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.
Chapter 8: Conclusion and Summary
Unless the discussion in the preceding pages has entirely failed to make its point, it will be plain that what is being proposed in this book is (as I have said) a ‘de-mythologizing’ of the inherited notions of ‘life after death’, with their (to many of us) impossible assertions; and also the ‘re-mythologizing’ -- or better, the re-conceiving -- of their implicit intention so that we may have a valid way of affirming the value and worth of human existence, its significance and importance for God, and its preservation in God as a reality which has affected the divine life and in God has acquired an enduring quality which nothing can take away.
That is a long sentence, but it states the main purpose of our discussion. In order to arrive at such a re-conception it has been necessary to question the usual ideas about ‘subjective immortality and the pictures in which they have usually been communicated. It has been necessary to consider the nature of God and the relationship between God and the creation, above all the human level of that creation. It has been necessary to see what may be made of the ‘resurrection’ about which the New Testament speaks, both in respect to Jesus Christ as the decisive event in the story of that divine-human relationship and also in respect to the human side of the matter, where you and I may fit in and have our part and place. The conclusion of our treatment has been a stress upon God as recipient, who takes into himself, and by thus receiving gives abiding value to, what happens in the created order. For after all, in any faith which is genuinely theocentric or focused upon God, it is essential to make sure that it is God, not human desires or wishes or aspirations as they now stand, who is to be ‘given the glory’; and it is in God, and in God alone, that we may speak meaningfully of the significance of our own existence.
As I have said again and again, one of the religious difficulties with much in the conventional talk of life after death’ has been a forgetting of this centering upon God. It has almost been as if we humans, with our limitations and in our finitude, not to mention our obvious and tragic defection from right alignment with the divine intention for the world and for us, were to insist that until and unless we are given what we regard as due recognition and the security of our own survival in an individualistic sense, we shall refuse to take our place and play our part in the creative advance of the universe. This ‘dog-in-the-manger’ attitude has nothing to commend it. Who are we to insist that we must receive our reward and be seen to receive it, or else we shall categorically decline to offer service to the divine purpose? To think, act, and speak in that fashion is to presume that we are indeed lords of the whole creation and that what may, or may not, happen to us is what determines once and for all whether the whole enterprise is worth-while.
This is not to say that there may not be motives for our desire for such individualistic survival that cannot be dismissed out of hand as entirely self-centered. To care enough for others to feel that we cannot envisage their value as lost is only natural. But there may be another way in which that value is preserved; and in this book we have sought to present the possibility which fits in with general biblical thinking and which is also sufficiently in accordance with the conceptuality we have accepted. Yet it always remains hard to learn the lesson that it is God that matters most and that not even our deepest concern for those whom we have loved unselfishly and generously can be given central place.
Let me say then that to be received into, made an integral part of, and gladly employed by God for his own wonderful enrichment and for the enhancement of his working in the creation, is a destiny such that we can feel nothing other than gratitude and delight in its prospect. This certainly is for the best; nothing could be more splendid, nothing more rewarding, than the confident assurance that we matter to God and that he is both able and willing to use what we have done, and hence what we are, for the further expression of the love which is the divine nature and purpose.
It for a moment I may speak for myself, I must confess that finally to be brought to see things in this way has been a great release from confusion and worry. When one has experienced the death of many of those for whom one has most cared, and when one has been troubled by the thought that they may indeed have gone into the darkness without remembrance, it comes as a great consolation to recognize that in God nothing can be lost. And when the more conventional talk, so familiar and often (alas) so superficial in its attempt at securing some permanent value for those loved persons, has been subjected to the kind of critical analysis which is proper to any inherited belief however long it has been cherished, and in consequence has been dismissed as both unconvincing and incredible, then the certain conviction that in God -- and I repeat this once more -- the value of human existence is guaranteed and the worth of all those for whom one has cared is assured, becomes an abiding and unshakeable occasion for joy.
It was to state just that conviction, I believe, that the older pictures were devised. But it is not necessary for us, once those pictures have been rejected as impossible, to give up the basic assurance. I have remarked earlier that all too often it seems that we are presented with two supposedly exclusive alternatives. Either we accept, as they stand or with some subtle and dubiously sophisticated modification, the older ways of picturing it, or we give up altogether any notion of a value integral to human existence. So it is said or implied. My point in this book has been to indicate that there is another possibility; and that this possibility depends upon a doctrine of God -- a model for the divine, worshipful, and unsurpassable reality -- which differs from the usual one but which does in fact provide exactly the guarantee for which we yearn. How this is to be presented to our contemporaries is a matter for those who are given the pastoral care of men and women and children. On the one hand, they dare not talk as if our human wish for enduring value were nonsense; on the other, they need to find ways in which the sort of understanding which has been presented here will come home to those who mourn, quite as much as to those who need reassurance about their own significance in the total scheme of things. I conclude, therefore, with a summary statement of the position which seems to me to make sense.
