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Process Theology Primer


In a recent book review, I made an observation that the author had similar views to Panentheism/Process Theology. This school of thought has been deeply influential in modern liberal Christianity and Judaism and has been making its way into Evangelicalism. Through a few comments on that book review it was clear that not too many people are familiar with Process Theology.

In order or understand Process Theology we must first establish a basic understanding of the philosophy known as Process Philosophy as developed by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1946). The Process school of thought gets its name from its unique ontology. Ontology is simply the study of what it means to exist or to be. The earliest known expression of an ontology of process comes from the pre-socratic philosopher Heraclitus. Heraclitus believed that all of existence was in a constant state of flux. His famous maxim, “No man ever steps into the same river twice” is a good summary of his ontology. Heraclitus observed that once a man steps into a river, both he and the river are changed at an ontological level. Therefore, if he were to step into the river again, the union would be a different expression of both the man (who has changed since his last dip in the water by the river itself) and the river (which has also undergone a change as a result of the man stepping in it).

This idea of flux had a profound impact on Whitehead. When he began teaching at Harvard at the age of 63 he began to incorporate his ideas of flux into his teaching and in 1929, at the age of 68, he published his landmark book, Process and Reality. This book influenced  a 32 year philosophy University of Chicago professor named Charles Hartshorne.

Hartshorne was just in his second year of teaching when Process and Reality was first published. That, along with  the influences of the infamous Pragmatist Charles Pierce (pronounced purse) set the stage for the adaptation of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy into what would become known as Process Theology.

Process Theology is primarily a theology of God’s ontology. It asks the question “how does God exist”? taking a cue from Heraclitus and Whitehead, Hartshorne theorized that we cannot speak of God as a being, but rather as a “becoming”. That is to say, Hartshorne, like Whitehead before him, believed that God was in the process of becoming rather than merely  temporal being whose nature and character is unchangeable.

Like Whitehead, Hartshorne believed that God had a di-polar nature. By this I mean that he believed  God’s being (more precisely becoming) consisted of sets of di-polar , or antithetical statements. This is because Hartshorne believed that all of existence contained an element of goodness, and goodness finds its ultimate expression in God. As a result, Hartshorne argued that God is:

Unchanging – In some aspects of his existence, God is eternal and unable to change. An example would be his relation to time. Hartshorne would affirm that God has always been.

Changing– In some aspects of his existence, God is temporal and thus capable of change. For example, Hartshorne believed that God increases in knowledge and breadth. When we die, Hartshorne believed that we are enveloped into God, and as a result God experiences flux, or a change in his being by growing in experience and constituency.

Self-Aware –  God is not merely a being without awareness. He is a conscious being.

Omniscient – As defined by Process theologians, God knows all that is possible to know, but not necessarily all that is impossible to know. For example, God knows all possibilities of what I will wear tomorrow, and knows me so fully that he knows my habits and preferences and can assert with near perfect accuracy what I will wear tomorrow . . . but is not able to know for certain what I will wear since I maintain autonomy and free will. So he knows all that is possible to know and can predict with startling accuracy future events involving human free will, but does not know with certainty until my free will is exercised. I spent a little more time developing this characteristic because this is where the Evangelical theology of Open Theism camps out.

All-Inclusive– That is to say that all things exist within God. Hartshorne taught that all things are constituents within God.

Taken together, these five affirmations describe what is known as Panentheism (this is different from Pantheism).  This is the word that I used to describe Doug Pagitt’s theology in my recent review of his book, Flipped. In that book (whether intentionally or unintentionally I don’t know) Paggit affirms all five points. He affirms the classic theistic view of God as an eternal (unchanging) conscious and omniscient God; but he also adds in the panentheistic properties of creation existing within God, which by default adds the final property of being temporal (experiences change as new beings become within him).

These five affirmations which define Panentheism are one element of Process Theology but not the whole of it. Included in the remainder of Process Theology is a redefining of the classical understanding of God’s omnipotence. Because free will and volition are so central to the system, God’s omnipotence is said to never violate the desires of free beings. God cannot strong arm anyone, but is extremely persuasive and always motivated by love and good will toward all people. Therefore, what God desires to be will be- but only through a process of loving persuasion.

