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 6: Question and Hope
At several points in these chapters I have spoken of God as ‘supreme affect’. This term I have borrowed from Schubert Ogden, who uses it in his fine book The Reality of God, a book to which I acknowledge my debt in the preparation of these chapters. At the same time I acknowledge him as the author of this phrase. In Ogden’s book there is a chapter called ‘The Promise of Faith’ and I should like to commend it to you, for it seems to me that with a rather different approach, yet much more adequately, Ogden says in it much that I have been trying to suggest in what I have been putting before you.
Ogden’s essay concludes with an honest statement that he does not, at the time of writing, see that such a portrayal of ‘the promise of faith’ as he has drawn -- and I remind you that since he and I have said much the same thing, this would be true of my own presentation -- necessarily entails what he calls ‘subjective immortality’, the persistence beyond death of the conscious self. Yet the portrayal still holds good, he claims; and he goes on to say that it is precisely because he is trying to think and write as a responsible Christian theologian that he feels obliged to affirm that such personal persistence is not in and of itself, by necessity, utterly integral to Christian faith. And I agree with him.
But the very reality of ‘the promise of faith’ raises the question of such personal persistence beyond death -- raises it as a question which should be discussed. And it does not exclude the possibility that such persistence, in some mode, may be a legitimate consequence of the indispensable ‘promise’, even if it is not absolutely entailed by it. Interestingly enough, the fact that in so many prayers used in the Christian fellowship and in so many books dealing with Christian theology, this is spoken of as ‘the Christian hope’, or ‘a reasonable, religious hope’ (in one familiar prayer), may have its lesson teach us. At least it warns us against the wrong kind confidence on the matter, and it prevents us from succumbing too easily to that odd variety of self-centeredness, in the worst sense, which demands ‘immortality’ because it is determined to play ‘dog in the manger’ in God’s universe.
In this chapter I plan to discuss the question and to say something about the ‘hope’, although I know that I cannot provide an adequate answer to the former and I am in no position to speak with certainty about the latter.
In his recent study of process theology, Peter Hamilton has noted that he has found among the young people with whom he has worked as a chaplain and teacher of divinity a willingness to consider very seriously the reality of God but a feeling that talk about ‘personal immortality’ makes no sense. That book, The Living God and Modern World, is the most important British study of process theology; and it should be read. Furthermore, Mr. Hamilton’s remarks on this particular subject should be considered with care, for he represents, I think, in his comment about his own students what is also a prevalent attitude in other circles as well. I mention this for what it is worth, realizing quite well that what people think is no indication of what is true; realizing also that Christian faith is not to be ‘cut’ to the measure of popular opinion. None the less, if it should turn out that one can be a Christian without holding firmly to personal persistence beyond death, this is significant; and since, as I have just been saying, I think that such is indeed the case, I believe that nobody ought to require acceptance of some variety of personal persistence as a pre-requisite for a welcome into the Christian community which is grounded on that faith in God in Jesus Christ which the community exists to make available to men and women in every age.
But this may be beside the point. Let us proceed to the question and to the possible ‘hope’ and see what may be said about them.
First of all I should like to set side by side a negative and a positive consideration, each of them relevant to our question. The negative consideration has to do with that kind of selfishness to which I have already alluded. The positive one has to do with the intrinsic value of personal human existence.
I think that there can be little doubt that a good deal that is said in support of personal persistence after death is based upon a strong individualistic stress on the self. One can have no sympathy with the variety of humility which turns itself into a doormat and invites others to walk on one, in a manner which becomes a strange sort of self-pity masking as humility. Nobody is asked to be Uriah Heep! But it is also possible to be assertive about the self in a less obvious and equally unpleasant fashion. I am what matters; my destiny is the important thing; if God does not preserve me, the universe is a mess and nothing is worth while. ‘Glory for me’, the old gospel-hymn is supposed to have sung -- but the very words show that the hymn is not about the gospel, for the gospel speaks of ‘Glory to God’, in whose ‘glory’ all good is contained.
