Process Thought as Conceptual Framework

by Santiago Sia

Santiago Sia is Director of Asian and Pacific Studies, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, Loyola Marymont University, Loyola Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90045. He is the author of God in Process Thought (Martinus Nijhoff, 1985) and editor of Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of God: Philosophical and Theological Responses (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 248-255, Vol. 19, Number 4, Winter, 1990. 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.


The author explains the epistemological standpoint underlying his interest in process thought.

Since the theme of this symposium is the meaning of process thought for us, my paper will discuss the use that I have made of this mode of thinking to articulate and develop my views, especially in the philosophy of religion. In addition to focusing on specific areas in that discipline which have been of particular interest to me, this paper will also trace certain developments which led me to process thought.

As the title of the essay suggests, I regard process thought as a "conceptual framework." Hence, in attempting to address the theme of the symposium, my objective will be to explain the epistemological standpoint (as well as the cultural background) underlying my interest in process thought, a standpoint which makes me regard it as a conceptual framework.


Let me first of all elaborate on this epistemological standpoint by dealing with the question of whether there can be development or innovation in religious beliefs and in their transmission. This is because I view that question as to some extent an epistemological issue.1 That is to say, much depends on one’s understanding of the relationship between human knowledge and revelation. Some people, for instance, regard religious beliefs as propositional truths revealed by God and merely received by humans. Being faithful to God’s revelations means accepting them in their entirety without any alteration whatsoever. In this case the transmission of beliefs involves safeguarding what has been handed down from the past. Orthodoxy is being able not only to repeat the same teachings but also to show their relevance to the new context.2 Other individuals, on the other hand, interpret religious beliefs as merely expressions of the human community’s search for some kind of meaning, an accumulated source of information built up over the years as the community reflected on its life and activities. The development and the abandonment of certain beliefs are integral to this view of the status of religious beliefs.3 Such an interpretation is in stark contrast to the first one inasmuch as it has a different epistemological basis.

The position that I take lies midway between the two mentioned above. It acknowledges a human contribution in the formulation and transmission of religious beliefs, while accepting the possibility of divine revelation.4 Because God’s communication is being received by humans, there will always be an element in the whole process of understanding God’s revelation that is open to change and development. Being faithful to God’s word involves, according to this view, an acceptance of innovation in, as well as the rejection of, certain forms of expressing God’s revelation. The transmission of religious beliefs is part of a process of reflecting on what has been revealed, and a continuous search for more adequate ways of articulating that same revelation. This is because in formulating these doctrines there is the likelihood that certain elements do not (or may no longer) do justice to the original insights or experience. From this perspective then, orthodoxy could entail a more critical look at tradition, since what has been passed on may in fact be a perversion of the original message.

Just as there are different ways of expressing what someone has conveyed to us or of communicating a personal experience, so there are various ways of making Gods revelation known to others. Hence, the use of symbols, images, music and other non-verbal forms. But God’s revelation articulated in intellectual or conceptual forms usually results in a religious doctrine. Doctrine, therefore, is a further stage in the process of grasping God’s revelation and hence, of religious beliefs. Because doctrine is an intellectual expression, it tends to be more systematized. It is making more explicit what one held implicitly or what one has experienced.5 Ideally, doctrine should express adequately and faithfully what one grasps at the preconceptual stage. If it does, then one’s understanding of God’s revelation becomes richer and possibly more profound. But sometimes the process of conceptualization does not do justice to what one holds at the preconceptual level. Hence, the need to re-think and reinterpret the doctrine. This is why the attempt to express conceptually what we have received from or experienced about God is an on-going one.6

If the formation of doctrines is indeed a process, then one could identify certain stages. It seems useful to think of it as involving the stages of rejection, recognition, adjustment or adaptation, and acceptance. In this way it is possible to liken the efforts of developing our religious beliefs today to the work done by the early Christians who were faced with the task of systematizing their beliefs about God.7

One stage before arriving at a satisfactory formulation of doctrines is the rejection of alternatives. To some extent, it may be a matter of being more clear as to what something is not than what something is. In the case of the first Christians, they had the important challenge not only of formulating Christian doctrine which was faithful to what had been experienced by the believing community, but also of weeding out doctrines which could not be considered part of the Christian experience. For example, they rejected the customary belief in "gods" since ‘god’ was a severely debased coinage used to refer to popular religious cults of the day. When these Christians spoke of their God, they did not want their concept of God to be associated with the gods of popular religion.8

