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.
Chapter 1: Why Something New?
The term "process philosophy" has taken on a special meaning in the past two decades of American thought. Although many philosophers in history have written from a process perspective, the term today is reserved for a particular school of thought centered around the works of Alfred North Whitehead, whose philosophical writings spanned the two decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the two countries of England and the United States. From its inception, but especially in the past fifteen years, Whitehead’s process philosophy has been attracting students and scholars at numerous universities to study and elaborate upon his basic insights. Recently a special institute and a professional journal have been established to aid the growth of Whiteheadian studies in this country and abroad.
What are the origins of Whitehead’s thought, and why is he attracting so much attention today? What is his value for theology in this age of radical thinking? Is Whitehead just one more passing fad, or does his philosophy provide a solid, durable basis for understanding and interpreting the Christian faith?
The roots of process thought, like most of Western philosophy, can be traced back to the Greeks. The most ancient of the specifically "process" thinkers is probably Heraclitus. Unfortunately, the ideas of Heraclitus and his contemporary Parmenides are available to us only in a few fragments, and these provide merely a hint of their thought. We are told that Heraclitus once observed that one could never step into the same river twice (because by the time one steps into it the second time the water has already moved downstream), and that the basis of reality was change and flux. This idea was in sharp contrast with Parmenides, who suggested in his poem about nature that "being" was prior to "becoming," and that underlying every change was some more fundamental reality that endured. By a fateful choice of history, Parmenides became the father of metaphysics and the basis for later Greek philosophy, while Heraclitus was largely ignored. As a result, the thrust of Greek thought, and most of Western thought thereafter, was derived from the static concepts of "being," "substance," and "essence," rather than the more dynamic concepts of "becoming," "process," and "evolution."
Whitehead likewise acknowledged his indebtedness to the Greeks, especially to Plato. Indeed he once remarked that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Although Plato is not a process philosopher, his thought can be reconciled with a process perspective. This is exactly what Whitehead did. How he reconciled them is not as important to us here as the knowledge that contemporary process thought, following Whitehead, is both processive in character and Platonic in spirit. When we discuss some of the basic concepts of Whiteheadian philosophy in the next chapter, the implications of these facts will become more clear.
Whitehead’s increasing importance today in America can be attributed to the fact that his philosophy arises out of the Hellenic tradition and emerges in an age of rapid change. Because he is thoroughly a part of our Western tradition, his insights are not alien to our cultural presuppositions. For all the difficulty of understanding his thought, he can be more readily grasped and appreciated by Western man than can, for example, Oriental thought, because Whitehead’s thought is built upon what is already familiar to us in our own Western culture and tradition.
But today there is developing a certain discontent with our culture and its tradition, and a certain suspicion regarding its capacity for radical change. There is the feeling that our institutions, both civil and ecclesiastical, and even the thinking that inspired them, are inadequate and insufficient to meet the future. Doubts of this kind are fundamentally philosophical doubts about the ability of our philosophies to deal with change as a fundamental category of reality. Our philosophical heritage is being questioned in the light of a rapidly changing culture.
One of the reasons for this radical questioning is that the very way in which we perceive reality has been changing. Until very recent times we were quite content and intellectually satisfied with the way Parmenides viewed the universe. There was an underlying stability to our institutions, our culture, and our lives. But in recent years we are being confronted more forcefully with the fact of change, and with the fact that the rate of change is itself increasing.
All of this rapid changing has created for us a new perception of reality. No longer is reality fundamentally stable, with change being merely an accidental alteration of its makeup. Today reality itself is experienced as being in constant flux, so that the basic category of reality is process, not stability. In a more sophisticated way we have returned to the insight of Heraclitus: we cannot step into the same river twice because our world is not the same world twice. Reality is a process.
There is also another way in which our perception of reality has been changing. Because of new means of communication and rapid methods of transportation the world seems much smaller to us now than it did just a couple of generations ago. Today, a political event in the Middle East has instant repercussions on the stock market in New York. thus changing the financial plans of people around the world. Our astronauts, relying on the precision technology of a team of scientists, can travel to the moon and back in half the time it took our grandparents to cross the Atlantic to settle in this country, and the event is seen live on television sets around the world. We experience more than ever before the interrelatedness of the people and things in our universe and the interdependence of reality as a whole.
We experience this relational character of reality also in our heightened sensitivity to the natural environment and to the historical context out of which things emerge. Knowing whether a child comes from the suburbs or the ghetto, from a loving family or a broken home, gives us certain insights into his conduct and suggests certain methods of helping him mature. Or, to use a different example, we learn to understand and interpret certain events in history or expressions in literature according to the context in which they arose. To know something requires knowledge of its environment and context, because nothing exists in isolation. Every bit of reality is essentially related to the totality of reality in its own unique way, and it depends upon the rest of reality for its origin, meaning and value.
Whitehead was very conscious of this interrelatedness of reality, and it is an essential part of his philosophical theory. In fact, he chose to call his philosophy the "philosophy of organism" because he based it upon a theory of the real relatedness of things. That is why his thinking tends toward integrating and synthesizing, rather than individualizing and classifying. Reality is first of all a complex unity, or organism, and each element in that unity is itself an organismic unity. One of his purposes for doing philosophy is to suggest how they all interrelate. The concept of organism provides the model for understanding this relatedness and integration of all reality.
