Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion?* does not even mention process theism or process theology. Nor does it mention any influential contemporary theologians like Paul Tillich or Sallie McFague or Jurgen Moltmann or Karl Rahner. And you will find no discussion of panentheism.

I would be surprised if Reitan didn’t know anything about these movements or figures. Still, like all too many anglophone philosophers of religion, he never mentions them in this book, or in any of his blog posts. Given my lifelong flirtations with process thought, and my field (theology, not anglophone philosophy of religion), I’m a bit disappointed.

But I wouldn’t equate my disappointment with a criticism. I’m not saying that his book would have been “strengthened” if he had included these topics and writers or that it is “weakened” because he didn’t. As I have said about McFague’s and Gordon Kaufman’s works, sometimes it’s a strength not to make one’s presentation depend upon an intellectual movement that can look exceedingly confusing to the novice. (I also downplay process theism in my response to Dawkins, though I do mention panentheism often.) I think that on the whole Reitan’s book is a well argued work that stands more or less on its own. There is always room to quibble with his treatment of this or that topic, but that’s what theologians and philosophers do.

What I especially appreciate about the book is what I take to be its core idea—that we can’t divorce concepts of God from a more fundamental “ethico-religious hope.” “‘God’ names that which … suggests that our ethico-religious hope is not in vain,” [that which] “at the core of reality … is capable of valuing goodness, of caring for what is objectively good” (p. 51).

Now of course I would like this, because here I find echoes of my own trustful awakening “to a dialogical, continually renewing communion with the all-inclusively real,” and we always like what seems to confirm our fundamental inklings. Furthermore, as I have said, this underlying sensibility matters to me and many other theists far more than the specific ways in which process theists or “classical” theists try to articulate its implications in terms of more debatable clusters of attributes.

In other words, to have a fruitful conversation on the topic of God, we need to start by recognizing that the word “God” is an open-ended term “that points us to something without presuming to describe every key detail” (p. 45).

Reitan is careful to point out that recognizing this open-endedness does not mean that anything goes, as new atheist Daniel Dennett charges (pp. 45-46). Here he does at least mention “liberal” theologians in general, without naming any names, arguing that they are not simply updating the word “God” to promote “brand loyalty.” “What [liberal theologians] are committed to is the existence of that which fulfills our ethico-religious hope. Whatever that something is, it needs to be morally good, and so it will need to closely resemble a personal God even if our usual ideas of what a person is like don’t apply. And so, as they gesture towards an inexplicable reality, they have every right to call it God—and not just out of brand loyalty” (p. 52).

Furthermore, as it turns out, Reitan’s principal inspiration for this open-ended starting point is the one exceedingly influential theologian he does mention, Friedrich Schleiermacher. That’s a name few Americans can spell and that even fewer can pronounce. Schleiermacher is frequently called “the father of modern theology,” or as I sometimes describe him, as the first liberal theologian who didn’t get fired.

This too is something about the book that I enthusiastically applaud, and it’s what sets him apart from typical analytic philosophers of religion. Schleiermacher really did revolutionize the way theology is done even among those who disagree with him, starting with his 1799 On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. (Notice that the subtitle on Reitan’s book is a play on Schleiermacher’s subtitle.)

Here I do think it would have been helpful if Reiten had pointed out that Schleiermacher was not the the first or last theologian to insist that we start with understanding “God” as an open-ended term “that points us to something without presuming to describe every key detail.” (Reitan does credit Anselm in that regard.) Schleiermacher looks more mainstream if we place his approach with a whole cluster of similar approaches, as I’ve done elsewhere:

“All agree,” says St. Augustine, “that God is whatever they put above all other things” (On Christian Doctrine, 1.7.7). “God,” says St. Anselm, “you are that than which no greater can be thought” (Proslogion, 2). Martin Luther develops this in a different way in his Large Catechism: “That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.” Friedrich Schleiermacher held that “what all expressions of piety have in common … is this: that we are conscious of ourselves as absolutely dependent or, which intends the same meaning, as being in relation with God” (Christian Faith [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016 (1830-31)], p. 18). Karl Rahner, a very mainstream Roman Catholic theologian, would understandably downplay any dependence on a liberal Protestant like Schleiermacher, but I think his indebtedness is fairly obvious: “All talk about God always only points to … an experience in which the one whom we call ‘God’ encounters us … as the absolute and the immeasurable, as the term of our transcendence which cannot really be incorporated into any system of coordinates.” (Foundations of Christian Faith [New York: Seabury Press, 1978], p. 21.) Paul Tillich, perhaps most famously, said that “‘God’ …  is the name for that which concerns man ultimately” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951] p. 211).

So we can find ample precedents for Schleiermacher’s and Reitan’s open-ended approach. (Indeed, we can find that approach at work in the Bible itself.) I do still find it puzzling that a figure like Tillich, who is better known to American readers, gets no mention, while Schleiermacher does. But Schleiermacher certainly deserves more attention than he has gotten in our culture, so I can’t really complain.

One point where Reitan comes very close to a process understanding of God’s involvement in the world is in his section on “The God of the Chance Gaps” (pp. 88-93). Like many process thinkers, he makes much of the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. He argues that a world running according to discoverable laws can still be “a world in which God might be a ‘nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant’ in events,” exerting “significant influence” (p. 93). That is pretty much what many process theists would say. For my part, however, I prefer not to depend too heavily on interpretations of quantum mechanics, but on more general observations about “laws of nature” following the Stanford School, where even at a “macro” level, as John Dupre argues, “Causal regularity is a much rarer feature of the world than is generally supposed.” We don’t have to concern ourselves over whether or not the “chance gaps” of quantum mechanics will ever be displaced by a not so “gappy” model.

The other point at which Reitan comes close to a process approach is in his chapter on evil and the meaning of life: “The argument from evil is a challenge to the existence of God traditionally conceived as omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. But I have defined God less precisely—as a transcendent being who fulfills our ethico-religious hope. To fulfill that hope, God would have to be good, and He would have to be greater than any evil (in the sense that, given God’s existence, evils would cease to have ultimate significance). But this isn’t the same as being all-powerful” (p. 188). This again is pretty much what many process theists would say.

Here Reitan also comes close to what I have called “The Shared Creativity Response to the Problem of Evil”: “The act of creation may be inseparable from an act of radical divine self-restriction” (p. 192). But he still talks about this in terms of God deciding to restrict God’s power, thus permitting evil, while the shared creativity response argues that, because creation is essentially sharing creativity, “the existence of evil, or conflict, is not ‘permitted’ by God or any one agency—it results, not with logical necessity, but with practical inevitability, from an uncontrollable multitude of lesser versions of shared creativity. While God’s sharing of creativity with whatever isn’t God is regarded as unforced, this does not mean that God at some point ‘decided’ to do this.” This may be quibbling, because I don’t think that Reitan’s ethico-religious hope is heavily invested in hanging on to terms like “deciding” and “permitting.” Reitan also addresses how responding to the devastating degree of much human suffering requires more than a theoretical solution, and like me and other Christians, he finds a more existentially appropriate response in reading the “cruciform” story of Jesus as the humanized, cruciform story of God, while recognizing that other religious traditions may have their own distinct resources for an existentially appropriate response (pp.203-204).

In any case, given Reitan’s well-precedented, open-ended approach to “God,” he certainly leaves the door open to 1) the way process theism questions the traditional list of divine attributes, 2) to how it responds to our undeniable awareness of often devastating conflict and suffering, and 3) to the way in which process thought helps to articulate how we can have ample reason to trust that what would fulfill our ethico-religious hope is immeasurably more than a wishful projection.

Fr. Charles


*(Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)