Process Thought On the Borders Between Hermeneutics and Theology

by William A. Beardslee

William A. Beardslee is Professor of Religion at Emory University.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 220-234, Vol.19, Number 4, Fall, 1990. 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. Beardslee focuses on how a Whiteheadian perspective can bring into fruitful relation the Christian hope for the transformation of social structures and the Buddhist aim of detachment which frees us from suffering.

I learned a good deal about process theology and philosophy when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1940’s. Also, Charles Hartshorne and later, Ivor Leclerc, were colleagues at Emory University, where I taught, for a number of years. But early in my career my own interests as a young New Testament scholar were in the sacred history point of view of Oscar Cullmann and Ethelbert Stauffer, and the existentialist point of view of Rudolf Bultmann, and in how to relate these two points of view fruitfully. My first work was in New Testament interpretation and theology. As time passed, I came to hope that process thought could offer a better way of relating the moments of time than that which I found in Cullmann and similar interpreters, while retaining the emphasis on decision that I found in Bultmann, without dissecting time into separate moments as he did.

In the early 1960’s I turned in earnest to process thought; my first "process" paper showed how an approach from a process perspective could take human creativeness more seriously than was the case in the traditional divine grace-human response pattern as it was usually developed ("The Motif of Fulfillment," TBS). Then I turned to the theme of hope, and in A House for Hope I showed how the urgent themes of biblical eschatology and human concern for history, as well as the weight of importance of the individual person’s life, could be reinterpreted from a process point of view. Something of the point of view of that book can be seen in the following quotation:

Nevertheless, despite its perversion and erosion, hope that is not just passive, but involves enlistment in the future, is the basic form of hope which the Christian tradition can to the present world. ... Today we see that the final end toward which hope reached will have to be transformed, in our grasp of it, into an endless movement into the future. ... The new life for which one hopes will never come to be the prevalent reality in a total way, though real changes and achievements are possible. If we think otherwise, the end will become either an excuse for otherworldliness, or else a symbol of the indefinite totality which swallows up all concrete reality. Further, a modern [person] cannot live in this hope with the unreflective security which has sometimes marked Christian faith. Hope will be real on the boundary between hope and despair (HH 129-30).

I have continued to-think about process thought and history since that time. In a recent paper I wrote:

If we are able to let ... the vital insights (of the biblical story] speak, we shall be able to find an open, improvisatory over-arching story, which does not have a predetermined end, and which does no allow us to regard ourselves as specially privileged, but which does set us free to commit ourselves to action and also to thought, in both cases as explorations of possibilities which are as yet unrealized (SHR24:114).


Since I wrote the book on hope, I have come to appreciate more deeply a different approach to what I called the "indefinite totality which swallows up all concrete reality." A course of lectures by Masao Abe and John Cobb’s work on Christianity and Buddhism have shown me that the Buddhist concern with detachment and its grounding in the unformed nothingness or creativity out of which definite things emerge, offers a challenging alternative to the Christian focus on a principle of formation or rightness (God). In what follows I reproduce at some length a response which I wrote a few years ago to a paper by Professor Yoshinori Takeuchi. Since the present paper on process thought at the intersection of hermeneutics and theology was originally written for a Japanese audience, it seemed to me that an extensive reference to my response to Professor Takeuchi would be appropriate. The focus is on how a Whiteheadian perspective can bring into fruitful relation the Christian hope for the transformation of social structures and the Buddhist aim of detachment which frees us from suffering. I raised the question, what relation can we understand to exist between these two perspectives on the transformation of the conditions which result in suffering?

