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Alfred North Whitehead by Norman Pittenger

Dr. Pittenger, philosopher and theologian, was a senior member of King’s College, Cambridge for many years, then Professor of Christian Apologetics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, before retiring in 1966. Published by John Knox Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1996. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The Concern for Reconception Alfred North Whitehead died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, on December 30, 1947, in his eighty-seventh year. He had lived 'three lives', as he liked to say. The first had been spent in Cambridge, England, where he had been a Fellow of Trinity College and a lecturer in mathematics in the university. The second was in London, where he had taught at London University, serving for a time as President of its Senate. The third, which began in 1924. was at Harvard University, to which he went at the age of sixty-three to become Professor of Philosophy, retiring from active work in 1937 but continuing to live in Cambridge, U.S.A. His 'third life', in the United States, was the period in which his major philosophical works were written and published. It is these, beginning with his Lowell Lectures, Science and the Modern World, in 1925, which have exercised an enormous influence on an increasingly significant movement in Christian theological circles. Whitehead published ten books during those years in the United States, the last of them appearing in the year of his death; it was Essays in Science and Philosophy, a collection of various papers and lectures which had not been included in any of his earlier books. According to his friend Lucien Price, who wrote down a report of conversations with the Whiteheads during the years from 1934 to 1947, the last, or almost the last, remarks of the philosopher (noted by Price as spoken on Armistice Day, November II, 1947) were these: It was a mistake, as the Hebrews tried, to conceive of God as creating the world from the outside, at one go. An all-foreseeing Creator, who could have made the world as we find it now -- what could we think of such a being? Foreseeing everything and yet putting into it all sorts of imperfections to redeem which it was necessary to send his only son into the world to suffer torture and hideous death; outrageous ideas. The Hellenic religion was a better approach ; the Greeks conceived of creation as going on everywhere all the time within the universe; and I also think that they were happier in their conception of supernatural beings impersonating . . . various forces, some good, others bad; for both sorts of forces are present, whether we assign personality to them or not. There is a general tendency in the universe to produce worth-while things, and moments come when we can work with it and it can work through us. But that tendency in the universe to produce worth-while things is by no means omnipotent. Other forces work against it. God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts. But this creation is a continuing process, and 'the process is itself the actuality', since no sooner do you arrive than you start on a fresh journey. In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death of the body to an estate of irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.(Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, recorded by Lucien Price, 1954, pp. 296-7.) Whether or not Price has given Whitehead's exact words -- we may assume that he has -- this quotation provides a good starting-point for understanding the position which is taken by contemporary process-thinkers and the Christian theologians we have mentioned. The key words are in the second paragraph: 'creative principle', 'continuing process' or 'creative process', 'the divine, God', and man's 'true destiny as co-creator'. We shall see, in the sequel, why Whitehead spoke disparagingly of 'the Hebrews' and their idea of God ; but that he believed firmly in the reality of 'the divine, God', is beyond question. Nor can there be any doubt, as we shall also show, that Whitehead believed that in what he styled 'the brief Galilean vision'(Process and reality, 1929, p. 520.) there was a 'revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory' -- namely 'a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world', a disclosure of God not 'as the supreme agency of compulsion' but 'as a persuasive agency'.(Quotations from Adventures of Ideas, 1933, pp. 170-1.) In other words, for Whitehead God is Love, both in his nature and in his activity. The writer of these pages vividly remembers Whitehead's visit to Princeton University in March, 1929, to deliver the Louis Clark Vanuxem Lectures under the title The Function of Reason (published the same year). There were three lectures. The first was attended by an audience which entirely filled one of the halls in McCosh, a university building in the centre of the Princeton campus. The third was heard by a mere handful of people, for the difficulty of Whitehead's language was not compensated for by the charm of the lecturer. But it is that charm which I most clearly remember. The rather short, very English, astonishingly youthful-looking lecturer (although he was sixty-eight at the time); the benign smile; the occasional touches of subtle humour; the capacity to make one feel that here was a man deeply concerned with the truth -- all this was most impressive, even when what was being said was extraordinarily difficult to follow. At that time, one felt that here was an eminently good and wise man ; and it is with justice that Price ends his reporting of Whitehead's conversations with the familiar words of Plato about Socrates : '. . . of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best'. But why is it that this man, more than twenty years after his death, is exerting such an influence on Christian theologians in considerable numbers in North America and now in growing numbers in Britain and elsewhere? I believe the answer is that his philosophical stance, the conceptuality which may be found in or drawn from his works, provides a setting in which the essential Christian faith can be re-thought and re-stated for our own time. Many believe that this approach to things, whatever may be its difficulties in one respect or another, is appropriate to that faith in a fashion which is unparalleled in other possible approaches. Hence I conclude this introductory