As an alumnus of, and current doctoral candidate at, Claremont in the field of philosophy of religion, I have been asked countless times to succinctly explain process theology (PT). Now I have a text to recommend, especially to the often perplexed non-philosophically inclined. Bruce Epperly attempts to “present process theology using Whitehead’s technical language only when necessary,” and “without compromising the spirit of [his] metaphysics” (12). In so doing, Epperly explains a notoriously complex philosophical system without depending on the overly complex language employed by Whitehead. Epperly achieves this for the most part while, he admits, relying on a few essential Whiteheadian terms such as “field of force,” “panexperientialism,” “prehension,” and “concrescence” to name a few. The author is clear that this text is only a beginning to one’s study of PT, for the complexity of the subject should not discourage the student. Likewise, complexity should not be a strike against a theological system – that is, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that it takes time and commitment in order to understand. Though Epperly clearly advocates for PT as an adequate and useful theology, he openly admits some of its challenges and shortcomings.
A major strength of this text is Epperly’s demonstrated effort in grounding PT in practical everyday experience. He provides narratives of people grappling with real life issues and the implications of applying a PT framework to those experiences. In one sense, this is what sets this text apart from other introductory primers on PT. The book offers ten accessible chapters which, as a whole, offer a well-rounded overview of Christian PT.
The book shines with the opening chapter, which engages the basic question “What is Process Theology and Why is it so Perplexing?” Epperly candidly admits that the “challenging theological language of Alfred North Whitehead” is one of the main culprits to its perplexing nature. Additionally, this opening chapter covers some of the basic features of PT, such as its origins, the importance of theological reflection, and post-Whiteheadian process theologians such as Harthshorne, Cobb, Pittenger, Loomer and Griffin. Epperly introduces the reader to some of the key tenants of PT such as panentheism, reality as dynamic and emergent, the absence of divine fore-knowledge, human free will, and the reality of a relational of God.
Chapters 2-4 engage Christian theology by addressing the personal nature of God, Christology, and the Trinity respectfully. Here Epperly takes on “the classical vision of divine omniscience and omnipotence” from the perspective of PT. He follows this with the practical implications for one’s spiritual life by demonstrating how approaches to these classical theological tenants inform the efficacy and meaningfulness of prayer. Chapter three proposes a “Naturalistic Christology” in the wake of thinkers such as John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, and Majorie Suchocki. Epperly succeeds in casting a PT Christology of hope with the stated goal of deepening “our understanding of God’s presence in our everyday interactions and [to] recognize that the natural world, rather than being one-dimensional and deterministic, contains undreamt possibilities for healing, wholeness, and spiritual adventure” (69). In its brevity, chapter four paints “that dancing diversity of the Trinity” (78) as a the backdrop against which PT invites a pluralist theology or religions in which all things are understood as potentially pan-revelatory, or what I refer to as pansacramental.
Chapter five engages theology anthropology from a process perspective. In particular, Epperly approaches what it means to be human by considering “the self as dynamic, complex, and embodied” (84). The chapter clarifies PT’s perspective vis-à-vis Cartesian mind-body dualism and “the Newonian vision of insentient matter” (85). Chapter six demonstrates the openness of PT, particularly as it relates to its encounter with the natural sciences. Epperly postures PT’s approach to science in the spirit of John Polkinghorne’s statement that “those who seek to serve God should welcome truth from whatever corner it may come” (94). As such, PT is to embrace the scientific discoveries of the 21st century and seek to square them with the divine aim.
Chapter seven explores the ethical theory stemming from PT metaphysics. Charting a course between deontology and utility based ethical theories, PT proffers a relational ethical theory that considers God’s vision of wholeness. Epperly then applies this theory to bioethics examining euthanasia, animal ethics, and abortion. Chapter eight explores the nature and function of the church from a process perspective. PT proffers that one of the main functions of the church is that of remaining open to new possibilities and proclaiming alternative visions of reality that transform the world.
Chapter nine offers a candid look at the mostly silent position of PT regarding the possibility of life after death. However, it offers an optimistic, hope-filled, holistic, realized eschatology which naturally lends itself to a pluralist theology of religions. This promotes one of the main strengths of PT in its potential for constructive interfaith dialogue and engagement in dynamic comparative theology. Chapter ten concludes with a look at the future of PT including its hopes, promises, and challenges.
The text is well suited to address an audience consisting of those seeking to juxtapose PT with their evangelical Christian roots or “traditional Christianity.” In particular, Epperly contrasts PT with the popular American theology espoused by best-selling pastor Rick Warren. Although Epperly, at times, seems to over-simplify and conflate the diversity of “traditional Christianity,” he succeeds in clarifying how process theology differs from it. Further, he reveals the practical implications that flow from those differences. A lengthier description of “traditional Christianity” would have been helpful in addition to making some distinctions between “traditional Christianity,” “classical Christianity,” and “evangelical Christianity.” Instead, the reader is left with a vague conflation of these categories.
In my review of the text, Epperly’s creativity and pastoral experience shine, however it is not well served by an unusually poor editorial presentation. I anticipate the final text will resolve these issues. Overall, this text will serve those who come to PT without a rigorous background in philosophy or theology. Its brevity and accessibility make it a strong candidate for use in undergraduate and introductory graduate classrooms. It will also succeed in reading groups comprised of non-specialists or new-comers to PT.