According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power
is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. - anon

Friday, December 6, 2013

Can Relational Theism Overcome the Ills of both Process Theology and Classical (Evangelic) Dogma? Part I of 2

"Things aren't always the way they first appear to be,
as in the case of today's article...." 


During the past two years we have been investigating what process theology is and isn't. And mostly I have been selectively picking-and-choosing my favs amongst its many fields of petunias, sometimes crying foul, and sometimes praising its many insights into the Christian faith. Certainly I feel the pinch of my fundamentalist, evangelical background against its opposing anvil of post-modernistic theological-philosophies. But then again, I feel that same pinch within my own reading of Scripture when read from the eyes of a Christianity become steeped in folklore, dogma, and secular modernism. The trick is to navigate the best path between all available options without losing one's way, or Bible, or God.

Today, my friend, Dr. Roger Olson, takes aim at process theology when held in the hands of a thorough-going process philosopher, and having read his list I find some agreement and some disagreement with his overly black-and-white assessments. If you have been a steady reader of this blog over these many years you will notice quite immediately how I have attempted to write of a more balanced view of relational theology into the assertions of both process theology and its classical counterpart of Christian dogmatism. The former (in its more radical elements) can speak of a God who becomes pure existence of human wont and will; but the latter can also speak of a God lost from our humanity, and become irrelevant to our lives; who is somewhere "out there," but has forgotten me and my prayers in the midst of a sinful world.

Historically, process theology actually began as "relational-process" theology but somewhere the "relational" was dropped in favor of philosophisms over theologisms (... if these are words!). So I next began the lengthy process of re-envisioning what "process" could mean with the added flavor of "relational" theology mixed into each before then discovering another theologian's writings on this same subject. Consequently, I have added Thomas Jay Oord's observations about process theology to that of Roger's in the next article further below as a counterpane to Roger's assessments. And then, as I have time, will try to respond to Roger's observations in a later posting sometime next week.

But as a reminder to us all, a list like this is a good list to work through to see both the limitations, as well as the unbounded opportunities that lie betwixt-and-between the many shades of process, non-process, and relational theology. Let's simply call this the land of opportunity based upon a more appropriate syncretic blending of relational theology towards each opposing position. And from this maudlin land attempt to re-integrate what both sides have been trying to say about God, ourselves, and this good earth, but have missed within their extreme dipolarizations. Thank you.

R.E. Slater
December 6, 2013
 
*Any future comments I may have will be made at the end of Roger's posting, and not ahead of it.

**Part 2 - May viewed here
 
 
* * * * * * * * * * * *
 
 
[A Non-Process Response to Process Theology
or,
Classical Theology's Response to Process Theology]

"Why I Am Not a Process Theologian"


[A Relational Response to Process Theology]


Process and Wesleyan Theologies
by Thomas Jay Oord
August 15, 2011

Process theology is a way of thinking about God and the world that continues to attract Christians. Those who appreciate John Wesley’s theology are often especially attracted to process thinking.

Of course, no theology is perfect. Every theology – including Process theology – has flaws.  We all see through a glass darkly. But contemporary Wesleyan theologians are attracted to Process theology for good reasons:


1. God is Relational

Process theology offers language and ideas to support the idea that God is essentially relational. Rather than being distant, aloof, and unaffected, Process theology affirms that God is present to each of us and all creation. God suffers with us all. Process theology supports the Apostle Paul’s words: “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4, NRSV). The idea that God is relational helps portray the covenantal and incarnational God the Bible describes.  Although distinct from the world, God is in the world as one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

2. Prayer Changes Things

Process theology argues that prayer makes a difference both to us and to God.  Our prayers affect the way God chooses to act. Many biblical stories tell of how God acted differently because people prayed.  Process theology supports these stories, because God as described by Process theology sometimes acts differently because of what creatures do. For instance, the Lord told Isaiah to inform Hezekiah that he would die. But Hezekiah prayed that God would spare him, and God changed his mind, adding fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life (Isaiah 38:4, 5). Other theologies cannot account for a God who changes plans because we petition. They teach that God has the past, present, and future already decided and settled.  Petitionary prayer makes no difference to the God who rigidly pre-determines all things. Process theology fits with the biblical revelation of a God who is influenced by our prayer.

