Hauerwas 3: From “Theologian in Residence” to Bricklaying: Discipleship in the 21st Century

Cultural change is not easy for anyone. For those of us raised at the end of Christendom, who came to maturity during the beginning of the “mega-Church movement” within  Mainline Protestant Christianity, the current state of American society and of the American Church is difficult to comprehend.

This blog discusses Disciplemaking and church leadership for the 21st Century. I want to start at the end of the 20th Century. In 1991, I went to Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. The president of the seminary was T. Hartley Hall. Hartley came from a good family and had been a student at Davidson College, a Presbyterian four-year college. After Davidson, he served in the Korean War and was a Platoon Leader, Company Commander, and Headquarters Commandant for the 32nd Infantry Regiment. Mr. Hall was awarded a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and a Silver Star for gallantry.

Hartley then attended Union Theological Seminary and served in several pastorates. He was a pastor at a fine church in Nashville, Tennessee, when he was called to be the President of Union. Hartley was a theological moderate-liberal, suspicious of evangelical, charismatic, and other movements that might be termed “Fundamentalist” or “overly enthusiastic.” Instead of “spirituality,” Harley used the term “piety” to describe spiritual formation. One purpose of mentioning Hartley in this blog is to honor his service to the church, even though I cannot entirely agree with his conclusions or the precise content of his leadership.

When Hartley described the role of a pastor, he sometimes used the term “Theologian in Residence for a local congregation.” The job of Union was to turn out pastors with the skills to be theologians for their congregations. Although Hartley and I were never friends, we had a certain similarity. I disagreed with Hartley’s theology, but what I did buy into was the notion that professional education (eventually including a Doctor in Ministry), a deep study of the Old  and New Testaments in both the original and translated languages, proficiency in exegeting the Bible, and a solid theology were essential for pastoral success. In my mind, the pastor of a local Presbyterian congregation needed to be a highly trained and experienced professional.

Not long after graduating, I realized local congregations usually didn’t want theologians in residence. They wanted a good and enthusiastic preacher, a caring pastor, a shepherd for the flock, a friendly person of faith they could relate to, someone who they felt comfortable talking to with decent administrative skills, someone to lead a well-run youth group for their children, and a host of other things before they wanted a theologian in residence.

Don’t get me wrong, all my churches were evangelical, and they wanted their pastor to be sound theologically, Bible-based in their thinking, and capable of giving biblical sermons (and they didn’t want a great deal of abstract thought in the text of the Sunday sermon). They desired practical applications they could take home and put into practice. But, in the end, deep down, they really did not want a theologian in residence, which is precisely what the seminaries of my denomination thought they were training.

If you look at the list of things above that I have come to believe churches want, it is easy to see that only a few of them are what we would call “professional.” The personal qualities of the pastor are what congregations experience day after day, and those qualities determine ninety percent of pastoral success. Unfortunately, mainline denominations have come to see their pastors as providers of professional services, sort of spiritual lawyers or doctors for the congregation. The congregation, except in a very few cases, wants something else.

After Christendom

One focus of Resident Aliens and After Christendom is on the question, “What kind of training do pastors and leaders need to build alternative Christian communities in the 21st century?” [1] The answer can be summarized by the following statement: “Seminaries and other pastoral training organizations need to focus on training pastors who can build authentic Christian communities strong enough to sustain themselves in a hostile environment.” Since both Stanley, Hauerwas and Will Willimon are Methodist, and I am a Presbyterian, you can assume that by that statement they don’t mean, and I would not mean, that the Church doesn’t need to be worried about good exegetical skills, theological competence, some amount of professional training, etc. That’s not the point. The point is that today, the Church, first and foremost, needs pastors and Church leaders who can build, grow, and lead communities of faith.

Bricklaying, Stone Masonry, and Disciple-making

This is where we get to bricklaying. In After Christendom, Hauerwas says the following:

To learn to lay brick, it is not sufficient for you to be told how to do it, but you must learn a multitude of skills that are coordinated into the activity of laying brick – that is why before you lay brick, you must learn to mix the mortar, build scaffolds, joint, and so on. Moreover, it is not enough to be told how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to frog the mortar, but in order to lay break, you must hour after hour, day after day lay brick.

Of course, learning to lay brick involves not only learning myriad skills but also a language that forms and is formed by those skills. [2]

Bricklaying is a trade. What matters in bricklaying is not what school you attended or what advanced degrees you earned but the simple question, “Can this person lay bricks?” Kathy and I now live in San Antonio, Texas, where limestone is abundant, and many fine old homes are made of stone or brick. I’ve had to have a stone wall repaired. The experience taught me something vital: Not everyone is a good stonemason. What matters most is not the company the person works for, the trade school they attended, or their references on the internet. What matters is whether they can lay bricks.

Bricklaying is a trade, and a skilled trade at that. Good bricklaying requires not just an understanding of the physics and math of bricklaying but also a kind of physical coordination, a kind of tacit knowledge that people possess to a greater or lesser degree based on years of experience. To say that bricklaying is a skill is not the same as saying that there’s no cognitive component to bricklaying. There is. Many books, articles, YouTube videos, and other ways to learn that mental component. As Hauerwas notes, there is an entire language to be learned as an inexperienced bricklayer learns their trade. This language enables the bricklayer to communicate with others, share information, perfect their technique, develop new techniques, and eventually train other bricklayers.

A good bricklayer or stone mason typically trains under an experienced craftsperson. This means that the quality of the mentor is directly correlated to the quality of the student. As Jesus put it, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher and the servant like his master”(Matthew 10:24-25). I suspect Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about.

After all, Jesus was a craftsman. He grew up in the home of a carpenter. His father, Joseph, almost certainly trained him to be a carpenter and to help him in his craft. Jesus knew what it meant to be the apprentice. Jesus was not above Joseph. Jesus was not trying to be better than Joseph. He was trying to be like Joseph as far as being a carpenter was concerned. Jesus knew becoming a good craftsman required imitation, time, and practice. He also knew that would be true for church leaders of every kind. He knew what it was to learn a trade at the feet of an experienced master. He had sat at the feet of his father, and he had helped his father, working beside him day after day learning to be a carpenter.

Disciple-Making Today

Unlike many pastors, I was an active layman in a local church for fifteen years before I went to seminary. On the day I walked onto the campus of Union Theological Seminary, I had experience as a Sunday school teacher and small group leader. I’d led a singles ministry, a young married ministry, and college and youth ministries. I’d been a deacon, participated in solving organizational problems, meeting annual budgets, and funding capital campaigns. I had been an elder, including an elder in a time of conflict. The senior pastor of the Church was a very experienced, well-known pastor near the end of his career. To this very day, I often ask myself “What would Jack have done?” in solving problems.

In other words, before being professionally trained, I had been an apprentice for a long time. The seminary was simply the Biblical and Theological “icing on the cake” of preparation for ministry. The fact that seminary did not teach me how to form a small group, begin a men’s ministry, disciple elders, take care of junior high boys, do a capital campaign, manage a church, and the like did not matter. For a lot of people, it does matter. They spend years failing and learning essential skills they should have been taught before they learned some of the more abstract ideas behind the craft of being a church leader. They would have learned many of those ideas, “the language of the craft,” along the way. In other words, they needed to learn to lay bricks.


Underneath some of the superficial complexity of Resident Aliens and After Christendom is a reasonably simple understanding that changes in Western culture require the Church to change how it trains pastors and leaders. In my day, the seminary really did not like what are called “second career students.” We often disagreed with ideas we had seen fail in practice, however popular they were in academia. We were less malleable. (We did have our pre-existing prejudices that needed to be corrected.) We were not necessarily the easiest students to handle, and because we had families and children, we couldn’t devote the kind of time to seminary that some of the younger students could.

Nevertheless, I’ve come to believe that, instead of a second career students being the exception, they need to be the norm in seminaries. The reason they need to become the norm has to do with mentoring and discipleship. When I use the term “second career,” I don’t necessarily mean someone who spent many years in a secular profession. I mean that no one should be in seminary who has not undergone a period of apprenticeship.

As far as I can tell, in the early Church, the process by which a person became a leader involved becoming an apprentice to someone like Paul and later a leader of the Church. This idea continues in some denominations and groups today: people become deacons and assistant worship for some time before they become priests or teaching elders, sometimes called “ordained pastors.” I think this idea has merit. One reason is that we have difficulty in most mainline churches in finding pastors for relatively small congregations, especially rural congregations. Training people from the community and congregation and then later on giving them the technical education that will improve their preaching and pastoral abilities seems to me to be a better way of going forward than continuing to train a lot of people in seminary from larger churches, who are not culturally fit for smaller and rural churches. A second reason involves seeing that ordained people possess the personalities and traits needed for success. As the head of a Committee on Ministry, I have also seen the damage done by having pastors in churches whose limitations cause misery and decline.

