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Roger Olson’s Not a Process Theologian (But He Should Be)

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Roger Olson’s Not a Process Theologian (But He Should Be)

Cross-posted in Christian Piatt’s Patheos blog.

It’s not that Roger Olson wrongly describes process theology. It’s that he has set up a battle to the death: Christian or process. Scripture or secular modernism. When you build battles like this, someone’s going to get hurt.

Olson’s recent Patheos post “Why I Am Not a Process Theologian,” may look at first like a simple academic exercise. All he wants to do, you might think, is to get clear on 10 things that all process theologians affirm. There’s nothing wrong with this; we all love Top Ten lists; there’s even a website devoted just to lists like this.

If this were a session at the American Academy of Religion, I would quibble with four or five of Olson’s formulations. But no matter. Of academic quibbles there is no end, and much quibbling is wearying to the soul.

The quibbles don’t matter, because the focus of Olson’s post has nothing to do with trying to get process theology right. Its goal is to tell us why we, as good Christians, should never turn to process thought as an ally. Ever. And people are listening to Roger Olson. So far, close to a thousand people have shared his post with their followers on social media.

I have a much more simple take on process theology. Its main conviction is that God is influenced by his relations with us. As one process thinker says, “God is the Supremely Related One.” Like us, God too is in process. There are “pure” versions of process, which talk a lot about a philosopher named Whitehead and are hard to understand. Far more interesting, though, are the “impure” versions — the ones that emphasize in lots of different ways that God is relational to the core. Process theologians push against the boundaries of classical orthodoxy in the name of a genuinely relational God. They do this not because they love Whitehead more than Jesus, but because they see in Jesus’ message an emphasis on relational love — a message that a lot of classical theologians seem to have forgotten, but that process theologians have moved front and center.

Olson comes at it from a completely different angle. His goal is to deconstruct process thought by listing its 10 most egregious sins. Lest anyone should miss the point, his criticisms grow increasingly acerbic: “Is there anything redeemable in process theology? Not that I cannot find elsewhere.” Which amounts to saying: There isnothing redeemable in process. Nothing.

In case you may have walked away from this post unsure of Olson’s final judgment, he makes it amply clear in responding to the comments from readers. “Hard core” process thinkers, he suspects, cannot be Christians, not even second-rate ones: “I’m not sure a hard core process theologian who denies the ontological deity of Christ, for example, can be a Christian.” Those are harsh words.

What should disturb you about Olson’s position is not that theologians disagree; that’s hardly news. What should disturb you is that the entire point of posts like this one is to draw a line in the sand. Open theists, at least the moderate ones, can be Christians, but “hard core” process thinkers can’t. Some are in, and some are out.

If I were to respond within either/or, I would just repeat Roger Olson’s mistake. So let’s describe it as a continuum. On the one end are those (like some of Olson’s commentators) who define Christian discipleship in terms of the Nicene Creed, appealing to “the truth once given.” On the other are those who define Christian identity only in terms of the present context.

For Olson, it appears, you can only be on one end of the spectrum or the other. You can base your faith on “divine revelation,” or you can force your faith onto the “Procrustean bed” of Whitehead’s metaphysics. If you make use of Whitehead, that philosophy becomes your “very soul and foundation.” Ouch.

To the 1000 people who have shared Roger Olson’s piece with their social media followers, I make this plea: please don’t define your discipleship by drawing lines in the sand. Jesus offers an amazing message and path for the complex world of the 21stcentury. Its depths are unfathomable; no theologian or creed will ever give us the Final Formulation of what his message means. We need to draw on every resource that we can find. If we spend our time drawing lines in the sand, proclaiming “in” and “out,” we silence voices that could help us interpret that ancient message for today’s world.

Talk of “all” and “none” doesn’t help with this appropriation; they shut down dialogue. Olson loves neat, exclusive categories: “All open theists believe God is omnipotent and will intervene to conquer sin and evil (eschatological realism).” But this just isn’t true — unless theologians like Olson legislate for us who can be an open theist and who can’t. Categories today no longer work like the old “isms”; our world isn’t so neat and tidy. Younger Christians in particular are increasingly skeptical of ultimate dichotomies of this sort.

