Process Theology 101

Process Theology 101


Karin Tetlow

September 4, 2016

I became curious about Process Theology, after our new minister Rev. Abbey Tennis said it was her favorite class in seminary. I was soon warned and discovered for myself that some of the texts can be very demanding. But Rev. Abbey suggested one readable author, C. Robert Mesle, whose writing you just heard ,. So, with apologies to those who have spent their whole careers exploring Process Theology, I will endeavor to keep this simple.

First the name itself. Process Theology is a philosophical theology. It is a means of making sense of God through the key concepts of Process Philosophy. Most Process Theologists jump right in and talk about God. But it’s quite possible to explore Process Philosophy and leave God out, or create one’s own idea of God. Process Philosophy can therefore be very useful and provide a conceptual base for those UUs who do want to talk about God. .

So what is Process Philosophy? It can be traced back to Buddha and the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus who said you cannot step into the same river twice, or for that matter, said one of his students, the same river once. Heraclitus maintained that the world is not made up of things that never change, but of processes and events. He says the world is a continuous series of self-creative events arising out of the past, that present many choices for the future.

Plato on the other hand, had a different view. He talked about unchanging Being and relegated the world of change, or process, to shadowy copies of eternally unchanging forms.

There began the great debate about Being, which is static and Becoming which is dynamic. Is the world made up of permanent unchanging things, where Being is primary and Becoming is a defect? Or do we live in a world of change where Becoming is primary. Since Plato, Western philosophy has mostly taken the Being road, while Asian philosophy has mostly taken the Becoming road.

This debate has huge implications. As Mesle explains, by taking the Being/unchanging road, Western Christian theologians, followed Plato. They asserted that the traditional classical God is the ultimate unchanging reality, that is, God is eternal, all-loving, infallible and omniscient.

Think of music on a CD. The music is stamped simultaneously onto the plastic. Every note is there, beginning, middle and end. Nothing new happens. The future already exists on the CD. God is standing outside the CD and sees the future that he has created…a kind of static time that does not change. We listen to the music and live our lives, but the future is already known, determined and written by God.

This raises the big question. How could God who is all-loving and infallible permit terrible things to happen in the world? And what about free will?

The Old-Testament God, violent, jealous, authoritarian and chauvinistic as portrayed in Arguing with God, a recent play by John Henry, has inspired much discussion on these questions. The book When Bad Things Happen to Good People is just one example. Christian churches and Being theologians also have a hard time explaining why an infallible all-loving New Testament God allows suffering.

Process Theologians, on the other hand, have an answer. Their conception of the world and of God is all about change or Becoming. They see the world as a continuous series of self-creative events arising out of the past, rather than unchanging Being. By radically changing our conception of the world and of God, from Being to Becoming, Process theologians can say, but God changes too.

Plato also declared Being as simply power, i.e., all beings have the ability to affect others and things. But not the reverse. Beings and things do not have the ability to be affected. That would be the process of Becoming, which, Plato says, would indicate weakness or a defect. Not so, say Process theologians, an essential attribute of God and all things and humans is to affect and be affected by worldly processes.

This belief that all things can affect and be affected by worldly processes, is a key part of Process Theological thinking. Again, this is in contrast to earlier Enlightenment and Cartesian philosophers who believed humans exist independently of other things such as nature and cannot be affected by them. That human-centric thinking gave us the right to treat the earth and all who abides thereon as our piggy bank to raid and break open whenever we want anything.

Nothing and no one is independent, say Process thinkers. The world is deeply interwoven and is an ever-renewing relational process. Thinking of the world that way can change the way we feel and act.

And so we get to Process-Relational philosophy inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician who taught at Harvard and died in 1947. He published widely and was an influence in many fields that included physics, quantum theory, education, science, theology, he even published his own theory of relativity. His seminal 1929 work is Process and Reality, characterized as “one of the most complex and original philosophical writing of all time.” It presents a new philosophical vision of the world that makes sense. But, it is very hard going; philosophers report bewilderment if not exasperation when trying to read it. Fortunately beginning in the 1950s, Whitehead followers have published studies about the work that make it more accessible.

But unfortunately before then, Anglo American philosophers were not interested in metaphysical questions or heaven forbid, anything that mentioned God. Their focus was analytical such as the minutia of the meaning of words. I know because I studied “Pure” philosophy, as it was called, at college in England. We blithely dismissed anything lying outside our narrow magnifying glass as “psychology.” It is appalling looking back that I cannot recall Whitehead’s name ever being mentioned.

