by John B. Cobb, Jr.
1. The Origins of Process Theology
Most theology in the United States has been imported from Europe, sometimes from Great Britain , but more often from the continent. However, from time to time indigenous movements have developed. Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century established the New England theology, closely related to the Great Awakening. A major focus was on Christian experience, especially on conversion. It took root and can be traced for a century as a major element in Christian thought in this country. In the nineteenth century Horace Bushnell developed a quite independent and original way of thinking that was also widely influential. It also focused on Christian experience, this time on growth into Christian maturity rather than on the crisis of conversion.
Around the beginning of the twentieth century there was a flourishing of indigenous thought. William James, John Dewey, and Charles Saunders Peirce are among the most important figures. For this group, too, experience, was central.
Although the term “process philosophy” did not come into use until the 1950’s, retrospectively this group can be claimed for the tradition. Its shared characteristics, in addition to a focus on experience, are its pragmatic, pluralistic, relativistic, holistic, and naturalistic tendencies. Its members were radical empiricists, that is, empiricists who believed that experience is by no means limited to, or originated in, sensation.
During the same period, within the churches the pragmatic temper expressed itself in the social gospel. This was the response of sensitive preachers in northeastern and midwestern cities to the consequences of industrialization. The exploitation, especially of immigrant labor, was blatant, and many preachers were no longer willing to speak only of the personal salvation of their flock or of the need of the newcomers for conversion. They were determined that the church support the efforts of the exploited to organize and secure decent conditions. They read their Bible with new eyes and saw that their concerns followed from those of the Hebrew prophets. They located Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom of God in this tradition, and gradually they developed their Christian convictions into a theology. The best expression was Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology of the Social Gospel (1917).
There was a Baptist theological school in Chicago oriented to the social gospel and sensitive to the radical empiricist temper. When John D. Rockefeller decided to establish the University of Chicago, he built it around this seminary. Its president, William Rainey Harper, was the first president of the university. The Divinity School of the University of Chicago was for at least sixty years the place where the tradition later called process theology developed through its several stages.
The first stage emphasized the socio-historical method. Shailer Mathews and Shirley Jackson Case understood Christianity as a social movement, and they applied to it the techniques they would use to study any social movement. They showed how it had adapted to changing social conditions in the past. They saw their own context as one in which democracy and science were dominant. The theologian’s task, in their view, was to reformulate church teaching in a way appropriate to that context.
By the l930’s the social gospel was losing its momentum, and the need for theological credibility was becoming more pronounced. This led to a shift of emphasis from historical to scientific methods in the study of religion. Psychology of religion and sociology of religion became prominent. A scientific or quasi-scientific method was needed for theology as well. Henry Nelson Wieman and Bernard Meland emerged as the leaders of the effort to understand Christianity in terms of radical empiricism. Wieman defined God as the process of creative interchange discernible in human affairs. This alone, he believed, makes for the growth of human good. He called for trust in that process. He organized students into groups, something like the later human potential growth groups, in order that they might actually experience the working of God in their lives. Meland retained a certain distance from this, emphasizing the subtle role of religion in the total cultural life and calling for the culture as a whole to become more appreciatively aware of the spiritual depths in what is happening.
Charles Hartshorne joined the philosophy department at Chicago soon after Henry Nelson Wieman came to the Divinity School. His greatest scholarly achievement at that time was his editing, together with Paul Weiss, of the collected works of Peirce. Although he had studied in Germany with Husserl, his own commitments were much more informed by the community of American thinkers mentioned above, and especially by Peirce.
The American tradition did not rule out metaphysics in the way that the Kantian tradition had done. Yet it did not emphasize it either. Nevertheless, metaphysics was Hartshorne’s passion. The rootage of his metaphysics in radical empiricism led to important disagreements with traditional views, but from this different starting point he dealt with the whole range of traditional issues. Hartshorne called his metaphysics “neo-classical.”
Both Wieman and Hartshorne had been influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, the British mathematician who became more and more a philosopher, especially after coming to Harvard in 1924.
The American thinkers of whom I have spoken recognized Whitehead as a fellow spirit with a quite distinct contribution to make. And Whitehead found in the Americans, especially in William James, a creative originality to admire. He even proposed that James had originated a new epoch in philosophy, the first after Descartes to do so. He incorporated into his philosophy most of the insights of James. Yet his own project, to develop a comprehensive cosmology, was quite distinct.
Although Whitehead never taught at Chicago, students of Wieman, Meland, and Hartshorne were drawn to his work. It was far more complex and systematically rigorous than that of the American thinkers. It was closely related to mathematical physics, and it offered an integration of the findings of the sciences with the evidence of religious experience that had come to seem almost impossible.
Despite their disputes with traditional metaphysics, Hartshorne and Whitehead spoke of God realistically and seriously in a way quite understandable to Christians. One could even argue that their view of God was closer to that of the Bible than was classical theism. Hence, under the influence of Hartshorne and Whitehead there developed a group of thinkers who took on the theological task in a more traditional way than had previously been common among the radical empiricists. Daniel Day Williams was the most successful in this task. His book, The Spirit and the Forms of Love (1968), remains the most impressive systematic theology written from this perspective.
Whitehead’s magnum opus was entitled Process and Reality (1929). It was the prominence of “process” in this title that led to the coining of the term “process theology” to identify the work being done by this group. Sometimes the term is limited to the work of those who most closely follow Whitehead and Hartshorne. But often it is used much more broadly to include all those who pursue theological questions under the influence of radical empiricism. Used in this broader sense, it is very varied indeed.