chapter with some remarks on the contemporary concern for Christian reconception. Matthew Arnold wrote in the last century that men could not do 'without' Christianity, yet they could not do 'with it' as it was then being presented to them. What Arnold said of his own time is equally true for a great number of thoughtful people today. Older ways of formulating the Christian faith, whether these are from Catholic or Protestant sources, seem not to speak meaningfully to such people; yet somehow they feel that Christian faith itself is or might be meaningful. Especially in recent years, with a growing secularization of culture but with an increasing awareness that human beings require some sense of purpose and direction in existence if their lives are to be more than trivial and inane, there is a yearning for some presentation of Christian faith which will be both true to the historical emphases of our Christian tradition and alert to contemporary experience and knowledge. This explains the ferment in the theological world. Everywhere, among Christian thinkers of all denominations, there is a remarkable stirring; 'radical theologians' of various sorts are hard at work, seeking ways of making what G. K. Chesterton once called 'the Christian thing' a vivid and compelling reality. Those who are not so 'radical' are equally aware of the situation they too are striving to find ways of stating, proclaiming, and thinking through once again the perennial Christian affirmations. One of the approaches has been through a renewed study of biblical motifs, images, and symbols. What are the enduring 'models' of God and man and their relationship, running through the Old and New Testaments, and how do these present the significance of Jesus Christ? Sometimes these 'models' are thought to have in and of themselves the capacity to communicate meaning to modern man. More often they are 'de-mythologized', re-interpreted in such a fashion that their deepest intention can be accepted as a veridical statement of man's situation, his need for salvation; and what Christian faith declares provides the answer to that need. Another way of handing the problem is associated with the attempt to employ the resources of existentialism, with its analysis of man's condition, in such a manner that the faith provides an answer to what that analysis discloses. This is the method of 'correlation', employed by Paul Tillich and others. Or the portrayal of man found in Heidegger may be used as a path to a deeper understanding of 'being', of 'letting be', and of 'new being in Christ'. John Macquarrie has followed this line. Some theologians, impressed by the difficulty of making metaphysical assertions of any kind (especially in the light of recent philosophical movements which seem to have imposed a 'veto' on metaphysics in anything like the traditional sense), have attempted to present the Christian message in its 'secular meaning', without recourse to the concept of 'God' or 'the divine'. Paul van Buren's recent writing has taken this path. Others do not go quite so far, but with Harvey Cox in his The Secular City think that God is to be spoken of only in 'historical' terms, providing the clue to a Christ-like interpretation of man's existence in a world which more and more must be understood in strictly 'secular' ways. And some reject altogether the notion of God, not because they agree with van Buren that the word God is meaningless but because (as they put it) 'God is dead'; yet they insist that by taking their stand on Jesus of Nazareth as 'the Man for others', in his contagious freedom and in his outgoing love, they preserve the essence of Christian faith, however profoundly they may depart from what hitherto has been regarded as the necessary theistic ground for that faith. One realizes that the above paragraphs are so brief as to be a parody of the writers and theologies described. Yet something like them is familiar enough in the theological world today. All of them are seriously concerned to make Christian faith a living reality for contemporary people; all of them must be accorded the respect due to such a serious concern. But there is another group, the 'process-theologians'. In our final chapter we shall speak of them in greater detail; here we need only say that Alfred North Whitehead may rightly be called a 'maker of contemporary theology' because of the enormous influence his philosophy has had upon such theologians. Of course, Whitehead is not the only thinker who has worked along these lines. In particular, we must mention the name of his greatest contemporary expounder, Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne was an assistant of Whitehead's at Harvard; he has developed Whitehead's thought with the use of other sources as well as his own original contributions, which at times are divergent from the doctrines of Whitehead himself. The Christian theologians who can be grouped together as 'process' thinkers have also been keenly aware of modern existentialism, the biblical work of Bultmann and others, the modern interpretation of history as essentially societal memory, the insight into human nature provided by the depth psychologies as well as by the Gestalt and dynamic psychologies, and the contemporary awareness of myth and symbol in man's attempt to grasp the significance of the world and his place within that world. All these have provided material for them in their reconception of the Christian faith. Yet it has been chiefly White-head who has influenced them, ultimately if not always immediately. His emphasis on creativity, his seeing of the world as 'creative process', his way of speaking about God in relation to the creation, and his insistence on love (rather than force or coercion, rather even than moral government in the sense of imposed codes or laws) as the key to the structure and dynamic in things -- these have been taken by them with the utmost seriousness. Nor is it without significance that the vision of Teilhard de Chardin, who by another path came to much the same conclusions, has spoken directly to them, so that, as Ian Barbour has remarked, Teilhard can also be seen as a 'process theologian'. But what about Whitehead himself? We shall begin by giving an account of his life and his writing ; then we shall consider the chief emphases in his philosophy; and finally we shall speak of the contemporary theological school in which his thought is used in Christian re-conception.

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