Can process theology be Christian?

This isn’t directly related to the “classical theism vs. theistic personalism” debate, but it touches on some similar issues: evangelical theologian Roger Olson ruffled some feathers recently by declaring that process theology can’t be an authentically Christian theology. This garnered a response from Bo Sanders at Homebrewed Christianity and from theologian Philip Clayton.

Olson’s main contention is that process theology, to the extent that it’s consistent with its own premises, denies central tenets of orthodox Christianity like creation ex nihilo, the deity of Christ, and a realist eschatology.

I’ll let readers judge how well the defenders of process theology rebut Olson’s claims. Personally, I’m a lot less interested in process theology as such than I once was. But it does try to address some of the same issues I’ve been blogging about here recently. Issues like: What does it mean for God to be genuinely related to creation? What does it mean for God to be “personal”? And so on.

I generally find the more “orthodox” (in terms of their fidelity to Whitehead) process theologians less helpful than the ones who use process-type concepts as flexible metaphors to illuminate Christian faith. In this group I’d include, among others, Clark Williamson and Marjorie Suchocki. Both of these theologians describe God in “process-relational” terms, but they are generally more orthodox in their theological perspective than traditional Whiteheadians and less tethered to the letter of a particular metaphysical system. For instance, Williamson defends creation ex nihilo, and both Williamson and Suchocki argue for “subjective immortality.”

I see these as efforts to overcome, or at least mitigate, what I regard as the most glaring deficiency of traditional process theology: its reduction of God’s ultimacy. Whether this approach is fully successful, of course, is another matter.

Praying with Marjorie Suchocki

I’ve found that of all the process theologians I’ve read, Marjorie Suchocki is the best at applying process categories and concepts in a meaningful way that avoids much of the forbidding technical jargon. He short book In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer is a good example of this.

Suchocki applies a “process-relational” understanding of God and God’s interaction of the world to some of the thornier problems of prayer, such as: How can prayer make a difference to what happens in the world? In doing so, she illuminates both the practice of prayer and the process understanding of God.

In the first two chapters, Suchocki provides a succinct and elegant summary of her overall epistemological and metaphysical approach. In brief, God, in Suchocki’s process-based understanding, is continually providing the world with an impulse toward realizing its best available possibility for increasing well-being. In turn, in each moment, the world is offering back to God its realization of new possibilities–whether these are the ones God hopes for or whether we fall short in some way. God experiences this new actuality and responds to it in a new set of possibilities. And so on. This “dance” of mutual relation is how Suchocki understands God’s relation to the world. Unlike some traditional understandings of God, the process view sees God as working with and through the created order, rather than bringing things about by divine fiat.

So imagine with me the dynamics of relationship between God and the world. Think of it as a dance, whereby in every moment of existence God touches the world with guidance toward its communal good in that time and place, and that just as the world receives energy from God it also returns its own energy to God. God gives to the world and receives from the world; the world receives from God and gives to God, ever in interdependent exchange. Imagine this dance to be initiated by the everlasting God acting out of divine freedom, and therefore out of everlasting faithfulness–for if God is free, then God is free to act in consistency with God’s own character. Thus every touch of God is a giftedness reflecting to some degree God’s own character. But only to some degree. For if this dancing God truly relates to the manyness of the world, then God relates to the particularities of the world. God relates not to some ideal world, but to the reality of this world. (p. 24)

Prayer, then, is a special case of this more general relationship between God and the world. In prayer, we self-consciously make ourselves aware of God’s presence–listening for the voice of God in calling us to realize our possibilities for greater well-being, and offering our prayers to God, to be incorporated into God’s self and made part of future possibilities for the world. Prayer thus “makes a difference” both to us and God.

In a series of chapters, Suchocki applies this understanding of prayer to intercession, prayers for healing, confession, and other traditional topics. But she puts her unique spin on these by showing how her view of God affects how we understand them. For example, when we pray for someone else, God receives our prayers into the divine experience, and they become part of future possibilities presented to the world. Thus our prayers may have effects far beyond what we can imagine. This threads a line between quasi-magical views of prayer that simply expect God to do what we ask and reductionistic views that see the effects of prayer merely as psychological.

