Only if China and India (as well as America) soon start to make the postmodern turn does our planet have hope. —David Ray Griffin

A Postmodern Journey: Greetings from John B. Cobb, Jr.

by Angela Donnelly

It is a pleasure to greet friends around the world who are drawn to process thinking, as I am. My colleague Jay McDaniel, editor of JJB, has asked me to share a bit of my own journey in process or \\\"Whiteheadian\\\" thinking. You know from this website that process thinking is growing in many different parts of the world, providing a promising, relational alternative to more mechanistic and modernist approaches to life. China is a place where this growth is occurring most deeply, and I begin with a word about my own relation to this ancient land, rich with potential for helping guide the world's future.

The last time I was in China I visited the Madame Sun Yat Sen museum in Beijing. I have long considered her one of the truly great women of the twentieth century. One thing I learned at the museum excited me. I found that she visited Kobe, Japan, in 1925. Now, given all her accomplishments, you will wonder why I should care so much about this. To explain, I need to say that I have always been proud that my mother went to school with her at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. They were friends there, and my mother told me more than once that even after she became the first lady of China, Madame Sun Yat Sen kept in touch, and that on one occasion she had visited my mother in the little Japanese-style house in Kobe where I was born in February, 1925. But mother had not told me that the visit was in 1925. Now I dare to claim that I “met” Madame Sun Yat Sen -- since I cannot believe that my mother would have failed to show off her new baby to her old friend.

The China connection might have been much greater. In those days the Protestant churches in the United States thought of China as the great field for missions. My parents planned to go there, but it happened that in 1919, when they were ready to go, there was no place open in China, but that there was a need in Japan; so they went there. My childhood experience was in Japan, and until recent years my connections were there.

My encounter with process thought was at the University of Chicago, where I studied at the expense of the Veterans Administration right after World War II. I was a serious Christian and planned to spend my life in the service of the church. But before I fully committed to that career, I wanted to understand why the modern world had rejected Christianity and, indeed, any belief in God. I went to Chicago to study that question. Rather quickly I got the answer. As I immersed myself in modern thought, I sensed that it had no place for the God of my youth. Against my intention and my will, “God died” for me.

However, I had encountered Charles Hartshorne along the way. He affirmed God’s reality with great conviction, and it was obvious that he understood the modern world very well – certainly much better than I. He introduced me to Alfred North Whitehead with whom he agreed extensively. Gradually the Whitehead/Hartshorne cosmology displaced for me the Cartesian/Kantian one. I was a theist, again, and a Christian.

Although I never met Whitehead, it was the encounter with his thought that was the most important. For me, it was unthinkable that my understanding of the meaning of my life should be separated from my understanding of the physical universe. An inclusive cosmology was essential to me, and that is what Whitehead provided. For him the world of fact and the world of value were inseparable. He gave me a world in which I could think and live with personal integrity. I did not choose it, in the sense of having freedom to decide to believe it or not. It convinced me gradually, but decisively, as it illuminated in a coherent way more and more of the fields that the modern world had separated and compartmentalized. In 2015 I want to climax my career with a conference that displays that contribution of Whitehead quite comprehensively.

I called Whitehead’s vision post-modern. It assimilated what modernity had learned about the universe and the ultimate constituents thereof. But it showed me that a fuller reflection about these matters led past the straightjacket imposed by modernity. It led to a world quite different from the one it which I grew up, but still incorporating much of what was most important to me in that world. When the term “postmodern” became popularized by French philosophers, we found much agreement but also important differences. David Griffin added the term “constructive” to indicate that we were more interested in creating a new vision of reality than simply exposing what was wrong with the old. I cannot exaggerate my debt to Hartshorne and especially to Whitehead. His thought has meant so much to me that I have spent much of my career trying to share it with others.

That sharing has been through teaching and writing, but also through co-organizing, with David Griffin, the Center for Process Studies. My Japan connections helped to build on interest there and establish a society for Whitehead studies. Later centers and societies developed in Australia and Europe and even in Africa and Latin America. But the great and wonderful surprise has been that the China connection has flourished most of all, thanks to the truly remarkable work of Zhihe Wang and Meijun Fan, with whom I work closely. They are the directors of the Institute for the Postmodern Development of China, and they, too, are writing for this website. So I end, as I began, with China and my own hope that it can become the world's leader in process, postmodern thinking.