Chapter 22: Evolution and Religious Thought: from Darwin to Whitehead by Bernard E. Meland

Process Philosophy and Christian Thought
by Delwin Brown, Ralph James, Gene Reeves (eds.)

Chapter 22: Evolution and Religious Thought: from Darwin to Whitehead by Bernard E. Meland

From Bernard E. Meland, The Realities of Faith, Chapter Four. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962). Used by permission of Bernard E. Meland. Bernard E. Meland, educated at the University of Chicago, was Professor of Constructive Theology at the Divinity School for eighteen years prior to his retirement in 1964.


In the spring of 1926 an incident occurred at the University of Chicago which may well be considered symbolic of the shift in perspective about which I am to speak in this chapter. Whitehead’s book, Religion in the Making, had just appeared. From the title of the book and its chapter headings one had every reason to assume that it would speak directly to the concerns of any student or scholar in the field of religion for whom the evolutionary point of view had become basic. Yet, to the dismay and irritation of many who were then with the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, including such students of the history and development of religious doctrine and institutions as Shailer Mathews, Edward Scribner Ames, and Shirley Jackson Case, this book was wholly unintelligible. Shailer Mathews was heard to remark, "It is infuriating, and I must say, embarrassing as well, to read page after page of relatively familiar words without understanding a single sentence." The fact that other members of the Divinity faculty and their colleagues in other theological schools who had read the book felt likewise lessened the embarrassment, but it hardly lessened the irritation. Shirley Jackson Case was able to set the book aside as being another instance of a metaphysically burdened philosopher stumbling through unfamiliar terrain, creating problems and giving explanations where no real problems existed. Shailer Mathews, however, was less inclined to dismiss it so readily. At one moment he would bristle with indignation at being put in such a predicament; but then as the humor of the situation seized him his face would light up with a marvelous smile and he would say, "Of course, ‘the fault could be in ourselves.’ Whitehead may be telling us something we ought to know about."

It was this hunch that led Mathews to invite Henry Nelson Wieman to the Chicago campus to interpret Whitehead’s book. Wieman had just broken into the field of philosophy of religion with an equally startling book, Religious Experience and Scientific Method. He had been attentive to Whitehead’s writing long before the latter had addressed himself to problems of religion or metaphysics. He had read Whitehead’s Inquiry into Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), and The Concept of Nature (1920), and through these and other works1 had become acquainted with what was occurring in the new physics. He had adopted the principles of Gestalt psychology as being especially relevant to current issues and problems in religion. He was aware also of the theories in emergent evolution that were then appearing,2 and considered these to be of a piece with the configurative thinking which the new physics and modern metaphysics were employing. In short, Wieman was attuned to the very notions which had been shaping the imagery of Whitehead’s thought, and thus words which appeared to be mere abstractions, or awkward combinations of otherwise familiar words to some readers, conveyed significant new depth of meaning which Whitehead was at pains to present to his readers.

The occasion of Wieman’s interpretation was a meeting of the Theology Club of the Divinity School in the Swift Common Room. Edward Scribner Ames, Shirley Jackson Case, Gerald Birney Smith, and Shailer Mathews, and their colleagues were all there, most of them in the front row, and behind them a packed audience extended to the rear of the room, all awaiting the miracle of interpreting "this book." The miracle was performed. With deftness and patience, and with occasional sallies in poetic imagination, Wieman took the key phrases and their basic concepts and translated them into the more familiar imagery of the pragmatic Chicago school. It was as if shuttered windows in one’s own household had been swung open, revealing vistas of which one had hitherto been unmindful. Needless to say the act of interpretation in this context was impressive, and the response of the audience was equally so.


Now it is what underlies this memorable occasion that is my concern at the moment. I would venture to say that it marked the coming together of two distinct eras of imagery and their consequent perspectives. The Chicago School of Mathews, Ames, and Case was essentially shaped, both in imagery and interest, by the biological notions that had come into general usage through the stimulus of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In fact, one may say that the issue between science and religion had been posed for these men within the ethos of thought which Darwinian evolution had largely created. Not that they depended in any immediate sense upon biological science for their concepts or method, or that they had any conscious concern with Darwin, but the modernism," "environmentalism," and ‘functionalism" that were explicit in their methodology and emphasis had been implicitly derived from the Darwinian theory of natural selection. For while, to the popular mind, natural selection conveyed a sanctioning of competitiveness and assertiveness in the interest of survival, to the more specialized mind in psychology and sociology and in the study of religion, it revealed the decisive role of environment and the importance of functional adaptation. Modernism can be understood best, I think, as a blanket term covering the gamut of functional adaptations in response to the demands of a changing environment and the forward-moving perspective consequent to it. And I would claim that modernism, in the technical sense of that term, began with Darwin. Or perhaps one should say that Darwin’s theory of evolution gave it its essential impetus precisely in the way that Rousseau sparked the romanticist era and Descartes and Newton launched seventeenth-century rationalism.

