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Confessional Postmodernism and the Process-Relational Vision

by Leslie A. Muray

Leslie A. Muray, Ph.D., teachest philosophy and ethics at Curry College in Massachusetts. He studied Process Theology under Dr. John Cobb at Claremont School of Theology. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 83-101, Vol. 18, Number 2, Summer, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


More than anyone, Stanley Hauerwas has been responsible for the recovery of the tradition of character and virtue in theological ethics during the last fifteen years. His thought has been a response to what he sees as the inadequacies and devastating consequences of modernism, particularly in its liberal form. There is much in his work that process-relational thinkers can appreciate as well as enriching insights they could appropriate. Process thinkers share Hauerwas’ concern to develop postmodern ways of thinking and living that provide an alternative to the ravages modernism has inflicted on our planet. The development of an ethics of character and virtue is in my view the most fruitful approach to a postmodern ethics, and although some process thinkers, most notably Lois Gehr Livezey, have written in this area, it still remains a largely unexplored area for exponents of the relational vision.

In spite of the aspects of his thought that process philosophers and theologians can rightly appreciate, I shall contend (1) that a fundamental weakness of Hauerwas’ thought is a view of the self that is unclear and lends itself to a "substantialist" interpretation; (2) that such a substantialist interpretation is further reinforced by an "essentialist" understanding of Christianity; and (3) that such an understanding culmninates in a separatist notion of the church-world relation. These three interrelated points are mutually dependent on each other for their internal consistency and coherence. I shall then explore affinities between the process doctrine of God and the image of the divine in the work of Hauerwas. Finally, I shall present what I consider to be a more adequate understanding of character and virtue, the Christian story, and the relation between the church and the world based on the conceptuality of process-relational thought.

I

As mentioned above, Hauerwas delineates his thought as a response to the conceptual inadequacies of modernism and more especially to what he sees as its consequences, the atrocities of the twentieth century, our capacity for omnicide through nuclear disaster and ecological despoliation. In very different ways the horrors of our era are the result of the monism of modernist liberalism (AN 125). "The monism of the freedom of the individual" is prevalent in the United States, where "the American lives in a social system that tries to insure freedom by trying to insure that each individual can be his or her tyrant" (AN 125). In the case of the Soviet Union, this monism is manifest in the false investment of all authority and power in the Party (AN 125). Whether democratic or totalitarian of whatever stripe, "a state . . . remains a state that if given the opportunity will be anything but limited" (AN 126). Regardless of ideology and form of organization, the modern nation-state has a tendency toward self-aggrandizement and expansion of its power in all areas of life and across national boundaries in pursuit of perceived self-interest. This phenomenon, along with the development of weapons and technologies capable of inflicting omnicide, buttressed by the monism of modernist liberalism, is the context for contemporary Christian ethical reflection.

In response to his analysis of the dilemma of modernism, Hauerwas develops what I shall call a form of confessional postmodernism. This confessional postmodernism is based on a "tripod," three interrelated legs: (1) an ethics of character and virtue, (2) the cultivation and shaping of character and virtue through an ongoing participation in the Christian story and narrative, and (3) a separatist understanding of the relationship between the church and the world.

As Hauerwas states:

Any community and polity is known and should be judged by the kind of people it develops. The truest politics, therefore, is that concerned with the development of virtue. Thus it is not without reason that Christians claim that the polity of the church is the truest possible for human community. It is from the life of the church, past, present, and future, that we even come to understand the nature of politics and have a norm by which all other politics can be judged. (CC 2)

He claims:

. . . the "political" question crucial to the church is what kind of community the church must be to be faithful to the narratives central to Christian convictions. (CC 2)

Furthermore, he writes:

. . . if the church is to serve our liberal society or any society, it is crucial for Christians to regain an appropriate sense of separateness from that society.

(CC 2)

Thus, he concludes:

. . . the most important social task of Christians is to be nothing less than a community capable of forming people with virtues sufficient to witness to God’s truth in the world. (CC 3)

To summarize Hauerwas’ position simply, what we need are people of character and virtue, which are the result of habits and dispositions acquired and cultivated by ongoing participation in the Christian community and its story. The result of this acquisition and cultivation is the greatest possible witness of the church: namely, by being itself as separate and distinct from the world.

