The Sacrament of Creative Transformation

by Bernard J. Lee, S.M.

Bernard J. Lee, S.M., is Associate Professor in the School of Theology at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 240-252, Vol. 8, Number 4, Winter, 1978. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Jesus as the Christ is the objectification, the sacrament, of the universal proposition which God has made to the world. The church is the living, historical medium, the continuing sacrament, of God’s offer.


I. Ecclesiology

In recent Whiteheadian process thought, the technical category of "proposition" has come into prominence. Donald Sherburne used the category in his exploration of the ontological status of art (WA, ch.5). William Beardslee used it to elaborate the formal structure of the christological character of Jesus, (HH, ch.8). John Cobb’s christology in Christ in a Pluralistic Age also appropriated this orientation.

I find that this category, made central in the christological reflection of Beardslee and Cobb, easily lends itself to further elaboration under the theological model of sacrament and to an extension of that model into ecclesiology and sacramentology. To speak of Jesus Christ as an embodiment of a plan of salvation offered by God is already to be in the framework of sacrament. In the first part of the presentation I would like to sketch the main architectural lines of a process sacramental model in which the Whiteheadian understanding of proposition is a central notion. (The notion of proposition did not figure in my earlier work on process sacramentology, in The Becoming of the Church.

There are several advantages to this approach. Using the same conceptual equipment for the delineation of christology, ecclesiology, and sacramentology fosters an intimate theological organicness, "an overarching unity" (MC 68).

Secondly, because the notion of proposition is tense with contrast between past and future, it can carry a lot of eschatological freight. The loss of religious intensity can be attributed in part to the weakening or eschatological vision. The recovery of that vision is high on the theological agenda.

I am convinced that the renewal of liturgical forms still has a long way to go. The analysis of sacramental structures through the anatomy of a "proposition" can be helpfully programmatic. This is a third advantage, one that I shall explore in examples.

Finally, I am aware that "sacrament talk" is a particularly Roman Catholic penchant. But I am eager to see whether the process framework does not promote some ecumenical rapprochement. Though I will speak later about some of the seven canonical sacraments in the Roman tradition, the analysis applies to sacraments that occur in any Christian tradition (even when not called sacraments, and that includes some items in the Catholic repertory too.).

For the most part, I am presuming the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead as formulated in Process and Reality. I accept, for example, the process understanding that God acts in the world only persuasively and never coercively. That, of course, is not simply a process conviction. It is well grounded in the biblical report, in widespread religious intuition, and, for that matter, in the very character of love. In Whitehead’s thought, "persuasion" (rather than coercion) is a metaphysical statement which defends the reality of the world’s agency along with God’s.

With Christian eschatology as with process philosophy, I presume a teleology. The world’s becoming has a thrust. The more rationalistic school of process theology would perhaps speak of a movement towards perfection, towards total harmony. The christology of Paul in I Cor. 15 works with such a vision. The empirical school of process theologians would stress rather a teleology of a struggle towards greater stature of spirit (as in Bernard Loomer’s thought). This school gives the dissonances, surds, and ambiguities a metaphysical and not a provisional status. At the end of time in Matthew 25, there remain both good and evil in a final way.

The teleological structure of the world is grounded in the initial aim which each occasion receives, at its instigation, from God. The extent to which there is an affirmative response and the various possible modes of implementation or dissent -- these get their character from the choices and decisions of the subject. The outcome of each occasion of experience is a coproduction of both God and itself. It requires the aim which the divine agency offers, and it requires the reception of the aim and the activity of implementation from the self-creating agency of the subject of each occasion of experience.

The offering of an aim towards self-transcendence, towards greater intensity and satisfaction, towards greater stature of spirit, is explicated in Whitehead with the help of the category of proposition. In the simplest formulation, propositions "are tales that might perhaps be told about particular actualities" (PR 256).

My emphasis is upon what Whitehead called nonconformal propositions, namely, a subject/predicate statement that does not conform to present fact, but suggests a possible future version of a fact with respect to some particular subject or subjects. A proposition is an entity that exists in the misty flats between actuality and possibility. The subject of a proposition (the "logical subject") is in a sense a really existing subject. But in the proposition it is considered in abstraction from its present concreteness.

Predicates of propositions (the "logical predicates") speak about possibility, though not about sheer possibility. The predicate of a proposition deals with possibility in direct relationship with particular subjects. "Thus in a proposition the logical subjects are reduced to the status of food for a possibility" (PR 258).

