Process and Revolution: Hegel, Whitehead, and Liberation Theology

by Paul Lakeland

Paul Lakeland is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 265-274, Vol. 15, Number 4, Winter, 1986. 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. Lakeland compares the respective potentials of the thought of Hegel and Whitehead as philosophical support for the theology of liberation.

This paper will compare the respective potentials of the thought of Hegel and Whitehead as philosophical supports to the theology of liberation. A first section argues the need for such support, and the second part considers a recent influential reading of process theology as political theology.1 In the third section attention is directed to Hegel, and in the final section to Whitehead. The de-idealized reading of Hegel needed to utilize his thought in the context of liberation theology, it is argued, is suggestive in the case of Whitehead too.


Philosophy has of course always had a considerable role to play in theological reflection, in directing attention to the need for conceptual clarity and systematic completeness, demanding rigor of thought, seeking comprehensiveness. All theologies, indeed all academic disciplines, would admit philosophy to such a function. Not to do so would be to reject order and form.

The relation between philosophy and theology has, however, often been thought to go far beyond the purely instrumental value of a mental discipline. Whitehead himself said that "Religion requires a metaphysical backing: for its authority is endangered by the intensity of the emotions which it generates" (RM 81). Others have gone much further; Hegel perceived of religion and philosophy as two ways of access to the same truth, with philosophy as the more perfect way. Religion was a representational form of the truth which philosophy’s role was to comprehend fully. Even though theology as a whole has not gone to these Hegelian lengths, from the very beginnings of Christian theology there has been a kind of social contract between philosophy and theology in virtue of their common concern for truth, and a very close association indeed between the Catholic traditions of theology and metaphysics.

In recent times this close association of philosophy and theology has come under scrutiny. Among those to whom it would be most deeply suspect must be counted the mostly Latin American theologians of liberation. Liberation theology is conducted in a hermeneutical circle which can be entered only in an act of solidarity with the oppressed of the world, an act of such immediacy and commitment that it circumvents the danger of ideological bias normally inherent in political choices.2 From this hermeneutically privileged standpoint, liberation theology proceeds to a social scientific analysis of the situation, which is intended to uncover the structures of oppression and the extensive ideological biases both of the oppressors and of their attendant theologies. This new critical awareness of society on the part of oppressed peoples previously restricted to the status of victims brings them to a fresh reading of scripture in which the word of God is heard speaking clearly to their situation of structural oppression, and they are moved to deep reflection (theology) directed to a new praxis of social transformation.

Even with such a sketchy picture of the methodology of liberation theology, it must be apparent that philosophy’s role as handmaid to theology must come into question. Philosophies themselves are products of an oppressor class and bear the ideological presuppositions of that class. The theory which does not emerge from praxis, but which precedes it, is inevitably tainted with ideological presuppositions. But which metaphysical system emerges from praxis? The very idea of a system seems to imply a prescription for reality.

Charles Davis has made a useful attempt to mediate between the unwillingness of political theologies to accept a role for philosophy and the human drive to understand what is at work in any cultural phenomenon, among which theologies must be counted.3 Davis distinguishes between "original" and "scientific" theology. The former is "theology bound up with religious living, a theology that accompanies action" (p. 23), while the latter is "an elaboration and grounding of the Christian tradition as a place of truth and value and is thus historical and hermeneutical in its method" (p. 24f.). Thus far, liberation theology has been firmly in the first camp and will always derive its energies and its raison d’être from transformative social praxis in a Christian context. Its very success and influence, however, have brought it to the second stage. In that second stage of enquiry into truth and value, it must at least be in dialogue with the great philosophical traditions, even if it shall not finally fall under their sway.


