Process Theology as Political Theology by John B. Cobb, Jr.
John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com.. Published by Westminster Press 1982. Copyright by John B. Cobb, Jr.. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter Four: The Doctrines of God and Eschatology
In the thirties interest at Chicago turned away from the socio-historical school because of two weaknesses. First, it seemed to be bound up with a generally optimistic expectation that human efforts, spearheaded by Christians, would bring into being a better society. The writings of Reinhold Niebuhr destroyed this optimism and turned attention to the question of finding meaning in history without the illusion of stable progress. Second, the socio-historical school failed to offer a satisfactory way of thinking of God. In a situation in which inherited ideas of God had become incredible, it was necessary to reconceive God. Chapter Two briefly surveyed the responses of Wieman, Hartshorne and others to this dual problem.
The negative aspect of this work, as already stressed, was that it in fact separated theology from its socio-political matrix and established it instead in the context of the history of ideas. To work back from that to a new form of political theology has been a slow and arduous task. Yet to those who participated in or benefited from the wrestling with historical meaning and the concept of God, there seems no reason to forget what was learned. Political theology, too, must deal with these questions. During the past fifteen years political theology has too much avoided the conceptual issues that are involved with these doctrines. Process theology has something to contribute.
Section I summarizes what Sölle, Moltmann, and Metz understand by God. Section II shows how the thought about God of Wieman and Whitehead can complement the work of the political theologians in needed ways. Section III offers a process eschatology as a solution to certain problems in German political theology.
Rudolf Bultmann directed most of his attention to the understanding of human existence and faith. This did not imply any lack of belief in God as one who acted. In his view faith understands itself as the pure gift of God, a God who is imaged as acting from above and may be thought of by analogy with human persons.
This image of God’s spatial transcendence was not accepted by Bultmann’s more influential students, and in their writings the meaning of the word ‘God’ became less clear. The focus of attention was more unqualifiedly on the actual situation which was viewed in a more fully historical way. Although most Bultmannians did not go so far, Dorothee Sölle’s qualified acceptance of the idea of the ‘death of God’ did not involve a major break.
Sölle does not stop speaking of God. But she rejects theism without compromise -- ‘the omnipotent God, the king, father, and ruler, who is above the world’.1 The God of whom she speaks after the death of this God is a powerless and helpless God:
In all religions, a question mark has been set against the omnipotent and serene gods by the sufferings of men. But only in Christ does the concept of a suffering God appear. Here alone is it the suffering of God which is shouldered by a man. Only in Christ does it become clear that we can put God to death because he has put himself in our hands. Only since Christ has God become dependent on us. Christ did not identify himself with a calm spectator of all our troubles. Christ, by his teaching, life and death, made plain the helplessness of God in the world; the suffering of unrequited and unsuccessful love.2
If one asks for conceptual clarification of Sölle’s idea of God, the answer is not clear. She is speaking of how human beings have experienced whatever they have called God. It seems that for her ‘God’ now means something very much like love, the love which she says is unrequited and unsuccessful and expresses the helplessness of God in the world.
However that may be, God is not for Sölle a power or agent alongside human power or agency with which human beings are to reckon. God is found in human actions or nowhere. Control over those actions is in human hands. If God who ‘suffers by reason of his unrealized, or only partly realized, existence in the world’3 is to be more fully realized, that must be through free human action expressive of love.4
In Political Theology Sölle draws the implications of this understanding of God explicitly. She rejects apocalyptic hope in favor of prophetic hope, in which the outcome depends upon human obedience.5 She asks rhetorically: ‘Can God -- independently of whatever "the world," and therefore society, does or fails to do -- bestow forgiveness directly on a penitent man and make possible a new beginning for him?’6 Her consistent view of political theology is that it declares that the future is in our hands and that we are called by Jesus’s message to embody love in the world.
Although Sölle’s comments about God are largely negative, this is not because she is opposed to using language about God altogether. What she opposes is language about God that depreciates human responsibility or expresses ideology. She believes that the idea of God as a totally free and independent being expresses the ideals of the entrepreneur and the macho male rather than anything to be found in Jesus.7 In much of her writing there are few constructive suggestions to oppose to the traditional rhetoric that she finds objectionable.
