Coffee & Wisdom 02.41: It’s a Process! Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about Process Theology and Process Philosophy.


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Hello, I’m David Breedeen and the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom. And this week we’re talking about Process Philosophy, and then it’s ancillary, the process theology, to think a little bit about liberal religions and some concepts that have been going into the construction of liberal religion. Yesterday, I asked the question, what is the common philosophical underpinning of much of feminist Unitarian Universalist, Christian, Jewish, black, church, indigenous and Earth based theology? And the answer is process thought. Well, just as a idea here, I did a little searching online and found this pretty immediately. This is a description from a Unitarian Universalist minister on their church’s website about her theology theology. I describe myself theologically. I describe myself as a metaphorical theist with humanist tendencies. Process theology comes closest to expressing my understanding of interrelatedness and mutual transformation. For me, metaphorical theism means that there is one ultimate reality and we use different metaphors to interpret that reality. I sometimes use the word God to describe the creating, sustaining and transforming power in and of the universe. And I would say that this really stands in for a very large number of Unitarian Universalist ministers these days. So where does that come from? Well, it comes from a book by Alfred North Whitehead called Process and Reality, published in nineteen twenty one. I described yesterday a little bit about how he worked with Bertrand Russell, two mathematicians and logicians trying to figure out and prove that mathematics is logically all interconnected and true.

They fail to do that. Alfred North Whitehead for his next project, decided to do this. How might we systematically describe not only scientific knowledge, but also ethical esthetic and religious knowledge? Well, so having failed to do math, he goes and decides he’s going to define just about everything out there. A kind of a large bit to bite off, probably, but there you go. He said, we think in generalities, but we live in details. We think in generalities, but we live in details. That’s one of the contradictions in the human condition. Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge, said Alfred North Whitehead. The only simplicity who to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity you get. The idea here is we’ve got to go through those ideas of generalities to particulars, find those particulars which then are simple, and find the larger complexity that is outside of those. Before we go back to the particulars, it’s a particular way of thinking that he’s doing. He said this The misconception, which has haunted philosophical literature throughout the centuries, is the notion of independent existence. There is no such mode of existence. Every entity is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe. So let’s get over it. It’s astonishing how relentlessly Western philosophy has strayed to prove we are not squirrels by the philosopher Crispin Sartwell. You get the idea that often in Western philosophy we work over and over and over again trying to prove something that cannot be proven.

Then we have to go back and dig around a little bit to come up with new ideas, usually based on older ideas. So here’s an old idea that Whitehead was going to begin using, and that is from Gottfried Leibniz, a philosopher and mathematician who said The monad of which we shall speak here is nothing but a simple substance which enters into compounds simple, that is to say, without parts that which is individual that was named by Democritus way back in ancient Greek days as atoms. So Gottfried Leibniz publishes in 1714 Monadology, his book on monads. Not much taken seriously at the time, but then after atoms were discovered and named in the later 19th century. Do atoms have feelings. Emotions, Desires and consciousness, liveness, thoughts, so, yes, they are the smallest and indivisible units, but we can’t say that they don’t have life and emotion idea. It does definitely feed into animism, as we’ve discussed before. And we’ll see how that works out as we go forward with process theology. Then we have Charles Hartshorne, who I mentioned a little bit yesterday, who really takes the idea of Process Philosophy and turns it into a process theology. He says this All things in all their aspects consist exclusively of souls, that is of various kinds of subjects or units of experiencing with their qualifications, relations and groupings or communities bringing that back.

That idea that Leibniz said of monads a little bit different. He’s going to call them souls, which Leibniz didn’t do, although he thought that they were living conscious things out there. So we’re going to look at that. And we also need to notice that Hartshorne does use the term souls in air quotes there. So let’s think about this a little bit. Charles, who aren’t sure, born in 1897, died in 2000. He was one hundred and three years old when he died and lectured up until the time that he was 98, apparently from 1923 until 1925. Hartshorne studied in Europe. He was a student of Edmund Husserl. Ding, ding, ding and Martin Heidegger ding ding ding. And then research fellow at Harvard twenty five to twenty eight student assistant of Alfred North Whitehead. So he studied with the people we talked about last week, creating the idea of phenomenology, a new way of looking at human consciousness. So he’s right in that tradition, studied with the people who invented these concepts. And then he comes to Harvard and becomes a student, the student assistant of Alfred North Whitehead. The book, remember, was published in nineteen twenty nine, so twenty five to twenty eight. Archvillain was there in the room while Whitehead was thinking about these ideas and building his book that would become this idea of Process Philosophy. Then Hartshorne becomes Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. 1928-1955.

