The barriers to Creative Interchange
One breakdown has been discussed: the failure to integrate meanings from one another. Given the explosion of information and tools for communication, such a thing might strike one as ironic. Wieman would undoubtedly have been excited by the rise of such technologies from cell phones to the internet. But the rise of technologies cannot guarantee communication. It is just as easy to fail to communicate now as prior to such an age, if not easier.
For one thing, we may be suffering from information overload, where information simply passes over us with little or no effect. Therefore, the central issue is not simply the amount of information one receives but whether one has been in a position to let the process of integration do its work in a way that changes the person for the better. If there is a lack of meaning and context associated with this information, then all that has occurred is the transaction of a barrage of disconnected bits of information. Flashes of information disconnected cannot bring greater meaning or value. Coherence and connection of what is received and integration of this with a self is central for creativity to work in our lives because this is the basis by which a self can be a self, a requirement to being engaged with others.
Worship provides a context by which people can seek to undergo the process of integration and can come to recognize the connection of events and their meaning to our lives. This may be done with sermons, rituals and the like, establishing a link between the world of today’s experiences and a rich past. They can direct our full bodily self to openness towards creativity. But there is another form of worship, which is best done alone, in a reflective mode. Leaving the clamor of life to reflect provides a needed basis to integrate previous interactions. Jesus in the wilderness, in solitude, was able to take his experiences to forge a new life purpose, which infused his life with meaning and direction.
Another feature of integration is that a sense of self is required, with which these new experiences, meanings, and values are integrated. One mistake some religious liberals make is to believe that openness to others requires a shedding of those distinctive features of our own selfhood, especially as it relates to the religious tradition that inform us. But the sort of creative interactions that expand both sides require each to bring selfhood and tradition to the table. Eliminating that which is distinctive about us so as to get along may produce a getting along but it does so at the cost of the expansion of both worlds.
The second important feature which allows for creative interaction to do its work is a particular openness to the other. So we must become open to the “modification of our minds, our sensitivities, and our judgments” through our interactions with others.[ii] That is, we come to recognize that our beliefs, as good as they are, cannot account for the whole of life and need to be expanded, refined through the interaction with others, so that we gain new experiences, new ways of seeing the world, and thus provide the basis for a wider world. A wider world with more material to draw from creates some basis for better determining what the good is in a given situation. When we isolate our interactions apart from such a world, what may seem like a good in a particular context can provide the basis of greater evils for those outside our sphere of sympathy.
For this reason, the goal is always to increase the range and quality of interactions and relations that one engages in. There is always a wider world than the current range of interactions and experiences, informing us. The task is to expand this to take account of a greater and wider world. Through this expansion the likelihood that a local good could be serving a greater evil lessens.
Therefore we need to direct our attention to possible values, experiences, which are not in our realm of our appreciation yet. We need to “open avenues of communication between one’s self and other individuals, other cultures, other races, and other
classes.” That is, differences must be sought out and included in how we engage the world. Someone is invariably not at the table and some perspective or experience of the world is not included in the discussion and therefore some element, which could rectify our understanding of a situation, is not present. They may be voices we do not appreciate or ones that seem to go against much of what we believe, but they have a range of experiences and valuings which we have not engaged and which could provide the basis for expanding our sense of a world.
What are the barriers to engaging the other in a way which could transform and widen our world? It could be a particular self-image that one seeks to protect, an image which could be torn down if evaluated within some forms of interaction wherein who we are and what we value could be called into account. If one were a racist, the sort of possible interactions with someone of another race could be so unsettling to one’s self-image that such interactions are avoided at all costs.
If one’s identity is determined by our current sense of self, the desire to have that challenged is greatly lessened. That is, the sense of our own identity has some of the greatest and dearest meaning to us. It is what makes life coherent, something required for human life and conduct. But if our interactions with others call this into question, then we may fear our own sense of self could be dissolved. Understandably this is a situation that most humans seek to avoid. And there is a good reason for this. Selfhood is a precarious achievement.
Wieman is not calling us to be dissolved but transformed and the line between one and the other is not always clearly apparent, especially for someone who is examining this prospect prior to transformation. Sometimes the refusal to undergo such a transformation is rooted in the quality of the good itself which we seek to protect, including our own sense of self. Goods can have a precarious existence and only through hard work and dedication can they be brought about. It is natural that if such goods become endangered, that our reaction is to seek to protect them. But it is ironically through this very protection that we can transform such a good, as a sense of self, into an evil. This can occur when the dedication to the existent good blocks any attempts to recognize or nurture other possible goods, goods which we may not yet recognize or appreciate. Our actions, without reference to a wider world, a wider set of experiences can do great harm without any awareness of this result.
For even well-meaning people operating out of the best sense of their world, their experiences can inflict great evils because their world, their sense of the best, is too provincial, too limited, and does not include enough people, enough experiences, and enough factors. And they resist any correction because what they now think is good might be endangered and how they now see themselves in relation to this good could fall apart. Many foreign policy failures are the result of such a process.