Suchocki boldly says that God needs prayer because it is part of how God works with creatures to bring about the divine purposes, which she identifies with “communal well-being” for the entire creation. Suchocki doesn’t try to prove that God must do it this way–which is helpful if, like me, you find aspects of process theology appealing, but aren’t necessarily prepared to swallow the whole complicated conceptual apparatus. What she denies, though, that God works without us, which will put her at odds with at least some traditional understandings of prayer, as will her insistence that God is changed and affected by our prayer.

One strength of the book is that it shows how process thought can make sense of our practices of prayer–we often do pray as though our prayers of petition, intercession, etc. make a difference to God and how things go in the world. On the assumption that God is utterly unchangeable, by contrast, these are harder to make sense of (though theologians have tried to do so in a variety of ways). So you could see In God’s Presence as a kind of argument for the superiority of the process-relational view on the grounds that it makes better sense of certain religious experiences. At the same time, it provides an impetus for praying–prayer really does make a difference and is an indispensable part of the church’s calling.

Lest this makes it sound like this is a dry, academic tome, Suchocki writes very straightforwardly, avoiding most of the convoluted jargon associated with process theology. She also uses (gasp!) concrete examples–stories of prayer in her life and the life of others–to illustrate her points. While I don’t necessarily agree with the whole of the process perspective, this book changed my perspective on prayer–and more importantly, it made me want to put the book down and actually pray.

From religious diversity to “confessional pluralism”

In the final chapter of The Many Faces of Christology, Tyron Inbody looks at the issue of religious diversity. He considers the standard responses–exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism–but finds them wanting for familiar reasons. Exclusivism, in addition to resting on a questionable and selective interpretation of the biblical witness, greatly exacerbates the problem of evil by implying that the vast majority of the human race will be denied even the possibility of salvation. Inclusivism, while appearing to be more open-minded, is in the end a kinder, gentler form of Christian exclusivism, implying that the exclusive basis of salvation is still the Christian revelation. Finally, pluralism, in insisting on an essential similarity among religions, tends to smuggle in particularist assumptions. For instance, John Hick’s pluralism makes a number of assumptions that are really theistic in nature and not neutral between the various religious traditions.

Instead of adopting one of the familiar perspectives, Inbody argues for what he calls “confessional pluralism.” This form of pluralism makes two key affirmations. First, it insists that all religious traditions are irreducibly contextual. That is to say, none can claim to have a neutral, “god’s-eye” view of things. It entails “a lack of finality and absoluteness” and an affirmation of “modesty about theological claims” (p. 209). In other words, we can only speak about other religions from the perspective of our own particular viewpoint; we should therefore not claim to possess a “view from nowhere.”

Second, confessional pluralism, in its Christian form, affirms the universal significance of Christ and interprets the plurality of religions from an explicitly Christian point of view. For instance, Inbody suggest that, arguing analogously from the triune nature of God, we can posit plurality as an irreducible fact about the world. The world is characterized by pluralism–including religious pluralism–because unity-in-difference is the character of the divine life itself. God is the Creator of all, the Wisdom that can be manifested in a multiplicity of religious traditions, and the Spirit that is at work in the world and in all cultures to bring creation to fulfillment.

This perspective strikes me as very similar to the one developed by Marjorie Suchocki in her Divinity and Diversity (which I blogged about here and here), as well as the “confessionalism” of H. Richard Niebuhr. Inbody is arguing for an appreciation of pluralism, not from purportedly “universal” premises, but from explicitly Christian ones. Confessionalism as Inbody understands it can be pluralist in affirming that no one tradition possesses the unvarnished and complete truth, but that all the “great ways” embody part of that truth; it can also be particularist in claiming universal significance for the revelation of God in Jesus.

Perhaps a good way to think about it is offered by John V. Taylor, the Anglican bishop and theologian. In his book The Christlike God, Taylor writes the following:

The different ‘faces’ of God which are set forth [in the various world religions] will seem in some respects to be mutually contradictory, and for a long time we may not be ready to guess how, if at all, they will be reconciled. I believe we can confidently leave that in the hands of the future if we will only persevere in the agenda for today. And for us who are Christians this is, quite simply, in reverent appreciation of the beliefs and prayers of others, to affirm that, whatever else he is, God is Christlike–humble and vulnerable in his love–and that we have found in that revelation the salvation that all peoples look for. (p. 5)

This seems to strike the kind of balance Inbody is talking about–neither surrendering our loyalty to the revelation we have received nor presuming to be in possession of the entire truth.