2. The Doctrine of God
Through the centuries there has been tension between the Biblical-religious way of thinking of God and the philosophical one. It has been widely supposed that the God of the philosophers must be conceived as the “absolute” or the “unconditioned.” Pascal was one of those who insisted that this is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For one thing, theirs is a God who interacts with creatures.
Since Pascal, some theologians have distinguished the God of revelation from the God of philosophical reason and have affirmed of the former more of the Biblical attributes. It is surprising, however, how often they still feel compelled to repeat much of what has been said originally for philosophical reasons. Developing a doctrine of God from the Bible alone leaves too many questions unanswered.
Whitehead and Hartshorne have developed a third approach. They believe that the philosophical Absolute is based on an inadequate philosophy. It arises from the substantialist thinking that Christian theologians derived from the Greeks. Attributing primacy instead to events, occurrences, happenings, or processes, they arrive at different conclusions, conclusions that turn out to be more congenial to the Bible.
Neither Whitehead nor Hartshorne makes the metaphysical shift from substances to events for the sake of a more Biblical theism. David Hume had already showed the problems with substance thought in the eighteenth century. But the tendency has been to regard the abandonment of the category of substance as requiring the abandonment of any full-blown metaphysics. Whitehead, instead, undertook a rigorous analysis of events to determine their metaphysical character.
Whitehead did not move in this direction only for philosophical reasons. He participated in the revolutionary developments in physics in the early twentieth century. Like most physicists of that time, he sought an intelligible account of the new phenomena. But unlike most of them, he did not give up the effort when it turned out that the phenomena could not be interpreted in existing categories of thought. He believed that these categories reflected substantialist habits of mind and that the task was to develop new categories genuinely oriented to events and processes. He concluded that the cosmos is composed of momentary “actual occasions” each of which incorporates within itself aspects of all past events. Among these occasions moments of human experience are the ones we know at first hand. We can affirm the reality of the others only as we generalize features of our own experience. They are all actual occasions of experience.
It is important to understand that “experience” does not mean what many empiricists have meant, that is, conscious sense experience giving rise to thought. Whitehead is a radical empiricist who understands human experience as a unity of largely unconscious feelings of the body and its environment. Out of this unconscious physical experience, sensation and thought arise. Emotions, purposes, values, memories, and anticipations are more fundamental than sense experience and thought. Sense experience and thought and consciousness generally are precisely what cannot be generalized beyond the higher animals. What can be generalized most plausibly are unconscious bodily feelings charged with emotion and purpose.
The theories developed from the generalization of such feelings are hypotheses. They are to be evaluated according to their success in interpreting the phenomena and in guiding further investigation. These theories yield a quite different and more realistic interpretation of causality than can be found in either the Humean or the Kantian traditions. They also provide ways of understanding the relation of “mind” and “body” that are more satisfying than other alternatives. And they provide a way of thinking of the phenomena treated by quantum physics that offers the possibility of intelligibility even there.
Each occasion of experience is an instance of the many becoming one and being increased by one. Whitehead cannot understand this process apart from something like unconscious purpose, an aim to be and to be as much as is possible under the circumstances. He calls this the “subjective aim” of each occasion. In part the subjective aim of human occasions is conscious. It is an aim to constitute oneself in the moment so as to attain some immediate satisfaction but also so as to affect the future. In most occasions the future that is in view is very immediate, but in human beings it can also include the more distant one.
Whitehead can explain this aiming to be, and to be in a particular way, only by reference to the effectiveness in the world of possibilities not yet realized there. These must be ordered as “lures for feeling.” These are responsible for the element of purpose that pervades the world and for such novel order and ordered novelty as emerge within it. They are also responsible among human beings for the pervasive sense of positive possibilities partly attained and partly missed that Whitehead sees as characterizing moral and religious experience.
Whitehead sees the ground or source of purpose, value, order, and novelty — and in human beings of moral and religious feeling — as divine. He calls it God. God’s efficacy in the world, requires that God be actual, like the actual occasions. But because God relates to all actual occasions through time, God cannot be momentary as they are. Instead, God is the one actual entity who is everlasting.
To be an actual entity, God cannot only act on the world. God must also be acted on. That is, while the occasions of the world feel God, God also feels them. Whitehead’s technical term is “prehension.” A prehension is the way one actual entity incorporates another, or some aspect of the other, into itself. Every occasion in the world incorporates into its own life some aspect of the divine, that aspect, namely, that gives it a subjective aim. Meanwhile God incorporates all that happens in the world into God’s own life.
If God is like this, then everything creatures do or say or think or feel makes a difference to God. All that they are is, for good or ill, a gift to God. This is true not only of human beings, but of sparrows as well. That means that what human beings do to other human beings — and to sparrows — they do also to God.
All this is quite different from the relation posited between creatures and God conceived as the Absolute. There are many changes rung on that idea, but the term itself inhibits thought of a fully reciprocal and interactive relation. Often the idea of God as the Absolute leaves one mystified as to how human acts can make any difference to God at all or as to what divine love can be. Whitehead provides a detailed and realistic account of how God acts toward creatures and how they live for God.
Whitehead’s account also shows that all creatures are important to God, not only human ones. Further, God’s experience is not enriched simply by the addition of many elements, but also by the contrasts among them. The diversity of human cultures and personalities and the diversity of living species are all important for God. The modern simplification of the world through standardizing culture and personality and through eliminating thousands of species of living things is an impoverishment of God.
