The Whole, the Parts, and All that’s In Between

Rev. Douglas Taylor

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cortland, NY


There is an entry in the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson about a time he’d spent at the beach as a child. He had wandered the shoreline collecting the shining sea shells and filling his pockets with glistening stones. Later, back at home, he pulled out his found treasures to discover the objects had become disappointing and ugly. Something was lost for him in the transfer from the seashore to home.

Gary Kowalski, in our reading (from, talks about the difference between a painting and a photograph. He writes, “[O]ften the snapshots I take are disappointing, lifeless, and flat compared to the picture that’s vivid in my memory. The emotion is missing.” There is something extra in the experience that does not translate to the camera. I know there are some amazing photographs that do convey emotion; but let us allow Rev. Kowalski his point that the average photograph tends to have less emotion than the average painting. Of course, a photograph can help us recall the experience, the memory and emotion. But Kowalski suggests,

[A] decent painting can be more effective at conveying the mood and flavor and spirit of a subject than any photograph, for although the camera is an accurate recorder of light and shadow, as a mechanical device it lacks any sense of empathy.

In many ways, the best part of an old sea shell or a simple photograph is the memories and experiences they call to our minds. In themselves, they are one piece taken away from a whole experience. A significant part of their beauty and value is in the connection they have back to the experiences of meaning for us. The poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” [SLT #649]. The things matter to us because of their connections to experiences of meaning.

I’m talking about religious experiences in our lives. Experiences, any experiences, are a core element of a school of philosophy and theology known as “Process.” Process Philosophy arises from the work of Alfred North Whitehead. This philosophy says, essentially, that reality is made up of events rather than of matter. The metaphysics follows the emerging science of physics on this.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser said “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” And physicists are indicating something similar. The Universe simply is not made up of little inert particles, it is more than just the sum of the parts. Einstein’s work changed our understanding of this. I like the way Gary Kowalski put it – this is from later in that same article the reading came from. He writes,

[P]hysicists today are saying that reality at the most fundamental levels is composed of shimmering waves of probability, fluctuating eruptions in the void, an intertwined continuum of matter and energy that exerts invisible fields of force stretching from here to the farthest star.

Or, as easily say “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The stories are about the relationships between the pieces. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. And … the parts are not really the point – it is the connections, the threads of relationship, that wind in between the parts that really make the whole what it is.

So, it’s not the light and shadow in the photograph, but the emotion in that moment; not the shells and stones, but the experience of finding them at the shore. The whole is a sum of the parts as well as the unquantifiable element of experience and relationship in between the parts.

Today I am interested in the very simple idea that if Process Philosophy is true, and I believe it is, then what impact does that have on how I experience the life am living and how I interact with the universe around me? Some of you may be familiar with sermons I have done in the past on Process Theology; and if not, I will put the online links to a few past sermons in the body of this sermon if you want to read what I’ve said Process Theology as it relates to God and science and so on.

Power and Process Theology (2012) Basics of process theology for Unitarian Universalists

God, Not of the Gaps (2013) A science-affirming version of God

A New Way of Knowing God (2015) “God” in the interchange between us

Today, however, I am focusing on a more basic piece which hooked me back when I first heard about this way of thinking. My introduction to Process Philosophy was not through the theology of Charles Hartshorne. We heard about Hartshorne in the reading this morning. Hartshorne was a pivotal theologian for Process Theology. For me, however, I learned about a non-theistic version of process philosophy through the work of Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman.

Wieman talked about something he called “Creative Interchange,” it was perhaps the closest phrase he had for what most people would call ‘God,’ but Wieman did not talk about God. I read an interview he gave near the end of his life and the interviewer asked him pointedly if Creative Interchange is another term for God and Wieman basically said – sure, if you really need to use that word, then sure. Personally, I do not find it easy to think of Creative Interchange as synonymous with God. But let me explain and then you can make your own conclusions.

Wiemen defined the Creative Interchange as a four-step process, because after all, he is a philosopher and theologian – so of course there are four steps. It is one event with four stages. In his own words, Creative Interchange occurs in this way: beginning with “Emerging awareness of qualitative meaning derived from other persons through communication; integrating these new meanings with others previously acquired; expanding the richness of quality in the appreciable world by enlarging its meaning; [and] deepening the community among those who participate in this total creative event of intercommunication.” (The Source of Human Good, p58) In typical Theologian style, that one run-on sentence packs in this man’s whole concept of the Holy.

