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


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 cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. Used by permission. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 7: The Theological Task


1. Christian Natural Theology

In Living Options in Protestant Theology, I argued that there is need for a Christian natural theology and that the philosophy of Whitehead provides the best possibility for such a theology. Critics quite reasonably complained that I did not develop such a theology in that book or even provide adequate clues as to what shape it would have. This book is my attempt to fulfill the obligation I imposed on myself by making that proposal. It intends to be a Whiteheadian Christian natural theology. This expression needs clarification.

By theology in the broadest sense I mean any coherent statement about matters of ultimate concern that recognizes that the perspective by which it is governed is received from a community of faith.(In this section I am following Tillich in using "faith" and "ultimate concern" interchangeably.) For example, a Christian may speak coherently of Jesus Christ and his meaning for human existence, recognizing that for his perception of ultimate importance in the Christ event he is indebted to the Christian church. In this case, his speech is theological. If, on the other hand, he speaks of the historic figure of Jesus without even implicit reference to Jesus’ decisive importance for mankind, his speech is not theological. Also, if he claims for statements about Jesus’ ultimate significance a self-evidence or demonstration in no way dependent upon participation in the community of faith, he would not intend his statements to be theological in the sense of my definition.

Most theological formulations take as their starting point statements that have been sanctioned by the community in which the theologian’s perspective has been nurtured, statements such as creeds, confessions, scriptures, or the fully articulated systems of past theologians. But according to my definition of theology, this starting point in earlier verbal formulations is not required. One’s work is theology even if one ignores all earlier statements and begins only with the way things appear to him from that perspective which he acknowledges as given to him in some community of shared life and conviction.

Definitions are not true and false but more or less useful. Hence, I shall try to justify this way of defining theology as being helpful in understanding what actually goes on under the name of theology. First, it distinguishes theology from the attempt to study religion objectively -- from the point of view of some philosophy, some branch of science such as psychology or sociology, or simply as a historical phenomenon. There are those who wish to erase this distinction and to identify theology with, or as inclusive of, all study of religion.(See, for example, John Hutchison, Language and Faith [The Westminster Press, 1963], Ch. IX.) However, the normal use of the term points away from this extension. The psychologist who studies religious experience, perhaps quite unsympathetically, does not think of himself as a theologian. Those who do think of themselves as theologians, on the other hand, do not concern themselves primarily with discussing religion. For the most part they talk about God, man, history, nature, culture, origins, morality, and destiny. The beliefs of the community that has nurtured them may be called religious beliefs, but for the most part they are not beliefs about religion.

Second, my definition suggests that theology cannot be distinguished by its subject matter from all other ways of thinking. It is so distinguished from many of them because it limits itself to questions of importance for man’s meaningful existence, but it can claim no monopoly on such topics. Philosophers also discuss them as do psychologists and artists. The line of distinction here is very vague, for theology may extend itself into questions of less and less obviously critical importance for man’s existence. This may be the result of more or less idle curiosity on the part of the theologian, of the conviction that his authorities are also normative with regard to such matters, or of the belief that all truth is so interconnected that he must concern himself with everything. However, almost everyone agrees that a classification of plants is less "theological" than a discussion of man’s true end, even if the plant classification is based more directly on Biblical texts than is the discussion of human destiny. Furthermore, the work of the theologian can be distinguished from that of some philosophers only to the degree that the theologian acknowledges, and the philosopher resists, dependence on any particular community of ultimate concern for his perspective. Since the theologian may, in fact, be quite independent and original, and since the philosopher may in fact recognize that some of his ideas arose from a culture deeply influenced by a particular community of faith, no sharp demarcation is possible. We can only speak in some instances of the more or less theological or philosophical character of some man’s thought. But this may not be a fault of the definition, since it seems to correspond to common practice and to help clarify that practice. Philosophical theology, as theology that makes extensive and explicit use of philosophical categories, merges by imperceptible degrees into a philosophy that denies dependence upon any community of faith as the source of its insights.

Third, my definition makes no reference to God. This is terminologically strange, since "theology" means reasoning about God. But we must be cautious about understanding words in terms of their roots. "Theology" as doctrine of God still exists as a branch of philosophy with this original meaning, such that one may quite properly speak of Aristotle’s "theology." Likewise "theology" as doctrine of God exists as a branch of theology as I have defined it. As long as the two meanings are clearly distinguished, the term can and should be used in both senses. The branches of thought and inquiry they designate are overlapping. There can be, and is, extensive discussion of the question as to whether or not God exists that is not theological in the sense of my definition, and there is a great deal of theological work in the sense of my definition that does not treat of God.

One important advantage of defining theology as I have done, rather than as reasoning about God, is that it makes possible the recognition of the close parallel between the efforts to articulate Christian faith and similar efforts in such movements as Buddhism. In some forms of Buddhism there is with respect to God only the doctrine of his nonexistence. Thought in the Buddhist community focuses upon man and his possibilities for salvation or illumination. According to my definition, there need be no hesitancy in speaking of Buddhist theology as the thought arising out of the Buddhist community.

A more questionable feature of my definition is that it makes no reference to the holy or sacred. The communities out of which has arisen what we normally call theology are communities in which the power of the sacred is alive. This is just as true of Buddhist atheism as of Christian theism. The reason for omitting all reference to this element is that many leading Christian thinkers today deny that Christianity essentially has anything to do with the sacred. Christianity, they tell us, is not a religion. The correlation of God’s act in Christ with Christian faith is absolutely unique and not to be compared with religious experience. Some of these theologians, and others as well, believe that Christian theology is most relevantly compared with doctrines about the meaning of life that are usually called secular, such as communism, fascism, romantic naturalism, and rationalistic humanism. Christianity is held to be worthy of adherence because of its superior illumination of the questions also treated by these movements, which do not think of themselves as religious or as having to do with the sacred. To define theology as having to do with the sacred, or as expressive of a perspective formed in a community that has apprehended the sacred, would be to rule out much of the work being done by men today who regard themselves, and are generally regarded, as theologians.

