John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This paper was written in February, 1990.
While most Protestant theologians turned to Barth and other Neoorthodox thinkers, Cobb and a few others felt the need to deal directly with the question of God’s reality, in a way that would not avoid philosophical issues. The author found decisive help in Whitehead, and, out of that, what has been called in later decades “process theology,” was born. This essay deals with Whitehead’s contributions to anthropology.
The encounter with Alfred North Whitehead in my student days was a revelatory event. It proved determinative of my theological career. I learned through him, gradually, a way of perceiving and thinking that was markedly different from what I found elsewhere. Once I entered into it, I could not leave it, even if I wanted to. I simply see the world differently because of his influence upon me.
What initially attracted me to Whitehead was the relation of his thought to my personal crisis of faith. That centered around the reality of God. My teacher, Charles Hartshorne, dealt with that question in a rational way that spoke directly to the questions I was asking. Such rational speech about God was rare in the Protestant theological climate of the time, and it is rare today. I saw that my problem was that what I understood by “God” did not fit with the “modern mind” into which my education was socializing me. To believe in God in a realistic way required that one dispute the nature of reality with modernity. Of course, it also required rethinking what one could mean by “God.”
Through Hartshorne I was introduced to Whitehead’s writings. I found in him one who did dispute the nature of reality with modernity in rich detail and with powerful analysis. I saw that a quite new, but deeply moving, understanding of God fitted well with Whitehead’s postmodern vision of reality. It was this, above all, that drew me to him.
I would not recount my story if it were mine alone. While the great majority of Protestant theologians turned to Barth and other Neoorthodox thinkers, a few of us felt the need to deal directly with the question of God’s reality, in a way that could not avoid philosophical issues. Some of us found decisive help in Whitehead, and, out of that, what has been called in later decades “process theology,” was born. Process theology was, therefore, chiefly associated with its doctrine of God and secondarily with its interest in ontology and cosmology. One of the main criticisms directed against it was that it had no anthropology.
Of course, that was not quite true. We found some interesting comments on the nature of human beings and history in Whitehead, and there were obvious anthropological implications of his theology and his cosmology. But still, it was true enough. Most of us who were drawn to Whitehead because of his theology and cosmology, looked elsewhere for our anthropology. The thinker who was most influential in shaping our anthropology was Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Nature and Destiny of Man informed a whole generation of thinking in the United States. One could almost say that the anthropology of process theologians was that of Niebuhr, but not quite, because there were others who found their anthropology in Heidegger or in Sartre.
There can be no doubt that this dependence on others for a rich doctrine of human beings was a weakness of process theology. In some instances, process theologians worked hard to show the integrity of their unification of Whitehead’s cosmology or theology with the anthropology they advocated. Schubert Ogden made a convincing case for the complementarity of the theology of Hartshorne and the anthropology of Rudolf Bultmann. David Griffin argued for the integrity of the more common merger of Whitehead with Reinhold Niebuhr. These programs were significant and fruitful. But in a context in which anthropological issues and approaches were becoming increasingly dominant, the fact that process theology seemed to have nothing of its own to contribute, appeared to many to justify their neglecting it.
Over the years this situation has changed. Whiteheadians are finding in Whitehead’s cosmology significant anthropological implications that can be developed on their own, or in critical interaction with the anthropological work of others. It is my belief that, in the long run, Whitehead’s contributions to anthropology will prove just as significant as his contributions to theology and cosmology. But before attempting to identify some of these contributions, I need to introduce you to the basic insights of Whitehead’s metaphysics.
When we think of the ordinary things that make up the world, we are most likely to give such examples as sticks and stones and tables and chairs. These have played a large role in the history of philosophy. Their importance is not to be doubted, and that importance is highlighted in our ordinary language. Objects of this sort often constitute the subjects of our sentences. If we think a bit more about the world, we are likely to recognize that in addition to objects like these there are also subjects like ourselves.
