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?