To be sure, it took more than a biological theory to set in motion all the cultural forces which were beginning to reshape the ethos of the West in the mid-nineteenth century. The industrial age was in the ascendancy, ready to take full advantage of technical contributions from the physical sciences then coming into their maturity. Through the creation of "invention factories," of which Thomas Edison’s laboratory was the precursor, scientific invention was being consciously correlated with industrial needs. The opportunities, both for industrial and for scientific advance, were of such magnitude that nothing, not even the surviving sensibilities of an idealistic age and a mature artistic sense (in retrospect, least of all, these), could restrain the accelerating drive to bend human energy to the task of meeting the immediate demands for adaptation in the service of function, either elicited by opportunities of a changing environment or imposed by current demands. The times were ripe for precisely what did happen in Europe and America in 1859. Darwin’s theory did not create the era; it provided it with the rationale that enabled it to give ‘full speed ahead" to the process of adaptation, accentuating the concern with practical demands and function. It brought to fruition, or at least to a period of full growth, the bent of mind which had been initiated by Francis Bacon,3 directing inquiry as well as cultural effort to the idea of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, and turning the concern for knowledge into a zest for power. Pragmatism was to be the philosophy best suited to serve this awakening power culture, and it can be said to have been evoked by the issues which were brought to light by its problems. Similarly, functional psychology was the mode of inquiry into human behavior calculated to yield understanding of the human response to environmental demands, replacing introspective or subjective psychology whose interests were more internal and even mystical. The earlier Chicago School of Theology availed itself of both pragmatism and functional psychology and made these determining factors in its methodology.

Harry Overstreet has said that "there are two kinds of challenge that life makes to us, the challenge of needs and the challenge of the unknown."4 The imagery of thought provided by the era of modernism, following from the stimulus of Darwinism, clearly expressed a response to the challenge of needs. It would be misleading to say that the challenge of the unknown was wholly absent from this modernistic mode of thought. Even in the Darwinian theory of evolution something of this challenge was acknowledged. In nineteenth-century philosophies elaborating the evolutionary theory it appears as an overtone of agnosticism, as in Herbert Spencer’s reference to the Unknowable.5 Even in modernist theologies like that of Shailer Mathews one senses this agnostic note accompanying the formulation of its practical or functional rationale, as when he wrote,

Like a vast parabola, the personality-evolving activities of the cosmos touch our little circle of experience. We know not whence they come or whither they go; but we cannot evade them. We set up relations with them similar to those which we set up with persons. And thus we derive new strength and courage and moral motive for facing the tasks of life.6

The modernist, whether scientist, philosopher, or theologian, was content to confine observation and inquiry to the immediate data at hand and to offer judgment based upon experimentation within these limits. All concern with ultimates was to be excluded from such inquiry, for these lay outside the scope of the method.

This understanding of the limited scope of scientific method had been generally accepted since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781); but in nineteenth-century evolutionary parlance it took on the specific meaning that "all beginnings and endings are lost in mystery," a phrase that became commonplace in the sciences and social sciences as a way of dismissing or circumventing probing questions that sought to assess the larger implications or consequences of scientific analysis. What this meant was that, as long as the sciences or any related form of inquiry attended to the immediacies of nature or experience, no ultimate question need intrude or be considered. One can see now that this was a judgment dictated by the modernistic imagery which a confirmed trust in evolution provided. Sanguine modernists could accept this dismissal of ultimate questions because their faith in the evolutionary process was such that they need have no fear of its implications. Usually in such instances there was imported into the scientific view something of the ethos or sensibilities of modern idealism. The mode of thought described as "theistic evolution"7 which came into prominence in America during the late nineteenth century simultaneously with a resurgence of Hegelianism, spoke of evolution as "God’s way of doing things." This was tantamount to identifying God and evolution, which had the effect of insulating the man of faith from whatever dire effects might seem to follow from the scientist’s study of the process in the immediate data at hand. Certain scientists, too, were ready to adopt this assumption as an "over-belief," either as men of faith or simply as scientists at work, only too glad to subscribe to whatever might keep the issue between science and religion in a state of quiescence. For many other scientists, however, and for people of a modernistic bent of mind who saw in the sciences "a new messiah," or at least a directive of life displacing both religion and philosophy, this preoccupation with the immediacies to the exclusion of ultimates meant frankly a secularizing of life, that is, a relinquishing of all ideal or transcendent aspects which hope and wonder might evoke. Preoccupation with practical problems and present needs, as science and industry pursued them, offered a way of life that provided incentive and zest enough. This, I should say, is the true meaning of secularism — living shorn of its ultimate dimension and sensibilities. It would not be too farfetched or inaccurate to say that Darwinism in its deeper and persistent effects, as these became manifest in science and industry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and, through them, in other cultural disciplines and activities, contributed to, if in fact it did not create, a new ethos in Western society, dedicated to the task of dealing with the immediacies of existence in their practical aspect.


Now the shift in mode of thought and sensibilities which has marked our recent thinking as a post-Darwinian era has to do chiefly with the reconception of this preoccupation with immediacies. I am not concerned here with detailing corrections and modifications of the Darwinian theory of evolution. There have been many such changes,8 so significant, in fact, that one wonders if Darwin must not be regarded, even by the biologists themselves, more as a precursor of developments leading to present-day evolutionary thinking rather than as a continuing historical source of our scientific understanding of man. But this may be putting the matter in the extreme. However that may be, it is Darwinism as the scientific sanction of the modernistic ethos with which I am now concerned. The shift in thought and sensibilities to which I refer reveals, not an abandonment of immediacies, but a reconception of them. In this reconception ultimacy and immediacy are seen to be inseparable, as inseparable as space and time. Ultimacy is seen to be in the immediacies of existence, not a remote aspect which is to be designated by the mystery of beginnings or endings. This is what is meant by the much-used phrase in our present discourse, "the dimension of depth." For many of our day, of course, this phrase has only the connotation of a mystifying irrationalism. Actually, however, it stems from serious renovations in the mode and structure of modern thinking.

