Chapter 2: Process Theology in View of the Challenge of Political Theology

Process Theology as Political Theology
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 2: Process Theology in View of the Challenge of Political Theology

Process theology has several overlapping meanings. The term came into currency in the fifties. It referred to the type of theology that had developed at Chicago especially under the influence of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. But the term was readily adopted by others, for example, the followers of Teilhard de Chardin. It may be helpful to indicate three ways in which the label can be used and then to select one of them for the remainder of the chapter.

Process theology may refer to all forms of theology that emphasize event, occurrence, or becoming over against substance. In this sense theology influenced by Hegel is process theology just as much as that influenced by Whitehead. This use of the term calls attention to affinities between these otherwise quite different traditions. Much of Biblical theology, especially when it stresses the difference between Biblical modes of thought and Greek philosophical categories. has belonged to process theology in this broad sense. Most political theology also is a form of process theology thus understood.

Again process theology may mean theology which systematically employs the philosophical conceptuality of Alfred North Whitehead or Charles Hartshorne. Certainly theology of this sort is called process theology and has been a major contribution to the development of the movement. My own book A Christian Natural Theology1 contributed to this way of understanding process theology.

Finally, process theology may refer to a theological movement that developed at the university of Chicago Divinity School during the thirties. This is much narrower than the first use and overlaps extensively with the second. The movement emerged as the influence of Whitehead was felt at Chicago, but many of the participants are not best understood as Whiteheadians in a narrow sense. Yet their emphasis on ‘process’ has not been less than his.

I shall follow this third usage, noting how Whitehead’s influence grew in this tradition to the point that the third usage has almost merged with the second. Indeed, since the ‘Chicago school’ is no longer strong at Chicago, there is an increasing tendency for the balance to shift toward the second usage of process theology. But for the present, the continuing influence among process theologians of members of the Chicago school whose positions are related to that of Whitehead quite loosely, argues for the importance of understanding process theology in relation to its historical origins at Chicago.

The history of the Chicago school can be described in three phases. The first phase lasted from the establishment of the school until around 1930 and its unity lies in the concern for the socio-historical method. Shailer Mathews typifies the theology of this phase, and Section 1 will describe it with special attention to him. In many ways this phase was closer to political theology than its successors have been.

Although the idea of process, and, indeed, the term process, were very prominent in this first phase, process theology has rarely been used to describe the socio-historical school. This label refers more to the second and third phases. The second phase was initiated by the coming to Chicago in the late twenties of Henry Nelson Wieman and Charles Hartshorne. Sections II and III summarize their distinctive contributions. Both were influenced by Whitehead; so the merging of the Chicago tradition with Whiteheadian theology began then. But their own positions were quite sharply distinct, one being radically empiricist, and the other, rationalist.

A third phase of the Chicago school can be identified as that of the leadership of the students of Wieman and Hartshorne. This phase overlaps chronologically with the second, since some of their students began teaching at Chicago while Wieman and Hartshorne were still there. As a matter of convenience we may think of this phase, rather arbitrarily, as beginning around 1950. Both Wieman and Hartshorne continued their teaching careers elsewhere after leaving Chicago, and most of their students also taught elsewhere. Hence this phase is one in which ‘the Chicago school’ gradually ceased to be closely identified with Chicago and was increasingly identified instead by the label process theology. Section IV deals with this phase. It illustrates the diversity within this phase by briefly identifying three of its leaders who did teach, at least for awhile, at Chicago. It also raises the question of the relation of process theology to the political concerns that had governed the first phase of the school. The intention is in part to display the distance between this process theology and political theology at the time the latter arose in Germany. It is also to indicate the distinctive perspective and resources which process theology brings to the questions raised for it by political theology.


A Baptist divinity school was moved to the site of the present University of Chicago to become the nucleus of the university in 1892. William Rainey Harper, a Biblical scholar, became the first president of the university and proceeded self-consciously to develop a new type of university. It was, on the one hand, to be chiefly oriented to graduate education and, on the other hand, to be related to the actual situation of the American Mid-west. The features of the situation that seemed most important to the Divinity School faculty were the social stresses caused by industrialization and the growing sense among the public of the irrelevance of the Bible. The latter was perceived as partly due to changes in the intellectual climate, but as chiefly due to the interpretation of the Bible in an individualistic and unhistorical way, which made it irrelevant to the social problems of the times.

To describe the Divinity School faculty’s perception of the problem in this way is to say little more than that it participated in the Social Gospel movement which was gaining wide influence at the time. That movement had its unity not in a theology but in the conviction that the Christian churches had the responsibility to address the injustices of the class society being produced by industrialization and that the Bible, properly understood, required concern for these social issues. It is striking that when Walter Rauschenbusch finally gave lectures in 1917 on ‘A theology for the social gospel’, he began by saying ‘We have a social gospel. We need a systematic theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it.’ 2

This subordination of theology to the church’s social mission sounded out-of-date in the next generation, but it is strikingly similar to the writing of many present-day political theologians. Black theologians such as James Cone understand theology as appropriate only as it serves the cause of Black liberation. Latin American theologians find, like Rauschenbusch, that there is a movement of liberation already in motion and that their task is to develop a ‘theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it’. Dorothee Sölle begins her lectures on ‘Political theology’ by quoting from Bonhoeffer’s prophesy addressed to us: ‘For your thought and action will enter on a new relationship; your thinking will be confined to your responsibilities in action. With us thought was often the luxury of the onlooker; with you it will be entirely subordinated to action.’3

Political and liberation theologies are certainly not mere repetitions of the theology of the earlier Social Gospel. Many of the issues that they emphasize are different. They respond to a different theological history. Nevertheless, as process theology now encounters the challenge of political theology, its roots in the earlier period of the Chicago school take on a new currency and relevance.

