The Process Paradigm, Rites of Passage, and Spiritual Quests

by Nancy Frankenberry

Nancy Frankenberry is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 347-357, Vol.29, Number 2, Fall- Winter, 2000. 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.


By providing a unifying concept that shows a common structure of a great number of spiritual quests, the process paradigm is presented and should illuminate and give coherence to the varieties of women’s and men’s experiences.

Like Voltaire, who was ready to vouch for the sincerity of his professed belief in God, but who added "as for Monsieur the Son and Madame His Mother, that’s a different story," more and more Americans are giving lip service to belief in God, while adopting the discourse of "spirituality," and treating conventional religious doctrine as a very different story. This is a fascinating and bewildering development because only a generation ago the term "spirituality" was associated with spiritualism, seances, and the occult. In bookstores, "metaphysics" was found in the occult section, alongside paranormal phenomena. Historian of religions Diana Eck traces the growing popularity of the term "spirituality" to the l99Os when the word "religion" came to seem too static and institutional in its connotations, and a gradual shift occurred to the more non-sectarian term "spirituality" Eck herself uses the latter term to designate "the disciplined nurturing of inner spiritual life" (150-51). As a concept, however, "spirituality" remains cloudy.

Equally opaque philosophically is the definition adopted by the widely promoted June 1998 conference in Berkeley, California called "Science and the Spiritual Quest." The conference opened with an invocation to "the" spiritual quest (singular and not plural), which was defined as "our thirst for the infinite, for the transcendent, for meaning and purpose." Judging from press reports and web page announcements, the "spirituality" on display at this event was one that logical positivism’s long legacy has helped to promote. John Polkinghorne, Cambridge University particle physicist and Anglican priest, proclaimed: "Theology is not some airy-fairy form of metaphysical speculation." Like science, he said, religion is rooted in encounters with reality -- though in the latter case the encounters include spiritual revelations whose truths "lie in the unreachable realm of the subjective"( qtd in Johnson). Philosophically, such a picture represents a return to the division of labor that marked the heyday of logical positivism, according to which science deals with matters of fact and religion deals with meaning and values. Sixty years ago, A. J. Aver already agreed with Polkinghorne’s partition, emphatically relegating religion to the unreachable realm of the subjective where its "meaning" is strictly emotive and its "values" are non-cognitive. From a Whiteheadian perspective, this is not the embrace that revives but the kiss of death for religion in an age of science. To the extent that many inquiring minds still operate within the implicit confines of logical positivism, or without any conceptual illumination at all, Whitehead’s philosophy has much to offer those who seek clarity on these matters even while mistrusting it.

Ginger Rogers, it has been said, did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and on high heels. The overarching theme of the Third International Whitehead Conference in 1999 concerned the question, What can Process Thought contribute to the common good? Let me reverse that question and dance with it a bit on the high heels of generality, asking, What is there by way of a common structure that is good in process thought? Beyond the technical interpretations and the absorbing debates that make up the field of Process Thought today, is there a way of expressing Whitehead’s basic vision in terms that clarify some element common to all spiritual quests (pluralized)? Whether we work in the universities, in the churches, or in the trenches, whether we are physicists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, gurus, or spiritual questers of various sorts, and regardless of our gender, race, or sexual, national or ethnic identity, is there an invariable or common pattern to the processes at work in spiritual quests? Given the extreme generality involved, it is evident that such a question can only be approached wearing very high heels.

* * *

My answer takes the form of proposing that the process paradigm, as I will call it here, presents the best conceptual model I know for expressing the central insight that divides positivists and platonists from process-relationalists on the matter of spirit. In this paradigm the passage of nature is something more than simply the production of novelty, of things happening that have not happened before. Rather, it is "the creative advance into novelty," of which Whitehead says in The Concept of Nature "the passage of nature is only another name for the creative force of existence" (73). The creative force of existence is not sheer on-rushing energy It has a character, a shape, a moment-to-moment vectorial direction of each pulse of becoming, even if it lacks overall direction as a whole: "The many become one, and are increased by one" (Whitehead, Process 21). In this perpetual sequence is contained the basic rhythm of process. The rhythm, Whitehead says, "swings from the publicity of many things to the individual privacy; and it swings back from the private individual to the publicity of the objectified individual" (Process 151).