Another stage is that of recognizing or becoming aware of the value of a particular conceptualization. Here there is partial acceptance, and some similarities are noted. This stage in the process of understanding God’s revelation reveals the reasons why the early Church opted in favor of a philosophical framework in its attempts to conceptualize its faith-experience. The concept of God of the early Church was very much shaped by the philosophical schools of the day, especially Platonism and Stoicism. The first Christians belonged to the Graeco-Roman world and were concerned to speak to it. They wanted to convey the Christian message to their neighbors. Greek philosophy was an excellent medium. Moreover, they wanted to show the reasonableness of Christianity and the ability of Christian teachings to withstand a thorough examination by philosophy. Philosophy was then understood as a search for truth, critical of the mythical interpretation of reality. There was a parallel, therefore, between the philosophers’ task and their own. Both groups wanted to differentiate their beliefs about God from those of popular religions, which they regarded as superstitious. The early Christians furthermore found that philosophical categories helped them understand Christian revelation even more deeply than had been possible with biblical images. Philosophy met the need to achieve greater clarification of terms and ideas.

But one does not simply take over a favored formulation. There is need for adjustment or adaptation. One has to reshape what one has recognized as helpful. Thus, there is adaptation prior to adoption, of transformation before acceptance.9 Despite aligning itself with philosophy (thereby rejecting popular religion), the early Church did not completely identify its God with the God of the philosophers. The philosophers’ God, in spite of its acceptability as the ground of all being, did not have any religious significance. This God was absolute perfection and the culmination of one’s intellectual pursuit, but one could not pray to nor establish a personal relationship with such a God. Thus, some transformation was called for. Whether this stage was satisfactorily crossed or not is, of course, debatable. One suspects that the present demand for more relevant and adequate doctrines of God harks back to this period in Christian history.

The stage of acceptance of a particular formulation is really a further development. But it should not be regarded as a final stage if by that is meant no improvement can be expected. As time goes by, certain expressions or formulations become irrelevant or even misleading. Thus, the search for newer formulations is in effect an attempt to recover what has been obscured. The dissatisfaction felt by some with the doctrinal formulations regarding God worked out by the early Church has led to calls for more appropriate and contemporary expressions of the same Christian experience of God.

It will be observed then that the standpoint I take regards religious beliefs, including what we believe God to be, as likely to develop. This is because they are seen as the results of the continued efforts by human beings to find more relevant intellectual expressions of God’s revelation to them. There is, therefore, the serious challenge to meet the demands for more contemporary doctrinal formulations. 10 At the same time, however, reference was made on a number of occasions to doctrines doing or not doing justice to God’s revelation. The position sketched above thus respects the autonomy of revelation irrespective of whether this is understood as propositional truths or personal and communal experiences. Furthermore, revelation constitutes the more fundamental criterion for accepting or discarding different formulations or expressions. How it is so is, of course, a complex matter, especially given the difficulty of defining what revelation itself is.

But there are guidelines which can be helpful in our attempts to find the limits of doctrinal innovation. This is because the search for a satisfactory formulation of religious doctrines, while very much a personal matter, occurs within a specific context.11 That context is the religious community that we belong to. Insofar as that community has a history, we can and should constantly consult it. This is why scriptures occupy an important place in every religious community: they represent early and fundamental expressions of that community’s faith-experience.12 In fact, many religious believers regard scriptures as the embodiment of God’s disclosure to them or to their founder. Moreover, the community’s life and practice over the years have led to certain traditions. These represent that community’s witness to the revelation which it has received. Thus, in formulating religious doctrines we must always consider whether that community’s witness is being continued.


In the preceding section my attempt to explain the epistemological viewpoint which leads me to regard process thought as a conceptual framework centered on the question of whether there can be development in religious beliefs. I have argued that the answer to that question depends on one’s epistemological standpoint. Accordingly, I have outlined a position which views development as integral to a particular way of interpreting the status of religious beliefs, and have illustrated it with the way we image God. It is this epistemological standpoint which led me in search of more adequate conceptual frameworks to understand my experience as a Filipino Christian.