The price paid for this breadth of definition is that the term "theology" must then be extended beyond the limits of its most common application. This extension is already widely occurring for just this reason, so such extension is not an eccentricity; nevertheless, it reflects only the recent history of the use of the term. According to this definition we must speak also of communist, fascist, naturalist, and humanist theologies. However, a major qualification is preserved in this respect. If the Communist insists that his doctrine is purely scientific, that his view of history is a function of purely objective rational inquiry unaffected by the community of which he is a part, then his work is not theology but bad science. Others who are not persuaded that the Communist thinker in question is really so free from the influence of his community may of course insist that his thought is covertly theological. But I have defined theology in terms of the recognition of indebtedness to a community of faith, and this element may be lacking. Other Communists, more honest than this, may recognize their work as theological in the sense of the definition. Naturalists and humanists, on the other hand, may find that the community that mediates and supports their perspective is extremely diffuse. They may claim, more reasonably than most Communists, that they have come to their convictions relatively independently and have only then found some support in a wider community. To whatever extent this is the case, their thought is less theological by my definition. Again, we must recognize that we are dealing with a question of degree and not with a clear either/or.

A final feature of the definition is that it excludes from theology the work of the originator of a community. Of course, it may be his theological reflection as a member of an earlier community that has led to the new insight or religious experience. But insofar as there is real discontinuity, insofar as the apprehension of the holy is direct and not mediated by the community, or insofar as the understanding of the human situation is the result of radically independent reflection, we have to do with a prophet, a seer, or a philosopher, rather than with a theologian. Again, the distinction may be a matter of degree. Many of the originators of communities have understood themselves as recovering authentic traditions from the past rather than as initiating something new. To that degree their thinking is theological. But the radically originative element is not. The greatest religious geniuses have not been theologians!

Once again let me emphasize that other definitions are perfectly legitimate. They will draw the lines of inclusion and exclusion differently. One may approve or disapprove theology in any one of its meanings. It is better not to begin with an assumption either that theology is good or that it is bad, and then to arrange a definition that supports this contention. One may identify theology with dogmatism in the sense of blind appeal to authority and refusal to be honest about the facts. In such a case he may and should despise it. But then he should also be willing to learn that most of the men who have been thought of as theologians have not done the kind of work implied in his definition. He must be willing to try to find some other term by which he will refer to those whom others call theologians. Or one may identify theology as speaking in obedience to the Word of God. But then he must recognize that only those who believe that there is a "Word of God" can believe that there is a theology. To those on the outside, the great majority of the human race, what he calls theology will appear at best the confession of the faith of one community among others. He will also require some other term to describe what is done in other communities where the "Word of God" is not obeyed.

The definition of theology here employed is relatively neutral on the question of its virtue or evil. Those who believe that the only fruitful thinking is that which attempts strenuously to clear the slate of all received opinion and to attain to methods that can be approved and accepted by men of all cultures, will disapprove of the continuance of a mode of thought that recognizes its dependence upon the particularities of one community. On the other hand, those who believe that there are questions of greatest importance for human existence that are not amenable to the kind of inquiry we associate with the natural sciences, will be more sympathetic toward theology.

My own view is that theology as here defined has peculiar possibilities for combining importance and honesty. Practitioners of disciplines that pride themselves on their objectivity and neutrality sometimes make pronouncements on matters of ultimate human concern, but when they do so they invariably introduce assumptions not warranted by their purely empirical or purely rational methods. Usually there is a lack of reflective awareness of these assumptions and their sources. The theologian, on the other hand, confesses the special character of the perspective he shares and is therefore more likely to be critically reflective about his assumptions and about the kind of justification he can claim for them. If in the effort to avoid all unprovable assumptions one limits his sphere of reflection to narrower and narrower areas, one fails to deal relevantly with the issues of greatest importance for mankind, leaving them to be settled by appeals to the emotions. The theologian insists that critical reflection must be brought to bear in these areas as well as in the rigorously factual ones.

In the light of my definition of theology, we can now consider what natural theology may be. Some definitions of natural theology put it altogether outside the scope of theology as I have defined it. This would be highly confusing, since I intend my definition of theology to be inclusive. However, we should consider such a definition briefly. Natural theology is often identified with that of theological importance which can be known independently of all that is special to a particular community. In other words, natural theology, from this point of view, is all that can be known relative to matters of ultimate human concern by reason alone, conceiving reason in this case as a universal human power. This definition is, of course, possible, and it has substantial continuity with traditional usage. It is largely in this sense that Protestant theologians have rejected natural theology. A consideration of the reasons for this rejection will be instructive.

In principle, natural theology has been rejected on the ground that it is arrogant and self-deceptive. It is argued that reason alone is not able to arrive at any truth about such ultimate questions. When it pretends to do so it covertly introduces elements that are by no means a part of man’s universal rational equipment. Every conviction on matters of ultimate concern is determined by factors peculiar to an historically-formed community or to the private experience of some individual. Since no doctrine of theological importance can claim the sanction of universal, neutral, objective, impartial reason, what is called natural theology can only be the expression of one faith or another. If Christian thinkers accept the authority of a natural theology, they are accepting something alien and necessarily opposed to their own truth, which is given them in the Christian community.

The last point leads to a consideration of the substantive or material reason for the rejection of natural theology. The philosophical doctrines traditionally accepted by the church on the basis of the authority of philosophical reason have, in fact, been in serious tension with the ways of thinking about God that grew out of the Old and New Testaments and the liturgy of the church. The philosophers’ God was impassible and immutable whereas the Biblical God was deeply involved with his creation and even with its suffering. Brilliant attempts at synthesis have been made, but the tensions remain.

My view is that it is unfortunate that natural theology has been identified substantively with particular philosophic doctrines. There is no principle inherent in reason that demands that philosophy will always conclude that God is impassible and immutable and hence, unaffected by and uninvolved in the affairs of human history. Philosophers may reach quite different conclusions, some of which do not introduce these particular tensions into the relation between philosophy and Christian theology.(That this is so is fully established by the work of Hartshorne. See especially The Divine Relativity.) The modern theological discussion of natural theology has been seriously clouded by the failure to distinguish the formal question from the substantive one.

