Process Thought and Process Theology

This past week, I traveled to Ontario, CA for the Emergent Village Theological Conversation at Claremont. Over three days we heard from Monica A. Coleman, John Cobb and Philip Clayton as they talked about process, practice and a dash of metaphysics. I came into the conversation without any prior familiarity with process thought; blame Baylor and Princeton if you must, but perhaps it was mentioned and I didn’t notice. ┬áRegardless, I came as one eager to learn and, from what I read before arriving, as one already in line with much of what they say.

On the plane ride home, I mentioned on Twitter that my conclusion for now is that I’m a process thinker but not a process theologian. Here’s what I mean. After the first day and a half of the conference, I was trying to sort out what it was that wasn’t sticking for me. If I agree with the content, for the most part, what seems out of place? I think it’s the fact that process began as a philosophy, not a theology. And you can tell the difference. That’s not meant to be a judgmental statement; it’s meant to be a clarifying one. Because a whole host of questions arise when I consider process theology. We seemed to bat around a number of them, with no real conclusion, such as Christology and eschatology. (Granted, it’s a lot to cover in a few hours.) ┬áMostly, my inner nerd theologian was dogged by questions about how they could prove this or that by the narrative of Scripture or the tradition of the Church or where and how, exactly, process flows out of the history of Christian thought. Honestly, I felt that much of what was spoken as process theology could not be discerned as much more than a hunch or a hope, or maybe both.

I found I could sidestep much of my dis-ease simply by classifying it a philosophy Pokies. Far less categories that need mental filing and a particular kind of treatment. Far more room for consideration and exploration. This may be simply because I was trained over a good set of years to think theologically in a certain kind of way. I’ll grant you that. But I know from talking with a number of other attendees that I wasn’t the only one who would find this distinction really helpful and also necessary.

I’ll have to do a lot more reading before I’m willing to classify myself as a process theologian. But I’m happy to say I’m inclined to process thought, and that it informs the way I hold and understand my theology.

On another note entirely, John Cobb is a dear, dear man. Eighty-six and sharp as a tack, he came into the sessions holding his wife’s hand and helping her into her chair. He talked without notes and could weave his answers and responses through seventeen other things before finally concluding with the question at hand. (If I could have one wish, it’s that his session on metaphysics would have lasted a few more hours.) He could not be more humble. Multiple times during the conversation he asked for help and feedback from others in the room…even though Cobb could obliterate all of us with his intellect. And even when he was discussing the possibility of human extinction and environmental armageddon, he never once raised his voice, or frowned, or lost his center. It’s perhaps the only reason why we could hear him talking so blatantly about it and not run trembling from the room. This is my favorite thing about the Theological Conversations. We are given the opportunity to be in the room not only with great thinkers, but with great human beings, from whose wisdom we can learn so much. Do you think we’ll be that centered and wise when we’re 86?!?! Here’s ┬áhoping.






  1. With your Canadian experience, Danielle, you are in the process of being an emergent process theologian! Shalom!

  2. I said to a few people that, at Princeton, process theology is sort of an addendum in the theology courses, like, “Oh, and there’s this Whitehead/Process approach to this doctrine over here, and you can chase that down in your own time if you’re so inclined. Now, back to Barth . . . ”

    I found myself thinking during the event (and texting a friend), “I think I’ve been a process thinker for awhile without realizing it.” Thinker, as you say, and not theologian. I’m just now reading my first John Cobb book.

    And, just for envy’s sake, those of us who live in Claremont and sit in meetings with John Cobb monthly are some of the luckiest people in the world.

    It was great to see you.

  3. Oh good, I’m glad to hear I didn’t miss an entire class of Whitehead because I was googly-eyed over Moltmann. :) What you said sounds about right!

    I plan on tackling some Whitehead this spring, as well as some more Cobb. Hope you soak up all that in-person goodness for the both of us!

    Great seeing you, too!

  4. thanks for the post Danielle. i would say you got three different Process theologies at the conference and as one who doesn’t mind the process theologian label i would add I am not comfortable with all three.

    it was most awesome to see you in person!

  5. Hi Danielle – The buzz about process theology seems to be growing these days. I keep finding myself wondering why. It’s a philosophical set of ideas that has very little to do with Christian ideas. It would be the equivalent of everyone suddenly thinking that Zen Buddhism had great insights about Christianity. Don’t get me wrong, there is something useful and good in most ideas and religions, but it seems most helpful to clarify basic distinctions. While I would happily accept insights from Zen Buddhism I would not feel the need to find them in Scripture or classify myself as a Zen Christian or that sort of thing. I wonder if process theology gets into the “christian theology club” just because of its label? But the metaphysics is the sticking point. Do people even get that everything Process Theology offers is based on process metaphysics? On the other hand, since most people don’t pay attention to that sort of argumentation it may be that process theology is destined to inhabit a kind of middle ground where some Christians accept some of its insights because they seem to be helpful without even knowing or accepting the metaphysics.

    Here’s another oddity: Most people will roundly reject the sort of metaphysical argumentation that attempts rational proofs of God (like you find, say, in Thomism). This is particularly true of the “post evangelical” set which is attracted to process theology. But behold! The metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead are acceptable. The whole thing is very odd. I prefer to run away from ALL metaphysical systems.


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