Tielhard and Whitehead – September 2014

Question: Are there aspects of Teilhard’s theology that you regard as superior to Whitehead’s?
Publication Month: September 2014

Like all good questions, this is multifaceted. If it means are there are features of Teilhard’s thought that lead me to modify what I take from Whitehead, the answer is No. The most obvious difference in doctrinal content is Teilhard’s vivid sense that despite all the horrors and obstacles along the way humanity is moving toward a final consummation. This is a view that has strong biblical grounding. It also has vast appeal. Whitehead does not share it. And I agree with Whitehead. I could explain my reasons, but I judge that this is not the place for this kind of discussion. Hence, I am simply presenting the view of process theology confessionally. This is in no way an argument for its superiority.

Teilhard’s focus is on the biological, psychological, spiritual dimensions of reality. These are immensely important, and it is easy to draw the reader into direct involvement of such topics. Whitehead, on the other hand, places them in the wider context of physics. This deals extensively with entities that are known only very indirectly and which behave very strangely. I know very little physics, and am more comfortable talking about the level of reality with which Teilhard deals. But I am convinced that for an adequate comprehensive vision, the physics is important and that what we find there is relevant to how we understand the more familiar dimensions of our experience. So, again, I side with Whitehead. I feel the need to expose myself to physics even in its more obscure aspects. Both on scientific details, philosophical analysis, and with regard to any overarching interpretation I look to Whitehead.

However, when all that is said, my answer to the question is an emphatic Yes. If we simply compare Teilhard’s theology and Whitehead’s explicit theology, Teilhard’s is far more developed and far more effective than Whitehead’s. Whitehead writes some beautiful passages. I think that simply reading Whitehead can have a considerable impact on a person’s emotional and spiritual experience. But reading Teilhard is far more effective in these ways.

Whitehead has inspired some of us to write Whiteheadian theology. Thus far, none of us has matched the achievement of Teilhard with respect to evocative power. Perhaps the time will come when the Whiteheadian understanding of reality can be presented with the emotional and spiritual effective that Teilhard achieved in presenting his own. Meanwhile Whiteheadians can rejoice that in many of the most important ways, the impact of Teilhard’s writings overlaps the hoped for impact of the Whiteheadian vision.

What holds us Whiteheadians back? Perhaps our problem in this respect is that we are less free than Teilhard from the academic mindset. It is important to us to be careful in relation to the scientific evidence and to the philosophical rendering. I suspect we are a bit defensive about stepping so far from the academic norms.

On the other side, we are likely to write for particular traditionally distinguished audiences. Catholic process theologians are highly reflective about how what they are saying relates to Thomism and other normative elements in the tradition. Protestants have their parochial concerns. Those who feel liberated from any concern to operate within traditional boundaries often feel even more bound not to offend the norms of the university. These are more restrictive than are those of the church, although this fact is not always recognized.

In these respects, Whitehead’s own writings are more like Teilhard’s. They gave direct expression to his own insights. He was not concerned to meet the expectations or needs of particular groups. Thus he was free from looking over his shoulder to check the accuracy or acceptability of what he said. Also, he had a remarkable ability with language. But as noted above, theology was a minor part of his work.

Another problem for process theologians may be that we learn to be somewhat provisional and tentative. Whitehead describes his thought as speculative. That is, he works by developing imaginative ideas and then testing their adequacy and appropriateness. These tests can lead to rejection or modification. Or they can encourage further testing and even further speculation building on this theory. But no matter how reasonable it is to accept the hypothesis, the edifice built upon it, as a whole, remains uncertain. The great conceptual systems constructed in the past have shown, as time passed, their limitations and even outright errors. There is no way to know what our current errors are except by constant testing and exploration, but of the probability that we are mistaken in some ways, we can be quite sure.

