Making Process Theology Make Sense
George Bernard Shaw once noted that the professions are conspiracies against the laity. We see this dynamic often when we visit our physician or attempt to have a conversation with an attorney. Many of us are baffled by the vocabularies of our automobile mechanics and computer technicians as well. That certainly is the case for the relationship of theologians to laity. Complicated and often undefined words, and complex doctrinal formulae, baffle laypeople, leading to the assumption that theology is utterly irrelevant to their lives and that theologians have little or no concern, or worse yet, value to issues in the “real” world.
Sadly, the gap between theologians and laypersons is also evident the work of many process theologians. While there is a place for academic theology and the linguistic richness of Whitehead’s thought, many process theologians’ desire to be true to the insights and language of Alfred North Whitehead often renders process theology incomprehensible, even to congregants who hold advanced degrees. A friend of mine tells the story of her pastor, who preaches an explicit sermon on a theme in process theology once a year. His congregants greet him in the receiving line after worship with the words, “interesting sermon” or “that was profound” and then remark to one another in the parking lot, “Did you understand anything he said? It was way over my head!”
When I tell my congregants, as I regularly do, “You’re a theologian,” they shake their heads and respond, “Not me. I’m no theologian.” To which I reply, “Anyone who thinks about matters of life and death, about the meaning of life, and their personal calling is a theologian.” Accordingly, good theology must address people where they live and work, responding to their hopes and dreams, their individual aspirations and political ideas. While often the term “practical theology” is used, like most adjectival terms, as a diminutive compared to the “real” theologians, that is, systematic theologians, the most meaningful theological reflection is profoundly practical. Theology, at its best and most profound, should emerge from and then illuminate our everyday experiences of hope and fear, meaning and doubt, aging and adventure, living and dying.
I have been fortunate to be bi-vocational most of my professional life. For nearly forty years, I have walked the halls of ivy as a seminary, medical school, graduate school, and undergraduate professor. I have spent virtually all those years as a pastor at the congregational and university levels. I have gone straight from the classroom and my keyboard to the hospital, a funeral, or a counseling session. I have taught theology in every congregational venue, and my pastoral experiences have shaped my theological reflections. I have lived my theology – especially process theology – in dealing with issues of life and death of body, mind, and spirit; community involvement; congregational and institutional budget priorities.; and guidance on issues of values and meaning in personal and professional life.
I have lived the process vision’s focus on possibility, relationality, creativity, and freedom in my personal and professional life, believing it to be a faithful description of what it means to follow the way of Jesus in our time. In the process, I have coined the term “theospirituality” to describe the intimate relationship of theology and spirituality, Spiritual experiences are the wellspring of theological reflection. Without the encounter with God, there would be no theology. Conversely, theological reflection serves as a means of understanding our mystical and life-changing experiences and describing them in ways that are both healthy and congruent with reality as we know it.
My anticipated five-part series on process theology with Energion Publications is an attempt to make process theology come alive for laypersons as well as pastors and spiritual leaders. Beyond the current, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure, I envisage at least three more volumes related, respectively, to ministry, politics, and bioethics. In the first two books and the projected series as a whole, I have sought to join academic rigor, that is, faithfulness to the insights of process theology, with a commitment to communication and transformation across a broad spectrum of lay and professional preparation. I believe theology touches the heart and hands as well as the head, and theology that emerges from experience can be expressed in ways that interested laypersons and pastors can understand and communicate as well.
In some sectors, reflection on a theological treatise leads to the question, “Will it preach?” While not all theological reflection needs to address lay and pastoral concerns, eventually good theology is embodied in accessible teaching and preaching.
I believe that you can “live” process theology. You can embrace the dynamic, interdependent nature of life; the vision of a relational God who calls you to be a partner in healing the earth; and you can live ecological values in relationship to the non-human world. I believe that in this daily embodiment, mind, body, spirit, and relationships are integrated in a way that brings joy to us and joy to the world.
Bruce G. Epperly is the author of over 45 books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure. He is also the author of various Energion Scripture studies including, Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job and Jonah: When God Changes as well as Angels, Mysteries and Miracles: A Progressive Vision.