A new look, a new system (Processing, please wait 2)

March 30th, 2014
by Chris

I’ve been avoiding looking more closely at process theology for years, despite knowing that it dovetails well with panentheism – and I determined that I was a panentheist very early in my spiritual life – and also with modern science.

In my last post I mentioned that I’d been kicked into thinking of it again by a scad of blog posts around December and January, but I also was involved with editing a new short book “Process Theology” by Bruce Epperley last year, which I recommend, and which had already started me thinking in that direction. If there’s a major snag to that book, it’s that it’s too short – it’s part of Energion Publications’ “Topical Line Drives” series, which are designed to be very concise. Its shortness and directness is also its greatest advantage, mind you! Bruce Epperley is one of the three or four most prominent process theologians around, so despite its brevity, this is a serious book.

Why was I avoiding it? Well, I am not a philosopher by inclination or training (or, probably, natural ability – philosophy seems to require a certain mindset with which I tend to become impatient). My major interest is in articulating ways of talking about a mystical consciousness of God, and as anyone who has read (for instance) Meister Eckhart will appreciate, while the result may look fairly philosophical, it mainly shows up the inadequacy of human language and concepts to express an experience of something as awesome as God and his relationship with us (and the cosmos).

(Some of my friends use “awesome” a lot in talking of God. No, I have not “gone over to the other side”; I just think that “mind-boggling” and “ineffable” are aspects which need stressing here!)

My first contacts with Process were however through Whitehead’s writings and formulations, and this launches you straight into fairly heavyweight philosophy. I’ve also found Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb less than easy going when they start talking about process, though I like Hartshorne’s demolition of the “omni” concepts (and have blogged about this before). It seems to me that a lot of what is actually wrong with classical Theology comes from arriving at philosophical positions which are somewhat supported by scripture and then using those as guide to reinterpreting the rest of scripture. Perhaps naively, I tend to think that scripture should be allowed as much as is possible to speak from its own historic context without imposing systems on it, and it did rather appear to me that Process, in common with much philosophy of religion, was assisting in imposing systems.

Philosophical language is certainly one way of articulating ways of “talking about a mystical consciousness of God”, though. Indeed, as I’ve mentioned the problem of expressing mystical experience in human language, it might have some merit in expanding the vocabulary. The problem, to me, is when the philosophy overtakes the fact that we are talking about human experience of God, which has tended to be the case with the writings of Whitehead et al. I’m hoping in this series of posts to work out how Process may be of use to me in doing this, hopefully without philosophically dense language.

As I am at root a scientist, I take this mystical experience as being my primary data set. Data is data; you can’t say “I don’t like this data, it can’t be right, it doesn’t fit the theory” (provided you’ve eliminated things like deliberate falsification and accounted for any bias in your instrumentation – which I grant is no simple thing as your instrumentation here is individual human consciousnesses). No, if the data doesn’t fit the theory, the theory needs to be altered, as I suggested in my last post is the case with classical theology and will be expanding on later.

Mostly, of course, theories in science are adjusted very slightly; if a theory has worked reasonably well (and in order to last, it must have worked reasonably well) it must have been describing the situation fairly well; it gets changed to accommodate some data which just didn’t fit, and usually this can be achieved by a slight tweak to the theory. Very occasionally there is a revolution in thinking, and an entirely new way of conceiving of something comes along (relativity and quantum theory are two examples from my old scientific sphere), but even then they tend to allow the old theory to be a “special case”, as in the case of relativity; Newtonian mechanics still works well in non-relativistic cases.

Process is, however, a radical rethinking, not a slight adjustment, as I indicated in my last post; a “new operating system”. Bruce Epperley’s book makes a start on providing a way of doing the adjusting, to be sure, but can’t in that few pages really address all the implications of this way of thinking differently about God. In addition, it is probably foolish to talk of “Process Theology” as if it were an uniform thing – it isn’t; Process Theologians share some major basic ideas, but there are many slightly differing Process Theologies, and Dr. Epperley’s is one of those; slightly different from (for example) Whitehead’s rarified philosophical version and different again from John B. Cobb’s worked through thinking.

So what I’m proposing is to take Process thinking and see if it expands my ability to talk about mystical consciousness of God without getting overly philosophically technical or letting the philosophy take over the – er – process.

The most fundamental novel aspect of process theology is that in it, God is capable of changing, and indeed does change. Dr. Epperley comments that philosophically, Process stresses movement, change, relationship, possibility, creativity, freedom, and open-endedness. It follows that Process does not regard God as being unchanging, or impassible (that is to say emotionally unmoved), or in principle separated from humanity. It doesn’t stress the concept of perfection, though perfection could be incorporated as long as it isn’t regarded as something static; certainly it doesn’t start by positing the perfection of God and then deducing multiple other things from that.

It also doesn’t regard God as being either omnipotent or omniscient in anything remotely like the classical sense. Charles Hartshorne, a process theologian, has to my mind exposed the impossibility of both of these characterstics in “Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes”. They both, of course, tend to spring from consideration of God as unchangeably perfect.

Process is also fundamentally unitive rather than divisive. It sees connection and interdependence rather than separation and independence, it sees the unity of all things in God rather than a vast gulf placed between the Creator and the created, and finally it doesn’t rest on a duality of spirit and matter or of ideals and the concrete.

In my next post, I will look at some of the ways in which I think classical Theology has failed us, to underline why it is worth looking at Process as a way forward.

 

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