Process Theology and Hegelian-influenced Theology – December 2013

Question: What is the relationship between process theology and Hegelian-influenced theology?

Publication Month: December 2013

My understanding of Hegel’s influence on theology is a focus on the history of cultural thought. I introduce “cultural” since attention is directed to how thoughtful people really understand and perceive rather than on debates among philosophers and scientists. The latter play their role, but so do the structures of society and popular arts. Literary figures are likely to express the actual thinking and feeling best.

This understanding is largely based on my selection of Tom Altizer as the model of Hegelian theology, and if the questioner has quite different thinkers in mind, my further comments are likely to miss the mark. For Tom the “death of God” is not a matter of the philosophical accuracy and adequacy of theoretical atheism but a profound cultural change. The question of accuracy arises only in terms of historical judgments. Has the change occurred as described by Altizer?

As a process theologian, I consider this question of great importance and also am persuaded of the accuracy of Altizer’s account. I think that this kind of deep cultural analysis is of great importance for theology, and I doubt that under the influence of Whitehead many of us would have engaged it rigorously. I believe that Whitehead himself recognized its importance. Part One of Adventures of Ideas has affinities with this type of historical study.

Nevertheless, there is a difference. Whitehead is tracing the way in which a Platonic idea, the idea of the soul, gradually gained traction in the way people really understood the world and acted in it. Finally, it led to the abolition of slavery. The idea of the soul, from a Whiteheadian perspective, is fundamentally “true.” That means that it corresponds with the way things are, however they are thought about in a particular culture. It is my impression that the influence of Hegel counts against the correspondence theory of truth. For an Hegelian, there can be no evaluation of the fundamental cultural assumptions by norms that are external to them. A Whiteheadian will ask about the cultural death of God, in what ways it brought cultural assumptions closer to reality and in what ways it obscured reality. We are likely to say that much of what was culturally understood by “God” needed to die. For example, there is no controller of all that happens. But we are likely to say that there are aspects of what really does happen that can only be explained in ways that the newly dominant atheism disallows.

Whitehead’s treatment of the “soul” warns us that pointing out the limitations of the atheistic worldview is unlikely to have much immediate effect. Theoretical ideas take time to make a difference. But he strongly disagrees that critiques of dominant assumptions are irrelevant. They play, ultimately, a very important role in history.

Hegel’s idealism provoked the Marxist reaction of materialism. Process thought has much in common with Marx, and since Marx is an Hegelian of a sort, the question could also be about the relation of process theology to Marxist influenced theology. There we could turn to Latin American liberation theology for comparison. And it turns out that process theologians were among the strongest supporters of this Latin American movement. Of course, we retained interests that were neglected in the early phases of liberation theology.

The fact that we recognized the truth and value of the Marxist analysis employed by liberation theologians does not mean that we did not need to learn from them. Our claim for Whitehead is not the he already embodies all truth and wisdom. Quite the contrary, we believe that he opens those who follow him to learn from many other sources. Our debt to liberation theologians is great. Among other things, what we have learned from them prepared us to speak to Chinese thinkers for whom Marx remains a normative point of departure.

The fact that we can relate to both Hegelianism and its inversion points, I think, to the deepest difference between Whiteheadians and Hegelians. Hegel and Marx both assumed a kind of dualism between mind and matter. In their hands this dualism was quite different from that of either Descartes or Kant, and it needs to be considered on its own terms. Still, Hegel found reality fundamentally in the knower, and Marx found it fundamentally in the physical world. For both, these judgments were in clear opposition. We Whiteheadians consider it a great gain that Whitehead radically overcame the dualism. We do not have to choose between mind and matter. Strictly speaking there are, for us, no “minds” and no “material objects.” For us, every actual entity is both mental and physical. There is mentality in the physical world and physicality in the mental world.

One expression of our difference from Hegelians is that we view science as a source of knowledge of what the world is really like. At the same time we are critical of the picture that most scientists give us because of the strong materialist prejudice underlying scientific work. Again, our idea is that we should aim for our assertions to correspond with what exists independently of our knowledge. This shapes our work in a distinctive way. In a philosophical context in which the quest for “correspondence” has largely been abandoned, Whitehead’s justification of this quest is one of his greatest contributions.