A Friend’s Love: Why Process Theology Matters

by C. Robert Mesle

Dr. Mesle was associate professor of philosophy and religion at Graceland College, Lamoni, Iowa in 1987.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 15-22, 1987 pp. 622-625. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The existence and nature of God are not made clear in this ambiguous world.

 "The hard fact, beyond all sentimentality, is that either we share suffering in love or outside of love, and it is not the same in one case as in the other." [Daniel Day Williams].


It matters if someone loves us. No human experience is more fundament to the Christian faith and tradition than the transforming wonder of being loved when we least deserve it. The very heart of the gospel is that the life and death of Jesus reveal the unconditional, gracious love of God. "By the love of God is made..." "While we were yet sinners..." "Beloved, if God so loved us..." "We love because he first loved us."

In my youth I experienced God as a' Friend who loved me. The persistent power of that experience puts me in the odd position of defending the importance of a theology whose truth I doubt. As a process philosopher I argue that Alfred North Whitehead's basic cosmology, and thus the world, will work very nicely without God. And yet I surprise my philosophical colleagues, by challenging those theologians who say that. process theology is irrelevant and unimportant to the Christian faith. My attraction to process theology is deeply personal, but not, I think, idiosyncratic.

It is important to emphasize again that I did not experience God as a distant or angry judge who condemns people to an eternal hell. My life-shaping religious experiences at worship services and with private prayer were .nearly all intense ones- of -feeling that love of God my heart so- that I could riot help but be loving toward those about me

My God was certainly mysterious, but not in the distorted sense which thinks that divine love is "mysteriously" manifested in plagues, famines, child abuse or concentration camps. My Friend called me. to love justice, honesty. and people.

For this very reason I began asking the -necessary. questions, acknowledging the undeniable facts, reflecting on the conspicuous contradictions, and gradually stripping away my theology. At first I thought my Friend, God, was very powerful; but as I looked at the evil in the world, I knew that the God whose love I had felt would never willingly cause or allow such senseless suffering. It was 'God's love, not God's-power, that had evoked ,my loving worship. I also thought .my Friend saw all of time in changeless eternity. But when it became obvious to me that this faculty destroyed human freedom and the dynamic responsiveness of divine love, I realized that it was my Friend's steadfastness that had won my friendship, not the power to remain unaffected by the torrent of time. Love alone was left as worthy of my worship.

At the same time, life and theology became more ambiguous for me, Copernicus, Descartes, Feuerbach and Freud taught me-that. there is more than one way to account for an experience even the experience of my Friend's love,. So today I am more comfortable talking about the experience of the sacred that! about the existence of a -divine being.

Because love. has continued to be central for me and because the crucified Christ remains a powerful symbol f transforming grace, I persist in thinking of myself as Christian -- however liberal and humanistic. But remembering my Friend, I have strongly resisted all attempts to defend God in the face of evil by ranking power above 'love, by hinting that evil is really good in disguise or by saying that. God's love is too 'mysterious for us: to grasp. However great the divine mystery I know well enough what I meant by God's love. and it, would never allow an innocent child to suffer needlessly if my Friend .could prevent it. So I have opposed much in traditional Christianity.

At the same time, I have felt a certain sympathy with more traditional Christians who have argued that many liberals have undersold one' vital element of the faith an actual, loving God. Love is concrete and personal, never abstract. As profound as I have found theologians such Paul Tillich to be, I wonder what it means to say that- Being' Itself loves me. I'm not sure that Tillich ever really said that God loves me, but he seemed to write as if "You' art Accepted" 'amounts to the same thing. Even when I agreed with his philosophical description of reality, Being Itself never evoked in me that ultimate cry, "Lord, God!" However I struggled, I could never take the name of my Friend and transfer it to Being Itself. Tillich did not speak to me of the God who loves us, loves me, in that concrete, personal way that the gospel proclaims.

When I encountered the process theism of thinkers like John B. Cobb, Jr., I immediately recognized my Friend. The ambiguity of the world and the difficulties of interpretation remain dominant for me. But process theology retains what I loved in God and offers intelligent responses to standard -concerns about science, history, freedom and evil. Process theology proposes a serious dialogue with both my traditional heritage and my liberal integrity.