It all began with modern physics, we are wont to say. In large measure this is true. That is, it is true for many of our most influential thinkers such as Einstein, Planck, Eddington, Millikan, Whitehead, and others. The discoveries and scientific creations of recent years in the field of nuclear energy, transforming our period into a new power age, are directly traceable to the discoveries of radioactive elements by Becquerel and the Curies, inaugurating the new physics.9 A new depth of relations and energy revealed in both earlier and more recent experiments has routed the world-view of mechanism which Newton and his followers through the nineteenth century had come to take for granted. Writing in 1927, Robert A. Millikan reported:

I was present in Berlin on Christmas Eve, 1895, when Professor Roentgen presented to the German Physical Society his first X-ray photographs. Some of them were of the bones of the hand, others of coins and keys photographed through the opaque walls of a leather pocket-book, all clearly demonstrating that he had found some strange new rays which had the amazing property of penetrating as opaque an object as the human body and revealing on a photographic plate the skeleton of a living person.

Here was a completely new phenomenon a qualititatively new discovery and one having nothing to do with the principles of exact measurement. As I listened and as the world listened, we all began to see that the nineteenth century physicists had taken themselves a little too seriously, that we had not come quite as near sounding the depths of the universe, even in the matter of fundamental physical principles, as we thought we had.10

But while physics has been the most formidable source of this sense of depth, developments in other areas of modern thought have also contributed to the new ethos. At the very time that Roentgen and Becquerel were bringing to a close the Newtonian era in science, Henri Bergson and William James were introducing, into philosophy and psychology respectively, the notion of relations as being internal and experienceable; and this was to alter radically the terms of philosophy laid down by Descartes, Kant, and Hegel.

Bergson has often been dismissed by scientists11 and philosophers12 alike, possibly for different reasons; but in most instances he has been criticized for his irrationalism and his vitalism. In my judgment both these criticisms have been overdone to the point of neglecting what Bergson was really about. I shall not delay the discussion here to defend Bergson against his critics, except to point out that what is frequently termed "irrationalism" in Bergson is precisely what he has in common with all modern disciplines that take the dimension of depth seriously. Concern with internal relations means, not that one disavows structured meaning to which intelligible inquiry can address itself, but that, to attend to it with any sense of reality, one must employ a mode of inquiry that is appropriate and adequate to deal with structure that is living, that is, dynamic in an organic sense. Bergson distrusted intellect as it was commonly conceived and employed in scientific and philosophical circles precisely because of its abstractive procedure in forming any cognitive judgment. What he was seeking for was a way of apprehending any fact within the living situation so as to capture what was wholly its reality in that living situation. That he chose intuition as a mode of apprehension best calculated to seize such true images of things as they are in their living context simply meant that, of the tools available, this, in his judgment, was best suited to accomplish the intellectual task in its most realistic and vital sense. He was vulnerable at many points, as we are now able to see; for the art of thinking forward, as we live forward,13 or of perceiving holistically, or relationally, not only was as yet undeveloped but hardly acknowledged as being legitimate in Western thought during Bergson’s earlier years when he wrote Creative Evolution (1911). What has since become commonplace in modern psychology as field theory under the influence of the Gestalt school and subsequent modes of holistic psychology, and in the new metaphysics since Whitehead,14 was scarcely manageable or even definable, except as one associated it with the intuitive act.

It must be said, of course, in order not to blur the fallacy in Bergson’s method, that he chose intuition as being a mode of apprehension most appropriate to a concern with internal relations precisely because he failed to note or to acknowledge the structural or contextual character of such relations as an external pattern of existence as well. His insistence that that which defied abstraction was simply internal within the living experience precluded a satisfactory conception of the thought process and led him to employ what was available as the antithesis to abstractive cognition, namely, intuition, or, as it is sometimes put, imagism. William James, who sensed the importance of Bergson’s effort and shared his impatience with abstract metaphysics and scientism, saw the problem with more proportion. For him relations were experienceable in a way that could make them designative as well, as in speaking of an experience of transition, or the flux of experience.15 A persisting positivism in his thinking, however, prevented James from doing full justice to the rich perceptions he had, in his effort to convey the "thickness of experience." What he and Bergson failed to do, Whitehead undertook to accomplish through his method of rational empiricism. However, Whitehead was brought to his metaphysics of relations through the revolution in the new physics; this fact has given to his thought, in designating the nexus of events, more externality than he really means to convey, or should imply. Nevertheless, a close study of his doctrine of prehension will reveal that he is really struggling with the same problem that challenged and excited Bergson and James in their insistence upon relations being experienceable. In Whitehead, the sense of structured meaning in the creative flow or living situation is more marked, and thus less suspect of being a detour into mysticism. One needs the corrective of Bergson and James at times in reading Whitehead, however, lest the formative notions of the new physics implicit in his imagery render one’s understanding of this creative nexus more external and rationalistic than it actually can be. There is a depth in the living situation that resists formulation. It was this that Bergson knew well and meant to take with the utmost seriousness and realism. The followers of Whitehead who take his imagery literally without pondering this important insight are inclined to be more rationalistic than Whitehead intended, and than the method of rational empiricism requires.

