Added on Like Dome and Spire — Wieman’s Later Critique of Whitehead

by C. Robert Mesle

Dr. Mesle was associate professor of philosophy and religion at Graceland College, Lamoni, Iowa in 1987.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 37-53, Vol. 20, Number 1, Spring, 1991. 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.


Dr. Mesle shows four major strands in Henry Nelson Wieman’s critique of Whitehead: 1. An aesthetic approach to value; 2. God as “Something;” 3. The empiricism of Whitehead; 4. Whitehead’s speculations.

In "Sharing A Vague Vision: Wieman’s Early Response to Whitehead," I examined four central strands in Wieman’s thought which I believe can also illuminate his changing reaction to Whitehead’s thought. They form the focus of this study as well.

1. A theory of Supreme Value which, despite many changes in formulation, can always be understood (whether or not Wieman himself said so explicitly) in aesthetic terms;

2. Correlative to his value theory, a definition of God as that Something which is supremely important to the increase of quality or value in human existence (although he wavered in his use of the designation "God" for that Something);

3. The conviction that this Something is subject to scientific examination in the broad sense of empirical observation and rational reflection, and that we must not go beyond the empirical evidence in describing its nature;

4. The determination that our concept of God be a "workable" one, which persons can "adjust to" and assist through practical, concrete activity.

At first Wieman was tremendously excited about Whitehead’s metaphysical vision, especially in Religion in the Making. But when Process and Reality appeared, clearly presenting a more speculative view of God as a divine, dipolar, actual entity, Wieman began to reconsider.

Transition: Creativity as Cosmic or Human?

In The Wrestle of Religion with Truth, Wieman had enthusiastically embraced Whitehead’s principle of concretion as God -- the source of all good in the universe. In The Source of Human Good he acknowledged the existence of a creative event apart from human beings, but declined to spend much time on it, making it clear that his real concern lay with the creation of human good. Between the two works came a period of transition. One difficulty in this period lies in determining at which level he was operating -- the cosmic or the human -- in any given text.

Wieman may have had two motives for his transition from a cosmic vision of divine creativity toward one focused on creativity in human experience. One motive was clearly Wieman’s concern for a "workable" idea of God, one concrete and specific enough to engage human effort. Another may have been Wieman’s concern to keep the category of God free of ambiguity. Whitehead’s category of creativity is foundational for all becoming, without regard for questions of good or evil. Eventually (there is disagreement over when), Whitehead developed the idea of God as an actual entity who, though probably not free of tragedy and ambiguity, actively promotes goodness. Wieman consistently defined his vision of God as the source of good only, never evil. But since he never conceived of God as an actual entity, he confronted the challenge of conceiving creativity as wholly, unambiguously good.

Value Theory: Increasingly Aesthetic, 1931

After Wieman’s review of Process and Reality, his first published text relevant to our concerns was "God and Value," a chapter in Religious Realism, ed. by D. C. MacIntosh in 1931. The major thrust of the chapter seems to be a response to various forms of idealism. Wieman was concerned to argue that ideals, especially impossible ideals, however worthy of contemplation as guidelines, must not be identified with supreme value, i.e., God. The process which allows us to actualize ideal possibilities is what demands our active devotion. Our real concern for this study, however, is the extent to which it captures an aesthetic vision of value.

However we may define value in its elementary form, it would seem that supreme value must be some system or structure which brings lesser values into relations of maximum mutual support and mutual enhancement.... A system which brought lesser values into such relation that each derived maximum value from all the others, would be one in which each served and promoted all the others. Then the value of each would be its meaning for the system as a whole, i.e., its functional activity in sustaining and improving the total system. Thus the system as a whole would endow each activity with the maximum meaning and value, and each activity would give value to the whole. (RR 155-6)

While Wieman did not specifically identify it as such, it is clear that his insight into the aesthetic character of supreme value, or at least his expression of it, was significantly improved at this point. It was not simply integration, but real mutual support between parts and the whole which began to come into focus. This is far superior to the conflict-oriented vision of his dissertation.

At what level was Wieman envisioning this process? Wieman himself probably was not yet sure. He said immediately after the above quotation that "Such a system of maximum value is achieved insofar as all intelligent, self-conscious, goal-seeking activities of men, and as much of the rest of nature as possible" are brought into it (RR 156). The idea behind the phrase "the rest of nature" is not clear at all. Did he mean to suggest that persons are responsible for bringing as much of the rest of nature as possible into conformity with this standard or was he thinking of a natural process apart from human effort?

Later in the chapter, another, expanded, statement of the nature of supreme value appears.

What, then, might conceivably be called the greatest possible value? Would it not be some system which includes the greatest number and diversity of enjoyments but adjusts them to one another in such a way that they (1) support one another and so make each more secure, (2) magnify one another 4 by reason of the increasing sensitivity which the system produces in the individuals who participate in it, (3) enables each individual to find in his experiences not only immediate satisfaction but also the satisfaction, which is often much greater, of fulfilling a function in sustaining and promoting the system as a whole which may be carried down through history indefinitely, (4) a system which is not static but creative inasmuch as it enables one individual to integrate his enjoyment, idea, insight, technique with that of others and out of this integration to bring forth new and different enjoyments, ideas, insights, techniques to further enrich the system. (RR 161-2)

The paragraph immediately following this makes it clear that he was speaking of a process in human history, indeed, in the history of a race. "Now the sort of system we have described does actually occur more or less in human history" (RR 162). But later he returned to the stance taken in The Wrestle of Religion With Truth by affirming that the structure in question "is not the universe as a whole, but it is a certain structure in the universe" (RR 176), and that "God is not merely an abstract order that does nothing. Neither is he the process of nature that does everything regardless of value.... But he is...that kind of process in nature which most nearly approximates this order of supreme value and promotes further approximation to it" (RR 175).