This way of thinking of God’s relation to the world is often called panentheism. That means that everything past and present (but not future) is in God. God’s experience is much more than the addition of all the creaturely elements, but it includes all of them. Also God is in all creatures, although only very fragmentarily so.
Clearly this is a “natural theology.” That is, Whitehead gives philosophical reasons for his doctrine of God. This is offensive to many Christians. Hence it may be worthwhile to point out that Whitehead’s is, in an important sense, a “Christian natural theology.” That is, Whitehead does not believe that the construction of a cosmology or natural theology is a purely “rational” activity, if that would mean that it is not profoundly influenced and shaped by all sorts of historical and personal forces. Ideas and insights emerge in history in particular places for particular reasons. Their value and truth, however, are not limited to those circumstances, and their availability now is due to the originality, derived from God, that those circumstances made possible.
Whitehead sees his own central metaphysical principle as the inclusion of one actual entity in another. He asserts that this insight originated with the Alexandrian Fathers as they wrestled with the relations among the members of the Trinity and with how God was present in Jesus. He sees his own philosophy as based on a universalization of this insight.
Further, Whitehead appeals specifically to Jesus. He believes that his view of God fits with that of Jesus. He certainly does not regard this as a coincidence. What Jesus embodied in life Whitehead seeks to express in his cosmological conceptuality. If the appeal to revelation is designed to protect certain ideas from criticism, then Whitehead rejects it out of hand. But if it is the acknowledgment of the sources of our understanding, then Whitehead is a revelational thinker.
3. The Understanding of the Human Being
It is characteristic of process thought that it has not been possible to discuss God without talking about the world and its human inhabitants. God’s reality includes God’s relation to the world, and the world’s reality includes its relation to God. Everything said about human beings must cohere with this view of their participation in the world and, with all the world, in God.
What does it mean to understand a human being in process terms, really abandoning the remnants of substantialist thinking? What is referred to, for example, by the pronoun “I” when I say that I understand or that I am annoyed? The apparent meaning is that there is something to which the pronoun refers that is characterized at one moment by understanding and at another by annoyance. This something seems to be self-identical in the two cases. One may think of it as a subject to which things happen, which has changing experiences and characteristics, and which acts, but which remains itself unchanged. But if so, one is continuing to think in terms of substances that underlie the changing world.
There is no question but that language encourages substantialist thinking. The same pronoun refers to the one who acts and is acted on over a period of time. As a pronoun it seems to stand for an entity. But an entity that, unchanged, does and suffers many things is a substance, just what process thought denies. What else can “I” mean?
Process thought points to the flow of experience through time. This can be identified as the psyche or soul, or even as the person. This flow can be analyzed into a series of events, perhaps four to ten per second. These are the human occasions of experience. Sometimes the pronoun “I” can be understood as referring to one of these or to a sequence of them. If the former, it can be said that “I” does not change. It simply comes into being and ceases moment by moment. If the latter, then “I” changes in the succession of experience. In the extreme case, when “I” refers to the entire flow of experience from birth to the present, it has changed very much indeed.
The main point here is that “I” does not refer to a reality that underlies experience but to the flow of experience as such or to the individual occasions that make it up. But there are times when something else is meant. Sometimes “I” does not mean the actual occasion in its full concreteness but some element in it, that which organizes it, or its center. That can also be understood in process terms. And there are other times when “I” does not mean the psyche alone but rather the entire psychosomatic organism. That, too, is quite intelligible in process terms, but it needs to be explained.
From the process perspective, the psychosomatic organism is a very complex entity. To simplify greatly, we can consider the soma primarily as a society of cells. Each of these cells, like the psyche, is a sequence of actual occasions of experience, each with its own reality and measure of autonomy. Each occasion of cellular experience inherits from antecedent occasions of the experience of that cell, but it also inherits from neighboring cells and through them from more distant ones. It is an instance of the many becoming one. What it becomes is a function of its own past, but also of its neighbors, of its place in the whole organism, and finally in the whole world.
One of the actual occasions, or series of actual occasions, that influences it is the psyche. Of course, the influence of the psyche is distinctive because psychic occasions are much more complex than cellular ones. Nevertheless, the way the influence occurs is similar to the way all the other cells influence it. In Whitehead’s technical terms, the cell physically feels both the other cells and the psyche. In other words, aspects of all these other entities are constitutive parts of what the cellular occasion becomes. The soma, therefore, cannot be separated from the psyche, even though as a society of cells it is distinct from the psyche.
Much the same can be said of the psyche. It is distinct from the soma, but it consists in large part in the way the soma is internal to it. Each psychic occasion can be viewed as a particular unification of the soma, richer by far than the unification that takes place in the individual cellular occasions. But it is more than that, since it includes also its own past and the influence of God.
This view of the psychosomatic organism can be contrasted with substantialist ones. One of these is dualism. For the dualist, the psyche, or more often the mind, is one kind of entity, and the body is another. Their conjunction remains so puzzling that many who operate in dualistic terms refuse to acknowledge their real assumptions. Still, dualism organizes the university, with some academic disciplines devoted to the study of the physical world and others to the mental one.
In Anglo-Saxon philosophy a popular alternative to dualism is called psychophysical identism. Language about the body and language about the psyche are asserted to be complementary ways of talking about the same reality. When examined, it usually turns our that this reality is in fact viewed as physical; so psycho-physical identism hardly escapes reductionism.
Neither dualism nor identism works well for Christian theology. The unity of the psychosomatic organism is prominent in Biblical language and thought, but it does not amount to a sheer identity. Human beings are more than their bodies, even if they are inseparable from them. The condition of the body informs the soul, and the condition of the soul informs the body. Both belong to the same order of reality. Similarly, the condition of each part of the body informs all the others. There is thus a general fit between the anthropology derivative from Whitehead’s cosmology and that of the Bible.