Because Whitehead is a part of Western tradition and takes it into account in the development of his own thought, and because he gives us a philosophical system that is essentially processive in character and relational in structure, his philosophy of process and organism seems more relevant to contemporary needs than any of the "substance philosophies" that are more common in this tradition. This is the basic advantage of Whitehead. Whereas most of Western thought is formulated in static, individuating and non-temporal concepts, Whitehead adds the temporal and integrative dimensions that make his system dynamic, holistic and four-dimensional. This is the reason why he finds it necessary to invent a new vocabulary to explain his philosophical concepts. The next chapter will be devoted to defining and explaining some of the most significant Whiteheadian terms.
The reasons that make Whiteheadian thought important for philosophy also make it relevant for theology. No institutions are more tied to their respective traditions than religious institutions, and nowhere has the accelerating rate of change been more upsetting and misunderstood than in the Christian churches of the last two decades. This has been particularly true in the Catholic Church, which has guarded its individuality more tenaciously than its Protestant brethren, and which is still in the throes of the radical (and reactionary) renovation that Vatican Council II was supposed to have resolved.
There is in many Christian, and especially Catholic circles today a tendency to blame theology for the confusion and to demand a simple, unquestioning act of faith. According to such thinking, any attempt to formulate a theological perspective according to Whiteheadian -- or any -- thought is to continue the confusion and frustrate the return to a peaceful Christian orthodoxy. But an appeal to faith is not a solution to intellectual problems, and an appeal to orthodoxy is simply an appeal to the expression of faith of the Christians of another era who formulated that orthodoxy. Faith is not a substitute for thought, and orthodoxy is not a substitute for either. Rather, faith is the immediate occasion for challenging and developing thought so that it can better integrate itself with reality as a whole. This is precisely the function of theology. According to the old Latin expression, theology is fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Although this expression goes back to the early traditions of Christian theology, it is still applicable today. Faith does seek understanding; it does not replace understanding. And the understanding it seeks must be discovered in conjunction with the most enlightened perception of reality available to it in a particular historical epoch.
Whitehead is becoming important for Christian theology because he provides us with such an enlightened perception of reality. He sees reality in a way that makes sense to our contemporary mind. Those who, like Whitehead, see reality in terms of process and organism, and who likewise believe in a special revelation that comes to man in the Christian tradition, will seek to integrate what they believe with what they see. This is precisely what Augustine did with the philosophy of Plato and what Thomas Aquinas did with the philosophy of Aristotle. Each sought to integrate his Christian faith with the best available understanding of reality as a whole. This is the fundamental task of theology. It is the immediate task of any believer who thinks about what he believes, and who lives on the basis of his beliefs.
To suggest that we ought to return to the "original faith" and ignore theology is to reject any attempt to think about our faith in our contemporary context or to integrate what we believe with how we live in our contemporary world. To suggest that we ought to return to "orthodoxy" is to suggest that we can best express our faith today by disregarding the development of human philosophy subsequent to the original, or "orthodox" expression of that faith. Such suggestions are blind to the processive and contextual character of reality as a whole, where faith must ultimately find its meaning.
What process theologians are attempting to do is essentially the same as what Augustine and Thomas did: to express their Christian faith in the conceptual language of a philosophy that makes sense to their age. But can process theologians actually write a theology in the sense that Augustine and Thomas did? That is, can they truly integrate their philosophy with the beliefs of the Christian community and provide those beliefs with a credible foundation in reason?
To answer such questions, we must do some reflection on what we expect of a theology. First, it must be based upon a conviction that a particular person, event or tradition has a special revelatory significance for man. For Christian theology, that event is the person of Jesus and the tradition that has developed in his Spirit. Second, it must seek to understand that conviction in a coherent, consistent and relevant way. Here the Christian is free to choose whatever philosophical perspective can best integrate his faith with his view of reality as a whole. The perspective that he chooses will determine the way in which he expresses his faith. That is, his choice about a philosophy will determine the shape of his theology. Consequently, there can be many theologies endeavoring to explain the one faith. Unity in faith comes from a common belief in the revelatory significance of Jesus; plurality in theology comes from differing views regarding the nature of reality into which that faith must be integrated.
Process theology is a theology that uses processive and organismic models to explain the faith of Christians in the person of Jesus and the events and traditions that he has inspired. It is still theology in the traditional sense of "faith seeking understanding." But it is different from traditional theology in that it uses the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (instead of Plato or Aristotle) to express and integrate that belief into our contemporary perception of reality -- a perception which is increasingly sensitive to integration and change as the fundamental reality.
It is indeed a difficult task to "switch gears" from a theology based on static, spatial models alone, such as the essence of God, the natures of Christ, and the substance of bread and wine, to a theology that is concerned with spatio-temporal models, such as change in God, Christ becoming divine, and the on-going process of revelation. It is also difficult to change from an analytic approach, where one is constantly distinguishing among essentially different kinds of reality and the individual "beings" in each level of reality, to a more synthetic approach, where everything, including God, is ultimately explainable with one set of categories and is integrated with the reality of the whole. And yet, such concepts are not so strange to one who believes that God is alive and that religion ought to integrate and influence the dynamics of human living. Both Scripture and tradition contain much data to support the use of process models in the development of a Christian theology. Whether such a theology will ultimately find more acceptance among scholars and believers than the "substance theologies" of the past can only be tested by the passage of time.