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Christian Process Theology and Metamodernism

Icon of the Ascension from Stephen’s Church in Slutsk, Belarus

The following article was originally published on Open Horizons by Jay McDaniel. Reposted with permission.

I think I may be a metamodern Christian. At least I feel that way when I hear Brendan Graham Dempsey talk about metamodern Christianity. Or at least his version of it, to be developed further in a book. I am a process Christian, too. That is, I am very influenced by Christian process theology in my understanding of Christianity. But after hearing Dempsey give an overview of his vision of metamodern Christianity, it seems to me that Christian process theology is a kind of metamodern Christianity, seeking to integrate devotional, modern, and postmodern ways of thinking about God and the world into a unique and evolving whole.

I offer this reflection for two audiences: those familiar with Christian process theology but not with metamodernism and those familiar with metamodernism but not with Christian process theology.

At the end, I offer two sections especially relevant to Christian process theology. I hope they might be especially helpful for metamodernists unfamiliar with process thought. One offers connections between Christian process theology and metamodernism in broad strokes, and the other, for the hardy, forty-eight process affirmations that, to my mind, can be part of a metamodern Christianity in the process spirit.

Of course, a metamodern Christianity will be diverse, with many different expressions. Christian process theology can be, I believe, one rather robust version, grounded in the view that we live in an organic, evolving universe and world, that Christianity itself can evolve to better serve the common good, and that God is or can be at work in that evolution.

While the cultural logic of postmodernism continues to permeate and shape society, it is no longer the vanguard of innovation. Today, new art and ideas are moving beyond its established tropes and intellectual impasses. By radicalizing postmodernism’s own self-reflective skepticism, irony, and critique, they are pointing the way to novel forms of earnestness, aspiration, and meaning. This “metamodern” paradigm shift is fundamentally changing the narrative, transmuting irony into sincerity, deconstruction into reconstruction, and relativity into directionality.

– Brendan Graham Dempsey, Metamodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Cultural Logics

Becoming a Metamodern Christian

Imagine you’re trying to decide whether or not to identify as a Christian. Maybe you were raised in the faith but drifted away, or perhaps you’re thinking about seriously for the first time. In any case, you’re drawn to the healing ministry of Jesus and want to follow in his footsteps as best you can. You admire his outreach to the marginalized, his call to prioritize love over material wealth, and his message of humility and service. You are also drawn to the sense of community that many forms of Christianity offer; and also to some of its traditions: its music, for example. You are not too sure what to make of the cross and resurrection, but you are open to the possibility that Jesus’ death on the cross isn’t about atoning for sins, but rather reveals a God who suffers with everyone; and to the possibility that resurrection, whatever its exact nature, reveals the possibility of new life, emerging from even the darkest circumstances. All this makes sense to you.

However, you’re disheartened by the prevalence of right-wing Christianity, with a history of violence and arrogance that are part of Christian history, with its temptations toward dogmatic certainty, and its often divisive “us versus them” mindset. It can sometimes feel as if Christianity has become synonymous with hatred, a far cry from the love you associate with Jesus. And that’s something you want no part of.

What to do? To call yourself Christian or to do your best to walk with Jesus, all the while rejecting the label Christian?

Enter Brendan Graham Dempsey. He is one of the most articulate interpreters of metamodern spirituality around. In his podcast series, Metamodern Spirituality, he has interviewed dozens of leading figures in what can be loosely called “the metamodern movement,” and in recent podcasts he turns to metamodern Christianity, partly in response to a previous podcast he had with Paul VanderKlay, pastor of Living Stones Christian Reformed Church in Sacramento California, and quite articulate analyst of metamodern Christianity. VanderKlay has a Youtube channel well worth exploring as well.

Metamodern Christians, as presented by Dempsey, have roots and wings. They think of the Christian life itself as an ongoing process of learning from the best of the past (traditional and modern) while being honest about its failures; and moving into a more generous and expansive future without (in the spirit of postmodernism) ever claiming to have a final answer. Many are influenced by postmodern philosophy and art, but they not postmodern in a deconstructive sense. They are part of a contemporary cultural shift from irony into sincerity, deconstruction into reconstruction, and relativism into directionality. They are, to borrow a phrase from process theology, “constructive postmodernists.” They are constructing their version of Christianity by building upon the best of pre-modern, modern, and postmodern ways of thinking, and avoiding or repenting from the worst, without pretending that theirs is a final version of the ongoing Christian story.

