Process Theology as Political Theology
by John B. Cobb, Jr.


This book is about process theology and its relevance to the world of public affairs. It is written as a response to an important and impressive movement of theology into the public arena since the mid-sixties. This development has expressed itself in the theology of hope, the theology of liberation, and political theology. Each of these theologies deals with all three themes, but the choice of label usually correlates with the actual emphasis and focus.

Viewed in the light of these terms, developed chiefly in Germany and Latin America, with special contributions by Blacks and women in the United States, twentieth-century white male theology in the United States is not found entirely wanting. All three themes have been present in important ways. This has been true of the specific tradition of process theology as well. Yet in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, while continuing to contribute to discussions of hope and freedom, process theologians lagged far behind in the discussion of Christian responsibility for public affairs, especially as these are politically conceived. In relation to these topics most of our work remained abstract.1 The theology of hope, the theology of liberation, and political theology jointly constitute a challenge to which process theology has not yet adequately responded. The distinctive thrust of this challenge appears most clearly in political theology. This is one reason that political theology is taken as the conversation partner in this book.

A second reason for engaging political theology instead of liberation theology can also be briefly explained. Liberation theology in its actual form and practice attends to a concrete liberation. It may be liberation of Blacks from oppression by racist society in the United States or liberation of Latin American peasants and workers from the bondage of economic colonialism and class oppression. When white representatives of the politically and economically dominant nations find themselves drawn to join forces with Blacks or Latin Americans, we are usually told that our task is to deal with our own situation, sensitive to what it is doing to others. German political theology developed in the context of the globally dominant white society, and it is accordingly more directly transferable to the situation of whites in the United States, among whom process theology so far has its primary home.2

A third reason for selecting political theology rather than liberation theology for discussion in this book is that other process theologians have begun the dialogue with liberation theology, and I am confident that this will continue. Two books have recently been published which considerably advance this conversation and the movement toward appropriation by process theology of central themes of liberation theology.

Schubert Ogden has published Faith and Freedom, which he subtitles ‘Toward a theology of liberation’ .3 He describes the challenge of liberation theologies as the call ‘to join them in working toward a still more adequate understanding of faith and freedom’.4 To do so, he argues, we must distinguish without separating a double meaning in the idea of liberation. Liberation includes both redemption and emancipation.5 Ogden identifies God’s redemption as the boundless acceptance of all things, even sinners, into the divine life. Knowledge of our acceptance frees us to share in the work of emancipating people from the many bondages under which they labour. Ogden charges that most liberation theologies fail to keep this distinction clearly in mind. They tend also to focus on the meaning of God for us, without clarifying who and what God is as such. Each theology tends to treat only one form of bondage neglecting those treated by other liberation theologies and also narrowing the concern for liberation to human beings.

Ogden makes a clear distinction between witness and theology. Theology is critical reflection about the witness. As he sees it most of the liberation theologies are chiefly a matter of witness. This in no way depreciates their value,6 but it does mean that another task still remains largely to be done, that is, the critical reflection about the witness which is theology as such.

The second recent book to advance the response of process theology to liberation theology significantly is Delwin Brown’s To Set at Liberty.7 This is not so much a critical response to the challenge of the liberation theologies as a reflection on freedom stimulated by this literature. Brown surveys the history of Western thinking about freedom and develops a contemporary formulation. He then gives expression to a theological vision centering around freedom. He formulates a doctrine of God as ‘the lure toward freedom’, a doctrine of sin as ‘the denial of freedom’, a Christology as ‘the confirmation of freedom’, and a soteriology as ‘the future of freedom’. Throughout, he interacts appreciatively with the theologians of hope and liberation, especially Jurgen Moltmann and the Latin American liberation theologians. Although Brown does not uncritically agree with everything said by theologians of liberation, he presents his form of process theology more as a supplementation and conceptual grounding of their insights than as expressing a different understanding of the theological task.

