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The Process of Interfaith in China

Beyond Rivalry and Conflict 

When the Cultural Revolution wiped out most of China’s spiritual and philosophical traditions, the thinking was that Marxism would fill the void. Today, however, rampant consumerism and materialism are often the default philosophies, and such values do not satisfy. The Chinese are showing increased nostalgia for Taoism, Confucianism, folk religions, and Buddhism – and an interest in newer spiritualities, as well.

Some new practices, such as Falun Gong, have been banned. Christianity and Islam have significant followings (around 3.5 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively, of China’s 1.35 billion people), but each has a long and often-conflicted history in China and has never enjoyed a national embrace.

One new import, though, seems to significantly resonate with China’s quest for meaning. Known variously as “Whiteheadian Philosophy,” “Constructive Postmodernism,” and “Process Philosophy,” it is hugely popular among many Chinese academics, university administrators, and Communist Party leaders.

What is Process Philosophy?

Alfred North Whitehead – Photo: EnwikipediaIn the late 1920s, the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) developed a metaphysical philosophy designed to bridge science and religion. He believed that significant concepts of biology and physics, including evolution and Einstein’s emerging insights into the relation between space and time, demanded a fundamental rethinking of theology. Religion needed to embrace the realities of science and nature instead of fighting them.

Whitehead’s synthesis, which he called Process Philosophy, proposes, first, that all existence is interdependent, and that humans, living in and through their relationships with one another, are personally and communally responsible for the common good. Second, this universe of interconnected existence is constantly changing, and if God is the source of this creation, God, too, must always be growing and changing.

Several key Christian theologians found this a fruitful way of understanding God and the universe in the light of the teachings of Jesus, without having to contradict basic science. They built on Whitehead’s ideas to create a robust Process Theology whose God embodies love, wonder, art, beauty, connectedness, and pluralism. God’s loving omnipresence calls to everything and everyone: Christians, as well as believers in other religions or no religion.

This core faith emphasizes four tenets: the importance and integrity of each individual; the relationship of every individual with all others, with the world, and with the divine; the fact that truth is more likely to emerge from these relationships than from a single source; and a mandate to seek the common good while respecting each individual.

In 1973, a group of these theologian-philosophers, including the preeminent Process scholar John Cobb Jr., founded the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in California. They did it as a response to the modern model for higher education that Cobb described as “the fact-based, values-free research university favoring separated [rather than integrated] academic disciplines.”

“We believed,” said Cobb, “that Whitehead’s integration of the findings of science and the many dimensions of human experience had potential for improving education and practical policies and actions.”

Thanks to the efforts of these scholars, Process Thought, which first became popular in progressive Christian circles beginning in the 1950s, still has a large following among church leaders today. Process ideas are also gaining traction in academic Jewish, Jain, and Hindu circles.

Process Comes to China

Most notably, the ideas caught the attention of the Chinese, because, said Cobb, “Quite independently of our Process work, many others became dissatisfied with modernism, and a movement of ‘postmodernism’ developed.” Modernism, among other things, taught that the individual is ultimate, atheistic rationalism is supreme, nature is a machine, and education should be about facts, not values.

400 teachers and students attended this conference on “Process Thinking and Higher Education Reform” in 2005, co-sponsored by the Center for Process Studies in Claremont. – Photo: Postmodernchina.org“Chinese intellectuals were troubled by their nation working so hard to modernize,” said Cobb, “when European intellectuals were showing the deep problems with modernity. They were also concerned practically with such things as the ecological problems generated by the modern policies, and the European postmodernists did not help.”

To distinguish themselves from the Europeans, the Claremont leaders added “Constructive” to “Postmodernism” and backed the new term with ideas and proposals that many Chinese found attractive. Chinese scholars made their way to Claremont to study these concepts in depth. In the late 1990s, two of them, Zhihe Wang and Meijun Fan, established the Center’s Institute for Postmodern Development of China (IPDC) in conjunction with the Claremont Process team.

Wang and Fan felt that Process concepts were the solution to China’s widespread ignorance of spiritual and philosophical traditions purged by the Cultural Revolution. They saw Constructive Postmodernism as a way for China to affirm its citizens’ relationship with one another and the environment – which modernization was rapidly degrading – and to avoid duplicating the worst mistakes of the West.