More recently, however, she has hinted at more positive formulations.
The more I grew in the socialist movement, the more I discovered a new God-language. The point for me is not merely to overcome a sexist language by changing the pronouns, because a female imagery can include domination and wrong protection as well. I think it is more important to overcome the inherent substantial machismo in the God-talk, its bourgeois male ideals. The adoration of power and independence established the eternal alien determination of human-kind. When one of the main political goals of democratic socialists is the workers’ co-determination and self-control, how can we stand a God-talk based on the refusal of democratization and self-determination? If God is not ready to give up his power, if he does not want us to determine our fate, we cannot trust him. He is then nothing but a somewhat liberal capitalist, and our trust in that end would make us more childish than we are. The God we are in need of is not a private owner, nor a capitalist with a human face. There is only one legitimization of power and that is to share it. Power which is not shared, in other words, which is nor transformed into love, is domination; to adore it means to will slavery.8
Metz and Moltmann also reject the theistic God and see God in the suffering of Jesus. They, too, reject images of God as spatially transcendent or above. Hardly more than Sölle do they encourage thought of God as an agent alongside other agents, one who brings things about in the world or in human life. But it is clearer in their cases than in Sölle’s that ‘God’ is not an expendable word. Metz writes, for example, that ‘the name of God stands for the fact that the utopia of the liberation of all human subjects is not a pure projection which is what that utopia would be if it were only a utopia and no God’.9
Although Moltmann speaks a great deal about God, he rarely addresses directly the question, Who is God? On one occasion when he does so, he writes as follows:
What do we mean by the word ‘God’? The image of the authority in heaven, which one can accuse, justify, deny or affirm, is past. The judging God is found in the man who argues with God. The glory of the totally other world of God as a transforming power in this world is present in the Christ who was forsaken by God and sacrificed by him. In this way, we abandon the centuries-old, weak Christianization of the God concept and are on the way towards a fuller understanding of God in the crucified Christ. Who is ‘God’ in the Christ event? He is the power of the transformation of the world in vicarious suffering. Who is ‘God’ in the corresponding event of belief in unbelief? He is thc word of the justification of the godless. Who is ‘God’ in the event of love and alienation? He is the power of freedom in self-surrender. Who is ‘God’ in the event of hope in the face of death? He is the power of a qualitatively new future. Finally, who is ‘God’ in the new creation? He is the eternal presence of the victory of the crucified Christ. 10
These paradoxical statements could be interpreted to mean much the same as what Sölle affirmed, except that, as in Metz, the note of futurity is much stronger here. ‘The God spoken of here is no intra-worldly or extra-worldly God but the "God of hope" (Rom. 15.13), a God with "future as his essential nature" (as E. Bloch puts it), as made known in Exodus and in Israelite prophecy, the God whom we therefore cannot really have in us or over us but always only before us, who encounters us in his promises for the future, and whom we therefore cannot "have" either, but can only await in active hope.’11
Moltmann does not speak of God’s powerlessness or helplessness in quite the way Sölle does, but no more than for her is God a controlling power or even a distinguishable agent of action in the world. God’s power appears in the power of the promise by which we are drawn into the future. That promise which is given in the crucified Christ is the determinant of Christian life.
Sölle too speaks of a promise along with a demand, but she makes clear that the realization of the promise is a function of obedience to the command. Moltmann, on the other hand, makes use of apocalyptic imagery alongside of the prophetic. Sölle complains that his theology of hope is ‘a mythology of apocalyptic promise’.12 But Moltmann stresses also the openness of the future and the element of risk. It is not clear, at least to this writer, whether Moltmann believes the promise will someday really be fulfilled, whether he thinks it may be fulfilled, or whether his concern is entirely for the meaning of life here and now in light of the promise, so that the question of its actual fulfillment in the future does not arise. Systematically it is difficult to see how one can be confident of a future realization of the promise when there is no transcendent divine power that can insure victory over the enormous historical threats which we face. But if Moltmann does not intend the promise to give us assurance, his apocalyptic language is misleading.
