Process and Religion: The History of a Tradition at Chicago

by Larry F. Axel

Larry F. Axel is editor of the American Journal of Theology & Philosophy. He directs the religious studies program at Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana), and where he is also Associate Professor of Philosophy.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.231-239, Vol. 8, No. 4, Winter, 1978. 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.


Process inquiry must continually be nudged toward a broader understanding of its traditions, so that it is not identified simply with one particular system. If it is to follow a genuinely organismic — not atomistic — model of inquiry, it must campaign against limited rationalisms and against limiting specializationalism.

Theological inquiry in the process tradition has normally been pursued in a context of close association with developments in philosophy and the sciences. Taking its cue from Whitehead, it has been especially attentive to work in these fields that has recognized and appropriated the relational and processive nature of thought and experience. In this country, theological reflections in this vein have sometimes come to be associated with certain "schools" or "centers," as clusters emerge where Whitehead’s work itself, or the metaphysical and social vision which spawned it, is taken seriously and applied to the issues of religious life. Prior to the emergence in recent years of Claremont as a focal point for process studies, the University of Chicago tended to serve as the primary center for theological inquiry in the process mode. There, evolutionary imagery and developments in related sciences were taken seriously. Gerald Birney Smith and Henry Nelson Wieman alerted the faculty early on to the importance of emergence theories in metaphysics and the new sciences; Charles Hartshorne gave witness to the resources of a processive view in philosophy of religion and theology; under the deanship of Bernard Loomer, Whitehead’s Process and Reality was brought virtually to the center of the curriculum; and a group of leading process thinkers was attracted to the faculty at Chicago, where at one time Daniel Day Williams, Bernard Meland, and Loomer dominated the theological field, together offering the standard course sequence for work in philosophical theology.

While distinguished work in many areas of religious inquiry has been carried on at Chicago, it has been especially celebrated by those who work at the interface of theology and philosophy, and, more particularly, by those who are persuaded by the vision and perceptiveness of Whitehead’s program. While Chicago no longer exists as a center of process thought and is to a lesser extent than before identified with philosophy-theology dialogue and interaction, it leaves a legacy worthy of study by anyone interested in the history of these modes of inquiry in American religious thought.

Assessments could vary as to the motivating force behind this utilization of process-relational ways of thinking at Chicago, just as could attempts to place historically the initiation of manners of pursuing theological questions which gave philosophical literature a prominent role. Much has been made, legitimately, of Wieman’s first lecture before the Chicago faculty in 1926, in which he masterfully demonstrated the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy for current theological endeavors. It is true that this lecture, and the enthusiastic reaction to it, launched a new era at Chicago during which the concerns of metaphysics came to the fore and attention to emergence thinkers became more formative. Another important event was the coming of Hartshorne to the philosophy faculty in 1928 and his eventual close association with the work of the Divinity School. It was perhaps the impetus of his work which truly initiated a Whiteheadian era at Chicago. Finally, there ought be noted the role of Loomer’s doctoral thesis, "The Theological Significance of the Method of Empirical Analysis in the Philosophy of A. N. Whitehead" (1942), a work which attained an almost incredible influence, given the fact that it remains to this day unpublished. Loomer’s work was widely read. When he was made Dean in 1945, he sought to make the principles of the Whiteheadian system formative of educational policy itself at the Divinity School, and he hoped to make mastery of Process and Reality a foundation for theological study.

To the extent that these efforts succeeded and to the extent that Wieman, Hartshorne, Loomer, Williams, and Meland came to be regarded as persuasive and major spokesmen in American theology, Chicago became a center of inquiry where process-relational modes of thinking were to the fore. Whether these efforts provided the centripetal force for a new "school" per se is open to various modes of interpretation, but the attention to the Whiteheadian system and its many implications, to interdisciplinary routes of inquiry, to the latest insights from the emerging sciences, and to process-relational modes of thinking identified Chicago with a progressivism and excitement in theological study which many found appealing. But what is seldom recognized is the fact that the roots of this tradition antedate Whiteheadianism by several years. Long before the writing of Process and Reality, long before the arrivals of Wieman and Hartshorne at Chicago, the stage had been set for a radical experiment in theological inquiry. Before these writers were becoming self-conscious about a particular metaphysics through its explicit formulation, a school was emerging at Chicago. At the turn of the century there were theologians at work who in their own way can be regarded as "process thinkers." The later entry of Whiteheadianism into Chicago discussions represented another stage of process inquiry, of course, one in which explicit metaphysics and imagery from the new physics was more to the fore; however, it may be that it found a ready hearing at the Divinity School because of the nature of the traditions and modes of inquiry already in place there. To see the force of this argument we need to look at some of the movements at brew in those earlier years.

