When A Person Dies: Pastoral Theology in Death Experiences by Robert L. Kinast
Robert L. Kinast teaches pastoral theology at the Catholic University of America. Ordained a roman Catholic priest in 1968, he served for nine years in pastoral ministry in Atlanta, Georgia, while earning a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Emory University. Published by the Crossroad Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Appendix: When the Becoming Ceases
The approach used in this book is grounded in the more explicit philosophical and theological principles of process thought, primarily as articulated by Alfred North Whitehead. Whiteheadís schema, which he preferred to call a philosophy of organism, tries to see each event in its relationship to everything else. This relationship is always dynamic and interdependent. God is no exception. In fact, God is the chief exemplification of what reality is.
A relational theology of death seeks to understand the human experience of death consistently according to the general principles of this metaphysical view. The first part of this Appendix will summarize the interpretations already set forth in the preceding chapters, but will do so in a more systematic and technical way than the individual chapters allowed. Following this presentation, the relational theology of death will be compared with the typical theology of death in order to assess the strengths and limitations of each.
A Relational Theology of Death
The fundamental meaning or value of death is its contribution to Godís experience. This is a real contribution to Godís experience, an addition or modification of who God actually is. Only a world-view that understands God to be interdependent can make such a claim. If God is understood as independent, as the dominant Western worldview asserts, then death remains ultimately outside Godís experience and Godís relationship to death is an external one.
In a relational view, the situation is seen differently. Relational thinking does not posit an ontological difference between God and the world. Rather, it assumes an ontological sameness insofar as the primary ontological principle of becoming is verified in all that actually is. Within this metaphysical sameness there is, however, an almost infinite degree of variation, with God being the most complete exemplification of being. In a relational view, God and the world are always necessarily interdependent. They become together. The obvious differences we observe are matters of degree.
Death is the eventual aim of every process of becoming, in the sense that to become some definite configuration of the world is the crowning achievement of every process. In this view, death is interpreted positively as the completion of a process or occasion that began for the sake of coming to completion. And because of the dynamic urge toward creativity, every actualized occasion spurs new possibilities that initiate new occasions, sometimes in the same series of development, sometimes in another series.
Death as the completion of discrete occasions of becoming is occurring constantly, a phenomenon Whitehead referred to as "perpetual perishing." Only when death occurs is an event valuable because only then is it fully actual. While in process, occasions are exciting, adventurous, self-creating, but they are also self-contained. No other entity or process of becoming can experience them until they have become what they will be. The final outcome is the fullest satisfaction of every experience of becoming.
The final outcome or satisfaction can then be a real contribution to the whole, to the all-inclusive experience of Godís becoming. The discrete events arise out of and contribute back to the whole. For the term of their own becoming, they are radically atomistic, but precisely in this phase of their becoming their experience is isolated. Through perishing, an entity satisfies its urge toward definiteness and becomes valuable for the whole.
Sin affects this sequence as a conditioning factor but not as an originating cause. Because God and the world are necessarily related, sin cannot break that relationship. It can, of course, affect the quality of the relationship. The quality of the becoming can be weakened, lessened, fragmented by sin, and this of course is a significant factor. Because everything is a matter of degrees in a relational view, to lessen the degree of satisfaction and the eventual value of contribution because of sin is most serious. Thus, sin is not negligible in a relational theology of death, but its effect is defined more in terms of the quality of becoming than in the origin of death.
Undoubtedly, the chief motive for our interest in a theology of death is the question of afterlife. The desire to continue our personal, conscious experience beyond death is deep and gripping for most of us. The influence of Greek thinking about the inherent immortality of the soul and the acceptance of Jesusí resurrection as a pledge of personal immortality have combined to make a convincing argument for Christian believers.
Relational thinking is not so decisive about personal immortality. The prospect of continued, subjective experience after perishing requires a special intervention and action by God. This seems to be not inconsistent with relational principles but is not clearly required by them either. Thus, a relational theology does not offer the same assurance as typical theology about personal immortality.
