Whitehead’s Distinction in Relation to Process Theologians – January 2007

Question: What is distinctive of Whitehead in relation to other process theologians?

Publication Month: January 2007

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This question reminds us that “process theologian” is a term that can refer to a wide range of thinkers. The recent publication of Gary Dorrien’s third volume on the history of liberal theology in the United States reminds us of the central role that the Chicago School has played. It received extensive attention in the second volume, dealing with the first half of the twentieth century, and it starts off the account of the subsequent history in the third volume. This volume also gives a full chapter to the Whiteheadian version of process theology. 
The Chicago School named its theology in various ways. In the early part of the second half of the twentieth century the most common label was “neo-naturalism.” The term naturalism juxtaposed it most emphatically to supernaturalism. Since the great majority of Christian teaching over the centuries has included supernaturalist teachings, this contrast is of central importance. The Chicago School was committed to think theologically in a fully naturalistic way.

It shared this rejection of supernaturalism with many other Protestant theologians. Many of these followed Immanuel Kant, who is often called the philosopher of Protestantism. The term “naturalism” distinguishes the Chicago School from all those theologies that were informed by Kantian thought. These so emphasized the creativity of the human mind that the natural world was not seen as having any reality independent of human experience.

The term also distinguished it from Humean empiricism, since for that kind of empiricism, the only reality that could be attributed to nature was the sensa found in human experience. Naturalists believed that the natural world is far more extensive than the human one. Human existence is to be located within nature, but nature does not depend on human beings for its reality.

However, for many people the term “naturalism” suggested then, and still suggests, a reductionistic, materialistic view. The Chicago thinkers were as concerned to reject materialism as idealism and sensationalist empiricism. They believed that new developments in science indicated that the world is not the clock-like machine that nature had often been taken for, at least since Descartes. They believed it was far richer and more complex than that, so that the inclusion of human beings within nature in no way implied that the human experience of freedom and responsibility, of love and commitment, was invalid.

This was a new naturalism and it depended on a new empiricism. William James spoke of a radical empiricism that understood experience, including the experience of the environment, as much richer and more complex that the sensationalist empiricists allowed. Thus the new naturalism and the radical empiricism supported one another in creating a context in which religious experience could be appreciatively studied.

The nature that emerged from this kind of thinking was always one in process. Human experience was one form of that process. History as a whole was an important expression of that process, so that some of the Chicago thinkers emphasized especially the social process. They did not accept the sort of dualism of history and nature that flourished in Kantian circles.

Although the word “process” appeared frequently in the writing of the Chicago School, it was Bernard Loomer who lifted it up as a designation of this whole mode of thought. In doing so he was influenced by Whitehead, and especially by the title of Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality. He and other Chicago thinkers recognized Whitehead as sharing with them all the points that I have listed above. He, too, was a neo-naturalist. Indeed, Loomer clearly intended the term “process theology” to apply to the theological work of the Chicago School as a whole, including Whitehead. I use it in this way.

Nevertheless, the feelings toward Whitehead among leaders of the Chicago School were ambivalent. On the one hand, they recognized their kinship and also knew that they were dealing with a towering figure in science, mathematics, and philosophy. On the other hand, they were uncomfortable both with his speculative method and also with the conclusions to which it led him, especially with respect to God. Henry Nelson Wieman at first interpreted Whitehead in a favorable light but eventually rejected his thought harshly. Bernard Meland always kept his distance, treating on a par with many other thinkers from whose thought one could draw useful ideas without in any way committing to his systematic work. Bernard Loomer was drawn deeply into Whitehead’s full system but eventually rejected his doctrine of God in favor of pantheism. Of the leading Chicago faculty, only Daniel Day Williams became and remained a full-fledged Whiteheadian.

Despite the wide range of agreement between those who followed Whitehead and those who did not, the gap between those who have continued the dominant Chicago tradition and those who have followed Whitehead has grown wider. Today the former group rarely identify themselves as process theologians, leaving that title to the Whiteheadians. They are critical of Whiteheadian process theology for a variety of reasons. I will identify just two. First, it is too speculative and metaphysical. Second, it retains or recovers too close a relation with traditional Christian thinking and the churches. I will treat these concerns in succession.