Unlike Sölle and Moltmann, Metz struggled with the doctrine of God in a philosophical context. But just as Sölle left behind the God of Bultmann, and Moltmann turned away from the God of Barth, so also Metz criticized the God of transcendental Thomism. For him, too, history becomes the encompassing horizon even for our understanding of God. God is found in the self-reflection of human understanding. There God is disclosed in and with human subjectivity. God is the ‘subjectivity of the subjectivity of man’ which is understood especially as the ‘freeing freedom of human freedom’13 or the ‘transcending willedness of the will’ which is ‘the ground of every particular self-realization’ of the will 14 God is the ground and origin of the will by being the end, the fulfillment toward which it is called. Human beings are not called thereby away from themselves but to their true selves. ‘God as the final end is the encompassing whither of human self-realization." 15
This idea of the whither of fulfillment led Metz increasingly to agree with Moltmann that the future is God’s essential nature. It led him to similar views of the future as promise constituting the horizon for political action in the world. But Metz is more explicit that there is a ‘possibility of being defeated’,16 and he wrestles more painfully with the difficulty of apocalyptic hope.17
Metz meditates at length on the apocalyptic consciousness in its contrast with the dominant modern one, which he calls evolutionary. By evolutionary he does not mean teleological but rather infinite and so in fact timeless:
Apocalyptic consciousness . . . calls the timeless understanding of time that has become so firmly established in theology into question. This [timeless] understanding of time enables theology to regard itself as a kind of constant reflection that is institutionally protected and cannot be interrupted by any imminent expectation, without pressure of activity or surprises and experienced in rendering harmless expectations that are open to disappointment, but are nonetheless genuine.18
Metz wants to restore a consciousness of time within which the apocalyptic hope can live.
It is difficult to see, however, how the apocalyptic expectation can be justified without a type of belief in God which seems alien to Metz. It developed in a world in which God as a powerful agent could act upon the world from without. In that context it made sense. But Metz seems not to affirm such a God any more than Sölle or Moltmann.
All three theologians believe that the future is open, replete with truly new possibilities. All believe that human beings are called to realize possibilities of love, to withdraw from present structures of oppression and injustice, and to actualize the possibilities of liberation and justice. All associate God with this open future and its possibilities for good. Both Sölle and Moltmann emphasize God’s suffering in and with humanity. With all of this process theologians are in enthusiastic agreement.19
But these important gains of the political theologians are won at a high price with respect to the doctrine of God. The idea of God is fairly clear in Bultmann, Barth and Rahner. Process theologians are critical of their doctrines of God and hence welcome the criticisms of the German political theologians. We share in the emphasis on God’s suffering and we rejoice in the association of God with what makes human beings free and gives them an open future of unrealized possibilities. But the conceptual formulations by the three German political theologians are so vague that the consequences could be dangerous for the future of Christian faith in God.
The negative consequences are clearest in Sölle. ‘God’ has virtually ceased to be an operative word with her. What she has to say can be said more clearly without using it. Her clarity is admirable, but the implications are serious. Her political theology is a matter of loyalty to Jesus and strenuous exertion to achieve justice and righteousness in human society. That is commendable. But Christians know something of the limits of such efforts. We know the need of the sense of being borne by a power not ourselves, being directed by a wisdom greater than our own, and being accepted even as we fail. None of this can be affirmed by Sölle. Hers is a Christianity for heroes.
Yet by a little reflection, and without violating her admirable commitments, one could see grace at work in her world. Her great concern is that the institutions of society be transformed, and she calls human beings to take full responsibility for that transformation. But she knows that only transformed people will transform society. ‘Political theology prods men to combat their own apathy, creating new anguish and inspiring new projects. It entices them to seek transformation.’20 In this formulation there seems to be some recognition that we cannot simply transform ourselves by an act of choice. We must seek transformation. Could we say we must allow transformation to occur in us? Such allowing is an activity, a responsible one, but it is different from the attempt to manipulate ourselves.