Again, to speak of another criticism which modern biologists often make of Bergson, I think that we are not to take his formulation of élan vital simply as a statement of a vital principle to explain the history of life, as George Gaylord Simpson seems to assume.’16 It is his way, not only of depicting the evolutionary character of all existence, but of accentuating the dynamic context in which all existence is cast, in contrast to the mechanical space-time imagery of pre-evolutionary science and philosophy. It is, as George Herbert Mead has said, a way of "taking time seriously"17 to the point that no definable space in the mechanistic sense can be designated, or fixed, except as a supposition for purposes which require one to arrest the process, which is to assume that time does not matter or that it does not exist. Bergson’s term "duration" is a space-time notion which implies that space can be conceived only in the context of time; and this means that every point of space is in process of passing into a subsequent point, etc. Elan vital, then, is no catchall phrase to explain evolution, in Simpson’s sense of that term, but a notion lighting up the dynamic or process character of reality.

The notion of depth as a dimension of the living situation resisting abstract thought, or at least qualifying its relevance to every situation, which we find so dominant in Bergson and in subsequent forms of organismic thinking, is traceable also to other anti-Hegelian developments. The one that has received most attention in our time is that stemming from Soren Kierkegaard and issuing in modern existentialism.18 I shall not develop this point beyond suggesting that here, too, concern with the ultimate import of the immediate situation associates ultimacy with immediacy in its concreteness. In existentialism the living situation is no mere center of practicality, shorn of ultimate concern. It is the vivid arena of decision and act, carrying the risks and burden of their ultimate meaning. Although the mode of thinking here is radically different from that of modern metaphysics, by following the lead of the new physics, it converges toward the latter in countering the positivism and the practically oriented modernism following from Darwinian evolution, with its stress upon "environmentalism" and "functionalism" as modes of adaptation within a secularized immediacy, an immediacy shorn of depth and ultimacy.


There is yet a further aspect to be noted in contrasting creative evolution, as it has taken form within the newer ethos, with evolutionism in its Darwinian and modernistic meaning. Darwin was in every respect identified with what is now designated nineteenth-century science. Now nineteenth-century science is to be understood as the summit of the scientific movement which had begun in the seventeenth century, fulfilling its vision of a mechanistic world order and its dream of the human conquest of nature through measurement and predictability. The success with which physicists particularly had been able to expand, verify, and utilize the image of a world machine provided by Newton led more and more to an assumption of a dependable mechanism underlying every natural phenomenon including man and society. The notion of orderliness in nature had become a dogma. And this at once gave assurance of a wholly rational interpretation of its processes and the growing conviction that mechanism and materialism as a final reading of the nature of reality were indisputable. Darwin’s theory certainly followed within this tradition. In fact it was said to exemplify it decisively in the human realm.

We have already noted what happened in physics late in the nineteenth century to upset this dogma of orderliness and to shatter the imagery of mechanism as a controlling notion. "The childish mechanical conceptions of the nineteenth century," declared Millikan in recalling his eyewitness account of Roentgen’s report on his experiments, "are now grotesquely inadequate."19

The new vision of science to which modern physics was forced to come was not to be universally accepted throughout the sciences. The imagery of mechanism proved to be useful to sciences, such as biology in the late nineteenth century, which were only beginning to achieve measurability and predictability. The younger sciences, bent on attaining precision in these matters, were reluctant to give up the very facilities that assured them such results. It must be said in their defense that often the kind of problem being investigated could be well served by assuming an imagery of mechanism. Modern physics abandoned this imagery precisely because it no longer enabled this science to explore the kind of problem that presented itself, once radioactivity was envisaged. Nevertheless, the lag between other sciences and physics in these matters and the persistence of (the) mechanistic imagery in psychology and the social sciences have been real obstacles to taking this revolution in fundamental notions seriously throughout the various disciplines.

Such a notion as emergence, for example, which is closely allied with the principle of indeterminacy and uncertainty and which was later to develop in physics, actually assumed more credence in physics before it took root in biology and psychology; yet it has more significant implications for the data of the organic and social sciences than for physics. But here again measurement and prediction were at issue. When biologists could see that emergence and structure go together, that the one is present wherever the other appears, there were grounds for seeing that emergence did not preclude measurability, though predictability was to a degree radically lessened. Yet the notion of emergence opened the way for biology really to take the living character of its data seriously.

Harry Overstreet wrote in The Enduring Quest:

Professor Jennings has hailed the doctrine of emergent evolution as "the declaration of independence of biology." It is not difficult to understand why. As long as biology was headed for a complete predictability, it was necessary to believe that "the only method of learning about the organic is to study the inorganic." In short, biology was forced to become physics. Every living creature had to be studied, not in terms of its own unique configuration, but in terms of its constituent physicochemical parts.20


