Every generation has its “buzz words”—words that carry the magic of reducing the complex to the simple and the intricate to the plain. The world of philosophy and theology is not exempt from the power of such prestidigitation. Say “Abracadabra” (we shun the more traditional “hocus-pocus” out of respect to its theological etymology)—use the right incantation—and Ali Baba’s cave is laid bare.

I was initiated into the esoteric art of buzzing as a young seminary student in the early sixties. I quickly learned the key to essay exams, or, “how to score well on an essay test when you don’t know the content.” The formula was easy. For a B, add seven doses of “reconciliation,” four shots of “encounter,” and three drops of “paradoxical dialogical relationships.” For an A, it was necessary to spruce up the essay a bit with “existential inauthenticity,” “ultimate concern,” and by all means a couple of “Heilsgeschichtes.”

I soon discovered, however, that the “context of the continuum” is not static and that lesser-grade buzz words lose their potency in a short time. Nineteenth-century thought was dominated by the concept of evolution. But our century brought a new buzz word more closely related to the epochal breakthroughs wrought via the advent of the atomic age. From Einstein to Hartshorne the magic word in our times is “relativity.”

For the most part, twentieth-century philosophy has been fiercely anti-metaphysical and in some cases militantly antirational. The dominant schools of positivism, existentialism, and analytical philosophy all share a common antipathy to metaphysics. (The internecine struggles they exhibit do not vitiate their alliance against this common foe.)

This virtually monolithic opposition to the metaphysical, inevitably and by necessary consequence, leaves these schools hopelessly chained to “this-side,” to the realm of the phenomenal, with no exit from final relativity.

The cultural impasse of relativity reduces law and ethics from principles to preferences. Even a cursory examination of history reveals the inability of a culture to sustain itself on such a vacuous foundation. Its destiny must be what Os Guinness describes as the “Dust of Death.”

The minority report among twentieth-century philosophies has been “Process Philosophy.” The process thinkers have refused to abandon the metaphysical task and surrender to epistemological skepticism. Their goal, both philosophically and theologically, has been valiant and their success of late has been augmented rather than diminished. The mainline churches have been heavily influenced by the impact of this school as it has emerged into a major, if not the major, school of influence in our day.

Hear Charles Hartshorne as he states his goal in The Divine Relativity: “The question is whether and how God … can be conceived without logical absurdity, and as having such a character that an enlightened person may worship and serve him with whole heart and mind.”

Process theology seeks a reconstruction of classical theology that will offset the antirational and irrational elements of contemporary options, while at the same time solving the traditional problems of antinomies they find in classical formulations of God. Here, however, we find a case where the operation is successful but the patient dies. The buzz word remains intact as relativity is lifted up and incorporated in the character of God himself.

The synthesis of Hartshorne involves an attempt to resolve the tension between the relative and the absolute. God, in this paradigm, is not to be conceived of as “wholly absolute” or immutable. Rather in the system of panentheism, God is viewed as being “supremely-relative” or, as Hartshorne deems it, “surrelative.” A polar principle of reciprocity echoes notions gleaned from Schelling, Fechner, Whitehead, and Berdyaev among others.

Process theology is as formidable as it is complex and philosophically ingenious. Its impact on culture is at the usual point of intrusion—the field of ethics. The bottom line question is this: If our ethical principles ultimately derive from our understanding of the character of God, what happens if we understand God’s character to contain or include within it some dimension of the relative? Is our modern sense of the loss of absolutes a product of process theology, or is it possible that process theology is a necessary consequence of a prior rejection of ethical absolutes?

The apparent correlation within Christian bodies between the embracing of a relativistic ethic on the one hand and an attraction to process theology on the other hand forces the question to be raised. Do our ethics come from our understanding of God or do we shape our understanding of God to accommodate our ethics? I am reminded of the reply Dutch Catholic philosopher Luijpen made to Jean-Paul Sartre’s thesis that “the existence of God would make morality impossible.” Said Luijpen, “Perhaps Sartre’s morality makes the denial of God necessary.”

The evangelical world can ill afford a continued neglect of process thought. It offers a powerful alternative to both the pervasive irrationalism of the day (which is wearing thin) and to classical Christianity.

Dr. Sproul is president of the Ligonier Valley Study Center, Stahlstown, Pennsylvania.

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