Chapter 25: The Aims of Societies and the Aims of God by George Allan

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

Chapter 25: The Aims of Societies and the Aims of God by George Allan

From the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XXXV, 2 (June 1967). Copyright 1967 by the American Academy of Religion. Used by permission of the publisher and George Allan. George Allan holds degrees from Union Theological Seminary, New York, and Yale University. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dickinson College.

This paper defends the view that human institutions have aims not reducible to, yet inextricably bound up with, the aims of individuals. Human and institutional behavior both exhibit the formal characteristics of purposiveness; in particular, both have aims they seek to actualize. On the one hand, these aims are distinguishable: institutional goals are not simply the sum of individual ones. But, on the other hand, they are inseparable in the sense that personal goals are shaped by the purposes of the institutions which environ them while community ends are molded by the aims of the individuals who comprise them.

It follows that a theology of God’s activity in history is inadequate if it denies or slights the question of his purposes for nations and institutions. It will be argued that the divine aims are substantially the same for societies as for persons, and consequently that such qualities as sinful, wayward, moral, and redeemed characterize institutions as truly as they do men. In short, the question to which this article addresses itself might be phrased: "Is there any salvation apart from the salvation of the social order — or, for that matter, apart from the salvation of the world?"


Almost all activity is oriented activity. There is a given state of affairs and there are the real possibilities for the immediate future. What activity there is in the present is oriented toward at least one of those possibilities, and the new state of affairs that comes to occupy the present expresses the success or failure of that orientation.

I shall call this structure within which action occurs a "teleological ordering" of the situation. Teleologically structured activity is to be distinguished, however, from purposive behavior as genus is distinguished from species. A "purposive" order is teleological, but with the added factor that the possibilities orienting activity are consciously envisioned and desired by the actor, In other words, purposive situations involve values, the entertainment of which functions causally to orient action toward specific goals.

The heliotropic movement of a plant illustrates a teleogical but non-purposive orientation. Its direction of growth is not random, but rather oriented toward a state of affairs initially unactualized. Yet the plant certainly does not behave purposively; the end for the sake of which it moves is not envisioned and valued by the plant itself. However, I shall pass over this obviously Whiteheadian claim that all activity is teleological, and instead limit the discussion to that particular kind of orientedness I have termed "purposive."

Teleological purposive ordering can be analyzed in terms of the five necessary and sufficient conditions of its occurring. (1) There is the completed present, a created temporal accomplishment slipping into the status of the freshly past, and leaving its legacy of attainments and of problems. Thus, for example, after a hard hour’s work I find my throat parched: I stand on the threshold of the present, and I am thirsty. (2] There are the teloi or ends that deploy themselves as possibilities for the present. A situation in which I am no longer thirsty is a possibility I, as thirsty, might entertain. These possible future states-of-affairs include, in the short run, my having drunk a glass of water or, more mediately, the possession of a new well or the diverting of a river. (3) There are those values that determine one from among the presented possibilities as a goal to be realized, and transform an end into an end-in-view. It is because I crave the quenching of my thirst that the drinking of a glass of water becomes no longer a mere possibility but a goal-for-me. (4) There is an activity that defines the method by which the end is actualized. To attain my goal I drink water, or hire a drilling rig, or organize a lobby for a federal dam. (5) There is the new world that is born out of this flux of activity, incorporating with characteristic success and failure the ideals and possibilities that called it forth.

Hence a structure of goals, values, and means characterizes the behavior of certain of the entities in our world. Quite obviously, individual human actions are in this sense purposive. But not only human actions. Social institutions are phenomena with a unity and stability sufficient to qualify as effective agencies with identifiable activities and patterns of behavior. I suggest that it is a valid application of our thesis to attribute to them also purposive structures of activity.

Men, being social animals, find their behavior inescapably infecting and infected by the behavior of other men. Thus, the structure of goals, values, and means that describes their activity will of necessity include description of the clash and agreement of ends, goods, and methods. The clash is the locus of individuality; it is in decisions made among competing claims to one’s loyalty and energies that the individual emerges as a center of value and accomplishment in the midst of his environment. But, conversely, agreement on ends, goals, and methods celebrates the birth of transpersonal purposes. The harmonization of activity in virtue of shared values and common goals marks the emergence of institutions — ephemeral ones such as social cliques and pressure groups, enduring ones such as churches and empires.