They are not naive realists. They do not think that anyone has a final say on what “reality” is. But they do not think that “reality” is merely a social construct or that values are entirely relative. They believe in a cosmos that has meaning, purpose, and beauty. For the metamodern Christians, being Christian is a way of participating in an ongoing Christian story that includes successive revelations from biblical wisdom, scientific wisdom, and artistic wisdom.

Anticipating his forthcoming book on the subject, Dempsey provides a glimpse of his own version of a such a Christianity in this video series, consisting of both conversations and personal reflections. As a process Christian, I find his vision quite meaningful. I think I may be a metamodern Christian myself, inasmuch as I’m influenced by devotional Christianity, modern historical-critical scholarship, and certain postmodern ways of thinking, seeking to weave them into an evolving whole with help from process theology.

In what follows, I’ll briefly outline my understanding of Dempsey’s views. I best begin a word about Dempsey’s conception of Christianity. He sees it as a divine drama between God and humanity, where humans seek to understand God and God’s intentions for human life, as nested within a cosmos imbued with purpose and meaning. From Dempsey’s perspective, as from a process perspective influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, we live in a normative universe. The mechanistic notion that reality is merely a purposeless interplay of matter devoid of the sacred is replaced with a view of the universe as a living organism pulsating with energy, within which God is actively involved in its ongoing history, both on a cosmic and local scale.

Dempsey proposes that Christianity is an ongoing journey of learning from and about God as participants in this organic universe, seeking wisdom about the sacred while actively contributing to the ongoing revelations through their interpretations. Revelation is, and always has been dialogical. It consists of human beings experiencing God in various way and simultaneously interpreting, and often misinterpreting, what they have experienced. Thus, Christianity, understood as a historical movement, becomes a dynamic process of inheriting wisdom from the past, critiquing past abuses, and moving forward into a future open to new revelations—a journey of depth and adventure, shaping its history along the way.

Where does this adventure begin? Many Protestant Christians will say “the Bible.” But truth be told, it starts with the origins of the universe, the birth of stars, the emergence of life on earth, and the evolution of human life. Toward the end of his talk, Dempsey suggests that our understanding of these cosmic origins is part of sacred history. The drama of the divine-human relationship is intertwined with the divine-cosmos drama.

For many Christians, the localized origins are found in the texts of the Bible, where the people of Israel embarked on a journey of enlightenment about life’s ultimate context and God’s nature. Through progressive phases—from localized worship to structured temple rituals to a prophetic call for justice—they began to grasp deeper spiritual truths. Dempsey speaks of this succession here, and it is worth listening to again and again:

1. The Sacred Relationship in the Tribal Epoch – [26:12]
2. Relationship with God in the Monarchy – [29:02]
3. Deepening Divine Relationship in the Prophets and Gospels – [31:10]

The prophets are especially important. They emphasized that God transcends religious rituals and historical achievements, existing beyond human comprehension but felt inwardly as a call to treat others with respect, care, and justice. The New Testament further enriches this learning process, focusing on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who extends and expands upon this call. The historical Jesus (so many devotional Christians believe) builds upon the prophetic tradition, suggesting that the God of history is a God of inclusive love, particularly accessible to the humble and powerless. His death and resurrection reveal a God who absorbs suffering and offers new life, even in the most dire circumstances.

Thus, the Bible isn’t a static repository of archaic facts but a living testament to ongoing revelation, inviting continual interpretation and understanding, always seeking broader perspectives than previous generations had conceived. This does not mean that the Bible is a perfect book, or that all of its stories are (or are meant to be) factual. Dempsey’s vision of the Christian story is biblical but not biblicist. It learns from, but does not make a god of, the Bible.