Let me now say something about that search. One of the difficulties encountered by many young Filipinos who had been trained in Western classical philosophy (which until recently was practically the only kind of philosophical training that was available in the Philippines) was the inadequacy of such a mode of thinking to articulate fully our experience as an Asian people. For despite our Western-type formal education, we continued to feel, think and behave in a typically non-Western way. At the same time, however, our exposure for several centuries to Western culture (particularly Spain and the USA) made us "unAsian" in a number of ways. There is some truth in the claim that Filipino culture is much closer to Spanish (and American) culture, than it is to Japanese, Chinese or Indian cultures. With Filipino nationalistic spirit growing among the students and professors of the 1960s, the issue of finding our identity as an Asian people deeply influenced by some Western ways of life became very important. Some Filipino philosophers and theologians, along with historians, artists and many others, turned to the development of what was considered "Filipino experience." In other words, we wanted to be able to articulate that experience in a way that did justice to it. For some of these Filipino philosophers and theologians, the classical mold somehow did not fit their experience. Hence, the search for alternative ones.

But in a way that search brought up more problems than solutions. Does one turn to native modes of thinking or to other Western conceptualities (i.e., other than the classical one)? The first option had the advantage of integrating more realistically concrete experience and intellectual expression, unhindered by foreign categories. That is certainly what many chose to adopt, resulting in the development of Filipino philosophy and theology. Some very good examples here are the writings of Vitaliano Gorospe (FVR) and Jose M. de Mesa (ISC). But a disadvantage here is the difficulty of establishing dialogue with non-Filipinos, who understandably would not be familiar with the intricacies of Filipino culture. Another option was to look for another Western conceptuality which, despite being removed from our native modes of thinking, would at least be more successful than the classical one that we had been educated in. But which one? Existentialism? Pragmatism? Linguistic analysis? Leonardo Mercado’s pioneering work (EFP) and Dionisio Miranda’s book (P), both of which employ linguistic analysis, readily come to mind. Such an option, however, would be immediately open to the criticism that one was trying "to look at Filipino experience through Western spectacles." But that weakness could be compensated for by the possibility of dialoguing with non-Filipinos. There was also that sneaking suspicion that we would not be taken seriously by our Western counterparts unless we could show that we were also knowledgeable in Western modes of thought. Hence, some of us continued our education in Western universities but kept alive our hope of being able to contribute to the efforts of articulating our Filipino identity.13 To what extent either group has been successful remains to be seen since, unfortunately, political and economic considerations have overshadowed the more cultural ones. What is clear is that more work needs to be done -- and, in my opinion, by both groups.


That search for more adequate ways of understanding our experiences led to my involvement with process thought. As a doctoral student in Ireland, I came across the work of Charles Hartshorne while I was exploring suitable research topics. I had become interested in the philosophy of religion, particularly in ways of thinking about God. My initial reaction to Hartshorne’s ideas was one of excitement, since my classical theistic background enabled me to understand what he was criticizing (and to identify with some of his criticisms). But what was more intriguing was that Hartshorne’s philosophy offered a different way of understanding one’s experience. Was it a more suitable way of expressing what Filipinos experience God to be? The more I read his writings the more I could see the gap between experience and conceptuality (as described earlier on), and between Asia and the West, narrowing.

My preliminary research into Hartshorne’s concept of God resulted in an article published in The Clergy Review which was a response to a criticism of him by Brian Davies, a British Thomist scholar.14 It appeared to me that Hartshorne’s critics failed to see that his claims about God had to be seen within the context of his metaphysics. As I read further into Hartshorne’s philosophy, I became convinced that many of his critics in Britain and elsewhere needed to see the interconnectedness of his ideas. In other words, there was an overall picture behind the details, many of which could only be appreciated if one took the trouble of reading several of Hartshorne’s writings.

It was this concern to present Hartshorne’s concept of God systematically that led to the publication of my first book, God in Process Thought (GPT). As John Cobb correctly noted in his review of the book, my aim in that book was to correct the many misinterpretations of Hartshorne that I had come across in my research, rather than to provide a critical discussion (MTh. 3/1). I had decided not to include my own criticisms of him (which have since been published in separate articles). It seemed to me that too many writers became critical too quickly without giving themselves time to first understand someone else’s claims. Besides, at that time I was already planning another book which would contain critical essays on Hartshorne’s concept of God by philosophers and theologians from diverse backgrounds and different countries.

