An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society and the Self
by Leslie A. Muray


We have come to the end of this part of our journey together. Intended for a non-specialist general reading audience and not explicitly theological, at least in the typical way the term is used and traditionally defined, I have sought to provide an exposition of the major tenets of the process-relational vision and their applicability to the understanding of the self, society, politics, psychology, the natural sciences, and education. I hope that in some measure (and my readers will ultimately have to decide) I have succeeded. Above all, I hope I have challenged my readers to think and spurred them on to further reading and reflection on the relational vision.

I would like to close on a rather personal note. I first encountered process thought as a first year student at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, in the fall of 1971 in a class entitled "Process Theism," taught by John Cobb. At that time, deeply searching, I knew I believed in God, the experience of whom, to use William James term, was "ineffable," and that somehow this belief was related to Jesus Christ, but I could not articulate what I really believed in. The class and the person of John Cobb had a lasting impact on me. A scholar and creative thinker who can resume a lecture at precisely the point where he left off maybe as long as a week before with just a word or two on the back of an envelope to serve as a reminder, John is unpretentious, affirming of his students, with an uncanny knack for drawing out the best in them, utterly committed to the living out of his vision. Through the sequence of readings, particularly in preparation for the oral final exam as well as the course as a whole, I found the process-relational vision intellectually compelling. My reading, research, and reflection since then has strengthened this conviction.

The lived experience of my professional career, like the landing of the airplane on the ground in Whitehead’s analogy, has borne this out all the more. Having served in a wide variety of settings, urban, rural, suburban, having dealt with "all sorts and conditions of people," street people, substance abusers, kidney and cancer patients, prison inmates, prison officials, wealthy suburbanites, small town people, cowboys, miners, union people, management people, college students, faculty and staff, I have often thought that I have experienced quite acutely the fundamental interdependence of all things and all people. As I dealt with what often seemed like insoluble problems, I quickly realized that they were not the problems of individuals alone but of ever-widening circles, wholes, societies. The poverty with which I was dealing every day (let alone in the Third World) was directly related to the increased wealth of the rich, the neglect of the problems of small towns and the inner city, to the growth of the suburbs. Both with individuals and institutions, I experienced vividly the propensity to fear losing the meaning of the past, getting stuck in that past, thus obstructing the ability to respond to the new needs and challenges of the present and the possibilities of the future. The almost total lack of knowledge and comprehension about the openness to the lived experience and frame of reference of the poor on the part of the rich and middle class, of prisoners on the part of the free, of the rural people on the part of urbanites and vice versa, and the consequent deprivation of the opportunity for contrast and richness of experience, so vital to the art of life, was appalling.

Increasingly, by the late 1970s, I began to have a sense of urgency about the relational vision; in fact, I see it as a matter of life or death for our planet. In the early ‘70s, while finding process thought intellectually compelling, I was quite dubious about the steady state economics advocated by some of its adherents. While sensitive to environmental issues, as I was dealing daily with the unemployed, I was more concerned with the human suffering wrought by the world-wide recession. However, as I looked at the unplanned growth of the city of Phoenix, where I spent over half my life, whose population and geographical size doubled while I lived there, with consequent climatic changes and the advent of the most poisonous air pollution in the United States, the result of an unhampered economy on which the well-being of all citizens depended, I changed my mind. To me, these developments illustrated the fundamental interconnection (something about which I was quite convinced although I had still been thinking in terms of "trade offs" and more concerned with the human suffering brought on by unemployment than the non-human matrix) of all issues of peace and eco-justice. I began to have a sense of urgency about the need for steady state economics, and the need to work on the interdependence of environmental issues and economic problems, such as unemployment, simultaneously.

Convinced of the need to organize our socio-politico-economic-cultural life around a relational conception of power, the issue became quite existential for me as I was very conscious of being the only male and the only authority figure at Sunday services in the prison, among women a large percentage of whom were incarcerated because they thought they were nothing without their men and felt they were obliged to do anything to "keep" them. The proliferation of weapons capable of omnicide and the increased threat to planetary survival on account of our despoliation of the non-human natural world, enactments of the unilateral conception of power, reinforced my convictions.

The last year and a half I lived in Arizona was spent in the town of Globe, 80 miles east of Phoenix, 3,500 feet high in copper mining country. At one time, in fact as recently as 1980, mining was Arizona’s number one industry. With copper prices plummeting, today it is not even among the top ten.

Globe is a microcosm of our world’s complex interrelatedness and interconnectedness. The mines closed in 1982, reopened in 1983 with half the previous work force. When I moved there in April, 1985, people were jubilant that the unemployment rate for the county had gone down to 17%! Not surprisingly, Gila County, of which Globe is the county seat, had the highest rate of domestic violence in the United States. It also had, often unadmitted and unacknowledged, a high rate of alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse.

