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The 'Last Things’ in a Process Perspective 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 London: Epworth Press, 1970, This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 2: An Approach to a New Perspective


In closing the last chapter I spoke of the values which had been represented in the outworn traditional scheme of the last things. I suggested that true radicalism in theology meant an effort to get to the roots, to see what was deeply intended in patterns, pictures, and propositions that to us are not credible. And I mentioned the importance of maintaining such continuity as is possible, in this and in other respects, with our ancestors in the Christian fellowship. In a word, I was urging a theological variation of Leonard Hodgson’s by now well-known point about Biblical enquiry. What must the case really be, so far as we today can grasp it, if people who thought and wrote and naturally accepted such and such ideas put things in the way in which they did put them? Hodgson was suggesting that after all the preliminary scholarly work has been done, this is the question which the interpreter of Scripture must ask. And I am suggesting that after we have discovered, so far as may be, how this or that theological idea came to be, on what grounds and with what intention it was asserted, we have then to ask a similar question.

I realize that some of those who call themselves ‘radical theologians’ will regard such a procedure as quite absurd. They will disclaim any responsibility for maintaining continuity with the past of the Christian fellowship and will urge that we must start afresh, with no impedimenta from the past. It must be observed that such theologians usually do not fulfill that implied intention, for they still insist on their loyalty to Jesus, at least, even if their way of being loyal to Him is as various as, say, William Hamilton’s talk about Jesus as being ‘the place where we stand’ or Paul van Buren’s sense that somehow association with Jesus provides a ‘contagious freedom’. What is more, when some of these thinkers say that they are ‘giving up’ God, it is to be noted that at the very same moment they seem anxious to preserve, in some fashion or other, what the faith in God meant and supplied to those who did, as a matter of fact, deeply believe in Him. Their presentation of that significant and presumably enduring ‘reality’ is not very impressive, in some instances anyway; but the intention is there.

Thus I would conclude that in principle what I have been urging is not so obscurantist, reactionary, or nostalgic as it might appear. But I wish also to remark that what such critics often imply is a very unhistorical notion of how any faith, and a fortiori Christian faith, does work as a matter of historical development. They are not really radicals at all, when they suggest the necessity of starting entirely fresh, and demand that there be no commitments of any kind to the religious traditions of the past. For religious faiths do not grow that way, nor do they come into being in that way in the first place. Such entirely revolutionary ideas rest upon a failure to see that the Jewish prophets, for example, were related to, and in many ways dependent upon, the tradition which they received, and were enormously affected by the fact of their participation in the life of the people of Israel. Jesus Himself, claimed by some of them as the great revolutionary, was first and last a Jew, thinking in Jewish terms, talking in Jewish ways, dependent for His teaching upon the Jewish tradition. He was not a revolutionary in the sense intended; He was a genuine radical in the sense that I have suggested. Nor is this process limited to Judaism and Christianity. It is the way in which religions and faiths of all types have historically developed.

Of course some complete revolutionary may propose his own esoteric religious ideas or proclaim his own peculiar faith. The men I am criticizing evidently do not much like such ideas or faiths, which they are likely to denounce as ‘mysticism or as erratic affirmations of eccentric individuals. But even if they did take a more favorable attitude, the fact would remain that the positive religions, as they used to be called in studies of religious phenomenonology -- that is, the faiths or religions which grasp large numbers of people, make an impact on the world, and show a capacity to persist in some community form -- are social in nature; grow out of a past which is not entirely rejected even when the great prophets, teachers, reformers, and renovators come along; and always, or almost always, take towards their supposed origins and their historical development a respectful if (thank heaven) not an uncritical stance.

And the same is true in what used to be called ‘secular’ areas, although that word has now become so ambiguous in meaning that one hesitates to use it. In philosophical development, A. N. Whitehead said, all western thought is ‘a series of footnotes’ to Plato’s dialogues. Something like that is indeed the case; and only a very ignorant person would be prepared to deny the continuities, with genuine differences and, one hopes, genuine advances, in the total philosophical enterprise. Similarly, in scientific thought, where once again we are indebted to Whitehead, among others, for making clear to us the way in which such thought, along with the procedures it uses and the attitudes it takes, represents a genuine process of development and not sheer novelty entirely unrelated to the past. In social theory and its implementation in social structures, of which Marxism may serve for an example, we may observe the same sort of movement. Karl Marx himself was keenly conscious of this, as a study of Das Kapital will show; and, what is even more significant, his doctrine of the dialectic in history is a clear illustration of what I have been urging. Novelty, yes; but continuity, too. The talk may be about ‘revolution’, about the ‘qualitative leap’, but what happens is a development of social, economic, and political ordering out of the past, while the ‘qualitative leap’, as Marx himself remarked, comes from the accumulation of a quite enormous number of quantitative changes. It is not sheer novelty, although it is new; it is not unthinking continuity, although it is related to the past and builds upon, while it also greatly modifies, that which the past has done.

