Chapter 3: The Process Understanding of Politics

An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society and the Self
by Leslie A. Muray

Chapter 3: The Process Understanding of Politics


Politics deals with power, its exercise, its distribution, its acquisition. The common conception of power, in line with the inherited Western tradition, is the ability to carry out purpose, to produce an effect. It is equated with the capacity to bring about a desired effect, to change, manipulate, control the human and non-human natural world in accord with one’s aims.

Process thinkers see this understanding as “unilateral,” that is one-directional; unilateral power is the ability to influence, to affect another. There is no room for reciprocity, for being influenced and affected by others. The unilateral conception of power is based on a substantialist view of reality. If reality is constituted by discrete, isolated substances, which require nothing but themselves and God for their existence, then the values that lead to a meaningful existence are self-sufficiency and independence. Anything that smacks of dependency, receptivity, allowing ourselves to be influenced by others are signs of weakness, and impediments to the actualization of one’s self-sufficient independence.

During the past week, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North has been testifying before the joint House and Senate Committee. Charismatic, bright, articulate, he has become an overnight hero to the public of the United States. In the nightly news, respondents to public opinion polls describe him as a “can do fellow,” “a take charge kind of a guy,” “admirable for his ability to cut through red tape,” “a true patriot” who was “doing what he was paid to do.” What people seem to admire about Oliver North is his exercise of unilateral power, his ability to make things, and rather dramatic ones at that, happen regardless of criticisms and consequences to himself, of which he was fully aware.

One member of the committee did point out that if North was telling the truth, it meant that no elected official was aware of the clandestine, covert operations he and the late CIA. Director William Casey had instigated. Of course, the implication of this is that these operations were carried out in the best interests of the United States, its people and government, by people not accountable to anyone but themselves. The attitude displayed by Oliver North typifies the unilateral conception of power and its perversion.

We can see the unilateral conception and power in traditionally stereotyped gender roles. Males are seen as superior because they are active, self-sufficient, independent, making things happen, unemotional, and unaffected by the vicissitudes of life. Women, on the other hand, are supposed to be dependent, passive, the “weaker sex” in need of both the brains and brawn of men. The most perverted and distorted expression of the unilateral conception of power in male-female relationships is domestic violence. Abusive and violent males think they are “manly” asserting their “natural” domination and control over their wives and children. Abused women tend to be passive, putting up with their husbands’ violent behavior in order to “keep” them, often thinking they deserve the abuse, and justifying their passivity and acceptance as their self-sacrificial duty and lot in life.

The significance of the religious dimension of the unilateral conception of power cannot be minimized. In spite of nuanced arguments and philosophical maneuvers, God was, in effect, traditionally conceived as the sole power in the universe, perfect in that power, and, as part of the very meaning of perfection, supremely unaffected by the world. Deism was no less a manifestation of the unilateral conception of power. God still had the power to do whatever God wanted to do, but having set the marvelous machinery of the universe operating according to the regularities of the laws of nature in motion, she/he voluntarily retired, always ready to intervene externally in case of a cosmic emergency or malfunction, and unaffected by the course of events. If as we saw in the Introduction, to be religious is to imitate God, the God that is imitated is the model of a Cosmic Macho Male.

We see another aspect of the religious dimension of the unilateral conception of power in the interpretation of the person of Jesus in one strand of the Christian tradition. All of Jesus’ power is derived from God. The exercise of power on his part is equally one sided: the people he encountered were the recipients of his love, forgiveness, teachings, and healings. In this part of the tradition, Jesus’ very divinity is contingent on being unaffected by others, by the varied changes of life.

Needless to say, the political expression of the unilateral conception of power tends to be hierarchical, authoritarian and dictatorial. If to be affected and influenced by others is a sign of weakness, it is easy to see how that kind of thinking denigrates the opinions, thoughts, and feelings of others, and sees them as obstacles to the realization of one’s goals or those of one’s group.

Since power is equated with the ability to influence others, with aggressiveness, and receptivity with passivity, weakness, and dependency, one of the consequences of the unilateral conception of power exacerbates the divisions and inequalities between groups and individuals; the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the strong get stronger, the weak get weaker.

If self-sufficiency, independence, being unaffected by others are guiding values in one’s life, another consequence of this view of power is detachment from the depths of existence. One is unable to respond to another in her/his concreteness, to be fully present to him/her and the deeper recesses of one’s being.

In one dimension of the Christian tradition, power and love are seen as contrasting and contradictory. Jesus is the very incarnation of the self-sacrificial love of God Christians are supposed to emulate. He is the supreme example of powerlessness. However, even this voluntary relinquishment of power, as we shall see, is predicated on the unilateral conception of power.


