Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

[link to CV]


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge University Press, 2003, Chapter 6, 92-108.  According to Dr. Griffin, the publisher shortened the title to “Reconstructive Theology,” thereby obscuring the essay’s implicit contrast with “Deconstructive Postmodern Theology” (the title of the Companion’s preceding essay—except, again, for the “post-modern” qualifier).  The restored title underscores the essay’s effort to correct the mistaken impression that “postmodernism” is nihilism and relativism.  The latter, in Dr. Griffin’s view, are in fact where modern thought inevitably takes us, and therefore are more appropriately deemed “most modern.”

Reconstructive Postmodern Theology

David Ray Griffin

Reconstructive postmodern theology derives its philosophical bearings from the movement in which Alfred North Whitehead is the central figure, with William James and Charles Hartshorne being, respectively, the most important antecedent and subsequent members.  Although theology based on this movement has widely been known as “process theology,” not all process theology is properly called postmodern.  Process theology is reconstructive postmodern theology insofar as it thematizes the contrast between the modern and the postmodern, emphasizes the distinctively postmodern notions in Whiteheadian philosophy, employs these notions for deconstruction of classical and modern concepts and for ensuing reconstruction, and relates the resulting position to other forms of postmodern thought.  Although this form of postmodern thought has generally been called “constructive,” as in the title of the State University of New York Press Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought, the term “reconstructive” makes clearer that a prior deconstruction of received concepts is presupposed.


Although the term “postmodern” was not used by Whitehead himself, the notion is implicit in his 1925 book, Science and the Modern World, in which he says that recent developments in both physics and philosophy have superseded some of the scientific and philosophical ideas that were foundational for the modern world.  Whitehead’s most explicit statement about the end of the modern epoch occurs in a discussion of William James’ 1904 essay “Does Consciousness Exist?,” the crux of which Whitehead takes to be the denial that consciousness is a stuff that is essentially different from the stuff of which the physical world is composed.  Whitehead suggests that, just as Descartes, with his formulation of a dualism between matter and mind, can (with some exaggeration) be regarded as the thinker who inaugurated the modern period, James, with his challenge to Cartesian dualism, can (with similar exaggeration) be regarded as having inaugurated “a new stage in philosophy.”  Viewing this challenge together with that offered to “scientific materialism” by physics in the same period, Whitehead suggests that this” double challenge marks the end of it period which lasted for about two hundred and fifty years.”1  Having described the scientific and philosophical thought of that period as distinctively modern, Whitehead thereby implied that his own philosophy, which sought to unite the philosophical implications of relativity and quantum physics with the Jamesian rejection of dualism, was distinctively postmodern, but without using the term.

The term itself was applied to Whitehead’s philosophy in a 1964 essay by John Cobb entitled “From Crisis Theology to the Post-Modern World,” which dealt with the emerging discussion of the “death of God.”2  Arguing that the dominant modern mentality, which equates the real with the objects of sensory perception, excludes the possible causality and even reality of God, thereby leading to relativism and nihilism, Cobb portrayed Whitehead’s philosophy as distinctively postmodern by virtue of the fact that his epistemology rejected the primacy of sense perception, that his ontology replaced material substances with events having intrinsic value and internal relations, and that he developed these ideas by reflecting on problems in modern science.  In God and the World in 1967 and “The Possibility of Theism Today” in 1968, Cobb restated his argument that Whitehead provides a postmodern vision in which theology is again possible.3  These writings provided the stimulus for my decision in 1972, as co-editor of a volume on Cobb’s theology (which did not actually appear until 1977), to orient my introductory essay around the notion that Cobb was providing a “postmodern theology for a new Christian existence.”4  In Cobb’s 1975 book, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, he enlarged his use of the term “postmodern,” employing it to refer to a pluralistic method and mind-set that goes beyond the idea of a single truth without falling into complete relativism.5

Cobb was not the only one who was thinking of Whitehead’s philosophy as postmodern.  In the same year as Cobb’s seminal essay (1964), Floyd Matson, who was also influenced by Whitehead, advocated a “post modern science,” by which he meant one that overcame mechanistic, reductionistic, and behaviorist approaches.6  In 1973, a “postmodern science” was advocated at greater length and with more explication of Whitehead’s position by Harold Schilling.7  In that same year, Charles Altieri argued that it is Whitehead’s philosophy, even more than Heidegger’s, that best explains the connection between fact and value suggested by a number of American poets considered by Altieri to be distinctively postmodern.8  In a 1976 book subtitled Resources for the Post-Modern World, Frederick Ferré, besides following Schilling in speaking of the need for the kind of “postmodern science” provided by Whitehead, also suggested that Christian process theology presents a “postmodern version of Christianity” that could help overcome the ecological crisis engendered by modernity.9