About objects we utter simple propositions such as “The stone is gray.” This suggests that there is an object, the stone, in which there inheres the attribute, gray. The stone seems to remain the same stone even if someone paints it green. It seems that we can distinguish the unchanging stone from the changing attributes. This leads us to distinguish the stone as a substance, that is, at that which figuratively “stands under” the changing qualities, properties, or attributes. We can then ask whether the substance has some unchanging or essential qualities, properties, or attributes as well as the primary ones. We may then distinguish these as primary qualities from the secondary ones.
Similar questions can be asked about ourselves as subjects. It is natural for me to think of myself as the underlying or substantial reality which acts and is acted upon. Our ordinary language encourages us to think this way. I speak of how I felt yesterday and what I am doing today in a way that appears to imply that the same “I” suffers and acts in different ways at different times. Many of my qualities, properties, or attributes change during the course of my life, but it seems that this does not mean that I cease to be self-identically myself. It is then natural to ask for the essential or primary characteristics that constitute me as a subject.
Out of reflection such as this emerges philosophy of the Cartesian type. And although everyone wants to overcome Descartes, language seems to bring us back again and again to Cartesian-type thinking. We treat the world as made up of two kinds of substance, material and mental, and we distinguish these substances from their changing characteristics and from their changing relationships with one another.
I will not rehearse the history of modern philosophy in which the Cartesian notion of substance became more and more difficult to maintain. Whitehead rejects it, and in that he is certainly not alone or even unusual. What is unusual is that Whitehead develops an alternative conceptuality into a full-fledged cosmology and metaphysics.
Whitehead points out that not all of our sentences are about objects and subjects. We also speak about events, actions, occurrences and experiences. I can speak of a conversation I held yesterday or of eating breakfast this morning. Conversations and eating meals are neither subjects nor objects. Everyone knows this. But most modern philosophers have supposed that when we analyze these events fully, we can explain them in terms of the activities of subjects or the motions of objects. Most modern thought about the physical world has assumed something like the metaphysics of Greek atomism, namely, that there are irreducible bits of matter that change only in relative position.
Whitehead is one of the voices raised in favor of the alternative theory. This is that when physical things are fully analyzed they turn out to be patterns of events. This means that the things of which the world is made up are not either subjects or objects but happenings, occurrences, actions, or experiences. We are not to think of subjects or objects that act or are acted upon but of activities as such. In our own case, we are not to think of a self that first exists and then experiences and acts but rather of experiences and acts as the fundamental reality.
Whitehead was a mathematical physicist, and there can be little doubt that the breakdown of materialistic and substantialistic categories in physics played a large role in persuading him to look elsewhere for what is most real. But, of course, there have been purely philosophical reasons for making this metaphysical change as well. In quite different ways, the names of Hume and Hegel suggest some of these reasons to those familiar with the history of modern philosophy.
Thus far I am simply locating Whitehead in one tradition of modern philosophy. From here on I will be speaking of distinctive ways in which he has developed that tradition.
First, Whitehead sees both human experiences and the quanta of energy discerned through the analysis of atoms as instances of one and the same metaphysical type. Both are events or occurrences. Whitehead calls them “actual occasions.” There are great differences between them, but both exemplify a common basic structure.
Second, this common basic structure is that of the many becoming one. It is a process of concrescence, that is, a process in which a new concrete actuality emerges from the diverse actual occasions that make up its world. But stating matters in this abstract way will not help you much to understand this quite radical point.
Let us think instead about how a moment of human experience comes into being. It grows in large part out of antecedent experiences. For example, as one listens to the last note in a phrase of music, the hearing of the preceding notes still reverberates. Otherwise, one would not hear the phrase at all. That means that the earlier experiences are still present in the later one. They comprise much of the content of that later experience. But, of course, they don’t exhaust it. There is a new note sounding in the new experience. That means that mediated through the air and through the nervous system, events in the external world, perhaps someone playing a piano in the room, also become part of the new experience.
