Ask Dr. Cobb

July 2007 Question

Has process theology “backed the wrong horse”?

Dr. Cobb's Response

William Placher, one of the brightest lights on the theological scene today, wrote a review of Gary Dorrien’s third volume of The Making of American Liberal Theology. This volume covers the period 1950-2005, and it is entitled “Crisis, Irony, & Postmodernity.

Dorrien’s treatment of process theology in its various forms is extensive and generous. The second chapter tells about the Chicago School at the time I was a student there, picking up on extensive treatment of the earlier Chicago School in the preceding volume. The influence of the Chicago School is apparent in parts of all the subsequent chapters.

Whitehead is, of course, only one of the sources of the Chicago School of this later period. Nevertheless, the volume makes clear the important role his thought has played. One chapter is devoted entirely to Whitehead and his influence. It begins with Norman Pittenger and devotes the rest of its space to the Claremont faculty and “process theology.” Dorrien sees process theology as the form of liberalism most viable for continuation into the twenty-first century.

It is in response to this positive picture of process theology that Placher, in his review, suggests that it has “backed the wrong horse.” This is not to say that Placher finds great promise in another form of liberalism. He is himself “post-liberal.” But he finds the dependence of process theology on Whitehead’s philosophy a particular liability. He pictures process theologians as having guessed that Whitehead’s work would become central to American philosophy, so that connecting theology to it would give us status in the university. Insofar as any process theologian thought in those terms, she or he certainly mistook the situation. Whitehead’s philosophy was never main-stream in graduate philosophy departments in the United States. Today it has virtually disappeared from the curriculum of the major philosophy departments. Understandably, observers will judge that we bet on the wrong horse – and, hence, have lost out.

Placher is certainly right in some respects. If American philosophers had increasingly accepted Whitehead, instead of marginalizing him, there would be far more process theologians today. Many theologians see it as important to be in conversation with the dominant schools of philosophy. When I was a young theologian, that concern led to great interest in existentialism and phenomenology. During the seventies and eighties it led to serious attention to Marxist social analysis. In the past two decades, it has focused many theologians on post structuralism, which is also known as deconstruction or postmodernism. These were the philosophical “horses” that “won” the races. Meanwhile Thomist philosophies of various sorts have flourished among Catholics and among some conservative Protestants.

The question arises, then, why do some of us continue to rely on Whitehead’s philosophy when the vast majority of philosophers ignore or reject his thought. Should we not bow to the authority of philosophers in judging what philosophy to follow? To say No seems arrogant, and perhaps it is.

Nevertheless, we were drawn to Whitehead by the depth of wisdom we found in his thought, not by its popularity among philosophers. We are more convinced now than then of that wisdom. Although his thought does not connect us to what goes on in departments of philosophy, it relates us, in a way other philosophies do not, to the cutting edge of the sciences. That is one reason that, to us, it seems superior to the more widely accepted philosophies. We want a way of thinking that relates what we affirm as Christians with what the sciences are showing us to be true about the world, and we look more to science than to the major twentieth-century forms of philosophy for knowledge of this sort. Whereas in the twentieth century philosophy more and more defined itself as one academic discipline among others, we hope that in the twenty-first century there will be a renewal of interest in comprehensive thinking about reality as a whole.

Our interest is not only in the natural sciences. It is in the social and psychological sciences as well. Human knowledge of human beings, their behavior, and their communities has exploded. It is at least as important that we integrate new knowledge in these fields with our theology as knowledge of the physical world.

Some of those who reject our interest in Whitehead agree that we should pay attention to what some scientists have to say. But they see no need for a philosophical conceptuality in that process. If one needs to know more about social psychology, they argue, one should inquire of the social psychologists. To these theologians, it seems that bringing a philosophy into the picture complicates matters uselessly.

This makes clear a distinctive feature of process theologians. We believe that Whitehead has freed us from the bondage to a metaphysics that long distorted the appropriation of the biblical vision of God and the world. We believe that the sciences also are in bondage to an outdated metaphysics. For this reason we want to engage in revisionism in the natural and social sciences as well as in theology. We believe that revision is needed for the healthy development of the sciences. We are quite sure it is needed to develop further a unified vision of reality as a whole. This is a project we learned from Whitehead, and among philosophers he has virtually no rivals. Partial exceptions may be Teilhard de Chardin, Ken Wilbur, and some feminists, but in general their proposals for scientific revision are largely congruent with one another and with those of Whitehead. We continue to believe that Whitehead’s thinking is the most fully developed.

It is our judgment, therefore, that the lack of acceptance of Whitehead among philosophers is not due to their success in pointing out philosophical weaknesses in his thought but to their defining the task of philosophy in ways that largely exclude his work from consideration. Related to this is that God plays an important role in Whitehead’s philosophy whereas the consensus among professional philosophers today is that one should not speak of God at all and that if one does, one must at least deny to God any causal role. We continue to bet on Whitehead because we think he is right.

Claiming that Whitehead is “right” means that we think that most of what he says is accurate and true. But for us, as for Whitehead, one important indicator of truth is usefulness. We find Whitehead’s ideas immensely useful in formulating our Christian convictions and in understanding our Christian experience.

However, it would be a serious misunderstanding of the situation to think of Whitehead’s usefulness only or even primarily in relation to reformulating traditional Christian teaching. One way of illustrating this point is to note that the one country in which Whitehead is definitely not marginalized today is China. Chinese Marxists are far more open to his theism than are most Western philosophers. But this is not why they appreciate Whitehead and are trying to learn from him. They see his thought as giving a possible direction for China in its struggle to industrialize and democratize without losing its soul or destroying its environment. They are interested in the implications of Whitehead’s thought for education, for psychological understanding, for legal theory, for agriculture, and for urbanization. All of this involves overcoming the dualism of nature and humanity and of object and subject that Western modernism has forced upon them. And they hope to find a way toward the elusive goal of a sustainable society in which there is enough for all. Many of them see great promise in Whitehead’s wisdom.

Of course, this Chinese interest in Whitehead may soon peak and wither. When the full radicality of the practical implications of Whitehead’s thought for public policy are recognized, the Chinese government may silence it. But it also may be that Whitehead’s ideas have a great future in the world’s largest nation. And it may be that through China policies influenced by his perspective will spread to other countries.
Elsewhere, in both East and West, there is currently increasing interest in Whitehead among people in many fields. Most promising for wider influence today may be quantum physics. It may be that a Whiteheadian type quantum theory can pave the way to unification with a revised relativity theory. Meanwhile Whitehead offers a third way in evolutionary thinking between the dominant Neo-Darwinism and the supernaturalist alternatives. Whitehead also offers alternatives to the neoliberal economic thinking that has contributed so extensively to the fragility and ecological destructiveness of the global economy.

Whether the ruts we are now in, leading to chaos and destruction, are so deep that the proposal of alternatives is fruitless we do not know. But I would rather bet on the horse that offers a better way than on those horses that lead their vast following to destruction. As Christians we are called to save the world. This today is an immensely practical matter. Until I find a way of thinking that promises more help in this task, I will continue to connect my theology to his thought. I believe there can be a great future for process theology.

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