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Process Theology: Guardian of the Oppressor or Goad to the Oppressed

by William R. Jones

William R. Jones is Professor of Religion and Director of Black Studies of The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Fla. 32306-4028. He is the author of Is God a White Racist? (Doubleday, 1973) and specializes in liberation theology and religious humanism. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 268-281, Vol.18, Number 4, Winter, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Background and Context

Several preunderstandings inform my approach and participation in this welcome dialogue between process and liberation theologians.

First my understanding of the context of this journal issue. We are engaged in a self-conscious effort to enlarge the dialogue between process theology and liberation theology. This constitutes, for me, phase two of the conversation. Phase one was, as Gene Reeves aptly describes it: "Liberation theology from a Process Philosophy Perspective" (PLT 92) Because we recognize possible limitations and errors in this approach and the research conclusions it spawned, phase two is advanced as a corrective to its albeit tentative conclusions.

I also feel that a common goal -- a search for truth and justice -- unites us. Likewise, the common spirit that unfettered dialogue, marked by candor and searching criticism from our rivals, and even our enemies, serves our own self-interest in this search.

This essay is an interim assessment of phase one. An interim assessment has several dimensions that we need to highlight as background for identifying the purpose, method and outline of what follows.

An interim assessment is first a criticism. Like all criticisms it employs a measuring instrument, a yardstick or critical apparatus that is assigned a normative status and then used to judge some object. In an interim assessment, the critical apparatus operates like Janus, bi-directionally. Here, it peers backward to the provisional conclusions of phase one, identifying shortcomings and errors in light of the critical apparatus. Given its forward bearing, the critical apparatus converts into a new method and approach to the dialogue that seeks to avoid the previous errors.

With this preliminary understanding as background, let me identify my purpose and general approach to the dialogue in more detail.

The Coming Debate: Phase Two

Liberation theology is the new kid on the theological block. Its entry has prompted the older and established schools of theology, like process theology, to assess their compatibility with its gospel and mission of esp1 liberation for the underclass, the wretched of the earth. For purposes of brevity, this general issue will be called the compatibility question. The general purpose of this essay is to critically analyze process theology’s initial or phase 1 response to this question.

The compatibility question can be posed in a number of different ways. Is process theology a theology of, for and by the oppressed or the oppressor? What kind of esp praxis, strategy and institutions do its theological norms legitimate or justify? Does the content of process theology’s ethics and esp policy, particularly its priorities and strategies for social change, reflect its esp origin and context of the white, Western upper-middle class world or has it evolved "a system of universal applicability" (PLT 92), an authentic transcultural theology that transcends the restraints of gender, race and class?

In the final analysis, as these questions show, the compatibility question is a critical assessment of a theology’s quotient for esp liberation and its potential as an instrument and inspiration for social justice.

To answer these questions, process theology has audited its theological posits and critically assessed those of liberation theology. The following citation summarizes the findings:

Can the God to whom Cone and other liberation theologians point be affirmed by process theology? Can the Whiteheadian understanding of God be helpful in affirming the God of the oppressed? Increasingly, process thinkers suggest that it can. (GOG 191)

Cobb’s conclusion is even more explicit:

I see no problem for one whose social location is close to the poor to be a liberation theologian who appropriates the basic categories of process thought. Indeed, I believe that those few liberation theologians who have seriously studied process theology have profited from doing so . . . There is nothing in process categories that is inherently white, North American, or middle class. (PCL 127)

As these citations indicate -- and they could be replicated ad nauseam, e.g., the reported consensus of the Xavier Conference -- process theology’s initial audit affirms its merit as a viable, if not enviable, framework for a theology of liberation. I will call this the compatibility claim.

Process theologians advance the compatibility claim in several ways. For some, process theology is a parallel or alternate model for the theological and moral goals of liberation theologians. For others, the basic insights of liberation theology are correct, but incomplete and, accordingly, must be supplemented from the theological resources of process thinkers. Still others reach the conclusion that there are fundamental defects in liberation theology, and these, too, can be corrected or avoided by incorporating selected tenets of process thought. In short, advocates of process theology enter phase two of the compatibility debate with this provisional, but apparently confident, consensus: its credentials -- and possible superiority -- as a liberation theology can be demonstrated.

This, for me, is the most interesting and significant aspect of process theology’s initial research: process theologians raised no serious questions about the theological health of their system that was comparable to the dire and far-reaching impact predicted by Frederick Herzog. "Black theology," he contends, "forces us to raise questions about the very foundations of theology. By the time we have understood what it is all about, we will have realized that the whole structure of Christian theology will have to be rethought" (LT viii).

Even after allowing for esp location or class bias and factoring in liberation theology’s critique of other "oppressor" theologies, extensive therapy or surgery was not prescribed for process theology’s health. There was no theological malignancy, no cancer lurking in its bowels. Modifications in diet -- less metaphysical fat, more esp bulk would suffice.