However, as noted earlier, the Bible isn’t the sole source of revelation. From the metamodern perspective, the Christian learning journey both assimilates wisdom from the past and accommodates wisdom from the future. The new accommodations now includes revelations from modern science, interactions with people of diverse paths, and insights from various fields such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Christians are encouraged to embrace historical-critical approaches to the Bible, integrating insights from modern scholarship into their faith understanding. Metamodern Christians recognize that the Jesus of history isn’t identical to the Christ of faith, and they acknowledge the evolving meaning of Jesus.

Thus, the Bible isn’t a static repository of archaic facts but a living testament to ongoing revelation, inviting continual interpretation and understanding, always seeking broader perspectives than previous generations had conceived.

In short, metamodern Christianity builds upon previous paradigms—premodern, modern, and postmodern—while introducing fresh insights and perspectives. It has roots and wings. At its core is a process of learning, not merely the assimilation of new information but also a holistic experience of feeling God’s presence in human life inwardly and outwardly. This learning encompasses a personal journey of individuation and a social journey of interacting with others, including community involvement, friendships, and active efforts to heal a broken world. Dempsey outlines two key aspects of this learning: assimilation, which incorporates new insights into existing perspectives, and accommodation, which adjusts to unexpected events and perspectives by creating new understandings. Christianity is an unfinished journey into an unknown future, always seeking wisdom from a divine source, trustful that in Jesus we learn something of the deep intentions of that source.

Can this way be lived in practical ways that serve the well being of people and the planet, and that provide spiritual substance for individuals and communities? Dempsey hopes so. I do, too.

Metamodern Christianity - Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash

Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash

Process Theology and Christian Metamodernism: Broad Strokes

If I am accurate in my interpretation of Dempsey’s video, I’d like to offer a response from the perspective of Christian Process Theology, especially as developed by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Cobb’s version of Christian Process Theology builds upon Whitehead’s metaphysics as outlined in his work Process and Reality, proposing a vision of reality that is dynamic, interconnected, and ever-evolving, rather than static and mechanistic. Here’s how this perspective aligns and diverges from traditional Christianity, while also offering a nuanced understanding of God that harmonizes with contemporary scientific insights and spiritual longing for a more relational, dynamic divine presence.

God as Dipolar and Relational

One of the hallmark ideas of Process Theology, drawing directly from Whitehead, is the concept of God as having a ‘dipolar’ nature. This means God has both a primordial nature (encompassing the eternal, unchanging aspects of God’s character) and a consequent nature (which is dynamic, learning, growing, and affected by the events of the world). This view contrasts with classical theism’s emphasis on God’s immutability and impassibility.

Creativity and Co-Creation

Whitehead’s universe is fundamentally characterized by creativity, not attributed solely to God but inherent in all entities. In this cosmology, God does not unilaterally dictate the universe’s course but invites creation to participate in its own unfolding, a process of co-creation. This contrasts with a deterministic or purely materialistic worldview, offering a nuanced interplay between divine providence and free will.

Jesus and the Revelation of God

In aligning his philosophy with the Christian narrative, Whitehead sees in Jesus an exemplar of God’s nature and intentions for the world. Jesus embodies the ideal of God’s call toward creative transformation and empathic solidarity with all of creation. This perspective does not necessarily privilege the Christian story above all others but suggests that in Jesus, the divine aim towards love, justice, and relationality is made manifest in a particularly compelling way.

Harmony and Persuasion 

Central to Whitehead’s vision is the idea that God works not through coercion but through persuasion, gently guiding the world towards greater complexity, beauty, and intensity of experience. This emphasizes freedom, responsibility, and the future’s open-endedness, challenging views of predestination or an omnipotent deity controlling every universe detail.

Compatibility with Science 

Process Theology is open to and compatible with scientific understanding, particularly quantum mechanics and relativity. It sees in contemporary physics’ fundamental indeterminacies and relationalities echoes of its own emphasis on becoming, relation, and creativity. This approach seeks a harmonious dialogue between theology and science, rejecting the conflict model that has often characterized their interaction.