Brown does not treat the theologians of hope and liberation as a breed apart but rather as a part of the mainstream of Christian theology in full continuity with the tradition. Similarly he does not present his own views as in contrast with theirs but rather as a contribution to working out and further developing the persuasive ideas he adopts from them. Whitehead’s philosophy, he shows, far from offering an antithetical direction for theology, can deepen and ground the central commitment to liberation.

The responses of Ogden and Brown to liberation theologies quite properly centre in fresh reflections about the perennial problem of freedom. That topic is one on which process theology has always had much to say. The weakness of recent process theology is that the discussion of freedom remains somewhat abstract in relation to actual practice in political life. In order to engage political issues more directly it seems well to supplement the discussion of freedom stimulated by liberation theology with a discussion of the relation to the political sphere stimulated by political theology. In doing so I find myself working alongside David Tracy, whose Blessed Rage for Order8 advocates a revisionist theology of a process mode and points forward, in a concluding chapter, to ‘The Praxis of a revisionist theory’.

This rather lengthy explanation of the choice of political theology as dialogue partner has juxtaposed it only to liberation theology, whereas theology of hope was listed as a third form of the same general movement. The choice of political theology rather than theology of hope can be explained much more briefly. The topic of hope has been a consistent theme of process theology.9 The weakness of process theology has been not neglect of the topic but neglect of its practical meaning for public problems. This neglect is overcome by Moltmann, whose thought thereby offers a sharp challenge to process theology. But precisely this aspect of Molt-mann’s work is also political theology and is recognised and named as such by him.

Whereas process theology has just begun to respond to Black and Latin American liberation theologies, the relation to the theology of women’s liberation is quite different. Among the theologies that were established before the rise of the current women’s movement, process theology has proved the most congenial to it. The criticisms of the classical doctrine of God by process theologians, for example, are parallel to those directed against the doctrine by women. Also the oppositions to a dualistic separation of mind and body or ‘mane and nature are comparable in the two movements.10 Process theology and feminist theology today overlap in a healthy way, and there is every indication that feminists will play leading roles in the further development of process theology.

This eminently desirable relation of process theology to this form of liberation theology, however, has not yet gone far to overcome the abstractness of process theology in relation to the political sphere. Feminists include this sphere in their concerns, and this provides further motivation for process theology to engage political theology. In dealing with political theology from the perspective of process theology it will be important to keep centrally in view what has already been learned through a partial assimilation of feminist insights.

My own journey to political theology has been through the impact of concern for the global environment. Since childhood I have been interested in politics and especially in international affairs. Later, Reinhold Niebuhr constituted my first taste of serious Christian theology, and he has been a hero for me ever since. Yet until 1969 my theology developed rather independently of my political concerns. Only my realisation in that year that the whole human race was on a collision course with disaster shook me out of this dualism and forced me to rethink my theology in light of this most inclusive question of human destiny. I found rich resources for this rethinking in the process tradition out of which I already worked, and especially in the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.

Although the questions which I was driven to raise were political in the broad sense, they came only gradually to focus on politics in the narrower sense which seemed to dominate those who called themselves political theologians. As time passed I realised that their understanding of politics was broader than I had supposed, and I increasingly saw the importance of what they were saying. But my progress was slow. The introduction to process theology which David Griffin and I wrote together in 1975 as a summary of where we had come accurately reflects the interests and concerns that had dominated our reflection prior to that time.11 Political interests, in the narrower sense of political, were consciously omitted because we had not engaged them sufficiently to have anything distinctive to say. About that time I began working on a book with the Australian biologist Charles Birch.12 Our shared concern was to address some of the public issues of our day from the perspective of a different understanding of the nature of reality and especially of life. The manuscript, recently completed, concludes with wide-ranging proposals for implementing the World Council of Churches call for a just, participatory and sustainable society. My work on the present book overlaps with the writing of that one, and some of the content of Chapters Five and Six is similar to short segments of the other book. It is from the perspective of these commitments, which have become increasingly controlling of my work, that I am finally ready to approach the challenge of political theology with real readiness to learn. In my case it is taking a long time to become a political theologian, and I feel a deep respect for those who found their way to this destination ahead of me. Of course the path I have followed and the journey I am still on shape the questions that I ask and lead to dissatisfaction with some of the answers that I find. My aim is to become a political theologian in the tradition of process theology.

