- Empirical Naturalism: Bernard M. Loomer’s Interpretation of Whitehead’s Philosophy
Bernard MacDougall Loomer (1912–1985) is well known for his influence on process theology, or as he preferred, “process-relational” theology. Less well known is his interpretation of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) and its influence in the promotion of that philosophy not only among his students but also more recently beyond that circle. He presents his own views as one who has made Whitehead’s his own. Yet he is not uncritical of Whitehead. He has articulated an empirical naturalism in Whiteheadian terms that is theistic and controversial by that fact. The analysis of his interpretation of Whitehead allows us to probe his theistic naturalism and to identify new possibilities in the interpretation of Whitehead’s philosophy.
I. The Person and His Influence
After his undergraduate work at Bates College, Loomer earned his PhD at the University of Chicago. His dissertation was titled “The Theological Significance of the Method of Empirical Analysis in the Philosophy of A. N. Whitehead.”1 The dissertation and his self-assured manner, along with the recommendation of Dean Ernest Cadman Colwell, led President Robert Maynard Hutchins to appoint Loomer Dean of the Divinity School at the University in 1945. Of Loomer’s dissertation, Bernard E. Meland (1899–1993) wrote, “Even though this manuscript has not been published, it has wielded an influence comparable to that of a published work and remains one of the basic documents in process theology.”2 In the course of my effort to confirm the truth of Meland’s judgment, I have identified thirty-six authors who have published substantial analyses of Loomer’s work.3 However, I have found only six authors from this [End Page 255] list who have cited or referenced Loomer’s dissertation in their writings: Dean, Hefner, Hosinski, Inbody, Miller, and Towne. Only Hosinski has cited portions of the dissertation from its primary source in addition to its conclusion from the secondary source.4 I conclude that the dissertation has not been consulted from its primary source (the dissertation itself) in any published article.5
Of course, we are not required to conclude from this fact that Loomer’s interpretation of Whitehead is of no significance for process theology and philosophy. William Dean, who gives us lengthy, substantial, and insightful essays on Loomer as a man, as well as on his thought, comments that “his publications, it is generally agreed, did not match in quantity his importance to theology.”6 I also agree, but what he published provides an ample body of work by which to show the promise of his interpretation of Whitehead’s philosophy. His influence has been through the power of his presence in his Socratic style of teaching, as Harvey Arnold has noted, but it is not confined to this.7 Loomer’s famous distinction between “unilateral” and “relational power” was appreciated by feminist theologians such as Rita Brock,8 and by Daniel Dombrowski as he interpreted divine [End Page 256] power.9 Loomer’s work has also influenced writers in the field of education such as Gloria Durka and Joanmarie Smith.10 It was taken up in the field of pastoral care by such authors as Carolyn Bohler, Deane Ferm, and Seward Hiltner.11
Several authors who have been Loomer’s students have reported the power of his personality and of his style of teaching as important influences in their lives. Harvey Arnold, his student at the University of Chicago and one-time librarian of the Divinity School in Swift Hall, has been mentioned already.12 Bernard J. Lee has written insightfully: “Loomer loved to talk. For a university man, he wrote relatively little. ‘A typewriter is wholly abstract,’ he would say, ‘it never talks back to me.’ What he did write has been important and formative. However, it has been primarily as a conversationalist that Bernard Loomer left his mark. Conversation was his form of teaching.”13 In a class of forty students, he could converse for ten or fifteen minutes with one person while the rest of us had our hands in the air trying to get our word in...