For years now, John Cobb has written short essays for the Process and Faith Web site. The Process Perspective is the second collection of these essays, edited by Jeanyne B. Slettom.
Understanding Process theology isn’t the same thing as knowing the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, or Consubstantiation and Transubstantiation. These examples are different theological viewpoints within the same conceptual framework. Process theology is first and foremost a new philosophical worldview with its own radically different set of presuppositions.
The layout of the book emphasizes the radical philosophical shift Process theology entails. The essays begin with metaphysics then move to science before narrowing down on issues of faith. Cobb explains this philosophical view with humility:
Process thought is unapologetically speculative through and through. It seeks to find and tell the most likely tale. If the process thinker forgets the extreme limitations of the human mind in relation to the marvel of what is, valid and valuable speculation can turn into arrogant and destructive dogmatism. (146)
Process theology began with Alfred North Whitehead in the first half of the twentieth century. I consider John Cobb, author of this collection of mini-essays, Whitehead’s foremost interpreter.
One of Cobb’s great strengths is his cross-disciplinary understanding. He is equally adept at explaining the nature of evil, the causes of the latest financial meltdown, and stem cell research. His chief concern is the greatest threat to human existence: the care of our ecosystem.
This philosophical framework resolves some of the tensions of classical theology while raising new problems.
The Benefits of Process Theology
The biggest benefit of process theology is a complete resolution to the classical problem of suffering. Stated simply, God cannot be both all powerful and good or he would be able to prevent suffering. Process theologians resolve this problem by denying the classical view of God’s power. God’s power is never coercive, but always the power of love.
Cobb understands existence as a series of events in which God is working to bring about the best possible outcome. God’s creatures, of course, have the ability to follow this leading or to turn from it. In a Process framework, God doesn’t know the future because it’s still being written.
The second greatest benefit of process theology (at least in my mind) is the emphasis on God’s radical imminence. There is no place where God is not. (This reminds me of Psalm 139—Where could I go?) In Cobb’s words,
Process theologians are closer to the Bible than to modern thinking. We believe God works in every natural event. (158)
The Problems with Process Theology
I have some serious reservations with Cobb’s version of Process theology.
Despite the great value in emphasizing the imminence of God, the flip side is the devaluation of God’s transcendence. This is evident in Cobb’s handling of John 1. The apostle makes it clear that in Jesus, “the true light was coming into the world” (John 1:9 ESV). For Cobb, the implication that the true light was at some point out of the world and had to enter it is problematic. In his words, “Today a Christian believer who adopts Whitehead’s way of thinking must be wary of some of John’s formulations” (110).
This quote reveals another problem. In staying true to Process philosophy, parts of scripture need to be reinterpreted or even jettisoned. Paul’s hope in the afterlife is one of those parts:
I am haunted by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people the most to be pitied.” … I do not think Paul is quite right, but I take him seriously. (119)
Jesus’ literal resurrection is another problem for Cobb—although this issue seems less about Process theology and more about Cobb’s viewpoint:
“This symbol [Jesus’ resurrection]can function without regard to what happened to either the body or the soul of Jesus. For many liberal Christians, this suffices. For them further questions about just what actually happened are inappropriate. At the ultimate level, I incline to support this view. (119)
I suppose this view flows from serious questions about the afterlife mentioned above. For me, understanding scripture through a Process lens adds more problems than it resolves.
Cobb does a fine job at pointing out the legitimate contradictions and problems in classical theology. I would agree that systematic theology today has climbed in bed with modernity and needs to be re-conceptualized in order to speak truthfully. However, the Process perspective feels like a step back from the mystery of God as revealed Jesus.
—John B. Cobb, Jr., Jeanyne B. Slettom, ed., The Process Perspective II (St. Louis, MI: Chalice Press, 2011).