Ask Dr. Cobb

March 2006 Questions

In reading Bishop Kallistos Ware's, The Orthodox Way, he describes Orthodox theology as having two elements. There is the essence of God which refers to God's transcendence and utter "Otherness," i.e., the complete Mystery of God. Then there are the energies of God, which refers to God's immanence and how God manifests Godself to creation. This seemed to have some strong connections with panentheism and, in some respects, process theology. Are there stronger similarities between Orthodox theology and process theology than from classical theism and process theology?

Dr. Cobb's Response

I agree with the questioner’s sense that there are affinities between process theology and Eastern Orthodoxy. To speak of this in short compass, I will throw all scholarly scruples aside and make some sweeping generalizations about three great families of theologies: the heirs of the Reformation, the Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox. I will then locate process theology in relation to these.

The Reformers eschewed any systematic use of metaphysics. Not all Protestants have followed in this rejection, but it remains the mainstream view in the denominations most influenced by them. The rejection was strongly reemphasized in the twentieth century by Neo-Reformation theology. Thus Reformation theology follows Luther and Calvin in their aim to be biblical, even when in its recent forms it fully recognizes the need to take critical biblical scholarship seriously and to reinterpret the Bible in multiple and changing contexts. Today the systematic rejection of metaphysics often entails the abandonment of realism, that is, of any claim that God exists in God’s self, so that our beliefs about God are, objectively speaking, more or less accurate or true. In place of this, theologians in this tradition often emphasize that the language of Christian faith constitutes a self-contained whole within which, and within which alone, words like “God” have Christian meaning.

From the point of view of process theology, despite the Reformation intention to eschew philosophical influence, the influence remains. Theologians who claim the heritage of the Reformation often interpret the Bible through the classical creeds and later theological developments. Their understanding of God and of incarnation is often informed by traditional ways of thinking that are heavily influenced by Greek thought. They sometimes read Anselmian views of the atonement back into biblical texts. The insistence that they are not philosophical often makes them more resistant to criticism of their philosophical assumptions. We think that those who recognized that the rejection of metaphysics is also the rejection of philosophical realism are astute, but we consider their consequent abandonment of realism a move that in the long run provea disastrous for faith.  

Roman Catholics in general have followed Augustine and Thomas in making systematic use of philosophical categories. Both Augustine and Thomas contributed to philosophical reflection from their Christian perspectives; so the philosophies they adopted were also adapted for Christian use. However, the notion of substance, quite absent in the Bible, has played an important role in this theology. Even when it is not explicitly used, it shapes much of the thinking of Roman Catholic theologians. The perfection they usually attribute to God seems more informed by the ideals of the Greeks, especially Aristotle, than by those of the Bible.

From the point of view of process theology, Catholic theology has been right to recognize that the questions discussed by philosophers are meaningful and, indeed, inescapable for the full articulation of faith. The Christianization of philosophy also seems to us entirely appropriate and necessary. For many centuries the best, almost the only, philosophies available were those of the Greeks; and Plato and Aristotle offered the fullest and most brilliant philosophical positions. The church was wise to adopt and adapt their ideas. Nevertheless, to a greater extent than Roman Catholics have generally acknowledged, the philosophies they adopted embodied ideas and values that are in serious tension with those of the Bible. They are also in tension with developments during the modern period. In some instances we believe that the church has been wise to resist modernity, but not in all. We believe that a profound shift from substance categories to those of process would liberate Catholic thought from excessive bondage to Aristotle. It could then become both more biblical and in less tension with cutting edge developments in the sciences.

Eastern Orthodoxy is also a philosophical theology, and it, too, relied on the Greeks for philosophy. I should acknowledge the very limited knowledge I have of this tradition, but I shall proceed with offering my impressions. The East adopted Platonic forms of thought more than Aristotelian. It did not separate theology from philosophy as sharply. As a result it produced a worldview that Christianized the philosophy it adopted more fully than did the West. Also it did not establish as tight a philosophical orthodoxy as that which developed in the West. Gregory of Nyssa remains the single most influential synthesizer, but his writings do not offer as fixed and finished an account of all things as did Thomas Aquinas. Hence the contemporary situation seems more fluid. The idea of substance is certainly present in this vision of reality, but it does not seem to control what is said in the same way as in Thomistic theology in the West.

