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.
An Additional Note: Addressed to Those Who Mourn
It may be that some readers of this book will feel that its conclusions give what they might think to be small comfort for those who have been bereaved of someone they love and who mourn deeply over their loss. I can understand this feeling on the part of people who have been brought up to accept the conventional notion that heaven will be a place of meeting with those who have died and who wish to have assurance that continuing conscious personal existence after death is guaranteed to us humans. Indeed I myself was brought up with these beliefs; and the adjustment to what I consider to be both a more profoundly Christian and a more rational view was by no means easy. But I came to see that what was important was neither what I had been taught as a child when my brother and sister died at a very early age nor what would provide some immediate comfort to me when (as was bound to happen and of course did happen some years later) my parents also died, leaving me with no close living relations. What was important was a conviction that was deeply in accordance with the God-centeredness of Christian faith and that could be maintained without special pleading or the use of highly suspect argument. And in this book I have tried to give a clear statement of just that conviction.
None the less, it would be mistaken to think that there is no genuine comfort, no real consolation, in the view presented in these pages. First of all, however, we ought to see that for anyone who understands the order of priorities in Christian faith, the words of St Francis de Sales must be taken very seriously: ‘We are to seek the God of consolations rather than the consolations of God.’ By this he meant that for a great many people the whole function of their faith is to provide them either with a keen awareness of what God does for them and in them or with a way of escape from the real facts of life. But if God is -- that is, if the cosmic Love is inescapably there and not simply a speculation or wish on the part of us men and women and if God is also the divine, worshipful, and unsurpassable One who is concerned with and acts for his world in all its richness and variety, then surely the significant thing for us is to focus our attention upon that One. It is not to ‘use’ God as a way for us to receive creaturely satisfaction of any sort -- although of course there is a sense in which we can indeed be satisfied only when we are in conscious relationship with God. We need to have our priorities right, as I have said.
What is more, for any Christian, and indeed for any theist, whatever hope we may have must be In God. Unfortunately not a few people take this to be a way of saying that God is the guarantee that what we hope for, or think we want, will be granted. But to think in this fashion is not to hope in God at all; it is to hope for what we want and then to assume that God is, so to say, the reliable agent who will get it for us or give it to us. The whole point of our discussion in these pages has been to urge that we do indeed put our hope in God; it is God and God alone, who is our hope, not that which we expect to receive or to have been guaranteed.
In itself that ought to provide great comfort or consolation for those who mourn. The comfort or consolation is not in what may (or may not) happen to us and to those whom we love, once this mortal life is ended. Rather, it is in the sure affirmation of faith that with God and in God, everything is for ever safe -- and safe in the one way in which it can be enduringly secure, namely in God’s valuing and receiving it into the divine life, to be treasured there for ever. The comfort and consolation are given us in the sure conviction that God is always doing ‘more than we can ask or think’, as the old prayer phrases it; God will do everything possible for us human children, come what may.
At many funerals a phrase is used about our ‘committing’ to God those whom we have lost. Do we take this phrase as seriously as we should? If we do, we mean that we are then ‘giving back’ to God the life that has come from God in the first place, in the ‘sure and certain hope’, as the funeral services also often say, that God cares for the departed one as much as, in fact much more than, we have done and furthermore that God is trustworthy enough to accept and value what has thus been ‘committed’.
If our human existence is not that of some supposedly substantial and indestructible soul to whom experiences happen, but is rather those experiences themselves held together in unity and given identity by the awareness and self-awareness which makes it possible for us to say ‘I’ and ‘you’, then the enduring reality, which God accepts and values, is precisely that series of events or occasions which go to make us what we are. Are those of such a quality that they can indeed be valued by God, given significance in God’s own life, and employed for the furthering of the divine purpose of bringing greater love into existence in more places, in more ways, and at more times? This is the crucial question; it is the question which makes us understand that our day-to-day human life must be lived responsibly and seriously, with due regard for the consequences of our decisions and for what happens as a result of them.
So it is that in my own experiences, I have come to learn that the important thing about those whom I have loved is found in what they have contributed to the ongoing creative advance of God’s love in the world. And I can have no doubt, if I earnestly believe that God is unfailing Love, that God too values just those contributions and makes them part of his own unending life. The exact details, how this may be done, are veiled from us; the reality itself is given with our faith in God as cosmic Lover.
Some years ago, a memorial service was held for a man whom I had known and loved for a very long time. He was Daniel Day Williams, a gentle and brave man, a great scholar but an even greater person. Those who knew him felt his loss with a terrible poignancy, not least because it came so unexpectedly and without much prior warning. At that service, one of us -- not myself but another who had known him well -- made some remarks, requested by those who arranged the memorial. In the course of these remarks, this was said: ‘Those of us who shared our friend’s deep faith in God as Love can have a confidence that nothing that he did, or said, or wrote, or thought can ever be lost. For we believe that God values and treasures and will keep for ever all those acts and words and books and thoughts, keep them for ever in his own everlasting life. So it is that we dare to say that the goodness, the courage, the integrity, the concern, and the love which were our friend -- that all these are now, and to all eternity will be, safe in the God whom he and we know to be sheer Love. In that certainty, we can and we do commit our friend to God, in joyful confidence and with the assurance of faith.’
I do not know what the reader may feel; but I can say that for me this was enough, more than enough, to provide comfort and consolation. For our hope is in God, the all-merciful and all-loving One, whose care for us who are God’s human children is greater than we can grasp or think.
In St Augustine’s Confessions there is a beautiful passage in which the great African theologian speaks about the death of his beloved friend Alypius. He says that when his friend died, it seemed that half of himself died too, since that friend was so much part of him and had been so much united with him in life. It was as if Augustine had lost part of himself when his friend died. But he goes on to say that he came to see that in truth he had not lost his friend at all, despite the latter’s death. For, he writes, ‘We can never lose those whom we have loved if we have loved them in God, since we have in fact loved them in the God whom we can never lose.’ To love another in God is to ‘have’ that other despite the ‘changes and chances of this mortal life’, because in God that one is loved, known, and kept in all his immediacy; and this means that it is in God, and in God alone, that any genuine hope must be placed. He who is sheer Love, the unsurpassable Love that is divine and everlasting, is our unfailing strength and our ground for confidence, now and always, in saecula saeculorum. To him alone we can, and we must, give all praise, honor, thanksgiving, and adoration. Christian faith is utterly theocentric; it is centered in God himself, in God as he discloses himself in the focal event from which that faith takes its origin -- Jesus Christ, Man of Nazareth and Lord raised from the dead and abiding for ever in ‘the bosom of the Father