John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 124-141, Vol. 14, Number 2, Summer, 1985. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The points of contact between process thought and liberation theology. Collaborative and complementary work by process theologians and liberation theologians can contribute to the realization of South American Indian social justice.
The term “liberation theology” is used in two senses. Sometimes it refers specifically to the work of Latin American theologians committed to showing how the gospel is good news for the poor. Sometimes it refers to black theology and feminist theology as well, and it can also include various Asian and African theological developments. It would complicate this paper too much to deal with all the theologies of liberation; so in this paper I shall limit the reference to Latin American liberation theology.
My assignment is to speak on points of contact. This might appropriately mean areas of agreement and overlap. These certainly exist. Process theologians can hardly read the writings of liberation theologians without being pleased to see that many of their emphases are highly congenial. They struggle against static views of authority, of the church, and of God. And the direction their thought moves on these topics seems to be parallel to ours. On many topics we see them as companions and allies. Similarly, with respect to the concern for freedom, it seems to us that what they say is right.
In recent books by Schubert Ogden and Delwin Brown, some of these areas of overlap have been explored and the contribution of process theology has been articulated. Since so much work remains to be done, I have chosen to write this paper as a transition from what has already been published to what still needs attention. Accordingly, I am organizing my remarks around five topics where tensions still exist between liberation theology and process theology, believing that reflection on these tensions can lead to fruitful changes on both sides. In the first three instances needed developments in process theology will move it toward a role complementary of that of liberation theology. In the fourth and fifth cases, needed changes on both sides can lead toward confluence.
1. Reflection on Social Location
Process theologians are overwhelmingly white North Atlantic middle class academicians, most of them, indeed, North Americans. I am glad to say that it is no longer appropriate to say “males.” Also, there are a few process theologians who are not white and some who live outside the North Atlantic area. Further, there are a considerable number of process theologians outside the university — in parishes, for example. But when all exceptions have been noted, the fact remains that the determinative social location of process theology as a style of thought has been the white, middle class university or seminary, chiefly in North America.
This matter of social location can be taken as simply accidental. But liberation theologians are among those who have most effectively warned us against such a view. What and how we think is a product of who we are; and profession, class, and geographical location are important ingredients in who we are. When we fail to recognize this, our work is likely to be unconsciously ideological, justifying our privileges.
The point is not that we should be ashamed of who we are. There is a long and proud intellectual tradition to which the middle class, white, North Atlantic professor is heir. This tradition is one of the great achievements of the human species. Its critics are hardly less indebted to it than are its supporters. Indeed, self-criticism has been one of its great strengths, so that it can readily assimilate even those who picture themselves as standing outside it. To enter into the world of public discourse on a global basis today is almost by definition to join this tradition. Even in faithfulness to this tradition, self-criticism in light of social location is required.
Within the North Atlantic theological community it is the German political theologians who are most effectively calling the church to the type of self-criticism that follows from reflection on social location. They are helping us all to see that the Biblical message expresses the hopes of and for the poor, whereas the church ministers primarily to the hopes of the middle class. They call the church to reorder its life in a way that is appropriate to its authoritative sources.
In alliance with liberation theologians and other concerned Christians, they have had some success. At denominational and ecumenical levels the church often speaks for the poor and sometimes acts for them despite the fact that its support is firmly rooted in the middle class. One cannot write off all the activity of the North American white churches as simply the expression of bourgeois ideology. The current attack on the ecumenical churches by critics within and without who are committed to bourgeois values indicates that the Biblical word does have some power in the church.
Far more impressive was the move of the Latin American bishops at Medellin to reorient the Roman Catholic church in that important part of the world to identification with the poor. This move was sustained at Puebla despite heavy pressures. This has made possible a continuing development of the theological work that led the bishops to this redirection of the church. The social location of liberation theology is in a church which has, at least to some extent, taken the preferential option for the poor.
Process theology has just begun to reflect on its social location and the effects of that location on its work. There is nothing about such reflection that is uncongenial to its basic self-understanding. Whitehead provided us with a model of occasions of human experience that makes clear that their content is provided by the societies out of which they come into being. They are conditioned through and through by their actual worlds. But they are not simply determined by these worlds. There is always a transcendent element and a moment of self-determination. Thought is not simply the outcome of the world. Therefore criticism is possible, including criticism of how that world shapes thought.
The concern for justice and the bias for the poor are so deeply embodied in the Christian heritage that thoughtful Christians rarely reject them out of hand. Certainly process theologians have been sympathetic with the aspirations of the oppressed. Hence, insofar as our social location has led us to neglect the needs of the poor and the oppressed, we can only repent. To repent is not primarily to feel ashamed. It is metanoia, turning around, taking a fresh start. One point of contact between process theology and liberation theology depends on repentance on the part of process theologians. Some of that has already taken place. The occurrence of this conference expresses that fact. Much more is needed.