Our congregation has a relationship with a local church planting group. Some of those church planters have either no or limited prior professional education. Our church responded to that need by creating a center that helps them get that training online through an organization called “Third Millennium.” We’ve noticed that the students are intensely interested in certain parts of the theological and biblical curriculum. Why? Because they see the practical need in day-to-day ministry for additional Biblical and theological knowledge.

The current structure of many denominations for training pastors has a long history. In many cases, for hundreds of years that training system met the needs of the congregations they served. Over time, however, as culture changed, that method began to show some weaknesses. The same thing is true of disciple-making. We are in a time when changes need to be made, and new systems need to be developed.

Many churches, including mine, had reasonably sophisticated systems for making disciples and training future leaders. Somewhere around 2010, however, our church noticed that our older systems no longer worked. The programs on which we had relied for decades no longer worked well. Most serious churches have had to develop different strategies for disciple-making over the past twenty years. This is not to say that what they were doing before wasn’t good. It was. It just no longer worked. Sponsoring Bible studies was no longer enough. Weekend retreats were no longer enough. Officer training was no longer enough. Relying on the seminaries was no longer enough. They have had to grow, change, and adapt and continue to grow change, and adapt. Where will this end? No one knows. To find out, we just have to keep growing, changing, and adapting.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014) and Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991).

[2] After Christendom, 101.

Hauerwas 2: After Christendom Part 1

Stanley Hauerwas plays an important role in this series of blogs. These blogs are about political philosophy, the philosophical basis for how government should operate, and political theology, the theological basis for Christian thought and action related to public life. Strictly speaking, Hauerwas doesn’t fit neatly in either of these categories. He is not a philosopher. In his view, the Church does not so much have a political theology as a concrete reality as the bearer of the witness of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world. Yet, Hauerwas is essential both because of his prominence as a thinker and because he challenges many assumptions Christians make about the nature of discipleship in contemporary culture.

More importantly, Hauerwas brings Christian discipleship to the forefront of the conversation. It is the discipleship of the Church that allows it to sustain itself within any particular political environment. This focus doesn’t mean that the theological commitments of church members don’t matter or impact public life. They do. It implies that the Church’s primary duty is to be the Church entirely. With this point, it is difficult to disagree.

Resident Aliens

Although Resident Aliens has come to be seen as an essential late 20th-century book of political theology, the book was not primarily addressed to academia or the society in which the Church lives in America. The book is addressed mainly to the Church; this is why, in various places, it is more concerned about forming disciples of Jesus within the Church than it is about politics. The focus is on the condition of the mainline Protestant churches, and particularly the United Methodist Church, as to how they might best respond to the cultural realities they face. Resident Aliens doesn’t discuss many political difficulties with which Christians are familiar. When it does, it takes a position designed to underscore the role of the Church as the primary instrument by which disciples are made. When the Church is the Church, it inevitably influences society by its integrity of faith and practice. (This. by the way, is one of the areas in which I am critical of Resident Aliens; it often seems too concerned to assure the readers that the authors have not joined the opposition and support the general theological, moral, and political drift of the mainline churches with rare exceptions.)

Hauerwas and Willimon, a Methodist chaplain and retired bishop, set out to speak to both sides of the theological divisions of our day in hopes that concerned Christians will see through them to a deeper issue: the meaning of discipleship in contemporary society. The Church and its discipleship are the basis for any Christian ethic or involvement in community. Hauerwas and Willimon put it this way:

… When it comes to Christian ethics, it is not whether we shall be conservative or liberal, left or right, but whether we shall be faithful to the Church’s peculiar vision of living and acting as disciples. [1]

In the end, Resident Aliens makes the claim its title announces: Christians in the West are called to live in a much different world than they have become accustomed to inhabiting, a world in which the secular powers and principalities rule, and Christians live as wanderers in the land just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in the ancient Middle East—a largely ignored and sometimes persecuted people worshiping a God foreign to the gods of the surrounding peoples. In America, this includes the gods of personal peace, prosperity, affluence, and pleasure, especially sexual gratification. In such a society, YHWH is an alien god indeed.

Question before the Church

If Hauerwas is correct, the primary question before the Church today is not: “How can we convert a pagan world?” (That was never the goal or motivating question of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Israel for most of its history). The question is, “How do we survive as strangers in a strange land?” Speaking as one born in the aftermath of the Second World War into a middle-class family in the Midwestern United States, where the entire life of the community was profoundly formed by the Christian week, the Christian holidays, and the Christian story, to ask the question Hauerwas asks is to ask another, one that Hauerwas and Willimon do not answer, “How in the world did we get here?” or perhaps more simply, as Dorothy observes in the Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Christians today must ask, “How will we live now that we have left Kansas and come to Oz on a path we never intended?

After Christendom

In After Christendom, Hauerwas continues the discussion begun in Resident Aliens. [2] As a result, this second book is more academic and deals with some of the philosophical and theological basis for the position in Resident Aliens. Hauerwas begins where Resident Aliens left off with a quote from George Linbeck: Christianity in the West “is in an awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but not yet clearly disestablished.” [3]

Linbeck accurately describes the starting place where we find ourselves. Around us lies the ruins of Christian culture, symbolized by once magnificent Christian universities subverted to the service of all the “isms” of the 19th and 20th centuries, Communism, Critical-Theorism, Deconstructionism, Ecojustice-ism, Freudianism, Gaiaism, Marxism, and all the rest: breeding grounds for hatred of the West and its values and irrationally confident that its naive version of reality can bring in a paradise for human flourishing. This naïve silliness is not limited to the literary class. It is present on Wall Street and in those corporate boardrooms who admire the “efficiencies of the Chinese state.” It is much more likely that the leaders of the great cultural revolution of the West and its intellectual cheerleaders will bring in something that looks a lot more like Berlin on May 15, 1945, or Russia the week after Stalin’s death than paradise the day before the fall of the race.

We live after Christendom, and only the deluded think it is a good place to be. As Alastair MacIntyre puts it:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless, certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead-often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes pan of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different-St. Benedict. [4]

This, indeed, is where Stanley Hauerwas believes Western society has come. We are at some point in a new Dark Age, in which the powers and principalities embodied by the new barbarians reign and are busy consolidating their power. These new barbarians, working for a New Oligarchy, control most of the West and a good bit of the rest of the world. In some places, the situation is worse. In our captivity, we await a solution, much different than the solution to which we have become accustomed.

The Metaphor of the New Benedict

This is difficult for people of a certain age and background. I know that I find that my best efforts at adjusting to this new situation often amount to an attempt to rescue a now far-distant civilization of the past. Memories of a childhood in the American Midwest interfere with fully comprehending this new reality.  Like Benedict of Nursia in late 5th and early 6th Century Europe, the solution is not to restore the Roman Empire. Christians must think outside the box.

Hauerwas reminds us that seeking to restore the lost influence of the Church is neither a wise nor shrewd approach. The approach is to learn to live where we are and to maintain Christianity in the situation we are in today. The metaphor of the New Benedict is intended to warn us that restoring the past is not an option. We must await a new future.

Thus, Hauerwas believes two approaches to our predicament are unlikely to work. The first is the approach of liberal Christianity: a vain attempt to regain the Christian faith’s lost respect by embracing the social-political programs of the left, hoping the gradual evolution of society will restore the Church to its lost role in Western culture. The second approach is that of conservative Christianity: a vain attempt to overthrow the excesses of the Enlightenment and its political practitioners of “real politics” and restore Christendom in some liberal democratic form. Interestingly, Hauerwas has been accused by the left and right of subversively supporting both these approaches. He is a proponent of neither.

Salvation as Discipleship

If the analysis of Hauerwas is correct, then the issue is not how to restore Christendom. The problem is how to sustain the Church in the current era of Western history—and how Christians previously addressed Western society are no longer applicable. The strategies that were appropriate in Western culture when it was at least superficially Christian simply no longer work. During the period of Christendom, it was possible to merely believe those things that one’s Church held to be doctrinally correct and live like the rest of the members of society. Believing a set of propositions, liberal or conservative, left or right, Biblical or modernist, simply misses the point. The question today is this: “Am I behaving like a disciple of Christ?” This means that the church cannot be satisfied with teaching principles. It must instead help people adopt a form of life.