The fit goes further than this. One characteristic of substances is that they are mutually external to one another. Two substances cannot occupy the same space at the same time. One cannot be constitutive of the being of another. They cannot be internally related.
When individual people are thought of as substances, they are conceived as externally related to one another. These external relations can be important in that one may give generously to another or may restrict another’s ability to move. But each is contained within her or his boundaries. The good of each is distinct from the good of others. The good of one may contribute to the good of others or detract from it, but only indirectly. The most readily drawn conclusion is that relations among individuals are basically competition for scarce resources.
In reaction against the consequences of capitalist practice, Marx rejected this individualism. But he did so by viewing larger units of human beings as substances within which individuals are subsumed. The consequences for individuals of the working out of his ideas were highly oppressive.
If the substantialist view is abandoned, a quite different picture emerges. Each occasion of human experience is constituted not only by its incorporation of the cellular occasions of its body but also by its incorporation of aspects of other people. That is, people are internally related one to another. Hence, the character of one’s being, moment by moment, is affected by the health and happiness of one’s neighbors.
Elements of competition are inevitable. But competition is not the basic relationship. On the contrary, people are designed for community, and their individual wellbeing is bound up with the wellbeing of their community. They are also individuals. Just as a person’s psychic life is distinct from the totality of somatic events, so also it is distinct from the community of which it is a part. Although the community is constitutive of personal being, it is equally true that personal being is constitutive of community. People are neither isolated individuals nor mere parts of a greater whole. They are persons-in-community.
The community of which they are a part is not only the human one. The human community is part of a larger society of living things, of an ecosphere, and even of the total biosphere. The wellbeing of the human community and of the persons who make it up is inseparable from the wellbeing of the whole.
This is far closer to dominant Biblical ways of thinking than the alternatives. In ancient Israel the sense of the people as a whole was often primary, but it was never divorced from individual leaders. The sense of the individual grew and came to fruition in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but not at the expense of community. Paul speaks explicitly of how, in the church, we are members one of another. It is this vision that process thought undergirds with a systematic conceptuality. Furthermore, at least in much of the Jewish scriptures, the relation to the land was also experienced as constitutive of the people’s lives.
A third area in which process thought offers a conceptuality that comes close to Biblical thought is in the relation of grace and freedom. Again, substantialist habits of mind have made satisfactory formulations difficult. Clearly, in faithfulness to scripture Christians must affirm both. The primacy of grace should be affirmed in such a way as not to reduce the responsibility of human beings. Yet in ordinary substantialist ways of thinking, the more fully an act is caused by one agent, the less can be the contribution of another. If God is the cause of our faith or our love, then we are not responsible for whether we believe or love.
In order to avoid giving space to human boasting, some of the greatest theologians attributed all goodness to God in such a way that human response, and therefore responsibility, almost disappears. The church has not been able to live with the results of such extreme formulations; so it has kept reintroducing human responsibility, but often at the cost of allowing for the self-righteousness the theologians were trying to exclude. Others have tried to solve the problem by distinguishing between primary causation — God’s — and secondary causation — human. Still others have called on the church to be content with a paradox — with Christians giving all credit for good to God and taking all responsibility for sin on themselves.
With the abandonment of substantialist thinking, another option emerges. In Whitehead’s view, creatures have, indeed, nothing that they have not received. Much of the gift is from the world, but what is good in this gift comes ultimately, if indirectly, from God. Life is grace, through and through. Further, in each moment God gives of God’s self to each creature. In human beings this gift functions as call and as empowerment to be and to do what God’s gift makes possible. But possibility is not yet actuality. Just how the creatures actualize themselves in relation to the lure of God is their decision.
Too often reflection about decision employs a dualistic model of either/or, of yes and no. There are such decisions, but even for highly conscious human beings they are limiting cases. The real decisions, made moment by moment, are much better understood in terms of approximating or missing the mark. The mark is God’s call in its ideality, the finest possibility God empowers us to achieve. What people actually do reflects their sensitivity and responsiveness to God and also their own competing projects.
There is a double meaning of freedom in this picture. There is formal freedom, the freedom that is embodied in decision, whatever that decision may be. Without this freedom, no other form of freedom is possible. This freedom exists in the occasion of human experience because God offers ways of constituting the occasion other than simply repeating the past, without compelling the realization of any of them. God calls for the best, but how the occasion responds is its decision. It is that decision that determines just what that occasion will be. This is self-determination in its purest form, and it occurs only by virtue of the gift of God.
But freedom has another, more theological meaning. That is the occasion’s freedom to respond positively to God’s call, the ability to put aside its concern for self-justification. Whereas formal freedom is expressed equally when one comes close to hitting the mark and when one misses by a wide margin, this freedom varies greatly. When formal freedom is exercised to gratify one’s desire for revenge, inherited from earlier occasions, rather than to respond to the call to forgive, then one’s freedom in the deeper sense is slight. Of course, it is especially evident of this deeper freedom that it is a gift of God.
There is a close connection between these two types of freedom. When the deeper, religious, freedom is little exercised, the formal freedom declines. That is, when there is little response to the call of God, when the occasions constitute themselves to carry forward projects determined in their past and impervious to the new directions in which God tries to steer them, then the new possibilities to which God calls subsequently can be less and less different from their own stubborn projects. The range of choice declines. When, on the other hand, occasions of human experience are sensitively responsive to the new possibilities God introduces, they are able to receive still greater possibilities in the future. The range of formal freedom expands.
