Ask Dr. Cobb

June 2010 Question

Is process theology postmodern?

Dr. Cobb's Response

As with all such questions, a great deal depends on what one understands by the key terms. If “modern” refers to what has been called theological “modernism,” there would be little point in calling process theology “postmodern.” One form of theological “modernism” was specifically Catholic, and process theology arose in a quite different context. There was also a movement of “modernism” in Protestant circles in the United States centered at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. The leaders of that modernism were especially interested in new developments in science early in the twentieth century, and found Whitehead especially important. The study of Whitehead’s thought in Chicago led to the development there of what Bernard Loomer later named “process theology.” To call it postmodern in relation to that form of “modern” theology would be misleading.

The meaning of “postmodern” in the general culture has hardly been touched by these “modernist” movements in theology, and it is in relation to this wider use that the question now arises. Although “process theology” can be used much more broadly, I will deal only with the form mentioned above, the one in which Whitehead’s influence plays an important role. Whether this should be called “postmodern” is at once the question whether Whitehead should be considered a postmodern thinker.

Even setting the specific theological modernism aside, the term “modern” has quite diverse meanings in different contexts. The meaning of “modern” is somewhat different in the phrases “modern art,” a movement centering in France in the late nineteenth century and “modern architecture,” a movement centering in Germany in the twentieth century. Postmodern art and postmodern architecture are fairly well-defined ideas, but there is little point in locating Whitehead in relation to these developments. “Modern” has a still different meaning when Western history is periodized into ancient, medieval, and modern periods. Historians often trace the roots of the modern period to the Italian Renaissance in the fourteenth century. Thus far any idea that we are in a postmodern period of history is quite marginal among historians, although future scholars may see deep historical changes now occurring that are giving rise to a new era deserving of that label. For the present we will expect to consider ourselves, and certainly Whitehead, as living in the modern period of history.

Nevertheless, Whitehead wrote a book entitled “Science and the Modern World,” in which the modern world is presented as ending. Although he does not use the term “postmodern,” he is clearly thinking of the “modern” as a mode of thought whose limitations have become apparent and that is being superseded. It is this depiction that suggested the term “postmodern” to me and others long before we knew of any use of the term by French philosophers. Whitehead shows that although the social, political, economic, and military characteristics of the modern world may continue to develop, modern science and modern philosophy are ending, and he is calling for a new beginning. Whitehead intends to be contributing to this new beginning. It is in

In most areas, the beginning of the modern is hard to identify with any precision. The transition from the Medieval to the modern is gradual. This is true even with science. But in the case of philosophy the transition is quite abrupt. Whereas it is hard to say who is the first modern scientist, there is widespread agreement that “modern” philosophy began with Descartes in the middle of the seventeenth century. His philosophy was influenced by new scientific sensibilities and also contributed to giving definite form to the assumptions with which modern science became identified. The enormous success of the resulting science gave it among modern thinkers the highest prestige. Although philosophy went through drastic permutations, the understanding of nature associated with the natural sciences became a central part of the worldview of the modern world.

For Whitehead, the fact that this worldview could not encompass the new frontiers of science itself – relativity and quantum theory—called for deep changes in the understanding of nature, changes that would bring an end the dominance of the “modern” worldview. It is quite natural to say that Whitehead is calling for and proposing a “postmodern world view,” and this is what we mean when we call Whitehead a postmodern thinker. To call process theology postmodern is to say that it is influenced by, and contributes to, the construction of a postmodern world view.

Those of us who follow Whitehead are disappointed that the changes for which he called are taking place so slowly. For example, only a few scientists have abandoned the modern view of nature. Most continue to approach physical, chemical, and biological phenomena with categories that ignore what we have learned from relativity and quantum theory. Indeed, even in these new fields of inquiry, most scientists work with modern categories even when they acknowledge that they cannot formulate consistent theories in these terms. Most scientists have found it easier to give up the claim that science describes the real world than to adjust their thinking to the new evidence as Whitehead proposed. Of course, this abandonment of realism is itself a drastic change from the modern worldview, but it leaves most of the dominant formulations developed during the modern period intact and in control of Western thought.

