Faith and Justice: A New Synthesis? The Interface of Process and Liberation Theologies

by Joseph A. Bracken, S.J.

Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., is Associate Professor of Theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.73-75, Vol. 14, Number 2, Summer, 1985. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Liberation theologians should take seriously the metaphysical framwork for a praxis-oriented theology implicitly offered to them by process theology. Process thinkers must come to grips with the urgent social justice issues raised by liberation theologians.

Commitment to change without abandonment of the cultural achievements of the past seems to be characteristic of much of contemporary theology. Two such schools of thought have been North American process theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and liberation theology which originated in the struggles of Third World peoples for economic, political, and social independence but now has broadened to include the aspiration of minority groups (e.g., women and blacks) even within affluent First World countries. Paradoxically, despite their common interest in creative transformation of the existing social order, adherents of the two theologies have had little contact with one another. Process thinkers have been perhaps too much occupied with the solution of broad metaphysical questions connected with the creation of a new God-world relationship and too little concerned with the day-to-day problems of people in contemporary society. Liberation theologians, on the other hand, have been so involved in their group’s struggle for freedom and equality that they have effectively neglected the deeper theoretical implications of their new praxis-orientation to theology.

On October 20-22,1983, at Xavier University in Cincinnati, however, a group of liberation and process theologians came together to discuss points of convergence as well as areas of residual tension between the two approaches. The results, while inevitably somewhat inconclusive were nevertheless encouraging. The initial speaker in the symposium, Marjorie Suchocki, for example, pointed out that her own involvement in the feminist movement has been supported rather than hindered by a knowledge of Whiteheadian metaphysics. The emphasis on wholeness, the interconnectedness of everything with everything else which is so characteristic of Whiteheadian metaphysics, nourished Suchocki in her own feminist aspirations toward integrity, i.e., a self-image which would be peculiarly her own and yet would be in line with the legitimate expectations of others ~ she commented, "we women are weavers, weaving the intelligible pattern of our lives out of the fabric of intensely personal experiences of sharing life with others.

Schubert Ogden, the first speaker the next day, began by noting that many theologians refer to the interconnection between faith and justice without seriously investigating the metaphysical implications of this same interrelatedness. Accordingly, in his own address he first showed how faith, understood as an existential self-understanding in the light of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus, strictly demands a commitment to justice. For, if faith is "trust in God’s love alone for the ultimate meaning of our lives and loyalty to this same love and to all to whom it is loyal as the only final cause that our lives are to serve," then a concern for justice, including political justice (the creation of a more humane and just social order), clearly follows from an attitude of faith without being identical with it. Likewise implied are belief in God as one who is both supremely loving and universally loved and the existence of a world of finite entities as the dialectical counterpart to the reality of a loving God.

Matthew Lamb, speaking later that same day, reminded his hearers that historically metaphysical speculation (theoria) was used as a tool in the hands of elite groups (both civil and ecclesiastical) to exercise dominion over the unsuspecting masses. Reason, in other words, was not employed to transform the structures of society in the direction of a more humane and just social order, but was instead coopted to justify various power interests profiting by the status quo. Scientists and philosophers at the beginning of the modern era, to be sure, repudiated traditional metaphysics as authoritarian ideology, but they in turn fell victim to an equally insidious use of reason as technique, the manipulation of nature and other human beings for basically self-centered purposes and desires. Only in the contemporary period have reflective men and women begun to see through the perverse uses of reason and to test its deliverances in the light of ideology-critique and transformative praxis.

The differences in methodology and goals thus established between Ogden and Lamb were in the background as John Cobb spoke on the final day of the conference. He noted, first of all, that far too little attention has been given by process thinkers to the question of social location, the environmental context within which one does one’s thinking. A white male process theologian, for example, working (as most do) within the institutional structure of a North American college or university, simply cannot become a feminist theologian or do black theology. Echoing here the sentiments of Matthew Lamb, who spoke on the preceding day, Cobb thus cautioned fellow practitioners of process theology against uncritical universalizing tendencies within their own metaphysical orientation. At the same time, he directed some critical comments to the liberation theologians, thereby underscoring some of the points made earlier in the conference by Schubert Ogden. Liberation theologians, said Cobb, have thus far paid too little attention to the "cosmic" dimensions of their own movement (s). One cannot, for example, advocate a program of concrete economic, political, and social reform within a given country without taking into account the potentially devastating impact of these reforms on hitherto uncommitted political groups (e.g., the Indian aborigines in Nicaragua) and on the subhuman environment. What has to be avoided at all costs, in other words, is a blueprint for social reform which in the end favors only one group in society in its quest for greater economic and political self-determination.

In brief, then, the conference generated light as well as (occasional) heat in the effort of the participants to clarify their respective positions to one another. It became clear, for example, largely as a result of the animated exchange between Ogden and Lamb, that "minor" differences in starting-point and methodology eventually result in major differences in the theologies thereby produced. At the same time, everyone agreed that despite their differences the two approaches to theology are truly complementary. Hence liberation theologians should take seriously the metaphysical framework for a praxis-oriented theology implicitly offered to them by process theology. Likewise, process thinkers, if they are to have any real impact on the contemporary scene, must come to grips with the urgent social justice issues raised by liberation theologians.

Before bringing this introductory essay to a close, I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to my good friend and co1lea~ue, Dr. Paul Knitter, who with me first planned the conference and then worked long and hard to make it a success. Likewise, thanks are due to Delwin Brown of Iliff School of Theology in Denver and two members of the Theology Department here at Xavier, namely, Dr. Christine Gudorf and Dr. Catherine Keller; these three, together with Knitter and myself, acted as an informal panel of theologians to question each of the speakers after his/her address. Finally, special thanks should be extended to Rev. Charles Currie, S.J., President of Xavier University, Dr. John Minahan, Academic Vice-President, and Rev. Edward Brueggeman, S.J., Professor Emeritus of Theology, who as an advisory committee in the fall of 1982 gave their consent and support to the project.