After Death: Life in God 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 The Seabury Press, New York, 1980. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
There comes a time for all of us when we must reckon seriously with the plain fact that we are going to die. Perhaps most of us, much of the time, can evade this thought; certainly contemporary funeral customs do their best to conceal it from us. Yet death is inescapable -- like taxes, as the old saying has it. And since it is inescapable, we have every reason to face up to its reality and come to terms with it, so far as we are able.
One of the ways in which the dread fact of death has been made less important, for a great many people at any rate, has been by talk about ‘life after death’. Some have honestly admitted that the basic reason for their faith in God, however God be conceived, is that such a faith will guarantee -- or so they believe -- precisely such an ‘after-life’ not only for themselves but for those whom they love and whose loss has been so tragic and disturbing. Indeed, when one reads a good deal of writing about religion, one discovers that belief in the reality of God and belief in such a ‘life after death’ seem to be linked together.
At the same time, we find that many of our contemporaries are honestly doubtful about any such post-mortem existence, although they may genuinely have faith in a divine reality, supremely worshipful, taken to be utterly loving and the guarantee of the worth or value of human existence. Questioning about ‘life after death’ does not necessarily lead to sheer atheism, or denial of God altogether; nor yet to agnosticism, or uncertainty about whether there is or is not an unsurpassable reality appropriately called God. The ancient Hebrews were in that case: they believed most firmly in God but they did not, in the days up to about two or three centuries before Christ, have any genuine belief in ‘life after death’ save in the attenuated sense associated with ‘Sheol’ -- where the ghosts of the departed seem to have had a vague and insignificant continuation. It is easy to see, from a reading of such Old Testament references, that such a continuation of bare existence carried little hope and made little appeal to the ordinary Jew of the time. It was only in the period of the Maccabean revolt that any conception of life ‘beyond death’ was envisaged as a corollary of belief in a God who was just and who would recompense his people for the suffering they experienced under persecution and slaughter. Yet all the way through their history, the Jewish people were outstanding for their faith in the reality of Yahweh, in his goodness, and in his concern for his human children.
Now I myself grew up in the atmosphere of fairly conventional ‘Catholic’ piety about matters like this. Death, judgment, heaven, hell, and purgatory were part of the conventional picture. When one died, there would be a ‘particular’ judgment; at the ‘end of the world’, there would be a ‘general judgment’. Those who were irremediately evil would be assigned to a place (if that was the right word) where God’s absence would be felt with everlasting anguish and where condign punishment for wrong-doing would be experienced. Those who had in them the possibility of redemption would be given cleansing or purification in an intermediate state -- purgatory was the cosmic ‘laundry’, as one might put it. Then, after this cleansing, such persons would be permitted to enjoy the vision of God. The saints, or those who in this life had attained perfection, would already be in heaven -- and the Blessed Mary, queen of the saints, had long since been established there in glory, next to her Son on his throne. One could pray for the departed, that they might have ‘eternal rest’ and ‘a place of light, refreshment, and peace’; and one could address petitions to the saints, chiefly to the Blessed Mary, who in their generosity would delight in aiding those who were still in the realm of finite existence to grow in grace and become worthy companions in the heavenly abodes.
As the years went by and as I myself became a ‘professional’ theologian engaged in teaching future clergymen, I found that this neat scheme, in which I had happily grown up, presented problems and raised serious difficulties. In consequence, I was obliged to think through what was really being affirmed and what Christian faith must necessarily assert as implicit in religious conviction.
But what, then, could I say and think about these matters? How could a contemporary Christian believer understand all existence, so that the living God remained central to his or her life, even though the conventional kind of talk about ‘life after death’ had little if any meaning? Or to put it more strongly, what could still be said when to that believer much if not all such conventional talk seemed ill-founded, often highly self-centered, and lacking any serious religious value?
In this book I attempt to discuss this subject. I do it from what might be styled a double perspective. First, I write as one who finds himself entirely trustful, so far as God is concerned. My strong conviction is that this God is self-disclosed in the total event of Jesus of Nazareth -- and is there disclosed as nothing other than ‘pure unbounded Love’, as Love-in-act, as (if you will) the cosmic Lover. But second, I write as one who knows very well that the world in which we live, and we ourselves as part of that world, must be understood in dynamic, relational, and existentialist fashion. For me this demands that we must have some conceptuality in terms of which our existence may be interpreted and into which Christian faith must be fitted. Bultmann has spoken of the necessity for intelligible ‘pre-conceptions’ or ‘presuppositions’ before a biblical student can properly engage in his task of interpretation of the material before him. So likewise I should insist that for any proper theological work there must be a world-view (what I have above called a ‘conceptuality’) which is defensible, meaningful, and acceptable in the light of our knowledge of ourselves and the world.
This requires me to say here a few words about the particular conceptuality which seems to me demanded today. I can put this in a few brief statements, hoping that the reader will find these useful as he follows the argument in some of the later chapters.
First, ours is a world which is ‘in process’; it is marked by change, ‘becoming’, development -- not necessarily for the better, but certainly as a given fact of experience. Second, such a world is one in which the basic constituents are not things or substances which may be located, in a simple fashion, at this point and in this place. Rather, these basic constituents are events or happenings: they are actual occasions which have a subjective side, as ‘puffs of experience, and an objective side, as genuinely there in the world and as making up that world for what it is. Third, the past has casual efficacy on the present while the present is the moment in which decisions are made, on the basis of that past and in response to the lure of further possibilities, towards a future which is not yet decided but awaits these decisions to become real. Fourth, every event or occasion in the world is related with, is affected by, and itself affects, other events or occasions. This conceptuality has been worked out most adequately by Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher from Cambridge in England who ended his days teaching and then living in retirement in Cambridge in the United States, and by his former associate at Harvard University, Charles Hartshorne. Whitehead died in 1947; Hartshorne is still living and writing and is contributing greatly to the further development of this new mode of metaphysical enquiry.
When this conceptuality, which has come to be called ‘process thought’ (because of the title of Whitehead’s famous Gifford lectures Process and Reality), is used for theological purposes -- as in this book I shall be doing -- it has been given the name ‘process theology.’ I write as one who believes that, of all available world-views in terms of which Christian faith may be stated, this is the most adequate. It is in accord with what we know of ourselves in meditating on our existence and with what we know through observation about the world in which we live. If there be a God, that conceptuality requires that God must be no ‘supreme anomaly’ or ‘exception’ to the basic principles necessary to make sense of our existence and our world, but rather ‘their chief exemplification’ -- I am using here Whitehead’s own words. Above all, process thought gives us a context in which it may meaningfully be said that persuasion, lure, invitation, and love are basic to the way things go and to the supreme, unsurpassable, adorable, and dependable reality working in things -- that is, to God. I hope that what has here been stated so briefly will be made explicit and convincing in the chapters of this book.
I recognize that my conclusions in respect to the significance of talk about ‘the future’ life will seem to many Christian people to be unsatisfactory, perhaps (to their way of thinking) altogether too minimal, and certainly lacking in providing a ‘picture’ which resembles much that has commonly been said in religious circles. What is here attempted is a ‘demythologizing’ of traditional teaching on the subject. In a book published a few years ago I said that one day I should like to engage in just that demythologizing. I have sought to do this in such a way that what is said will be meaningful and helpful to those who are dissatisfied with the conventional portrayal and yet will also be sufficiently loyal to the main drive of Christian faith. For myself I can say that I am utterly convinced, with Mother Julian of Norwich, that in and with God ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well -- and that includes human existence in and under God.