In the comments, Olson counsels his followers away from process and toward a moderate open theism. I offer the opposite advice: draw on every resource you can find that helps show how Jesus’ message is relevant to today’s world. If a philosophy or theology helps you to live authentically as a Jesus follower, explore it. Let no authority figure tell you what may or may not count as a redemptive analogy.

Contrast Olson’s advice with the vibrant Christianity portrayed in Peter Heltzel’s fantastic new book, Resurrection City. As the blurbs note, “Peter Heltzel paints a prophetic picture of an evangelical Christianity that eschews a majority mentality and instead fights against racism, inequality, and injustice, embracing the concerns of the poor and marginalized, just as Jesus did.” That’s redemptive. Following Heltzel, let’s do theology in the city streets, a theology that looks and sounds a lot more like jazz improvisation. The distinctions may be raw, even messy. But the results of open-ended Christian reflection are often vibrant and powerful. And what more expresses the open-endedness of the Christian life than a theology of process?


4 Comments

Ken Alexander

December 30, 2013at 11:56 am

Hi Philip,
Last time I checked, the word “Christian” was not a registered term that some people are legally authorized to bestow on others, after determining that their beliefs are up to snuff. So, I’m in complete agreement with the sentiments expressed in your post.

Professor Olson himself must surely be aware that there are many Calvinists who would deny that anyone with such a “messed-up” theology as Arminianism could be a Christian. I think the relevant instruction here begins with the words “Do unto others…”

As it happens, I was visiting your blog because I will be presenting the video series “Painting the Stars” (in which you and Catherine Keller are featured speakers) to an Adult Christian Education class in January and need to be able to answer questions such as: “who are these people, what do they believe, and why should we take them seriously?”.

I want to be able to explain Process Theology “in a nutshell”, to this group. Keller’s excellent book, “On the Mystery” is my main guide so far–any other suggestions about how to introduce PT to the completely uninitiated (and probably uninterested)would be appreciated..

Thanks, Ken

Beth Misner

January 24, 2014at 11:32 am

I agree with you, Philip. I can find many examples in the Bible of a God in relationship responding and molding his responses to his beloved bride, repenting and relenting. As you say, there is more value and Christ-likeness staying out of the polar regions of dogmatic argument and living a life informed by redemption and grace.

Philip Clayton

January 24, 2014at 12:47 pm

Ken, thanks for you response. I hope your presentation of the video series “Painting the Stars” goes (went) well.

For presenting process thought, Bob Mesle has a beautiful little introduction that works well with non-philosophers. Bruce Epperly’s “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed” is also a very useable introduction. The Center for Process Studies is at http://www.ctr4process.org and has many great resources. The most fun website on process is http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/

Beth, beautiful comment! Once again, I think we discern the same deeply relational God in the pages of the Bible.

What both of you see is that one of the important areas of Christian discipleship is *how* we disagree with others, if we must disagree.

— Philip

Blair Reynolds

November 26, 2014at 10:33 pm

I did m dissertation on process pneumatology. I have read Olson’s site. I found it largely polemical, rather than insightful. The Bible does not present a metaphysical views of God, true. However, there are important suggestions, in Scripture, that point in a process direction. od, in the Bible is heavily anthropomorphized, attributed real feeling, and that suggests a genuine analogy exists between ourselves and God. God, in the Bible, is seen as all-inclusive and changeable (in over 100 passages). Also, Od, in the Bible, does not guarantee any futures and so can be disappointed. Now, I don’t want to turn the biblical writers into contemporary process theologians. However, Scripture seems to point more in a process direction than classical theism. Olson is critical of process for being secular philosophy. I find that amusing. The classical Christian doctrine of God, God was wholly immutable, void of body, parts, passions, even compassion, cane largely from certain schools of Hellenic philosophy, which stand in tension with the implications of Scripture. As Olson would have it, the only viable God is the High od of classical theism, which makes him, ironically, more of a spokesman for Plato and Aristotle than for the Bible.

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