While at Cambridge University in 1980, I gave a lecture, in the form of a response to The Myth of God Incarnate.10 entitled “Myth, Incarnation, and the Need for a Postmodern Theology.”  Arguing that we need “a post-modern outlook [that] would preserve the unquestionable advances made by the tenets of modernity, but relativize some of them by placing them within the context of a more inclusive understanding, somewhat as Newtonian physics is included in but somewhat modified by twentieth-century physics,” I added that “Cambridge’s own Alfred North Whitehead has provided a philosophic vision that can be called postmodern and does make possible the kind of theology that is necessary in our time.11  Three years later I founded the Center for a Postmodern World (in Santa Barbara, California).  Its invited lecturers and 1987 conference, “Toward a Postmodern World,” provided most of the material for the three books that launched the State University of New York Press Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought.12  Through the influence of this center and book series, a circle of reconstructive postmodern thinkers was formed, some of whom are involved in distinctively Christian thinking, including—besides Cobb, Ferre, and myself—New Testament scholar William Beardslee, biologist Charles Birch, economist Herman Daly, and feminist Catherine Keller.

Having long considered 1964 the year in which the term postmodern began to be applied to the Whiteheadian approach, I subsequently learned that this application had actually been made as early as 1944, when John Herman Randall, Jr., writing of the emergence of “‘postmodern’ naturalistic philoso-phies,” referred to Whitehead as “one of the pioneers” of this movement.13  The great advantage of this postmodern naturalism, according to Randall, is that by rejecting the modern, mechanistic, reductionistic type of naturalism, it overcomes the modern conflict of scientific naturalism with moral, aesthetic, and religious values—a description that accords completely with the stated purpose of Whitehead’s philosophy.14  In any case, whether the use of the term “postmodern” to refer to a Whiteheadian approach is said to have begun in 1944 or 1964, it is ironic that some critics, understanding the term in light of meanings it took on in the 1980s, have considered the Whiteheadian use of the term opportunistic.  It is noteworthy that, in a 1995 volume on “early postmodernism” in which Altieri’s 1973 article was reprinted,15 the editor’s introduction draws attention to the great difference between this early “postmodernism” and the type of thought with which the name later became associated.  The task of the present chapter, in any event, is to explain not only what the Whiteheadian type of postmodern theology says, but also why its advocates consider it genuinely postmodern.


The Questions of Metaphysics and Rationality

The fact that reconstructive postmodern theology is based on a metaphysical type of philosophy makes it distinctive, given the fact that “metaphysics” is one of the things that most other forms of postmodernism believe we now are, or should be, beyond.  This difference is to some extent terminological, in that many of the “definitions” of metaphysics that are presupposed in this widespread rejection do not apply to Whitehead’s thought.  Many postmodernists, for example, presuppose the Kantian conception, according to which metaphysics is the attempt to talk about things beyond all possible experience, whereas Whitehead understands it as the endeavor to construct a coherent scheme of ideas “in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted,” adding that the “elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought.”16  Sometimes metaphysics is understood as an approach that necessarily does violence to experience for the sake of a tidy system, but Whitehead, who praised the intellectual life of William James for being one long “protest against the dismissal of experience in the interest of system,17 insisted repeatedly on the need to consider the “whole of the evidence” and every type of experience, insisting that “[n]othing can be omitted.”18  Thinkers influenced by Heidegger sometimes portray metaphysics as necessarily committed to the domination of nature, but Whitehead’s metaphysical analysis leads him to say that our experience of actuality is “a value experience.  Its basic expression is—Have a care, here is something that matters!”19  Still another reason for rejecting metaphysical systems is that they claim to attain certainty, but Whitehead regards a metaphysical system as a tentative hypothesis, an “experimental adventure,” adding that “the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.”20  Closely related is the widespread assumption that metaphysics is necessarily “foundationalist” in the sense now widely discredited, according to which the philosopher begins with a few indubitable basic beliefs, from which all other beliefs are deduced.  But Whitehead explicitly rejected the idea “that metaphysical thought started from principles which were individually clear, distinct, and certain.”21

However, although many of the apparent differences between Whiteheadians and other types of postmodernists can be dismissed in these ways, a real difference remains.  Reconstructive postmodernism is oriented around the conviction that we must and can reconcile religion and reason, which in our time largely means religion and science.  Whitehead, in fact, said that philosophy’s most important task is to show how religion and the sciences (natural and social) can be integrated into a coherent world-view.22  Many other postmodernists, by contrast, reject any attempt at a comprehensive account of things, whether the attempt be called a metanarrative, metaphysics, or something else, considering all such attempts to be ideological efforts to impose one’s will on others.  But Whiteheadian postmodernists, while recognizing that every such attempt will involve distortions due to ignorance and bias, deny that the very effort to engage in comprehensive thinking necessarily involves hegemonial intentions.23  They argue, furthermore, that the human need for stories or narratives orienting us to reality as a whole cannot be removed by declaration.”24