In Process Theology as Political Theology John Cobb sets out to show how process thought needs to develop a political sensitivity. In the course of analyzing the especial value of process thought for doing a political theology,4 Cobb draws a stark contrast between major exponents of political theology as it has thus far been practiced, in particular the work of Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Soelle, and Johann Baptist Metz,5 and the kinds of political theology that process thought might become. For Cobb, political theology thus far has been bedeviled by a Kantian anthropocentrism, which he holds responsible for the lack of ecological and even nuclear awareness in Metz and others. In fact, Metz is singled out as a prime example of this simplified Kantianism, in which "human beings are now collectively contrasted with the remainder of what exists, and this is all understood as what is present at hand as a thing. "6 Because to the Kantian, Cobb continues, "the end of the human race is the end of being as such," any consideration of nuclear holocaust is "a difficult thought -- one that falls outside the system." In fact, says Cobb, Metz’s rejection of the historical in favor of the apocalyptic perspective on the human community shows that he is aware that the Christian enterprise may fail, but:

It is significant that an entire book could be written in 1970 about the practical meaning of a theology of hope without discussing the relevance to that practical meaning of the serious doubtfulness of human survival. One must judge that this topic is not readily assimilated into the Kantian frame of reference.7

The Whiteheadian world-view seems to Cobb to be much more promising. Focussing on the notion of prehension as the basis of a concept of "shared existence," Cobb stresses the possibility’ of an "ecological theology" to counter the Kantian overemphasis on the human point of view.8 A fuller discussion of Whitehead’s ecological dimension is to be found in an article by John B. Bennet.9 Bennet suggests three possible sources of Whitehead’s value to ecological thinking. The first, that as a systematician Whitehead assumes the essential interconnectedness of all things, applies too to many other thinkers, not least among them Hegel. Secondly, Bennet also emphasizes the "shared existence" of human and nonhuman, expressing it in terms of the Whiteheadian category of "actual entity." Precisely because everything, from lowest to highest, shares the characteristic of being an actual entity, Whitehead overcomes the "basic dualism of man and nature." Thirdly, this same interrelatedness extends to the concept of value. Although the human, since it is more complex, may be the locus of more value, nothing lacks intrinsic value, nothing is merely instrumental to the human. Environmental pollution or the destruction of the ozone layer is consequently not to be seen simply as imprudent, but in fact as wrong.

There is no doubt that an ecological perspective is vital to today’s world. The single major issue under which all others can be subsumed is the very survival of life-forms on the planet. Consequently, no theology can afford to ignore a problem the solution to which is a necessary if not sufficient condition for tackling any other serious problems. In this regard, Cobb is quite correct that the Whiteheadian vision provides a corrective to all forms of political theology. Attention to the oppressed in careful exclusion of the kinds of cosmic problems which may preclude the possibility of all liberation and all oppression, even all life, is a prime example of fiddling while the world burns.

Nevertheless, these Whiteheadian insights remain nothing more than a corrective, however necessary. The Christian thinker who takes up the Whiteheadian viewpoint into a theological system may achieve an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, but is not thereby moved to revolutionary praxis on behalf of the oppressed. Indeed, there are suspicions in some quarters that the process model itself may be inimical to the ideas of conversion, transformation, and revolution, and it is perhaps this thought that underlies George Pixley’s dark hint that Whitehead’s philosophy of culture is "open to appropriation for counter-revolutionary purposes."10 This thought will reemerge in our consideration of the respective merits of Whitehead and Hegel as theoretical bases for a liberation theology, which will occupy us in the remainder of this paper.


There are a number of possible reasons to prefer Hegel’s thought over that of Whitehead as a philosophical basis for a liberation theology’. Chief among them is that Hegel the Christian metaphysician stands considerably closer to an attachment to Christian theological symbols. In particular, Hegel’s use of the dynamics of the trinitarian doctrine and his thorough dependence on the idea of incarnation for establishing the relations of subjective, objective, and absolute Spirit, mean that the Christian theologian feels at home with Hegel, even if he or she is not exactly sure why. The system, sometimes apparently and sometimes less so, is driven by a Christian motor.

Further explanation of Hegel’s attractiveness to the theologian can be found in the high estimation he has of the role of (Christian) religion,’ the way in which his philosophy of history can be read as a speculative transformation of salvation history,12 and his "high" anthropology in which human beings are moments in the self-knowing of God." Taken together, everything in the world is for Hegel somehow an expression or reflection of Spirit, whose Vorstellung is the Christian God. If this is so, then the "purely"’ political must of necessity bear a theological interpretation, whether we are talking about political institutions or the political activity of the individual.

