Process Theology and Black Liberation: Testing the Whiteheadian Metaphysical Foundations

by Henry James Young

Henry James Young is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL. His book, Hope in Process: A Theology of Social Pluralism, will be published soon by Augsburg/Fortress Press.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 259-267, Vol. 18, Number 4, Winter, 1989. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Young believes that Whitehead’s conception of god is supportive of liberation struggles because it takes contextualization seriously by making God responsive to actual conditions of the world without resort to divine coercion.

The testing ground of metaphysical truths lies in their applicability to what is found in practice or experience. The attempt in Whitehead’s philosophic method is to construct a metaphysical scheme that is consistent with reality. His contention is that the reality being described should not be coerced into conformity with a metaphysical scheme already constructed. His thinking suggests that if the metaphysical analysis and the reality being described fail to conform to each other, then the fault lies in the metaphysics, not in the reality. This requires the metaphysical scheme to be reexamined and revised. In Process and Reality Whitehead argues that all things found in practice, regardless of how simple or complex, must find a place within the framework of metaphysical description. When the description fails to include the practice, it is inadequate and needs reconstruction (PR 13/19).

My task in this paper is to test some of Whitehead’s metaphysical assertions against the experiences of Black Americans. The purpose here is to establish points of contact between process theology and the Black liberation struggle. Is there a link to be discovered between process metaphysics and the world view of Black Americans? If so, what are its implications for constructing a Black liberation theology? Can such a link provide a viable methodological framework capable of enabling us to build on the strengths present in Whitehead’s process metaphysics, while at the same time helping us to push beyond its inherent limitations?

Why must the quest for this link begin with a careful examination of Whitehead’s metaphysical foundations? Oppressed Black Americans and other members of marginalized social groups cannot afford to enter into the discussion with a take-it-for-granted attitude that the Whiteheadian metaphysical foundations are applicable to their experience. The attempt here is to help clarify the viability of appropriating categories from process metaphysics in the quest for Black liberation.

Employing speculative philosophy as his investigative framework, Whitehead seeks to develop a comprehensive metaphysical scheme which is coherent, logical and capable of interpreting every element of our experience. When he uses the phrase, "every element of our experience" (PR 3/4), Whitehead is not referring only to experiences disclosed by modern physics. Rather he is referring to the whole variety of human experiences, including those relevant to aesthetics, all the sciences, values, religion, arts, and so forth.

W head’s metaphysical scheme seeks to satisfy the demands of empiricists on the one hand, and the demands of rationalists, on the other hand. He seeks to do justice to the empiricists by developing a theory of knowledge based on experience. And, he affirms the rationalists’ pursuit of the ultimate rationality and coherence of all reality. Using the empirical side of his method, Whitehead seeks to ground his views in what is observable and experiential.

He makes imaginative broad generalities. His method then returns to the observable to test conclusions. Whitehead says, "the true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational observation" (PR 5/7). These conclusions are never final and complete. They are continually being reexamined and revised in light of new data.

The experiences of Black Americans and other oppressed ethnic minority groups can provide renewed observation for testing the Whiteheadian framework. Experience of suffering, poverty, political disfranchisement, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and other social ills create a different context for appropriating process metaphysics.

Within a few pages it will not be possible to discuss many of Whitehead’s metaphysical categories. I have attempted a more thorough discussion of them in Hope in Process. A Theology of Social Pluralism (HP). In this paper I have selected the following categories for discussion: human experience, God as Fellow Sufferer, and eschatology and liberation.

I. Human Experience

Why is it that the experience of Black Americans and other oppressed ethnic minority groups create a context for renewed observation for testing process metaphysics? Because it makes a difference when metaphysical categories are appropriated in the context of persons whose backs are against the wall (JT 1-20). It makes a difference when persons are on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder looking up. They have a unique experience which needs to be attended to by process theology. This brings into focus the first problem which I want to discuss.

This problem is the continued unwillingness of the majority white social group to be intentional about including the experience of cultural forms of Black Americans in the interpretation of the meaning of human experience. W. E. B. DuBois in his classic volume, The Souls of Black Folk, refers to the issue as a type of "double consciousness." By it he means that white America yields no true self-consciousness to Black Americans. His contention is that Black Americans are coerced into viewing their own experiences through the experiences of whites. This creates a type of double-consciousness; it leads to a "sense of always looking at one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (SBF 16-17).

