Christian Process Theology:
An Introduction by Jay McDaniel
Note: The essay below is an epilogue to my book What is Process Thought? Seven Answers to Seven Questions (Process Century Press, 2020). The epilogue is one of many being used by people around the world to introduce Christian Process Theology. Another is Marjorie Suchocki's What is Christian Process Theology?, which can also be found in Open Horizons. Still others are listed at the bottom of this page.
Sometimes people confuse process thought with Christian process theology. This is a problem. Process thought is an intellectual and cultural movement influenced by the philosophy of Whitehead. It is international in scope, with advocates on every continent, and who come from many walks of life. Some are philosophers, but others are schoolteachers, economists, environmentalists, mathematicians, business leaders, musicians, and poets. Some are Christian, some Jewish, some Buddhist, some Hindu, some Marxist, and some have no religion at all. They form part of a community of people who are influenced in varying degrees and ways by Whitehead. They are the international Whitehead community.
What do they hold in common? They all think that everything is interconnected, that all things are in process, that each living being has intrinsic value, and that the best future for the world is to build communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, equitable, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying with no one left behind. They realize that many other people also hold these ideas and values. They do not think that the whole world needs to convert to Whiteheadianism. But they do think that Whitehead offers unique and powerful support for these ideas and values.
Who, then, are Christians influenced by Whitehead’s thought? At one level they are merely a subcommunity within the larger Whiteheadian community. Nevertheless, members of this sub-community have been some of the most influential within the overall process movement. The role of Christian process theology in the process movement is good news to people who are interested in religion, but problematic for people who are eager to see process thought speak to a wide variety of people, some of whom may not be interested in religion at all. One of the reasons I have written this book is to introduce process thought to people who are interested in learning about it, even if they have no interest in religion. The idea for the book emerged in my own mind while teaching courses in process thought in China, where sometimes it seemed relevant to mention “religion,” but sometimes not.
Still, the whole tradition of process thought is deeply indebted to the pioneering work of Christian process theologians, especially to John B. Cobb, Jr., whose own work has kept so much of the Whiteheadian tradition alive. An introduction to process thought would be incomplete without a brief introduction to process theology. By way of an epilogue, then, I address one more question: What is process theology?
The question is difficult to address, because process theology is itself in process. I have said that process thought is like a novel in the making, with new generations adding new chapters. So it is with process theology. Today process theologians in the Christian tradition are developing mystical theologies, political theologies, feminist theologies, biblical theologies, postcolonial theologies, evangelical theologies, and post-Western theologies. In the future, I predict that they will be developing Pentecostal process theologies. On the one hand, the variety can be bewildering, especially to outsiders. But on the other, it is precisely what draws people to Christian process theology in the first place. Process theology is an inclusive tradition that welcomes a variety of voices and perspectives and that cannot be reduced to one voice.
Process theology is also a multireligious tradition. For the sake of brevity I am using the phrase “process theology” as an abbreviation for Christian process theology. But I do so with great reluctance. If “theology” names a religiously inspired way of thinking, then today there are other important kinds of process theology: Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu, for example. Additionally, in East Asia, there are many who are interpreting Confucianism and Taoism with help from Whitehead, sometimes considering these traditions as “religions” and sometimes as “cultural traditions.”
Just as process thought is not reducible to process theology, so process theology is not reducible to Christian process theology. This is good news for all process theologians, including the Christians. There can be no peace in the world unless there is peace among religions. With the emergence of process theology as a multireligious subcommunity, it becomes possible that Whitehead’s philosophy might provide a conceptual vocabulary by which people from many different religious traditions might interpret themselves to one another, learn from each other, and work together to build sustainable, multireligious communities. It is within the context of a multireligious world, and also a multireligious process tradition, that we consider Christian process theology.
Process Theology in Process
Christian process theology—from here on, “process theology”—emerged in the 1950s in the United States, and, for most of its history, it has been developed by Western Christian theologians in the United States and, to some degree, in Europe. Many among the first generations of process theologians were primarily preoccupied with metaphysical considerations. In particular they were concerned with ways that Whitehead’s understanding of God could help reconcile science and religion, science and philosophy, and, more poignantly, how it could reconcile God with evil.
