Alfred Whitehead (1861-1947) one of the founders of mathematical logic and worked as a mathematician with Bertrand Russell. He became a professor of philosophy at the American University of Harvard in 1923 and published (in 1929) Process and Reality, a seemingly difficult work but considered a major contribution to 20th century philosophy. According to Whitehead, reality is both process and relational. There is nothing which is not subject to change. Everything is in process of change : thus permitting renewal. The components of reality are not independent but interactive. Whitehead came to believe that the world could not be rationally explained without relating to God. It is God who allows for choices without which the world would be condemned to repetition and decay according to the principle of energy loss. In this metaphysical dynamic which gives a substantial place to life, when something happens it is God who is responsible for it happening thus.
Emergence of Process Theology
From 1928 to 1955, Charles Hartshorne (1989-2000) a professor of philosophy, teaching in Chicago, spread Whitehead’s ideas. Under his influence, certain of his students (notably John Cobb, born in 1925) developed the theology of process : they were also influenced by the development of the physical and natural sciences. They proposed an understanding of reality such that God and the world can and must be considered together, in ongoing, creative and reciprocal interaction. This theology had much impact in English speaking countries, in Japan, Korea and Germany ; less in Latin countries.
God in the Theology of Process
God has two facets (God is bi-polar), he is both passive and active. He is at work in the world. Without God there would be no life, this is his eternal identity. But in one sense, God is a product of the world – God is changed by the world, this is his dynamic identity.
The eternal identity is the “principle ” which allows all things and beings to exist. It is both the source and the limit of possibilities : the source, because it constantly opens up new possibilities and thus gives the world its dynamism. It is also the limit because these possibilities are always restricted in number. Without this limit none would ever be concretised because unlimited possibilities would bring the world to a halt.
God’s dynamic identity results from the impact of what happens in the world on his personality. The world often responds negatively to the impulses which God gives, sometimes causes him to fail (Christ’s cross is the supreme example) and makes God suffer. God is not all powerful – all beings have the freedom to respond to God positively or negatively but God never gives up and he always opens up new possibilities (such as through Christ’s resurrection).
God is a power of attraction : he calls beings to make the best possible choices, which will lead to a happier and more harmonious universe.
Christ, power of creativity
The future is open and undetermined since it partly depends on what the world’s beings do with it. God himself does not know what it will be. The believer knows himself to be responsible and that he must act to change the world for the better. At the same time, he is confident because he knows that God will always work towards a positive future.
This transformative action of God, Cobb calls “Christ “. There are persons and christic events in the world apart from Jesus of Nazareth (as well as in other religions or in the non religious sphere) but for Christians, Jesus is wholly the Christ (and not only christic) because through him God acts in a significant manner among human beings, changes them and their situations and orients them towards the future which the New Testament calls “the kingdom”. The proclamation of the kingdom is crucial, the very core of the gospel.
Faith open to the future
Faith is not first and foremost devotion to a doctrine. It is a marching forward, an adventure or a project in a world marked by the presence of God, but where nothing is predetermined. It implies that we should think, express and live God unceasingly with the help of other images, new concepts, a different language which faithful to the biblical message is adapted to our world. It is nothing less than maintaining or restoring God’s credibility for our contemporaries, to allow each to open up to God’s creative presence and to work to make this happen. Because God is action and movement, faith is vitality.
- COBB John B., Dieu et le monde, Van Dieren, Paris, 2006
- GOUNELLE André, Le dynamisme créateur de Dieu, 2e édition revue et corrigée, Van Dieren, Paris, 2000
- PICON Raphaël, Le Christ à la croisée des religions, Van Dieren, Paris, 2003
Theology in the 20th centuryTheological thought and research in the 20th century can be divided into three periods: up until the late 1920s, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and since the 1970s.
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