The theologian who initiated contemporary political theology and who has most consistently attended to its development is Johann Baptist Metz. The recent writings of Metz will play the largest role in defining the position of political theology in this book. However, the term political theology has been used by others who have come to their understanding in different ways. Jurgen Moltmann and Dorothee Sölle are two of these, and some attention will be given to their writings specifically on the subject of political theology.

The book is emphatically not a critical and comprehensive study of this important movement in recent German theology or of any of its leaders. Others have provided such studies,13 and I am dependent on their work. In the first chapter 1 locate this movement in relation to earlier forms of political theology and indicate its general form and emphases. I hope that enough is said for the claim that process theology, too, ought to become a political theology to be understood.

Chapter Two surveys the longer tradition at Chicago which in the past generation has been called process theology. The survey is guided by implicit attention to the challenge of political theology. The argument is that the Chicago school arose in the context of the social gospel, a movement that had much in common with contemporary political theology and that, under the stimulus of political theology, this school can recover something of what it had lost as well as move forward in new ways.

The third chapter begins the constructive task. This is the task of assimilating the rich insights already offered by political theology and relating them to the distinctive resources of process theology. This involves implicit and sometimes explicit criticism of existing formulations of political theology for what appear, from the perspective of process theology, to be lacunae or one-sided statements. The primary intention, however, is not so much to criticise this theology as to contribute to its further development. That means that the proposals inspired by the tradition of process theology are put forward in hopes of being found useful by those who have come to political theology in other ways. But whether useful to others or not, the proposals have their importance for process theology itself if it is to become a political theology. In the third chapter this constructive work centres on questions of theological method.

The fourth chapter carries on this constructive work but turns from questions of method to those of content. Process theologians are accustomed to seek conceptual clarity as grounds for existential significance. To us some of the doctrinal formulations of political theologians, while moving, do not answer questions which we cannot avoid asking. To us it seems that lack of clear answers to these questions cannot but adversely affect the movement of political theology itself in the long run. It also seems that the answers to these questions formulated by process thinkers are highly congenial to what the German political theologians are saying. In this chapter I offer process doctrines of God and eschatology in their supportive relationship to the important ideas that process theology can and should assimilate from political theologians.

Political theology has already done fine work in clarifying the relation of faith to the political sphere and in showing what the church must do in order that the appropriate relation be realised. But for a variety of reasons German theologians have been reluctant to enter the arena of political theory itself. Some of these reasons are valid, but from the point of view of a process theologian it is appropriate to go somewhat further in the direction of clarifying the principles that should guide Christians in their political aims. Chapter Five offers an expansion of principles already found in the writings of political theologians. This expansion draws on the resources of process thought.

Chapter Six discusses the scope of the political. From the perspective of process theology German political theology has dealt with reality in socio-historical terms, similar to those that dominated the first phase of the Chicago school. This is commendable. But in the past thirty or forty years, and especially during the seventies, process theology has widened its horizons so as to set human social history in the context of the entire history of life on this planet. The society of which we are a part includes the non-human world. Once this point of view has been assimilated, one cannot be satisfied with the anthropocentric perspective that underlies most of German political theology. This chapter proposes that the horizons of political theology should be so broadened that it can be formulated as an ecological theology rather than as a sociological theology.

Metz contrasts the proper work of a political theology, as a practical fundamental theology, with what he calls an evolutionary approach. What he rejects seems to include all forms of explanatory overviews of history. In Chapter Seven his position is presented and critically appraised. An alternative view of the value of a theology of history for Christian faith is offered.

An earlier version of much of the material in this book was presented in the Ferguson Lectures at the University of Manchester in March 1980. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my hosts there and especially Prof. and Mrs David Pailin. Some of the material, in revised form, was also presented as the Nuveen Lectures at the University of Chicago Divinity School and again in the Distinguished Visiting Lectureship Program of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. A portion of the material was given as a single lecture at several continental universities, and a French translation of this lecture may be published in the Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses. A slightly different English language version has been published in a Belgian journal.14 There is some overlap also with a lecture delivered at the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University and to be published by it.