The purpose of this essay is to challenge these tests results as problematic. I want to defend the hypothesis that process theology’s merit as a theology of liberation has been prematurely overestimated; the question of its liberation potential is still unanswered. I contend that further diagnosis, using more refined and sophisticated tests, will uncover tumors, possibly malignant, that were undetected in the phase one examination.

Accordingly, the contribution of this essay to the dialogue is to analyze the rationale for more discriminating tests. In light of these tests, I will identify some of the "suspicious" theological lumps in process theology that require further lab analysis in phase two. But due to limitations of space, demonstrating if they are benign (high potential for esp liberation) or malignant falls outside of the scope of this essay. Such demonstrations, however, will be the focus of my future contribution to the dialogue.

Let me stress the point that my concern is not to argue that process theology and liberation theology are incompatible in the sense that -- if wedded -- they would constitute a theological union of a Hatfield and a McCoy. Nor is it to suggest that process theology has the terminal cancer of a theology of oppression. Indeed, I have argued that process theology incarnates certain theological categories that are the sine qua non for a liberation theology. However, as we will show, the presence of such categories, e.g., its understanding of the divine freedom relative to human history, is not conclusive for answering the compatibility question. My own preliminary research convinces me of two things: that the more refined tests argued for there will verify the presence of malignant tumors and that process theology’s final score in the liberationist competition will be about six on a scale of ten. All of this is in keeping with its social location.

Phase Two Debate: Predictions

Let me share some of my reasons for this score. First, the intimate linkage between esp context and theological/moral content -- what I term the "cc connection" -- is being increasingly verified as the liberationist litmus test is applied to more and more established theologies that, like process theology, did not emerge from an oppressed community.

Unexpected props for oppression have become visible in liberal theologies like Unitarian-Universalism and humanism to which I belong. Both of these postmodern systems used the grid of prejudice, of direct institutionalized discrimination or the explicit KKK variety of bigotry to respond to the compatibility question. Using this grid, both, like process theology’s phase one audit, passed the wellness test because this overt racism was not present. But when the more precise test of institutional oppression, with its accent on the categories of indirect institutionalized oppression was applied, and when the apparatus of neoracism and its conceptual litmus tests of blaming the victim and quietism were used as a grid, the class determinants of their respective theologies stood out starkly.

Process theology’s fortune, I predict, will be similar -- as the phase two debate proceeds. Specifically, this will come about when liberation theology’s grid of esp oppression is brought into play, when process theology’s theodicy is critically examined for elements of quietism, when its moral and geopolitical policy is probed for facets of gradualism and, when it is forced to respond to more sensitive tests for biases of social location, e.g., its response to the religious and moral legitimation of counterviolence.

But it must be admitted first, that this prediction forces the issue of validation: how to establish liberation theology’s grid of oppression and correlative hermeneutic of social location as a necessary critical apparatus in the debate. I have addressed this issue elsewhere (PML), but several developments internal to process theology also provide the entry point that liberation theology needs for its critical apparatus.

Cobb (PCL) and Reeves (PLT), for instance, have already opened the door for a hermeneutic of social location as a necessary part of correct theological analysis. Equally important is the following citation from Cobb that rank orders social justice according to liberation theology’s own hierarchy of value commitments and thereby establishes the priority of the same hermeneutic.

Process theology has taken as its situation the decline of credibility of Christian belief in the modern world. [But] when [intellectual credibility] is bought at the price of neglecting concrete suffering, caused by the lifestyle in which the thinkers themselves are involved, something has gone profoundly wrong. If Christians must choose between thinking clearly and relating rightly to human suffering, they must choose the latter. The justification for devoting ourselves to the former must finally be that it helps in the latter task. (PCL 128)

All of this pushes us towards our next order of business: a more detailed and focused discussion of the proper assessment criteria for deciding the compatibility question. But first the final factor to take into account as we move into phase two of the debate: the prominence of the apologetic dimension.

The compatibility question is not primarily an issue about responding to a new contender just entering the theological ring; nor is it simply a disinterested exercise in content analysis to uncover theological and moral parallels or identify mutually enriching categories. The compatibility claim also operates as an implicit apologetic for process theology, establishing and demonstrating that it does not "reflect only the values and interests of its social location and sanction the continued oppression of others" (PLT 99). This demonstration, if valid, also enhances its claim for universal applicability. Beneath all of this, then, is the fundamental issue of theological superiority, of qualitative rank order: in short, of power and turf as the backdrop for phase two. My only point here is what I have argued elsewhere (PML): the apologetic intent on both sides must be acknowledged.

