Liberation theologians make people like me uncomfortably aware of privileges we didn’t know we had. Their challenges, if heard, provoke all of us to realize how deeply our social location influences the conclusions we draw, especially when it comes to all-encompassing questions about what it is to be truly and fully human in a shared situation that’s never holding still. (When it comes to questions like these, questions about what Hillary Putnam calls “human flourishing,” we can’t totally disentangle the factual from the evaluative.)
I’m convinced that process thought lends further support to challenges like these. Charles Hartshorne once summed up process thought in a single book title: Reality As Social Process (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953). If reality itself is through and through a sort of social process, then we can never afford to discount our own social location in trying to make sense of it. In more dryly academic terms, as I argued in my doctoral dissertation and early publications, reason itself, whether in the sciences or the humanities, needs to be reframed fundamentally as an “historically implicated, communally nurtured ability to make good sense of relatively singular contexts in ways appropriate to their relative singularity.” We can’t afford to discount our social location. Process thought supports this realization.
When I read theologians like James Cone and Rosemary Radford Ruether (two assigned readings in the course I’m writing for here), I’m forced to acknowledge how easily my chronic fascination with process theism’s abstractions, and other academic abstractions, allows me to leave the privileges of my own social location out of reckoning.
As a gay man I do, of course, know what it is like to be systematically excluded from prevailing images of what it is to be truly and fully human. And this has allowed me to offer my own explorations in gay liberation theology (here and here).
But I’m still pretty well off, still white, still male, still cisgendered, still leaving more of a carbon footprint than necessary, pretty much at home in an academic community that allows the sciences and humanities to exist because they might turn out to be “good for business.“ And all of these privileges shape the questions I am inclined to pursue first and foremost.
So, in the terminology of my Southern Baptist childhood, I find myself “under conviction” when I read James Cone’s account of how white theologians reacted to his early work.
“White theologians wanted me to debate with them about the question of whether ‘black theology’ was real theology, using their criteria to decide the issue. With clever theological sophistication, white theologians defined the discipline of theology in light of the problem of the unbeliever (i.e., the question of the relationship of faith and reason) and thus unrelated to the problem of slavery and racism … It was clear to me that what was needed was a fresh start in theology, a new way of doing it that would arise out of the black struggle for justice and would be in no way dependent upon the approval of white academics in religion.”—A Black Theology of Liberation: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), p. xiii.
What Cone says of white theologians’ initial reactions to his theology can also be said, albeit in notably different ways, of male theologians’ initial reactions to feminist theologies, of straight theologians’ initial reactions to gay and lesbian theologies, of cisgendered theologians’ initial reactions to trans and nonbinary theologies, of anthropocentric theologians’ initial reactions to ecotheologies, and so on: all these theologies have been charged with not being “real” or “academically serious” theology. But fortunately, at least in my estimation, none of these initial reactions were able to silence the often disruptive voices of these various liberation theologies. They are now here to stay and cannot be ignored.
I don’t read any of these liberation theologians, including myself, as dismissing what Cone calls the problem of faith and reason. I don’t read any of them as trying to silence the voices of theologians like me who make that problem one their principal concerns. I do read them and myself as insisting that we can’t address anything like “the problem of faith and reason” without asking self-critically why some of us have been rendered voiceless or marginal to that conversation. That is, I read them as insisting that solidarity with the resistances of the marginalized is not an engagement that can be postponed until we get our theories worked out. “Theology is not only rational discourse about ultimate reality; it is also a prophetic word about the righteousness of God that must be spoken and clear, strong, and uncompromising language” (Cone, 1990, p. xii).
How can I not agree? And how can I not expect to be forced out of my comfort zone as these voices render my privileges visible to me?
So I want to be careful as I respond to these classic examples of liberation theology from a process theist’s perspective.
As I’ve said before, I don’t think that my or anybody else’s version of process theism is the “final truth” behind the more richly suggestive but critically examined imagery of most liberation theologies. More generic-looking, detached-looking statements are not “truer” than more concretely engaging statements. Naming God as the all-inclusive way of newly interacting is not “truer” than naming God as cruciform Love, and neither of these is “truer” than naming God more concretely as Justice-Seeking Love, taking sides against oppression for everybody’s sake.
So if in some contexts I name God as the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, that doesn’t preclude my hearing God truly named in other contexts in terms of God’s blackness, where, as Cone says, “blackness symbolizes oppression and liberation in any society” (Cone, 1990, p. v): “There is no place in black theology for a colorless God in a society where human beings suffer precisely because of their color. The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples” (Cone, 1990, p. 63).
Do note how what Cone says anticipates the way white people today misunderstand “Black Lives Matter!” It’s not a denial that all lives matter, but it needs to stand on its own, without being muted by something more generic. In our North American, 21st-Century context, we can’t meaningfully say that all lives matter unless we affirm “Black Lives Matter,” and let that sink in before we even think of saying anything about all lives.
I still of course want to point out how speaking of God in terms of process theism opens me to Cone’s saying that, “The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition” (Cone, 1990, p. 63). Only if God’s very way of being is truly affected by our ways of being can we affirm that. And process theism helps me to appreciate his redefinition of God’s omnipotence, not as “God’s absolute power to accomplish what God wants,” but as involving “the power to let blacks stand out from whiteness and to be” (Cone, 1990, p. 81).
Process theism likewise seems congruent with Rosemary Radford Ruether’s experimenting with the unpronounceable term “God/ess” (the “/” is crucial): “Feminist theology needs to affirm the God of Exodus, of liberation and new being, but as rooted in the foundations of being rather than as its antithesis. The God/ess who is the foundation (at one and the same time) of our being and our new being embraces both the roots of the material substratum of our existence (matter) and also the endlessly new creative potential (spirit). The God/ess who is the foundation of our being-new being does not lead us back to a stifled, dependent self or uproot us in a spirit-trip outside the earth. Rather it leads us to the converted center, the harmonization of self and body, self and other, self and world. It is the Shalom of our being.”—Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983, 1993) p. 71.
In fact, in her later work—Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)—Ruether explicitly endorses process theism without reservation (pp. 246-247), and then incorporates it into her own vision: “At this moment we can encounter the matrix of energy of the universe that sustains the dissolution and recomposition of matter as also a heart that knows us even as we are known. Is there also a consciousness that remembers and envisions and reconciles all things, as the Process theologians believe? Surely, if we are kin to all things and offspring of the universe, then what has flowered in us as consciousness must also be reflected in that universe as well, in the ongoing creative Matrix of the whole … We encounter there the wellspring of life and creativity from which all things have sprung and into which they return, only to well up again in new forms. But we also know this as the great Thou, the personal center of the universal process, with which all the small centers of personal being dialogue in the conversation that continually creates and recreates the world. The small selves and the Great Self are finally one, for as She bodies forth in us, all the beings respond in the bodying forth of their diverse creative work that makes the world” (pp. 252-253).
It’s tempting to end this post with Ruether’s ringing endorsement of process theism. So again let me reiterate, I don’t think that my or anybody else’s version of process theism is the “final truth” behind the more richly suggestive but critically examined imagery of most liberation theologies. I do think it’s a form of God-talk that can enrich these other forms, but it likewise needs discomforting enrichment from them.