The differences here involve fundamentally different ideas about modernity’s fatal flaw.  While these other postmodernists see modernity as afflicted by rationalistic pretensions, Whitehead regards modernity as an essentially anti-rational enterprise.  This point depends on the idea that the ideas that we inevitably presume in practice should be taken as the ultimate criteria for rational thought.  “Rationalism,” says Whitehead, “is the search for the coherence of such presumptions.”25  A precedent-setting instance of modern anti-rationalism was Hume’s acknowledgment that in living he necessarily presupposed various ideas, such as a real world and causal influence, that could find no place in his philosophy.  Whitehead argues that, rather than resting content with a philosophical theory that had to be supplemented by an appeal to “practice,” Hume should have revised his philosophy until it included all the inevitable presuppositions of practice.26  The reason that it is anti-rational to deny in theory ideas that are necessarily presupposed in practice is that one thereby violates the first rule of reason, the law of noncontradiction, because one is simultaneously denying (explicitly) and affirming (implicitly) the idea in question.


Overcoming Problematic Modern Assumptions

From the reconstructive postmodern perspective, it lies at the heart of the task of postmodern thinking to overcome the assumptions that led to the modern dualism between the ideas affirmed in theory and those presupposed in practice.  The crucial assumptions are taken to be the sensationist view of perception, according to which our sensory organs provide our only means of perceiving things beyond ourselves, and the mechanistic view of nature, according to which the ultimate units of nature are devoid of all experience, intrinsic value, internal purpose, and internal relations.  It is these correlative ideas that led to the modern divorce of theoretical from practical reason and thereby to the Humean-Kantian conviction that metaphysics, which would show how the two sets of ideas can be integrated into a self-consistent world-view, is impossible.

The sensationist theory of perception is responsible for many of the problems, including those involving causation, a real world, and a real past.  With regard to causation, Hume famously pointed out that, although we have usually thought of causation as involving some sort of necessary connection between the cause and the effect, because the “cause” is thought to exert real influence on the “effect,” sensory data provide no basis for this idea, so that causation, to be an empirical concept, must be redefined to mean simply constant correlation between two types of events.  Although Hume continued to presuppose in practice that causation involves real influence—that his wine glass moved to his lips because he used his hand to lift it—he said that qua philosopher he could not employ that meaning.

Hume even said that he as philosopher could not affirm the reality of the world.  He could not help, he pointed out, being a realist in everyday life, necessarily presupposing that he lived in a world with other people and things, such as tables and food.  According to his analysis of perception, however, he did not perceive such things but only sense data, such as colors and shapes.  As a philosopher, therefore, he had to be a solipsist, doubting the existence of an external world, even though in practice, including the practice of using a pen to record his skeptical ideas on paper, he had no doubts.  At the outset of the twentieth century, George Santayana showed that the Humean brand of empiricism leads not simply to solipsism but to “solipsism of the present moment.”27  Because sense perception reveals only various data immediately present to our consciousness, we must be agnostic about the reality of the past and therefore of time. 

Empiricist philosophy was said, accordingly, to be unable to support four of the most fundamental presuppositions of the empirical sciences—the reality of causal influence, time, the past, and even the world as such.  Having no basis for saying that causal relations observed in the past will hold true in the future, this kind of empiricist philosophy obviously could not justify the principle of induction.  Much postmodernism has drawn the conclusion that science, generally taken to be the paradigm of rationality is itself rationally groundless.

The sensationist version of empiricism leads to the same conclusion about normative values.  Philosophers had traditionally affirmed the existence of logical, aesthetic, and moral norms.  Sensory perception, however, can provide no access to such norms.  Early modern philosophers, such as John Locke and Francis Hutcheson, said that we know such norms because they were divinely revealed or implanted in our minds.  But late modernity, having rejected supernatural explanations, concluded that all such norms are our own creations.  Most forms of postmodernism have emphasized the implications of this conclusion, saying that we must regard even our most basic moral convictions as local conventions with no rational grounding—even while continuing to presuppose, in the very act of writing such things, that various moral norms, such as the idea that we should not repress “difference” and oppress the “other,” are universally valid.  The apparent necessity to presuppose various ideas even while criticizing them is sometimes justified by referring to them as “transcendental illusions” in the Kantian sense.

Whiteheadian postmodernism, rather than accepting the inevitability of such contradictions, follows James’ “radical empiricism” in rejecting the sensationist view of perception.  At the heart of Whitehead’s epistemology is his deconstruction of sensory perception, showing that it is a hybrid composed of two pure modes of perception.  Hume and most subsequent philosophy noticed only “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy,” in which sense data are immediately present to the mind.  If this were our only mode of perception, we would indeed be doomed to solipsism of the present moment.  But this mode of perception, Whitehead argues at great length—much of Process and Reality and virtually all of Symbolism28 are devoted to this point—is derivative from a more fundamental mode, “perception in the mode of causal efficacy,” through which we directly perceive other actualities as exerting causal efficacy upon ourselves—which explains why we know that other actualities exist and that causation is more than constant conjunction.  One example of this mode of perception, which Whitehead also calls “prehension,” is the prehension of our own sensory organs as causing us to have certain experiences, as when we are aware that we are seeing a tree by means of our eyes.  Such prehension, while presupposed in sensory perception, is itself nonsensory.

