Process Theology 101

In the 1920s, Alfred North Whitehead developed a new metaphysical system of thought called process philosophy. Across a series of lectures, which have since been published under the single title Process and Reality, Whitehead described a reality where everything is made up of occasions – metaphysical ‘particles’ which have their own desires and experiences.

Whitehead’s student, Charles Hartshorne, took Whitehead’s metaphysics – which, while peppered liberally with explicit references to God, was by no means a work of confessional Christianity – and developed it further using the tools of more specifically Christian philosophy. Hartshorne did not turn Whitehead’s philosophy into a Christian theology himself but laid the groundwork for many thinkers who came after to do so – these thinkers are now known as process theologians.

A deeply philosophical and metaphysical theology, process theology looks very different from traditional Western Christian theologies. Following Whitehead’s description, the God of process theology is ‘dipolar’, consisting of two ‘parts’. Whitehead described these two parts as the Consequent Nature and the Primordial Nature. Whitehead described the latter as eternal and unchanging, and thus the Primordial Nature on its own much resembles the God of Classical Theism which can often be found in Christian philosophy of religion. The Primordial Nature is also the ‘source of all novelty’, that is the Creator of all which is not itself God. Again, this Primordial Nature is a recognisable figure for many familiar with Christian religious philosophy. This was not, however, enough for Whitehead, and so the Consequent Nature is paired with the Primordial Nature. The Consequent Nature is immanent and changing; it is shaped by the world as the world itself changes. Later process theologians attribute co-suffering to the Consequent Nature as Whitehead describes it, thus painting an image of a God who not only rejoices with God’s creation but also suffers with it as well.

This view of God has not gone without criticism. A common criticism of the process God is that it, being dipolar, is inherently not Trinitarian and thus undoes much of the work of early Christian theologians who worked hard to retain a Trinitarian theology. Process theologians have attempted to rebut this criticism, most notably in the book Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God, edited by Joseph Bracken and Marjorie Suchocki.

Yet another criticism of the process God is that of the power of God. Process theologians John B Cobb Jr and David Ray Griffin explicitly deny God’s omnipotence. This is, in part, a response to the problem of evil. Process theologians hold that not only does God not coerce any aspect of reality into following God’s divine aims, but that God cannot coerce any aspect of reality into following God’s divine aims. The process God is persuasive and not coercive, and everything in reality is free to ignore and/or actively defy the persuasive influence of God. A coercive God, say process theologians, is not compatible with a truly free creation.

Such a God has been described as a philosophical God rather than the Christian God because, among other things, such a non-coercive God could not perform the miracles attributed to the Christian God, including raising Jesus from the dead. Indeed, the biggest criticism to process theology – in my view, at least – is that which deems the process God to be a different entity from the Christian God. Whitehead was not specifically interested in relating the God he described in Process and Reality to the Christian God, but the process theologians who have used his metaphysical framework as a basis for their own theologies are.

Much debate has been and continued to be had about whether process theologians have been successful in identifying their process God as the Christian God, or whether the process God is nothing more than a philosophical thought experiment which has no place in true Christian theology. As it stands, this remains to be seen.

Written by Ellen Lesser. Ellen is a postgraduate researcher of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter. She is an Anglican (though identifies as more spiritual than strictly religious) and has been involved with SCM since 2016 when she became the General Secretary for the University of Exeter’s Methodist and Anglican Society.