On the formal question, however, I agree with the rejection of natural theology as defined above. The individual philosopher may certainly attempt to set aside the influence of his community and his own special experiences and to think with total objectivity in obedience to the evidence available to all men. This is a legitimate and worthy endeavor. But the student of the history of philosophy cannot regard it as a successful one. It is notorious that the ineradicable ideas left in Descartes’s mind after he had doubted everything were products of the philosophical and theological work, or more broadly of the cultural matrix, that had formed his mind. There is nothing shameful in this. Descartes’s work was exceedingly fruitful. Nevertheless, no one today can regard it as the product of a perfectly neutral and universal human rationality. If one should agree with him, he should recognize that he does so decisively because his fundamental experience corresponds to that of Descartes. He cannot reasonably hope that all equally reflective men will come to Descartes’s conclusions.

To put the matter in another way, it is generally recognized today that philosophy has a history. For many centuries each philosopher was able to suppose that his own work climaxed philosophy and reached final indubitable truth. But such an attitude today would appear naïve if the great questions of traditional philosophy are being discussed. Insofar as philosophers now attempt to reach final conclusions, they characteristically abandon the traditional questions of philosophy and limit themselves to much more specialized ones. In phenomenology, symbolic logic, and the analysis of the meaning of language, attempts are still being made to reach determinate conclusions not subject to further revision. These attempts are highly problematic, and in any case questions of ultimate concern cannot be treated in this way. If natural theology means the product of an unhistorical reason, we must reply that there is no such thing.

However, responsible thinking about questions of ultimate human importance continues to go on outside the community of faith. Furthermore, many of the members of the community of faith who engage in such thinking consciously or unconsciously turn away from the convictions nurtured in them by the community while they pursue this thinking. It is extremely unfortunate that the partly legitimate rejection of natural theology has led much of Protestant theology to fail to come effectively to grips with this kind of responsible thinking. Some theologians have idealized a purity of theological work that would make it unaffected by this general human reflection on the human situation. They have attempted so to define theology that nothing that can be known outside the community is relevant to its truth or falsehood, adequacy or inadequacy. I am convinced that this approach has failed.( In Living Options in Protestant Theology, I have tried to show in each case how, whether recognized or not, theological positions depend systematically on affirmations that are not private to theology. I acknowledge the brilliance of Barth’s near success in avoiding such dependence.)

In almost all cases, the theologian continues to make assumptions or affirmations that are legitimately subject to investigation from other points of view. For example, he assumes that history and nature can be clearly distinguished, or that man can meaningfully be spoken of as free. He may insist that he knows these things on the basis of revelation, but he must then recognize that he is claiming, on the basis of revelation, the right to make affirmations that can be disputed by responsibly reflective persons. If he denies that science can speak on these matters, he thereby involves himself in a particular understanding of science that, in its turn, is subject to discussion in contexts other than theology. He must either become more and more unreasonably dogmatic, affirming that on all these questions he has answers given him by his tradition that are not subject to further adjudication, or else he must finally acknowledge that his theological work does rest upon presuppositions that are subject to evaluation in the context of general reflection. In the latter case he must acknowledge the role of something like natural theology in his work. I believe that this is indispensable if integrity is to be maintained and esotericism is to be avoided.

The problem, then, is how the theologian should reach his conclusions on those broader questions of general reflection presupposed in his work. The hostility toward natural theology has led to a widespread refusal to take this question with full seriousness. Theologians are likely to accept rather uncritically some idea or principle that appears to them established in the secular world. For example, a theologian may assume that modern knowledge leads us to conceive the universe as a nexus of cause and effect such that total determinism prevails in nature. Conversely, he may seize the scientific principle of indeterminacy as justifying the doctrine of human freedom. Or he may point to the dominant mood of contemporary philosophy as justifying a complete disregard of traditional philosophy. My contention is that most of this is highly irresponsible. What the theologian thus chooses functions for him as a natural theology, but it is rarely subjected to the close scrutiny that such a theology should receive. It suffers from all the evils of the natural theologies of the past and lacks most of their virtues. It is just as much a product of a special point of view, but it is less thoroughly criticized. In many cases it is profoundly alien to the historic Christian faith, and yet it is accepted as unexceptionably authoritative.

If there were a consensus of responsible reflection, then the adoption of that consensus as the vehicle for expression of Christian faith might be necessary. But there is no such consensus that can be taken over and adopted by the Christian theologian. Hence, if natural theology is necessary, the theologian has two choices. He may create his own, or he may adopt and adapt some existing philosophy.

If the theologian undertakes to create a philosophy expressive of his fundamental Christian perspective, we may call his work Christian philosophy in the strict sense. There can be no objection in principle to this undertaking, but historically the greatest philosophical work of theologians has never been done in this way. Many philosophies have been Christian in the looser sense that their starting points have been deeply affected by the Christian vision of reality. But the conscious recognition of this dependence on a distinctively Christian perspective has been rare.

Practically and historically speaking, the great contributions to philosophy by theologians have been made in the modification of the philosophical material they have adopted. Augustine’s work with Neoplatonic philosophy and Thomas’ adaptation and development both of Aristotle and of Augustinian Neoplatonism are the great classical examples. Both Augustine and Thomas were superb philosophers, but neither undertook to produce a new Christian philosophy. They brought to the philosophies they adopted questions that had not occurred to the philosophers with comparable force. In the process of answering these questions, they rethought important aspects of the philosophies. In doing this they did strictly philosophical work, appealing for justification only to the norms of philosophy. But even in making their philosophical contributions they were conscious that the perspective that led them to press these questions arose from their Christian convictions. This source of the questions does not lessen the value of their work as philosophy, but it does mean that their philosophical work was a part of their work as theologians. Theology is not to be distinguished from philosophy by a lesser concern for rigor of thought!

If, then, we are today to follow in their footsteps, our task will be to adopt and adapt a philosophy as they did. I suggest that in implementing this program the theologian should accept two criteria for the evaluation of available philosophies.

First, he should consider the intrinsic excellence of the structure of thought he proposes to adopt and adapt. The judgment of such excellence may be partly subjective, but it is not wholly so. Despite all the irrationalism of the modern world there remains the fact that consistency and coherence where they are possible, are to be preferred over inconsistency and incoherence. A theory that proposes to explain many things must also be judged as to its success in doing so. If a few broad principles can unify a vast body of data, the employment of many ad hoc principles is to be rejected. Criteria of this sort have almost universal practical assent, so that it is always necessary to give special reasons for their rejection. If a particular position that claims philosophical authority is markedly inferior by these criteria, there can be no justification for adopting it to serve as a natural theology.