There is a concern about the self which is healthy and, as a matter of fact and observation, essential to each of us; but there is also a concern about the self which is vicious and unlovely -- and also, I should say, destructive of the very thing it seeks to assert. In the Christian tradition, that sort of concern about the self, ‘the glory for me’ variety, serves as part of the picture of hell. I introduce here, both for a little ‘light relief’ and because it makes my point so accurately, a poem by Rolfe Humphries which he entitled Hell. It may be found in his Forbid Thy Ravens, published some years ago by Scribners (New York):
Hell Is A Place Of Solitude Enforced
It is the ‘I, I, I’ that I find significant in that poem. We all ‘visit’ hell, as Humphries has it, from time to time; it is indeed ‘hard enough to miss’, as the possible destiny to which I have referred. But the horror of it, the death in it, and the ‘solitude’ known there, are all summed up in those words ‘in constant iteration: I, I, I’. That is why hell is a ‘God-damned place’. William Morris was right in calling fellowship heaven, and lack of fellowship hell. Sometimes I incline to think that those who selfishly seek for personal persistence, for their own sake, and in the demand that they shall not ‘lose themselves’ in the ‘love and service of God’, are really asking for hell -- and if that is what they are asking for, the kind of person who does ask in this way has already obtained what he sought. He is already in hell.
The positive consideration which I should set alongside this negative one has to do with what I have styled the intrinsic value of personal human existence. This is not a matter of concern for myself; it is basically a concern for the value known and the love seen in others. John Baillie has written eloquently about this in his And the Life Everlasting, where he speaks movingly of the incredibility to him of the thought that this or that friend, whose love has been shown towards him, shall not be accepted as being indeed a lover, with a worth that nothing can destroy. It is for his friend, for the one he loves, that Baillie asks personal persistence beyond death, not for his own self such as it is.
However we phrase this, there is a point here. And I think that within the systematic statement of process theology, a place has to be made for that profound feeling. If, as we shall be arguing in a moment, we may be sure of ‘objective immortality’, the taking into God’s life of every good that has been achieved in the creative process; and if, as that understanding of the world order implies, one of the goods is the agency by which these given goods have been achieved, including at this point the human agent as a peculiarly significant focus -- may it not be the case that not only the good which has been achieved but the agent who has achieved it (himself good, despite defect and the instances of his failure in this mortal existence) will be preserved beyond the ‘perishing of occasions’? If value is never lost, as Whitehead claimed in his Ingersoll lecture on Immortality; and if value is always associated, in the process, with fact -- may it not be that exactly in receiving all that has been done which is valuable, the doer of the valuable is also to be received? May not something like the ‘communion of saints’, in the divine life and usable by the divine agency, be a possibility? After all, ‘personality is in relationships.
I put these two considerations side by side, for what they are worth. At least they help us to see what the question is asking. Now I wish to make three statements which seem to me to be plainly true, either from a serious acceptance of the conceptuality which I have been assuming or from the deliverances of the Christian faith itself. These will help us to get the question in even more accurate focus.
My first statement is simply a repetition of what I have just said about ‘objective immortality’. That each and every occasion or occurrence, each ‘entity’, makes its contribution, negatively or positively, to the creative advance is clear enough. The way in which this is done is by the good which has been accomplished being taken into God’s ‘consequent nature’ -- God as concretely he is, not abstracted from the world but in unfailing relationship with it. Everything that can thus be received is received; we might say that God is a good husband-man who wastes nothing. Anything not received, anything that is negatively prehended, is utterly use-less; it is ‘cast as rubbish to the void’, in Tennyson’s words, because it can make no contribution to the abiding good and its implementation in the creative advance.