If we are to accomplish any major change, we must first reflect on how difficult any such change will be for us. We can think of that also in terms of the Whiteheadian model of human experience. It does include an element of transcendence, but the transcendence in question is that which is relevant to the actual world of that occasion. It is not transcendence to a world of pure objectivity within which academic and philosophical work can be supposed to take place. Thinking occurs in a very specific location which largely determines the respective force of the many factors that impinge on the occasions in which that thinking occurs.
We are extremely conditioned and extremely limited beings. We are egocentric, even though not absolutely so. We transcend egocentrism primarily by identifying ourselves with the social group to which we belong. Hence we are ethnocentric, or we identify ourselves with our class and its interests. We intellectuals are apt to suppose that our transcendence of these identifications is greater than in fact it is. We have a strong need to think well of ourselves and therefore of the groups with which we identify ourselves. We are inclined accordingly to attend to those ideas that enable us to be proud and to neglect those which threaten our self-esteem. If we are forced to deal with the latter, we are likely to be angry with those who compel us to do so, including those we have injured. In any case we devote ourselves inevitably to the people, the needs, and the problems that are close at hand, and where it seems we can make a difference. We prefer to believe that helping those with whom we have contact will be an appropriate contribution to helping all those in need, and we resent the suggestion that this may not be true.
In view of these obvious features of the human situation, what is remarkable is not that ordinary people of good will fail to reorient their lives in ways that would benefit persons they will never meet. What is remarkable is that the idea that this should be done has wide acceptance. That most theologians, even those whose social location in the white North American middle class, verbally support efforts to achieve the changes needed in our society to make some minimum of justice possible elsewhere, such as in Latin America, is already a testimony to the power of the gospel.
Nevertheless, the distant poor have little reason to expect much of us or even to trust us. I am repeatedly impressed how quickly I, and other well-meaning Christians, turn from impassioned statements about the evil of oppression and hunger on a global scale to talk of our need for better salaries, our hopes for economic security in retirement, and our boats or Summer cottages. This is not to say that we are insincere in our profession of concern for the poor. It is to say that the bulk of our activity responds to other urgings and binds us more tightly into the system that produces and depends upon oppression. That this is true of intellectual work, including our theology, is to be expected.
My point here is that we need to take our social location very seriously, to be suspicious of ourselves, and to work constantly to correct for the bias that our location introduces. Liberation theologies are not free of the distortions made inevitable by the human condition. Nevertheless, identification with the oppressed is a real option for them in a way it is not for most white North American theologians.
For the most part, we men should not suppose that we can be feminist theologians. We whites should not pretend to be black theologians. And we North Americans should not claim to be liberation theologians in the Latin American mold. What is possible for us is to take seriously what is said by those who speak from the side of oppressed groups, to do what we can to make sure their voices are heard, and to try to adjust our own living and thinking to make them more appropriate to what we have learned. In this sense we can all become political theologians.
I am not saying that one person cannot be both a liberation theologian and a process theologian. I see no problem for one whose social location is close to the poor to be a liberation theologian who appropriates the basic categories of process thought. Indeed, I believe that those few liberation theologians who have seriously studied process theology have profited from doing so. There is nothing in the social location of liberation theologians to prevent this. There is nothing in process categories that is inherently white, North American, or middle class. My point is only that if one is white, North American, and middle class, as are most process theologians, then one would be hesitant to suppose that one can really think in a sustained way from the perspective of the oppressed. But even white, middle class North Americans can become responsive to what they hear from the poor. To avoid thinking in ways that are unresponsive to their rightful claim upon us, we need to cultivate habits of a kind of self-criticism which is still largely foreign to our tradition. Here we must humbly learn from liberation theologians. When white, middle class, North American process theologians consider our social location seriously and adapt our theology to the understanding that results, North Atlantic process theology as a whole can become complementary to liberation theology.
2. Theological Methods and Topics
The social location of the two theological traditions has informed their problems and methods. Liberation theology has redirected theological reflection to the burning issues posed by the society in which it is developed. That has led to the focus on oppression and the structures that sustain it. The liberation theologian does not first work out questions of the nature of God and Christ and the church in one context, such as that of the academic community, and then apply these answers to the social situation. On the contrary, the theologian thinks about God, Christ, and the church as these topics arise in the analysis of the social situation and in action aimed at justice. Doctrines are tested in practice and reformulated in the light of their effects and their illuminating and motivating power.