What did Wieman have in mind as that process which "does everything regardless of value?" Did he mean the principle of concretion or was he referring to such natural forces as gravity? We are given no explanation of this or of that process which "approximates this order of supreme value and promotes further approximation to it." It certainly makes sense to speak of striving for greater approximation to such forms of organization in human societies, but in what sense did he suddenly interject those qualifications regarding natural process? Is supreme value now an ideal to which nature seeks closer approximation? Given his attack on such forms of idealism in the rest of the chapter, this hardly seems likely.

There remains one more paragraph of great interest. It deserves examination in detail, for it may very well suggest some reflections by Wieman on the consequent nature of God.

This structure as bare possibility is not causally efficacious. But to the degree that it is the structure of actual existence, it does promote its own fuller embodiment in nature. To claim that all of nature is dominated by such a structure and process, is to fly in the face of all observable evidence. But to deny that there is any manifestation of this process anywhere in nature, is equally to run counter to what can be observed. To say that there is a process in the world which operates to increase the structure of value, and to that degree is the embodiment of this structure, does not necessarily imply that the process is teleological in the ordinary human sense of the word. (RR 156-7)

This paragraph is so suggestive that it compels me to undertake some speculation, however slim the available support for it may be. Is it possible that his rejection of "This structure as bare possibility" reflects some anxiety on his part about a possible but undeveloped connection between idealism and the role of abstract possibility in the primordial nature of God? As mere possibilities apart from actuality, Wieman might have felt that they lack causal efficacy. He may also have confused the idea of God’s envisioning them as goals for the world with impossible ideals. Certainly the term "causal efficacy" alone catches a Whiteheadian’s attention. It might next be asked what sense it would make to speak of the principle of concretion as promoting "its own fuller embodiment in nature.

Whitehead moved beyond the bare principle of concretion when he realized that it was not sufficient by itself to provide value and direction to reality. Wieman, who (except perhaps in Wrestle) was never willing to affirm the total dominance of the value-making process in nature, was reasserting that position, while moving beyond the principle of concretion toward something which could "promote" itself. Aside from the very beginning, he pressed his usual argument for the existence of a value-making process, while pointing out that the argument’s flip side (the existence of evil and hence of its causes) limited the extent of its claim. More directly, however, he displayed uneasiness over the claim that the process was teleological. Certainly we are justified in wondering if this was a response to Process and Reality and perhaps to the dipolar nature of God directly. Still, these are only vague hints.

In the following year, C. C. Morrison, then editor of The Christian Century, combined a series of articles from that periodical by D. C. MacIntosh, Max Carl Otto and Wieman into a book entitled, Is There A God? Here there appeared another excellent case of Wieman’s inability to settle on the human or the metaphysical level in his definition of God. At the beginning of the discussion he clearly chose the former, saying that "God is that interaction between individuals, groups, and ages which generates and promotes the greatest possible mutuality of good" (ITG 13). But then he broadened his scope.

Thus far we have been speaking of God as most intimately involved in human life. But this is only one level of the total system of patterns which is God. God reaches down to the foundations of the universe, into atomic structure, and reaches up into the highest possibilities of blessedness, far beyond the reach of our knowledge and imagination. These possibilities are patterns in the totality of God which have not yet come into this world of existence. (ITG 14)

But then he totally surprises us by affirming that God is a system of patterns which is "eternal and changeless. He would be identically the same if all existence were destroyed.... But existence is dependent on him for all the great good it contains or may ever hope to attain. For when these patterns of God enter existence in the form of a patterned process, they operate with power to increase the good of existence" (ITG 15). Such a claim was entirely new for Wieman. Even Whitehead would not have gone so far. He would in fact have opposed such a view. If this is true of God, how can God ever be associated with the human processes? And how are we to reconcile the suggestion that "these patterns of God" might ever not have entered into existence as a process with the adamant statement in the preceding text, "God and Value," that "God must be a process, not merely a principle"? The whole idea seems a slip of the pen.

Later in the discussion, however, Wieman turned to a every Whiteheadian mode of expression.

In saying God is a power I do not mean he is a power back of existence. The notion of a power back of existence is inherited from a time when it was thought existence was made up of inert atoms that had to be pushed and pulled around to get anything done. Existence is dynamic. Dynamic means that it is its nature to go, to stream, to change, to move on, to operate. Hence to say existence is a process of dynamic becoming means precisely that there is not something back of it to make it go. (ITG 201)

And yet this process was not simply identified with God, for he specified that "God is only one process among others" (ITO 88).

The various different forms of dynamic existence are doing many different things.... There is no necessary unity among all these forms of dynamic existence, so far as we can see. They are not all cooperating to one common end by any means. At least we have no evidence for it. They overlap, intertwine, some mutually sustaining, some destructive of one another, some indifferent. (ITG 202)

It is true that the dynamic process of becoming includes many sub-processes, and that in this sense Wieman felt free to identify God as one process among many. But in this context I only find myself becoming more and more lost in the effort to identify that process, or processes, which Wieman had in mind when he spoke of God. At this point it certainly was not the abstract principle of creativity or the universal process of concretion. Nor was he limiting it to the human realm. The one clear continuity is that "God is what is most worthy of the supreme devotion of all human living" (ITG 83). "I am simply trying to find out the nature of a certain fact. This fact is that ‘something’ which is most worthy of the supreme devotion of all human living" (ITG 86).

