In recent years, since the "death of God’’ movement heralded the collapse of neo-orthodoxy, process theism has become a viable alternative for the contemporary appropriation of the Christian faith for an increasing number of people. Theologians are recognizing the need for a wider conceptuality which frees theology from the ghetto of sacred history and places it within the whole sweep of human and natural history. Process thought, reflecting upon the mutual interaction among God, humanity, and natural actualities, conveys a sense of ecological balance between both nature and God. This challenges many of the presuppositions of classical theism by overcoming their felt conflicts and contradictions.
Yet much of what has been written as "process theology" is really simply philosophy written within the context of a Christian perspective. It is a sustained reflection upon the generic features of experience, taking seriously those dimensions of experience most fully apparent within the religious life. This sense of Christian philosophizing has been carefully articulated by John B. Cobb, Jr., in the final chapter of A Christian Natural Theology.1 In times past, from the Middle Ages down to Hegel and Kierkegaard, most philosophizing was written from within the Christian tradition, however much it sought to emancipate itself from the church. This, in turn, dictated much of the theologian’s apologetic method. He ferreted Out these implicit Christian elements in the reigning philosophies and related them to the more historically conditioned symbols of the church’s faith. More and more, however, philosophy’s attempt to become radically secular, divorcing itself from all ties with Christian theism, has become successful, leaving fewer avenues of approach open to the theologian. As a result the theologian is forced to become his own philosopher. This need not interfere with the rigor he brings to the task, provided his speculative thinking subjects itself to the recognized philosophical canons. His theory must be both consistent and coherent in itself, and adequate and applicable to human experience. But it has meant that Christian philosophizing has become less and less the task of the professional philosopher and has been relegated more and more to the theologian.
This task of Christian philosophizing is well worth doing, and we should be grateful to the many process theologians who have been willing to devote themselves to this end. As a result, however, the distinctively theological task has been comparatively neglected. This study seeks to redress the balance. While using a conceptuality largely framed by process philosophy, it addresses for the most part the historically contingent elements within the Christian tradition: the biblical witness to Israel and to Jesus, his role as the Christ, the meaning of his death and resurrection, and the implications of the Christian proclamation of the Trinity.
Oftentimes traditional theism has seen itself as the legitimate heir of the biblical faith. Process theologians are then cast in the role of radical, even iconoclastic, innovators. I wish to indicate those aspects of the biblical tradition that have been suppressed by this reigning orthodoxy, and to show that process theism has as good (or even better) a purchase on this tradition as classical theism.
Process philosophy is a convenient label designating the thought of Alfred North Whitehead and his intellectual associate Charles Hartshorne. For theological purposes, Hartshorne is clearly the more accessible, and most, including myself, have been introduced to process theology through his wise tutelage. Nevertheless, there are subtle but important differences between them, and where they differ I find myself siding with Whitehead.2 Since Whitehead’s conceptuality is presupposed in my extensions and applications, it seemed best to introduce the reader to this thought by way of an intellectual biography tracing the development of his theism. Thus those unfamiliar with Whitehead or Hartshorne’s philosophy can feel at home with this book. While it delves into some of the intricacies involved in applying Whitehead’s thought to basic Christian doctrines, it addresses the general reader, explaining these Whiteheadian categories as they are needed for this task.
Although this is properly an essay in Christian theology, my professional background lies in philosophy and, to a lesser extent, in biblical studies. This may be an unorthodox preparation for theology, but I am persuaded that it is a necessary one in this day and age. Too much theologizing is based merely upon the pale reflection of itself which it sees in philosophy, and needs a more thorough grounding in biblical studies. On the other hand, theology is often insufficiently rigorous philosophically. Philosophy and biblical studies are the two extremes which need to be fruitfully married in the theological enterprise. Whether this marriage is successful or not must be left to the reader to decide.
While this essay has been planned as a continuous whole with its own integrity, portions of individual chapters have appeared elsewhere. Two were originally presented as lectures: chapter one was presented at the Moravian Theological Seminary, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1974; chapter three was given at the Conference on Biblical Theology and Process Philosophy at the Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, Indiana, on March 1, 1974. An earlier version of chapter two appeared in Interpretation 26/2 (April 1972), 198-209, while chapter four has drawn on materials originally appearing in "Lionel S. Thornton and Process Christology," Anglican Theological Review 55/4 (October 1973), 479-83; "The Incarnation as a Contingent Reality: A Reply to Dr. Pailin," Religious Studies 8/2 (June 1972), 169-73; "The Possibilities for Process Christology,’’ Encounter 35/4 (Winter 1974), 281-94; and "Theological Reflections on Extra-Terrestrial Life," originally given as the Faculty Research Lecture for the Spring of 1968 at Raymond College of the University of the Pacific, Stockton, California, and published in The Raymond Review 2/2 (Fall 1968), 1-14. Most of chapter five appeared in Religion in Life 42/4 (Winter 1973), 466-78; while chapter seven is an abridged and simplified version of "Process Trinitarianism," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 43/2 (June 1975), 199-213.
Many friends have helped this endeavor by commenting on individual chapters. To others I am grateful for their comments on the entire manuscript: particularly Delwin Brown, Dwayne Cole, Bernard Lee, Marjorie Suchocki, Andrew Tunyogi, and Philip Verhalen.
I. John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia; Westminster Press 1965).
2. See the monograph I edited, Two Process Philosophers: Hartshorne’s Encounter with Whitehead (American Academy of Religion: AAR Studies in Religion 5, 1973).