Ten Weaknesses of Process Theology
And Other Helpful Critiques
Ten Weaknesses of Process Theology
Having taught process philosophy and theology for many years, I am often asked: "But what are the weaknesses? What are the criticisms?"
I understand the question. I can be far too enthusiastic about process theology at the expense of being honest about its problems. For my part, I want to do a much better job at being honest about the weaknesses, at least as perceived by others and often as I perceive them, too. Thus I offer a list of ten weaknesses below.
I shared this list with some process friends, and a few responded that there are important currents in process theology that counter the criticisms. I agree. As I identify the perceived weaknesses, I know many process theologians who provide rich alternatives to the perceived weaknesses, all in the name of a living tradition called process theology. I am part of the tradition myself and trying to add to it in my way. But how can you add to a tradition -- how can a tradition grow and mature -- if it fails to hear criticisms? Isn't that just another instance of defensiveness, of making a god of being right? Those of us in the process tradition can help advance a creative transformation of process theology only as we hear the wisdom of these critiques, deeply and gratefully.
(1) The phenomenological inadequacy of the Whiteheadian understanding of human experience as compared with first-person accounts of experience found in literature and phenomenological traditions in philosophy. It's pretty hard to get from "actual occasions" -- especially if conceived primarily in miniscule, subatomic terms -- to first-person, subjective experience in the here-and-now. Levinas and Toni Morrison, the early Heidegger and William Faulkner speak much more deeply.
(2) An overemphasis on initial aims as the primary and perhaps exclusive way in which God may be 'experienced' in life, and the disinclination of many process theologians to meaningfully speak of other modes of divine presence: sacramentality of the natural world, the face of the stranger, the silence of the heart, the experience of wonder.
(3) The assumption, on the part of many who advocate process theology, that process theology means Christian process theology, neglecting the fact it has become, or at least is becoming, a multi-faith and trans-religious perspective. This assumption is especially painful to people who are developing spiritual and religious points of view from within other contexts: Jewish and Hindu and Confucian, for example.
(4) The assumption that, among Christian process theologians, Christian process theology seems to be for the most part Protestant Christian theology, at the expense of wisdom from Catholicism and Orthodoxy on the one hand, and wisdom from post-Western forms of Christianity on the other. Protestant Christians, including Protestant self-proclaimed "progressives," seem a bit presumptuous and ghettoized, out of touch with larger, fresher, and sometimes more ancient currents.
(5) The assumption that theology is primarily a matter of "thinking" about things, especially about worldviews; but somehow excludes perceiving, acting, celebrating, or participating in a community of faith. It lacks sensitivity to the wider range of religious life, including liturgical and community life.
(6) A general neglect of prayer and meditation in process theology. Even as we process theologians might speak of prayer and meditation, it can seem as if we are trying to make sense of them, but not willing to learn from them in ways that might challenge our already-existing commitments to something called "process theology." We seem especially neglectful of silent or contemplative prayer, in which prayer is not communicating with the mystery but rather resting in divine silence.
(7) A general neglect of the role of story in process theology. We come across much more inclined toward didactic prose, aimed at drawing conclusions, so that we might enjoy, in Whitehead's words, "a completed static state of mind" (Modes of Thought, 43). We prefer precision and clarity to lures for feeling which may be interesting even if not (necessarily) true.
Conjoined with this is a preoccupation with having the last word and having all the answers. We forget that, in Modes of Thought, Whitehead proposes that a sense of completion -- of the satisfied intellect -- is not true understanding. He says that exploring ideas in a way that is "incomplete and partial" contains, in his words, "fuller self-knowledge."
(8) A general neglect of context-based, experientially-engaged approaches to theology, such that theology begins with experience rather than with metaphysics. We tend to begin with ideas and then turn to experience, seeking to apply them.
(9) Lack of a sense of mystery and awe. We lack a recognition that God -- however understood -- is always more than our concept of God, not just because so "far away" but also because "more intimate,."
