Unbelievers and Process Theology

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Posted on September 29th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Learning, Social Issues, Theology
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As a general unbeliever in God, spirits, immortality, and the human soul, there is much I disagree with in process theology.  What I can agree with in process theology is what they deny.  I agree with the denial of the traditional omnipotent God, “HIS” (I capitalize another problem) relationship to evil, a literal interpretation of the biblical text, Christ as God-incarnate (homoousios), and miraculous interventions.  And although I disagree with some of the confusing metaphorical Christian language process theology employs, I agree with their emphasis on interconnectedness, social change, and environmental focus.  To me, and many other unbelievers, process theology is more palatable than traditional, orthodox theology.

C. Robert Mesle describes what he sees as the differences between process theology and traditional theology: “It makes sense [process theology].  It embraces and works with the confusing facts of life, suffering, ambiguity, scientific insight, religious pluralism, feminism, and ecology, while traditional theologies seem to me to view these as embarrassments to be accommodated or explained away.”[1]

Mesle thinks of process theology as being based more on what he calls common human experiences than on high views of scripture and tradition.  The simple idea that one would change their understanding of God’s attributes because of the evil and suffering they see and experience, shows how different process theology is from traditional Christian theology.  For many, seeing and experiencing these evils does not change how they view omnipotent and omniscient God; in fact, many believers find greater surety of their God by the existence and experience of such evils.

For them suffering proves the effects of humankind’s fall into sin, or a way in which God uses a “megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C.S. Lewis), or as proof of the moral argument for God’s existence.  To me, and to many in process theology, there are problems with this kind of thinking.

What is now referred to as “process naturalism,”[2] is a viewpoint even closer to that of many unbelievers.  George Allan, a process philosopher with these sentiments, says things like, “This theistic impasse doesn’t bother me. We can do without God and still account for value,” and “world-making and world-destroying functions of the vectors of Creativity require no God.”[3]

I can hear many unbelievers saying “amen” to this!  Similarities also exist between unbelief and “religious naturalism” and the broad umbrella of “process philosophy.”  Most of John Dewey, certain portions of Charles Pierce, and some parts of Alfred North Whitehead are attractive to unbelievers.  The more overtly “religious” forms of process thinking, as seen in people like Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Marjorie Suchocki, are less likely to inspire and “lure” unbelievers into a space of common understanding.  From what I understand of the history of process thought is that although it has made connections with Buddhism (primarily via John B. Cobb), forms of evangelical Christianity (usually referred to as “Open Theism” to avoid being seen as heretical), naturalists (via George Allan and Jerome Stone), and other seekers, spiritualists, and liberal Christians, it has not made a concerted effort to create connections with modern forms of atheism and unbelief.  Neither have many (if any at all) atheists or skeptics attempted to engage with process theology.  I hope to reverse this trend.

Mesle discusses how religions, and the theologies behind them, have been used as a means of oppression and as a means of liberation.  Mesle says “there can be no denying that religion, including the Christian religion, has often been a source of moral and social reform” but also “that religion, including the Christian religion, has consistently been one of the most effective tools available to the powerful elite for maintaining oppression.”[4]

Religion, then, is a two edged sword—unbelievers simply think of one edge as being much sharper.  Whether Christianity, or any faith-tradition for that matter, produces more good than bad in the world is a difficult question to answer, and involves multiple inquiries into the social sciences, and still faces the problem of interpretation.  Suffice it to say, both process theologians and unbelievers recognize the “Janus-faced” nature of religion and religious beliefs.

Part IV of Mesle’s book is titled “Naturalism and Theism” focuses on showing some new understandings of the divine that do not include supernaturalism (e.g. Religious Naturalism).  As the forerunners for this new understanding of the divine, Mesle mentions Paul Tillich’s notion that God is not one being amongst others but is rather “the ground of being”; Bishop Robinson’s challenge to “grow beyond a belief in a God who was ‘out there’”; Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity”; and death-of-God theology.  Mesle thinks it entirely possible to have a naturalistic understanding of the divine, and also thinks that process thought can fearlessly move in this direction.

What has become known as “religious naturalism” (e.g. the work of Gordon D. Kaufman, Ursula Goodenough, Stuart Kauffman, and Jerome Stone) is a cluster of ideas that has reconceived the idea of God, the divine, or “the sacred” as something entirely natural.  God is not a “being-out-there” that transcends the cosmos and intervenes in the natural order to reveal God’s self.  Rather, the natural world itself is the fount of sacredness.  The natural world inculcates a sense of wonder, awe, and mystery in all of us.  “God” can simply be the word and symbol we use to describe the wonder we experience from the natural world.  Mesle thinks, “if we simply replace “God” with “a powerful sense of what really matters to us,” then a naturalist can agree.”[5] It is also important to note that one could be a pantheist, agnostic, or non-theist and still be thought of under the umbrella of religious naturalism.

