How does Process understand Tillich’s “virtues”? – November 2011

Question: I am reading of Tillich’s book, Courage to Be, and wondered how courage and other “virtues” are thought of and/or explained in process theology?

Publication Month: November 2011

Whitehead did not write a book on ethics, and some of his followers have tried to supply what is missing. In A Christian Natural Theology, I even developed a deontological basis for a Whiteheadian ethics. I thought when I wrote that book, and I think now, that one can formulate in a very abstract way how we should decide to constitute ourselves, moment by moment. Whitehead assumed that we should so constitute ourselves as to increase value in the world and therefore for God. That raises the question of what is truly of value, and Whitehead did provide a rich theory of value. This is found in Part Four of Adventures of Ideas. It certainly provides a basis for ethical thinking and living.

One may ask why he wrote nothing analogous about virtues. Your question leads me to come up with a few speculations about the reason. First, the traditional discussion of virtues is associated with a stronger sense of identity through time than Whitehead’s philosophy provides. Whiteheadians feel closer to existentialists who focus on the moment and the decision made therein. But by itself, this reason would not be decisive. Whitehead certainly thought that there was continuity from one moment to the next and that habits are of great importance.

A second reason for not giving emphasis to virtues may have been that most of the attention to this topic in traditional literature is quite culture bound and even tends to express the ideals of a class. Courage was thought of as a virtue of upper class males, certainly not of female slaves. One admires the courage of men on both sides in a battle. Yet the world might be much better off if this virtue were not so widely exalted.

In the Christian tradition the Greek virtues were preserved, but they were trumped by “theological” ones: faith, hope, and love. Love is central to the whole of Whitehead’s philosophy. One can easily make a strong case for faith and hope in the context of his thought. Many early Christians, because of their faith, hope, and love, showed great courage in the face of death. In general, a process thinker would see courage as a subordinate virtue in this sense.

Let me hasten to say that Tillich’s Courage to Be relocates courage in a way that largely, if not entirely, does away with the problem I am identifying. Tillich’s strategy, at least in this book, is to relocate courage. Whiteheadians can appreciate that and follow it, while acknowledging that this was not Whitehead’s own strategy. We could speak of the courage to become, and say most of what Tillich says with his less process-oriented language. We think the connection to biblical thought would be better expressed by emphasizing becoming. The courage to become is not a virtue exemplified any more by the alpha male than by the female servant.

My interest here is not to trump Tillich or take away from the originality and depth of his little book. It would not be faithful to the process tradition to claim that we are the source of all good ideas. If we want to boast, it has to be that built into our understanding of reality is an openness to receive from others, to learn, and by the help of others, to grow. The courage to become always involves the courage to hear what others have to say even when it is new, and perhaps threatening, to us. If we claim any superiority over others it must lie in our willingness to be taught by them, and, of course, also by God. To participate in the process tradition is not to defend what we have learned from the past so much as to participate in transforming it in the light of what can now be learned. Tillich has been, and continues to be, one of our finest teachers, even if we do not fully agree with him.

I have spoken only of “courage.” Consider “prudence” as another traditional virtue. I think Whitehead admired prudent people. But I also think that he admired, and would have us admire, people who step far over the line in taking great risks for noble causes. The habit of prudence is likely to work well in advancing one’s place in society. But it can work against responding to God’s call in critical situations. It was not “prudent” for Jesus to go to Jerusalem at the end of his short career.

This does not mean that in the process of raising our children at home and at school, we will not encourage them to be prudent. That is, we want them to think through the consequences of their actions and avoid taking unnecessary or excessive risks. In Whitehead’s relativistic ethics, as, I think in the dominant biblical vision, there is a time for prudence and a time for adventure and self-sacrifice. We should think and live in terms of faith, hope, and love, and often, indeed, for the most part, we will act prudently.

We might exempt justice from this relativizing of the classical virtues. But even that is hard to do. If we mean rewards and punishments appropriate to one’s deserts, we know as Christians that this whole system must be trumped by love. Of course, the habit of generally giving people what they have deserved is far better than treating people with cavalier indifference to their deserts. We will continue to try to give our children a sense of treating people justly in this limited sense. But we will also try to instill love even for those who do terrible things.

If justice is used in the sense of distributing wealth so as to meet the basic needs of all, it certainly remains a great ideal. But even so, any attempt to make it an absolute leads to negative consequences. The idealistic visions of history embodied in the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions have shown us this. The most virtuous people, in this sense, often did the greatest harm.

It may be possible to relocate prudence and justice as Tillich relocated courage. I have no intention of taking on this task. Whitehead certainly did not nor encourage his followers to do so. He wanted us to begin with a sense of what has intrinsic value and to promote that in whatever way we can. That promotion in ourselves expresses our love of ourselves. That promotion in the world at large expresses our love for the world and for God. Whatever more may be done with Whiteheadian ethics, this is its heart and center. It makes the adoption of Whitehead’s thought by Christians very easy. It also enriches the Christian’s understanding of what it means to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and our neighbors as ourselves.