Here is my Friend, freed of the insulting suggestion that divine love would willingly allow senseless suffering. Free, also, of supernatural hocus-pocus here is a genuine Friend who does everything divine power can do to defeat the world's pain and suffering. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him (Rom. 8:28). This is a vision of God that liberal Christians should appreciate.

It amazes me that so many traditional theologians and laypeople think that the God of process theism does not matter. If God does not know the future with certainty, they say, then God is not worshipful. If God is not able to control the world, they say, then God is not important. Both of these objections focus on issues of power. If God has perfect unilateral power -- perfect ability to affect without being affected -- then God cannot be affected by time. Either God has no knowledge of time, as Aristotle thought, or it is necessary subtly to deny the ultimate reality. of time so that God's knowledge is timelessly complete. It all boils down to this: if God is not perfectly powerful in the way we want, if God cannot infallibly see and guarantee the happy outcome we want, then God is unimportant. At least, they say, such a God is not the God of the Christian faith. I wonder how this position squares with Jesus and the cross. "We preach Christ crucified, the wisdom and power of God. "

Our Father who art in heaven . . . " What are good parents like? As children we sup I pose that our parents know all, see all and control all. Gradually we learn that they do not. To the extent that they are beneficent and loving parents, of course they do all they-can to make life good for us and to teach us to be caring and giving people. And it is finally for loving us that we love them, not for the power which we thought they had.

Imagine that two physicians are caring for a sick child. One has the power to cure the child at the snap of a. finger but chooses not to for some "mysterious" reason'. The other. lacks this power but does everything she can to help the child -- nursing, cooling covering, feeding, holding, loving. We may send our pleas to the first doctor, but when my child dies, you know how I feel. The second doctor is the one I embrace as I cry, and love with the love of shared suffering. I know which one cares for my child.

Power may evoke my fear and awe, but not my worship or love. Unilateral power cannot transform me into a more sensitive or caring person, but love can. Twelve legions of angels could not save one soul, but a crucified love could. When I teach Plato, I try to help my students feel the awe, mystery and attraction of timeless, unchangeable Being. But I do not understand what that Being has to do with a person hanging on a cross, with a Friend who loves me when I am unlovable, with a grace that pours love into my heart until I become more loving.

I said earlier that my Friend's love called me to love honesty as well as people. And it is through process theology that I see how to connect God's love with human integrity. To make this clear I must return to the experience of my Friend's love and to the problem of the world's ambiguity.

As a young man I took God's existence for granted, seeing the divine hand in the grandeur of the stars and the beauty of the flowers. And most important, I felt God's love pour into my heart. But a loving friendship involves openness, honesty and trust; so part of what came from those experiences was a deep conviction that God approved of my strongest challenges. I could never imagine feeling condemned for being honest in my search, wherever that search took me. Instead, my Friend's love said, "Come find me as I really am." Oddly, then, it was the very experience of God's love that enabled me to challenge my beliefs about God, and thus to confront the ambiguity of the world.

The world's ambiguity is a central theme of modern liberal consciousness, and the openness and tolerance required to confront it are central liberal values. It is essential to modem communities of inquiry that we respect each other as honest searchers, especially regarding such emotionally powerful questions as the existence and nature of God. Many of us think the world neither requires nor leaves room for a divine being. And yet my theistic friends are far too intelligent and insightful for me to dismiss theism lightly, as a dying remnant of the past. At the same time, honest theists today must recognize that many intelligent and insightful persons look at the world and do not see a divine hand. This situation poses a serious problem for classical theism which process theology is well equipped to address. Why would a powerful and loving God create a world which hides God from the view of honest seekers?

The Apostle Paul ' stated very clearly that those who do not accept his gospel "are without excuse for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them" (Rom. 1: 19). I once thought the same way. My experiences of God's love were very clear to me, and I simply assumed, as did most biblical writers, that God's love had been made abundantly clear in the miracles of the Exodus, the words of the prophets, the work of Christ. But more to the point, my Friend would make that love clear, just as would any good friend or parent. True love does not hide itself from the loved one, but -reveals itself in every possible way.

Yet my Friend's call to search for the truth gradually led me to acknowledge that. science, suffering, and the plurality of world religions all indicate that the existence and love of a divine being are not clear and obvious to all honest and intelligent seekers. Honest reflection showed me that even my own experiences could be accounted for on naturalistic grounds. Indeed, I found myself increasingly compelled to think so. And so my personal position, as well as the world's position, is thoroughly ambiguous. The. traditional God could reveal the divine existence and love clearly, and the God who was my Friend would make that existence and love clearly So why is God hiding from us?