What Hauerwas recommends is what MacIntyre suggests: the formation of “communities of character” in which the virtues, practices, and modes of living demonstrated in the New Testament are learned by Christians so that they may live according to the pattern found in the New Testament, most notably in the live, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


The discipleship portion of this series of blogs and the political and theological focus intersect every so often. Hauerwas is one of those occasions. Next week, we shall discuss discipleship as a set of skills that Christians internalize in learning to be like Jesus. In this respect, becoming a disciple is less like learning a profession and more like learning a trade in which one has to use one’s hands. This insight has important implications for disciple-making and the training of pastors. The church seems to have no alternative but to adopt a holistic approach to disciple-making, in which Biblical and doctrinal education are not more important than learning to pray and serve a hostile culture and its elites.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991).

[3] Id, at 23.

[4] Alastair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, 261.

The “New Physics,” Process, Sophio-Agapism, and a Harmonic Universe

The “New Physics,” Process, and Sophio-Agapism

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) made significant contributions to Mathematics, Logic, Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics, and other areas of thought. He was instrumental in developing a philosophical outlook known as “Process Philosophy,” of which he is regarded as the founder. Although Whitehead began his academic life at Cambridge (as a mathematician) and then taught in London (as a mathematical physicist and philosopher of education), it was in America at Harvard that he became known as a philosopher and wrote his most famous works.

In 1925, Whitehead published Science and the Modern World (1926). [1] In 1929, he published his Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh as a metaphysical work, Process and Reality. [2] In 1933, he published Adventures of Ideas, his most accessible work and the source of much of what we would call his “political philosophy.” [3] In 1938, he published Modes of Thought, perhaps the most straightforward summary of his ideas. [4]

Science and the Modern World was published in 1926. Only fifteen or so years earlier, in 1905 (sometimes called his “miracle year”), Albert Einstein published a series of papers that introduced his theory of relativity and made significant contributions to quantum physics. Fifteen years is a short time in the history of science. By this time, Whitehead, himself a mathematical physicist, had internalized the new physics of his day and gave a philosophical account of its meaning. Whitehead’s lasting importance flows from his ability to create a metaphysical system compatible with relativity theory and quantum physics.

End of Materialism

From Newton until the early 20th Century, a fundamentally materialistic worldview dominated science and philosophy. In this worldview, what is “real” is matter and material forces acting upon matter. The picture of the universe that emerged with quantum physics was radically different. Fundamental subatomic particles do not appear to be material. Instead, they seem to be what Whitehead calls “patterns” or “vibrations” in a universal electromagnetic field, an emerging disturbance in an underlying field of potentiality. [5] Whitehead recognized that the implications of developments in physics meant the end of the Newtonian worldview and its materialistic premises.

In response, Whitehead developed a “process” or “organic” view of reality in which the fundamental realities events are what he called “actual occasions.” [6] Those actual occasions that take on a stable form over some period of time, Whitehead sometimes calls “actual entities.”  Actual occasions are not fundamentally material but rather a part of a process of becoming. By making the fundamental unity of reality occasions and not particles, Whitehead laid the basis for a non-materialistic metaphysical account of reality.

In defining the fundamental reality as an event or occasion, Whitehead gives metaphysical expression to the fundamental immateriality of what science believes are the basic building blocks of the universe. [7] In so doing, “Whitehead marks an important turning point in the history of philosophy because he affirms that everything is fundamentally an event. What we perceive as permanent objects are events, or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events” that have taken up a stable form. [8] Therefore, the actual world is not fundamentally made up of objects but instead “built up of actual occasions.” [9]

Those things we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls “enduring objects”) are events with an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [10] The vision of the world that Whitehead develops is decidedly not materialistic, for fundamental events are much like the waves that constitute fundamental particles—vibrations or patterns which are capable are not material entities but are capable of becoming so. Higher-order events are built up through structured combinations of actual occasions/objects. In Whitehead’s thought, not only are events primary but so are “structure” or the invisible noetic patterns discernable in actual occasions.

A Social World

Because the notions of pattern and structure are fundamental in Whitehead, the idea of “social order” is basic to his vision of reality. As occasions develop organized and orderly patterns, social order develops, even at a subatomic level. Thus, notions of social and personal order are fundamental because they are the enduring objects or creatures we are familiar with. That is to say, a human being is a society built up of actual occasions. Similarly, everything from rocks to complex social entities or societies of an impersonal type. [11] The development of order over time is a fundamental characteristic of reality, including the existence of human societies.

Early in the development of quantum physics, it was realized that one of its implications was a degree of interconnectedness among the fields of activity that make it up. As previously noted, Einstein’s Relativity Theory, which Whitehead studied and understood, describes a profoundly relational universe in which time and space, ultimate attributes of reality in Newtonian physics, are known to be related to one another and make up a “Space/Time Continuum.” Much of the argument of Science and the Modern World concerns the metaphysical implications of relativity theory, a subject to which Whitehead himself made contributions. In the end, the world that relativity theory describes is fundamentally relational. The absolute space and time of classical Newtonian physics had to give way to a notion of time and space that is fundamentally relational. Time and Space are related and cannot be separated except for purposes of abstract discussion. [12]

At a quantum level of reality, a deep interconnectedness is revealed and symbolized by so-called “spooky action at a distance,” or what physicists call “entanglement.” Reality is deeply connected at a subatomic level. Even at the level of everyday existence, there is a deep interconnectedness that is evident in so-called open systems and their tendency toward self-organizing activity—the so-called “butterfly effect.” [13]

One implication of process thought is based on the idea that relationships constitute reality. Actual occasions combine to form societies, which are fundamental aspects of reality. The essential character of a society is determined by the relationships in which it is located, past, present, and future. [14] A society of whatever character exists as a web of relationships from which it emerged in a process that leads to a future state of the society involved. According to Whitehead, the relatedness of the universe and the societies that make up the physical realities we experience is not merely external but also internal to the society itself. [15] Thus, not only is physical matter secondary, but also physical power.

The notion of reality as a kind of social order has important implications for political thinking. The idea of a society as being built up over time by the gradual unfolding of a social order that is not, at its ultimate basis, material requires a rethinking of any kind of power-based political theory—and casts grave doubt over the exclusion of moral and religious considerations in political decision making.

Humans as a Part of the Process

Newtonian physics posited the existence of an observer outside the events being observed. In addition, all connections between particles were external. Quantum physics has revealed that the observer is a fundamental part of the observed reality. Perhaps more importantly, quantum physics and relativity theory imply a universe of deep interconnection. Reality appears to participate in a profound fundamental, internal unity. As Whitehead puts it,

We awake to find ourselves engaged in process, immersed in satisfactions and dissatisfactions, and actively modifying, either by intensification, or attenuation, or by the introduction of novel purpose. [16]

In other words, all human experience and action, including science, participate in the unfolding process of the universe to which we are inextricably connected.

The relationship of the observer and the observed is illustrated by the so-called “double slit experiment.” If a researcher shines light through two slits, a pattern emerges from the other side, revealing whether light is a wave or a particle. However, the result is, in some sense, determined by our observation. It is as if human conscious involvement creates the effect and defines the character of the photon, and the photon somehow “feels” or senses the observer’s presence.

Process thought shares this view. Human beings are not outside reality but a part of the “World Process,” even our attempts at abstracting ourselves from what we observe are, at best, only partially successful. We are inevitably and inextricably connected to and sense at a deep level the social world of which we are a part. This is true of electrons and also of our families, neighborhoods, communities, nations, and world. What we say and do has an impact, however important or unimportant, on the world we inhabit. These connections are not just external but also internal. As Whitehead[17] puts it, “The whole environment participates in the nature of each of its actual occasions. Thus, each occasion takes its initial form from the nature of its environment.”

A World of Experience “All the Way Down”

One result of quantum physics is the realization that the very act of observing — of asking the question, “Through which slit will each electron pass?” changes the experiment’s outcome. In other words, the experimental results indicate that, in some way, subatomic particles “know,” “sense,” or “feel” the presence of the observer, which determines the outcome of the experiment. [18] Whitehead was well aware of this outcome. In his view, post-modern science implies that experience is a fundamental category of existence. To be is to experience. Even at the most fundamental levels of reality (the level of actual occasions and fundamental particles), a “feeling” or “experience” of reality exists. [19]

Whitehead, of course, understood, but the kind of consciousness that human beings enjoy is not present in fundamental particles, fundamental molecules, fundamental forms of life, and even, perhaps, in some animal life. Nevertheless, there seems to be a form of “feeling” or awareness of connection with surrounding reality at all levels of reality. As the phenomenon of entanglement demonstrates, this awareness of connection may extend to the limits of the universe.