Although these may be the dominant parts of the world of the new occasion of experience, they do not exhaust it. Usually there are visual and tactile elements in the experience as well. There are memories of earlier events and anticipations of future ones. The condition of the liver and the kidneys has its effect on the experience as well. And, through these and other aspects of the immediate environment, more remote influences are also at work. Thus the whole world flows into the present, to a large extent making it what it is.
What is most important to grasp here is that there is not first an occasion of experience that then relates to its past. Instead, the occasion only comes into being as these past events inform it. The new event includes the past events, and it has no existence at all apart from this inclusion.
Of course, not every feature of all those past events is included. On the contrary, most of what has happened in the past is lost. Even when we are dealing with the immediately preceding moment, we realize that what is still alive now is less than its totality. With respect to more remote events, most of the richness is lost.
The activity of concrescence is not simply the inclusion of aspects of the past. There is also supplementation. In our example of listening to the final note in a musical phrase, there is not simply the numerical adding of the notes to make up the phrase. The moment in which the final note is heard is one in which the phrase as a whole attains a unity and completeness that was not present in any of the antecedent moments or in the final note taken by itself. Each occasion of experience not only receives from the past. It also interprets the past and evaluates the past. It relates elements of the past to one another in creative ways. In this process there is a transcending of the past and a determination of just how that past will be integrated and transmitted to the future. Whitehead calls this a decision. Each occasion of human experience makes a decision about itself in view of the past that it includes and the future that it anticipates.
This is an example of how the many become one. I have said that every actual occasion, including quanta of energy, are also examples of many becoming one. Obviously they are not listening to music. But they are also ways in which their worlds express themselves creatively in new happenings. The formal pattern is the same, although the qualitative character is extremely different. This means that even a quantum of energy is, for Whitehead, an occasion of experience. That is, it is a way in which the world is actively appropriated at a particular locus in space time. Of course, this does not mean that quanta have sense experience or consciousness, but even in human beings, these are not fundamental. One is never conscious of more than a tiny part of the whole of one’s experience.
The fact that Whitehead emphasized what is common to all actual occasions, human and not, was a major reason for skepticism about his contribution to anthropology. And as I have already stated, Whitehead’s personal contribution to anthropological thinking was indeed limited. Yet those of us with strong anthropological interests who have followed Whitehead have found again and again that the acceptance of his general scheme of thought has important implications for how we think about human beings.
Whitehead’s project to find, in occasions of human experience, patterns or structures that can be generalized, presupposes and implies the view that human beings are wholly, and without remainder, part of the natural world. Perhaps many people would verbally agree. But if one studies the anthropologies that have appeared in the various disciplines, one finds that this agreement has little affect on what transpires. The categories in which the human condition is discussed are quite different from those that function when other topics are in view. Even the human body is usually largely invisible in the discussion of human phenomena. Most discussions of psychology ignore physiology, and most discussions of physiology ignore psychology. Most discussions of economics ignore the actual character of physical reality, and most discussions in the physical sciences ignore the existence of human beings and their impact in the physical world. The divide is very deep indeed.
This is particularly surprising in a Darwinian age. Most of the practitioners of most of these disciplines acknowledge that human beings have evolved from prehuman ancestors. Most of them deny that there was a radical break at any point. Yet this acknowledgment has no effect on their intellectual and scholarly activities.
There are exceptions. For example, some scientists do attempt to throw light on human behavior through the study of other creatures. Recently some of these, calling themselves sociobiologists, have attracted considerable attention. But, on the whole, their approach reinforces the resistance to the practical acknowledgment of continuity by others. It follows the old pattern of a discredited scientism in being reductionistic. Many students of humanity are willing for reductionism to have its way in the rest of the world, but most are determined to adopt a quite different approach in the study of human beings.