On the other hand, precisely because of its hesitance on this point, relational theology keeps the primacy of God intact. Whether there is personal immortality or not, God receives the life experience of each person as a real contribution to Godís becoming. At the same time, if there is personal immortality, God is the indispensable agent of it. Thus, immortality would be viewed not as the inevitable nature of the soul but as a free gift from the gratuity of God.
Drawing upon the resurrection of Jesus and the God whom Jesus revealed, relational theology can advocate a spirit of hope for personal immortality with the accompanying disposition of openness to God who is always primary.
Obviously, if there is no personal immortality, there is no great interest in the resurrection of the dead or the end of the world. These two dominant aspects of early Christian expectation have tended to diminish somewhat in modern times, but they remain important features of Christian belief. Resurrection as a postponed event would appear to be incongruous with an organic philosophy in which processes come into being and perish continuously, but do not begin again once they have perished, Similarly, the end of the world as a ceasing of all becoming and the transition to a permanent, eternal state directly contradicts the ontological principle of relational thinking. If eternity (heaven) is actual, it must become. A nonbecoming state of perfection is impossible in a relational view.
We could, however, speculate about what a relational explanation of these two points might be. Regarding the resurrection, a relational view could see the intimate connection between the body and soul so that what the body becomes for and with the soul, how it enters the soulís experience, is its resurrection. In this view, the resurrection of the body is a continuous process of being prehended by the soul. This process comes to its completion when the soulís becoming ceases -- at death. This would mean a continuous and immediate resurrection. If the soul continues in some personal, immortal state after death, the body would share that condition precisely in the manner that it had entered the soulís experiential constitution.
Moreover, if the personal immortality of the soul is effected by God and God alone, then the resurrection of the body in its immortal dimension would also be Godís act. In its immediate dimension, the resurrection of the body is the soulís act. In either case, there would be no end-time resurrection in relational thinking similar to the apocalyptic descriptions in Scripture.
This prospect raises at least two important theological questions in addition to the interpretation of biblical passages referring to the end of the world. The first question concerns the final judgment; the other concerns the ultimate correcting of injustices. The two are intimately related. If there is no single, concluding end to the world, there would seem to be no final judgment. And if there is no final judgment, then the hoped-for redress of injustices and vindication of the oppressed also seems to vanish.
Although an absolute end to the world is not really envisioned in relational thought, divine judgment is included as a continuous phase of the becoming process. It consists of Godís experience of each completed occasion or entity. How God experiences each occasion is the evaluation of that occasion. The evaluation is framed by two poles: the intrinsic satisfaction relative to the initial possibilities that an entity contributes to Godís experience and the relative value of that contribution within the totality of experiences that constitute Godís total experience.
The first aspect of judgment is permanent and once-for-all. An entity is what it has become, no more and no less. God cannot change that. The second aspect of judgment is changing and continuous. An entityís value in relation to the whole of becoming creation is ever present (in God) and active, What God can do with oneís becoming in relation to the possibilities for future becoming is continuously determined by the ongoing creative advance of the world.
This raises two implications for a relational eschatology and the question of ultimate redress of injustice. The first implication is that any injustice must be redressed within the world process. There is no alternative state of being or becoming where the shortcomings of this world will be remedied. Thus, a strong existential-historical thrust results for a relational eschatology. With this comes a heightened sense of social responsibility and action for justice in the present. The key motive here is the intrinsic correctness of being just. Out of this motive and the experiences that it fosters comes a dominant attitude of hope.
Hope aims at that which cannot be instrumentally produced. It yearns for what goes beyond the achievement of plans and skills. Hope includes these efforts, thus reinforcing the stress on present social commitment, but the ultimate goal of hope lies outside oneís own control and power. Thus, a relational understanding of the redress of injustice is not an eventual possession of what one is now denied but a continuous contribution to what others may yet experience.