In 1904, William James proclaimed: "Chicago has a School of Thought!" (CS 1). Some universities, he noted, had thought but no school; others had a school but, unfortunately, no thought. James had been convinced that Chicago had both through his readings from the University’s Decennial Publications series, especially Studies in Logical Theory, co-authored by John Dewey and other members of the philosophy department. While James noted that Dewey’s book was short on detail, he celebrated the general contours of Dewey’s way of thinking outlined there. It should become clear why this way of thinking was to have significance for work in theology. Dewey’s method represented an evolutionism and also a pure empiricism. For Dewey, James noted, "There is nothing real, whether being or relation between beings, which is not direct matter of experience. There is no Unknowable or Absolute behind or around the finite world" (CS 2). James also heralded the fact that in Dewey’s way of thinking there was nothing "eternally constant; no term is static, but everything is process and change" (CS 2). In making "biology and psychology continuous" (CS 2), Dewey noted that every "situation" implies at least two factors, environment and organism, each a variable of the other, interacting with and being influenced by and developing the other. According to James’s reading, "the situation gets perpetually ‘reconstructed,’ to use another of Professor Dewey’s favorite words, and this reconstruction is the process of which all reality consists" (CS 2). James ought be credited for recognizing early on here that Dewey’s work at Chicago (which he maintained was indicative of many of "the Chicago writers") was signaling not only a breakdown in static ways of thinking but also a turning away from viewing the world in terms of substance categories. As James characterized this approach: "A fact and a theory have not different natures, as is usually supposed, the one being objective, the other subjective. They are both made of the same material, experience-material namely, and their difference relates to their way of functioning solely . . . ‘Truth’ is thus in process of formation like all other things" (CS 4).

It is reported that during the first twenty-five years of this century, Dewey’s writings were regarded as practically a primer for work in theology, psychology, education, and the social sciences at Chicago. In heeding the work of Dewey, the early Chicago theologians did not think of themselves as proceeding in a particularly philosophical vein, however. They were not consciously assenting to a specific philosophy or to a specific theological position. In attending to this kind of work and to similar developments in social psychology and cultural anthropology, they simply were adopting a method, a method eventually so germane to and presupposed by the procedures of their work that its philosophical underpinnings hardly surfaced for explicit formulation or examination. The astute student will recognize that because the men of the early Chicago School "simply" adopted and forged a method rather than a particular philosophical position or ideology, their work was much more noteworthy in the long course. Thus, in considering the influence of philosophical resources upon the development of theology in America, we do well in Dewey’s case not to emphasize (as do most commentators) A Common Faith, but rather to attend to the earlier "nontheological" works: Studies in Logical Theory and How We Think.

Here Dewey broke new ground in logical theory by reporting that "it only distorts results reached to treat knowing as a self-enclosed and self-explanatory whole -- hence the intimate connection of logical theory with functional psychology" (SLT x). In this volume, Dewey developed an instrumentalist and evolutionist conception of truth, according to which "there is no reasonable standard of truth . . . except through reference to the specific offices which knowing is called upon to perform in readjusting and expanding the means and ends of life" (SLT x). From this view we get a new understanding of objectivity. According to Dewey,

anything is objective insofar as, through the medium of conflict, it controls the movement of experience in its reconstructive transition from one unified form to another. There is not first an object, whether of sense-perception or of conception, which afterward somehow exercises this controlling influence; but the objective is such in virtue of the exercise of function of control (SLT 76).