Whitehead uses a technical term, “prehension,” to describe this feeling. [20] It is difficult for human beings to separate consciousness from apprehension. Whitehead, therefore, coined the term “prehension” to describe a form of non-cognitive apprehension as it exists in nature. Prehension is an outgrowth of the fundamental relatedness of reality as each form of existence (actual occasions) “prehends” surrounding reality.

Conscious perception is possible because we have a highly developed central nervous system. But this consciousness is only a tiny part of the considerable amount of consciousness contained in the universe. It would seem that at every level of reality, there is a constantly expanding and more complex form of experience available. All living creatures would seem to have some awareness of their surroundings and of the impacts their surroundings have upon them. In animal life, we see a growing form of awareness. In humans, we see still another form of awareness, but all this “experience” is built upon a kind of awareness or prehension present in the most fundamental aspects of reality.

This world of deep and beautiful order is deep and beautiful on several levels. In some way, the immaterial potentialities of the quantum world emerge, and from the indeterminate world of quantum reality, what we call ordinary reality and the laws of physics emerge. These laws that rule over matter and energy at the most fundamental levels allowed the emergence of what we would call “chemistry,” the basic elements making up the physical universe and their combination, out of which emerged biology, eventually resulting in the emergence of the human race—a race having self-consciousness and the ability to reflect the order of the universe in its relations as well as the ability to create culture, societies, and social structures. From the human race emerge families, society, social organization, law, economic systems, arts, literature, music, morality, religion, and all the myriad of complex social relations that make up any society. [21]

These levels of reality are, in some way, dependent upon each prior level in the emergent hierarchy of reality. Yet, they each possess independent rules, regulations, laws, and order founded on but not identical to the order from which it emerged. Finally, each level of reality participates in an invisible noetic order from which the material order emerges, which itself is emergent, within which various levels of existence have their conceptual order. That is to say, humans can investigate the underlying structure of reality using science and other disciplines. The means of investigation depends on the nature of the order.

This organic, interconnected, and hierarchical view of reality has critical political philosophy and practice implications. Every stable society is built ahead of multiple levels of increasingly complicated participants in the social order. For example, we tend to think that our society is made up of humans who happen to be residents of the United States of America. However, the health and functioning of the society end of the residence depends upon their interconnected participation in the universe that includes all its surrounding physical and non-physical elements.

Not surprisingly, one fundamental application of Whiteheadian philosophy has been in the area of environmental protection. The notion that the world is built up of actual occasions or objects connected by feelings and sense and responds to the existence and presence of one another implies that the members of our society are connected with its environment, human, non-human, organic, organic, and otherwise. If this is true, then it is impossible to have a healthy society that does not consider this web of relationships in which the human participants are located.

A Physical and Mental Universe

One of Whitehead’s contributions to philosophy is how he avoids the mind-body dualism inherent in modern metaphysics. According to Whitehead, every actual occasion has a mental and a physical pole. That is to say, that experience and intelligibility are present in everything from subatomic particles to human beings. In Whitehead’s view, every level of existence possesses mental and physical poles, including quanta, atoms, cells, organisms, the Earth, the solar system, our galaxy, and the universe up to God.  For God, the whole physical universe is the physical pole, and all ideas and forms are the mental pole. [22] In other words, there is no ultimate distinction between mind and matter. Mind and matter are two aspects of a single reality. The potential for the kind of consciousness that human beings possess is, thus, an evolutionary possibility within the structure of the type of universe we inhabit. [23]

There is also no ultimate distinction between those actual occasions that are in some sense alive and those (like rocks) that are not or between the human race and animals. As mentioned above, the mental pole does not imply a consciousness. Returning to the double slit experiment, when quantum physicists speak of a particle as “sensing” the observer, they do not mean to imply that subatomic particles are conscious. This can be hard to understand., but it refers to the fact that experience and intelligibility go all the way down, and therefore, mind, matter, organic and inorganic matter, humans and animals, for all their differences, are also in some sense fundamentally related in an intelligible way. [24]

Applied to political philosophy and social theory generally, Whitehead’s process view encourages investigators to look at the patterns of relationships that make up the society and polity in which one is interested—and to look at them as constantly changing events, not as an object frozen in time. What we sometimes call the American Experiment in Constitutional democracy is a good example. Our political system is not an object to be dissected and understood solely as the power applied to individuals. Instead, it is an event that comprises a complex of constantly changing and evolving relationships. To the extent that our society embraces fundamental values, those values must be continually applied to new and changing realities.

As far as political philosophy is concerned, fundamental “connectedness” implies that our tendency to divide our political world into “us” and “them” is ultimately a false abstraction. We are all part of and inevitably connected to our families, communities, nation, and world, joined in profound ways to those with whom we share all levels of human society. This includes those who disagree with us and those who agree, our political allies, and our opponents. This kind of relatedness casts doubt on the viability of any political philosophy that relies solely on power to the exclusion of other relational factors.

Once again, when one combines the process or event focus of Whitehead’s thought with its social character, one is led away from any notion of the universe as fundamentally constituted of matter and force and away from the idea embedded in our culture through Hobbes of society as fundamentally formed as conglomerations of individuals related to one another by force. Power exists, but it is grounded in a deeper reality, which we shall examine next week as we talk about God, Love, and the gradual movement of human societies from force to persuasion.

The evolution of the universe and human society reflects the propensity of the universe and society to seek the kind of satisfaction that we call “Peace” or “Harmony.”  Whitehead believes his metaphysics has practical implications, which he outlines in his book Adventure of Ideas. Whitehead’s metaphysics supports a view that sees justice as a kind of harmony within the social process that constitutes a society—a goal that policymakers should seek rather than power or ideological victory in the political sphere.

Eternal Objects

To understand Whitehead’s views on the movement from a society based on force to one based on persuasion, it is crucial to understand his notions of reality, God, and universals, what Whitehead calls “Eternal Objects.” As mentioned above, the world in which we live and have our day-to-day existence (what Whitehead sometimes calls the “Actual World”) is built up over long periods through the emergence and relationships of actual occasions. [25] Those things we perceive as stable objects (what Whitehead calls “Enduring Objects”) are events with an enduring character because of their underlying structure. [26]

For Whitehead, however, two objects participate in the emergence of the world of actual occasions that are not themselves actual occasions. These are:

  1. Eternal Objects, which are ideal entities that are pure potentials for realization in the actual world and form the conceptual ground for all actual occasions; [27] and
  2. God is both an Eternal Object and the primordial actual entity; God is not an actual occasion but is present in all occasions. [28]

According to Whitehead, eternal objects are the qualities and formal structures that define actual occasions and related entities. An infinite hierarchy of eternal objects defines each actual entity. This feature permits each real entity to be experienced by future entities in essential ways.

  1. Eternal objects participate in the causal connection of individual entities, functioning as private qualities and public structures, characterizing the growth of actuality in its rhythmic advance from private, subjective immediacy to public, extensively structured fact.
  2. Eternal objects are ideals conceptualized by historical actual entities. As such, they are the potential elements that ensure that the process of nature is not deductive succession but organic growth and creative advancement. [29] This characteristic is essential for understanding such political notions as Justice.

Eternal objects are primordially realized as pure potentials in the conceptual nature of that one unique actual entity, which we call “God.” As realized in God, eternal objects are ideal possibilities or potentialities, ordered according to logical and aesthetic principles, which can be realized in actual occasions. As realized in God, Eternal Objects transcend the historical actual entities in which they are realized. [30]

Persuasion Instead of Force

For Whitehead, God is “actual” (an actual entity) but non-temporal and the source of all creativity, the source of innovation who transmits his creativity in freedom and persuasion. [31] Whitehead’s God has two poles of existence: a transcendent pole, which is primordial, and a consequential or physical pole. The transcendent pole is the “mental pole” of God, wherein one finds the existence of eternal objects.  As primordial, God is eternal, having no beginning or end, and is the ultimate reason for the universe. [32]

God’s consequential or physical pole implies that God is present in the universe and in all actual occasions, which are the physical poles of God’s existence. In this physical pole, God experiences the world and the actualization of eternal objects in actual occasions. Because of God’s physical pole, God can be impacted by and experience actuality. Thus, Whitehead’s God experiences and grows with creation. Process Philosophy uniquely contributes to philosophical and theological ideas in postulating a physical pole to God.