Here, a word about “evil” is in order. Evil is understood in different ways by different process thinkers. For my part, I think of it as tragedy: that is, (1) the debilitating suffering from which humans and other living beings suffer, and which, all things considered, would have been better had things been otherwise; and also (2) the missed potential from which many also suffer, as occurs when a young child suffers from cancer. Some of this tragedy is caused by human beings, and some is not. Many in the first generation of process theologians in the Christian tradition turned to process theology because it presented a plausible way of understanding how an all-loving God does not cause such tragedy, and cannot prevent it, but nevertheless shares in the suffering and provides hope amid its devastating effects. As Christians they saw this God as the very kind of God revealed in Jesus. If Jesus is a window to the divine, they said, Jesus reveals the humanity and vulnerability of God.
Today, however, a new generation of process-oriented thinkers is emerging, and their interests in process theology cover a much wider range. They are still interested in God and science, God and philosophy, and God and suffering. Additionally, they are deeply absorbed in many subjects besides God, however named, and they grow weary—even bored—with thinking that theology must always be about God. I am reminded of an incident many years ago when I taught an entire course called Contemporary Ideas of God to college undergraduates. I was proud of myself because I had developed a scheme with sixteen ways of thinking about God, the last of which was the process approach. I drew diagrams on the board for each view, and was quite sure that the students would love the course. At the end of the course one student, a favorite of mine, came up to me afterwards and said: “Thank you for this course; I learned a lot from it.” I asked her what she learned, and she said: “I learned that I am not interested in God.” She then added: “I am more interested in a spirituality of connectedness than a spirituality of God.”
Immediately, I knew what she meant. She meant that she found the sacred, however named, in felt and mutually enhancing relations with other people and the natural world, not with a transcendent entity which, to her, seemed like a focal point in the male imagination. Her notion of a spirituality of connectedness gave me new eyes for many religious traditions, including Confucianism, in which notions of a transcendent deity seem less important than notions of relationship. I coined the phrase the “horizontal sacred” to name this other way of experiencing the sacred. My point here, then, is that first-generation process theologians were interested in the “vertical sacred,” but that the new generation is at least as interested in the horizontal sacred, and in very practical ways. They are interested in Christian approaches to the environment, inter-religious dialogue, sustainability, counseling, gender relations, race, politics, literature, music, economics, healthcare, and spirituality. If a parliament of process theologians occurred, and participants were asked why they are drawn to process theology, they might focus on its relevance to the life of discipleship.
The Life of Discipleship
Among process theologians, there are two complementary ways of understanding Christianity: one objective and descriptive, and one more theological and normative.
From the first perspective, Christianity is a multigenerational, social, and historical movement, with many different expressions, that began sometime after the death of Jesus and has been evolving ever since in many different directions. Process theologians who understand Christianity in this way emphasize that it is a tradition in process, and that new generations of Christians can add to its history. They add that responsible participation in the tradition lies in demonstrating meaningful continuity with the past, building upon inherited resources that elicit wisdom and compassion, but also acknowledging the failings of the past: its patriarchy, its neglect of the Earth and nonhuman animals, its arrogance toward other religions, its imperialism, its insensitivity to diverse sexual orientations, and its tendencies toward violence. Another name for the latter acknowledgment is repentance. For process theologians as for biblical theologians, repentance does not necessarily involve a sense of guilt, but it does require a desire to turn around from the sins of the past and move constructively into the future. Process theologians believe that Christians can repent as individuals and as a community.
The second way of understanding Christianity is more theological and normative. It seeks to understand Christianity not as it has been in the past, or even as it is in the present, but rather as it should be and ought to be, if it is faithful to the healing ministry of Jesus and the wisdom of tradition. Of course, no given Christian can stand outside his or her social location and declare with perfect objectivity what this “ideal Christianity” might look like. But many process theologians have developed various versions of the ideal, and in what follows I will present the outline of a view often found.
As the first Christians came into existence, they were not called Christians. They were called people of the Way. Process theologians appreciate this terminology, because they believe that Christianity—and for that matter every religion—is a way of living. A way of living cannot be reduced to a way of thinking or a way of feeling or a way of acting. It is not simply a worldview or an application of a worldview. It is an orientation toward life guided by a set of subjective aims. It involves the whole of one’s life: head, hands, and heart. According to this way of thinking, there is no sharp dichotomy between religion and culture. In China, for example, Confucianism and Taoism are often considered cultural traditions but not religions. From a process perspective there is no need to quibble over the word “religion.” They are ways of living.