Another example of this nonsensory perception is our prehension of prior moments of our own experience, through which we know the reality of the past and thereby of time.  This point depends on a third idea deconstructed by Whitehead—the idea, common to modern and premodern Western thought (although rejected long ago by Buddhists), that enduring individuals are “substances,” with a “substance” understood to be both actual and not analyzable into entities that are more fully actual.  According to Whitehead’s alternative account, an individual that endures through time, such as an electron, a living cell, or a human soul, is analyzable into momentary actual entities, which he calls “actual occasions.”  To remember a previous moment of one’s own experience, therefore, is to prehend an actual entity that is numerically different from the actual occasion that is one’s present experience.29  Modern and premodern thought, by regarding the soul or mind as numerically one through time, had blinded philosophers to our primary experiential basis for the idea of time.

The significance of these explanations of the origin of our basic categories, such as actuality (which combines the Kantian categories of “existence” and “substance”), time, and causality, would be hard to overstate, given the fact that Kant’s “Copernican revolution,” which lies behind most forms of idealism, phenomenology, structuralism, and postmodernism, was based on the need to explain such categories while assuming, with Hume, the sensationist doctrine of perception.  Equally important to the distinction between Whitehead-based and Kant-based forms of postmodernism is the fact that Whitehead, by insisting on the reality of nonsensory perception, allows our apparent awareness of normative values to be accepted as genuine.  Our moral and aesthetic discourse, accordingly, can be regarded as cognitive, capable of being true or false (or somewhere in between).  This point is fundamental to the respective strategies for overcoming modern scientism.  Whereas Kantian forms of postmodernism, such as Richard Rorty’s, put moral and aesthetic discourse on the same level with scientific discourse by denying that either type tells us about reality, Whiteheadian postmodernism achieves parity by showing how both types can express real, if partial, truths about the nature of things—partial truths it is the cultural role of philosophy to harmonize.

Whereas the sensationist view of perception led to contradictions between theory and practice with regard to realism, causation, the past, time, and norms, the mechanistic view of nature leads to such a contradiction with regard to freedom.  Early modernity reconciled human freedom with this view of nature by means of a Cartesian soul, different in kind from the stuff of which the body is composed.  The relation of such a soul to its body could be explained, however, only by means of a Supernatural Coordinator (as Descartes, Malebranche, and Reid all agreed).  The late modern demise of supernaturalism, accordingly, entailed the transmutation of Cartesian dualism into a full-fledged materialism, in which the soul, mind, or self is taken to be merely a property or epiphenomenon of the body’s brain, not an entity with any agency of its own.  Whatever the “self” is, it has no power of self-determination.  Freedom must be denied (or redefined to make it compatible with determinism, which amounts to the same thing).  Some late modern philosophers explicitly admit that they must continue to presuppose freedom in practice while not being able to make sense of it in theory.30  Much postmodernism accentuates this contradiction, proclaiming in unnuanced ways the “disappearance of the (centered) self” while exhorting us to use our freedom to overcome oppressive views and practices.

Whiteheadian postmodernism, instead of accepting materialism or antirealism or returning to early modern dualism, rejects the mechanistic view of nature at the root of these stances.  Its alternative view—again again, anticipated by James31–is panexperientialism, according to which experience and thereby spontaneity, intrinsic value, and internal relations go all the way down to the most primitive units of nature.  Besides calling all actual entities actual occasions, accordingly, Whitehead also calls them “occasions of experience.”  On the basis of this panexperientialism, the unanswerable questions faced by materialists as well as dualists—where and how did things with experience, spontaneity, intrinsic value, and internal relations emerge out of bits of matter wholly devoid of these?—need not be asked.  Evolution involves real emergence, but it is the emergence of higher types of spontaneous experience out of lower types.

All such doctrines, usually under the name “panpsychism,” are widely rejected as patently absurd.  Such rejections often rest on characterizations that do not apply to Whiteheadian-Hartshornean panexperientialism.  Critics rightly say, for example, that it would be absurd to attribute any freedom and thereby any experience to sticks and stones.  But it is essential to this doctrine, the more complete name of which is “panexperientialism with organizational duality,32 to distinguish between aggregational organizations, which as such have no experience or spontaneity, and “compound individuals,” which do.33  Even after becoming aware of this distinction, however, modern thinkers tend to consider panexperientialism to be self-evidently false, which suggests that one of modernity’s most basic assumptions is being challenged.  The same is true of the Jamesian-Whiteheadian endorsement of nonsensory perception, as evidenced by the fact that most admiring treatments of James’ thought virtually ignore the fact that he endorsed the reality of telepathy and devoted much of his time to psychical research.34  In any case, these distinctively postmodern views about being and perceiving, besides solving various philosophical problems, also provide the basis for a distinctive type of postmodernism.


