Interview with Rabbi Bradley Artson on Process Theology

Welcome CESJDS High School- Oct 6th, 2020

What sort of philosophy of God do you have? Theist, Pantheist or an Ultimate Reality or Cosmic Force? Is God all-powerful or limited? Concerned with our daily lives or not? Last week, the Pew foundation released statistics that a third of Americans treat God as a cosmic force and half of America are Biblical theists. These results should not be taken as anything new because much of American religion- from the Deist founding Fathers to the 19th century Transcendentalists, to the 21st century New Age- has always treated God as a cosmic force. However, the more important question is what are the properties of this ultimate reality? Pew, as usual, did not ask any follow up questions to determine the nature of the Ultimate Reality. Is it a disembodied Mind, a theopoetic metaphor for our own best selves or inspiring us with love and justice? Rabbi Bradley Artson has recently developed over several books a Jewish Process theology of love, compassion, and justice to address those who seek a religiously robust Ultimate Reality.

Bradley Artson holds an A.B. Degree from Harvard College, ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary and received his D.H.L. at HUC-JIR in Contemporary Jewish Theology, Artson served as the rabbi of Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo. In 1999, he started at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) where he is currently Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University and University Vice-President. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam in Germany, ordaining Conservative/Masorti rabbis for Europe. Among his many books are the recent works of process theology Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit (Jewish Lights, 2015); God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights, 2016).

artson- becoming

Already thirty-three years ago, while still in Rabbinical school, Artson defined his view of God as ethical and simultaneously based on Torah.

Credo – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson 1985

The two core assertions of  traditional Judaism, assertions  which I cannot prove but upon  which I stake my life:

The first axiom is that God is loving, compassionate, wise, and passionate about justice.

The second is that the Torah and  rabbinic tradition is the preeminent  vehicle for Jews to articulate a sense  of God’s will and to concretize that will in our daily lives and our social  structure.

I refuse to read halakhah or the Torah in such a way that it makes  God seem cruel, nor will I sever the  intimate connection between God’s  will and God’s Torah.  God is just, and halakhah embodies  God’s love and justice.

From these two points, a Torah of compassion and social  justice emerges organically.

Compare this to the other Jewish Gods available in the 1980’s. Some chose a God that demanded an intellectual mastery of a corpus of halakhic books with a concurrent remaking of reality to match the vision of the books, others chose a territorial God on the verge of a messianic return to a Jewish kingdom, and still others chose an experiential and emotional God found in the personal heart. How many would have chosen this moral deity if given a choice?

Artson felt the need to develop a Process Theology of God when his tacitly assumed prior orthodox theistic theology failed, as explained in the interview.

Process theology is a form of theistic naturalism developed by Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) in which God is located in the natural order as a panentheism, ever changing and affected by temporal processes. Unlike traditional theism, God is not all knowing, not all-powerful, not engaged in supernatural acts. God is temporal, mutable, and affected by the world.

To get to today’s views, I am skipping over many subsequent thinkers such as Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) or Henry Nelson Wieman (d. 1975). In later decades, the theologian John B. Cobb (b. 1925) wrote many works applying these abstract metaphysical ideas to a working practiced religion, religion of prayer and compassion, which emphasizes event, occurrence, or becoming over against substance. Many moderate and progressive members of liberal religion in the United States find Cobb’s view a viable religion. They find it a theology able to preach, teach, and inspire an integration of spirituality, social action, and care for the earth.

In this post-Cobb version, process theology presents a dynamic interdependent universe, congruent with the insights of quantum physics, biology, and the ecological movement. Second, experience is universal, valuable, and variable. Process theologians believe that we live in an organic lived universe in which all things have some level of experience. Third, creativity and freedom are real for God and us. God does not, and cannot, determine the experience of any creature or the future of the planet. God does not determine our lives, have a plan for the details of our lives, or respond to events in our lives. Finally, God is creative-responsive love. God and the world constitute a dynamic synergy of “call and response” in which God inspires and energizes each moment of experience and, conversely, embraces the ongoing history of the universe as part of God’s own experience.

