Ask Dr. Cobb

October 2006 Question

What would a process perspective suggest in terms of bridging the racial divides in American churches? How could we both support nonwhite churches in maintaining the autonomy of community churches while creating a sustained engagement between predominantly black, white, and latino congregations?

Dr. Cobb's Response

It is important to emphasize at the outset that one cannot deduce from process thought the correct answer to practical questions of this kind. That answer differs from place to place according to circumstances. The best way of relating among one pair of ethnic congregations is likely to differ from the best way of relating in another case. Even if we found answers for “black, white and latino” congregations, these might not be the right answer for Korean, Samoan, and Filipino ones. One assertion of process thought is that the empirical facts cannot be derived from the metaphysics, and that policies and actions must be appropriate to these facts.

On the other hand, process thought does provide a pair of glasses for looking at the situation, and what one sees with those glasses suggests possible directions of action. Wearing those glasses I will offer my personal ideas about how to deal with ethnic diversity in the churches. I hope the reader will understand that I also celebrate experiments in other directions.

The idea derivative from process thought that I find most relevant to this, as to many social issues, is “person-in-community.” This phrase is not found in Whitehead, so far as I know. Nevertheless, it seems to me to follow very closely from his emphasis on societies, and I will give a bit of technical background before entering more directly into the contemporary discussion.

Although “empty space” is full of “actual occasions” that are not “social,” the world of things is composed of actual occasions that are members of “societies.” That means that they derive most of their character from some set of past occasions, usually in their proximate spatio-temporal past. Physical objects are generally “corpuscular societies,” that is, they are made up of strands of occasions that inherit primarily from the predecessors that make up the strand, although they are also bound to the other occasions that make up the other strands. For example, a stone is made up of molecules that are bound to one another but each of which has its own individuality through time. Whitehead sometimes calls these strands “personally-ordered societies,” because our personal experience is an example of such a strand or series of occasions each one of which is primarily derivative from its personal predecessors.

There is, of course, a great deal of difference between a “living person” such as the human soul, which is composed of a succession of human experiences, and a molecule. The technical difference is that the occasions that make up the flow of human experience are alive. What they inherit from the personal past is not only a fixed character but also the new elements in the preceding experiences. Human persons learn and grow as molecules do not. But like the molecules, they are also bound up with others.

Although in any moment the inheritance from one’s personal past is likely to be primary, each of those personal past experiences was partly shaped by what it received from its environment. Over time, we must recognize that how we think and feel and what we think and feel are very much a social product. We are not self-made individuals who are incidentally related to others. We are products of our societies who also, to some degree, transcend this social determination.

Now let me say much the same thing in terms of discussions that are carried on in the broader community. There, some view human beings primarily as separate individuals. Society is simply the collection of individuals. This model is widespread in economic and political thinking. Marxists, on the other hand, emphasize the collectivities. In some Marxist thinking, and in characteristic policies followed by many Communist governments in the past, individuals counted for very little.

Process thought leads to a third way. Individuals are very important. They are, in fact, the only locus of value. The value of a society is the value of each of its members. Also, decision takes place only in individuals. On the other hand, these individuals are who they are, think as they think, and feel as they feel, largely because they are members of particular human communities. If we want to increase the value present in a community, we usually do better to improve the quality of the community and its life, rather than to focus on its individual members.

The emphasis on community comes into play in another way as well. Very important to individual persons is their self identification. Especially in our complex societies, people are likely to identify themselves in a variety of ways. I identify myself often as an American, but sometimes as a Euro-American, sometimes as an elderly male, sometimes as a Christian believer, sometimes as a member of the Green Party. That is only a beginning. To identify myself in these ways is an acknowledgment that how I think and feel is affected by my participation in certain communities, some simply given, others at least partially chosen.
For purposes of responding to the present question, the most important of these identifications is as Christian, and the second most is as Euro-American. The question is about how Christians of diverse ethnicities should relate to one another. It is an important practical question.

Because Euro-American culture is predominantly individualistic, those Euro-Americans who have finally overcome the deeply entrenched ideas of racial supremacy or superiority have typically supported policies based on ignoring racial and ethnic differences. The ideal is that each individual be viewed as an individual and have the same status in the community. The Christian conviction that we are all children of God has undergirded much of this thinking, and especially so in the church. We have often called for color-blindness, and the most natural policy that follows is that of integration.

