Chapter 5: Process Thought and Natural Sciences
It would be a cliché and an understatement to claim that the advances of the natural sciences in the modern world have been nothing short of incredible. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of scientific discoveries in the history of the human race have occurred in the last couple of centuries. The experimental method and attitude of the sciences have been pervasive in modern industrial civilization. The practical impact of modern science can be discerned in the emergence of constantly changing technologies that have given rise to what is commonly called “modern scientific civilization.”
In spite of its innumerable positive contributions, modern science has played its part in the creation of phenomena that threaten the planet with extinction: the despoliation of the non-human natural world and the invention of weapons capable of omnicide. The profoundly ambiguous impact of the sciences on our world is very much a product of its implicit and often not articulated, unexplored, vision of reality.
I have tried in this book to steer clear from the sometimes forbidding technical jargon of both process thought and philosophy in general. However, at this point, I would be remiss were I not to clarify the meaning and use of a word I have used before. The word “vision,” as in the expression “the process-relational vision,” I have used in a way synonymous with the word “metaphysics.” A combination of two Greek words, “meta,” meaning “above” or ‘beyond,” and “physics,” it literally means beyond or above physics or the world of physical appearances. As a traditional branch of philosophy, it refers to a comprehensive worldview or vision of reality, coherent, consistent, and adequate to the facts, that seeks to set forth the categories for the interpretation of all experience and the most general characteristics of all events.
Many, if not most, scientists would deny that their work is governed by, at least, an implicit metaphysics. Some would deny the plausibility of metaphysics in the modern world. They deny the very feasibility of creating a comprehensive, consistent, coherent, and adequate worldview; all that is possible and legitimate is the use of the scientific method, empirical (identified with sense experience) observation, not subject to governance by a metaphysical system nor a manner of proceeding from which a worldview can be constructed.
Process thinkers influenced by the speculative side of the philosophies of Whitehead and Hartshorne argue to the contrary. In fact, they would claim, if I may put a twist on Carl Becker’s address, “Everyman (sic) His (sic) Own Historian,” that everyperson is a metaphysician. (I would imagine many of my readers never thought of themselves as metaphysicians!) All too often not explored, clearly thought out, or articulated clearly, nevertheless implicit in the way we live is a vision of reality. The key is to explore, to examine critically, articulate, and be intentional about the vision of reality by which we live.
The dominant vision of reality or metaphysics behind the work of the natural sciences is mechanistic, deterministic, and substantialist. Reality is treated as a machine, made up of isolated, discrete parts whose behavior is utterly and totally predictable. So called physical matter is inert and lifeless. In its very methods, science studies its fragmented part as an object, all too often to be manipulated.
This rather oversimplified characterization of the worldview of modern science is sometimes referred to as scientific materialism. This vision of reality is reductionistic: it isolates one dimension of reality as paradigmatic and explanatory of all at the exclusion of everything else. In scientific materialism, reality is reduced to inert, lifeless matter; life is explained in terms of the lifeless; biology becomes physics and chemistry at its lowest common denominator.
There is no room for purpose or the immediacy of subjective experience in such a world; it is very much like the image of the absurdity of human existence captured by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, where Sisyphus, symbolizing the human condition, is condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, with the boulder always rolling down upon reaching the top, a process that is repeated for all eternity.
Metaphysically scientific materialism is a form of ‘monism,’ isolating one aspect of reality, matter, and treating it as explanatory of and subsuming all else. A corollary of this view, on the part of some scientists, is that the phenomenon of mentality in human beings can be explained by the complex interaction of molecules and atoms in the brain, as epiphenomenon of matter.
Paradoxically, in spite of their metaphysical monism, many other scientists are dualists in their epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Culminating in the philosophy of Descartes and his philosophical descendants, even today, such a dualism accents the primacy of the human mind, viewing everything outside it as lifeless and inert.
Needless to say, the paradox between metaphysical monism and epistemological dualism in much of modern science presents immense philosophical difficulties. Contemporary science assumes the fact of evolution (as opposed to the advocates of Creation-Science, who claim it is “merely theory”). If evolution is a fact and if the most basic meaning of evolution is that the complex forms of life emerge from the simple, how can the dualistic forms of evolutionary theory account for the emergence of the human mind from inert lifeless matter, the animate from the inanimate? Another form of this dualism is the commonly made claim that the evolutionary process continues on the human level with cultural evolution, which is totally distinct from biological evolution. The rift between the human mind and a lifeless, inert cosmos is thus widened, contributing to the modern experience of meaninglessness.
In a mechanistic universe, evolution is the rearrangement of already existing parts. The mechanism of the evolutionary process is natural selection, the successful, that is to say capable of survival and propagation of the species, adaptation of species and populations to their environment. Change is due to chance; the replication of multiplying cells is not exact, with consequent mutations occurring. Of course, most mutations make organisms less well adapted to their environments, explaining the extinction of so many species. Some mutations do confer essential features that offer the possibility of survival and reproduction. These characteristics, acquired or random, become a part of the genetic inheritance of succeeding generations.