An institution is not merely a convenient tool in the kit of instrumentalities by means of which an individual makes his way toward a plethora of destinations. It has a life of its own in the sense that it shapes individual activity as well as serving as an outlet for it, entertains goals and affirms goods as well as being the empty form on which they may be hung. In the subordination of idiosyncratic ends or values to ones held in common, a transformation occurs in which mere agreement among individuals gives way to what can only be described as trans-individual goals and goods. In short, collective ends can and do become the ends of collectives; commonly held values can and do become values of the commonwealth.

As the goals of diverse individuals come to converge and to be routinized and directed in terms of institutional structures, an institutional purpose becomes visible alongside individual purposes. The institutional purpose is transcendent to the purposes of individuals, even though dependent upon them and inseparable from them. The national purpose is not merely the purpose of the president or premier; in fact, one criterion of greatness in a national leader is his ability to subordinate his own interests to those of the commonweal or, better, to identify the former with the latter. This presupposes that institutional ends are not reducible to those of its spokesmen. Nor are societal goals and values merely the sum of those of its constituency. Public opinion polls may shed light on societal values, for citizens express and influence institutional aims and goods. But it would be false to contend that the polls describe those values in their statistical summaries.

Certain ends and norms cannot, in fact, be coherently understood except as transpersonal. It is the university and not some one of its officers that incurs debts and grants degrees. If the United States is said to have pursued an inconsistent foreign policy over the past hundred years, it is the nation that is being accused of inconsistency. While each secretary of state may have been himself consistent, the inconsistency requires a referent transcendent to any single policy maker. The locus of the inconsistency is institutional rather than individual.

It is extremely difficult, however, to speak about institutional aims without either reifying or reducing their reality. An institution is conspicuously dependent upon individual human beings for its existence. For instance, if an organization may be said to have an articulated aim, the articulation rests ultimately upon the expenditure of human energy. The muscles of a human throat or hand are the inescapably necessary conditions for such expression. A given foundation may grant a million dollars to a certain college, but it is a particular representative who speaks for the foundation and it is a human counterpart who graciously accepts the gift in behalf of the college. In this sense an institution is the creation of persons. It expresses their attitudes much as a smile expresses happiness; it exhibits the attainment or the ruin of their desires in the same way as any human artifact.

However, it is equally obvious that an individual is dependent upon institutions for the way in which he exists. One’s goals are in large part derived from and sustained by the social structures that impinge upon him. It is a commonplace of sociological theory that a person defines himself in terms of the social roles he plays, out of either necessity or choice. Although it would be false to reduce an individual to the societal forces that shape his behavior, it would be an act of blindness to ignore their influence. In this sense a person is the creation of the societies to which he belongs. They orient his activity both from without and by means of the phenomenon of internalization. They provide him with his aims and attitudes much as parents provide their child with food and clothing.

To talk of the activity of institutions apart from the men who create and sustain them is a useful abstraction susceptible to the dangers of reification. Philosophers of history of the mold of a Spengler or a Hegel tend to commit this fallacy of misplaced concreteness. But to talk about the life of men apart from the societies that shape and constitute them is similarly an abstraction which borders on the reductionist fallacy, which sees social wholes as merely summaries of individual behavior. Positivistic philosophers and historians are open to a fallacy of misplaced concreteness in this different sense.

On the one hand, attention to the widespread presence of societal forces obscures the reality of autonomous individuality; on the other hand, a concern for the fact of idiosyncratic action beclouds awareness of the reality of social wholes. An adequate theory must do full justice both to the claim that culture is an expression of human aims and understandings and to the claim that persons are expressions of institutional forces and structures.1

The conclusion seems trivially true, and in fact almost anyone will readily admit that social interaction is a compromise between Walden One and Walden Two, between freedom and order, the individual and the collective. But everyone is not so ready to accept the ontological conclusions that this middle-of-the-road solution entails. In particular, it is typically difficult to accede to the grand assertion that an institution has as much ontological claim to the approbative status of "purposive entity" as does an individual. However, such equality of status can be shown by referring to institutions as individuals, as in legal theory concerning corporations. Or it can be done, as in Whitehead, by referring to human beings as societies. It is enough for the purposes of my argument to show that societies exhibit in their behavior the same five necessary and sufficient conditions for purposiveness that I applied at the outset to individual behavior. This behavioral isomorphism, despite all other obvious differences, elects societies as well as persons to membership in the select club of entities that, amid the multitudinous teleologies of the universe, are also purposive in their activity.

