Editor's note: The Cobb Institute promotes a process-relational way of understanding and living in the world; a process-relational worldview. One area in which the Institute’s openness and relationality is most evident is in its support of and work with the many streams of religious faith. The following essay is but one example of our engagement with the world’s many traditions.

Unitarian Universalism and Open and Relational Thought as a Worldview

I have been a member of my local Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church for over six years. I have been taking some classes via Zoom on open and relational thought and reading a great deal of books by open and relational thinkers since the pandemic changed my life last year. My UU experience and my newly acquired understanding of open and relational thought has led me to see some valuable connections between the two. These connections work well in developing a highly social and vibrant worldview.

First let me explain my use of the term "open and relational thought." Open and relational thought provides a way to discuss a variety of movements, philosophies, theologies, and activities that stream from Alfred North Whitehead’s organic philosophy. Other terms that are often used are process philosophy, process theology, eco-civilization, and more. This umbrella term – open and relational – is a way to understand the world; it is a worldview. We all have a worldview whether we are aware of it or not. We should take time to reflect on what the implications of our worldview are for ourselves, other human beings, other species, and the earth itself.

Paul Rasor, in his book Faith Without Certainty, suggests four worldviews.

  1. The world is created by a loving God. It has a purpose or goal. The world is moving toward ultimate redemption. God’s perfect justice will come to pass. Human beings are part of this plan, and faith in God provides context for life’s pain and struggles.
  2. The Universe is an evolving process with ever increasing complexity. It may or may not have a grand purpose. The process favors life and the renewal of life. Human beings are part of the unfolding process moving to some sort of redemption.
  3. Similar to the evolving process noted in (2), the Universe tends toward entropy and deterioration. Human beings tend toward violence and destruction, but the Universe is still able to provide a framework for meaning.
  4. The Universe is a random collection of matter and energy. You might think life is a complete accident and is without meaning. There seems to be no goal or purpose. Still, it provides a way of orienting yourself and you are able to make sense of things.

There are, of course, other ways to view the world and our place in it. I am not recommending any of Rasor’s suggestions. I only list them as a possible model from which to work.

Another possible format or outline for constructing a worldview is the UU sources and principles. UU provides six sources of wisdom and spirituality and seven principles which are held as strong values and moral guides. These principles and sources seem ideal concepts that can be incorporated into a worldview. I also believe that open and relational thought can both add to and expand these concepts into a more broad and inclusive worldview.

Here is a list of the seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

In reference to principle one, open and relational thought teaches that all actual entities (all life) have intrinsic value – value, not for human use, but value for itself. The addition of open and relational thought would expand principle one to include all life. Likewise, principle two could be expanded to include other species and ecosystems (trees, fungi, and other plants and animals that inhabit forests, for example). The interrelatedness of life is not a new concept to open and relational thinkers. Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has long advocated the relational nature of the cosmos. Life is a series of occasions of experience, that is, a flow of experiencing and interacting actual entities.

Open and relational thought fits nicely with the remaining principles. In fact, it could lead to an expansion and encouragement of these principles. In particular, the open and relational movement has a great deal to say about principle six. Open and relational thinkers and activists dream of and work toward an integral planetary civilization – an eco-civilization. An eco-civilization’s goal is a world community with peace, liberty, and (economic) justice for all living entities, not just humans. Finally, principle seven is a central teaching of the open and relational movement.

The seven principles of UUism are drawn from the wisdom and spirituality of six sources from different areas: science, poetry, scripture, and personal experience. The UU sources are the following:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

In a similar manner, Whitehead proposed four important areas of wisdom or knowledge: science, ethics, aesthetics, and religion. He certainly would not have discounted personal experience either, since for Whitehead novelty results, at least in part, from one’s past experiences, from memories.

So let’s see how open and relational thought can expand or complement the UU sources. As noted above, experience is an important aspect of creativity. Source two speaks of love, an important component of UUism and of Whitehead’s understanding of one aspect of God. In this aspect, God lures us with love to increase value. Sources three (religion) and five (science and reason) are two of the four sources of wisdom, according to Whitehead’s topography. Although Whitehead did not promote a particular religion, religion also was one of the four sources of wisdom. None of the four sources of wisdom Whitehead presents speaks directly about nature, as the UU sixth source does. However, Whitehead taught that everything is of one source; everything is part of one world and is interconnected. This idea is called “monism.” Monism is “a theory or doctrine that denies the existence of a distinction or duality in some sphere, such as that between matter and mind, or God and the world.” (Lexico.com)

To sum up, I have attempted to construct a worldview combining the sources and principles of UUism with the ideas that flow from the thought of Alfred North Whitehead. I find them to be highly compatible. The open and relational movement has much to offer UUism and the world in general. Among its many streams, the tributary of an eco-civilization is the deepest and widest, providing space for all of life. An eco-civilization is a place in which UUs would be at home.

  • Terry Goddard is retired professor of history at Northwest Vista College, San Antonio. He is editor/blogger at Religious Belief and Disbelief, which focuses on the writings of Loren Eiseley and Process thinkers. He holds a Master of Divinity from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, and a Ph.D. in Theology and History of American Christianity from Chicago Theological Seminary. He is active in the First Unitarian Universalist Church, San Antonio, Texas, where he teaches a variety of courses on World Religions. He serves as the Chairperson of the Cobb Institute Advisory Board.