International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

A Christian Natural Theology, Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead

by John Cobb

Introductory Essay by Palmyre Oomen

John B. Cobb Jr. is one of the leading representatives of what is known as ‘process theology,’ a form of theology that makes use of the metaphysical philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and, for many as with Cobb, of the work of Charles Hartshorne.

In this book Cobb persuasively advocates a new kind of natural theology. In the last chapter, he provides a sharp diagnosis of the difficulties that are inherent to the traditional approach to natural theology. In Cobb’s view, natural theology should be an attempt to formulate Christian belief with the help of a philosophical framework, providing intelligible reasons that make sense in the given historical and scientific context, but without ever seeking to ‘prove’ the truth of Christian belief or to even reach a consensus. As Cobb points out, natural theology can never be the product of unhistorical reason.

Cobb argues that many theological problems arise from assumptions inherent to philosophical doctrines that are uncritically presupposed. Theology therefore needs to explicitly reflect on its philosophical framework, and to adopt and adapt a philosophy of excellent quality, a philosophy that supports both the scientific worldview and some form of Christian faith. Only with the help of such a framework can theology try “to restore the term ‘God’ to meaningful discourse” [xvii] in a way that maintains its integrity and avoids esotericism. Cobb argues why he believes Whitehead’s ‘process philosophy’ to be such an excellent framework. The basic tenet of Whitehead’s thought is that to be actual is to be a process – an experiential self-determining occasion. This approach challenges the mechanistic view of the world and offers new possibilities for re-thinking ‘causality,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘value,’ ‘God and world,’ ‘mind and body,’ and, by the same token, science and the humanities.

In the first chapter, Cobb offers an elegant introduction to Whitehead’s philosophy by way of the problem of mind-body dualism. Starting from everyday and scientific experience, he then examines what must be the case for such experiences to occur. In this apparently simple way he elucidates the most essential concepts of Whitehead’s thought.

The basic argument of the book unfolds along two clusters of chapters: on human beings and God, respectively. The author sometimes goes beyond Whitehead, but generally he stays close to him. In fact, Cobb extensively rewrote chapter 5 for this edition, because he came to realize that many of Whitehead’s own formulations offer greater wisdom than did the ‘improvements’ Cobb had initially proposed. Throughout the book, he succeeds in revealing complex and profound levels of meaning in Whitehead’s thought and uses this material for a thorough theological reflection concerning a variety of interesting and difficult topics, e.g., duty and love, God and creativity, and ‘how God saves.’

The book is not itself a study in ‘Science and Theology’, but it certainly offers a very good basis for such a study. Modern science has played a dominant role in undermining the Christian understanding of both God and humanity. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that there be a framework of thought that is supportive both of Christian faith and of modern science. Cobb makes us understand how Whitehead provides the philosophical insights needed not only for theology but also for a meaningful encounter between theology and science.