Thus, Dewey invited people to move away from substance forms of thinking and to abandon pursuits of "pure knowledge" or "truth itself" apart from the social process. When this work was coupled with other developments at Chicago and in the new sciences generally, the implications for theology were of note.

These writings in logical and psychological theory, concerned with the methodology of inquiry generally, contended that mental processes are functions of the biological organism in its adaptation to, response to, and control of the environing situation. Likewise, the early Chicago theologians focused their inquiry on the function of theological concepts and ideologies, they tended to analyze their subject in terms of the interplay of organism and environment, and they thought in terms indicative of a context of adjustment and adaptation. Consequently, they tended to view ideological and religious developments in terms of social processes of adaptation and adjustment. This orientation had the effect of lessening the theologians’ concern for static truth or revelatory fiat and diverted effort away from a search for any metaphysical Absolute. One of the results of this attention to social adaptation and to the functional import and evolutionary nature of religious doctrines and traditions led to the development (by men like Shailer Mathews and Gerald Birney Smith) of the "socio-historical method," a distinguishing characteristic of Chicago’s inquiry in the days of which William James wrote. In this method, religion was always viewed in relational terms and was regarded as in process. Static categories were jettisoned in favor of language which took seriously the fluid and relational nature of the world, its processes, and its interconnections. While it would be inaccurate to suggest that the work of these earlier thinkers was exactly of a piece with the more metaphysically oriented Whitehead, their attention to the social process was a rejection of atomism in favor of a relationism and an organicism in religious thought. Development, not stasis, was the byword. Interconnectednesses, not things, ruled the day.

Perhaps the leading figure in the development and promulgation of this theological method was Shailer Mathews, who taught at the Divinity School from 1894 to 1933, serving as Dean from 1908. It is not without significance that the Mathews Festschrift, edited by Miles Krumbine in 1933, was entitled The Process of Religion. Trained in history (with specialization in the French Revolution) and highly influenced by developments in the new sociology, Mathews never thought of himself as doing metaphysics or theology in the traditional manner. His interest was in the history and development of society and of religious doctrine, With the new sociology of Lester Frank Ward and Albion Small, Mathews saw society as an organism with its parts functionally related, "No longer the traditional aggregate of atomistic, autonomous units without continuity, society was viewed as a mechanism of interdependent parts which performed functions essential to the whole" (SM 233). Consequently, in the study of theology, Mathews believed that the primary element for study was not the individual but the group. With the new sociology, Mathews also agreed that humankind’s activities, not merely blind natural causation, contribute to the direction and development of the evolutionary process. Thus, just as what we now know as "society" was an outcome of an historical-evolutionary process, so also history itself could be seen as the outcome of a social process. This view, reported Mathews, "served to give me a mind-set which saw history as a social process with elements of the past continuing in the present" (NFO 49). Or, as stated by an inquirer of similar persuasion, Vernon Parrington: "The individual . . , is no longer an isolated, self-determining entity, but a vehicle through which is carried the streams of life, with a past behind and a future before. He is a portion of the total scheme of things, tied by a thousand threads to the encompassing whole" (MCAT Vol. 3:192).

Eschewing "philosophy" and "metaphysics," by which he probably meant some form of Absolute Idealism, Mathews in his early work set to developing what came to be known as the "sociohistorical" method. Process in that method was not the same as the process of Whitehead’s system, though it did depend on an evolutionary and basically processive view of reality. Mathews’ emphasis was on social process, the development by groups of social ideals and theological ideologies, which received their motivating force and guiding models from the economic, political, and social patterns in place and at work in the culture. In this method of examining a particular religious tradition, stress was laid upon determining what social needs were being met through religious beliefs and practices by a culture at a particular point in its history.