The contrast between Darwinian evolution and the creative or emergent evolution of recent years may be sharpened if we look more closely at the decisive notions which are seen to be formative in each case. It was common in the nineteenth century and even later to set Darwin over against Lamarck or vice versa, and by this means to point up the contrast between the inner and the outer orientation of evolutionary thinking. Lamarck was supposed to have ascribed to the internal condition of the organism itself, its inheritable side, a good deal of the initiative in the variations observed. Thus evolution could be said to be inherent in the organisms of life themselves. Environmental conditions could be said to be the occasions of change in the activities of the organism; but the decisive thrust of evolutionary change was internal process of a sort. One can see how vitalism could draw upon such an orientation and why Bergson preferred Lamarck to Darwin. Lamarck believed in a single life process which expressed itself in many forms. Organisms behaved in certain ways under the pressure of circumstances in the environment. Every activity of the organism, as Mead has observed, "altered the form of itself, and the form then handed on the change to the next generation.21 The effort of the organism to adapt itself to these circumstances may, as Bergson has said, be simply mechanical and external; but it may also involve consciousness and will. Thus Bergson was moved to say that "Neo-Lamarckism is therefore, of all later forms of evolutionism, the only one capable of admitting an internal and psychological principle of development, although it is not bound to do so."22

Darwin, on the other hand, tended to look solely at the external phenomenon of the organism’s response to conditions in the environment and to ascribe to such response the initiation of change or variation in the species. All internal factors were set aside, for these presumably, according to Darwin, played no significant role in the evolutionary process.

The issue between these two orientations was not so much discussed as acted upon. The scientist assumed one or the other stance, and, accordingly, moved in the direction of a mechanistic naturalism or in the direction of a more organic view of evolution, often veering toward mysticism or vitalism.

The orientation which best describes the stance of emergent evolution is neither internal nor external but a subtle interplay of both aspects; but this can make sense only if one takes into account the whole discussion of form and structure which has dominated the holistic thinking of those who speak of emergence and field theory. The imagery of organism in relation to environment seems altogether too simple and external to express what is envisaged in these various formulations of a dimension of depth. As Boodin has said, the new intellectual renaissance into which physics has led us in the twentieth century is marked, not only by the emancipation from mechanism, but "the discovery of form or structure as fundamental in reality."23 In this context, variation, or let us say emergence, is no mere chance response to a condition in environment, as if miscellaneous parts were going their own way, conditioned only by incidental or accidental factors in environment. To quote Boodin again, "Nature is not a mere random collection of parts, but a whole-making activity is manifest in nature."24 Thus it is emergence with structure.

Now this, I should say, points up the basic difference between the way evolution was conceived in Darwinism and the way in which it is understood by the emergent evolutionist. In Alexander’s words, it is nature as a whole that manifests the "nisus toward deity,"25 deity here being simply the level beyond any presently established structure, and thus the lure toward which the evolutionary thrust is directed. In less metaphysically motivated disciplines the nisus, or the movement toward novelty, is simply expressive of the Gestalt itself. This is a way of saying that relationships carry within themselves a potency that is creative of new situations. They yield a "More," in William James’s words, that is not the sum of the parts but a new creation, an emergent quality or character.

Here one will see that the external and the internal have merged, as it were. Or one may say that mechanism has yielded to organism, to the creativity of relationships which are at once internal and external, yet neither one nor the other at any one given moment of time.


The implications of this shift in perspective for theology are quite marked. Darwinian evolution, we noted earlier, created a serious problem for all religious inquiry in the nineteenth century, and, to some extent, continued to do so beyond the turn of the century. A perusal of the literature in religious and theological journals following 1859 throughout the ‘sixties will reveal a resounding sense of despair and denunciation. The linkage of man with an animal heritage on grounds of variation dictated simply by his response to environmental changes introduced a dominance of physical influences which could in no way be squared with the Christian doctrine of man. What ultimately turned the tide in a direction which could accommodate theological thinking to the evolutionary view was a resurgence of personal idealism which purported to see the entire process of evolution, animal as well as human, in the context of a cosmic drama presupposing a Creator God. Hermann Lotze’s philosophy in Microcosm,26 provided many a theologian and churchman of this period with the key to resolve the issue between religion and evolution. For while he took mechanism seriously as a physical base for all phenomena, including man and society, he was able to show that even the formation of this physical base in each instance took place within the cosmic ground of a higher purpose. Thus the material was a function of the spiritual and, to a degree, a manifestation of it, not its ultimate ground or directive.

It would be difficult to find any one individual of the nineteenth century whose thought proved more basic in resolving the issue between evolutionism and religion than Hermann Lotze. In philosophical circles, especially in nineteenth-century America, the resurgence of Hegelian idealism was to have wider influence in dealing with this problem. Among theologians, however, Lotze’s thought, either directly or as mediated through the Ritschlians and the personalists, had the greater impact. Lotze, in placing emphasis upon the disclosure of the spiritual reality in its effects, cut a path between a mechanistic science and an abstract metaphysics and thus was more immediately available to the religiously motivated mind of the period, say from 1880 to the early nineteen twenties. He was the basic source for the American personalist movement founded by Borden P. Bowne; and the frequency with which he was quoted in the writings of other liberal theologians would indicate that his influence was pervasive. I would even claim that the procedure by which Shailer Mathews resolved the issue between evolution and religion, in which he conceived evolution to be a personality-producing activity in the universe continually making the world more personal, partakes of this personal idealistic vein. Mathew’s "Noble Lectures," published under the title The Spiritual Interpretation of History, were an eloquent account of the march of human history toward this personal end. And in his "Ingersoll Lectures," Immortality and the Cosmic Process, he saw this movement of life toward the personal continuing beyond death. Immortality was itself another stage in the fulfillment of personality.