This difference was at the heart of Wieman’s work which was summarized in Chapter Two. He distinguished the created goods from the creative good. Our present commitments and ideals, including those of Sölle, are created goods. They have resulted from a process which worked through our social interactions. But now, once established, they are created goods. If we take them as ultimate and act and organize to preserve and expand them, we will be closed to the needed transformation even of our best commitments and ideals. If we truly seek transformation, we must open ourselves to the creative good that works in and through our interactions with others. Grace thus has the primacy, but not a grace that supersedes or undercuts human activity. It is a grace that operates in our efforts.
The recognition of this creative good is important not only as we seek transformation but as we conceive of those structures of justice and liberation that we wish to build. The absolutization of our present ideas and ideals leads to efforts to embody them in the new structures. Recognition that the true good is a process of transforming ideas and ideals leads to striving for structures that allow that good to work. Instead of rejecting every idea of an active and acting God when she rejects classical theism, Sölle might profit from approaching empirically the working of grace as Wieman did. Such a grace can be seen also to forgive in the sense of enabling one, anyone, ‘to begin anew’21 This is, of course, not the forgiveness ‘from above’ against which Sölle polemicizes. It is precisely the gift of new beginnings which takes place in human interactions. But the gift is not from the individuals with whom one interacts. One needs forgiveness from them, too, but that does not replace divine forgiveness. To be sensitive to the creative process, to open oneself to its working, to direct others to it, is no trivial matter.
Metz and Moltmann have not rejected grace in their rejection of the traditional theistic God. God is important to them, and belief in God is effective in their theologies. Nevertheless, what they mean by the word God remains elusive. They provide powerful images, some of which have been noted above. It is by such images that theology most directly shapes the life of the Christian. Further, they form these images in such a way as to direct Christian energies toward the liberation of the oppressed. This is a major achievement, and process theologians have much to learn from it. But, as Ogden notes with respect to liberation theologians, they ‘focus on the existential meaning of God for us without dealing at all adequately with the metaphysical being of God in himself’.22 To reject the conceptual task of theology reflects an inadequate understanding of how faith functions. It is true that we are more immediately affected by images than by concepts and that through Christian history much of the attention of theologians has been properly directed to the fashioning and refashioning of images. But images are powerful only when those who hold them believe, consciously or unconsciously, that the images are appropriate to reality. When images are used to move us without convincing us that they are appropriate to reality, they are felt as manipulative rather than liberating and energizing. Propaganda consists in such images. Theology should not. Even when images have a life and power of their own which cannot be exhausted by analysis, theology cannot avoid. the conceptual and discursive questions of their meaning and truth.
Where readers are not helped to arrive at a new concept of God, they will continue to hear in the word ‘God’ what that word has meant in the tradition. These meanings have often been in tension with the thrust of political theology. Devotion to God as typically conceived traditionally has encouraged a quest for inner purity which is not recognized as bound up with the socio-political situation. God’s eternity and immutability have been contrasted with the ephemeral character of historical events in such a way as to depreciate efforts at social transformation. God’s omnipotence suggests that the course of events is finally in God’s hands, not ours, and that our feeble efforts to shape the course of history are misguided. The political theologians reject this concept of God. But when they fail to clarify an alternative concept, they cannot complete their mission. Worship is likely to be directed still to a God who is consciously or unconsciously conceived as eternal, immutable and omnipotent in that sense that introduces a tension between the depths of the worshipper’s devotion and the call to participate in historical liberation.
Alternatively, if the readers see that this concept of God is rejected and cannot find a new one to which to relate the powerful images of political theology, they may decide that the meaning of what is said can be clarified without use of this word. Perhaps it can be replaced by ‘the hoped-for future’. They will suppose the word is used now chiefly for rhetorical effect, and that translation into the language of atheistic humanism will be a gain. But with that, too, much of the power of political theology will be lost.
What is needed is a new concept of God which will fit with the rich imagery of political theology and ground its existential meaning. This idea of God must be such that, in Metz’s words, ‘the struggle for God and the struggle to enable all men to be free subjects does not operate in the opposite direction, but proportionally in the same direction’.23 Process theologians believe they have found the conceptuality that is needed in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. It is for this reason that his ideas about God have struck deep roots through five decades of study. They are not easy ideas to grasp, and in isolation from his whole system of thought they prove less convincing. But a brief exposition may show how they can claim to meet the needs of political theology.
