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What Is Process Theology? Definition and Evaluation

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

What is process theology? Process theology teaches that everything that exists—including God—is in an eternal process of growing and becoming. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean a chaotic mess, since God and the world exist in mutual interdependence. And God is constantly luring the world to good values.

When I picture “process theology,” I’m reminded of the slogan, “The process is more important than the product.” You can apply this slogan in some helpful ways. For example, you could say that learning teamwork through doing a group project together was more important than actually finishing the project. The process was more important than the product. Process theology goes further and says that the process isn’t just important; it’s everything.

If that sounds a little confusing, please read on. I agree it’s confusing, but I’ve put together an article which hopefully makes process theology understandable and also explores why it matters to know about it.

Does it matter what we think of God?

There are numerous reasons you might be reading an article on process theology. Perhaps you’re curious to explore different ways people view God (different “theologies”). Perhaps you know someone who believes in the process theology view of God, and you want tools for better understanding and dialogue. You could be reading this because you’re seeking for spiritual reasons or because you’re researching for intellectual ones.

Whatever your reason, I would like to suggest from the outset that these questions matter a great deal more than most people think. Our view of God (his existence, his nature, his character) probably has more influence over our lives than any other belief we hold. It’s important to get this right. Truth about God matters.

What is process theology?

If you’re looking into process theology, pretty soon you’ll come across the word “bipolar” or “dipolar,” meaning “two poles.” For me, it’s helpful to picture a magnet because every magnet possesses a north and south pole. A fascinating thing about magnets is that, even if you break one in half, both halves will still have two poles.

In the same way, in process theology, everything that exists (no matter how small or big, including God) has two poles. There’s Pole P (what they call the “primordial nature”) which is all the possible things it could ever become. Then, there’s Pole C (called the “consequent nature”) which is how the thing actually exists in the real world. Just remember: The consequent nature is what exists; the primordial nature is what could exist.


What is process theology? “The consequent nature is what exists; the primordial nature is what could exist.”


In the same way, in process theology God has two natures. There’s the potential that could exist (his primordial nature). And with God, these potentials are good things such as faithfulness and love. These good things in God are unchanging. But wait…didn’t I say that, in process theology, everything that exists constantly changes? And it does. That’s why it’s important to recognize that God’s primordial nature isn’t what exists right now, but only what could be.

And then there’s God’s Pole C. God’s “consequent nature” is dependent on what happens in the world. That deserves repeating: God is dependent upon the world just as much as the world is dependent on God. God doesn’t force anything to happen or intervene in history. Rather, the world is full of free creatures who decide what they want to do. God’s consequent nature constantly updates to reflect and relate to what has happened in the world. All the while, God’s primordial nature keeps enticing and luring the world to choose what’s better (in other words, to choose to follow the unchanging potentials we find in God’s primordial nature).

Who introduced process theology to the world?

We’ll get to the actual founders of process theology in a second. But first, I’ll mention that there have been philosophers throughout history who championed the idea that everything exists in process. While others taught that there are eternal “forms” and unchanging “essences,” these process-based thinkers taught that everything always exists in flux. The pre-Socratic Heraclitus, for example, famously said, “You cannot step twice in the same river.” Because he believed everything is always changing, he surmised that the fundamental element of all that exists is fire.

Now, onto process theology. It may not be surprising that the father of process theology wasn’t exactly a Bible scholar. He was a British mathematician and philosopher named Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). It was he who came up with “process philosophy.” And then some theologians came along later in the 20th century and developed his philosophy into their way of viewing God (their theology). Here’s a list of some of the most famous process theologians: John Cobb, Charles Hartshorne, Schubert Ogden, and David Ray Griffin.

Does process theology go by any other names?

It’ll be helpful to introduce you to the word panentheism. There was a German philosopher named Karl Krause who was trying to explain a middle way between “monotheism” (“one God”) and “pantheism” (all = God). In the process, he came up with “panentheism” (literally “all in God”). Process theologian Charles Hartshorne referred back to this term in order to describe process theology.

Since the words “panentheism” and “pantheism” look so similar, it’s worth taking another moment to distinguish them. “All is God” (pantheism) and “All is in God” (panentheism) may look like the same basic truth. But let’s not forget that, according to process theology, God has two poles and only one is inextricably bound up with what happens in the world. With his primordial nature, he transcends what actually exists and lures it into good possibilities. With his consequent nature, he intimately comprehends what’s going on in the world. In this way, he is in all that exists, in the same way that all that exists is in him. This is why it’s called “panentheism” (“all in God”).

Why are people attracted to process theology?

