Creative Interchange and conflict

Henry Nelson Wieman’s work in philosophy focused on the question of conflict and how conflicts might be negotiated in a manner that could be transformative for those involved. Such a proposal needs to allow for differences to have play within communities because it is engagement with the other and his/her experiences which can challenge and expand our sense of the world in a way that encompasses a wider set of experiences. [i] And yet such differences should not simply remain as differences, but need to engage each other in a manner which allows for some mutual affecting of one another so that the basis of commonality that holds communities together is able to endure.

Democracy must…rest primarily upon the mutual interpretation of conflicting interests to one another”- H.N. Wieman [ii]

But Wieman has certain suppositions, which need to be granted if his proposals are to have some standing. He believed that nothing could wholly protect the human mind from error. Rather, a key feature of human existence is our finitude, our limitedness. Therefore nothing coming from the minds of humans could be understood as infallible and beyond revision.

The created good is finite, has value only in relation to a set situation and can be subject to revision and even dismissal as the situation changes. The intractability of human conflict many times is found in the failure to accept the created basis of any human idea, institution, and belief. If beliefs can be made absolute and impossible to modify in any manner, then there is little basis to engage those who disagree with whatever is in question. [iii]

Failure to recognize the finite basis of our beliefs, practices, and institutions, produces the result of treating them as if they were divine and therefore immune, to some degree, from criticism and modifications. Such a move misdirects our energies and loyalties to what merely is, or what is within the realm of our present appreciation, instead of towards what could be. That is, if there is some belief in a [creative good] who remains active in the creation of the new, we should focus on what is directs our attention away from [that creative good], and away from the source of new possibilities outside of our range of appreciation. [iv]

What is the range of our appreciation? For Wieman, this could be understood, in some sense, to be our world. A world is constructed out of the range of experiences, interactions, events, and meanings, which constitute our life. Recognizing the finitude of the human condition, we can recognize that our world has limits. The limits are imposed by the range of experiences and interactions we have engaged in. In this sense a world is not fixed but ever changing, even growing, as more aspects of life, of experience, gained from interactions with others, can be incorporated into a coherent whole within a person. [v]

Given that our worlds are as varied as the range of interactions and experiences constituting the life of humans and given that we regularly fail to estimate properly our valuings, beliefs, and what we hold dear but instead imagine that they have somehow escaped the limits and finitude of the human condition, the basis of intractable conflicts becomes clearer. We come to interact with others, with what we consider to be the best good for the situation, but the range of our appreciation is what produces this vision of the good.

The problem is that other people with a different range of experiences, events, and relations have constructed a different vision of the good and so there is a clash. If ultimacy is given to the good we hold there can only be two responses. One could seek through battle to defeat the competing vision. Or one could organize life in such a manner that the competing vision is ignored. [vi]

During a conflict both positions are ill equipped to ascertain goods, experiences, and values from the other and therefore are unable to modify their positions in light of missing interactions. Such interactions when they do occur Wieman calls creative interchange. In his work Religious Inquiry, Wieman breaks down creativity into four phases. First there is an awareness of a value, which is is transmitted to the other through communication and is to be found by the other. Secondly, this value and then is integrated into one’s previously held values. Third is the resultant expansion in the individual or group of what is to be valued. This occurs because the integration of the values of the other has now modified my own valuing in such a manner as to take into account the newer values. Fourth, such transformed valuing leads to a widening community whereby our values no longer clash but can support and mutually enhance one another since they are now sensitive to the experiences and values of the other. [vii]

This is the basic four-fold structure that Wieman developed in the 1930s and which would come to serve as the basis for his work on the question of value, the resolution of conflict, and of theism. In The Source of Human Good, Wieman works out how meaning can be understood given this structure. First there is an emerging awareness of meaning to be derived from the other. Second there is integration of old meanings with the new. Third there is an enlargement of the world one experiences because of the new meanings which now form it. Fourth, there is a widening of community because there are now common meanings to be had and shared. [viii]

What is key, regardless of what is evaluated within this structure, is the way that the interaction of the other and the receiving of experience, meaning, knowledge, and value from the other is appreciatively understood and creatively integrated into one’s self in a way that transforms my previous appreciable world. The role of integration is central to the transformative power of creativity. Our success or failure at the process of such integration determines whether the interaction in question can be said to have been marked by creativity.

Integration happens when one’s values, in interaction with other people’s values, are so modified that they are able to sustain and enhance the values of both the self and the other. A value for Wieman could be a liking or interest or goal seeking activity.

