What Is Process Theology? by Robert B. Mellert
Dr. Mellert is an assistant professor in the department of theological studies at the University of Dayton. Published by Paulist Press, New York, Paramus, Toronto, 1975. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
During the 1960ís a remarkable revival of the thought of the contemporary American process philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, took place in the studies and dens of graduate students in philosophy. It was remarkable because, although he died in 1947, Whitehead was only a few cards in the library catalogue until, during the past decade and continuing into the present, literally shelves of books have been written explaining his thought, interpreting it, and applying it to a variety of areas.
One of the most fruitful applications of Whiteheadian thought has been in the area of theology. In fact, the study of "process theology" in departments of religion and theology has perhaps equaled, if not exceeded, the study of process thought in departments of philosophy where it all started. This, despite the fact that Whitehead was no theologian, and indeed, after a short period of curiosity, he sold all his theology books and never returned to the subject.
Today every respectable graduate school of theology has its process theologian, or at least someone able to teach the subject adequately. And consequently, more and more people engaged in religious education -- religion teachers, seminarians, catechetics coordinators, clergy, and interested laymen -- have heard about process theology and perhaps have seen references to it. But a comfortable familiarity with what it is all about has, for most of them, been an elusive goal.
This little book is written as a reply to my many friends who have asked me, in the midst of conversations going in various directions. "What is process theology?" I have never really known how to respond to that question briefly and politely. Surely there is no way to reply adequately, short of three credit hours or a select bibliography. Now, at least, I can tell them where they might get started.
It is my hope that this volume will help to "bridge the gap" between the professional philosophers and theologians and the many other persons who are looking for a basic familiarity with process theology but who do not have the time to struggle with the complexities of the process system as a whole. There is, I feel, a great need for such a volume. Once process philosophers and theologians have mastered the jargon and technical intricacies of Whiteheadís thought, they generally prefer to share the intellectual excitement of their work with each other, rather than to attempt repeated explanations for the benefit of the uninitiated. Thus, journal articles abound since the early 1960ís, but only fleeting references are found in the more widely circulated religious magazines. Hopefully, the 1970ís will see a better dissemination of this mode of thought to a broader range of interested persons.
There are already indications that this is beginning to take place. Graduate students have received their degrees in Whiteheadian studies and are now teaching undergraduates. Institutes have been conducted to acquaint clergy and laity. And recently two volumes of collected writings have appeared in paperback: Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, edited by Delwin Brown, Ralph James and Gene Reeves,1 and Process Theology, edited by my friend and former teacher, Ewert Cousins.2
My own work here will attempt to simplify as best I can the foundations of process philosophy and to suggest ways in which I find it helpful for explaining Christian thought. My own orientation in Christianity has been in the Roman Catholic tradition, and this may in part determine the topics I choose and the ways in which I treat them. However, this should not dissuade readers of other Christian traditions because the differences are, for the most part, negligible for the beginner in process theology.
A greater danger lies in over-simplification and distortion, and I am very much aware that in "watering down" Whitehead for the popular palate, I may in fact destroy the real flavor of his philosophy. This would be a grave disservice both to Whitehead and to my own conviction that process thought has a very important contribution to make to our age of critical religious rethinking and reconstruction.
Nevertheless, process philosophers and theologians must not be allowed to talk only to each other. Others, too, must be initiated, and they must begin with simpler things. If this book, as a simple thing, spurs someone on toward the greater things, or if it simply convinces someone that there might be greater things than he had previously conceived of in his theology, then I shall have achieved the goal I have set for myself and my efforts will be adequately rewarded.
Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to the numerous persons who have helped me and encouraged me in this work. I wish to mention especially the University of Daytonís Summer Research Institute, which provided me with a grant to begin this project; Rev. Matthew Kohmescher, S.M., my department chairman; and two personal friends. Sister Carol Gaeke, O.P., and Ellen Simonetti, who graciously read the manuscript and suggested many improvements.
1. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
2. New York: Newman Press, 1971.