Perhaps one of the most revealing examples of the application of this method in Mathews’ work is his long essay in Biblical World (1915), "Theology and the Social Mind." Here he presented religion as a phase of the dynamic life process in which the shared valuations of a cultural group, influenced by the whole matrix of social patterns and habits inherited in the historical situation, are carried forward and readjusted. In this essay Mathews illustrated his approach by enumerating the succession of "social minds" which had been dominant during various stages of Christianity’s history. In each phase, the patterns and metaphors of theological doctrine conformed to the models traceable to the social mind operative in the life of the group. Thus, in describing the history of Christianity, Mathews dealt not with the question of the metaphysical truth of various doctrines, but rather with the issue of the function of doctrine through a succession of dominant "social minds," which he designated as the Semitic monarchical, the Hellenistic monarchical, the imperialistic, the feudal, the national, the bourgeois, and the scientific-democratic. The task of enumerating and examining these developments may make the theologian’s effort appear less presumptuous, for one may attend to "the growth of the idea of Cod" without claiming to discover or describe the nature of God itself.

In all of this it was understood that religion was an activity in process, as social groups sought to achieve more productive adjustment to the factors of the natural and social environment which carry their culture through historical development. Adaptation and process, interaction with the forces of the environment, are the key elements in the religious scholars’ quest, not eternal verities or external revelations. This evolutionary and organismic perspective of society, religion, and the world -- and the sociohistorical method engendered by it -- became the hallmark of the early "Chicago School." We can see why a book with a title like Religion in the Making (Whitehead, 1926) would have found a ready audience there as early as 1910 or 1915. But it was only in Mathews’ later years that his interests broadened to include a more cosmological orientation, wherein he would be especially receptive to a program like that of Whitehead. It is striking to read Mathews’ writings of the 1920’s and 1930’s and to discover how they include -- indeed, are virtually dominated by -- a set of themes and claims which can quite appropriately be read as the arguments of a "process theology."

In 1924 Mathews wrote, concerning the appearance of personality in nature:

If life has grown more personal while organisms have grown more complicated this must be due in part to the influence of an environment within which there must be that which can evoke personality in the progressive series of organisms. This is an immediate corollary of the fact that the evolutionary process is conditioned by the environment with which the organism is in dynamic relation. . . . Similarly, as human evolution leads toward human personality and this process must be within and dependent upon an environing universe, there must be something correlative to it, something capable of assimilation by it within the environment. . . . It is impossible to think that personality could evolve from the exclusively impersonal. There must be that in the environment which the personality-producing organism can appropriate, and with which it can act harmoniously. If something analogous to personality were not in the universe the process of evolution would have stopped below personality as we know it in man.

From such a point of view the evolutionary process of humanity can be described as a successive development of organisms sufficient to appropriate or respond to personal elements from the environment, the influence of which is argued by the process itself. And this is what would be expected from our discovery of elements in the universe analogous to reason or purpose.

It is at this point, of course, that one is again tempted into the all but forbidden field of metaphysical speculation. For if the ultimate of reality is activity, and if we see it in certain lines of process up through what we call matter into life and then into personality, it is easy to see why naturalism fails to satisfy human needs. [We must remember the way in which naturalism was being used at this time.] It fails to take into account all the qualities which observed evolution shows must have been implicit in ultimate activity, namely, those which could produce personality, and so must themselves be not foreign to personality. In other words, we might think of this ultimate activity as being, so to speak, potentially dualistic, mysteriously capable of expressing itself in ever-enlarging personal as well as impersonal ways, environments and organisms.

But be the value of metaphysical speculation of this sort what it may, when one sees activity characterized by reason and purpose and at the same time producing strains of living matter (no longer a word of materialism) which in turn has personality as a function, one has come in sight of God. For by these facts the great conviction is forced upon us that just as we men and women have personality within that mass of chemical and physical activity which we call our bodies, so in the infinite universe of activity is there immanent an infinite Person whose existence and character account for its relationships, its tendencies and its achievements. Such a Person cannot be static perfection, but creative of new values far in advance of chemical compounds. The analogies with which we most satisfactorily think of Him cannot be derived from that which is mechanistic or static (CSR 399-401).