Other Religions

Christian Process Theology is open to revelations received and incarnate in other religions. Following Whitehead, it recognizes multiple realities as “ultimate,” relative to the questions being asked, and thus different religions may lead to different forms of liberation, enlightenment, and salvation, all of them “true” in the sense of being responsive to different features of reality. The truths and the paths are many, allowing Christians to appreciate different truths in different religions without assuming all must be “Christian” to be valued.

One Version of a Metamodern Christianity

In summary, Process Theology offers a rich, complex framework for understanding God, the universe, and humanity’s place within it. It appeals to those seeking a vision of Christianity that is intellectually robust, deeply spiritual, and responsive to contemporary challenges and insights. It is resonant with Dempsey’s image of a metamodern Christianity, where Christianity itself is an ongoing process of dialogue with God, seeking wisdom from God, and inspired by Jesus. With its emphasis on creativity, it helps make sense of historical Christianity’s shortcomings, inviting a recognition that an authentic Christian life includes not only an appreciation of past gifts but also repentance from sins and shortcomings, including violence, domination, and a fear of outsiders. The Christian Story, as presented by Dempsey, is an ideal to be realized but also often traversed.

Specifics: Forty-Eight Affirmations

Today process theology has many different expressions: Jewish process theology, Hindu process theology, Muslim process philosophy. Buddhist process philosophy, Daoist process philosophy, Pagan process philosophy, and, of course, Christian process theology. Christian process theology is one of its earliest and most influential forms. My focus is on this kind of process theology, because I know it best and am myself a “process” Christian.

Christian process theology is like metamodernism as articulared by Brendan Graham Dempsey above. It seeks to integrate wisdom from devotional Christianity, modern scholarship, and postmodern sensibilities into a unique way of living the Christian life. It can be embodied in many different Christian communities: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Asian, African, Latin American, and Pentecostal. I myself am a process-inspired Christian, an oblate (lay associate) in a Benedictine monastery, and a member of a local United Methodist Church. I am also influenced by Zen Buddhism, having been the English teacher for a Japanese Zen Master while in seminary and meditating regularly. But my religious home is Christianity and I find Christian Process Theology the best way I know to make sense of these various commitments and values.

Metamodern Christianity, as briefly outlined by Dempsey above, articulating his own version, seeks the same. Some process scholars, John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, speak of process theology a “constructively postmodern,” and I can’t help but wonder if “constructive postmodernism” isn’t a lot like “metamodernism.” Below I offer forty-eight affirmations of Christian process theology so that scholars of metamodernism, much more astute than I, might respond, positively or negatively or both. Here are my questions:

  • Is Christian Process Theology a version of metamodern Christianity?

  • Is Christian Process Theology sufficiently continuous with aspects of tradition, modernity, and postmodernity which metamodern find valuable?

  • Is Christian process theology internally consistent in its various affirmations?

  • Is Christian process theology a viable option for 21st century Christians who understandably seek a more holistic way of understanding the Christian life?

The fourth question is, for me, the most important.

James Ensor: Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889

Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 painting by James Ensor.

In the Spirit Devotional Christianity, Christian Process Theology…

  1. Appreciates and affirms the existence and importance of a personal God who “feels the feelings” of each living being in an empathic or loving way (a “fellow sufferer who understands, says Whitehead) and who responds in a continuous way with fresh possibilities for new life, relative to the circumstances at hand.

  2. Affirms the primacy of love of neighbor and love of God, expanding the sense of neighbor to include other living beings and the Earth, seeing human beings as creatures among creature on a small but beautiful planet which is “very good.”

  3. Understands the Christian life, not simply as believing things about God but as imitating God or “putting on the mind of God” in daily and corporate life.

  4. Sees the historical Jesus as building upon the prophetic tradition and opening up new possibilities for Christians and the world.

  5. Recognizes the reality of God’s presence as Logos: a spirit of creative transformation at work in the world and the entire universe, revealed in but not exhausted by the historical Jesus.

  6. Affirms the reality of divine incarnation, in Jesus and in the world. John Cobb believes that, at certain points in his life, Jesus took his “I” or sense of self and opened himself to the Logos, such that at points his Logos and his I were two sides of one coin.