Whether the institution be a nation or a garden club, a business corporation or a family unit, the pattern is the same: (1) There is the contemporary generation, whose members exhibit in their being the traits peculiar to that society: the Frenchman with his linguistic artistry, the executive with his immaculate grooming. There are also the babies about to be born and the young men about to enter the world of business, bearers of future possibilities. (2) There are ideal possibilities for attainment — perhaps expressed in some archetype or paradigm of the relevant qualities already embodied brokenly in present attainment; perhaps expressed only by unreasonable hopes and the dim awareness of worlds beyond imagining. There is the possibility of reasserting the grandeur that is the "rightful" possession of France; there is the vision of corporation expansion and success. (3] There is a reciprocity of "care" or intentionality that defines the valuational woof upon which the disparate threads of individual activity are woven into a social fabric. The activities of both the seasoned corporation officer and the bright new initiate are oriented in terms of common values, shared judgments concerning the desirability of certain ends. For the present generation there is the aim of transforming the environment so as to mold the future closer to the heart’s desire; for the rising generation there is the aim of embodying that perfection. The executive seeks young men who will be effective servants of the business, and young men present themselves as the answer to his needs. (4) There are the activities undertaken in the light of these orienting goals that effect their attainment, in part or in whole. Through the mediation of a commonly envisioned and valued ideal, characteristics qualifying the present generation come to qualify its successors. The young man buys his proper suit of clothing; there grows upon the child a dawning awareness of himself as citizen of a nation and partial custodian of its destiny. (5) There is the dawn of the new day or age — a world in which French grandeur is a bit more evident, in which corporation profits are a little higher; or a world that marks the failure of such ideals and the triumph of other dreams. Here are the visible signs of that kind of purposive ordering that defines an institution: acquired characteristics commonly qualifying a number of individuals in virtue of the goals and values they collectively share.


So far I have argued three points: that persons engage in behavior patterns which can be characterized as purposive, i. e., as exhibiting a structure of aims, values, and methods of attainment; that individuals and institutions are interrelated, with each side influencing and being influenced by the purposes and activities of the other, although with neither being in any way reducible to or explicable solely in terms of the other; and that the institutional pole in this interaction shares with the individual as its opposite those characteristics that define its behavioral patterns as purposive. If this line of interpretation is at all adequate, it raises some interesting and important theological issues, to which we may now turn.

Christian thought has usually placed an emphasis upon the relevance of God to the question of aims and values. It is characteristic of Christianity, and even more so of the Hebraic heritage in which it is grounded, to assert that one of the few qualities shared by men and God is purposefulness. In the hands of the theologians this trait has often been intellectualized at the divine level into the qualities of omniscience and foreordination. But for the anthropomorphizing poets and prophets of the Bible it means the conviction that God wills and acts, that Yahweh grows angry or tenderly gives succour, that the father of Jesus Christ directs his love toward men and prepares them for the closing of the ages.

However, human social activity — that is, historical activity — is inescapably purposeful. If it is asserted that God acts in history, then the claim is being made that God is caught up in the structures of purposefulness. Such divine involvement should, I suggest, be seen as twofold. First, to believe that God acts in history is to assert that the aims, values, and methods of an individual’s activity are influenced by the divine presence. This may find expression in such existential language as "encounter," "confrontation," "I-Thou." Second, one claims that the divine reality itself considers certain things valuable, entertains ideal ends, and engages in behavior aimed at the actualization of those ends. It is this latter claim that underlies the contemporary attacks on the doctrine of God’s aseity. To biblical theologians and followers of Charles Hartshorne alike, the structures of purposiveness preclude the notions of classical perfection and of the God who, in his eternal completeness, lacks nothing. It is not my concern here to argue this point but, having assumed it, to draw out a few of its implications in relation to the prior discussion. If God has aims and men have aims, interaction among these aims finds expression in the further assertion that God has aims for men and that the true or authentic aim for a man is at ends and activities that accord with God’s aim.

The structure of the divine purposings can be analyzed apart from any presumptive claim to private knowledge of what God’s purposes in fact are. To act in history is to have purposes, no matter what they are, and consequently to exhibit the characteristics of teleological order strictly defined. Since biblical faith involves the further belief that these purposings include purposes for men — or, put existentially, for me — three things follow immediately. First, some potential, though not now actual, state of affairs, involving my self, my being-in-the-world, is a part of the divine vision. Second, this possibility is valued by God for me on the basis of criteria of value that he entertains or creates or is. Third, certain activity, engaged in by God, aims at transforming the realizable into the realized. Whether this activity is inexorable in its accomplishment of the divine intention or whether it can be thwarted by human activity is open to argument. I favor the latter view, primarily on the basis of its greater adequacy to the facts.

