Ask Dr. Cobb

February 2010 Question

What are some practical implications of process theology for church life?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Several books now exist that talk about the church in process terms and suggest what that means. Lisa Withrow, for example, has written Claiming New Life: Process-Church for the Future, and Paul Nancarrow addresses process spirituality and church life in The Call of the Spirit. Other authors have focused more specifically on preaching (Ronald Allen and Marjorie Suchocki). I’ll comment much more briefly and schematically.

1. Process theology affects the content of sermons. In its origins there was a close connection between process theology and the socio-historical study of the Bible. A preacher influenced by process theology will make use of that approach in discussing the text. The events about which the text may be concerned, the way they are interpreted, and the broader principles that shape the interpretation and are influenced by what has happened are to be understood in this way. But that does not mean that the interest in all this is only an interest in the past. A Christian process theologian holds that this particular past is especially illuminating of the present as well. We can learn from it only as we understand the difference between the time from which it comes to us and our own time, but once we do understand that, we will find meaning for our time as well. Usually we can affirm that meaning. Occasionally we must argue against the text. Our task is to wrestle with it, not to treat it as sacrosanct.

Obviously the content of the message will emphasize God being with us, compassionate and directing, giving us freedom and responsibility, and calling us to use these for the good of others as well as ourselves. It will emphasize that, although God is always an important factor in what happens, God does not control it. We discern God’s presence in particular aspects of what happens, not in the outcome as a whole. The preacher will emphasize not only that God is in us and we are in God but also that we are members one of another, and that our lives are interwoven with the wider natural context as well. The preacher will try to help people discern the truth about what is taking place so that they In technical terms it consists of “propositions,” which means lures for feelings. It offers proposals that enlarge the options of those who hear while encouraging them to choose those that express love for God and all God’s creatures.

2. The hymns, prayers, and confessions of faith should encourage a sense of belonging to a great historical tradition and a vast community of living believers. But it should do so without reinforcing elements of the traditions that need correction. For example, the association of “almighty” and “king” and “father” with God should be minimized, if not eliminated. If such language is retained, it should be as a minority expression among other more acceptable descriptions. Perhaps where people are accustomed to saying “father” they can say “mother and father.” The term Kingdom of God can be replaced, at least much of the time with other expressions, such as “realm of God,” “reign of God,” and “kingdom of God.” My own preference is for “Commonwealth of God.”

In my own congregation some pastors have virtually eliminated “almighty” from the liturgies. I am grateful. They tell me that no one has complained. If there are good reasons for emphasizing God’s power, one can just say “mighty.” But for the most part our prayers should not be addressed to God because of God’s power in the sense of domination but rather because of God’s grace and love and generosity and patience and understanding. These are also expressions of power, but most people do not hear “might” as referring to power of this sort. To address our prayers to “Almighty” God, or even to “Mighty” God is usually inappropriate.

3. The worship service is a central part of church life, but it both reflects and is reflected in other parts. If the liturgy and sermon speak of how we are members one of another, it is of great importance that this community of belonging be experienced throughout the life of the church. If God leads by persuasion and the preacher expands the sense of freedom and responsibility through offering new proposals, then relationships throughout the church should be mutual help and support grounded in mutual affection. Structures are needed, but they will be adjusted to fulfill real needs rather than to maintain the authority of some over others.

Children will be taken seriously. Their perceptions are determinative for them and can enrich the understanding of adults as well. They will be encouraged to participate wherever they wish, although they may often prefer the activities suitable for their age. Youth will be taken seriously and encouraged to assume leadership.

4. Education will be central. For process thought emotion is the most basic aspect of experience, but much of this emotion is, in technical Whiteheadian language, the subjective form of propositional feelings. That is, ideas are clothed with emotion. Which ideas are clothed with what emotions determines the direction in which lives will take shape. It is very important that images of people who are different be clothed with interest and appreciation rather than with fear and hatred. It is very important that ideas about generosity to the needy be accompanied more by feelings of love than by those of reluctance and obligation. It is very important that participation in the life of the church be felt as joyful opportunity rather than oppressive burden. It is very important that the church be felt as the freest and most liberating place rather than the place where one where one must pretend to feelings and ideas that are not authentic. It is very important that God’s presence be felt as love and assurance rather than as guilt-producing judgment.

5. The strength of community will be tested in various ways. Process theology calls for inclusiveness and affirmation of others, whereas some bring with them to church beliefs and feelings that lead to exclusion. The issues were once chiefly about race. Today they are more likely to be about sexual orientation. Whatever the issue, process theology will seek to draw a circle that takes in all who want to participate in the community’s life. It will also emphasize that there are many communities arising out of different traditions that have a valid message and equal status before God. It will seek not only to be an inclusive community itself but also to show its appreciation of other communities and to work toward a community of communities of which it is but one.

6. A church informed by process theology will not only be a place of warm community, serious study, and honest interaction. It will also be a place where concern for the wider world, both human and natural, will not only be affirmed but also be expressed in shared actions. This happens most naturally in responding to the practical needs of people in the larger community and taking steps to reduce the use of scarce resources.

However, the goal will be to gain sufficient shared understanding of what is happening in local communities, in the life of the nation, and in the affairs of the world, and sufficient understanding of the call of God, that a congregation can also take stands on issues that are controversial in the society. Ideally, in the perspective of process theology, a Christian community can take a prophetic stance in social, cultural, economic, and political matters. Today it is the rare congregation that can do this well. But this ideal is inherent in process theology and cannot be abandoned as a goal.

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