In developing an ethics of character and virtue, Hauerwas maintains that "we are our character" (PK 39). He follows the historical emphasis of ethics of character and virtue by stressing such notions as consistency, reliability, dependability, integrity, and predictability as features of the good person (VV 53-63).

However, Hauerwas is quite aware that historic ethics of character and virtue have assumed a substantialist understanding of the self. By a substantialist understanding of the self, I mean the notion that the self is an enduring substance, self-identical through time, self-sufficient and self-contained; it is a fixed self, centered, a self that underlies the flux of experiences, whose relations are external, that is to say, that has relations because it decides to do so. He is equally aware of the tendency of emphases on consistency, reliability, dependability, integrity, and predictability to be rooted in and reinforce such substantialist views. Consequently, Hauerwas develops a highly nuanced position whose basic paradigm is "agency," "the self as agent."

Responding to the deterministic predilection of substantialist understandings of the self, he attempts to demonstrate that he does not share the substantialist position. He painstakingly tries to show that the self is not a determined self-enclosed substance, emphasizing instead the self as self-creative and self-causative. Hauerwas asserts that "character … is the very reality of who we are as self-determining agents" (VV 59). We are not totally determined by our particular contexts, environments, and histories; rather, they are parts of our character . . . . . only as they are received and interpreted in the descriptions which we embody in our intentional action" (VV 59). Our character is always in process (CC 134) and the virtues are fully historical (CC 125).

Hauerwas maintains that his development of the concept of agency precludes any notion of an ahistorical, transcendental self (PK 39-40). Thus, character "is not a surface manifestation of some deeper reality called ‘the self" (PK 39). Not only can the self grow, its capacity for self-determination is so radical that "our character may consist of simply meeting each situation as it comes, not trying to determine the direction of our lives but letting the direction of our lives vary from one decision to another" (VV 63-64). Indeed, the person who acts inconsistently with her or his character to break out of a trivializing routine and thus be able to respond more fully to the possibilities of the future is morally praiseworthy (VV 64). In fact, one’s character may be sensitivity to the novel possibilities of each moment (VV 64).

I find Hauerwas’ painstaking efforts and highly nuanced position unconvincing -- they uphold a view of the self that lends itself to a substantialist interpretation. He maintains that "an ethic of virtue centers on the claim that an agent’s being is prior to doing" (CC 113). He goes so far as to claim that "what one does or does not do is dependent on possessing a ‘self sufficient to take personal responsibility for one’s action" (VV 113). While my criticism may hinge to some extent on the awkwardness and inadequacies of language, nevertheless asserting that being is prior to acting and doing in the context of this discussion and the language of "possessing a ‘self" suggests a substantial self one can possess. Moreover, there are substantialist views of the self that emphasize the capacity for growth.1

To put the matter more pointedly, while Hauerwas goes to great lengths to show that humans are self-determining agents, just how they are free and self-creative is never described. He claims that humans are partially determined and partially free. Just what is the exact relationship between the determined and self-determining dimensions is never made clear: "it is not possible to establish abstract criteria that can accurately indicate how much our character is determined and how much we determine ourselves" (VV 62). While Hauerwas may be quite correct in asserting that it is impossible to ascertain specifically exactly what is determined and what is self-determined in concrete situations or more generally about one’s character, a conceptual elaboration of the relationship between efficient and final causality would have been helpful in clarifying the issue. The lack of a fuller treatment of this relationship reinforces my perception that his view of the self is prone to a substantialist interpretation. Indeed, Hauerwas identifies agency and human freedom with efficient causality (VV 56). To a process thinker, this is a strange assertion. Does agency and creative freedom not have something to do with final causality, with the capacity for self-creation? If not, is freedom real?

I hope that the foregoing criticisms of Hauerwas regarding his seeming adherence to a substantialist view of the self will be further clarified in the ensuing discussion of his understanding of the Christian story, the relationship between the church and the world, and the alternative process-relational view that is presented.