Think of it as a powerful conversation. The shorter, simpler version is about a deep meeting of minds with a transformative result. A Creative Interchange event is more than a regular encounter with someone, but from the outside, that’s pretty much what it looks like.

There are, as I mentioned, four stages. It begins when I listen to the view of another person, when I take in someone else’s perspective of meaning. Just that – listening to someone different, taking it in.

Part two is when I integrate something of that new perspective. This is not about swapping out what I used to believe or hold meaningful for someone else’s view. It is also not about agreeing to disagree. I need to integrate my previous perspective with the new perspective I have received.

The third step is simply the resulting expansion and enrichment that occurs. Obviously, if I take in another person’s understanding of meaning, and integrate it with what I already know of meaning, I will experience an expansion of my world. This doesn’t need to be huge or really dramatic, but it is transformative all the same.

The fourth step is the commensurate expansion and widening of the community of mutual understanding. I find this last step to be an interesting addition. But it makes sense, we all exist in communities and these communities exist because of us. The Creative Interchange happens in a context. Therefore, my community grows because I grow.

This concept of Creative Interchange was my initial introduction to Process Philosophy. We experience these ‘powerful conversations’ as a form of spiritual growth and transformation. It is, according to Wieman, the holiest activity that can ever happen. And it can happen a lot, in large and small ways, again and again. It is good and even holy to stretch yourself through this kind of Creative Interchange with other people. Have you ever had a powerful, transformative conversation like this with someone? I bet we all have. It is how we become spiritually mature people.

Now, one point I will offer is that Wieman’s Creative Interchange is entirely a mental activity you have with someone. Yes, he adds that piece at the end acknowledging the context of the community – but that is still limited. For Wieman, spiritual growth is accomplished as an intellectual exercise between people.

If you remember where I started, I was talking about Gary Kowalski’s experiences of painting and emotion, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s experiences of the shells and stones. In the reading, Kowalski shared a profound experience from Charles Hartshorne’s autobiography, in which he has an Interchange with the land around him … but this is not at Wieman’s level of Creative Interchange because it is not between two people. And yet Hartshorne’s experience involved some sort of exchange, some impact and transformation upon Hartshorne.

So, there is something else at play as well. What if Creative Interchange is not limited to an intellectual activity between two people. The powerful conversations we can have with someone that change our hearts, that integrate our understanding, that transform our being – these conversations are part of process philosophy. They are events, and events are the building blocks of reality. Goodness! These events of full-blown Creative Interchange with another person certainly shape our reality. AND there is also a kind of interchange that can happen between us and the universe in its various manifestations: the seashells, paint, and landscapes. Can the universe itself be my partner in such an exchange?

The experience described in the read from Hartshorne’s autobiography seems to suggest this is the case. Author Daniel Day Williams says, “The Spirit is not a static ideal but a creative power which participates in the life it informs.” (The Spirit and the Forms of Love, p4) How much participation does this creative power have in your life? I know there is a range of theology in the room and so, a range of answers to that question. In any given Unitarian Universalist congregation, we will have atheists, agnostics, mystics, Christians, pagans, Buddhists and all manner of others all gathered together in our congregations. Does this question fit for you? How much participation does this creative power have in your life?

What about the story of Theodore Parker and the turtle (told as the Time For All Ages message). Theodore feels a voice within him telling him not to hurt the turtle. He mother suggests two possibilities. She tells young Theodore it could be his conscience and it could be the voice of God within. What would Process Philosophy suggest? Can the creative power of the universe interchange with us? Would it feel like a voice within? Have you ever had an experience like Theodore Parker’s?

Part of the work is to discern if a voice is your own ego or a guidance from the Spirit. Evangelical Christians hear the voice of God on a regular basis. And Psychologists talk about ‘hearing voices’ as a symptom of mental illness. Our communities will shape how we name what we experience. But our brains are constantly receiving input in various forms and we can train our brains to get better at seeing, hearing, experiencing the universe – to be better at noticing certain experiences. What experiences of connection would you like to develop, get better at, have more of?

You and I and everyone around us are part of the whole, part of the interdependent web of existence. All the connections and relationships between us and between all the parts of the universe can be strengthened and developed if we choose to develop them. What kinds of Creative Interchange do you want more of in your living?

Increase your prayer life and listen. Take people out for coffee or for lunch and listen to them. Spend time in nature while reading philosophy and poetry. Listen, engage and grow! Let the world in.

In a world without end,

May it be so