A Catholic Commitment to Process Cosmology

An Appreciation of Joseph Bracken
Book Author: 

Joseph A. Bracken, Christianity and Process Thought: Spirituality for a Changing World (West Conshohocken, PA.: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006) xx + 155 pp.

Joseph A. Bracken, God: Three Who Are One, Engaging Theology: Catholic Perspectives series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008) xvi + 135 pp.

Joseph A. Bracken, Subjectivity, Objectivity, and Intersubjectivity: A New Paradigm for Religion and Science (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2009) xi + 234 pp.


Joseph Bracken, SJ, is Brueggeman Center professor of theology emeritus at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. In a post-metaphysical age, Bracken’s philosophical and theological reflections may seem quaint, or they might be thought of as imposing another totalizing view of the world that leaves no room for minority reports. Yet Bracken’s oeuvre might also be read as fulfilling the insatiable quest for answers to the big questions that have perennially moved the human spirit.

As Bracken is well versed in the classical Western philosophical and theological traditions, he has long recognized that the dominant metaphysical commitments in the West, whether Platonic or Aristotelian, are problematic for our late or post-modern times. Yet the Western mind is not completely without resources for reconceptualizing a viable worldview for the twenty-first century. Of central importance to this task is the legacy of Alfred North Whitehead’s (1861-1947) process cosmology. Bracken’s life long work can be understood as a retrieval and expansion of Whitehead’s central insights in dialogue with contemporary scientific, philosophical, and theological perspectives. In brief, the dynamic and event-oriented cosmology of Whitehead is reframed in terms of overlapping, interacting, and structured fields of activity, each of which are constituted by lower levels fields of relations even while being irreducible to these components or parts. Ultimately, the Christian trinitarian God consists of three intertwined infinite fields of intersubjective activity—traditionally termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—within which the creation itself lives, moves, and has its being.

The major shift in this reconfigured Whiteheadianism is from the substance philosophy of Aristotle to the relationality of contemporary science. What Whitehead provides is an ontology for the dynamic processes of creativity that move the world along, with each actual occasion (the fundamental building blocks of the world for Whitehead) being a subject of experience that prehends or feels the past in order to constitute itself as a partially creative object for the prehension of subsequent occasions. But since contemporary science shows that the very small is interwoven with the very large, we need a non-reductive category that encompasses both domains in all their simplicity and complexity. Here, Bracken takes Whitehead’s notion of “society”—the consolidation of actual occasions into organized units—and proposes instead that these be understood as the fundamental realities of which the world is made up, the structured fields or law-like environments of constituent actual occasions and their processive relations.

In a very real sense, Bracken’s life-work can be understood as an ongoing clarification of this basic idea within an orthodox Roman Catholic theological context, although with important implications for the Church catholic and ecumenical (as Bracken has never been merely a parochially Roman Catholic theologian). His earliest books on the Trinity—What are They Saying about the Trinity (Paulist, 1979) and The Triune Symbol: Persons, Process and Community (University Press of America, 1985)—were initial forays into rethinking the Christian doctrine of God within a dynamic, relational, and process philosophical framework. The next three major books can be seen as expansions of these primordial insights in cosmological, interreligious, and philosophical terms respectively—i.e., in Society and Spirit: A Trinitarian Cosmology (Susquehanna University Press and Associated University Presses, 1991), The Divine Matrix: Creativity as Link between East and West (Orbis Books, 1995), and The One in the Many: A Contemporary Reconstruction of the God-World Relationship (Eerdmans, 2001).Throughout, it might be said that Bracken’s task has been to update the Thomistic philosophical and theological system that has long dominated Roman Catholic theology so that it can speak more coherently and plausibly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In a sense, this is one manifestation of the task of aggiornamento called for by Vatican II.

Alternatively, particularly in the volumes under review, Bracken’s project might also be seen as the continuous unfolding—to paraphrase Whitehead’s own suggestion—of the Christian religion’s search for a metaphysic. Notice, thus, the subtitle of Christianity and Process Thought, which highlights the implications of Bracken’s neo-Whiteheadian philosophy for Christian spiritual practices. To be sure, Bracken the philosophical theologian is clearly seen in these pages—how can he write in any other wise? However, this book explores the implications for how the God-world relationship understood in terms of process philosophy invites not only human creativity but human response at its various levels: in prayer, worship, study and the pursuit of truth, social justice, etc. Bracken’s audience in this book is the broader community of intelligent Christian lay people who might be wondering what it means to be Christian in our late modern world. The proposal provides a contemporary exposition that views (Christian) faith as compatible with (process philosophical) reason, with neither overwhelming the other. Hence the concluding chapter, “Learning to Trust,” is suggestive for how Christian faith adapts to the present world without betraying its fidelity to those who have preceded us.