For this theory it is not the case that as more is attributed to grace less must be attributed to freedom. On the contrary, the more effective grace is in human lives, the more freedom grows, and the more freedom grows, the more effective is grace. Freedom is the result of grace. Christians cannot boast in their right use of freedom, for that right use, as well as the freedom itself are directly given by God. But that does not reduce human responsibility to decide for God.
Grace is at work not only in human beings but also in all other creatures. It is the way that God works in the world. There is not another, controlling and all-determining work of God. That means that all events whatever are influenced by God but that none are the direct expression of God’s purpose or desire.
This way of thinking changes the nature of the problem of evil. As usually formulated that presupposes that God’s power is the sort that determines outcomes. Hence, when there are terrible evils such as the Holocaust, one supposes that this must somehow embody God’s purpose. It is impossible to reconcile this with the belief that God is love. Process theology sees God’s work in the Holocaust in every expression of resistance and in every impulse to redirect the course of events. It sees it also in the steadfast faith and humanity of many of those who were slaughtered. It does not see it in the decision to effect the Final Solution or the brutal cruelty of many of those who carried it out.
Yet, even for process thought, God bears a certain responsibility for evil. It is because of God’s grace that human beings are free. Much of the evil of the Holocaust expresses the misuse of human freedom. There could be no misuse if there were no freedom to misuse. God has taken a great risk in bringing into being creatures with the amount of freedom human beings have. Sometimes one may wonder about the wisdom of that risk. A better response is to resolve that we will use God’s gift in a more worthy way.
The emphasis on process also has consequences for the understanding of righteousness. This has often been bound up with rules and principles, despite Paul’s profound critique of the law. Process theology sides with Paul. From the process perspective, God does not establish a set of objective laws and then leave it to individuals to obey or disobey. The relation between God and humanity is far more intimate. God’s call comes moment by moment, and the human response is constantly new.
Generalizations about the nature and direction of God’s call are possible. There are virtues and principles that generally correspond to it. No community can survive without socializing its children to accept certain moral values. Yet this process is a dangerous one. It is hard to teach morality without leading the pupil to believe that conformity to rules and principles is the final need. And the habit of self-discipline involved in conforming action to rules can be in tension with the sensitivity and spontaneity that make possible the fullest response to God’s call.
As process thinkers have generalized about what God seeks to accomplish in the world, they have given a prominent place to aesthetic categories. In an important sense, moral categories subserve the aesthetic ones. This is shocking to many Christians.
Process thought locates reality, and therefore also value, in experience. All other values must be instrumental to this. Morality serves value in two ways. First, concern for others and decision expressing that concern add richness to the experience of which they are a part. Second, they also, if properly expressed, help the others. Hence morality is very important. Indeed, the basis of the moral dimension is in the nature of all things, since every occasion aims not only at some immediate satisfaction, but also at other satisfactions in the relevant future. The definition of that relevance is a moral issue, and for human beings its broadening is moral growth.
Still, if morality is bound up with contributing to others, the crucial question is: What is to be contributed? One contribution might be making them more moral, and that is fine. But finally, true morality cannot aim simply at the spread of morality. It must aim at the wellbeing of those it tries to help in some broader sense. For process thought that must be the perfection of their experience inclusively. Hence, morality is not an end in itself.
The language that best describes desirable characteristics of experience is derived more from aesthetics. That does not mean that it is about objective works of art. But it is about the art of life and the beauty of experience. What makes one experience superior to another is more like what makes one painting superior to another than what makes one action more moral than another.
In general, intense experience is preferable to dull experience. The eros of the universe expressed in evolution has been toward more intense experiences. It is these more intense experiences that cross the threshold of consciousness. Consciousness opens up whole ranges of new possibility for experience. Human beings in general prize consciousness and enjoy its extension to parts of experience heretofore not conscious. To heighten one’s own consciousness, to become conscientized, to attain greater lucidity, all these are human aims continuous with the eros of the universe.
This consciousness cannot be sustained without variety. Mere repetition dulls it into sleep. On the other hand, sheer variety overwhelms consciousness. Consciousness can be sustained and intensified only as the variety is ordered. Whitehead’s term “contrast” is borrowed from art. To whatever extent sheer diversity can be transformed into contrasts, and these into contrasts of contrasts, the experience is interesting, rich, and intense. This formation of contrasts is what Whitehead called harmony.
But any particular harmony becomes dull if it is not challenged by discord. The discord calls for the formation of new contrasts, which in their turn, if merely repeated lose intensity. There must be change, but sheer change can be destructive. Yet even destruction can heighten zest and pave the way for fresh construction that will generate greater intensity of feeling.
The theory of what God aims for in experience is never completed. Whitehead spoke sometimes of intensity, sometimes of importance, sometimes of strength of beauty. Process thinkers can talk about richness, harmony, depth of satisfaction, or even happiness. But no one term captures all that is desirable in experience. Even at this level of abstraction, there is no one yardstick to determine the excellence of an experience. God’s aim is not predictable or controllable by us. We can know it only as it happens, new in each moment.
Most of Whitehead’s language about what is to be aimed at in experience relates him to the philosophical tradition rather than the Biblical one. But there is one extended passage, coming at a culminating point in his reflection, that is clearly Christian. It is his discussion of “peace” in Adventures of Ideas. Here he offers a model for process theologians, a model that could and should be followed in reflection about the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.