This is why Wieman stresses the need to give oneself up for a radical commitment to this creative process which can expand our world, expand our range of appreciation and sympathy. It means putting trust in a process that can create more than we can currently imagine, appreciate, or value. That is, radical commitment calls us to place priority with the possible over what is actual, the creator over the created, a wider world over the world we currently inhabit and are comfortable in. That is, the insight of monotheism needs to take hold of our lives.
Conflict means differences and this becomes central in Wieman’s account because without such differences clashing with one another there would be no basis for expanding our world or even having it challenged. A complacent herd mentality where our beliefs and prejudices are re-enforced would grow. This could produce an “absence of conflict” but this is not peace. The peace of God is what happens when the conflicts are transformed in a form of creative interaction where our valuations and our sense of our world have now been expanded to take account of our encounter with the other.
To the degree that such an encounter has taken place so that new values are created which are inclusive of the whole community there one finds a deepened sense of community. But such a process could never have happened if conflict was avoided at all costs. The two proposals before the mainline, agreeing to mutual isolation from one another in the form of local option or separation, minimizes conflict through minimizing interactions with the other. In this proposal, addressing conflict means engagement with the other in a manner that allows for mutual influence so as to create values inclusive of the conflicting parties.
The more common route is to avoid conflict or to minimize the influence of the other who is conflict with us. Wieman calls this process supra human but this is not to suggest that humans do not participate in the process of creative interchange. Rather it means that human actions alone are not sufficient. This is because what we imagine as the highest good for ourselves and our communities are subject to the range of experiences and events that have marked our life. So our imaginings must be changed and expanded through the incorporation of a wider world. This occurs when we are able to integrate experiences we’ve never had, events that have not marked our life but now do shape it as a result of receiving them from the other and incorporating them into ourselves. A wider sense of the world which takes account of factors, events, relations we had not considered prior to the interaction.
When these experiences and values from the other are incorporated into our previous experiences a sort of reorganization of self transpires which takes account of the previous interaction and our previous sense of self. Imagination cannot effect such as change because as Wieman writes “profound insights emerge by way of reorganization of the personality of such sort that the individual, prior to this reorganization is unable to accept, appreciate, understand or receive in any way the insight which finally comes”.
Recognizing that it is not us but this creative process which can create the good adequate for a common life together means that we have to look beyond ourselves and our best sense of things to something that can transform our vision The creator/creature distinction which was raised in the second chapter becomes central to the outlook informing Wieman and the project of the thesis. Trust in ourselves and failure to recognize that which is beyond us means placing trust in our present sense of the good and this leads to the intractable conflicts facing the church and our world.
The language surrounding the death of the old self and the creation of a new self takes on a new kind of significance. For Wieman, such a person is able to have the old self transformed in a way which takes on a wider world, a wider range of concerns, experiences, and valuations.
Wieman warns that “creativity is not omnipotent. It often fails against the inertia in man himself, in social institutions and in subhuman conditions.” That is, if we will not engage others, the possible goods which can result become limited if not stymied. Nothing makes a wider cooperative fellowship fully engaged and appreciative of the other necessary or even a likely event.
There are also barriers to communication and openness to the other which need to be searched out and removed to allow for more possibilities of creative interaction taking hold. Some of these were discussed in the second chapter, but simply being aware of the problem is not enough. The barriers are more deep seated than that which can simply be changed by resolve As Wieman notes, “they are in part psychological, internal to the individual himself.” These conditions were focused on in the second chapter. “They are in part biological, requiring development of the sensitivities and other capacities of the biological organism of man.” Wieman recognizes the sort of limitations our own physicality can place in creatively being engaged with another. It may be that we are not biologically equipped to have the required sensitivity for humans to live together creatively. Are there ways in which this can be modified? It shouldn’t be outside of the purview of those interested in removing barriers to creative interaction.
Some of the barriers are physical, “requiring continuous reconstruction of the physical environment so that men can live together with sensitivity and appreciative understanding of one another.” The sense of neighborhood where people interact versus the suburbs where privacy is upheld are two different environments which lead to greater or lesser creative intercommunication. Greater levels of interaction may require the construction of more public spaces from city parks to library cafes.
But there is another kind of public space that is needed. A space where people get to exercise for themselves and others a good which is recognized by all involved. That is, there is the need for the creation of genuine communities. An example could be as simple as a low income organization working together to get a stop sign up. All of a sudden unknown neighbors are working together and become friends and allies even as they have a whole range of differences in regards to race, gender, and religion. They relate to each other to accomplish a common end.
Wieman’s vision of the church as well as other communities could play a similar role in our national life so that a great diversity of people from a range of backgrounds, classes, and races can come together because it is in that context that possibilities can open to allow for mutual learning and therefore creative interactions. Such communities could act to be the bearer of the good news of God’s saving work which the participants can experience and be thus transformed.