A right relationship, as understood by the religious individual, is similarly threefold. Among the possibilities for my life are those entertained by God. If I come to appropriate these divine goals-for-me as my goals-for-me, then the orientation of my behavior is, in terms of ends, identical with God’s. This orientation will be achieved, presumably, only to the degree that I also appropriate God’s system of values as my own. From this, appropriate activity should issue as a means to attain the valued end-in-view.

Any suggestion here of an overly simple piety or optimistic works-righteousness is blocked by an insistence upon the ideality of the model just constructed. The human situation is such that it frustrates at every point the ideal’s full accomplishment. God’s purposes are in part, and more often than not in whole, inscrutable. In their hiddenness they compel the individual to act without the assurance that he acts as God wills. Only in retrospect may one say with Paul, ‘Not I but Christ in me’; in the existential moment, decision is shot through and through with risk and hence is carried out in faith. Moreover, the individual’s intentions are never so pure as always to quicken him into compatible activity for the sake of divinely given goals, even when he has or thinks he has full knowledge of God’s will. Men are sinners as well as fools.

Having spoken against some particular heresies, I shall say no more of them. The task at hand is to extend this individualistic analysis to the social order. I have suggested that Christianity makes a claim concerning God’s activity that is susceptible to analysis in terms of the interpenetration of divine and human structures of purposings. But I argued earlier that individual values, goals, and activities are inextricably bound up with the social order, and that one of the results of this is the emergence in history of institutions, of transindividual realities that exhibit as literally as do individuals the threefold qualities of goods, goals, and methods. I am now ready to argue that the Christian belief in a God who acts in history entails the belief that God has aims for institutions and that a nation or a church, or even a garden club, is in right relationship to God only when its aims are identical with his.

The conviction that God has a purpose for the nations is well grounded in biblical thought and accordingly reiterated in Christian theology, most notably by Augustine. The phrase "God’s purpose for the nations" is equivocal, however. It can be taken to mean that God has a use for nations, that they have a role to play in the divine economy. His purposes for institutions are in this sense akin to his purposes ; for other inanimate or nonhuman portions of the creation, They are: necessary conditions instrumental for the fulfillment of human aims and of the divine aims for human beings. On the other hand, the phrase can be interpreted as asserting that God provides a purpose to the nations, that with respect to an institution, God entertains a goal-for-it just as he entertains a goal-for-me. He confronts the institution with that goal as a possibility for it to actualize.

The first of these two meanings requires no reinterpretation of the ontological nature of social structures. The familiar idea of the "fullness of time," for example, reflects an instrumental view of institutions. Thus, the function of the Roman Empire has been identified as making possible the proclamation of the Christian message to "all" men, so that the particularity of final revelation might be given a universality akin to natural revelation and "all" men might be left without excuse. Or, heuristically speaking, the rise and fall of empires might be construed as means by which men are brought to a realization of the vanity of their earthly, God-thwarting purposes. In this sense, however, a natural event or thing can serve as readily as an institutional event or structure as a catalyst for a person’s conversion or chastisement. Martin Luther was caught at one time in a thunderstorm and at another in a controversy over indulgences. But the acts of Pope Leo X were no different than the flashes of lightning: simply stimuli to occasion individual choice.

One difficulty in this approach is that it inadequately explains the meaning of man’s social existence. That the fall of a nation is on the same level as the withering of a fig tree — functioning merely as a sign of the divine intentions — makes arbitrary the social quality of human life. Society, like food and sex, is seen as a given pre-condition for the fulfillment of purposes but not as itself purposive. Nor does it appear even necessary: like sex, if not like food, it can be foresworn by those saints who would follow the higher pathways to salvation. What is amazing is how such tendencies of thought could survive as they did in the face of both biblical and philosophical evidence of their inadequacy.

The second interpretation of the assertion that God has purposes for societies is at the same time more in harmony with Hebraic and Christian insights and more adequate to philosophical reflection, Institutions, as purposive structures, have ends that orient their behavior guide their policy, and inform their obligations. God purposes to influence these social aims just as much as he seeks to influence the aims of the individual members of the social fabric. When God is said to will that Israel be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), it is Israel and not just the Israelites with whom he is concerned. And the demand is not simply that the nation be a showpiece that lights the way to God as a beacon lights the way to harbor. Rather God’s purpose is revealed as intending that Israel’s national purpose — its very national and cultic policies — be such that it leads the other nations to God. Israel’s role is an active one, not a passive one. It should be noted that Israel is identified here as a light to nations, not just to individual people. The subjects of the whole passage are institutions, and the revelation concerns the relationship of the purposings of these institutions to the purposings of God.