First, consider the totality of reality, including human experience, as a vast field of events. Each event comes into being out of its past. The new event could not be what it is if it did not have exactly the past which it does have, and it cannot be anything which that past does not allow it to be. There is, therefore, a great deal of determination of what happens now by what has happened up until now.
Second, consider the normal approach of the sciences to the understanding of the new event. The scientific task is to explain the event, and the task of explaining it is generally understood to be to show how antecedent circumstances led necessarily to its being what it is. That is, the scientific enterprise seeks to explain why the event has the form it has by describing the world out of which it comes to be. So far as their scientific work is concerned, virtually all natural and social scientists are determinists. To explain something is usually assumed to be to show why it had to be what it was.
Thus almost of necessity science adopts a methodological determinism, and Whitehead believes that when we restrict our vision to this field of events, we have no basis for opposing a metaphysical determinism as well. What the new event becomes must derive from something, and if all that is is the field of past events, then it must derive from that. If it derives exclusively from that, it must be fully determined by that. If we reject this determinism, it can only be in the name of sheer indeterminism or chance.
Yet there is reason to believe that my own experience, as a crucial example, is not simply explicable in terms of chance and determination by the past. I seem to have some responsibility for what I become. And that is possible only if I exercise some determination upon myself. Further, that determination cannot be only the influence of a past decision upon present experience; for then the present experience would still be fully determined from without, and the past decision in its turn would have been a product of determinism and chance. The decision must decide about itself. Or to put it another way, each event or experience must to some degree be self-determining.
Whitehead believes that indeed there is an element of self-determination in every unitary event or, as he prefers to say, in every occasion of experience. But how is this possible? A decision is only possible among relevant alternatives, but it is not in the nature of the past to constitute itself into such alternatives. The past operates on the present with the force of necessity as efficient cause. If there are relevant alternatives, there must be a sphere of possibility which can be distinguished from the sphere of past actuality. An occasion of experience must receive not only the actuality of the past but also alternative possibilities for its own self-constitution. These possibilities must be relevant to the actual situation, but they must transcend it. They may include the possibility of being passively shaped by the past, but they must include also the possibility not to be simply the outcome of the efficient causality of the past. In short, the relevant possibilities include possibilities of relative novelty.
The effective presence of these relevant novel possibilities for self-constitution does not determine just how an occasion of experience will in fact constitute itself. The possibilities function persuasively as ‘lures for feeling’. Thereby they create freedom, a freedom which differs from both determinism and chance. In each occasion of experience a space is opened up for the decision of that occasion about itself, Of course much about that occasion can be predicted on the basis of the efficient causality of the past. But, in Whitehead’s words, although ‘whatever as determinable is determined, . . . there is always a remainder for the decision’24 of that occasion. This remainder is far larger in human experience than in most other occasions of experience, but no event is wholly determined without remainder by its past.
Whitehead believes that the cosmic activity through which relevant potentiality becomes effective in each occasion of experience is properly called God. This is, more precisely, the Primordial -Nature of God -- God as the organ of novelty. No event occurs in the world without God’s coming, not as a put of its past, determining world, but as the gift of freedom, the gift of transcendence, the gift of the future.
It is a merit of political theologians to have restored eschatology to the heart of Christian theology. Moltmann points out that eschatology has often been an appendage, discussed only after the main points have been made without reference to it.25 In opposition to this tactic he insists that theology is eschatological through and through. That is, the Christian is fundamentally oriented to God’s future, and all Christian teaching is to be formulated in the light of that orientation. The Theology of Hope goes far toward showing what that means.
Nevertheless, the foregoing summaries of the views of Sölle, Moltmann and Metz have showed that there are problems with the eschatology. It is hard to determine how seriously we may expect or hope for the promised world. Yet the meaning of the hope for us depends on whether it is a real possibility. Let us consider the alternatives.