Barriers to Creatie Interchange in major ‘institutions’
Other barriers for Wieman are “institutional, requiring continuous modification of the social order.” Whether it is our educational system or the way our economy is organized or the structures of the church, a number of features of such institutions impede giving ourselves to the creative process in a spirit of openness and trust. Usually they center on preservation and continuance of the institution at the expense of the required openness to change and transformation which could make unstable the status quo.
One example in government might be as simple as the current U.S embargo of Cuba which prevents a number of possible creative interactions. It may be the obedience to a political party or to those who hold office that prevents diverse responses to the situations governments are called to deal with. In this loyalty is placed in the state and those in authority and dissent can be seen as an attack instead of a possible place of transformation to a more inclusive vision of ourselves and the world.
Another barrier to creative interaction can be found in education with the growth of religious and politically defined schools where parents are able to send their children so as to not have them confronted with ideas that are not their own, with differences that may challenge them. The internet can also act as a barrier to creative interaction to the degree that it allows people to self segregate. This can be done reading only those news sites and discussion groups which buttress their own beliefs and valuations instead of challenging and expanding them. There are other kinds of media from television to print which must pander to both advertisers and to a public which wants to have its sense of the world reflected back to itself through the media instead of being challenged and questioned.
Another barrier can be found in [organizations] where policies can be used to prevent workers from fraternizing with each other in and out of the workplace. When there is a lack of accountability in companies and the workplace this re-enforces the idea that these are not participatory institutions which require discussion, dialogue and debate. Obedience not creative interaction becomes the prime value at work.
The church is one of the few institutions that is in a position to work through all the levels that either open us up or block us from being engaged with the other. That is the biological, physical, institutional, and personal features of our life can be affected depending on how the church is organized and conceives of its mission. One example of how all levels could be affected is through the use of ritual, such as prayer, which can organize “habits, impulses, sensitivities, forces of attention, and all the resources of personality” in a way which is directed to creative interaction with the other.
Rituals, like any form of practice, habituate their ends within us physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Like football practice they act not as much to perform the act called for but rather to ready us for when such an act is required. That is, rituals develop in us the sort of habits of response to the world that can prepare us to meet the world with the kind of openness required in forms of creative interactions Rituals, when done poorly, point to themselves for the sake of themselves or the institution which gave them birth. Rituals need to direct our whole selves, including our feelings, habits, even bodily reactions to God or otherwise they are misplaced.
Self reflection can be directed to the sort of world we live in, in what ways can it be organized to move to this vision of increasing mutual appreciation and learning and in what ways has it failed in this regard. But with the church’s language of sin and repentance it is also able to call us to reflect on the way that we as individuals block the possibilities of creativity in our life with others. Such a self reflective mode is required if we to remove such barriers.
But such reflection requires the building of a community of people who are dedicated to such a task. That is a group of people who can mutually criticize, build up, support in this task of both societal and individual reflection. Both the individual reflection and the communal response to this become central in such an account. The building of public spaces raised earlier can happen in the church, which is one of the few institutions in this country where these questions and this sort of interrelating is possible.
A church which is able to direct us to this creative process must be open to learning from any and all disciplines and communities, including that of other religions and other religious perspectives. There is a recognition of our limited understanding of where and what is God doing in the lives of others, which needs to influence our sense of God and the world. There is also a recognition that other disciplines can engage in areas of specialization, such as the sciences, that cannot be done by the church even as it affects the work of the church.
While the church recognizes the finitude of its own understanding, it strives to surrender its life to this creative process in all things. The whole church becomes united for a common end, something the mainline is missing. Wieman writes “the weakness of liberal religion is due to the inability of liberals to agree on what is supremely important and the consequent inability to unite in a common commitment.”
Does this suggest the sort of unanimity that some evangelicals have called for in the mainline church? Yes and no. There is unanimity in being open and engaged in creative interaction with others, both living and dead, in books and in varying diverse communities. But the results do not suggest that what flows from such engagement will be a singular result. It certainly cannot mean resting in whatever result follows from such an engagement.
Wieman seems to have given us a means by which mainline can unite around a common end, a common God, even while the diversities in the church would remain, even add to this quest. Wieman’s project is a holding together a common end, a common future, a common goal by which diverse communities can mutually appreciate, support, and find meaning in without thinking that a unified belief on the other questions which bedevil the church will produce the same result.
[i] Based on:
- Henry Nelson Wieman, The Wrestle of Religion with Truth, (New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 1927).
- Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good, (Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 1946).
- Henry Nelson Wieman, Man’s Ultimate Commitment, (Carbondale IL: SIU Press, 1958).
- Henry Nelson Wieman, Intellectual Foundations of Faith, (NY: Philosophic Library, 1961).
- Henry Nelson Wieman, Religious Inquiry, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).
- Henry Nelson Wieman, ed. and intro. Cedric L. Hepler, Seeking A Faith for a New Age: Essays on the Interdependence of Religion, Science and Philosophy, (Metuchen, NJ: The ScareCrow Press, Inc, 1975).
- Henry Nelson Wieman, Creative Freedom, (New York, NY: Pilgrim Press, 1982).
- John Cobb, Can Christ Become Good News Again, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1991).