Is there anything that is like that? Obviously we do not know. Equally obviously the horror of evil, in all its forms, is not to be denied. But again with equal obviousness, God’s capacity to transmute and transform what is most certainly evil into an opportunity for good cannot be denied by any Christian who has contemplated what we say God did with Calvary. Love such as God is, demonstrated in what God does in that instance, is able to ‘work wonders’ with the very worst of events and (may we not believe this?) with the very worst that men can do and even, I dare to say, with the very worst that men can be. ‘Nothing is lost that can be saved’ -- is there anything or anybody who cannot be saved? Not against its or his free decision, that is to say; for in that case it would be coercion and hence literally nothing worth doing would be accomplished. But love can solicit, invite, lure, entice, in so many different ways and through so many different channels, ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, that one need not be hopeless about the matter. I have said that the only really strong thing is love; and I now add that the divine persuasion, working tenderly yet indefatigably, may very well be able, in the long run, to win free consent. That free consent would be to God, yes; it would also be the realization or actualization or fulfillment of creaturely potentiality.
My second statement has also been intimated at an earlier point. The ‘resurrection of the body of Christ’, in the sense in which I have presented it, is an assurance of faith. I do not need to develop this further, since I have already discussed it at some length.
And my third statement is simply a reference to what I have borrowed from Schubert Ogden, about God as ‘supreme affect’. To him, into him, all good is a contribution. He knows, as such affect, the sting of anguish; he also knows the reality of joy. He takes them all, accepts them all, uses them all, in so far as there is any usability about them. And he does this now, not in some remote future. Mortal men strive and struggle, labor to do their best (and fail), move in the direction of fulfillment through the decisions they make. They die . . . ‘and with God be the rest’, as Browning puts it. To be able to say that, in complete confidence, is Christian faith; and ‘the promise of faith’ is the assurance that this is so. Thus the theocentrism so basic to the biblical witness is reaffirmed. As from God all initiating aims were derived, so to God all fulfillment must go as its ‘final rest’.
Having made those three statements, I must confess that for me personally this is enough. But I have left it still as a ‘question’, not as a complete answer -- the question, namely, whether or not there can be and is personal (viz., conscious) persistence after the death which is the terminus of our mortal pilgrimage. Yet there is what I have called ‘the hope’. I must say something about it.
John Baillie, in the book to which I have referred, places the grounds for this ‘hope’ in two Christian convictions. The first is that God is good -- that He is ‘pure unbounded love’. The second is the resurrection of Christ. For him it is inconceivable that a genuinely good and loving God would permit the annihilation of those persons whom He has created, whom He has so lovingly sustained, and upon whom He has showered such superabundant grace. And it is inconceivable to him that the communion with the ‘risen Lord’, which the fact of resurrection has made possible, should ever be brought to an end -- a communion like that, in which love is shared so richly, has about it the quality of everlastingness, even (as Baillie would doubtless say) of eternity. Nothing, certainly not the moment of mortal death, can destroy it.
I believe that Baillie has singled out the two big matters, thus reducing any other ‘arguments’ to triviality. In effect, he says that if God does permit the annihilation of human personality, in its self-conscious awareness as recipient of God’s love, there is something oddly selfish about God Himself. Now I should wish to say that it seems to me that this is a very strong point. If God is truly love, and if love is relationship, and if relationship means sharing, then it would be more like God as He relates Himself to the Creative process to wish to ‘share’ with others that which is good, that which is being done towards good, and that which leads to enjoyment in good. Whether this means also something like the ‘communion of saints’, where the divine love is indeed ‘in widest commonalty shared’, I do not know. But I may be permitted to hope that it does.
As to the resurrection of Christ, I have already spoken about what this means, at least so far as I can understand its meaning. It is life ‘in Christ’, triumphantly victorious over everything evil -- which is to say that it is life ‘in love’, of a type that does indeed have about it the quality of everlastingness and even, maybe, of eternity, although I dislike that word because of its suggestion that temporality is a lesser good or perhaps an evil. If one should seem to be thinking only of those who have encountered’ the historical Jesus, then there would be a kind of unlovely and unlovelike selectivity which would make such talk seem a little absurd. But if one is thinking of life ‘in love’ as an authentic possibility for every man, wherever and whenever he has happened to live out his mortal existence, then I must say that I both understand and find strength in the argument.