A small but growing number of scientists have been critical of the materialistic, mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist premises of modern science. The discoveries of the “new physics,” the theory of relativity, quantum physics, the principle of indeterminacy, all helped undermine these premises, and lead to the conclusions that energy events, waves, vibrations, and electronics are the fundamental constituents of reality. Developments in the “new biology,” which deals with wholes of increasing complexity in the organization of interrelated parts rather than with discrete and isolated segments, especially in molecular biology and the growing field of ecology, with its discoveries about the basic interdependence of living organisms with other living organisms and with its larger environmental context, have further undermined these traditions assumptions. It is in the dialogue with the natural sciences, particularly in light of these new developments, that the process-relational vision has made one of its most important contributions, a topic to which we now turn.
In its epistemology, process thought is a form of critical realism. That is to say, it maintains that there is a world outside of my experience of it. The world is not a construct of the human mind. In response to the age old question whether or not there is a tree falling if there is no one present to see or hear it fall, process thought answers that indeed there is such a tree.
It is important to note that critical realism is quite distinct from what is commonly called naive realism. An objectivist view that sees the nature of reality writ large in the universe and waiting to be discovered by the human mind, that claims theories are exact replicas of reality, is typical of naive realism. The critical realism of the process-relational vision, on the other hand, while stressing the independent reality of the world outside of myself, does not neglect the role of the subject in knowing. Object and subject, which, as we have seen throughout this book, are not absolutely distinct from each other, as momentary subjects prehend the objective past and become objects to be prehended by other subjects once their immediacy perish, known and knower, are included in a reality consisting of interrelated and interdependent events rather than isolated substances. Mutual interaction between subject and object, knower and known, is the context for the rise of knowledge rather than that context being in the object or subject alone.
The new physics, the theory of relativity and the principle of indeterminacy, have shown the involvement of the observer in the process of observation. In the process of measurement, for example, the result depends on the observer’s relation to what is measured. The scientist is also involved in selective subjective abstraction from the totality of a situation. The personal judgments and assumptions of the scientist influence the choice of methods and results. Even in the natural sciences, as I once heard John Cobb remark, the beginning of objectivity is to admit one’s lack of it.
This discussion of the “participant observer” gets at the crux of the difference between the mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist presuppositions of much of modern science and the process-relational vision. If I may reiterate a point I have made repeatedly, unlike the substantialist view in which reality is composed of discrete, isolated substances that have external relations, in the process understanding everything flows into the inner self-constitution of every momentary experience; reality is thoroughly participatory, characterized by internal relations. Let me illustrate further with two contrasting views of scientific observation.
A little while ago, I stepped outside to take a break and have a cigarette while I formulated the precise way I wanted to express my thoughts. Two young women, in the typical attire of college students, walked by drinking pop, having an animated discussion, with a good deal of laughter. In my description of the behavior of the two young women, I am attempting to imitate how a mechanistic scientist might recount her/his observations: I described what I saw and what I heard. A mechanistic scientist may recount the conversation verbatim, describe the muscular activity involved in movements, and the interactions of atoms and molecules,
What the mechanistic view fails to account for adequately is our common experience of subjectivity. I experience myself as valuing, feeling, thinking, acting. When I stepped outside I was not motivated only by the desire for a cigarette, nor could my behavior be explained merely in terms of the lowest common denominator in physiology and chemistry; I was equally motivated by my thoughts and the desire to communicate these thoughts as effectively and intelligibly as possible. There is even evidence in recent physiological studies that thoughts affect chemical processes. In a similar fashion, while I do not know their subjective feelings, I do not think surmising that laughter of the young women was prompted by feelings of joy and happiness would be unwarranted. Certainly in conflict with mechanistic views, nevertheless process thinkers claim that taking seriously subjective experiencing is scientific, corroborated by developments in the new physics and the new biology.
This way of looking at reality coupled with developments in the sciences has had a profound impact on other related issues. In physics, for example, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or principle of indeterminacy has been interpreted in three ways: 1) that the “laws of nature” are deterministic, and that any uncertainty is due to human ignorance, which in due time will be resolved by science (Einstein), 2) uncertainty can be always explained by present experimental limitations (Neils Bohr), and 3) indeterminacy is an objective characteristic of reality Werner Heisenberg). If indeterminacy is an objective feature of reality, contrary to the mechanistic, deterministic view, there is real potentiality and novelty in the universe. Physicists and some process thinkers, such as the physicist and process theologian Ian G. Barbour, are cautious about making the long jump from indeterminacy in sub-atomic particles to human freedom and purpose,
While human freedom, agency, and purposive activity are different from the indeterminacy of microscopic particles, nevertheless they do not preclude the operations of chance. Indeterminacy is the denial of total determinacy and predictability, and as such is a foundation for the notion of creative freedom in the universe.