Process theology of the Whitehead variety used to be popular in American liberal rabbinic theology.  In the 1950’s Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, and Harry Slominsky were influenced by process theology. Olan was publicly committed to defending in the Jewish journals the concepts of process theology. In later decades, William E. Kaufman and Harold Kushner shared much of this view of a limited divine.  Mordecai Kaplan is famously quoted as defining “God as the power that makes for Salvation.” Whatever Kaplan actually meant by that phrase, Milton Steinberg, a rabbinic theologian sharply and publicly differed with it by affirming a theism, a process theism in which God acts in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. He claimed that the universe is dynamic, creative, rational and purposive and contains consciousness: “The entire universe is the outward manifestation of Mind-Energy, of Spirit, or to use the older and better word, of God.” On these older trends, see Jewish Theology and Process Thought eds. Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin (1996); William E. Kaufman, A Question of Faith: An Atheist and a Rabbi Debate the Existence of God and The Case for God.

Rabbi Brad Artson’s position is, in many ways, similar to that of Milton Steinberg but with the influence of Cobb, Clayton, and many later process thinkers who emphasize experience, compassion, and creativity. However, more importantly, Artson is deeply invested in ethics, ritual, and devotional life. When one compares Artson to Steinberg or Levi A. Olan, besides the greater systemization, one sees Artson’s commitment to a life of justice, compassion, and love as well as the importance of prayer, Torah study, and mizvot.

As a coincidence, this week I inherited a copy of Levi A, Olan from an older colleague cleaning out his office.  When perusing the old volume, Olan seems more abstract with a weaker theism, almost deist, allowing only basic universal values. In contrast, Artson’s Torah is robust with many classes, lectures, articles, and dvirei Torah bringing out the ethical meaning of Torah, parasha, or a Rabbinic passage. Artson finds rabbinic texts that support his position and reads them as process theology. This interview is one of the cases where, if I could, I would have redone the interview to focus on Artson’s ethical and Torah views instead of his metaphysics.

Here are three samples of his thinking. Love and Justice, Ethics and Ritual- Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Justice –Passover. For those who want more, Artson has dozens of divrei Torah and videos online.

An earlier version of his process theology was published eight years ago and is still online as a primer for his thought. BA-DEREKH: On The Way —A Presentation of Process Theology. This is a good place to start his thought after reading the interview. There was also a special issue of Conservative Judaism (Vol. 62 No. 1-2 Fall-Winter 2010-2011) dedicated to this preliminary version, comparing his thought to already known entities such as Milton Steinberg, New Age, Kabbalah, and Heschel. There was a solid discussion by Rivon Krygier  “The Force of Bradley Artson’s “Process Theology” and Its Limitations.” Here is a nice excerpt from God of Becoming & Relationship.

When all is said and done, process theologies may have little appeal in broader discourse and all the more so for a Jewish audience. The patriarch of process theology John Cobb was recently asked in an interview: why process theology has gained little traction? Cobb answered “The worldview that dominates most universities excludes both subjects and values a priori… Because this exclusion is a priori, no argument is needed. It is this metaphysics that still runs the world.”

Maybe, but a Jew who does not want a supernatural God but still wants a theism may be happier, and more comfortable, with neo-Hasidic, spinozistic, or New Age conceptions of God, not process theology. In addition, many Jews choose not to believe in theism altogether and prefer a secular humanism. Artson also does not engage the alternatives in a rigorous manner, of why his approach is better than weaker open theisms, than immanence, or than a non-personal God of peoplehood. Other Jews speak of God as a healer of shattered hearts, as having a plan for his people, and as experienced in mysticism. If one already has a theology then one would not be drawn to this. Artson assumes, just like Cobb, that everyone needs a metaphysics, so his is useful and adequate. However, many Jews just do not seek a metaphysics.  And those that do seek metaphysics, may be in the 50% of Americans comfortable with Biblical theism. In addition, his scientific worldview is optimistic, unlike those who sense a forthcoming global catastrophe.