Exploration: Values as Activity and Growth, 1935-1936

Searching for new ways to define this Something, Wieman briefly experimented with the idea of "activities" or alternately, "appreciable activities." This exploration was conducted chiefly in a chapter on "The Concept of Supreme Value" in Normative Psychology of Religion (1935) and in an article for the Journal of Religion (1936) entitled, "Values: Primary data for Religious Inquiry." The primary units of value, he suggested in the former, "are activities, enjoyable or the opposite of enjoyable." In the latter, he refined this somewhat with the term "appreciable activities," to provide a better basis for discussing suffering. In both texts, he went on to point out the obvious fact that "What is enjoyable for one person is not for another" (NPR 46; JR14:392). Consequently, we cannot identify particular activities with value, but we can say, "that some certain relations between enjoyable activities are always of value while other relations are not." Whereupon he returned to his basic pattern with the conclusion that "Value is that connection between enjoyable activities by which they support one another, enhance one another, and, at a higher level, mean one another" (NPR 46; cf. JF14:394). Not only did he maintain his aesthetic approach to value, but he even identified it specifically as beauty (NPR 58).

Beyond this experiment with the vocabulary of activity rather than event, there are other explorations of interest. Instead of speaking of God or Supreme Value as a process, in these texts he used the term "growth" of value. "God is the growth which goes on through the succession of these limited systems of value.... This unlimited growth of connections of value is God" (JF14:404). Supreme value "is the growth of meaning in the world" (NPR 51).

These formulations of the nature of value were not developed in later texts. The term growth had the obvious difficulty of leading one to think of "created goods" rather than of "creative good" (the distinction made in The Source of Human Good) as the supreme value -- Wieman’s idea of idolatry. Nevertheless, these formulations do say something about what was going on in Wieman’s mind during this period. "Event" may have seemed impersonal, or at least something which might happen to a person rather than something which a person does. Wieman did make it clear, however, that while the growth of value is not controlled by persons (superhuman but not supernatural), there is a great deal that we can do to promote the growth of value. Thus, while the idea behind the terms "event" and "activity" may be basically the same, the shift may have indicated a growing concern that the stress be laid on the human role in the growth of value.

Increased emphasis on human effort was a strong theme. Especially in the chapter on supreme value, for example, an early form of the process of creative interchange was beginning to emerge (NPR 60). Indeed, that chapter concluded with one of the most powerful paragraphs in all of Wieman’s writings on the human role in the growth of value.

Here is the most urgent work for men to do. We today have reached one of those crises in history when old institutions, ideals and habits are being cracked and shattered by the up-thrusting of the superhuman growth of meaning and value. But those meanings and values cannot be consummated in the experience of human living until this old obstructive debris is taken out of the way. Such is the present state of society. In face of such a situation anyone who thinks that God will do it all and man has nothing to do, is wrapped in a blanket of delusion. It may be that men will refuse to do this work, If so, it will never be done and the great opportunity of this age to experience a superhuman flowering of meaning and value, will pass. In that case future historians will say: A springtime of history hovered near and then departed. After that winter came. (NPR 62)

There were two further changes of special interest in these two texts. First, there was an indication of a significant change in his definition of supreme value. In 1935 he wrote that "The greatest conceivable value would be the organization of this cosmos into that sort of a system where every activity in it would be sustained by every other...," but then he went on to make it clear that there is a "distinction between supreme value and greatest conceivable value" (NPR 50-1). He apparently considered the greatest conceivable value to be an ideal impassible of attainment, as distinguished from what is a combination of actuality and real possibility.

But far more specific than this was his abandonment of the principle of concretion and the correlative principle of relativity, or universal relatedness. In The Wrestle of Religion with Truth, Wieman had illustrated the principle of concretion by referring to Tennyson’s "flower in the crannied wall."

This flower is what it is because all the rest of being is what it is.… Everything that is or ever has been or ever will be is organized about this flower in concentric circles of relevance. Some things enter much more fully into it than others. The climate and soil in which it grew, and the gardener that. raised it, have more to do with it than the molecules at the center of the earth, or Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the reign of Julius Caesar, or the principle that two things equal to the same thing are equal to each other. But all of these things, and the totality of all being, has something to do with the flower.... The flower ‘prehends’ all being.... (WRT 182-3).

In sharp contrast to this is his reflection in the 1936 article.

Take the situation in which one enjoys the beauty of a rose.... Certainly the whole universe is not brought into the experience. Many things may happen in the world without affecting in the least the enjoyment of the rose. Whales may spout in the open sea, people may die around the corner, famine may stalk the land of China, and another revolution may break out in Russia without affecting in any way the connections which make up the value experienced in that situation. (JR14:402)

This is a clear indication that Wieman was making significant movements away from Whitehead and the metaphysical vision of the total event of reality.