“The experience of Peace is largely beyond the control of purpose. It comes as a gift. . . . It results in a wider sweep of conscious interest. it enlarges the field of attention. Thus Peace is self-control at its widest,–at the width where the `self’ has been lost, and interest has been transferred to coordinations wider than personality.” (p. 368.)
4. Process Theology and Practical Theology
Practical theology has two meanings in the United States today. The older meaning is virtually synonymous with pastoral theology. The newer meaning refers to the whole range of theology as it is grounded in practice. This concluding section will deal with them in that sequence..
With respect to the minister’s central role as preacher, the relation to process theology has been modest. Of course, there have been thousands of preachers who have been influenced by process theology to some extent and whose sermons reflect that influence. But most of the literature about preaching produced in the United States has been highly “practical,” dealing with the organization, effective delivery, and style of sermons. It rarely refers to process thought.
For a closer connection between preaching and theology, Americans have turned to Europe. The Neo-orthodox movement had its most profound effect on the content and, to a lesser extent, on the style of preaching. Many ministers who used a more process-oriented style in their pastoral care and even in their teaching, preached a Neo-orthodox message.
Nevertheless, there are several books on preaching written from a process point of view. Norman Pittenger has written two: Proclaiming Christ Today (1962) and Preaching the Gospel (1984). Recently two other books have been published. One, written jointly by six process theologians, led by David Lull and William Beardslee, is entitled Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (1989). It offers a way of understanding the purpose and goal of preaching from a process point of view as the making of proposals designed to promote serious reflection in the hearer. It then applies this approach to the way preachers can deal with Marcan and Pauline texts on the cross. The other, A Credible and Timely Word: Process Theology and Preaching (1991), written by Clark Williamson and Ronald J. Allen, deals more with the content of the message.
There has been a somewhat greater contribution of process theologians to the literature on ministry generally and especially on pastoral care. Daniel Day Williams participated with James Gustavson and H. Richard Niebuhr in an extensive study of Christian ministry and its implications for theological education. This resulted in an important book, The Advancement of Theological Education (1955). Subsequently, he published an influential volume, The Minister and the Care of Souls (1961) that remains a classic inthe field. Norman Pittenger has written a number of books on the church with clear implications for ministry. Among these are The Christian Church as Social Process (1971), The Ministry of All Christians: A Theology of Lay Ministry (1983), and The Pilgrim Church and the Easter People (1987).
John B. Cobb, Jr. wrote a small book on Theology and Pastoral Care (1977). Subsequently he published a book with Joseph C. Hough, Jr. on theological education, entitled Christian Identity and Theological Education (1985). Bernard Lee has written the most thorough ecclesiology from a process perspective, The Becoming of the Church (1974). Subsequently, he co-edited with Harry James Cargas, Religious Experience and Process Theology: the Pastoral Implications of a Major Modern Movement (1976).
Thus far I have spoken of books written about ministry by process theologians. Fortunately, there are also books written from a process perspective by persons more fully immersed in the tasks of ministry and their study.
The pragmatic temper of thought in the United States has meant that pastoral theology and the arts of ministry subsumed in it have been given a great deal of attention. In the nineteenth century the Sunday School movement sometimes almost outweighed the church itself in social importance. Reflection on the Sunday School made of religious education a discipline with considerable social influence. The emphasis on experience led to concentrating pastoral care on pastoral counseling, and this burgeoned into a major aspect of church life.
The history of these movements is intertwined with that of process thought in general and to a lesser, but increasing, extent with process theology more narrowly considered. There are now small professional associations promoting the relation of psychotherapy and education to process thought. Although neither is focused on religion or the church, pastoral counselors and religious educators are prominent in both.
The pastoral counseling movement has been a major center of vitality in the North American church, both in its institutional life and in its theoretical reflections. It has embodied much of the ideal of praxis, that is, of theory growing out of practice and being tested in practice. And it has challenged theology generally to relate itself more closely to the actual experiences of Christians.
Pastoral counseling has drawn on many sources, including the psychotherapeutic theories developed in Europe. But in its efforts to identify its work as pastoral in the context of the church, it has turned more to aspects of the American tradition. For the most part this has been general and not explicit, but the contacts are clear both in Seward Hiltner and Howard Clinebell, two of its major leaders in recent decades.
Gordon Jackson has gone far beyond this general connection. In Pastoral Care and Process Theology (1981), he has worked out the contributions process theology can make to pastoral counseling in a rigorous and detailed fashion. Archie Smith’s The Relational Self: Ethics and Therapy from a Black Church Perspective (1982) is explicitly and intentionally informed by process thought. Robert Brizee and David Roy are among the newer voices in the field who are working systematically to integrate pastoral counseling with process theology.
I summarized works by process theologians on pastoral ministry and pastoral care and then turned to the work of pastoral counselors on their field. The organization of the arts of ministry is such that while pastoral counseling is an important profession, pastoral care in general is less professionalized. Nevertheless, there is a literature written from the side of pastoral theologians on this subject also.
A notable recent contributor to this literature from the process perspective is Robert Kinast. He has written When a Person Dies: Pastoral Theology in Death Experience (1984), and Caring for Society: A Theological Interpretation of Lay Ministry (1985). James Poling has written with Donald Miller, Foundations for a Practical Theology of Ministry (1985).