The response I received from those invited to participate in the planned volume on Hartshorne’s concept of God was most encouraging. This collection of essays, Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of God: Philosophical and Theological Responses contains articles written from the perspectives of black theology (Theodore Walker), feminist theology (Sheila Greeve Davaney), Indian thought (Arabinda Basu), Thomism (W. Norris Clarke), Buddhism (John Ishihara) and Judaism (William E. Kaufman). Other essays in the collection compare and contrast Hartshorne’s theism with Latin American liberation theology (Peter C. Phan), with phenomenology and Buddhism (Hiroshi Endo), and with European philosophy (André Cloots and Jan Van der Veken). One essay (by Randall Morris) focuses on Hartshorne’s political thought, another (by Piotr Gutowski) on his conception of theology, and a third essay (by David Pailin) on his contributions to philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. One article (by Martin McNamara) examines some of the biblical evidence for process thought, while another (by Joseph Bracken) deals with Hartshorne’s interpretation of the God-world relationship and assesses that relationship with particular reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. Charles Hartshorne generously accepted the invitation to respond to these essays. Unfortunately, a Muslim representative was unable to finish his contribution in time for publication in this collection. The diversity of countries, perspectives, and cultures represented by the fourteen contributors showed the tremendous interest in Hartshorne’s neoclassical concept of God.

While I have generally been in agreement with Hartshorne’s philosophy of religion, I have had certain reservations about parts of it. In an article, "Hartshorne on Describing God" (MTh 3/2), I argued that while we can appreciate Hartshorne’s reasons for wanting to talk about God in a positive and literal manner, there are certain problematic areas in Hartshorne’s own God-talk. In another article, "Suffering and Creativity" (URAM12), I tried to evaluate Hartshorne’s explanation of the existence of evil -- and in particular, of suffering. Another area where I have had some difficulties with Hartshorne’s philosophy is his interpretation of human immortality in terms of "being remembered by God." In a forthcoming paper I try to show that Hartshorne’s version of immortality does not satisfy the search for the ultimate meaning of human life. Moreover, I argue that despite Hartshorne’s own claims, his metaphysics can be shown to be open to the possibility of postmortem immortality.15

While reading Hartshorne’s writings, I also became acquainted with the works of other process thinkers like Whitehead, Cobb, Ogden, Ford, Griffin and Pittenger. The more I read them, the more their ideas stimulated me. Furthermore, process thought has probably become the main conceptuality that is enabling me to develop my views. In a forthcoming book on suffering, I definitely turn to this mode of thought, while also drawing from literature, liberation theology and Asian thought.16 The initial interest in looking for more suitable conceptualities to express our Filipino experience remains and continues to challenge me. In that context the question for me is whether process thought would be of value in articulating our "Filipino identity." In this task the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro serves as a model for some of us (for the reason that I have already given) since, in reflecting on Japanese culture, he turned to Western conceptualities to enable a dialogue between the two to take place. Whether process thought would serve as a more suitable conceptuality for Filipino Christians remains to be seen.



CF -- M. Wiles. The Christian Fathers. London: SCM Press, 1977.

CHCG -- Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of God: Philosophical and Theological Responses. Ed. S. Sia. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.

EFP -- Leonardo N. Mercado. Elements of Filipino Philosophy. Tacloban City, Philippines: Divine Word University Publications, 1974.

FVR -- Vitaliano R. Gorospe. Filipino Values Revisited. Manila: National Bookstore, 1988.

GPT -- Santiago Sia. God in Process Thought: a Study in Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of God. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985.

HFP -- Teodoro Agoncillo and Milagros Guerrero. History of the Filipino People. Quezon City: Malaya Books, 1970.

IC -- J. Ratzinger. "The God of Faith and the God of the Fathers." Introduction to Christianity. London: Burns & Oates, 1968.

ISC -- Jose M. de Mesa. In Solidarity with the Culture: Studies in Theological Re-rooting. Quezon City: Maryhill School of Theology, 1987.

MTh 3/1 -- John Cobb. "Review of GPT." Modern Theology, 3/1 (1986).

