Why Process Thought is Relevant:
A Psychiatrist's Perspective
Adam Blatner, M.D.

This was a presentation at the Silver Anniversary Whitehead Conference, at the Center for Process Studies, Claremont, California, August 9, 1998. (Revised & Posted, August 2, 2002)
  • Introduction
  • The Benefits of Process Philosophy
  • Belonging
  • Destiny--"What Should I Do to Live a Meaningful Life?"
  • Resilience and Theodicy
  • Toward Responsibility
  • The Need for Imagery
  • Summary
  • References
  • (Other relevant webpages on this website:  (1)  Implications of Process Philosophy (August, 2005); (2) God Being Everything (December, 2006); (3) Poetic Theology  (January 30, 2007); Image-ing God ; and others!)

  • The criterion of relevance that I'm using in this presentation is whether a philosophy can be applied by ordinary people, and especially those who are struggling with emotional problems--these are the ones who need the kind of philosophy that can support their resilience and healing. As a physician and psychiatrist, I work with a wide range of problems, most having many combined causes. The most obvious causes are due to past and present family dynamics, biological predispositions, various addictions, socioeconomic stresses, and the lack of knowledge of a variety of life skills (which aren't yet taught in most schools). However, there is another factor which operates more subtly, more like a vitamin deficiency that interferes with healing after one may have suffered an injury like a broken leg. And that factor is alienation, the sense of being isolated, not only from others, but also from the Ground of Being.

    Even among those patients who say they believe in God, I find many whose faith is superficial, or who don't know how to really wrestle with their faith in order to deepen or strengthen it. As a result, in the face of significant life challenges, they suffer a kind of "second wounding," a feeling of betrayal that God is not rescuing them or helping them more actively. This attitude then compounds whatever their problem may be, because they then feel deserted or punished, adding to their shame and guilt.

    Another way to describe my patients' alienation is that they have not found satisfactory answers to two implicit questions: (1) "Where do I belong?" and (2) "What should I do to live life meaningfully?" In this sense, I am in agreement with the late Viktor Frankl, the noted existential psychiatrist and one of the founders of humanistic psychology, who emphasized the need to give attention to the search for meaning in any holistic process of psychotherapy.

    There are many cultural and historical factors that lead to this alienation, but the one which is most relevant to our discussion today is the fact that in an increasingly mobile and multicultural society, there has been a loss of widespread consensus about the cultural myths which answer the basic questions of belonging and destiny. The corollary of this observation is that I think there's a need to re-construct a meaningful working philosophy, one that people could practically apply in their everyday lives. Such a philosophy needs to be framed in words and images that are easily understandable, and it needs to use metaphors which will draw people forward in their maturation rather than subtly reinforce more childish attitudes.

    The Benefits of Process Philosophy

    Process thought offers a relevant philosophy with the potential for a new myth-theology. I've selected five key points that I've found to be most useful for helping people become more adaptive in our changing world. First I'll note them briefly and then expand on these ideas.

    First, the category of mind is given a heightened ontological status--Hartshorne's doctrine of "psychicalism," or Griffin's (1976) restatement of this as "pan-experientialism." The implication of this is simply that it suggests that people can deepen their connection with God through the development of their own consciousness--which is a type of mysticism. This is in contrast to requiring the intervention of external ritual and specialized intermediaries in order to become reconnected.

    Second, creativity is also given recognition as an ultimate metaphysical category, and not just a happy mental capacity. It suggests that God is engaged in a continuous creative process, and it calls on people to carry forth the aforementioned development of their own consciousness not simply through the study of ancient texts or the perfection of established rituals, but through becoming more creative.

    A third contribution of process thought is that the nature of creativity is expressed in and through every actual occasion. The implication here supports the taking of personal responsibility, in contrast to expecting God-as-parent to be "making it all better." Another way to say this is that the theological model moves away from God as the primary actor, the "puppet-master" model, and towards the decentralized and cooperative view of everyone helping in the creative advance.