Towards a Methodology for the Compatibility Claim

The compatibility question, we recall, assesses a theology’s potential to address "the central problem of modern western culture: how to bring about more just and good societies" (LTJ 112) or in the language of liberation theology: to eradicate esp oppression. But this means that before we can answer the compatibility question we must first address several logically prior questions. Determining the sine qua non for a viable liberation theology must be our point of departure. It will soon become apparent, however, that this line of inquiry calls for precise conclusions about what is compatible with and what is antithetical to the nature and operation of esp oppression. Accordingly, a focus on the prerequisites for the just society requires, at some point, a theological hit list, a specification of concepts to be rejected because they undergird the structures of oppression, or, conversely, a theological shopping list of those categories, attitudes, etc. that must be affirmed if the unjust society is to be reformed.

The purpose of this section is to present for process theology’s critical review a greatly condensed summary of liberation theology’s normative method for addressing the compatibility question. (I have treated this issue comprehensively elsewhere [PML, IFJ] and that analysis forms the background for the present discussion).

To comprehend any feature of liberation theology’s method, purpose, vision of the just society, etc., we must see it as a self-conscious response to a specific context a world where

20 percent of the people control 80 percent of the world’s resources, where two- thirds of the human family goes to bed hungry every night, in which the economic disparities between the rich nations and the poor nations are mammoth, in which there is a clear and ugly equation that goes: rich white; poor = non-white . . . . There is a further equation that goes: affluent white nations northern hemisphere, poor non-white nations southern hemisphere . . . . The context is a history in which the powerful rich minority has been increasing its power and riches . . . and a history in which, with very few exceptions, the church has been on the side of power and wealth. (IFO 120-21)

Two interlocking purposes control liberation theology’s self conscious response to this context. The first purpose, whatever the geographical location may be, is to correct the gross inequalities and imbalances just described: in short, to eradicate esp oppression. The second purpose, which falls outside the scope of this essay, is to establish the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of this activity. In sum, to demonstrate that putting an end to oppression is a moral, spiritual, Christian and biblical imperative. Gutierrez’s definition of liberation theology as "a theological reflection born . . . of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human" (TL ix) comes to mind here.

A particular understanding about the nature and operation of esp oppression is the normative grid for these purposes. It is on this understanding, advanced as a set of empirically adjudicated categories, that it formulates its method, rank orders its ethical and social imperatives, constructs its critical apparatus to assess its rivals, and articulates the vision of the just society. Using this operationally defined grid, liberation theology argues that we can determine if esp oppression is present in a manner that moves beyond idiosyncratic and arbitrary judgments. All of this makes its understanding of oppression a central agenda item for the phase two dialogue and the key clue to answering the enigma of compatibility. All of this suggests as well that process theology’s criticism of liberation theology should first address the issue or the accuracy and adequacy of this grid of esp oppression.

Liberation theology’s self-conscious purpose to eradicate esp oppression dictates a precise theological method, namely, antithetical correlation or antithetical fit, in contrast to Tillich’s model of "question -- answer correlation." Or to borrow a medical metaphor, a toxin -- anti-toxin or virus -- vaccine design.

This approach utilizes the grid of esp oppression as a primary norm for theological criticism. Let us focus in more detail on the implications of this method for the compatibility question.

First the inner logic of antithetical fit. Antithetical fit follows from this need: to ensure that my theological norms are not working at cross purposes with my quintessential goal -- here, eradicating esp oppression. Its point of departure is based on the historical and logical analysis of the actual operation of oppression that yields this conclusion: certain concepts and attitudes are essential for the maintenance needs of oppression, e.g., quietism, antipowerism. Accordingly, only certain theological units are serviceable and which are they? Those that, like the anti-toxin, are antithetical to the noxious virus, that destroy or neutralize the conceptual underpinnings of oppression. Thus, a high antithetical fit increases the compatibility quotient. A low antithetical fit maintains the structures of oppression in the sense that x is an ineffective therapy for eradicating oppression; things are left essentially as they are which is the world of fundamental inequalities described above.

Based on the foregoing analysis, liberation theology concludes that within a concrete situation of oppression, there are two and only two broad classes of theologies: guardian theologies that undergird oppression and goading theologies that undermine oppression. Antithetical fit helps to specify the major characteristics of each.

Given this understanding, each and every theological category is to be assessed in light of its antithetical consequence for the operation of esp oppression. Or as Bonino states it: "Liberation theology rereads the history of Christian piety, action and thought through the means of analysis adopted to unmask and expose the ideological misuse of Christianity as a tool of oppression" (DTR 89). To translate this into the terminology of our discussion, process theology’s compatibility claim is suspect until it responds to the questions posed by liberation theology’s phenomenology of oppression.

The liberationist approach also involves a total and comprehensive audit. Like the discovery of the single med-fly, nothing at the outset can be regarded as uncontaminated. Rather, each theological and moral imperative must be provisionally regarded as suspect, as an unwitting and unacknowledged prop for oppression or a fatal residue of the theologian’s privileged class location.

As background for an analysis of other aspects of this approach, let us look at a helpful case study of "antithetical correlation": the critique that Cone and others advanced against agape, often regarded as the heart of Christian faith.

By emphasizing the complete self-giving of God in Christ . . . the oppressors can then request the oppressed to do the same for the oppressors. If God gives himself without obligation, then in order to be Christian, men must give themselves to the neighbor in like manner. Since God has loved us in spite of our revolt against him, to be like God we too must love those who . . . enslave us . . . . This view of love places no obligation on the white oppression . . . . In fact, they arc permitted to do whatever they will against black people, assured that God loves them as well as the people they oppress. (BTL 133-34)

Several points deserve attention here. Agape has a poor antithetical fit because it keeps the status quo situation of oppression intact, i.e., guards it. This, in the Cone critique, is sufficient grounds for scuttling it. In other words, the norm of antithetical fit has coequal authority to metaphysical analysis.

The above mentioned critique of agape illuminates another crucial feature of antithetical fit: esp payout or "praxis verification." "The verification principle of every theological statement is the praxis that it enables for the future. Theological statements contain as much truth as they deliver practically in transforming reality" (PT 76). This means assessing each theological norm in light of the question: Whose esp situation is enhanced if this theological understanding is accepted and translated into policy and practice? Applying this to the current debate, this line of inquiry surfaces: Which group is benefited if agape is defined as the quintessence of Christian faith, or if nuclear disarmament is prioritized over the eradication of the "parochial" oppression on a single continent, or if nonviolent resistance is declared morally superior to counterviolence, etc.? This, obviously, is another technique for determining the extent to which social location defines the content of theology, morality and politics.

As the foregoing theological analysis indicates, it has not gone unnoticed by liberation theologians that metaphysical investigations and conclusions inevitably point back to particular esp interests and commitments. Matters that appear to be solely metaphysical and objective in nature are in fact linked to deeper but seldom acknowledged esp interests. To paraphrase S. Ogden (MFJ), "faith by its very nature inevitably finds expression in political action."2 It is this hidden and usually unconfessed level of subjectivity and political commitment that antithetical fit rivets attention upon.

It is also important to note that the Cone critique is directed against a specific interpretation of agape, the interpretation that applies the imperative universally, rather than contextually, thus making it an imperative equally for the oppressed and the oppressor.

The nuance intended by this contrast is ably presented in Major Jones’ treatment of black ethics.

The ethical question of ‘What ought Ito do’ needs to be divided and an answer to such an ethical question needs to be attempted from both the black and white ethical frames of reference. It may well be that the ethical problems in relation to black and white relations are centered in the fact that those who have traditionally written Christian ethics have heretofore attempted to be too general in their ethical formulations. The ex-slave master and the ex-slave are bound by the same imperative, but the implementations of the same ethical mandate may be different . . . . If he is black, the answer might be one thing; if he is white, it might be quite another. . .

Ethical responsibility vales according to the freedom and power possessed by each of the individual participants in society as a whole. For the socially advantaged white person it means yielding old privileges, accepting new risks, and giving up traditional positions of economic advantage. For the socially disadvantaged black person, it means accepting social status, assuming new positions of power and responsibility, and acquiring a new sense of justice for those whom he had displaced as oppressors. (CEB 16-19, adapted)

The traditional concept of humility also means quite different things when analyzed contextually, rather than universally. Given Philippians 2, the precondition for humility is to be in a situation of superior power and privilege; one voluntarily sets this status aside and lowers oneself to be a Christ unto one’s neighbor. Given this understanding, can the imperative of humility be obligatory for the oppressed since oppressed people do not fulfill the precondition for authentic humility? It should be obvious that this contextual reading shifts the onus Onto the shoulders of the oppressor to be the humble one. Note also what this goading interpretation would also say about "raising oneself by the bootstrap," a philosophy that is commonly advanced as the solution to the oppressed’ problematic situation.

This analysis instructs us that behind even the choice and rank order of theological methods and norms, lies an esp commitment and the telltale sign of one’s social location. The record of science and religion, I contend, is parallel.

In this regard consider Matthew Lamb’s insightful analysis of reason’s checkered history as goad and guardian. Reason, he indicates, was instrumental both in exposing and undermining the barriers to a more humane and just society, but it also served the maintenance needs of oppression (LTJ 106).

To expand Lamb’s account: reason as a metaphysical and moral norm diverts attention away from the esp level that is marked by a gross imbalance and inequality of power, the necessary condition for oppression, to a sphere where all are alleged to be equal. If reason is claimed to be the foundation of moral decision-making rather than power, then the oppressor and the oppressed are on a level of parity, a rank mystification if power rivals reason for preeminence. "Come, let us reason together" is a con game in a context of inequality of power.

II. Theodicy and the Compatibility Question

It is my contention that theodicy is the controlling category once a theology defines itself as a theology of esp liberation. In this sense, a liberation theology is best interpreted as an extended theodicy. This means, speaking methodologically, that one’s answer to the theodicy question establishes the parameters within which the remainder of the system is corralled and in terms of which internal coherence and the compatibility question are adjudicated. I want to analyze the impact of this insight to illustrate some of the difficulties that process theology will encounter as phase two develops.

The compatibility claim may be premature because process theologians have not sufficiently processed the distinct and different questions that surface from the diverse theologies of liberation. It is becoming evident that liberation theologies pose different questions because they reflect fundamentally different experiences at certain levels. Though similar, racial and sexual oppression, for instance, are not identical in the sense that a single theological category can serve adequately the agenda of different theological masters. A similar understanding should guide us in our assessment of strategies to correct the different varieties of oppression.

Looking at process theology’s compatibility claim from the vantage point of black theology, I find a singular dimension missing: the ethnic factor, i.e., the different nuanced questions that emerge from the diverse theologies of liberation. Black theology, for instance, raises the theodicy question in unaccustomed ways, in terms of ethnic suffering which demands the accommodation of the maldistribution of suffering in particular groups. This concept requires elucidation.

Oppression can be interpreted as a form of suffering. The suffering that comprises oppression is (a) maldistributed, (b) negative, (c) enormous, and (d) non-catastrophic. Let me denominate this type of suffering as ethnic suffering and comment on features (a) and (b).

The suffering that characterizes oppression is not spread randomly and impartially over the total human race. Rather, it is concentrated in particular groups. This group bears a double dose of suffering; it must bear the suffering that we cannot escape because we are not omnipotent and thus subject to illness, etc. It is helpful for explanatory purposes to describe this as ontological suffering, that suffering that is part and parcel of our human condition of finitude.

For the oppressed, however, there is the additional suffering that results from their exploitation and their deficit of power. This, unlike the ontological suffering, is caused by human agents.

If we differentiate between positive and negative suffering, ethnic suffering would be a subclass of the latter. It describes a suffering that is without essential value for one’s well-being. It leads one away from, rather than towards, the highest good.

Our reason for highlighting the category of suffering becomes clear once we understand the linkage between specific attitudes toward suffering and the successful maintenance of oppression. One common strategy to keep the oppressed at the bottom of the esp ladder is to persuade them that their suffering is good, moral, valuable or necessary for their salvation, in short redemptive. To label any suffering redemptive is to preclude a negative label for it and consequently one is not motivated to eradicate it but rather to embrace it

Given this linkage between suffering and the operation of oppression, any theology that purports to eradicate esp oppression is severely limited in how it can treat suffering. Not all of the traditional theological treatments of suffering can be utilized for they work at cross-purposes with the goal of liberation. To be precise, the suffering/oppression to be attacked must be defined as negative, that is, of no value for one’s salvation or highest good. It has no moral or soteriological merit. In addition, the suffering must be eradicable. This means that we must establish that the suffering in question is human in origin; it is not caused by or in conformity with the purpose of God or nature. If we are convinced that something is grounded in nature or supernatural, we are reluctant to try to change it; we accept, we conform.

Given this linkage between suffering and the operation of oppression, any theology that elevates redemptive suffering must walk a teflon-coated trapeze wire. Minimally, the advocate of redemptive suffering must supply a workable criteriology that unerringly differentiates the redemptive suffering, i.e., that which is to be embraced and endured, from the negative suffering, that which is to be eradicated. More precisely, we must have a trustworthy yardstick or geiger counter that clearly and distinctly separates redemptive suffering from ethnic suffering, the wheat from the tares. The difficulty of this theological and logical feat will become apparent to anyone who responds to the theological dilemma posed by Albert Camus in The Plague.

Camus’ argument has the following steps: (a) Show that at least some illness in the Judeo-Christian tradition is deserved punishment. (In the novel this is established with reference to the plagues visited upon the Egyptians. This step establishes the possibility that any illness can be deserved punishment. However, the same dilemma can be posed with famines or any other catastrophe.) (b) This step in the argument identifies what actions are appropriate for the Christian if an illness is deserved punishment. If deserved punishment or a form of testing as in the Job story, then we cannot oppose it. To do so would be challenging God’s will and purpose. (c) Accordingly, before we can call the doctor, we must show that our illness is not deserved punishment or divine testing. But how is this accomplished? What are the characteristics that differentiate the illness that is deserved punishment from that which is not? And though our call to the doctor is an affirmation that we know what these characteristics are, who has successfully listed them for inspection?

What are the methodological consequences of this understanding of suffering? In addition to establishing that the suffering is negative and eradicable, a liberation theology must also show that eliminating the suffering in question is desirable, that its eradication does not cause us more harm and grief than its continued presence.

The aforementioned mechanism of oppression should be examined from another perspective: its strategy to remove human choice, power and authority as causally involved in society’s superstructures. To use Peter Berger’s distinction (SC), oppression locates traditional norms and institutions in objective reality -- that which is external to the human mind and not created by our hands -- not objectivated reality, all that is external to the human mind that we did create. Oppression, thus, reduces the conflict between the haves and the have-nots to a cosmic skirmish between the human and the supra-human. The theological paradigm in liberation theology, as we will see, relocates the fray, making it a struggle between human combatants.

With this understanding as background, let me illustrate the variety of process theology that I am challenging here. Addressing the question: "Can the God to whom Cone and other liberation theologians point be affirmed by process theology?" Jay McDaniels answers in the affirmative:

A process theology of liberation will indeed affirm, along with Cone and most liberation theologians, that God is a God of the oppressed . . . that God suffers with the poor and oppressed amidst their suffering and that God is involved in their struggle for liberation. The two natures of the process god -- the ‘consequent’ or receptive aspect, and the ‘primordial’ or active aspect -- provide a context for each of these affirmations.

As receptive, the God to whom process thinkers point is one who feels and empathetically identifies with each event in the world as it occurs. God is a cosmic consciousness in whose ongoing life the world unfolds and to whose life new events are continually added. Worldly happenings are felt in such a way that worldly pain becomes divine pain, worldly struggle divine struggle, and worldly joy divine joy. Just as what happens in the body happens in the mind, so what happens in the world happens in God. In this sense Cone is right to say that God is black. The sufferings of black people are God’s own suffering. In addition, God is red, and brown, and female, and male and young, and old and animal. Where there is suffering and victimization, either of human or non-human life, there is God. God is indeed a God of the oppressed. (GOG 192)

This analysis does not accommodate the nuances of ethnic suffering and its accent on maldistribution. How, in the context of McDaniels’ interpretation, does one establish the rank order of bad and good, of negative and positive that is required to launch a theology of liberation? Putting God on everybody’s side, more or less equally, simply exaggerates the dilemma.

Given this understanding, how does one establish the negativity of the objective inequalities that define oppression in this framework without invoking the anthropocentrism that process theology wants to avoid?

If we look at another dimension of process theology’s theodicy, other questions suddenly appear. It appears that most recent process thinkers adopt some variant of what I term humanocentric theism as the solution to the theodicy question. Humanocentric theism, as the adjective suggests, elevates human freedom relative to the sphere of history; the human is given the status of co-determining power with God, at least up to the eschaton. It also affirms a view of divine sovereignty that extends human freedom to such areas as history and values that once were under the direct sway of the divine, thus refuting the hypothesis: "If God exists, man is nothing; if man exists . . ." (DGL 141). To avoid collapsing humanocentric theism into humanism, it is important to note that the human has the exalted status of co-determining power by virtue of God’s gracious endowment. Moreover, the ground for this endowment is the self-limitation of God’s overruling authority in human history. Thus, the misuse of human freedom clears up the mystery of oppression and removes God’s responsibility for the crimes of human history.

Randolph Miller’s account is representative of this approach.

Not only process thought but most black theologies begin with the assumption that creation is good . . . . Yet it is evident that oppression, evil and suffering are dominant notes of the black experience. This can be accounted for if God is a white racist or an indifferent deity or not a good God. But the assumption is that God is a good God and that He loves all human beings regardless of color. Then why should blacks suffer more than their share, and primarily at the hands of white racists who claim to worship the same God? . . . Process thought can contribute some insights at this point. If God acts through persuasion . . . there is a basis for understanding the sin of oppression . . . . The misuse of freedom is sufficient to account for the entire history of oppression. (PTT 275)

The value of humanocentric theism as an antidote for quietism and oppression is easy to document. (1) It cuts off the theological and moral escape route commonly used by the oppressor. The oppressor can no longer point to anything but the human being as the sustaining force behind the unjust society. (2) Central to humanocentric theism is the belief that "God has no hands but our hands," that "all is in our hands." Until the oppressed accept this belief and, accordingly, see themselves as centers of power and their communities as collective sources of transforming power, it is doubtful that they will become active agents for their own liberation. Nor are they likely to assume responsibility for eradicating their oppression as long as they believe that God will miraculously intervene and release them from the oppressor’s clutches. (3) Further, it effectively delegitimates those unjust structures, already in place, that carry the "divine" stamp of approval. This desanctification, as we have noted, is a sine qua non for esp change.

Several questions can be posed to process theology at this point. Given the factor of ethnic suffering, can one assume that God is good? Are not the interpretations that Miller cites -- God is benevolent, indifferent demonic/evil -- equally probable? Though the position of humanocentric theism accommodates the divine freedom in a manner that prevents making God responsible for the crimes of human history, it does so at the cost of making a demonic deity equally probable. As the divine joker in Bertrand Russell’s eschatological scenario illustrates (FMW), each and every instance of divine benevolence can, with equal validity, be interpreted as a divine misanthropy and malevolence.3

I must confess that the manner in which process theology affirms the benevolence of God over against the option of God as demonic or indifferent, is, for me, blatantly question-begging. Howard Burkle, for instance, purports to show that these options are not equally valid. However, the superiority he assigns to the option of benevolence rests on the question-begging foundation of a stipulative definition. The very idea that God may be demonic, he contends, is "inherently inconsistent and therefore not a possibility at all. God cannot be demonic because ‘God’ means ‘absolute perfection.’ If the dominant universal power is not perfectly good, there is no God" (GSB 77).

It would also appear that the logical and theological maneuvers that avoid God’s responsibility for the crimes of human history have several undesirable consequences: any appeal to the future becoming of the divine as preeminent events of liberation is ruled out; even more important, we are left in the dark about God’s character as demonic, indifferent or benevolent. Granting freedom to humans for example, is logically and theologically multievidential. Ultimately, this divine "grace" tells us nothing about whose side God is on or about the divine intent for the future of the human species and its oppressed communities. In what sense can we speak of a divine intent or telos in human history beyond the granting of freedom to humanity, a freedom that is acknowledged to be multivalent, an equal ground of being for good or evil?

Given the insights of humanocentric theism, we are also pushed to ask what it means to advance God, the transcendent, as the ground for the just society? Does it mean more than the claim that the transcendent is both the ground for human freedom/autonomy to operate as moral creator and foundation of the world in which this freedom is exercised? Or does it mean that ultimate reality sponsors, and thus guarantees, the ultimate triumph of specific activities in human history? That is, once humanity is given the status of moral creator, does ontological priority -- i.e., the transcendent -- still establish moral priority? It seems clear that the species of human freedom endorsed by humanocentric theism precludes, at the very least, any immediate movement from ontology to ethics, from the "is" to the "ought," without the intermediate operation of human evaluation. Is this an area where process theology ultimately grounds itself on a question-begging norm?


With the foregoing analysis as background, let me treat briefly by way of outline some of the topics that the coming dialogue should address. First some of the analyses and criticism of liberation theology that process theology should revisit for greater accuracy.

1. The question: Is liberation theology the gospel according to Mark or Marx? identifies one problematic interpretation from phase one, the linking of liberation theology and Marxism. This question ponders the source of liberation theology’s worldview and understanding of oppression. Is the source more sociological than theological, more phenomenological than biblical, or to make plain what usually lurks behind questions of this type: Is liberation theology more Marxist than Christian?

Developments in biblical studies permit at least these tentative conclusions. The genetic linking of Marxism and liberation theology is ill-advised. The model of oppression derived sociologically or phenomenologically coheres remarkably well with the biblical model of oppression. The coherence is precise enough to make the case that a Marxist analysis is not a necessary foundation for a liberation theology; a biblical scaffolding can work equally as well.

Jose Comblin correctly identifies liberation theology’s basic position to which its critics must respond: a biblically grounded -- and therefore, an internal criticism -- of traditional theology. "In some sense, all the sources of the theology of liberation or freedom are biblical. On going back to the traditional [theologies], I am always struck by the modest importance attributed to freedom. It is even more amazing when contrasted with the prominence of freedom in the Bible . . . . The rediscovery of freedom by theology is a return to the Bible . . ." (CNS 41).

2. Criticisms and interpretations that label liberation theology’s accent on the esp dimension as political, not theological, or as Marxist, not biblical, are also ill-advised and betray, I would argue, an unacknowledged class bias I have in mind here such descriptions as: (a) "[Liberation theology’s] commitment to sociopolitical resistance is as real as commitment to the gospel" (TLT 239), rather than "commitment to socio-political resistance is commitment to the gospel ." (b) "Process thinkers have been perhaps" [note the qualification here which is absent from the parallel description of liberation theology] "too much occupied with the solution of broad metaphysical questions connected with the creation of a new God-world relationship and too little concerned with the day-to-day problems of people in contemporary society. Liberation theologians, on the other hand, have been so involved in their group’s struggle for freedom and equality that they have effectively neglected the deeper theoretical implications of their new praxis orientation to theology" (Fl 73).

Undergirding this criticism of liberation theology is the correct perception that no politics is metaphysically presuppositionless, but omitted is the equally correct counterpart that liberation theology advances: no metaphysics is politically presuppositionless. Critiquing liberation theology for an a-metaphysical bias while overlooking its own a-political stance appears to be an instance of not seeing the beam in one’s own eye.

