The term “process theology” refers to a system of thought that emerged in the early twentieth century and is based primarily upon the reflections of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Both its name and its scope, however, engage questions that date to the beginning of formal philosophical thought about the nature of reality and whether it is best thought of in terms of “Being” or “Becoming,” as primarily static and unchanging or dynamic and constantly in process. As a theological system, process thought is characterized for its strong divergence from many elements of classical theism, rejecting such ideas of perfection necessarily needing to involve eternal unchangingness, or a God who created ex nihilo and to whom all the “omnis” would apply (omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent). In these and other sensibilities, process theology has long been recognized as having many similarities to Mormon views of God and the nature of reality, leading to a fair amount of philosophical exploration about touchstones and divergences between the two.
In this two-part episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and philosophers James McLachlan and David Grandy discuss process theology and LDS connections and differences, focusing mostly, however, on ways that engaging process thought has pushed each of them into new views of or deeper dives into Mormonism and its intuitions and sensibilities about God, humans, and the natural world. The discussion includes some “teaching” of process theology and its metaphysics (and panelists give plenty of alerts when they are about to go nerdy or get all jargony), but for the most part it stays rooted in broad territory, connecting with the history of thought, problems with classical science and philosophy and mechanistic views of matter, and exploring the kind of openings into which process and LDS thought both wade. In short, although some of the material discussed is technical, we have made a real effort to stay connected with ideas that play out in all human lives, making this, we hope, still very accessible and interesting to all listeners even if they have no training in philosophy or theology.
Please ask questions or make comments below! We look forward to engaging you!
On Mormonism and Process Thought parallels:
Garland E. Tickmeyer, “Joseph Smith and Process Theology,” Dialogue, Autumn 1984
Floyd M. Ross, “Process Philosophy and Mormon Thought,” Sunstone, January-February 1982
Sterling M. McMurrin, Response to the Floyd M. Ross article, Sunstone, January-February 1982
Daniel W. Wotherspoon, Awakening Joseph Smith: Mormon Resources for a Postmodern Worldview, doctoral dissertation, Claremont Graduate School, 1996 (Chapter Two draws several parallels between process theology and Mormonism.)
Bruce G. Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed
John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition
While attending seminary I encountered process theology and took a class on Whitehead’s Process & Reality. Anyone familiar with the tome won’t be surprised to learn we all struggled. Our professor–Franklin Gamwell, an ordained Presbyterian minister–was patient with us and, I sensed, had mastered learning how Whitehead’s metaphysic could inform one’s life and ministry. Two months into the struggle, the terminology and concepts began to take hold in my thinking, and I began to sense how it could bless my life. I’ve never cared much for metaphysics; it all seems so terribly contextualized and subjective. Besides, how can anyone speak with any definitiveness on such things as the nature of reality? However, Whitehead’s metaphysic informs his even more respectable ethic–and that interests me a great deal. In short, process theology (especially in Whitehead’s, Cobb’s and Suhoki’s senses) has helped me make sense of how I am to relate with the religious other. It helped me better understand how, I, a sixth-generation Latter-day Saint could not only maintain meaningful relationships with those in other denominations and traditions, but how I (and all of us) can work together for the common good–even compete for the common good. I was pleasantly surprised to not only see a Mormon Matters podcast on process theology but, upon listening, that it was present by such capable students of the tradition. My sincere appreciation to the effort and preparation involved.
This podcast was not unlike listening to a couple of artist describe the color black when I don’t even know what red, green, blue, and yellow look like. (This is my fault, I admit.) I think having a podcast just laying out a broader overview of the different theological approaches popular today would have helped me to stay engaged and interested in your conversations. It would be nice if y’all brought on some non-process theologians to balance out the explanation y’all provided for the metaphysics of process theology. (Sometimes continental philosophers are too proud of how confusing their ideas are.)
What are the alternate metaphysical theories that are popular these day in or out of theological circles? What about Plantinga? What about analytical philosophy? What do y’all find compelling about process theology besides its correspondence with Mormonism? (This seemed to be the major/only selling point brought up.)
I’m putting out the scream. Dan and Jim, write the book. Please!! I am really starting to like this process theology stuff. I’m thirsting for more!
This was great. I have been trying to parse Whitehead for awhile and this gave some great points to leap from. Thanks!
Especially enjoyed the 2nd episode. Great, expansive paradigms being explored here. Dan, the Process Theology/Mormonism book would be awesome. I think a good philosophically/spiritually rigorous book written by you would be an excellent complement to your existing online corpus of work. I’m currently reading “A Cornel West Reader” and am amazed at the way his thoughts unravel in his writing. I keep thinking “Dan Wotherspoon should sit down and do something like this.” I see many similar intellectual and spiritual sensibilities between you and West.
Thank you, so much, Eric! I’m sheepish to admit that I like your comparison–such a long way for me to go in my own scholarship and applications of rigorous thought, but at the level of “sensibilities” I can feel a bit more secure. You’re encouragement has my brain firing and heart singing this morning. Appreciate you, and this alert to the West reader. I will take a look and see if it might serve as model of sorts for what I may produce in writing in the coming years.