    The fourth point is that the relationship of parts to the whole shifts from the power-hierarchical model of child to parent or subject to king to an organismic model--I believe Whitehead's philosophy has even been characterized as a "philosophy of organism"--one where our relationship to God is more like a cell to the totality of a living creature. This, of course, is a far more intimate relationship, yet one which calls on us to apply our creativity in a harmonious fashion towards the good of the whole.

    And finally, the fifth point that I find most relevant to people--from my perspective as a psychiatrist--is that Process thought reframes the problem of theodicy, which, for my patients, is no mere academic exercise. Here is the crux of that feeling of abandonment that I spoke of, a cry of Job that demands an answer. And my patients have been receptive to the idea that God isn't omnipotent in the conventional sense of the concept, but that one can access strength and wisdom through re-connecting with God through a personal inner psychological relationship.

    A disclaimer: I am not presuming to comment on all the elements of process thought, but rather I'm simply noting the five elements that I've found most significant and relevant in my work.


    Now let's anchor these five contributions in terms of the existential questions I mentioned above that I find people are experiencing, if not consciously posing. The first was, "where--or how--do I belong?"

    If the cosmos is in part mind, and our relationship to the cosmos is like cells to an organism, then we are situated metaphorically within that creative process, or, stated poetically, in the very heart of God. Let's add to this the theme of the cosmos being a creative advance, and then, amplifying this creative process, further add the elements of invention, awakening, harmonization, integration, discovery, learning, adventure, and other positive qualities. With this interpretation, people can easily identify their own life struggles with the movement of God. Positive movement on their part is thus framed as being helpful to the whole. The result is that belonging applies not only in the re-location of the individual as being within God, and, indeed, part of God's very being, but also God is seen not just as a fixed entity, but as becoming. The individual's own process of struggle and suffering, learning and healing is then also part of this greater creative process of becoming.

    An implication of this is that therapy should, as well as aiming at solving problems, also help people to develop their capacity for interiority. I think that psychotherapists should help people learn the art of cultivating their souls by attending to and deepening their intuitive sense of connectedness with the rich flow of imagery that rises unendingly and spontaneously from the depths of the subconscious mind.

    My own approach to the subconscious is somewhat Jungian. I think the subconscious mind is a vast, perhaps unendingly vast, dimension that has no distinct boundary with spirit, which infuses mind with energy. I think what is generally called soul is the individuated forms of spirit--and that's why there is some value in distinguishing the two terms; but there's no clean boundary, and one can and often does merge into the other.

    There is a trend in our culture towards developing a greater degree of psychological mindedness, and process thought lends a philosophical support to the application of a depth psychological approach in the pursuit of spirituality. (I define spirituality as the activity of deepening our connectedness with the Greater Wholeness of Being.)

    Another point about belonging vs alienation: People also become alienated from their deeper self, they fall into the co-dependent process of a commercialized culture that promotes the illusions of emptiness in order to sell more products. And people grow up feeling empty. However, the fact is that we are anything but empty! It's just that we are conditioned and taught to attend to the surface of things and thus forget to value and appreciate the fountain of spirit and soul that bubbles within each of us. Process thought helps to shift that imbalance by reminding people that the essential nature of reality includes mind (psychicalism)

    Destiny--"What Should I Do to Live a Meaningful Life?"

    "Where do I belong?" In the heart of God. "What should I do?" In answer to this question, I remember Hartshorne in a conversation with me quoting the Christian innovative philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev: "God's primary commandment is, 'Be Creative! And foster creativity in others!"

    Process thought's emphasis on creativity is a profound one, because it literally changes the paradigm about what life is. In an unchanging world, where life is a cycle of birth and death, maintaining social, natural and divine harmony through obedience to the laws and rituals seems like a somewhat rational response. But in a world in which technology is making dramatic advances, in which the sheer acceleration of change adds another dimension on top of the change itself--which is one way of characterizing the postmodern condition in contrast to the modern condition--, then a philosophy and theology that includes change is required.

