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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.


Chapter 3: Significance


Christian Process-Theology In an essay published a few years ago, Professor H. H. Price spoke of theism as 'a metaphysics of love'. One may question whether every theistic system has in fact been such a metaphysics. Indeed it might be said, with Professor Hartshorne, that much 'classical theism' -- the variety which is most familiar to us -- has so stressed God's independence, aseity and absoluteness, his character as 'un-moved mover', first cause, or 'ground of being', that love hardly seems to be his essential quality or characteristic. After all, love cannot be known save in relationships, in being affected as well as affecting, in sharing and participation. It is that aspect which is strongly stressed in process-thinking; Whitehead was insistent that the concrete actuality of God is found there, rather than in the more abstract aspects of the divine nature. In his own idiom, the God who is in fact encountered by us is God in his 'consequent nature', not in his 'primordial nature'. And, as we have seen, God in his consequent aspect is persuasive, sympathetic, affected by all that is not himself, inclusive of all possible good, supremely tender -- indeed, God so portrayed is Love. Perhaps better, he is the cosmic Lover who tenderly, luringly, persuasively, faithfully, indefatigably, inexhaustibly (for he never comes to the end of his caring) relates himself to, cares for, and brings all possible good out of, the world. Hence we may say that process-metaphysics is indeed 'a metaphysics of love'. That is one of the chief reasons that it has seemed to many contemporary Christian theologians to provide a conceptuality for Christian faith and a context within which Christian theology may be 'done'. However, this is not the only reason for the appeal which it has had. Obviously the primary reason is that these thinkers are convinced that it is true, as true a vision of 'how things go' as we are likely to get, even when it is granted that it cannot claim finality any more than any other philosophy. It is our best insight into 'reality'. Furthermore, those who work with this philosophy believe that it fits in with what we have come to know about the world from scientific enquiry, both at the physical level and in biological, sociological, and psychological study. Finally, they think that it can make sense of the 'aesthetic' quality in experience and in the world -- the 'feeling-tones' which accompany our awareness of things as well as of persons, the valuational and appreciative side of life as we know it in our most sensitive moments. Whitehead's vision -- however difficult may be his manner of expressing it in words -- speaks to them as veridical ; and that in a fashion which, as they judge, is not equalled by other accounts of 'process and reality'. Among these Christian thinkers today, there are several seniors and many juniors. The older men include American theologians like Barnard E. Meland, for many years Professor of Constructive Theology at the University of Chicago, Professor Daniel Day Williams, Professor of Theology at Union Seminary in New York City, and Professor Bernard Loomer, Professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. All these are well over fifty years of age. The younger American theologians are too numerous to list, but two who have written extensively are Professor Schubert Ogden of the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, and Professor John Cobb of the School of Theology at Claremont, California. In the British Isles, the name of Peter N. Hamilton, whose recent book The Living God and the Modern World is notably clear and incisive, may stand for several others now at work in producing an English version of 'process-theology'. We have said that Whitehead was not a theologian. He was a mathematician and philosopher of science who in the last quarter of his life turned to the more general issues of metaphysics. So also with Hartshorne, the distinguished contemporary expositor of Whitehead who has done so much to develop 'process-philosophy'. Hartshorne is professionally a philosopher -- and a distinguished ornithologist -- and theological concerns are secondary to his main interest. Because of this background in strict philosophy, 'process-thought' must be worked through, not simply 'taken over', by Christian theologians. In a way not dissimilar to that of Augustine with his use of neo-Platonism, or of Thomas Aquinas with his similar use of the newly recovered Aristotelianism of his day, the exponents of 'process-theology' have found in Whitehead's vision of the world material which in their judgment provides a context for Christian faith and a conceptuality with which Christian theologians can work. But it must be adapted to the purpose. For example, to take one instance crucial for Christian theology, there is no discussion of christology and soteriology in the writings of Whitehead. These are not the concern of a philosopher as such. On the other hand, there is in Whitehead an insistence on the mutual prehensions of God and man, a concept of disclosure (through event or occurrence) of what is going on in the world, and a recognition that certain moments or points can and do have 'importance' for our understanding. What Whitehead says about these can be useful to the Christian thinker as he seeks to give expression to the abiding Christian experience that Jesus Christ, a man in history, is in a special sense 'the act of God' in human life. So also Whitehead's constant emphasis on the centrality of love, both in human affairs and in the cosmic process, his references to the compassion of God and the self-identification of God with the world, and his insistence on organic or societal affects, provide material in terms of which the Christian thinker may begin his interpretation of what Christian experience asserts about 'the