Another name that comes up in UU circles, is Charles Hartshorne who died in 2000 at 103. He was an expert in bird song, and sounds a most endearing person. An associate of Whitehead and a major force in Process Theology, he is considered by many to be one of the most important philosophers of religion and metaphysicians of the twentieth century.

His quest was to find a God who was intellectually tenable and in tune with the modern world. In keeping with his Process approach, he saw God as a supreme being that is always changing and always Becoming. When young he had a flash of insight on living life that lasted his lifetime. We shall hear about that later.

So the key concepts of Process Philosophy are Process and Relational. The world is a relational process. Whitehead says: “The misconception which has haunted philosophic literature throughout the centuries is the notion of independent existence. There is no such mode of existence. Every entity is only to be understood in terms of the way in which it is interwoven with the rest of the universe.”

As UU minister Gary Kowalski says so well in a 2003 article in UU World:

“Our universe is not an assortment of lifeless particles but an ensemble of interrelated and dynamic happenings. And each of these events—be they the complex flow of information through a coral reef—is in constant change and interaction with all the others… a Monarch butterfly fluttering its wings in Mexico can affect siroccos in the Mediterranean, thousands of miles away.”

Today in our global society we all get that we are interrelated. Think about our digital media that relates us to people we haven’t even heard of. We know that climate change, air pollution, toxic water, genetically modified foods and our health are all interrelated.

And Business has certainly caught on that Relationship is critical. When calling a credit card company I am put on hold for a Relationship Manager. In fact Customer relationship management (CRM) drives most businesses and explains why the product you were checking out online last week keeps popping up on your screen today.

But do we really get that as people we are interrelated and what gives meaning in our lives is relationship with others.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development demonstrates this. For 75 years the study has tracked 724 men, 60 are still alive in their 90s. The clearest message from tens of thousands of pages of information is: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. The men who were more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected. We do not know about the wives, because they only started tracking them a decade ago.

So what gives us health and happiness is relationship with others. That does makes sense.

But I believe that we have to think outside the box when we talk about “relationship with others.” And focus on the many kinds of relationship we all have that do not include a partner or close connections to family. Many of us have profound connections with our animals, for instance. Charles Hartshorne who listened to bird song lived till 103. There are connections that last decades and brief connections such as with the bus driver and the Trader Joe’s sample person. There are as many relationships with others as there are others.

A few months ago I broke my left hip and wrist and spent 10 days in Jefferson Hospital. I refer to that time as ten days down the rabbit hole. I know it was a life changing experience, and am still trying to figure out what happened down the hole and how I am changed. But I do have some theories, particularly about “relationship” and interdependency.

One was about the extraordinary care I received in the hospital from the person who cleaned with microcloths to the therapist who taught me how to put on socks with one hand without bending over. The connections were certainly profound. For ten days I had a crash course in Interdependency, or rather dependency, since most of the time I could not even reach the water cup without help.

Another “relationship” I wonder about is the connection between my body and me? Was my body getting my attention and saying: I’m part of you all the time, not something to ignore if I don’t hurt. I like to think I’m aware of my body, but do I really appreciate it and what it does for me? My arm in a cast took on its own identity as a silent, sometimes demanding presence. Wouldn’t it be interesting to take turns giving our right hand or left eye, say, each fifteen minutes of our attention?

Another “relationship” or connection was in my neighborhood. Each time I walked around the block I had wonderful conversations with people I had never met before. Walking slowly and having an arm in a cast almost equals having a dog in terms of meeting strangers.

But the biggest lesson was the response of people in my UU and rowing worlds. I am the sort of person who thinks no one will notice me if I close my eyes. I also have not learned the grace of receiving. So it was amazing, touching and deeply affecting to receive so many calls, cards, delivered dinners and expressions of concern. The accident definitely taught me that I am not an independent entity, but interwoven with the rest of the universe.

To return to God. Process Theologians talk about God, but he or she is a very different God from the traditional infallible character we’ve always heard about. The Process God is very like us, affected by events and in turn affecting the world. But, say the critics, where is God’s power if he/she does not have coercive, unilateral power over everything? The Process response is that an all-worshipful and powerful God does not make sense.

What does make sense is what Gary Kowalski said in his UU World article: We are all interrelated participants in the big picture that is the universe. Process philosophers call that big picture 'God.'

Let it be.


John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology, An Introductory Exposition. Westminster John Knox Press, 1976.

John Henry. Arguing with God, a play.

Gary Kowalski. Our Ultimate Canvas, July/August 2003 UU World,

C. Robert Mesle. Process-Relational Philosophy, An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead. Templeton Press, 2008.

C. Robert Mesle. Process Theology, A Basic Introduction. Chalice Press, 1993

The Center for Process Studies.