Pointing not vertically to infinite, absolute Being, but horizontally to a process of temporal movement toward an open-ended future, spirit can be defined as the capacity for self-creation and self-transcendence. Dynamic process occurs as, and is structured by, a tripartite pattern: every new event is a present self-causation, responding to past causes, vectorially felt, In terms of future potentialities grasped. This distinctive process of self-constitution, inclusive of myriad relations, and forged in light of an open future, is the very key to the movement of transcendence and, I am suggesting, to the structure of spiritual quests. In the same way that process thought dissolves what Bergson complained of as "the logic of solids," spiritual quests, interpreted this way, dissolve the western mind’s long philosophical addiction to substance abuse. Supplanting substance philosophy’s idea that it takes an agent to act, a doer to perform the deed, the process thought proposes that agents are the results of acts, and subjects are constituted out of relations. Every event comes into being by grasping or "prehending" antecedently actualized events to integrate them into a new actualized event, its own momentary self in a provisional state. Destined to perish, it no sooner becomes than a fresh process of processive-relational integration supercedes it. Quantum units of becoming achieve momentary unity out of a given multiplicity in a never-ending rhythm of creative process whereby "the many become one, and are increased by one." Creativity within each occasion is spontaneous, the mark of actuality, and free, within the limits determined by its antecedent causes. Creativity unifies any many and is creative of a new unifying perspective, which then becomes a new one among another many. In process ontology, creativity is ultimate reality not in the sense of something more ultimate behind, above, or beyond reality, but in the sense of something ultimately descriptive of all reality, coinciding with what Charles Birch and John Cobb have called "the Life Process." As a category in Whitehead’s philosophy, creativity (along with "one" and "many") may be designated the "ultimate of ultimates" (Process 21), but as such it is only an abstraction, the formal character of any actual occasion. Creativity as concrete, however, signifies the dynamism that is the very actuality of things, their act of being there at all. Everything exists in virtue of creativity, but creativity is not any substantial thing.

* * *

On a level of less generality, one can ask whether the process paradigm serves not only to describe the Passage of Nature but also to mark certain cultural passages. More specifically, does the constant cosmological dialectic between past and future, stasis and change, the power of the past and the pull of the future comprise the very pattern of different worldwide spiritual quests? My proposal is to read the Whiteheadian account of processive-relational activity that is the dynamic thrust of the life process as identical with the general abstract structure described in the work of Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner on rites of passage. Alternatively stated, this cultural anthropology is susceptible to descriptive generalization in terms of the process paradigm and can be studied in terms of its applicability to the structure of spiritual quests cross-culturally. Rites of passage analysis renders at least some claims about spiritual quests more empirically tractable, and reveals several ways in which process thought offers a corrective model for further work in anthropology of religion and ritual studies.

In his 1909 classic work, The Rites of Passage, Van Gennep correlated spatial or geographical progression with the ritual marking of cultural "passages." Arguing that rites of passage are actions that are pervasive throughout all human cultures, he submitted their structures to description in terms of preliminal, liminal, and postliminal rites, according to the three stages of separation, transition, and reincorporation. Each of these marks a stage in the change from one type of socially defined status to another. According to Van Gennep:

Transitions from group to group and from one social situation to the next are looked on as implicit in the very fact of existence, so that a man’s life comes to he made up of a succession of stages with similar ends and beginnings: birth, social puberty, marriage, fatherhood, advancement to a higher class, occupational specialization, and death. For every one of these events there are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined. (3)

Van Gennep further argued that all rituals are rites of passage with the same three-stage process. First, a person leaves behind one social group and its social identity; second, she passes through a stage of no identity or affiliation, before, third, becoming admitted into a new social group that confers a new identity. A series of ritual passages define (1) the "before," (2) the period of training that is "betwixt and between," and (3) the "after" in which the transformation of the person is complete. The liminal period in between orchestrates a physical removal from the rest of the world, with changes of appearance (shaved heads; identical, egalitarian clothing), and basic changes in one’s sense of self (through wilderness wanderings, trials and temptations, lessons learned, new achievements).

On the basis of the well-defined structure of the ritual positions in the rites, Van Gennep concluded that the formality of rites of passage, exemplified in their highly patterned sequences of action, permits us to organize and understand a large body of ethnographic data and to make significant cross-cultural generalizations. If this is so, we should be able to demonstrate that spiritual quests, on the analogy of rites of passage, do not occur, unfold, or follow each other randomly but have an order that can be systematically described, even if only at a very high level of generality.