Edward Scribner Ames was more cautious than Mathews about injecting so tenuous a metaphysical notion as "personality-producing activities" into the empirical discussion of religion. He was willing to settle for what he called "practical absolutes,"27 that is, visions of the mind or idealizations which, at any given time, had the value of an ultimate directive in decision or action, but which were clearly to be understood as being a piece with man’s own nature and experience. It was man acting with full commitment to idealized dimensions of his experience. One will see, even here, the shadow of idealism. And this was generally true of the pragmatist when he expressed himself even tentatively in the ontological vein. For it must be said that, while the pragmatist considered himself to be departing from Hegel and from any explicit ontology, it was generally the abstract, universal notions from which he was departing. The process of idealization remained intact at the empirical level. Thus pragmatism must be seen as a truncated idealism. The superstructure of the Absolute or of a personal God may have been relinquished, but the idealization of the human equation, consonant with such a superstructure, was as decisive as ever. This was as evident in Dewey as it was in Ames and Mathews.

The Chicago School of Theology made much of its opposition to philosophical idealism; but its strategy of thought in transmuting evolution into something other than mechanistic naturalism was actually dictated and directed by the vestigial remains of its own personal idealism. It could hardly be otherwise, with "environmentalism" and "functionalism" playing so large a role in the formulation of its critical method. There was nothing in the method itself to justify a religious or a Christian resolution of problems that emerged. Some recourse to idealism, as a counterpart or corrective of the mechanism implied in its environmental and functional method, was demanded, whether implicitly or explicitly employed.

The change that has come about in theologies that partake of creative and emergent evolution can be described in this way: since mechanism is no longer the base of their evolutionary thinking, idealism is no longer essential as a strategy of thought in resolving the tension between science and faith. The relinquishment of the dichotomy implied in the issue between mechanism and idealism has been followed by a reformulation of the meaning of man and nature. Whether one speaks of this as a new naturalism or a religious naturalism, or abandons these terms altogether, choosing to see the world of reality in its dynamic and creative character as being "dimensional," and expressive of many stages of creative emergence, the correlation of man and nature, in contrast to their antithesis in earlier evolutionary and idealistic thinking, seems evident.

The notion of dimensions or levels of reality within nature has introduced into this later mode of evolutionary thinking qualitative distinctions which alter one’s understanding of the conditions under which evolution occurs; such a concept also alters the implications of the notion itself. To put it sharply, discontinuities appear between levels or structures by reason of the something new that has occurred to create the one level which transcends the other. "Emergence with structure" thus implies structural change and qualitative innovations which, as it were, set the one apart from the other, even as their continuity in nature is acknowledged. The novel event is never reducible to its antecedents, once emergence has occurred; it is not simply the sum of its parts, but real innovation. Spirit, personality, community individuality, psychical qualities, organic processes, each in its own way manifests a More, a novelty in quality and in structure by which it transcends its antecedents. Yet transcendence is never separation or alienation, for the higher subsumes the lower. Thus dimensional thinking provides a context of continuity within which discontinuities are constantly occurring.

This more complex evolutionary picture reduces mechanism and fixity to the minimum, yet retains them in forms appropriate to the level or dimension of emergence. It accentuates the role of freedom, thus extending the range of flexibility; yet it sees all freedom and flexibility as being within a field or structure of relationships.

Such a complexity at once alters the fundamental imagery from which implications or consequent meanings are formed. For example, the notion of automatic progress, which seemed to follow rather naturally from nineteenth-century evolutionism, cannot be deduced so readily from this context. The simultaneity of continuity and discontinuity within any dimension or level, of mechanism and freedom, of moral and rational qualities of personality and the grace and forgiveness of spirit, of individuality and community, bring to each event or existing situation the tension and contradiction inherent in the complexity of each structure. What Kant perceived as "radical evil," rendering the freedom of man subservient to the mechanisms of nature that persisted in him, takes on an even darker and more subtle turn in this emergent situation. For the issue is not simply between freedom and mechanism, as in the Kantian view, or between the personal and man’s vestigial animal heritage, as nineteenth-century personal idealists viewed it. Rather, it is a variation of these along with the demonry of personality itself, of man’s moral and rational capacities in tension with the sensitivities of spirit as a higher dimension of freedom and goodness which grasp him as a novelty of grace within his human structure, judging him, yet summoning him to that which is beyond his own human order of good.

This sense of tension and contradiction is not of necessity a movement onward and upward. ft is fraught more with frustration, dissipation, pride, and pretension, and the anxiety which must inevitably ensue from these human failings demanding resolution in a doctrine of redemption.

Or again, it does not follow from this emergent reading of the human situation that the structure of man, that is, "personality," is dominant and sovereign in value. Moral and rational good, expressive of man’s ideal aspects and thus characteristic of this human dimension, stands under the judgment of a sensitivity more consonant with the freedom of spirit, a structure of sensitivity and grace transcending man’s level. The grace of the spirit evident in acts of love and forgiveness, though present in the human structure, is not to be subsumed under its category. Thus any idealization of the human equation or projection of it as an absolute or ultimate good becomes a voluntary act of illusion, making absolute a level of reality which is patently relative and thus insulating the characteristically human structure of personality from its sensitive frontier where it might otherwise encounter the dimension of spirit, expressive within its own structure, yet not of it.

