What Is Process Theology? by Robert B. Mellert
Dr. Mellert is an assistant professor in the department of theological studies at the University of Dayton. Published by Paulist Press, New York, Paramus, Toronto, 1975. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 3: Religion
A few years ago, when a variety of liturgical changes were being introduced in their Church, many Roman Catholics suffered a severe crisis of faith. The Church as they knew it -- with its Latin Mass and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament -- had changed beyond their recognition, and the readjustment to the "new Church" -- with its guitar Masses and handshakes of peace -- was very traumatic. There is something to be said for their appreciation of the old liturgy. It provided a sense of the mysterious and mystical that has been lost in the reforms. Hearing priests mumble a strange language and seeing the Eucharist in a gold casing surrounded by candles and flowers created an atmosphere that often generated profound religious feelings.
The new liturgy does not recapture that kind of experience, nor does it try. Sacraments are better instruments for evoking communitarian feelings than private feelings. Thus, the new liturgy attempts to create a new kind of religious experience, that of a community of Jesusí followers living and loving together in his name. The spirit of fellowship manifested at a liturgy which is prepared and executed with this purpose in mind becomes the sign of Christian charity and the motivating cause to carry it beyond the liturgical community to the world at large.
Both the mystical and the communitarian are authentic religious experiences and genuine forms of Christian prayer. The fact that todayís liturgies emphasize the latter in no way minimizes the importance of the former. It merely indicates that the religious life of man requires more than simply participating at liturgies. The solitary figure bent in prayer in a quiet, darkened chapel, no less than the happy, youthful faces sharing a dialogue homily, inspires us to an appreciation of what the religious spirit in man is.
Numerous other kinds of experiences can also be appropriately called religious. These likewise emerge from time to time in private prayer and public worship. Theologians, psychologists and philosophers have all tried to catalogue these experiences. Examples include the experiences of transcendence, awe, insignificance, gratitude, acceptance by God, reverence, guilt, sense of obligation, and inner shame. Sometimes the experience is less obviously religious, such as that of wholeness. simplicity, and the unity of reality: of uniqueness, individuality, and power: of the fittingness and appropriateness of things: or of the moving together, transformation, and harmonization of particulars.1 The number and kinds of religious experiences are almost infinite, probably because they are so unique and particular to those who have experienced them. Their degree of intensity likewise varies, from full-blown visions to fleeting moments of private recollection.
Whiteheadís own appraisal is that religious experiences begin with personal occasions of solitude and extend to the universal. He writes that religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.2 This solitariness includes even the experience of feeling forsaken by God. From religion one learns to cope with himself and to take upon himself the burden of his own life. But this is only the negative side. The religious man also learns to appreciate reality and to be sensitive to it in a personal way. This is because religion deals with particular emotions and personalized purposes. There is a certain aesthetic character to its feeling for the world. Things have a certain value or worth beyond what they actually are, because they reveal mystery, beauty and meaning that can be understood in no other way. A man is thus taken beyond himself and provided with a way of prehending the universe.
What religion ultimately grasps, according to Whitehead. is this truth: "That the order of the world, the depth of reality of the world, the value of the world in its whole and in its parts: the beauty of the world, the zest of life, the peace of life, and the mastery of evil, are all bound together."3 This occurs not accidentally, but as a result of the creativity, the freedom, and the infinite possibilities that the universe manifests.
Because this statement of Whitehead is central to his idea of religion, and because some of the words carry a connotation peculiar to his thought, a few reflections may clarify his meaning. Order is not the same for Whitehead as it is for politicians. It is the refusal of the deadening influence of conformity and the tendency toward new forms and ordered novelty. Depth is the result of cumulative achievements of the world that make enrichment possible. Value, as particularized in every occasion of reality, reveals itself in continual interaction, promoting depth and destruction. Beauty is a central concept in Whiteheadian thought, because it defines "the one aim which by its very nature is self-justifying."4 and toward which the universe constantly strives. But the mere repetition of beauty can become dull and uninteresting without adventure and the zest of life urging it to new and exciting harmonies and contrasts. Finally, peace is the "harmony of harmonies which calms destructive turbulence and completes civilization."5 While not religious in themselves, these insights into reality arise from the religious sensitivities of man and add an appreciation to the universe that only religion can provide.
The basic religious insight, then, is that we can know more than can be formulated in the abstract schema of science and philosophy.6 This "extra knowledge" comes from religionís intuition about the aims and purposes of things that are revealed in the wisdom of nature itself. It is not new factual data, but a new feeling, or prehension of the old data. Thus, religion is always saying more than science or philosophy about man and his world, even though it is not privy to special information. Its "saying more" is not something that can be proved or demonstrated; it can merely be pointed to, felt, and appreciated. This is the sense in which one might repeat with the Scholastic theologians that there is a knowledge that comes from faith. It is a knowledge that goes beyond the reasons of the mind to the sensitivities of the soul.
The desire of the religious man to preserve these experiences has led to his repeated attempts to set down his inspiration for the edification of others. This is the origin of creeds and dogmas. They are testimony to what religious experience can inspire in manís intuition, and they reveal in retrospect the power and intensity of religion in the history of man. The danger is that when a man has no religious experiences of his own, he tends to repeat those that have been handed down from others in their creedal and dogmatic formulations. Religion that finds itself constantly relying upon these secondary sources has lost its original vitality and creativity. Dogmas that are merely repeated become rigid, abstract concepts that fail to inspire. They result in a narrowing of perspective and a sheltering of religion from its necessary commerce with the world, where new insights and inspirations are occasioned, and where new dogmas and creeds tentatively emerge.