This is a profoundly different approach to theology from the one that has been characteristic of process theology. Process theology has taken as its situation the decline of credibility of Christian belief in the modern world. It has concluded that much of this loss has been due to formulations of faith that are not worthy of credence, and it has undertaken to provide more credible statements of what the Christian believes. This is not a mere game. There are millions of people who have rejected the Christian faith because of its incredibility, and the doubt and confusion of those who remain are often painful. Often the pain that is addressed is that of process theologians themselves. Whatever is said in justification of the practice of process theologians in the past, however, it must also be recognized that in the encounter with liberation theologians we are called to repent. Intellectual credibility is not unimportant, but when it is bought at the price of neglecting concrete suffering caused by the lifestyle in which the thinkers are themselves involved, something has gone profoundly wrong. If Christians must choose between thinking clearly and relating rightly to human suffering, they must choose the latter. The justification for devoting ourselves to the former must finally be that it helps in the latter task.
In the past generation systematic theologians in general have looked to ethicists to deal with public issues. It has been supposed that these issues are so complex that only specialists can lead us responsibly in addressing them. The results have been disastrous. This compartmentalization is deeply against the understanding of reality of process thought. We should have known that neither theology separated from ethics, nor ethics separated from theology could function adequately. But it has taken the challenge of black theology, feminist theology, and liberation theology to shake us out of these habits of mind. Until these external pressures became strong, our social location in the departmentalized university had more effect upon our way of working than did the conceptual models with which we worked!
This does not mean that when we follow liberation theologians in the turn to praxis, our method will be exactly the same as theirs. In my book on political theology I noted some differences between a process approach and a praxis one.
In addition, the topics to which attention is given must be affected by our social location. We cannot neglect questions of intellectual credibility. When North Americans turn to the issues of the day which set the agenda for theology, the issue of nuclear war will properly loom larger for us than for Latin Americans. It was striking that it was this issue that for the first time moved the American Academy of Religion from its academic and objectifying stance to one of involvement.
That there are dangers in preoccupation with this issue we have learned from third world theologians. I myself believe it would be better if the AAR had moved from the academic to the involved stance over the wider global issue posed by the World Council of Churches in terms of the just, participatory, and sustainable society. That nuclear war is totally incompatible with that goal goes without saying. But placed in this larger context the concern about war would not tend to be abstracted in dangerous ways from the concern with justice. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the World Council of Churches assembly in Vancouver was to bring peace and justice back into appropriate relations.
In the social location of all North Americans, issues of race, also, will rightly play a larger role than they have played thus far among Latin Americans. The United States is a racist society. We must pay attention to this immediate oppression within our nation at the same time that we take account of the global effects of our way of life. Similarly, the quite different issues raised by feminists properly have a priority for us that they do not yet have for most liberation theologians. Again, the recognition that our inherited christologies have shared responsibility for the holocaust gives an urgency to overcoming our anti-Judaism that is not yet widely felt by Latin Americans. In addition, the unemployment that is caused by the flight overseas of North American heavy industry poses for us the problems of the international economic order in ways that will not have comparable priority for Latin Americans.
The main point, however, is not that North American topics will necessarily differ from Latin American ones. The main point is that we are being forced to learn from those who have experienced an oppression for which we share responsibility that our theological habits must change. Painful though it is to repent of what has become a comfortable professional style, we know that we must, and we are beginning to do so. For this we are grateful to liberation theology. We hope that, as we turn, our work will become increasingly complementary to theirs.
Process theology has failed to deal extensively with the issue of justice, at least under that rubric. To some extent this is a question of terminology, the importance of which should not be exaggerated. Whitehead, for example, did deal at some length with the questions of equality and freedom, and the latter topic, at least, has been a common one in process thought.
Still it is important to ask why the word “justice” does not appear more prominently in the works of process theologians. Its absence does not mean that process theologians lack a strong preference for justice over injustice. In Whitehead’s case it may indicate that he did not think it was the best term to use in dealing with social reality and cultural goals. The philosophical discussions of justice after Plato have not been the most fruitful bases for radical social thought. Even today philosophical discussions of justice tend to be theoretical and abstract.
The passionate concern for justice arises where injustice is keenly experienced. Since Marx, this concern has rarely gained expression in a convincing vision of a just society. On the contrary, it is usually focused on concrete evils. Nothing touches us at a deeper level than the sense of being treated unjustly. Criticism of United States’ foreign policy often elicits outrage from citizens who feel it to be unjust. Whether they are right or wrong in their judgment does not affect the strength of the feeling. We all think that we know injustice when we see it, and we want it corrected. We do not need a comprehensive theory or even a successful definition of justice before demanding this correction.