Further Comparison with the Dominant Image of Postmodernism

The term “postmodernism” is commonly associated with a wide variety of ideas that together constitute what can be called the “dominant image of postmodernism.”  Whiteheadian postmodernism exemplifies this dominant image in many respects.  It rejects foundationalism and with it the quest for certainty; it accepts the need to deconstruct a wide range of received ideas, including the ontotheological idea of God, the substantial self, and history as having a predetermined end; and it seeks to foster pluralism and diversity, both human and ecological.

However, the reconstructive type of postmodernism also differs from the dominant image of post modernism in many respects.  Some of these differences are implicit in the very fact that this approach is metaphysical.  For example, whereas most post modernists speak derisively of the “correspondence theory of truth” and the idea of language as “referential,” reconstructive postmodernists defend these notions, partly by pointing out that their denials lead to what Karl Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas call “performative contradictions,”35 partly by showing how Whitehead’s philosophy, with its panexperientialist ontology and nonsensationist view of perception, overcomes the standard objections.36  Closely related is the fact that reconstructive postmodernism, while rejecting foundationalism, also rejects a complete relativism of both truth and value.37  Central to avoiding relativism with regard to truth is the acceptance of the inevitable presuppositions of practice, which some of us call “hard-core commonsense notions,” as universally valid criteria of adequacy.38  The avoidance of complete relativism with regard to normative values is based partly on the fact that the nonsensationist doctrine of perception allows for a direct (albeit not infallible) perception of such values.  The idea that such norms or values somehow exist so as to be prehendable, however, requires another topic, the existence of God—a subject that brings us to distinctively theological doctrines.


Postmodern Christian Doctrines

Conservative-to-fundamentalist theologians have said that modern liberal theology has become increasingly vacuous.  Although reconstructive postmodern theologians agree, they argue that the problem with modern liberalism was not its liberal world-view and method, according to which supernaturalism is rejected and the truth of religious beliefs is to be based on experience and reason rather than the authority of Scripture and tradition, but its acceptance of the modern assumptions discussed earlier.  If those assumptions are accepted, so that reason is equated with modern reason, there is no disputing those postmodernists who believe it impossible for a theology to be both reasonable and robust.39  By rejecting those assumptions, however, a postmodern liberal theology can develop robust Christian doctrines.

At the heart of this theology is its naturalistic theism.  This theism is naturalistic not in the sense of equating God with the world, or otherwise denying distinct agency to God, but simply in the sense of rejecting supernaturalism, understood as belief in a divine being that can interrupt the world’s normal causal principles.  This rejection is rooted in its view of the relation of God to being itself, which it renames “creativity” to reflect the fact that that which all beings embody is not passive stuff but dynamic energy.  Creativity, more precisely, is each actual occasion’s twofold power to exercise a modicum of self-determination (final causation) and then to exert influence (efficient causation) on future events.  Traditional theism, with its (ontotheological) equation of God with being itself, said that this twofold power is essentially embodied in God alone.  Because any power possessed by creatures is a gift, the normal causal patterns among creatures could be interrupted at any time.  This position was fully enunciated only with the postbiblical development of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.  Whiteheadian postmodern theologians return to the view, common to Plato, the Bible, and most Christian thinkers prior to the end of the second century, that our universe was created by God’s bringing a particular type of order out of chaos.40

The necessity for this type of creation, involving a long evolutionary process, is explained in terms of the idea that creative power is essentially embodied in a world of finite actualities as well as in the divine actuality.  The divine power, accordingly, is necessarily persuasive.  It could not he coercive in the sense of unilaterally determining what happens in the world.  This view provides the basis for a theodicy that defends the perfect goodness of our creator without minimizing the evil of our world.41  The distinction between God and creativity provides, in fact, the basis for a robust doctrine of demonic evil, with the basic idea being that God’s creation of human beings brought into existence a level of worldly creativity that not only could become diametrically opposed to the divine creativity, but also could do so with sufficient power to threaten divine purposes.42  This view of the God-world relation also reconciles theism with the scientific community’s naturalistic assumption that no events, however extraordinary, involve violations of the world’s basic causal principles.43

The naturalism of this theism does not, however, prevent it from endorsing the assumption of Christian faith that Cod acts variably in the world, that some events are “acts of God” in a special sense.  The key idea here is that although divine action is formally the same in every event, it can differ radically in content, effectiveness, and, at the human level, the role it plays in the constitution of the self.  On the basis of these ideas, reconstructive postmodern theologians have entered into the traditional discussion of how God was literally incarnate in Jesus, arguing for a position that overcomes the standard dichotomy of regarding Jesus as wholly “different in kind” or merely “different in degree” from other human beings.44  They have also argued that this type of naturalism, with its variable divine influence, can, unlike neo-Darwinism, illuminate both the directionality and apparent jumps in the evolutionary process.45  This form of liberal theology has thereby provided far more robust doctrines of divine creation and incarnation than found in modern liberal theologies.