Adopting Van Gennep’s categories and applying them in his own work in anthropology; Victor Turner did more than any other scholar to place the notions of liminality and "communitas" center-stage in ritual studies. Ritual, according to Turner, is the "realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise" (Turner 97).1 Reference to a realm of pure possibility ought not to suggest to students of Whitehead an analogue to his notion of the primordial nature of God; liminality is not quite that flexible. A better comparison with process thought is in terms of the concrescent process of becoming itself in which possibilities are becoming realized and, as Turner writes, "novel configurations of ideas and relations" are arising. Central to his analysis is a dynamic drama of "processual units" and the subsequent swing from privacy to public performance.

Giving special prominence to the liminal period, Turner described the creation of "communitas" as a time of effervescence, of uncertainty and indeterminateness, of being betwixt and between. In the process account, the creation of "communitas" occurs as concrescence, a time out of time, a duration that has extension but not divisibility, a betwixt and between for that which is becoming -- but is not-yet. In his early work, Turner thought of religion as the affirmation of communal unity in contrast to the frictions, constraints, and competitiveness of social life and more rigid organizations. Religion and its rituals afforded a creative "anti-structure," a great "time out that was distinguished from the rigid maintenance of social orders and hierarchies. Later on, Turner portrayed religion as embodying aspects of both structure and anti-structure, and rituals as those special activities that mediate the opposing demands of both "communitas" and the formalized social order. I need not elaborate the detailed description Turner developed of the way in which rites of passages afford the formal structuring that, he claimed, maintains the ordered value system of a group and provides a cathartic experience of "communitas." Nor will I demonstrate here the ease with which one can map the details of his analysis of rites of passage onto the stories about the founders of the major religious traditions, finding in the myths and legends of Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus a common abstract structure, following a familiar tripartite pattern.

A harder test of the generalizability of this analytic model is posed in terms of cosmological theory If Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus all undergo rites of passage, does "inorganic" matter as well? Here is where anthropology’s batteries run down, but the process paradigm keeps on ticking. Both at the macroscopic and microscopic levels, the natural sciences depict matter as displaying a similar tripartite structure for the emergence of "order Out of chaos." In Prigogene and Stengers’s 1984 book by that title, irreversibility and indeterminism are the cardinal postulates for understanding dissipative structures studied by thermodynamics in far-from-equilibrium conditions. Recent work in cosmology suggests that space-time relations move not only toward increasing entropy or disorder, but toward those critical moments of disequilibrium when the spontaneously adaptive self-organization of the open system -- above all the living system -- comes into play and future structure is generated from the flux of a liminal present. The process of separation, transition, and reintegration occurs in terms of the disruption of a steady state at or near equilibrium, which brings matter increasingly far from equilibrium to a point at which a "decision" is made between alternative possibilities randomly presented by its environment, resulting in its reorganization in novel emergent form. The cosmological story, too, can be told in terms of (1) disruption of a prior equilibrium, (2) transition toward an unknown outcome, and (3) reintegration into a renewed and transformed equilibrium -- a process made possible by a directional but indeterminate universe continually engendering new order from chaos.

Not only in cosmology but also in evolutionary biology, a new paradigm, associated with the work of Stuart S. Kauffman and the Santa Fe Institute, focuses on the concept of self-organization, the spontaneous emergence of order widely observed throughout nature. What the process paradigm generalizes as the principle that "the many become one, and are increased by one," Kauffman conceptualizes as spontaneous exhibitions of new degrees of order that may play as fundamental a role in shaping evolution as does the Darwinian process of natural selection. Finding examples of what Whitehead called "order bordering on chaos" in the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics, Kauffman shows how this order is essential for understanding the emergence and development of life on earth.2

Returning to the anthropological level, another recent scholar who finds impressive evidence of the spiritual quest as a fundamental human activity is Robert M. Torrance. Running the gamut of tribal societies Torrance studies is a tripartite structure of separation, transition, and incorporation, found in spirit possession and the medium’s trance, in the shaman’s vision quest, and in Black Elk’s search for spiritual power at a time of crisis. Complex manifestations of the quest, according to Torrance, characterize tribal peoples of Central Asia, West Africa, and the Amazon, extending also both East and West in our own time, appearing in the shamanistic processions of Japan, in the search for the Taoist islands of immortality or for Eldorado or the Holy Grail, "for the philosopher’s stone or the elixir of life; in pilgrimages to Benares, Jerusalem, Mecca, or Rome; or in the mystical aspirations of Muslim Sufi, Jewish kabbalist, Catholic saint, or Protestant Pentecostalist"(xii).