It is in the fact that Hegel’s Spirit is at work in the social and political process, and above all in the institution of the state, that we have to anchor any claim that his thought could serve a liberation theology. The state is the climactic moment in Hegel’s philosophy of objective Spirit and his Philosophy of Right.14 Rationality and freedom both achieve their peak within the concrete structures of human society in the state, which exists as a result of the actions of individual finite spirits and is in virtue of this the result of the movement of the Spirit in history. It is a product of human freedom and a guardian of that freedom. It is Spirit at work in history, and consequently human involvement in actualizing the state, a struggle which has to be taken up daily, is the action of the Spirit. To make the theological translation, the work of actualizing the state is genuinely "doing God’s work in the world." Hegel’s political philosophy, when seen against the background of his fundamental notions, is at least a political theology in nuce, if indeed it needs working out in detail.15

The question remains, whether such a Hegelian political theology’ is capable of a revolutionary dimension, which would raise it to the level of liberation theology. The idea of the state is of an ordered and equitable society, true, but no actual state is a perfect instantiation of this idea. The idea of the state, in addition, is a part of the divine strategy for the world.16 There must, therefore, on the part of the finite spirits who are moments in the progress of Spirit in human history, be a constant struggle within the political process to actualize the idea of the state. In this struggle, the major conflict is with the unchecked individualism of civil society, or the "system of needs," both real and imaginary.17 This dialectical process has in Hegel’s modern world surpassed the stage of revolution, which in the shape of the French Revolution was itself a necessary moment in the process by which the emergence of the state occurred.

Hegel seems sometimes to think that the state can only emerge once in history, and that in modern Europe. But if his thought is to offer any kind of basis for liberation theology, a more flexible interpretation will be needed in which the emergence of the state will take place in each society in its own tune. This would be a bold way to utilize Hegel, and certainly not one for which he provided any real warrant. There are, however, hints here and there in Hegel’s writings, most notably in the preface to the Philosophy of Right, that philosophy’s role of discerning the rational at work in history consists in the identification of a truth to which not all actual historical circumstances in fact conform. This has always been the more liberal reading of his famous aphorism in the preface to that work, "What is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational."18 Confirmation of this reading has recently emerged in an examination of lecture notes from preparatory versions of the text. In an article in The Owl of Minerva,19 Shlomo Avineri shows very convincingly that Hegel’s view was that the rational must inevitably triumph in history, but that the progress towards it would have to respect the history of the particular society. Avineri quotes from the preface to the Berlin 1819-20 lectures, where Hegel clearly says that "It would be a folly to try and force on a people arrangements and institutions toward which it has not progressed by itself."20 As Avineri comments, "the relationship between reason and actuality is not that of a state of things, but of an ongoing process."21

If we read Hegel in this less dogmatic, less idealist fashion, it becomes possible to see how he might be susceptible of a revolutionary interpretation. The political theologian seeking a theoretical basis for social transformation could argue on Hegelian lines, and thereby place the questionable call for social transformation in the context of a move towards the justice and equilibrium of the rational State. He or she would be identifying the stage of the progress towards the Idea that the particular social context had achieved.

The next and most central stage of the paper is to ask if in the case of Whitehead too it might not be possible to find a more flexible reading of a superficially unattractive philosopher for revolutionary or socially transformative purposes. With Hegel, we have had the undoubted advantage that his God is deeply involved in the historical process, consequently that history is salvation history, and so that any historical judgment is itself a theoretical judgment. How might it be with Whitehead?