(10) Too preoccupied with the question of God in the first place -- and with other alleged ultimates -- at the expense of realizing that, for so many people, questions of survival, community well-being, family life and daily life are much more important. In our preoccupations we can seem irrelevant. Somehow it just doesn't ring true when we say: "Ah, but you really need metaphysics."
What's Wrong with Process Philosophy?
Process philosophy has its critics, too. Below please find five areas where, for some, process philosophy is weak or just plain wrong.
Some Philosophical Criticisms
1. Platonism: Some people find Whitehead's notion of eternal objects problematic; it just doesn't make sense to them that there may be a realm of pure potentialities available to the intellect but not perceivable to the senses. It seems too "Platonic" and for many in the modern world, Platonism is not a good thing.
2. Panexperientialism: Some people find Whitehead's idea that there is something like feeling, or at least subjective experience, in the depths of matter. They think that all evidence points to inorganic matter, to rocks and atoms and molecules, as lacking anything like subjectivity, even if unconscious.
3. Self-Determination: Some people find Whitehead's idea that we are partly free problematic. They are convinced that all things unfolds according to, in the words of one of my biology friends, "the laws of physics and chemistry," and that these laws point to the fact that all present events are completely "caused" by predecessor events.
4. Understanding of the Human Person: Some people find Whitehead's idea of the human person problematic, because the agent (the one who makes decisions) is not distinguishable from the agency (the decisions themselves.) It just doesn't seem right to say that a person is his or her experience, including acts of decision; it seems better to adopt the subject-predicate mode and say a person has his or her experiences.
5. God: Some people think that there is a whole lot of wisdom in Whitehead's view of the universe, but that he need not have added, and should not have added, an idea of God. They do not think that Whitehead's God is necessary for the cosmology he presents or, alternatively, that the reality to which he points -- a lure for order and novelty, a receptacle for the world's joys and sufferings -- is wrongly named "God," since it differs from more monarchical perspectives.
Objections to the Process Understanding of God
One of the chief forms of idolatry in religious life is defensiveness. If we are among the idolaters, our first impulse, when presented with criticisms, is to put up our armor and say of those who criticize us that they "really don't understand us" or "haven't done their homework" or are "unaware of the exceptions to their generalizations." We want to feel right about things, and our desire to feel right gets in the way of understanding whatever wisdom there is in their criticisms.
Perhaps our critics are partly right and partly wrong. This is true of most things. But if we are overly defensive, we focus on the partly wrong at the expense of the partly right. We have made a god of being right. We call it holding our ground or standing up for what we believe. But our most sensitive critics can see through the smoke. In truth we can't really listen, at least for very long, because we are afraid of what will happen if we do.
The Creative Transformation of Process Theology
I speak from experience, being an idolater myself. Moreover, when I go to conferences in which only process theologians are present, so often congratulating ourselves on the insights we carry, I sense that I am in a pep rally. It is as if I am at football game and "we" are on the right side, whereas "they" are on the wrong side. Yes, it seems to me that, on occasion, many of us who are enthusiastic about process theology fall into defensiveness. We can be deaf to criticisms, even if only partially true, because they make us feel insecure and invite us to change.
There is a great irony here. We speak of God as a spirit of creative transformation at work in the world. Thus it is all the more ironic that we can be afraid of transformation when it comes to the creative transformation of process theology as it might be enriched, deepened, widened, and corrected by criticisms.
Criticisms of the Process Idea of God
So what are the criticisms? Many people might assume that the dominant criticism of process theology concerns its view of God. Certainly this is one criticism and a powerful one.
For many believers who feel more orthodox or traditional in their thinking, the God of process theology does not seem strong enough, especially when it comes to creating the world or doing something about evil and tragedy.
After all, many process theologians believe that the universe unfolds as a series of cosmic epochs without a singular beginning or end; that God has never existed all alone without a plurality of actualities that are part of the larger whole; and that, if we speak of God creating the universe, what we really mean is that God lures pre-existing agencies into various forms of order and novelty relative to the situation at hand.
This idea is especially problematic for Christian critics who are steeped in the tradition of creatio ex nihilo. The idea that God creates by luring out of chaos, even if arguably biblical, seems pretty weak, compared to creating out of nothing. The God to whom we point is too puny.