What, then, would be the guiding aim of the Christian way of living? Process theologians would agree with most other Christians. It is to be faithful to God as God was revealed in Christ. Here, the word faith means more than belief, at least if “belief” is understood as intellectual assent to ideas. Faith means trust in God. Imagine someone learning to float in the shallow waters of a sea. The person may assent to the idea that the sea can support her, but she may still try to grasp the water and sink. In order to be supported by the sea, she must somehow cease trying to grab the water and allow her own fears to drop away. She must trust the water. For process theologians, as for most Christians, this trust can be facilitated by belief in God, but it can also be obstructed by an overly fervent belief that evokes excessive clinging. If we trust God, says the process theologian, we best realize that God cannot be grasped as an object among objects in physical or mental space, and that God can flow within our lives only if we realize, among other things, that God is always more than our concept of God. Thus, trust in God requires a healthy sense of mystery.
Still the question remains: What does it mean to trust God as revealed in Christ? It lies in sharing in the journey of Christ and extending that journey. This sharing does not require repeating every belief of Jesus or imitating his every action. It does not even require believing that Jesus was totally devoid of sin. There may well have been times in Jesus’ life when he became angry when he should have been more tender, thus missing the mark of responding to God’s lure for his life. But it does involve trying to be open to God in one’s own way and time, as Jesus was in his way and his time. This involves a willingness to be creatively transformed, again and again, by the face of the stranger, the beauty of nature, the changing circumstances of life, and the ever-adaptive callings of God. For process theologians this is what it means to live in Christ or to walk with Christ or to follow Christ.
Christ as Logos
For process theologians such as John B. Cobb, Jr., the Christ who is followed is not reducible to the historical Jesus but is also the calling presence of God, dwelling inside the human heart and also within the rest of nature, the one who beckons toward creative transformation. The Gospel of John speaks of this beckoning presence as the divine Logos and says that it was revealed but not exhausted in the healing ministry of Jesus. Let us speak of it simply as the Spirit of God at work in the world. On this view, the Christian is one who seeks, with Jesus, to live from this Spirit.
The New Testament says that a person who lives from this Spirit has “put on the mind of Christ.” If a person puts on this mind, she is open to the sacrament of each present moment and also to the past and future. On the one hand, her mind can be inspired by the stories of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament and by the liturgies of the church. She is nourished by what process theologians call the causal efficacy of the past. But her face must also be turned toward the future and thus receptive to fresh promptings from the Spirit. She must be open to novel possibilities, derived from God, which have no exact parallel in the Christian past but which, if actualized, bring hope to the world. Thus, a walk with Christ is not a mechanical process derived from already existing rules for walking but rather a creative and flexible process, in which one’s footsteps help create the path.
Most Christians who are influenced by process theology find that a walk with Christ is both freeing and challenging. It is freeing because it involves being open to the freshness of the divine Spirit, which can both animate and empower a person, day by day and moment by moment. One who walks with Christ is free to enjoy the sacrament of each present moment. From a process perspective, the Christian life involves a healthy balance of work, prayer, and relaxation, in all of which God can be present. Nevertheless, a walk with Christ is also difficult because it involves living from a set of values that are not often supported by the surrounding world. In the twenty-first century, the surrounding world for many people is the culture of consumerism. This culture tells us that we are saved or made whole by appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement. A walk with Christ approaches life with a very different set of values. It sees wisdom and compassion as much more important than appearance and affluence; it sees the face of God in the poor and powerless; it struggles against the principalities and powers of injustice; it prizes nonviolence over violence; it rejects revenge; it values humility over celebrity; it risks having faith in God’s love even when that love seems absent; and it seeks to live simply in the world, without too many possessions, so that others can simply live.
Of course, few Christians undertake this walk consistently and completely. Many fall short of it. But this way of living—this kind of walking—is the life of discipleship to which Christianity points. The Christian trusts that God is in the walking itself and not simply in the destination, and that God also provides the power to begin anew when the walker falls short of the walking. A Zen master was once asked what is it like to be enlightened, and he responded: “When I fall down, I get up again.” Process theologians appreciate the spirit of his response and add that God’s Spirit is found in the energy to get up again.