II

The role and importance of the Christian story and narrative in shaping character and virtue in the thought of Stanley Hauerwas is no less subtle and nuanced than his view of the self. As we have already seen, it is through participation in the Christian story, through its reenactment, reinterpretation, appropriation and reappropriation, that Christian character is formed and virtues cultivated (CC 95-97). Through participation in the Christian community, we appropriate its story and make it our own (CC 95-97).

"The Christian story" refers not only to the foundational, paradigmatic story of Jesus, but to how that story has been interpreted and reinterpreted, appropriated and reappropriated, creatively throughout the tradition. Hauerwas is certainly aware of development, growth, and change in the tradition (CC 61). The interpretation and reinterpretation of nonrepeatable events, the foundational and paradigmatic story of Jesus, is a requisite not only for openness to the future but for reaching a new understanding of the past (CC 61). This reappropriation of the tradition is not necessarily the discernment of new meanings but reaching a greater depth of understanding (CC 61). "Interpretation does not mean or require departure from the tradition," he writes, ‘Though justified discontinuity is not illegitimate, but rather that the Scripture is capable of unanticipated relevancy through reinterpretation" (CC 61). He is not less aware of a multiplicity of traditions within Christianity (CC 52).

While Hauerwas’ understanding of the Christian story is subtle and highly nuanced, in my view it remains an essentialist understanding of Christianity. That is to say, regardless of development, growth, and dynamism, there is an unchanging core to the tradition. My contention is best illustrated in reference to Hauerwas’ understanding of the relationship between the church and world.

We have already seen that in his estimation the most important thing the church can do is to be itself. Hauerwas states:

The church is where the stories of Israel and Jesus are told, enacted, and heard, and it is our conviction that as a Christian people there is literally nothing more important we can do. But the telling of that story requires that we be a particular kind of people if we and the world are to hear the story truthfully. That means that the church must never cease from being a community of peace and truth in a world of mendacity and fear. The church does not let the world set its agenda . . . but a church of peace and justice must set its own agenda. It does this first by having the patience amid the injustice and violence of this world to care for the widow, the poor, and the orphan . . . it is our conviction that unless we take the time for such care neither we nor the world can know what justice looks like. (PK 100)

Here we see his concern with the ravages of our world to which modernist liberalism has contributed. The church, to be itself as it is shaped by the Christian story, needs to be separate from the world.

Hauerwas claims that "by being that kind of community we see that the church helps the world understand what it means to be the world" (PK 100). By being itself, the church fulfills its first social task, helping "the world understand itself as world" (PK 100), that in spite of brokenness and distortion, the world is God’s good creation (PK 101).

Thus, "the church and world are . . . relational concepts -- neither is intelligible without the other" (PK 101). Often they are enemies, a situation arising from the inauthenticity of the church in treating the world as irredeemable or in seeking to dominate it in triumphalist, imperialist fashion" (PK 101). Hauerwas states that "God has in fact redeemed the world even if the world refuses to acknowledge its redemption" (PK 101). Nevertheless, the church can never abandon the world; instead, it needs a hope adequate to sustain the world and itself (PK 101).

Both Hauerwas’ understanding of the Christian story and the relation between the church and the world are illustrated by his appreciative remarks about George Linbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (AN 1-19). Both thinkers share an antifoundationalist denial of universal religious experience, which is manifest in the particularity of diverse traditions, an affirmation that characterizes liberalism (AN 3). Hauerwas agrees with Linbeck that what needs to be emphasized in a postliberal, postmodern theology and theological ethics is the distinctiveness, the particularity, of Christian convictions, its "language games" and "rules," not for their own sake, but because they are true (AN 5). The distinctiveness of Christianity can be brought out only in contradistinction to the world, with its own internal criteria for truth claims.

Hauerwas tries to refute criticisms of his position as fideistic and "sectarian" (AN 5-7). He sees correctly that these characterizations of his position are interrelated and reinforced by his pacifism (AN 7). However, if his pacifism is properly understood -- namely as a rejection of the commonly held assumption that authentic politics is defined by state coercion, that pacifism, instead of being apolitical, is genuinely political and aggressively world affirming -- he claims he can escape the charge of fideism and sectarianism (AN 7).

