Process Theology: Theology for Progressive Christians

by Bruce Epperly

Cover1When you mention process theology, often peoples’ eyes glaze over. As one person noted in a Facebook comment, “I’ve read a little Whitehead, and couldn’t really grasp the language.” A pastor I know preaches a yearly process theology sermon. The congregants comment to the pastor as they shake hands at the end of the service, “That was really a heavy sermon, pastor. You really gave us something to think about.” But, out in the parking lot, I’ve been told, they shake their heads and note, “I really didn’t understand a word he said….What was his point?”
The language of process theology and philosophy is unique and often difficult, and off-putting to the layperson and educated pastor. That’s one of the reasons I took up the challenge of writing a 40 page introduction, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, as part of Energion’s “Topical Line Drives” Series. I had written a longer introduction, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, but I wanted something that a layperson could pick up, read for a couple hours, and get the heart of process theology.
I believe that process theology is too important to be left to the academics. I believe that progressive and mainstream Christians need accessible theologies that illuminate what it means to be a Christian in today’s pluralistic, postmodern, and rapidly change time. We need theologies that can inspire world loyalty, care for the earth, hospitality, and congregational vitality.
I have been living and breathing process theology for over forty years, first as an undergraduate and graduate student, and then as a professor and working pastor and university chaplain. I believe that process thought can be translated in ways that inspire personal and congregational transformation and address the questions of those for whom paternalistic, rule-oriented, and hell-fire and brimstone images of God no longer work. Process theology can speak to church people, providing new horizons for understanding God, and also to the growing “spiritual but not religious” community.
Progressive in spirit, process theology can be described by a number of life-changing affirmations:

  • The world is a dynamic, forward moving process.
  • Reality is relational. All things are interdependent.
  • Experience is universal, though variable, and extends beyond humankind.
  • The universality of experience leads to the recognition that every creature is inherently valuable and deserves moral consideration.
  • Freedom and creativity are essential to reality.
  • God is the primary example of the dynamic, process-relational nature of reality.  
  • The future is open-ended and we have a role in shaping the future, for good or ill. God is not aloof from history, but is acting within history, shaping and being shaped by history.

The concept of God is the most challenging of process theology’s contributions to Christian theology. Here again, let me share some affirmations about God’s relationship with the world:

  • God’s power is relational, not domineering or unilateral. God works within the world, shaping the world, and God acts in relationship to the freedom of God’s creatures.
  • God aims at a world with maximal freedom and creativity, congruent with the well-being of both individuals and communities.
  • God is truly changed by what happens in the world. While God influences us, we also influence God. God truly hears our prayers and responds to them with possibilities and energies.
  • God is adventurous, constantly doing new things, and urging us to be creative. Following God means honoring innovation as much as tradition. God is still speaking and God’s inspiration is at work in ethical advances involving persons of color, gay and lesbian persons, economic justice, and the care for the earth.
  • God’s inspiration and love embraces all creation. Revelation is found in scripture and also in the world’s many faith traditions. Faithfulness to God involves embracing God’s wisdom and healing wherever it is found.

Process theology gives us the vision of a faithful, intimate, lively, adventurous, and loving God, for whom this world truly matters. It pushes us beyond old orthodoxies and unbending rules to live adventurously, exploring new ways of life, and prizing relationship over rule.

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  1. It’s the “experience is universal and extends beyond humankind” bit which, when process philosophers or theologians start expressing it, leaves me shaking my head. I am very much in agreement with the conclusions you set out (and, generally, with those of other process theologians), but find I have to speed read the bit of most books on the topic where they talk of terms like concrescence and prehension, because I cannot seem to think in those concepts.
    I find this hugely frustrating, because I do not normally find that I cannot grasp new concepts!

  2. I guess that one of my biggest difference would be with your affirmation that “The world is a dynamic, forward moving process.” I agree it is dynamic, but I do not believe all changes is progress. Some change takes us forward, other change takes us backwards. Currently Western culture seems to be devolving into narcissistic hedonism. The 20th century saw the greatest evil in human history, with 12 million dead in the Holocaust (6 million Jews and 6 million others), 50 to 60 million kill by Stalin, around 100 million killed by Mao, 3 million (half the population) in Cambodia, and that is just the major atrocities. This century could well exceed that should radical Islam achieve its goal of getting weapons of mass destruction so that is can create a worldwide caliphate and force sharia law on all people.
    And yet instead of standing up and facing the evil, most people turn aside. Sure we stopped Hitler in WWII, but there are still people who defend communism, and who think Castro and Chavez are wonderful. Most of Europe and many in the US, see Israel as problem because it defends itself, instead the Palestinians whose hatred of the Jews leads them to settle for nothing but the extermination of the Jews, and who would herald those who stab Jewish babies, young boys, and old women.
    Europe as we have known it is dying, quite literally, as births do not even reach replacement rates. But it is dying culturally as well, because having left Christianity it does not does not know what it stands for, and something beats nothing every time. Many in the United States strangely see Europe as the model and want us to follow it.
    So rather than “forward moving process” I see the world as much more in an upside down state, where many people seem more intent on fighting those would fight evil, or even just point it out, than in resisting evil itself.

  3. From my experience God is awesome in so many ways, more ways than we can fathom yet his most notable word used to shed light on God and that is God is LOVE. He doesn’t have love because he IS LOVE. 🙂 We have an empowering audio Christian Affirmation download which comes with other blessed PDF’s for only $6.75! The price was made very low by the Holy Spirit’s leading. If you would be so kind to check out our anointed Christian affirmations you will be blessed indeed. Glory to God.
    God loves you!
    Jesus is Lord

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