James Luther Adams and the Lure of Process

JLA and the Lure of Process

Like many who attended Harvard Divinity School, I had the pleasure of visiting with James Luther Adams at his home in Cambridge.  He customarily invited all the Unitarian Universalist students on an annual basis for an evening of conversation. Jim was a gracious host and renowned scholar nearing the age of eighty and I was a twenty-seven year old in search of a philosophy and vocation. 

I appreciate all the more Adams’ essay “The Lure of Persuasion: Some Themes From Whitehead”* because process thought was almost entirely absent from the Divinity School’s classrooms at that time.  Fortunately I had read Tillich and Neibuhr as an undergraduate, so I had some exposure to systematic theology. But of Whitehead, a leading figure in Harvard’s philosophy department a half century earlier, there was no whisper.

It was not until my first sabbatical as a minister, the proverbial seven years later, that I stumbled across process thought.  The discovery came from reading a volume titled On the Fifth Day: Animal Rights and Human Ethics, edited by Michael Knowles Morris and veterinarian Michael W. Fox.   Virtually all the contributors to this collection shared a process perspective.  David Brumbaugh, President of the American Metaphysical Society, was the author of a book on Whitehead, Process Philosophy, and Education.  John B. Cobb, Jr. of the Claremont School of Theology, along with the late Charles Hartshorne of the University of Chicago and Emory University, are still regarded as America’s preeminent interpreters of Whitehead and his work.  F.S.C. Northrop, yet another contributor, was chair of Yale’s philosophy department and co-editor with Mason Gross of Alfred North Whitehead: An Anthology.  It was startling.  This distinguished group of thinkers were all dedicated to advancing the cause of animal rights, and all just happened to be Whiteheadians.

At that time, in the 1980’s, talk of animal rights put me on the lunatic fringe of Unitarian Universalism.  The UUA and its General Assembly, which yearly passed statements of social witness, had never ventured any declaration suggesting that the circle of moral concern extended beyond our own species.  Rare resolutions  that mentioned the natural environment, like one in 1973 opposing construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, emphasized that destruction of caribou and sea life in the region might degrade the food supply, negatively impact human welfare.  Generally, religious liberals adhered to the Kantian dictum that “so far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties.  Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as a means to an end.  That end is man.”  (These lines from Kant’s Lectures on Ethics appeared in On The Fifth Day and I copied them into a chapbook I’ve kept all these years.)  Anthropocentric ethics dovetailed nicely with the humanism dominant in our denomination. Man was considered the summit and measure of creation.

But Whitehead and his followers disagreed.  Here was a philosophy that promised to give my personal passion for animal protection intellectual credibility.  As James Luther Adams observes in his erudite summary, Whitehead often referred to his system as a “philosophy of organism.”  The universe is more like a living, evolving creature than like a clockwork.  In this view (increasingly supported by evidence from both the physical and biological sciences) a feeling dimension or element of mentation is present in all reality, not confined to the human cerebrum.  The world has a subjective as well as an objective pole. To highlight the originality of Whitehead’s thought and its departure from the Cartesian dualisms of mind versus body and man versus nature, Adams cites Whitehead’s comment that a tree is a democracy: a conjecture that changes how we think of clear cutting.  Life is not a commodity, but a community, and all life has some inherent worth, independent of its human utility.  

Yet Adams’ final judgment is that Whitehead’s worldview is too rosy, failing to grapple with the chaotic and dark forces of modernity.  It does not achieve full “seasonal relevance,” Adams remarks.

It does not take seriously into account the gigantic configurations of industrial and financial powers in the world of the twentieth century.  These powers have become stronger than the governments, and they call for a more radical institutional analysis and counterstrategy than Whitehead seems to have envisaged.

Respectfully, I disagree. Process thought represents one of the first true liberation theologies.  The forces that have privatized water and turned family farms into factories of mass production, that now treat the oceans as repositories for plastic rather than as animate ecosystems that can live or die, and that consider the earth economy as somehow separate from the oikonomia of faith, are products of the inert, mechanical view of nature that Whitehead methodically dismantles.  By shattering the premise of human exceptionalism, process thought offers the deep revisioning needed by a planet in crisis.

I encountered Whitehead by the side door.  I wasn’t looking for a new concept of divinity, but for a moral philosophy that widened our circle of care.  As sometimes happens, it was compassion that brought me to a new understanding of God


Reverend Kowalski is the author of Science and the Search for God, an introduction to process theology, and other books on spirituality, nature, animals and nature.

*”The Lure of Persuasion,” in James Luther Adams: The Prophethood of All Believers, George K. Beach, editor (Beacon Press, Boston: 1986)


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