It was at Chicago that the methodological implications of the social gospel were most fully worked out by what was called the socio-historical school. Christianity was viewed as an historical movement developing out of Judaism under the impact of Jesus’s person and teaching. Doctrines were thought to have been formulated as needed to support the efforts of the movement in meeting perceived needs. These formulations were thus in the categories and concepts appropriate for the time and for the sake of providing sanction and guidance for the task at hand.

In the view of the socio-historical school the systematic task in the modem world is the same. Those who are immersed in the Christian movement need to formulate teachings that assist it in fulfilling its current calling. The advocates of the socio-historical method perceived that calling to be support of the oppressed classes in their struggle for justice. Hence doctrines of God and Christ and ecclesiology were to be shaped in such a way as to encourage and aid the church in this task.

When the church is seen in this way the primary question about its teachings is not their truth or accuracy. The primary test is functional or pragmatic. Does the doctrine aid in achieving the current goals of the movement? But a formulation which is not in the idiom of the day and which does not seem plausible and even convincing is of little use. Hence appropriateness to the best current thinking is an important norm. Theology must be formulated in the terms of the social mind of the time, which meant, for the Chicago thinkers, in democratic categories and thought forms shaped by the influence of modern science. In this context faith must be expressed an relevant imagery capable of evoking and informing understanding and impelling commitment.

Similarly the primary question is not that of faithfulness to Biblical formulations. The Christian movement must state the doctrines it now needs whether or not these can be derived directly from the Bible, Nevertheless, in a movement which looks back to the records of its origins for inspiration, it is important to show the connection of current teaching to the Scriptures. Hence scholarly attention at the Chicago Divinity School focused on the Bible.

This Biblical study was done under the aegis of the socio-historical method. The Bible tells and reflects the history of a movement. Its teachings reflect the needs and goals of that movement at various times in its socio-historical development. The modern study of the Bible can bring that history to life for us today and renew our zest in continuing the movement of whose origins and early history it tells us.

Perhaps the finest scholar of the school was Shirley Jackson Case. His book The Evolution of Early Christianity a Genetic Study of First Century Christianity in Relation to its Religious Environment, published in 1914, was a manifesto of the socio-historical programme. Case recognized his indebtedness to Ernst Troeltsch, but he was also quite conscious of his differences. Case objected that ‘Troeltsch can speak of an "essential" Christianity in whose history the fundamental "ideal" is being realized through progress toward the "absolute goal". 4 Case had no place for an essence, a fundamental ideal or an absolute goal. He knew nothing but the socio-historical phenomena themselves.

Although Case gave some of the clearest statements of the implications of the socio-historical method, the man who best typifies the Divinity School and most influenced its development through the first three decades of this century was Shailer Mathews. Two years after the establishment of the Divinity School he was called from his position in history and political economy at Colby College to teach New Testament history and, after 1906, theology. In 1908 he became Dean of the Divinity School, a post he held until his retirement in 1933.

Mathews approached New Testament history from a perspective developed as a student of history and politics. This perspective had been sharpened by a year’s study at Berlin, but it is striking that his interests at that time were such that he did not attend any lectures in theology, even those of Harnack.5 Although he developed great appreciation for Harnack in later years, he worked out his own approach to Biblical scholarship by applying to the scriptures methods developed with other subject matters in view. One of his first books was an interpretation of the French Revolution as a socio-historical movement -- a book widely used in American high schools for a quarter of a century -- and his approach to Christianity was also as a socio-historical movement, even a revolutionary one.

Mathews’s lack of advanced education in Biblical scholarship of his day resulted in a certain naivete in his work. But this naivete was also its strength. Mathews could apply the socio-historical methodology to the Bible without the theological anxieties that characterized more sophisticated scholars. The struggle to reconcile faith and history was lacking. He assumed that history has the last word. But the history that has the last word is that of a living movement in which the historian participates.

Mathews saw Christianity as a social movement inspired by Jesus and striving for the realization of such values as sacrificial love. Like all religions it is a means of adjusting life to social reality. Its doctrines are a by-product of its life, and they therefore require repeated transformation as society and knowledge change and grow. The attempt to identify a constant kernel of belief is illusory and leads to distortion in the interpretation of the past.

Mathews traced the development of Christianity in the context of successive ‘social minds’.6 Christianity arose in the context of the Semitic social mind, and developed through the Greco-Roman, the imperialist, the feudal, the nationalist, and the bourgeois social minds. It now exists in the context of the modern social mind. This mind is characterized by democracy on the one side and the scientific method on the other. The task of formulating the faith in this emerging context is now before the Christian movement.

Mathews saw himself as a part of this movement. He was a moving spirit in the organization of the Northern Baptist Convention and the Federal Council of Churches, and he served terms as president of each. He devoted a great deal of energy to preparing materials on the Bible that would help modern people discover its relevance to the social situation of today. To this end he founded and edited journals and magazines and wrote literature for Sunday schools.

Much of the time Mathews wrote as though changes in doctrinal formulations and group practice do not affect a deeper level of Christian identity. He wrote, for example:

Theology will change but Christian experience and faith will continue . . . The great values which have been increasingly realized and expressed by successive theologians, reflecting successive social experiences, will continue to project themselves into the religious life of the future. They will give rise to new doctrines, as group interests change, but Christianity will breed true to itself because it will be developed by groups of Christians whose needs and satisfactions are of the same general type.7

But Mathews increasingly realized that he could not formulate an account of the experience and faith which continue in separation from the beliefs and practices which change. This led him to accept the more radical implications of his recognition of Christianity as a socio-historical movement. He stated that ‘the only definition which can include the variations of the Christian movement is that Christianity is the religion of those who call themselves Christians . . . Modern Christianity is the descendant of the religion of the men who wrote the New Testament, but, it is not identical with its ancestor. 8 Although Mathews did think that those ‘who have called themselves Christians have regarded Jesus as the author of their salvation’,9 the area of belief, including beliefs about Jesus, was left entirely relative.

