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.