The issue is that in America and throughout the global village whites have projected their cultural forms as the normative criteria for defining the nature and meaning of human experience. Consequently, throughout their history in America Blacks have always found themselves coerced into conformity to the normative definition of human experience imposed on them by the white majority social group. They always feel this sense of twoness or double consciousness, being Black and American, having two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled dimensions, "two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (SBF 17).

This perpetuates an extreme identity crisis for both whites and Blacks. For whites it sustains a false sense of superiority. For Blacks it imposes a false sense of inferiority. Both can be characterized as fallacies of misplaced cultural identity. It patterns the experiences of individual Blacks and whites after an extended crisis in intergroup social relations. It makes for distortions of the real. Whereas when Whitehead coined the phrase, "Fallacy of misplaced concreteness" (SMW 58), he was referring to the irreducible bits of matter present in the Newtonian mechanistic theory of nature, when applied to social systems it acquires added significance.

Can process metaphysics provide an alternative approach to interpreting human experience which paves the way toward overcoming this problem? Taking into consideration certain points of caution, I think it can. Whitehead’s philosophy is based on a pluralistic metaphysics. And, following the Whiteheadian notion that our metaphysics should be descriptive of what is found in practice, I think it is necessary to have consistency between a pluralistic metaphysics and a pluralistic view of social reality.

Whitehead’s pluralistic metaphysics properly accounts for the uniqueness and individuality of each existing thing in the world. Whitehead avoids the pitfalls of monistic philosophies, where the individuality of each act of experience is ultimately dissolved into an underlying unchanging substance. This avoidance is important to Black Americans and to other oppressed ethnic minority social groups, because the background of social pluralism in America has been the prevailing notion that "the melting pot" and "Anglo-Saxon conformity" constitute the two accepted models of assimilation and acculturation.

Such models do not create genuine pluralism; rather they perpetuate unity in conformity, meaning that the experiences of ethnic minority social groups are unacceptable when they fail to coincide with the normative criteria of human experience prescribed by the white majority social group.

Whitehead’s doctrine of pluralism avoids the pitfalls of dualism, where an acute disjunction between interiority and exteriority is made. When applied to social theories dualistic philosophies make social pluralism impossible. Dualistic philosophies individualize reality, whereas social pluralism requires social relatedness. In social philosophies dualism sustains in society a sense of cultural insulationism and isolationism. Process metaphysics sustains genuine social pluralism, because it has the idea of social relatedness and interrelatedness at its core. In dualistic philosophies reality is perceived as individualized, independent. and separated, whereas in process metaphysics reality is perceived as socialized, interdependent, and interwoven.

Whitehead’s doctrine of social immanence enabled him to realize that both individuality and social relatedness are inextricably interwoven into the fabric of each act of experience. While it is true that each actual occasion has its own identity, it is not possible for any instance of experience to exist in separation and isolation from others. All instances of experience involve and express interrelatedness.

This is to say that the appropriate methodological framework for interpreting human experience in a manner that points in the direction of overcoming the problem of cultural normativeness is a metaphysics of inclusiveness. Whiteheads philosophic method succeeds at this point.

However, a point of caution is that we must avoid using the experience of any particular socio-cultural group as normative for all the rest. Why do philosophers, theologians and other theoreticians influenced by process metaphysics need to be particularly cautious about this problem?

Because of a basic presupposition characteristic of evolutionary theory; namely, the notion that the upward trend of the creative process is more complex and therefore is the normative guideline for interpreting reality. Not only is this idea present in Whitehead, but elements of it can be found in Teilhard de Chardin, Hegel, and other evolutionary theists. Because of the presupposition present in evolutionary theory, Whitehead used consciousness as the touchstone of human experience. Based on an analysis of human experience, he makes broad generalizations about all other experiences in the world.

Whitehead’s panpsychism does enable him to work toward avoiding the problem of anthropocentricism; in appropriating his metaphysics we have to avoid thinking that cultural patterns are inadequate because they do not conform to a certain approach to "consciousness" as defined by the white majority social group.

For example, traditionally, such designations as "marginalization," "underdevelopment," "disadvantaged" social groups, and so forth have referred to cultural patterns of those who are not members of the white majority social group. If we continue to allow this type of mentality to influence our approach to human experience, whether we function within the context of a dualistic, monistic, or pluralistic metaphysics, we will continue to perpetuate the problem of cultural normativeness.