The chief alternative Mathews saw to his own position was not orthodoxy, or even the Ritschlianism which flourished at the time, but rather philosophy of religion. He saw that modern people could seek through philosophy to arrive at religiously important beliefs. He wrote, ‘there is involved here the . . . profound choice between religion as a form of social behavior rationalized and directed by intelligence and religion as a philosophy in which the historical and social elements of an organized movement are to be ignored’. According to this choice, people ‘who hold approximately the same religious convictions’ develop markedly different attitudes.10

Although his own choice was clearly on the side of the historical approach, there were elements in his thought which paved the way for a marked shift in focus of the Chicago School. Although for him the primary context of religious life is social, he recognized also a cosmic dimension. Christianity must adjust its teachings to what we learn of the cosmos from the natural sciences. Mathews recognized that characteristic religious acts such as prayer and worship may not survive such adjustment, but he saw no alternative to complete openness, and he personally found the implications of science supportive of the religious response.

Mathews’s treatment of the doctrine of God reflects his dual concern with the social and the cosmic context. He wrote, ‘All the various conceptions of the object of worship . . . are relative to the conscious needs and the dominant social mindsets of various times and civilizations. The meaning of the word God is found in the history of its usage in religious behavior.’11However, this did not mean for Mathews that the object of worship is simply a human projection. He knew, what Tillich later pointed out, that ‘projection always is projection on something’. 12 Mathews was convinced that the something in question was ‘the personality-evolving and personally responsive elements of our cosmic environment with which we are organically related’. 13 That there are such elements, Mathews believed, is indicated as much by our modern knowledge as it has ever been. Hence the task now is to formulate conceptions of these forces appropriate to our social experience and need. The word ‘God’ refers to these conceptions rather than to the forces themselves or the scientific description of them.

Although interest in the personality-evolving forces of the cosmos did not shift Mathews’s primary attention from sociology and history to natural science and philosophy, in principle it opened the way to a philosophical reflection about the personality-evolving forces that was informed by evolutionary science. Within the Chicago school this interest was represented chiefly by Gerald Birney Smith, who introduced students to the organismic thinking of such writers as Henri Bergson, Lloyd Morgan, Samuel Alexander, Jan Smuts and Alfred North Whitehead. The early writings of a young American philosopher of religion, Henry Nelson Wieman, also caught the attention of both Smith and Mathews.

When Whitehead turned to religion in the Lowell Lectures of 1926, the Chicago faculty was keenly attentive to what he said. However, the book embodying those lectures, Religion in the Making,14 disturbed them because of the strangeness of its language and conceptuality. Mathews invited Wieman, who was a visiting professor at McCormick Seminary in Chicago at the time, to come to the Divinity School to explain the book, and the success of the occasion confirmed Mathews’ interest in him and led to the invitation to join the faculty. Wieman began teaching at Chicago in 1927 and continued until his retirement in 1947. In 1928 Charles Hartshorne joined the faculty of the Department of Philosophy. Their influence on the Divinity School community led to a shift of emphasis and dominated the second phase of the Chicago school. Because of the marked differences between them, and because what has come to be known as process theology is largely the result of their work, they are treated separately in the two following sections.


Wieman had attended the Presbyterian seminary at San Anselmo, California, and had studied in Germany under Eucken, Windelband and Troeltsch. However, he wrote that ‘during these years’ he ‘was not aware of any further insight changing the structure’ of his thought.15 His major inspiration up to that time came from his reading of Bergson, an influence that colored also the intellectual development of the years of his doctoral studies in philosophy at Harvard under Hocking and Perry. The other major influences were the writings of Dewey and Whitehead. Thus Wieman came to Chicago as a philosopher of religion, understanding the religious problem in the way over against which Mathews interpreted his own commitment to the Christian socio-historical movement.

But despite this difference, there was considerable continuity between Wieman and the older Chicago school. The socio-historical approach had always been pursued in continuity with empirical inquiries into human beings and religious experience, and the early Chicago school was quite open to the new discipline of psychology of religion and its relevance to religious education. Wieman was an empirical philosopher with strong psychological interests. The socio-historical concerns were also seen as broadly naturalistic in spirit. Wieman was a naturalist. Wieman shared with the earlier representatives of the Chicago school their complete rejection of all forms of supernaturalism and any bondage to past authority. The task was to think in the present with the tools now available to us and to be guided without reserve by the conclusions to which our thought brings us. In the understanding of the present situation Wieman opposed, just as strongly as the others, any introduction of a speculative element. The need is to limit our affirmations to that which can and must be accepted by any honest and open-minded person who looks at the facts we are now given. To associate Christian faith with any special claim upon intellectual assent is defeatist. Wieman agreed with Mathews that God could be identified in some way with the personality-producing forces in the universe, although he did not adopt this formulation as his own.