Hauerwas’ pacifism, in my view, is pivotal in his response to modernism and the concomitant capacity of humans to commit omnicide; it is crucial to how he develops an ethics of character and virtue, the Christian story, and the relationship between the church and the world. However, from my perspective, it is not his pacifism that makes Hauerwas vulnerable to charges of fideism and sectarianism. Nor is it his antifoundationalism and emphasis on the particularity of the Christian tradition. Rather, it is in the very manner in which he develops and emphasizes the distinctiveness of the Christian story -- focusing on its own internal criteria for truth without reference to publicly accessible criteria of common human experience and rational inquiry -- and the relation between the church and the world.

Once again Hauerwas, in my view, winds up maintaining a separatist, "Christ against culture" position, to borrow H. Richard Niebuhr’s phrase, that illustrates his essentialist understanding of Christianity. As we have seen previously, "it is crucial for Christians to regain an appropriate sense of separateness" from the world (CC 2). Even though the church and the world are relational concepts, the church finds its identity by separating itself from the world, and in turn is able to show the world its proper identity as a consequence of that separation. It is the church that sets the world agenda and not vice versa. With its own internal criteria for truth claims, the distinctiveness of Christianity is found only in contradistinction to the world. In effect, the "essence" of Christianity for Hauerwas, in my view, is separation from the world. And, in spite of his awareness of dynamism and creativity within the tradition and his understanding of the self, his confessional stance implies and reinforces essentialist and substantialist views. In his tripod, the three legs, a view of the self that lends itself to a substantialist interpretation, an essentialist understanding of Christianity, enacted in and illustrated by his separatist view of the church-world relation, are internally consistent and coherent, and mutually dependent.

III

Unlike the substantialist view of reality, one of the basic tenets of process thought is the doctrine of universal relativity, the notion that reality is fundamentally social or relational, that everything is dynamically interrelated to and with everything else in the universe; anything that is is what it is on account of its relationships.

Quite typically, process thinkers illustrate this notion through stressing the temporal structure of human experience, paralleling Hauerwas’ emphasis on the narrative structure of experience. For example, as I look at my own experience of the passage of time, I see that the past flows into the present, not only my own but the past of the cultures, sub-cultures, socio-politico-economic groups, families, and other institutions of which I am a part and which are a part of me, in fact the past of the whole universe.

Thus, any momentary experience in its becoming cannot help but "prehend," take into account, appropriate, internalize data from the past. Any momentary experience is internally related to its past, that is to say, the past is constitutive of the present moment of becoming. This is what I call the receptive side of a momentary experience.

The active dimension of my experience is the creativity implicit in my own experience. For example, in my present moment of becoming, I cannot help but prehend the past; it shapes who I am (becoming) in the present. But I am free as to how I prehend, how I appropriate the past.

Not only am I free as to how I prehend the past, in my present moment of becoming I am also responding to the possibilities of the future. In process thought, the future is indeterminate and reality is characterized by the movement of possibility into actuality. What was a possibility one moment becomes actual through the exercise of creative freedom, the free decision of a momentary experience as to how it constitutes itself. As I seek to actualize potentialities in my present moment, I seek fulfillment, but not in a narcissistic sense. In a universe where everything is interrelated and interdependent, my fulfillment cannot be separated from the fulfillment of everyone and everything else, societies to which I belong, including as they do other people, the land, other living beings.

Fulfillment entails a notion vital to the development of an ethics of character and virtue from a process perspective, that all creatures, all actuality, drive towards the experience of beauty, richness of experience. Beauty involves two components, harmony as well as intensity. In order for there to be intensity, a pattern of contrast needs to present. For example, the beauty of a painting manifests harmony and, through contrast, intensity. In human experience, intensity often occurs through the contrast of what is with what might be. However, it is possible to have too much harmony on the one hand and too much intensity on the other. Whitehead commented that organisms that experience too much harmony, merely repeating the past without seeking novelty, ultimately die of fatigue. Too much intensity can also be destructive, lessening the possibility of harmony, since any momentary experience is a complex creative unification of data from the past and a grasping for the actualization of possibilities, there is always some degree of harmony. However, if we look at some forms of human experience, the contrast and the intensity it evokes can be quite overwhelming, making life border on the chaotic.

