398 - Response to Michael Welker

Response to Michael Welker
By Marjorie Suchocki

IN response to Professor Welker, I would like to offer two images, two tensions, and a beginning acceptance of his challenge that Barthians and Whiteheadians be in dialogue together. The two images which emerged for me from his paper are of weavers and wizards. Each image offers a distinctive approach to the task of theology. Weavers are those who, like Barth and his school, pick up the texts and the traditions, looking at the pattern of doctrines which are so deeply central to our Christian faith. Then, taking the shuttle of contemporary experience, they weave the texts and the traditions together to give us a new expression of what is ours in Christ Jesus. In the process, the pattern shifts and changes-there are new hues, perhaps, or a redefined emphasis. We recognize it as a continuation of that same cloth whose weaving began so long ago, but we see, as well, the contemporary adaptation which so peculiarly fits the cloth to our time.

But then the image also emerges of approaching theology in the mode of a wizard. I whimsically suggest that a fruitful commentary on theology can be found in that book of our childhood and surreptitious adulthood, The Wizard of Oz. You remember the scene from the conclusion to the book and the movie: finally, Dorothy can go home! The balloon is there, with Dorothy, Toto, and the Wizard happily inside its basket. The crowd has gathered, gaily cheering the glad scene. But then it happens: Toto sees the taunting cat, and leaps out of the balloon to exercise the eternal tension. Dorothy, of course, leaps out after him-but their exit lightens the balloon, and it begins to rise, going home to Kansas without her. "Come back, come back," Dorothy cries, but the wizard shouts back, "I can't! I don't know how it works!"

The image of the wizard for theology is that of the theologian as one who is afflicted with the desire to figure out how it works. What makes these matters of our faith hold together? What's the coherence of them? What's the dynamic? What makes it all work? If Barthians might be described as the weavers, process theologians might be described as the wizards. They are those who are always trying to figure it out-just what is the dynamic which makes the balloon rise?

Weavers and wizards! But perhaps they cannot be quite as separate as my imagery would suggest, for the weaver must attend to how the loom is put together, and the wizard, to be truly wizardly, must have some understanding of the stuff which goes into the making of the balloon, which so surely affects how it works. Weavers and wizards have much to learn from one another, and, in fact, their tasks combine. If the imagery


Marjorie Suchocki is Dean and Professor of Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C. She is the author of God-Christ-Church: A Practical Approach to Process Theology (1982).


399 - Response to Michael Welker

is at all suggestive of the two modes of doing theology, it is also suggestive of the fruitfulness of interaction between those whose major emphasis falls on one or the other.

If Professor Welker's work suggests this imagery of two modes of doing theology, it also suggests some tensions through his own dialogical development of the two modes. The first tension has to do with putting process theology and Barthian theology in conversation at the level only of Whitehead and Barth. Whitehead after all is not a theologian, nor did he ever intend to be; it is the children of Whitehead who become the wizards of theology. Whitehead himself was a philosopher dealing not with matters of Christian faith at all, but with an understanding of mathematics and physics which could develop a dynamic to define how it all works. If we stay at the level of Whitehead, we will never really get to the heart of process theology, and the conversation with Barthians will be skewed. It seems much more appropriate to me to advance the discussion with those who have owned their heritage from Whitehead, particularly John B. Cobb, Jr.

If we stay at the level of Whitehead, as Welker does in his paper, we will indeed see an emphasis on solitariness relative to religion. We might see that fleeting passage from Process and Reality regarding the solitary Galilean on the cross, and that now famous section of Religion in the Making which describes religion as what one does with one's solitariness. But to hear these passages out of the context of a philosophy which is relational to the core is to distort the meaning of these passages. A Whiteheadian solitariness is one which emerges through relationality and tends toward relationality; it is not an individualistic solitariness in any sense. Process theologians become a far better illustration, if I may say so, of Whitehead's implications for religion than is Whitehead himself. For as Welker also indicates, the emphasis among process theologians is on matters such as political theology and ecological theology in John Cobb's works, an emphasis on liberation theology from Cobb, Delwin Brown, and Shubert Ogden, feminist theology by Catherine Keller, Sheila Greeves Davaney, and myself, ecclesiology by Bernard Lee-and to name these is hardly to give an exhaustive list. Also, of course, process theologians most surely give extended attention to the major doctrines of the church, and again I consider John B. Cobb, Jr., to be foremost in this regard. To begin the conversation between process theologians and Barthians by focusing upon the differences between Whitehead, the philosopher, and Barth, the theologian, cannot get to the heart of process theology. Nor can an emphasis upon solitariness as a Whiteheadian description of religion adequately express the deep relationality which is at the core of Whitehead and those theologians who are deeply persuaded by his cosmological understanding. The relationality and world consciousness so essential to process thought must be made central to the dialogue.