For Whitehead, God is not an all-powerful ruler, a cosmic despot. God is intimately involved in the universe of Actual Occasions and impacts the future not by force but by persuasion. [33] Thus, he says,

More than two thousand years ago the wisest of men proclaimed that the divine persuasion is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such order as amid the brute force of the world it was possible to accomplish. [34]

This divine persuasion, the slow working of God in history as love and wisdom, is the hope of the world that the constant resort to force and violence in human affairs can be overcome. Writing before the Second World War, before Hiroshima, and the wars of the last century, Whitehead saw the critical role of faith and all religious groups as instruments for the evolution of the human race towards a more harmonious world based on persuasion, reason, and love rather than brute force. [35] In a much-quoted and beautiful passage, speaking of Christianity in particular, Whitehead writes:

The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as the revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. I need not elaborate. Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in human life what Plato taught in theory. [36]

The Victory of Persuasion over Force

Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive, relying on reason, not coercion, to accomplish the world’s creation. Plato also taught that it was a part of the reordering of the human person by virtue to recover the primordial reliance on reason and persuasion by which the world was created and by which human beings recover an original reasonableness and harmony. This view has obvious implications for political philosophy and political practice. Human freedom and flourishing are dependent upon the emergence of ever-greater harmony and reasonableness in human society, including its political organization.

For Whitehead, “The progress of humanity is defined as the process of transforming society to make the original Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian ideals increasingly practicable for the individual members.” [37] The project of human civilization and every human society and political institution is, therefore, advanced by achieving the victory of persuasion over force. [38] Recalling the words of Plato, Whitehead writes:

The creation of the world—said Plato—is the story of persuasion over force. The worth of men consists in their liability to persuasion. They can persuade and can be persuaded by the disclosure of alternatives, the better and the worse. Civilization is the maintenance of social order by its inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however, unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in general society or in a remnant of individuals. [39]

Against Hobbes, Whitehead holds that persuasion has always been a part of human society and denies that force is the defining characteristic of human society. He disagrees that human society is “a war of everyone against everyone else.” The social and persuasive side of society may even be older than the recourse to force. The love between the sexes, the love of parents for children and families for one another, and even the communal love of small groups are probably older than brute force as a fundamental aspect of human society. In other words, Whitehead sees that a philosophy compatible with the best understanding of reality must, in every area, abandon the Newtonian emphasis on material objects and force.

This does not mean, however, that force is not an inevitable characteristic of society, for there is and always will be a need for laws, structures, and their enforcement and defense. Forms of social compulsion are an outgrowth of the need for social coordination but are (or at least should be) of themselves the outgrowth of reason. [40] Interestingly, Whitehead believes that Commerce is an essential component in the movement from force to persuasion, for commerce depends upon private parties reaching agreements without recourse to force, which tends to build the capacities for reason and persuasion that a free society requires. [41] The importance of persuasion is consistent with the emphasis on the role of love, cherishing, conversation, and dialogue in human society.

Freedom and Order

Whitehead believes that freedom of thought, speech and action are fundamental to social progress. However, there is always a social need to balance what he calls Individual Absoluteness and Individual Relativity. [42] Generally, Individual Absoluteness refers to the area of human freedom in a society, and Individual Relativity refers to the inevitable need for individuals to limit their freedom for the good of society as a whole and other human beings. In this dichotomy, there is a recognition of how social organization and harmony require some limitations on human freedom.

Creating a harmonic balance between the desires and wills of individuals and the maintenance of a sense of social solidarity in a free society requires an understanding of the relational environment from which the individual emerges and its needs for stability in the midst of unfolding change and how individual freedom results in the emergence of a gradually evolving society. There is always an element of chance in how societies evolve, and the resolution in any given community of the tension between freedom and order can seem the arbitrary result of chance—as it sometimes is. [43]The rate and seriousness of social change can vary within a society over time. If existing institutions are working well, and the citizens and centers of power are relatively content, the rate and dimension of change may be slow. In other situations, the rate of change may be significant. [44]

The adjustments required within a society are determined mainly by what Whitehead calls Instinct, Intelligence, and Wisdom. Instinct, which relates to what Peirce calls “habit,” are inherited modes of organization and action that have become customary for society due to inheritance, individual, and environmental factors. Intelligence includes those theoretical factors that are uncovered by human rational inquiry. Wisdom refers to how instinctual and theoretical elements intertwine in the practical accomplishment of social progress. Wisdom can be of greater or lesser effectiveness depending upon the ability to coordinate and incorporate the primary facts of human existence in decision-making.  [45]

In the end, social progress is made when human actors in the social arena make wise decisions impacting the evolution of human societies, including their political organization. In the same way, social regress occurs when human actors make unwise decisions concerning the evolution of human society, including its political organization. Finally, there is no avoiding this result because every human decision, great and small, impacts the universe in some way, creating a future, opening up some possibilities, and closing others.

In the midst of all this is each human actor making decisions. These decisions impact the human society in which the actor is located for better or for worse. The activity of free human actors is the foundation of all human thought, and any form of tyranny is antithetical to the emergence of a harmonious social order. In a particularly important passage, Whitehead notes:

A barbarian speaks in terms of power. He dreams of the superman with the mailed fist. He may plaster his lust with sentimental morality… But ultimately, his final good is conceived, as one will imposing itself upon other wills. This is intellectual barbarism. [46]

It takes a little imagination to see that Whitehead is referring to Nietzsche. Writing in the United States on the verge of the Second World War, with the terrible political results of Nietzschean thought evident in Germany. Whitehead understood, as we sometimes forget, that freedom requires a willingness to love, reason, persuade, and forgo all forms of force unless absolutely required by the circumstances. The example of Nazi Germany and the various disasters of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century is a clear argument for adopting a “politics of reason and relationship,” called agapio-sophism.


In the end, Whitehead believes that there are four factors which govern the fate of social groups, including our society:

  1. The existence of some transcendent aim or goal greater than the mere search for pleasure;
  2. Limitations on freedom that flow from nature itself and the basic needs of human beings;
  3. The tendency of the human race to resort to compulsion instead of reason, which is fatal to social growth and flourishing if extended beyond necessary limits and
  4. The importance of persuasion that relies upon reason and agreement to resolve social problems. In the end, it is the way of persuasion that holds the hope for social and human flourishing. [47]

Whitehead is important for a sophio-agapic analysis of justice. Through his concept of eternal objects, Whitehead is a noetic realist. He believes that values have a form of reality that can impact events and the evolution of any society, especially a complex political society. As a logician, physicist, and philosopher, his work in developing his metaphysical system indicates an orderliness to reality that can be examined by science and other disciplines, including political philosophy. Finally, his notion of “divine persuasion” is similar to Peirce’s notion of an agapic aspect of reality, including social reality. For Whitehead, human reason and emotions are essential in society, including its political organization. Whitehead’s organic, relational view of reality extends to his view of society and encourages attention to the relationships that make up society beyond mere law and power.

In setting out his organic and social vision of reality, Whitehead is highly sympathetic to a harmonic vision of society and the goal of social justice. What is sometimes referred to as a harmonic theory of justice is also an aesthetic theory of justice. [48] In the end, whitehead is captured by a vision of the search for beauty that dominates all efforts to create a better society in every area. Thus, he says:

Science and Art are the consciously determined pursuit of Truth and of Beauty. In them, the finite consciousness of mankind is appropriating as its own infinite fecundity of nature. In this movement of the human spirit types of institutions and types of professions are evolved. Churches and Rituals, Monasteries with their dedicated lives, Universities with their search for knowledge, Medicine, Law, methods of Trade, – they all represent that aim at civilization, whereby the conscious experience of mankind preserves for each use the sources of Harmony. [49]

In the end, Whitehead’s vision is a  sophio-agapic vision. A vision of a world in which the human search for truth and beauty is a search for harmony. Human society, complete with harmony and disharmony, is a never-ending, evolutionary project in which each person and society can participate in unfolding a better and more just society.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: Free Press, 1925, 1967), from now on “SMM.”

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: Free Press, 1929, 1957), at 90. Hereinafter, “PR.”

[3] A. N. Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (New York, NY: Free Press, 1933), hereinafter “AI”.

[4] A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York, NY: Free Press, 1938, 1968).

[5] SMM, at 132.

[6] Whitehead uses the terms “actual occasions” and “actual entities” almost interchangeably. For this reason, I think it might be best to consider a more general term.

[7] PR, 90.

[8] Steven Shaviro, “Deleuze’s Encounter With Whitehead” http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/DeleuzeWhitehead.pdf (Downloaded July 18, 2022).

[9] PR, 96-98.

[10] SMM, 132-133.

[11] Id, 40.

[12] Id, 118.