II. God as Fellow Sufferer

Although Whitehead’s idea of God functions as an element of metaphysical analysis, it grows out of experience. Unlike Aristotle, who makes God the exception to all metaphysical principles, Whitehead is careful to avoid making a generic distinction between God’s experience and other experiences. God, therefore, he contends. ". . . is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification" (PR 343/521). This is not to say that God and other experiences in the world are different in all respects. This is not to say that God is not distinct and unique. One example is that God is a nontemporal actual entity forever participating in the ongoing flux of temporality. Whereas all other experiences after reaching actualization perish, God continues to function in the midst of the perpetual perishing of all creatures.

Here we can see how Whitehead’s vision of God has relevance for Black Americans and other oppressed minority groups. It takes contextualization seriously. God is not to be perceived as an abstract remote deity insensitive to the deepest religious feelings which grow out of experiences of pain, suffering, death, and human agony. In fact, God feels or experiences the sorrow, discontent, misfortunes, disappointments, and the pain of oppressed social groups.

In order for such an idea to have relevance in the world, it is necessary to overcome the age-old problem of divine impassability. Whitehead’s dipolarity succeeds in doing so.

Whitehead’s dipolar conception of God contains both a primordial and consequent nature. Although, on the one hand, they are distinct, on the other hand, these two natures are merely poles of one actual entity. The primordial nature refers to the mental pole and is characterized by the fact that God is infinite, eternal, and unchanging. Also, God’s primordial nature functions as the principle of concretion, meaning that God is the basis of order in the world. In God’s primordial nature God is the reservoir of all possibilities in the world.

The consequent nature refers to the physical pole and is characterized by the fact that God is finite, temporal, and responsive. God’s consequent nature refers to God’s concreteness in the actual world. All events in the world, after experiencing self-actualization become objectified in God. In this sense, God receives the world. God’s primordial nature is passive and God’s consequent nature is active. God is affected directly by all of the happenings in the world. Such an intimacy with the world of creaturely experiences makes both contextualization and liberation possible. The point of departure for liberation theology is where the oppressed find themselves. Process metaphysics provides a framework for such a point of departure.

Also important to this discussion is the view that God doesn’t impose or coerce reality into conformity to a goal, purpose or direction which is inconsistent with its own uniqueness. It is true that God provides the initial aim for every finite occasion, which means that God originates the process toward self-realization. But God’s nature is described in Whitehead’s metaphysics as a persuasive agency. This means that genuine freedom and self-determination are inherent within each emerging creature in the world.

One of the great needs of Black Americans is that of self-determination and freedom. The beginning point for this is for Black Americans and other oppressed minority groups to set their own agenda of liberation. Whitehead says that God ". . . shares with every new creation its actual world" (PR 345/523).

Once the agenda of liberation emerges from the context of each oppressed minority group and properly interfaces with God’s highest possibilities, then it becomes objectified or integrated into God’s consequent nature. In other words, the agenda for liberation and self-actualization must emerge from the authentic context of the oppressed. God’s role and function is to provide the highest possibilities to oppressed minority groups as they seek to liberate themselves. God facilitates, influences, supports, and sustains creatures toward liberation by constantly keeping the highest possibilities before them.

The suffering aspect of God is significant in relation to liberation because it points to God’s role as infinite, caring, loving, redeeming, reconciling agency affecting social change in the world. The many forms of systemic suffering and social malfunctioning in the world which continue to oppress Black Americans, women, Africans, American Indians, and other social groups, cannot be ascribed to God. In process metaphysics every creature possesses self-determination, self-realization and self-creativity. God and humanity are co-partners and co-creators in the process of liberation. Systemic suffering and social malfunctioning, therefore, are caused by human greed, self-centeredness, an illusion about power and control, racism, sexism, imperialism, ethnocentrism, and other factors.

So, then, the old traditional theodicy question, How can a good and loving God permit suffering in the world?, is overcome by reconceptualizing God’s role and function in the world. God is the source of good, not of evil. Although God assists in determining the nature of reality by initiating the "subjective aim" of each emerging actual entity, because reality is self-creative the human being must assume responsibility for systemic suffering and social malfunctioning in the world.

The problem with the Whiteheadian proposal at this point is not whether the reality of God has sufficiently resolved the problem of suffering in God’s own Being. I think Whitehead succeeds here. But what about God’s relation to the suffering in the liberation struggle of the actual world? What clues do we get from God’s experience of suffering for appropriation into social structures? Here I think we must seek to push beyond the limitations of Whitehead’s metaphysics.