By my references to ‘process’ in the preceding remarks I have indicated that I stand within a certain philosophical school. Thus I begin my admission or confession of the approach, the materials, and the methods which I believe to be necessary in the indispensable job of re-conceiving the last things, along with re-conceiving the totality of the Christian theological tradition. First, then, a processive view of the world and everything in it; and along with that, what might be styled, perhaps daringly, a processive view of what-it-is or who-it-is that the term God points towards.

It is hardly necessary to state here what process thought has to say; and, in any event, I can refer those who do not know about it to a recent small book of my own, entitled Process Thought and Christian Faith (Macmillan, New York, and Nisbet, London, 1968), in which I attempted to give a brief sketch of that conceptuality with special reference to its availability for the enterprise of Christian re-conception. Perhaps sufficient will have been said if I point out that process thought is based upon wide generalizations made from those experiences of fact, and those facts of experience, which demonstrate to us the dynamic, active, on-going ‘creative advance’ of the world; and which, in recognizing and accepting the patent reality of such a world, sees man as part of it sharing in that movement, and a principle of ordering and direction, which may properly be called God, explaining why and how the advance goes on as it does.

God, so understood, is not only the chief causative principle, although He is not by any means the only such principle (since there is freedom of decision throughout the world-order); He is also the supreme affective reality, because what happens in the world, by precisely such free decision and its results, makes a difference to and (if we may put it so) contributes to the divine principle in providing further opportunities for advance as well as in enriching the experience of the divine itself or himself.

The world is a processive order; it is also a social one, in which everything in it affects everything else, from the lowest structures and forces up to man himself -- and, says process thought, to God too. There is a mutual prehension by one occasion of other occasions, to the remotest point in space and time. That prehension may be positive or negative -- a grasping and being grasped that accepts or rejects what is offered and being offered. Since God, on such a view, is not the great ‘exception to all metaphysical principles to save them from collapse’, in Whitehead’s by now famous declaration, but is ‘their chief exemplification’, He too is in a real sense processive. But He is chief exemplification, not simply another one of the same sort as all others known to us. He is in some genuine fashion eminent. He is, as Charles Hartshorne would put it, ‘the supremely worshipful’, who is surpassed by anything which is not Himself; yet in His own life He may surpass, in richness of experience and capacity for adaptation and provision of new opportunity for advance, that which He has been. Hence God is supremely temporal rather than eternal in the common acceptation of the word, which usually is taken to mean utterly ‘time-less’.

God works in the world by providing ‘initial aims’ for each occasion or event or occurrence or ‘entity’ (which was Whitehead’s word); His ‘power’ is in His persuasion, in His ‘lure’ (which is also Whitehead’s word), not in coercive force. In a word, ‘his nature and his name is love’. Both Whitehead himself and his distinguished American exponent (who also makes his own distinctive contribution to process thought) Charles Hartshorne are very clear about this. It is these two who have been the fathers of this conceptuality, so far as English-speaking countries are concerned, although many others have assisted, some of them (like Teilhard de Chardin) from a quite different starting-point.

Whitehead once wrote that Christianity, unlike Buddhism, is a faith -- based on certain historical events taken to be, in his own term used elsewhere, ‘important’ or crucial or disclosing -- seeking a metaphysic. The fact is the total impact of the person of Christ, in whom Christianity finds ‘the disclosure in act of what Plato discerned in theory’. And what is this? It is, again in his own words, that ‘the divine nature and agency in the world’ are precisely such love, such persuasion, such tenderness. Nor was this asserted without regard for the patent presence of evil, both in man himself and in those recalcitrant, negative, retarding, occasions, with their consequences, which anybody with his eyes open must admit. Hence, in its wholeness, the availability of process thought for use in Christian thinking: Christ as the disclosure of ‘what God is up to’ in the world.

But I have used the term ‘metaphysic’ and this can provoke an instant reaction from those who think that the day of metaphysics or of ontological statement is over. Here I should respond that it all depends. If by metaphysics or ontology one means either the construction of grandiose schemes in which some super -- terrestrial being is set up as controlling the world, having once got it going, reducing the world to irrelevance or meaninglessness in comparison to his subsistence as absolute or esse a se subsistens, in Aquinas’s phrase; or some privileged knowledge of the what of things behind all appearances, such as gives us a precise acquaintance with Kant’s ding an sich, the realm of the noumenal as above, beyond, and unrelated (save by logical connection) to the phenomenal -- if either of these be what metaphysics means, then its day is indeed past.