Second, there is no reason for accepting as a natural theology a position hostile to Christian faith, if another position more congenial to faith is equally qualified according to the norms suggested above. The study of the history of thought suggests that there is a plurality of philosophical doctrines, each of which can attain a high degree of excellence by all the norms on which they agree in common. This does not mean that any of them are wholly beyond criticism, but it does mean that the finally decisive criticisms stem from a perception of the data to be treated in philosophy that is different from the perception underlying the philosophy criticized. Diverse visions of reality lead to diverse philosophies and are, in turn, strengthened by the excellence of the philosophies to which they give birth.

For example, there are persons to whom it is wholly self-evident that sense data are the ultimate givens in terms of which all thought develops and who are equally convinced that the only acceptable explanation of the way things happen follows mechanical models. These convictions will lead to a particular philosophical position. Against this position it is useless to argue that there are data that this philosophy does not illumine, and that mechanical models capable of explaining the processes of thought have not been devised. The philosopher in question does not agree that there are other data and assumes that the lack of adequate models is a function of continuing human ignorance.

The particular position I have described would be a caricature of any major philosophical thinker, but it does point to a type of mentality that is not rare in our culture. When I realize that the particular conclusions generated by the serious reflection that arises from such assumptions have only the authority of those assumptions, then I feel free to turn to another philosophy that includes among its data human persons and their interactions; for my perception of reality is such that these seem to me at least as real and ultimate as sense data and mechanical relations. I cannot prove the truth of my vision any more than the sensationalist can prove the truth of his, but this does not shake me in my conviction. I may well recognize that my way of seeing reality has been nurtured in the community of faith, but this provides no reason for accepting as my natural theology the conclusions derived from the sensationalist-mechanist vision. On the contrary, it provides excellent reasons for choosing the conclusions of a personalistic philosophy, always providing that as a philosophy, measured by the appropriate criteria of that discipline, it is of at least equal merit. Every natural theology reflects some fundamental perspective on the world. None is the pure result of neutral, objective reason. Every argument begins with premises, and the final premises cannot themselves be proved. They must be intuited. Not all men intuit the same premises. The quest for total consensus is an illusion, and indeed there is no reason to accept majority rule in such a matter if the majority does not share one’s premises. Hence, a Christian theologian should select for his natural theology a philosophy that shares his fundamental premises, his fundamental vision of reality. That philosophy is his Christian natural theology, or rather that portion of that philosophy is his natural theology which deals most relevantly with the questions of theology. It would be confusing to include under the heading of natural theology all the technical aspects of philosophy, but, on the other hand, no sharp line can be drawn, and the coherence of the whole is of decisive importance for selection.

In the sense now explained, natural theology is the overlapping of two circles, the theological and the philosophical. Natural theology is a branch of theology because the theologian in appropriating it must recognize that his selection expresses his particular perspective formed in a community from which he speaks. On the other hand, it is also philosophy because it embodies thinking that has been done and judged in terms of philosophical norms.

There may seem to be some tension here. Philosophy is critical, imaginative, and comprehensive thinking that strives to free itself from the conditioning of particular traditions and communities, whereas a criterion for the selection of a philosophy by a theologian should be its sharing of a basic vision of reality. But there is no contradiction. The philosopher does not set out to show how the world appears from the perspective of a community of faith, and to some degree, he can free himself from such perspectives. Even if he is a Christian, for example, he can set aside all the particular beliefs about Jesus Christ, God, miracles, salvation, and eternal life that he recognizes as peculiar to that tradition. He can and should refuse to accept as relevant to his philosophical work, any data that do not appear to him to be generally accessible. He will begin with ordinary language, or the findings of science, or widespread experience of mankind, rather than with the special convictions of his community. This starting point will lead the philosopher to the consideration of many questions ordinarily not treated by Christian theology and to the omission of many questions usually treated by theology. It will also lead to the consideration of overlapping questions.

However, beyond this level of conviction, life in a community also produces a primary perspective, a basic way of understanding the nature of things, a fundamental vision of reality. It is at this level that the philosopher cannot escape his perspective.( Whitehead saw the work of the creative philosopher in terms of the novelty of his perspective. The philosopher "has looked at the universe in a certain way, has seen phenomena under some fresh aspect; he is full of his vision and anxious to communicate it. His value to other men is in what he has seen" [Dial 266] Whitehead also recognized that the philosopher’s vision is affected by the historic community in which he stands. "Modern European philosophy, which had its origins in Plato and Aristotle, after sixteen hundred years of Christianity reformulated its problems with increased attention to the importance of the individual subject of experience, conceived as an abiding entity with a transition of experiences." [RM 140.])

He can, of course, reject a perspective that he may have at one time accepted, but he can do so only in favor of some other perspective. And it should be said that changing perspectives in this sense is not simply a voluntary matter. Conscious decisions may affect the process but they do not in themselves constitute it. The decision on the part of the Christian theologian as to where he should turn for his natural theology should involve the judgment as to whether the vision of reality underlying the philosophical system is compatible with that essentially involved in the Christian faith.

In this book, I am proposing a Christian natural theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s philosophy was, I believe, Christian, in the sense of being deeply affected in its starting point by the Christian vision of reality. To some extent he himself seems to have recognized this fact. Furthermore, Whitehead’s most important philosophical work grew out of his Gifford Lectures, a lectureship in natural theology. Hence, the judgment that Whitehead’s philosophy provides us with a suitable Christian natural theology is not altogether an alien imposition upon him. One might well simply select the relevant doctrines in his thought and treat them as the appropriate natural theology.