The Darwinian theory of evolution took form in a period of history when individuality was itself at a premium. It was often expressed as the "primacy of the person," a dictum which had been affirmed since the time of Descartes. Obviously, some of the qualitative overtones of this liberal dictum were seriously threatened by the evolutionary theory, principally because its ideal aspects appeared to be dissipated under the disclosure of man’s animal antecedents. Furthermore, in its concern with the species, the priority of the individual person tended inevitably to be obscured. Nevertheless, the virtues of individuality as such were enhanced. Individualism, in fact, gained a new status, encouraging aggressiveness, if not ruthlessness, in the pursuit of individual enterprise as adaptability and the competitiveness it entailed. What natural science stimulated, industry furthered in the very mode of activity it promoted and the ethos it tended to generate within communities and within culture as a whole.

What has followed from the creative evolution of emergence and the accompanying notion of field theory, on the other hand, is a radically different view of individuality and of human fulfillment. It would be a mistake to say that it reverses matters, setting up community in opposition to individuality. To some extent this has followed; though when it occurs, it represents an exaggeration or even a perversion of what is implied in this newer image of man. For while relations are real and can be experienced, forming the context of man’s being and providing resources of energy and power which are greater and other than he, himself, can effect, they are also expressive of what he, in himself, represents. The truer imagery is the one formulated by Whitehead, in saying that the topic of religion is individual in community,28 which is to see individual values empowered through relationships, and the community expressive of freedom and qualitative differences. In this context the meaning of men enlarges because selfhood itself widens and deepens its bounds. Freedom also changes in meaning. In addition to connoting a measure of independent judgment or decision as well as flexibility, it means, in this context, freedom to have relations, freedom to avail one’s self of the grace and power which relationships can bestow. The atomism of the autonomous self thus gives way to a sound sense of the community of being and the responsibility, as well as the opportunity, of being fulfilled within such a creative nexus.

One can see, then, that the theological significance of this reorientation of evolutionary thinking could be considerable. However, the relevance of the imagery provided by such notions as emergence and field theory to the theological task will be judged variously. Those theologians who are persuaded by present discussions in analytical philosophy will insist that even a consideration of the problem of their relevance to theology is misguided; for this is to confuse two different areas of discourse, the scientific and the religious. Others, open to the suggestion that some interrelation between discourses is permissible, will object to intruding these particular notions into current theological thinking on the grounds that they are not significant or even legitimate notions in the biological sciences themselves. Again, theologians who are persuaded of their usefulness in conveying theological meaning to the contemporary mind may have gone so far as to claim emergent evolution to be a theological symbol by which biblical events of history as well as subsequent doctrinal formulations may be explicated. This view was implicit in the theological writings of the late Archbishop William Temple, particularly in his volume on Nature, Man, and God. It has been explicitly set forth by another British theologian, L. S. Thornton, in his trilogy on The Form of the Servant 29in which he virtually equates the terms "emergence" and ‘revelation." A more recent exposition of this position appears in a paper by John Hayward entitled "Evolution as a Theological Symbol."

The problem of how scientific, philosophical, or even commonsense notions are to be employed in bringing intelligibility to the Christian faith intrudes here. I would venture to suggest that to apply them so directly and completely as to subsume all theological meaning under these notions is to make too much of them. They are at best analogies that can help the modern mind to take such Christian concepts as "revelation," "grace," and "spirit" more seriously than is possible within the monolithic discourse which our contemporary disciplines provide. This applies particularly to many of our time who have been schooled in the thought of Western culture, say from the period of the enlightenment through nineteenth-century philosophy and science. The imagery of thought provided by this period literally closed the modern mind to dimensions of meaning which such terms as "revelation," ‘spirit," and "grace" convey. The aversion to supernaturalism or to any appearance of dualism that seemed to threaten or to undo the assumption of "one-world order of meaning" has rendered the modern consciousness peculiarly insensitive to the great themes of Christian faith that have meant to point beyond man’s own human powers and resources. And with no imagery available, other than that of supernaturalism, to suggest such nuances or sensitive ground for pointing toward dimensions of grace or spirit, Christian faith could mean for the modern consciousness only confidence in the resources of man’s moral idealism. The radical turn of Protestant thought in recent years, motivated largely by a rediscovery of Kierkegaard’s critique of modern idealism, represents one serious reaction within Western culture against this impasse and self-enclosure. But the protest extends beyond specifically theological literature. For example, what has come about in the shift of imagery exemplified in the new physics and in emergent thinking generally represents not so much a reaction as a radical reconception of fundamental notions, altering the modern consciousness itself. Insofar as one partakes of this deepened mode of modern consciousness, one is made aware of depths and nuances in the complexities of man’s existence which at once sober one with the limits of man’s reason and perceptive powers, and awaken one to the very dimensions of experience to which the themes of the Christian faith bear witness.

It is quite possible that, when one has been awakened to the import of the Christian witness through a distinctive imagery, partaking of specific philosophical or scientific notions, these notions will affect one’s speech and even condition one’s understanding of the witness to faith. It was so with Augustine, for whom Neoplatinism served such a role, enabling him to take the Gospels seriously, whereas previously they had offended his disciplined taste. But it does not follow that one is necessarily subjected to these thought-forms in his effort to understand the witness to faith. Insofar as they are assumed to be "instruments of vision," lighting up realities of the spirit which would otherwise remain obscure, or even nonexistent, they will be understood to be subservient to the realities disclosed. What is thus seen and heard within this more sensitive stance will bring its own occasion of judgment and understanding.