Thus the question emerges: What is God in process theology? Process theologians understand God as encompassing Life, within whom the universe unfolds. This way of thinking about God is sometimes called panentheism: a word which literally means everything-in-God. Panentheism is different from pantheism. Pantheism is the view that the totality of finite actualities is identical with God. Panentheism, by contrast, is the view that all actualities are somehow part of God, but also that God is more than everything added together.
In the Whiteheadian version of panentheism, as developed in Process and Reality, God has three aspects. God is (1) a nontemporal mind who envisions all the potentialities which the many beings in the universe can actualize; (2) an everlasting consciousness filled with compassion who empathically receives the world into the divine life, moment by moment, and (3) a guiding presence in the universe who dwells within the depths of each creature, luring it to exercise its creativity in creating the best possible outcome for the situation at hand. The first aspect is called the Primordial Nature of God. The second is called the Consequent Nature. And the third is generally understood as the way in which the Primordial Nature is in the world.
Some, but not all, process theologians are Trinitarian in perspective, and the three aspects of God just named can suggest something like a doctrine of the Trinity. The Mind of the universe, understood as a holding tank or reservoir of timeless possibilities, would be similar to “God the Creator.” The Compassion would be the side of God revealed but not exhausted in Jesus. And the guiding presence would be the Spirit of God.
For many process theologians, what is most important about the doctrine of the Trinity is not that it illuminates the interior life of God, which will forever be a mystery, but rather that, in a more general way, it points to the primacy of relationality in understanding human life. If we humans are made in the image of God, and if God is in some way Trinitarian, then humans are made in the image of the Trinity. This means that we rightly find our own well-being in community with other people and the natural world, just as God finds God’s own well-being in felt relations with the world. There can be no isolated salvation. We are saved together or not saved at all.
Process theology proposes that God finds God’s own well-being in felt relations with the world. The everlasting consciousness of God—the Consequent Nature—is itself a receptacle for the experiences of all that happens in the universe and is inwardly composed of those happenings. This leads some process theologians to speak of the universe as the body of God. The universe is not the body of God in the sense that everything that happens in the universe is a result of divine agency, but rather in the sense that God feels the happenings of the universe much like we feel the happenings in our own bodies; that is, as inside us yet more than us.
How can this be understood? Perhaps one way to understand how the universe is inside God is to compare the universe to an embryo within the womb of a mother. The analogy is apt in three ways. First, the embryo has its own life, which means that things can happen in its unfolding that cannot be controlled by the mother. Similarly, say process theologians, things can and do happen in the universe, by virtue of the creativity of the universe itself, which cannot be controlled by God. This is how process theologians explain the tragedies of our world, both natural and humanly made. Cancer and murder, tsunamis and rapes, are not the product of divine agency, but the result of the power and creativity of the world itself. This creativity is neither good nor evil in itself but can unfold in many different ways, some tragic and some beautiful. God is an instance of this creativity, but not the only instance. All creatures in the world—including cancer cells and murderers—embody it, too.
Nevertheless, and second, what happens in the embryo is felt by the mother and is part of her. Similarly, say process theologians, what happens to each entity in the universe—to every human being—is felt by God and affects God. This is how process theology begins to talk about prayers in which a person addresses God as a Thou and not an It. When humans address God, they often sense that their prayers are being received into a deeper listening as the prayer occurs, and that the listener who listens is affected by the prayer. Process theologians agree. The Consequent Nature of God is the deep listening. For many people, of course, the question is how God answers prayers. For process theologians, God does not and cannot answer prayers by manipulating situations in a unilateral way; but the very act of praying can alter the situation of the one praying and also the ones prayed for, such that God is better able to act in their lives. It is important to emphasize, though, that petitionary prayer is but one kind of prayer. Prayer understood in this way is one instance of the more general idea that all the experiences of all living beings—whether happy or sad, constructive or destructive—affect God and become part of God as they occur. No one suffers alone.