Nevertheless, I see the relation of the Christian theologian to Whitehead’s philosophy as analogous to that of theologians of the past to the philosophies they have adopted from the Greeks. Whitehead’s work is obviously already Christianized in a way Greek philosophy could not have been. Hence, it proves, I am convinced, more amenable to Christian use. Nevertheless, the questions in the foreground of concern for the Christian theologian were on the periphery of concern for Whitehead. Philosophy of science, epistemology, ontology, logic, and mathematics, along with broad humanistic concerns, dominated his thought. He never organized his work extensively around the doctrine of man or the doctrine of God. Hence, the theologian approaches Whitehead’s work, asking questions the answers to which are not readily available. He must piece together fragments from here and there. Furthermore, at certain points, more crucial to the theologian than to Whitehead, the questions are simply unanswered or are answered in ways that do not seem philosophically satisfactory when attention is focused upon them.

For these reasons, the present book is a development of my own Christian natural theology rather than simply a summary of Whitehead’s philosophy in its relevant aspects. It is heavily dependent on Whitehead. Much of it is simply borrowed from him. But I have also entered into discussion with him as to how some of the doctrines might better be formulated.

It should be reemphasized that the work of Christian natural theology does not involve an unphilosophical imposition of conclusions on recalcitrant materials. At no point in previous discussion have I intended to replace philosophical argument by dogmatic assertion or to distort Whitehead so as to render him more amenable to Christian use. My attempt has been to make the philosophical doctrines conform more fully to the philosophical norms, especially to Whitehead’s own norm of coherence. The role of my Christian point of view has been to focus attention upon certain questions. If indeed, beyond this it has dictated solutions that are philosophically inferior to available alternatives, I ask only to be corrected. A Christian natural theology must not be a hybrid of philosophy and Christian convictions. It must be philosophically responsible throughout. Where my philosophical work is poor it is to be judged simply as poor philosophy and not justified by my Christian convictions.

The choice of Whitehead as the philosopher on whom to base a Christian natural theology requires only brief comment. Obviously I have chosen him because I am persuaded by him. But I can speak more objectively. If there has been any great philosopher in the twentieth century who stands in the tradition of comprehensive syntheses of human knowledge, that philosopher is Whitehead. Beside him every other candidate seems specialized, and in my view, less profound. Although many have given up the effort to understand him, and others have rejected his whole enterprise, most of those who have worked through his philosophy with care recognize its excellence by all the standards normal for the evaluation of a philosophy.(As an exception, note Blyth, Whitehead’s Theory of Knowledge. Blyth argues that there are fundamental inconsistencies in Whitehead’s position. The difficulty arises chiefly from Whitehead’s frequent unfortunate references to mutual prehensions. If taken literally, this terminology implies that contemporary occasions prehend each other, a doctrine explicitly repudiated by Whitehead. Sherburne’s explanation of Whitehead’s probable meaning handles most of Blyth’s criticisms. [Sherburne, pp. 73-76.]) I cannot prove that excellence here, yet I hope that even my presentation of fragments of his thought has evoked some sense of its coherence, adequacy, and power.

Whether I judge rightly as to the appropriateness of Whiteheadian thought for Christian use is for the reader to decide. Clearly there is no overwhelming consensus among Christians as to what the faith is. For this reason no unanimous agreement on the suitability of any natural theology is conceivable. Yet I believe that in Whitehead we have an excellent philosophy unusually free from the tensions with Christian faith characteristic of other philosophies that Christians have tried to employ.

2. Relativism

In the preface and elsewhere in the book, I have indicated my conviction that a cosmology inspired by the natural sciences has played the dominant role in undermining Christian understanding of both God and man. I have developed at some length aspects of a Whiteheadian cosmology which, I believe, both does more justice to the natural sciences and creates a new possibility of Christian understanding of man, God, and religion. But there is another factor that has contributed to the decline of faith in modern times, which has not yet been seriously considered. This is the historical study of culture and thought. This study has led to the view that every kind of human activity and thought can only be understood as an expression of a particular situation, that all value and "truth" are culturally and historically conditioned, and that this means also that our attempts to find truth must be understood as nothing more than an expression of our conditioned situation.

In the foregoing discussion of Christian natural theology I expressed my own acquiescence in this relativistic understanding to a considerable degree. It is because no philosophy can be regarded as philosophically absolute that the Christian can and should choose among philosophies (so long as they are philosophically of equal merit) the one that shares his own vision of the fundamental nature of things. But if so, then are we not engaged in a fascinating and difficult game rather than in grounding our affirmations of faith? If we can pick and choose among philosophies according to our liking, what reason have we to suppose that the one we have chosen relates us to reality itself? Perhaps it only systematizes a dream that some of us share. The problem of relativism is fundamental to our spiritual situation and to our understanding of both theology and philosophy. Before bringing this book to a close, I want to confront this problem directly, and, though I cannot solve it, perhaps shed some light upon it as Whitehead helps us to see it.

Few philosophers have recognized as clearly as Whitehead did the relativity of their own philosophies.(ESP 87.) Yet in Whitehead’s vision the relativity of philosophies need not have so debilitating an effect as some views of the relativity of thought suggest. He understands the relativity of philosophies as closely analogous to the relativity of scientific theories.(PR 20-21.)

In the field of science the fundamental principles now applied are remote from the fundamental principles of the Newtonian scheme. Nevertheless, the Newtonian scheme is recognized as having a large measure of applicability. As long as we focus attention upon bodies of some magnitude and upon motion of moderate velocity, the laws of science developed by the Newtonians hold true. They have, therefore, real validity, and those who accepted them were not deceived. These laws did not cease to be true when science passed beyond them to the investigation of elements in the universe to which they do not apply. What happened was that heretofore unrecognized limits of their truth came to light. Certainly the Newtonian apprehension of nature was conditioned by history and culture, but it was also substantiated in its partial truth by centuries of patient thought and experimentation. That thought and experimentation are not discredited.

Whitehead believed that the situation in philosophy is similar. No philosophical position is simply false. Every serious philosophy illumines some significant range of human experience. But every philosophy also has its limits. It illumines some portion of experience at the cost of failure to account adequately for others.(FR 70-71.) Also, science and history keep providing new data of which philosophy must take account. The task of the philosopher in relation to the history of philosophy is not to refute his predecessors but to learn from them. What they have shown is there to be seen. A new philosophy must encompass it. Where there are apparent contradictions among philosophers, the goal must be to attain a wider vision within which the essential truth of each view can be displayed in its limited validity.(PR 11-16.)