People who accept the integrity of other searchers cannot think as Paul did. Belief that the world plainly and unambiguously displays the existence and love of God necessarily entails the conclusion that those who do, not believe are dishonest, refusing to acknowledge what they know to be true. "They exchanged the truth about God for a lie" (Rom. 1:25). Such belief has obvious epistemological consequences, as reflected in I John 4:6: "We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." How can traditional theists avoid this conclusion?

John Hick has seen far more clearly than most that the ambiguity of the world is part of the problem of evil. Knowledge of God is surely a good thing, and the classical God would obviously be able to reveal the divine existence and majesty with overwhelming clarity, as Paul declared. But Hick recognizes that the existence and nature of God are not made clear in this ambiguous world. Hick stands above the theological crowd in seeing that this is a serious modem challenge to classical theism and in systematically attempting to justify God's lack of clearer revelation. Rejecting Paul's confidence, and the inevitable dogmatic corollary, Hick's solution is that God has intentionally made the world ambiguous -- i.e., has intentionally created it "to look as if there were no God" so that we can come to faith freely.

I believe that Hick is absolutely right in insisting that classical theists today who would reject narrow dogmatism must hold that God intentionally created an ambiguous world. Hick recognizes that a basic grasp of modem science makes naturalism an honest option. But also, as a student of world religions and a philosopher, he recognizes that only by acknowledging that ambiguity can he participate authentically in a community of inquiry that includes people with so many differing points of view.

.Nevertheless, I cannot accept Hick's solution that a loving God has intentionally made the world look as if there is. no God so that we will be free to choose faith. I do not believe that ignorance is the ground of freedom or faith. It is true that good teachers must let student arrive at some insights on their own. But imagine parents following the model of Hick's God and putting their children in an orphanage so that they will be free to decide whether to believe that their parents are alive and whether they love their parents. This is absurd! Yet it is what Hick says God did.

Hick's solution to the world's ambiguity also ignores the heart of the Christian experience. When I experienced my Friend's love poured into my heart I could not help but love the people around me. But it was not against my will because my will had been transformed. We can not be fully free to choose faithful commitments when we do not clearly see what we are choosing for or against. Nor are, we fully, free -to love until we have first been loved. Hick is right in seeing that this world's ambiguity is a serious challenge to traditional theism; but he solves the problem in the wrong way. Process theology, how ever, can solve the problem while affirming the core experience of Christian theism: that God loves us and struggles to reveal that love in all of life.

The world's ambiguity is not an embarrassment to process theologians. Instead, it is a primary datum on which process theism builds. Because God loves us, God is constantly struggling to disclose that love in the world; but because the world has-its own agency, and God's power is solely persuasive, that disclosure always occurs with- in and through the historical and natural processes. 'Of course all religious experiences, texts and institutions are historically. conditioned. (while yet opening occasional windows I to a glimpse of the divine). Of course the world of nature involves its, own causality (while ye leaving us to wonder at the beauty and love it has produced). Of course God's creative and, sustaining activity appears through a glass darkly.

In process theology, neither belief nor unbelief caries any moral stigma, because the world is ambiguous, but unlike in Hick's thesis, God has not intentionally created it that way to test our faith. So process theology can claim as a major strength its ability fully and consistently to sanction the modem ethic of mutual respect by removing any preconception that those who disagree are necessarily unfaithful. It supports the modem climate of inquiry in ways that classical theism must resist. If one adopts a process concept of God and God's relationship to the world, the ambiguity of the world loses its character as a divine deception and becomes ' an expression of the divine struggle for self-disclosure, a struggle powerfully symbolized in the paradox of a crucified God.

Process theology may not be true, but those who argue that it is irrelevant or unimportant have chosen the, wrong, ground How can Christians look at the crucified Christ and say that it does not matter if God is the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands"? How can Christians who both respect the integrity of honest searchers and. believe that God actively seeks to reveal the divine love fail to appreciate the way in which process theology makes sense of the world's ambiguity? How can Christians affirm with I John 4:119 that we love because God first loved us and think it religiously unimportant that the world's evolution is grounded in creative, responsive love? I once knew such a divine Friend’s love, and it mattered. It matters whether process theology is true because it matters whether Someone loves us.