This return to traditional concerns regarding divine creation and incarnation is sometimes accompanied by a return to ontological wrestling with the Christian idea of God as Trinitarian.46  Such thinking, besides providing the basis for Christological reflection, has also been employed to relate Christian faith to other religions, especially insofar as the resulting Trinitarianism involves the distinction between God and creativity (or being itself), because this distinction provides for a form of religious pluralism that is quite different from that formulated by John Hick.  Opposing the traditional Christian view that theistic religious experience, which has been dominant in Christianity, is basically veridical but nontheistic religious experience, which has been especially prevalent in Buddhism and Hinduism, is basically mistaken, Hick suggests that we think of ultimate reality in itself as a noumenal reality to which no substantive attributes can be assigned, which implies that both views are equally mistaken.  Whiteheadian theologians, by contrast, are able to consider theistic and nontheistic religious experiences equally veridical.  Rather than accepting Hick’s assumption that all religions are oriented toward the same ultimate reality, they regard God as the personal ultimate and creativity as the impersonal ultimate.  Doctrines based on theistic religious experience refer to the former, while doctrines based on nontheistic religious experience refer to the latter.47

This more pluralistic view of ideas about ultimate reality is correlated with a more pluralistic idea of salvation.  Rather than holding, with Hick, that the various religions promote basically the same kind of salvation, Whiteheadians argue that different religions promote different types of salvation, a view that is now becoming more widespread.48  Salvation as these theologians portray it in their own Christian thinking involves several dimensions.  Whereas process theologians have always conceived of salvation as involving two dimensions—salvation as present liberation/wholeness and as everlasting preservation in the divine experience (called by Whitehead “the consequent nature of God”)—postmodern process theologians add two more dimensions: salvation as the reign of divine (rather than demonic) values on earth,49 and salvation as eventual sanctification in a life after death.50  The affirmation of life after death is possible for this position, in spite of its rejection of supernaturalism and appeals to authority, because its rejection of sensationism, combined with its rejection of brain-mind identism, allows it to take seriously the empirical evidence for life after death.51  It is this feature of reconstructive postmodern theology that is probably most important for its intention to provide a form of liberal theology that, by being sufficiently robust to be widely acceptable in the churches, can overcome modernity’s liberal-conservative antithesis.52


Theology and Ethics

Equally important to its advocates is the desire to overcome the modern separation, opposed by the various types of liberation theology, between theology and ethics.  “A postmodern theology,” it declares, “must be a liberation theology,” which means, among other things, that doctrines of God, sin, and salvation must be articulated with “reference to the concrete sins from which God is presumably trying to save us.”53  One of these sins is certainly modern society’s treatment of the earth, which has resulted in a global ecological crisis.  Partly because of its panexperientialism, according to which individuals at all levels have intrinsic value and are internally related to individuals at all other levels, Whiteheadian postmodern theology has devoted great attention to this issue from the time the human threat to the environment came into general consciousness.54  Charles Birch’s term for this perspective is, in fact, the “postmodern ecological world-view.”55  This term points to one of the most significant differences from Kant-based types of postmodernism, which, rather than overcoming the human alienation from nature fostered by modern dualism, intensify this alienation by portraying nature as simply a human construct.56

A closely related sin taken with utmost seriousness by postmodern process theologians is patriarchy, with Cobb suggesting that “[c]ulturally and intellectually, the most important movement of the twentieth century may prove to have been feminism.”57  Unlike those postmodernists who see the source of our problems as having arisen about four hundred years ago, Catherine Keller points out that feminists date it about four thousand years ago, when androcentric history began in earnest.  She maintains, nevertheless, that feminism is a conditio sine qua non of any genuinely postmodern world.58  As illustrated by Keller’s writings and the recent endorsement of process theology by Carol Christ,59 there are many features of this type of postmodern theology—including its rejection of divine power as unilateral determination, its emphasis on divine responsiveness, and its emphasis on internal relations, all of which cut against portraying the divine and the human in stereotypically masculine terms—that provide ontological support for cultural feminism, especially ecofeminism.

Closely related to this theology’s support for both ecological and feminist liberation is its dedication to liberating the planet from modern economism, with its ideology of unending economic growth.  Far from promoting the common good, this ideology, which has replaced nationalism as the global religion,60 has undermined communities, destroyed the environment, and increased the gap between rich and poor.61  Indeed, argues Cobb, it is through modern political and economic theory that modern thought, with its dualism and individualism, has had its most significant and harmful influence on our present situation.62  A postmodern economic theory would be based on the (Whiteheadian) idea of “persons-in-community,” with the community to which we are internally related being at least the entire living world.63

This theology also seeks liberation from the global political order distinctive of modernity.  One feature of this order that has been opposed is its militarism, which now includes nuclearism.64  But the more general feature of the modern world order is the system of sovereign states, rooted in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and early modern political theorists such as Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes. This international anarchy not only provides the permitting cause of militarism, it is argued, but also prevents solutions to four other problems equally interlocked with the global economy: the global ecological crisis, global apartheid, massive human rights abuses, and the undermining of national and local democracies.65  The transcendence of this order with a postmodern world would require the creation of democracy at the global level.  The Christian rationale for global demoracy is that it is a necessary condition for a world ruled by divine rather than demonic values, for which Christians pray every time we repeat the Lord’s prayer.66


Further reading

Bracken, Joseph A. and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, eds., Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 1997).