In God’s consequent nature Whitehead contends, ". . . there is no loss, no obstruction" (PR 346/524). As creatures in the world perish and become objectified in God’s consequent nature, they become a part of God’s unison of immediacy. Whitehead’s insight here is that the problem of suffering is ultimately resolved by God’s perceiving of the creative advance in a manner that retains mutual immediacy. This mutual immediacy consists of God’s eternal presence which forever participates in the world of perpetual flux. It is what Whitehead means by "everlasting." Through this mutual immediacy God prehends or feels every experience in the world, including the sufferings, sorrows, failures, triumphs, and brings them into a universal harmony of experience.

This universal harmony continues to allow novelty in the world; it never perishes and it remains the existential context of God’s continued relevance to the dispossessed and disinherited. Whitehead’s point is that God possesses tender love and care for the world. God works at keeping anything from being lost. In such capacity God functions as savior of the world.

In the realm of infinite possibilities God overcomes suffering. Whitehead says, "God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force; of destructive force with destructive force, it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization" (PR 346/525-6). But in terms of the existential reality of increasing racism, sexism, political disfranchisement, economic exploitation, and so forth, we need to find viable models and social strategies for holding people accountable for perpetuating systemic oppression. To take the position that somehow the social malfunctioning and many forms of systemic suffering are continually being overcome in God’s consequent nature comes short of speaking effectively to the immediate need of victims of oppression. The immediate need is to move with an unprecedented pace toward the transformation of social structures.

Whitehead’s proposal suggests that the power of rationality expressed through God’s eternal presence in the world possesses the capacity to influence humanity toward the realization of the good. In other words, God saves the world through the overwhelming power of rationality, rather than by force.

Isn’t it necessary to integrate within process metaphysics the notion that the transforming power of God which comes as the result of salvation, regeneration, and sanctification is essential for humanity to deal effectively with the problems of suffering? If we use the overpowering rationality of God alone as the clue to resolving the problem of suffering in the world, then, we miss a fundamental element which has always been basic to Christian theology, namely, the recognition that both reason and faith are essential for salvation and liberation.

Whitehead, of course, was influenced heavily by Plato. In fact, he said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. I mention this to point out that in the Platonic tradition the self-actualization of the good is done solely through reason. But human greed, pride, selfishness, self-centeredness, and alienation make it necessary for Christian theology to combine faith and reason in the quest for transformation and reconciliation. Reason alone is inadequate.

A point of great social value in the Whiteheadian vision is that it helps liberate us from our fixation on the immediacies of our particular existential plight. In other words, the panoramic vision of God is the big picture. When we think about it and then seek to look back on our particular circumstance, sometimes such a vision gives a new sense of hope, optimism and release. On the other hand, we have to be careful to avoid exonerating people for creating oppressive social structures. This requires us to reconsider some of our basic metaphysical presuppositions in light of their social implications.

The claim of the rationalism to which Whitehead adheres is that reality is ultimately rational. God sifts through the discords, ambiguities, and turmoil of existence and creates a sense of universal harmonization. Whitehead’s vision shows how in order to work creatively toward human liberation we need to relate the Divine vision to the context of oppressed people. The beatific vision, the panoramic perspective, or the total picture is never available to finite individuals. People can only see the light which comes in their respective paths. Therefore, we must find ways for our sense of the panoramic vision to have impact on the context of oppressed persons.

III. Eschatology and Liberation

One way or the other any discussion of liberation in the context of Christian faith must include questions related to eschatology. Here I think process metaphysics continues to make a valuable contribution to the discussion. Process metaphysics is based on an organic worldview, which has deep and abiding affinity to both the African roots of Black Americans and the Judeo-Christian heritage. It is my contention that a theology of Black liberation also must embrace an organic worldview, not only because it is consistent with the authentic roots of Black Americans but because it also represents something fundamental in the Biblical tradition.

This organic worldview suggests that a discussion of liberation must include an integration of both spiritual and physical dimensions. A basic element in Whitehead’s vision of God’s function in the world is to combine permanence and flux in a manner that makes the values contained in the notion of heaven available to the human condition on a continuous basis. When we separate permanence and flux it leads to the notion of a God who is basically static, ". . . with eminent reality, in relation to an entirely fluent world, with deficient reality" (PR 346/526). But an integration of these dimensions provides the context for an agenda of liberation, including the transformation of every dimension of life, environmental, political, social, economic, spiritual, and so forth. As Whitehead puts it, what is done on earth becomes objectified in God’s nature, and God’s heavenly resources are turned back in the world (PR 349-51/530-33).