Apparently unaware of Whiteheadian process philosophy, Torrance affirms the tripartite structure of spiritual quests, which he calls "ternary process." In an illuminating passage he explains why the process must be three, not two, and not one. The number three is by no means arbitrary, for it is the root of an endless plurality. The One gives us only a static Parmenidean absolute unity Two gives us only a system of binary oppositions, again precluding beginning or end. For movement, relation, and change, we need Whiteheadian prehensile activity or Torrance’s "ternary relations," where "the emphasis is not on fixed antitheses but on the process that connects (and transforms them); not on the raw and the cooked, but on the cooking, on the present active participle that converts one structure to another, the given to the made, and thereby creates a future transcending the past"(259). Wherever one studies the production of novel togetherness -- whether in the physical, the biological, or the cultural dimensions of the universe -- one finds the becoming of patterned process. To understand the Raw and the Cooked, one must theorize the Cooking as well.

* * *

Summarizing what the process model contributes to the analysis of spiritual quests, I will mention five related features. The first, suggested by the passage quoted above, is the dissolving of the logic of binary oppositions in favor of ternary relations. Even in Turner’s work, despite the overall tripartite scheme, "communitas" is theorized in terms of the binary opposition between structure and anti-structure. It would be fair to say that one of Turner’s chief contributions to the anthropology of religion is to have traced the asymmetrical oppositions that create dominance, hierarchy, and integration among a system of associations. But one would also need to acknowledge the troubling aspect of binary oppositions -- they almost always involve asymmetrical hierarchically organized relations of dominance and subordination, and these, in turn, generate hegemonic and oppressive cultural structures. The process paradigm, by contrast, generates asymmetrical relations, to be sure, but here the "subordination" of the (past) many to the unity of a novel (later) "one" occurs as temporal supercession, not as social domination. The process of achieving unity is (ideally) democratic and the ordering is (roughly) aesthetic. Theories that posit the logic of binary oppositions, on the other hand, fail to accommodate the Whiteheadian "principle of relativity" according to which a subject constitutes itself Out of its prehensions of its past world, and then in turn functions objectively as a datum in the past world of all subsequent occasions (Whitehead, Process 214; 43). Only the logic of ternary relations affords conceptual space for the Cooking as much as for the Raw and the Cooked.

Second, the outcome or goal of spiritual quests is not and cannot be known in advance, because no determinate state of emergent unity can be prescribed or fixed prior to its achievement. Process is not continuous even if, overall, it is unceasing. It (be)comes in buds of prehensile unification -- which perish. Its outcome is never fully predictable even if it is inevitable that it become determinate in some fashion. The burden of futurity, the hope of open-endedness is also the promise of provisionality, which makes every closure less than final, every fresh determinateness but an epochal "now" preceding the birth of another indeterminateness. Cumulatively, then, every present moment of becoming, every temporary stage of a spiritual quest is weighted with the past as well as the future. This dialectic between entropy and organization is precisely the movement that spiritual quests consist in, structurally. The vectors of spiritual quests flow from indeterminacy to determinacy, and in-between is the crucial determining, decided by every creature. In fact, the radicality of the process paradigm is its affirmation that a creature is its decisions, given its inheritance. And these are all the more lovely for being fleeting and contingent.

Third, Van Gennep’s and Turner’s analysis needs a richer dose of relationality -- specifically, asymmetrical internal relations aesthetically unified. In the process paradigm, self-integration and growth is an achievement of considerable simplification, dependent upon a capacity for harmonizing contrasts that may even border on chaos. Too much elimination procures narrowness without simplicity Too little yields width without depth. Along the razor’s edge between inclusion of discordant elements as effective contrasts and their dismissal as incompatible ingredients, each organic form of life seeks a particular equilibrium. No individual is simply one among many; the many are deeply creative of the internal life of each individual that is an emergent from its relations. "Communitas," therefore, is not simply a community of independent equals, but a "one" in which the disjunctive "many" have become interdependently related.