There are, of course, sheer errors in the work of philosophers. These can and should be detected, but this has nothing to do with the problem of relativism. Indeed the possibility of showing errors presupposes a nonrelativistic principle at work. And no philosophical position is built upon sheer error. The more serious problem arises at the point at which philosophers draw inferences based on the assumption that their systematic positions are essentially complete. These inferences will prove erroneous, because in the nature of the case no system of thought is final. All must await enlargement at the hands of the future.

If Whitehead is right, and surely he is not entirely wrong here, then we should employ a philosopher’s work with proper caution. We should never regard it as some final, definitive expression of the human mind beyond which thought cannot progress. But we need not suppose that the entire validity of his work depends upon the chance correctness of some arbitrarily selected starting point. What the philosopher has seen is there to be seen or he would not have seen it. His description may be faulty, and what he has seen may have blinded him to other dimensions of reality. He may have drawn inferences from what he has seen that he would not have drawn if he had also seen other aspects of reality -- perhaps those other aspects dominating the work of another philosophical school. But when all is said and done, we may trust philosophy to give us positive light on problems of importance.

Whitehead’s excellence is impressive when judged by his own principle. Within the total corpus of his thought one can understand the truth of Plato, the truth of Aristotle, the truth of Descartes, the truth of Hume, the truth of Kant, the truth of Dewey, the truth of Bradley, and many others. From the broad perspective he grants us, we can grasp the aspects of reality that dominated the thought of each of these men, can see the limited correctness of the inferences they draw, and can note how the work of the others is needed to correct and supplement what each has done. Whitehead looks forward to a future when a still more comprehensive vision can be attained in which his own work will be seen as also fragmentary in its grasp of reality. We too may look forward to that time, but we should not expect it imminently. The work of great philosophers is rarely superseded rapidly. And Whitehead is a great philosopher.

Whitehead also recognized and insisted upon the relativity of values. There is not one good. In the primordial vision of God there is an appetition that all possible values be realized. No one pattern of excellence is finally preferred.(This has been discussed in Ch. III.)

But this does not mean that values are not worth achieving. It does indeed mean that our contemporary ideals are not absolute and that no pattern of mores, however fine, can be anything other than one among many. There is no natural law, if that would mean an eternal sanctioning of one such pattern. But there is an objectivity of value. There is real better and worse. There are criteria by which various achievements, even achievements in various cultures governed by diverse visions of excellence, can be judged. The relativity of values does not mean that values are not real.

On both of these points Whitehead has dealt with the problem of relativity seriously and has removed from it its nihilistic sting. There is no human attainment of final truth, but there are more and less adequate approximations. There is no human value that is eternally sanctioned for all times and places. But there are real excellences to be achieved in many ways, all eminently worth achieving. Can we rest with this solution to the problem of relativism?

On this point I, for one, am deeply torn. I find Whitehead’s thought so powerfully persuasive, and I find it so comprehensively illuminating of the history of thought, that I am for the most part disposed to act and think of it as just what it claims to be -- the most adequate approach to philosophic truth yet found. In these terms the fact that we know it is not final, that the future will supersede it by showing its limitations, is not disturbing. We must in any age act upon the truth that is given us.

But at the same time that I find Whitehead’s thought so deeply satisfying, I realize that there are others, more intelligent and sensitive than myself, who see all things in some quite different perspective. Can I believe that they are simply wrong? From my Whiteheadian perspective I can usually understand why they adopt the view they hold, what factors in the whole of reality have so impressed themselves upon them that they allow their vision to be dominated by those factors. But is there not an ultimate and unjustified arrogance in supposing that my perspective can include theirs in a way that theirs cannot include mine? Must I not reckon more radically with the possibility of sheer error in my own vision?

Here I think we must come to terms with an aspect of the modern sensibility that we cannot transcend. Just because we humans can transcend ourselves, we can and must recognize the extreme finitude of all our experiences, all our judgments, all our thoughts. Every criterion we establish to evaluate our claims to truth must be recognized as itself involved in the finitude it strives to transcend. From this situation there is no escape. We must learn to live, to think, and to love in the context of this ultimate insecurity of uncertainty.

This may suggest to some theologians that the whole enterprise of natural theology is, after all that has been said, misguided. It seeks support for theology in a philosophy that cannot transcend relativity and uncertainty. These theologians may hold that Christian theology should remain faithful only to the Word of God that breaks through from the absolute into the relative. But there is no escape here. I can be no more sure of the truth of the claim that the absolute has shown itself than of the truth of the philosophical analysis. However certain the absolute may be in itself, it is mediated to me through channels that do not share that absoluteness. If the appeal is to some unmediated act of the absolute in the believer, there must still be trust beyond certainty that the act has truly occurred and been rightly interpreted. Faith does not free us from involvement in relativities any more than does philosophy.

Yet, in another sense, faith is the answer to the human dilemma of being forced to live in terms of a truth that one knows may not be true. Perhaps even here Whitehead can help us or at least we can sense in him a companion in our struggles.

One of the enduring problems of philosophy is that of the relation between appearance and reality. For our present purposes we may consider appearance to be the world given us in sense experience and reality to be those entities treated in the physical sciences that seem to be the agencies by which experience is aroused in us. Whitehead developed a penetrating analysis of this process that takes full account of physics and physiology and is effectively integrated into his account of human experience. But Whitehead’s account left unsettled the kind of relation that might actually exist between the objects in the external world and the sense experience of them. Is there some meaningful sense in which the grass is really green, or does the conformity of our experience to that of the entities that we prehend go no farther than the occasions of experience in the eye? Certainly it would be strange to say that the light that mediates between the grass and the eye is also green. Yet man’s instinctive belief that the outside world really possesses the qualities it arouses in him is so deep, that Whitehead is reluctant to regard this belief as wholly illusory. At this point philosophical analysis breaks down. It cannot assure us that the whole of our aesthetic experience is not fundamentally deceptive.

Whitehead’s discussion of peace has already been treated twice in this volume, but it has not been exhausted. One element in particular remains. Ingredient in peace, for Whitehead, is an assurance that ultimately the vision of the world given in sense experience is true.’2 This is the assurance that reality does not ultimately deceive. It is an assurance that exceeds rational demonstration. It is faith.