Whitehead is not contrasting his speculative work with something else that might be called empirical science. There is an empirical element in all responsible thought. But even the simplest formulation of a supposed empirical fact is already theory-laden. The speculative element is inherent in all thought. Denying it only makes matters worse. Trying to free our thinking from any such element only serves to restrict our thought and reduce the possibility of its relevance.

Teilhard may well have agreed with all that I have said. I don’t know. But his writings communicate a confidence that a Whiteheadian cannot match. We can feel great confidence that one way of formulating matters is better than another way, and can confidently put forward our ideas as an improvement on the now widely accepted ones. But the full recognition that our ideas are not the final ones affects the tone of our presentation.

As one who is fully persuaded of the provisionality of all theology as well as all science, I speak with greater confidence in the efforts to liberate people from the sway of now dominant conceptualities than in presenting the alternative. This is, of course, the situation with postmodernism in general. It confidently deconstructs the modern. However, much of it leaves the reader with the wreckage. We Whiteheadians feel that that is very insufficient. David Griffin named us “constructive postmodernists” to differentiate those whose work is primarily in deconstruction.

We are deeply convinced, that humanity needs a positive vision. Teilhard powerfully offers such a vision. Thomas Berry worked out Teilhard’s vision in The Universe Story. Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Swimme continue the Teilhardian tradition by developing “the universe story” and producing the film, “The Journey of the Universe.” Teilhard and his followers are responding powerfully and wisely to a profound human need. Because they build on the contemporary scientific consensus, they present their work with confidence. That confidence is important to the convincing power of their effectiveness. I celebrate their achievement and want to support it. We Whiteheadians cannot compete. Are there any aspects of Teilhard’s theology that are superior to Whitehead’s? Yes, indeed!

But. . . As a Whiteheadian I am very skeptical about the story the Teilhardians tell. It is indeed the one around which there is a scientific consensus. The idea of the expansion of the universe from an initial singularity is a legitimate theory about the cause of increase of the red-shift when the distance light travels increases. But so far this theory has not tested out well. Its continuing dominance in the scientific community is maintained in part by control of research funds journals, and by suppression of critical scientists and silencing alternative theories. These tactics increase my suspicion that the theory they affirm cannot be defended in truly open discussion. I am working for serious consideration of another explanation of the red-shift, one that seems to me more reasonable. This would result in a different cosmogony.

I am not suggesting that the universe story can then be told confidently in place of this one. I am suggesting that a consensus of leading physicists provides reason to pay attention. But that should be followed by a request for explanation and especially for the evidence. Often even outsiders can make judgments about its adequacy. This can lead to some judgment about the degree of confidence with which the theory can be supported.

This is not the place to engage in scientific and cosmological debate. But the question has led me to reflect on the problem of confident theological writing when one is convinced of the tentativeness of all our views. Are we in fact reduced to calling on people to accept uncertainty and live on that basis? I think we have seen too much already of the consequences of that sort of nihilism.

We hope we have a better answer. We hope we can persuade people to live in terms of the best thinking that is available. That thinking will include the emphasis on openness to criticism and correction. But it will include much more. It will include hypotheses that are solidly grounded in experience, experiment, common sense, and critical reflection. These will be hypotheses that properly give rise to strong convictions on the basis of which it makes sense to make commitments. The world needs people committed to action rooted in strong convictions. But it also need these people also to be committed to open-mindedness and reconsideration of their convictions when evidence counts against them.

Can commitments of this kind be elicited by an account that is as self-critical as I have indicated we need? Is there a style of writing that at once communicates its own fallibility and evokes strong convictions? That is what Whiteheadians seek.

Meanwhile Teilhard evokes a strong sense of being part of a larger movement, participating with the divine spirit, expanding in love and being borne along by love. Nothing could be more valuable or true than that. Whitehead may explain how all this is true in greater detail and with greater accuracy, but theology is more than factual analysis. It is factual analysis that makes intellectually clear its implications and evokes those emotions that actualize that of which it speaks. Are there any respects in which Teilhard’s theology is superior to Whitehead’s? Indeed, there are.