Lord Acton once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Process-relational thinkers claim that this statement is true about the unilateral conception of power. They also maintain that advocates of this point of view affirm an important truth about the nature of power, the creative, active dimension of reality. However, to claim that is all there is to any conception of power is fallacious.

In the process-relational vision, anything actual at all, from the tiniest energy event to human beings, has some degree of power. No organism can stay alive without some exercise of some degree of power. With its emphasis on a receptive as well as an active side to all experience, the process-relational vision sees power as both the capacity to affect, to carry out a purpose, and to undergo an effect, to be acted upon. Thus, in process thought, Lord Acton’s maxim would not be accurate; power, in itself, is not necessarily evil and corrupting; it simply is, and is necessary at that for there to be anything actual at all.

Earlier, in another context, I used the example of my response to the students in a class. I shall use it again to illustrate the relational character of power in process thought.

Even though I, as the teacher, exert the greatest influence, each person and thing exercise power in the classroom. Our breathing alone is already an exertion of power. The very fact that we exchange body vapors within the first forty-five minutes is illustrative of mutually influencing. My responding to the non-verbal communication of my students and consequent “shifting of gears” is a further example of the reciprocal, relational character of power. Of course, in process thought, it is not just the humans who exercise power but the chairs, the desks, the carpet, the atoms, the molecules, the energy events that comprise them as well, entering into the self-constitution of every momentary experiencing subject.

If the process understanding of reality is thoroughly relational, its conception of power is equally relational. We have already seen the consistent theme in process thought that anything that is is what it is by virtue of its relationships. Everything is interrelated and interdependent with everything else, Reality is not constituted by discrete, isolated substances that require nothing else for their existence.

In our discussion of the process understanding of the self, it was noted how the past, not only of the person, but of the ecology of the human and non-human environment, of the whole universe, enters into the self-constitution of the momentary self. I maintained that a process understanding of character and virtue would cultivate sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, to enable the emergence of a larger, richer self, able to take in greater contrast, intensity, leading to greater experiences of beauty. Instead of such sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness being signs of weakness, process thought would maintain they are virtues and marks of strength; it takes a very strong person indeed to allow more and wider elements of the world to enter into oneself, to wrestle seriously with new ideas, to penetrate the frames of reference of those different from oneself without being overwhelmed or losing one’s sense of integrity.

Leadership provides a good example of the relational conception of power. A leader may be clear about the goals and purposes she/he may want to accomplish, but is equally clear that without the people he/she is supposed to lead, his/her efforts are for naught. Of what value is the conductor of an orchestra without the players or a band leader without the band behind her/him? A leader is sensitive, receptive, and responsive to the thoughts, feelings, needs, ideas of those she/he leads, sifting through the petty, trivial, irrelevant, inappropriate, yet affirming the personhood of others, guiding, motivating to the realization of new possibilities.

In this context, the tragedy of Oliver North is that the opinions, thoughts and feelings of the people and their elected representatives concerning aid to the contras did not matter; what seemed to matter, in an unabashed exercise of unilateral power, was the provision of such aid, by whatever means, in the name of the national interest, patriotism, and fighting communism, by people who in their actions were claiming they knew what was best for the United States.

Returning more explicitly to our discussion of relational power, God is the supreme instance of power. Since all actualities have some degree of power, God is not the only power, but “that which none greater can be conceived.” God as the greatest power is foreseeing all possibilities, ordering them in graded relevance, and luring the creatures with ideal possibilities for their self-realization in all their interdependence. God, thus, always acts persuasively and not coercively. Moreover, as we have seen, God is supremely related to all actualities, receiving all experience into the divine experience, preserving it with no loss of immediacy, and providing novel possibilities for the creatures based on the divine experience of creaturely experience. If God is the supreme instance of creativity and relatedness, then God’s perfect power is supremely and eminently relational.

If Jesus is the decisive incarnation of God in the Christian tradition, then that incarnation needs also to be understood in relational terms. Instead of others being the passive recipients of his person and work, they were indispensable to his sense of self and ministry. If Jesus was in any sense human in the full meaning of the term, then he was profoundly shaped, just as we are, by his human and non-human environment, by the culture and history of his people. Who would he have been without the community that gathered about him? What kind of an impact would he have had had not some, at whatever stage of development of the tradition, discerned his specialness? The consistent picture in the Gospels is thoroughly relational: forgiving, unconditionally accepting and loving, sensitive, receptive, responsive, thus enabling others’ response to the possibility of a newness of life God offers in each moment, and acting it out through table fellowship with sinners, the rejects, the despised, the oppressed, the marginalized of his day.

