One of my good friends taught an undergrad course on feminism in religion several years ago and assigned a book of John Cobb’s. The class read it, loved it, and began a conversation about whether or not men could be feminists. They decided that they could and that John Cobb surely must be a feminist. And so they sent him one of the “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts, which he happily received and reportedly still has to this day. I tell this story not only to demonstrate that John Cobb is a feminist and cares deeply about feminist issues, but also as a way of pointing out that the process theology that Cobb has been so instrumental in developing and that has become his academic trademark is itself strongly supportive of and compatible with feminist thought.
At Claremont I and several of my friends have become the “ambassadors” of process theology among our classmates, often defending it above theological accounts we find much less compelling and sometimes downright unhealthy. And so I want to take this space to present briefly the reasons for which I find process theology deeply compatible with feminist thought. My aim is not necessarily to win any process “converts” (though that would be lovely), but merely to elucidate why I see process theology as a healthy, promising, and extremely compelling form of theology.
1. Process theology views God’s power as collaborative, not coercive.
Discarding the dominant view of power as power over some other subject, process thought adopts instead an understanding of power as power with another subject. God does not coerce the world, but rather attempts at persuading the world through God’s patient and loving call. Humans then have the freedom in each moment of their lives to respond to God’s call or not. The reason process thinking is able to present this altered understanding of divine power is because it see’s God’s power as necessarily limited (not self-limited, but inherently limited). While lots of people don’t like this and see it is a weakened form of God, process theology holds the idea of God’s collaborative power as far more worthy of worship than a God who acts unilaterally in the world through coercive force. I see this reconceptualization of God’s power as compatible with feminist thought because it breaks down deleterious power relations that promote the power of the one over the many, offering instead the opportunity to be collaborators in the on-going creation of the world. God’s collaborative power promotes justice, equality, and the value of human life.
2. Process theology values difference and understands God as valuing difference.
Integral to process thought is the idea that difference and diversity in the world create contrasts that lead to higher valuations of the world and increased production of a creative and diverse future. These contrasts can be positive and not solely negative contrasts, so that difference is not judged negatively but as something to be valued and as something that contributes to the promotion of goodness in the world. This difference that is valued includes gender difference, sexual difference, racial and ethnic difference, cultural difference, etc. While God seeks to bring this divergent world together in order to work collaboratively toward a better future, process theology does not see this as a unification that glosses over or erases difference. Rather, it is difference itself that creates the contrasts that move the world forward in creativity and diversity.
3. Process theology is inherently relational.
Process thought conceives life as comprised of moments (or events) that are related to other concurrent moments, as well as to all moments of the past. In this way, process theology holds interconnectedness or relationality to be one of its vital principles. When we think about this on a more abstract level than that of individual moments, this means that each human life and indeed each “thing” in the world are in some way interconnected (and God’s self is deeply relational). Aside from aligning itself with feminist thought just on the grounds of relationality, I think the implications of process theology’s interconnectedness further touch on deeply feminist issues. One of the most important implications of the world’s inter-relatedness comes in the form of eco-justice or environmental ethics. If we are all in relation with one another and in relation with the environment in ways we cannot even consciously acknowledge, then it behooves us to care for the earth in ways we currently are not. The ethical mandates of such relationality then encourage us to care (preferentially) for those women in developing countries who are most affected by global warming and ecological crises. To deny this care is to deny the ways in which our lives impinge upon one another and to deny that action toward which God calls us through God’s own relation to the world.
These are (briefly) the three most significant ways in which I see process theology as compatible with feminist thought and as deeply promising as a means of theological reflection. If you want to read up on process theology, I highly recommend Marjorie Suchocki’s God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology, as well as John Cobb’s A Christian Natural Theology. Also, look for a future book on feminism and process theology to come out soon, edited by Monica Coleman, Nancy Howell, and Helene Russell.
5 thoughts on “Feminism and Process Theology By Jeremy Fackenthal”
Thanks so much for sharing – I love that your friend sent that t-shirt to John Cobb! I wonder if you have read “She Who Changes” by Carol Christ? I think it is a crucial work and focuses on feminism and process theology. Also, I’m going to be posting a review soon of “Relational Reality” by Charlene Spretnak – it was just released recently and is really an outstanding work. I highly recommend both.
Thank you Jeremy for sharing this. I also love process thought/theology, and agree that it has much overlap with feminism and thealogy. Both Carol Christ (who just posted recently) and John Cobb have written much on the relationship. In fact, responding to Christ’s “Rebirth of the Goddess,” John Cobb wrote, ‘We Christian males did not fully understand the full implications of process theology until feminists showed them to us. Carol Christ carries that process further, and I am grateful.’
I think that the relationship between process theology and feminist thealogy, as exemplified in the partnership between Cobb and Christ, represents what a constructive and transformative academic dialogue can and should be. I appreciate them both so much.
Here is a sample of their work on the topic: http://www.ctr4process.org/publications/SeminarPapers/25_1-Christ.rtf (this automatically opens a word doc)
John Cobb has been very supportive of my work. Indeed, I sometimes say that it is never too late to get a mentor, even after you have been teaching for over 20 years!
Aside from that, Charles Hartshorne described himself as a lifelong feminist, though he did not develop the relationship between process and feminism. And I do believe process is the metaphysic is the one feminist theology and thealogy need.
I recommend The Divine Relativity and Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes by Hartshorne as inviting entries into process thought.
Monica Coleman’s Making a Way Out of No Way is a whiteheadian womanist theology, in the author’s own words. And unlike the anthology which is forthcoming, it is already in print.
Thanks all. Yes, Dr. Coleman’s Making a Way Out of No Way is an excellent book. I would also recommend Marjorie Suchocki’s The Fall to Violence for a process feminist critique of original sin.