercive fashion but rather as One who offers creative possibilities at each moment. God under this model is then a non-omnipotent co-creator with creation itself. Thus, unlike the deistic evolution that Wright proposes, process theology sees God as remaining active--but not in an omnipotent sense.

I am certainly not saying that anyone, including Robert Wright, has to accept process theology. I do think it is frustrating, though, when process theology gets short shrift in an area of theology that it is specifically suited to address, and thus a treatment of a subject like this is not as comprehensive as it sets out to be.

It is also notable in this case that Wright goes on to say in his column that "organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks" and that " this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms." The idea that there are two different creative processes at work in the universe involves a kind of dualism that some might find a bit unsatisfying at some level, and he takes this dualism for granted when in fact it is not philosophically necessary. Indeed, this kind of dualism in the creative processes is something that process theology also rejects, seeing ultimately the same Divine creativity at work throughout all the processes of the universe.

9 comments:

Jeff S said...

I found your blog through my wife's blog, BadAlice. You are an incredible writer. I plan on learning a lot from you. I have a lot of G-d divine moments but putting them into words is not easy.

Shalom.

Mystical Seeker said...

Jeff, it is very nice of you to say that. I think that it is often hard for anyone to put into human language one's experience of the divine. Thanks for stopping by!

Shalom

CT said...

I'll have a try at this rhetorical question......

Process theology is ignored because for 99% of people (even more in the USA) saying the word God means an external omnipotent interventionist being. So any argument about God starts from that basis.

I had a look at the Wikipedia definition of process theology. All sounds good but it raises one big question. How do we respond ? What actions do I undertake in response to this new theory of the divine ? Thats the bottom line.

With the old style God it was pretty straight-forward - pray (God might do something for you or protect you or forgive you for something), listen (God might tell you something), help others and dont do bad things (there's an ultimate reward/punishment system) and go to Church (for further instruction and support from the like-minded).

So how does the behaviour of a believer in process theology differ from a fundamentalist ?

Mystical Seeker said...

I bet a fair number of people are familiar with various other conceptions of God besides that of ongoing supernatural interventionism, even if they are not familiar with process theology. A lot of people have heard of Deism, for example, and a fair number of people are familiar with Spinoza or pantheism in general.

I think that what some large percentage of the population might think is not really an excuse for a religion writer. Religion writers are supposed to be well versed in the varieties of religious concepts that they are discussing, especially when they are trying to present complex issues to the general public.

John Haught writes about the relationship of evolutionary science to religion, and he actually knows what process theology is and brings it into the discussion. I would expect the same from Robert Wright.

Cynthia said...

CT,

I would say that for the most part, the responses are still the same in process faith but with different motives.

Pray, to participate in the creative process of becoming.

Listen, that the Creator might create possibilities through us.

Help others, as a means to alleviate self-absorption and to assist in the process of manifesting the creative power within all creation. Don't do bad things, because it thwarts and blocks the creative process, increasing the ease with which evil enters creation.

Go to church, to be in community with others who are striving to live out what it means to be a co-creator in our own evolution.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Having read Evolution of God, which overall is an interesting and insightful read, my sense is that he's not all that familiar with Process Theology. Indeed, he doesn't wrestle with panentheism as a broader category either. He is not a theologian, but more philosopher/journalist. His biblical analysis is a bit too dependent on Bart Ehrman for my taste.

Mystical Seeker said...

Interesting, Bob, and somehow that doesn't surprise me. It is not clear to me how familiar Bart Ehrman really is with panentheism or process theology, for that matter.

River said...

Hey Mystical, I'm not sure if you saw my response to you over at my blog, so I thought I'd post a response here as well.

Wright doesn't mention Process Philosophy by name in this book, but in my opinion, a Process panentheism is where his thinking is logically going. Of course I come to that conclusion based on what he has said on Meaning of Life TV (Slate.com) and in his other two books.

An emergent Process panentheism is implicit, if not explicit, in what he's written and said.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thans, River, for that information. I suppose I should read his book to get a better sense of where he is coming from.