One consequence of a relational conception of power is the enhancement of the experience of the concrete dimension of life. If I cultivate my capacity for sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness, I am more likely to allow the lives and experiences of others to make a difference in mine. I am more likely to be able to share in and to be fully present to the joys and sorrows of others, and, consequently, enable the mutual transformation of others and myself. The relational conception of power also allows me to experience the deeper recesses of myself. The relational vision grounds me firmly in lived experience in all its depth.

There is an extremely wide diversity in how actualities, organisms, exercise power, depending on complexity of organization, capacity for novelty, and immediate environment. Power relations in human societies are intricate and complex. Yet, the relational conception of power is a nonhierarchical, communitarian, egalitarian, democratic, and participatory vision applicable to every dimension of reality.

Even as I claim that the relational conception of power is egalitarian, I would be remiss not to mention that only a few process thinkers deal directly with the issue of equality and justice. Rather, they focus on participation. Reality is participatory through and through; everything participates in everything else as every actuality enters into the self-constitution of every other actuality, as it is both created by and creative of everything else. The way equality has been discussed has the premise of discrete, isolated substances. In the process-relational vision, the enhancement of and opportunity for participation, relatedness, and creative freedom in all levels of life, of participatory democracy in politics, in economic production, culture, in a sustainable and intrinsically valuable ecosystem, is one of its most important themes.

In my view, and that of some more prominent thinkers, in line with the relational conceptuality, the deepest human need is to belong, to belong to a community where one’s sense of “somebodiness,” of unique personhood is affirmed, and where one participates effectively in the decisions that affect his/her life. The rebellion of young people of my generation in the 1960s and early 1970s was in large measure against a pervasive sense of powerlessness in relation to and remoteness from the massive institutions that shape our lives. In a different vein, the intellectual and political popularity of neo-conservatism, particularly the Reagan Administration, at least until the Iran-contra controversy, is attributable to its articulation of similar feelings and striking a responsive chord in much of the public. Liberation theology, liberation movements in Central America and the rest of South America, South Africa, Asia, etc., “People’s Power” in the Philippines, student protests and a democratic reform movement in South Korea, as well as the stubborn persistence of dissidents in the Soviet Union, and Solidarity in Poland all bear witness, in their various and fragmentary ways, to peoples’ fundamental desire to belong and to participate effectively in the decisions that shape their futures.

At this point, I need to explore how contemporary sociology and political science are typically divided into two different perspectives: the functionalist or consensus theory and the conflict theory. The functionalist or consensus holds an organismic view of society, maintaining that it is a system composed of interdependent and interrelated parts, with each performing a function contributing to a whole. In this view, social change is gradual and evolutionary, and achieved on the basis of consensus. The conflict perspective, on the other hand, claims that society is made up of competing groups that struggle against each other for scarce resources. Since no dominant socio-politico-economic group relinquishes any of its power voluntarily, social change occurs as a result of conflict, violent or non-violent, between groups with diverse self-interests.

Adherents of the conflict view criticize process thought, with its emphasis on gentleness and persuasion, as unable to account for and deal constructively with conflict either in human societies or the non-human natural world. To be sure, process thought has some affinity with the consensus model. It is also true that the process-relational vision has tended to minimize conflict and could benefit from appropriating the insights of the conflict perspective.

However, process thought has within itself the resources to do justice to the conflict model. Whitehead himself remarked, referring primarily to the food chain but also symptomatic of reality itself, that all life is robbery but that the robber needs to be justified. The writings of Whitehead, Hartshorne, Williams, and other process thinkers are replete with a sense of the tragic character of all existence, possibilities never actualized, perpetual perishing, resistance to the possibility of newness of life and the need to share and be present to each other’s lived experiences, the ambiguity of all instances of creative freedom that can always be used for good or ill. One of the challenges for process thought is the articulation of its resources in responding to the conflict model in a violent world.


The dominant school in political and international relations theory for at least the last forty years has been the school of realism. The prototype of realism is Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), whom I consider the United States’ greatest native-born theologian, and whose influence not only on theology but cultural and political thought cannot be minimized.

Niebuhr was steeped in the theological liberalism prevalent in the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century. This type of liberalism is not to be confused with what is commonly identified today as political liberalism. In fact, Niebuhr himself thought that what have come to be described as political liberalism and conservatism have common roots sharing in the premises of 19th century liberalism; in the last century, both would have been considered forms of liberalism.