Basically, the old choices of dualism, materialism, and idealism still hold sway in practice, even when they are eschewed in theory. In the organization of knowledge in general, dualism is dominant. In the study of human beings the practical attitude is that of idealism, namely, that the physical sciences ultimately tell us nothing about the way the human world really is. Hence they can be safely ignored. In the natural sciences the practical attitude is reductive materialism. In this context, to be serious about locating human beings within nature, without any tincture of reductionism, is a quite distinctive project, even if the effort is not unique to Whitehead.
For Whitehead, as for Teilhard de Chardin, to affirm that human beings are part of nature is also to affirm that nature is much richer than Western thought has usually acknowledged. If we are truly to overcome dualism, we must recognize that every natural entity resembles human experience in some way, for there is nothing of which we can be more sure than that there are human experiences in the world. The task is not to ask whether there is such resemblance, but rather, what are the similarities? One must find ways to test the hypotheses about nature that arise from this approach. In this way, one builds up the scheme of concepts that are proposed as universally valid.
But the movement of thought must proceed in the opposite way as well. Although all things exemplify some structure in common, they also differ marvelously from one another. These differences cannot be derived from the categories. A universe exemplifying the categories could still be very different from this one. Indeed, it once was. Whitehead’s interest, as a cosmologist, is in the contingent features of this universe, with its enormous variety of inorganic and organic structures. Above all, what is fascinating is the emergence of the wonders of organization of the human body and the emergence in its brain of distinctively human experience. There is some commonality between a quantum of energy and a human experience. But once that is recognized, the challenge is to bridge the chasm that separates them.
It is my experience that thinking of human beings in this way heightens the wonder. So many things are simply taken for granted in the humanistic disciplines that are in fact truly astonishing! Life itself is still radically mysterious, as is every step of the evolutionary process. The more we know about it, the more amazing it appears. Some years ago Jacques Monod, in his well known book, Chance and Necessity, seemed to argue that the discovery of DNA had dispelled the last mystery. Recently, Fred Hoyle has written, in Evolution from Space, that the conjunction of circumstances required for the emergence of life is so improbable, that it is statistically virtually impossible that life could have originated on this planet. It must have come from elsewhere. Other scientists have invoked an “anthropic principle” to explain the whole succession of improbabilities apart from which human life could not have emerged. My point here is not to take sides with any of these speculations, but only to indicate that the initial insistence on locating humanity fully within nature, heightens the marvel of creation that is too often lost when we stay within our dualistic compartments.
Consider a very simple example. Suppose I recognize the cup on my desk as the one from which I drank earlier today. This seems like such an elementary example of human cognition that it arouses no surprise or puzzlement. That it is far more complex than it first seems, can be shown by the phenomenologist’s analysis. But suppose we undertake a natural analysis, that is, try to work through all the physical and psychic activities that are involved, first in seeing the cup at all, and then in recognizing it. Consider, above all, the activity of what Whitehead calls “the final percipient occasion”, i.e., the present occasion of human experience, in integrating its present visual experience, with all the complex interpretation involved therein, with previous experiences. The whole process boggles the mind. It is fortunate that we can see and think without understanding how seeing and thinking are possible!
I am belaboring this point to stress that being a thoroughgoing naturalist has nothing to do with being a reductionist. On the contrary, authentic naturalism puts an end, once and for all, to any possibility of reductionism. It makes almost inescapable an awareness of some mysterious working in the whole process. Whitehead spoke of this as God. In Whitehead’s view, God is a factor in every event whatsoever. There can be no intervention; for the notion of “intervention” presupposes a sphere from which God is absent. For Whitehead, there is no such sphere. To be a naturalist, in the Whiteheadian sense, is to affirm a sacramental universe. This awareness of God’s presence in oneself, in other people, and in the whole of creation, is an essential part of a Whiteheadian anthropology.