The unfortunate tragedy in the Judeo-Christian heritage was a tendency to baptize the otherworldly aspect of Platonic thought as Christian theology. Although Plato in a real sense was a fountainhead for Whitehead’s metaphysics, his work becomes a corrective to the Platonic dualistic worldview. The Platonic worldview made a disjunction between the spiritual and the material. Mind and matter, interiority and exteriority, the within and the without, are ontologically separated in Plato’s worldview.

The dualistic worldview persisted throughout the history of Western philosophical and theological discourse, reaching a point of culmination in Cartesian dualism. Not only is the dualistic orientation a distortion of reality, its otherworldly eschatological perspective is not conducive to liberation. In fact, it works contrary to liberation because as experienced and practiced in the West it puts its emphasis on preparation for life beyond this world, rather than seeking fulfillment in the world.

The organic worldview integrates the spiritual and material dimensions of reality into the recognition that they are two distinct manifestations of one and the same process. They are two distinguishing aspects of one reality. In the African worldview, for example, there is not a separation between these two realms. They are integrated together. John S. Pobee in Toward an African Theology makes the point that religion in the Akan society is an "all pervasive" phenomenon (TAT 43-52). And John S. Mbiti in African Religions and Philosophies points out that because religion permeates all aspects of life in African society, there is no separation between the sacred and the secular, the religious and non-religious, or the spiritual and the physical (ARP 1-7).

The integration of the spiritual and the material becomes essential for oppressed persons to attain a true sense of freedom. As we think about the future, we must raise the question, whose future are we speaking about? The future cannot continue to consist of a world dominated by the white male. Liberation begins with a redistribution of resources. The quest for liberation is being experienced with a deep sense of urgency throughout the world. No longer can the white male continue to dominate and control ethnic minority groups. A liberationist approach to eschatology includes the empowerment of oppressed persons to take charge of their own lives.

Whitehead’s vision of reality suggests that freedom is something that is built within the structure of each occasion in the world. In other words, freedom is something inherent in each emerging actuality. In terms of metaphysics, this serves as a viable point of departure for oppressed persons, suggesting that in the quest for liberation oppressed persons must claim their freedom. To claim freedom means becoming intentional about eradicating the social ills which mitigate against the inherent freedom which is ours. In this sense, freedom is dynamic and not static.

It is not enough, for example, for one to say that the death and resurrection of Christ has set us free, or to say that because freedom is inherent within one’s nature it is not necessary to work for it. Because God functions as co-partner in the quest for liberation, oppressed persons must assume responsibility for their own freedom. They cannot depend on the oppressors to liberate them. They must feel the compulsion to liberate themselves with the help of God. While listening and responding with a sense of urgency to the liberation agenda of the oppressed, oppressors must work at overcoming the illusion of power and control.

We must avoid thinking that ultimately the future lies in the hands of God and that somehow God will insure victory. The thought that God will not allow humanity to destroy itself perpetuates a false sense of security. God’s role is not to coerce humanity into conformity with God’s ultimate plan. God insures humanity continued participation in the struggle for liberation. And, God’s redemption and grace are inexhaustible, meaning that God never abandons humanity because of its sinfulness. God’s love and patience are infinite. This vision of God serves as the basis of eschatological hope. It is not idealism or escapism, nor is it false optimism; rather, it represents a realistic approach to eschatological hope. It approaches the future as a great opportunity and a great risk. My hope is that victims of oppression, including Black Americans, Africans, women, American Indians, Mexican Americans, Hispanics, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, and others will begin to assume leadership in the quest for liberation. I mean the type of leadership which offers new possibilities for the future. Years of oppression should offer a new vision of humanity. If we respond positively to this new sense of humanity, then we will work with intentionality toward the realization of genuine social pluralism -- the type of pluralism which avoids racism, sexism, and other social ills which perpetuate forms of social injustice. Efforts that work contrary to realizing genuine social pluralism make the future a threat, rather than an opportunity.



ARP -- John S. Mbiti. African Religions and Philosophies. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1970.

HP -- Henry James Young. Hope in Process: A Theology of Social Pluralism. Philadelphia: Augsburg/Fortress Publishers (Forthcoming).

IT -- Howard Thurman. Jesus and The Disinherited. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press. 1965.

SBF -- W. E. B. Dubois. The Souls of Black Folk. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1961.

TAT -- John S. Pobee. Toward An African Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979.