3. God Made Us Free

Process theology emphasizes that we are free -- at least to some degree. Our freedom is not unlimited, of course. Creaturely freedom is an important category for Wesleyans.  It plays a crucial role in rejecting predestination and in placing blame for sin on creatures. Joshua understood the importance of free responses to God when he told the people, “choose this day whom you shall serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). John Wesley called this “free grace”—God’s free gift and our free response.  He even sounds like a Process theologian when he says, “Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore (with reverence be it spoken) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself or undo what he has done.” Overall, I know of no better conceptual scheme for affirming the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace – with its view that God acts first and provides freedom to creatures for response – than the Process tradition.

4. God is not Responsible for Evil

The significance of creaturely freedom, as Process theology understands it, solves the problem that atheists claim remains the primary reason they cannot believe in God: the problem of evil. Process theology blames free creatures and the agency of creation for genuine evil. According to Process theology, God lovingly gives freedom and therefore neither causes nor allows evil. It affirms with James, “God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one,” but that “every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (1:13b, 17a). Process theology rejects John Calvin’s idea that God is the source of Adam’s sin.  In sum, many believe that that Process theology provides the best solution to the problem of evil.

5. Community and Individual Matter

Perhaps no theological tradition better grounds the Apostle Paul’s view of the Church than how Process theology explains the centrality of relations and community. It takes with utmost seriousness Paul’s words that "we are members one of another" (Rm. 12:5). Process theologians lead the way in criticizing modern individualism, without rejecting the dignity and responsibility of persons in community. Process theology’s proposal regarding interconnections and interrelatedness is important for considering what it means to be the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-14). I know of no conceptual scheme that better describes how Christians are both persons and a relational community.

6. Contemporary Issues must be Engaged

Process theology engages the issues that characterize our postmodern world better than other theologies.  This is especially true of contemporary science. It also deeply engages and effectively addresses environmental and ecological concerns. Process thought actively tackles the ideas of contemporary culture. Wesleyan theologians think engaging contemporary issues is crucial if Christians are to be salt and light in these wonderful and woeful days. Wesleyans and Process theologians want to “always be ready to make a defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt. 3:15).

7. Love Reigns Supreme

The previous statements represent significant reasons many in the Wesleyan tradition are attracted to Process theology. However, I personally find Process theology most helpful as a resource for understanding Christian love. No other theology better describes God’s love as both creative and responsive. No other theology better makes sense of what Jesus called the first and second commandments (found in Matthew 22:37-40 and other gospels). No other theology better grounds Christian agape. Process theology is a first-rate theology of love, and it is little wonder Mildred Bang Wynkoop found it so helpful. If “above all,” Christians should “clothe themselves with love” because it “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14), Christians should explore the fruits of Process theology.

Conclusion

Process theology also has weaknesses. As I said at the outset, no theology is perfect. And there are certainly differences between what some Wesleyans believe and what some Process theologians believe. We should not ignore them.

But Process theology’s central claims about God’s love, prevenient grace, creaturely freedom and responsibility, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Church, etc., fit under the Wesleyan theological umbrella. There are good reasons many Wesleyans find at least some aspects of Process theology attractive.


* * * * * * * * * * * *


[Assessing Relational Theology from a Non-Process Theologian]