Prior to World War I many Christians could associate Christian hope with their sense of the progress of civilization. The social gospel, including the socio-historical school at Chicago, was tinged by this optimism. In the context of such expectation, action for social justice was encouraged. One could be on the side of history and of God in working for justice for oppressed classes.
But World War I and its aftermath shattered this optimistic spirit. It was much more difficult to anticipate a righteous society as a possibility in history. The danger was that, as a result, Christians would cease to be motivated to work in the public arena. Reinhold Niebuhr dealt with this problem with great honesty but also with pathos. ‘In the task of . . . redemption,’ he wrote,
the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment; for justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with the malignant power and ‘spiritual wickedness in high places,’ The illusion is dangerous because it encourages terrible fanaticisms. It must therefore be brought under the control of reason. One can only hope that reason will not destroy it before its work is done.26
One response to the dilemma articulated by Niebuhr is to renew the doctrine that in fact a perfect outcome of the historical process is to be anticipated. This is the strategy of Teilhard de Chardin and Wolfhart Pannenberg. There is little doubt that there is much in the Biblical witness that supports this doctrine and that the expectation of such a final End to history has been foundational to much of Christian theology throughout the centuries. If Christian faith can be renewed as the confident anticipation of a final resurrection of all from the dead, then belief in the future attainment of justice and righteousness is not, after all, an illusion. It is sober fact in the light of which all life is most realistically to be lived.
Process theology shares with Metz, Moltmann and Sölle an unwillingness or inability to participate in this confident anticipation of a consummation of the historical process. Instead, history is really open. But if this openness means, as Niebuhr often seemed to say, that social gains are all ephemeral, that the problems that arise are as serious as the ones that are solved, that indeed work for social righteousness is Sisyphean, then few will give themselves to it.
Niebuhr himself came to recognize that he may have overstated the case when he had asserted that we must believe that perfect justice is possible in order to be optimally motivated.27 We can be inspired to committed effort by the conviction that a situation much better than the present one is realistically obtainable. The knowledge that the new situation, too, will be flawed will not deter us. On the whole this sufficed in the earlier Social Gospel. Its leaders did not believe that the society they were building was the Kingdom of God, but they did believe that human obedience to God could usher in a world in which many of the present social evils would be overcome. Subsequent events were disillusioning, but one option for a political theology which does not want to commit itself to belief in a real consummatory End is to arouse hopes of relatively unambiguous change for good in society. Among Latin American liberation theologians this is often, even usually, what is hoped for. A socialist revolution is anticipated as bringing an end to the massive oppression of present society without introducing new evils of comparable magnitude. Working for such a revolution is experienced as inherently meaningful. Discussing the new problems that such a revolution will bring is usually regarded as unnecessary and inappropriate. Nevertheless, these theologians are careful to deny that the more just societies for which they hope can be identified with the Kingdom of God, Belief in this Kingdom functions to relativize every human attainment. But how we are to conceive this Kingdom is unclear.
Sölle’s view is quite straightforward. It does not focus on the Kingdom of God and its relation to a new society to be brought into being by humanity. For her, faith is freedom from every belief in a fixed order or human nature. She sees liberation as a real possibility in history, and she understands faith as ‘trust in the ongoing process of liberation’.28 This trust entails no assurance of a successful outcome in the course of history. As far as it goes her position is the same as that of process theology, but it does not seem to wrestle with the eschatological question of ultimate meaning.
Metz suggests that there is another possibility. He proposes that all the reflections in which we have been engaged presuppose an understanding of time that is different from the apocalyptic one within which Christianity arose. If we can free ourselves from the dominant sense of endless time and recover the apocalyptic vision, then the New Testament experience of hope can become real for us. Some of his theology seems to presuppose this point of view.
Process theologians cannot follow Metz here. He himself rejects the cosmology of the Bible and even its conceptions of God. It seems arbitrary to argue for a view of time which appears to be bound up with that cosmology and that view of God. We stand, therefore, before a radically open future with no assurance that our efforts for justice will succeed or even that human history will long continue. We too need to ground our political concerns in an eschatological hope. We do not find that this has been done in a convincing way by Sölle, Moltmann or Metz. We turn again to Whitehead for whom also the eschatological question was the central existential or religious one.
