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 12: Theology and Relativity
For many theologians any talk of relativity as adding something significant to their work is immediately rejected as a professional "no-no." Theology deals with what is most absolute in reality -- God, man, and the eternal truths. If theology cannot offer man the absolutes of life, then no absolute standards of truth and morality are possible at all. Man is left hopelessly at sea, with neither rudder for direction nor a final port in which to drop anchor.
As one can see from the previous chapters, the process theologian does not share this anxiety about relativity. Indeed, many of the concepts with which he works are based upon the assumption of relativity. This does not mean that everything is arbitrary and man can believe and act on his whim or fancy. The notion of relativity that process theology employs is that all reality is inter-related in space and time, and that no single real entity has a prior absoluteness that stands outside the process of reality as a whole. Relativity thus contrasts with absoluteness in that it rejects the availability of any privileged moment or point of view from which everything can be finally and objectively evaluated. For the relativist, there is no way to set up criteria by which one moment or perspective can be more objectively valid than any other. The closest we can get to such objectivity is the judgment of reality as a whole upon any one of its parts.
What makes a moment or perspective privileged, then, is not any intrinsically determinable superiority, but the wide acceptance of its claim to privileged status. If or when that acceptance is eroded, the special status is diminished at the same time. According to this interpretation, then, the basis of Christianity is not found in the absolute uniqueness of Jesus as second person of the Trinity, but in the acts of faith that Jesus inspired and has continued to inspire in his own person throughout the centuries. The significance of Jesus can only be understood in relation to his followers.
The same is true of God. If he is serious about the reality of God, the process theologian will want to explain how God and the world are inter-related and how the significance of God is derived from the world. Process theologians, therefore, generally hold that God is in some sense dependent upon the world and that in that sense he is subject to the changes that take place in the world. Hence, God, like the world, is temporal.
These are the two most important instances where process theology causes difficulty for the Christian believer. It seems to do violence both to his affirmation of the divinity of Jesus and to his belief in the absolute immutability of God. The reason for this difficulty, however, is probably more a question of philosophy than a difference of faith. The traditional Christian belief regarding both the divinity of Jesus and the immutability of God is formulated in a set of static, non-temporal categories that give the impression of a certain absoluteness about these matters which is heedless of their relation to the temporal. Jesus, if he is God, has to be God eternally, and God, if he is truly God, has to be perfect eternally. The philosophical presuppositions implied in these statements have come to be accepted with the same act of faith that affirms the reality of God and the importance of Jesus.
The underlying philosophical position of traditional theology and its difference from the presuppositions of process thought can perhaps best be illustrated when we analyze the meaning of "perfect" and see its application to the Christian idea of God. For ages of Greek-educated Western minds, "perfect" referred only to a being in which there was no further possibility of improvement. The perfect being was one that could not be surpassed in any way with regard to its perfection. Change was therefore antithetical to perfection. It was the admission that imperfection existed either before the change or after it. Thus, a being that changed could not be called perfect, because it had not reached the optimum of its perfection, or because it did not have the guarantee of the permanence of its perfection.
The difficulty with the traditional interpretation is that improvement and growth are also perfections. That is, something that can grow or improve is more perfect than one that cannot. If, therefore, something is perfect in the traditional sense of being unchangeable, then it has lost the perfections of growth and improvement. There are, in other words, processive perfections as well as static ones. If God is truly perfect, he must exemplify both kinds of perfection. This means that a God who can grow and improve upon himself is more perfect than a God who remains static and unchanging, while other elements of reality are growing and improving.
The incorporation into God of both the static perfections and the processive perfections is the great achievement of Charles Hartshorne. In his writings he distinguished between absolute perfection and relative perfection. The former is applied to a being that is "unsurpassable in conception or possibility even by itself"; the latter obtains when the being is "unsurpassable except by itself."1 It is the latter concept that is important for process theologians. It means that, in addition to imperceptible perfections, which are static, there are also perfectible perfections, which are dynamic. Given the temporal frame of reference, relative perfections do not and need not imply imperfection, which is the absence of a perfection that should be present at that time. It simply means that something which reaches a perfection relative to the rest of reality in one moment of time can be further perfected at a future moment of time.
When we apply this distinction to God, we can describe him as perfect if he has absolute perfection and/or relative perfection in all respects, and imperfection in no respect. This is another way of saying that God is perfect at every given moment of time. There is never anything imperfect in him at any moment, and at no time is he ever surpassable by any other being. However, he is capable of improving upon and surpassing himself. This is the way in which he relates himself concretely to the world: the realization of its values increases the values in him. It is also the way in which the world can relate itself to God: it can call him a "living God" because he can love, suffer and change. What happens in the world does make a difference to God, but without gainsaying his perfection in the process.
Traditional theology has always had a difficulty reconciling this belief in the personal nature of God with its belief in his absolute otherness, precisely because persons are relational realities and never absolutely other. This has created a series of questions that are literally unanswerable in the philosophical framework of that theology. For example, how is an absolute or "Supreme Being" really able to love in a personal way? If God loves each of us individually, must he not share our helplessness and powerlessness to deal with the forces of evil with which we must struggle in our lives? Yet, if he is perfect, how can he really be affected by the consequences of the imperfections and evils of the world?
The contribution of process theology to Christian faith is that in its perception the Christian does not have to compromise his belief that God is personal and loving for the sake of his belief in the perfection of God. Because of its philosophical presuppositions, it can explain divine love in terms that are fully compatible with our human experience of love, and it can explain divine perfection in terms that correspond to our own experience of change and growth.
