Processing – end of run.

In the first post in this series, I talked about how classical philosophical ideas didn’t cope well with modern science, and suggested that the same might hold with theology. In the second, I talked a bit about Process Theology and why I’d avoided it to date. In the third, I outlined some concepts in classical theology and three problems which that gives rise to. In the fourth, I explored two less than fortunate consequences of the dualism of classical Greek philosophy; this post deals with more.

To amplify further, classical philosophy dealt, by and large, with metaphysics, that which lay beyond physics. The “physics of the day” was more advanced in many respects than it had any right to be, considering that it had almost no conception of scientific method and was drawn almost entirely from musing on data drawn from everyday experience. I say “more advanced” because it had, for instance, the concept of the “atom”, the a-tomos, the undivisible minute building block of all matter, the concepts of force, power and potential, even, arguably, the concept of the field. These concepts took physics a very long way, indeed up to the point at which Einstein proposed matter-energy equivalence, special and general relativity, quanta and wave-particle duality (and various other scientists were proposing other equally revolutionary breaks with anything which could be sensibly described by the physics of the day).

The classical metaphysics followed the same lines, and used the same concepts as its building blocks.

The snag is that we now have a better understanding of the material world in which concepts such as “essence”, “the material”, even “spirit” do not have anything like the same basis as they did in the classical world (and we need to remember that the thinking of the classical world was effectively the only way to think until at the earliest the nineteenth century, although some philosophers and theologians had been delving beyond that as early as the seventeenth century). Some of them are, in truth, incoherent in the eyes of a Physicist (and I used to be one).

The sixth (and for the moment the last) problem is the failure of classical philosophical ideas to deal with continua and with enmeshed and interdependent phenomena, which are a significant feature of modern physics. This leads, in theology, inter alia to a tendency to create binary opposites; that dealt with in the last post (spirit and matter), heaven and hell, good and evil, God and Satan, sinful and justified (or redeemed, or forgiven), orthodoxy and heresy as some of many instances.

Callid Keefe-Perry puts things this way:- “One of the struggles that I believe we face is that even the language we use to talk about talking about God is marred with the marks of a Hellenization that does not well suit the numinous.  When we postulate that God may be too transcendent, we seem to be articulating a vision of God that is somehow fixed “out there,” something akin a quasi-Platonic Form of Divinity.  Indeed, Plato’s description of the Form of Beauty seems not too far removed from how many talk about God: “It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself” (The Symposium, 211b).  That is, the transcendent Form is so far removed from our world and our experience of the world that the best we can hope to do is experience some lesser reproduction of the thing.  The result of this thinking then, is that the best we can do when attempting to articulate something transcendent is hope to name some flawed copy of the thing we actually sought to speak.  I reject this construction.”

Now, process doesn’t really suffer from this dualism, as it stresses interconnectedness and relationship over hard and fast boundaries. It tends more to see things as centered on some point, but as attenuating from that point and not being really “bounded”, if indeed it sees things as “things” at all – there is more of a tendency to talk of “events” and, of course, “processes”. In addition, at the level of human beings as biological entities, we are, in terms of modern concepts of biology, not discrete entities – we are, for instance, dependent for our functioning on a host of bacteria (as many Yoghurt adverts will tell you); we are not on the level of groups of us truly independent, as most models of social structure will say. As such, process-relational thinking is a far better fit to what we now know about the most basic mechanisms of the universe.

It is also, however, a better fit with scripture. The bulk of scripture is the Hebrew Scriptures, which were by and large not written with a classical Greek philosophical framework. The result is that concepts such as omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, impassibility and even incorporeality, transcendence and simplicity are at best underdetermined by the texts and at worst flatly contradicted by some. Yes, you can find proof texts which state something about God which is along each of these lines, but you can find other texts which cannot be sensibly understood if you attribute to God these characteristics.

The result is that in the writings of, for instance, Bruce Epperley and John Cobb, process theology starts looking very promising as an alternative way of looking at theology to replace the Platonism or Aristotelianism of traditional theology.

Bo Sanders says of Process-Relational theology:- “This is not a simple tweak of the existing system (like Open theology). This is not a program that you just download and install into your already in place operating system. It is not a patch that employ to get rid of the bugs and kinks in the classical program. Relational thought is a different operating system (to use the fun Mac v. Microsoft Windows analogy).” He also remarks:- “When someone looks into Process (or many other schools) and wades into the explanation against substance/matter and its replacement with packets of time/moments/actualities – it is just too much jabber-talkie and vocabulary.”

Here is the real problem: although in the writings of process theologians (as opposed to process philosophers) Process is very attractive, there is a really major shift in how you need to start viewing the universe as a whole, not just how you view theology. I’ve already confessed to a certain degree of blind spot towards philosophy generally, although I also feel a need to be as solidly based as it’s possible for me to be. That said, for upwards of 40 years I’ve looked at the universe at its most basic level as not being composed of “things”, not being best described by a substance/matter kind of description, and I’m happy to carry on with that.

However, I also learn from that background that it isn’t on the whole useful to expand that way of looking at things to a more general context. I may, for instance, know that both myself and the wall next to me are composed of emptiness with some widely spaced vibrations going on (and as a result of mystical experience be entirely confident that the boundary between myself and these things is not a true boundary at all), but that does not mean I can get up and walk through the wall (as direct collision of the vibrations could in theory be avoided). I am sitting on a chair; I do not fall through it, despite it being composed mostly of empty space. It is far more practical for me to regard the wall, the chair and myself as distinct objects occupying discrete amounts of space. A really good comprehensive theology should reflect that, as well as the basic fact of my being a set of vibrations.

However, as the universe is clearly (from physics) a set of vibrations, of events and processes, rather than a set discrete entities (or a single entity), and as at the biological and social levels I am not truly single, separated and discrete, a really good comprehensive theology should reflect that as well. That may not be “process” as such, but it has to be relational.


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