The theological and political ethos of 19th century liberalism was a tremendous confidence in human beings; if people became more reasonable, better educated, more loving, and institutions more democratic, history would progress to fulfillment more or less automatically.

Like his European counterparts, whose liberalism was disillusioned by the advent of World War I, Niebuhr was jaded by World War I but even more so by thirteen years in a parish in industrial Detroit and the Great Depression. He sought, as had the liberals, to find a way to articulate what he considered to be distinctive about the Christian faith in response to the disillusioning events of the world in which he lived.

Niebuhr set out to do this by analyzing human existence. He claimed that human beings live at the juncture of nature and spirit, finitude and freedom. Humans have an insatiable capacity for self-transcendence, yet a limited one. Niebuhr used the simile of the sailor climbing the mast, looking at the heights above and staring at the abyss below to describe the human condition of living at the juncture.

Human beings are not very good at handling this situation; it produces anxiety. In our endeavor to cope with anxiety, we tend to deny either our capacity for freedom and self-transcendence, which makes us who we are, or our finitude. When we deny spirit, self-transcendence, and freedom, we get caught up in what Niebuhr calls the vitalities of life, through which we can deny our sense of historical responsibility. Examples that come to mind, in accord I think with Niebuhr’s intentions, are the game of musical beds played by people who attempt to achieve a sense of self-worth through their sexual conquests, alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse, and consumerism. This Niebuhr describes as the sin of sensuality.

When we deny our finitude, our limitations, we tend to treat ourselves as the center of the universe. To use Niebuhr’s expression, we have a propensity toward undue self-regard. This is the sin of pride, which Niebuhr treats far more extensively than the sin of sensuality.

Our undue self-regard is accentuated in the lives of groups, communities, and nations. Not only is there an accumulation of individuals with an undue self-regard, there is a collective pride of nations and groups that has a proclivity toward self-aggrandizement; the self-seeking of institutions, groups, and nations has a life and momentum of its own.

Individuals and communities also have a tremendous capacity for self-deceit. In personal relations, even when we think we are most altruistic and loving, there is always something in it for us. When nations and communities claim to be acting altruistically, they still act in their own interests. Niebuhr advocated an honest and unpretentious admission of this and responsible pursuit of the legitimate self-interests of nations and communities. Thus, human existence is thoroughly ambiguous.

For Niebuhr, the distinctive feature of Christianity is the doctrine of original sin, the propensity toward self-centeredness and self-seeking. Its pervasiveness can be seen in the theologian’s understanding of love. Niebuhr distinguishes between the different traditional understandings of love: “agape,” total altruistic, self-giving, self-sacrificial love, that as far as he is concerned is characteristic of the divine love alone, and “philia,” brotherly/sisterly love, which is to some extent altruistic, self-sacrificial, self-giving but also inclusive of one’s self-love and self-seeking. Agape is always a judgment, a “transcendent critique” of any partial fulfillment of philia, beckoning to its greater realizations.

Given the magnified excessive self-regard of communities, groups, and nations makes love an impossibility in their relations, although love does serve as judgment and a transcendent critique. The best that can be hoped for in the relations between groups, communities, and nations is justice, the form that love takes in these complex relations. For Niebuhr, justice is the balance of power. The power of dominant groups, which they are not willing to relinquish voluntarily, needs to be checked by the increase of power among less powerful groups; the quest for power on the part of the powerless needs to be checked as well. The balance of power is dynamic and ever shifting, and since no form of justice ever achieves perfection, all approximations of justice are always relative.

Tyranny and anarchy are the twin evils to be avoided. This is done in part by a delicate balance of competing forces, groups, and interests. Niebuhr claims that the system of checks and balances provided for by the Constitution and its approximations in U.S. history are models of what he means. Also, he sees freedom and equality as perennial principles of justice that, like agape in relation to philia and justice, serve as judgment on their approximations (or lack thereof), and call communities to fuller approximations.

I beg my readers’ indulgence in this somewhat lengthy discussion of the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. I have mentioned previously that his impact cannot be minimized. The previous discussion was for the sake of setting the stage of an exploration of the realist school in political and international relations theory, and the alternative offered by process thought.


Niebuhr’s influence in the late 1940s was such that he was an emissary for the State Department in different capacities, met with its Policy Planning Council, and helped formulate George F. Kennan’s policy of containment of the Soviet Union.

