Process and Wesleyan Theologies

August 15th, 2011 / 13 Comments

Process theology is a way of thinking about God and the world that continues to attract Christians. Those who appreciate John Wesley’s theology are often especially attracted to process thinking.

Of course, no theology is perfect. Every theology – including Process theology – has flaws.  We all see through a glass darkly. But contemporary Wesleyan theologians are attracted to Process theology for good reasons:

1. God is Relational 

Process theology offers language and ideas to support the idea that God is essentially relational. Rather than being distant, aloof, and unaffected, Process theology affirms that God is present to each of us and all creation. God suffers with us all. Process theology supports the Apostle Paul’s words: “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4, NRSV). The idea that God is relational helps portray the covenantal and incarnational God the Bible describes.  Although distinct from the world, God is in the world as one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

2. Prayer Changes Things 

Process theology argues that prayer makes a difference both to us and to God.  Our prayers affect the way God chooses to act. Many biblical stories tell of how God acted differently because people prayed.  Process theology supports these stories, because God as described by Process theology sometimes acts differently because of what creatures do. For instance, the Lord told Isaiah to inform Hezekiah that he would die. But Hezekiah prayed that God would spare him, and God changed his mind, adding fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life (Isaiah 38:4, 5). Other theologies cannot account for a God who changes plans because we petition. They teach that God has the past, present, and future already decided and settled.  Petitionary prayer makes no difference to the God who rigidly pre-determines all things. Process theology fits with the biblical revelation of a God who is influenced by our prayer.

3. God Made Us Free 

Process theology emphasizes that we are free — at least to some degree. Our freedom is not unlimited, of course. Creaturely freedom is an important category for Wesleyans.  It plays a crucial role in rejecting predestination and in placing blame for sin on creatures. Joshua understood the importance of free responses to God when he told the people, “choose this day whom you shall serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). John Wesley called this “free grace”—God’s free gift and our free response.  He even sounds like a Process theologian when he says, “Were human liberty taken away, men would be as incapable of virtue as stones. Therefore (with reverence be it spoken) the Almighty himself cannot do this thing. He cannot thus contradict himself or undo what he has done.” Overall, I know of no better conceptual scheme for affirming the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace – with its view that God acts first and provides freedom to creatures for response – than the Process tradition.

4. God is not Responsible for Evil 

The significance of creaturely freedom, as Process theology understands it, solves the problem that atheists claim remains the primary reason they cannot believe in God: the problem of evil. Process theology blames free creatures and the agency of creation for genuine evil. According to Process theology, God lovingly gives freedom and therefore neither causes nor allows evil. It affirms with James, “God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one,” but that “every good and perfect gift comes from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (1:13b, 17a). Process theology rejects John Calvin’s idea that God is the source of Adam’s sin.  In sum, many believe that that Process theology provides the best solution to the problem of evil.

5. Community and Individual Matter

Perhaps no theological tradition better grounds the Apostle Paul’s view of the Church than how Process theology explains the centrality of relations and community. It takes with utmost seriousness Paul’s words that “we are members one of another” (Rm. 12:5). Process theologians lead the way in criticizing modern individualism, without rejecting the dignity and responsibility of persons in community. Process theology’s proposal regarding interconnections and interrelatedness is important for considering what it means to be the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-14). I know of no conceptual scheme that better describes how Christians are both persons and a relational community.

6. Contemporary Issues must be Engaged

Process theology engages the issues that characterize our postmodern world better than other theologies.  This is especially true of contemporary science. It also deeply engages and effectively addresses environmental and ecological concerns. Process thought actively tackles the ideas of contemporary culture. Wesleyan theologians think engaging contemporary issues is crucial if Christians are to be salt and light in these wonderful and woeful days. Wesleyans and Process theologians want to “always be ready to make a defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt. 3:15).

7. Love Reigns Supreme

The previous statements represent significant reasons many in the Wesleyan tradition are attracted to Process theology. However, I personally find Process theology most helpful as a resource for understanding Christian love. No other theology better describes God’s love as both creative and responsive. No other theology better makes sense of what Jesus called the first and second commandments (found in Matthew 22:37-40 and other gospels). No other theology better grounds Christian agape. Process theology is a first-rate theology of love, and it is little wonder Mildred Bang Wynkoop found it so helpful. If “above all,” Christians should “clothe themselves with love” because it “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14), Christians should explore the fruits of Process theology.

Conclusion

Process theology also has weaknesses. As I said at the outset, no theology is perfect. And there are certainly differences between what some Wesleyans believe and what some Process theologians believe. We should not ignore them.