Beauty is a balance between harmony and intensity; their opposites, disharmony and the trivialization of experience, are manifestations of evil. Most actualities, most organisms, do not have a great capacity for novelty and consequently, for the most part, repeat the past. This is to a large extent true of human experience. Nevertheless, process thinkers in general propose that anything actual at all -- subatomic events, amoebic experience, human experience -- has some capacity for novelty, at no matter how rudimentary, even negligible a level. The greater the degree of complexity, such as in animals with central nervous systems, the greater the capacity for novelty. Unlike much of the inherited Western tradition, which has equated creativity with mentality and attributed it only to human beings, process thought considers anything actual at all an instance of creativity, from the tiniest energy event to the most complex creatures we are aware of, human beings; some degree of mentality is present in no matter how rudimentary, even negligible, a form.

IV

It is at this point that process thinkers introduce the doctrine of God. Following Whitehead, they maintain that God is not an exception to metaphysical categories but their chief exemplification. Within the context of this discussion, including the redefinition of perfection and the divine attributes of omnipotence and omniscience, the idea of God is important because God is the supreme exemplification of character and virtue, the One that empowers growth in character and virtue, the One humans are called to imitate.

Thus, as with anything else, God has an active and a receptive side. On the active side, God envisages, foresees all possibilities, and orders those possibilities in graded relevance to the becoming of actualities. Process thinkers have rebelled against images of God that depict the divine as a despotic tyrant or as a cosmic puppeteer pulling the strings on creaturely puppets. God is seen as always acting persuasively, not coercively, "luring" the creatures to their fulfillment with an ideal possibility offered in each moment. However, all actualities are free as to how they respond to God’s lure, whether they actualize it to whatever degree, reject it, or fall somewhere between those extremes. God is always luring, beckoning the creatures to become "more" than what they have been, to greater realizations of value and beauty in interdependence with each other.

On the receptive side, just as the past of the entire universe flows into the becoming of any actuality, the entire universe flows into God. Not only do all actualities prehend the lure of God, God prehends all actualities. All experience is experienced by the divine experience. But more than that, all experience is experienced eminently and, unlike creaturely experience which is characterized by the perpetual perishing of the subjective immediacy of momentary experience, all experience is preserved everlastingly. All experience becomes apart of the divine memory.

Needless to say, the notion that God has a receptive side is a denial of traditional, substantialist views that identify perfection with that which is eternal, immutable, unchanging. Following the lead of Charles Hartshorne, process thinkers argue for a redefinition of perfection. In adopting Anselm’s dictum that God is "that which none greater can be conceived," they suggest that this means that God is the greatest power but not the only power; anything actual at all has some degree of power. Furthermore, the notion of perfection refers to a being that is unsurpassable, which does not preclude the idea that this being cannot surpass itself. As God experiences more and more of creaturely experiences, future states of God’s being (becoming) surpass previous stages in richness of experience. The changing aspect of the divine nature is the supreme instance of sensitivity and responsiveness, captured in Whitehead’s words, "God is the great companion -- the fellow sufferer who understands."

While Stanley Hauerwas has not developed a doctrine of God, nevertheless the cross, which is pivotal to his thought, his pacifism, his understanding of the Christian story and the relation of the church to the world, serves as his image of a suffering God whose power is that of noncoercive love (AN 56). At this point, there is an obvious affinity between the process conceptuality and the work of the confessional postmodernist thinker; in fact, they complement each other. Both Hauerwas and process thinkers understand the power of God to be that of noncoercive invitation rather than brute force. Confessional postmodernism, with its emphasis on images and narrative -- which are more evocative and efficacious than concepts, touching deeper recesses of our psyches -- fleshes out what tends to be rather abstract in the process-relational vision which, on the other hand, provides the former with a cosmological complement.

But process thinkers may go a step further than Hauerwas in their understanding of divine power as noncoercive, persuasive, beckoning love with their reinterpretation of the traditional divine attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. We have already seen that while God is the greatest power, "that which none greater can be conceived," God is not the only power, and that divine power always acts persuasively. As far as God’s perfect knowledge, omniscience, is concerned, God knows possibility as possibility and actuality as actuality. That is to say, God foresees all possibilities that can occur, but cannot foresee the details of what will actually happen. If God foresees the actual details of the future, events in nature-history are nothing but the unfolding of a previously written scroll negating creaturely freedom. The details of the future are chosen by actualities as they prehend the past and are lured into the future through the possibilities with which God beckons. The perfect divine knowledge of actuality is as actuality, once an event has occurred. God knows all actualities by experiencing them eminently, and preserving them everlastingly with no loss of immediacy. Whether or not Hauerwas would find this revised understanding of omnipotence and omniscience congenial to his view of divine power remains to be seen.