On the other hand, if by metaphysics one means exactly what I suggested earlier -- the making of wide generalizations on the basis of particular experiences, the constant reference back of those generalizations to further areas of experience, and the resultant ‘vision’ of how things ‘are’ and how ‘they go’-- then metaphysics is by no means finished. Even those who denounce metaphysics in the former sense are eminently metaphysical in the latter. One has only to read such ‘anti-metaphysical’ writers as the earlier positivists, whether Comteian or in the Vienna Circle with its English disciples known as ‘logical positivists’, to see how true this is. They indeed do have a metaphysic, in my second sense; but, if I may venture to say so, it is a very bad metaphysic since it is not recognized as such and hence has not been exposed by these thinkers to severe and searching criticism. The same is the case with the ‘anti-metaphysical’ theologians. Harvey Cox’s The Secular City simply reeks of metaphysics, in that second sense; so does R. Gregor Smith’s Secular Christianity -- and admittedly Thomas Altizer’s books are highly metaphysical in statement and intention, while William Hamilton for all his eschewing of metaphysics presupposes throughout his ‘death of God’ writing exactly the same sort of thing.

Thus I am not ashamed of the metaphysical emphasis in process thought, once it is seen what kind of metaphysics the process philosophers are talking about. Here there is no setting-up of a super-terrestrial, sheerly supra-natural, being called ‘God’; since, in Whitehead’s words, ‘God is in this world or he is nowhere’. Here there is no claim to privileged access to the ding an sich, for any such dichotomy between noumenal and phenomenal is absurd -- what a thing is is known in, and consists of, what a thing does; or, in Christian terms, we know God in terms of His activity in the world, working towards communities or societies of shared good in spite of the recalcitrance, the back-waters, the negativities, or compendiously ‘the evil’, with which he has to deal. And when the Dutch philosopher C. A. van Peurson in his exciting article called ‘Man and Reality’ (Student World, LVI, 1963) and others who think like him contrast the ontological and the functional and insist that metaphysics must mean the former attitude, they do not see that there is a sense in which this need not be said at all. How things go -- their functioning -- may be, and I believe it is, what they are. Thus, again in Christian terms, God is love precisely because He acts lovingly; and any statement of a formally abstract sort, such as the one I have just made -- ‘God is love’, etc -- is precisely what I have now called it: a formally abstract statement made on the basis of what are taken to be concrete events or occasions, and with validity only insofar as it affirms exactly such an understanding of the functioning which is observed, experienced, and hence must be talked about.

But I have said enough about all this. My main point is simply that I find process thought, with its view of God, eminently available for Christian use. Particularly, I find the view of God both as providing the ‘initial aim’ and also as being the ‘supreme affect’ most suggestive and helpful. In respect to the deep significance seeking expression through the traditional teaching about the last things, I find this conceptuality so suggestive and so helpful that it will provide a framework within which I shall try to urge a way of securing for ourselves those meanings or values or existentially significant affirmations.

The mention of ‘existentialism’ here, while I intended it in a slightly different way, brings us to the second point which I wish to make. This has to do with the interpretation of Scripture. More especially, it has to do with the enterprise known as ‘de-mythologization’, in relation to what the father of that enterprise calls existenzialinterpretation of the biblical material and most importantly of the material that has to do with the kerygma or the Christian gospel to which faith is a response.

I think that the word ‘de-mythologizing’, in its English form, does not do justice to what Bultmann really intends; and it is a puzzle to me why he has accepted this term as a satisfactory English description of the enterprise which in German is styled entmythologisierung. Admittedly the English term does translate the German, but at the same time the ‘de-’ suggests to the English reader almost exactly the opposite of Bultmann’s intention. For what he wishes to do is not to discard the mythological material -- mistaken science, talk about the divine in this-world idiom, highly fanciful material about descent and ascent of a supernatural divine being who pre-existed this world, etc., etc. -- but to get at what it is really saying. I think that the term in-mythologizing would serve better, since the whole programme is concerned to get ‘inside’ the myth and there discover the kerygma or gospel which the myth clothes and states in a form natural at one time but impossible, because incredible, today. It is not necessary for me to recount why Bultmann finds this incredibility in the form; suffice it to say that he is not committed to any particular scientific world-view, although Jaspers and others have charged him with this, but is simply stating that the contemporary man does not as a matter of fact think or talk in terms of such a form. Hence, if the gospel is to speak to him with its demand for decision, it must be freed from those thought-patterns so that its essential drive may be made clear to him, a drive or proclamation in action which the ancient forms today succeed in covering up or making absurd.