Niebuhr also had a tremendous impact on political and international relations theoreticians, such as Hans J. Morgenthau and Kenneth W. Thompson, in addition to Kennan. These theoreticians were not concerned with Niebuhr’s attempt to explore the distinctive features and contributions of the Christian faith, and probably thought it had been a while since they had seen an original sin. Niebuhr and the political realists did share some common convictions: the need for an adequate anthropology, understanding of human existence, which they saw as fundamentally self-centered and self-seeking; this being the case, the measure of an effective foreign policy was the responsible pursuit of the national interest. An area of basic disagreement is the role of ethical principles, such as freedom and equality, which most realists, including Morgenthau, who is at times ambiguous on the point, deny. As far as they are concerned, the only standard is whether nor not a certain action or policy promotes the national interest.

Realism provided a pervasive framework and set of assumptions. While sharing that framework, realists have disagreed among themselves about specific issues and policies. In one of the first teach-ins in the spring of 1965, Hans Morgenthau and Zbigniew Brzezinski, then an adviser in the Johnson Administration, later Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, debated the Vietnam War. Disagreeing vociferously, they argued their respective positions on the basis of shared assumptions. Morgenthau eloquently claimed that the conduct of the war was contrary to the national interest, while Brzezinski was articulate in defending the Administration’s policy as promoting the national interest. As different as they are on some issues, in different administrations of two major parties, two successive National Security Advisers, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Brzezinski, epitomize the articulations of a realist basis for the conduct of foreign policy.

The response of process thinkers to Niebuhrian realism was appreciative, appropriating many of its insights about human existence. Some drew positive comparisons between Whitehead and Niebuhr. Daniel Day Williams, no less appreciative and also having appropriated some of Niebuhr’s thought, defended what he saw as liberalism’s positive contributions, and provided a critique that was to have a resurgence later. First, Williams claimed, in Niebuhr’s analysis, human beings never really change; they remain self-centered and self-seeking. Yet, for this process thinker, while certainly remaining ambiguous, humans are really and effectively transformed by the divine grace, a point we shall explore a bit differently below. The second point, as we shall see, is related to the first: his understanding of the different types of love, the relation between agape and philia and their relation to justice, is fundamentally dualistic, presupposing a dualism between self and other, leaving no room for the kind of self-affirmation necessary in any kind of loving relationship.

It was the advent of Latin American liberation theology and feminist theologies in the early and mid 1970s that provided a resounding critique of Niebuhrian realism. Latin American theologians of liberation and their North American sympathizers attacked realism as “the ideology of the Establishment” that served to justify and legitimate oppressive policies. Feminists claimed that Niebuhr’s thought was profoundly mysoginist: his delineation of the sin of sensuality was a rehash of the traditional denial of bodiliness, associated with the oppression of women, and the sin of pride, historically, was not a sin of women but of white middle class males; the sin of women was the lack of self-affirmation, the sin of “hiding” (in the kitchen). Black and Third World liberation theologians shared in this critique of the Niebuhrian view of the sin of pride. If the oppressed are to share in the process of their own liberation, their sin is not pride but the lack of it, but the lack of a sense of self-worth, of being a precious human being.

Liberation theology in its various forms and feminist theology confronted process thought with a need to identify resources within its own vision that provide an alternative to realism. We have seen how profoundly a vision of reality, whether substantialist or relational, affects lifestyle, socio-politico-economic organization, education; we live out our vision, our governing paradigms. And they become self-fulfilling prophecies. If I think I shall have difficulty in dealing with a person I counsel regularly, I am quite likely to create a situation where that happens. If I look at reality a certain way, living out that vision will have its consequences.

If I view politics and international relations from the framework of a realist, I am likely to help shape a world that looks like the one the realists describe. That does not mean that is the way the world really is or should be.

Realists treat the nation-state as though it were normative, forgetting that it is a relatively late emergent in the course of history. They also deal with nation-states as though they have agency and subjectivity; we have seen that in the process thought, individuals alone have agency. Also, the allegiance of human beings is much more to their immediate communities, family, ethnic group, sub-culture, region, even professional associations, rather than nation-states. The various separatists groups within nations, the French in Quebec, the Basques in Spain, the Sikhs in India, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, testify to this phenomenon.

The realist position advocates acting out of enlightened self-interest. It is predicated on a substantialist view of reality, assuming a dualistic understanding of the self-other relationship. In the relational view, as we have seen, there is no absolute distinction between the self and the other. The past of everything in the entire universe is part of the self-constitution of a momentary self, and once its subjective immediacy perishes, becomes a datum to be prehended in the becoming of future selves in the same person as well as that of all actualities.

