Process Thought’s Contribution to Societal Change – June 2012

Question: Can process thought contribute to cultural, social, and political reform?

Publication Month: June 2012

I appreciate this question. My answer is, of course, yes. If I did not think so, I would not have devoted so much of my time to process thought. But before I answer positively, I should acknowledge what process thought, by itself, certainly cannot do.

When we think of social change, we may have the example of the work of Martin Luther King in mind. With regard to overcoming segregation, there were tens of millions of people in the United States who were at least vaguely aware of the profound injustice still inflicted on Blacks long after legal slavery ended. There were scattered efforts to improve matters in one respect or another. But the situation changed very little. What was needed was an organized movement that would mobilize existing sympathizers and intensify their convictions and commitments while awakening others to the evil of segregation. King created that movement, and he led it brilliantly.

His commitment to this task depended on many things, and among them were his beliefs. He wanted to be a disciple of Jesus, and this was immensely important. His effectiveness also depended on many things, including what he learned from Gandhi, who also revered Jesus. There were other types of Christian belief that would not have led him to organize this movement. This is to say, the specific character of his theology was important.

What he learned at the School of Theology at Boston encouraged him, whereas if he had been educated in a more traditional or neo-orthodox institution, he might not have followed his deepest passions. A different theology might even have directed him into other channels. Accordingly, I give Boston Personalism, and specifically Harold DeWolf, some of the credit for his work. He also studied Henry Nelson Wieman, and I hope that if he had gone to Chicago instead of Boston he would have had similar encouragement. What he needed from his theological education was support in his commitment to Jesus. He did not need scholars to tell him that segregation was wrong or that following Jesus involved a commitment to love all one’s neighbors. He did benefit from reassurance that seriously following Jesus was an excellent expression of Christian faith.  I trust that process theology could have supported him as well as did Boston Personalism, but he obviously did not need it to accomplish what he did.

However, there are other types of reform to which, I believe, process thought can contribute in distinctive and particularly important ways. These are reforms that require theoretical change. Whereas the opposition to King had very little intellectual and theoretical substance, at least among Christians, the opposition to changing our economic system has enormous scholarly support with deep roots in the modern worldview. For the most needed economic reforms, one cannot simply mobilize on the basis of current beliefs. I do not know of any conceptual system that is as well equipped as process thought to show the intellectual weakness of the supporters of the current system.

Modern thought expresses itself in economic theory through its extreme individualism. One may critique this individualism on many levels from perspectives other than process thought, but as long as the basic metaphysics of modernity retains its hold, its power to support individualist assumptions in economic theory is not overcome. Those who have entered into the vision of process thought see the error in these assumptions clearly and are freed from their sway. This is an important step toward change, although by itself it will not effect change.

Almost equally determinative of modern thought in economics and elsewhere is the dualism bequeathed us by early modern metaphysics. That dualism is taken for granted in the economic theory that is the ideology that runs the world. Process thought can give intellectual depth to movements to overcome that dualism.

Finally, the course of modern thought leads to emphasizing facts and devaluing values. The default position is that it is good to satisfy whatever desires there may be without judging their actual worth. This is the view that underlies economic theory. There are of course other ways of affirming that values are grounded in reality and that some have greater claim on us than others. Other conceptual systems can provide a basis for criticizing this aspect of economics. But I believe that process thought offers the most comprehensive and fully developed alternative to the valueless universe that dominates our universities.

Viewing the dominant economic theories of the world today from a process perspective is to see how profoundly they are misshaped by their fundamental assumptions. This does not by itself determine that some specific economic system is the best possible for all. From a process perspective there are multiple systems best suited to diverse circumstances. But the process community will judge every system by its contribution to the well being of all involved, including much more than just the human population. And in judging well being, people will be understood as participants in communities. 

Most people in our society are quite sure that “metaphysics” is an idle exercise. This makes it difficult to persuade them to examine their assumptions at this level. Fortunately, some of the metaphysical changes that are needed sometimes take place without being thought of in that way. What is wrong with modern metaphysics can be thought of as its male perspective and is corrected by feminists who emphasize relationality and the integral relation of human beings to the rest of nature. The views of eco-feminism are highly congenial to process thinkers. And eco-feminists are much better at generating movements than are process thinkers. I hope that we, on the process side, are realistic about our limitations and our need to work with others in effecting reforms. Sometimes the others with whom we work recognize that our well-articulated conceptuality can help them also.

I have answered in terms of process thought and made no reference to God or Christian faith. Since process theology is deeply integrated into process thought generally, it shares the strengths I have noted. Nontheistic and non-Christian forms of process thought can do a great deal to support reform, and I have limited myself above to what we share.

However, I believe that there is greater systematic coherence and efficacy in the theistic version of process thought offered by Whitehead and Hartshorne than in the nontheistic versions, and I believe that vivid and realistic belief in God strengthens the whole fabric of process thought and intensifies the motivation to make improvements in the world even when contemporary society discourages efforts in that direction. I also believe that there is a depth of conviction and commitment that comes from participation in faith communities that we are less likely to find among those whose communities are composed of academic philosophers.

In short, I celebrate the participation in the process community of all who are persuaded of a processive worldview. All can contribute to reshaping the basic assumptions that do so much damage in our society. But for myself, I find the deepest connection with those process folk who, like me, seek to be followers of Jesus and have faith in the One whom Jesus called “Abba.” Perhaps those of us who participate in this heritage and faith have special responsibilities and opportunities to seek the salvation of the world from the self-destruction in which it is now enmeshed.