Another way of looking at this problem of chance and purpose is in terms of “the laws of nature.” In the mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist view, laws of nature are inflexible, static, and inviolable. However, in the new physics, whose understanding process thinkers have utilized, the laws of nature are treated as statistical. That is to say, probabilities are statistical, subject to random variation, flexible, denying total determinism, and leaving room for creativity and genuine novelty. Thus, chance and purpose are seen as complementary.
That chance and purpose are complementary, and present in anything actual at all, is further illustrated by some recent developments in the new biology. In the dominant mechanistic view, the information stored in a DNA molecule was seen as totally determinative of the future development of the organism. However, molecular biology, which is more accurately called molecular ecology, has shown that the way the DNA molecules develop, which can be in a wide variety of ways, is contingent on the environment of the cell and molecule. The chemical environment of the molecule and the molecule itself are in constant, dynamic interaction, influenced by the magnitude of physical forces and configuration of chemicals within the cell. The chemical pathway chosen, although not consciously, shows not total determinism but statistical probability. In a molecule, the degree of self-creation and self-determination may be quite rudimentary, even negligible; a mechanistic molecular biologist might argue that this can be explained (away) as the defective working of totally deterministic systems. That, however, is exactly the point since if accidents are possible, the system is not totally deterministic and choice and purpose become real possibilities.
Another illustration is provided by the discussion of whether or not adaptive behavior not initially programmed by the genes, whose working has usually been interpreted in a deterministic fashion, can be inherited. Biology has not found any empirical evidence for the Lamarckian notion that the origin of genetic variation is the inheritance of acquired characteristics, that is to say, behavior traits acquired in adapting to environmental changes lead to bodily and genetic change passed on in a particular species. Consequently, the dominant neo-Darwinian view has been that organisms’ life experiences are not a part of the genetic information passed on to future generations.
Nevertheless, recent developments have resulted in the modification of this view within a neo-Darwinian framework. The work of C. H. Waddington, for example, showed what he described as the genetic assimilation of environmental effects.
A similar but better known example is Sir Alister Hardy’s description of the tits in England. By exploring, the tits learned to open milk bottles, beginning with the cardboard top, then the metal tops, in order that they may drink the milk. Ensuing generations learned the new pattern of behavior, which spread from England to the tits of continental Europe. It is reasonable to conclude that what began as an advantageous behavioral change can become a genetically determined characteristic. The genetic assimilation of learned adaptive behavior has been further corroborated by the work of Rupert Sheldrake.
The importance of these examples is that they point to purposive behavior in the restless exploring of non-human organisms. Process-relational thinkers here find scientific backing for their contention that there is an element of freedom, mentality, purpose in anything actual at all, and that needs to be the case in a consistently evolutionary view where the complex forms of life emerge from the simple.
To be sure, the mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist view is still dominant in the sciences. Nevertheless, as we have seen, there is a small but growing number of scientists, both in physics and biology, who operate with a relational model, who see some correspondence between the constructs of the mind and reality itself, however inexact, and who also see the possibility of restoring the experience of meaning if the non-human natural world is perceived as dynamic, creative, full of life and purpose, whom process thinkers have engaged in conversation; together they have attempted to explore new visions of reality better suited for adaptation to the urgent needs of the contemporary world.
The mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist view of reality dominant in the sciences has had a profound impact on the development of what is commonly referred to as “modern scientific civilization.” It goes without saying that modern technology has made innumerable contributions to the rise of modern civilization. Yet, it has contributed equally to the possibility of the extinction of human species and the planet through the discovery of weapons capable of omnicide and the technologies that devastate ecosystems.
Modern technology incarnates the mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist view of the theoretical sciences with all its devastating consequences. Nothing is more symptomatic of this than our love affair with the automobile. A symbolic image that comes readily to mind is that of the single passenger car on a six lane freeway that required the demolition and uprooting of thousands of homes and households, styles of human relations, cultural patterns, and the destruction of the non-human natural environment. The ideal of the private dwelling and the normativeness of the nuclear family embody, cut off from those outside the immediate household and deliberately limited in the opportunity to interact with others, reflects the substantialist view of reality as composed of discrete, isolated substances. In a different vein, over 90% of the arable land in the United States had been destroyed by the year 1900 simply due to methods of plowing that were utilized.
It is often argued that technology is neutral in and of itself; it is up to human beings to be more responsible in its use. For a process-relational thinker, this is not enough. We need technologies consonant with an ecological, relational vision of reality in a just, sustainable, and participatory society.
In The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, one of the most creative encounters between science and the relational vision, John B. Cobb, Jr., a process theologian, and Charles Birch, an Australian biologist and quite a lay theologian of the process persuasion in his own right, develop an ecological, relational view of reality and the sciences. Based on that view, they attempt to develop an ethic of life with concomitant public policy proposals.