For Metz and Moltmann there is a close relationship between what they mean by God and the promise by which they live. For Teilhard and for Pannenberg there is an even more complete identity between God and the eschaton. For Teilhard God is Omega or that final consummation toward which all life on this planet has moved. For Pannenberg God is the Kingdom of God or the universal resurrection. For Whitehead also the eschaton is virtually identified with God.
To explain this, we will need to consider an aspect of Whitehead’s thought not dealt with above, one to which Hartshorne directed his primary attention. To be at all, for Whitehead, as for Hartshorne, is to feel or, in more technical language, to prehend. An occasion of experience prehends its past world, that is, takes aspects of that past world into its own constitution. For the most part it is the force of the past events that determines what is felt and to what degree; so what is prehension from the side of the new event is causality from the side of the past ones. Also, as soon as this new event of feeling is complete, it becomes part of the past world and compels future occasions to take account of it. It is thus the nature of every occasion of experience to be first a subject constituting itself through the prehension of past events and relevant possibilities and then an object which enters into the constitution of subsequent events.
We have seen that God enters into the constitution of every occasion in the form of relevant possibilities or lures for feeling. Whitehead believed that there is a deep religious intuition that God like all other actualities is also affected by all things. He also showed that there are philosophical reasons supporting this intuition. Thus Whitehead envisioned God’s immanence in the world and also the world’s immanence in God. The divine inclusion of the world -- a different world, of course, in every moment -- is the Consequent Nature of God. Like Hartshorne, Whitehead is convinced that apart from some such final, though ongoing, consummation of the world, the ground of meaningfulness of human action and concern is undermined.
Because all that I am and do is taken up into the divine life along with all the consequences of my acts in the lives of others, I cannot escape the seriousness, the importance, of how I use my freedom. I see the truth of the idea that everything I do to my neighbor I do also to God. I can experience God’s acceptance of my efforts, even when they fail. Because the Consequent Nature of God takes up into itself all that I am and do and all the consequences of my life, I must also recognize that my failure to respond forever forecloses some possibilities, and that the injuries I inflict on others cannot be undone.
Whitehead was sensitive to an objection that might be raised at this point. What would it really mean for God to include forever all the suffering and sin of human history? Would it mean that even in God there is no redemption? Whitehead’s response was to consider how in human experience there can be a kind of redemption of past suffering and sin. The consequences of my past suffering and sin remain in my experience now, but it is possible that they have been so transmuted through my growth and repentance as to enrich rather than degrade my present life. Whitehead envisions that in the divine life, far more than in the human, there is a redemption of the evil of the world, a redemption which does not remove its evil, but which includes it within a whole to which even human evil can make some positive contribution, however limited. God suffers with us, but the suffering does not destroy God as it can destroy us.
The relevance of Whitehead’s thought for eschatology needs further exposition. In the first place, his position provides no grounds for doubting the possibility, even the likelihood, that we human beings will destroy ourselves. For this reason it cannot assure us of the meaningfulness of our actions by pointing toward a future Kingdom of God on this planet. On the other hand, Whitehead by no means precludes the possibility of drastic changes for the better taking place in the future. There is no inevitability about our imminent extinction. There is no special likelihood that the patterns of future events will continue those of the recent past. The course of life on this planet has involved many drastic changes, and there is no reason to suppose that it has now arrived at permanent stability.
This is a point at which Whitehead is closer to Teilhard de Char-din than to Niebuhr and Moltmann. The latter view our situation and our expectations in terms of rather short time spans. Niebuhr, for example, takes recent European history as his basic context for projecting the future. Teilhard and Whitehead, in contrast, encourage a view of thousands, even of millions, of years. This longer view displays far more radical changes and indicates the possibility of great advances as well as catastrophes. For example, organized warfare is a matter of the past ten thousand years or less. There is no inherent necessity for it to continue for the duration of history. But, again, there is no assurance that war will not have the last word!
