A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead
by John B. Cobb, Jr.


This book is a Whiteheadian Christian natural theology. The formal description and justification of this enterprise is attempted in section 1 of Chapter VII. But even in this brief preface, there is a place for a less rigorous and more personal explanation for the reopening of the work of natural theology and specifically for the appeal to Whitehead.

In Living Options in Protestant Theology, I argued the need for a Christian natural theology primarily by analysis of the bases on which major recent theologies have sought to justify their affirmations. I tried to show that even those theologies which explicitly repudiate natural theology have had assumptions or developed implications that should, in fact, be recognized as belonging to the sphere of natural theology. In the case of those theologies which affirm natural theology, I argued that the natural theology in question has specifically Christian character. If this is the case, it is reasonable to propose that we take the problem of constructing a natural theology with utmost seriousness, while not supposing that in doing so we are employing a rationality itself unaffected by our Christian commitments.

I suggest further that many of the problems with which theologians now wrestle arise out of assumptions formed for them by more or less consciously accepted ideas of a philosophical sort. To turn attention away from these ideas because they are philosophical is to allow them a tyranny over theological work that can be dispelled only by critical and self-conscious reflection about them. That means that it is only by facing the task of natural theology directly that the Christian theologian may hope to achieve his appropriate freedom.

It must be stressed at the outset that serious concern with natural theology does not militate against serious concern for the other tasks of Christian theology. My original intention had been to include attention to some of these tasks in this volume, but this proved impractical. Hence this book deals almost exclusively with natural theology. If I postpone for some years publication of equally serious study on such topics as Christology and soteriology, I hope that will not give the impression that I view these topics as of less importance. The sequence from natural theology to Christology, however, is significant, for it correctly reflects my view that it is not possible to formulate a Christology without the employment of a conceptuality requiring clarification in natural theology. This does not mean that faith in Christ requires such prior clarification. The priority of natural theology applies only to doctrinal formulation. Apart from faith in Christ, the problem of a Christian natural theology would not arise any more than would the problem of Christological formulation.

My argument is not that faith can never proceed directly to Christological formulation. Clearly it can do so, and clearly much of the greatest theology has followed this procedure. My argument is that even when it does so, a great deal is assumed that is not directly validated by faith itself. Where these assumptions — about the nature of language, of reality, of history, or of nature — are widely accepted, and where they are congenial to the task of doctrinal formulation, their uncritical acceptance is harmless. But if, as I believe, this is not now the case, if the diversity of assumptions inhibits communication, and if many of the assumptions militate against any adequate expression of the gospel, then the frontal assault on natural theology becomes the systematically prior task of adequate theological construction.

Thus far I have argued for serious attention to natural theology on the grounds of the situation within the theological discipline. I believe there is also reason to renew the enterprise of natural theology for the sake of faith itself.

It is widely recognized that we live in a time when the categories in which the Christian message has traditionally been presented have lost all meaning for major segments of the population. This could be illustrated at many points. At some of these points it could be shown that the change is much like that experienced by every generation, that the translation of the gospel into the vocabulary of the day is a perennial task which should cause us no special problem. However, at some other points, I am convinced, one cannot thus relativize our problem.

The crux of the matter has to do with the concepts of man and of God. To simplify the present discussion, I shall limit it to treatment of the latter. For much of the culture that is growing up about us and within us, "God" has become an empty sound. This is no longer a problem only for those Christians trying to communicate with a special segment of the intelligentsia estranged from the church. It has become the problem of the suburban pastor in his dealing with his most sensitive church leaders and youth. Perhaps most of all it has become the problem of the perceptive minister in dealing with himself and his own understanding of his ministry.

In reacting to this situation, most of the theologians who have been opposed to natural theology have taken the position that this cultural phenomenon must be treated as of no fundamental importance for the gospel. Some have thought it a matter of indifference — or a positive gain — on the grounds that false ideas of God are thus destroyed, and that the opportunity for the encounter with the truly transcendent God known only in Jesus Christ is heightened. This view is commonly associated with an attitude of contempt for the kind of piety actually characteristic of our churches. Others have thought that the emptiness of the term " God" makes it clear that we must either cease to use this word or redefine it in terms of categories that are meaningful to modern man — love, the depth dimension, creative interchange, authentic life, or Mitmenschlichkeit. From this point of view "God" in any other sense has no essential place in the gospel.