The points of difference, however, are not less striking. In the first place Wieman was no historian and rarely thought in historical categories. For him the avenue to religious truth lay in present experience and, at least during the earlier years, ‘he dismissed historical study of the faith as having no resources for the present task’. 16 In the second place, Wieman was only incidentally concerned with sociology, For him the variety of social structures seemed secondary to the continuous reality of God’s work in the world and man’s participation therein. In the third place, Wieman turned attention away from human concepts and values to the reality of God as that which is of interest to the religious person. In the fourth place, whereas the older Chicago School had been exceedingly suspicious of mysticism, Wieman appealed to the sheer immediacy of the knowledge of God. It seemed to him necessary to distinguish the immediate ‘acquaintance with’ God of the religious person from the indirect ‘knowledge about’ to which at best scientific knowledge could lead.

The basis of these differences between the older Chicago school and Wieman lie in their different subject matters. Whereas the former had made religion, and specifically Christianity, the object of investigation, Wieman regarded God as such as the proper object of investigation. Our task, he insisted, is not to develop religious ideas suitable to our present social situation but to subject ourselves and our situation to the working of that reality which is God. Furthermore, this reality, far from being some dark, mysterious, and remote force, is known immediately by everyone. It is that upon which all that is good in human life depends, for it is that process in which human good comes to be. And this reality can be directly analyzed and described.

The impact of Wieman in the American scene has sometimes been compared with that of Barth upon Continental theology,17 and a parallel does exist at the point at which both men direct attention away from humanity and human values to the work of God which is understood as prior to and sovereign over human endeavors. But it must be equally apparent that Wieman was far removed from Barth and incapable of appreciating the latter’s work. The sovereign reality to which Wieman calls attention is immediately knowable in everyone’s experience. The question of whether authority can be ascribed to the Scriptures or to the Christ event is a secondary question to be discussed only after the essential understanding of God is achieved. Although religious knowledge is different from scientific knowledge in character, it is distinguished not by any appeal to historical revelation, but rather only by the greater immediacy of that reality which it empirically apprehends and describes.

Wieman’s view is that what is of supreme importance is the growth of human good. By good he intends qualitative meaning or richness of integrated experience. Our concern should and must be to learn how the good grows. Wieman described in detail the creative process of interpersonal communication or interchange in which this occurs.18 This process (which must be recognized as one among the many processes that make up the world) is not manipulable in relation to foreseen ends, for it is the process in which unforeseen and unforeseeable good emerges.

The human problem is that we all too often commit ourselves to particular past products of the creative event, that is, to particular values as embodied in ideas or institutions. These values are real values, but the effort to preserve them can easily work against the process that produced them and that can produce new goods. Commitment to such already-realized values is idolatry, and against such idolatry we must ever protest in the name of commitment to the creative event itself. This event Wieman understood to be God.

Although we cannot foresee the outcome of the creative process or bend it to our desires, we can learn how to produce conditions in which it can be freed for maximum effectiveness. This is possible only as we direct critical inquiry to empirical study both of the character of the process and of the circumstances of its effective working. To this inquiry, and to acting on its findings in all areas of life, Wieman devoted himself and called his students.

The objection is sometimes raised against the Chicago school that it is naively optimistic. It is true that most of the early faculty shared in the view that there had been progress in history and that Christians could expect that their aspirations for a better world were gradually being satisfied and might eventually be fulfilled. This optimism, however, was more a reflection of the temper of the times than a specific theological feature of the school. The socio-historical method is independent of this confidence. In any case, the later representatives of the Chicago school, beginning with Wieman, lacked this assurance about a better future. For them, possibilities not only of advance but also of decline, even of the destruction of the human species, lay before us. Their theology left the future radically open. Criticism of Wieman for not taking sin and evil with sufficient seriousness is based on a misunderstanding. The misunderstanding reflects a fundamentally different way of conceiving the relation of God and the world.

The usual formulations of the problem of evil arise out of this different matrix of ideas. Most Christians attribute to God the kind of power which implies that the world God created should be entirely, or at least fundamentally, good. When they encounter the actuality of suffering and injustice, the impurity of even the best motives, and the mutual destructiveness even of a relatively virtuous people, and when they discover also the depths of sin which erupt on a massive scale in human history from time to time, they are overwhelmed by the incongruity between what is and what, at some deep level, they feel should be the case. If they do not deny the reality of God altogether, or revolt against God, they are often led to engage in complex and convoluted dialectics to avoid declaring God, the sovereign of this world, to be evil.

This kind of struggle does not arise from the assumptions of Wieman’s mature thought. There is no reason to expect the world as a whole to be characterized by goodness. Our knowledge of the world gained from science suggests that it is at best indifferent to human concerns. There are obviously many processes at work that are destructive, and there can be little doubt that the disappearance of the human species is simply a matter of time. What is perplexing is that there is any good at all. But there is, and this fact is awe-inspiring, Because there are so many destructive processes it becomes all the more important that we attend to that one process which is constructive, and that we relate ourselves to it in a way that will strengthen its working. This orientation will not eliminate suffering and injustice, but it can extend that limited sphere in which elements of joy and justice are to be found. In the end this, too, will disappear, but that is all the more reason to give ourselves to the creative process now.

To take this position is not to underestimate evil or to be naively optimistic. It does, however, lead to a preoccupation with good, whereas much of the best theology of the Christian tradition is preoccupied with evil. There is lacking in the Chicago school a subtle and profound analysis of evil such as may be found in the writings of Wieman’s contemporary, Reinhold Niebuhr. It is this unfortunate lack that leads to the inaccurate criticisms of the school as unduly optimistic.


Charles Hartshorne joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1928, just one year after Wieman came. However, Hartshorne was a member of the department of philosophy and only gradually became influential in the Divinity School. From 1943, until he left Chicago in 1955, he held a joint appointment in the Philosophy Department and in the Divinity School. During those years he had a strong influence on some of those students who later became known as process theologians.