To speak specifically on this point, the fact that form and relationship have been restored to the current image of man, both in the new metaphysics and in the sciences of man, enables us to be more understanding in our anthropology of what is being conveyed in such historically biblical notions as the Covenant and the Imago Dei. Care needs to be exercised, lest we make the correlation between these biblical notions and contemporary ideas too complete and simple. There are differences to be noted, respected, and seriously pondered. Nevertheless, the recovery of these valued notions in the current discourse is a decided gain. Where the dialogue between this newer modern consciousness and the biblical witness is sensitively pursued, it can yield the kind of critical insight into our understanding of man which we desperately need in this age of yearning and conflict.



1. Notably Principia Mathematica (with Bertrand Russell), 3 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 19101913); The Principle of Relativity (Cambridge University Press, 1922); Science end the Modern World (Macmillan, 1925).

2. Alexander, Space, Time, and Deity (Macmillan, 1920), and C. Lloyd Morgan, Emergent Evolution (Henry Holt, 1923). In 1926 three more significant studies in emergent evolution were to appear: C. Lloyd Morgan, Life, Mind, and Spirit; J. C. Smuts, Holism and Evolution, and Edmund Noble, Purposive Evolution. Behind these works and underlying their organismic philosophy were Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which had made a deep impression on Wieman, and the radical empirical writings of William James, especially Pluralistic Universe and Essays in Radical Empiricism.

3. Cf. The Advancement of Learning, 1605.

4. The Enduring Quest (Chautauqua Press, 1931], vii.

5. Cf. his First Principles. (Appleton, 1862).

6. Growth of the idea of God (Macmillan, 1931), 230.

7. John Fiske was one of the earliest exponents of this view. His most substantial work was Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874), though smaller works such as The Destiny of Man (1884), The Idea of God (1885), and Through Nature to God (1899), were more influential. Other works contributing to this view were Newman Smyth, Old Faiths in New Light (1879), Henry Drummond, Natural Law in the Spiritual World (1883), and Lyman Abbott, The Theology of on Evolutionist (1897).

8. These revisions of the Darwinian theory of evolution have been interestingly summarized for the general reader in George Gaylord Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution (Yale University Press, 1949), and in 1958 published as a Mentor Book in a paper-bound edition.

9. A full account of these developments leading to the new physics is given in Ernst Zimmer, The Revolution in Physics (Harcourt, Brace, 1936), and C. D. Broad, Scientific Thought (Routledge & Kegan Paul), 1923. See also Max Planck, The Universe in the Light of Modern Physics (W. W. Norton, 1931); Albert Einstein, Essays in Science (Philosophical Library, 1934); and Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (Simon & Schuster, 1936). Readable accounts of the general situation leading to these developments are given in J. E. Boodin, Three Interpretations of the Universe (Macmillan, 1934), 144ff., and in W. C. Dampier, A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion., 3rd ed. (Macmillan, 1946).

10. Evolution in Science and Religion (Yale University Press, 1927), 7ff.

11. Cf. George Gaylord Simpson, 131.

12. Cf. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy (Harcourt, Brace, 1952).

13. This observation that we live forward but think backward was first made by Kierkegaard, and quoted by Harold Hoffding in an article in The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods., II (1905), 85-92. James took up this notion of Kierkegaard’s and advanced the notion of thinking forward as we live forward in his Essays on Radical Empiricism, p. 238.

14. Cf. also Dorothy Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (Macmillan, 1945), and Function, Purpose and Powers (Macmillan, 1958); Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Harvard University Press, 1958).

15. Cf. his Psychology, Vol. I., esp. chap. IX, and chap. VII, and Essays in Radical Empiricism. Chap. VI.

16. Op. cit., 131.

17. George Herbert Mead, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Merritt H. Moore, ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1936), 311ff.

18. Important as Kierkegaard is in the recent history of Western thought, especially in theological thought, it is a mistake, I think, to single him out exclusively as if he alone stemmed the tide of abstract thought and opened the way for the "existential" stance. This is to exaggerate his role. The critics of Hegel were legion, and their contributions look a variety of directions. The scope of this variety can be indicated by the mere mention of the names of men who figured in this historical revolution in fundamental notions, far example, Schelling, Herbart (a contemporary of Schelling), Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Marx, Hartmann, Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, and William James.

19. Evolution in Science and Religion (Yale University Press, 1927).

20. 0p. cit., 61-62.

21. Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1936), 159.

22. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (Henry Holt 1911), 77.

23. Op. cit., 178.

24. Ibid.

25. Op. cit. Vol. II, Book IV.

26. ‘Rudolf Hermann Lotze, Microcosm, 3 vols. (Leipzig, Verlag von G. Hirzel, 1872). (This work was actually written between the years 1856-1864.) Eng. trans. 1884. Lotze’s work was in medicine before he turned to philosophy, and in these writings as well as in the early volumes of Microcosm he actually anticipated Darwin’s theory.

27. Cf. his "Religious Values and the Practical Absolute," International Journal of Ethics, XXX (1922), 347-365.

28. Religion in the Making. Whitehead, in using this phrase, was reaffirming a notion well known in classical Christian thinking, as expressed in the Covenant and in the Imago Dei. But his metaphysics sets forth a new rationale for it, giving it added contemporary force.

29. This trilogy includes I, Revelation and the Modern World, 1950; II, The Dominion of Christ, 1952; and III, Christ and the Church, 1956).