Additionally, Process Theology adds the idea that in the process of death we become assimilated into God. God is ultimate reality, and when temporal realties pass, they do not cease to exist but rather become a part of the ever expanding God. Therefore as we die, God grows. They are careful to not identify creation with God (Pantheism) but rather say that God includes all creation but is always greater than creation because it includes all current realities plus all past realities. Pantheism by contrast would reject the temporal/changing nature of God by asserting that we have always been within God.

Lastly, I want to use the five properties of Panentheism above to demonstrate how it compares to other worldviews.

Classical Theism would affirm that God is unchanging (eternal), conscious, and omniscient. It would deny that God is changing (temporal) and contains all creation within him. This is where I firmly stand.

Aristotelian theism would affirm that God is unchanging (eternal) and conscious, but would deny that he is omniscient, capable of change, and that all creation exists within him.

Emanationism would affirm only that God is eternal but would deny that he is a conscious being with any knowledge, capable of change, and that he is separate from the world. An example of this would be Plotinus.

Pantheism would affirm that all is in God, that God is eternal, conscious and omniscient, but would deny that God has any temporality to him. That is, he cannot change. Here you will find the pantheistic religions of India, Native Americans, as well as the philosophy of Spinoza and Jules Lequier.

Open Theism, a recent phenomenon in Evangelicalism would affirm that God is eternal in the sense that he does not change and yet temporal in the sense that he can add new knowledge as humans make free choices. Here you find the influence of Process Theology’s di-polarism. They also affirm that God is a conscious and omniscient God, although their definition of omniscience is more in line with Hartshorne and Jules Lequier in they they believe God knows all possibilities but not all actualities. Also in here are the philosophers William James, Ehrenfels as well as Evangelicals such as Greg Boyd, Rob Bell, Richard Rice, and Clark Pinnock.

By affirming that all things live and move and have their being spatially in God, Doug Paggit appears to have moved from the realm of Open Theism with the other wayward Evangelicals and into thPanentheism/Process Thelogy of Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb. Again, it is entirely possible that Paggit’s vague writing style has caused me to misinterpret his theology, but by all appearances he has affirmed all five basic tenants of Panentheism and is close to full on Process Theology.

I hope this short primer has been helpful. It is impossible to do justice to the fullness of Process Theology in a short post and even more difficult to capture all of the variances between different adherents. It’s been many years since I have studied these ideas so if you happen to read this and find any misrepresentations please let me know.




7 thoughts on “Process Theology Primer

  1. Joseph K.

    Nice job Aaron. As you know I have two advanced degrees in philosophy and Whitehead still confounds me. I think I am getting a better grasp on its interrelation with PT. Whitehead hurts my brain. Thanks for this primer. Write more of them.

  2. Dana Holt

    Okay that makes more sense of why you said Doug Pagett was espousing these views. Thanks for the explanation. I looked this up on Wikipedia and got lost fast!

  3. Roger Stevenson

    I read online that there is some disagreement in PT about what happens after death. How does that all fit in?

    • ajcerda

      You are correct Roger. The differences center around the question of consciousness. Whether or not we are aware of the afterlife when we die or if all just fades to black as we assimilate into God. Or perhaps put another way, do we maintain individual identity and an awareness of individualism once we assimilate or is there just one consciousness within God.

  4. We have a word for this down here- hogwash.

  5. Hey Aaron, Doug Pagitt here, I did a google search for a primer on Process Theology for a Theology Discussion Group and found your post and really appreciated it. I was surprised and laughed at me being mentioned in your post.
    Thanks for your interest in Flipped. I would be glad to engage with you on these ideas any time, thanks again for your post.

  6. Hello Doug! Thanks for stopping by and engaging. I always appreciate hearing from the authors of books I’ve reviewed. My first thought after reading your comment was,

    “Oh boy . . . did I completely misunderstand him??!!”

    I asked myself this because if you were Googling a primer on Process Theology then perhaps your not familiar with it; and if not familiar, can I really say that you hold to Process thought? Yikes!

    I’d love to discuss this further and if I misrepresented your book I’d love to discuss it publicly since my review was public. If I misunderstood a few things we can clear it up in the comments of the review. Or… If I REALLY botched it then I will gladly remove it altogether, re-read Flipped, and write a fair review because truth is the only thing we have to hang our hat on!


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