[13] This is not the place for a discussion of these phenomena. For those who would like a deeper discussion, see John Polkinghorne, ed, “The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). I have examined this phenomenon before in a blog entitled, “Politics and the Order of the World” at www.gchristopherscruggs.com (July 8, 2020).

[14] SM, 152.

[15] AI, 230.

[16] Id, 46.

[17] Id, 41.

[18] It should be obvious that the words, “know,” sense” or “feel” are used metaphorically. Subatomic particles do not have central nervous systems or brains and are not capable of knowing, sensing, or feeling in human terms. Nevertheless, there exists something at the subatomic level that is best described by reference to the human experience.

[19] AI, 230-233.

[20] SMM, 69.

[21] John Polkinghorne, The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1983), 22.

[22] PR,128.

[23] Whitehead makes a substantial contribution towards the development of “dual aspect monism” characteristic to more recent thought.

[24] It is beyond the scope of this paper, but the fundamental relatedness and meaningfulness of all reality has ecological as well as political implications.

[25] PR 27, 90.

[26] SMM, 132-133.

[27] PR, 26

[28] Id, 105

[29] Susan Shottliff Mattingly, “Whitehead’s Theory of Eternal Objects” A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy. I am indebted to her for portions of this analysis.

[30] It is beyond the scope of this analysis to exhaustively look at Whitehead’s notion of God. He did view God as an essential element of his metaphysical system as the ground of the order and creative potential of the universe.

[31] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York, NY: The McMillian Company, 1936), 88.

[32] In Whitehead’s system all actual occasions have both a physical and a mental pole. Thus, intelligibility and the potential for the emergence of mind goes all the way down into the smallest actual entities in the universe.

[33] AI, 166.

[34] Id, 160.

[35] Id, 161. It is beyond the scope of this blog, but Whitehead believes that it is not the existence of dogmatics and religious theories that are the problem with religion, but the attitude of finality with which these opinions are voiced. In this, Whitehead echo’s Pearce. The theories of theologians are evidence of the importance of reason to Christian faith, and reasonableness is one of the ways in which brute force is overcome.

[36] Id, at 167. Plato had taught that the divine agency was persuasive relying on reason not coercion to accomplish his goal.

[37] Id, 17.

[38] Id, 25.

[39] Id, 83.

[40] Id, 69.

[41] Id, 70-84. This is a most interesting discussion in which Whitehead deals with Malthusian economics, and its limitations.

[42] Id, 43.

[43] Id, 44.

[44] Id, 45.

[45] Id, 45-7

[46] Id, 51.

[47] Id, 85-86.

[48] Id, 261. In his chapter on beauty in AI, Whitehead speaks of harmony as the objective of the search for beauty. He also describes the way in which disharmony d

(destruction) and harmony are related. Disharmony requires the searcher for harmony to seek a higher and greater harmony, a new harmony. In the same way, each perception of harmony leads to a perception of its inadequacy, which leads to a greater harmony. This is the aesthetic ground of the progress of justice in society.

[49] Id, 272

Harmonic Politics in a Disharmonious World

For the past two weeks, I’ve been discussing the metaphor of musical harmony as useful in understanding political philosophy and political theology. The classical tradition through Plato and Cicero and the Christian tradition through Augustine use musical metaphors and the notion of harmony to describe the search for a just society. In both traditions, the goal of government is to create social peace. When there is conflict, the goal is to restore social harmony. Social peace is best established in a free society through reasonable means based on shared values.

Events of this week in the Middle East allow me to address one of the most common objections to the viewpoint advanced in these blogs. Many of my friends and commentators suggest that using the word agape, or “self-giving love,” in connection with political reality is misguided. In their view, politics is the search for the advancement of self-interest, including the self-interest of social groups within or between societies. Politics is about the acquisition and use of power, and to bring non-power-related concepts into the discussion is misguided. I respectfully disagree.

The Current Example

Conflict erupted this week, beginning with an incursion from Gaza into Israel. Almost immediately, there were a series of threats and counter-threats on both sides. For the Israelis, the Hamas attack was an act of terrorism. From the perspective of Hamas and its supporters, the violence resulted from prior actions of the Israeli government. Amidst all this, the commentary of a retired American general caught my attention. Discussing what he viewed as the flaws of a prior and the present administration, which he feels represents an unrealistic understanding of international politics, he advanced the view that conflict is the basis of the relationship between nations. Such conflict may be peaceful or violent, but an element of conflict is always present. Those who seek a peaceful resolution of a conflict with a terrorist organization are simply deluded. It is this view that violence and competition sit at the foundation of the world order that I find limited, leading to unwise actions by leaders of the left and the right in innumerable situations.

What is Sophio-Agapism?

I refer to the vantage point of this series of blogs as “Sophio-agapism.” The term underscores the view that politics should be approached from the viewpoint of both a search for wisdom (sophia) and love (agape). In the philosophy of C.S. Peirce, the evolution of human society, like the evolution of the world, is characterized by chance, deterministic features, and agapistic love. To understand what Peirce is trying to say and its practical implications, it is crucial to understand what he means by “agapistic love.” In his “A Guess at the Riddle,” Peirce defines agapistic love as (i) an active bestowal of energy by the lover to the beloved, (ii) a cherishing of the beloved by the lover, (iii) and a positive sympathy on the part of the lover for the benefit of the beloved. [1] Love for Peirce is a kind of bestowal of energy that cherishes and seeks the best for that which is loved. This love is not just a human emotion but emerges as one of the elementary characteristics of the evolving universe.

Peirce begins his analysis of agapism with quotations from the First Letter of John, in which John concludes that “God is love” (I John 4:8,16). Peirce then proceeds to a discussion of the nature of that kind of love we see reflected in the life of Christ and to which John refers, as well as critiquing John’s supposed deviations from the pure gospel of love. Finally, he analyzes its application to evolutionary theory.  Peirce believed that agapism is central to the evolution of the universe and human society, and the other features of evolutionary growth, chance, and necessity are derived from this primordial love. In other words, love is a central characteristic of the world and human societies. It is not an “add-on” or a psychological reaction of certain individuals to harmonies in the world or society. It is a feature of reality itself. In another context, I have called the kind of love to which Peirce refers “Deep Love” or “Deep Relationality.” [2]

On the other hand, one should not overplay the role of love in a political philosophy. Just as the quantum world merges into the world of Newtonian physics, a world of material objects and force-dominated interactions, at the level of human society, the power of love and other factors in human society are impacted and limited by chance or fortuitous events and by the regularity, is created by a political system, an international economic system, and other systemic features that involve material objects and force. As to human society and human relationships, the impact of human freedom and the choices made by others cannot be underestimated. In such an environment, conflict cannot be entirely avoided, and the more irrational and unloving the other actors involved may be, the more likely it is that conflict is inevitable.

Defending a Sophio-Agapistic Political View

In defending a sophio-agapistic approach to political theory, reason moves from the phenomena of relationality embedded in the physical universe to an analysis of the human experience of relationship and then to the emergence of the various kinds of relationality in human society. [3] The variety of ways in which a deep relationality impacts human society can be unfolded by looking at various Greek terms for love as a part of the gradual evolution of the human race and human society. In Greek, there are at least five different relevant terms for love:

  • “eros” or romantic love evoked by desire (ἔρως),
  • “storge” or affection (στοργή),
  • “philia” or brotherly love (φιλία),
  • “pragma” or practical love (πράγμα), and
  • “agape” or self-giving love (αγάπη).

In my view, these loves emerge from the relationality found at the root of creation, in which human beings participate. Human capacity for loving relationality evolved as consciousness and society evolved. Humanity’s capacity for relationality and love has evolved in important and breathtaking ways.

The Emergence of Relationality in Human Society

Reality is multilayered. At the bottom of material reality lies the principles of physics, from which chemistry and biology emerge as independent areas of reality. The human race emerged in a long process of biological and social development, with the result that religion, psychology, sociology, law, and other disciplines also developed due to the capacity of human beings to create human societies and institutions. Each level of reality depends on others yet has its degree of independence. While other levels are relevant and impact higher levels, they do not determine them. [4] At each level of reality, there is continuity, dependence on lower levels, freedom, and openness as new potentials arise. In particular, the unconscious relationality of the universe is now conscious, capable of infinitely more complex relationships on a mental and emotional level.

The emergence of human beings and human society vastly increased the range and kind of potential in the created order, including political options for the understanding and achievement of justice in society. The deep relationality of the universe involves a preference for sound relationships, for what the Jews call shalom, which is often translated as “peace”. Still, it has the more profound connotation of wholeness or completeness of order in life. The human desire and need for social interaction impact societies in the search for justice. In the context of political philosophy, when recognized and developed, what I term “noetic potentials,” such as justice, arise and can guide humans’ day-to-day activities. These noetic potentials develop and “unfold” in and among different societies in different ways. Still, all exemplify the order and symmetry in relationship potential in reality and every social reality.