This view that the stakes are very high should not conflict with the emphasis of political theology that we are to be oriented to God’s future. However, it does accentuate what is already a problem in much of political theology. If justice and righteousness are not achieved, what then? Are we simply failures? Has God also failed? Is history simply a waste of time and effort?
For Whitehead the ultimate ground of assurance of the worthwhileness of our efforts cannot lie in a future event on this planet. Such a consummating event, if all goes well, could have penultimate significance, but it would not bring an end to the process. Eventually this planet will become uninhabitable. Our resurrection cannot be here or on any other planet revolving around some other sun. It must be in God.
What is resurrected in God is what has occurred here in the course of natural and historical events. Here is where decisions are made -and the content of the Kingdom is determined. There can be no depreciation of the importance of the historical future in this view. Rather the importance of the historical future and of how we freely shape it is confirmed and undergirded by the truly eschatological resurrection of all things within the divine life. It is important that we should succeed in realizing new levels of justice, but even if we fail, our efforts count forever in God.
1 Dorothee Sölle, Christ the Representative: an Essay in Theology After The ‘Death of God’ trans. David Lewis (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Ness, 1967), p. 150.
2 Ibid., p. 151.
3 Ibid., p. 149.
4 This note is continued in Dorothee Sölle, Beyond Mere Obedience, trans. Lawrence W. Denef (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970), where Sölle can speak positively of God only when Gods will is identified with what is ‘determined in the situation’ (p. 38).
5 Dorothee Sölle, Political Theology, trans. John Shelley (Philadelphia, Pa. Fortress Press, 1971), p.51.
6 Ibid., p. 100.
7 Dorothee Sölle, ‘Remembering Christ, Christianity and Crisis (7 June 1976), p. 137.
8 Dorothee Sölle. Beyond Mere Dialogue: On Being Christian and Socialist, (Detroit, Mich.: American Christians Toward Socialism. 1978), p. 38. For a congenial discussion of power from the process perspective see Bernard M. Loomer, ‘Two conceptions of power’, Process Studies (spring, 1976), pp. 5-32.
9 Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. David Smith (New York Seabury Press, 1980), p. 67.
10 Jürgen Moltmann, Hope and Planning, trans. Margaret Clarkson (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 16.
11 Jürgen Moltmann Theology of Hope, trans. James W. Leitch (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). p. 16.
12 Sölle, Political Theology. p. 51.
13 Johann Baptist Metz, Christliche Antbropozentrik: Uber die Denkform des Thomas von Aquin (Munich: Kosel Verlag, 1962), p. 76. (My translation.)
14 Ibid., p. 75. (My translation.)
15 Ibid., p. 78. (My translation.)
16 Metz, Faith in History and Society. p. 162.
17 Ibid., p. 169 -79.
18 Ibid., p. 177.
19 Sölle and Moltmann have both recognized points of contact with process theology. In dealing with the relation of human to divine activity Sölle has written, ‘At this point process theology is very helpful in understanding the concept of liberation.’ Dorothee Sölle, ‘Resistance, toward a First World theology’, Christianity and Crisis (23 July 1979), p. 179. Moltmann has quoted Whitehead with approval in his rejection of traditional theism. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. R.A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York, Harper & Row, 1974), p. 250.
20 Sölle, Political Theology, p. 69.
21 Ibid., p. 98. It also can be understood as the process of liberation which she encourages us to trust. Dorothee Sölle. ‘Remembering Christ’, Christianity and Crisis (7 June 1976), p. 136.
22 Schubert Ogden, Faith and Freedom: Toward a Theology of Liberation (Nashville, Tenn., Abingdon Press. 1979), p. 34.
23 Metz, Faith in History and Society, p.62.
24 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected ed. by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York, The Free Press, 1978), pp. 27 -8.
25 Moltmann, Theology of Hope. p. 15.
26 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1960), pp. 276 -7.
27 Ronald Stone. Reinhold Niebuhr, Prophet to Politicians (Nashville. Tenn., Abingdon Press. 1972), p. 80.
28 Sölle. ‘Remembering Christ’, p. 156.