Third, the analogy of the universe within the womb of a mother rightly suggests that God is active in the world in a noncoercive but perpetually influential way. In the case of a mother in pregnancy, this activity takes the form of amniotic fluid that nourishes the developing embryo and perhaps also influences the attitude of the mother. In the case of God, this activity takes the form of “initial aims,” which represent the way in which God is immanent in the universe, even as the universe is also immanent within God. I will explain initial aims shortly, but first a further word is in order about alternative images of God, such as that of Mother. Needless to say this image of God as Mother and the universe as a womb can be controversial to at least two sets of people: very traditional Christians for whom male imagery of God is the only relevant imagery, and feminist Christians who want to avoid stereotyping women as finding their fulfillment in, and only in, pregnancy. The good news among process-oriented Christians is that there are many feminist Christians who help critique these stereotypes and who offer alternative images. But the image of God as Mother is indeed challenging to more traditional Christians, and this challenge, on the part of process theologians, is in some ways very intentional.
Beyond God the Potter
Process theologians employ such images in order to provide a constructive alternative to an image of God that too often dominates the monotheistic imagination. We might call it (1) the externalist perspective, because it imagines God as completely external to the world; or (2) the unilateralist perspective, because it sees God’s power as one-sided or unilateral and thus capable of molding the world according to divine will; or simply (3) the patriarchal perspective, because it imagines God on the analogy of a powerful male ruler who wields power but is not empathic. On this view, the relation of God to the world is analogous to that of a Potter and the pot that “he” is molding. The Potter is external to the pot, and the pot’s destiny is largely determined by the will and power of the Potter. Process theologians reject this image of God the Potter. They think God is more loving, and that the ministry of Jesus is one place where this love can be seen.
For many Christians, the image of a parent and child is much more relevant than that of a potter and pot. This is the beauty of envisioning God as Father or Mother. Process theologians understand and appreciate this preference for parental imagery, but then add that, in an authentic Christian life, there is no need for Christians to always understand themselves as children in God’s presence. It is all right to be an adult in God’s presence, too, and thus to add one’s own voice to the ongoing life of God. This is the wisdom of the Psalms, where so often the Psalmist laments or protests, sometimes against God. For process theologians there is something right about this approach to God. It allows human beings to share with God the whole of their lives and to own their own feelings.
Still, it remains the case that, for process theologians, the ultimate nature of God is love. From a process perspective, love has two sides: (1) an empathic side, which listens to others and is affected and changed by what is heard and felt and (2) an active side, which responds to what is listened to by providing possibilities for well-being. Jesus showed these two sides of love in countless ways: by listening to others and sharing in their suffering; by taking delight in the faith of others and the innocence of children; by comforting the afflicted, especially those who were despised by others; and by afflicting the comfortable, especially those who thought they were better than others. At the end of his life, he also revealed a nonviolent side of love by dying on a cross rather than responding to violence with violence. In these various activities, Jesus showed that a life of love is flexible and improvisational. It does not follow a perfectly scripted blueprint, because it realizes that each new situation requires a slightly different response. In seeking to walk in love, Jesus seems to have realized that each moment has its calling.
In process theology, the callings of the moment are called the “initial aims.” These initial aims are the callings of the moment to which Jesus was responsive in his way. They differ from moment to moment, but always they are for the well-being of life relative to the situation at hand. The phrase “initial aims” is not especially melodious, but it does use a word that is very important to process theologians. The word “initial” is meant to suggest that God’s callings are present in the beginning of each moment of experience at an unconscious but powerful level. Initial aims consist of possibilities that people can actualize, and they also contain within them the felt hope that they will be actualized.
For process theologians, this felt hope belongs both to God and to the person. Thus the aims of God within human life are God’s hopes for the person, but also the person’s hope for himself or herself. These aims are for the well-being of life, but the nature of well-being can change from one moment to the next. There is a time to laugh and a time to cry, a time to work and a time to play, a time to be awake and a time to sleep. In our waking moments, though, these aims are always for wisdom, compassion, harmony, and creativity. If we seek a single word to describe values such as these, some process theologians use the word “beauty.” Thus, we can say that God’s lure within human life is a lure toward ever increasing beauty.
Objections to Process Theology
Process theology is controversial for several reasons, most of which pertain to the understanding of God just explained. Three objections are common.
The first is that, for process theologians, God is not all-powerful in a traditional sense. The traditional view has been that once upon a time, before the beginning of creation, God had all the power there was, and that, after creating the universe, God could, if God so chose, intervene in the affairs of the universe in a unilateral way. The paradigmatic example of this unilateral power was that God created the universe out of nothing.