Typically, the Christian hope for the transformation of society expects to re-channel the energies of the members of society by appeal to a vision of a better world and by some program of structural reform which will embody in actual society some features of that vision. Though the doctrine of sin has loomed large in traditional Christianity, the assumption of social action has usually been that the vision of a better world and a new shaping of social structures will enlist people’s energies in a way that will free them from the self-serving "this is mine" which is so destructive a factor in the present world. (The term "this is mine" is taken from a paper on Minjung theology by Professor A. Sung Park of the School of Theology at Claremont, CA, USA.) The Buddhist, on the contrary, would make a radical freedom from any structures a first step; once one has recognized the pervasiveness of the negative factors, they can be re-entered, and transformed into their opposite. It is true that to a degree a vision of a better world does enter into Pure Land Buddhism in the form of a land or realm that is governed by the presence of the living Buddha. Nonetheless, we see a tendency of contrast between the two traditions in that Christian engagement with suffering tends to keep in view some alternative form or order of interrelationship, while the Buddhist vision tends to negate all forms of order at the deepest level.

Perhaps a process perspective can help us see a relationship here. If we look at Whitehead’s description of peace, we cannot help being struck by the various ways in which it approaches what Professor Takeuchi has said about peace of heart in Buddhism.

Peace, Whitehead tells us, has the effect of the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling, which arises from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. Thus peace carries with it a surpassing of personality. It comes as a gift. It is the removal of inhibition and not its introduction. Although decay, transition, and loss belong to the essence of the creative advance, peace is the understanding of tragedy, and at the same time its preservation. Peace is not engaged in concern about the future (AI Ch.20).

It is important to note how Whitehead saw at the foundation of action a peace which is in many ways analogous to the peace of heart of Buddhism. A deep kind of self-transcendence is common to both of them.

Yet we note that Whitehead’s discussion of peace lacks the powerful dialectic of negation and affirmation which is characteristic of Professor Takeuchi’s presentation. Peace for Whitehead is integrally involved in engagement with the quests for morality, for truth, and for beauty, liberating the seeker from narrow and self-serving aims in these quests. In a sense there is in Whitehead a dialectic of yes or no, in that the gift of peace comes as something beyond the specific quests while not denying their validity. Thus Whitehead believed that peace could hold in creative tension both the reach toward recognition of the formless ground of all existence ("creativity" in Whitehead’s terminology, "emptiness" in Buddhist language), and the relevance of form or order to all action (God is the source of order in Whitehead’s language).

Perhaps we could sum it up by saying that the Buddhist quest totally negates all form by relativizing it; this way leads to a freedom which is found through the path of total detachment. No underlying principle of beauty, truth, or moral order is exempt from this negation -- although in the Pure Land vision, an interrelated world of beauty, truth, and moral order is given back to the disciple in the vision of the Pure Land. In the Christian tradition, on the other hand, or at least in most of its forms, principles of order are seldom if ever so completely relativized. God as the principle of rightness is an ultimate. The actually-existing forms of order are not ultimate; but they do reflect an ultimate from which they are derived.

If we may follow the clue offered by Whitehead’s vision of peace, then these two traditions each need the other. The Christian tradition is all too prone to think that the believer can move directly into action. The unanalyzed energies of the believer are thought to be suitable to mobilize transforming actions in society, because it is assumed that those energies are (1) a response to fundamental patterns of order and (2) potentially, at least, expressions of a fundamental relatedness. This pattern provides a powerful and valid stance for confronting the destructive threats of technological society. Both the emphasis on relatedness, and the emphasis on response to patterns of order which are believed to have a transcendent source, are derived from a fundamental Christian vision of God as related and of God as the source of order. At the same time, this stance is tragically capable of being turned to destructive purposes. It is all too easy to think that the vision of order which comes to me is itself an appropriate response to the ultimate source of order. While the urge to attain the millennium has been a powerful motivation to action, it also has demonic potential, as a particular vision of order is projected as the ultimate and only valid one. The peace which is not dependent on any particular order can be a much needed corrective here.

Thus the Buddhist vision, which holds that permanent and inescapable features of existence -- transience and suffering -- cannot be evaded, but must be passed through, has much to teach Christians. But to affirm life’s positive possibilities, the interaction of the self which is freed from "this is mine" with the relatedness of human and of all existence is also essential if action is to assume a continuing responsibility. Here the Christian vision of God as the giver of order has much to offer (RT 6-8).