Mesle is of the opinion that “the common ground between process-relational theism and naturalism is substantial.”  He thinks, “Many of the problems in traditional religious thought that process naturalists have challenged are also challenged by process theists.”[6]

I tend to agree with Mesle.  Even if you are not a “process-naturalist,” but simply consider yourself a “naturalist,” I am sure you will find many of the critiques given by process theists to be pertinent and valuable.  It is with this mindset that I, an atheist at a school that made process theology famous (Claremont School of Theology, and its respective Center for Process Studies), yell to other unbelievers “Don’t worry, there are people over here who agree with much of what you think!”


[1] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1993), 5

[2] Online Bibliography located at: http://www.ctr4process.org/publications/Biblio/Thematic/Naturalism.html

[3] Located at: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2856

[4] Mesle, 73

[5] Mesle, 128

[6] Mesle, 128

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9 Responses to “Unbelievers and Process Theology”

  1. Ben says:

    Interesting comparisons, Kile. This reminds me a little of John Hick’s reply to Clark Pinnock’s “Christian Inclusivism” (I am sympathetic to Pinnock, and also to Alister McGrath’s contribution in this volume) in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World http://www.amazon.com/Four-Views-Salvation-Pluralistic-World/dp/0310212766 published by the evangelical Zondervan press, no less.

    It is sometimes surprising where we in formation find points of commonality in unexpected places, sometimes seeing unity through what we don’t affirm. Pinnock also co-edited a volume of essays exploring commonalities between Process theologians and evangelical “Free Will” Theists: http://www.amazon.com/Searching-Adequate-God-Dialogue-between/dp/0802847390/

  2. Sai Kolluru says:

    Divine and Respected Mr. Jones,

    Have you looked into understanding the theology or philosophies of the Eastern Religions like Hinduism or Buddhism? They are very holistic and differ greatly in theology/doctrine from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. They do not have a central book or one path to achieve enlightenment. Many western spiritual seekers of your opinion have found sanctuary in these eastern traditions because of their liberalism and inclusiveness, be it human nature or nature in general.

    Let me know what you think. Sincerely, Sai Kolluru

  3. Kile Jones says:

    Ben: Thanks for the response and the recommendations. I have read the “Four Views on Salvation” book (along with many in that same series). I will check out the second.

    Sai: I have studied Eastern philosophies and religions, and find that many of them share the same values that process theists and unbelievers share. It depends on what form of Eastern philosophy and religion we are talking about. Thanks for the comment.

    Best.

  4. Sai Kolluru says:

    Kile: Exactly and sounds great. Great article by the way!

  5. Kile, what a neat article. I feel like I have a ton of thinking to do about it before I reply. But it’s fascinating!

    All the best,
    J

  6. Kile Jones says:

    Joshua: Thanks! I thought of your interview with John B. Cobb Jr. when I was writing it. Dr. Cobb is planning on coming to speak to a class of mine pretty soon (very excited!). I wonder how you view the possible relationships that can exist between process theology and certain forms of Judaism (I can think of Rabbi Harold Kushner and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, as those who have affinities with some process thought)? Thanks again. Best.

  7. Tom Peteet says:

    Thanks for an engaging post! I think you bring up a lot of important ground in how process-theists and naturalists think similarly. A few questions:
    1) From a philosophy of science perspective, I understand naturalism as a belief in a closed universe in which we attempt to delineate natural laws and forces through science. This type of scientific naturalism is inherently process oriented – i.e. we constantly revise scientific theory based on available evidence. It would seem to me that process-naturalism and naturalism are the same? What is the difference between these?
    2) As a scientist, I would say that I am naturalistic about the world, though not as an atheist. I think that my adherence to atheism has in the past made me resistant to seriously considering others’ religious experience as verifiable. To what extent do you see tension between atheism and naturalism?

    Thanks again for an interesting post!
    -Tom

  8. [...] [3] For more connections between unbelief and process theology see my, “Unbelievers and Process Theology,” located at: http://www.stateofformation.org/2011/09/unbelievers-and-process-theology/ [...]

  9. NateP says:

    Kile, very intriguing post here…but I’m even more interested in your story, namely how you came to be an atheist getting a PhD at Claremont.

    I’m interested mostly because I was on a similar path. Bachelors and masters degrees in theology, then a complete loss of faith, right before it was time to apply for PhD programs, and then my heart was no longer in it. Wondering what went differently for you…or have you always been a non-believer that just happened to religion academically fascinating? I’ve met many people in that camp, but as a now ardent atheist, I don’t see how anyone could stay sane in that situation. Wondering if you’d care to share your perspective on that.

    As about Process Theology real quick…I found your article because I’ve been going back through books of Cobb and Hartshorne, trying to rediscover what I originally liked about Process…but finding it hard NOT to see it as a theology that is AD HOC from first to last, only existing to shield faith from any accountability… in other words, when does a theology actually have to comport to real-life evidence of any kind, rather than espousing only philosophical pleasantries? I ask the very same question of Tillich fans…how does conceiving God as “ground of being” help anyone if they’re still not wrestling with hard evidence of any kind? What are you thoughts?

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Kile Jones hold a Bachelors of Theology (B.Th.) from Faith Seminary, a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Boston University. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Religion at Claremont School of Theology.


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