The interpenetration of self and society requires such a conclusion. If men will evil and if society is shaped by human ideas and actions, then social purposes will be molded in evil ways. But it is equally true that if societies are oriented toward evil ends and men are influenced by ideologies and customary patterns of behavior, then individual goals will gain an evil tone. In this sense men are a product of their societies, just as societies are a product of the beliefs and practices of their citizenry.

Hence, if God aims at the salvation of men, at transforming individual lives so that they are lived in transparent harmony with the divine purposes, he must also be said to aim at transforming the social order in similar fashion. A man can be forgiven his failure to hear or heed God’s will in an evil and wicked age. The achievement of an I-Thou relation is difficult in the absence of a We-Thou relation. Whereas it is anachronistic to condemn Aristotle for recommending slavery, it is morally right to criticize a contemporary Westerner for merely condoning racial segregation. So also an institution can be forgiven for its actions when it is under the control of evil and wicked men. The attitudes of victorious nations to the vanquished may at times reflect this last point — as, for instance, in the Allied inclination to "forgive" Germany for its Nazism.

My argument would he lost, however, if the above reasoning were taken to mean that men have no social responsibilities and that states have no moral responsibilities. For a person to see himself as the wholly innocent observer of institutional atrocities beyond his control either implies the very bifurcation I am attempting to deny or else entails a deterministic view of social and individual behavior that is equally opposed to the view I am defending. For example, granted that the evil acts of the Third Reich may have molded the moral beliefs of its citizens so that they became literally incapable of seeing the evil as evil, it is also the case that Nazism was itself possible only because of the willingness of individual Germans to have the nation’s policies translated into fact. The choice between condemnation and forgiveness rests on judgments concerning the freedom of the parties involved. Was the individual sufficiently free from the influences of anti-Semitism to be able to oppose it? Was the ethos of the nation such that it could provide reasonable instrumentalities for effective opposition to Nazism. The tragedy of human history is exemplified in the ever recurrent ambiguity of the answer: yes and no.

The relation of God’s purposings to the historical situation suggests his role as source of the power that makes for creative transcendence of the given. In an evil world, communication of the divine vision of a better order of the ages can lead an individual to entertain goals contrary to those of his environment and empower him to act for their accomplishment. Of such stuff are heroes and martyrs made. Similarly, an institution can come to reaffirm old values or envision new goals, and in this way come to alter its wicked course. Israel may repent for its violation of the Covenant; a college newly seeking excellence may positively transform faculty, student, and alumni attitudes in ways that amaze both outside observers and those within.

However, God can fail, just as individual men or societies can. There are triumphs of evil over good as well as the victories of light over darkness. Most frequently, there is inertial preservation, with only minor modifications of what is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, neither totally conformed to God’s aims nor totally athwart them.


If societal institutions are objectifications of human subjectivity, then their aims and the values in which they are rooted express the goals and goods of the individual saints and sinners who populate them. The divine aim to raise up persons whose goals and values are identical with God’s goals-for-them and whose actions are complementary to the divine activity succeeds, therefore, only in so far as social ends and cultural traditions are also in harmony with the divine. For if the objective situation be alienated from God, the subjective activity which it expresses must also be alienated from him. And conversely, since individuals are subjective distillates expressing the wider social forces that environ and mold them, their private aims and personal beliefs are as cryptograms, wherein the trained eye can read the workings of the era or locale that brought them forth. The divine aim to call forth civilizations whose meanings and purposes are at one with God’s purposes-for-them and whose histories accord with the divine activity succeeds, therefore, only where individual human beings, citizens of those societies, act and believe in ways transparent to the ways of God. For if men act evilly, the times are put out of joint.

The God who acts in human history acts for the salvation of his children. But since these children are inseparable from the social meanings and structures within which they move, God’s aims for men imply and are implied by his aims for societies. Sin and waywardness, rightness and righteousness, characterize, therefore, the activities of civilizations and civic groups as well as citizens. Both have ends-in-view, orienting their behavior in accord with the divine ends, or out of accord with these ends. Both accept and embody structures of value and meaning that either reflect or blur the values and meanings that God creates and is. Both employ methods, successfully or not, for translating desired ends into present realities. Thus, in the midst of the multifarious, cacophonous activities of men and nations, God works to bring the goods and goals of individuals and societies nearer to the inscrutable purposes he holds for each. The salvation therein hoped for is the world’s, apart from which no man is saved.



1. These polarities can be suggestively associated with the sociological theories of, respectively, Max Weber and Emil Durkheim. Cf. Peter Berger and Stanley Pullberg, "Reification and the Sociological Critique of Consciousness," History and Theory, IV, 3 (1965), 196-211.