The religious education movement has had a long history of interaction with the American tradition. It was especially influenced by John Dewey. Although it tried to adjust to the concerns of Neo-Orthodoxy, its necessary preoccupation with developmental stages, learning theory, and religious growth have made it more comfortable with process-type thinking. Among its leaders some, such as Randolph Crump Miller, have systematically related their thought to the Chicago school. Among his books the most important in this regard is The Theory of Christian Education Practice (1980). Miller is currently editing a book for Religious Education Press, Empirical Theology, that draws together the present state of radical empirical thinking with the concerns of religious education in view. Gloria Durka and Joanmarie Smith wrote Modeling God: Religious Education for Tomorrow (1976), dealing chiefly with the content of religious education.
Mary Elizabeth Moore has published a systematic account of the task of religious education in Education for Continuity and Change (1983). She has just completed a book, Teaching from the Heart (1991), that pioneers a quite new relation between religious education and process theology. She identifies five methods used by religious educators: case study, gestalt, phenomenology, narrative, and conscientizing. She shows how each is generally congenial to process theology, how process theology can modify each constructively, and how each challenges process theology to modify and develop itself.
This book not only describes, uses, and criticizes process theology. It also embodies the implication of the basic model of process thought in its structure. This is the model of the many becoming one. In this model, any existent form of process theology should function as one of the many that is becoming one. It can do so only as it is brought into realistic relations with other styles of thought that complement and challenge it. Moore has shown that just this relation can exist between process theology and the five methods she summarizes. The task of integrating all this “many” into a new “one” is not complete, and when that is done, there will be new challenges. This is the process for which process theology calls. Moore has advanced it beyond anyone else.
Process philosophy does not claim to incorporate all that is needed within itself. It operates at a more general level. It strives for generalizations that are, in Whitehead’s words, consistent, coherent, applicable, and adequate. But it emphasizes that the particulars, where all the value lies, cannot be deduced from the generalizations. They must be examined as particulars. The hope is that the generalizations constituting process philosophy can illumine the particulars and show how they are interconnected with one another.
Most of the writings mentioned above follow this general approach. The writers look at a field of particulars through spectacles provided by process thought. They believe that these enable them to appreciate much that has been seen through other spectacles, but also to make distinctive contributions. Sometimes they propose quite new theories and practice; sometimes they are able to transform apparent conflict into contrasts, that is, into different but not mutually exclusive ideas and practices.
Moore’s book illustrates this use of process philosophy. She examines each of the methods from a process perspective and proposes modifications. She also makes clear that despite their marked differences, and the apparent contradictions in some of the theories related to them, the five methods can function as complementary approaches in religious education. In other words, she converts sheer diversity into contrast.
But despite her brilliant use of process thought, Moore is not satisfied with it. She wants it to be more praxis oriented. Process thought as such has remained at the level of generality, inviting its use for the illumination of particulars. What is learned about these particulars is not taken up into process thought itself. This reverse movement occurs, from the traditional process perspective, only when the study of the particulars displays a limitation in the generalities as generalities. That constitutes a crisis in the system, requiring important revision. Moore believes this approach insulates the philosophy, and the theology as well, too much from the particularities and from the practice these require.
This is an acute and pertinent criticism of process philosophy by an excellent participant in the movement. It is explicitly directed at process theologians, who by virtue of profession have already incorporated some particularities into their work. To be a Christian theologian is to deal with the particularity of Jesus Christ and of the church and the problems that arise in its life. Moore’s objection is that, even so, process theologians tend to offer their interpretations of problems as presented and formulated by others rather than entering into the full particularity of either church or social life and allowing their whole mode of being to be challenged in the process. It may well be that the most important problems we need to address as Christians are not those best illumined by the general features of the particulars. The particularity of suffering demands address more than the understanding of what is common to all suffering. Hence, Moore is calling process theology to become, in the second sense, a practical theology.
This understanding of practical theology arose on the American scene out of liberation theologies. The first form of liberation theology was Black theology. As Moore makes clear, its challenge to process theology has not yet evoked an adequate response.
Black theology asserted that the Bible is written from the standpoint of the oppressed and that it has been consistently misread by white oppressors. White theology has been an ideology that either justified oppression or justified ignoring the oppression inflicted on others. Blacks pointed out that the civilization of the United States was founded on slavery and continued on the basis of the exploitation of Blacks. This oppression is antithetical to the Bible. Yet white theologians had remained indifferent and silent, focusing on the personal, social, and conceptual problems of whites, and ignoring the more radical injustice continually inflicted on Blacks.
This critique was directed at white theologians generally, but it applied as clearly to process theologians as to any others. Racism was a problem we left to Christian ethicists; it had not been for us a theological issue. We had not thought about our social location in any such terms. We had been preoccupied with intellectual problems set for us by the history of Western thought, not the real social and human problems set by human suffering. Did that invalidate our claim to be Christian theologians?
Painful as this reflection has been, it has also been salutary. The truth of the accusations cannot be denied. We could repent and seek to be more aware of our social location and its tendency to distort our perceptions and misdirect our energies. We could give moral and intellectual support to Black theology and the Black cause generally. But we could not cease to believe that what we had seen from our perspective was also there to be seen, even if concentrating on that had dulled our awareness of the wrongness of our basic social situation. We could recognize that emphasizing what is common in all situations can blind us to the most important issues, issues that only immersion in concrete situations of oppression can make real to us. But we white process theologians could not become Black theologians even if we were willing to abandon process theology in order to do so. The furthest we could go was to seek complementarity, working in white churches to increase the chance for Black liberation to succeed. For that purpose there was no advantage in rejecting in process theology.