Quite obviously the premises of the realist positions and the process-relational vision are quite different, and the consequences for political life equally dissimilar. If we, not just humans but all creatures, are literally “members one of another,” if the self that I am now is a momentary self that also cares about the becoming of my future selves, immediate and long range, that are different from my past selves, there cannot be an absolute distinction between self-interest and other interest. If my future selves are different from my present and I have concern for them, I can also care about the selves of other persons. To be sure, just as there may be tension between my present self and my future selves there may be tension between self-interest and other interest. There may be a profound distortion of our relatedness, as in the direct dependence of the growth of the wealth of the rich on the increasing poverty of the poor. Nevertheless, in a world that is interdependent and interrelated, there cannot be an absolute distinction between competing self-interests; there is always some degree of coincidence of interests.

Moreover, in a universe so thoroughly relational that everything enters the self-constitution of everything else, humans and all things constantly change. To be sure, existence remains ambiguous. Nevertheless, relatedness particularly as it is engraced in the nurturing, receptivity, sensitivity, responsiveness, and acceptance I receive from others, that enables me to respond to novel possibilities, has real, efficacious, transformative power. The relationality that is the fundamental character of reality can and needs to be lived Out authentically in the relation between nations and communities.

The process-relational vision provides a framework different from the realist position, one that fosters the kind of values and vision we need in grappling with the nagging problems of peace and eco-justice, one that provides the requisite resources for the creation of a just, participatory, sustainable, ecologically sound society. Process thinkers are working on fleshing out the full political implications of that vision.


The literature criticizing the increasing privatization and the lack of a common vision, a sense of the common good, has been proliferating. In our society, with its excessive individualism, the private has been seen as the realm of self-fulfillment. Individuals and groups have been treated as discrete, isolated substances whose competing interests need to be balanced. Political debates have focused on how to balance the budget, as important as that issue is, without addressing the larger question of what our society is all about.

Process thinkers have been increasingly involved in this discussion. Process theologians have argued for a “public” theology not limiting truth claims to a confessional stance with its own internal criteria but open to the public criteria of common human experience and rational inquiry. Some have modeled this in the dialogue between science and religion and their practical policy proposals towards a just, participatory, and environmentally sound society. Influenced by the “steady state economics” of Herman Daly, who advocates a no or slow growth economy as indispensable for ecological survival, many are arguing for an economy theory and policy that is not based on a substantialist view that accents “trade offs,” such as between the protection of the environment and increased employment, but a relational one that sees environmental protection, full employment, simplified lifestyles as interdependent and plausible in being realized together. This book, written by a theologian and ethicist, is such an endeavor in drawing out the implications of the process-relational vision for the various facets of our lives.

Just as process-relational thought provides the framework for a new ethics of character and virtue, it also offers the foundation for the usual extension of that ethics in the cultivation of civic virtue. We saw in the Introduction that contemporaries cannot prehend each other, that the momentary subjective immediacy of any actuality is private. Thus, process thinkers prize basic civil and human rights, including the right to privacy.

However, we also saw that this privacy is never absolute; once a momentary experience perishes, it becomes public, a datum in the becoming of all actualities. In spite of valuing highly the right to privacy, process thinkers agree with the feminist slogan, “The private is political.”

In a relational vision, no rights are absolute. It would be terribly anthropocentric, human centered, to claim that humans are the only ones with rights: the ecosystem, animals, the human and non-human communities of which we are part, and without which we cannot survive and be ourselves, also have rights. The violation of the rights of any of these is at the risk of our very selves, and needs very careful justification.

If we live a relational, participatory universe, where there is at least a partial coincidence of interests, where I cannot be free until all creatures are free, where my self-fulfillment is not found in the splendid isolation of my privacy but in the interdependence of the fulfillment of all, we have the conceptual framework for a vision of the common good.

However, both in my reading and experience as an Episcopal priest and college professor having worked with street people, kidney and cancer patients and their families, inmates and prison staff urban, suburban, rural people, and taught in university and community colleges, suburban and rural, it never ceased to amaze me just how partial and limited our perspectives are, how profoundly shaped they are by diverse life experiences, culture, sub-culture, and socio-politico-economic location. Thus when we talk of the common good, in spite of the coincidence of interests, we need to be aware of whose common good and whose vision of the common good we are talking about. And who determines what is the common good?

I am referring to the fact that most of us in relatively privileged positions, primarily white middle class males, do not share the life experiences and frames of reference of blacks, Hispanics, women, and the oppressed peoples of the Third World. Our values are quite different. How can we then share a common of vision of the common good?