Could there be an Orthodox version of process theology? I have met many Orthodox who interpret their Neo-Hasidic or Kabbalistic worldviews in process terms. But could one make a sustained theory?  (There is already a shallower version of process theology done by a contemporary Orthodox rabbi who adds Tony Robbins to produce a more gnostic New Age Secret Life of God. But he shows his complete lack of seriousness by concluding a 200-page book of process theology by tacking on a disingenuous two page affirmation of Kuzari theism).

In the end, both in this interview and the two recent books, Artson presents a Jewish process theology of God, focusing on the novelty of his process theology ideas of God. However, his ideas would have more traction if he stopped focusing on process theology and instead used these ideas to form a new narrative of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, especially an ethical covenantal narrative of the Jewish people, in which the process ideas are implicit rather than explicit. He should also concern himself more with alternatives to his approach, such as open theism and transcendental theism, and defend his position. He has all the elements of Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness in his books, but they get lost in the novelty of process theology. As a prolific author, Artson may already be writing the needed volume of Jewish narrative.

artson - creation

1) How did you get involved and discover process theology?

I grew up an atheist and turned to belief in God in college as a result of ethical philosophical questions (is morality reducible to majority consensus or is there a ground for what is good?) and then as a result of personal experience of the divine.

My theology was conventional for liberal theology (God was more or less the same God as the Orthodox but didn’t sweat the details quite so much). That carried me through college, working as a legislative aide to the Speaker of the California State Assembly for two years after college, rabbinical school, and into my new congregation in Southern California.

After about 5 years, my wife and I had twins and it soon became clear that my son Jacob struggled with a pretty intense form of autism. That threw my conventional theology (everything happens for a reason; it’s all for the best) into a tailspin. I could no longer affirm those platitudes without betraying my son. For two years, I simply avoided talking to or about God. I never stopped believing in God’s existence; I just felt it was better for both of us if we took a break from each other. But after that time, I needed to confront how this reality was possible: what kind of universe do we live in?

I knew I needed an organized program to see this investigation through, so I enrolled in the doctoral program at Hebrew Union College with Rabbi Dr David Ellenson as my supervisor. My first task was to read broadly in scientific literature to get to know the universe we actually inhabit.

I read in cosmogony, quantum physics, relativity theory, explorations of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, evolutionary biology, cognitive neurobiology, among other areas. I started to develop an understanding that the world isn’t made up of solid components that react against each other externally, but rather is made of recurrent patterns of energy that react both internally by responding to the shifting realities around, and externally by exerting an influence on other patterns of energy.  That means that the universe is profoundly dynamic and relational, and that the divine is not radically separate from creation but permeates creation and impacts it from within (naturally, persuasively). Creation impacts the Divine in the same way.

I was reading a book on different approaches to panentheism (the idea that God and the universe permeate each other but are not reducible to each other) when I came upon a chapter on Process Panentheism and discovered that my invention of Process Thought had been preempted a century earlier by Alfred North Whitehead and others. I started reading Process Theology writings and found a ready fellowship of people who share my core convictions and were personally among the warmest and most encouraging theologian/philosophers I have ever encountered.

2) You speak of the impact of your son Jacob’s struggle with autism on your emerging understanding of Process Theology. How has his autism influenced you?

I’m sure that I am not at all the same person I would otherwise have been. Having Jacob as a son has touched every aspect of my life. In terms of Process Theology, I can think of three areas of particular impact:

(1). Jacob is only moderately verbal, although he is able to type deep and sophisticated thoughts. Process Thought directs our attention deeper than rational, verbal expression, holding our deepest insights as “prehensions.” Jacob lives that reality and he has guided me past our Western obsession with words and analytical critical thought as the only, or primary, road to understanding. Seeing the necessity of knowledge for wisdom, but recognizing that the goal is wisdom, not knowledge, is a gift I got from my son and then found in Process Thought.

(2) I adore my son and see God’s love and generosity in the gift of being his father. Jacob took my commitment to diversity and different ability and vastly deepened it by sharing his life, his struggles and his triumphs every day. Walking through life with him has opened my soul to human and non-human diversity in all its beauty, courage, and resilience.