 Relational Theology: Roger Olson
The second view of God’s sovereignty, the one I plan to expound here, is relational theism. Oord, one of the editors and authors of Relational Theology, defines it this way: “At its core, relational theology affirms two key ideas:
1. God affects creatures in various ways. Instead of being aloof and detached, God is active and involved in relationship with others. God relates to us, and that makes an essential difference.
2. Creatures affect God in various ways. While God’s nature is unchanging, creatures influence the loving and living Creator of the universe. We relate to God, and creation makes a difference to God.” (p. 2) 
Another author, Barry Callen, says of relational theism (or theology) that it focuses on “the interactivity or mutuality of the God-human relationship. God is understood to be truly personal, loving, and not manipulative. The interaction of the wills of Creator and creature are real.” (p. 7) 
Relational theism or theology comes in many varieties, some of them quite incompatible at points. All share in common, however, belief that creatures can and do actually affect God. The relationship between creatures, especially human persons, and God is two-way. God is, as Dutch theologian Hendrikus Berkhof said, the “defenseless superior power” within a genuine covenant relationship with us whose immutability is not impervious to influence but “changeable faithfulness.” According to relational theism, the God-human relationship is reciprocal, mutual, interactive. God is not Aristotle’s “Thought thinking Itself” or Aquinas’ “Pure Actuality” without potentiality. Rather, God is Pinnock’s “Most Moved Mover”—the superior power who allows creatures to resist him and becomes vulnerable and open to harm as well as joy…. 
What I want to outline for you and recommend to you is a non-process, narrative-based, relational view of God’s sovereignty. It is not rooted in process theology which, while relational, detracts too much from God’s transcendence. Process theology is one form of relational theology, but not all relational theology is process. Process theology denies God’s omnipotence which is its main failing. From that flow other flaws such as its denial of any eschatological resolution to the struggles of history and eventual end to evil and innocent suffering. Process theology, in my opinion, sacrifices too much of the biblical portrait of God and, in the process, robs us of hope for the world. It is right in much of what it affirms but wrong in much of what it denies. It rightly affirms God’s vulnerability and the partial openness of the future; it wrongly denies God’s power to intervene in human affairs to rescue, heal and defeat evil…. 
Does this all mean that God needs us? Not at all. This God could have lived forever satisfied with the communal love shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but he chose to become vulnerable in relation to the world he created out of the overflowing of that love. Is that just a metaphysical compliment unnecessarily paid to God or a truth necessary to the biblical story of God with us? I would argue it is the latter. A God who literally needs the world is a pathetic God hardly worthy of worship…. 
The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is that God is sovereign over his sovereignty. The missio dei is God’s choice to involve himself intimately with the world so as to be affected by it. That choice is rooted in God’s love and desire for reciprocal love freely offered by his human creatures. None of this detracts in any way from God’s sovereignty because God is sovereign over his sovereignty. To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereignty.


* * * * * * * * * * * *


Select Comments
from Dr. Olson's article
 
From Reader #1 - As you rightly say, the label has become so flabby that it's hard to know what it actually means. Do you think the rising popularity of process theology is in part a response to the rising popularity of reformed thinking? I ask because if anything puts the theodicy question in sharp relief it's Calvin's theology. Are you familiar with Vanstone's 'Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense: the response of being to the love of God'? He also has an interesting take on the causes of suffering.
 
Reply by Dr. Olson - I'm not familiar with it. I'll add it to my list of books to investigate. Thanks for the recommendation. My experience is that process theology exists almost exclusively among liberal theologians and students and others under their influence--e.g., seminary students and graduates of so-called mainline Protestant seminaries. It doesn't generally filter down to the pews because it's just so esoteric. However I have known many sensitive, reflective, theologically-minded young evangelicals who are attracted to process theology just because it is such an alternative to high Calvinism (which they find rampant among their peers). I try to steer them away from process theology toward a more mediating theology of God's self-limitation.
 
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From Reader #2 - "A better solution to the theodicy issue may be found in God’s self-limitation in creation." - Olson
 
I was going to say this after reading your penultimate paragraph. My answer to the question of "Why does Jesus deserve to be King?" is "Look at how he used power." Self-limitation seems so important for any coherent concept of 'goodness', and it is of practical importance, to boot. You've bumped Moltmann up on my reading list!
 
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From Reader #3 - "Dr. Olson, you could write an article called "Why I'm not an open theist"? I would love to know the differences (and similarities) between process theology and open theism! Grace and Peace!"
 
Reply by Dr. Olson - "Very simple to explain the difference. All open theists believe God is omnipotent and will intervene to conquer sin and evil (eschatological realism)."
 
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From Reader #4 - One question about this quote: "I am not saying people who believe in process theology cannot be Christians...What I am saying is that insofar as a person believes in process theology they are Christian in spite of their theology, not because of it."
 
If one believes in process theology as described here, what makes that person still a Christian in your opinion? Where do you draw the line?
 
Reply by Dr. Olson - I try not to draw bold lines that exclude people unnecessarily. I know some people who think they believe in process theology who I think are confused. I want to be generous to them. I'm not sure a hard core process theologian who denies the ontological deity of Christ, for example, can be a Christian. Which is not a judgment about their salvation which only God knows.
 