There are numerous reasons a person could be attracted to process theology. For one thing, it makes God very relational—so relational that he doesn’t even exist independently of his creation. Mutual interdependence is an attractive concept. It makes God uber-responsive to human action in a way we like to expect from close relationships.

By contrast, the God of historic Christianity can sometimes be characterized in ways that don’t feel very relational. For example, he knows the future, so nothing you do will ever surprise him. When you pray for something which he then provides, it’s not because he changed his mind after your prayer. Rather, he already knew from all eternity what you would pray and that he would answer. An all-knowing, never-changing God can feel wooden to some people.


What is process theology? “An all-knowing, never-changing God can feel wooden to some people.”


Historic Christianity’s response is that, when it comes to God, “unchanging” is far from wooden. It’s true that he is unchanging in his character, but this just means that his decisions are predictably righteous, in that he is persistently wrathful toward the unrepentant, merciful to the repentant, and intent on bringing restoration to those who have rejected him. It’s because he’s not capricious that we can fundamentally trust him.

Another reason people are attracted to process theology is the problem of evil. Historic Christianity teaches that God is all-powerful and all-loving—and yet he doesn’t take away suffering. In my opinion, there are compelling reasons why an all-powerful, all-loving God allows suffering. But for some people, it seems more accurate to them to believe in a God who doesn’t have the power to intervene, only the ability to lure through its “primordial nature.”

Process theology can also be attractive to people who are very interfaith minded. They want to figure out ways for different religions to get along and even weave their theologies together. For interfaith scholars who desire to bring Christianity and Buddhism together, process theology can seem like a natural bridge.


What is process theology? “Process theology can seem like a natural bridge.”


Here’s how it can work: If you reinterpret Christianity through a process theology lens, it makes it more or less compatible with the Buddhist view of creation, called “dependent co-arising.” According to dependent co-arising, everything that exists emerges because of its interdependence with everything else that exists (which emerges because of its interdependence with everything else that exists), and so on.

What gets lost in the process?

As attractive as process theology can be, it’s important to be honest about how it fundamentally alters a person’s view of God. It’s not just a matter of sanding down a few of the rigid features of Christianity’s unchanging God. It quickly becomes a different God entirely.

If you believe the Bible but try to fit it into a process theology mold, you’ll end up having to give up a majority of what you’ve believed. Like what? Well, you can say goodbye to a God who actively intervenes in the world, which means turning book after book of the Bible into inspiring metaphor. This God doesn’t speak messages. He doesn’t do miracles. Those activities are sanded away until what remains is a passive presence which attracts people who are willing to consider better potentialities.


What is process theology? “Those activities are sanded away until what remains is a passive presence which attracts people who are willing to consider better potentialities.”


As relational as the process theology God is supposed to be, it is strange that this God is no longer a person. God no longer makes decisions or acts decisively. Yes, there is a mutual interdependence, in which God’s consequent nature exists in the world and the world exists in God. But we’ve traveled far from the relational God who worked so decisively through history to rescue humans from rejecting him.

Is the God of process theology more sophisticated?

In determining whether process theology is intellectually sophisticated, here are 3 issues which will be helpful to explore:

1. Anti-supernaturalism

For process theology, it was a philosophy that came first, which then got applied to the idea of God. Philosophy is meant to be based on intelligent thought (the word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”). So, it makes sense that process theology would be an intelligently crafted view.

In keeping with this search for sophistication, it’s significant that, in some philosophical circles in the 20th century, people felt more intelligent when they read the Bible through an “anti-supernatural” lens. By “anti-supernatural,” I mean that they read the Bible with the understanding that intelligent people didn’t believe in the possibility of miracles. They believed that the moral teachings of the Bible were still good, while the miracles were the product of myths.

In this context, process theology was able to give a lot of non-evangelical Christians an anti-supernatural way of viewing Christianity without having to give up Christianity altogether.


“Is anti-supernaturalism more intellectually sophisticated than supernaturalism?”


However, is anti-supernaturalism more intellectually sophisticated than supernaturalism? From a 20th century Western philosophical perspective, it seemed so. My subjective experiences won’t mean much to you necessarily, but I’m convinced that there have been both miraculous and demonic happenings in our world that make anti-supernaturalism look like a two-dimensional black-and-white drawing of a multicolored three-dimensional world.

2. An eternal universe?

This anti-supernatural view gave process theologians a moral God which was bound to the physical world, not a Creator existing independent of the world, sustaining it and intervening in it at will.