Beyond generally opposing racism and calling for justice, whites differ as to what such complementary work should be. Some, such as the process theologian, Delwin Brown, have taken up themes of liberation theology. His To Set at Liberty (1981) explores the theme of freedom in dialogue with Latin American theologies. Others have adopted an analogous style, identifying other oppressions and developing parallel liberation theologies. This has been the path taken by the feminist theologians, and it has been the most productive.
As a male process theologian I have worked on ecological issues, especially in a book with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life (1981), believing that some of the features of our society that oppress Blacks are also challenged in the name of saving the biosphere. Most process theologians share in this ecological concern and express it in their writings. Recently, Jay McDaniel has extended this discussion to issues of animal welfare in Of God and Pelicans (1989), Earth, Sky, Gods and Mortals (1990), and Liberating Life (1990), edited with Charles Birch and William Eakin.
The oppression of Blacks, the destruction of the biosphere, the perpetuation of patriarchy, the exploitation of the Third World, and cruelty to animals are all profoundly enforced by the global economic system. Immersion in particular situations does not encourage wrestling with global patterns or with the academic theories that support them. Hence, part of the task of white process theologians is to complement the work of Black (and other liberation) theologies by engaging in theory-critique and proposing alternative directions for global economic systems. To this end I teamed up with an economist, Herman Daly, to write For the Common Good (1989).
To understand process theology in this way is more modest than our self-understanding before the encounter with Black theology. Black theology has taught us that there is an approach to understanding that is radically different from what ours has been but yet profoundly revealing. There are needs that we cannot meet by any of the approaches we have tried. At best we can see our task and that of others as complementary.
This separateness of process theology and Black theology has softened with the passage of time. The debates among Black theologians raised some questions that have been important in white theology. For example, the problem of evil takes on peculiar poignancy when the evil in view is the century-long oppression of Blacks. But the alternatives discussed in the white literature, including the position of process theology, are relevant to the discussion.
A few Black theologians have found aspects of process theology helpful in their work. The most important product of this emergence of a Black process theology is Hope in Process, by Henry Young. Young seeks a model for American society that goes beyond the alternatives of integration of Blacks into white society and Black separateness. He finds useful the process model of the many becoming one. Here the one is a new reality that emerges out of the discrete contributions of the many, not the assimilation of the many to an already established one.
The second wave of liberation theology that struck us was feminist. The shock was not as great, because Black theology had paved the way for oppressed people to call for a theology that was truly liberating for them. Yet in many ways the feminist call for change was even more radical, since relations between men and women are fundamental to all human existence.
Process theologians were caught by surprise. Just as we had not attended to the importance of the difference between the experience of oppressed and oppressor races; so we had not thought of the difference between male and female experience in relation to philosophy or theology. Whole new horizons for reflection were opened up.
Ironically, many of the formal points made by women against the male-dominated tradition had already been made by process theologians against classical theology. We had objected to the insistence that God is wholly unaffected by what happens in the world, wholly self-sufficient and self-contained. But it had not occurred to us that these attributes were idealized masculine ones! We had opposed on ontological grounds the dualisms of mind and body, of humanity and nature, even of God and world. We had insisted on the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things and on the organic unity of the whole. But we had not connected what we opposed with the dualism of male and female or with particularly masculine habits of thought.
On issue after issue feminist thought did not require that we abandon the conceptuality we had derived from Whitehead and Hartshorne. On the contrary, we appreciated it even more. But it came to seem to us formal and arid in comparison with the historical richness, rhetorical power, and practical implications with which feminists clothed their similar convictions. We learned the importance of understanding the social location in which ideas arose, the uses that have been made of them, and what is actually heard in words, whether consciously intended or not.
Many feminists have been suspicious of process theology for reasons similar to those of Blacks. They are convinced that the really important issues are discovered through the process of conscientization and immersion in concrete particulars. They are put off by the level of generality at which process philosophy and theology operate.
But from the beginning there was some recognition also of shared interests and concerns. Valerie Saiving, who published in 1960 an article that now seems an important anticipation of feminist theology, was a process theologian. Even Mary Daly spoke favorably of Whitehead. And the model for God-world relations adopted by Sally McFague is almost identical with one long used by Hartshorne.
A number of women found that Daniel Day Williams, then at Union Theological Seminary, offered them help as they struck out into uncharted territories. In Claremont the woman’s movement that spawned a variety of creative feminist thinkers developed in close relation with process theology. As feminist theologians, such as Rosemary Ruether, take the ecological issues with increasing seriousness, more bridges are built between process theology and feminist theology.
Indeed, much of the leadership of process theology is passing into the hands of feminists who may be making of it the practical theology for which Moore calls. In addition to Moore, examples of those who have published books are Marjorie Suchocki, Penelope Washbourn, Jean Lambert, Catherine Keller, Rita Brock, and Susan Dunfee. There are also feminist Jewish process theologians: Sandra Lubarsky and Lori Krafte Jacobs. In addition, Sheila Davaney has edited a volume of essays entitled Feminism and Process Thought (1981).
Process theology, under that unattractive name, will not continue indefinitely. From its own point of view it should change and develop, and in due course what it becomes will be known by other names. But for the present, some of us continue to discover in the conceptuality of Alfred North Whitehead insights whose usefulness has not been exhausted as well as the possibility of a coherent vision of the world that we find nowhere else. As long as this is true, there is reason to continue the study of his writings and to share in the work of rendering his thought fruitful.
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Rita Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power. NY: Crossroad, 1988.
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Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self. Boston: Beacon, 1986.
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— , Caring for Society: A Theological Interpretation of Lay Ministry. Chicago: More, 1985.
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— , The Spirit and the Forms of Love. NY: Harper & Row, 1968.
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