In the case of Whitehead, things are more than a little different. For one thing, there is no real or ostensible connection between Whitehead’s notion of God or religion and the symbols of the Christian tradition, although of course this does not mean that they are necessarily incompatible with one another.22 Whitehead does value religion, however, and does have a place for God. The connection between God and religion on the one hand, and the sociopolitical on the other, seems to rest in Whitehead’s case with the notion of world consciousness, and it is there that our investigation will accordingly focus. As a guide to Whitehead’s use of this term, I shall be utilizing the valuable work of Thomas J. Regan, S.J.23

"World consciousness," a term which Whitehead in fact only uses twice, is intended, says Regan, "to convey an awareness of the harmonious unity and value of the entire universe." Indeed, "the attitude of mind guided by this notion would be one that was most capable of maximizing the value possibilities for a particular experience" (p. 3). Thus, world consciousness is clearly related to Whitehead’s idea of religion, which is essentially an ethical notion: "The movement of the religious consciousness starts from self valuation, but it broadens into the concept of world as a realm of adjusted values, mutually intensifying or mutually destructive" (RM 58f.). Characterizing world consciousness as "a very high level abstraction which has affected the thought patterns of an individual or of a society" (p. 5), Regan goes on to show how for Whitehead the approximation to world consciousness and the development of religion are parallel. Both exhibit the same dynamic towards the more general, inclusive perspective. If this is true, and if Regan’s contention that world consciousness is the basis of social ethics in Whitehead’s thought is also true, then any action for justice or human rights or the freedom of the oppressed can be viewed religiously. It is certainly true that the individual who acts upon the possession of world consciousness will act to maximize the intensity of value of a given actual occasion, and such an action is indubitably one towards which God "lures." If, then, Whitehead’s thinking bears this association of the ethical and the religious, can it accommodate the revolutionary impulse which it needs if it is to serve political theology?

A clear contrast between the visions of Hegel and Whitehead rests on the relative modernity of the latter. For Hegel, the process of history was driven by a metaphysical necessity, the so-called "cunning of reason," and the outcome was and is assured, even if at any given moment elements of chaos and lack of reason are all too apparent. Hegel considered history to be a true struggle, but one in which the warring elements could be readily identified. Whitehead, on the other hand, recognizes a de facto growth in world consciousness or the generalization of the religious impulse, but does not seem to see any necessity in it. Their respective notions of God, of course, correspond to this difference: Hegel’s God drives the process; Whitehead’s coaxes it. Both fulfill their respective functions insofar as reason is present in history, but Hegel’s God is that reason impelling history, while Whitehead’s is that reason hoping history will see the need to be reasonable.

Whitehead’s notion of world consciousness, and hence his hope of progress in history, is dependent on human cooperation. But it is particularly difficult to see how, given the generality of his idea and its clear compatibility with the Christian vision, we can have any surety that individuals will in fact act according to world consciousness. What will motivate them so to act? For Whitehead, of course, knowledge equals virtue, and a lack of willingness to act is presumably explicable as a lack of knowledge. Yet, those who ought to have more knowledge -- the educated -- seem singularly unwilling to act. The system sounds fine, but does it actually work? Is there any evidence that things are actually happening as Whitehead would have it, or is it a hopeless quest in every sense?

In Whitehead’s view, human life is distinguished by a three-stage process of "wishing to live, to live well and to live better" (FR 8). This is a prerequisite for the experience of world consciousness. Put simply, this has to mean that where there is deep and urgent concern for basic human needs, for food and clothing and health care and education, there cannot be the requisite peace for the experience of world consciousness. Education, "civilization," even leisure, seem to Whitehead to be necessary’ before either individuals or society can operate upon sufficiently general (i.e., non-selfish) criteria to make world consciousness a possibility.24 However, as we have already seen, world consciousness in Whitehead is the basis of social ethics and in close affinity with what he would want to designate as the fundamental religious impulse, the maximization of value. In consequence, the improvement of the world, "building the kingdom," in the language of traditional Christian theology, or "praxis in solidarity with the oppressed," in the terms of political theology, has to be in the hands of those whom we cannot avoid calling "the bourgeoisie," if not the aristocracy.