Another unfortunate consequence follows from keeping the discussion at the level of comparing Whitehead and Barth. To stay at the


400 - Response to Michael Welker

philosophical level of Whitehead simply will not yield a theology. Another process theologian, Lewis S. Ford, points out very strongly that philosophy may tell you that God exists, but it can tell you nothing about who God is. For this, the theologian is dependent upon the revelation of God in the world, and this revelation is seen fundamentally in Jesus of Nazareth in the pages of the Gospels. The "natural theology" which follows from process is a Christian natural theology, which indicates already its reliance upon revelation. Surely this suggests that process and Barthian theologians may not be nearly so deeply divided on the matter of revelation as might at first appear; focusing primarily upon the comparison between the philosopher and the theologian, however, obscures the role of revelation in process theology.

The second tension I point out in Welker's paper is within the notion of metaphysics or, by implication, process theology as dealing in a systematization of systematizations. In Welker's work, theology has recourse to the concrete data of experience. If I might be allowed yet another image, Whitehead begins the cosmology of Process and Reality by likening metaphysical discovery to an airplane which "starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation."1 But it seems to me that Welker's description of metaphysics is more like the image of the skylab. Theology and the sciences may indeed be like the airplane, constantly in touch with the stuff of experience, but metaphysics is the construction of a skylab which is removed from earth, dealing only with the planes which come and go, developing an overall view of their respective systems and seeing to the one system which contains them all. Such a metaphysics never touches the ground of experience. But if metaphysics is only that, it is undone. We all deal with our interpretations of experience from a very particular place and space in our lives. We have neither skyhooks nor skylabs; we generalize from within experience. There is no systematization of systematizations which is not also deeply' embedded in the concreteness of experience. To obscure this connection. is to run the risk of universalizing one's particular standpoint, which is of course a falsification of that standpoint and a distortion of others. As Welker rightly points out, metaphysics is itself a relativization. I suggest, that this follows not through the indirectness of its dependence upon. other systems which are built out of lived experience, but because metaphysics itself stems from a complex and concrete interpretation of experience. The airplane must land. We cannot stay at the skylab level. Therefore, a systematization of systematizations itself embodies and embeds a finite relative perspective, and must make that clear in its own work and self-critique. Such an understanding of metaphysics may


1 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffen and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 5.


401 - Response to Michael Welker

indeed provide the paradox of presenting a relative universal, but it is also one which requires a constant task of self-criticism and an openness to revision, whether radical or minor.

Despite these tensions which I find in a comparison between Whitehead and Barth, I nonetheless respond with joy to Professor Welker's challenge and beginning in a Barthian/process dialogue. Process theologians and Barthians need to be in touch with each other, learning from each other and encouraging one another. The very I-Thou and One-Many emphases central to us respectively-and I am deeply grateful to Professor Welker for his careful and illuminating analysis of these emphases-should itself impel us to such dialogue. We must be thou to one another, and take account of the manyness which allows us both to be faithful witnesses to our Christian faith. Within each of our systems, there is indeed a push toward dialogue.

Professor Welker is ruefully right in pointing out that we process folk have a monstrous language. It will never communicate! Prehensions, concrescences, and subjective aims are hardly the stuff for sermons! We need to work at the humanization and indeed the christianization of the language with which we work if we intend to be useful at all within the church of Jesus Christ. In our dialogue together, we need to be pushed toward revisions of our language so that we may speak more clearly the language of faith. Likewise, we would appreciate the insistence, like that of Lewis S. Ford, that the stuff of our theology comes not from our metaphysics but from our Christian faith. And perhaps a service that we might render Barthians is to raise questions concerning the philosophical/metaphysical assumptions of their own work, asking them to bring these to clearer and more forthright expression.

Finally, Professor Welker has pointed out that both Barthians and process theologians are striving toward a new realism. There is a strong challenge to that realism through linguistic analysis and the neopragmatism which grows from that form of philosophy that radically questions the accessibility of the world through experience. Experience is itself one of the most problematic words in our contemporary language. We use that word perhaps too easily within both Barthian and process camps. As we dialogue together about what it means to push toward a new realism, and what it means to talk about experience, we might sharpen one another in order that together we might join yet another dialogue: the dialogue with the neopragmatists who say there is no such thing as a stubborn facticity which thrusts itself upon us, no ability to be in dialogue with experience per se, and that in fact we cannot break through the linguistic structure of our experience to have any correspondence theory of truth whatsoever. It seems to me, as I read Welker, that process theologians and Barthians might very fruitfully be employed in dialogue with one another in order that together we might speak more responsibly and creatively with another dialogical partner, the neopragmatist.


402 - Response to Michael Welker

Professor Welker has described Barthians and Whiteheadians. I have fancifully taken his description in terms of the weaver and the wizard. Concluding with that image, let me say that as we weavers and wizards come in contact with each other we might each be better at our tasks, each be enriched, fruitfully learning from one another. It may yet be that we shall be wizardly weavers, and weaving wizards, presenting the Christian faith more clearly to ourselves, to the church, and to the world we are both called to serve in response to God's call.