Fourth, the abstract patterns identified by Turner as common to all initiations have been taken as something universally human by many previous scholars. There is reason to doubt the universality, however, in light of the complexities that gender studies have introduced into anthropology. One will not fail to notice -- although I have suppressed many of the details here -- that rites of passage take the male as paradigmatic, that the founders of the major world religions have all been male, and that spiritual quests as recorded throughout history add up to a kind of Million Man March. We may wonder why so many peoples around the world have regarded the state of being a "real man" or becoming "true man" as uncertain and precarious, a prize to be won or wrestled through struggle, heroic conquest, crossing of hazardous straits, or performance of warrior feats. To date, only the research of Bruce Lincoln and Carolyn Walker Bynum offers notable contestation of these unproven assertions from the standpoint of gender analysis. Testing Turner’s ideas against the religious texts that are the major source for historians of the Middle Ages, Carolyn Bynum finds that his formulation of liminality is applicable only to men, not to women, and useful for understanding only some male stories, namely, those of elites. Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln has also made a study of female initiation rites that begins to correct the partiality of rites of passage scholarship. He suggests a more useful vocabulary for the pattern of female transformation: enclosure, metamorphosis, and emergence. I find this compatible with the emphases and vocabulary of feminist process theology currently being written by Marjorie Suchocki, Mary Elizabeth Moore, Catherine Keller, and Nancy Howell, to name but a few.

Fifth, underlying the dominant anthropological theory of the modern period is an unproven hypothesis of a fundamental internal conflict between nature and culture that seeks its resolution in myth and ritual. From this have arisen various functionalist theories of myth and rituals that define religion as a mechanism for resolving or disguising conflicts fundamental to socio-cultural life. I am arguing that from the standpoint of the process paradigm, the oppositional hypothesis appears contrived, and the theory of functionalism flawed. Not only does process thought theorize no such fundamental conflict or contradiction, but also it promotes a different model of understanding the nature-culture relation as one of continuity, or discontinuity-within-continuity. Lacking any fundamental conflict to overcome, the process paradigm is less likely to spawn theories of religion that commit the functionalist fallacy so frequently found in religious studies.3

None of my reflections in this essay seek to offer an explanation of anything, least of all of religion in general or of ritual in particular. What I have offered is a description of structures -- part of the syntax of spiritual quests -- and a few comparative snapshots. Using these as an explanation would only risk doing what John Dewey urged us to renounce -- the kind of pseudo-explanation that "only abstracts some aspect of the existing course of events in order to reduplicate it as a petrified eternal principle by which to explain the very changes of which it is the formalization"(4:11). This is both a warning against any reification of Whitehead’s category of the ultimate and a reminder that descriptive generalizations give us, at best, principles, which are actual only in their instantiations or concretizations. Whitehead wisely refrained from converting creativity into an entity or enduring substantial reality or attempting to explain why it is the way it is. "It lies in the nature of things," he said, "that the many enter into complex unity" (Process 21).

In conclusion, I have tried to suggest a new use for the process model as a way of reanalyzing the types of activities and processes usually understood as spiritual. By providing a unifying concept that articulates a common structure of a great number of spiritual quests, the process paradigm I have adumbrated should illuminate and give coherence to the varieties of women’s and men’s experiences at three levels: the interpersonal; social systems, and institutional structures; and the all-encompassing natural world. It is possible that further investigation along these lines will yield sufficient detail to generalize more effectively about contemporary secular cases among groups and populations, such as AA or alternative health movements, not typically studied this way. Finally, I am recommending a wholesale shift away from the noun "spirituality" and toward the more active notion of dynamic movement implied in "spiritual quests." In this way, conventionally religious and secular persons alike may learn to think less in terms of static states of interior, privatized subjectivity, and more in terms of processive-relational modes of doing. If Whitehead’s definition of religion from Religion in the Making is destined to be constantly quoted, let it at least emphasize that he said "Religion is what one does with one’s solitude" (28, emphasis added).

As a force for the common good, spiritual quests are one way of preserving the human capacity for disruption, transition, and reintegration. Understood as a transcultural language of the human spirit, they are certainly a more likely candidate for promoting cross-cultural understanding and cooperation than the view that only one religion has the right path and other people’s paths should be torched, or barely tolerated. Greater attention to the syntax and semantics of spiritual quests may even guard us against our desire to find something to worship. Honoring the quest itself without benefit of gods or goddesses and without succumbing to what Keats called "the irritable reaching after fact and dogma," could confer on our lives -- our Western, post-modern, post-religious, post-positivist lives -- a very common good, indeed.



1. Greater critical attention needs to be given to Turner’s little-noted Thomist tendencies, apparent in passages where he posits, for example, a condition in which "the pure act-of-being is directly apprehended." See his Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual 185.

2. See Stuart A. Kauffman’s The Origins of Order as well as his more philosophical reflections in At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. I call this a "new paradigm" in a loose, non-Kuhnian sense.

3. For a critique of functionalism in the social sciences, see Carl Hempel, "The Logic of Functional Analysis." For a critique of functionalism in religious studies, see Hans H. Penner, Chapter Four.


Works Cited

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