saving work' of Jesus Christ. The specifically Christian data supply material which can provide for a further development and also a correction of process-thought'. Not only does the Christian faith go beyond what this conceptuality has to say ; it also makes necessary some important modifications in it. None the less, Whitehead's stress on God as being not 'the exception to metaphysical principles, to save them from collapse, but their chief exemplification', is taken with great seriousness by the theologians we are discussing. It is precisely because the world is processive, dynamic, societal or organismic, the sphere of novel emergents or occasions with particular moments of high significance, that God may be seen as living, related, active, and disclosed particularly in certain 'high' moments. It is because persuasion is characteristic of the world that 'the divine who is to be worshipped' can without absurdity be interpreted in the light of the specific Christian event as indeed Love -- and this without succumbing to the stark irrationality which would assert the divine Love in spite of everything else that man might think. There is a certain 'fit' here between 'process-philosophy' and Christian faith. Nor is this relationship to be explained away by saying that Whitehead and his expositors are the products of a Christian culture and hence it is to be expected that their thought will be colored by Christian ideas. The truth is that every system of thought is influenced by the cultural context in which it appears, just as the thinking of any man is affected by his environment and his heredity. Yet this fact does not mean that a man's thinking can never be adequate to the facts, nor that a given philosophical vision is totally vitiated by its cultural grounding. The question in each instance is not whether such influence has occurred; of course it has, or there could be no human thinking at all. The real question is whether the thinking stands up under criticism; whether it provides a coherent account of the facts which may be validated, in some fashion or other, by its logical consistency and by its capacity to account for the data which experience provides. The situation is not unlike that of the man charged by the psychologist with rationalization. Professor Leonard Hodgson once remarked in the face of such a charge that the reply is, 'Yes, this may be rationalization. The question is not whether that is the case, for I may say the same thing to you on your own terms -- all your criticism is also rationalization. Tu quoque. But that is not the question. The question is, does my thinking, does your thinking, exhibit loyalty to the given data, survive trenchant criticism, and make sense in the light of the rest of what we think we know?' It may be -- indeed I believe it is the case -- that Whitehead's vision of the world and of God in relation to the world could only have appeared in a cultural milieu such as the history of Christian civilization provides. But the same is true, as White-head and others have demonstrated, in respect to that particular kind of science which we in the west believe to be of such enormous importance in helping us understand our world. The Jewish emphasis on particular events, the doctrine of creation in which the world is seen as open to investigation precisely because it is not in itself divine, and Greek rationalism with its logic and its boldness in seeking the facts, were united in Christian culture to make such science possible. No Christian theologian need be troubled by the fact that 'process-philosophy' appeared within the stream of history which we call Christian. The Christians who use 'process-thought' accept the doctrine that God cannot be utterly contradictory to the world in which his activity is carried on. They believe that God himself is 'in process', in the sense that he is not abstractly eternal, utterly above and beyond all temporal succession. Rather, they see him as eminently temporal, although the divine 'time' is different from, yet not the denial of, the temporality experienced in the world. Again, they believe that God fulfils himself, not by some imposed necessity but by his own nature as creative love, through taking into his life what goes on in the creation. He is indeed unsurpassable by anything other than himself; that is the definition of his divinity. Yet he is able to surpass himself, so far as his 'experience' goes. He is enriched in his opportunities and occasions for self-expression in the world as that world with its genuine freedom responds or fails to respond to him and as he himself employs for good all the opportunities and occasions which are available to him. Above all, God is seen not as primarily the 'unmoved mover' or 'first cause' or 'absolute reality' but as the supremely related one. His relationship with creation is not simply logical on his side even if contingent on the world's side ; it is active and living, involving him in a creation which matters to him to such a degree that he is not only causative in it but affected by it. He works by his persuasion, through his lure or attraction or appeal, not by the exercise of arbitrary power. So the words used of God in a familiar hymn are correct: 'Pure universal Love thou art'. The several points noted in the last chapter in respect to Whitehead's view of the world are felt by process-theologians to have a remarkably apt relation to the symbols in biblical thought. Those biblical symbols can be taken with the utmost seriousness, although not with a wooden literalism. We may summarize the position in this fashion. History and nature are moving towards a goal which is God's sovereign rule; and God is involved in them, guiding and luring them towards that goal. He is the living God, who works in his creation tirelessly yet inexhaustibly to bring about the realization of the potentialities which he has implanted there. He provides both the 'initial aim' and the final goal; at