Open and Process Theologies Blur?
Open and process theologies have much in common. But differences also exist. The future of open theology, in my view, will be largely shaped by ongoing conversations between the two theological perspectives. But I expect them to draw closer and their boundaries to blur.
In a previous blog essay, I talked about the future of open theology. I looked briefly at the present state of open theology, as I see it, and speculated about what the future might be.
I’m especially interested in the future relationship between openness and process theologies. In Evangelical circles, openness theologians have primarily argued with or against theologians informed by the Calvinist theological perspective. In those discussions, open theologians have often worked hard to distinguish themselves from process theology on a number of points.
The formal conversation between open theologians and process theologians began not long after the publication of the groundbreaking book, The Openness of God. In 1997, the Center for Process Studies brought together for discussion self-identifying openness thinkers and self-identifying process thinkers. The several days, semi-private meeting was intriguing on many levels, with about 30 participants involved.
I was a graduate student at Claremont during this time, and I was invited to participate. What I remember most from those meetings was the common Christian piety the process “liberals” and openness “evangelicals” shared. Several process thinkers shared personal stories of growing up in Evangelical traditions only to feel that they needed to leave upon finding open and relational ideas attractive.
The following year, in 1998, many openness thinkers returned to Claremont for the Center for Process Studies Whitehead conference. Papers given at the subsequent conference by David Griffin, William Hasker, Richard Rice, Nancy Howell, and David Wheeler comprised the book, Searching for an Adequate God (Eerdmans), edited by Clark Pinnock and John Cobb.
The Future of the Openness-Process Conversation
The authors of The Openness of God have generally sought to distinguish their view from process theology. And many openness thinkers from Evangelical communities continue to make these distinctions today. In fact, there is often immense political pressure in Evangelical communities to avoid being associated with the “process” label.
My hunch, however, is that the future of openness theology will involve blurring of lines between the two theological perspectives. I doubt the open theology and process theology will ever entirely collapse into one perspective. But I expect the overlap and hybridization to increase among those pursuing constructive theology in the general open and relational theological tradition.
Here are five reasons I think the lines between open theology and process theology will continue to blur in future years:
1. Essence? – It is difficult to identify the “essence” of open theology. As a number of internet communities dedicated to openness theology have discovered, significant diversity abounds among self-identified openness thinkers around important issues like Christology, eschatology, ethics, biblical inspiration, and divine power.
The closest thing to an essence in open theology is a rejection of the classical view of divine foreknowledge and insistence that the future is open even for God. Openness thinkers themselves have alternative ways of talking about God’s omniscience and relation to the future. Alan Rhoda and William Hasker, for instance, are both prominent openness philosophers with different views of how to conceptualize God’s omniscience.
Likewise, it is difficult if not impossible to find an essence of process theology. Leading process theologian, John Cobb, insists there is no essence. By contrast, David Griffin identifies ten “core doctrines” of process theology.
Incidentally, very few outside the process camp define process theology in ways that most self-identifying process thinkers define it. When someone says to me, “process theology is unorthodox,” I often ask, “What do you mean by ‘process theology.’” Nine times out of ten, the definition they offer is very different from the definition most self-identifying process theologians define process thought.
2. Cross-Self-Identifying – The second reason I think open and process theology lines will blur pertains to how theologians self-identify. Some self-identifying process theists – such as Philip Clayton and Joseph Bracken – affirm views of original creation (creatio ex nihilo) and divine power that some self-identifying open theologians think distinguish open theology from process thought.
Some self-identifying open and relational theists affirm views of original creation and divine power that some process theologians think characterize process theology. Consequently, on these key issues, the boundaries already blur.
3. Nimble and Open – The third reason I think the lines will blur between open and process theology is probably more of a recommendation. Christian history suggests that those who make it their goal to define and then protect the essence of a view often find their view to lose influence. Whitehead is right when he says the pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.
Protecting and promulgating a concise set of propositions can be effective in the short term and with those whose basic orientation is to conserve. But a theological tradition is better served to promote a few basic intuitions that might capture the imaginations of young and emerging theologians who are creative, passionate, intelligent, and activist-minded. Vital theological traditions are nimble and open. I think Openness of God author, David Basinger is wise when he says he has “no interest in trying to preserve a set of core essential openness beliefs.”
4. Post-Evangelicalism – The fourth reason I think open theology and process theologies will blur pertains to a phenomenon many call “post-evangelicalism.” A shrinking number of young Christians raised in the Evangelical tradition want to self-identify as Evangelicals. They still love Jesus and still think theology and the Church are important. But their reluctance to self-identify as Evangelical stems for a variety of social, cultural, and political reasons.
Post-evangelicals are more open to blurring boundaries, pushing envelopes, and coloring beyond the standard Evangelically authorized lines. Many are dissatisfied with the Evangelical status quo. Many gravitate toward openness and process thinking and don’t see the need to distinguish the two sharply.
5. Theodicy – The final reason I think open theology and process theologies will blur pertains to a substantive issue: theodicy. Although the theodicy offered by the authors of The Openness of God sounds far better than conventional theodicies claiming God foreordained and foreknew evil, many openness thinkers admit their view doesn’t resolve the problem of evil like process theology can.
William Hasker, David Basinger, John Sanders, Greg Boyd, and Richard Rice have done work admirable in this area. John Sanders’s book, The God Who Risks has been especially influential. But they admit that their view of God’s power cannot solve the problem entirely.
The theodicy issue has been the focus of some of my own work, and I’ve offered a solution I call “essential kenosis.” I offer this solution based upon understanding God’s power in light of God’s love in my books, The Nature of Love (Chalice) and Defining Love (Brazos). An even fuller defense of the essential kenosis theodicy in light of randomness and evil comes in my forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God (IVP Academic). I also explain it in my contribution to the forthcoming God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views book on theodicy (IVP; Chad Meister and Jamie Dew, eds.)
Of course, I could be completely wrong about all that I have said in this essay and the previous one.
In fact, that’s one strength of open and process theologies: they fit our experiences of reality, including the experience of being wrong about our predictions about what might occur. But even false predictions can become resources God might use when calling us into our moment-by-moment, open and relational existence.
May God bless us all – no matter how we self-identify – as we seek to follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition to imitate God, as beloved children, and live a life of love as Christ loved us… (Eph 5:1)