The Key Text: Wieman’s Major Critique of Whitehead, 1936

This brings me finally to what is without question the key text for understanding the relationship between Wieman and Whitehead. What had gone before and what would come after only serve to give depth to the understanding of this one text. It is the section on Whitehead in the chapter on "Cosmic Theists" in American Philosophies of Religion (APR 229-41). For the first time Wieman acknowledged the dipolar character of Whitehead’s concept of God. Beginning his analysis with the primordial nature, he offered a very accurate, if highly simplified, account of the role of the primordial nature in the becoming of the universe. Interestingly, he used the terms "epochal occasion," "event" and "droplets of existence," but never "actual entity" or "eternal object," suggesting that he still may have been working largely from Religion in the Making.

He explained how it is that each droplet comes into existence and perishes simply because it is the nature of reality to flow. There may be some clue here to previously puzzling observations about processes of nature which are unrelated to value in the comment that this process of flowing "is not the work of God. It simply goes on because it is the ultimate nature of the universe to go on without end. But God has very important work to do in this process" (APR 232). Wieman then went on to explain that work. Each droplet, he wrote, strives to organize itself toward the fulfillment of its own interests without regard for the rest of the universe. "That is to say, it would do so were it not for God." If left to themselves the droplets would fall into chaos, frustrating each other and thus the whole universe through indifference. Then he repeated his standard empirical argument.

Observation makes plain that while these droplets or epochal occasions do work in this self-centered way, yet the world does not fall into complete chaos. There is mutual frustration and destructiveness aplenty, to be sure, yet at the same time there is an amazing amount of mutual support and mutual helpfulness in reaching fulfillment.... It is an observable fact. Now this observable fact is, for Whitehead, the reality of God. God is the mutual adjustment, mutual helpfulness, the mutual support that all epochal occasions find in attaining their several fulfillments respectively. (APR 233)

Wieman actually went too far in crediting Whitehead with this kind of highly restrictive empiricism, claiming that "When he finds this fact he stops there and does not claim that God in his primordial nature is anything more than just this fact." Again, this may be a possible reading of parts of Religion in the Making, but it is certainly not all that was going on in Process and Reality. Within this restricted interpretation, however, Wieman offered Whitehead high praise, identifying this mutual support as the supreme value. Why, he asked, should this be called God? Because "it is the supreme value.... This fact of mutual support, when taken simply as a fact and not used as a springboard from which to leap out into speculative realms, is an order.... It is the primordial order that gives to the world whatever mutual support can be found there.... Hence it is the sustainer and maker of all value" (APR 234-5). Note that the text gives the strong impression that Wieman was sharing and applauding this much of Whitehead’s vision. Having done this, Wieman then expanded his explanation of the primordial nature of God to make it somewhat closer to Whitehead’s actual position. He explained that the primordial order accomplishes this value-creating feat by holding over the world "forever all the different forms of order which might enter into it.... The primordial nature of God is that order by virtue of which all these forms are forever relevant to existence" (APR 235-6).

Finally, Wieman spoke of the work of the primordial nature of God as bringing more harmony into the world. When humans experience this harmony "they call it aesthetic experience Aesthetic experience is experience in which many influences vivify instead of neutralize one another and at the same time do not impair or destroy the clarity of consciousness.... That is the reason Whitehead calls God the aesthetic order of the universe" (APR 237). So far Wieman had related the first three strands I identified directly to the primordial nature of God: supreme value as an aesthetic concept, the identification of God with this Something which creates supreme value, and the empirical character. What he had not done was to present this concept as a workable one which avoids mere pleasant dreaming and affords people an opportunity to get in and help.

Finally, he took up this problem in regard to the consequent nature of God. "Whitehead’s system," he maintained, "could not stand without the primordial nature. It enters into the essential structure. The consequent nature, on the other hand, is added on like dome and spire" (APR 237). In doing so, Wieman asserted, Whitehead was failing the scientific, empirical idea. He was entering into the realm of speculation. Yet, almost surprisingly, he still felt that Whitehead "comes closer to [this empirical ideal] than almost any other thinker in the field of religion."

Nevertheless, it was for the consequent nature that Wieman reserved his final and, for Wieman, decisive attack (APR 237-40). "The consequent nature of God is added to meet the awful fact of evil which Whitehead sees and feels so keenly" Quoting from Process and Reality V, I, Wieman spoke of Whitehead’s great sensitivity to the tragedy of the loss of beauty, richness, and value. Obviously, he acknowledged, not all value and richness are lost. "All living things retain some of the past. There could be no development, no increase of value, if some of the value of the past could not be retained and built on in the present and handed on to enrich the future" (APR 238). But Whitehead, Wieman complained, was not satisfied with this empirical fact. The wastage is too great and the preservation too small.

Now the consequent nature of God is the way of deliverance from this wastage. The consequent nature of God is the gathering up of all the values as they arise and their conservation in an everlasting consciousness that grows from more to more as each epoch rises and perishes and delivers up the value which it has achieved to this cosmic consciousness. (APR 239)

But is there such a reality, such a value preserving consciousness? Wieman believed that Whitehead had "indulged in a speculation, driven to it by the awful tragedy of life" (APR 239). What he should have done was simply to have said: there is much loss, and that is tragic, but there is a little value preserved, and this preservation of value is the consequent nature of God. This is the only answer Wieman believed responsible empiricism could accept, however unsatisfying it may be to the mourning heart. "But the human heart cries for more, as it views the continuous perishing of so much that is superbly precious. It cries for more and Whitehead yields to the appeal" (APR 240).