Ideally, therefore, the solitariness that inspires religion in man extends beyond the individual to the universal. The values that are intuited in the formation of character in the private feelings of a man are not isolated from a more general picture of the world. Character requires that oneís individuality merge with the universe. Ultimately, says Whitehead, "religion is world-loyalty."7
From what has been said above, it is readily apparent that the religious spirit is very important to Whitehead and to his way of thinking. Its importance is not in any unique claim to truth, but in its contributions to rationality as a whole. Its chief contribution is its familiarity with the particular, and in this way it is the essential complement to philosophy. Philosophy by itself is always speculative and general, and as such is always plagued with the suspicion of inapplicability. Religion frees philosophy from this suspicion because it is "the translation of general ideas into particular thoughts. particular emotions, and particular purposes."8 At the same time, religion is itself always interested in the universal, because the generalities of philosophy give some coherence to the particularities of emotion and feeling that belong to the data of religion. There is, then, a mutual enrichment. Philosophy needs the data of religious experience in order to remain sensitive to the particular, and religion needs philosophy to modify it, rationalize it, and fit it into a wider context.
Science is the third corner of this triangle, and it, too, helps to support rationality as a whole. Like religion, science also contributes something to philosophical speculation. Its contribution is data -- not necessarily a different set of data from that available to religion, but a different way of looking at that data. Science is concerned with what is perceived, and how these perceived things can be integrated with rational thought in a harmonious way. Religion is concerned with achieving some kind of harmony between rationality and the sensitive reactions of the perceiver to what is perceived. Religious considerations always deal with the particular feelings that data evoke. When certain sciences, such as psychology, study particular feelings, they do their work in an objective fashion, i.e., with other peopleís emotions. not their own. How particular feelings transform the experiencing subject, and how they ultimately transform the world according to their visions of the ideal are the fundamental issues of religious concern.
At the level of man no description of process is possible without a description of religion. Process occurs because prehensions of data are given new focus in new actual occasions, creating novelty and interest. These prehensions are inseparable from the sensitivities of emotion and feeling that are experienced at every unique moment of life. Particularity is the basis for generality, just as individual moments of experience are the basis for man, and man is the basis for a civilized epoch. Thus, religious experiences, which are prehensions of data with a particular nuance or coloration, go to the very core of process itself.
Whiteheadís philosophy, although thoroughly secular, is likewise thoroughly religious. Religion is not simply an activity of man, or even a dimension of his personality. It is a description of the very process of reality at the human level, where sensitivities, feelings and emotions from the world, evoking an appreciation and a reverence for the world, contribute their particularity to process. What is happening in the world because of man takes place because of the religions of man. This is, of course, a very wide sense of religion, but it contains its grain of truth. What a man understands and believes about himself and how he prehends the world are the bases both for his morality and for his liturgy. He acts and celebrates according to the way he has shaped himself, and according to the way he wishes to shape the world. For its part, the world is the richer, or the poorer, because of it.
Whitehead thus inverts the way in which traditional theology understands religion. In the latter, one starts with a proof for the existence of God. Then one argues that man must acknowledge his supremacy. Religion is the way in which man establishes his relationship with God. It includes both the way in which he lives and the manner in which he worships, and it requires that man "practice his religion" both individually and socially. For Whitehead, one starts with religion. not with God. It is because of the experience of the religious along with the secular that one begins to grasp the truth that there is more at issue in the world than the world itself. The reality of God is thus intuited from reality as a whole. Man is thus religious first, and a believer second. Religion is not a consequence of his believing, but a condition for it.
What about God in Whiteheadís religion? So far there has been scant mention of God at all. And yet, he has not been far from the discussion. In talking about the world, we have been implicitly talking about God. For the world that man experiences is inseparable from the very nature of God. If man can intuit "extra knowledge" from that world and grasp a certain meaning and depth that go beyond its raw data, this is simply a manifestation of the divine context in which he has found that data. The "something more" that man discovers about his world, and the respect and reverence that this evokes from him, is perhaps the best and only description one can give of the living God this side of speculation.
In one of Whiteheadís more often quoted statements, he writes, "The power of God is the worship he inspires."9 In other words, we are back to liturgy and prayer. What man does with his experiences is the ultimate determinate of the future. The cultivation of religious sensibilities, the sensitivity to the feelings and emotions that arise out of the nature of things, and a reverence and respect for the world as the ultimate source of what can be realized in God is, in the final analysis, the most profound worship that man can hope to offer.
1. For an excellent discussion of this issue, cf. Abraham H. Maslow, Religions, Values and Peak-Experiences (New York: Viking Press. 1964).
2. Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: World Publishing Company, Meridian Books, 1960), p. 16.
3. Ibid., p. 115.
4. Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Macmillan Company, Free Press Paperback edition. 1967), p. 266.
5. Ibid., p. 285.
6. Religion in the Making. op. cit., p. 137.
7. Ibid., p. 59.
8. Process and Reality, op. cit., p. 19.
9. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, Free Press Paperback edition, 1967), p. 192.