In its ethnic and cultural makeup as well as economy, Globe is no less a microcosm of our world, collapsed in a small town. Heavily Hispanic with a high percentage of peoples of Slavic origin, with a number of nearby ranches and their cowboys, the town is five miles from an Apache reservation. A very male oriented, macho culture, rarely seen in the cities to this extent, is dominant.

The copper mines are now owned by companies with interests in South Africa and based in Bermuda, a great example of multinational corporations. Because of the low wages they pay workers in South Africa and Latin America, treating their financial losses as tax write offs, when labor negotiations were going on and violence threatened, the companies certainly had the upper hand; the unions accepted a substantial cut in wages and benefits.

To everyone’s delight at the prospect of new jobs, a new company moved into the adjacent town of Miami. We found out later that it was engaged in the construction of nuclear missile parts. My friend, the Rev. Robert Keefer, pastor of El Divino Salvador Presbyterian Church in Miami, commented that this was a marvelous example of the Niebuhrian understanding of the ambiguity and tragedy of human existence. It is also a call to live out the relational vision.

One evening in the spring of 1986, I was driving from Globe to Phoenix, a beautiful drive through the mountains, to teach a class. I was thinking of what brilliant, eloquent, creative, novel way I could present process thought.

Just past the town of Superior is Gonzales Pass at the end of which, as you come off the mountain, you can see almost all of the Valley of the Sun, the greater metropolitan Phoenix area. It is truly an awesome sight. As I was coming down the mountain, I could see the skyline of the city, with the beautiful, bright red desert sunset in the background. The desert was virtually blooming, the flowers on the Saguaro cacti blossoming. Of course, barely above the top of the high rise buildings, one could also see the brown rings of the most poisonous smog in the United States.

As I was watching this overwhelming sight, one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite rock bands from an earlier, heady era, 1969-70, was playing on the radio: "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Stephen Stills had written the song for folk singer Judy Collins, with whom he had lived for several years, following their breaking up. As I think of the substantialist view of reality and its devastating consequences from which we need to be liberated, and the urgent need to live out the relational vision, a line from that song often rings in my ears: "Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now."


For Further Reading

I would like to take this opportunity to tie together some loose ends. For a fine exposition of the process-relational vision, appropriating the insights of psychology, and concrete in its orientation, dealing with the issues of death and dying, loss and bereavement, see Kinast, Robert L., When a Person Dies: Pastoral Theology in Death Experiences (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1984); also by the same author, an excellent delineation of the major tenets of process thought and process theology in particular, is "A Process Model of Theological Reflection" The Journal of Pastoral Care 37 (June, 1983), pp. 144-156.

I would be remiss not to mention the important dialogues between process thinkers and James Hillman, a highly creative and unorthodox Jungian psychotherapist. I refer the reader to his writings. More information about the dialogues may be obtained through the Center for Process Studies.

The process view of the self has much in common with George Herbert Mead’s understanding of the social self. The interpersonal theories of psychotherapy of Harry Stack Sullivan and perhaps Karen Homey would seem to be at variance with the excessive individualism and the dominant substantialist view in the field. The discipline of social psychology is oriented to the relational aspects of personality development but is ambiguous as to whether or not the substantialist view dominates.

For an early work integrating the new biology, emergent evolution, and aspects of process thought, see Smuts, Jan, Holism and Evolution (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1926).

One of the finest collection of essays on ecological issues by a diverse group of authors, including representatives of process thought and creation centered spirituality, is the previously mentioned Joranson, Philip N., and Butigan, Ken, eds., Cry of the Environment: Rebuilding the Christian Creation Tradition (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear and Company, 1984).

Notable contributions in the areas of theology of ecology, environmental ethics, and the Christian-Buddhist dialogue have been made by Jay McDaniel. See, for example, "A Feeling for the Organism: Christian Spirituality as Openness to Fellow Creatures," Environmental Ethics, Vol. 8, Spring 1986, pp. 33-46; "Christianity and the Need for New Vision," in Hargrove, Eugene C., Religion and Environmental Crisis, (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1986), pp. 188-272); "Zen Buddhism and Prophetic Christianity," Encounter, 45:4, Autumn, 1984, pp. 303-323; "Mahayana Enlightenment in Process Perspective," Inada, Kenneth K., and Jacobson, Nolan P., eds., Buddhism and American Thinkers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), pp. 51-69; "Physical Matter as Creative and Sentient," Environmental Ethics, Winter, 1984.

Although I have not used the terms in this book, "modern" is often referred to by philosophers and theologians as the Newtonian, Cartesian mechanistic view of reality. "Post-modern" thinkers seek to go beyond the limitations of the modern vision, an endeavor and a term with which advocates of the process-relational vision identify.