Whitehead’s God is in some respects compatible with the God of Christianity, and even with the God of liberation theology. God for Whitehead has an all-encompassing vision and is "the binding element in the world." The maximum possible actualization of value which this God favors has to include the redress of the terrible grievances of the oppressed. However, the Whiteheadian God only intends such an end through being the lure towards the best possible actualization of value in any occasion. The oppressed are of course on the way towards world consciousness, but the sufficiently general vision to achieve the unselfish act escapes them. Thus, the transformation of the world is left in the hands of those who can approximate more closely to world consciousness. This seems at one and the same time to exclude truly revolutionary praxis, the action of the underclass, and to demand that the impulse to the betterment of the world be placed in the hands of the cognoscenti. The problem with this is that they are all too often just as self-interested as the hoi polloi, and with less justification. Once again, knowledge simply does not seem to add up to virtue in the world we know. The poor seek their survival, perhaps with dignity, while the rest of us are too often concerned with living, living well and living better at the expense of those unfortunate enough to get in our way. Does Whitehead, after all, leave us with a God who wills more equality, but a people unlikely to choose it? Is there nothing more here than an appeal for an aristocratic spirit of service to society in a bourgeois liberal world? Is his final offer in fact only what Gustavo Gutierrez, doyen of liberation theologians, would call "bourgeois reformism," mere tinkering with the system?

John Cobb seems to be sensitive to this lack in Whitehead, and in illuminating fashion:

Whitehead’s commitment to the increase of freedom does not stress the Christian point that God sides with the oppressed and that we are called to solidarity with them. The general support of freedom and equality lacks the pathos of the Christian affirmation and can too easily be appropriated within a bourgeois framework without breaking the structure.25

However, says Cobb, (and rightly so), Whitehead’s view does give support to a Christian concern for the underprivileged, since lack of education and basic human needs limits "the rational self-direction of conduct." To be uncivilized, we might say, is to be oppressed. Hence, says Cobb, "the call to maximize the quality of experience generally directs us primarily to changing the conditions that now constrain the oppressed."26 The problem with this position from the perspective of liberation theology’ is that it retains the control of society in the hands of those who have always had control, the powerful individuals and the first-world nations. We are the ones who must work for this change. Reform, not revolution. True, Cobb adds that one of the things we must work for is the empowerment or conscientization of the oppressed, but until they are conscientized, that is, educated or civilized, they cannot achieve world consciousness.

Cobb’s conclusions show why Whitehead’s influence must remain within the first world context; there is no room for revolution. "Political theologians," says Cobb, "seem, on the whole, to be ready for the heavens to fall."27 While recognizing the need for prophetic denunciation of injustice, the process theologians propose another need, "to share in the consideration of the real alternatives confronting society and in support for the best of the imperfect options available." Of course, Cobb is sensitive to the chance of this view becoming a justification for acquiescing in the status quo; nevertheless, "we must recognize the danger that the abandonment of realism can lead to unjustifiable projects."28

It may be in Whitehead and Hegel we have two complementary philosophical bases for a political theology. Hegel’s position shows clearly how the idea of the state can act almost as a prophetic principle over against the extremes of totalitarianism or materialism, and how such a state might lie within the "divine strategy," though only if, as we said earlier, we may be permitted to read his philosophy of history in a more flexible way than he may have intended it himself. Under those conditions, Hegel may support a revolutionary interpretation. Without the freedom to read Hegel that way, his thought demonstrates a dogmatism that renders it redundant outside the first world context.

Whitehead, as we have just seen, seems unable to support a revolutionary interpretation and is in consequence not so immediately’ compatible with a liberation theology in the strict sense.29 Nevertheless, he has a number of important qualifications to address to the standpoint of a revolutionary theology. Firstly, he demands of the so-called first world the perspective of world consciousness, which issues a call to relinquishment and to justice and equity on an international scale, if not to revolution. In the second place, he proposes to the truly revolutionary societies an attention to what is of value in their own contexts, and a program for growth to world consciousness -- education, religion, an ethical business community, and so on. Thirdly, he shows perhaps better than Hegel does how dependent social progress and ethical advancement are upon the ability of the individual and society to achieve a viewpoint wider than its own petty concerns. However, it still remains necessary to show how Whitehead’s theology of world consciousness can admit of other than a bourgeois revolution. To the liberation theologian, deeply influenced by a hermeneutics of suspicion, knowledge cannot equal virtue, unless that knowledge be a product of the praxis of solidarity with the oppressed. If Whitehead were to be subjected to a consistent exercise of ideological suspicion, what would remain of "world consciousness?" Little, one would think, unless his own notions of education, civilization, and so on, could themselves be made subject to praxis. This may be to demand more flexibility even than we required of Hegel.