Another major interest of mine in process philosophy is Whitehead’s understanding of language, and how this understanding may be applied to interpretation. At the center of my interest is the way in which Whitehead recognizes that language is an arbitrary system, yet holds that we are not totally enclosed within language. The key to his thought is his separation of what is usually discussed under the head of "symbols" into two stages: symbols, which function in perception, and propositions, which function in decision and self-formation.

Whitehead’s discussion of symbols is shaped to confront and overcome the Humean skepticism about perception Thus "symbol" has a much more restricted meaning in Whitehead than in, for instance, Ricoeur. Whitehead’s primary illustrations come from the realm of the perception of spatial configurations. Symbols connect the clear but indirect and constructed perceptions in the mode of presentational immediacy with the dim but direct perceptions of that same spatial area in the mode of causal efficacy. Whitehead’s symbol has something in common with Tillich, who holds that a symbol participates in the reality which it expresses. For Whitehead, also, the symbol has something in common with what it symbolizes. A common eternal object as well as a common location connect the data given in the two modes of perception. There is always the possibility of error in relating the two modes, but these common elements make possible a real knowledge of the data on the part of the perceiving occasion -- a key point in overcoming the Kantian division between phenomenal and noumenal. (PS 12:69-70)

But, on the other hand, as I point out in another article,

That aspect of symbolism which deals with creative imagination rather than with perception, Whitehead deals with not in terms of "symbols," but rather by describing the function of "propositions." In his view, symbols function in the receptive act of perception, but when he came to analyze the creative function of imagination, he chose a different term because he believed that a quite different phase of the process of self-creation was in view. Propositions function in the process of self-creation of an entity, as the instruments through which that entity considers concrete possibilities. ...Propositions have many functions, but the phrase "concrete possibilities" indicates that propositions are the indispensable vehicle of imagination as it reaches out from that which has already been experienced toward possibilities as yet unrealized. (JAAR47:33-4)

Though there is increasing interest in this aspect of Whitehead’s thought, it is undeveloped in comparison with the study of his metaphysical theories. I believe that further study of Whitehead’s theory of language will be very important in dialogue with those who hold that our language is wholly enclosed within itself. This concern of mine relates, of course, to my interest in history and narrative. In a recent paper I have tried to show how a process point of view can enter into dialogue with contemporary French thought, and how the American black theologian Cornel West would have a stronger basis for his story of liberation in a process view than he has in the neo-pragmatism which he had adopted (VPT 63-80; 149-55).

I offer these comments on what process thought means to me in the hope that they show that process philosophy and theology are not restricted academic endeavors on my part. They also shape my life and faith. In recent years I have given a good deal of time to the Process and Faith Program of the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, a program which produces and distributes booklets, videotapes, and books which put process perspectives in lay people’s terms. The program is designed primarily to speak to lay people in the Christian churches.



HH -- William A. Beardslee. A House for Hope. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972.

JAAR47 -- William A. Beardslee. "Whitehead and Hermeneutic." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47 (1979): 31-7.

PS 12 -- William A. Beardslee. "Recent Hermeneutics and Process Thought." Process Studies 12: 65-76.

RT -- William A. Beardslee. "Response to Professor Takeuchi." Unpublished paper.

SHR24 -- William A. Beardslee. "Vital Ruins: Biblical Narrative and the Story Frameworks of Our Lives." Southern Humanities Review 24(1990): 101-16.

TBS -- William A. Beardslee. "The Motif of Fulfillment in the Eschatology of the Synoptic Gospels." Transitions in Biblical Scholarship. Ed. J. Coert Rylaarsdam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

VPT -- William A. Beardslee. "Christ in the Postmodern World," and "Camel West’s Postmodern Theology." Varieties of Postmodern Theology by David R. Griffin, William A. Beardslee, and Joe Holland. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989.