(3) For Jacob to forge a life of meaning takes such strength, such determination, such refusal to surrender. I see the ways that God is also self-surpassing in my son, as I also see God’s lure to Jacob to join in also being self-surpassing. When Jacob surprised all his doctors and experts by earning a high school diploma and walking across the stage to claim his certificate, I saw the finest example of God’s persuasive power, of listening to the lure, and of naturalist theology capable of gracing us with an additional measure of understanding, courage, and achievement. Jacob says that Torah saved his life, and that Process Theology saved Torah for him. It did for me too.

3) What is Process Theology?

Process Thought understands reality not as the bumping together of solid substances in absolute space and time, but as a cosmos of shimmering particles of energy which interact constantly and eternally. Every creature is really a resilient pattern of interlocking energy, each in a developing process of becoming.

Because “becoming” is concrete and real, and “being” is only a logical abstraction, the distillation of becoming in pure thought, Process Thought focuses on becoming as the central mode of every creature, of all creation, and indeed of the Creator as well.

The universe is recognized to be a series of interacting recurrent energy patterns, but not one that endlessly loops in the same repetitive patterns. Instead, the surprising miracle of our universe is that it seems to generate novelty with each new moment of continuing creation.

Process theology recognizes every “thing” is really a series of events across time, a process, that emerges in relationship. We are each a process, and creation is a process. God is a process, revelation is a process. All emerge in relationship, meaning that no thing can be understood in isolation. Each event has an interiority in which it integrates the reality around it with its own choice about how to proceed. In addition, an exteriority in which it has an impact on the choices of every other event around it.  We are all part of something interactive and dynamic.

In such a worldview, God is not outside the system as some unchanging, eternal abstraction. Instead, God permeates every aspect of becoming, indeed grounds all becoming by inviting us and every level of reality toward our own optimal possibilities. The future remains open, through God’s lure, to our own decisions of how or what we will chose next. God, then, uses a persistent, persuasive power, working in each of us (and all creation at every level) to nudge us toward the best possible outcome. But God’s power is not coercive and not all powerful. God cannot break the rules or unilaterally dictate our choices. Having created and then partnered with this particular cosmos, God is vulnerable to the choices that each of us makes freely as co-creators.

4) Is Process Theology Theist or Panentheist?

Process Thought sees itself as theistic. God has personal and impersonal aspects, eternal and timely manifestations. What most Process thinkers affirm also is that God permeates creation but is not reducible to it (panentheism) and that the two are mutually-influencing. We also reject the notion that God uses coercive power or can break the rules.

Can one ignore God or have a meaningful understanding of life without belief in God? Sure, but ignoring this force doesn’t mean it isn’t a force. One can choose to ignore gravity, but gravity manifests whether we attend to it or not.

Process Thought sees God not just as a character in a novel (with specific lines or actions), but more akin to the presence of the author of a play. Shakespeare, for example is never manifest in particular scenes or as a distinctive personality within one of his plays, nonetheless he permeates the entire drama, every line and as a whole. So, with or without a self-conscious sense of God’s impact or presence, a non-theist lives and moves in a cosmos in which God permeates the entirety of creation and powers its unfolding within and among each of us.

I am a panentheist not a pantheist. A classical theist believes that God is completely separate from the world. I don’t believe that. I believe that the world Is marinating in God, and that God is marinating in the world. If I were a pantheist, I would affirm that God and the world are one and the same.

I believe that both permeate each other, but that there are aspects of God that don’t involve the world, and aspects of the world that don’t involve God. Both have an irreducible reality beyond the other, but both permeate and influence and constrain each other. God influences the world by holding all potentialities, by keeping the future open, by offering lures to each created event, and by forever retaining our choices and all reality. The world influences God by the choices we make, which can either give God pleasure (when we rise to choose the Lure) or pain (when we do not). God’s memory becomes a permanent aspect of God, and it is shaped by our choices and behavior.

5)      How is God relational? How is God loving, caring and wise?

