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Process Theology as Political Theology by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by Westminster Press 1982. Copyright by John B. Cobb, Jr.. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter Three: Theological Method in a Political Process Theology


Thus far I have simply described two traditions which developed quite independently of each other. My interest, however, as a process theologian is to show how process theology can become a political theology committed to the indivisible salvation of the whole world. This, of course, does not mean becoming a disciple of Metz, Moltmann or Sölle. It does not entail adopting a theological position derived from criticism of transcendental Thomism, of Barth or of Bultmann. It requires, instead, the transformation of the tradition sketched in the preceding chapter into a political theology in the sense that it must become committed to the indivisible salvation of the whole world.

Any political theology must be characterized both by appropriate methods and by appropriate doctrines. Process theology has resources that should prove useful. They differ, however, from those that have been drawn upon in existing forms of political theology. In this chapter methodological approaches employed by Metz, Moltmann and Sölle will be critically appraised, modified and appropriated from the perspective of process thought. In Chapter Four some of the doctrines of process theology will be proposed as alternative or supplementary to dominant German formulations. The thesis is that although the resultant theology differs from what is now called political theology it would not for that reason have less claim to the term.

There are differences in the methods of the three German theologians, but there are some themes sufficiently important to all three to demand careful study. One is political hermeneutic. All three understand political theology at least in part as political interpretation of the gospel. A second is memory. Metz, at length, and Moltmann, occasionally, interpret Christianity and its political practice in terms of memory. A third is praxis. All agree that there can be no authentic Christian theology apart from political practice. These themes are interconnected, but it will be convenient hereto treat them in the separate sections of this chapter.

I

All three theologians emphasize hermeneutic as central to the task of political theology. This is not surprising. Some concern for hermeneutic is universal, and in Barthian, Bultmannian and especially post-Bultmannian theology herineneutic has been the central concern. It is not surprising that it should be the post-Bultmannian, Dorothee Sölle, who develops the case for a political hermeneutic most clearly, since it has been the Bultmannians who have discussed the topic most fully. Hermeneutic means interpretation, and for the Bultmannians, what is chiefly to be interpreted is the Bible. Sölle is quite Bultmannian in her view that the task of theology is to interpret the Gospel, and that the task of political theology is to give a political interpretation of the Gospel.

This definition of the theological task is quite different from that of process theology. Process theology has understood its responsibility more as that of clarifying what a Christian in the modern world should affirm and of guiding the church toward appropriate formulations of its faith. Of course, process theology cannot fulfil this responsibility without interpreting Scripture, and the separation of process theology in recent decades from the close involvement in Biblical scholarship of the earlier Chicago school has led to critical weaknesses which are only now being addressed.1 Nevertheless, for process theology the appropriate relationship to the Bible can not be exhausted by hermeneutic.

This difference is connected with differences in the way theology is related to preaching. In central Europe it sometimes seems that the deepest reason for preserving and developing the theological tradition in the university has been that a profession exists whose chief function is the proclamation of the Biblical message. Since the mere recitation of Biblical passages does not suffice, these professionals require guidance as to how to move from text to sermon. it has been the task of theologians to provide such guidance.

The problem is that much of what is found in the text can not and should not be proclaimed today as the truth by which Christians are to live. If we ask of the text what opinions it reflects with respect to cosmology, it is clear that honest answers would often include beliefs that can not be recommended to contemporary congregations. Hence there must be some process whereby an appropriate message is elicited from texts much of whose content is irrelevant or even erroneous.

No one within the hermeneutical tradition has stated the problem more clearly than Bultmann or provided a more influential answer. Bultmann teaches that the correct question to ask of the text is the existential question, that is, the understanding of existence it expresses. Heidegger has clarified for us what that question means, and with his aid we can find in all religious texts answers that challenge us with respect to our own understanding of existence. The preacher’s task is to confront us with the distinctively Christian understanding of existence as that is found in the New Testament.

Sölle rejects this view.2 The sermon is not for her so central. The text is interpreted for the sake of the indivisible salvation of the whole world. The sermon is only one way in which this end can be served.

As a political theologian Sölle modifies the Bultmannian theory of interpretation in another way as well. In Chapter One we noted her critique of existential interpretation. Form critical study recognizes, and indeed emphasizes, the socio-historical context in which the text functioned in the early church. It emphasizes its public function. But when Bultmann turned to the analysis of the preunderstanding with which the hearer now comes to the text, he ignored the socio-historical situation and spoke instead of the existential historicity of the hearer. Sölle insists that our preunderstanding must recognize our political situation as well as that of the text in its original use. Both of these shifts bring her hermeneutic into closer relation with process theology.