No twentieth century scientist has been willing to define life (which I find supremely ironic as some physicians testify before Congress about when life begins!). Nevertheless, basing their position on developments in molecular, organismic, and population ecology, Cobb and Birch characterize life as an increasingly complex special form of the organization of molecules and atoms that also involves a temporary and local decrease in entropy; there is no absolute, dualistic distinction between the living and non-living, animate and inanimate. According to their view, an organism’s life may be described as the emergence, maintenance and disappearance of order. The gradual and progressive appearance of order is an apt description of development, most appropriately viewed in an ecological context. Individual development is the result of the interaction between internal operations originating from the genes and the environment. Physiology is the individual organism’s maintenance of order, ever changing and creative as it interacts with an equally ever changing and creative environment.
Life is characterized by the capacity for contrast, intensity, richness of experience. The degree of contrast and richness of experience depends in large measure, as we have seen, upon the environments of which organisms are a part and with which they interact. Needless to say, as we have also seen, the human and non-human environments of which human beings are a part and with which they interact need to provide the maximum opportunity for contrast, intensity, and richness of experience in a society that is just, sustainable and participatory.
The public policy proposals put forth by Birch and Cobb are consonant with ones we have discussed in a previous chapter: “steady state” economics, simplified life styles, participation by all in the decisions that shape their futures, and the development of “appropriate” and ecologically sound technologies. They also include shifting from the use of the private automobile to more environmentally sound means of public transportation, dwellings that insure sufficient privacy while fostering a greater sense of community and interconnectedness in the manner of Paolo Soleri’s model city, Arcosanti, and decreased use of non-renewable sources of energy and the increased use of solar energy.
The Liberation of Life is a creative synthesis of contemporary developments in the natural sciences and process thought that is mutually transformative, the very model of what the process-relational vision is all about. Recognizing the need for liberation from inward and outward sources of oppression, it also proposes a liberating vision free from the suffocating constraints of the mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist view of reality, it is all the more remarkable in having been written by two professional theologians, although one of them, to be sure, is a professional biologist. Only one chapter is explicitly theological, dealing with Life, based on the Whiteheadian understanding of God, exploring what enables the development of life, its increased complexity and capacity for intensity, harmony, contrast, and richness of experience through the lure of novel possibilities to be actualized and the abiding acceptance of all experience, preserved everlastingly with no loss of immediacy. In the consonance of their public policy proposals with the comprehensiveness of the process-relational vision, mutually transformed in its encounter with the natural sciences, Cobb and Birch model a public practical theology at its best.
If one reads the newspaper or watches the news on television or listens to the radio, one gets the impression that the relationship between science and religion is fraught with irreconcilable differences. The attention of the public media has focused on the issue of creation and evolution. The nuances and subtleties of the issues are ignored; the picture presented is that ‘never the twain shall meet.’ In describing evolutionary theory, the position of scientific materialism is treated as though it were the only possible position, ignoring developments in the new physics and the new biology, although, to be sure, some of the most eloquent spokespersons on the evolution side of the debate, such as Carl Sagan, are certainly mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist in their orientation. In a similar fashion, the uncritical literalism of fundamentalism is presented as the only religious option in interpreting Creation, ignoring the fact that outside of fundamentalist circles, that has not been the position of any contemporary religious thinker of any repute.
To be sure, within the widespread acceptance of the findings of modern science on the part of contemporary religious thinkers, one finds a wide variety of approaches and views about the relation between science and religion. In Roman Catholicism, for example, one goes from the official condemnation of the “modernists” in an early part of this century to what might be appropriately described as the dominant position today, found in Pope Pius XII’s Human generis (1950), which, concerning the relation between evolution and creation, accepts evolution yet insists on the special, “second” creation of the human soul. Within Protestant circles, 19th century liberalism, if I may oversimplify, adopted evolutionary ideas to support the notion of automatic progress. Neo-orthodoxy, rejecting what it considered the facile optimism of 19th century liberalism, accepted the finds of modern science, but drew a distinction between the realms appropriate for scientific and theological study. In the theology of Karl Barth, for example even though scientific discoveries are affirmed within the realm proper to science, the only way to know God is through God’s free decision to reveal herself/himself in Jesus Christ; any other way of attempting to know God, such as through the exercise of human reason, of which science is an example, is pretentious idolatry on the part of humans trying to play God. Rudoif Bultmann, often treated as within the neo-orthodox school but whom I prefer to see as a bridge figure between neo-orthodoxy and later developments in contemporary theology, adopted existentialism in his effort to render the Christian faith intelligible for today. In doing so, he also adopted the dualism of existentialism concerning the relation between lifeless, inert so-called physical matter, a mechanistic view of the non-human natural world, and the subjectivity of human beings. Theologians influenced by positivism, whose adherents saw reality as strictly that which can be experienced through the senses and knowledge as that which can be obtained through a narrow definition of the scientific method, and linguistic analysis, which purported that the only proper function of philosophy is the study of the usage of words and sentences, also treated science and religion as separate realms, distinct ‘language games,’ each with its own set of rules. Each of these approaches bifurcated the relation between science and religion, and adopted the dominant mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist view of reality.