In a context in which any kind of separation of races could only be viewed as a continuation of racial supremacy, it was not possible for Euro-Americans to oppose integration. I say this as one who was not really happy with compulsory integration of schools. I was strongly in favor of desegregation, meaning that students and teachers should go where they wished. It would also mean that the extreme injustice in Southern states of supporting the education of whites with far more tax money than the education of blacks should end. But in my own judgment it might have been better to have equalized treatment while allowing the existing structure of control over primarily black schools to remain in the hands of blacks and allowing them considerable freedom in using their improved resources for the improvement of their schools. They could have hired some white teachers if they judged this beneficial, but they might have decided in some cases that black children were better served by black teachers who understood their backgrounds and family situation. This continued separation could certainly be supplemented by magnet schools, which bring about voluntary integration. Transportation should be provided to those students who wanted to go to more distant schools and were qualified for them.

As one who believes that parental involvement in education is of great importance, the complex system of compulsory busing entailed in implementing the ideal of full integration never seemed wise to me. Certainly it has accomplished some good, but the cost to community values has seemed to me very high. In too many instances students have segregated themselves within the schools. In some cases the experience of forced integration has heightened racial animosities. Many whites have abandoned integrated schools, not because they do not want to associate with blacks, but because the quality of education is so poor. Many blacks, poorly prepared to compete in predominantly Euro-American schools, have had their self-image damaged.

Today it is easier for a Euro-American to challenge the ideal of compulsory integration because it was so forcefully challenged by blacks at a deeper level than the practical concerns I have mentioned as having made me unenthusiastic. They pointed out that integration was into an essentially unchanged Euro-American society. For many of them the alternative was to affirm and celebrate black culture and the black heritage, and for some this meant separation from white society.

Viewing matters through process glasses, one cannot support this form of separation either. It does not do justice to the extent to which individuals transcend their communities. The process vision encourages interaction and learning from one another. Black separatism defined black culture in its opposition to that Euro-Americans.

Meanwhile some blacks really want to integrate into the dominant society, which is unquestionably chiefly Euro-American. Other blacks want an education that provides entrance into this society even though they are committed to their distinctive culture. They should have every right to participate in predominantly Euro-American education and should be welcomed by other members of that society. But there should be no heavy social pressure in this direction. For many blacks it may be better to have their own institutions with their own distinctive forms of education.

I have not dealt directly with the church. I can illustrate the problems with the ideal of integration there, too. At one time the Methodists in Southern California had a thriving separate organization for Methodist Latinos. They had their own churches, their own pastors, and their own structure of leadership. But this seemed counter to the ideal of integration; so it was ended. The resulting integrated structure failed to appeal to Latinos, and that segment of the church declined precipitously. Later, the integration of Japanese churches into the predominantly Euro-American California conferences was more successful but still costly.

My point is not that either society or the church has always been wrong in pressing for integration. My point is only that when this is sought without appreciation for the nature and importance of community, the advantages gained may be outweighed by the costs. Process glasses highlight these costs that are less considered when the individualistic approach of the dominant society determines the ideals.

The questioner is clearly aware of the value of community and that this community is often based on shared ethnicity. Hence, what I have said thus far is more supporting the context of the question than answering it. The issue is how to affirm such communities while at the same time expressing and encouraging the sense of unity in Christ.

The image with which I approach this question is that of a community of communities. Communities are essential to human health, but they can also be sources of terrible destruction. Nations are great communities, but devotion to them has led to terrible wars and even genocide over several hundred years. Local communities are of greatest value and importance, but it is crucial that they understand themselves as parts of a community of communities. The task is to find effective ways of instilling within each community its sense of community with others and of celebrating the community among the communities.
If the questioner really wants specific ideas about how to do this, I do not think I am of much help. My answers will be the obvious ones, once the importance of the task is really recognized. Pastors need to meet together from time to time to discuss common concerns. If possible, the churches should find projects on which they can work together. If not in common work, then in other ways, lay people need to meet one another as persons. Occasionally there should be services of worship jointly planned so that elements of the various traditions and cultures can play a role.

All this is hard work and will not happen without real interest on the part of each congregation. It might help if a group of diverse congregations agreed that the liturgy in each one would include specific prayers for the others. Perhaps church bulletins and newsletters could include information about what is happening in the other churches making up the community of communities. In one way or another, the self-understanding of worshippers in each congregation needs to be that the congregation that is immediately important to them is part of a larger community of congregations whose overall well being is also important to them. But once such a sense of community emerges, I trust those who have it to find their own ways to keep it alive and strengthen it.

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