Bernard M. Loomer (1912–1985)

1. Brief Vita

Bernard Loomer is credited with originating the term “process theology” to describe the theological movement inspired by Alfred North Whitehead. Later, Loomer suggested that “process-relational theology” more aptly described this theological movement. The author of less than twenty academic articles, Loomer’s influence was, nevertheless, felt in the work of students such as John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, Rita Nakashima Brock, Bruce Epperly, and Catherine Keller as well as in the work of feminist theologians who have used his relational understanding of power as an alternative to patriarchal forms of power.

The son of a sea captain, Loomer tells a story that reflects the nature of his belief that “stature” is the essential theological and ethical virtue. When young Loomer asked his father for a bigger baseball glove, his father replied:

Son, I have never played baseball, but it seems to me you ought to be able to catch the ball bare-handed. The way I look at it, you use a glove not to protect your hand, but to give you a bigger hand to catch balls that are more difficult to reach. I assume that in this as in all walks of life there are tricks to the trade. I suggest that you learn to catch with that glove for two reasons. First, because you are not going to get another one, and second, because you don’t need protection from life. You need a glove to give you a bigger hand to catch baseballs you otherwise might miss.[1]

The aim of Loomer’s theology was to encourage, in the spirit of Whitehead, an empiricism that embraced reality in all its diversity and to invite persons to embrace the many, often apparently conflicting, dimensions of life.

After graduating from Bates College in 1934, Loomer attended the University of Chicago where he received his Ph.D. in 1942. His dissertation focused on “The Theological Significance of the Method of Empirical Analysis in the Philosophy of A.N. Whitehead.” In 1945, at the age of 33, Loomer was appointed Dean of the Divinity School. He remained at that post until 1953. From 1965-77, Loomer served as professor of philosophical theology at the Graduate Theological Union and the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California.

Loomer was a born teacher, awakening his academic and lay students to new ways of perceiving the world and combining theory and practice. On the last weekend of his life, Loomer briefly checked himself out of the hospital in order to give his regular Sunday morning seminar at First Unitarian Church in Berkeley, California. His theme was the interplay of goodness and imperfection in life that leads to the need for repentance, or personal transformation. He also reflected on compartmentalization in higher education and noted that “we spend our lives trying to get together things that were never meant to be separate” (1985-1986 Vol. II, 60).

Loomer closed his final seminar with words that typify his understanding of the relatedness, characteristic of the intricate web of life that he believed was the heart of Whiteheadian philosophy:

Unless you begin with unity, there is no way in which you can achieve a unified outlook on life. The intuition, the sense of unity, has to be there fundamentally. If it is there, then you can understand the various roles and parts in relationship to this unity. But if you don’t have the unity to begin with and you try to create a unity out of the parts, this never works […]. Once you have seen [the unity], you can divide life in various ways providing that the centrality of unity never leaves your mind […]. The strange business is that once you have grasped the unity or been grasped by the unity, the fearsomeness is gone (1985-1986 Vol. II, 60).

Two days later, Loomer fell into a coma, from which he eventually died on August 15, 1985.

2. Stature, Power, and God

At the heart of Loomer’s thought is the theme of “size” or “stature.” As a theological, philosophical, psychological, and ethical value, size reflects the depth of a person’s experience and capacity for relationships. Size as a philosophical virtue relates to the intensity and diversity of life that a person can embrace without losing her or his integrity, or feeling debilitating intellectual or existential insecurity. A person of stature is able to affirm that the well-being of another is just as important as one’s own well-being. Further, persons of stature are able to embrace ethnic, intellectual, and political diversity in ways that enhance relationships and personal growth. In the language of Whitehead, size or stature reflects a process of creative transformation that embodies intensity, complexity, and beauty of experience.

Size is Loomer’s criterion for value, whether it relates relationships, religion, politics, or economics. According to Loomer, size is the “category of largeness or smallness. If it is small I am not interested in whether it is true; I do not care, it is really not worthy bothering with. If the ideal is fertile, if the person has stature, I am interested” (“S-I-Z-E is the Measure,” 1976 [1974], 70).