I have placed this on a personal and existential level. But the same point can be made in terms of economic and political systems. Even though it is very difficult to describe what the just society would be, it is not at all difficult to identify profound injustices in existing societies and in the existing international order. Black theology, feminist theology, and liberation theology all arise out of the keen and accurate analysis of injustices. None of them has appealed to or provided a well-developed theory of justice.
Occasionally liberation theologians suggest that injustice is a function of capitalism and would be overcome more or less automatically in a socialist society. But such statements cannot be taken at face value. Few would deny that there have been gross injustices in the Soviet Union and, more dramatically, in Kampuchea. Millions of Chinese will testify to the gross injustices they suffered under the cultural revolution, which was the most serious effort thus far to make of China a radically socialist society. The flight of homosexuals from Cuba to the United States indicated that they did not feel justly treated in their socialist state. There is strong evidence that the workers of Poland do not feel that they are being dealt with justly. It may yet be possible to construct a just socialist society, but if so that must be carefully distinguished from unjust socialist societies. One cannot answer the question of what constitutes the just society by pointing to socialism as such, while among capitalist societies there are varying approximations of justice.
One conclusion from these facts is that the category of justice works best in the context of preaching and propaganda where people are roused to oppose concrete forms of injustice. But does that mean that theoretical work about the kind of society that would minimize injustice (and other evils) is irrelevant? I do not think so. We cannot suppose that mobilizing energies against concrete injustices can constitute the whole task before us. Without a realizable vision of a just society, overcoming one set of injustices may produce another.
If it is the task of liberation theology to speak from the point of view of the victims of social and economic injustice, what is the appropriate response of those theologians in the oppressor community who hear and want to support the aspirations of the oppressed? The German political theologians see their task as calling the church to repentance for the way in which it supports the oppressors so that the church may speak effectively against injustice in every society. They are reluctant to go beyond this to propose, as Christian theologians, what kind of society is to be sought. They remember too many times when Christians have attempted to identify the political theory and practice that is appropriate to the gospel and have in fact supported entrenched interests.
The liberation theologians see that stance as too detached from the real choices, at least in Latin America. There, Christians must involve themselves in the struggle for liberation in the economic and political arena and ally themselves with others in that struggle. This often means supporting the forces that seek socialism against the supporters of the status quo.
It is difficult for white North American theologians to follow the Latin Americans here. But this does not restrict us to the role adopted by the political theologians in Germany. The alternative position is to wrestle, as Christian thinkers, with the question: What kinds of social, economic, and political changes are required in our own society if the United States is to abandon its alliances with local oppressors in Latin America? Since these changes will not occur without the acceptance of different economic and political theories from those that are now dominant, the development of theories acceptable to Christians is needed.
I believe that process theology has both the opportunity and the responsibility to share in the development of a new economics and a new political theory. Other widely influential theologies see themselves as responsible to carry forward a theological tradition that is separate from other areas of study and thought. But for process theology boundaries of this sort are a major part of the problem. Christian thinking about God and Jesus Christ and the human self cannot be separated from Christian thinking about the body, human society, and the natural world. Process conceptuality should draw theological insights together with creative new thinking in other disciplines.
There is a very real danger that if middle class process theologians in North America construct a vision of a just society, the values they express and try to realize will be the middle class values of their own social location and that the results will once again sanction and sanctify the oppression of others. But the question I am asking is how North American theologians can appropriately respond when they acknowledge the truth, and the critical importance, of what they hear from liberation theologians. My argument is that we are called to project a vision of a just society that would be at once attractive to middle class North Americans and also get us off the backs of oppressed people who are seeking liberation. I believe process theologians should take a lead in working on this.
The suggestion that a projected vision should be attractive to middle class North Americans naturally arouses suspicion. Does this express a naive view of the possibility of harmonizing all interests? This suspicion often arises with respect to process theology because of the emphasis on harmony in Whitehead’s philosophy. But this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding. The reason harmony is so highly prized in process thought is that the basic vision of reality is one in which the conflict of interests is overwhelming. There is no preestablished order which guarantees that there are limits to mutual destructiveness. Chaos appears as the most natural expression of the radical pluralism of events constituting the totality. Even the degree of harmony expressed in the simplest of living things is a source of wonder. We must marvel at the precarious harmonies that make human community possible. As the scope of interdependence grows larger, chaos and order imposed by force are to be expected. But we believe that even here God works for harmony and that we are called to work with God. Perhaps it is naive to believe that any harmony at all is possible. Perhaps we are condemned to the clash of force with force and the slavery of the defeated. But as Christians we live by hope, and our hope is that some elements of harmony will soften the horror of the apparently dominant forces of conflict.
