The God of Process Theology: An Interview with John Cobb
Tikkun: How did you start your thinking about theology?
Cobb: I grew up in a religious Methodist Christian family, and when I started meeting intellectuals I realized that this was considered a rather unusual and somewhat eccentric position. I did my graduate degree at the University of Chicago and wanted to study all the arguments against the existence of God. Growing up, God was a central companion, so discovering that this was not supported by most of the intellectual and academic community was a shock.
But at the University of Chicago I came to understand that, for most intellectuals, it wasn’t a matter of discussing “the evidence,” but the worldview that dominated. For this worldview, anything coming from outside the natural realm was completely unacceptable and outside the dominant universe of discourse. I began to discover, through my teachers at the Chicago Divinity School, to which I transferred, the very impressive intellectual work of Alfred North Whitehead.
Whitehead shifted me from the notion of God as omnipotent to a God who is powerful, and from a God who is immutable to a God who is in genuine interaction with the world and cares about what happens in the world—and hence changes.
Tikkun: How does process theology understand God? It is clear that process theologians do not believe in a big man in heaven who sends down judgments and rewards and punishes people for their misbehaviors. But is the God of process theology a person? What relationship does this God have to human beings?
Cobb: Given the huge amount of human experience with God, my teachers argued that this experience was just as valid as any other aspect of human experience. I follow Whitehead quite closely myself, and for him, God includes the world and is immanent in every event. Some process theologians think that Whitehead’s God is too speculative and prefer to define God purely within human experience. Henry Nelson Wieman said, “God is that process in which human values grow.” He described that process brilliantly and considered the reality of this God indubitable.In both cases, God is a process. In Wieman’s case, the process is very personal in the sense that it creates and nurtures persons, but it is in no sense a person. In Whitehead’s case, God is similarly personal. God not only brings persons into being and nurtures them but also calls them to fuller, more ethical lives. In addition, God as the cosmic Subject has many of the characteristics of human persons.
Challenging the Cartesian View of Nature
Tikkun: Why have process theologies gained so little traction in the modern situation?
Cobb: The worldview that dominates most universities excludes both subjects and values a priori. In other words, it excludes not only Whitehead’s speculations about a cosmic Subject, but also Wieman’s effort to describe God in a purely empirical way. Because this exclusion is a priori, no argument is needed. It is this metaphysics that still runs the world.
This metaphysics started with Descartes’s description of nature. Then, after Darwin showed that human beings are part of nature, this metaphysics attributed the same characteristics also to human beings. In this way it ruled out all that is subjective, any internal reality. And this became the dominant view shaping universities and academic discourse. It led to the marginalizing of people like Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. The hard sciences become the paradigm for all that is true.
Tikkun: Yes, the Network of Spiritual Progressives runs into this in our campaign for an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA), because people say that we can’t allow juries to assess whether a corporation is environmentally and socially responsible without having objective measures, by which they mean metrics that are empirically observable or measurable.
They assume that anything real must be subject to measurement or empirical observation, which then leaves out anything from the sphere of ethics or spirit. The Cartesian worldview works very well with capitalism, because it marginalizes the values that could be used to critique capitalism. Where does Whitehead fit into all of this?
Cobb: Whitehead understood the physical world in a different way than was dominant in intellectual life at his time and ever since. He came to his views through his study of physics and math. Physicists thought they were talking about an actual world, but in fact they discussed abstractions to which they mistakenly attributed actuality.
He was developing his ideas about the world during the period in which Einstein was developing relativity theory, so I will illustrate the issue there. He was bothered by the fact that Einstein’s theory of general relativity described space as if it could either be curved or flat (flat locally but curved over great distance). In order for space to be either flat or curved, it would have to be concrete, and Whitehead thought it did not make sense to speak of space that way. He was a mathematician, and in geometry any space can be treated as Euclidian, hyperbolic, or elliptical.