Loomer believes that stature is intimately related to our understanding of both divine and human power. How we conceive power influences not only our theology but also our relationships, ethics, and politics. Loomer suggests that there are two primary understandings of power. Unilateral, or linear, power seeks to shape others maximally with only minimal influence from others. From the perspective of unilateral power, our goal is to coerce or manipulate others so that they reflect our values and goals. Conversely, receptivity, mutuality, partnership, and flexibility are seen as signs of weakness. Unilateral power, often identified with patriarchy, demands agreement and obedience from others in personal, corporate, and political relationships.

In contrast to the cultural emphasis on unilateral power, Loomer asserts the ethical and theological primacy of relational power. Relational power is grounded in mutuality and respect for the experience and value of the other. It influences by persuasion rather than coercion and manipulation. Loomer believes that when we embrace the experience of others as constitutive of our own, we are able to respond in ways that support their well-being as well as our own. Relational power affirms and embraces otherness and diversity without defensiveness. In interfaith relationships, relational power is committed to creative transformation and change as a result of its willingness to affirm the wisdom of other faith traditions. In political life and foreign policy, a nation committed to relational power seeks multilateral partnerships and supports the integrity of other nations’ sovereignty as essential to its own well-being.

Following Whitehead, Loomer challenges unilateral and coercive images of divine power. Coercive divine power devalues creaturely freedom and creativity. If divine power is imaged as coercive and unilateral, then human achievement threatens God’s sovereignty. Divine relational power, in contrast, maximizes creaturely creativity and freedom, congruent with the well-being of the whole. God’s own experience of the universe is enhanced by God’s support and embrace of creaturely existence. Greater creaturely creativity adds to the beauty and intensity of God’s own experience. God is inextricably part of the web of life, shaping and being shaped by God’s relationship to the world.

In his later writings, Loomer challenged the tendency of many process philosophers and theologians, including Whitehead, to focus solely on the goodness of God as exemplified in concepts such as the divine aim at creative transformation and the primordial nature of God. Loomer believed that Whitehead’s ontological separation of God and creativity represents the philosopher’s quest for an unambiguous God, ontologically detached from the evils of the world. In contrast, Loomer believed that ambiguity as the interplay of creation and destruction and good and evil, may be a metaphysical principle, applicable to all of reality. Committed to describing the concreteness of reality, which he believed to be profoundly ambiguous, Loomer felt that the doctrine of a fully good and unambiguous God was a metaphysical and theological abstraction. Reality in its many-faceted ambiguity reflects a God who is the energy giving birth to the intricate web of life in its entirety.

As the Source of Life, Divinity embraces and shapes all things, including events described as negative. As the concrete unity of the world, God is dynamic process. A concrete God must be identified with the whole of life, even ambiguity and evil, and not simply the positive aspects of the creative process. Indeed, an ambiguous God is of greater stature than one who is unambiguous, because such a divinity embraces the whole of life. Still, the web of life—Loomer’s later term for the reign of God or the divine reality—urges us toward healthy and embracing relatedness. The creative advance of the universe, according to Loomer, “is not to be understood as an adventure toward perfection. Rather, it is a struggle toward greater stature” (1987, 21).

3. Relationship to Whitehead’s thought

Loomer positions himself in the empirical, rather than rationalist wing of Whitehead’s theological and philosophical descendents. While this may be a false dichotomy, Loomer emphasized, especially in his later years, the importance of metaphysical concreteness, that is, seeing the metaphysical principles as rooted in, but also reflecting, the experiential realities of life such as process and ambiguity. According to Loomer, these realities must apply even to divinity.