every point he is actively engaged in persuading the creation to accept that aim for its own and to move towards that goal as its fulfillment. As the living God he has a purpose for his world and he is 'in the world' to effect that purpose -- not by arbitrary imposition or interference but by eliciting the 'amen' of the creatures to the enormous good he offers them. This good is the actualization of their potentiality as well as God's achievement of his purpose. In the creative process he has permitted radical freedom, so that evil is a possibility, and among men sinful decision can (and does) lead to tragic situations. Yet God's love is faithful and inexhaustible; it is able to 'take' this evil and sin, to absorb what is bad and to use what is good. In spite of evil and sin, good can emerge through the patient, tender, never-failing 'over-ruling' of God as he provides for and 'governs' his world in love. It is incorrect to say, as some critics have done, that 'process-theology' does not take with sufficient seriousness the facts of evil and sin. Whitehead could never be accused of this, nor for that matter could Teilhard de Chardin, who is often and rightly classified as a 'process-thinker'. Of course the way in which evil and sin are understood by these thinkers departs from the conventional view; but the fact is not in question. Nor is it in question for the theologians who follow this line. In the world there are places or points which have what Whitehead called 'importance'. In this or that occasion, there is a particularly intense and vivid concentration of creative act and response; this may be taken as providing a clue or key to the purpose running through the whole process. In Scripture, the history of the Jewish people is seen as 'important'; and for all Christians the event of Jesus Christ is regarded as supremely 'important'. In Christ's life, where divine initiating activity is met by human response at its highest, God is seen for what he is and for what he is always doing. Hence, in a phrase which the present writer has often found helpful, Jesus is not to be taken as the supreme anomaly, making nonsense of other events that have happened, are happening, or will happen; he is the classical instance, disclosing in act what God is 'up to' in his creation -- and at the same time, because of the adequacy of his human response to God's initiative, expressing what man may become. Nor is this merely demonstration; it is an effective act, for the intensification is 'objective' since God is involved, as well as 'subjective' since human response is present. The drawing of men to Christ establishes a level of life, a depth of existence, which may rightly be described, in St Paul's phrase, as 'in Christ', and hence 'in Love' (in God). This event makes an enormous difference, not only in principle but in fact. God can do now what previously and elsewhere he could not do if he respected (as he always does) the freedom of his creation to respond in answering love to his initiating act as Love. How to state in process-terms the union of God and man in Christ has been an important concern for process theologians. Some of them would speak with Schubert Ogden of the awareness of the divine purpose by the man Jesus; others would emphasize with John Cobb the possibility of mutual prehensions in which God grasps the totality of the human life which -- through the guidance of creation and especially of man by the lure and appeal and persuasion which we have noted -- was born of Mary. In the latter view, Jesus is that man who was prehended or grasped by the reality of the divine activity in the conditions of time and place in which he lived, as he himself prehended or grasped the divine activity operative there. The best analogy would be the way in which in a loving relationship two lives can be distinct yet inseparable. The famous Chalcedonian adverbs might apply in a special sense; we have a union of God and man that is truly personal, yet in which God and man are brought into unity unconfusedly, unchangeably (in at least some senses), inseparably, and indivisibly. When two human beings love one another in the most profound way, there is a unity which is entirely moral and personal, and yet is real and abiding. The interpenetration of lives in love establishes union in its most intimate personal sense. Thus we can say that God acts here, as he acts always, in love. He is love, not a cosmic tyrant who demands servile obeisance or the 'big boss with the "big stick"'; neither is he 'the ruthless moral ruler' who requires men 'to be good' before he will accept them. He is 'pure unbounded love' in his own nature and in his action in the creation. He is abidingly faithful, unfailing at work, inexhaustible in the resources of his love. Thus he is 'transcendent', in the only proper meaning of that word, even while he is also 'immanent', since he is (in Whitehead's words which we have already quoted) 'in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us'. Surely this picture is not too remote from what the biblical symbols are saying, drawn as they are from human existence at given times and places and yet intended to be indicative of what is ever true of God in his dealings with his creation. The meaning of man is also illuminated. Man is a dynamic creature, moving towards fulfillment yet free to decide against this fulfillment. He is bound together with his brethren, and indeed with the whole historical and natural order, open to their influence upon him yet entirely responsible in his decisions. He may make, or fail to make, his proper contribution to the achievement of the divine purpose. He is 'becoming', with strong desires that may be rationally known ; but his true achievement or self-realization is only as he loves. In God's intention he is such a lover, yet he is frustrated in his loving, and in consequence of wrong decisions he may and does distort that which is deepest in him. Thus he is a 'sinner ; he needs