  7. Takes prayer seriously and appreciatively: both addressive prayer in which a person feels and is listened to by God and contemplative prayer in which a person rests in the silence of divine love.

  8. Understands the Jesus of history as continuous with, and expanding, forms of revelation found in the Hebrew Bible, especially (but not exclusively) the prophetic tradition.

  9. Finds credible the healing miracle stories.

  10. Finds credible the stories of Jesus appearing after his death to early followers.

  11. Affirms the possibility of other dimensions of existence (other regions of the space-time continuum) which can be inhabited by other actualities.

  12. Affirms the possibility of a continuing journey after death.

  13. Recognizes multiple, legitimate forms of mystical experience, including a sense of the immanence of divine love.

  14. Sees Jesus as alive today as a field of force in which humans can participate.

In the Spirit of Modernity, Christian Process Theology…

  1. Recognizes the value and wisdom of modern science, seeing science itself as one way of responding to the lure of God in human life. Process theology is especially indebted to quantum theory, relativity theory, and various forms of complexity theory (self-organizing wholes).

  2. Sees God as a counter-entropic lure in the universe, effective but not all powerful. Believes this lure can be recognized by scientists in a purely “secular” way without the addition of religious feeling.

  3. Sees God as inwardly felt lure, not only toward goodness and beauty but also truth in the human heart. A lure toward wholeness, consonant with the wisdom of depth psychology.

  4. Recognizes the power of efficient causation (one of Aristotle’s four causes) in influencing what happens in the world. Believes that all events are influenced by such causation as received through experience in the mode of causal efficacy, including even the ongoing divine event.

  5. Recognizes the value of scientific (historical critical) approaches to scripture, which call into question certain fundamental aspects of devotional Christianity. Sees scriptures as revelatory but not infallibly so.

  6. Recognizes that the historical Jesus as presented in the gospels is different from the post-Easter Jesus (Christ of faith) in whom many Christians place their faith, that he may well have been an apocalyptic figure who expected the immediate end of time, such that images of Jesus in Christian life are not perfect mirrors of the historical Jesus but rather represent the way Jesus himself has evolved into a “field of force” shaping human history.

  7. Sees value in rise of a secular mindset, in which human being focus on this world as a subject of study and the “place” where value is found as an extension of, not a violation of the theme of incarnation. (John Cobb in Christ in a Pluralistic Age)

  8. Embraces the modern idea that there can be progress, in religion as in other forms of social organization, such that critiques of the past can play a positive role in the evolution of Christianity.

In the Spirit of Postmodernity, Christian Process Theology…

  1. Recognizes the projective nature of all human forms of knowing, such that any worldview is, as best, a likely story, but not a direct representation of “reality.” The map is not the territory, and the territory may well miss the mark.

  2. Rejects the idea that scientific ways of knowing have privileged status. Instead affirms multiple ways of knowing: scientific, mathematical, visual-spatial, musical-rhythmic, empathic, bodily, empathic, intuitive, aesthetic, spiritual.

  3. Recognizes the multiplicity of the world’s wisdom traditions (formerly called “religions”) and recognizes that they may well have different goals and provide access to different ultimate realities.

  4. Recognizes a multiplicity of features of human life which are indeed ultimate, relative to different questions being asked. The multiple ultimates include the sheer interconnectedness of things, a creative abyss of which all things are expressions, the absoluteness of the present moment, and God.

  5. Critiques the idea that Christianity subsumes other religions and that they are but developmental phases leading to Christianity. There are many different truths (and many different shortcomings) embodied by different traditions.

  6. Appreciates the role of playfulness in the intellectual life,

  7. Recognizes the role of contextuality in all claims to knowledge.

  8. Rejects any hint of dogmatic certainty or a “final” truth.

  9. Believes that we now live in a new, globalized context, made possible in part by advances in science and technology plus many other factors, such that humans must “think globally” even as they “act locally.”

  10. Recognizes that the history of Western civilization, including Christianity, is a history of colonization. Seeks post-imperial ways of thinking and living.