The Politics of Agapism

For political purposes, all loves have some meaning, but three are most important to any well-functioning society:

  • Philia, which is considered the beloved part of a family or common community;
  • Pragma, which compromises to help the relationship work over time, showing patience and tolerancein sustaining and building a relationship; and
  • Agape, which remains committed, sacrifices, and cherishes even when the beloved, in the case of political love, a society, is unworthy. It is a commitment over time to the other.

These three loves are important to a functional society, particularly a functioning democratic society. Philia is that social bond we have because of a common family with shared norms and institutions of meaning. Societies need a sense of common history, background, life order, etc. Humans instinctively cling to family, close friendships, fellow believers, co-workers, etc. It is more than posturing when people speak of a business, a neighborhood, or even a nation as a family, or even of the “family of nations.”

As past events demonstrate, philia can negatively impact social relationships, where the bonds of a common family, race, religion, or cultural heritage overcome all other relational ties and create conflict. While all societies need a sense of community, social brotherhood, and sisterhood, where historic racial and other characteristics dominate, they can lead to conflict. The conflict in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs is a great example of this phenomenon. It is made more difficult by the religious differences between Judaism and Islam.

Pragma is that love that allows members of a society to tolerate differences and build a common society that benefits all, making the necessary compromises for any society to function. Pragma recognizes that society requires its members to be patient and loyal, even in times of stress. [5] Pragma encourages compliance with laws, even those with whom one privately disagrees, to advance the group’s common good. Pragma is “pragmatic” in that it accepts and nurtures the other to maintain a relationship of practical worth to the lover.

From a political perspective, pragma is an important form of love. Within a society, it is important to build social solidarity. On the other hand, there is a pragma among nations and societies. That is to say, we inhabit one world, and in that one world, it is in the best interests of everyone to create as much harmony as possible and to avoid destructive conflict. It is the viewpoint of this series of blogs that developing an intercultural, international pragma is of the first importance.

At the top of the pyramid of love is agape. Agape is that love willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole. Agape also means giving others the right and capacity to achieve their goals despite our questions concerning their reasonableness or desirability. Agape respects the freedom of the other and hopes for the flourishing of the other. Agape is a love that bestows itself on the deserving and underserving alike. Shared history or calculations of personal self-interest do not limit the love that is agape.

Agape is the highest form of Christian love but also appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism. [6] In Latin, agape is translated as “charitas,” from which we get our word “charity.”  This usage points to the difference between eros and agape: eros is a love evoked by something in the beloved that the lover needs; agape is a love as the free act of the lover. Agape is not a love evoked by desire but bestowed upon its recipient. Agape is not a love that can be commanded or required; it must be bestowed upon people and society by the action of free people. In international politics, agape is present, where those with power deliberately use less than all the power at their disposal in the interest of something higher—peace and harmony among people and social groups.

Agape is not unnecessary in human affairs, even amid conflict. Wise leaders avoid conflict and, when in a conflict, seek to minimize the damage and estrangement all conflict involves. As I put it in another context:

Wise leaders shun violence and conflict. This is the virtue of avoiding violence and conflict: the ability to manage people and situations as gently as snow falls on a winter day.

The best policy is this: Avoid conflict if at all possible.

If conflict arises, the best policy is this: Avoid unnecessary destruction. If conflict continues, the best policy is this: Seek a just solution. If conflict reaches a conclusion, the best policy is this: Show mercy and restore good relations. [7]

Even in conflict, the agapist approach involves self-control and the search for peace, even at personal and social cost—the cost of sacrificing to avoid and minimize violence.

The Current Situation

The conflict in the Middle East, Ukraine, and other areas can appropriately be analyzed using the ideas of sophio-agapism. Both Garza and the Ukraine are in the process of being utterly destroyed by constant bombardment in military action. When these conflicts are over, it will take years to rebuild the social and physical infrastructure being destroyed. In addition, because military activities breed resentment, the resentment created will be present no matter who wins the conflict. The Russians and the Western powers should consider the negative consequences of the Ukraine conflict, and Israel and Hamas should consider the negative impacts of the conflict in Gaza, no matter who wins. A victory that does no more than create even more embedded social hostility is unlikely to further the cause of peace in the long run.

Just War Pacifism and Sophio-Agapism

Some years ago, I suggested in a meeting that the political philosophy of John Paul II could be termed “just war pacifism.” My colleague in the conversation, a professor of philosophy, disagreed with my analysis that one could conceive of a form of pacifism that embraced just war theory and a form of just war theory that embraces pacifism. Nevertheless, I continue to think that this is a valuable way of thinking.

Plato, George Santayana, and General Douglas MacArthur are all recorded as saying, “Only the dead will never know war again.” War is a social reality that appears to be a permanent feature of human history. While it is the duty of every person to avoid conflict and war if at all possible, it’s also in the best interest of every human being to see that where war is being conducted, it is conducted in such a way as to lead to the least possible loss of life, and especially the life of innocents, and conducted in such a way as to make a peaceful result, and a more harmonious, social future more likely.

In the past few days, our televisions and media have been filled with images of the results of a horrific terror attack in which noncombatants, men, women, and children were killed and, in some cases, tortured and killed. No possible construction of just war theory condones this behavior. The inevitable human reaction is to want to make the person who did this pay, leading to more violence. For some months now, the citizens of Ukraine have been the subject of a dehumanizing conflict in which innocent noncombatants have become victims of violence. Violence has led to more violence. Human lives and human social solidarity are being destroyed.

Unfortunately, the situation in Gaza gives rise to yet another conundrum: when a terrorist organization is leading an entire social group, are members of that society willingly or unwillingly participating in the injustice of their leaders? This is precisely the conundrum that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in Germany before and during World War II and is not, in principle, resolvable. It is only solvable in a concrete case facing a concrete person. The citizens of Gaza and those opposing them must decide what to do to create a peaceful social environment.

Socio-agapism, when used as a principle of action in any area, is not a philosophy of weakness or inaction. It is a philosophy of wise engagement to achieve the best result for all. Even where a leader or society is in a position of great power, socio-agapism establishes a principle of wise calculation of the best interests of all involved with the belief that the best interests of all involved are also in each party’s best interests to a conflict. Socio-agapism does not provide an easy solution to all conflicts or give precise guidance to leaders. It suggests a path involving the relentless and sometimes costly search for social harmony and peaceful relationships within and among social groups.

I must conclude this week’s blog. I intend to return to the issue of just war pacifism near the end of these blogs. Those who believe that Christianity must embrace relentless pacifism will not like the conclusions of this week’s blog. Those who believe in “real politics” will also reject the notion that the search for social harmony and peace is fundamental. It’s contrary to their idea of the relentless conflict in competition among nations and social groups in which only victory removes conflict. My basic response to this point of view is that peace cannot be achieved “until swords made into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4; Joel 3:12; Micah 4:3). This is the eschatological hope that leads all right-thinking persons to embrace the search for peace.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] “Guess at the Riddle” in Essential Writings, 249-250.

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016).

[3] This entire section is taken from G. Christopher Scruggs, A “Sophio-Agapic Approach to Political Philosophy: a Constructive “Post-ideological Proposal” (Unpublished Manuscript, October 11, 2023).

[4] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation, 2007), 102 and Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (London, ENG: SPCK, 2005).

[5] Roman Krznaric, “The Ancient Greeks’ 6 Words for Love (And Why Knowing Them Can Change Your Life)” in Solutions Journalism ( December 28, 2013), at www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2013/12/28/the-ancient-greeks-6-words-for-love-and-why-knowing-them-can-change-your-life/ (downloaded June 19, 2020).

[6] Id.

[7] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016), 136.

The Harmony of Deep Light

The Privileged Position of Light

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” Gen. 1:1-3). In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the “the true light that gives light to everyone” John 1:9). Throughout history, light has been connected with the divine, and in particular with the divine reason that permeates the universe. The great theologian Thomas Torrance observed that the status of light as orderly, invariable, constant, and unsurpassable, a status confirmed by relativity theory, points to the ultimate light, the uncreated light of God, which serves as the ground of the rationality and order of creation itself. [1]

The Nature of Created Light

Visible created light consists of photons, massless packets of energy, each traveling with wavelike properties at the speed of light.  The light that we can see with our eyes is simply that part of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes can see.[2] A photon carries energy proportional to the radiation frequency but has zero rest mass. In other words, photons are not physical but wavelike. Photons are the smallest unit (quantum) of energy, and the realization that light traveled in discrete quanta was the origin of Quantum Theory.