Hartshorne had been an assistant of Whitehead at Harvard, and he identified himself closely with Whitehead’s philosophy. Nevertheless, Hartshorne was far along toward a philosophic position of his own before he came into contact with Whitehead. He had already been influenced by William Ernest Hocking and Charles Peirce, although these men’s thoughts were also filtered through Hartshorne’s own special interests and insights.19

Unlike Peirce and Whitehead, Hartshorne’s central interests from the first centered on metaphysical questions and especially on the understanding of God. From early in his life he was convinced that the actuality of God as ideal and inclusive reality is immediately implied in all thought and experience and is therefore rationally certain. The problem is to get people to recognize what they already somehow know. For this reason, the ontological argument for the existence of God was for Hartshorne the most adequate rational expression of the necessity of God’s existence. The problem for him was not so much the correctness of the argument but finding a way of formulating the argument that will compel recognition of its soundness.20

Hartshorne’s conviction of the certainty of God’s existence brought him into close relation with the earlier leaders of the Chicago school, but it functioned in a quite different way. These men had been convinced that belief in the field of religion must be formed by the same methods of inquiry that worked so well in the natural and social sciences. This was impossible so long as doubt existed with respect to the reality of the subject matter of the inquiry. Since ‘God’ identifies part of this subject matter, the word must be so defined as to remove the possibility of doubting the reality of that to which it refers. In this project they were remarkably successful. It would be difficult, for example, to doubt that there are personality-producing forces, or events of interpersonal interaction in which the lives of individuals are enriched. And that means that it would be difficult to doubt that ‘God’, in Mathews’s or Wieman’s sense has a real reference.

What Hartshorne means by God is in greater continuity with traditional Christian faith. But despite his own confidence that when the word ‘God’ is rightly understood the reality of its referent must be recognized as necessary, other people require a great deal of persuading. Even the ontological argument is an argument, and a very subtle and complex one at that. A great deal of intellectual activity is expended in demonstrating that the reality of God is given in and with all human experience and thought. And much of this activity is of a kind quite strange to the dominant currents of contemporary philosophy. Indeed, whereas the earlier Chicago school had set its face against any understanding of Christian faith that required defending disputable philosophic views, Hartshorne was engaged in creating a metaphysical position in lonely isolation from the prevailing mood of American philosophy. Thus, much of what had been opposed in the earlier Chicago school as speculative entered the school forcefully for the first time in the person of Hartshorne.

That in spite of this strangeness to the Chicago tradition Hartshorne was taken with utmost seriousness is a tribute to his personal stature and the quality of his mind. It also is an indication of a new mood in the Divinity School. The task was not so much to reformulate belief in a non-problematic way, but to construct a structure of belief in a situation in which everything, including the passion for social justice, was problematic. Furthermore, there was little effort to give direction to the churches. Rather, the primary concern was for a community of struggling faculty and students to find a place to stand for themselves. In such a situation the question was one of individual intellectual persuasion rather than of the acceptability of beliefs in a wider circle.

From an early point in his career Hartshorne was convinced of a fundamental perversity in the orthodox Christian theological position.21 In continuity with Greek thought, Christian theologians have conceived God as perfect, and with this, Hartshorne fully concurred. It is the existence of perfection that he intended to show. But, also in continuity with Greek thought, theologians have conceived this perfection to be a timeless, changeless, absolute. Hartshorne believed that this understanding of perfection not only runs counter to the Biblical witness but also is philosophically destructive. In Hartshorne’s view such a timeless, changeless absolute is always abstract. The concretely actual is temporal and in process, Hence the effort of theologians to affirm the actuality of the timeless and changeless has led to absurdities. These in their turn have led to the rejection of the idea of God in general. The ontological argument for the existence of God cannot prove the existence of something that is self-contradictory.22 Because classical theism has committed itself to basic inconsistencies, no argument can establish its truth. The need is for a doctrine of God that is self-consistent and consistent also with our beliefs about the world.

Hartshorne’s conviction that the Totality is perfect and, therefore, is God, is bound up with his panpsychism. He believes that every real individual is a unit of feeling, and that all feeling is feeling of other feelings. One of his earliest books is entitled Beyond Humanism..23 It is a sustained attack against all the ways in which human beings have set themselves up as the ultimate and inclusive reality. Against this he argues that animals also feel, and that as we descend the scale of organisms we find simpler and simpler feelings but never cross the line to units that do not feel at all. Similarly, when we ascend the scale we can go beyond ourselves to the universe as a whole, which is also a unit of feeling incomparably superior to us. Entities such as stones and plants, which do not themselves possess feelings, are made up of molecules and cells, which do. That most such feelings are not conscious in any ordinary sense of ‘conscious’ is no argument against this position.

The argument for such metaphysical claims cannot, of course, be empirical. They are rational, and of a style alien to the rest of the Chicago tradition. There is an appeal to intuition at some point, but the rational argument is that the doctrine of panpsychism can provide a superior comprehensive explanatory theory.

The claim is made clearly in Beyond Humanism and elaborated in great detail in subsequent books:

It is the universal rule of scientific induction that a hypothesis must explain more than one set of facts. It is also a rule of philosophizing to systematize and solve problems by constant reference to other problems. Now the mind-body relation is one problem. There is also the problem of the subject-object relation. There is, third, the general problem of causal order in nature. Traditionally these three problems have been too often dealt with in isolation from one another. Moreover, there are still other related problems: the nature of time, the nature of individuality, the way in which one mind knows other minds. These six problems are open to a single solution. The name for this solution is ‘organic sympathy’,24

which Hartshorne elsewhere calls the feeling of feeling.