That which Wieman had so strongly condemned in February of 1929, the merely pleasant idea of God which refused to face the cruel facts of reality, he almost immediately had found in the closing pages of his mentor’s greatest work. That, at least, seems to have been Wieman’s conclusion. Only after years of thought had he come to publish his disappointment. The idea of the consequent nature of God, he seems to be saying, is unworkable. It goes beyond any empirical justification and provides no direct way for persons to assist in its work. Three years later, in his review of Modes of Thought, he brought the period of transition to a gracious close.

We believe there is no teacher in the world today who so profoundly points the way to a great deliverance from the ills that beset us as does Whitehead. This we believe even when we cannot accept some of the things which he himself may hold to be basic to his philosophy. (RMT 239)

Final Independence

Although the influence of a major thinker, once absorbed, endures, it does seem necessary and appropriate to draw a line of demarcation between the period we have just studied and the period marked so decisively by the appearance of Wieman’s major text, The Source of Human Good, in 1946. There, and in the later volume, Man’s Ultimate Commitment (1958), are found the fullest blooming and greatest depth of Wieman’s insights into the problem he had set for himself. Only, it seems, in the above-cited chapter on "Supreme Value" is there any real foreshadowing of the direction and quality which emerged in these works. I can only skim them briefly here, along with a pair of minor texts, to discover the extent to which Wieman moved away from his earlier metaphysical commitment to Whitehead.

The Source of Human Good, 1946

The first of the four themes I have been tracing, an aesthetic theory of value, was made quite clear here. Wieman demonstrated that he had learned much from Whitehead, while finally casting his concerns decisively on the human level. The basic measure of value, he asserted, is qualitative meaning in human life. There are, he explained, two kinds of value which people experience: instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental value identifies the many moments of our lives when we are involved in activities which offer little satisfaction or quality in themselves but which are necessary to the maintenance of life and to the possibility of moments of intrinsic value. Many people may dislike their jobs, but will put in the required time in order to support dependents, hopefully at a level which will allow some degree of satisfaction beyond mere existence. Perhaps it will be in the community of the family that workers will find moments of living which are valuable and meaningful for their own sakes, just because the experience of those moments is what makes it all worthwhile. These are moments of intrinsic value, and in too many lives they are largely isolated occasions, few and far between, connected only by long chains of life lived instrumentally.

The goal of life, Wieman argued, is to so arrange our lives that every moment participates in the richness and value of every other moment so that our lives are constantly filled with richness. This is the creation of qualitative meaning.

Qualitative meaning is that connection between events whereby present happenings enable me to feel not only the quality intrinsic to the events now occurring but also the qualities of many other events that are related to them. (SHG 18)

This continued a theme pervading all his previous work, and paralleled very closely a statement by Whitehead in Process and Reality, where he says that triviality (in effect, the opposite of qualitative meaning) "arises from lack of coordination in the factors of the datum, so that no feeling arising from one factor is reinforced by any feeling from another factor" (PR 132). But Wieman was no longer slipping back and forth between Whitehead’s metaphysical vision and his own concern for the human level. Qualitative meaning definitely relates to the latter. The aesthetic awareness of Wieman, which he had learned in part from Whitehead, was specifically stated in the chapter on Beauty. Normally, he said, people use the term "beauty" to refer to a narrowly restricted context, but "if one wishes to extend the meaning of beauty to include all aesthetic richness attained by this reference of events to one another, then all qualitative meaning is beauty" (SHG 134).

While Wieman was somewhat less concerned with the term "God" at this point in his career, the second theme, that of the elusive "Something," may be seen in a brief look at Man’s Ultimate Commitment. There he repeated his basic argument in a new form. Persons can be transformed to great good or great evil. Therefore there must be something which lies back of that transformation, but which requires human cooperation.

The problem having these two aspects can now be stated: What operates in human life with such character and power that it will transform man as he cannot transform himself to save him from the depths of evil and endow him with the greatest good, provided that he give himself over to it with whatsoever completeness of self-giving is possible for him. (MUC 11)

Then, very helpfully, I believe, he goes on to argue that the religious problem is misconceived whenever we turn aside from this problem to inquire into the existence or non-existence of some previously defined entity, i.e., God.

The word "God" is irrelevant to the religious problem unless the word is used to refer to whatever in truth operates to save man from evil and to the greater good no matter how much this operating reality may differ from all traditional ideas about it (MUC 12).

The conviction that this something must be both subject to empirical scientific examination, and workable in the sense of allowing and demanding human effort, was stronger in the last period than in the earlier years, very certainly because of the awesome advances in science, and especially in the arts of war. In 1946 he went so far as to say that,

The bomb that fell on Hiroshima cut history in two like a knife. Before and after are two different worlds. This cut is more abrupt, decisive, and revolutionary than the cut made by the star over Bethlehem. It may not be more creative of human good than the star, but it is more swiftly transformative of human existence than anything else that has ever happened. (SHG 37)

Because of this, today more than ever before, our science and technology must be directed away from the paths of destruction and into the search for the conditions demanded for the creation of human good. This is possible only if we understand those conditions in terms of concrete actual events, If religion persists in identifying the source of human good and the proper object of our ultimate commitment with a transcendental essence or ideal beyond the world of events which compose and shape the world in which we live, and if religion, by exempting itself from such investigation, diverts science and technology away from their rightful and crucial tasks of discovering and supporting the conditions which make for human good, then "they will destroy us because they will then be put into the service of those diverse and conflicting values which the restricted, self-centered and group-centered consciousness of man can apprehend." Thus, Wieman was convinced that in the matter of the empirical nature of this creative process, "We are discussing, not logical inconsistency, but life and death" (SHG 31),