Process theology is substantially different in its approach to the relation between science and religion. Whitehead himself saw his metaphysical vision firmly grounded in the discoveries of the new physics and studies of evolution. He never considered his own word as in any way final, but open to modification by further developments in the sciences.
Process theology no less claims to be firmly grounded in the findings of the new physics and the new biology. However, it has also sought to make its own distinctive contribution to the scientific endeavor. In its encounter with the sciences, process thought has not only appropriated new scientific insights but has attempted a mutual transformation through which the sciences are liberated from the dominance of the mechanistic, deterministic, substantialist view into a holistic relational vision that is more coherent, consistent, adequate to the facts, and congruent with the best in the contemporary scientific enterprise itself.
In addition to the examples already provided in this chapter, process thought is engaged in dialogue with physics concerning its understanding of time. The typical conception of time in modern physics allows for no distinction between past, present, and future, thus denying the significance of time. The problem with this view is that it is deterministic. The process-relational view and the common experience of time is that the past is determinate, where options are foreclosed; the present, into which the past flows, is the area of decision; the future is indeterminate. In dialogue with physicists such as David Bohm and Ilya Prigogine, process thought maintains that its view of time is more adequate, does not violate the fundamental tenets of physics, and upholds the concept and experience of freedom.
Since the issue of the relation between creation and evolution has been so prominent, and since the contribution of process thought is so distinctive in this discussion, I shall focus on it as paradigmatic of process theology’s treatment of the relation between science and religion. Accepting evolution as fact, not theory as the advocates of Creation-Science contend, process theologians see God creating through the evolutionary process. Moreover, creation is not just something that happened at the beginning of time and then stopped, it is still ongoing. In fact, most, but by no means all, process theologians deny the traditional doctrine of “creatio ex nihilo,” creation out of nothing, the creation of the world as the beginning of creaturely beings altogether, affirming instead a form of creation out of chaos. God’s activity and relation to the world is the luring of the creatures with novel possibilities for their fulfillment in all their interdependence, and the eminent experiencing of creaturely experience and its everlasting preservation with no loss immediacy within the divine life; it is what God has always done and continues to do.
Needless to say, process theologians are not biblical literalists. Coming from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds, they accept the findings of biblical scholarship. Accepting the notion that biblical narratives are the product of many layers of oral tradition, they see scripture as paradigmatic of humanity’s interpretation of the experience (there is no such thing as uninterpreted experience!) of its ongoing relationship with God. Of course, as we have seen, not all of the tradition is equally illuminating or helpful in addressing contemporary problems. A literalist interpretation of the accounts of creation is neither illuminating nor helpful nor truthful.
One of the most distinctive contributions of process theology has been its correlation between the doctrine of creation and a theology of nature. Utilizing its relational view of reality, process theologies of nature have developed a comprehensive vision where all actualities, interdependent and interrelated, dynamic, pulsing, throbbing, with God as the supreme instance of creativity and relatedness, and as experiencing subjects, are of intrinsic value.
Process theologians see this in fundamental accord with the biblical accounts of creation. In the first verse of the first chapter of Genesis the connotation of the word “created” is that of continuing action — Gods ongoing creative, sustaining, liberating activity in the world. While one cannot read evolution into the first chapter of Genesis, the gradually increasing complexity of the organisms reflected in each day of creation shows at least a dim awareness of growth, development, complexification. More importantly, God beholds creation and declares it good. For process theologians, creation reflects the glory of the Creator.
Much has been made of the deleterious effects of the commission to subdue the earth, a part of being made in the image of God. The scientist Lynn White, for example, has stressed the connection of this idea to the kind of values that have led to our despoliation of the environment. While this is a matter of some dispute among theologians, those of the process persuasion tend to take Lynn White’s criticism with the utmost seriousness, and respond with the development of a relational, ecological vision that goes beyond the encouragement of responsible stewardship in external relations to the non-human natural world.
According to biblical scholars, the original intent of the idea of dominion over the earth, part of P or priestly source (Genesis 1:1 – 2:3) [the Creation accounts come from two separate traditions: P, as we have mentioned, and J, “the Yahwist,” Genesis 2:3 ff] in the creation account, which may have been a hymn sung in the Temple in Jerusalem, is quite contrary to the interpretation that has had such deleterious effects. Instead, the intent of this notion is to depict humanity as the priest of creation. By definition, a priest is a mediator. As the priests of creation, human beings mediate between God and creation, representing creation to God and God to creation. Instead of fostering an anthropocentric attitude, this image enhanced a tremendous sense of responsibility. As part of creation yet transcending it, as is true in varying degrees of all creatures, this image of human beings, while not drawn directly from process thought, is certainly a powerful evocative image that captures the relational vision.