The Ferguson lectures came at an earlier point in my research on the topics treated than I had intended. As a result I have been more than usually dependent on the critical assistance of persons who know the literature better than I. The assistance of Matthew Lamb was particularly important in guiding me away from serious distortions in my representation of Metz. Bernard Meland assisted me in coming to more accurate formulations of the development of the Chicago school. Others who have read the entire manuscript at some stage of its writing and given helpful responses are David Griffin, Franklin I. Gamwell, David Vergin and Ignacio Castuera. I am grateful for assistance to typists at both the School of Theology at Claremont and the University of Chicago Divinity School. My assistant Jan Ritzau gave a great deal of time to bringing my footnotes into some semblance of order.



1 Although this criticism must be accepted by process theologians, process theology has never been as lacking in relevance to public affairs as some critics have supposed. For books published in the sixties see Note 22 to Chapter Two. During the seventies process theologians have dealt more with environmental problems than social ones. See books and articles by Ian Barbour, Charles Birch, John Cobb, David Griffin, Charles Hartshorne, Schubert Ogden and others. But during this period Widick Schroeder has continued to give leadership in the discussion of social issues. See W. Widick Schroeder, Cognitive Structures and Religious Research: Essays in Sociology and Theology (East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University, 1970).

See also the collection of essays by process theologians in John B.

Cobb, Jr. and W. Widick Schroeder, ed., Process Philosophy and

Social Thought (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion,

1981). More specific responses to the challenge of liberation theology are discussed below.

2 Moltmann, whom we will treat as a major example of ‘political theology’, understands his own response to the challenge of liberation theologies as also a liberation theology, this time for the oppressors. See Jiirgen Moltmann with M. Douglas Meeks, ‘The liberaction of oppressors’, Christianity and Crisis (25 Dec. 1978), pp. 310-17. Salle, another central figure in developing political theology, now describes political theology as hardly more than a step toward liberation theology. ‘The development of a political theology over against a personal existentialist one was a transition; we made a first cautious step, and we still used an almost neutralized language that included ambiguities.’ Dorothee Salle, ‘Resistance: toward a first World theology’, Christianity and Crisis (23 July 1979), p. 178.

3 Schubert Ogden, Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 1979).

4 Ibid ., p.43.

5 This distinction has, of course, been widely recognised. It is interesting to compare Ogden’s treatment with that of Metz in ‘Redemption and emancipation’, first published in English in Cross Currents and included, in an adapted version, as Chapter 7 in Faith in History and

Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. David

Smith (New York: Seabury Press, 1980).

6 Despite Ogden’s intention, his formulations can appear to depreciate liberation theology. See James H. Cone, ‘A critical response to

Schubert Ogden’s Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liheration~ Perkins Journal (fall 1979), pp. 51-5.

7 Delwin Brown, To Set at Liberty (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books,


8 David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order: the New Pluralism in Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1975).

9 See, e.g., Daniel Day Williams, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1949).

10 See Sheila Davaney, ed., Feminism and Process Thought (New York & Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1981).

11 John B. Cobb, Jr. and David R. Griffin, Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia, Pa: Westminster Press, 1977).

12 L. Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Life (Cambridge: University Press, 1981).

13 On Moltmann see M. Douglas Meeks, Origins of the Theology of Hope (Philadelphia, Pa: Fortress Press, 1974). On Metz see Roger Dick Johns, Man in the World: the Political Theology of Johannes Baptist Metz (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1976). 1 have not found a comparable study of Solle. For a critical study locating contemporary political theology in the German theological context see Siegfried Wiedenhaber, Politische Theologie (Stuttgart: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 1976). This includes a detailed bibliography.

14 John B. Cobb, Jr., ‘Process theology and the doctrine of God’, Bijdgragen, vol. 41, No. 4 (1980), pp. 350-67.