    Teilhard de Chardin (1976) made an enormous contribution, still insufficiently appreciated, by integrating the then-still-controversial process of evolution into a general theological philosophy. Another way of saying this is that the idea of evolution, once applied as a purely biological phenomena, has now emerged as an idea in itself, a "meme", as Richard Dawkins might call it, from which other ideas emerge. If we can evolve as a biological species, can culture evolve? And if culture evolves, can consciousness itself evolve? And if consciousness can evolve, then what kind of religious system, what model of theology, best supports such an evolution?

    Process thought offers a key concept in this line of questioning, the essential nature and value of creativity. It's an idea not given much value a century ago, and now it's talked of in almost every field. But it's still not half-valued in our educational systems, it's only partly valued in child-rearing, and it has a questionable role in many traditional religious contexts.

    From a psychiatrist's viewpoint, patients' problems can easily be reframed as challenges of creativity, rather than as problems that they should have been able to solve. I've found that an emphasis on creativity suggests to the patient an acknowledgment of the way the world is changing, the actual difficulty of the problem, and opens a perspective that draws forth ideas and insights. I'm supported in this approach by the work of the early psychoanalyst Otto Rank (1947), who reframed both psychotherapy and life itself as a kind of artistic process.

    The process thought answer to the question, "What shall I do?" is Berdyaev's answer, and its value is that almost any progressive action, however feeble, may nevertheless be identified with the Creative Advance and thus be reinforcing of further efforts

    Resilience and Theodicy

    As mentioned, patients, and, indeed, many if not most people, suffer from the conundrum of theodicy, as posed so simply by Rabbi Kushner in the title of his best selling book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Can we demote God from our ideal of absolute omnipotence and still maintain faith? The answer is "No" if we are to maintain a faith that a God worthy of worship must be one who can and will rescue the deserving.

    But such an attitude is a culturally reinforced residue of a more childish view of life. Fowler described six stages of faith, noting how these correspond to the discovery in developmental psychology that children, teenagers, and adults have different capacities for thinking about concepts, ethics, and God. What must be noted is that many adults, although they may exercise quite mature thinking patterns in several roles, usually related to technical elements in their jobs, may also nevertheless retain significant childish thinking patterns related to interpersonal relationships and to God.

    Maturation doesn't happen altogether naturally. The mind needs to be exercised like the body, and that means that perspectives and complexes of thought must be processed through language-based, explicitly conscious thinking. Even though math, literature, science, and social studies may serve as vehicles for a kind of maturation, it is entirely possible that a "smart" person can grow to adulthood without experiencing any real exercise in thinking clearly about emotional attitudes, about love, sex, self-regard, self-management, the meaning of life, or God. Such topics, if taught, are often just presented to young people without activities that require independent thinking and critical examination of their deeper concepts.

    As a result, many people carry forth remarkably childish attitudes which have not had opportunities to be evaluated from a present, adult, and conscious perspective. Childish attitudes then restrict perceptions and form hindrances to effective adaptation. I alluded to the similarity of certain psychological conditions to vitamin deficiencies. This is one of those similarities. Developmentally, people who have not gotten the "nutrient" of learning a balanced view of what can be expected in life tend to carry the childish expectation of unconditional, even magical, rescue. If they are not rescued, they feel punished and thus acquire a kind of shame/guilt complex which further compounds their problems.

    We should not overlook that the problem of theodicy is not only compounded by a childish attitude towards God, but that this attitude is subtly supported by traditional religious metaphors of God as Father or King. In contrast, the process view of God as Caring Organism that can lure but not force is closer to healthy relationships. It reframes the relationship of the individual to the Greater Wholeness as one of responsibly and actively aligning, participating with, taking inspiration, but not passive reliance.

    The childish attitude is further compounded by a general socioeconomic system in which the status quo is maintained not only by political leverage, but also as an ideological complex, one that draws on the support of traditional religion. Without it being stated explicitly, it is generally accepted that the wealthy "deserve" their wealth, and, by implication, the poor "deserve" their poverty. God's hand in all this is implied--one step away from the Divine Right of Kings (and Aristocracy), only adjusted now for Big Business

    Toward Responsibility

    One of the important potential functions of process thought is that it promotes a more mature state of mind. I mentioned the childish attitude of expecting rescue in talking about theodicy. This needs to be looked at more carefully.