Another powerful image in the biblical tradition that is helpful in the development of a theology of nature is found in the second chapter of Genesis where God commissions Adam to name the animals. In the Hebrew mind, to name something or someone was to confer identity on it/him/her. This involved a rather heavy sense of responsibility and humility: in effect it was seen as partaking of God’s ongoing creation of the world as God’s junior partners. In the contemporary world, many people, groups of people, women, blacks, the handicapped, Third World peoples, the earth itself as co-victim, have been denied the opportunity to name their world. As parts of the world we are called to name, we are equally called to enable others to take their rightful place in doing the same.
In seeking to develop a theology of nature, process theologians are supportive of endeavors to appropriate other images from the tradition, such as St. Francis’ compassionate love for the poor and treatment of animals as sisters and brothers, the Orthodox view of the church as inclusive of all of creation, and the use of the elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist, products of the interworkings between God, the non-human natural world, and human labor, that speak, to contemporary needs. In this, process theologians have much in common with the work of people like Matthew Fox and Brian Swimme. Fox and Swimme, affirming developments in the new physics and new biology, are highly critical of what they call the Sin/Redemption tradition in Christianity, which has led to the denigration of the non-human natural world, the human body, and people thinking all too little of themselves. They have attempted to recover the much neglected and suppressed creation-centered tradition that affirms the goodness of creation and human beings as the image of God.
Along with feminist theologies, as well as thinkers such as Fox and Swimme, process theologians have seen a profound relationship between the substantialist, mechanistic, deterministic view of reality and its unilateral conception of power prevalent in the sciences, the male experience of self-sufficiency, independence, domination, the despoliation of the non-human natural world, and subjugation of women and indigenous peoples traditionally seen as close to nature. With feminist theologians and advocates of creation centered spirituality, mutually transformed by the encounter with the new physics and the new biology, process theologians have sought a vision of the relational matrix of creativity, and to learn from the wisdom of the earth and the embodiment of that wisdom in the all too long suppressed and neglected traditions of women, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, of Africa and Asia.
Once again I beg my readers’ indulgences in this rather lengthy digression into theology. I hope it has served as a fruitful illustration of process theology’s quest, in its encounter with the sciences, for the kinds of values and vision we need if we are to wrestle with the problems that threaten us with extinction.
I began this section with an allusion to the prominent attention the debate over evolution and creation has received. In the most recent form of this debate, the courts have ruled that Creation-Science is not science but the propagation of particular religious beliefs, and as such the mandatory requirement of it being taught in public schools violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. With this assessment, process theologians would agree. However, some process theologians, Delwin Brown and Jay McDaniel for example, see some fundamental issues lurking beneath the surfaces of these debates. They advocate the inclusion the new physics and the new biology in the high school science curriculum instead of the more typical one-sided presentation of the dominant view of scientific materialism. They also argue for the inclusion, not in the science curriculum but in the humanities, of the comparative study of creation accounts in the history of the human race: various scientific understandings, various understandings in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, the Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Native American, and African traditions. Only through such a study can a truly global perspective in our interdependent and interrelated world be attained.
But I am getting ahead of myself into the next chapter, the process view of education.
For Further Reading
In the first section of this chapter, in the discussion of metaphysics, I refer to those process thinkers who follow Whitehead’s speculative philosophy. One of the current debates among process thinkers is the felt need on the part of some to recover the more empirical side of Whitehead’s philosophy as well as process thought in general. While I am in great sympathy with this endeavor, I do not see the empirical and the speculative as mutually exclusive. In spite of the protestations of some on the empirical side of the debate, I see an implicit metaphysics in the most thoroughgoing empiricism. While I concur that the empirical side of the tradition has been neglected, it is certainly present in Whitehead’s philosophy and the development of the speculative side by his followers (just think back to the analogy of the airplane in the Introduction).
For excellent discussions of the need to recover the empirical side of the process tradition, see Lee, Bernard J., SM., “Two Process Theologies,” Theological Studies 45 (1984), pp. 307-319; Axel, Larry E., and Peden, W. Creighton, eds., Dean, William, Special Guest Coeditor The Size of God: The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1987), also published simultaneously as the special January and May, 1987 issue of the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, Vol. 8, Nos. I and 2; see also the May and September, 1984 issues of the same journal, Vol. 5, Nos. 2 and 3, devoted to “Bernard Meland and the Future of Theology.’ A.J.T.P. is devoted to the study of religious empiricism. For further exploration of these issues, see the following excellent studies: Dean, William, American Religious Empiricism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986); Frankenberry, Nancy, Religion and Radical Empiricism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987); and Hynes, William J., Shirley Jackson Case and the Chicago School (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1981).