It was undoubtedly this conviction which led to Wieman’s declaration early in The Source of Human Good that

The only creative God we recognize is the creative event itself, So also we ignore the transcendental affirmation in the Greek tradition of the reality of Forms of value, uncreated and eternal, having causal efficacy to constrain the shape of things without themselves being events at all. The only forms of value we recognize are produced by the creative event. Even possibilities, so far as relevant to actual events, are created. (SHG 7-8)

Probably, Wieman intended to reject Whitehead’s God in this statement, at least in the last two sentences. This is suggested by the explicit criticisms of Whitehead offered later in the book. In the chapter on "Truth" Wieman reveals a serious misunderstanding of Whitehead’s concept of God, albeit an error which may arise in part from problems within Process and Reality. Wieman clearly treats Whitehead’s God as a bifurcated rather than a dipolar being. The primordial nature of God is treated entirely in isolation from the consequent nature so that both aspects of God are left in a state of total passivity, the primordial nature as a mere receptacle for possibilities and the consequent nature as a mere preserver of values.

According to Whitehead, the primordial order waits helplessly for creative events to embody in themselves the eternal objects which are presented to them as possibilities by this order. The primordial order serves merely to provide a habitation, so to speak, for structures that otherwise would have no relevance to the existing world and thus to keep them in storage.... (SHG 192)

As the primordial order provides a receptacle for storing all structures that may ever become relevant to the existing world, so the consequent nature provides a receptacle for storing all that has ever existed, so far as it can have any value whatsoever (SHG 193).

These descriptions are not inaccurate, they are simply inadequate. By treating these two facets of God’s nature in isolation Wieman loses the Whiteheadian vision of a dynamic God who is intimately related to the world, who is capable of sharing in the experience of the world and responding to that experience by adjusting the divine role in each new entity’s self-creation appropriately to the new situation. The very actuality and concreteness of God for Whitehead depend on the final unity of this dipolar character of the divine life. Naturally, if Wieman destroyed that unity through such a misunderstanding he would be forced to say of this God that "it cannot respond to man or meet the needs of human life as the creative event we have been describing" (SHG 193). In short, because the Whiteheadian God as Wieman understood it had no active role in the creative process, it was neither subject to empirical investigation nor workable as a concrete process to which persons can adjust their activities.

This is not to say that Wieman’s critique was based wholly on this misunderstanding. He did also offer a straightforward philosophical disagreement. He (recognized that "the primordial order as defended by Whitehead is necessary if every structure that might ever become relevant is to have some kind of reality prior to that creation of a world to which it would be relevant" (SHO 189). But Wieman qualified (or possibly even rejected) the applicability of the ontological principle to irrelevant possibilities. He insisted that structures arise which make new possibilities come into existence. The evolution of sufficiently complex molecules, for example, is required before the vast possibilities of life become relevant. It is unclear, however, whether he was sensitive to Whitehead’s distinction between pure and real potentials.

Despite this public separation from Whitehead, there are two aspects of Wieman’s position which are very interesting. First, he did not deny the validity of the metaphysical enterprise altogether. He stated clearly that "the form of the creative event itself at our higher levels of existence is determined by the creative process at more elementary levels. In our view the higher levels of existence spring from, rest upon, and are undergirded by the lower" (SHG 8). And in the section discussed above from the chapter on Truth, Wieman explicitly refers to the "metaphysics here defended," i.e., his own. Secondly, the metaphysical position with which Wieman concludes that chapter is amazingly Whiteheadian, although perhaps still somewhat closer to the principle of concretion he had endorsed earlier than to the bipolar God of Process and Reality.

But diverse and complex as these possibilities may be, there is an order which is coercive, determinate, and antecedent to all that man may do or seek or know, setting limits to knowledge, to truth, and to all that may happen. It is the order of the existing world as created to date, plus the order of creative energy as it operates in the world, plus the range of relevant possibilities as determined by this structure of creative energy and the world with which it must work. (SHG 195-6)

A final note needs to be added before moving on to the next text The discussion just above tends to be misleading in that it suggests that these concerns were far more important to Wieman than they were. Yes, he was very concerned with the religious tendency to place God beyond the world of actual events which persons can study and to which they can adjust. And yes, he did acknowledge that the creative process would be at work even if all life were destroyed. But these were largely asides, and were clearly distinguished from the discussions about what really grasped Wieman’s own soul -- the urgent demand that men and women commit themselves without reservation to the process of creative interchange which creates human good through the increase of qualitative meaning. We must now turn our eyes away from mere created goods to the study of the creative process itself, and devote ourselves, our science, and our technology to that process in order to avoid the destruction which surely awaits our failure to do so. This was the thrust which really set him apart from Whitehead’s concentration on metaphysics. We must focus our attention on what we can do to make possible our own creative transformation.

The "intellectual autobiography "

This conclusion is reinforced by the brief section on Whitehead in Wieman’s "Intellectual Autobiography," published in The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman. He stressed that Whitehead did not use the name "God" for what operates in the human sphere but reserved it for a cosmic process. Curiously, he again spoke mainly of the primordial order. It is a little difficult to distinguish what Wieman did and did not agree with regarding the primordial order. He did seem to acknowledge some such reality, while observing that a Whiteheadian would no doubt give more emphasis to the realm of eternal objects But his objections to this realm and to such speculation was nevertheless made clear.