A second major effect on anthropology that results from adopting Whitehead’s vision is a shift away from the kind of individualism that the Enlightenment fixed in modern common sense. We think not only of objects as self-contained in particular regions of space and related to one another only externally, but we think of human selves that way, too. I am here and you are there. And we suppose that my influence on you and your influence on me are secondary and external to our independent identities. Whitehead forces us to reject this way of thinking.
My own work in this regard has been especially in economics. There it is very clear that Homo economicus is individualistically conceived. Of course, all economists know that their model of the human being is abstracted from the fullness of human existence. People are also Homo religiosus, for example. But economists rarely comment on the fact that Homo economicus is abstracted from the relational and communal character of actual human beings.
If one views human beings, with Whitehead, as fundamentally social beings, that is, as having their being and their value in their relations with one another and with the remainder of the world, then the abstraction of the individual producer and consumer from this communal being can no longer be accepted. It distorts the whole of modern economic thinking. Where public policy has been most influenced by this theory, as in the United States and in many development programs in the Third World, the results have been immensely destructive of human community.
I have written a book with a Whiteheadian economist, Herman Daly. It is called For the Common Good. In it we argue that for purposes of developing economic theory, human beings should be considered persons-in-community. The effort to improve the economic lot of human beings will then ordinarily be seen as improving the health of their communities rather than as increasing per capita consumption.
The only modern economic theory that I discovered that supported this shift was that of nineteenth century German Catholic economists and of some Papal encyclicals influenced by them. This has led me to acknowledge that Catholic thought has always exercised a healthy check on the individualism that I have rejected as a Whiteheadian. The only limitation of this Catholic tradition which I now believe to be important is that the pattern of relations it emphasized did not include relations to the land and to the other creatures with which we share it.
There are other, more specific and immediately practical, consequences of Whitehead’s naturalism. Ethics must be changed. Both Christian ethics and Enlightenment ethics assumed that duties are owed only to other human beings, that only human beings are ends in themselves. This is, obviously, based on a dualistic view of the relation between human beings and animals. For a Whiteheadian it is more natural and correct to speak of the relation as between human beings and “other” animals; for humanity is one species of animals. Given that understanding, there can be no question but that animals are deserving of moral consideration.
The dualistic habit of mind that has excluded treatment of animals from Christian ethics, has also led to strange results among those who have become concerned about this treatment. The tendency has been to move the line that separates the sphere of ethical relevance from that of no relevance, not to abolish it. Thus Schweitzer removed the line between human beings and other living things, and drew a new one between living and non-living beings. In general he applied to the relations of human beings to all other living things, the principles that had their initial application among human beings. He opposed discriminating among living things in terms of more or less value, although in practice he was forced to engage in such discrimination. The same pattern exists among philosophers who support animal rights today. The typical question is where to draw the line.
From a Whiteheadian perspective, this effort to draw a line is a continuation of untenable dualistic habits of mind. One might draw thousands of lines, for every difference makes a difference, but drawing one line distorts our thinking. We take many of the entities on the nearer side too seriously, and many of the entities on the farther side too lightly.
Actually, Whiteheadian thinking supports what people in a common sense way are likely to think anyway. Most people are more concerned about killing porpoises than killing tuna. This distinction is a matter of law, at least in the United States. Similarly, we are more disturbed about the suffering of a chimpanzee than that of a chicken. A mouse has greater claim on our ethical consideration than does a bacterium. And so it goes. They are all alive, but we see more intrinsic value in some than in others.
Critics argue that these distinctions are sentimental and without basis. They say that we value animals according to their attractive appearance or according to their resemblance to ourselves, that a rational approach would be to respect them all equally, because they are all alive, or all sentient, or because all have interests, or according to some other fixed criterion. Whiteheadians disagree. No doubt sentimental factors enter into our actual judgments, and they should be discounted, but there are real and important differences. Value lies in the subjectivity of occasions of experience. We know in our own lives that some occasions are more valuable than others. Some are richer, more enjoyable, more meaningful. Even without a carefully articulated theory of value, we can make rough and realistic judgments that the subjectivity of the sea mammals is greater than that of fish, and that the subjectivity of a chimpanzee is greater than that of a chicken. Whitehead did work out a complex theory of value, but my point here is only to indicate that Whitehead’s way of understanding human beings as part of nature both requires that we extend the ethical discussion and gives us clues as to how to do this.