In the context of the present discussion this faith must be that the necessity to live and act by a belief whose truth we cannot know is accompanied by an assurance that as we do so we are not wholly deceived. We will not pretend to a privileged apprehension of reality as a whole. We will not suppose that those who disagree with us are therefore wrong. We can only witness to the way that our best reflection leads us to perceive our world. But we can and must believe that in this witness also, somehow, the truth is served.

3. The Other Tasks of Theology

Insofar as the theologian appeals for the justification of his statements to the general experience of mankind, he is engaged in Christian natural theology. He may have gained his insight from special revelation, but he is asking that it be accepted on its own merit as illuminating the human situation. Much of the work that has been done, even by those who have most vehemently attacked natural theology, is Christian natural theology in this sense. But there is another dimension to the theologian’s task. He must also witness directly to what is peculiar to his own community and to that revelation of truth by which it is constituted. At this point he is engaged in Christian theology proper.

There is no one way of carrying out this theological enterprise. Men equally responsible to their faith and to their community approach their task of Christian reflection in many different ways. Of these we will consider a few briefly, without any intention of disparaging still other approaches.

First, there is interpretation of the text. Especially in Protestantism the community has attributed a normativeness to the Bible that makes its exposition and proclamation central to the theological task. This point of view has been maintained with special effectiveness in those Continental European traditions which have provided the greatest intellectual leadership in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, especially in the contemporary scene, the theologian is not sharply distinguished from the Biblical scholar. Instead, they share the one task of understanding and making relevant the message found in the text. The Biblical scholar may focus more narrowly on the understanding, the theologian on the relevance, but even this division of labor is hardly maintained. In recent years it has often been the Biblical scholars rather than the systematic theologians who have done the most creative and influential theological work and who have been most effectively engaged with the question of relevance to the modern situation.

In this country this near identification of theology with interpretation of the text is sometimes confused with conservatism. It may, of course, be conservative in spirit and is so at least to the extent that it begins with the assumption that the Scriptures remain normative for the church. But the radicality with which the criticism of Scripture has been carried out in terms of modern historiographical methods, the intense concern to find within the Scripture that meaning and message which is of vital relevance in our situation, should warn us that the distinction of conservative and liberal is not relevant to the distinction between this approach to theology and others.

Second, the theologian may take as his approach to the proper task of theology, confession based on reflection on what has occurred and continues to take place in the community. This will involve him in considering the role of Scripture in the community and in employing Scripture as a source for determining the formative events of the community. Nevertheless, the role of Scripture and its interpretation is quite different in this confessional approach to theology from that discussed above. Here the community rather than the Bible is taken as the point of reference.

The first approach to theology discussed above is characteristic of the Reformation and the theological currents that have maintained closest continuity with it. Biblical study in the tradition of the Reformation is distinctively theological by virtue of its assumption that truth for man’s existence is to be found in the text. A scholar who approached the Bible without any conviction of its existential importance might contribute to the discipline of Biblical scholarship and indirectly to theology, but he would not himself be engaged in the theological enterprise. Similarly in the confessional approach, only if the man who speaks of what has taken place and now takes place in the community does so as a believing participant, is his work theological.( A borderline case is that of the man who enters empathetically into an alien perspective and imaginatively presents its convictions. I would say that in this sense a Buddhist can write a Christian theology.) An outsider might discuss the same topics, and the theologian might learn much from him. But the work of the outsider will be history or sociology and not theology.

The confessional theologian reflects upon the history that has formed the community of which he is a part and that has given him the meanings in terms of which he sees all of life. He confesses the redemptive and revelatory power of the key events in this history. He speaks of the meaning and nature of that faith by which the power of the events becomes effective in the believer. Again, he does not attempt to describe this faith as a psychologist might. He speaks of it in its living immediacy as a power effective in the community and shared by him. He explains how it seems to arise and how it affects the whole quality of life and action. He discusses the response that is appropriate to it and how it binds men together in fellowship. Beyond this there is the life and practice of the community. This too must be described from within in its peculiar meaning for its members. There are preaching and sacraments to be understood and interpreted in their relation to the revelatory events and the faith of the believer. There is the understanding of historical continuity and discontinuity to be worked out, the role and limits of innovation. There is the attempt to understand how God is peculiarly at work in all of this and how his present work is related to his work in the revelatory events.

In principle, confessional theology makes no affirmations with application beyond the community or subject to verification outside of it. But theology proper may take a third form which I will call, quite arbitrarily, "dogmatic" theology. The dogmatic theologian makes claims of truth which are relevant to all men whether or not they are within the community. He may speak of the human situation as such, and not just of the situation of the believer. Insofar as the theologian appeals to the general evidence available to those both within and without the community for the vindication of such affirmations, he is involved in Christian natural theology. But insofar as he makes affirmations about the universal human situation that are not warranted in general experience but only in the revelatory events by which the community lives, he is in my terms a dogmatic theologian. For example, the dogmatic theologian may affirm on the grounds of the resurrection of Jesus that all men will be resurrected, without supposing that there is other evidence for this truth or that objective proof is possible.

I suggest that in working out these approaches to theology proper, Whiteheadian categories will prove hardly less useful than in the formulation of a natural theology. The presence of God in Jesus Christ, the way in which the Christian is bound to him in faith, the nature of the new being in him, the sacraments, the present working of the Holy Spirit -- all these are subject to clarification and illumination by the use of Whiteheadian concepts. That task still lies ahead of us.

But in our day the encounter of Christianity with the other great world religions renders questionable the continuing work of Christian theology in any of its forms. This encounter is not new, but as the world draws together politically, economically, and culturally, the divisiveness of organized religions all continuing to confess their several faiths, becomes increasingly intolerable to many. It is, of course, possible to continue business as usual. But the knowledge that there have been other great revelations by which communities have lived cannot simply be set aside. The work of the theologian must be set in a new key. The inner tension of Christianity, between its particularism and its universalism, expresses itself again in the responses to this situation.