This position is not likely to have great appeal for those who measure value in terms of their own achievement. Here as elsewhere, relational thinking is holistic, oriented to the total process and its possibilities for new becoming.
All this is borne out in a reflection on Jesusí death. When the faith-claims for Jesusí life and death are interpreted in a relational framework, they express the dipolarity that permeates the whole creative process. In Jesusí life, and preeminently in his death, the contrast between human and divine poles is intensified to the maximum. By becoming this contrast actually, Jesus exemplifies the dipolarity of the world to the fullest degree.
From such an experience, God derives ever new, real possibilities for human becoming and especially for human dying. At the same time, Jesus experiences divine freedom and creative transformation to a unique degree. This dual experience, which constitutes one actual occasion, is everlastingly part of the creative process so that all entities may share its effect by reenacting it in their own experience. The ways this may be done are numerous and so are the corresponding degrees of value to be derived from them.
But the originating event is of cosmic proportions in itself. All occasions within the cosmos participate in it to varying degrees of fullness. In these terms, Jesusí death experience remains unique, universal, and salvific, while his own relationship to God may be understood as such an exemplification of conformal union with God that he is the incarnate Logos of God, the Christ.
What real contribution does a relational theology of death make? It can appear to be little more than an apologia for process-relational thinking, especially if all the traditional positions find a place in a relational schema. Then the result is more of a relational translation of typical theology than a relational theology itself.
On the other hand, it can appear that typical theology is being exonerated by showing how historical positions can be made compatible with a contemporary metaphysics that is itself critical of the past.
Neither conclusion would be very satisfying. The former would compromise tradition by making it fit a Procrustean bed of modern making. The latter would compromise relational theology by enervating it of its potential contributions to the tradition. The results of the foregoing exploration instead suggest something more like a dipolar interaction that stimulates both members by intensifying their contrasts.
In this schema, the impact of a typical theology of death on relational thinking appears in at least four areas. First, typical theology pushes the relational understanding of immortality, specifically on the question of personal, subjective experience. For a precisely Christian theology of death, subjective immortality is central. The Easter proclamation about Jesusí resurrection has been taken as a revelation of the destiny intended for each person. Belief in the risen Jesus rather than philosophical arguments about the nature of the soul has nurtured Christian hope and expectation of personal immortality.
It is probably true that this faith assurance has tended to redirect attention away from Godís primacy and toward our own felt need or desire to survive after death. The proper priority cannot be restored in an integral Christian theology by eliminating concern for or belief in personal immortality. More is at stake than self-centeredness. The revelation of God in Jesus has uttered a word about immortality that cannot go unheard.
The struggle of relational theology to arrive at a coherent affirmation of this point discloses one of its weaknesses as an appropriate theology for Christian belief. The suggestion put forth in chapter three is a tentative probe into the possibilities of relational thought. The question needs further exploration because it is of decisive importance. The strength of this weakness is, of course, that relational theology forcefully reminds us of the primacy of God and the creatureliness of the rest of us. But if it can go no further, it will be an unsatisfying stance and perhaps an unacceptable one. The main question remains: Can relational theology contribute to traditional belief in subjective immortality or only critique misplaced emphases within that belief? It is an urgent test question that the tradition puts to relational thinking if it is to be an appropriate theology of death.
A second area where the traditional theology stimulates relational thought concerns sin and its connection with death. it is a frequent criticism of process-relational metaphysics (as of other evolutionary-developmental worldviews) that it undervalues the role of evil and suffering. This has a special resonance in Christian theology that has given primary attention to the impact of sin in human history. Of course, the precise connection between sin and death is a matter of ongoing discussion within typical Christian theology. Even so, in a relational view of death, sin would not play the same role as in typical theology. As a result, relational theology can appear to neglect a basic and influential element.