When the sense of being part of nature is combined with the awareness of how all things are constituted by their relations with other things, the result is a powerful ecological vision. In my graduate school days I was not aware of the importance of this aspect of Whitehead’s thought, although some of my teachers had understood this all along. Once the awareness of the ecological crisis broke through to me in 1969, the contribution of Whitehead to my self-understanding was greatly enriched. Responding to this crisis has been part of my central vocation ever since. To those who are seeking a new vision appropriate to our new situation, I strongly recommend that of Whitehead.
I will offer just one example of how this perspective helps. Among those who have genuinely overcome dualism in their thinking about humanity and the rest of the world, I find two major groups. These have arrived at their convictions through two quite different channels of thought. One group has become convinced that other animals suffer much as we do, and they are certain that our cruelty to them is immoral. The other group sees human beings as part of the interconnected web of life, and it sees value in the whole rather than in its isolated parts. If evaluations of individual creatures are made at all, it is in terms of their importance to the ecosystem. Often the most despised animals turn out to be indispensable.
The latter group regards the former as sentimental. As they see it, the ecosystem is indifferent to the suffering of individuals. Its greatness lies in the richness of life it generates and sustains through a process in which most individuals die young. The lesson to be learned is to stop imposing human moral values on nature and to live as part of the ecosystem in such a way that the whole flourishes.
Members of the former group have been hardly more charitable in their critique of the latter. How can one be sensitive to the whole of nature, they wonder, when one is indifferent to the individuals who make it up. We as human beings are inflicting levels of suffering quite disproportionate to those that characterize the wilderness ecosystem. We systematically torture hundreds of millions of animals in tests, and for instructional purposes, for only trivial gain to humanity. For the sake of slightly greater profit, we are transforming farms into factories in which many animals suffer horribly throughout their lives. Indifference to all this suffering is profoundly immoral, and if the ecosystem is not moral, that is no reasons for human beings to practice immorality, too. Advocates of animal rights, in their anger with this group of ecologists, have called them eco-fascists. With the number of those who have broken from anthropocentric thinking still so limited, it is discouraging and distressing that a good deal of their energy goes into fighting one another.
From a Whiteheadian point of view, both are correct in their affirmations, and these need to be formulated so as to complement one another. Value is located finally in the individual occasion, in this case, most significantly, in the individual occasion of animal experience. But that occasion is not a self-contained or self-enclosed entity. It is constituted by its relations to other things. Hence, while it is good to protect porpoises from tuna fishermen, it may be still more important to protect the ocean from poisoning, or from having its ecosystem so disrupted that whole species are destroyed. The wellbeing of individual animals is a function of the health of the ecosystem, and the ecosystem has value in and through the myriads of individuals that make it up. On the other hand, once we have removed animals from their natural habitat, and turned them into livestock and objects of experimentation, then the issue of their individual suffering comes to the fore.
Anthropology is so vast a field that I can certainly not exhaust it in one lecture. I am trying to be suggestive as to what a Whiteheadian perspective may contribute on a variety of topics. I will conclude with a more traditional theological one, the relation of divine grace and human freedom. My perception is that this discussion has been plagued by dualistic habits of mind, and that it can be advanced by applying Whitehead’s radically nondualistic conceptuality.
The dualism to which I refer now is not that between human beings and other animals, but that between subject and object, or between a human experience and what acts upon it. Often the human being is seen as essentially self-enclosed and self-contained. It is supposed that one can describe what is taking place in the person without reference to God. It may be thought that God is the Creator of the person, so that the person would not exist at all apart from God. But as created, the person is seen as external to God, and God as external to the person.