The predicate of a proposition indicates a possible configuration for a subject which differs from the present configuration. There is a contrast between what is and what might be. The contrast introduces an element of intensity into experience. Some intensity occurs even if the subject does not embark upon the new self. But sometimes the lure of propositions does move history. "In their primary role, propositions pave the way along which the world advances into novelty" (PR 187).

"A movement," observes Whitehead, "preserves its vigor so long as it harbors a real contrast between what has been and what may be, and so long as it is nerved by the vigor to adventure" (AI 360). In theological language we would be speaking of the power that exists when one is under the claim of the eschaton. "The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure" (SMW 172).

This technical language describes a familiar experience. As a prelude to embarking upon some new direction, we normally play out those alternative versions in imagination. The various propositions get entertained. When the contrast between the present version of self and a possible new version of self is profoundly interesting, it begins to compel not just attention, but the energies requisite for its implementation. Whitehead insists upon the importance of a proposition’s being interesting if it is to get very far in promoting creative transformation.

Whitehead makes a distinction between a general/universal proposition and a singular proposition (PR 186). A universal proposition is addressed to all of the members of a particular class (all humankind, for example). A singular proposition is addressed to a specific individual or to a limited number of subjects within a group.

Although it can, of course, be said in many ways, it is a constant in the Christian confession of faith that in Jesus Christ God makes a proposition to all people about how they are to tell their tales if they are to experience God and each other in suchwise as to enjoy redemption. This is an affirmation of the universality of the Christ-event.

The expression that "God has made a proposition to the world in Jesus Christ" needs a gloss. Propositions can only be entertained by individual subjects, and "the world" does not have a subjectivity of its own. The world is a web of relationality, and that relational web exists by virtue of all of the interaction among all actual occasions at any given moment. This, then, generates two corollaries.

First, the statement that God offers the world a proposition in Jesus Christ must mean that Jesus receives from God a subjective aim that he embody a structure of relational existence to which every life is called. It must also mean that other human lives receive the subjective aim that they tell their tales according to the tale that is objectified in Jesus (though Jesus’ life is not the only disclosure of the plan of God). The point is that only individual subjects can entertain propositions. Therefore, a "proposition to the world" means an aim given Jesus in respect to future human lives, and an aim given future human lives in respect to Jesus.

The second corollary has to do with the word "world." Since that word’s referent is the web of relationality which has every actual entity in its embrace, a proposition to the world must mean that the tale to be told is primarily a tale about relationality. The transformation is precisely a recreation of relationships. Christian "new being" is an emergent from transfigured relationality.

Each of the propositions from God is grounded in what Whitehead calls the primordial nature of God, i.e., God’s envisagement of the full range of the world’s possibilities. It is in this context that William Beardslee has called Jesus, as the Christ, an objectification, embodiment, or incarnation (I would say "sacrament") of a proposition that God is making to history. The design of God, in which God’s propositions are grounded, is single-minded. Every singular proposition of God reflects God’s universal proposition. In Johannine terminology, the design of God is God’s word, the Logos. We are reminded in Hebrews that although the word of God has been spoken many times and in myriad ways, it is uttered with decisiveness in Jesus. The words and work, the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord, all of these objectify God’s proposition for the creative transformation of history. No single word or aspect of Jesus is the proposition’s objectification. The predicate of God’s proposition is complex. The whole Jesus-event is Christ-event.

The proposition which God makes to history in Jesus the Christ is a universal proposition. It is a way for all people to tell their tales. All human lives are the logical subjects of the proposition of God. The "tale," therefore, cannot be a particular form of human life. It cannot be tied to any specific cultural or historical configuration. The proposition has to do with a structure of experiencing. In Beardslee’s words:

Christ does not stand for a predetermined form of human existence, but stands for a selfhood that is fully open to the momentary encounter with concrete beings which that existence encounters, in the faith that both such momentary but concrete encounters are of ultimate significance, and that the effort and hope, as well as the receptivity and ‘realization’ which such encounters embody, are not merely of the moment but are taken up into God’s recognition and enjoyment of reality. (HH 160)

John Cobb uses the expression "creative transformation" as the most generalized statement of the tale which the divine proposition, objectified in Jesus, presents:

The Logos is threatening to any given world, for it functions to transcend and transform it. . . . In short