Cobb, John B., Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975).

Griffin, David Ray, God and Religion in the Postmodern World (State University of New York Press, 1988).

Keller, Catherine and Anne Daniell, eds., Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology, corr. edn, eds. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978).


Reference notes

1 A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 143.

2 John B. Cobb, Jr., “From Crisis Theology to the Post-Modern World,” Centennial Review 8 (Spring 1964), 209-20; reprinted in Thomas J. J. Altizer, ed., Toward a New Christianity: Readings in the Death of God Theology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967) and several other anthologies.

3 Cobb, God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), pp. 135, 138; “The Possibility of Theism Today,” in Edward H. Madden, Robert Handy, and Marvin Farber, eds., The Idea of God: Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Charles C. Thomas, 1968), pp. 98-123.

4 Griffin, “Post-Modern Theology for a New Christian Experience,” in David Ray Griffin and Thomas J. J. Altizer, eds., John Cobb’s Theology in Process (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 5-24.

5 Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 15, 25-27.

6 Floyd W. Matson, The Broken Image: Man, Science and Society (1964; Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), pp. vi, 139, 228.

7 Harold K. Schilling, The New Consciousness in Science and Religion (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1973), pp. 44-47, 73-74, 91, 183, 244-53.

8 Charles Altieri, “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: the Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” Boundary 2:1 (1973), 605-42.

9 Frederick Ferré, Shaping the Future: Resources for the Post-Modern World (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 100, 106-7.

10 John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM Press, 1977).

11 Griffin, “Myth, Incarnation, and the Need for a Postmodern Theology,” unpublished MS (available at the Center for Process Studies), p. 34.

12 The Reenchantment of Science: Postmodern Proposals and Spirituality and Society: Postmodern Visions, both of which I edited, and God and Religion in the Postmodern World, which contains my own essays (all published in 1988 by the State University of New York Press).

13 John Herman Randall, Jr., “The Nature of Naturalism,” Yervant H. Krikorian, ed., Naturalism and the Human Spirit (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944), esp. pp. 367-69.

14 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp. vii, 156, 185; Process and Reality: an Essay in Cosmology, corrected edn, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press), p. 15.

15 Paul A. Bové, Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays (Durham, NC: Duke University, 1995).

16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 3, 4.

17 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Free Press, 1968), p. 3.

18 Science and the Modern World, pp. vii, 187; Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 226.

19 Modes of Thought, p. 116.

20 Process and Reality, pp. 8, 9, xiv.

21 Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 49.

22 Process and Reality, p. 15.

23 Cobb, “Introduction” to Postmodernism and Public Policy: Reframing Religion, Culture, Education, Sexuality, Class, Race, Politics, and the Economy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

24 William A. Beardslee, “Christ in the Postmodern Age: Reflections inspired by Jean-Francois Lyotard,” in David Ray Griffin, William A. Beardslee, and Joe Holland, eds., Varieties of Postmodern Theology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), pp. 63-80; “Stories in the Postmodern World: Orienting and Disorienting,” in Griffin, ed., Sacred Interconnections: Postmodern Spirituality, Political Economy, and Art (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 163-76.

25 Process and Reality, p. 153.

26 Ibid., p. 13.

27 George Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith (New York: Dover, 1955), pp. 14-15.

28 Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect (1927; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959).

29 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, pp. 220-21.

30 John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984), pp. 85-86, 92-98.

31 Marcus P. Ford, William James’s Philosophy: a New Perspective (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982); “William James,” in David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., Marcus P. Ford, and Pete A. Y. Gunter, Founders of Constructive Postmodern Philosophy: Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and Hartshorne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), pp.89-132.

32 Griffin, “Introduction” to Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: a Process Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

33 Griffin, Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), chs. 7, 9·

34 Marcus Ford, “William James”; “James’s Psychical Research and Its Philosophical Implications,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 34 (1998), 605-26.

35 Martin Jay, “The Debate over Performative Contradiction: Habermas versus the Poststructuralists,” Jay, Force Fields: Between Intellectual History and Cultural Critique (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 25-37.

36 Cobb, “Alfred North Whitehead,” in Griffin et al., Founders, pp. 165-95, esp. 181-87; Griffin,  Reenchantment without Supernaturalism, ch. 9.