This is a cosmic speculation about which it is difficult to get evidence. In any case religious seeking must not be led astray from its primary problem and responsibility. Religious inquiry seeks to know what operates in human life here and now to save from stagnation, perversion, and destruction, and to transform toward the best to be attained. If this problem is solved, the eternal possibilities, if any, will take care of themselves. Man in existence is the religious problem, not the cosmos and not eternal being except as those enter into man’s existence (ETW 9-10)

Religious Inquiry

The last published expression of Wieman’s evaluation of Whitehead I found is his discussion of "Cosmic Consciousness" in Religious Inquiry (1968), pp. 40-45. While the rest of the book includes some excellent thinking on a wide range of problems, this short section is disappointing. Without saying why, Wieman chose to take Hartshorne as the representative interpreter of Whitehead’s thought rather than Whitehead himself for analysis. And while I think some of his arguments are very important, others seem quite unfair to process theology.

At the outset he made it clear that he rejected the whole idea of a cosmic consciousness, "since all the galactic systems, with their exploding stars and vast lifeless spaces in between, give no evidence of being organized like a biological organism fit to embody a conscious mind..." (40). With this I am inclined to agree.2

But even if such a mind did exist, he continued, it would not deserve the designation "God" because its own values would necessarily conflict with ours. Wieman argued that such a mind could never experience love or justice because these are not "experienced in one’s own body... [but] are experienced in the relations between persons" (41-2). Since there is nothing outside the universe’s body, the universe must be a total sensualist with no knowledge of these values and no concerns beyond itself. Clearly these attacks are wholly inappropriate for the process vision of God as the supremely related social being.

More empirically, Wieman argued that the occurrence of life capable of sustaining human values is apparently so small in the vastness of the universe as to be at best negligible, and at worst to "seem, from the standpoint of this cosmic consciousness’ like aberrations and evils" (42). In short, while the material universe without consciousness may be accepted as merely indifferent to our welfare, given a consciousness it must appear hostile. At the very least, the failure to generate more beings able to sustain values at the human level does not speak well for its beneficence or significance. Some might argue that this critique is just as applicable to Wieman’s own "Something" or "Creative Process" beyond the limits of strictly human interchange.

There is one very specific and interesting shift from the discussion of Whitehead given in American Philosophies of Religion. There, Wieman spoke with high praise of the role of the primordial nature of God in bringing into mutual support the becoming of epochal occasions whose efforts would otherwise be directed solely to the fulfillment of individual interests without concern for the rest of the universe. It was this aesthetic work of the primordial nature of God which he felt made it of supreme value and worthy of the name of "God." But here Wieman ignored such praise and spoke with scorn of this concept, arguing that any contribution such atomic events make to other atoms (he still had never used the term "actual entity") comes only after perishing. While becoming, each is purely concerned with selfish interests, seeking "only the satisfaction of its own subjective aim..." (43).

As if this were not a harsh enough judgment, he went on to add that since the contribution which is made by each event upon perishing is determined by the cosmic consciousness, "it is perpetrated by the ‘cosmic mind’ to satisfy the needs of its own body; there is no concern for anything outside its own body because there is nothing outside its own body" (43). Clearly such arguments grossly distort Whitehead’s (and Hartshorne’s) philosophy, and I see no reason why Wieman should have launched such an incredible attack. While there are other examples of erratic quality in Wieman’s work, it is especially regrettable that his last discussion of Whitehead’s philosophy should fail to demonstrate the insight and sophistication evident in so many of the other chapters of the final book.


I have traced four major strands in Wieman’s thought with the purpose of showing through them the development of his critique of the philosophy of Whitehead.

(1) Wieman was already dealing with an implicitly aesthetic approach to value in his dissertation. But it seems that his encounter with Whitehead, especially in Religion in the Making, brought this aspect of his value theory to much greater clarity and prominence.

(2) Wieman did not derive his definition of God as "that Something supremely important for human well being" from Whitehead. But for a while he did identify this Something with Whitehead’s concept of God -- first with the principle of concretion and then with the primordial order. Whitehead certainly contributed to Wieman’s willingness during this period to think of this Something as a cosmic, rather than exclusively human, process.

(3) Part of the attraction of Whitehead’s philosophy was its strongly empirical character, especially, I think, in Concept of Nature and parts of Process and Reality. Whitehead made it clear that God was not to be exempted from the basic principles governing the rest of reality. His God was not conceived as transcendent to the universe in a way which made it inaccessible to any form of rational, empirical study.

(4) But with the coming of the consequent nature into Whitehead’s concept of God, Wieman became disenchanted. First, it seemed to Wieman that Whitehead had violated the requirements of sound empirical philosophy by indulging in speculation. He felt that Whitehead had yielded to the natural human tendency to conceive of God in terms which offered a merely pleasant feeling about religion without demanding the kind of ultimate commitment to the creative process itself which Wieman felt was urgently needed.

We can see that the universe hangs together and exhibits some creative advance, but how can we possibly know anything about this consequent nature of God? How can we know if it loves or hates, is caring or cold, prehends without loss, or offers us a lure other than those we get from the culture which gives us our conscience?