(1) That Whitehead’s thought is speculative and metaphysical is not in question. Those who follow Whitehead recognize this and are grateful to him for having renewed this kind of philosophical thinking. But for two hundred years most Western thinkers have eschewed this kind of philosophy. The neo-naturalism of the Chicago School joined in this rejection. Wieman in his later years is especially explicit. To him it is crucial that theology be a description of (radical) empirically accessible reality. Any speculative element inherently makes the assertions doubtful and shifts attention away from responding rightly toward debating doubtful ideas. This, he believed, is religiously disastrous.

I arrived at Chicago soon after Wieman left, but I was fascinated by his thought and wrote my masters thesis on it. My conclusion then, and now, was that he did not accomplish all that he hoped, but that his thought is a permanent contribution of great value. I regret that it is not more widely studied today.

Wieman’s greatest contribution, in my opinion, is his empirical demonstration that the process of creative transformation is one that can be empirically described and that this description shows that, although it can be facilitated and served, it cannot be managed or controlled by human beings. On the other hand, I concluded that Wieman’s thinking is not quite as free of dependence on speculative thought as he hoped. It is possible to describe reality in ways that do not allow a place for what he has done. To follow Wieman requires rejection of these alternative views of reality. I agree with Wieman in this rejection, but among equally intelligent and careful thinkers there will be disagreements. One cannot escape this diversity of opinion by the appeal to the strictly experiential.

I also concluded that as a doctrine of God, his position does not quite work. Since in later writings he became less interested in whether the word “God” was used, this may not seem important. However, to me the question of whether life can be lived in relation to a reality that can be trusted is important, and it was Wieman’s claim to demonstrate this possibility that so appealed to me. If one is not allowed to speculate as to what is going on in creative transformation ontologically speaking, then the occasions in which it occurs have abstract similarities but no deeper unity. It is unclear just what one is called to trust.

The fact that elements of speculation seem be inescapable, on the one hand, and the Wieman’s limitation of speculation has negative consequences, on the other, confirmed me in my conviction that the intense and widespread rejection of speculation was misdirected. The quest for certainty is futile, and yet fruitful life requires convictions. Accordingly the goal should be to work toward the most probable conclusions, extensively guided, in my pragmatically oriented mind, by their implications for action. This judgment has led me to follow Whitehead.

It is noteworthy that following speculative thought further by continuing to ask questions leads, at least in Whitehead, to theories that connect more closely to historical patterns of Christian thinking and practice. The God needed to explain how and why the world has the character it has is quite different from what the official theology, profoundly influenced by the Greeks, has asserted. However, the God to which Whitehead’s speculations led has remarkable congeniality to some strands of biblical thinking. This heightens the suspicion of many heirs of the Chicago School, but it strengthens conviction on the part of many of us who understand ourselves to stand in the Christian tradition.

I am not saying that all heirs of the Chicago school reject religious institutions and that those who follow Whitehead are committed to them. But it is my impression that the correlation is fairly high. Most Whiteheadian process theologians are church theologians. Most of the other heirs of the Chicago school are not. Hence their suspicions are justified. Perhaps some of us simply use Whitehead as a figleaf to continue with our unjustified childhood beliefs and wish fulfillments. Perhaps truly honest thinkers should distance themselves from all forms of church teaching.

For my part, I do not believe that seeking to be a follower of Jesus reduces the clarity or honesty of one’s thinking. Also, I believe that more can be done to respond to the falsehoods and errors so often taught in the church when one is an active participant in its life. But this in no way means that those who think about religious matters outside of religious communities fail to make important contributions to our society and to its institutions, including the religious ones.

Readers may be struck by the complete omission of Charles Hartshorne from this account. He, too, was a neo-naturalist. But he was so different from the Chicago school that none of my discussion of the relation of Whitehead to that school applies to him. I will take up the relation of Whitehead and Hartshorne next month.