37 Cobb, Postmodernism and Public Policy, ch. 2.

38 Griffin, “Introduction,” Founders, pp. 1-42, esp. 23-29; Unsnarling, ch. 2, “Confusion about Common Sense.”

39 Jeffrey Stout, The Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 118, 140, 146. Adventures of Ideas, pp. 220-21.

40 Griffin, “Creation out of Nothing, Creation out of Chaos, and the Problem of Evil,” in Stephen T. Davis, ed., Encountering Evil, 2nd edn (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox, 2001); Catherine Keller, The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (New York: Routledge, 2003).  [See text of first edition elsewhere on this site.]

41 Griffin, “Creation out of Nothing”; God, Power, and Evil: a Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976); Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

42 Marjorie Suchocki, The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum, 1994); Griffin, Evil Revisited, pp. 31-33; “Why Demonic Power Exists: Understanding the Church’s Enemy” and “Overcoming the Demonic: the Church’s Mission,” Lexington Theological Review 28 (1993), 223-60.

43 Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).

44 Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, chs. 7-10; Postmodernism and Public Policy, ch. 1.

45 Griffin, Religion and Scientific Naturalism, ch. 8.

46 Joseph A. Bracken, S. J., and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (eds.), Trinity in Process: a Relational Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 1997).

47 Cobb, Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Buddhism and Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982); Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way beyond Absolutism and Relativism, ed. Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999); Griffin, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism, ch. 7.

48 S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995).

49 Cobb, Postmodernism and Public Policy, ch. 1; Griffin, “Overcoming the Demonic.”

50 Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, chs. 11-16; “The Resurrection of the Soul,” Harvard Theological Review 80 (1987), 213-27; Griffin, God and Religion, ch. 6; Evil Revisited, pp. 34-40; Reenchantment without Supernaturalism, ch. 6.

50 Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, chs. 11-16; “The Resurrection of the Soul,” Harvard Theological Review 80 (1987), 213-27; Griffin, God and Religion, ch. 6; Evil Revisited, pp. 34-40; Reenchantment without Supernaturalism, ch. 6.

51 Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: a Postmodern Exploration (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997); Religion and Scientific Naturalism, ch. 7.

52 Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, pp. 15, 27; Griffin, God and Religion, pp. 2, 6; “Liberal but not Modern: Overcoming the Liberal-Conservative Antithesis,” Lexington Theological Review 28 (1993), 201-22.

53 Griffin, “Postmodern Theology as Liberation Theology: a Response to Harvey Cox,” Griffin, Beardslee, and Holland, Varieties of Postmodem Theology, pp. 81-94, at 81.

54 Cobb, Is it too Late? a Theology of Ecology (Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce, 1972); Griffin, “Whitehead’s Contributions to a Theology of Nature,” Bucknell Review 20 (1972), 3-24; Charles Birch and Cobb, The Liberation of Life: from the Cell to the Community (Cambridge University Press, 1981); Birch, Confronting the Future (1976; rev. edn, New York: Penguin Books, 1993); Regaining Compassion for Humanity and Nature (Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1993); Jay B. McDaniel, Of God and Pellicans: a Theology for the Reverence of Life (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989).

55 Birch, On Purpose (Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1990), pp. xvi, 73-85, 114-37

56 Cobb, Postmodernism and Public Policy, ch. 5.

57 Ibid., ch. 4.

58 Keller, “Toward a Postpatriarchal Postmodernity,” in Griffin, ed., Spirituality and Society, pp. 63-80, at 64, 74.

59 Carol P. Christ, Rebirth af the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997), pp. 104-7.

60 Cobb, The Earthist Challenge to Economism: a Theological Critique of the World Bank (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 13-27.

61 Herman E. Daly, “The Steady-State Economy: Postmodern Alternative to Growthmania,” in Griffin, ed., Spirituality and Society, pp. 107-22; Daly and Cobb, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, 2nd edn (Boston: Beacon, 1994).

62 Cobb, Postmodernism and Public Policy, ch. 5.

63 Cobb, “From Individualism to Persons in Community: a Postmodern Economic Theory,” Griffin, ed., Sacred Interconnections, pp. 123-42; Postmodernism and Public Policy, ch. 3; Daly and Cobb, For the Common Good, ch. 8

64 Keller, “Warriors, Women, and the Nuclear Complex: Toward a Postnuclear Postmodernity,” Sacred Interconnections, pp. 63-82; Griffin, “Peace and the Postmodern Paradigm,” Spirituality and Society, pp. 143-54; “Imperialism, Nuclearism, and Postmodern Theism,” God and Religion, 127-45.

65 Griffin, Beyond Plutocracy, Imperialism, and Terrorism: the Need for Global Democracy (forthcoming).*

66 Griffin, “Overcoming the Demonic,” 257-59.

Posted August 15, 2007


* For criticism of this thesis as Griffin expressed it in 2006, see my “Is Anarchy a Cause of War? Some Questions for David Ray Griffin.”—Anthony Flood


David Ray Griffin Page