Let me first say that the kind of ‘de-mythologizing’, followed by re-conception, which I have been urging in this book does not imply that for every detail in the conventional picture we are obliged to find some equivalent in terms of our different perspective. What is at stake is the reality to which the whole picture points. Doubtless many of the details in that picture are gone beyond recovery in any sense whatever. At the same time, I am convinced that nothing of abiding value will be lost; and for myself I can say that I find, even in such concepts as purgatory -- which to some might appear incredible in the new concept -- something that is not without significance. To put this more plainly, the notion of growth or development, of movement or process, which purgatory affirms of life after death, is certainly valid for our experience in the present world. What is more, it is by no means impossible, in the new setting, to see that in God himself there may be an action in which the values achieved in this world, along with the persons who achieve them, are more and more fully received and used, as the wisdom which belongs to eternal Love takes and finds significance in them. God is not static; he is dynamic and living. Hence we have every right to think that in that dynamic life which is unsurpassable and hence divine there is, not a becoming more divine, which would be absurd, but an increasing capacity for finding occasions through which God may employ, in one way or another, that which is always remembered; and also, in this very action as it continues on in God’s relationship with creation, a growing acceptance of those who have contributed to the cosmic enterprise of love at work in creation.
And so to our summary. The affirmation which Christian faith must make has to do with relationship with God, here and hereafter. To have one’s final destiny in God’s reception and in God’s employment of all that one has done, and hence all that one is, is the corollary of a genuine faith in God. We do not know with absolute certainty, nor can we readily imagine, how this is to be accomplished. My own suggestion has been that it is through the unfailing reality of what, following Old Testament usage and assisted by Whiteheadian (and Hartshorneian) thought, I have styled ‘the divine memory’. To talk in that fashion is not to speak of a kind of meaningless re-enactment of what went on in the creation; it is to speak of a vital, living, and ongoing movement, where God knows and experiences (if that word is, as I believe, appropriate to the divine life) that which has taken place, but knows it and experiences it with a continuing freshness and delight -- and, if what has taken place has been evil, with a continuing tinge of sadness and regret -- such as must be proper to the chief creative and chief receptive agency who is worshiped and served by God’s human children.
Furthermore, just as the concept of purgatory has its value in such a new context, so also does the common Catholic Christian practice of prayers for the departed, as well as the recognition that the great saints are still ‘alive in God’, in the only way that anybody can be thus alive: as an undying reality in the divine memory of the world and of every occasion within that world. Obviously my prayers for the departed will not be effectual in persuading God to do what already God must be doing -- remembering them once they have been received into the divine life and employing their human accomplishments for the furthering of the divine purpose. But it most certainly will link me with that memory of them, thus establishing a genuine ‘communion of saints’ in which in the here-and-now we too may share. The recognition that the great saints, above all the Blessed Mother of our Lord, are also still present in God’s vital memory, is our way of understanding that God can and still does ‘use’ them to enrich God’s own joy and to further the grand design of God’s love. This recognition helps us, here in our mortal existence, for it sees that the holy ones are not lost forever but rather, having made their contribution to God, are still through that contribution given the one reward that they hoped for -- and the reward that we too may hope for.
What is that reward? It is not ‘pie in the sky’; it is life in and with God. St Ignatius Loyola saw this clearly enough when he prayed that he, and all of us, might learn to ‘labor and not to ask for any reward, but that of knowing that we do [God’s] will’. Thus we return to our main point: God and life with God is the one thing that has supreme importance.
Christian faith -- as I have insisted again and again -- is God-centered -- despite our inveterate (and sinful) human attempts to make God adjectival to our own subjective immortality after death. In the famous Jesuit phrase, all is ad majorem gloriam Dei: ‘all is towards the greater glory of God’. If by God’s ‘glory’ we understand a majestic court scene in which God is seated upon a great throne, lording it over the creation and gloating in his divine magnificence, then the phrase suggests ideas that are the exact opposite of the ‘Galilean vision’ of the Love which is self-giving, gladly receptive, utterly ungrudging in generous openness to all that occurs in the created order. But if we understand God’s ‘glory’ as precisely the divine Love-in-act, with its rejoicing in the joys and its sorrowing with the sadness of God’s human children -- indeed the glory which is nothing other than the divine generosity, gracious welcome, and unfailing faithfulness in mercy and forgiveness, then the phrase is rich in meaning.
Our value or importance is in relationship to just that God. Upon that God’s love we can always count. God’s receptivity can never be exhausted: God’s responsiveness to his children, in any and every circumstance, is our supreme ‘dependability’; and God’s capacity to use, for further enrichment, any and all that is offered assures us of the worth to be found in whatever is good, true, honorable, lovely, or courageous in our human existence.
The Dean of Chapel in my college in Cambridge often uses this prayer at services when remembrance is made of those who have departed this life: ‘Lord, in thy mercy, gather into thy purposes the lives of those we remember before thee, that they may not be lost.’ Those words, to my mind, say all that we can need or want. God always does that which is for the best; and surely for us men and women that best is for us to be received into God’s life and thus to be enabled to make our own limited, finite, doubtless defective, contribution to God’s abiding intention for the creation.