V

While the content of this brief excursus into the basic tenets of process-relational thought will be familiar to most readers of this journal, it sets the stage for my development of an ethics of character and virtue, of the understanding of the Christian story, and the church-world relationship from a process perspective. Fundamental to our exploration of these concepts in the thought of Stanley Hauerwas is the understanding of the self.2

Unlike the substantialist view, which sees the self as an enduring substance, self-identical through time, self-sufficient, self-contained, a fixed, centered self that underlies the flux of experiences, whose relations are external, that is to say, that has relations because it decides to do so, the process-relational vision understands the self as a momentary experiencing subject. Instead of a fixed, substantial self that underlies and undergoes the flux of experience, the self is the subjective immediacy of momentary experience. The self is a relational or social self; it is what it is by virtue of its relationships, In fact, in one sense, it is its relationships. Any human is constituted by his or her personal past, the past of the universe, and more immediately the cultures and environments of which we are a part.

The world in which we live also lives in us. Not only are we a part of cultures, subcultures, socio-politico-economic groups, families, and other institutions, they are a part of us, constitutive of our very selfhood. Each one of us understands the world and interprets events from a particular perspective -- and that perspective is profoundly shaped by our nonhuman and human environments, culture, socio-politico-economic location, and the myths and symbols that organize and give meaning and significance to our lives.

In spite of the profound ways in which we are shaped by our environments. which include the entire past, the human self is nevertheless not totally determined. The momentary experience of becoming unifies and creatively synthesizes data from the past. In its freedom as to how it prehends the past and grasps the possibilities of the future, any momentary self truly creates itself anew in each moment.

We might begin developing a process understanding of character and virtue by looking at how the momentary self, like any momentary experience, has a receptive and active side. On the receptive side, which prehends data from the past, the more of the world, the more contrast I can take in, provided I am not overwhelmed or lose my integrity, the "larger" self I become. By a "larger" self, I mean a large-hearted self, images of which I derive from the Christian story, such as the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the tradition. The paradigmatic image of a large-hearted self is the cross, the unbounded love of God embracing the world -- in all its tragedy and brokenness -- with the divine love. Thus, the cultivation of the virtues of empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, and integrity are crucial in the development of a process understanding of character.

Of course, we tend to get so wrapped up in our little corner of the world and our social location that we get oblivious to those who do not share that corner of the world and social location. We have a tendency to want to make those unlike ourselves in our image. White middle-class people often take the attitude that if only criminals, members of racial minorities, welfare recipients, third world people, behaved like us and shared our values, they would not have the problems that they do. Those told how to live and who to be either lose their sense of selfhood or rebel. Whether we are trying to mold others in our own image or others are attempting to do the same to us, the dynamics of operating in this fashion are not helpful, healthy, or constructive; our lives become truncated and are not as rich in experience as they might have been otherwise.

However, we do have the capacity to "cross over," to enter into the lives and frames of reference of those different from ourselves through empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, and imagination. And when we do respond to those different from ourselves in this manner, our lives are enriched and we become "larger" selves. Much of contemporary therapeutic practice is based on similar notions. By conveying unconditional acceptance and empathy, the therapist provides the reassurance for the client that enables her or him to see the past, no matter how debilitating, as meaningful -- leading to the present and the possibility of newness of life -- and a future pregnant with potentialities that otherwise might not have been envisioned.