Every reality has an inner aspect (its own self-determination) and an outer aspect (its connection and relationship to the rest of creation. God is no exception: what God shares in common with all creation is a dynamic relationship that responds to the choices and becomings of others, which in turn shapes and constrains divine choices and becomings too.  That means that God influences creation (as I described above) and creation has an impact on God by providing the content of unfolding reality that God will eternally know and remember.

So, God has an internal aspect, choosing how to respond to the newest shiftings of reality. And God has an external aspect, impacting and shaping the Lure that makes our own choosing possible. Because God has timely aspects (ways in which God interacts within time and in the world) and eternal aspects (required by logic to be outside of time), God’s manifestations are beyond our own. One of the ways that God differs from the rest of reality is that God is able to relate to all of creation as a whole (that is part of God’s eternal attributes) and to every entity within creation (as the unifying ground of all becoming), and that God forever holds our choices and journeys in the divine memory (integrating the unfolding our choices into God’s eternal being). Nothing real is ever lost for God.

God’s goodness (love, care, wisdom) is absolute in all frames of reference. God is forever luring us (and all creation) to make the optimal choice facing us at the present moment (optimal in terms of love, experience, compassion, justice). God never gives up on us, never stops offering us the optimal possibility and empowering us to implement that lure if we so choose.

One of the great achievements of Process Theology is to declare that God is a force for good, but not the author of our suffering. As the Book of Genesis recognizes, there was tohu va-vohu (chaos) when God began the work of creation, of inviting the chaos to become cosmos. That chaos always exists, always threatens to destabilize cosmos. And God is always working to bolster the cosmos – the order, patterns, and reliability of creation. God is that force within nature allowing us to thrive, to grow, to surpass ourselves. That is the root of my religious optimism (and of Judaism’s): that our God is a God of righteousness, of justice, of hope. The Holocaust was an eruption of the tohu va-vohu and the outrage of the German nation choosing evil and rejecting the Lure.

6) What is the right way to read the Bible with process theology?

Process thinkers read the Bible as revealing deep wisdom, but not necessarily on the level of literal, historical facts. The stories and guidelines are divine in their insight and capacity to further human thriving, regardless of whether or not they actually happened. In this reading, Process Theology shares a great deal with other non-literalists.

A God who is not outside of time and space is one who can bubble up within human consciousness, removing the false dichotomy of the Bible having to be either God given or a human product. God works in, with and through us. We wrote the Bible together, our ancestors distilling the Lure into words: paradigmatic stories and wise behavioral guidelines that reflect our listening and distillation of a divine/human conversation across generations.

Revelation is the recording of the prehensions (intuition) that God inspires and which, in turn; Israel’s prophets and poets record in writing. That writing is both temporal and involves a series of events across time, making revelation both an ongoing series of punctuated events (the oracles of a particular prophet or the teachings of a particular sage, for example) and also a process that moves through time (hence, the open and ongoing nature of torah sheh be-al peh, the Oral Torah).

7)      How is your approach better than a generic agnosticism or being a “none”? Most Jews don’t care about God and don’t care about any theology, why process theology for these Jews?

One of the fatal challenges of contemporary Jewish thought is the segregation of scientific information and theory from cultural memory and practice. Among today’s Jewish thinkers, Judaism is just a culture, which means it does not help us in relating to the actual physical world, nor to addressing any real existential questions outside of a sophisticated notion of “myth.”

Most people find that approach barren and broken, and I believe that is one powerful reason by so many Jews reject the idea of God or divinity: because it is often presented in contradistinction to (and ignorance of) science. I teach my students that they must cultivate scientific literacy if they hope to be able to say something relevant to the actual world.

Science itself is an ongoing research method and a process of investigation, so it isn’t enough to read up on a field and then stop. Contemporary findings in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, cognitive sciences, to name a few unfold in a dazzling array of new insights and challenges.

I have given this general presentation to research scientists at NIH, who affirmed my scientific claims and descriptions as accurate. Both of my books are grounded in speculating on contemporary scientific data and research, for example the significance of Higgs fields (a relational process) rather than the insignificance of particular Higgs bosons (a thing).

