Ask Dr. Cobb

January 2010 Question

Can process theology have confidence in "progress"?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Like most important questions there is no simple “yes” or “no” answer to this one. Still there is an important “yes” and an important “no.” I will begin with the latter.

Process theology provides no assurance that in the course of evolution and of human life on this planet things will get better and better. It does not assure us that nuclear war will be forever avoided or that following such a war a remnant of survivors will build a better world. It does not assure us that the water, the air, and the land will remain free from poison and continue to be fruitful. It does not assure us that the climate will remain hospitable to human life or that survivors of climate change will avoid mutual annihilation in their struggle over the remaining resources.

Process theology does assure us that God is working in and through all of us to prevent such catastrophes from taking place. God is calling us to use our intelligence and our moral sensibility to chart another course. When we work for a better future for the Earth and its inhabitants we are working with God. That God is working with us is a source of hope when projecting current trends leads us toward despair.

This is not a minor matter. Sometimes God’s call breaks through in surprising ways and changes the course of history. Conflicts among European nations had sucked other parts of the world into terrible wars for centuries, culminating in World Wars I and II. After World War II Robert Schuman of France and Konrad Adenauer of Germany decided to work together to build a new Europe. They did so. We no longer fear that conflicts among the nations of  Western Europe will drag the world into war. In my view, the more closely we study the history of this change, the more evidence there is for God’s guidance.

Three other unexpected transformations are worth considering. The changes that occurred in the Catholic Church through Vatican II have, among other things, ended the long era of suspicion and enmity between Catholics and Protestants. To the surprise of all, the transformation of South Africa from an apartheid state into a democratic one took place with almost no bloodshed because of the leadership of Nelson Mandela and, to a lesser extent, of Le Klerk. And the Soviet Empire dismantled itself peacefully under the leadership of Gorbachev. In each case we can see how God worked through particular individuals.

Of course, most of the individuals through whom God works are not placed in such visible and strategic locations. There are tens of millions of others who have been just as responsive to God’s call. Without the pervasive working of God in all of us, these highly visible, history-changing events would not be possible. But that surprises of this kind have happened in recent times gives hope that new ones will occur to draw us back from the precipice toward which human society now rushes.

Sadly, despite wonderful signs of human response to God’s call, history shows many signs that many people, many of them in positions of great influence, harden their hearts. God does not force them to act for the common good. They are free to act for the narrower interest of their nations or themselves. Many choose to do so. That God is at work in history gives hope, but not assurance, of a positive outcome.

There are those who find assurance in the broader sweep of cosmic history and the evolution of life on this planet. Whereas some scientists argue that there is no teleology of any kind expressed in this process, process theologians agree with those who see the cosmos as so ordered as to bring into being a greater variety of living things and more complex ones capable of greater value. The course of evolution has been repeatedly set back by global disasters, but each time it has reasserted itself and advanced further. If we project this process into the future, then even if we are now going through another global disaster, we can believe that what emerges beyond it will be progress.

That is, of course, possible. Indeed, process theology assures us that God will work with whatever remains, even if the human experiment ends, to bring about what good is possible. And over the eons new evolutionary forms will appear. Perhaps they will be superior to us. But perhaps not. We do not know the specific conditions that make possible the rise of creatures like us or superior to us. We do not know whether there will be such conditions in the future. If there are, process theology supports the expectation that God will bring forth what is then possible.

The affirmation of progress sometimes focuses on the development of human consciousness. I once wrote a book, The Structure of Christian Existence, which described stages of the development of consciousness. I clearly implied tht the succession was also progress. To affirm progress of this kind is fully consistent with process theology, but it is not entailed by it. I have myself become doubtful. There have certainly been great changes, and there is much of value in the modern consciousness that was not part of the consciousness of our hunting and gathering ancestors. But there was much of value in their consciousness that we have lost.

When we recognize that we have created a suicidal economy and society, whereas at least some of them achieved truly sustainable ones, it is harder to speak of progress. I am still inclined to say that it is possible for those who share in contemporary forms of consciousness to recover and reincorporate some of what we lost without giving up what is precious in our new form of consciousness. So I do not abandon the idea of progress altogether. But I feel more secure in speaking simply of different forms of consciousness without accenting judgments of better and worse.

The consciousness of the Christian Europeans who invaded and conquered the Western hemisphere was shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment. They were very confident of their superiority to the inhabitants they slaughtered and enslaved. The horrors they inflicted on these supposedly inferior people make talk of “progress” ring hollow.

Nevertheless, the answer, “yes,” is also important. For process theology there is one place where progress is secure. That is in the life of God. All creaturely existence contributes to God. What happened in the world and then ended and was forgotten lives on forever in God. Creatures in one epoch may contribute less than in a previous one. There may be regress in the created order. But all creatures add something to God. What has been included in the divine life is never excluded. What comes later always adds more.

Each of us contributes to this everlasting reality. Our own responses to God’s call determine what we contribute. The contribution is not only direct but also through those we influence. That makes our decisions important, even ultimately important. Thus we have assurance that our lives matter. They matter to us not only because of the immediate enjoyment of existence but also because they matter to God. The conviction that in God there is always progress undergirds our efforts to serve God through serving other creatures.

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