Ask Dr. Cobb

March 2002 Question

Is there a process spirituality?

Dr. Cobb's Response

If we were to select one form of traditional Christian spirituality that is most clearly encouraged by process thought, it would probably be the spirituality of discernment as practiced by Jesuits and Quakers. Whitehead tells us that in every moment we are being directed, called, or lured by God to that self-actualization that is best for that moment and also for future occasions in our own personal life and in the lives of other creatures, human and nonhuman. We can embody that fresh possibility for our lives more or less fully. The more-or-less may make a huge difference to ourselves and to others. Clearly it is important to discern what God is calling us to be and do, to distinguish this lure from the many other impulses and urges that function in our experience.

A special strength of both Jesuits and Quakers, from a process perspective, is that they emphasize both deep individual interiority and the community. The call comes to each individually, moment by moment. No one can tell us what that call is. Nevertheless, our capacities for confusion and self-deception are great. Accordingly, especially when the call is for unconventional behavior, it is important to talk with others about it. Some may be able to discern that we are mistaken and help us to see that this is so.

What we need, of course, is to develop a habit of openness to God and readiness to respond even when this is somewhat costly in relation to our other appetites and desires. The special practices of spirituality may help us develop such an attitude. This is the chief function of spirituality.  Although discernment is obviously important, process thought has many other implications for spiritual practice. One interesting direction to explore is in relation to Buddhism. The process model of "the many become one and are increased by one" is very close to the Buddhist understanding of "dependent origination." Both lead to the rejection of the idea of substances underlying the phenomena. Events or processes are primary. Buddhists have developed meditational practices over the millennia that follow from this understanding. It would be presumptuous for us late-comers to develop our own without first learning from them.

Buddhists have found that freeing themselves from the view that they are self-enduring selves brings release from many of the problems of life. Process thought also denies the existence of an underlying, substantial self. Following Buddhist practices can contribute to spiritual growth for process thinkers. Buddhist disciplines also help to liberate practitioners from imposing concepts and emotions generated in the past on what is given in the present. They encourage, instead, attention to just what is as it is. This is also a fruitful type of spiritual discipline from a process perspective.

One emphasis of process thought is on the distinction and integration of "soma" and "psyche". Western thought has often reduced the psyche to mind, but for process thought it retains much else. Whitehead used the Western translation of psyche, that is, "soul". But for many in the West that has religious connotations that confuse the discussion. Hence I will use the richer Greek words.

Many forms of spiritual discipline neglect the soma or even emphasize its subordination. These are uncongenial to process thought.  On the other hand, spiritual disciplines have demonstrated that psychic states have a great effect on the condition of the soma. Spiritual healing both of one's own body and of others is a reality. This makes sense from a process perspective. There is every reason to engage in spiritual practices that make for the health of the body. Process thought cautions, on the other hand against going too far. Some theories of spirituality have denied the body autonomy or even reality. Process thought insists on the reality, importance, and partial independence of what happens in the body.  There are a few spiritual disciplines that encourage awareness of the soma and appreciation for it. These are certainly appropriate to process spirituality. The more fully they recognize the integration of soma and psyche the better. Process thought objects only if the great importance of the soma for the psyche is exaggerated in such a way that the distinctness and partial independence of the psyche is obscured or denied.

It would be possible to identify other forms of spirituality that are supported and affirmed by process thought. But I want to conclude by drawing some implications. The implications of process thought is not to identify one form of spiritual discipline to be practiced by all who adopt it. It is more to show how these can be regarded as complementary to one another. Different people may need different practices. The same person may need different practices at the several stages of life.

More fundamentally, I suggest, from a process perspective some people may have no need for special disciplines. As Christians we are free to engage in distinct spiritual practices, but we are not bound to do so. We are to be disciples, and if special practices help us to be better disciples, they should be encouraged. For most people this is the case. If we think of prayer and worship as spiritual practices, then we may need to modify the emphasis of the preceding paragraph. If we understand prayer broadly as a way of bringing our relation to God to awareness, it is hard to imagine a Christian life that does not include it. If we understand worship as doing this as a community, then out of our belief in the importance of community Christians in general, and process Christians in particular, will normally and normatively involve themselves in worship.

But the forms of prayer and the forms of corporate worship can vary greatly. Like the sabbath, prayer and worship are made for human beings, not human beings for them. Perhaps the most important spiritual practice for the process Christian is that of Christian freedom.

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