God: Three Who are One in a sense returns us to the set of concerns that have animated Bracken’s work from the beginning: the trinitarian doctrine of God. Yet it appears in a book series focused on contemporary Roman Catholic theological developments, published by a Catholic publisher. In this volume, then, Bracken attempts to accomplish at least the following three goals simultaneously: 1) engage the Catholic theological tradition and make a convincing argument for why process philosophy provides what is needed in our time as Thomistic philosophy provided for previous centuries of Christian theological reflection; 2) show how a process philosophical theology better answers to the most pressing theological and practical issues of the present era; and 3) sketch the contours of a plausible philosophical theology for the present time. These three objectives are the focus of the book’s three parts, respectively.

Part I, “Retrieval of the Tradition,” overviews the emergence of Trinitarian theology in the early Church and then its respective developments in the East and West, discusses the mystical theologies of the medieval church in contrast to the rationalist theologies of the early modern period, and highlights the recovery of the doctrine of the Trinity in the twentieth century. Bracken’s concern in this part of the book is that the doctrine of the Trinity as classically conceived has had “little or no carryover value for the relations of human persons either to God or to one another in this world” (21). The solution, suggested in part II, lies in the replacement of the metaphysical scheme undergirding the classical doctrine of the Trinity with a version of Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysics which resolves perennial problems related to the suffering of God (such that God as a triune field of creative activity feels the suffering experienced by creatures in their various fields of activity within, albeit also transcending such suffering as well), the one in relationship to the many (the “divine matrix” being the transcendent field of activity that is constituted by, although irreducible to, the many creaturely fields of activity), the patriarchal naming of God (the triune fields of activity that constitute the one God are not hierarchically organized, thus undermining any hierarchical ordering of male and female and affirming instead the flourishing of all humanity), and the question of the plurality of world religions (perichoresis is descriptive not only of divinity but also of the various fields of activity that constitute the history of the world, included among which are the religious traditions of humankind). Hence, Bracken concludes (part III), a process-relational theology of the trinitarian God provides a philosophical and theological framework for engaging with some of the most pressing problems confronting humanity today, including that of relating to modern science.

This question of the relationship of religion and science—or of Christian faith and science, more specifically—is at the heart of Bracken’s most recent book, Subjectivity, Objectivity, and Intersubjectivity. The compatibility between faith and science depends, Bracken argues, on an adequate metaphysical conception of reality. Thus half of this book (chapters 1-6) is a retelling of the history of Western metaphysics in order to expose the presuppositions that pose problems for faith’s acceptance and for the embrace of modern science—presuppositions such as the Aristotelian definition of substances and accidents, the Platonic notion of individuals in relationship to eternal ideas, the Cartesian dualism between matter and spirit, the Kantian distinction between noumena and phenomena, the early modern dichotomy between rationalism and empiricism or facts and values or objects and subjects, and even the late modern revolt against systems or metaphysical thinking. The last half of the book (chapters 7-12), of course, transitions to Bracken’s own constructive retrieval of Whitehead’s process philosophy for the contemporary religion and science dialogue, the central themes of which are events rather than things, the one “in” rather than opposed to (“and”) the many, the openendedness of systems, the mutuality of parts and wholes in contemporary science, and eternity as the togetherness of time’s flow. Bracken’s thesis is to be anticipated: that a dynamic field metaphysics and social ontology of universal intersubjectivity helps us to see subjectivity and objectivity not as opposed to one another but as interrelated such that any thing and its associated field of activity is concretely particular and hence objective in some respects, but is also related to and hence subjectively appropriated by other simpler or more complex things and fields of activity in other respects.

In terms of the details of Bracken’s philosophical theology, there is always the lingering question about whether God is either sufficiently transcendent or sufficiently immanent, or both simultaneously. So on the one hand, on occasion, we get statements like this which can be read as subordinating the divine transcendence to the divine immanence: “the One is not transcendent of the Many as in the Platonic paradigm, but emergent out of the Many in their ongoing dynamic interrelation” (166-67); but later, in the discussion of eternity and time in dialogue with Pannenberg, we get statements like this which seem to prioritize the divine transcendence instead: “it is eternity that gives meaning and value to time rather than vice versa” (178). Perhaps this ambiguity reflects the difference between thinking about “space” versus “time,” but perhaps it simply is what happens when we attempt to give an account of the One that is constituted by but yet irreducible to the Many.

In the end, of course, the question of the ongoing value of Bracken’s work will ebb and flow depending on the viability of his retrieval and adaptation of Whitehead in particular and on the fortunes of process cosmology in the wider philosophical and scientific conversation more generally. For now, however, it provides at least one version of a philosophically robust Christian theology that is attentive to the contemporary scientific landscape. And for theologians such as myself for whom philosophy, metaphysics, and ontology are not topics that can be easily dispensed with but necessarily invite rethinking in every age, reading Bracken at least stimulates the theological imagination, even if we might not agree either on the various details of his proposal or on his metaphysical scheme as a whole.

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