8)      What is gained in your approach compared to other theological views of God?

I think we lose people to Judaism if we can’t provide a single coherent narrative that explains the universe from the beginning to our own cultural emergings and an agenda to make our own future meaningful and worthy. Contemporary people need an integrated description of reality and their place in it and guidance for how to live lives of beauty and purpose. That renewed unified story has to include all we know from the natural and social sciences, which will in turn shape new readings of our tradition and new ways of living that integrate Torah in our communities and our lives.

Process Thought offers several benefits:

(1) It integrates our scientific knowledge with our speculative thought and cultural heritage, Process Thought makes it safe to be rational again, and invites people beyond a false vision of religion as a shortcut around science or science as eviscerating morality. It allows us to know everything we know about the world and to take inspiration from that knowledge.

(2) A God of persuasive power is no longer the bully who torments us or torments our loved ones. That means that theodicy (why bad things happen) is no longer either an intellectual trap or a moral monstrosity that makes religious people blame the victims.

(3) God becomes our cosmic companion, seeking our thriving and making that thriving possible. Just as God is always luring us to an optimal choice and giving us the strength to choose that lure, so we can renew our hope and our strength in the light of this realistic faithfulness,

(4) Finally, a process faithfulness allows us to put our energy into this world: the work of building inclusive compassionate communities, living in harmony with creation, doing the work of justice.

9)      If you say God is our GPS then how does this work? What is gained by process theology that guides our life more than any other non-supernatural approach?

God lures us by an immediate perception or intuition (Whitehead calls that “prehension”) of the optimal next choice for each of us (“lure”). That lure is unique for each one of us, the integration of our own past, personality, character, talents, and possibilities. This is not a specific method, it is a comprehensive explanation of why the future is open, why we have agency and choice, and why some choices allow us to thrive better than others. We can discern the lure through prayer, meditation, therapy, nature, study, mitzvot, and  a host of other paths. They are dipolar too: meaning they are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

What is certain is that we all have the prehension within, and we need training and discipline to be able to discern its content above the clatter and din of modern life. Religion is such a training and discipline; a life of mitzvot can offer such access, if approached with an open heart and a willingness to discern.

Process Theology prioritizes actual events above speculation or conceptions of those events. That prioritizing of real life also elevates a naturalist view of the world, as opposed to a supernatural realm somehow outside of space and time.

Why does that reconfiguration matter? We now know that the cosmos is pretty super all by itself, and it continues to reveal wonders previously unanticipated. Nature itself is super, and wondrous (one might even say, miraculous!). There is neither need nor room for another realm.

10)      It seems you are basically a liberal theologian since you do not take God, Revelation, or reward literally. Are you not just a Jewish Unitarian?

There is a difference between taking something literally and taking it seriously. I affirm that God is real, not simply a useful fiction in my life or our culture. I affirm that God communicates with us and seeks our good (revelation) even if I don’t think that the mechanism God used was dropping a Hebrew book on us around a mountain one day. So, can we clarify: Process thinkers are God lovers, striving always to discern God’s message and God’s will. And we turn to our respective scriptures, to creation, to conscience to distill that message in our own lives and times. That’s pretty religious, isn’t it?


11) Can I just be an ethical ethnic Jew with theology?

I have no need to argue someone out of ethnic Jewishness. But ethnicity doesn’t guide how to live, to rise to what is right, to stand against injustice. So it seems to me a rather trivial goal, one that many contemporary Jews justifiably abandon as marginal. I think many people want to know what is asked of them now, this moment. And they want to live lives of significance and uplift.

Process Thought opens Jewish scriptures (Bible and rabbinics) to help today’s people renew their strength and clarify their life purpose while enlisting the best of today’s knowledge and information into that worthy effort. For others, what it might offer would be a coherent explanation of the cosmos and life that includes what western thought divides up into science, social science, and the humanities. .

12)   You cite the musar masters as process theology, but they used Maimonides and Kabbalah to express and develop hesed.