I ought here to admit that I should wish to go beyond Bultmann; I agree with Fritz Bun and his American exponent Schubert Ogden that we need also to in-kerygmatize, if I may put it so, the gospel proclamation itself. But this does not suggest that there is no gospel and that Jesus Christ is not central to Christian faith. What is involved here is exactly what the ancient ‘Fathers’, or some of them, affirmed when they spoke of the possibility of salvation for those who had never heard about and hence could not or did not respond to the specific historic event of Jesus Christ. The work of the Eternal Word of God, present in men spermatically, as Justin Martyr for example put it, offered this possibility of salvation, so that the historical accident of having lived after Jesus or having heard about Him was not the necessary condition of the salvation which God purposed for His human children. These ‘Fathers’ spoke of the specific activity of God in Jesus Christ as being indeed the fulfillment, completion, and adequate expression, vis-à-vis men, of the Eternal Word of God, but they did not regard salvation as available only through Jesus; even in the Fourth Gospel, it would seem to be the writer’s intention to have the Word speak, rather than the historical Jesus in isolation from that Word ‘who was in the beginning with God’, ‘by whom all things were made’, ‘who was the light of every man’, and who in Jesus Christ was decisively ‘made flesh and dwelt among us’.

In the sort of language which Bultmann and Buri would employ, the possibility of authentic existence before God, in which men live in faith and with love, is granted to every man by virtue of his being human. This Bultmann would deny; this Bun would affirm. I should agree with Buri and I should say that the point of the Christian gospel is to ‘re-present’, as Ogden puts it, that possibility; to ‘re-present’ it in starkly human terms, under human conditions, in Jesus as what I like to style ‘the classic instance’ of what God is always ‘up to’, rather than the totally other or the sheer anomaly, as so many (including Bultmann, presumably) would wish to regard him.

What is important for our present purposes in Bultmann’s enterprise, however, is the insistence on getting at what the biblical material is saying without our being obliged at the same time to accept for ourselves the form in which it is said. It is exactly this method which I wish to employ as we continue in succeeding chapters to discuss the truth found in the last things. Or once again, in Leonard Hodgson’s way of phrasing it, we are trying to find what the state of things really is, how things really go, in a fashion which makes sense to us, when we grant that men and women who lived at that time, under those conditions, with those presuppositions, spoke about the matter in that way.

Furthermore, this kind of approach will free us from supposing that because this or that particular description of man’s destiny is found stated in this or that particular way in Holy Scripture, we are obliged to accept it as necessarily ‘the case’. This applies, I should claim, not only to Old Testament material and the literature of the New Testament apart from the gospels. It also applies to Jesus’ own teaching. He was a Jew, He thought and spoke like a Jew; this is part of His being ‘very man’, as Chalcedon said He was. Hence with His own statements, so far as they are His own, such a ‘proportionate interpretation’, in a fine phrase from Bishop Westcott, is required quite as much as it is required for other pieces of biblical teaching.

I also wish to stress the importance for us, in this enterprise, of the social and psychosomatic understanding of man which has been so wonderfully recovered in recent years. The biblical perspective in regard to ‘corporate personality’ is now restored in quite ‘secular’ circles; to be a person means to be intimately and essentially related with other men. ‘No man is an island entire unto himself’; and to come to know our personal humanity is to see it in its rich relationship with other persons. Atomistic views of man will no longer serve, not because we dislike them but because they are not accurate statements of a truth which is known to us in our deepest human existence. And with this stress on ‘the body corporate’ goes also an emphasis on man’s corporeal nature. We are not ‘souls’ inhabiting ‘bodies’; we are psychosomatic organisms, more or less integrated entities in which bodily existence is characterized by the capacity to think, to feel, to will. Here again it is not because we prefer this view; it is because, so far as we can understand ourselves and what human existence is like, we see it to be true. We owe much here to the depth psychologists and equally to those who in medical work have shown the relationship of mental processes to bodily ones. Man is an organic unity, however adequately or inadequately this is actualized in a given person’s experience.