what we might style 're-alignment' with the divine intention for him. His sinning is not so much disobedience to some moral code, some set of commandments, or some imposed law ; it is a violation of his loving relationship with God and his fellows and hence a violation of his own drive towards love. Other aspects of the Christian faith are open to similar reconception when the insights of 'process-thought' are taken in context. From one point of view the results may seem novel, not least because love is taken seriously as the principal clue to the meaning of the entire Christian reality. Yet the results are not negative like those which follow from some other ways of re-conceiving the Christian message -- certainly they are less revolutionary than the denial of metaphysics or the attempt to. speak of the gospel in terms which altogether reject reference to God as central to that gospel or refuse to engage in 'God-talk' because (following the dictate of a philosophical school in our own day) such talk is thought to have no verification in scientific or quasi-scientific experiment or observation. On this last point, we may note that 'process-philosophy' has consistently declined to accept the 'veto' on God and 'God-talk'. It has pointed to the fact that common human experience claims to have some transcendent reference; it has insisted on the inescapable demand made by the human mind for explanation in more inclusive and adequate terms than those provided in scientific observation and experiment; and it has appealed to the 'aesthetic' -- the feeling-tones, appreciation, evaluation, and deeply 'sensed' experience -- as providing valuable data for any soundly based and adequate interpretation of man and his world. Perhaps this is why so many thinkers who have recognized the insufficiency of a purely scientific approach to reality have been drawn to 'process-philosophy' -- a point that is made in Professor Ian G. Barbour's magisterial volume Issues in Science and Religion (1967), where a natural scientist confesses the attraction of this metaphysic and finds it very helpful in his own reconstructive philosophical and theological effort. Is such a religious and Christian use of 'process-philosophy' in accordance with Whitehead's own thinking? In attempting to answer this question, we must again recall that 'Whitehead was not a theologian, nor did he think and write with any specifically theological end in view. Hence it is impossible to find in his work the sort of development which has been undertaken by those who in one way or another would call themselves his Christian theological disciples. But he was a religious man, profoundly influenced by his Christian upbringing in a clerical home and greatly affected by what he believed to be the Christian contribution to philosophical wisdom. But he was not an orthodox Christian, at least in any conventional meaning of that phrase. An acquaintance of the writer, who was a student at Harvard while Whitehead was a professor there, has told of a conversation in which he asked his teacher whether the philosophy which he was expounding could be reconciled with 'Christian orthodoxy'. Whitehead, he said, answered the question in the negative. But we must ask what Whitehead understood the question to imply. There can be no doubt that he took his questioner to mean by 'Christian orthodoxy' the rather narrow and (as he often said) incredible dogmatic structure which as a child he had been taught. Yet we have been told that in his years in Cambridge, England, Whitehead attended church with fair regularity; it is said that he went to a so-called 'high' parish, amusing evidence for which is found in Process and Reality, where he mentions incense as a typical 'religious' symbol, evocative of feeling-tones which mysteriously communicate profound truth. At Cambridge, Massachusetts, he attended the nearby parish church until his later years, when he began going from time to time to the University Memorial Church. If he did not think that his philosophy was reconcilable with 'Christian orthodoxy', he certainly thought that what in Adventure of Ideas he called (was it the first use of the phrase?) 'the new Reformation' was bound to come and he welcomed its coming. He did not have much sympathy with the kind of 'liberal theology' which he felt reduced the assertions of the historic faith to pietistic and moralistic admonitions; indeed he once remarked that 'the defect' of that kind of theology was that it 'confined itself to the suggestion of minor, vapid reasons why people should continue to go to church in the traditional fashion'.(Adventures of Ideas, p. 174.) We end this book by quoting what has seemed to many Whitehead's most beautiful piece of writing (Ibid., p. 170).The passage occurs at the place where Whitehead is arguing that 'the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory' -- that persuasion, not coercion, is the proper interpretation of the principle 'by reason of which ideals are effective in the world and forms of order evolve'. Here are Whitehead's words, which in my own judgment show him to have been Christian in spirit and also provide a basis for the Christian use of his philosophy: The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The record is fragmentary, inconsistent, and uncertain. It is not necessary for me to express any opinion as to the proper reconstruction of the most likely tale of historic fact. Such a procedure would be useless, without value, and entirely out of place in this book. But there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. A man who would write a passage like that and who could frame a philosophy which insisted on that vision as the supreme moment not only in religious history but also in the way the world is creatively ordered and guided, can hardly be denied the name Christian. Nor can the use of his thought for Christian purposes be regarded as illegitimate.

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