In arguing against mechanism throughout Contributions of Science to Religion, Mathews suggested that there was purposive, directive activity within this process we call the universe. According to Mathews: "If there is tendency, development, process, evolution, then the infinite activity is working toward ends. . . . One thing seems beyond peradventure: the mechanistic conception breaks of its own weight when one studies any process" (CSR 396). Thus, here Mathews concluded aphoristically, "nature reveals a kingdom of ends as well as of histories" (CSR 396). And we note that this talk of purposes, tendencies, etc., was not drawn from a conception of a guiding agent external to the process itself. Cod ought not be "thought of as an entity objective to the universe imparting grace, or as immanent in dead matter, or as an undefined spiritual order over against nature" (ICE 48). This view gave Mathews a faith drawn from his observation of the resources available to direct natural experience, without dependence on some separated, supernatural realm.

Mathews claimed: "Science discloses a universe of activity characterized by traits so analogous to what we call reason and purpose in human beings, as to be unintelligible unless such qualities are recognized" (CSR 397). But in referring to reason, purpose, etc., he seemed usually to be aware of the dangers associated with language that might suggest literally a deity which was a particular objective agent totally separate from the activity of the natural process. "No more is the God of the theologian a metaphysical being," said Mathews. "He, too, is reality conceived in patterns" (GIG 212). According to Mathews, "there is no existence exactly corresponding to the patterns with which the deity has been conceived. There was no Yahweh on Mount Sinai and no Zeus on Mount Olympus" (GIG 212). Ought we add: "and no existence exactly corresponding to the patterns put forth in the systems of contemporary process theologians"?

Mathews never developed a philosophical system in any technical detail -- nor would he have wished to claim any explicit connection with what he called "philosophy" -- but in recognizing the passing of absolute notions of space and time and the mechanistic conceptions based upon them, in viewing matter as primarily activity rather than substance, in utilizing evolutionary, processive, and relational understandings of God and religion, he may be said to have "anticipated the cardinal presupposition of process philosophy" (SM 311). Indeed, Mathews believed "that there is nothing more fundamental and elemental than processes; nothing transcends or undergirds processes. Everything that exists is either a process, an aspect of a process, or a relation between processes" (SM 311). Consequently, "relations, not substances, are primary" (SM 313).

Now where does this leave us in our consideration of the history of process theology? It is instructive in gaining perspective, I believe, for us to realize that there was serious reflection on these matters by theologians before Whitehead’s work came to prominence, and to recognize that "process thought," when we appreciate its historical breadth and pluralism, is a many-splendored thing. To understand that the theologians of the movement of which Mathews was a leader could be seen as "process theologians" -- despite their divergences from the Whiteheadian mode of that brand of theology -- is to learn an important lesson in a tradition that ever needs to guard against the lure of its own orthodoxy. Process inquiry must continually be nudged toward a broader understanding of its traditions, so that it is not identified simply with one particular system.

If process thought is going to remain a viable option today, it must truly pursue a process-relational mode which enmeshes itself as deeply in life as in any rendition of a metaphysics. If it is to follow a genuinely organismic -- not atomistic -- model of inquiry, it must campaign against limited rationalisms and against limiting specializationalism. It must not sacrifice the reality of life’s ambiguities and tragedies on the altar of conceptual cleanliness, a false coherence, or abstract systematization. We can seek through our rational enterprises to attain a margin of intelligibility, but we must not mistake the created structures of those enterprises as designative necessarily of the fullness of reality itself. When we are able to place our limited attempts at understanding and description in appropriate perspective, then it is more likely that we shall more truly open ourselves to the communal, the relational, the elemental, and the ambiguous resources in our lives together which serve as lures toward that ever fuller existence which we seek.



CS -- William James. "The Chicago School," The Psychological Bulletin 1 (1904), 1-5.

CSR -- Shailer Mathews. Contributions of Science to Religion. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1924.

GIC -- -- Shailer Mathews. The Growth of the Idea of God. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1931.

IGE -- Shailer Mathews. Is God Emeritus? New York: The Macmillan Co., 1940.

MCAT -- Vernon Parrington. Main Currents in American Thought: Beginnings of Critical Realism in America, 1860-1920. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1933.

NFO -- Shailer Mathews. New Faith for Old. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1936.

SLT -- John Dewey. Studies in Logical Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1903.

SM -- Kenneth Smith and Leonard Sweet. "Shailer Mathews: A Chapter in the Social Gospel Movement," Foundations 18 (1975), 219-37 and 296-320.