    My argument, simply stated, is that a model of God as Super- Organism Creatively Advancing requires a greater sense of co-creative responsibility, while, in contrast, the model of God as parent or king tends to evoke a more passive and childish complementary role. Thus, the basic metaphor used can promote or retard the process of evolving consciousness.

    Many ministers, preachers, and theologians do attempt to interpret and explain this problem, seeking to encourage people to think and act with more responsibility while still maintaining a Father/King concept of God. I haven't seen that it works. As I listen to my patients and friends, I am reminded of the saying about parenting children: "No matter how much you explain to them why they should be good, they insist on following your example."

    Thus, the traditional metaphor of God that's offered, the implied relationship itself, tends to be problematic. This issue is important because of all the many psychological phenomena, the one that impresses me as most pervasive, after many years of clinical experience, study and contemplation, is the basic human tension between wanting to be alert and responsible versus being half-asleep and irresponsible. Otto Rank alluded to something like this in talking about the desire to figuratively "return to the womb" of undifferentiated consciousness, and I think that this dynamic is also in part what Freud intuited when he talked about Eros and Thanatos. In a broader interpretation, Eros can be amplified beyond the sexual and becomes the principle of connectedness, integration, and life. Thanatos, however, doesn't function as well as a practical concept because death and destruction as a basic instinct can overdramatize the issue. My own view is that most people do not struggle with a classic death wish, but rather the even stronger desire is for that half-death-in-life, that half-asleep, lazy, stupid, childish attitude expressed by the opening lines of the country western song, "Make the world go away..."

    My point here is that a thoroughgoing philosophy must address this fundamental tendency of humans to limit or decrease consciousness--what Whitehead called "fatigue of reason." And the implications of the knowledge of this tendency are manifold, the one now focused on being the need for a theology that doesn't promote, but rather counters this tendency. More specifically, I am suggesting another reason why the type of a God as modeled in process thought should be adopted rather than the traditional patriarchal metaphors.

    The Need for Imagery

    My final suggestion is a natural extension of an underlying theme throughout this paper--the need for creativity. We need to dare to give more form to our philosophy with metaphorical stories, images, even poetry and song that can touch the heart as well as the mind. It is not enough that process philosophy has an intellectually persuasive, even compelling argument. In my experience, this doesn't interest or reach the vast majority of people.

    On the other hand, process philosophy may well serve as the basis of the conscious creation of a new mythology. The general themes may be drawn from traditional religion, such as the use of the word and the idea of God. Depending on the audience, other names of God or other models may be integrated. The foundation of this new mythology would contain the five themes: psychicalism, a God that can be accessed through the development and transformation of consciousness; creativity, an active and dynamic process which we as well as God share; the decentralization of creativity, the image of humans as co-creators with God, which gives us even more responsibility and calls us to become even more alert; the image of the Cosmos as living organism, with the many associations accruing to this metaphor; and the idea of God as relatively, rather than absolutely, omnipotent, which shifts our attitudes away from being victims seeking rescue and towards souls seeking strength.

    The wisdom literature already abounds in stories that resonate with many of these themes. But at this point I want to respond to the implied question as to whether such forms of storytelling belong within the field of philosophy?