Those of you who have been following along know that the University of Chicago theology school and philosophy are very, very liberal and add a lot to the idea of liberal religion and liberal theology. Then he becomes a member of the Federated Theological Faculty from 43 to 55. What that means is that he taught theology also to all of the other seven seminaries that are around the University of Chicago, often called the God Quad. And so he was reaching out to Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Congregationalists, et cetera, et cetera, and Unitarian Universalist. And so this is where the idea comes into this, into liberal religion. All right. And then he goes to Emory University and ultimately he retired at the University of Texas. How do you feel about that? Here we go. Charles Hartshorne, the Einstein of religious thought in the notable American Unitarians side website. So you can see how important he really was. Yeah. Why isn’t he better known? Well, probably because Americans don’t know much about philosophers in general and theologians are just really not talked about all that much outside of circles of of seminaries and theological schools and such as that. But the idea, Einstein, of religious thought at least claims this website. So let’s look a little bit at some of his ideas. I will continue this tomorrow because the ideas are large and again, very much affect our Unitarian Universalist.

And liberal religion in general thinks these days our chance is this. The traditional idea of divine perfection or infinity is hopelessly unclear or ambiguous. And that persisting tradition is bound to cause increasing skepticism, confusion and human suffering. It has long bred and must evermore breed atheism as a natural reaction. So I just looked a little bit. And yes, you can find all over the Internet little meme saying that God is perfect, Hartshorne said. That will create atheists really fast. If you begin to think that, well, we all know that who talk to Christians or have been Christian, that this is a central Christian idea. So what is Hartshorne talking about? Well, he’s talking about changing liberal Christianity. A couple of books that you might enjoy his easiest to read non-theological book is called Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, fun book to read and the clearest example of what Hartshorne was thinking. Often, he writes in a theological language. It’s very difficult to understand if you don’t know all the the magical terms that are embedded in theological thinking. Another one is a natural theology for our time. This one becomes a text book basically in liberal seminaries all across the nation and really creates the idea of process theology. He has this to say. Pantheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism, which is usually called pantheism. He he messed with that term because he didn’t like calling it pantheism, except they’re arbitrary negations.

Now, what the heck is he saying? Well, pantheism, panentheism has this “en” in front of the theism and it means that the universe subsists with their God, usually in quotes. But God also transcends or has some existence separate from the universe. So there is pantheism, which he calls pandeism, which means that the universe is God. This is a very old idea. Goes all the way back to the animus is a matter of fact. He’s going to add a little bit of a twist in that pattern in theism that God does indeed encompass the entire universe. But the parts make up of more than than the whole makes up more than just the parts something comes out of all of those parts added together. That is more than just a combination of the parts. That’s the claim apparent in theism. This good does go back to to Spinoza whatsoever is as in God and without God, nothing can be or be conceived. Spinoza, of course, was called an atheist in his own day. Nowadays, we would call him a pantheist, not a pantheist, because Spinoza thought that God was the observable, scientifically proven laws of the universe. So the idea very old in Western philosophy, not so old and Western theology, but it’s crossing over in the early 20th century.

One of the interesting things about Hartshorne is that he had a long, long career there at one hundred and three years old, he said. I think my great book is Born to Sing and Interpretation and World Survey of Birdsong. He became an avid birder and in his retirement, it kind of shows where he’s coming from, that we’re going to take these tiny things that these tiny, beautiful things that look really closely at them. Going back again to his Professor Whiteheads idea that we’ve got to look at those particulars to find the larger general idea. We’ll talk a little bit more about Hartshorne tomorrow. He did have a proof of God that is still debatable today. You may know that Emmanuel Kott way back of the seventeen hundred say says don’t even try anymore to logically prove the existence of God. But indeed, Hartshorne tried it one more time. Thanks a lot for listening today. On Wednesday evening, seven p.m. Central Standard Time, join in Bibles and beer this week. Jacob and the boys. We’re going to be looking at one of the great patriarchs in the Hebrew scripture this month. Our theme is commitment. That’s what we’re going to be talking about in our various assemblies this week. The concept of commitment, what we commit to and how we do that. Thanks a lot. And I’ll be back tomorrow.

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