The alternative reaction is to try to restore the term "God" to meaningful discourse in some real continuity with its historic use. In my judgment such restoration is both useful and possible. Indeed for my own spiritual existence as a Christian it is a matter of life and death that the reality of the referent of" God" be a part of my intellectual conviction. I realize that others do not share my sense of the importance of such intellectual conviction. Those who understand faith as a gift of God that is in no way dependent upon any spiritual or intellectual openness toward faith on the part of man can reasonably object that the intellectual approach to God is pointless or worse. In Biblical and Christian history, however, I find little justification for the view that God acts in such radical independence of intellectual and cultural history. On the other hand, those who believe that the gospel requires no reference to God in any sense other than a special mode of human existence or togetherness seem to me not to have realized that the same cultural and intellectual forces that have militated against the meaningfulness of the word "God" operate also against most of that which they continue to affirm.

In any case, whatever the alternatives may be, I must speak for myself. To me it appears that the struggle to restore the meaningfulness of the word" God," which means to justify the horizon in which this word can have its appropriate reference, is a matter of ultimate importance for the health, even for the survival, of Christian faith. It need hardly be pointed out that the evaporation of meaning from this crucial term has occurred, not as a function of that theology which is the expression or articulation of faith, but as a function of that cosmology which has destroyed the horizons within which early Christian, medieval, and early modern man understood his existence. For this reason it seems equally evident that the restoration of meaning to this term requires direct consideration of those forces which have destroyed it as well as the continuation of that proclamation and that theology which presuppose its meaningfulness. This means that natural theology in our generation is not to be seen as a dubious luxury of the systematician but as foundational to proclamation and to the realization of faith as well.

That natural theology is possible as well as needed presupposes that the destructive forces of modern cosmology are not rooted with any final necessity in the intellectual situation of modern man. Discussion in general terms of such a thesis is impossible here. The book as a whole must constitute the argument. Implicitly this argument will be that a cosmology lacking the destructive implications of much modern cosmological thought is not only possible but also more adequate to the modern situation than its competitors.

The philosophy by which I am myself grasped, and on the basis of which I propose to develop a Christian natural theology, is that of Alfred North Whitehead. In his work there is a fully developed alternative to the nihilistic tendencies of most modern thought. No one else in the twentieth century has attempted so impressive a synthesis of that knowledge which forces itself upon the attention of the honest and open mind. In recent years there has been a marked renewal of interest in his work, and we may expect that the days of his greatest influence lie in the future.( Cf. Lowe, Understanding Whitehead, p. v; and Lowe, "Whitehead’s Philosophical Development," Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, p. 124. The objective evidence for the claim of probable increase in the influence of Whitehead lies in the increased volume of published work about his thought and the growing number of dissertations being written about him. The recent belated recognition of the great importance also of the work of Charles Hartshorne is closely connected with this. See Schubert Ogden, "Theology and Philosophy: A New Phase of the Discussion," The Journal of Religion, Jan., 1964, pp. 1-16. More subjective is the judgment that the approaches to both philosophy and theology that have been dominant in recent decades and that have militated against attention to the work of both Whitehead and Hartshorne are running dry and that new vitality can be attained best in both disciplines by serious dialogue with Whitehead. Still more subjective is my opinion that even in the physical sciences there is a dawning awareness of the need to wrestle again with the questions on which Whitehead cast so much light. This is suggested by the work of Milic Capek, The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics [D. Van Nostrand Co., Inc., 1961] , and Adolf Grunbaum, Philosophical Problems of Space and Time [Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1963])

The effort to develop a Christian natural theology based on Whitehead’s thought presupposes the philosophical excellence of that thought. For this presupposition no proof can be offered. For myself I am persuaded that he ranks with Plato, Aristotle, and Kant as one of the greatest creative thinkers of all time. I regret that from the use I will make of his work in this book the reader is unlikely to receive any adequate sense of Whitehead’s genius. The fundamental adequacy of his analysis and comprehensive synthesis I must ask the reader to test for himself through careful study or else, for the present, to take for granted.