    In answer, I'll share a passage I discovered in Whitehead's writings that has had a profound influence on me:

    The use of philosophy is to maintain an active novelty of fundamental ideas illuminating the social system. It reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace. If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths yet unspoken. But the purpose of philosophy is to rationalize mysticism; not by explaining it away, but by the introduction of novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated. Philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of them seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization
    --Alfred North Whitehead, (1938). Modes of Thought.
    New York: MacMillan. p.237
    There are many aspects of this quote that have been relevant in the presentation so far: Active novelty versus slow descent-- Eros and Thanatos; and mysticism as direct insight into depths--a psychologization, a call to interiority, validated by a psychicalistic worldview. And I am especially intrigued with the suggestion that we introduce novel verbal characterizations, rationally coordinated... How shall we interpret that? How novel can we be? Can we entertain the image suggested in Sam Keen's book title, Hymn to a Dancing God? Can Shiva Nataraj, the dancing Shiva, be as viable a symbol as the crucified Christ? Can we play with words as did Matthew Fox (1983), in rephrasing Original Sin as Original Blessing?

    We should examine our resistances to the idea of framing philosophical ideas as emotionally meaningful and vivid stories. We should also be aware that in daring to not just write about and discuss ideas, but making some effort to communicate them to the general population, we are making philosophy somewhat more of a risky political process. We will evoke criticism from some religious or scholarly groups. However, Postmodernist and Feminist theorists have noted, I think accurately, that in these times one can not escape politics. If we don't actively promote our ideas, then we abdicate to the influence of those whose ideas we may reject.

    Thus, consider my thoughts in light of the stated focus and purpose of this conference: "To reflect together on ways in which Whiteheadian process thought can be employed more effectively in the future to contribute to the common good of the world." I am proposing that one direction we can take is to broaden our activities to include an openness to creating new stories or revising old ones, myth-making that is informed by and celebrates process thought. This suggestion responds in part to a relatively recent book by the renowned humanistic psychologist, the late Rollo May--a book with the revealing title, The Cry for Myth. As a psychiatrist, I observe that people are suffering from a kind of mythic, spiritual deficiency, and I believe many of the ideas being presented at this conference could be of great help if they could be adapted to a wider audience.


    Before finishing, I want to place both my role as a psychiatrist and as an amateur philosopher into a broader frame of reference. I think that what the world is about at this point in our evolution as a species is the conscious transformation of consciousness itself. Participating in this trend, entire fields and subfields have emerged, from transpersonal psychology and comparative mythology to the frontiers of anthropology, cultural criticism, media studies, linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and process philosophy.

    In summary, I see process thought as not only relevant but offering core conceptual tools to aid in this transformation:

  • philosophical support for becoming more psychological, by virtue of granting a more ontologically vigorous status to the category of mind (I think that becoming more psychological will be as essential to coping in the coming years as becoming literate, learning to read and write, has become in this last century.)
  • positing the value of creativity by making it another essential metaphysical category, an aspect of God (the future will require creativity just as it needs psychological literacy.)
  • energizing the role of personal responsibility by portraying action in the world as decentralized and requiring individual effort and contribution.
  • redefining a human's relationship, rather than subservient to, as actually being part of God, thereby establishing a greater sense of belonging psychospiritually and socially in the world.
  • defining the problem of theodicy encourages individuals to develop to a greater level of maturity in their faith.
  • Finally, I think there are ideas embedded in process thought that offer great practical value to help human beings, but they need to be interpreted with more juice, with image-filled stories--the realm of mythmaking. I invite and encourage those of us who feel a call to commune with the muses to respond to Whitehead's challenge to "rationalize mysticism...by the introduction of novel characterization." These are ideas whose time has come.


    Blatner, A. (1998). The implications of postmodernism for psychotherapy. Individual Psychology, 53(4), 476-482.

    Fowler, J. W. (1981) . Stages of faith. New York: HarperCollins.

    Fox, M. (1983). Original blessing. Santa Fe: Bear & Co.

    Griffin, D. R. (1976). God, power, and evil: A process theodicy. Philadelphia: Westminster.

    Hartshorne, C. (1984). Omnipotence and other theological mistakes. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    May, R. (1991). The cry for myth. New York: Bantam

    Frankl, V. E. (1997). Man's search for ultimate meaning. New York: Plenum/ Insight.

    Rank, O. (1947). Will therapy and truth and reality. New York: Knopf.

    Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle.

    Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1975). Toward the future. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

    For responses, email me at adam@blatner.com
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