Finding scattered quotations doesn’t replace the need for a coherent system. And an overarching systemic understanding would then seek instantiation in the insights and sources of a wisdom tradition like Judaism. The metaphysical system of Process can deepen and clarify how a value-concept (to quote Max Kadushin, an early Process influenced rabbi) like hesed works in a way compatible with our scientific and contemporary understandings.

And if that metaphysics is “True” (in the sense of explanatory, predictive, coherent) then we would expect to see multiple Jewish sources that would reinforce its assertions and provide examples of its interpretive utility.

Many have recognized that Aristotle himself was a proto-Process thinker (explaining the world as dynamic, interactive, responsive), and that would entail that the medieval neo-Aristotelians (like Maimonides) also prepare a path that later explicit Process thinkers can extend.

13)   Where do mitzvot fit in to process theology? Your theory of authority of the tradition, a traditional Conservative position, is not itself generated from your process theology. 

In Process approach, the doing of mitzvot as a manifestation of God’s presence and concern would be of greater importance, not less.

Judaism is not reducible to an abstract set of principles, because it has to be lived in actual relationships – between real living entities, between us and other peoples, between humanity and all the earth, between contemporary Jews and Jewish tradition, between Jews and God. Science can inform us about the physical aspects of reality, but the making of meaning is a human action, mediated through culture and character. Hence the humanities are the proper address for that decision making and affirmation. Talmud, in this case, not test tubes.

Of course, bringing a cosmic, Process perspective to our Jewish practice will make that practice more pluralistic and fluid. Some will resonate to a fairly traditional and halakhic Shabbat. Others might discover Shabbat community and connection in a less traditional framework, or outside of any halakhic reference whatsoever. A Process approach won’t adjudicate between these possible Shabbat days, other than to continue to insist that our practice enhance experience, justice, love, relationship (hence, community). The authority of the system is the wisdom the system manifests, not simply how it came to be written down.

14) What is prayer in this approach?

Prayer can engage hope, reminder, struggle. It can be a pouring out of words, song, postures, and crying out. It can be solitary or communal. Maybe the key Process tool here would be to recognize that “prayer” isn’t a thing to be measured against some objective criteria. It is a name we give to range of human activities. People pouring out their hearts, articulating their hopes and pains and aspirations, affirming or smashing assumptions of power, utilizing established liturgies or sitting in silence, dancing to music  or sitting in silence have all been prayer acts in different times and places. I refuse to choose among them.

15) Where do you go beyond Whitehead? What do you take from other Process theologians? Should your readers read them?

One place where I deliberately go beyond Whitehead is to prioritize morality. Whitehead was reacting against the moralistic fundamentalisms of his day, but I think he pushed too far. He correctly saw God as portrayed in Tanakh as moral and the prophets of Israel held an ethical yardstick to their assessment of religious authenticity. We need to restore that priority today as well, so I specify the lure in those terms (love, experience, compassion, justice) to make that moral voice primary.

John Cobb is the living grandfather of Process Thought, and as fine a human being as I have ever met. His introductions to Process Thought (two volumes of Q&As) are worth their weight in gold. Phil Clayton is also a first rate mensch and his scholarship on emergence and on panentheism opened doors for me that I traverse daily. Catherine Keller is my favorite theologian ever! Her audacious heart and her soaring use of English are simply unparalleled. Reaching her book On The Mystery is itself a religious experience. Jay McDaniel has written a great work on the place of animals in a creation theology and a great anthology introducing Process Thought. He has also created a raucous Web site of Processy articles from all faith traditions ( All of these wonderful people have become my treasured colleagues, mentors and friends.

Mordechai Kaplan in his later thinking surpassed his youthful naturalism (a more mechanistic view of nature) into a richer transnaturalism that has more than a few explicit references and hints of Whitehead and Process.  Steinberg and Kadushin also acknowledge the impact of Process thought and manifest it sporadically, but none of these great thinkers addressed themselves in a systemic way to a comprehensive and underlying metaphysics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s