Process theology shares with Eastern Orthodoxy the influence of Plato. It shares the blurring of lines between philosophy and theology. And precisely because Orthodox thought seems less rigidly fixed than Roman Catholic, process theology finds it possible to interpret many of the formulations of Orthodox theologians in ways that are highly congenial to Whitehead. We held a conference of process theologians and Orthodox theologians in Claremont some years ago that revealed large overlaps in our philosophical theologies. Of course, there were disagreements also, but overall our philosophical theology seemed closer to the Orthodox than to either the heirs of the Reformation or Roman Catholics. An interested reader could ask the Center for Process Studies for copies of some of the papers presented at that conference.

I was again impressed by the possibilities of coming together through working with a doctoral student from the indigenous Christian church of India. This church traces its source to the mission of St. Thomas after whom it names itself. Historians may doubt the accuracy of this history, the records of which were destroyed by Portuguese Catholics, but that it is very ancient can not be doubted. Its theological and liturgical connections have been with the Syrian Orthodox, although the branch that now calls itself Mar Thoma has been deeply influenced by an Anglican form of modern Protestant theology. This student, George Pothen had been teaching theology at the Mar Thoma seminary and came to Claremont to study Whitehead and Gregory of Nyssa. One who wants to examine the congeniality of the philosophical theologies of these two thinkers, coming out of extremely different contexts, should read his dissertation.

This congeniality has had practical results. I was seriously involved in only one major conference of the World Council of Churches. This was focused on science, technology and Christian faith and held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most of the work was done in sections with twenty to fifty members. In the original plans there was only one theological section, assigned the topic “faith and science.” It was understood that faith and science are two ways of viewing the world, that is, it was assumed that theological discussions today would be about ways of knowing, epistemologies. This reflected the dominance of the Reformation tradition. However, two members of the organizing committee objected. One was Charles Birch, a process thinker. The other was Bishop Gregorius, an Indian from the other branch of the indigenous church, which calls itself Syrian Orthodox, and one who had himself written on Gregory and Whitehead. These two men insisted that theology was not only a matter of epistemology but also included beliefs about what really is. They persuaded the committee to organize an additional section dealing with nature, humanity, and God. For those of us with metaphysical interests it seems important to talk about God and nature and not only about how human beings come to their beliefs on these topics.

It happened that I ended up chairing this section. Both Orthodox and Catholics participated, and I think our results were good. However, the outcome reflected how deeply we are all rooted in our histories and how different are the histories of East and West. However close process theology may come to some philosophical theologies of Eastern Orthodoxy, as a historical phenomenon it belongs to a different world. We process thinkers in the West are shaped by our Western history that includes the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the long discussions about faith and science, the sexual revolution, and recent waves of liberation thinking. None of this has had much impact on Eastern Orthodox thinkers. We Westerners see our relation to the earliest Christian communities as a broken one. In the East the relation seems fully continuous. They read the New Testament in its original language. We read it in translation.

The consequence of these differences showed up in our work as a committee and especially in its aftermath. The committee felt the need for Christians to confess our collective sins and failures in relation to nature. We recognized that much of the traditional teaching of the Western churches had viewed nature dualistically and anthropocentrically, and we called for repentance. We knew that from the point of view of the Eastern Orthodox the church cannot be sinful, and we also knew that in fact Eastern teaching had not been nearly as dualistic or anthropocentric as that in the West. This is a point of contact and an area in which process theologians, and other contemporary Westerners, celebrate the leadership of the Eastern Church. Hence we made it clear that we were confessing only the sins and errors of the Western churches. Even so, in the end, the Eastern Orthodox members of the group refused to support the statement. Perhaps a compromise would have been possible by stating that it was individual Christians only who erred and sinned, but the Westerners felt the need to confess the errors of the Western churches in their teachings and actions, and the Easterners would not agree that churches can err. Obviously, process theologians are fully Western on this point as on many others.

I end on this cautionary note because it would be misleading to think that in fact the community of Western process theologians and the community of Greek Orthodox theologians would share more across the board than process theologians share with heirs of the Reformation or with contemporary Roman Catholics. Eastern Orthodoxy has great appeal today to many Protestants, but this appeal is chiefly to those who want to avoid the challenges that the modern and postmodern worlds have directed at the Western churches. Whereas process thinkers are likely to emphasize the great changes that have taken place in church and society and the need for continual re-thinking and transformation, the appeal of Eastern Orthodoxy is that the church remains the same throughout the centuries. Of course, I exaggerate. No one supposes total changelessness of any institution within history. But the radically historical thinking characteristic of process theologians has its roots in the West, and Eastern thinking is, from our point of view, remarkably ahistorical.

These comments about difference are not intended to detract from the remarkable affinities. Whenever we can work together we rejoice in doing so. But on many issues important to us, such as gender and sexuality, we will probably have to agree to differ for some time to come.

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