For some of the older authors on the empirical side of process thought, in addition to the articles mentioned at the end of Chapter I, see Loomer, Bernard M., “Whitehead’s Method of Empirical Analysis,’ in Cousins, Ewert H., ed., Process Theology: Basic Writings by the Key Thinkers of a Major Movement (New York: Newman Press, 1971), pp. 67-82; and by the same author, “The Size of God,’ in the book and A.J.T.P volume of the same title, pp. 20-51 in both volumes. See also the writings of Bernard E. Meland and Henry Nelson Wieman for religious empiricists influenced by yet distinct from Whitehead. Wieman introduced Whitehead’s works at the University of Chicago Divinity School, but later broke from the British philosophers metaphysics in favor of what he saw as a more thoroughgoing empiricism.
For an earlier work in the new biology, that has an affinity with process thought, see Agar, W.E. A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism (Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1951).
For works of related interest in the new biology, alluded to in this chapter, see Waddington, C.H. The Strategy of the Genes: A Discussion of Some Aspects of Theoretical Biology (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957); Hardy, Sir Alister, The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of Man the Religious Animal (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1976); by the same author, The Living Stream: A Restatement of Evolution and its Relation to the Spirit of Man (London: Collins, 1965), and The Divine Flame: An Essay Towards a Natural History of Religion (London: Collins, 1966), Vols. I and II of the Gifford Lectures, 1963-65; Sheldrake, Rupert, A New Science of Life (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1981). For a classic exposition of the view of scientific materialism emphasizing the role of chance, see Monod, Jacques, Chance and Necessity, tr. by Austryn Weinhouse (New York: Vintage Books, 1972). Ecological views based on systems theory may be found in von Bertalanffy, Ludwig, General Systems Theory (New York: Braziller, 1968). For an early work exploring the new physics and influenced by process thought, see Capek, Milic, The Philosophical Impact of the Contemporary Physics (New York: Van Nostrand Press, 1961).
The literature exploring the relationship between science and process theology is vast. See Barbour, Ian G., ed., Earth Might Be Fair: Reflections on Ethics. Religion, and Ecology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972); and Barbour, Ian G., ed., Finite Resources and the Human Future (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976). See also Barbour, Ian G., Issues in Science and Religion (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971); by the same author, Myths, Models and Paradigms (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974); also, Barbour, Ian G., ed., Science and Religion: New Perspectives on the Dialogue (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1968); see also by the same author, Science and Secularity: The Ethics of Technology (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1970); also, Technology. Environment, and Human Values (New York: Preager Publishers, 1980). A very helpful introduction is Birch, L. Charles, Nature and God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965); also by the same author, “A Biological Basis for Human Purpose,” Zygon, 8,1973, pp. 244-260); “Nature, Humanity and God in Ecological Perspective,” in Shinn, Roger L., ed., Faith and Science in an Unjust World: Report of the World Council of Churches Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, Vol. I (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980); also his “Participatory Evolution: The Drive of Creation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 40,1972, pp. 147-163; by the same author, “Purpose in the Universe: A Search for Wholeness,” Zygon, 6,1971, pp. 4-27; and “What Does God Do in the World?” Union Seminary Quarterly, 30, 1975, pp. 75-83.
See also the previously mentioned works of Kenneth Cauthen, Christian Biopolitics: A Credo and Strategy for the Future (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), and The Ethics of Enjoyment (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975). Also helpful is his Science. Secularization, and God: Toward a Theology of the Future (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969). We have already mentioned and discussed at some length Cobb, John B., Jr., and Birch, Charles, The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981). Helpful in the discussion of the philosophical issues involved is Cobb, John B., Jr., and Griffin, David Ray, eds., Mind in Nature (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1977). Another excellent study is Ferre, Frederick, Shaping the Future: Resources for the Post-Modern World (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1976), especially with its public policy proposals in the realms of religion, politics, economics, and education based on the relational vision.
In a much more philosophical vein but pertinent to our discussion of chance, indeterminacy, and purpose are the works of Charles Hartshorne. See for example, Hartshorne, Charles, The Logic of Perfection (La Salle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1973), and Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984).
Still other excellent studies of the relation between science and religion from a process perspective are Haught, John F., The Cosmic Adventure: Science. Religion, and the Quest for Purpose (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), and by the same author, Nature and Purpose (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc., 1980). Also helpful as an overview and creative in its own right is Hamilton, Peter N., The Living God and the Modern World: Christian Theology Based on the Thought of AN. Whitehead (Philadelphia and Boston: United Church Press, 1967).
For a fine correlation of evolution and creation, see Overman, Richard H., Evolution and the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967). Yet another elaborate and good study of a wide range of issues in the relation between science and religion is Schilling, Harold K., The Consciousness in Science and Religion (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1973).