An experiment in apologetics

Camassia recently wrote a post following up on a discussion we were having here about religious pluralism, specifically with regard to Marjorie Suchocki’s book Divinity and Diversity (see my original post here). One of the issues that came up in the ensuing discussion was whether affirming religious pluralism means you’re excluded from contending for truth of your own views. Does it just mean affirming everyone in their okayness?

This got me thinking about what apologetics would look like if it were conducted in a context that took full account of religious pluralism. A few months back, Christopher tipped me off to Krister Stendahls’ “rules” for interreligious dialogue:

(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
(2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.
(3) Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl seems to have meant that we should be open to finidng attractive or truthful elements in other religions that aren’t necessarily present in our own.)

These principles pose some seriously critical questions to much of what sails under the flag of Christian apologetics. It seems to me that apologetics has rarely–if ever–been undertaken in the spirit of Stendahl’s rules. It’s almost irresistible for the apologist to give short shrift to other traditions in order to make his case look stronger. But a truly responsible apologetics would have to enter into a deep and sympathetic understanding of other traditions, something along the lines of what Stendahl suggests.

Doing this well would require the cultivation of certain virtues: charity, open-mindedness, empathy, intellectual honesty, and so on. It would require the apologist to actually talk to adherents of other religions, to ask them why they believe what they believe and do what they do. It would require being open to correction on one’s understanding of that tradition. But at this point it appears that something like inter-religious dialogue is actually a part of, or at least a prerequisite for doing honest apologetics.

And I wonder if we can take this a step further. I wonder if the best form of apologetics for a world of religious pluralism is what we could call “imaginative apologetics.” That is, rather than trying to produce rationally coercive arguments, this form of apologetics would elaborate a “thick” description of Christian faith and life, one that would invite imaginative sympathy, i.e., one’s interlocutor would be invited to see the world through “Christian eyes.”

As the name suggests, I’m inspired in this suggestion by C.S. Lewis, who as I noted the other day, has been called an “imaginative theologian.” This is bolstered by my recent reading of Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism, in which he argues that good literature invites the reader to experience the world from a new point of view:

We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. (Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, pp. 137-8)

Correlatively, then, good reading for Lewis is being receptive to entering into this new perspective. Analogously then, in the realm of inter-religious dialogue, we should be willing to provide an imaginative description of our own religious worldview and open to entering imaginatively into the worldview of others.

Another thing to be said for this view is that it recognizes that general views of the world (whether religious or not) don’t admit of the kind of rational demonstration we might like, and they all have their own unresolved problems. So we shouldn’t expect to establish their truth in a straightforward way, whether deductively or inductively. It’s more a matter of imaginatively assuming or adopting a particular perspective, and looking at the world through it, to see the world in a new, and possibly more satisfying (intellectually, morally, aesthetically, etc.) way. (Although Lewis might have had a more rationalistic understanding of his own apologetic works, if one looks at the Lewis corpus as a whole, one sees that he was a master of just this kind of imaginative apologetics.)

And it’s at just this point that the line between what I’m calling imaginative apologetics and dialogue starts to get fuzzy. Both involve articulating the deep wellsprings of our own faith and offering it to the other for her consideration. And both require, in turn, a receptiveness to the other’s perspective. We can’t predict in advance whether the outcome will be her adopting our perspective or us adopting hers, or possibly some kind of mutual modification of views. But this seems consistent with the Christian view that conversion is ultimately a mystery and a matter for the Holy Spirit.

Follow-up on Suchocki and pluralism

Kevin Kim (a.k.a. the Big Hominid) has some thoughts and questions riffing on my post about Marjorie Suchocki’s Divinity and Diverstiy. I think Kevin pinpoints a certain ambiguity in Suchocki’s position, one that I wrestled with.

It seems to me that Suchocki could either be characterized as a pluralist or as a modified inclusivist. This ambiguity is most pronounced, I think, in her treatment of the competing truth-claims of different religions. On the one hand, Suchocki affirms the existence of God and describes other religions as culturally conditioned responses to God’s call and presence in the world. This sounds like an inclusivist position, at least to the extent that it implies that the truth is more fully revealed in Christianity (or at least in theistic traditions generally) than in non-theistic traditions.