MTh 3/2 -- Santiago Sia. "Charles Hartshorne on Describing God." Modern Theology, 3/2 (1987).

P -- Dionisio M. Miranda. Pagkamakatao: Reflections on the Theological Virtues in the Philippine Context. Manila: Divine Word Publications, 1987.

PT -- Process Theology and the Christian Doctrine of God. Ed. S. Sia. Petersham: St. Bede’s Publications, 1986.

URAM12 -- Santiago Sia. "Suffering and Creativity: a Contribution to Hartshorne’s Concept of Sole Reality URAM 1:115-129." Ultimate Reality and Meaning 12/3 (September, 1989).

WSD -- William Reiser. What are They Saying about Dogma? NY: Paulist Press, 1978.



1. In this section I merely want to show how there can be change and development in religious doctrines, since I see the issue as being mainly an epistemological one. William Reiser states that the problem of doctrinal development is not primarily an epistemological but an ontological one (WSD 61). It seems to me, however, that such a sharp distinction is unrealistic, since one’s epistemological perspective determines one’s ontology.

This section of the essay had originally been prepared for presentation at the 2nd Assembly of the World’s Religions. I am grateful to IRF for permission to incorporate it here.

2. This attitude is often described as fundamentalist. It can be found in both ordinary and sophisticated believers.

3. This view is usually associated with atheists and humanists, but some Christian theologians -- e.g., Don Cupitt -- appear to espouse it.

4. One of the controversial areas here is what revelation actually means. Does God’s revelation consist of propositional truths or is it a personal religious experience by the believer? While I am more inclined to favor the second view, the discussion in the text takes both into account.

5. It will be obvious that the approach I am taking here is similar to that which has been described by Reiser as "content versus expression" (WSD 20f). One of his criticisms of such an approach is that it seems to assume a Platonic theory of knowledge. However, as I hope the text will show, this is not necessarily so.

6. For a more detailed defense of this point, see MTh 3/2.

7. It may also be possible to understand in this way what many young people and believers from different cultural backgrounds are experiencing when confronted with particular forms or expressions of religious beliefs with which they cannot identify. It is perhaps important to note that rejection of certain doctrinal beliefs does not necessarily mean abandonment of religiosity, but a quest for a different way of expressing it.

8. My discussion of the use of philosophy by the first Christians draws heavily on IC and CF.

9. "Adaptation" is sometimes taken to mean that particular teachings are merely to be adapted to relevant cultural settings; for instance, reinterpreting Western thought from an Asian perspective. While there is room for talking about such a step, one should not ignore the specific contribution made by traditional cultures to the whole process of formulating Christian doctrines.

10. The concept of "contemporariness" is an elusive one. Nevertheless, in this respect we ought to pay particular attention to present-day cultural and social issues when we formulate religious doctrines today (such as the concerns being brought to our attention by liberation theologians and Third-World theologians). Nor should we overlook the key role played by inter-religious dialogue.

11. Although I have identified the context to be the religious community, it can also be said that the knowing process itself is contextualized.

12. Biblical hermeneutics has rightly alerted us to the problems involved in biblical interpretation. In turning to the Bible for doctrine, therefore, we should have due regard for the findings of biblical scholarship.

13. In Philippine history (see HEP) two of our national heroes stand out as illustrations of these two options: Jose Rizal was an outstanding thinker who had been trained in the West, while Emilio Jacinto, who stayed in the Philippines, was the brain behind the Katipunan movement. In my opinion, both were important in the development of Filipino consciousness.

14. Another British Thomist, Illtyd Trethowan, replied to my article. The debate which originally appeared in The Clergy Review has been reprinted in PT. To the three essays was added Hartshorne’s response to the debate. Essays by Cobb, Van der Veken, Bracken and O’Donnell were also included.

15. This paper is being prepared for the "Sixth Biennial Meeting of the International Society for the Study of Human Ideas on Ultimate Reality and Meaning," to be held in Toronto, Canada, on August 21-24, 1991.

16. This work, which has been co-written with Marian F. Sia, deals with the question: what kind of God can we continue to believe in despite the reality of so much suffering? It examines the theoretical issues (regarding God) which are implicit in our practical responses to suffering.