The process theologian sees Godís love as personal, extending to each actual entity individually and freely. God does not impose a particular destiny as a condition for proffering his love. Instead, by reason of his love, he offers the full range of possibilities without moral or religious imperatives, so that each entity can choose for itself what it will become. Freedom is essential to love, and when conditions are attached to the giving of love, they compromise the fullness of that love. God, as the perfect lover, does not attach any such conditions. Furthermore, genuine love not only wills the freedom of the beloved. It also accepts the consequences of that freedom It must be willing to suffer and rejoice, initiate and acquiesce, give and receive. It must allow itself to be changed by that love. The God who truly loves, therefore, is a God who must also suffer and rejoice, initiate and acquiesce, give and receive. He must allow himself to be changed by that love.
Traditional theology sometimes speaks of God as suffering, rejoicing, or interacting in other ways with his creatures. The use of such terms is justified as anthropomorphisms Ė manís way of speaking about God in the absence of any language adequate to divine things. But while such language is tolerated, it is not applicable to God as he really is, because God cannot be affected by what happens in the world.
Process theology takes a different position. As the late Daniel Day Williams has written,2 the very essence of love requires individuality, freedom, action, suffering and causality. The fact that biblical images attribute such love to God requires that Christians give them serious consideration as actual characteristics of God. Indeed, the biblical insight about God is precisely that he is more than an abstract, philosophical Being. He is the God of love, the God that Jesus called "Father." To maintain that the essential qualities of love are merely anthropomorphic ways of speaking about God questions whether Godís love is truly love in any human understanding of the word.
If God is truly personal and living, his love for us must correspond to the way in which we understand love for each other. When a person takes on the personality of God, therefore, divine love is realized and incorporated into human affairs. This, as we have seen, is the explanation for the divinity of Jesus. Divine love had to grow and develop in him, much as it does in each of us. But unlike us, this love in Jesus continued to increase at every moment of his life, so that at every moment he was as perfect as he could be at that moment. He was like us in all things but sin.
In this context, it is not necessary to locate Jesusí divinity in an eternal pre-existence with God. This doctrine was important to the Greek-oriented theologians and Church Fathers who were unable to explain the perfection of Jesus in any other way than absolute perfection. Their decision to dogmatize this teaching reflected their concern for the uniqueness of Jesus, not for a philosophical statement about the nature of perfection. Since that time, however, many new insights have been added to human thought. If, for example, we accept relativity as an appropriate explanation of reality, then God is related to the world as a changing Becoming, and Jesus is related to God as a changing, growing person. The divinity of Jesus is thus located in the fact that his change and growth always realized concretely the most complete incorporation of divine love in his life. Thus, he was always perfect: as a human person he was unsurpassable in divine perfection in conception or possibility, except by himself. That is, he had relative perfection in every respect.
Do we do violence to Church doctrine and our traditions when we interpret God and Jesus in this way? Are we not taking rather bold liberties with the pronouncements of popes and councils down through the ages? For many, the answer will undoubtedly be in the affirmative. And for this reason, they will reject process theology and its explanations of the faith. For others, however, fidelity to the Church and to its traditions is not attained by faith in formulae, or even by the exigency of reconciling new ideas with old formulae. For these latter, fidelity consists in adherence to the fundamental experience of the early Church about Jesus and the God he proclaimed. Expressions are indeed important, but they are never more than expressions. The faith of the Church is found in the souls of Christians who from time to time try to articulate what they believe in various expressive forms. The Spirit speaks to manís soul, not to his verbiage. What man has written in the past as his Scriptures and as his dogmatic statements were expressions that more or less captured the experience of faith that was his at a particular moment in time. For this reason they are respected and reverenced, but they are not definitive expressions of the faith experience. The Spirit is always free to do what it will.
If our God is living, surely the Spirit is living also. It still speaks to the soul of man, but it speaks in new ways and with new words. This means that doctrine and tradition must be expected to grow, take on new forms, and find expression in new ideas. The discernment of spirits is not in the comparison of one set of words with another set of words, or even of one idea with another idea. The manifestation of the Spirit is to human experience, not to human expression. Discernment, therefore, is in the comparison of one faith experience with another faith experience, and in the concrete way in which that faith manifests itself in living. By their fruits you shall know them.
The process experience of Christian faith is certainly not alien to the experience expressed in the tradition. It is basically the experience of the inter-relatedness of reality through time. God, Jesus, the Church, and the other elements of Christian theology are understood and interpreted in that perspective. Love is central to the process perspective, much as it has been for all Christians since the time of John the Evangelist. Significantly, love is itself a relational concept. Love is not possible, or even conceivable, in isolation. It requires relatedness. To say that God is Love, as John does, implies that his fundamental character is that of relation to the world. If God is Love, he can exist only with a world and in a world. He is not possible, or even conceivable, in isolation from the world. And if indeed God actively manifests himself to the world through a man or through a Church, that manifestation will be characterized by love and thus by relatedness. This is what Jesus is, and this is what, hopefully, the Church continues to become.
But this is not yet the end of the story. Life goes on. The Church is still living, just as we are and God is. Process is still operative, and the world is still in labor as it struggles to bring forth the Christ in new ways. We are, in our century, very much aware of that process and very committed to new ways. It is the spirit of our age. Perhaps it is also the Spirit inspiring our age. It is in this spirit that process theology is born and offers its contribution to a continuing and deepening understanding of our Christian faith.
1. Charles Hartshorne, Manís Vision of God (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964), p. 7.
2. Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and Forms of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1968).