Ask Dr. Cobb

March 2008

This month I am writing in response not to a question but to comments by John Polkinghorne as interviewed by Michael Fitzgerald published in the January 29 issue of Christian Century. Polkinghorne is a theologian who was once a physicist and does theology with physics constantly in view. This makes his work quite parallel to process theology. The similarity is evident in the passages below. But Polkinghorne takes the occasion to criticize process theology. Since I think his criticism is rather widely shared, I will discuss it.

(Fitzgerald) In light of Darwinian science, theologian Philip Clayton has suggested that God should be thought of not as the cosmic lawgiver but perhaps as the on guiding the process of creativity.

(Polkinghorne) I’m very sympathetic to the idea that God is the one who holds the world in being, the creation of the world is not the performance of a fixed score, but more like an unfolding improvisation in which God, as the great conductor of the orchestra, and also the individual creature players each have their roles. I think that’s what the world looks like. It is also very much what I think you might expect the God of love to be like—not to be the chap who pulls every string—and also very much like the God of the Bible. A sort of cosmic puppetmaster doesn’t seem at all the God of the Bible.

(Fitzgerald) You have written about God as a self-limiting God. Where do you see this in scripture?

(Polkinghorne) I think you see it implicitly in a great deal of scripture, starting with “God is love.” It seems to me that the nature of love is not to be tyrannical. You see it in God’s patience with Israel, for example, and you see it in the prophet Hosea. In a different way you see it in the passion of Christ.

This topic is a good example of how scripture plays a role in giving basic accounts of divine disclosure without giving the full interpretive apparatus, which you have to discover for yourself.

Of course, there are also scripture passages about the power and authority of God. That must be part of our understanding of God. My criticism of process theology is that its God is too weak. God has to be both the God alongside us, the “fellow sufferer” in Whitehead’s phrase, but also the one who is going to redeem suffering through some great fulfillment. To put it bluntly, the God of process theology isn’t the God who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.

Dr. Cobb's Response

Although one might quibble with some of the language, the first paragraph above could have been written by a process theologian. Although the questioner brings up the idea of God as self-limiting in his next question, an idea that process theologians consider misleading, Polkinghorne’s response in the first two paragraphs could also have been written by a process theologian. Clearly we have an ally here.

Nevertheless, Polkinghorne clearly does not welcome us as allies. Although he does not reject the “fellow sufferer,” his emphasis lies on God’s active power in making things happen, and here he wants a kind of power not suggested in earlier parts of his answers. The resurrection of Jesus is the central image of this power, and although he does not explain just how he understands that, it is in a sense that he thinks process theologians cannot affirm. God must be able to redeem suffering through some great fulfillment—also presumably in a sense that process theology cannot affirm.

Some who criticize process theology in this way are clear supernaturalists, understanding that in a few events such as the resurrection, God acts unilaterally in a way that suspends natural laws. In relation to these, process theologians recognize that such people can make many statements that process theologians do not want to make. But Polkinghorne does not generally write in this vein. In this essay, however, he speaks of God not being condemned to following one pattern of action. In the resurrection, he did something new. Probably this is where he sees a difference with process theology.

That form of process theology that follows Whitehead has a well worked out way of understanding how God acts in the world. It fits fairly well with Polkinghorne’s first paragraph above. Some process theologians have used the image of the conductor, although I think it limits the role of the players a bit too much. It understands God’s role in the resurrection of Jesus as metaphysically the same as God’s role in other events. Of course, process theology emphasizes that God is the reason for novelty in the world, and that God is always doing something new. But Polkinghorne seems to want something different. He seems to want to say that God’s mode of acting in the Resurrection was different from God’s mode of acting before and that it is this new mode of acting that gives promise of the “great fulfillment.”