Process theology is controversial because it rejects the idea that there was ever a time when God had all the power and, as a consequence, rejects the idea that God’s power is unilateral. Concerning the creation of the universe, process theology proposes, along with Whitehead, that creation is a continuing process, still unfolding, and that there was never a time when only God existed. Thus, process theologians propose what is sometimes called a creation-out-of-chaos perspective. Their view is akin to that of the first creation story in Genesis, which suggests that, even at the outset of the universe as we know it, there was a watery chaos over which the Spirit of God brooded, and that God’s Spirit evoked or called the heavens and earth into existence from that chaos. From a process perspective, there is wisdom in this point of view. The universe as we know it may (or may not) have begun with a big bang some thirteen billion years ago, prior to which there were no stars, planets, molecules, or even atoms. There was only a dimensionless energy from which a cosmic explosion occurred. But this energy was itself there from the beginning, along with God, and God did not create it out of nothing. Indeed, it may have itself been the result of a contraction of a previous cosmic epoch, in which it took other forms. This energy is the creativity which, for Whitehead, is an ultimate reality. Process theologians further propose that the process of evolution, including its galactic and terrestrial dimensions, is ongoing and will continue forever in one way or another. This is why God does not have, and cannot have, unilateral power. God’s power is that of everlasting love, not coercion, evoking various forms of order and novelty from the chaos at hand. To trust in God is not to trust that everything that happens is or even could be a result of God’s will. It is to trust that, no matter what happens, there is always hope.
The second reason some people find process theology controversial is that it denies divine foreknowledge. The traditional view has been that all the details of the future are known by God in advance of their occurrence in history. The image is that of God on a mountain, looking down on the past and present and the already determined future, seeing all in a single glance. Process theologians propose, by contrast, that God sees the past and also the present as it is coming into being, but not the future until it occurs. God knows what is possible in the future, but not what is actual until it is actualized by the world. For process theologians, this helps make sense of human freedom and also of the idea that we are called by God. If we were called by God to act in a certain way, but God knew in advance that we would act otherwise, then we would lack the freedom to respond to God’s call.
A third reason process theology is controversial is that, by virtue of its rejection of omnipotence and omniscience as traditionally understood, it calls into question the hope and confidence that many Christians feel. This is the hope that at the end of time, whenever that is, “all will be well” through God’s power to bring about a state of affairs in which this wellness, however conceived, is realized. For process theologians, this state of affairs cannot occur, because God does not have unilateral power. They add, though, that there are two alternative and valuable ways of understanding what it means to say “all will be well.”
One is to recognize that in the receptive side of God—the consequent nature—all the happenings of the universe are gathered into a unified harmony, moment by moment, in which their value is appreciated and affirmed forevermore. In the technical terms of Whiteheadian thought, all things are objectively immortal in the everlasting memory of God. Some add that human beings can have an intuition of this everlasting life in a feeling of peace that they experience in this very life. This is not a peace that excludes tragedy, but rather a peace that includes tragedy in a deeper beauty.
A second way, developed by Marjorie Suchocki and David Ray Griffin, is to affirm that the journey of a human soul or psyche does not end with the death, but that instead there is a continuing journey after death, in which the soul can grow into whatever form of wholeness is optimum for human life as lived in harmony with the rest of creation. On this view, the “wellness” of life does not hinge on a transformation of terrestrial life into a divinely ordained perfection, but rather in the possibility that there is more to life than this life. This view is called subjective immortality. The philosophy of Whitehead avails itself of affirming these two types of immortality: objective immortality in the memory of God and subjective immortality in a continuing journey after death. Should life after death be a fact, the potential of the soul to enter into an ultimate wholeness will depend on the soul’s cooperation with God’s will, God’s initial aims. Even here, the divine prayer for the soul will need to be answered, or responded to, by the soul itself.
Christians have hoped for life after death for many reasons. The ultimate problem is not death itself. Some deaths can be happy deaths. Moreover, from a process perspective, every moment is a death of sorts: a living and a dying. The problem is incompleteness. It is the fact that so many people and other creatures die without having tasted a wholeness for which they understandably yearn. The hope of the process theologian is that, one way or another, this wholeness can be known in this life or another.