Furthermore, we belong to and with our environment. The mit-welt of which Heidegger speaks is not confined to our fellow-men; it includes the realm of nature as well, since we are ‘organic to nature’, as Pringle-Pattison insisted many years ago. The evolutionary perspective makes this apparent; our animal origin demonstrates it. This is why we cannot follow certain existentialist writers in speaking about human history as if it were being played out against a background of irrelevant natural recurrence. Nature itself, the whole world of stuff or matter, is there and we are somehow part of it. We ought not to attempt to separate human experience and history from nature, but rather to see that nature itself is historical -- by which I mean that it is processive, with movement and change, even if on the macrocosmic scale this does not seem obvious to us. The sort of philosophical conceptuality which I urged upon you earlier is from one point of view merely an affirmation of exactly that kind of historical view of the whole world-process. But for our present purpose, it is enough to say that when we are thinking about the last things, our thought must include much more than human existence and human personality in its body-mind totality, even in its social relationships. The realm of nature itself must be in the picture.

I am not competent to speak about what may be contributed to us by the depth-psychologies which I have just mentioned. Harry Williams has written a useful little book on The Last Things in which he does just this; and I refer you to that book as well as to other essays, by him and by such writers as the late David Roberts, for some development of this theme. But insofar as this psychology talks of man’s deep emotional drives, his purposive activity, his striving for realization of selfhood, his need to love and to be able to receive love, and with these the twistings and distortings which may be uncovered in him -- insofar as it does this, it helps us see something of what true fulfillment is about and has much to say concerning such actualization of man, with man’s consequent ‘satisfaction’ and the joy which it provides, about which in an entirely different idiom the heavenly city was a picture. At the same time, the horror of hell, as real deprivation on the part of those who were loveless, because they could not love nor accept love, finds its parallel in the state of lovelessness and hence of utter despair, concerning which this psychology has so much to say.

My final point has been implied in everything that has so far been advanced. This is the practical consequences in actual and concrete human living which may be found in coming to some awareness of what the last things were trying to say. God, as chief causative principle and as supreme affect, is ‘in this world or he is nowhere’; biblical material, and in relation to it Christian liturgical and hymnological imagery, with the theological articulation of this, intend to make affirmations which are to be found in the pictures and forms and myths -- and these we must seek to make meaningful and valid for ourselves in our present existence; man is an ‘embodied’ and a social occasion or series (or ‘routing’) of occasions, organic to the world of nature, and can only truly live as he lives in due recognition of these facts and sees them as integral to himself. Each of these points, which we have so far discussed, along with whatever of value is to be found in the psychological analysis to which I have just referred, speaks directly to us as and where and when we are.

In other words, the talk about the last things is not only, if it is at all, talk about something that happens in an imagined future state, once we have died the death which each man must die. It is talk about us as we now live, in this world and with this world’s responsibilities as well as its privileges. From one point of view, it might be said that futuristic references are by way of being aberglaube -- ‘over-beliefs’ which may or may not be necessary consequences of what is said about the here-and-now as Christian faith interprets it.

I do not wish to deny those futuristic references, as I have called them. In a later chapter I shall have something to say about them, although I shall emphasize that they belong to the realm which our ancestors used to describe as ‘a religious hope’ rather than to the realm of verifiable experience or the realm of concrete Christian existence as we are called to share it. I do wish to stress, however, the reference to concrete and actual existence now.

Many years ago, when James Pike and I were commissioned to prepare, for the Authors’ Committee of the Division of Christian Education of the Episcopal Church, a book which would state in fairly simple fashion the ‘faith of the Church’ (so the book was entitled when finally it appeared, after much revision and re-writing), we talked with Bishop Angus Dun of Washington about the project. The two authors, with the whole membership of the committee charged with preparing the book, visited Bishop Dun and spent with him an entire day. We discussed the plan of the volume, the subjects to be included, and other such topics. I shall never forget Bishop Dun’s repeated insistence that in approaching each topic, we must see to it that the main emphasis was always on what he called, as I remember it, ‘what this means for living as a Christian today’. The particular topic upon which he first made this comment was the doctrine of creation; and he said that the only way in which this could properly be approached was by being as clear as we could about what it means to a man ‘to be a creature, living in a created world’ with all that this implies, entails, and suggests.

I do not wish to father on Bishop Dun what I am trying to suggest in these pages, but I think that the point which he made at that time is highly relevant to what we are attempting to do here. What did the last things mean to men and women who accepted the scheme quite literally or with this or that reservation or re-interpretation? What is the deepest meaning in that scheme, which because it is somehow integral to the Christian faith we must seek to guarantee and preserve in our re-conception and re-statement of that faith? What does this mean for you and for me, for any Christian? And finally what can it be made to mean, without cheating or falsification, for every man and woman who wants to come to that profound self-understanding which is the other side of (and utterly integral to) the understanding of God vis-à-vis man?

So in the next chapter we shall begin by thinking about death.

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