Since Polkinghorne does not explain either how God works in general or how God worked in the resurrection, it is difficult for a process theologian to respond. Polkinghorne seems to want God’s acts in miracles, which he goes on to discuss, not to destroy the congruence of theology and the established scientific worldview, but one wonders just how this is to be implemented. For process theologians, it does not suffice to indicate what one believes that there are miracles that are exceptions to the way God usually works but that they do not conflict with what science teaches. Such beliefs need to be explained in away that makes them credible.

However, my purpose here is not to criticize Polkinghorne, especially not on the basis of a single interview. My purpose is to take his criticism seriously as a religious statement. Process theology says a lot about God and about how God works in the world. Because of its understanding of the world, it can make sense of a good many traditional affirmations of Christianity that do not fit well into the dominant thought patterns of the secular world. For example, it can explain the role that faith can play in physical healings, and even show the possibility of some other forms of miracle. Unlike most philosophies it does not exclude the possibility of personal life beyond the death of the body. It shows that the often reported appearance to loved ones of one who has died can be taken seriously. It certainly affirms the role of God in all of this.

I am not sure whether Polkinghorne understands the flexibility and openness of Whitehead’s conceptuality in these respects. Yet I suspect that even if he did, he would still not be satisfied. The more intelligible and credible the stories of miracles in general and the resurrection become, the less they are seen as radically unique occurrences. For some Christians it is precisely their radical uniqueness that is crucial. I sense that this is true for Polkinghorne.

We confront here a real divide in the understanding of Christian faith. For process theology Christianity is one religious movement among others. Some of us, standing in this movement regard the wisdom and spiritual meaning it offers us as crucial for our lives. We find that it also opens us to the wisdom of other traditions, religious and secular. We can center our lives in Jesus Christ without denying the basic claims of other religious communities. We find that participating in Jesus’ faithfulness is healing of saving for us and that in so doing we contribute to the healing and salvation of the world. For us, this is enough.

For others, and I gather these include Polkinghorne, the event that is at the heart of Christianity is not merely unique but belongs to a unique order of events, perhaps as its only member. For them, to fail to believe this is to miss the distinctiveness of Christian faith. This is partly because Christian faith involves confidence in an eventual “great fulfillment.” Presumably this fulfillment can only occur in an event in which God acts in a way that is discontinuous from the way God ordinarily acts. In process language, the great fulfillment can come only in an event that is unilaterally caused by God. Thus Christology and eschatology belong together and fall outside the sphere that an enriched naturalism, such as process theology offers, can grasp.

It is my judgment that a God who always participates with other entities in the coming into being of new events is “too weak.” Such a God is not too weak for the kind of Christian faithfulness for which process theology calls. But such a God is too weak to bring about radically discontinuous events. That means that for those whose Christian faith is the basis of the assurance of a final future outcome of history in which all is made right, process theology does not suffice. Process theologians do not exclude wonderful possibilities for the future. But we judge that there is little evidence that they will be realized. We are not optimists about the course of history. We have hope based on the inexhaustible wealth of possibilities with which God confronts the world that the outcome of temporal eventswill indeed be profoundly fulfilling. But our faithfulness to Jesus Christ does not depend on that. We do believe that all that we are and do is loved by God and taken up forever into the divine life. We long for a positive outcome of history. We are assured of a positive outcome in God. God has that power, and we consider it a very great power indeed.

This piece is not intended as an argument or a debate. For some contemporary Christians, including Polkinghorne, God’s power includes the power to make creaturely events occur in just the way God and these believers desire. To believe God has that power can provide assurance that in fact the desired outcome will occur. This requires “faith” in the sense of believing that for which there is little evidence. From this point of view a God who cannot ultimately effect whatever God wants is too weak. They are correct that, by this definition of strength, the God we process theologians affirm is weak.

To me, on the other hand, God does not seem weak at all. It is God’s power by virtue of which we live and think and hope and love. I believe there are good reasons for believing this, and I am deeply grateful for that power. I hope to use it to further life and thought and hope and love in others. I believe that is the faithful life to which I am called.

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