The Future of Process Theology: Process Theology in East Asia
I end this epilogue with some speculations. I have said that the first generation of Christian process theologians were Western. Thanks largely to the work of John Cobb, growing numbers of process theologians now live in other parts of the world. This parallels the fact that today more than sixty percent of Christians live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Historians suggest that Christianity is becoming, and in many ways has already become, a post-Western tradition. The future of process theology will lie not only in the West but also, and perhaps even more significantly, in post-Western forms of Christianity. Along the way, process theology will be changed. It will become Asianized, Africanized, and Latin Americanized. What might this look like? I conclude by offering an image of East Asian Christianity as influenced by process ways of thinking.
In East Asia process-oriented Christianities will be shaped by the Bible, but also by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. These East Asian Christianities will be more than Whiteheadian theologies. For that matter, most Western process theologies are not simply Whiteheadian. Consider the work of John Cobb. He is a Christian in the United Methodist tradition. Methodists often point to four sources of theological insight from which Christians can draw: the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience. Cobb has drawn from each of these sources. He is not simply a Whiteheadian theologian. He is a biblical theologian, a church theologian, an ecological theologian, a liberation theologian, a science-influenced theologian, and a pastoral theologian. He draws upon Whitehead’s thought, not as an overriding ideology which dictates all that he thinks, but rather as an intellectually helpful resource for integrating insights from the Bible, tradition, reason, and experience.
The same situation will apply to East Asian process theologies. They will draw from numerous spiritual sources, including the Bible and their own traditions. Whitehead will be one voice among many, not a dominating voice. But insofar as they utilize Whitehead’s thought, they will highlight aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy that have remained unrecognized or underdeveloped by many Western process theologians. Three examples can make this point.
First, Whitehead’s philosophy offers a deeply ecological vision of reality, helping people understand that the Spirit of God is present throughout creation. Nevertheless, with some important exceptions, many process Christian theologians in the West have focused on God’s relation to human beings and not on God’s presence in hills and rivers. Shaped by nature-centered traditions in Taoism, a process Christian theology emerging in East Asia can be more ecological than Western versions, perhaps helping Western process theologians widen their ecological horizons.
Second, Whitehead’s philosophy offers a deeply contemplative vision of reality, helping people understand how they can “feel the feelings” of others and dwell in the Spirit of God, not only by helping others in compassionate ways, but also by listening to them and by allowing them the space to be themselves. And yet many forms of process theology in the West neglect this listening side of love, focusing more on engaged response to the needs of others. A process Christian theology emerging in East Asia can partake of the spirit of mindful listening found in Buddhism, helping Christians remember that sometimes the most loving thing we can do for others is not to change them but to listen to them.
Third, Whitehead’s philosophy offers a profound emphasis on the role of the body in human life, showing how body and mind are “not one” but also “not two.” This opens the door for a respect for ritual as one way in which people can participate in the life of God. Far too many process theologians in the West have neglected ritual as a gateway to God’s presence, focusing instead on beliefs and worldviews. A process Christian theology emerging in East Asia—and also in Africa and Latin America in this instance—can help Christians remember that God can be found, not simply in believing in God and acting on the basis of those beliefs, but also in moving with God in ritual and dance. God can also be found in methods of healing that are found in traditional Chinese medicine—practices that build upon a harmony of mind, body, and spirit. Western process theologies have tended to neglect the healing arts as a place where Christianity comes alive, and thus as sacraments in their own right. East Asian Christianities, among others, can help bring God back into healing.
As East Asian Christianities emerge, they will also build upon aspects of Whitehead’s thought that have likewise influenced Western process-oriented Christians. For example, a key feature of Whitehead’s thought is the idea that a human person is a person-in-community, not an ego-in-isolation. This notion of a person is consistent with Confucian images of the human person. Thus we can well imagine a Confucian Christianity which sees human beings as deeply relational, but which abandons the idea that these relations can or should be hierarchical, as was sometimes the case in classical Confucianism. A Confucian Christianity will then say that dwelling in mutually enhancing relations with other people and with the natural world is itself the heart of discipleship.