Just as our conscious human experience unconsciously feels the unconscious feelings of the cells of the brain and achieves a unity of its own life of feeling, so the Totality that is God feels our feelings in the unity of perfect experience. The divine feeling of the world is at once perfect knowledge and perfect love. This involves perfect passibility, perfect mutability and perfect relativity. These are the perfections that seem to Hartshorne most important. However, it is true that there is also something impassible, immutable, and absolute in God. That is God’s essence. God changes not, in the sense that God is always and necessarily perfectly related to all things. But this changeless essence is abstract, whereas God in concreteness is constantly enriched by the new feelings derived from the contingent events in the world.

For Hartshorne this understanding of God is not only inspiring of worship and devotion but also the answer to the fundamental existential question. This question arises from our experience of temporality. The realization of some value in a moment requires, in order to be seriously affirmed, the conviction that it matters beyond itself. Its sheer occurrence, if followed immediately by passage into total oblivion, would not be significant. Of course human memory preserves from such oblivion some of what happens, but this is only a partial and fragmentary solution to the problem. The time will come when human memory will disappear from the world. The whole course of human history will then be as nothing -- if there be no memory other than human memory, if there be nothing to which we contribute besides human memory. But if God as the Totality includes us in the everlasting divine life, if we contribute literally all that we are to God and make a difference forever in the divine experience, then all that happens has ultimate importance. Belief in God is thus the ground of the meaningfulness of all human action and experience.25


The term process theology came to be used during the third phase of the Chicago school, the phase led by students of Wieman and Hartshorne. The summary of their ideas above has been guided by the features of their thought which caught the imagination of another generation of theologians. This exaggerates a difference between them and the earlier socio-historical school. In particular, it understates the importance of the political in their thought.

The truth is that neither Wieman nor Hartshorne was oblivious to the social dimensions of salvation. Wieman was concerned to show what commitment to the source of human good would mean in institutional and national life as well as in personal life.26 It would be false in his case to say that personal salvation is primary and social action its by-product. Salvation is God’s work at all levels. Similarly for Hartshorne salvation is not limited to individuals or even to the human species. It is creation as a whole which is saved by God. Social and political occurrences are as important in the shaping of the creation as are private or individual acts.

Nevertheless, regardless of their own intentions, Wieman and Hartshorne contributed to a shift from social views of salvation to more personal concerns. They abandoned the socio-historical approach which was committed to the primacy of social salvation and. although they were concerned for social salvation, they did not organize their thought around this goal. During the thirties and forties the Social Gospel had come under severe theological criticism. It was no longer widely influential in the church. Hence students did not bring this concern with them to the Divinity School in the same way as in the first part of the century. They were more often concerned with such questions as whether they could continue to be Christians with integrity or whether it was intellectually responsible to believe in God in any sense.

The social emphasis did not disappear, but the curricular tendency was to separate it from systematic theology. Theology dealt with God and, of course, with anthropology. Ethics dealt with the need for justice in society. By 1946 the split was officially recognized in the curriculum. Students who specialized in ethics were required to study systematic theology, and students in systematic theology were required to study ethics. But questions of social salvation were largely separated from what was called constructive theology.

The place of the social emphasis within the department of theology can be clarified by reference to three of Wieman’s students who continued teaching in that department after his retirement: Bernard Meland, Bernard Loomer and Daniel Day Williams.

Meland studied with Wieman when the latter first came to Chicago, collaborated with him on a book on American philosophies of religion27 during his years of teaching elsewhere, and returned to Chicago in 1945. His interests were literary, aesthetic and cultural, as well as religious. He responded enthusiastically to a mystical note in Wieman’s earlier writings, an encouragement of sensitivity to the subtler nuances of experience. He parted ways with Wieman as the latter focused more rigorously on the empirical analysis of the creative event as a particular type of process. He preferred that theological formulations should remain exploratory and tentative, functioning to heighten awareness and make it more appreciative. With these sensitivities he addressed himself to a reconstruction of liberal theology within the process idiom, particularly as conveyed through the writings of Whitehead and William James.

Although Meland’s interests did not lead him to a merely individualistic view of religion or salvation, they did lead away from sociology as the major conversation partner of theology. Much of his work was in the theology of culture, and he interpreted Christian faith as a formative ingredient of that culture more than as an individual appropriation of saving truth. He dealt with such problems as the relation of human beings to nature, the encounter of East and West, higher education and the secularization of Western culture. He was deeply concerned with the symbolic or mythic dimensions of human experience, thought and language as expressive of a depth that systematic and discursive theology and philosophy too easily obscure.

Bernard Loomer was a student of Wieman during Wieman’s last years at Chicago. He became associate dean while still a student and succeeded to the deanship shortly after completing his graduate studies. His influence was not only through his teaching but also through his insistent efforts to create a community of open critical reflection in both the faculty and the student body.

Loomer was deeply influenced by Wieman’s own position, but his studies with both Wieman and Hartshorne led him to Whitehead. In the fifties he began teaching Whitehead’s philosophy systematically and rigorously, but later he became increasingly aware of his differences from Whitehead as well as from Wieman and developed in a more pantheistic direction. Throughout these philosophical changes Loomer remained committed to basic anthropological insights learned from Reinhold Niebuhr. Indeed, the influence of Niebuhr has been the most consistent feature of his thought.