For example, modernizing Chinese agriculture with huge Western-style mechanized farms would displace about 800 million villagers, and China’s dependence on fossil fuels would skyrocket. Process-based agricultural experts advocate a more constructive development: keeping as many farming families and villages intact as possible, and training them in environmentally sound intensive farming, combining the best ancient and modern techniques to meet China’s need for increased food production.

In 2002, the IPDC convened the first Process conference held in China. The event was covered by most of the national media, including the People’s Daily and the Guang Ming Daily. Since then, Process in China has grown exponentially, largely thanks to IDCP executive director Wang and program director Fan’s efforts. Several thousand Chinese scholars and leaders have attended Process conferences in China and Claremont, in southern California, and uncounted university students have taken process classes from Chinese professors who are teaching at China’s 23 Process Center connected with IPDC.

The Process Lecture Circuit

Zhihe Wang (l.), Philip Clayton, John Cobb, and Meijun Fan – Photo: Tom ZasadzinskiEvery summer Wang, Fan, Cobb, and Philip Clayton, an internationally renowned theologian-philosopher in the current generation of American Process experts, travel to China to cement old ties and create new ones. Chinese Process studies cover philosophy, education, development, truth, art, urban planning, farming, economics, law, peace, psychology, and just about everything in between. In addition to teaching core concepts, each of China’s 23 Process Centers, overseen by IPDC, has different specialties, depending on the expertise of the scholars at the host college or university. Therefore, the topics of the conferences that the Claremont team visits vary widely.

No matter the topic, however, all of these conferences have one feature in common: the evening’s lectures are followed by a traditional Chinese banquet, with good food and copious drink. Wang, as adept at comedy as he is at translation, often emcees a Q&A session. For Cobb, who doesn’t drink, Wang offers a “postmodern toast” in which water, too, expresses “feeling for the others” (and cuts down on the hangovers that plague the group’s lecture circuits).

The road to Process transformation hasn’t always been smooth. In one of the most radical initiatives, 35 million elementary and middle school students in 1,642 Chinese counties and cities were enrolled in a Process-based curriculum, to see if they would perform better academically and creatively than those in the traditional memorization curriculum. But when the students approached the age for taking the National College Entrance Exam, administrators panicked – would the required 99 percent really pass? – and switched to memorization. Many of the scrapped program’s teachers wept, and a number of wealthy parents sent their children abroad to receive the creative education they felt they needed.

When in China, visiting Claremont scholars are often interviewed and quoted in local and national media. Clayton, a popular speaker who is adept with Chinese metaphors, is tapped for TV interviews at most of their stops. He explicitly contrasts Western individualist philosophy with Chinese communitarian philosophy:

“The state’s role is to work for the good of the community. Many of our individual decisions – what we buy and consume, what we do with our free time – have impacts on other people and living things. The requirement of avoiding direct harm to others is not sufficient; in a postmodern world we must be concerned with the thriving of all persons, that is, with the common good.”

Clayton continues: “The international partnerships that today are contributing to the new ecological civilization transcend many of the oppositions that defined modernity: West versus East, scientists versus philosophers and theologians, and religious persons versus Marxists. In a postmodern civilization these oppositions will be left behind. Scholars from China now learn about Western religions; together we are learning about the shared values of an ecological worldview. When I come to China, Chinese Marxists are my teachers as we work together to formulate postmodern principles for our time. Many postmodern religious people in America now believe that communitarian philosophies stand closer to Christianity than the “libertarianism” of the past ever did. In the ecological civilization, former enemies become partners and friends.

“Today there is hope. People are challenging the single-minded pursuit of individual gain, whether by an individual person, group, nation, or religion. A sustainable world order can only be based on the commitment to place the common good over personal gain. Instead of battling, we can find fruitful collaborations between the philosophy of Whitehead, the postmodern Marxism of today’s Chinese leaders, and the religious traditions of both the East and the West.”

Clayton, Cobb, Wang, Fan, and their Process colleagues across the globe would love to see such sentiments become widespread.


In 2015, John Cobb turns 90 and the Claremont Center for Process Studies will host the Tenth International Whitehead Conference (June 4-7). Process leaders, hoping to expand their mostly academic audiences and gain major attention from the general public, have selected international figures like climate activist Bill McKibben to keynote the event and secured the pro bono services of a top marketing and design firm to make their conference website and outreach more accessible and cutting-edge.

They will be promoting an inspiring message of interfaith and interpolitical friendship and partnership for the good of the world. Imagine what would happen if the world caught on.