In the Spirit of Metamodernity, Christian Process Theology…

  1. Affirms all the ideas above, seeing them as aspects of a “constructively postmodern” worldview that includes tradition, modernity, and postmodernity.

  2. Sees the universe (the multiverse) as imbued with purpose and values, guided not only by efficient causation but goal-oriented final causation. Sees God as present in the world, among other ways, through inwardly felt goals by which creatures can be drawn.

  3. Rejects the idea of a deterministic universe controlled by physical causation alone or, for that matter, by divine causation.

  4. Sees the history of life on the planet (including human life) as a history of feeling (prehending) and goal-directed behavior and not simply a history of observable matter motion.

  5. Recognizes the unconscious (and archetypal) dimension of life, knowing that human life is an ongoing process of integration inwardly and outwardly.

  6. Sees the inner and outer dimensions as connected. As we think, so we behave, and as we behave, so we think.

  7. Offers a unique understanding of “reality.” In process theology as influenced by Whitehead, reality is a more comprehensive category than “actuality.” An object, event, or living being is “real” if it can be experienced as an object of prehension. This means that abstract possibilities entertained by mathematicians are real, as are illusions. They are “really” felt and have power as felt. On the other hand, some things we experience are both real and actual. They have “actuality” if they have agency, a capacity to make decisions and actualize possibilities.

  8. Affirms that entities can be “actual” even if not visible to the eye. God and the human (and animal) soul would be examples.

  9. Recognizes and affirms the reality of possibilities: states of affairs and matters of fact that can be actual but are not necessarily actual and may never be actual.

  10. Recognizes that there are many valuable ways of interpreting texts, of which the historical-critical is one. Archetypal and contemplative approaches are also valuable.

  11. Sees the aim of the universe, and the divine aim as wall, as Beauty: understood as richness of experience in relation to what is real.

  12. Sees the aim of God for the world today as an extension of Jesus’s idea of a “kingdom of God,” understood as ecological civilizations in which humans live with respect and care for the community of life.

  13. Sees Jesus himself, not as reducible to his historical incarnation, but also as a “field of force” at work in human history, within and potentially outside Christianity.

  14. Appreciates the idea of successive revelations, but also recognizes that there may be many different revelations, about different features of God and life. Warns against supercessionism.

  15. Recognizes and appreciates many different forms of metamodern spirituality, all understood as qualities of heart and mind which exemplify richness of experience relative to context: attention, beauty, compassion, connection, devotion, enthusiasm, faith, forgiveness, gratitude, hospitality, imagination, justice, kindness, listening, love, meaning-making, nurturing, openness, playfulness, questing, unity, vision, x (a sense of mystery), (a sense of you-ness or self-worth), zest for life.

  16. Recognizes that process theology is not a final answer; that it can and should have competitive alternatives in the future and succeeded by new versions of Christianity, which itself is an ongoing process.
I realize that I have offered far too many affirmations (48 in all) than can be easily comprehended; and that all deserve much more discussion. I also know that some of these affirmations are quite controversial for devotional Christians, especially the idea that God is all-loving but not all-powerful, and that there are many different “ultimate realities,” not just God. Equally controversial may be the idea that we can have beliefs such as those above, but need not be certain of them. And still another is that “Jesus” is not limited to the historical Jesus, whatever we might learn about him from modern scholarship. In my view, all of these are negotiable and subject to revision. My sense is that a metamodern Christianity would say the same.
Jay McDaniel

Jay McDaniel is professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Arkansas, and founder of the website Open Horizons, which focuses on exploring a process outlook on life and way of living in the world. Active in the development of process thought in China, he is a consultant to the Institute for Postmodern Development of China, and the Cobb Institute. His books include With Roots and Wings: Christianity in an Age of Ecology and Dialogue; Living from the Center: Spirituality in an Age of Consumerism; and Gandhi’s Hope: Learning from Other Religions as a Path to Peace.

Interested in exploring this topic further? Check out this recent podcast discussion between Jay McDaniel and Brendan Graham Dempsey on metamodern Christianity and process theology!