But is not the aim at an attractive future likely to gloss over the gross injustice in which middle class North Americans are now involved? Perhaps. Certainly it is a different strategy from that of prophetic denunciation designed to arouse guilt. The “prophetic” approach would be to call on middle class North Americans to abandon their privilege and power for the sake of the oppressed. Is it not a weakness of process theology that it does not express itself in this form of prophesy? Perhaps. But we must ask what assumptions underlie the call to prophesy in this manner. One assumption could be that the absolute will of God must be proclaimed in every situation regardless of whether there is any likelihood of obedience. A second assumption could be that if the call to public repentance were rightly formulated it would succeed in winning over the majority of North Americans and thus change the national life style and public policies.
Few process theologians can accept either of these assumptions. Although we do not hold to a simple utilitarianism or pragmatism, we do believe that we have a responsibility to the future and that we should take the probable consequences of our actions into account when we decide what to do. We may have hopes that in devout Christian circles a clear appeal to the ideal of collective sacrifice at a massive level will have positive effects. But we do not believe that the policies of the government of the United States will be swayed in that way. The great majority of middle class North Americans will see no reason to make significant sacrifices for the sake of other peoples. Politically speaking, the backlash against such proposals is strong. If we are persuaded that our true interests can be realized only by the oppression of others, most North Americans will support oppression.
In this situation it is still possible to appeal on moral grounds for adjustments and improvements of policy. The effort to obtain a change of present policy in Central America is not foredoomed to failure. But the much deeper changes that are needed will not occur unless citizens see the possibility of a good life on a basis different from the economic system which now falteringly supports it. It is to the task of proposing a just alternative that we are called. If process theology moves in this direction, then the result would be an appropriate complementarity with liberation theology.
4. Interest and Perspective
Liberation theology focuses attention on the political sphere, whereas process theology has devoted considerable attention to the cultural and religious spheres. This difference of focus is part of the reason that justice has played a much smaller role in process theology. But there have been gains as well as losses for process theology.
There is little doubt that the concern for cultures and religions expresses the middle class social location of most process theologians, whereas the focus on political and economic issues and the concomitant demand for justice express the identification with the poor that is the glory of liberation theology. In the first three sections I have spoken of the need of process theology to learn from liberation theology and to develop an appropriate complementary response. The question now is whether there is any point of contact on the side of liberation theology for the concerns of process theologians in areas to which liberation theologians have paid less attention. I believe there is, and I think that liberation theologians are becoming aware of this.
Let us consider the revolution in Nicaragua as a splendid example of the impact of liberation theology. Its leaders are committed to making those changes that are needed to overcome the age-old injustices suffered by the peasants. This is a matter of economic and political reform, and no doubt they will succeed if the interference of the United States does not prevent them.
The Sandinistas wished to extend these reforms to the tribal Indians. But whereas their efforts elsewhere are generally appreciated, their efforts with the Indians were felt as repressive. The reason is that whereas class analysis was illuminating in relation to the peasants, cultural differences with the tribal Indians fall outside that class analysis. Well-meaning efforts to draw the tribal peoples into the economy of the new country are experienced by these peoples as a threat to their very identity. The result has been a tragic counterrevolution by some of the Indians against the Sandinista government.
The importance of cultural analysis has been apparent when peoples in Asia and Africa have been inspired by the Latin American example to develop their own theologies. The economic and political issues raised by the Latin Americans have relevance everywhere, but in much of the world they are closely intertwined with cultural matters. Much of the oppression felt in Asia and Africa has been the suppression of the perspectives and attitudes indigenous to those cultures. It has been supposed that only Western ideas have respectability. Even Marxist class analysis is experienced as one of these Western ideas that have suppressed those that are bound up with the very identity of the people.
Minjung theology in Korea will serve as an example. The minjung theologians are certainly concerned about the exploitation of the peasants and workers for the sake of rapid industrialization. Many of these theologians have lost their jobs and spent time in jail because of their activities in behalf of the poor. But they see oppression not only as political and economic but also as cultural. They want to recover and support the deepest intuitions of the minjung, that is, the common people of Korea. To this end they study Shamanism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, and they search for ways in which Christian faith can be appropriately expressed in relation to this heritage. The results, as they are only now emerging, will be no less radical than those of the Latin Americans.
I have used this example to show that the interreligious dialogue into which process theologians are so naturally drawn is not irrelevant to the concern for the poor. This does not mean that process theologians have entered it for that reason, or that indeed other reasons are not valid. But it does suggest that thought experiments of process theologians may find a point of contact with an ever growing and deepening liberation theology. The earlier tendency to dismiss these questions as irrelevant to the “truly urgent” issues is fading.