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From Reader #5 - Do you have any recommendations for Jürgen Moltmann's work?
 
Reply by Dr. Olson - He has written so much it's hard to know which one of his books to recommend. I guess my overall favorite is his The Spirit of Life. But it's heavy going. Alternatively, I like Pinnock's Flame of Love. They overlap a lot and Pinnock's is much easier reading.
 
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From Myself #6 - Hi Roger. My time spent in process theology have felt the back-and-forth of your concerns above. However, from early on when discovering process theology I have felt that by incorporating a "relational theology" (because, as you know, process theology from early on was "relational-process theology") this method of approach might help to modify process theology substantially to become significantly more impelling than the list I am reading above, that is  so cold and bare. Though there is no official "list" like the one above that I have found, even so I have taken each bullet point and re-written them over the years around Jesus, and the classical God that evangelicalism loves. It has given to this old, classic line of dogma, new life and witness that I find more fully shaped than classical theology's more barren landscape. However, it is also skewed from the purist position of process theology as well, become more conversant to orthodox Christianity rather than its adversary. So that with postmodernism's advent Christianity itself might become more conversant with society itself. A global society at a lost to understand the more vocal traditions of evangelicalism. And a global society that might hear again a more relevant strand of Christianity than what we have previously borne in our Reformed, fundamental traditions. Thus my interest in relational (process) theology. Thank you.
 
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From Reader #7 - This is great! I've been listening to a certain podcast that's hosted by two self-proclaimed "process theologians" who often have folks like John Cobb and Phillip Clayton on to discuss theology. I've been wrestling with process theology for a while because some of what I hear seems to be a pretty good way of looking at human experience. However, I can't bring myself to accept it when I hear, for example, John Cobb deny that Jesus is of one essence with the father. I've listened to his critiques of Nicene language, and I cringe. It's taken me a long time to even get to understanding process thought, and even now I don't claim to be an expert in it. However, I do credit my study of process thought in some sense to my move away from Calvinism and toward an Arminian/ Open theist perspective. I guess God can work good out of anything!
 
Reply by Dr. Olson - I'm glad you're avoiding full blown process thought. So far as I know Phil Clayton is not a process theologian even though he calls himself a panentheist. By the way, Phil and I studied together under Pannenberg in Munich in 1980-1981. We were quite close then. In the basement kiosk of the Bavarian state library we together planned a book about Pannenberg. We were going to edit it together and both contribute to it and we were deciding on scholars to invite to write specific chapters. Our plan was to begin work on it as soon as he arrived back in the U.S. (about a year after I). About a year after I returned, I heard that he and Carl Braaten were editing a volume of essays on Pannenberg and I was not invited to contribute. Huh. Very strange.
 
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From Reader #8 - What is the difference between process theology and open theism with regard to God's foreknowledge? Don't they both advocate that God only knows what is "knowable"?
 
Reply by Dr. Olson - It is the one area where process theology and open theism overlap. But the REASON is different. For open theism any limitation of God is self-limitation (even if made at creation--to leave the future partly open).
 
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From Reader #9 - quote from Dr. Olson: "First, process theology’s ultimate authority for belief is not divine revelation but philosophy and, in particular, Whitehead’s organic metaphysic (sometimes as altered by Hartshorne). That becomes the “Procrustean bed” on which revelation must fit. It is not merely influenced by or integrated with that philosophy; that philosophy is its very soul and foundation."
 
Reader #9's question - I think this first objection is overstated. Let me recommend a book by Lewis Ford, The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism. He makes a pretty good case that the process model for God is more biblical than the traditional "omnipotence" model of God, which has its origin in Greek philosophical thought.
 
Reply by Dr. Olson - I knew Lewis Ford. I published an article by him when I was editor of Christian Scholar's Review. He and I had many conversations at AAR meetings. He was a prince of a man and fine scholar. We never agreed, though, about the basic authority for process theology. He thought it was Scripture but admitted that process philosophy functions for process theology much as Middle Platonism functioned for early Christian thought--a lens for interpreting Scripture within culture. Of all the process theologians I have known I consider Ford's the one most devoted to Scripture although I think he interpreted it wrongly.
 
 
 

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