This matters to them, not simply because they are preoccupied with origins, but because they place their trust -- or at least want to place their trust -- in a divine reality who can truly redeem evil and take human beings, and perhaps other living beings as well, to a final resting place in which all tears are wiped away. For them, only a God who creates out of nothing has the power to do this. A God who loves the world, but who simply lures the world, seems too weak. This God cannot resurrect things, in this life or the next.
Process theologians typically respond by saying that God acts through persuasion not coercion, that persuasive activity is more loving than coercive activity, and, if we are Christian, that what is revealed about God in the gospel of Christianity is that God is loving in just this way. We process theologians propose that the God of persuasion not coercion is closer to the God of Jesus and that the allegedly more powerful God -- the One who creates out of nothing -- is a mistaken rendering unto God that which belongs to Caesar. We see the God of "relational power" as more powerful than a God of unilateral power. With Rabbi Bradley Artson we say: "God Almighty? No Way."
So Who is Right?
Who knows? We process theologians may even be right in some way. But my point is that our preoccupation with being right misses the wisdom of those who see things another way.
And in our preoccupations with being right, we may miss common ground. For many Christians the importance of creation ex nihilo is not merely a matter of thinking that God would otherwise be too puny or that an afterlife would be less efficient in its transformative power. It is also about the internal logic of a religious language that tells the story of a God who is always bringing into being things that previously were not--be that a people, a pregnancy, a resurrection, a new creation. This is a story that is immensely important to process theologians, too. If affirmations of ex nihilo have this in mind, then process theologians can appreciate and learn from ex nihilo perspectives.*
After all, process theologians do not believe that important and good ideas are reducible to their doctrinal formulations. The idea that God creates out of nothing, important to many Christians, may be another way of affirming that the very power of God is about novelty and creative transformation. Creation out of nothing and creation out of chaos may elicit similar sensibilities even as they are conceptually at odds; for process theologians, it is the sensibilities that count most.
In any case, there is wisdom in their hope that, some day and in some way, the whole of creation now groaning in travail finds the happiness it seeks, even if now there is so much tragedy. And it is not simply Christian or Abrahamic. Mahayana Buddhists hope for this as well; this very hope is at the heart of the Bodhisattva Vow. Thus there is wisdom in the criticism of the process understanding of God, especially if it fails to honor and deal with this hope is a healthy and honest way.
For my part, I think process theology does deal adequately with this hope. I am on the side of those process theologians who hope for a continuing journey after death for all living beings, who seek a peace beyond all understanding, and I trust that God will be present in their lives, and with them, as the journey unfolds in fresh ways after death. In the technical terms of process theology, I believe in subjective immortality and not just objective immortality, and I am grateful to one of my favorite process theologians -- David Ray Griffin -- for making a strong case for this continuing journey on empirical grounds.
But I also know that God is always more than my concept of God, that I may be all wrong about it all, and that the critics of the process understanding of God may happen to be right. Who knows? Additionally, I trust that God is omni-adaptive, which means that, as I see things, God does not lure all people to think about God in the same way or, for that matter, to believe in God at all. When it comes to God, we process-influenced people have much to learn from points of view alternative to, and contradictory to, our own.
What to Do?
It seems to me that we process theologians need to be much more humble, much less preoccupied with nailing things down when it comes to God, and much more relaxed into the wisdom of Whitehead:
There remains the final reflection, how shallow, puny and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly. (PR xiv)
When it comes to God, if we must stand our ground in defense of an alternative to monarchical theism, let's do a little kneeling before the altar of mystery, too. Life is much too short to try to be "right" about all things.
* I am grateful to Reverend Teri Daily, a contributor to JJB, for the points made in this paragraph and also for insights in "Ten Weaknesses in Process Theology." She is not a process theologian, but she is a relational thinker through and through, who has learned from process theology. See "What I Learn from Process Theology." She finds the doctrine and sensibilities of the Trinity an invitation toward relational thinking, and her perspective has much in common with process understanding of how God holds all things together in the space of an opened heart. See her "The Space within the Trinity: All Beings Included."