In East Asia, of course, as in many other parts of the world, some of the most dynamic forms of Christianity will be in the continued emergence of Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of process thought. Already this is occurring among a handful of evangelical thinkers in the West. Some Evangelicals recognize that the process understanding of God is more consistent with biblical points of view than many classical alternatives, and also that process theology offers promising ways of interpreting Christ and the born-again experience. The same kind of development can occur in Pentecostal traditions, because Christian process theology offers a strong doctrine of the Spirit. It shows how the Spirit can be experienced in silence and in ecstasy, in prophetic action and in music. The value of process theology for Evangelicals and Pentecostals alike is that it can help them make these affirmations while at the same time respecting the wisdom of science, biblical criticism, and other world religions.
In historical Christianity, Christ has been understood in many ways. The majority of Christians have used the word Christ to name (1) the divine Spirit or Logos present throughout the universe, (2) a historical figure—the historical Jesus—in whom that Spirit was embodied, (3) a resurrected savior—the post-Easter Jesus—who is alive in the present and who, upon invitation, can dwell within the heart as a friend and guide. But other Christians have used it in still other ways. Quakers, for example, use the word Christ to name (4) an inner light found in all people that can be a guiding presence in one’s life and (5) an atmosphere of love that can be part of a community and felt by others. And liberation theologians have used the word to name (6) the face of the poor and marginalized. Process theologians have typically focused on the first two ways of understanding Christ, but interestingly and importantly, all of these ways can be developed in the ongoing process tradition.
Among Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, the third way is especially important. Both emphasize the importance of having a relationship with Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior. Is this possible? Some would say no, because the universe contains no spirits of any sort. But process theologians can well argue to the contrary. Recall the fact that some them believe that the journey of a soul continues after death. If, in fact, this occurs, there is no reason why Jesus might not be among the souls who thus continues. If this is the case, we can imagine that Jesus’ own journey would continue as lived in relationship with those who place their trust in him, with both benefiting. When Christians say “thank you, Jesus,” they are not necessarily talking to a dead ancestor. They may well be addressing a living spirit, alive in their hearts, who is a companion along life’s way. The cosmology of Whitehead is open to this possibility.
This does not mean that all Christians must have a personal relationship with Christ as resurrected savior. This is one face of Christ, but not the only face. The fourth way is especially important to contemplative Christians. For them, Christ is an inner light and thus a guiding force within one’s life. In process theology “inner light” and “guiding force” are initial aims. This way of being connected with Christ can easily be complemented by the fifth way, which is to know Christ in the warmth of loving and compassionate relations with others, including people who are not Christian or who do not believe in Christ. In process theology, Christ would name a certain kind of mood or subjective form that clothes a community when its participants dwell in harmony.
But it is the sixth way—finding Christ in the face of the poor, powerless, and marginalized—that is so important to Christians the world over, even if they also find Christ as inner light or resurrected savior or an atmosphere of love. From a process perspective every moment of experience is a subject for itself but also an object in what comes after it. Every moment is objectively immortal. This means that the very identity of individual humans who lived in the past is not reducible to their lifetime. They can exist in the future too, in the lives of those who come after them. The same applies to Jesus. He was not simply who he was; he is also where he is. Moreover, where Jesus is partly depends on how he is remembered and known by present generations. It is the genius of liberation theologians to say that, if we want to be faithful to Jesus’ healing ministry, we must see him, among other places, in the poor, powerless, and marginalized.
This does not mean that, as we look into the eyes of a lonely grandmother, or a victim of rape, or a man tortured in prison, or a hungry boy, we must picture Jesus. We have no idea what Jesus looks like. But it does mean that we set our sights on the grandmother and the rape victim and the tortured prisoner and the boy, saying that they do not suffer alone and that we are with them. In a sense, we allow the historical Jesus to be absorbed into their lives, such that in serving them we dwell with him.
One thing that process theology might add, though, is that we also find the face of Christ wherever we find beauty: in the innocence of the child, the mutual care of friends, the intimacy of romance, the wandering of the river, the shining of the stars. Not only in sadness, but also in beauty, we find the salvation of the world. Christians say that we are saved by God’s grace. Process theology shows how this grace can be found in this world when, in gentle ways, we are drawn into love.
McDaniel, Jay. What is Process Thought?: Seven Answers to Seven Questions (pp. 102-123). Process Century Press. Kindle Edition.