Math in Process: Process Theology 101

Disclaimer: the author of this post does not in any way support the views of process theology or believe that its views can legitimately be considered thinking Christianly. The purpose of this post is to summarize these views in order to critique them in a later posting.

Previous entries in this series:

Math in Process

Math in Process: An Introduction

Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: “You can never step into the same river twice.” If you place your foot in the river and then remove it, before you can step into the river again the current has pushed the water downstream and replaced it with new water, a new river if you will. This led Heraclitus to believe that the world is in a state of constant change. Everything is always in flux. Everything is always becoming. The problem with this claim is that it appears contradictory to our life experience. In life we have the appearance of constancy. Maybe I can’t step into the same river twice but I can, it seems, sit on the same couch twice. Heraclitus’ response to this was that Logos, or reason, is the principle of stability which gives the appearance of permanence.

The process philosophy that gained popularity in the mid 20th century is merely an extension of Heraclitus’ thought. It should be noted that in process philosophy and theology, like all schools of thought, there is not a uniform expression made by all of its adherents. While there do appear to be some core beliefs that are inherent in the label of “process,” there are also many different variations and unique expressions of process thought present in the work of different “process” thinkers. For the sake of space (and attention spans) I am going to narrow the scope to the doctrines of process faith as described in the work of Alfred North Whitehead and his contemporary disciples (the reasons for this will be made clear in the next post). Also, rather than evaluating process philosophy in general, I would like to focus on the applications of process thought that have attempted to label themselves as “Christian,” namely the process views of God, the Bible, and Jesus Christ.

The Process View of God

The god of process theology is primarily viewed as a god of love. Because events are given primacy over substance, how we define who we are and the world in which we live is necessarily stated in terms of the affects of the culminated events. God is no exception. In process thought divine love must mean being affected and changed by those who are loved.[1] God is thus affected by the world as well as affecting it. God has two natures as it were: one which effects change and a nature which experiences change.

Alfred North Whitehead

God envisages all the possibilities there are for the world. These he sorts into values, graded by their relevance to any particular situation and from them he presents each actual entity with an initial aim as it sets forth on its path of growth towards satisfaction.[2] However, the entity is free to accept, modify, or reject this divine influence. God only persuades, he never coerces. God carries on an action in the world through his capacity to persuade beings to listen to him and respond to his promptings – it is not possible for him to obligate them and he depends in part on their response and reaction.[3]

Process theology concentrates on the nature of God’s activity, redefining omnipotence in terms of persuasion and redefining omniscience as God’s perfect knowledge of both possibility and actuality without equating the two. In other words, God knows all things that are actual at present and all things that are possible in the future, but he does not know which possibilities will become actuality.

The Process View of the Bible

Process theologians accord an important place to Scripture. However, just as the omnipotence of God is defined in terms of persuasion, the authority of Scripture is viewed as dialogical and persuasive rather than unilateral and coercive. That is,  while process theology rejects the notion that the Bible speaks directly for God, they affirm its role in fostering a genuine encounter with God.

Revelation takes place in concrete, non-supernatural events and involves both divine activity as well as human reception. Revelation involves God’s self-disclosure but it is not the direction communication of propositional truth. Language is limited and ambiguous in its description of God. Thus process thought accepts the notion that God is in some sense revealed through scripture, but it also insists on interpretation in which readers are given considerable freedom in the shaping of meaning.  As Whitehead states:

The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion. By this I mean that it is to be found in the primary expressions of the intuitions of the finest types of religious lives. The sources of religious belief are always growing, though some supreme expressions may lie in the past. Records of theses sources are not formulae. They elicit in us an intuitive response which pierces beyond dogma.[4]

So then, for process theology, no one belief is absolutely necessary for Christians to hold. Christianity is a process, a socio-historical movement. Such a movement certainly requires beliefs about its origins, about its nature and mission, and about the world, but these beliefs change and develop from generation to generation.

The Process View of Jesus Christ

For process theology, God’s being present or immanent in Jesus is a matter of historical fact, since God is believed to be immanent in every event whatsoever (this is also referred to as panentheism).[5] The question then arises, how do process theologians see Jesus as a unique individual? Jesus exhibits the optimal response to God’s calling. He was given a unique mission and he responded with great faithfulness.

In process theology the title of “Christ” refers to “Divine Reality Incarnate” (as opposed to “Messiah,” or “Anointed One”). Therefore “Christ” is not a label unique to Jesus of Nazareth; it can be applied to any person or instance in which “creative transformation” occurs.

A final point needs to be mentioned on the process understanding of evil. I group this under the doctrine of Christ because in traditional Christian theology, an understanding of human sin and spiritual lostness is vital for appreciating the salvation that is found through Christ and his work on the cross. Process theology denies the traditional doctrine of original sin – that due to the failure of Adam and Eve, the first humans, all of humanity has inherited a corrupt and sinful nature. Process theology cannot follow this view because process adherents believe that all humans are part of a great evolutionary process, and that God creates in and through this process.[6]

The crucifixion of Jesus in process theology is then not about a substitutionary atonement for sin. Process theologians prefer to believe that Jesus reveals who God is to us and for us. The cross does not represent vicarious sacrifice, but the revelation that God is with us even in our deepest pain. Jesus reveals that the sins of all humans affect God. At the crucifixion Jesus died because of sin, which is different than saying that Jesus died for sin.

Coming Up Next:

The important relationship that exists between process theology and a philosophy of mathematics

[1] Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time, (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1967), 75.

[2] Paul S. Fides, “Process Theology,” In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. Alister E. McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 473.

[3] Andre Gounelle, “Process Theology,” In Encyclopedia of Christian Theology, Volume 3, ed. Jean-Yves Lacoste (New York: Routledge, 2005), 1288.

[4] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), 144.

[5] John B. Cobb, Jr., “Jesus and Christ in Process Perspective,” In Handbook of Process Theology, ed. Jay McDaniel and Donna Bowman (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006), 29.

[6] Marjorie Hewitt Suchoki, “What is Process Theology?,” Process and Faith, (accessed April 10, 2010).


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