Not to prove my case as to Whitehead’s excellence, but only to show that he sometimes arouses admiration in surprising quarters, I offer the following tribute from the English existentialist Colin Wilson, who also wrestled without personal satisfaction with the problem of writing a summary introduction to Whitehead’s thought. I concur with, and would make my own, all that Wilson says.

"Whitehead’s thought is extremely difficult, and his prose style is not always all that could be asked; consequently, the foregoing [in my case, following] summary is bound to seen puzzling. I am also conscious that I have not succeeded in making Whitehead’s thought seem attractive to readers who approach it for the first time. Nevertheless, it is my own conviction that he will one day be regarded as the outstanding philosopher of the twentieth century; and the attempt to present him in summary had to be made. England is always singularly unfair to its thinkers; if Whitehead had been a German, he would have had a special department of some university dedicated to expounding his thought.

"What is surprising — even in view of the English indifference to metaphysics — is that no one has noticed that Whitehead has created his own kind of existentialism; and that it is fuller and more adequate than that of any Continental thinker. He was his own Hegel and Kierkegaard rolled into one. Science and the Modern World is the Unscientific Postscript of the twentieth century — with the additional advantage of being readable." (Colin Wilson, Religion and the Rebel [Houghton Muffin Co., 1957] , p. 317.)

Despite my keen interest in Whitehead’s philosophy as philosophy and my conviction of its great value in that context, this book is about Christian natural theology. This means that it is a treatment of questions of importance for Christian theology in which the criteria of philosophical excellence determine what can be said. The argument presented asks to be judged in terms of its philosophical merits, but the selection of topics and the focus of inquiry are determined by theological passion.

Ultimately the book expresses my own convictions. In some sections it deals with topics untreated by Whitehead, and in others it presents a position that deviates from his. Nevertheless, I am so profoundly and overwhelmingly indebted to him for the fundamental structure of my thought, and I begin my own reflection on each topic so deeply influenced by my understanding of his philosophy, that the book is also a book about Whitehead. I have tried to indicate carefully in the text where exposition of his position ends and my own ideas are introduced. In some instances I have presented, as my own, ideas that may well also have been Whitehead’s. I have not done this out of special eagerness to claim originality, for I am much more comfortable when I can claim his authority. But I have wished to keep the book relatively free of any scholastic discussion as to which of the interpreters of Whitehead is correct on disputed points. (Many of the best recent critical and expository essays on White-head have been published in book form. See Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy; Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead; Schulpp, op. cit.; Studies in Whitehead’s Philosophy [Tulane Studies in Philosophy, Vol. X. Tulane University Press, 1961]). For this reason, where there can be serious doubt as to the agreement of my own views with his, I have assumed responsibility.

The book as a whole can make no sense apart from a basic understanding of some main features of Whitehead’s philosophical position. There are several excellent volumes explanatory of his thought, most of them published quite recently. For a brief introduction I recommend Ivor Leclerc’s Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition, Part I of Victor Lowe’s Understanding White-head, or the first eighty-eight pages of Donald Sherburne’s A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. A somewhat older work, still useful and recently reprinted, is A. H. Johnson’s White-head’s Theory of Reality. William Christian’s An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics offers a much more exhaustive discussion of many features of Whitehead’s thought.( A reader preferring to tackle Whitehead directly is advised to begin with Adventures of Ideas, especially Part III.)