As so often, a human analogy helps; and although some contemporary theologians have been chary of using such analogies, one can be encouraged by the dominical employment of them and continue to find them useful. When I think of the love that I know so well between a particular person and myself -- and I am in fact thinking of one particular person with whom I am so bound in love that it remains for me a source of wonder and joy -- I am aware, in a fashion that words cannot adequately express, that there is something so enduringly real in our mutuality in giving and receiving, in our commitment one to the other, and in our hopefulness one about the other, that the thought of its having a terminus cannot enter my mind. ‘This thing is bigger than either of us or than both of us’, lovers often say in one form of words or another. The thing that is ‘bigger’ in such love is the activity of God Himself, I should dare to affirm. Yes, but the two lovers share in that; and by their sharing, they seem also -- at least to themselves, each for the other -- to share in the sort of endurance through all vicissitude which is characteristic of God who is never-failing love.
I do not know whether this also means conscious and personal persistence beyond the death of either partner or of both of them. But I may be permitted to hope that it does. And quite seriously I must add, ‘with God be the rest’. Which, by the way, is exactly what Browning was prepared to say for himself and for his Elizabeth.
We have seen the question, in all its depth. And we have heard about the ‘hope’, with its poignancy and longing desire. It is almost time to end, but I wish to say one or two things more as I bring these chapters to a close. Since I have just used the word ‘desire’, I want to speak of it for a moment -- or rather, to speak of what it is pointing towards. Then I want to return to that grand ‘shewing’ of Mother Julian of Norwich which I quoted earlier.
Desire . . . how much that word has been abused and how much derided! Yet it points towards something that might almost be taken as a definition of what it really means to be a man, even of what it means to speak about God. To say this may seem ridiculous; to many it will seem the sheerest sentimentality. But I wonder if it is either ridiculous or sentimental. In fact I do not really wonder; I flatly deny both charges.
For consider what desire is, as we know it in ourselves, in all our own desiring’. Often desire is used to signify sexual impulses, which are thought to be evil or at the best not very worthy. I have already indicated my rejection of such a view and my conviction that all love, so far as we know it humanly, has a physiological sexual aspect. The only question, in respect to sexual desire, is how it should best be expressed, both for the fulfillment of each person and for the best shared life of the community. Thus sexual desire is a good enough place to start when we think of what desire comes to, in our experience. To say briefly what I believe that to be, let me put it this way: desire is the yearning, affective, deeply-felt urge for fulfillment. It is how love works, when it is not a chilly matter of ‘rational approval’ or a Kantian affair of willing the good -- both of which, in my judgement, are so absurdly inadequate that they need no further comment.
If this be what desire in man comes to, what about desire in God? Here I wish to contradict the thesis of Anders Nygren’s great work Agape and Eros. As you will recall, Nygren insists that in God there is no eros (the Greek word, by the way, for what I have been calling ‘desire’, which significantly also in Greek means ‘love’); in God there is only agape, which Nygren interprets to mean the love which gives without regard either to the value of the recipient or the urgency on the part of the giver to receive a returning love. I believe that this notion is biblically unsound, in view of much that is said about bride-and-bridegroom, husband-and-wife, lover-and-beloved as symbolic of God’s relation to the world. I know that it is psychologically untrue; I am sure that it is existentially nonsensical. Theologically, it is disastrous. God is love; and in His loving He both gives and receives. He shares; He opens up and delights in mutuality. Unless this be the case, the Christian faith is sheer absurdity and should be rejected out-of-hand, for the God about whom it is talking cannot be the God Nygren presents. In fact, as somebody has pointed out, Nygren’s God of sheer agape, in the meaning he gives that word, is a moral reflection of the untouched, unmoved, self-sufficient deity as ens realissimum -- note the neuter gender -- which Christian theologians have tried to join with the living, loving, caring God of the Hebrew-Christian scriptures -- and have failed.