In other respects, however, Sölle brings to political theology features of Bultmann’s hermeneutic which do not fit well with process theology. For Bultmann criticism is applied to every verbal formulation of the kerygma. No doctrine stands beyond criticism. But all this criticism is in the service of the kerygma itself. That does stand beyond criticism. Sölle criticizes Bultmann for turning from Jesus to the witness to Jesus’s death and resurrection in his search for the kerygma. But on the formal point she stands with him. She writes:

The kerygma . . . as address, claim, or -- as I would interpret it with a non-Bultmannian expression -- the ‘absolute’ in Christian faith, is not subject to criticism. The liberation that love engenders and the claim that it lays upon us are absolutely binding; they are kerygmatic address, which, as Bultmann interprets Paul, ‘accosts each individual, throwing the person himself into question by rendering his self-understanding problematic, and demanding a decision of hint’ The kerygma can be defined as ‘absolute’ in two respects. First, it is unsurpassable, for no one can promise, give, or demand more than love; second it is underivable, for it cannot be grounded within the world.3

Sölle’s formulation of the Biblical absolute is a moving one, but from the point of view of process theology insistence on an absolute creates problems. The history of constantly changing formulations of the Biblical absolute suggests that we need a critical study of how each one fits the needs of those who formulate it. There is no reason to think that in Sölle this history has finally come to an end.

Shirley Jackson Case clearly saw the negative consequences of the search for an absolute or essence in the Bible. He wrote in 1914:

Any effort to fix upon an irreducible minimum or genuine ‘essence’ can succeed only by setting up some quantity of experience, or belief, or practice as essential, while all other features are denominated unessential. But this is a doubtful procedure. In the first place, instead of defining Christianity comprehensively, attention is centered upon certain restricted phases of the whole. Even if it were possible to ascertain with perfect certainty a given sum of items possessed in common by all Christians, it would still be quite unfair to neglect all other features which may have been equally important and essential at certain periods and within particular circles. To affirm, for example, that the essential elements of Christianity in the first century were only those items which believers of that day have in common with the ‘liberal’ theologian of the twentieth century, is to eliminate as unessential to first-century believers their realistic eschatology, their belief in demons and angels, their vivid supernaturalism, their sacramentalism, their notion of the miraculous content of religious experience, and various other features of similar importance. Certainly primitive Christianity cannot be perfectly understood without taking full account of all these items, and one may fairly question the legitimacy of any interpretation which does not make them even ‘essential’ to Christianity’s existence in the first century.4

Of course, all this can be affirmed as ‘essential’ for first-century Christianity only when we adopt a truly historical understanding. In such an understanding we can see the living whole of a faith as indivisible into a kernel and husk. But we can also see that this living whole, in so far as it is truly living, is in constant change. No portion of it is immune to such change. Some portions may remain relatively unchanged while others alter drastically, but there can be no predetermination of what will change and how much. The question is not whether there will be changes but whether these changes are responsible developments in response to new challenges. Sölle is rightly calling for a change today toward a fuller recognition of the political character and calling of the Christian community. Those who developed the socio-historical method shared her view. They agreed with her that there is much in the Bible, and specifically in Jesus, which points in that direction. They did not, however, see a need to absolutize anything in the Bible as a final standard of judgement, even what Sölle calls the gospel’s ‘nonderivable promise and the demand for peace, freedom, and justice for all people’.5 The test of our present judgements is not their conformation to any Christian absolute but rather whether they have developed responsibly through Christian history. How we are today to address oppressive social systems is not to be decided by an appeal to a Biblical absolute but by our shared reflection on what we are now called to do as Christians. Of course that reflection will be attentive to our whole history and especially to the early stages of our movement. The prophets, Jesus, Paul, John and many others have great authority for us today. But there is no one locus of absolute authority. Our concern is faithfulness to God’s call today, and we can be guided in that faithfulness by many authorities. Finally we must decide.

From the perspective of process theology a truly critical and a truly political theology must learn to do without absolutes. In fact, such an absolute does not seem necessary for Sölle. Her call for service of the indivisible salvation of all the world rings true quite apart from the appeal to an absolute. It is for us now the claim of our faith. That it has not always been the appropriate formulation does not reduce its force today.

Sölle accepts also from Bultmann the analysis of the hermeneutical situation. She thinks of a text to be studied and a preunderstanding which we bring to that text. For Bultmann this preunderstanding is brought to all the New Testament texts, and they are all to yield the Christian understanding of existence.

There are problems with this type of procedure even for existential hermeneutics, as Bultmann acknowledged in passing.6 Not every New Testament passage expresses the truly Christian understanding of existence. But the problem is far more acute for political hermeneutic. For it is not clear that all, or even most, New Testament texts express an appropriate political understanding. For Bultmann an understanding of existence is something we bring with us to the text as well as something we find expressed there. The one we bring is brought into question by the one we find. Sölle recognizes that in a political hermeneutic the burden falls upon the preunderstanding of the one who approaches the text. It is there that the understanding of the importance of political structures is to be found and also the conviction that they are subject to change and that through changing them the human condition can be improved. One does not find these views in the texts, even in Jesus. Sölle writes:

In the hermeneutical process this contemporary preunderstanding that structures can be transformed is confronted by the gospel and thereby is criticized, modified, and liberated, but not by any means simply negated. It is within this hermeneutical process that the question about Jesus’ relation to the transformation of this world must be reformulated. Even if we deny that Jesus worked for transformation in the explicit sense of deriving the dialectic of individual and society from social structures, or beginning the process of transformation with changes in property and social relationships, it cannot be overlooked that in an indirect sense, the manner in which Jesus thought and acted de facto broke open and transformed the social structures of the world in which he lived.7

It seems that Sölle herself recognizes that the appeal is not to the texts but to the history. It is not what Jesus intended or said or what the texts assert, but the actual consequences in history which are her touchstone.

As a sensitive participant in the contemporary situation she is convinced that Christians should be involved in righting the social wrongs that degrade so much of humankind. She is rightly convinced also that her conviction has deep roots in the Bible and especially in Jesus’s concern for the poor and oppressed. She does not intend to subject this conviction to the outcome of research about Jesus’s political activity. She holds that ‘it is meaningless to ask. Was Jesus a revolutionary? Where did he stand on violence, on landed property? Instead, we as his friends who affirm the intention of his decision must attempt for our part to declare where we stand today on revolution, property, or violence. This function of his on our behalf (his beneficia) is more important than the words and deeds discoverable by the historian, which lead only to imitation, not to discipleship’.8

All of this breaks out of the categories of Bultmann’s hermeneutic which is limited to the preunderstanding we bring and the understanding we find in the text. But because Sölle still tries to use this structure, she does not go far toward liberating herself from Bultmann’s pattern of thinking. The direction of her own thought would lead to viewing what she calls the preunderstanding as itself the appropriate historical outcome of Jesus’s work. But by calling it a preunderstanding she assimilates it to the idea that it arises in an autonomous modern world and then becomes our special basis for questioning Jesus. Yet she does not seriously intend to subject her preunderstanding to possible rejection from the side of Jesus, nor does she find an understanding on Jesus’s part which challenges it. This opens her to the charge that her basic commitments are not Christian, whereas she knows that in fact they are. The hermeneutical structure she adopts undercuts the valid point she wants to make.

Sölle’s real self-understanding could gain better expression in the forms offered by the socio-historical school. She sees a socio-historical movement described and reflected in the Bible. She sees Jesus as having given a decisive formulation which has had profound historical influence. She sees herself and others as living from that influence in a new socio-historical situation which calls for different actions. She knows that she cannot find the message for today’s situation in the language of one who lived in another situation, but she is confident that what she is saying and doing is in faithful continuity with what Jesus said and did. Her claim should not be then that she is being obedient to a timeless absolute which has just been discovered. It should be that she is faithfully discerning the responsible actions of that movement which arose through the long history of Biblical times and which is alive today.

This perspective would not undercut the importance of interpreting the Scriptures. It would frankly recognize that different parts of the Bible have differentiated importance in changing socio-historical circumstances. Sometimes it is Jesus, sometimes Paul, sometimes John and sometimes the Old Testament prophets who speak the word that proves most illuminating. The theological task is not only to interpret given texts, but also to find the texts that are relevant in different times and places. When a community seeks guidance it must turn to its history. There is no understanding of who we are in the present except through such study. The roots and origins of a movement are particularly important for its self-understanding. Sometimes past incidents or texts can be found to which it seems eminently appropriate to conform. But generally the relation is not like that. The authority of the past is looser, more fluid, more subject to our creative selection.

Such a view of the hermeneutical task is a fully political one. It carries the historical critical approach to its full conclusion, while supporting a partisan stance. We study our scriptures as participants in the Christian movement seeking to respond faithfully to the challenges of our time. Our identity depends on our rootedness. But a healthy identity depends on our willingness to confess the many crimes which our movement has committed. We find direction in the present as much by studying our past errors as by finding inspiration in those occasions when our ancestors in the faith used their freedom wisely.

II

The difficulty of establishing any absolute content for Christian faith has been widely recognized in modern Protestant thought. Accordingly, as Metz notes, Protestant theologians ‘interpret faith above all as an act of faith, as fides qua creditur, as far as possible without any content’.9 But a faith without content, Metz sees, ‘is always in danger of obscuring the power of Christian faith, which is derived from its content and conviction, to criticize society’.10 Metz finds no solution to this problem at the level of argumentative theology alone. He calls instead for an understanding of faith as memory.

On the other hand, as memoria, faith makes it clear that Christian faith is a dogmatic faith which is tied to a certain content, a fides quae creditur. It also shows how it is able, because of this, to achieve the critical freedom which is related to the history of social freedom . . . The Biblical traditions and the doctrinal and confessional formulae that are derived from these traditions appear in the light of this interpretation as formulae of memoria. In other words, they are interpreted as formulae in which the claim of promises made and past hopes and fears that have been experienced are recollected in the memory in order to break the grip of the prevailing consciousness, to obtain release from the compulsions and restrictions of the world today and to break through the banality of the present and the immediate future.11

Faith as memory is thus a powerful force in the present. It comes alive as ‘ . . . dangerous remembrances, remembrances of hope and terror which were experienced and then were suppressed or silenced, which suddenly break through again into our one-dimensional every-day world . . . There are remembrances with which we must reckon remembrances, so to say, with future content, remembrances which do not deceptively relieve our burden . . . Such remembrances are like dangerous and incalculable visitations out of the past . . . Such remembrances press us to change ourselves in accordance with them.’12

Such memory has a narrative structure. That is, what is remembered are events ordered as stories. Narrative is not a primitive mode of knowledge that has been superseded by science nor a mere appendage to scientific thought. Instead it corresponds most fundamentally with our actual experience and shapes our identity. In particular, narrative memory shapes our identity as Christians. ‘The intelligibility of Christianity cannot be transmitted theologically in a purely speculative way. It can only be transmitted in narrative -- as a narrative and practical Christianity.’13

Metz is not asking for an end of argument in theology. Indeed, he himself engages extensively in argument. His objection is that argument has excluded narrative from theology and even from pastoral care, whereas without narrative as a way of shaping memory the power of Christianity to form our identity will be lost.

All this makes excellent sense from the perspective of process theology. Metz recognizes Christianity as a movement constituted by a living identity with Jesus.14 The socio-historical approach would prefer to speak of a movement constituted by living continuity with Jesus, but for it, too, this continuity would constitute its Christian identity. Such a movement cannot be defined by unchanging beliefs or structures, yet it can never exist apart from a content of faith. This content has its continuity with Jesus through the influence of Jesus, and that means primarily, although not exclusively, the memory of Jesus.

Metz writes of memory in general terms that are applicable to all. But for him the memory of Jesus is not simply one memory among others. It is the unique memory constitutive of Christian faith. Jesus is the incarnation of the God who is our future.

From the point of view of the socio-historical approach, Metz seems to separate Jesus too much from the larger story. Crucial though Jesus’s role is, the memories by which the Christian community lives and maintains its identity include the stories of the first believers, the early church, and on down to our time. They go back before Jesus also through the history of Israel. When this memory of a rich and complex history is collapsed into the memory of Jesus and especially Jesus’s passion, there is too much likelihood that the ever present Christian tendency to anti-Judaism will not be checked. Whereas Metz focuses on the passion of Jesus, process theology would want to point to the power and relevance, at different times and places, of the Exodus, the Jewish prophets, the resurrection and the conversion of Paul. One advantage of the narrative form is that we do not have to fix on one story told in one way at all times and places. We have a wealth of stories to draw upon without the need to relate them all systematically.

Process theology accentuates, even more than Metz does, the primacy of memory in the establishment of human identity. In the fullest sense I am now constituted by what I have been. If I tell someone who I am by offering categories under which I fit, I may be accurate. I am a male, married, a teacher, a Protestant and so forth. But this does not get at my personal identity. That identity I can share and express only by telling the story of my life. I am the continuation of that story, and as Metz stresses, my anticipations of the future are another expression of my memory of the past.

A part of my story includes my various efforts to reason, to speculate, to construct systems. Those efforts cannot be understood apart from my story, but from the point of view of process thought they can express a measure of transcendence of personal experience. Those efforts and their consequences affect the ongoing story. It is hard to tell how far Metz will go in accepting this positive role for speculative thought. But there is no apparent reason for excluding it from a political theology as long as its socio-historical grounding and political meaning are not neglected.

Much of what Metz says about memory and narrative resonates with what process theology has learned from H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic work on The Meaning of Revelation.15 There is, however, a certain difference. Niebuhr develops his approach to the confessing of our several stories as a way of accepting and even internalizing pluralism. Metz is critical of the acceptance of pluralism, for he sees that it can turn the question of truth simply into the question of viewpoints. Respect for truth requires that ‘any given theological position must strive to appropriate precisely those elements which other positions see as lacking or neglected in it’.16 This seems a fine suggestion as far as it goes. Indeed, this book is written in order that process theology may appropriate some of those elements which political theologians have rightly shown to be lacking in it. But Metz could have deepened his response to pluralism through his emphasis on memory.

H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out that it is not enough for two communities to accept one another’s beliefs. If they live by different memories, they will still remain external to one another. Protestants and Catholics can truly grow together only as they appropriate one another’s memories of the period of their separation. The Council of Trent must become a part of the inner history of Protestants, and Luther and the Anabaptists must become part of the inner history of Catholics. If so, whatever happens at the level of institutions, Protestants and Catholics will be restored to a common Christian identity.

It is not clear whether Metz would agree to this particular extension of his discussion of memory. But he explicitly rejects this approach to other religious traditions, and he claims that his narrative theology enables him to avoid it. ‘Narrative and practical Christianity can, in its encounter with . . . other religions, keep hold of its eschatological and universal history of meaning without at the same time having to accept the histories of the other religions in a totality of meaning.17

Process theology does not anticipate any totality of meaning. There will be no end at which all meaning is gathered together, and certainly this is impossible during the course of history. But meaning can be enlarged, and with it there can be an enlargement of identity. Metz himself illustrates this strongly in one dimension. His identity is not simply German or European but globally human. Yet in the face of the other religions he draws back.

It may be that this is based on too limited a model of narrative. There are, of course, simple linear narratives in which only one event takes place at a time. Hegel’s narrative of the world Spirit presented it in such a linear form, and Teilhard’s narrative of the development of life and humanity on this planet is also quite linear. But to tell even my own story well, I must break out of this linear mould. I cannot explain what happened in my life without speaking of the others who contributed to it. Events in my life are the result of converging forces often from several important sources. When I join a new movement, the memory of the history of that movement gradually becomes part of me. We must not confuse the ‘cognitive primacy of narrated memory’18 with a purely linear structure of memory. Metz’s own stress upon the social constitution of the individual should overcome the tendency to think of narrative in linear terms.

If we recognize that our identity is richer as it is co-constituted by more strands of memory, then we will not want to use the narrative approach to the understanding of Christianity to close ourselves to other traditions whether religious or secular. Indeed our memories of our own Christian tradition will show us how extensively we have already assimilated other histories into our Christian memory, especially the history of Greco-Roman civilization. Plato and Cicero are parts of our remembered history as well as Abraham and Moses. This is an enrichment of our identity, even, specifically, our Christian identity. We are enlightened as Christians also by our memory of Darwin, of Marx and of Freud. Our identity will not be impoverished if some day we incorporate also Gautama and Nagarjuna, Rabbi Hillel and Maimonides, into the remembered narrative by which we live.

The issue is not between process theology and political theology, but as to just how political theology is to be developed. There is much that Metz says about memory and narrative with which a process theologian can enthusiastically agree. Against the view that only by finding the meaning of the whole of history can meaning be given to life within it, we can agree with Metz in his quest for a meaning that is ‘evoked, remembered and narrated (for all men) as a practical experience in the middle of our historical life’.19 The importance, even the primacy, of suffering in our shared memory and its stimulus to free action are insights to be appropriated. But there is a tendency to exclude from Christian appreciation and appropriation experience and memory that could enrich us and add to our ability to attain solidarity with human beings who live with quite different meanings. That seems, from the perspective of process theology, to be a limitation to be overcome in the further development of political theology.

III

For political theology, practice is even more central to theological method than herineneutic and narrative memory. This is clear in each of the three German theologians here discussed.

For Metz the primary problem of Christianity today is not that its doctrines are unclear or out of contact with current scientific and philosophical thought, but that its practice is not faithful. This is not a problem only in relation to external critics of Christianity but among Christians as well. ‘What we have here is a deep suspicion, rooted in the pre-rational Christian consciousness, that the living identity of the Christian body with Jesus has become lost in later Christianity, that Christianity cast off its conformity to Christ a long time ago and that many of Jesus’ intentions were long ago successfully taken over by other historical movements.’20 Accordingly, ‘the so-called historical crisis of identity is not a crisis of the contents of faith, but rather a crisis of the Christian subjects and institutions which deny themselves the practical meaning of those contents, the imitation of Christ’.21 It is this conviction that leads Metz to call for ‘a practical fundamental theology’.

Metz’s practical fundamental theology ‘is a theology that operates subject to the primacy of praxis’.22 This practice is informed by memory which leads to the imitation of Christ. It is in the context of this imitation that Christological theories have their place and meaning. The praxis is social and political. For example, Metz writes; ‘The forms of behavior such as metanoia, exodus and the imitation of Christ which are constitutive in my idea of God and Christological and eschatological knowledge in general have a social and political structure’.23 This is further explained: ‘In this freedom of memory, the history of men as subjects in the presence of God is evoked and Christians are compelled to respond to the practical challenge of this history. In its praxis what will emerge, at least partially, is that all men are called to be subjects in the presence of God.’24

The influence of Bloch led Moltmann to reflections on Marx and to the incorporation of Marxist insights about the relation of theory and practice into his thought. Of particular importance is the famous eleventh thesis against Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’25 Bloch believed that ‘the ultimate, enduring insight of Marx is that truth does not exist for its own sake but implies emancipation, and an interpretation of the world which has the transformation of the world as its goal and meaning, providing a key in theory and leverage in practice’.26 Drawing on this tradition Moltmann writes that unless truth ‘contains initiative for the transformation of the world, it becomes a myth of the existing world. Because reality has become historical and man experiences himself as a historical being, he will find a possible conformity of consciousness and existence only in historical practice. This is the event of truth’.27

Dorothee Sölle is not less committed to practice. The political hermeneutic of the gospel is for the sake of the salvation of the whole world. It makes the meaning of the gospel concrete in terms of some aspect of the contemporary political situation. It assumes the possibility of free action for the change of social institutions and awakens and directs that freedom. Political theology ‘grasps the relation to truth no longer as one of contemplation and theory only, as accords with the Greek mind, but as an operative and practical relation’.28 Sölle quotes Habermas: ‘The unity of theory and praxis signifies the truth that is to be established and, conjointly, the supreme standard of reason, since within the situation of alienation all efforts that move toward the establishment of truth are already seen as rational. Reason is the entry into future truth.’29 For Sölle it would be better to say: ‘Faith is the entry into future truth.’30 But the main point is that the truth to which we are committed is one that is not already realized. Our interpretation of the gospel is for the sake of its realization. ‘The verification principle of every theological statement is the praxis that it enables in the future.’31

The commitments Sölle expresses here led her more and more into a Marxist hermeneutic of the gospel. For example, the Marxist analysis of alienation provides her with a way of understanding Paul’s doctrine of sin in Romans 1:23. This doctrine makes sense for her when we understand the power of sin under which we live as ‘the power of produced things which dominates humans’.32 Such an understanding empowers and directs practice appropriately.

None of these theologians believes that the practice of faith can be derived from political theology alone. Other disciplines must provide help in the analysis of the concrete situation within which Christians are called to act. Sölle recognizes that this is not well developed, but she writes that in its entry into future truth ‘theoretically at least, theology cooperates with other disciplines’.33 Metz has moved from the recognition of the need for interdisciplinary co-operation to devoting extensive time and effort to its realization. He has worked with Trutz Rendtdorff for the establishment at the University of Bielefeld of a permanent institute for bi-confessional theology in an interdisciplinary context. Already in 1970 the planning was far advanced and a conference was held to reflect on the project.34All that is lacking is the agreement of the Protestant and Catholic churches.

As explained in the preceding chapter, at the time that political theology arose in Germany, process theology in the United States was at its furthest removed from a praxis orientation. Although its interest in a credible doctrine of God and God’s work in the world was grounded in existential and ultimately practical concerns, the relation to practice was little and poorly articulated. Although the situation has improved somewhat since then, recent process theology has still done little to clarify the relation between theory and practice.

When process theology does reflect on this central question, it finds it can learn much from the sources on which political theology draws. The situation as perceived from the point of view of process philosophy is one in which all thinking is done in a concrete, socially determined situation and expresses the interests which have arisen in that situation. Everyone is involved in practice before reflecting. From Marxism process theology can learn the importance of critical analysis of the interests that arise within the situation and of the way that the social situation controls thinking which does not become self-critical. It can seek to direct practice in terms of such critical self-understanding and to engage in theoretical reflection which is needed for the improved direction of practice. For process theology to develop in this way would be a great gain.

Nevertheless, process theology can never adopt this praxis model for theology without qualification.35 Political theologians are right to warn Christians against the temptation to be drawn into abstract thought for its own sake in a world characterized by starvation and oppression, and thought that lacks relevance to the salvation of the whole world is a luxury the world cannot afford. But there is a danger that the call for relevance may be too short-sighted. White-head has shown us the powerful effects over two millenia of Plato’s doctrine of the soul, especially as it was combined with Biblical ideas.36 The relevance of his thought, judged by immediate consequences, was all too limited. But few political actions have contributed nearly as much to the salvation of the whole world. Theologians, of all people, should not underestimate the importance of great beliefs.

There is another limitation of that thought and practice which operate strictly within the praxis model. Practice is always theory-laden, and the relevance for which this model calls is relevance to a situation which is already perceived through established concepts. Action can lead to the correction of theory and the reconceptualization of the situation and the praxis model calls for critical examination of goals. But there are limits as to how far this can go. If the action succeeds in attaining the goals to which it is directed, and if these goals are justified in the horizons in which they are tested, there will be no incentive to re-examine the choice of horizon which led to the positing of these goals. A male psychoanalyst could work with women throughout his professional career, adjusting his theory to his practice, without coming to see that Freud’s fundamental view of the male -- female relation is in need of radical change. That view informed theory and practice alike by determining how the situation was perceived, the problem, defined, and the solution, projected. Psychoanalysis is a powerful tool for the unmasking of pretence and the uncovering of assumptions. But, partly because of its success, psychoanalysis has not succeeded in unmasking its own pretences or uncovering its own assumptions. Radical self-criticism of the sort needed is an activity distinct from what is usually indicated by the close connection of theory and practice.

Marxists have been perceptive critics of psychoanalysis. They have shown that the hierarchical relation between analyst and patient has blocked the right functioning of the praxis model. But the situation is similar with the Marxist sociology frequently employed by political theologians. It, too, is immensely powerful and illuminating. It defines problems, identifies goals and guides action. This action is often successful, thus tending to confirm the initial sociological theory. Where it is not successful, the theory is revised. But this process does not unmask the relativity of the horizon within which it operates. This failure can be illustrated with the same example, for although Marxists on the whole have been less sexist in their attitudes than have psychoanalysts, they appear only a little less deficient when viewed in the light of contemporary feminist consciousness.37 Or, again, use of Marxist sociology by Latin American theologians of liberation has done little to free them from implicit anti-Judaism in their theological formulations. Overcoming of sexism or anti-Judaism requires that consciousness be raised through a challenge from a quite different perspective.

I do not intend, however, to pursue the feminist critique, valid and valuable though it is. I use it only to illustrate that the appeal to relevance and praxis cannot assure that our goals will truly be for the indivisible salvation of the whole world. We need to adopt a stance that is more radically self-critical, that is, one which does not predetermine the norms by which self-criticism will take place.

The significance of this example of the limitations of the praxis model is not that it needs supplementation with speculation or abstract thought. Quite the contrary. Feminist insights arose in the practice of women. Women who participated in the struggle for social justice found themselves exploited by the men with whom they shared the struggle. They became aware of an additional dimension of oppression. This insight was sharpened and elaborated in relation to new ways of life and political activities. Development of theory and practice in the feminist movement conforms to the praxis model. The introduction of the feminist perspective in criticism of psychoanalysis and Marxism in no way denies the value and validity of that model.

But the praxis model does not work well in the interaction of diverse communities informed by different experience, different practice, different theory and different horizons of meaning. Each such community, if guided by this model, tends to remain blind to the truth that is realized in the others. As used by Metz the model has been insensitive to feminism and gives little appropriate guidance to efforts to establish new relationships with other religious traditions. We need some understanding of the way truth is realized that goes beyond the usual formulation of theory and practice. Only so can we guide and illumine the process whereby the truth realized in one community can be appropriated by others as well.

At this point process theology has a contribution to make. Both Wieman and Whitehead saw that truth grows through interchange with those whose experience and understanding are different from ours. The encounter with divergent beliefs challenges our own. The more fundamental the divergence, the greater the challenge and the greater also the opportunity for growth in truth.

Growth in truth cannot be the addition of new, discrepant beliefs to old ones. Nor is it likely to occur if the old beliefs are discarded in favor of the new. Certainly the rejection of the new beliefs cannot help us, and a compromise is little better. Growth occurs when the conflicting beliefs are converted by creative thought into what Whitehead calls a contrast. That is, their distinct integrity and power are retained in their mutual tension. But a new understanding or perspective is attained in which the truth of each can be realized along with the limitation of each. In this relation each is transformed by its new relation to the other, and the total experience and vision is widened and enriched. We attain a new basis for a new praxis.