I have alluded several times to the heightened sense of one’s unique personhood and individuality resulting from psychic distancing, the ability to objectify and reflect critically about ourselves and the communities of which we are a part. In a similar fashion, we can distance ourselves psychically from the obstacles, personal, political, economic, social, cultural, that impede our living relationally and creatively. I certainly do not mean to sound like a philosophical idealist or to say that all we need is a psychological detachment from the various manifestations of alienation. What I am saying is that such psychic distancing with our whole person, touching every facet of life, is a necessary first step. Every step of the way, the relationality and creativity envisioned is practiced, in politics and every aspect of life, the means always commensurate with the end. If I may use a play on the words in the title of Whitehead’s greatest work, process is the reality.

Psychic distancing from the obstacles to relationality and freedom is necessary for the enablement of the cultivation of the virtues of sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, and creativity through which we can share in the lives, experiences, and frames of reference of those different from ourselves particularly the poor and the oppressed, be in solidarity with them, realize the coincidence of our interests, and together strive to realize the common vision of the common good of all creatures.

For Further Reading


For the classic statement of the difference between unilateral and relational power see Loomer, Bernard, “Two Conceptions of Power,” Process Studies, Spring, 1976, Volume 6, Number 1, pp. 5-32.

A similar understanding is found in much of feminist theology. See, for example, Harrison, Beverly Wildung, Robb, Carol S., ed., Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), and by the same author, Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

An early work in political thought influenced by Whitehead’s philosophy that stresses reason, individual freedom, and liberal democracy is Samuel H. Beers The City of Reason (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1949).

One process thinker, virtually alone, who does deal extensively with the problems of equality and justice, is Kenneth Cauthen. See his The Passion for Equality (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, Publishers, 1987), and Process Ethics: A Constructive System (New York and Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1984).

For representative thinkers of the consensus perspective, see Parsons, Talcott, The Social System (New York: The Free Press 1951), and Merton, Robert K., Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1968). Representative thinkers of the conflict model are Dahrendorf, Rolf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1959); Coser, Lewis A. The Functions of Social Conflict, (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1956); Mills, C. Wright, The Power of Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956); and, of course Karl Marx.

Of the numerous writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, the most pertinent for the discussion in this chapter are The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vols. I and II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), and Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960). Under the influence of Erik Erikson, in a later work, Man’s Nature and His Communities (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), Niebuhr does acknowledge the need for a proper sense of self-worth to live and to love.

For probably the finest biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, see Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985). See also Stone, Ronald H., Realism and Hope (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1976), and by the same author, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), especially on Niebuhr’s connection to the school of realism. For various assessments of Niebuhr’s thought, see the essays in Kegley, Charles W., ed., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious. Social, and Political Thought (New York:The Pilgrim Press, 1984).

Hans J. Morgenthau’s classic work is Politics Among Nations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958).

Daniel Day Williams’ appreciation, appropriation, and critique of Niebuhr are found in his God’s Grace and Man’s Hope (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949); The Spirit and the Forms of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1968; What Present-Day Theologians are Thinking, Third Edition, Revised (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1967); and “Niebuhr and Liberalism” in Kegley, pp. 269-289. Apart from his relation to Niebuhr’s thought, Williams made valuable contributions to the process understanding of politics. For samples of his other writings, see “The New Theological Situation,” Theology Today 24 (1968), pp. 444-463, and “Priests, Prophets and the Establishment,” Zygon, Vol. 2, No. 4 (December, 1969), pp. 309-326. See also the author’s unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “A Comparison of the Concept of Freedom in the Thought of Roger Garaudy and Daniel Day Williams” (Claremont Graduate School, 1982).

For the most articulate critique of Niebuhrian realism from the perspective of liberation theology, see Alves, Rubem, “Christian Realism: Ideology of the Establishment,” Christianity and Crisis, 1973, 33:173-176. During the 1986-87, Christianity and Crisis and The Christian Century have carried articles and letters by Michael Novak and Robert McAfee Brown debating the respective neo-conservative and liberationist adaptations of Niebuhr’s thought.

An excellent comparison of Niebuhrian realism and liberation theology is McCann, Dennis P., Christian Realism and Liberation Theology:Practical Theologies in Conflict (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1981).

The best critique of Niebuhr from a feminist perspective is Plaskow, Judith, Sex. Sin, and Grace (Washington, D.C.:University Press of America, 1978). See also Harrison, Making the Connections and “Sin and the Possibility for Social Transformation: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Doctrine of Sin and Self-Sacrifice Revisioned,” unpublished paper by Sue Nelson Dunfee.

