Process and Wesleyan Theologies
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.
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.