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Process Thought

In the last several decades there has been a growing movement within theology known as process theology. Influenced by the work of philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, this line of thought emphasizes the reality of becoming and change over static being.

Lest that sound too philosophical already, one may grant that our picture of the world has significantly altered over the last centuries, largely because of scientific theories, research and data. For instance, relativity in physics and evolutionary models in biology have certainly provided new insights into the physical world. Among the results of such scientific efforts we acknowledge that every element in the world is inter-related or interdependent and that forms of life evolve and change.

Process thought takes seriously scientific findings and views the world as an interlocking web of events, each of which displays a certain level of self-creativity. Each event, what Whitehead calls an actual occasion, moves toward some attainment of satisfaction. At the same time, each event feels, not necessarily consciously, some pull or initiative from the divine vision for its future. But any particular event, in its freedom, need not respond to such divine impulses.

Furthermore, each event has a dipolar quality about it—that is, for instance, each event feels the push and influence of the past as well as the pull and promise of the future. The past and the future influence the becoming of the new moment. “This is what I have been. Now, in light of my past, what can I become?”

Given this kind of dynamic and organismic understanding of the world, process theology speaks of matters of faith—God, power, love, justice, freedom, truth, creation, incarnation—in ways that are coherent, comprehensive, adequate and applicable. Immersed in the scientific era, process theology continues the traditional quest of “faith seeking understanding.”

But it does not rely on what it considers outmoded concepts of immutability, omnipotence, absoluteness, and the static category of substance to describe faith. Instead, process thought seeks its understanding of Jesus, his life and person, and the traditions he inspired, by using categories of change, becoming, and interdependence.

In this short space, a reference to a process understanding of love, even divine love, can be helpful. Love, in all of its vulnerability and sensitivity, must be involved in change. For if love is sensitive to circumstances and needs of the beloved or neighbor, love’s experience of the other brings joy, pain, satisfaction or suffering to the lover. That is, love changes in response to its experience. But on the other hand, love, if it is to be love, “alters not when it alteration finds,” as Shakespeare noted. That is, the character of love remains steadfast while the experience of love is constantly in flux.

Process thought insists that this dipolar quality of events is as applicable to God as it is to human or other events. God is not seen as an exception to the rules of the universe. Rather God is intimately involved in every event, a bit of the push and pull noted above. But not to the extent of controlling events. Rather God woos, serenades and lures events to become what they can become, respecting the creative freedom of each creature.

A great deal of literature has come out in the last 50 years expounding this approach. Current theologians who are particularly relevant include Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, John Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin, Jay McDaniel and Roland Faber among others. Further information is also available at www.ctr4process.org.

Fritz Fritschel, 2006


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