Process and Post-Structuralism

Publication Month: 
February 2012
Author - First Name: 
John B.
Author - Last Name: 
Cobb, Jr.
Question: 
Do you find the discussion between process thought and post-structuralism worthwhile?

A simple answer to this question is “Yes.” But that would mean very little. I think that process thinkers can benefit from discussion with any group of thoughtful people who approach matters from a different point of view. There is no one right point of view. We are all shaped by our particular histories and they have alerted us to different features of reality. We can enlarge our horizons and enrich our understanding by engaging many discussion partners.

The question would be more challenging if we introduced some such word as “particularly.” Are there reasons to seek out poststructuralist as our primary conversation partners? The answer would again be “Yes.” But to explain my actual position, I need to explain both the reasons that poststructuralists are especially important partners at present and also the reasons that I am not prioritizing this relationship myself.

I will explain my views by reminiscing about what I consider analogous challenges and opportunities in earlier years. During the nineteen-forties and -fifties the segment of the philosophical-theological community that was most challenging to process thinkers was existentialism. In philosophy we found Heidegger and Sartre to be of greatest interest. From within the mainstream they protested vigorously the intellectual climate that explained everything that happened in terms of efficient causes. They emphasized the importance of human decisions. We felt a deep kinship. In theology there was no question but that we engaged most intensively with Bultmann. Schubert Ogden was particularly effective in entering the discussion among Bultmannians from a Hartshornean perspective. Whitehead provided us with the ontological grounds supportive of much that the existentialists said. But they had gone much deeper into these problems than had any process thinkers. We had much to learn.

There was a second reason to give special attention to this conversation partner. Process thought was marginal to both philosophy and theology. Existentialism was at that time one of the centers of discussion. If process thought was to become part of the ongoing conversation, existentialism provided the best point of contact.

In the mid-sixties “Death-of-God” theologians replaced existentialists as our primary dialogue partners. Their rejection of God was very similar to Whitehead’s critique of classical theology. But their move was to declare human freedom from anything transcendent, whereas Whitehead’s move was to transform the idea of God. We appreciated the power and force of the new attack on the omnipotent transcendent deity and marveled at its success in making the nature and existence of God a matter of public discussion. We felt it opened a door for our alternate proposal to be heard.

Another dialogue partner was Buddhism. Both Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne lifted up Buddhism as a tradition with which Christians should engage. My own involvement began marginally in the sixties and more significantly in the seventies. Christian process theology is inherently interested in interacting with other religious traditions, and Buddhism has held the greatest interest for us because it is the one great tradition in human thought and life that consciously and explicitly affirms a process view of reality. Clearly Western newcomers to this line of thought have much to learn from old hands. Process thinkers have been among the leaders in Christian-Buddhist dialogue both in the United States and in Japan.

I believe we were right in our selection of partners. But it left us unprepared for the new developments at the end of the sixties. On the one hand, there was the rise of Black and Latin American liberation theologies, and on the other, a new recognition of a global ecological crisis. That we were unprepared to respond was ironic. It was certainly not due to the basic nature of the tradition in which we stood. At Chicago the Divinity School had been the national center for socio-historical theology, closely interwoven with the social gospel. Interest in Whitehead was part of the effort to broaden theology to deal with the natural world as well as the societal one. The social gospel was rightly criticized by the new liberationists for not adequately transcending the perspective of idealistic middle class white Americans, but many stemming from the movement quickly accepted the criticism and supported the new form that the Christian passion for justice was taking. Similarly one may complain that the interest in nature at Chicago was theoretical rather than practical. Nevertheless, if process theologians had strongly retained their Chicago roots, they would have been well prepared to enter the new stage of the discussion about nature. Unfortunately, the absorption in dialogue with existentialists, death-of-God theologians, and even Buddhists had led us into an individualistic anthropocentrism, quite alien to Whitehead himself. We can be grateful that liberation theologies and the ecological crisis brought us back to a focus on more central features of the process tradition.

Although feminists had been writing for a long time, feminist theology broke into the public discussion a little later than Black and liberation theologies. Of all of our dialogue partners, this has been the most satisfactory. Feminist theology had roots in process thought in the person of Valerie Saiving. The features of the tradition that process thinkers had opposed lined up with its patriarchal character. The overlap between the interests of feminists in overcoming patriarchy and of Whiteheadians in overcoming large swaths of traditional and modernist thought was remarkable. Gender analysis was not part of the general process movement, but it could be enthusiastically appropriated. There were some branches of the feminist movement with which we could not be entirely comfortable, but ecofeminism and process thought were and are so close that individual women do not have to choose between them. I rejoice to say that much of the leadership of the process movement has passed into the hands of feminist women.

 Liberation theology in Latin America began with strong class consciousness but little gender and racial awareness. However, it quickly outgrew that starting point. Also it extended its concern to ecological issues. In this inclusive form, it also is more than a conversation partner to process thought. Sadly, it has suffered greatly as the Catholic leadership finally abandoned it. We are now working with the remnants of this movement hoping to reinvigorate it in a form that is strengthened by process thought.

Black theology was originally not much interested in dialogue with predominantly white systems of thought. Our task was to learn more about the Black experience and the light it threw on the reality of white Christianity even in its more progressive forms. But over time more Blacks have found support and help in process theology. We happily welcome their interest.

The relation to the ecological movement is more as participant than as dialog partner. In the area of theology, process folk have given leadership. It is hardly possible today to imagine process theologians today who are not ecologically concerned. In my own case, although I have continued to pursue other topics, the fate of the Earth has been my central concern. I have sought out dialogue partners chiefly in terms of their contribution to saving humanity and the earth as a whole from utter disaster. The actual effect on me has been to focus more on the process tradition itself and its potential for helping than seeking new dialogue partners.

Among candidates for such dialogue partners today, poststructuralists stand out. They share with us a sense that the modern world has been based on values and assumptions that are, at least now, more damaging than helpful. They have gained much more attention to their critique of modernity than we ever have, even though we have been engaged in this critique much longer. We have remained marginal to the wider intellectual discussion, whereas they play a central role and have actually reshaped much of it. We have much to learn.

My failure to engage is, therefore, not a judgment that other process thinkers are mistaken in judging this movement an excellent discussion partner. It is partly a matter of age. I find it hard to learn another language. I leave this task to another generation and hope only to be supportive. It is also partly that I am absorbed in the question of how to respond to the global catastrophe that humanity can no longer avoid. Since I believe that modernism is responsible for the coming disasters, I appreciate the brilliant work of the deconstructive postmodernists in detaching people from their modernist habits and convictions. But until I hear of more practical positive proposals coming from this community, my priorities will lie elsewhere.