Still, a relational worldview includes the prerequisite notions for a theology of sin. Among these are the divinely offered initial aims; the free, self-creative act of becoming; and the universal interconnectedness of actual entities. From this nucleus a relational theology of sin can be constructed. The concrete and personal effect of sin on individual lives tends, however, to be obscured in a view that is intentionally holistic and organic. The experience of sin can be artificially thinned out when put on the scale of the whole creative process. To the degree that this happens, relational thinking can drift away from the radically personalized encounters of Jesus with sin and evil, and thus lessen its appropriateness as a Christian theology.
Of course, the greatest existential concern about sin and death for most people remains judgment and their ultimate destiny. This bears directly on the question of subjective immortality and the prospect of eternal reward or punishment. Here again, relational theologyís initial position can seem to mitigate all this, not only because of its ambivalence regarding subjective immortality but also because of its view of inclusive divine judgment. A fuller explanation of the degrees of satisfaction and evaluation that relational thought envisions would, however, convey the same message about the ultimate importance of personal decisions and their impact on the future. How effectively this is done as an appeal to do good and avoid evil is a major communications task that faces not just relational theology but all Christian theology.
A third area where typical theology challenges a relational theology of death is the interpretation of Jesusí death. This event coupled, of course, with the resurrection is at the center of Christian belief about death and immortality. Any theology that attempts to give appropriate expression to this belief must convey what Jesusí death has meant. If Jesusí death is the decisive occurrence that spells the difference between fulfillment and frustration, between love and loss, between union and isolation, then a relational theology of death should be able to explain how this is so.
Relational Christology up to now has not looked closely at this issue. Attention has been directed more toward the identity of Jesus as Godís revelation and transforming agent. The precise significance of his death and its effect on the history of humankind has not been addressed extensively.
As suggested in chapter seven, the groundwork for an appropriate presentation of Jesusí death is already laid in the relational principles of universal interconnectedness, prehension and reenactment, and the overriding goal of creative advance through intensive experiences. How all this may be assembled and related to the traditional claims for Jesus is a task yet to be done thoroughly.
There is an inherent tension in relational thinking with any claim that would go beyond the fundamental principles governing its worldview. This is seen most clearly in the understanding of God and Godís relation to the world, but the same problematic arises regarding Jesus. Of course, there is an intrinsic tension in Christology to begin with, stemming from the claim that in Jesus full humanity and full divinity are united. Relational theology offers a way of interpreting the experience and union of these two poles that is consistent with its own fundamental dipolar view of reality. Whether it is equally consistent with Christian belief remains to be seen conclusively.
Nonetheless, the death of Jesus holds the same preeminent place in a relational Christology as in typical Christology. The ultimate importance of finalizing any process of becoming is directly applicable to Jesusí death. Only when finalized can his process of becoming have real value for others, including God. Thus, relational theology would clearly affirm that Jesus "had to die" to be the Christ. Beyond this, the fuller grasp of what his death entails and how it is to be interpreted and reenacted is as elusive to relational theology as it is to typical theology.
There is one other aspect of typical theologies of death that merits a brief mention as a fourth area of examination for relational theology. This is the interaction between the living and the dead. In Christian history this has been generally referred to as the communion of saints, and a far-reaching piety has been cultivated on the basis of a real linkage between those on earth (the church militant), those in the interim state (the church suffering), and those in heaven (the church triumphant).
Relational theology addresses this with its organic emphasis and general principle of the interrelatedness of all things. Relational thinking describes in a general way how this interaction occurs, but by and large it has not developed this insight concretely enough. Here the symbols, rites, devotions of people can prod relational thinkers to explore their own views in a more usable way. In general, the Christian feeling for the solidarity of believers and the expressions of this in prayer and devotion can stimulate relational theology to maximize the social-organic character of its reflection, and thus present death as less of an atomistic event and more as an occasion in a society of events that share a real union through internal relations.