On the other hand, Suchocki also argues that the conceptual articulations of the various religions are abstractions from and grow out of the soil of a more immediate experience of ultimate reality and that, when detached from that experience, it doesn’t really make sense to ask if one is “truer” than another. That sounds a lot like a “constructivist” position in the mold of John Hick, where ultimate reality is ineffable and the various religions are cultural responses to the Real. Ultimately, it’s not clear to me that these two tendencies are fully compatible.

Toward a Christian affirmation of religious pluralism

Over the holiday weekend I read Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism. Though it only clocks in at about 120 pages, it’s one of the better books I’ve read on the subject.

Suchocki, professor emerita of the Claremont School of Theology and a noted process and feminist theologian, takes an different approach than many pluralists by arguing that we find support for religious pluralism in certain core Christian convictions. These include God as creator, God as incarnate, humanity as created in the image of God, and the reign of God as the goal of earthly community.

Using a process-relational model of creation, Suchocki argues that God creates the world by evoking a freely given response from creatures, not by unilaterally determining what happens. Because of this element of free play, creation displays great diversity. The diversity of religion–humanity’s response to the sacred–is one aspect of this. This same creator God is “radically incarnate” in creation: by presenting possibilities for creatures to realize, God allows them to incarnate an aspect of the divine, if only in a limited and partial way. The great religious traditions are instances of this kind of culturally conditioned response to an experience of God. While they may seem to conflict, or even to be incommensurable, at the level of conceptualizations, these concepts are abstractions from an experience of the God who is deeply present in the world.

In contrast to much of the Christian tradition, Suchocki argues that the imago dei should be understood as a collective characteristic of the entire human race, as opposed to a more individualistic understanding. She bases this on the trinitarian nature of God as a community of irreducibly different persons. It is only by creating a community of diverse communities, not by erasing difference, that humanity fully images the divine. Similarly, the reign of God is the state of affairs characterized by transcending the preference for “our kind” and fostering the well-being for all, including the stranger. The stranger is welcomed as a stranger, not by being assimilated and required to sacrifice that which makes her different.

All of these considerations, Suchocki maintains, point toward religious diversity as good and as part of God’s will for humanity. The great religions are free responses to the experience of the sacred, which are rooted in genuine experience of God. To live up to our calling to reflect the image of God, we should welcome and celebrate difference, including the religious “stranger,” rather than require everyone to profess the same faith.

Suchocki considers the implications of affirming religious pluralism for two key issues: salvation and mission. Regarding the former, she contends that Jesus truly mediates saving grace, but that doesn’t mean that only Jesus does so. The divine presence manifests itself within and adapts itself to locally prevailing conditions. The questions that other people ask may not even necessarily be the ones that Christianity answers (she points out that some Eastern traditions are more concerned with eliminating suffering than sin, for instance). Jesus reveals God’s love and the life of humanity truly united to God, and the power of this grace-full event is amplified by the texts, traditions, and stories that have emerged in its wake. But this doesn’t mean that no other stories or traditions have the power to save.

The implication for mission is that Christians should not seek to convert others (though conversions may still happen, of course). Instead, they should aim to form friendships with those of other faiths and to share what is most valuable in their tradition, as well as being prepared to learn from the religious other. This creates a very real possibility of mutual transformation. At the very least it should lead to deepened understanding and a willingness to work together for the common good.

What I like about Suchocki’s position is that, unlike some pluralists, she doesn’t try to assume a “view from nowhere”, outside of any particular tradition. Too often, this results in a kind of lowest-common-denominator theology or a covert attempt to impose the standards of one tradition on others without acknowledging it. Instead, Suchocki is contending for religious pluralism on explicitly Christian grounds. More traditional Christians will take issue with some of her conclusions, particularly her apparent relativizing of the salvific importance of Jesus. And I think it’s fair to ask how we’re supposed to maintain that the Christian tradition is normative for us once we’ve made such relativizing moves. However, I think she makes a strong argument that the diversity of religions may be God’s will and that Christians should stop thinking that the ideal would be for all other faiths to vanish because everyone converted to Christianity.