The distinction between the emphases that have been characteristic of liberation theology and process theology respectively can be indicated with the words “interests” and “perspectives.” Liberation theology has participated in the Marxist critique of ideology as a way of thought that rationalizes and justifies the economic and political interests of a dominant class. The process theologian, Daniel Day Williams, on the other hand, called his theology perspectival, emphasizing that what one believes expresses one’s historically and culturally conditioned perspective. What I said in section 1 suggests that process theology needs to take very seriously the hermeneutic of suspicion, including suspicion of itself, generated by the analysis of interests. I am now suggesting that liberation theology needs to take seriously the diversity of perspectives. To interpret cultural and religious differences in terms of a theory of interests works no better than to ignore the role of class interests within all societies.
Thinking in terms of interests has quite different results from thinking in terms of perspectives. The discussion of interests assumes that the desire for wealth and power exercises a strong influence on thought. Thought subserves these interests. It is blatantly clear why scientists employed by the tobacco industry arrive at quite different conclusions on the relation of smoking and cancer than do others. We have all learned to ask for whom scientists work before we accept their reports at face value.
More critical analysis is needed to show how the whole direction of modern scientific work serves the interests of the rich and powerful and worsens the condition of the poor and powerless. Such analysis makes clear that scientists work on projects for which they are rewarded and that these deal with the needs and desires of those who are in position to pay. Very few scientists devote themselves to research that would enable the poor to have more control over their own destinies. Still further reflection shows that it is not science alone but education in general as it is now institutionalized that widens the gap between the rich and the poor. Even where it is made available to the poor, it rarely functions to help them deal with their own problems. Instead, it prepares them to serve and operate in bourgeois society.
This means that the high valuation of science and education, so widespread across the world, is an expression of the interests of the rich and powerful. To realize this is not immediately to establish a clear idea of what change would be of service to humanity. The simplistic response of abolishing higher education and advanced science was tried in China under the cultural revolution with results that are not encouraging. But once one has seen that the advocacy of education and science as solutions to the world’s problems expresses the interests of those who are rich and powerful and that the actual effects weaken the weak and impoverish the poor, one discounts the arguments of proponents of the existing systems. One need not assume that they are consciously working for the interests of the ruling class, but one rejects their statements nevertheless. The critique of interests is designed to lead to the rejection of what is analyzed.
Perspectival analysis could in theory have been developed in this direction. But in fact the suspicion of the distortion introduced by interests has been learned from neo-Marxists. Perspectival analysis has had the concern to open us to the truth and value of modes of thought and expression that differ from our own. It does this by making us aware of the historical and cultural conditionedness of our own thought and by enabling us to see that the different effects of other histories and cultures on thought are neither necessarily better nor necessarily worse. It relativizes all claims to wisdom. Like analysis in terms of interests, it raises suspicions about the final validity of the assumptions that dominate our culture. But it does not suggest that once we see through the absolutistic claims, we are in position to see things as they really are. It suggests instead that the relativity of perspective is never overcome. However, this does not lead to cynicism. The fact that every perspective is relative does not mean that nothing is rightly seen. Quite the contrary. From every perspective some things are seen rightly, although much is distorted or missed. If we can avoid absolutizing our own way of seeing and learn from others what they have seen, we have the possibility of
enlarging and enriching our perspective and moving toward greater adequacy to what is there to be seen. Thus the function of perspectival analysis is the positive one of discriminating the wisdom that is to be found in each perspective from its admixture of exaggeration, onesidedness, and blindness.
Perspectival analysis has been of special value in intercultural and interreligious dialogue. Indeed, until there is some willingness to recognize the relativity of one s own beliefs and values, dialogue can have only a very limited function. Once one acknowledges that one is shaped by a particular history and that those shaped by other histories may have seen aspects of reality that one has missed, then dialogue becomes the context of sharing and learning. Most dialogue has some of this element. Dialogue can be improved by more thorough perspectival analysis.
My thesis in this section is that analysis in terms of interests and analysis in terms of perspective are both needed. They are already combined in Black theology. Feminists have called our attention to the fact that in all societies women have had a very different experience than men. To understand these differences we need both an analysis of how male-dominated cultures have expressed male interests in maintaining domination and also awareness of the perspectival differences between men and women in those cultures.
It is not easy for blacks to acknowledge that there are values in the white perspective when they see so clearly how white culture has expressed white interests. It is not easy for feminists to recognize that there are values in the male perspective when they see so clearly how male dominated society has expressed male interests. It may be even more difficult for liberation theologians to admit that there are values in the perspective of the oppressor when they see so clearly the marks of interest in the structures of society the oppressor has organized and in the ideology by which these are justified.