Daniel Day Williams took a master’s degree at Chicago and then went to Union Theological Seminary. At Union he studied especially with Reinhold Niebuhr. From there he returned to Chicago Theological Seminary to teach. Soon thereafter the faculties of the Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary, along with the Unitarian and Disciples faculties, merged into the Federated Faculty. The influence of Wieman shaped Williams’s most basic commitments, but his theological formulations were far more sensitive to the issues as they had been discussed in the historic heritage of the church. Also he was deeply appreciative of the work of his teacher at Union, Reinhold Niebuhr, and appropriated much of Niebuhr’s thought while defending against him some features of the liberal tradition. As the years passed he studied Whitehead’s philosophy with greater care, and his later theology expresses a full-orbed appropriation of Whiteheadian conceptuality.28

Williams wrestled with the implications of both liberal theology and Niebuhr’s brilliant critique for political theory and for the correct understanding of the relation of Christian faith to political life. His distinctive contributions were informed by insights derived from Wieman and Whitehead. His conclusions were in many instances congenial with the ideas of contemporary political theology on these subjects. But his reflection on these topics was but one aspect of his whole theological work. His thought as a whole was not political.

The strong influence of Niebuhr among the Chicago theologians was supported by interest in his thought among the ethicists as well. Indeed, during the years following Wieman’s retirement, Niebuhr was, alongside Wieman and Hartshorne, the major influence on the Chicago community. It is ironic that this influence failed to evoke a vigorous protest against the continuing drift toward more individualistic ways of understanding salvation. Yet this irony characterized the effect of Niebuhr’s work elsewhere as well. He himself was emphatic that we cannot seek personal salvation in separation from the salvation of society from injustice. Yet he offered little hope for any lasting success in this latter task. Hence the impact of his thought was to elicit reflection about our existential condition as persons who are committed to a justice we have little hope of realizing in more than provisional and temporary ways. In this perspective, questions about grace and righteousness take on new urgency. We see the need for realistic appraisals of what is possible and for willingness to engage in the quest for realizable social goals even at the cost of involvements that offend our moral sensibilities. Forgiveness acquires a deeper meaning. We become suspicious of our own motives and are driven to keener self-examination. Thus we become more concerned with what it means to be a Christian in this difficult context than with the social goal of a justice which always eludes us. The quest for salvation becomes personal. Moral and religious appeals to gird up our loins for crusades on behalf of the poor and oppressed tend to sound naive despite, and partly because of, their admirable intentions. The influence of Niebuhr on the Chicago school thus counted against ready acceptance of the message of political theology in the sixties despite the agreement of its concern for social salvation with Niebuhr’s own convictions.

From the perspective of the present form of process theology, the most important development at Chicago during the late forties and especially in the fifties was the increasing attention to Whitehead’s own work, and especially to Process and Reality, his Gifford lectures. I have already noted that Whitehead was respected by the faculty in the twenties and that he was an important influence on Wieman. Wieman mediated Whitehead’s influence in the thirties, but he was offended by the speculative direction of Whitehead’s thought in Process and Reality and more and more distinguished his position from it, turning in the end to a stance of harsh hostility.29 Hartshorne’s mediation of Whitehead’s thought to the Divinity School grew during the forties, but it took time to separate his own ideas from those of Whitehead. Even in the late forties distinguishing Whitehead from Hartshorne was a difficult task, and much of Process and Reality still remained a closed book. Perhaps the sheer intellectual challenge posed by that book constituted a further distraction from the social and political understanding of theology characteristic of the early Chicago school.

Technical mastery of Whitehead’s conceptuality provided powerful tools for both criticism and constructive work. Such mastery made it possible to see that the emphases of both Hartshorne and Wieman could be affirmed as ‘Whiteheadian’ despite their differences. There was little difficulty in appropriating much of what Niebuhr taught, as well, within a Whiteheadian framework. Hence, the adoption of Whitehead’s conceptuality did not seem to be in conflict with what had been learned from other teachers. For the most part it operated at a different level.

It would have been quite possible to assimilate the socio-historical method also within a Whiteheadian context, and if this had been done, process theology would have been richer and more adequate. Unfortunately, by the fifties most of the advocates of that approach were retired and the necessary stimulus for this work was lacking. Indeed, the historical disciplines as a whole had gone their separate way, and process theology no longer had much connection with Biblical studies. When process theologians undertook to recover their relation with Biblical studies, the influence of Rudolf Bultmann was in the ascendancy, and Schubert Ogden consummated a marriage of Hartshorne’s metaphysics with Bultmann’s existential theology.30 Although most others did not go that far, there were few protests based on the de-emphasis of the social or political understanding of salvation that was entailed. Indeed, Ogden appeared to stand at the cutting edge of the Chicago school. Bultmann’s thought, too, could be assimilated in Whiteheadian conceptuality, once it was freed from the remnant of mythology that appeared to be associated with his affirmation of a unique act of God in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Accordingly when the challenge of political theology was felt in the late sixties, it was addressed to process theologians, many of whom had largely cast their lot with an existential anthropology and doctrine of salvation.31

Nevertheless, process theologians have responded to this challenge, slowly but seriously. Ogden, for example, is moving beyond Bultmann in a manner strikingly reminiscent of 5611e’s earlier formulations. He writes:

Just as in Bultmann’s analysis the question of belief and truth that theology now faces can be adequately answered only by way of radical demythologizing and existentialist interpretation, so it is now clear to me that what is required if theology is to deal satisfactorily with the issues of action and justice (which for many persons are even more urgent) is a theological method comprising thoroughgoing de-ideologizing and political interpretation.32

Exposition of Whitehead must be postponed to subsequent chapters. This chapter has indicated only how his philosophy has largely operated as a conceptuality which makes possible the assimilation of highly diverse ideas worked out by others into a coherent unity. This has been an important function, but the adoption of Whitehead in this mode has meant that much recent process theology has received its primary theological content from different sources at different times with insufficient critical reflection. It has been too much influenced by the concerns and ideas currently dominant and has too often failed to bring its own distinctive resources to bear upon our common personal and social dilemmas. It would be easy for a Whiteheadian to assimilate much of what political theologians are saying as well, and this, too, would be an enrichment of process theology. But this would not be a sufficient or appropriate response to political theology. This theology does not intend to contribute a set of ideas to be assimilated with others. It intends to redirect the theological enterprise. To indicate the direction in which political theology points us I have lifted up the phrase of Dorothee Sölle, ‘the indivisible salvation of the whole world’. The appropriate response of process theology to the challenge of political theology is to reorient itself to the service of this goal. To do so does not mean to abandon its own distinctive perspective and resources but rather to employ them to this end. The following chapters are an attempt to clarify what is therein entailed through discussion with the German political theologians.