With this imagery in place, a discussion of grace is begun. Since grace is the divine action upon the person, and since it affects the way the person is constituted, it has to be thought of as being somehow infused. God acts into the person’s private domain. Of course, the action is for the person’s good.
At this point questions arise. First, does the infusion occur in response to certain conditions being antecedently met by the person? Is it in some sense a reward for virtue? Or is the infusion decided upon by God, without reference to any merit on the part of the person? We all know that there are problems with both answers. The first leads toward moralism and the risk of self-righteousness. The second leads toward a view of divine arbitrariness that makes nonsense of human responsibility.
Second, when the infusion occurs, does it determine what happens or only create new opportunities? Is the person’s cooperation required for grace to be effective, or is any apparent cooperation itself the work of grace, so that in fact the entire determination is in God’s hands? These alternatives have the same dangers in this case as in the previous one.
From a Whiteheadian perspective, some of the problems arise because the initial picture is incorrect. If, instead, we picture the relation between God and the person as internal, the problematic is profoundly altered. To be a person at all is to be one whose very existence is partly constituted by the presence of God. It is this presence of God within the human occasion of experience, that makes the occasion something more than a deterministic outcome of the past. God’s presence is the offering of relevant alternative ways of creatively responding to the past or to the total environment, as this also participates in constituting the new occasion. It involves the weighting of these alternatives, the call to realize some rather than others.
It is eminently appropriate to think of this divine presence in the occasion as grace. It is essential to the bare existence of the occasion, but it is much more than simply the ground of its being. It is liberating, empowering, creative, and redemptive. Sometimes it is prevenient, sometimes, justifying, sometimes, sanctifying. In every occasion, grace precedes human action as its necessary condition. In that sense, its priority is absolute. But that in no way reduces human freedom. The more effective grace is, the more genuine and significant is the self-determination that it makes possible and necessary. Furthermore, how effective grace can be in any moment, is affected by many things, but in particular by both the past working of grace and the personal response to that working.
If we think of matters in this way, there is little danger of being encouraged either in self-righteousness or in a sense of powerlessness before an all-determining God. Of myself, I am nothing; nothing, in the strictest sense. Furthermore, my very ability to decide is quite concretely God’s gift, not simply in my original creation, but in the moment in which I decide. It is God who calls me to the best decision and empowers me. I may resist and fail to respond. But to whatever extent I do respond, it is by the grace of God. At the same time, my sense of the importance of rightly using the ever-renewed gift of freedom is heightened. How I respond shares in determining just what new gift God can give me. The more fully I respond, the more free God can make me. The more I open myself to God’s grace the more I am a truly free person.
What is important here is to see the overcoming of another dualism. So often it appears that the more of what I become is determined by God, the less is determined by me in my freedom and responsibility. This means, the more grace, the less freedom, and the more freedom, the less grace. But when we understand the working of grace as I have proposed, then the relation is just the opposite. The more I am determined by God, the greater is my role in self-determination. To emphasize grace is to emphasize human freedom. To emphasize human freedom is to emphasize grace.
I am not proposing that this vision is unique to Whiteheadians. I find it, more of less consistently developed, both in the tradition and in more recent literature. My claim is only that Whitehead’s conceptuality provides the most realistic and convincing grounds for thinking of grace in this way. I believe that can be an important contribution.
You may have noticed that in the process of addressing anthropology I have talked of many other things, especially of God and the world. Something like this happens in Christian anthropology generally. The separation of one topic from others is always difficult for Christians. This difficulty is compounded for Whiteheadians. There is no human being apart from relations with other people, with other animals, and with the whole of creation. Certainly, there is no human being apart from God. To try to talk of what is human in separation from the rest of nature and God is to speak of an abstraction. Talk of abstractions is poor anthropology. I hope, therefore, that the very wandering of my lecture over a variety of topics will help you to understand the character of a Whiteheadian anthropology.