But Process theology’s central claims about God’s love, prevenient grace, creaturely freedom and responsibility, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Church, etc., fit under the Wesleyan theological umbrella. There are good reasons many Wesleyans find at least some aspects of Process theology attractive.

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Comments

James Petticrew

Thom thanks for this I have always felt an openness to process theology, and you have helped me think through why there is an overlap in perspective.


brint montgomery

Well stated, Tom.


April McNeiece

Tom, Thanks for taking time, once again,  to explore issues and offer perspectives that help many of us gain a better understanding and perhaps more finely tune our own theological stance.


Hans Deventer

Tom, this entry cries out for a follow-up! Where do you see tensions between Wesleyanism and process theology, and how would you suggest we deal with them?


mike lady

You mentioned that Calvin believed that God was the source of Adam’s sin.  I was wondering where you see that in his writings or if that’s a caricature of reformed theology.


Thomas Jay Oord

Mike,

Good question. You’re not the first to ask me it, so I’ve already got a quote from Calvin’s writings:

John Calvin: “Adam did not fall without the ordination and will of God.  It offends the ears of some when it is said that God willed this fall.  But what else is the permission of Him who has the power of preventing and in whose hand the whole matter is placed but his will?” Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, vol. 1 (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, Mich.) http://www.ccel.org Accessed Nov. 25, 2009.

Tom


Ryan

Dr. Oord

I am very intrigued by Process Theology, but I have a nagging question that I can’t seem to shake:  Is there room for miracles in Process Theology?  It may be a straw man, but I have heard that in Process Theology, God cannot violate natural law.  Is this the case?  If so, what about the various miracles recorded in the Bible, more importantly, what about the resurrection of Christ?

Thank you for your contribution to Wesleyan thought and for the generous spirit with which you dialogue.


Mark W. Wilson

Regarding process theology and omnipotence, does it matter whether we say God does not coerce or God cannot coerce? Or is this a distinction without a difference? On the surface, saying God cannot coerce seems to change our traditional narrative of God’s creative acts.


Joshua Reichard

Hi Tom,

This is well-developed and well-conceived.  Another aspect of Wesleyan-Process compatibility is an emphasis on the immanence of God.  Wesleyans (and most of their modern denominational descendants) recognize that the presence of God is real, accessible, and experiential.  Unlike the traditions of theological determinism where God is largely regarded as supremely “other” and thoroughly transcendent, Process-oriented Wesleyans acknowledge the experiential aspects of God’s immanence in and through not only human beings, but all of creation.

“Thy Nature and Thy Name is Love” is a thorough compilation of the points of contact between Wesleyan theology and Process-Relational thought. The representative essays in the volume trace the history of process-related concepts within diverse Wesleyan movements and explore the viability of a Process-Wesleyan convergence within contemporary theological dialogue. 

Your work has been extremely helpful to me in my own theological investigation; it is much appreciated.

Keep up the great work!

Joshua Reichard


Todd Holden

I am learning to love these discussions! In regard to Calvin, we must keep in mind that the framework for Calvin was a church that said that “the Church” was the sole repository of truth. Calvin’s point was that it is God who decides not human beings. As Tom noted already all theologies have flaws and Calvin’s was no exception.

Discussing theology is a dance and we would do well to keep this in mind when we talk.


Charles W. Christian

The book is very helpful in seeing why key process thinkers like John Cobb, for instance, find strong connections in certain parts of the Wesleyan tradition.  However, I think Hans D. is correct in noting that what is presented here is the “best of” and not the whole picture in regard to areas—sometimes core areas—of Process thought that most theologians in the Wesleyan tradition (yes, I said “most”) would not embrace, or at least would not embrace fully.  The “good” or salient aspects of Process thought for Wesleyans provide some great areas for connection and conversation.  However, I see (and I am not alone) aspects of Process thought that are like the proverbial “girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead”: The “good” connections are very good, but the places of separation are “horrid”.  grin


Jacey Wooldridge

Dr. Oord,
  I was intrigued by process theology. I have never heard of it before, sadly. I would have to say I agree with all of the different reasoning behind process theology. But I wonder is there more to process theology? is it really as simple and as sweet as you have represented it as? 
-Jacey


Bailey Janda

I really appreciate this article on Process Theology.  It is helpful in understanding the basic theology on several issues in an easy to understand manner.  I have always wrestled with the idea that God has the future planned out for us, every step of the way. One of my favorite things about Process Theology is the idea that we really do have all of our free will, not just some of it.  Without that free will it would be impossible to truly love God or others because it would not be love by choice.


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