Still, Loomer’s thought is grounded in Whitehead’s metaphysical vision. Loomer’s emphasis on process, relationship, power, and stature reflect Whitehead’s integration of the individual and the communal in the creative process and in the concrescence of each actual occasion. Creatures of great stature, according to both Whitehead and Loomer, embrace and synthesize the universe from which they arise and contribute by their beauty of experience to the well-being of other creatures. The experience of beauty and peace, described by Whitehead in Adventures of Ideas, integrates personal transformation and the positive support of the world beyond. Loomer’s image of the relational nature of individual and divine power reflects Whitehead’s vision of divine power and social transformation in terms of the persuasive influence of ideas and possibilities in each moment of experience and throughout the centuries. Building on Whitehead’s recognition that the initial aim is the “best for the impasse,” and not an abstract ideal, Loomer articulates a vision of ambiguity that sees God as the ultimate source of the concrete polarities of good and evil, of life and death.


[1] Bernard Loomer, “Remarks by Bernard M. Loomer,” Alumni (published by the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, October 1974), 6.

Works Cited and Further Readings

1944. “Ely on Whitehead’s God,” Journal of Religion 24, 162-79. Reprinted in 1971 Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, edited by D. Brown, R. E. James, and G. Reeves (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill), 264-86.

1949. “Christian Faith and Process Philosophy,” Journal of Religion 29, 181-203. Reprinted in 1971 in Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, edited by D. Brown, R. E. James, and G. Reeves (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill), 70-98.

1951. “Religion and the Mind of the University,” in Liberal Learning and Religion, edited by Amos Wilder (New York, Harper and Row), 147-68.

1956. “Tillich’s Theology of Correlation,” Journal of Religion 36, 150-56.

1969. “Empirical Theology within Process Thought,” in The Future of Empirical Theology, edited by Bernard Meland (Chicago, University of Chicago Press), 149-73.

1971. “Whitehead’s Method of Empirical Analysis,” in Process Theology: Basic Writings, edited by E.H. Cousins (New York, Newman Press), 369-87.

1974. “S-I-Z-E,” Criterion 13, 5-8. Reprinted in 1976 in Religious Experience and Process Theology, edited by Harry Cargas and Bernard Lee (New York, Paulist Press), 69-76.

1975. “Response to David Griffin,” Encounter 36, 361-69.

1975-1976. “Theology in the American Grain,” The Unitarian Universalist Christian 30, 23-24. Reprinted in 1981 in Process Philosophy and Social Thought, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. and W. Widick Schroeder (Chicago, Center for Scientific Study of Religion), 141-52.

1976. “Dimensions of Freedom,” in Religious Experience and Process Theology, edited by Harry Cargas and Bernard Lee (New York, Paulist Press), 323-39.

1976. “The Price of Greatness (‘Ford to Nixon’),” in Religious Experience and Process Theology, edited by Harry Cargas and Bernard Lee (New York, Paulist Press), 341-45.

1976. “Two Conceptions of Power,” Process Studies 6, 5-32.

1978. “The Free and Relational Self,” in Belief and Ethics, edited by W. Widick Schroeder (Chicago, Center for the Scientific Study of Religion), 69-86.

1978. “The Future of Process Philosophy,” in Process Philosophy: Basic Writings, edited by Jack Sibley and Pete Gunter (Washington, University Press of America), 513-38.

1978. “The Web of Life,” in The Nature of Life, edited by William Heidcamp (Baltimore, University Park Press), 93-109.

1984. “Meland on God,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 5, 138-44.

1984. “A Process-Relational Conception of Creation,” in The Cry of the Environment: Rebuilding the Christian Creation Tradition, edited by Philip Jornason and Ken Butigan (Santa Fe NM, Bear and Company), 321-28.

1985-86. Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday Morning Seminars of Bernie Loomer, Vols. 1-2 (Berkeley CA, First Unitarian Church).

1987. “The Size of God,” in The Size of God: The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context, edited by William Dean and Larry Axel (Macon GA, Mercer University Press), 20-51. [The Size of God contains responses to Loomer’s thought by Larry Axel, Delwin Brown, John Cobb, William Dean, Nancy Frankenberry, and Bernard Lee].

Author Information

Bruce G. Epperly
Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education
Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA 17603, USA

How to Cite this Article

Epperly, Bruce G., “Bernard M. Loomer (1912–1985)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.