Creativity, fundamental to the character of reality itself, is another virtue process thinkers would want to cultivate. Cultivation of participation in the creative process is essential to a process theory of virtue. What enables creativity is empathy. compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness. As I respond to others and the world around me with empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness, new possibilities, new worlds open up. Equally vital is the love and acceptance I receive from others. In our culture, with the dominance of substantialist views, we tend not to know how to handle compliments and receive love and acceptance. At times, we are rather blind when they are offered. Process thinkers would want to nurture a sense of openness to the empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, and responsiveness we receive from others, and which is essential for the development of those virtues as well as the enhancement of creativity in ourselves. In similar fashion, when the self encounters new ideas and does not respond defensively or feel overwhelmed by them but rather is open to them, there ensues the experience of novelty, new ways of thinking, and the transformation of the self.

Another virtue that would be important for process thinkers is gentleness. The process doctrine of God is important in this regard. Gentleness is part of the character of the divine. Whitehead himself wrote that "God is the poet of the world, guiding the world with his/her vision of truth, beauty, and goodness," and, describing the advance of civilization as the victory of persuasion over brute force and coercion, considered gentleness as a virtue of the civilized character. If to be religious, at least in part, means to imitate the divine, then gentleness is a virtue to be cultivated.

As far as the Christian story, the second leg on the tripod, is concerned, it has been viewed in essentialist categories in most of its history. It has been the task of each age to make intelligible the underlying, unchanging, eternal essence of its traditions. While the manifestation may vary from age to age and place to place, the underlying essence of a tradition that is its very identity can never be altered. While his separatist understanding of the church-world relationship leads to a lack of concern with the intelligibility of the Christian story for our age, we have seen that Hauerwas’ understanding is essentialist.

The quite different understanding of tradition in process-relational thought is analogous to its understanding of the self. Instead of seeing tradition manifesting in diverse ways an eternal and unchanging essence, process thought views it as living, ongoing, dynamic, and creative. Just as the self is a momentary experiencing subject that constitutes itself by creatively synthesizing data from the past and responding to the possibilities of the future, so a tradition, as it responds to the challenges of the present and the possibilities of the future, reappropriates its past and reconstitutes itself. Instead of an underlying, unchanging essence providing the identity of a tradition, there is only a constant process of interpretation and reinterpretation.

Most process theologians consider Christianity to be an ongoing, historical movement that in each age reappropriates the memory of Jesus, not only through the foundational paradigms of Scripture but through the constant process of reinterpretation found in church history. As Christianity reconstitutes itself in response to the challenges of today and reappropriates its traditions, a problem that arises is that not all of that tradition is very illuminating in meeting contemporary needs. For example, much of Christianity’s inherited past is sexist, racist, and anti-Judaic, a past from which it needs to be liberated.

At this point, the crucial issue pertains to the criteria that the adherents of a tradition use in the reconstitution of that tradition. For process-relational thinkers, those criteria are whatever contributes to the enhancement of relationality and creativity that are tine of the fundamental character of reality itself. Of course, the "fundamental character of reality" is always known from the particularity of our perspectives, shaped by our nonhuman and human environments, culture, subculture, our socio-politico-economic location, the myth and symbols that organize and give meaning and significance to our lives. The aforementioned criteria also include whatever contributes to the experience of beauty, intensity, richness of experience through contrast, within a communal context, human and non-human. In the Christian tradition, a helpful criterion is the recovery of the prophetic strand with which other aspects, particularly the oppressive ones, can be critiqued, relativized, and, hopefully, overcome. In a sense, this is also the recovery of a transformed priestly strand of the tradition, transmitting the tradition through a critical, creative, and responsible process of reappropriation.

While these notions seem terribly abstract, nevertheless, in the case of Christianity, we see them operating as we acknowledge the disharmony as well as deprivation of greater richness in the sexism, racism and anti-Judaism of its inherited tradition. As it seeks liberation from this dimension of its past, as it encounters feminist theology, the new consciousness of women, blacks, third world peoples, and their suppressed traditions, post-Holocaust Judaism as well as other religions, Christianity is transformed, becomes more authentically relational and creative, richer, more inclusive, less trivial in its harmony. Process theologians such as John Cobb see this creative transformation as the very work of Christ.

At this point, it might be helpful to refer to the notion of a "proposition" in Whitehead’s philosophy. A proposition is a lure, provided by God, that combines something actual with a possibility, since that is how possibilities become relevant for actualization. What is actual includes stories, gestures, actions, colors, people. Thus, the Christian story and its reenactment and reappropriation serve as propositions that provide the relational matrix which empowers a creative response to novel possibilities.