For this reason, the need for systematic and detailed “deconstruction” of the modern remains, and Whiteheadians can rejoice in the successes of the French school of postmodernism. Real cooperation is finally emerging between these two schools. The French are far more successful in destabilizing modern habits of thought, whereas Whitehead points to a new vision that can replace what is overthrown. Much still needs to be done before there is full mutual support. And such support, of course, does not imply the end of important differences.

These differences show up, among other places, in theology. Although Whitehead is very clear about the provisional and hypothetical character of all his cosmology and especially when he speaks of God, he has opened the door to quite direct statements about God and how God works in the world. Charles Hartshorne gave even fuller description of these matters with less qualification as to the status of what he said.

On the other hand, modernity in its later phases drastically questioned the capacity of human thought to understand reality in general and anything that transcended nature in particular. God was often flatly denied, and those who were not ready to give up the idea of God altogether typically emphasized the limitations and indirectness of all speech about God. These features of late modernity have been continued in deconstructive postmodernism. The deconstruction has been of the certainties and literal claims of early modernism rather than of the emphasis in late modernity on the constructive and often distorting work of the human mind in producing such ideas. Even if the value of some of Whitehead’s reconstructive proposals are accepted, this is in the context of emphasis on their hypothetical and perspectival character.

There are practical issues at stake. For theologians, one important question is about what the church needs. We process theologians see the church as in need of a way of thinking about God that can make sense of Christian faith and practice without coming into conflict with actual experience or the best thinking in the sciences. We think that process theology goes a long way toward meeting this need. One part of its strength is its acknowledgment of limitations and corrigibility. Another is that it shows that there are other valid forms of spirituality that are not oriented to God. But it hopes to give people of theistic faith confidence that their Way is valid and eminently worthy of being pursued. It sees process philosophy as liberating thought to explore issues of faith without the harsh constraints of either medieval or modern metaphysics. We know that our theology, like all theologies, is an expression of our faith and not of reason alone. However plausible we consider the ideas we promote, we do not regard them as logically coercive of those whose life experience and orientation are profoundly different from ours.

To many deconstructive postmodernists, on the other hand, the confident and straightforward affirmations about God by process theologians are a sign that process theology has not freed itself from a deep stratum of early modernity. In their view our concern for the church is already an indication of our failure to participate in postmodernity. Although some features of Whitehead’s thought may be appreciated and even appropriated, process theology is not likely to be a part of this.

Process theologians regret that their work constitutes an obstacle to closer relations with deconstructive postmodernists just as it has been a problem for philosophers who would like to have Whitehead taken more seriously in American university philosophy departments. But this practical problem cannot outweigh our commitment to our faith and to our communities.

I would add that our theistic faith, clarified by Whitehead’s thought, points us even more to the needs of the world than to the needs of the church. We feel called to bring Whitehead’s conceptuality to bear on crucial public issues of our time, especially those that respond to the greatest dangers humanity now faces. To have any chance of making a difference, we must put forward with some confidence proposals based on our understanding of reality. We know that we know nothing for sure. But for us it is important not to allow our awareness of the hypothetical nature of our beliefs to prevent us from acting with conviction for what seems to us essential to the salvation of the world. In this process openness to correction and improvement are of utmost importance, just as with respect to church teaching. But this openness cannot be allowed to undermine the confidence without which we cannot act effectively.

It is our hope that the correct emphasis of both late modernism and deconstructive postmodernism on human fallibility and the limitations of all our knowledge will not discourage vigorous proposals about how best to respond to the great crises we face. We hope that more postmodernists who are not theists will find in their beliefs reasons to work together with us on matters that are far more important than our differences.

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