Although not about process thought but advocating a form of the relational vision is Carolyn Merchant’s excellent and useful historical work in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1980).
For the discussion between physics and process thought, see the essays in Griffin, David Ray, ed., Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986). For treatments of the subject along with the new developments by physicists see Bohm, David, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Boston: ARK Paperbacks, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) and Prigogine, Ilya, From Being to Becoming (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1980).
Influenced by Whitehead’s metaphysics but highly critical of the process doctrine of God is the important and insightful work of Langdon Gilkey. See his Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (Minneapolis: The Winston Press, 1985). In addition to recounting his experiences as a theological witness for the ACLU, at the 1981 Creationist trial in Little Rock, Arkansas, the author provides one of the most cogent analyses of the relation between science and religion. See also his Message and Existence: An Introduction to Christian Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1980), and Religion and the Scientific Future (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1970). His earlier Maker of Heaven and Earth: The Christian Doctrine of Creation in the Light of Modern Knowledge (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965) is still a useful, comprehensive work. Unlike most process theologians, Gilkey defends the importance of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.
A process philosopher influenced by substantialist modes of thought and who also affirms the notion of creatio ex nihilo is Robert C.Neville. See his Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1980), and God the Creator: On the Transcendence and Presence of God (Chicago: The University Press, 1968).
Although not a process thinker and considered a dualist by John Cobb, important is the work of Arthur R. Peacocke, a physical biochemist and Anglican priest and theologian. There are elements, in my view, in his thinking common with process thought. Describing himself a panentheist, one who believes God is in all things and that all things are in God, and the use of the analogy of the composer still writing the musical score, responding to the musicians, as descriptive of God’s relations to an ongoing, creative evolutionary process, does share common themes and ideas with the process-relational vision. See his Creation and the World of Science (New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1979); also by the same author, God and the New Biology (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1987); also his Intimations of Reality: Critical Realism in Science and Religion (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984); Science and the Christian Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); and Peacocke, Arthur R., ed., The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).
I have alluded several times to Paolo Soleri’s innovative model city Arcosanti near Cordes Junction, Arizona. For some of Soleri’s better known writings, see Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory? (San Diego: Avant Books and Consanti Foundation, 1984); Fragments (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1981), and The Omega Seed: An Eschatological Hypothesis (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1981). Soleri’s vision is profoundly influenced by the writings of the French Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who although often considered within the process school also has some substantial differences from Whiteheadian thought. For an excellent discussion of the topic, see Barbour, Ian G., “Teilhard Process Metaphysics,” in Cousins, Ewert H., ed., Process Theology: Basic Writings by the Key Thinkers of a Major Modern Movement (New York: Newman Press, 1971), pp. 323-350.
Several works previously mentioned contain some of the finest and best known expositions of a theology of nature from a process perspective. See Is It Too Late: A Theology of Ecology (Beverly Hills, California: Berziger, Bruce and Glencoe, Inc., 1972) by John B. Cobb, Jr., and Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 63-79, co-authored by Cobb and David Ray Griffin. For a theology of nature that diverges at certain points from process theology in relation to the doctrine of God and written from within the Roman Catholic tradition, see Carmody, John, Ecology and Religion: Toward a New Christian Theology of Nature (New York: Paulist Press, 1983). For a theology of nature from a Reformed perspective not directly influenced by process thought but one that sees the image of God in relational terms, see Hall, Douglas John, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966). An excellent development of a theology of nature from an Orthodox perspective is provided by Gregorios, Paulos, The Human Presence: An Orthodox View of Nature (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 1978).
In its attempt to develop a theology of nature, recover suppressed traditions, and in seeing a profound connection between the traditional Western denigration of the non-human natural world, process thought has much in common with feminist theology. For explorations of these themes from the perspective of the experience of women and feminist theology independent of process thought, see Christ, Carol P., Diving Deep and Surfacing (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980); Goldenberg, Naomi R., Chancing of the Gods (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979); Ruether, Rosemary Radford, New Woman. New Earth (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975) and especially her excellent systematic theology from a feminist perspective, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1983). See also the previously mentioned works of Beverly Wildung Harrison.
Matthew Fox is a prolific author. For what I consider the best and most representative of his writings, see Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear and Company, 1983), and A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village. Humpty Dumpty and Us (Minneapolis: The Winston Press, 1979). See also Fox, Matthew and Swimme, Brian, Manifesto for a Global Civilization (Santa Fe, New Mexico: 1982). Very readable is Brian Swimme’s The Universe is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1984) which touches on many of the scientific issues discussed in this chapter.
Of related interest are the previously mentioned papers from the conference “Toward a Post-Modern World” in Santa Barbara, California, January, 1987. Also of interest is the journal Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science which is dedicated to the exploration of the relation between science and religion and fostering a link between the two. Under the able editorship of Professor Karl E. Peters, Zygon’s editorial offices are at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida 32789.