Such descriptions of liberation theology also give the false picture that liberation theology is generated by narrow and selfish special interests whereas process theology’s circle of concern reflects the broader common good. Such descriptions and criticisms are valid only if the theological approach attributed above to process theology is regarded as normative and not expressive of a privileged class location, a position that the very existence of liberation theology calls into question.

3. Space does not permit a description of other major units of liberation theology’s critical apparatus of antithetical fit: quietism and anti-powerism. Their use as critical tests has been articulated elsewhere. Here, I want only to identify some of the constituent elements of process theology that I will examine in future dialogues as instances of quietism or anti-powerism: B. Loomer’ s concept of two powers, the charge that liberation theology is guilty of anthropocentrism, ecological insensitivity, and that it "may be falling heir to a God is on our side mentality, [and] reintroducing in a different form the discredited extra ecclesiam nulla salus doctrine" (PLT 97).

4. The next litmus test of process theology’s compatibility claim is already on the horizon: its response to liberation theology’s religious and moral legitimation of counterviolence. Is an ethic of persuasion a new version of political quietism (RLC) that maintains the status quo of the oppressor’s gross imbalance of power and privilege?



BTL-- James Cone. A Black Theology of Liberation. New York: Lippincott, 1970.

CE – Major Jones. Christian Ethics for Black Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1974.

CNS -- Jose Comblin. The Church and the National Security State. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979.

DGL -- Jean-Paul Sartre. The Devil and the Good Lord. New York: Vintage, 1962.

FJ -- Joseph A. Bracken. "Faith and Justice: A New Synthesis? The Interface of Process and Liberation Theologies." Process Theology 14 (1984).

FMW -- Bertrand Russell. "A Free Man’s Worship." Why I Am Not a Christian. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967.

GOG -- Jay B. McDaniels. "The God of the Oppressed and the God Who Is Empty." God & Global Justice: Religion and Poverty in an Unequal World. Ed. Frederick Ferre and Rita Mataragnon. New York: Paragon House, 1985.

GSB -- Howard Burkle. The Non-Existence of God. New York: Herder & Herder, 1977.

IFJ -- William R. Jones. "Is Faith In God Necessary for the Just Society? Insights from Liberation Theology." The Search for Faith and Justice in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Gene G. James. New York: Paragon Press, 1987.

IFO -- Robert McAfee Brown. Is Faith Obsolete? Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974.

LT -- Frederick Herzog. Liberation Theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1972.

LTJ -- Matthew Lamb. "Liberation Theology and Social Justice." Process Studies 14/2 (Summer 1985): 102-123.

MFJ -- Schubert M. Ogden. "The Metaphysics of Faith and Justice." Process Studies 14/2 (Summer 1985): 87-101.

PCP -- John B. Cobb, Jr. "Points of Contact Between Process Theology and Liberation Theology in Matters of Faith and Justice." Process Studies 14/2 (Summer 1985): 124-141.

PLT -- Gene Reeves. "Process and Liberation Theologies." Liberation Theology: North American Style. Ed. Deane William Ferm. New York: Vertizon,


PML -- William ft. Jones. "Purpose and Method in Liberation Theology: Implications for an Interim Assessment." Liberation Theology. North American Style. Ed. Deane William Ferm. New York: Vertizon, 1987.

PT -- Dorothy Soelle. Political Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

PTT -- Randolph Miller. "Process Thought and Black Theology." Black Theology II. Ed. Calvin Bruce and William Jones. Lewisburg: Bucknell Press, 1978.

RLC -- William R. Jones. "The Religious Legitimation of Counter-violence: Insights from Latin American Liberation Theology." The Terrible Meek: Revolution and Religion in Cross-cultural Perspective. Ed. Lonnie D. Kliver. New York: Paragon Press, 1987.

SC -- Peter Berger. The Sacred Canopy. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

TL -- Gustavo Guiterrez. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979.

TLT -- June O’Conner. "Process Theology and Liberation Theology: Theology and Ethical Reflection." Horizon 7/2 (1980).



1This is the shorthand expression for economic, social, and political.

2 "Faith by its very nature inevitably finds expression in moral action, whether or to what extent faith also demands to be expressed through specifically political action continues to be disputed." Schubert M. Ogden, "The Metaphysics of Faith and Justice," Process Studies, 14/2 (1985):87.

3"‘To Dr. Faustus in his study, Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying, ‘The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for after all, did he not deserve their praise?. . . Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured?’ He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed."

" . . . Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad monstrous world . . And Man said, ‘There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts . . . And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun, and all returned again to nebula.

‘Yes,’ he murmured, ‘it was a good play; I will have it performed again"’ FMW 105-6.

4 In this regard, consider the following representatives of this genre: Elsa Tamez, The Bible of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982); Julio de Santa Ana, Good News to the Poor: The Challenge of the Poor in the History of the Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979).

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