“If I can come to recognize as worthy particular values through conversation with those in opposition, then I can open myself up to having my values modified through the conversation. My modified values now seek to take into account the other person’s values in my assessment. And the other’s valuations are likewise modified in relation to the reception of my values. It is in that context that our activities may be in a position to enhance each other’s values and perhaps provide a basis for working ourselves through the conflict in a manner which does not do violence against certain values.” [ix]

What is important is that this growth should not be understood as simply a compromise, meeting each other half way. The result may look like this, but what needs to transpire, which is not always the case with compromise, is a genuine valuing of what the other values, seeing the world through the eyes of the other in a way that transforms my own way of seeing the world. The goal is to integrate with one’s previously held values ways of seeing the world, such that both sides can come up with a solution inclusive of both values which are felt to be such by both parties. [x]

Of course it is not always the case that every interaction can be marked by [Creative Interchange]. Some ingredients need to come into play, in the interaction of two people or two groups if the interaction can be marked by [Creative Interchange].. Both sides must be committed to having their own valuations transformed in the interaction. If one is committed to retaining one’s own views without modification and one holds firm to such a goal, then no transformation can take place. If one side is transformed and the other is not, the ability for both to relate to each other in a constructive way breaks down. There is no deepening of community, the fourth element in a creative interaction. [xi]
Another limitation is due to the kind of values that are in conflict. One might have the value of racial purity. Such a value, because of its very make up precludes it from linking up with other values across a broad range of different peoples in a way that mutually enhances others and their values. In such a situation, the best way that the activities of people can be constructive is when such a value is no longer under consideration.

There are certain values which cannot connect up with and support other values. But one should not seek ignorance of the values found in such groups. One should seek to understand, even if it is to reject, such values in the ongoing activities one engages in. To take note of a value, even negatively, is to have widened one’s appreciable world because the world has to includes the recognition of the existence and impact of such a value. [xii]

In this understanding, the values of one group could link up with another group but they may not be inclusive enough to link up with the wider world. Too much of the world, too many events, experiences, factors, are not being included which would allow these values to connect with a wider set of values. The question is whether groups that have marked differences can be included, that is, can our valuings include a much wider range of differences?

The goal, for Wieman, is the widest number of values and goods being held together in such a fashion as to mutually enhance and sustain one another. As he writes “Human existence is better to the degree that all goal-seeking activities are brought into relations of mutual support across the widest ranges of diversity to form an expanding system of activities when this system is so symbolized so that the individual participant can be conscious of the values of it.” [xiii]

When creativity dominates such interactions with the other, there ideally should be an expansion of what is known, what can be controlled, a greater ability to distinguish good and evil in a situation, and a larger awareness of one’s self and others. These four elements working together provide the basis for living together but if some of the elements are not there, then havoc can be the result. [xiv]

But this becomes a source of tension within Wieman’s vision. There need to be differences sufficient to challenge our valuings, beliefs, experiences, so that we are moved to modify them in our interactions with others. Thus our world can be enlarged. But the changes required need to be in a position to be integrated with our previous experiences, taking account of our past such that the sense of self does not dissolve but is enlarged. It calls for openness to difference and a commitment to integrate this into a self, which can be held together meaningfully.

If the differences are not sufficient, we find our beliefs and ways of experiencing the world alwas re-enforced, a sort of herd mentality can grow even if there is interaction with other groups, as long as these groups re-enforce our sense of the world instead of challenge it. But if the differences are so stark that they cannot be integrated with our previous self, they fail in influencing, challenging, or expanding us. The goal is to have as much diversity as possible in a way which can be connected with, and integrated with others in a given community.

This becomes the basis for the critique of both the local option and forced singular positions, in that one allows for differences to develop in a manner which does not affect or expand the other while the second option seeks to squash differences all together.


[i] Henry Nelson Wieman, Religious Inquiry, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 23.

[ii] Henry Nelson Wieman, Now We Must Choose, (New York: Macmillan Press, 1941), 63.

[iii] Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good, (Carbondale, IL: SIU Press, 1946), 24.

[iv] Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good, op. cit. 27.

[v] Henry Nelson Wieman, Religious Inquiry, op. cit. 17.

[vi] Henry Nelson Wieman, Now We Must Choose, op. cit. 40.

[vii] Henry Nelson Wieman, Religious Inquiry, op. cit. 22.

[viii] Henry Nelson Wieman, The Source of Human Good, 58.

[ix] Henry Nelson Wieman, Religious Inquiry, 15.

[x] Henry Nelson Wieman, Now We Must Choose, 38.

[xi] Henry Nelson Wieman, Religious Inquiry, 15.

[xii] Henry Nelson Wieman, Ibid, 15.

[xiii] Henry Nelson Wieman, Ibid, 15.

[xiv] Henry Nelson Wieman, Intellectual Foundations of Faith, (NY: Philosophic Library, 1961), 7.


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