I make no effort in this book to provide a competing introduction to Whitehead. However, I cannot assume that my readers will have read one of these books or will have adequate firsthand acquaintance with Whitehead’s writing. Hence in Chapter I, I do attempt to introduce the reader to Whitehead’s perspective and to give him some clue as to the meaning of some of the essential terms. The appeal must be to intuition, but hopefully an apt example may facilitate such intuition.( I do not mean that Whitehead came to the formulation of his problems in the way suggested in Ch. I. For a lucid account of the actual genetic development of Whitehead’s thought from the foundations of mathematics and logic to the principles of natural science and to comprehensive cosmology, see Lowe, "Whitehead’s Philosophical Development," Schilpp, pp. 15-124. This is revised, expanded, and republished in Understanding Whitehead, pp. 117-296.) I have kept this material very brief in the hope that most of the essential concepts can be clarified for the reader as he follows the argument in the following chapters. I have placed Whitehead’s technical terms in quotes where I first introduce them in a context that I hope will communicate their meaning.

Chapter II presents a number of features of Whitehead’s doctrine of man that have bearing upon theological anthropology. To my knowledge there has been little previous work done on this aspect of Whitehead’s thought. Chapter III summarizes major features of the value theory developed by Whitehead. In addition it introduces reflections on the specifically ethical situation of man that go beyond anything to be found in Whitehead. It is my hope that this ethical theory is fully compatible with Whitehead’s value theory and general philosophy, but for much of what is said I assume full responsibility.

Chapter IV surveys the development of the thought about God in Whitehead, primarily through three of his books. Although the question of Whitehead’s methodology is discussed, the presentation is generally descriptive rather than critical. Chapter V returns to some of the themes of Chapter IV, this time raising systematic problems and developing solutions that appear to me most fully consonant with the essential philosophical demands of Whitehead himself. This at some points leads to conclusions definitely not accepted by Whitehead and at other points settles issues left unsettled by him.

Chapter VI is an attempt to understand religion in Whiteheadian terms. It includes a discussion of Whitehead’s own thought on this subject but also considers quite independently how Whiteheadian philosophy can account for types of religious experience not reflected upon by Whitehead himself. Here too, to the best of my knowledge, I am breaking new ground.

Chapter VII is an attempt to explicate that understanding of theology and its problematic nature which underlies the whole book. Some reference is made to Whitehead, but in this chapter it is my own understanding of the nature of philosophy and theology that is under discussion. The reader with strongly methodological interests may wish to turn to this chapter before he reads the first six.

The book as a whole belongs in a peculiar way to Prof. Charles Hartshorne, to whom also it is dedicated. It was he who introduced me to Whitehead’s philosophy and fired my enthusiasm. It is he also who has already developed from Whitehead a natural theology of first importance for Christian theology. In the discussion of God in this book there is little that is not inspired directly or indirectly by Hartshorne’s work. My failure to give credit in detail is due to my desire to avoid complicating the text by discussion of the ideas of a third man. Let it simply be said that what is philosophically valid and valuable in my proposals for developing Whitehead’s doctrine of God is due chiefly to Hartshorne. Of course neither he nor those whose help is acknowledged below are responsible for my formulation in detail, and such confusion and error as is to be found in my work is entirely my own responsibility.

Professor Hartshorne read an earlier essay of mine on Whitehead’s doctrine of God and gave me valuable criticisms and still more valuable encouragement. I received similar help from Thomas Altizer, Nels Ferré, Ivor Leclerc, and Donald Sherburne. I want to take this opportunity to express again to each of them my sincere appreciation. I presented the earlier material on God as well as some fragments on Whitehead’s doctrine of man to my students in a Whitehead seminar. For their patience, their questions, and their objections, I am grateful.

Other graduate students have helped me. Chief of these is Larry Rose, who, in addition to much detailed checking, editing, and indexing, read the manuscript without prior familiarity with Whitehead to check its intelligibility and suggest means of improvement. In quite a different way I am indebted to Delwin Brown, who is currently engaged in writing a dissertation on Whitehead’s doctrine of God. He has read and criticized the entire manuscript. Furthermore, at a number of important points my present understanding of Whitehead has grown out of conversations with him that preceded the writing of this book. James Catanzaro and James Goss have also read portions of the manuscript and made helpful suggestions. Without the encouragement and assistance of President Ernest C. Colwell, I could not have completed my project.

Finally and most important, I would express my gratitude to my family and especially to my wife. Their tolerance, understanding, and support are the sine qua non of my study, reflection, and writing.