Christian Huygens proposed that light was composed of waves traveling through the “ether,” an invisible substance thought to permeate space. This view contradicted the views of Newton, who felt that light was made up of particles, a view that a majority of physicists originally accepted Newton’s theory that is materialistic and corpuscular. Light is a thing.

In 1801, Thomas Young conducted what is known as a double-slit experiment. In the experiment, a side-by-side beam of light was sent through two small holes. When this was done, the light passing through them formed a pattern. At regular intervals, the intersecting ripples emanating from the two holes interfered constructively—combining to make brighter light—or destructively—canceling one another out. This behavior indicated that light was a wave-like phenomenon. The work of James Clerk Maxwell gave this theory much support. Maxwell developed the theory of light as a disturbance or wave in a continuous electromagnetic field. This was a strong confirmation of Young’s ideas.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Planck developed quantum theory, theorizing that the mysterious behavior of light could be understood by considering light to be electromagnetic waves divided into individual packets or “quanta.” This is the beginning of what we call “quantum theory.”  In 1905, Albert Einstein theorized that light behaves as both a particle and a wave, with the energy of each particle of light corresponding to the wave’s frequency. His theorizing won him the Nobel Prize in 1921 (the year my parents were born). This was the beginning of the strange duality of light in orthodox quantum theory.

            Currently, light is considered an excitation in an electromagnetic field capable of exhibiting paradoxical features consistent with wave-like and particle-like behavior. So-called quantum fields, such as the electromagnetic field, are a kind of energy-generating potential spread throughout space. Today, physicists think of every particle, including photons, as an excitation of a quantum field.  [3]  String theory holds that reality, including photons, is composed of infinitesimally small vibrating strings, smaller than atoms, electrons, or quarks. According to this theory, as the strings vibrate, twist, and fold, they produce effects that explain phenomena from particle physics to large-scale phenomena like gravity. [4] String theory sees photons as rotational vibrations (an oscillation in an electromagnetic field) in a one-dimensional string.

An Illumined Universe Made of Light

Nikola Tesla, for whom the car is named, is famously, if possibly erroneously, reported to have said, “Everything is light.”  There is some truth to the statement. Most people are familiar with Einstein’s general theory of relativity and the famous equation E=MC2. This theory implies that mass and energy are potentially convertible into one another. This is the foundation of the atomic bomb,

The “Big Bang” theory combines Einstein’s general theory of relativity with the discoveries astronomy has made concerning the universe’s evolution to reach conclusions concerning the beginning of the universe.  Thus, what is called the “Big Bang Theory” is an attempt to explain the universe’s origin based on the current status of physics and the information we have about the universe’s evolution. The theory supposes that the universe begins at a point of infinite density. At the initial moment (creation), there was nothing but a very hot and rapidly expanding cosmic soup of protons, neutrons, and electrons. This is the bang.

 About 300,000 years after the Big Bang, referred to as the “Era of Recombination,” photons began attaching as electrons to atoms, and the universe went from being opaque to transparent. This is the point of the earliest light astronomers can observe, what we call cosmic background radiation. Over the next nearly 14 billion years, the universe as we know it evolved. 5 The universe consists mostly of photons, which means that in some special sense, light is a primary attribute of the created order.

A Universe Illumined by Uncreated Light

While involved in a difficult leadership situation some years ago, I wrote Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love. [5] It was a Christian adaptation of the Chinese classic, the Tao te Ching. The book was a guide, so to speak, as to spiritual leadership, even in times of crisis and conflict. As the Preface indicates, it was born of my feeling that I was losing my center in Chris while trying to serve God in a highly conflicted situation.

One of the chapters of the paraphrase begins like this:

There was a beginning when the One Who Is created all things. All things were created and are yet being created by the Word and its Deep Light, as Deep Love seeks orderly peace ( Chapter 22).

Deep Light

What is this “Deep Light” of which I was speaking? It is not a physical light. It is a spiritual reality that underlies the created order and the physical light that illuminates our lives. It is the wisdom of God. It is the rationality that pervades our universe.  I go on to define the term in the book:

Deep Light: The Apostle John teaches that “God is light” when he says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him, there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). This Divine Light is the divine ground of reason, which existed before the created order. The “Logos,” or Divine Reason, is immanent in the cosmos. In God, Divine Love and Divine Wisdom exist in harmony so that love is not separated from wisdom. God’s rationality never fails to act in love.  [6]

Deep Love

In addition to Deep Light, the universe also embodies a deep love. In these blogs, I have had the opportunity in the past to talk about the phenomenon of “Entanglement” and the deep relationality that seems to be present in the created universe. This created relationality points toward an uncreated relationality. Christians believe created relationality reflects the relationship within the God-Head, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God in Three Persons, exhibiting eternal, endless, self-giving love.

I defined this Deep Love as follows in Centered Living/Centered Leading:

Deep Love: In First John, the Apostle also teaches that “God is love.” John says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). John goes on to define the nature of this Deep Love when he says, “This is how we know what love is, Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The Deep Love of God is a sacrificial, suffering love. This kind of love works for the restoration, redemption, and renewal of the world. It was revealed most clearly by Jesus Christ on the cross. [7]

Our Harmonious Universe

Notice that the end of the passage, quoted from Centered Living/Centered Leading, reads, “All things were created and are yet being created by the Word and its Deep Light by the Word and its Deep Light, as Deep Love seeks orderly peace.” In other words, divine, uncreated Deep Light and Deep Love aims to promote harmonious peace. This notion of peace drawn from the Christian tradition goes beyond the absence of conflict. It involves wholeness, completeness, perfection, well-being, harmony, prosperity and tranquility. The peace comes when all things are in their proper place.

The notion of harmony as fundamental to the universe is deeply rooted in human history. The rational symmetries of the universe and its fundamental relatedness point to the conclusion that harmony lies at the root of our ideas of justice, wholeness, morality, peace, or shalom. This deeper harmony is a transcendent harmony that sits at the foundation of the created universe.

Our Lost Harmony

Faced with the deep rationality and relationality of the universe, why, then, do we see so little harmony in nature, in families, in society, and in political institutions? This is a question that is well worth asking, even though we can never have a complete answer. What we know for sure is that there are a lot of destructive disharmonies in nature, human beings, and human society. Something is not quite right. Christians believe Christ is the answer to restoring the harmonies of nature.

Here is the way the writer of Colossians puts it:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-20).

When we call Jesus “The Way,” we are indicating that following Christ is how humans can restore the lost harmony of our universe and our lives. The very image of the invisible God, his divine beauty, rationality, and love, was embodied in the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is behind the Apostle Paul’s idea that creation itself yearns for its lost Shalom:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Romans 8:19-22).

In some way, the disharmony of the entire universe reflects an incompletion, a defect that creation itself desires to be undone. Christians believe that, on the Cross, Christ took the first step in effectuating a remedy for that disharmony by an act of complete self-giving love. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God continues to work for harmony, peace, and shalom in and through those willing to open their lives to God, the Word, and the divine desire for peace. This is not easy. It is painful. The question is, “Do we want to participate?”


Is this all just wishful thinking? All I can say is that the destructive conflict that gave birth to Centered Living/Centered Leading continued for some time. Led by the idea of a divine reason and love at work in creation, the organization I led avoided litigation, extensive damage, many broken relationships, and other consequences of disharmony that others experienced. In at least one subsequent conflict, I saw signs that the insight was correct. I believe that our current social disharmony would be much alleviated by leadership willing to seek and suffer to discover the Deep Light and work for renewal in the power of Deep Love.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, “The Theology of Light” in Christian Theology and Scientific Culture (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1980, 1998), 80-81).

[2] Oxford Instruments, “What is Light?-An Overview of the properties of Light” at  https://andor.oxinst.com/learning/view/article/what-is-light(Downoaded October 4, 2023).

[3] Amanda Soliday and Kathrin Jepsen, “What is a Photon?” in Symmetry, (June 28, 2021) at https://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/what-is-a-photon?language_content_entity=und (downloaded October 4, 2023).

[4] Clarles Woods & Vicky Stien “What is String Theory?” in Space.com (May 18, 2023) at www.space.com/17594-string-theory.html (DownloadedOctober 4, 2023).

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Tao Te Ching Adapted for Christ-Followers Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2016), 104.

[6] Id, at 165.

[7] Id, at 165.