Relational theology has its own contributions to make to the tradition. Perhaps the most important of these is not strictly theological. Relational theology is developed from an explicit metaphysical, philosophical system. It offers a programmatic alternative to typical theology because the particular philosophical system underlying relational theology is quite distinct from the philosophical systems previously employed by Christian theology. The general benefit from this is that typical theology can be examined in a thoroughgoing, tough-minded way that can open up new directions, new insights, and new challenges.
The major question, however, is the acceptability of the relational metaphysic. Clearly, its validity is not self-evident and has in fact generated widespread and increasing debate. Nonetheless, its respectability as an important contemporary philosophical system seems established even as weaknesses and ambiguities continue to be explored. A relational theologian needs to keep one eye on the continuing philosophical discussion even while working out the implications for theological issues. This leads to the prospect of a genuinely constructive and speculative theology.
Such a theology can dialogue creatively with typical theology in order to formulate a more coherent, adequate articulation of Christian belief. For example, the uneven joining of Jewish apocalyptic and Greek philosophical elements in a typical theology of death can perhaps be seen more clearly when typical theology is rethought in terms that are neither apocalyptic nor simply Greek-philosophical. More than that, relational thought can provide an alternative framework for interpreting and expressing more coherently the originating beliefs, especially regarding the interim state, the resurrection of the dead, and particular/general judgment.
A second major contribution of relational theology to typical theology is the unequivocal primacy given to God. There is no dichotomy in relational theology; God and world are always interdependent. The task is to respect the limits on our desires and self-importance so that God remains primary.
At the same time, Godís primacy is described in terms of be-coming. This is translated in terms of feeling, taking in, making oneís own. The God of relational theology is very active, very intimate, and very feeling. Whereas the human, personal focus appears to be sacrificed in a relational emphasis, especially regarding subjective immortality, it is really located more appropriately in a relational view. The locus of the fullest feeling and life experience is not in what one can hold on to forever for oneself but in what one can give away to God everlastingly.
To arrive genuinely at such a position requires profound awareness of oneself as a creature, as less than God but valuable to God. Relational theology challenges typical theology to face this issue directly, to reexamine its motives and arguments for subjective immortality, and to insure that God is primary.
Relational thought counterbalances its caution and even resistance to overstressing subjective immortality with a strong emphasis on the present as having preeminent value. The present is when becoming occurs; it is the creative moment and in a strict sense the only actual moment. What becomes now has everything to do with what the future will become. It conditions the very possibilities for becoming that God can offer.
At the same time, the present is not seen in isolation from the past and the future. There is a continuous flow from the past into the present toward the future. But the possibilities and therefore the real potential for the future are determined in the present. This view has direct bearing on the typical notion of God foreseeing from all eternity everything that will occur and having a plan for the course of human history.
Relational theology forces a revision of the typical idea of providence and its shadow side, theodicy. The question for relational theology is not so much why does God allow evil and suffering to occur but where is God luring us in response to evil experiences once they occur. Such a view in turn can impel believers to a more intense and open encounter with the living God who shares intimately every present moment and seeks to share with us the next best possibility. God is no less providential in relational theology, but divine providence is exercised in a radically different way.
Finally, and extending this emphasis to the present, relational thought encourages a working through of the typical view of eschatology. The exact sense in which the end of the world is to be understood is not perfectly clear in the tradition. Indeed, belief in subjective immortality carries along with it some sense of continued being and living, and to that degree becoming. Relational theology underscores this line of thought and carries it further, suggesting a different image of the end of the world, or perhaps even the image of no end at all. In the latter case, any number of implications appear, not least of which is the problem of injustice and the suffering of the innocent. Whether removing the prospect of an end time and final judgment will increase existential commitment to justice or further weaken the energy of that commitment is hard to say. At least, relational theology forces a reexamination of the nature of the end and from that perspective our responsibility for the present.
This work was conceived as both a pastoral and theological reflection. There is a great gap between the immediate, concrete experiences in which questions about death arise and the abstract, philosophical reflection in which relational theology is couched. How much that gap has been narrowed in this book is for each reader to decide. For myself, the project continues until the becoming ceases.