Process theologians are just beginning to appropriate the wisdom of those who think in terms of interests. Liberation theologians are just beginning to acknowledge the importance of perspectival analysis. But there is no reason for either to hold back from fuller appropriation of what is to be learned from the other. As this happens one may anticipate a confluence of process theology and liberation theology.
5. The Poor and the Non-Human World
Both process theology and liberation theology have a natural antipathy to the dominant pattern of development economics. This operates in terms of established power structures and predominantly from the top down. It does not empower ordinary people to make decisions about their own lives.
The protest of liberation theology has grown out of participation in the experience of having development forced upon a people. Usually industrial wages are held low, and an agribusiness approach to farming reduces the need for labor. Small farmers are often put at an increased disadvantage. The resulting unrest is quelled by force. Such democratic forms and human rights as had existed are weakened, and in most cases military dictatorships are established.
Process theologians support liberation theologians in their protest against this kind of economic development, which as Peter Berger has pointed out, leads to the sacrifice of a generation of the poor in hopes that a future generation may be affluent. Middle class North American process theologians can only be grateful to liberation theologians for having forced on their often reluctant attention the evils of programs they would otherwise have been likely to view as benevolent “foreign aid.”
But there is another dimension of the problem of development that became apparent to process theologians before it was noticed by liberation theologians. The dominant theory and practice of development treat nature as if it were an inexhaustible resource for human beings. This is wrong on two counts. First, the planet does not provide inexhaustible supplies for human use. A program of development that fails to recognize this will produce for future generations not affluence but devastation. Increased industrial production at the expense of depleted and poisoned air, soil, and water cannot count as progress. It leads to hunger and disease.
There have been tensions between those who saw the basic issue as the exploitation of the poor and those who emphasized the destruction of the environment. The former rightly saw that the latter were mostly middle class, and they interpreted what was said from this middle-class perspective in terms of a theory of interest and ideology. This interpretation was not entirely false, but because it led to discounting what was said, it delayed recognition that what was seen from this perspective was true and important. Part of what was seen is that human population growth is exceeding the carrying capacity of the land. China has recognized this truth and is acting on it with greater seriousness than any other nation.
I would speak here of a convergence of liberation theology and process theology. There is no conflict between an emphasis on the liberation of the poor and on the preservation and restoration of the land from which they and their descendants must live. The policies that oppose the people are for the most part also the policies that sacrifice the long-term productivity of the land for short-term gains. The society both liberation theologians and process theologians want is one in which health and growth are developed from the bottom up, enabling peasant communities to determine their own destinies instead of manipulating them for the sake of urban-industrial development.
The second error in viewing nature as inexhaustible resource is that nature is not simply a resource for human beings. This is more difficult for liberation theologians to accept. The insistence on the value of other creatures seems to many liberation theologians to be an effort to impose on poor people unnecessary limits to the way they go about meeting their urgent needs. It appears to express the interests of the affluent for whom nature is experienced primarily as a place for recreation rather than the source of sustenance.
Again, the suspicion of interests is not mistaken. There is a literature on the value of nature that reflects no sensitivity to the urgent needs of the poor. Some of it reflects the interests of mountain climbers, naturalists, hunters, and sightseers. There is another literature that argues for the preservation of species on the grounds of their possible eventual usefulness to human beings. This can be read as willingness to sacrifice the interests of the poor of this generation to the possible benefits of the affluent of future generations.
Process theologians, however, regard these arguments as too anthropocentric. For us the question is, finally, what things are in themselves and for God. And we are forced to witness to our conviction that not only human beings but also all things, especially all living things, are of worth both to themselves and to God regardless of whether they are of worth to human beings. We cannot surrender this perspective because of the charge that it is middle class. We know that it is not the perspective of most middle class people and that if it is taken seriously it will run sharply counter to the interests — at least the perceived interests — of that class. It brings us much closer to primal cultures such as that of the natives of North America.
When we ask how this once widespread notion was lost and replaced by the radically anthropocentric thinking so dominant in our society, we see that middle class and male interests played a considerable role. The spread of anthropocentrism around the world has been closely associated with Western imperialism. Even in Latin America we suspect that there is an indigenous perspective that comes closer to ours than to that of many liberation theologians. We notice also that in the Genesis story God recognized the goodness of other creatures even before humans existed.
There remains the question as to whether adopting the perspective that locates human beings within the whole creaturely world, albeit as the most valuable part of it, would in fact work against the interests of the poor. There are certainly instances in which this appears to be the case. Land-hungry peasants in Africa want to cultivate areas that are reserved for wild animals which they are forbidden to hunt. Indeed, in the short run there can be little doubt that the poor could profit from the slaughter of the remaining elephants by selling the ivory and farming the land.
