Why Bo Sanders and Process People Should Read Aquinas

Jason Micheli —  December 20, 2013 — 3 Comments

homebrewed-christianityBo Saunders’ and Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity TNT Podcast has gotten me through many a long run. Listening to their theological nerd throw-downs always proves a helpful distraction from my huffing and puffing and creaking.

Their most recent TNT episode dealt with the viral reaction to theologian Roger Olson’s no-holds-barred dismissal of Process Theology.

For you lay people, Process Theology is a 20th century theology that, until I listened to Homebrewed, I thought had never made it out of the 20th century. I can still recall the rather small paragraph devoted to it in Alistair McGrath’s Introduction to Christian Theology.

In a nutshell, Process Theology holds that God affects- and this is the big point- is affected by creatures and time.

Process Theology thus contradict’s the most basic, consensus understanding of God in all the ancient theistic traditions that God is eternal, immutable, and impassible.

In other words, God changes.

Is changed.

Process Theology would argue that relationship between two requires the possibility that the two will change and be changed by the other. While I have sympathy with such a view, I still believe the ancient theistic view that God, who is not an object in the universe, is unchanging.

God is Love itself. Goodness itself.

Without deficiency or imperfection- which is just what a change implies.

I don’t want to get too far into the finer points of Process Theology.

I just want to note that Bo Saunders posted a reflection on their recent episode in which, in the name of cultural relevance, he (IMO) dismisses the ancient Christian tradition:

What I am saying is that we don’t need to understand Aquinas better or deeper. 

We are to do in our day what Aquinas did in his.

Call this dismissive if you will but  The Church’s future is not to be found in Europe’s past. I say it all the time.

Historic thinkers like Aquinas never saw what I call the 5 C’s of our theological context:

• post-Christendom

• Colonialism

• global Capitalism

• Charismatic renewal (especially Pentecostalism in the Southern Hemisphere)

• Cultural Revolutions (from Civil Rights in the 60’s to the ‘Arab Spring’)

Who am I to criticize someone else for making wild generalizations, right?

Admittedly, I’m a huge aficionado of Aquinas and an even bigger fan of contemporary Thomists like Stanley Hauerwas, Alistair McIntyre and Hebert McCabe, but Bo’s argument initially struck me as incredibly modern in a bad way.

There is no better modernist impulse than to deconstruct and dismiss the past tradition, myopically assuming that our cultural moment is unique and beyond analogy such that the tradition can shed a helpful light.

While I agree with Bo that Christians need to do what Aquinas did not merely genuflect the received tradition, I don’t think Bo articulates how

it’s impossible to do what Aquinas did without first mastering the skills and habits that empowered Aquinas to do what Aquinas did.

Flannery O’Connor once lamented how the reason the quality of contemporary literature was so poor was because too few contemporary authors had been trained in the great literature of the past. The same critique could be leveled at much contemporary theology too.

What’s more, I think Bo’s point neglects the fact that many of the Church Fathers did live and work in moments with parallels to the 5 C’s Bo highlights.

Irenaeus, for example, lived BEFORE Christendom and thus can help us see how theology is to be done apart from Empire. (To equate all ancient and classical theology with capitulation to Caesar is both ungenerous to our forebears and a misreading of history.)

Augustine, for another example, witnessed the collapse of the Roman Empire, a cultural devolution that speaks volumes about our own cultural permutations.

Thomas Aquinas meanwhile shows us how to synthesize the best of cultural wisdom into a coherent Christian worldview, a helpful model for us at a time when Christians are rapidly disappearing from the arts and other culture-shaping disciplines.

 

Above all, however, I think Bo’s argument is negated by the nature of the most innovative contemporary theology today.

I think Tony Jones rightly points out that Process Theology has really never gained traction in either the ivory tower or the pews and pulpits. Meanwhile (and again, I’m showing my personal preferences) the most important, game-changing theological work is being done by theologians who are the very contradiction of Bo’s perspective, theologians like William Cavanaugh, Rowan Williams, John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas and Robert Jenson. All of them et al are deeply rooted in the ancient historic tradition but all of them exemplify how that ancient tradition can speak creatively to our context.

David Bentley Hart, for a final nail in the coffin, is without doubt the most innovative, important young theologian today, and the bulk and best of his work (not so) simply puts the ancient Orthodox tradition into conversation with the challenges of postmodernity.

It’s cliched to say that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it, but maybe the opposite is true in theology: those who don’t study the past are doomed not to come close to the wisdom of it.

 

 

 

Jason Micheli

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3 responses to Why Bo Sanders and Process People Should Read Aquinas

  1. I’m no fan of process theology either. I do believe that we have the ability to understand more about God as we mature as his people over his time between a genesis and an eschaton.

  2. Whitehead was incredibly dry reading in seminary. So I never really got into that process stuff. However, I do think there is a legitimate dichotomy between the Hebrew elohim and Greek theos, which is kind of echoed throughout the last millennium in the nominalist (proto-“postmodern”) vs. realist (Platonist) debate. Based on what I’ve heard about it, process theology seems like a sort of progressive neo-nominalism. If we read the Old Testament without the Hellenistic presuppositions, we see a God who “repents” often. Do we have to say that God was just “testing Moses” to say He wanted to wipe out the Israelites and start over with him? Ultimately I take some of that stuff in the OT with a grain of salt and say that Jesus is the only perfectly reliable theophany because I’m not an inerrantist.

    I think I tend towards a more neo-Platonist/Thomist (?) conception of God as perfect love, goodness, beauty, truth, etc, like you’ve laid it out, but it’s not necessarily because I find that view the most compelling. It’s because I want to be able to say no, God is not an arbitrary douchebag who damns people from before time because that’s not what agape looks like. However, I’m also really attracted to John Caputo’s notion of a weak God or at least a God whose relationship to creation is something we can only understand weakly. I’ve really been influenced by Michael Gorman Inhabiting the Cruciform God, which basically argues that God’s relationship with the world is best expressed by the cross itself. I think the only thing which doesn’t gibe for me about the Platonist/realist account of God is to give Him meticulous sovereignty over everything that happens. Creation is too much of a perpetual battle against God’s vision of shalom and harmony to say that. I think it’s more in keeping with the Biblical witness to think of God as an embattled, exiled king who is fighting to get his throne back even if we want to qualify that by saying God *chooses* to manifest His power through our weakness, to let us participate in His miracles through intercessory prayers, and He’s already won the victory anyway through Jesus’ resurrection, etc.

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