One response is to attempt to distance ourselves from all the particular traditions and communities in order to be able to study each impartially and to accept only what is common to all. But what each shares with the others may be that which is least valuable rather than that which is best. The highest common denominator of all religions may prove to offer nothing by which man can find meaning in life. Hence, others insist that that procedure is impossible. They believe that it is from the perspective given by one community in which we are genuinely and committedly involved that we can learn most effectively from other communities. Believers from the several traditions can engage in a dialogue from which all can learn, although there can be no expectation of agreement or conversion. A third response is to give up what I have called Reformation and dogmatic theology and to limit theology proper to the confessional form. By claiming no special knowledge about man as man but only about the believer as believer, this confessional theology refuses to engage in controversy with other faiths. A fourth response is to deny that the several communities are on the same level at all. One community is claimed to be founded upon the one truth given uniquely to it. Hence theological reflection within that community is the only responsible way of articulating universal truth.

Can natural theology help us here? It cannot help in the sense once supposed when it was thought that human reason could reach conclusions on matters of theological importance that transcend all the relativities of religion and perspective. I have argued that the theologian must select a philosophy according to its compatibility with his fundamental vision as well as according to its philosophical excellence. He cannot then suppose that adherents of other faiths should simply accept his choice as a common basis for joint reflections.

Yet what is remarkable about Whitehead’s extraordinarily comprehensive and original philosophy is that it has also many points of contact with the East. The emphasis on immanence, the rejection of any substance underlying the succession of experiences, the relation of man to nature, the primacy of aesthetic categories in the understanding of ethics, all have affinities to this or that Asiatic philosophy or religion. I have tried to suggest in the preceding chapter how several forms of religious experience more fully developed in the East than in the West can be understood in their genuineness in Whiteheadian categories. Hence, the judgment that finally Whitehead’s philosophy favors the Judeo-Christian concern for persons and interpersonal relations, its monotheism, and its belief that there is meaning in the historical process, does not mean that Eastern thought is simply rejected. Indeed, it might be quite possible for a Buddhist to develop from Whitehead’s philosophy a Buddhist natural theology almost as reasonably as I have developed a Christian one.( Hartshorne has emphasized the affinities of Whitehead’s philosophy with some forms of Buddhism, e.g., The Logic of Perfection (The Open Court Publishing Company), p. 278; Kline, p. 25.) Whitehead certainly would not object.

Whether or not Whitehead might provide a natural theology common to East and West, he can offer great aid to the West in its task of rethinking its faith in the light of the reality of the great religions of the East. What has made the encounter so often painful has been the sense that where the religions differ, if one is right, the others must be wrong. Ultimately, at some points, this may be so. But if we can learn to see the multiplicity of authentic types of religious experience, if we can see also the truth that is present in so many different ways of apprehending the nature of things, then we can begin by confronting the truth in each faith with the truth in others. At some points each tradition must learn to state its truth more carefully to avoid the falsehood that arises from exaggeration, or from insensitivity to the fragmentariness of every human apprehension. The points of conflict will recede as this is done. Each can believe the truth of the other without becoming less convinced of the truth of that which has been revealed to it.

I do not mean to suggest that we can solve our problems of religious diversity simply by adding together the beliefs of all faiths. I do mean to suggest that we can begin by assuming that what each claims to be true -- claims with greatest confidence based on its primary revelation and surest intuitions -- is true. The experiences it affirms do take place. The benefits it has found are real. But men cannot individually encompass all the multiplicity of religious experiences. If a man attempts to enrich his life with all the possible blessings, he will gain few indeed. Life requires a definiteness, a decision, a focus. The final question between the religions of the world must be one of value. Granted the truth each apprehends, where ultimately can man’s final need be met?

When that question is asked with utter honesty, none of the great religious communities of our world can provide the answer. Each has identified itself with doctrinal and cultural elements too specialized to speak to the condition of man as man. A greater purity and therefore a greater universality of relevance can be found in the great classical figures of the religious traditions. But among them also, relativity remains. The Buddha’s vision of reality is not that of the Christ, and both differ profoundly from that of Socrates.

Nevertheless, it may be that all are not in the end on the same plane. It may be that man’s final need finds its answer only in one. What the Christian dare not claim for himself or for his church, he may yet claim for Jesus Christ, namely, that there the universal answer is to be found. The task of vindicating such a claim lies before us as Christians, both in the challenge of personal witness and in the demand for theological reflection.

 

Key to References

Footnote references to books by or about Whitehead use the following abbreviations. Numbers after the abbreviations in the footnotes refer to pages unless otherwise indicated.

AI Adventures of Ideas. The Macmillan Company, 1933.

CN The Concept of Nature. Cambridge University Press, 1920.

Dial… Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price. Little, Brown and Company, 1954.

ESP…Essays in Science and Philosophy. Philosophical Library, Inc., 1,947.

FR…The Function of Reason. Princeton University Press, 1929.

Imm "Immortality," in Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. See "Schilpp" below.

MT Modes of Thought. The Macmillan Company, 1938.

PNK An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 1919; second ed., 1925.

PR Process and Reality. The Macmillan Company, 1929.

RM Religion in the Making. The Macmillan Company, 1926.

SMW Science and the Modern World. The Macmillan Company, 1926.

Works about Whitehead are listed in the first footnote entry by author and title. Subsequent entries are usually by author only.

Blyth John W. Blyth, Whitehead’s Theory of Knowledge. (Brown University Studies, Vol. VII.) Brown University Press, 1941.

Christian William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. Yale University Press, 1959.

Ely Stephen Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1942.

Hammerschmidt William W. Hammerschmidt, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Time. King’s Crown Press, 1947

Johnson A. H. Johnson, Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Beacon Press, Inc. 1952.

Kline George L. Kline, ed., Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.

Lawrence Nathaniel Lawrence, Whitehead’s Philosophical Development University of California Press, 1956.

Leclerc Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition. The Macmillan Company, 1958.

Leclerc (Ed.) Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead. The Macmillan Company, 1961.

Lowe Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.

Palter Robert M. Palter, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science. The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Schilpp Paul Arthur Schilpp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Tudor Publishing Company, 1951.

Sherburne Donald W. Sherburne, A Whiteheadian Aesthetic. Yale University Press, 1961.

 

 

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