For a positive assessment of the similarities between Niebuhr and Whitehead, see Griffin, David Ray, “Whitehead and Niebuhr on God, Man, and the World,” Journal of Religion, 53, 1973, pp. 149-175. A different interpretation is provided in Brown, Delwin, “Hope for the Human Future: Niebuhr, Whitehead and Utopian Expectation,” Iliff Review, 32, 1975, pp. 3-18. See also by the same author a three way conversation between process thought, Niebuhrian realism, and liberation theology, “Some Notes on the Nature and Destiny of Sin or How a Niebuhrian Process Theology of Liberation is Possible,” unpublished paper.

Brown’s To Set at Liberty: Christian Faith and Human Freedom (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1981) is a process theology of liberation indebted to Niebuhr.

Works of other process thinkers that are conversations with political and liberation theologies are Cobb, John B., Jr., Process Theology as Political Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), and Ogden, Schubert M., Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979). See also the essays in Process Studies, Summer, 1985, Volume 14, Number 2, which contains papers delivered at a conference at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio in October, 1983 on the theme of faith and justice, an interface between process and liberation theologies. Other important works are the essays in Cobb, John B., Jr. and Schroeder, W. Widick, eds., Process Philosophy and Social Thought (Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1981). Some of the essays deal with different aspects of the process understanding of politics, others are responses to liberation theology.

For an excellent sociological study of privatism and the concomitant lack of a sense of the common good, see Bellah, Robert N., Madsen, Richard, Sullivan, William M., Swidler, Ann, and Tipton, Steven M., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986). See also Lovin, Robin W., Religion and American Public Life: Interpretations and Explorations (New York: Paulist Press, 1986). Process thinkers whose essays are included in this volume are Douglas Sturm, Franklin I. Gamwell, and David Tracy. See also Gamwell, Franklin J., Beyond Preference (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1984); Sullivan, William M., Reconstructing Public Philosophy (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1981); and Neville, Robert C., The Cosmology of Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), which also has some excellent sections on a process interpretation of participatory democracy.

A remarkable and creative work is The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), by John B. Cobb, Jr. a theologian, and Charles Birch, an Australian biologist and lay theologian. The book offers an alternative to the mechanistic worldview prevalent in the natural sciences through an extended discussion of life and its increasing complexity of organization. The last part of the book makes practical policy proposals for a just, sustainable, and participatory society that the authors see as indispensable for ecological survival. See also Cobb’s earlier work, Is It Too Late?: A Theology of Ecology (Beverly Hills, California: Bruce, A Division of Benzizer, Bruce, and Glencoe, Inc., 1972).

I have already mentioned Kenneth Cauthen’s recent work on equality and justice. Still pertinent are his earlier works, Christian Biopolitics: A Credo and Strategy for the Future (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), and The Ethics of Enjoyment (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975).

For discussions of “steady-state economics” see Daly, Herman E., Steady-State Economics (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman Co., 1977); Daly, Herman E., ed., Economics. Ecology. Ethics (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, Co., 1980); and by the same author, “The Steady-State Economy: Post-Modern Alternative to Growthmania,” unpublished paper delivered at the conference ‘Toward a Post-Modern World,” in Santa Barbara, California, in January, 1987. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr. are co-authoring a book due to be published in 1988 on this topic and its grounding in relational vision.

Cobb as well as many other process thinkers, myself included, are profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of Paolo Soleri, whose model city Arcosanti is the embodiment of a simplified, relational, environmentally sound, ecologically sustainable lifestyle.

See also the unpublished papers from the conference on “Process, Peace, and Human Rights” held in Kyoto, Japan May 1987. Also, the papers from the already mentioned conference “Toward a Post-Modern World,” held in Santa Barbara in January, 1987. These papers are available from the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College, Claremont, CA 91711. The papers from the Santa Barbara Conference are to be published by the State University of New York Press under the title “Essays Toward a Post-Modern World,” edited by David Ray Griffin. Volume I The Reenchantment of Science: Post-Modern Proposals is scheduled for publication in August, 1988; Volume II, Post-Modern Spirituality and Society either in late 1988 or early 1989.

For works of related interest to my discussion of psychic distancing, see Lane, Dermot A., Foundations for a Social Theology: Praxis. Process and Salvation (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), and McDaniel, Jay, “The God of the Oppressed and the God Who is Empty,” in Ferre, Frederick and Mataragnon, Rita M., eds., God and Globe Justice: Religion and Poverty in an Unequal World (New York: Paragon House, 1985).