Sunday, June 10, 2007

Black Theology with a Process

Two worthless subjects meet and compare notes—black theology and process theology. To be fair, William R. Jones is arguably the most important black religious humanist thinker of our time, having raised the fundamental question of theodicy as it relates to black suffering and liberation, most notably in his seminal book Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology (Doubleday, 1973). Process Theology is a branch of the Process Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. These two streams of thought meet in this article:

Process Theology: Guardian of the Oppressor or Goad to the Oppressed by William R. Jones, in Process Studies, pp. 268-281, Vol.18, Number 4, Winter, 1989.

The issue is whose side is the God of process theology on—on the side of the oppressed, the oppressor, or everyone (meaning the oppressor in practice)? Jones has a number of questions for process theology as he does for all others:

Given the factor of ethnic suffering, can one assume that God is good? Are not the interpretations that Miller cites — God is benevolent, indifferent demonic/evil — equally probable? Though the position of humanocentric theism accommodates the divine freedom in a manner that prevents making God responsible for the crimes of human history, it does so at the cost of making a demonic deity equally probable. As the divine joker in Bertrand Russell’s eschatological scenario illustrates (FMW), each and every instance of divine benevolence can, with equal validity, be interpreted as a divine misanthropy and malevolence.

I must confess that the manner in which process theology affirms the benevolence of God over against the option of God as demonic or indifferent, is, for me, blatantly question-begging. Howard Burkle, for instance, purports to show that these options are not equally valid. However, the superiority he assigns to the option of benevolence rests on the question-begging foundation of a stipulative definition. The very idea that God may be demonic, he contends, is "inherently inconsistent and therefore not a possibility at all. God cannot be demonic because ‘God’ means ‘absolute perfection.’ If the dominant universal power is not perfectly good, there is no God" (GSB 77).

It would also appear that the logical and theological maneuvers that avoid God’s responsibility for the crimes of human history have several undesirable consequences: any appeal to the future becoming of the divine as preeminent events of liberation is ruled out; even more important, we are left in the dark about God’s character as demonic, indifferent or benevolent. Granting freedom to humans for example, is logically and theologically multievidential. Ultimately, this divine "grace" tells us nothing about whose side God is on or about the divine intent for the future of the human species and its oppressed communities. In what sense can we speak of a divine intent or telos in human history beyond the granting of freedom to humanity, a freedom that is acknowledged to be multivalent, an equal ground of being for good or evil?

Given the insights of humanocentric theism, we are also pushed to ask what it means to advance God, the transcendent, as the ground for the just society? Does it mean more than the claim that the transcendent is both the ground for human freedom/autonomy to operate as moral creator and foundation of the world in which this freedom is exercised? Or does it mean that ultimate reality sponsors, and thus guarantees, the ultimate triumph of specific activities in human history? That is, once humanity is given the status of moral creator, does ontological priority -- i.e., the transcendent -- still establish moral priority? It seems clear that the species of human freedom endorsed by humanocentric theism precludes, at the very least, any immediate movement from ontology to ethics, from the "is" to the "ought," without the intermediate operation of human evaluation. Is this an area where process theology ultimately grounds itself on a question-begging norm?
While I enjoy philosophical puzzles, if I am going to spend my time in a mythical universe, I might be better off going to a Star Trek convention, playing Dungeons & Dragons, or viewing The Lord of the Rings. While cults of any kind invite excess, the difference is to recognize without equivocation that a man-made fictional landscape is involved. Even if you're a cultist, at least you know the object of veneration is naught but a literary artifact. The discipline for analyzing such cultural artifacts is literary criticism or art criticism. Left/liberal theology is another matter. Liberal theologians are pushed towards the recognition that their sacred texts are fiction but can't just accept them as fiction; instead they play the game of "as if" in order to preserve an authoritative status for outmoded superstitions. So instead of good literary criticism we get bad metaphysics--liberation theology, process theology, death-of-god theology, post-Holocaust theology, feminist theology, black theology. A few of these fictional constructs may be of interest, but the whole enterprise is a sad waste of intellectual energy.

If there is some good that can come out of this bad medicine, it is that radicalizers of these traditions may on occasion push the envelope from within the mythical structures that religionists inhabit. Jones, by pushing theodicy as the question for oppressed peoples and following through on its internal logic, forces an alteration of the mythic structure of Christianity without abolishing it, and he pushes these questions with every theological system he encounters.

Process philosophy has attracted liberals and even some Marxists. It has linkages to the reactionary obscurantism of contemporary proponents of Daoism and Confucianism. It has linkages to biosemiotics and creationism. It's a slippery devil. Its linkages to liberation theology and particularly black theology enable more mischief. The best thing one can say is that Jones challenges the political implications of its metaphysics.

But sadly, there's more:

Hartshorne's Neoclassical Theism and Black Theology by Theodore Walker, Jr., in Process Studies, pp.240-258, Vol. 18, Number 4, Winter, 1989.

Alien Gods in Black Experience by Archie Smith, Jr., in Process Studies, pp. 294-305, Vol. 18, Number 4, Winter, 1989.

Walker defends process theology against Jones's doubts by adumbrating the differences between Hartshorne's theology and orthodox theism and showing its consonance with statements about God in connection with black liberation from the abolitionist movement on. No doubt such arguments were once useful in appealing to a religious populace, but to have to waste one's time on this nonsense to convince fools of something on the cusp of the millennium is just backward.

But Smith is much worse. Reviewing the literature on the subject, he concludes that there is a need for a holistic view of "relational reality" integrating material and spiritual forces and incorporating the concept of "principalities and powers". Unrecognized social forces are "alien gods" that "represent the visible and invisible principalities and powers that circumscribe human existence." An example of the trial of an Australian aborigine who killed his female companion is analyzed. I can't go on about this superstitious garbage.

The intellectual vampires of liberation theology are perfectly capable of perpetrating their obscurantist mischief without the help of process philosophy, but here we have yet another terrain in which it works its baleful influence. We can thank the liberal and radical mind-manipulators once again for muddying the waters of the human intellect.

My remarks on Whitehead & his influence:
Whitehead & Marxism: Selected Bibliography
Does anyone give good Whitehead?
Whitehead or Marx? Or, How to Process Philosophy
Chinese Philosophy in the West: Globalization Gone Bad (1)
January 2007 reading review (1)
Emergence: Theology or Materialism?

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