Wieman was essentially arguing that the natural world itself performs the functions of the primordial and consequent natures of God alike -- so far as they are performed at all. Possibilities are not eternal, he finally concluded. They are themselves simply structures of the material world (SHG 8-9). The events and processes creative of human good are entirely natural. Wieman became increasingly hostile toward religious visions which set the source of human good in a transcendent reality. Such visions make us helpless, he believed, since we cannot possibly study or work with something "wholly other." Appeals to transcendental realities are both debilitating and useless.

These claims rest upon an analysis of our experience, revealing that no transcendental reality could ever do anything. It could not make the slightest difference in our lives except in the form of some happening, some event. In other words, nothing can happen if it does not happen. But when the transcendental becomes an event, it is no longer transcendental. (SHG 8)

Furthermore, the world is not so nice as Whitehead’s vision of God would lead us to expect, Wieman argued. So far as we can see, the universe is mostly empty space, cold dust, and exploding balls of gas. So far as we can tell, life is an incredibly rare aberration, consuming itself in natural systems "red in tooth and claw," doomed to die as suns die out. In the larger view, there just doesn’t seem to be any kindly God drawing the universe toward the kind of richness Whitehead’s God would seek. What value is created in this world is preserved here or nowhere, and it is obvious that value is gradually lost.

But finally, it seems that Wieman’s most fundamental reason for moving away from Whitehead and his metaphysical vision is captured in this reminiscence of Bernard Meland from Wieman’s transition period:

Wieman said explicitly to me once, "You have to make up your mind whether you are going to be completely intrigued by this unmanageable scope of inquiry or whether you are going to adhere to a manageable course. And he said, "I’ve decided to follow the latter. And that means that though I am not unaware of this undefined awareness and this surplusage of experience, in order to proceed with my inquiry, with my problem, I have to keep it within manageable scope." And I think he adhered to that tenaciously.

Wieman believed that the consequent nature of God had been "added on like dome and spire" -- lacking both empirical support and practical value in the search for the sources of human good.



BEM -- Bernard Eugene Meland. All quotations from Meland are taken from tapes in my personal files of three conversations we shared on 11/4/75,12/2/75 and 12/16/75. Meland was a student, and later a colleague of Wieman’s, as well as being himself a major figure in empirical process theology at the University of Chicago.

Works by Henry Nelson Wieman

APR -- With Bernard E. Meland. American Philosophies of Religion. Chicago: Willett, Clarke & Co., 1936.

JPPS 14 -- "A Criticism of Coordination as a Criterion of Moral Value." The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods (now the J. of Philosophy) 14/20 (Sept. 27) 1917.

RR – "God and Value." Religious Realism. Ed. D. C. MacIntosh. NY: Macmillan, 1931.

ETW -- "Intellectual Autobiography." The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman. Ed. Robert Bretall. NY: Macmillan, 1963.

ITG -- With D. C. MacIntosh and Max Carl Otto. Is There a God? A collection of articles from The Christian Century. Ed. Charles Clayton Morrison. Chicago, NY: Willett, Clarke & Co., 1932.

MUC -- Man‘s Ultimate Commitment. Edwardsville and Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1974. (First published in 1958).

NPR -- With Regina Westcott-Wieman. Normative Psychology of Religion. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1935. (Wieman wrote the chapter on "Supreme Value.")

OI -- The Organization of Interests. Ed. Cedric L. Hepler. NY: University Press of America, 1985. (Wieman’s 1917 Ph.D. thesis at Harvard.)

JR10 -- "A Philosophy of Religion." Journal of Religion 10/1 (January, 1930). (A review of Whitehead’s PR.)

RESM -- Religious Experience and Scientific Method. Edwardsville and Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1971. (First published in 1926).

RI -- Religious Inquiry. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

JR19 -- Review of Whitehead’s MT. The Journal of Religion 19/2 (April, 1939): 237-9.

SHG -- The Source of Human Good. Edwardsville and Carbondale: S.I.U. Press, 1967. (First published in 1946).

JR14 – "Values: Primary Data for Religious Inquiry." The Journal of Religion, 16/4 (October, 1936).

CC46 – "A Workable Idea of God." The Christian Century 46 (Feb. 14, 1929): 226-8.

WRT -- The Wrestle of Religion with Truth. NY: Macmillan, 1927.



11n a footnote to this (n84), Wieman appended the explanation that "This criticism is made specifically of Whitehead because we are so profoundly indebted to him that we fear our thought will be confused with his in every particular. This would be a misunderstanding."

21t is interesting to contrast Wieman’s dismissal of the cosmic mind here with his own speculations along that line in his earlier works. In addition to quotations appearing elsewhere in this essay, consider also the following. In "Experience, Mind and the Concept," The Journal of Philosophy 21/21 (Oct., 1924) (reprinted in Hepler, ed., Seeking A Faith for a New Age: Essays on the Interdependence of Religion, Science and Philosophy, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press. 1975), Wieman makes this comment (p. 41): "Mind is physical nature plus.... Does all physical nature have in it that something more by virtue of which it is not only physical nature, but also mind? That is a metaphysical question into which we cannot now enter, but we only mention it to say that the view of mind and nature here presented does not necessarily preclude the possibility of all nature being mind."

And from RESM 181:

Not all events involve a mind, but some do, and it may be that what gives the character and creative advance [sic] to the whole of nature and every part of nature is that there is operative throughout the whole of nature a Mind. And what is most important, the whole material world, while not ceasing to be material may in its totality, by reason of the form of this totality constitute a mind. (317)