1. John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia. Pa.: Westminster Press, 1965).

2. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Nashville, Tenn. Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 1.

3. Dorothee Sölle, Political Theology, trans. John Shelley (Philadelphia, Pa. Fortress Press, 1971), p. 1, quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald H. Fuller and Frank Clarke, 3rd English ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1967), p. 158.

4. Shirley Jackson Case, The Evolution of Early Christianity: a Genetic Study of First Century Christianity in Relation to its Religious Environment (Chicago, Ill. University of Chicago Press, 1914), p. 14. Troeltsch continued his commitment to the religious a priori as late as 1912, but it is absent from Der Historismus und seine Probleme which appeared shortly after his death in 1923. See the discussion of this point in Benjamin A. Reist, Toward a Theology of Involvement (Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1966). pp. 169-97.

5. Shailer Mathews, New Faith for Old (New York: MacMillan, 1936). p. 42.

6. The fullest development of his position is in Shailer Mathews, ‘Theology and the social mind’, The Biblical World vol. XLVI No. 4 (October 1915), pp. 201-48.

7. Shailer Mathews, ‘Theology from the point of view of social psychology’, Journal of Religion vol. III No.4 (July 1923), pp. 350-1.

8. Shailer Mathews, Is God Emeritus? (New York: MacMillan, 1940), p. 71.

9. Ibid.

10. Mathews, New Faith for Old, p.70.

11. Shailer Mathews, The Growth of the Idea of God (New York: MacMillan, 1931), p.210.

12. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Chicago, Ill. University of Chicago Press, 1963), p.212.

13. Mathews, The Growth of the Idea of God, p. 226.

14. Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: MacMillan, 1926).

15. Henry Nelson Wieman, ‘Intellectual biography’, The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, ed. Robert W. Bretall, Library of Living Theology, vol.4 (New York: MacMillan, 1963). p. 7.

16. An unpublished letter to me from Bernard Meland.

17. Bernard E. Meland, ‘A long look at the Divinity School and its present crisis’, Criterion, vol. 1, No.2 (summer 1963), p. 25.

18. See Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good (Chicago, Ill. University of Chicago Press, 1946), esp. pp. 58-69.

19. ‘Comment by Professor Charles Hartshorne’ in Eugene H. Peters, The Creative Advance (St Louis, Mo.: Bethany Press, 1966), pp. 133-4.

20. His fullest treatment is in Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (LaSalle, Ill. Open Court Publishing Company, 1962), pp. 2-117.

21. See for example, ‘Two strands in historical theology’, chapter III of Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (New York: Harper, 1941).

22. Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection, pp. 24-6.

23. Charles Hartshorne, Beyond Humanism: Essays in the Philosophy of Nature (Chicago. Ill. Willett Clark & Co., 1937).

24. Ibid., p. 195.

25. This point is richly developed by Hartshorne’s student Schubert Ogden, ‘The reality of God’, in The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).

26. Henry Nelson Wieman, The Directive in History (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1949); Man’s Ultimate Commitment (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958); Intellectual Foundations of Faith (New York Philosophical Library, 1961).

27. Henry Nelson Wieman and Bernard Meland, American Philosophies of Religion (Chicago, Ill. Willett dark & Co., 1936).

28. Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love (New York: Harper Philosophical Library, 1961).

29. Henry Nelson Wieman, Intellectual Foundations of Faith (New York: Philosophical Library, 1961).

30. Schubert Ogden, Christ Without Myth: a Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper, 1961) and The Reality of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1964). See also Ogden, Zur Frege der "richtigen Philosophie"’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche (1964), pp. 103-124. Under the influence of liberation theologies Ogden has subsequently recognized the one-sideness of these formulations. In 1978 he wrote about Christ Without Myth: ‘The newer theological developments of the past decade, especially the emergence of the various theologians of liberation, compelled the conclusion that the most urgent theological problem today, at any rate for the vast number of persons who still do not share in the benefits of modernity, is a problem more of action and justice than of belief and truth. Perhaps nothing dates-and severely limits-the argument of my book quite so much as the global way in which I there spoke of "modern man" and of "the theological problem", without taking sufficient account of the vast differences between the rich nations and the poor nations, and all the other differences-racial and sexual as well as economic and cultural-by which persons even in our own society remain divided,’ Schubert M. Ogden, An outline still to be filled out’, The Christian Century (17 May 1978), pp. 538-9.

31. Despite the attraction of existentialist philosophy and theology to process theologians daring the sixties the major senior representatives of the movement continued to give attention to public issues in portions of their books, See for example, Henry Nelson Wieman, The Intellectual Foundations of Faith (New York: Philosophical

Library, 1961)~ Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in Neoclassical Metaphysics (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962)~ Bernard E, Meland, The Realities of Faith: the Revolution of Cultural Forces (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962): and Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1968). For contributions of process theology to discussion of public issues in the seventies see Note 1 to the Preface.

32. ‘Faith and freedom’, The Christian Century (17 Dec. 1980), pp. 1241-2.