There’s irony here: It was also the 20th century that made it clear that the physical world hasn’t always existed, that it came into being at a moment in the finite past (e.g., the “Big Bang”). Thus, this “sophisticated” God couldn’t exist in the real world apart from the world—yet the world itself had a beginning point in time. In general, process theologians reject the idea that the universe had a finite beginning, which fits better with their conception of God but puts them at odds with the evidence.


What is process theology? “In general, process theologians reject the idea that the universe had a finite beginning, which fits better with their conception of God but puts them at odds with the evidence.”


Does the God of the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), who exists independently of the universe, avoid this quandary? I think so, and I’d like to explain by exploring the “Kalam cosmological argument” for the existence of God. It’s an argument first formulated by Muslim theologians. It goes like this:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Is this argument true? As for #1, think about things that didn’t used to be here that do exist now. Cell phones. Trees. Airplanes. You and me. All these things that exist, but didn’t used to, have something in common: They were all caused to come into existence. Something caused their existence. They didn’t just pop into existence out of nowhere. It seems correct that everything that begins to exist has a cause.

As for #2, not only is the universe made up of things that didn’t used to exist, but the evidence is in: The universe itself didn’t used to be here. For one thing, the energy in the universe is constantly being converted from usable energy to unusable energy. The sun and stars, for example, are diffusing their energy outward in an irreversible process, to where, eventually, they will “burn out.”


“The energy in the universe is constantly being converted from usable energy to unusable energy.”


The universe’s energy is constantly being converted from usable to unusable. It’s a closed system moving toward “entropy” (a state of disorder and energy equilibrium). So, could the universe—with its energy constantly being converted from usable to unusable—have been here forever? No, if the universe had always been here, then the universe would have run out of usable energy forever ago. Everything would have descended into entropy forever ago. Again, the evidence is in, and the consensus of cosmologists is that the universe didn’t used to be here.

Yet, if it’s true that the universe began to exist, then the God of process theology (at least the pole of God that exists in more than just potentialities) would have begun to exist. According to the above logic, this God too would need to be caused. You can try to add more universes (a “multiverse”), but that doesn’t really help explain how they began in the first place either. Plus, this being the only universe we are aware of (and, in scientific discovery, we haven’t even gotten close to its outer limits), talking of multiverses means we’ve traveled well beyond the boundaries of intellectual sophistication into the realm of speculation.


“Talking of multiverses means we’ve traveled well beyond the boundaries of intellectual sophistication into the realm of speculation.”


Back to the God of historic Christianity. It may be hard to picture a God who was just there (a “self-existent” God). But if there are things in existence today that began to exist at some point (for example, the universe), we can’t logically keep pushing the cause-effect process back forever in the past (an “infinite regress”) and expect to find a solid grounding for all the effects. At some point, there had to be something that was just there. If not, then we have to believe something which makes no sense: that a universe (a vastly improbable, life-permitting universe at that) came into being without any help.

Similarly, in process theology, did the world come into being without help? No, because it didn’t really come into being. It has always existed in mutual interdependence with God’s consequent nature. Yet, at the same time, it’s hard to see why a forever-becoming universe should exist in the first place when there was nothing actually existing beforehand to bring it into existence. This brings me to a final point.

3. Self-actualizing potentials?

It makes sense that it takes something “actual” (something that actually exists) to bring about something which was only “potential” (something which might happen). A philosophical way of saying this is that only things that exist are able to actualize potentialities.

Yet think back to the God of process theology. God has two poles: a primordial nature (that which potentially exists) and a consequent nature (that which exists). As we said earlier, God’s consequent nature constantly updates to reflect and relate to what has happened in the world. All the while, God’s primordial nature keeps enticing and luring the world to choose what’s better.


What is process theology? “God’s primordial nature keeps enticing and luring the world to choose what’s better. So, is there anything in process theology’s God that can actualize all these potentialities?” 


So, is there anything in process theology’s God that can actualize all these potentialities? Neither God’s primordial nature nor his consequent nature exerts any causal power. My friend, philosopher Winfried Corduan, explains the quandary:

Regardless of what you make of the theology presented here, there appears to be a metaphysical impossibility. Potential cannot actualize themselves, but it takes a cause to turn a potential into something actual. But [in process theology] this fact is ignored. The world’s potential pole actualizes itself. God’s primordial nature turns itself into his consequent nature. Thus, either there is a hidden cause somewhere after all, or process theology asserts something contrary to all of our knowledge and experience: self-actualizing potentials.

Conclusion

Truth about God is one of the most important goals we can commit ourselves to. Our view of God’s existence, nature, and character probably has more influence over our lives than any other belief we hold. I hope this has been a helpful look at the God of process theology, why people subscribe to process theology, and whether or not the view fits reality. Thanks for taking the time!