When the fundamental importance of this mode of growth is appreciated, final allegiance can no longer be given, as by Sölle, to -the gospel’s ‘non-derivable promise and the demand for peace, freedom, and justice for all people?38 This may be the highest claim we can now imagine, but we cannot know whether in confrontation with others -- with Buddhists, perhaps -- we will discover that this claim, too, is relative. That would not mean its rejection, but it would mean its inclusion within a wider and broader movement toward the realization of truth. Our ultimate loyalty cannot be given to any existing claim or insight. It must be given to the reality by virtue of which this claim or insight can be relativized as we advance in truth. That reality is the ground of the novelty which makes it possible to convert mutually exclusive conflict into contrast.

There are apparent similarities between growth through contrast and the dialectical process of the Hegelian and Marxist traditions. Indeed, in some formulations of the dialectic, the results may be identical. Nevertheless, the usual understanding and application of the dialectic do not lead to the radical openness that is needed, the readiness to encounter the simply unexpected or the tradition that has developed out of quite alien assumptions. In both Hegel and Marx the negation is directed at the affirmation. The contrasting idea, for process thought, may have developed within an entirely different horizon of meaning and interest. At the very least, the idea of contrast needs to challenge the dialectician to deal with a wider range of traditions and modes of thought with greater attention to their autonomous meanings.

 

Notes

1. See ‘Thematic issue: New Testament interpretation from a process perspective’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March 1979).

2. Dorothee Sölle, Political Theology, trans. John Shelley (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1974), pp. 15-16 and 73.

3. Ibid., p.24.

4. Shirley Jackson Case, Evolution of Early Christianity a Genetic Study of Fist-Century Christianity in Relation to its Religious Environment (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1914), p. 22-3.

5. Sölle. Political Theology. p. 76.

6. See James M. Robinson, ‘Hermeneutic since Barth’ in James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr., ed., The New Hermeneutic (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), pp. 30-3; See also Rudolf Bultmann et al., Kerygma and Myth: a Theological Debate (New York: Harper & Bros., 1961), pp. 39-40.

7. Sölle, Political Theology, p. 65.

8. Ibid., p. 64.

9. Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. David Smith (New York: Seabury Press, 1980). p. 201.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Johann Baptist Metz, Befriendes Gedähtnis Jesu Christ (Mains: Matthias-Grünewaid Verlag, 1970) translation in Roger Dick Johns, Man in the World: the Political Theology of Johannes Baptist Metz (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1976), p. 109,

13. Metz, Faith in History and Society, p. 165.

14. Ibid.. p. 166.

15 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: MacMillan, 1941).

16. Metz, Faith in History and Society, p. 119.

17. Ibid., p. 168.

18. Ibid., p. 196.

19. Ibid., p. 162.

20. Ibid., p. 166.

21. Ibid., p. 165. This point is made repeatedly. See pp. ix and 76.

22. Ibid., p. 50.

23. Ibid., p.54.

24. Ibid.. p. 68.

25. ‘Toward the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right’, in Marx and Engels. Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. L.S. Feuer (New York: Anchor Books, 1959). p.245.

26. Ernst Bloch, On Karl Marx, trans. John Maxwell (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), p. 168.

27. Jürgen Moltmann, Religion, Revolution and the Future, trans. M. Douglas Meeks (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), p. 138.

28. Sölle, Political Theology, p. 74.

29. Ibid., p. 75, quoted from Jürgen Habermas, Theorie and Praxis, vol. 2 of Politica (Berlin: Luchrerhand, 1963), p. 316.

30. Sölle, Political Theology, p. 75.

31. Ibid., p. 76.

32. Dorothee Sölle, Beyond Mere Dialogue: On Being Christian and Socialist (Detroit, Mich.: American Christians Toward Socialism, 1978), p. 14.

33. Sölle, Political Theology, pp. 75-6.

34. Johann Baptist Metz and Trutz Rendtorff. eds., Die Theologie in der interdisziplinören Forschung (Düsseldorf: Bertelsmann Universitatsverlag, 1971).

35. There is, of course, no one praxis model. The variety of ways theologians have conceived the relation of theory and practice are analyzed by Matthew Lamb in ‘The theory-praxis relationship in contemporary Christian theologies’, CTSA. Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Convention, 1976, pp. 149-78. I am under-standing by the praxis model loosely what he calls ‘critical praxis correlations’.

36. Alfred North whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1933), part I.

37. See Rosemary Ruether, New Woman/New Earth; Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), pp. 162-85.

38. Sölle, Political Theology, p.76.

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