As far as the third leg of the tripod -- the church-world relation -- is concerned, in a universe where everything is interdependent and interrelated with everything else, the church cannot help but be related to the world. While the main function of the church is to empower focusing and centering on God, it does so through the constant appropriation and reappropriation, interpretation and reinterpretation, of its past, and the reenactment of its foundational paradigms, as it faces the challenges of the present and the possibilities of the future. Moreover, this constant process is carried out as Christians wrestle self-consciously with problems of importance, such as the environmental crisis, hunger, poverty, nuclear weapons capable of omnicide, sexism, racism, classism, and anti-Judaism. Furthermore, the God on whom the church seeks to focus and center is the supreme instance of relationality; if that God cannot help but be related to a world, not only can the church not help but be related to the world, but its very calling as the church is to do so. The question is just how the church is to be related to the world.

The church affirms the world as related to and co-created by God, and critiques and seeks to transform the profound and tragic distortions of relationality and creativity in the world. It seeks to re-present and incarnate God’s creative transformation of the world, liberation from all forms of oppression, embodying and cultivating compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, and solidarity with all creatures, in order to enable creative responses to the lures with which God beckons.

We can readily see the major differences between the confessional postmodernism of Stanley Hauerwas and the postmodernism of process thinkers. The interrelated legs of his tripod -- the development of an ethics of character and virtue grounded in a view of the self that is unclear and that lends itself to a substantialist interpretation, an essentialist understanding of the Christian story, and a separatist position on the church-world -- are mutually dependent on each other for their internal consistency and coherence. For process thought, on the other hand, an ethics of character and virtue is based on a relational understanding of the self, the virtues of empathy, compassion, sensitivity, receptivity, responsiveness, creativity, and gentleness cultivated and extended into the area of civic virtue by a critical reappropriation and reinterpretation of the Christian story, seeking liberation from its oppressive aspects, as the challenges of the present, the possibilities of the future, and problems and issues of importance are faced with an openness to the public criteria of common human experience and rational inquiry.

Process thinkers can only appreciate Stanley Hauerwas critique of modernism. Moreover, in my view, the most promising recent development in ethical thought, for which he is in no small measure responsible, is the recovery of an ethics of character and virtue, shaped by participation in the Christian story, and lived out in the church-world relationship. However, for process-relational thought, any form of postmodernism based on substantialist and essentialist views is inadequate and counterproductive; its exploration of the motifs elaborated by Hauerwas would be considerably different and more adequate. This article has been, I hope, a small but fruitful step in that direction.

 

References

AN -- Stanley Hauerwas. Against the Nations: War and Survival in Liberal Society. Minneapolis: The Winston Press, 1985.

CC -- Stanley Hauerwas. A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

PK -- Stanley Hauerwas. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

TT -- Stanley Hauerwas. Truthfulness and Tragedy. Further Investigations in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.

VV -- Stanley Hauerwas. Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

 

Notes

1For a lengthier treatment of this topic, see my An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society, and the Self: A Philosophy for Modern Humanity (Lewiston/Queenston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988), 75-78.

2 Much of the material in this section on process-relational thought has been previously published in my An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society and the Self , 1-32. My understanding of the process view of the self and the development of an ethics of character and virtue is profoundly influenced by the writings of Bernard M. Loomer. See especially his "S-I-Z-E is the Measure," in Harry James Cargas and Bernard Lee, Religious Experience and Process Theology The Pastoral Implications of a Major Modern Movement (New York Paulist Press, 1976), 69-76, and "Two Conceptions of Power," Process Studies 6:1 (Spring 1976), 5-32. See also the essays in Larry E. Axel and W. Creighton Peden, eds., The Size of God. The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987; also published simultaneously as the special January and May 1987 issue of the American Journal of Philosophy and Theology 8:1 and 2. I am also profoundly indebted to the insights contained in John B. Cobb, Jr. and Joseph C. Hough, Jr., Christian Identity and Theological Education (Chico, CA: The Scholars Press, 1985). Throughout this essay, I have tried to avoid using the technical vocabulary of Whiteheadian philosophy.


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