1John B. Cobb, Jr., Process Theology as Political Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982).

2For an examination of the hermeneutics of liberation theology, see Juan Lois Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1978). The classic text of liberation theology is A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973). The literature of liberation theology in English is simply enormous.

3Theology and Political Society (Cambridge University Press, 1980). The whole work is a study of the contribution of critical theory to the discussion of the relationship between theology and politics.

4 Cobb concentrates upon a discussion of political theology. This term frequently is used generically to describe a family of theologies inclusive of liberation theology. us Cobb’s case he is concentrating mainly on the German member of this family, which is itself called simply "political theology."

5 The literature of political theology is immense. An excellent place to start is with Francis Schussler Fiorenza, "Political Theology as Foundational Theology," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 32 (1977), 142-77. Good introductions to the world of Moltmann, Soelle, and Metz are as follows: Soelle, Political Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977); Moltmann, The Open Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978); Metz, Faith in History and Society (London: Search Press, 1980).

6 Cobb, p. 115.

7Cobb, p. 119.

8Cobb, p. 116.

9 "Ecology and Philosophy: Whitehead’s Contribution," Journal of Thought 10 (1975), 24-30.

10 Pixley’s observation comes at the end of "Justice and the Class Struggle: A Challenge for Process Theology," PS 4:159-75. In the same issue of the journal there follows a strenuous response by Clark M. Williamson, "Whitehead as Counterrevolutionary? Towards Christian-Marxist Dialogue," PS 4:176-86.

11Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), sections 564-571.

12 See the role of Spirit (Geist) as outlined in Hegel’s posthumously published lectures on the philosophy of history, The Philosophy of History, ed. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956).

13 See especially the Znsatz to Encyclopaedia, sections 386.

14 Translated with notes by T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

15 See Paul Lakeland, The Politics of Salvation: Hegel’s Idea of the State (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984), passim.

16 The best available general study of Hegel’s state is Shlomo Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972). He discusses the "divine strategy, while circumventing the notion of a deified state, on p. 176f.

17Philosophy of Right, Zusatz to section 258.

18 Knox edition, p. 6.

19 "Feature Book Review: The Discovery of Hegel’s Early Lectures on the Philosophy of Right," The Owl of Minerva 16 (Spring, 1985), 199-208.

20Owl, p. 203, quoting from Philosophic des Rechts: Die Vorlesung con 1819/20 in einer Nachsch rift, edited by Dieter Henrich (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1983), p. 50, in Avineri’s own translation.

21Owl, p. 204.

22 The most satisfactory general treatment of Whitehead’s notion of God is Kenneth F. Thompson, Jr., Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religion (The Hague: Mouton, 1971).

23 "Whitehead’s Notion of World Consciousness," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Fordham University, 1984. Regan’s study is important not least for its suggestiveness in the area of political theology.

24 See Regan, pp. 24-28 and 100-45.

25 See Cobb, op. cit., p. 148.

26 Ibid.

27 Cobb, p. 151.

28 Ibid.

29 I am happy to believe that Whitehead himself would have no problem with the notion of revolution, if it could be shown in a particular context that that would be the action that would maximize value. I am less confident that such a context would clearly emerge, and I am very sympathetic with the third world position that since things have been steadily getting worse for them for some considerable time, increase in world consciousness or not, it is perhaps understandable that they would grow tired of awaiting an occasion on which all could agree. Once again, the problem is the same; in principle, Whitehead’s view is impeccable, but unfortunately people simply do not act like that. His opinions on the place of ethical considerations in the business community are the clearest example of this lack of contact, of this excessive idealism, beside which Hegel’s state control of civil society seems positively hard-headed!