I certainly do not want to be party to proposing the sacrifice of the present generation of the poor for the supposed benefit of future generations. But few people want to make quick profits themselves if the result is to impoverish their children. When we adopt as our goal a sustainable as well as a just society, then there are far fewer instances in which there is marked opposition between the interests of the poor and of the whole biosphere. Indeed, those who are sensitive to the value of other creatures are often among the first to argue for policies that are necessary also for the sustaining of human society. For example, deforestation, which usually accompanies development as now practiced, has been more vigorously opposed by those who see intrinsic value in the whole of the living world than by those who are concerned chiefly for peasants and workers. The latter are likely to see that the poor find employment for a while in the lumber industry and to be swayed by that fact. At times there has been the danger that those whose perspective is shaped by the needs of the urban and agricultural poor have been less sensitive than one would wish to the fate of those forest people whose whole culture and livelihood (and sometimes lives) are destroyed when their habitat is eliminated. It has often been those who cared about the whole life system of the forests who have also pointed out the flooding of farms and villages downstream that typically follows deforestation. Even for the present generation of the poor a sustainable use of forests is preferable to their quick elimination. The interests of the poor and those of the forest community are not really in basic conflict. Indeed, I am convinced that the true interests of the poor will be served better as the situation is viewed in an inclusive context and that there is often much wisdom in their own tradition to support such an approach. I hope that there can be convergence here too between process theology and liberation theology in Latin America as there already is in some other parts of the world.
6. Concluding Remarks
I have spoken of three types of points of contact between process theology and liberation theology. There are, first, large areas of agreement. To these I have merely alluded. Here process theologians hope to offer philosophical undergirding and enrichment. Second, there are areas where the goal, in general, should be complementarity rather than identity. The first three sections of this paper have illustrated this, indicating the changes needed on the side of process theology as it responds to the truth of what liberation theologians are saying. Third, there are features of the two traditions which are still quite different but which are potentially mutually enriching. Here we may look forward to confluence. The fourth and fifth sections of this paper offered examples.
I recently came across “A Statement of Shared Concerns” written by a group in India concerned about their environment. I found there, powerfully stated, some elements of the confluence for which I hope. I will close with some quotations.
“It is false to argue that environmental conservation acts as a brake on economic development. On the contrary, the experience gained in the last three decades has convincingly shown that there can be no rational and equitable economic development without environmental conservation. Environmental degradation invariably results in increased economic inequalities in which the poor suffer the most. Environmental degradation and social injustice are two sides of the same coin.
“In a country like India, with a high population density and a high level of poverty, virtually every ecological niche is occupied by some occupational or cultural human group for its sustenance. Each time an ecological niche is degraded or its resources appropriated by the more powerful in society, the deprived, weaker sections become further impoverished. For instance, the steady destruction of our natural forests, pasture lands and inland coastal water bodies has not only meant increased economic poverty for millions of tribals, nomads and traditional fisherfolk, but also a slow cultural and social death: a dismal change from rugged self-sufficient human beings to abjectly dependent landless laborers and squalor-stricken urban migrants. Current development can, in fact, be described as the process by which the rich and more powerful reallocate the nation’s natural resources in their favor and modern technology is the tool that subserves this process.
The culture exported from the so-called developed countries, which we are adopting unthinkingly is at the heart of the crisis. We never ask the question: developing towards what? This growing multinational culture must be destroyed because it leads to economic chaos, increased social disparities, mass poverty and filthy affluence in coexistence, environmental degradation, and ultimately civil strife and war.
“To get a balanced, rational development and to preserve the environment, a new development process is needed. The biggest intellectual and political challenge of our times is to articulate and demonstrate this new kind of development.
“. . . Women invariably suffer more from unbalanced development and environmental degradation. As our understanding of both the feminist and environmental concerns grows, we find that women are more interested in the restoration of the environment, which provides the family with its basic needs, than their cash-hungry men. Especially within families where basic needs are gathered, it is women who are left to fend for the family. The new development process will demand that women and men share equal power in society.
“Thus an environmentally enlightened development process necessarily demands a new culture, which will be: egalitarian, with reduced disparities between rich and poor and power equally shared by men and women; resource-sharing; participatory; frugal, when compared to the current consumption patterns of the rich; humble, with a respect for the multiplicity of the world’s cultures and lifestyles; and, it will aim at greater self-reliance at all levels of society.”
(This is taken from “The State of India’s Environment 1982 — A Citizens’ Report,” prepared by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. The quotations are taken from Anticipation, July 1983, p. 33f.)
It is my conclusion that collaborative and complementary work by process theologians and liberation theologians can contribute to the realization of this Indian vision.