God as desire, or as I have put it earlier as the great Desire-for-good, is the yearning God, seeking to fulfil others in relationship with them, and by that very token seeking their returning love, which because it is given to Him freely is also His own fulfillment, His own enrichment. A view of God as one who can receive nothing because He already has or is everything is a pagan conception; it is an idol which no Christian should pretend to worship. Nor does he, since worship can be given only to the lovable, the perfectly lovable. Cringing fear is appropriate in the presence of such an ‘absolute’ as sometimes has been named God and only humiliating cringing is appropriate in the presence of a deity conceived after the analogy of the worst type of man we know -- namely, the one who is so self-contained and unrelated that he wants and needs and welcomes nothing, since he is entirely self-sufficient. Aristotle’s so-called ‘magnanimous man’, in the Nichomachean Ethics seems to me a ghastly model for God, with that man’s ‘remarkable condescension’ but with his incapacity genuinely to share.
Furthermore, as G. K. Chesterton once acutely remarked, the Buddhist image of Gautama is a squatting man, with eyes closed, absorbed in inner thought, and possessed of the kind of peace which is had through rejecting all desire. On the other hand, the Christian symbol is a Man hanging on a Cross, with His eyes wide open, embracing in passionate yearning the whole of the world. So George Tyrrell wrote. The contrast is significant. Certainly the one God is at work in Buddhism, but it must be in spite of that image of Gautama. Yet the Buddha was right in saying that desire is the cause of the world’s suffering. It is, because to love with desire is to suffer. He forgot to say that it is also the cause of the world’s joy, since to love with desire is the only way to abiding happiness, in the true meaning of that much mis-used word. God both suffers and rejoices -- and the picture of Him as experiencing both is the unique thing about the Christian affirmation of Him.
Now I must say something more about that quotation from Mother Julian: that the world continues because ‘God made it, God loves it, God keeps it.’ It seems to me that we have here the basic grasp of ‘how things go’ which enabled Mother Julian also to see that ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well’. The two together give us the ground for the ultimate optimism which in Christian faith conquers all provisional pessimism. She knew that ‘the world is in God’s hands’, as the negro spiritual says -- God made it, God loves it, God keeps it. Everything is safe that is worth saving. So no Christian need fear. Hence, as I have quoted Kirsopp Lake as saying, faith is not ‘belief in spite of evidence’, although the evidence from time to time may be very powerful and disturbing to us; it is ‘life in scorn of consequence’ and it is an adventure and a risk and a challenge.
Faith is an invitation to become lovers. That is what it works out as, in practical experience, when its significance is rightly apprehended. It points to God as cosmic love and cosmic lover, who gives to everything its beginning by providing its ‘initial aim’. It points to God as active lover as it sees Him supremely active in the Man Jesus and in all who participate in His Spirit. It points to God as the lover who not only gives but receives and cherishes what He receives, as it sees Him to be ‘the supreme affect’, in whom all good finds its home. It points to Him as love faithfully and everlastingly at work, as it recognizes that He will use whatever good He receives, along with His own urgent desire for good, in furthering the expression of love in the creative advance which is the world.
The traditional scheme of the last things will no longer serve us, I have said; yet that scheme did confront men with the Christian faith and it did make them face ‘reality’ with honesty and humility. The purpose of this book has been to suggest ways in which what that traditional scheme did for our ancestors may still be vital for us today. That is all I tried to do; and I hope that with all their inadequacies and imperfections, these chapters have brought to your attention some, but not of course all, of those consequences of the faith which we share.
Let the conclusion be, not mine, but Robert Browning’s, from A Death in the Desert: