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 6: Man
Besides being the age of science, the twentieth century has also been the age of man. Volumes have been written interpreting the human phenomenon from a variety of perspectives. In fact, entire sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology, have been developed into scholarly curricula for study and investigation at universities around the world. Some of the newly developed theories tend to support what Christians have traditionally believed about man, while others have challenged those beliefs. As a result, Christians have had to rethink and reformulate their opinions about the nature of man, while endeavoring to keep within the general tradition of their faith.
Process thought has its own interpretation of what man is. It differs in important ways from the traditional understanding of man, as well as from some of the more important new theories, such as existentialism and behaviorism. It is a philosophical interpretation, formulated in the difficult process terminology with which we have already become somewhat familiar. It is important to us not only because of its insights about man, but also because of its contributions to Christology, morality and immortality, which will be the subjects of later chapters.
As one might suspect from the preceding chapters, the human person is a very complex concept in Whiteheadian thought, raising many new and interesting questions never confronted by traditional philosophy. Man, like all other realities, is described in terms of actual occasions, not in terms of a single underlying substance. These actual occasions are in a serial order, so that the history of an individual man is traced out and defined by their continuity or historical route through time. What traditional philosophy called the individual substance of a man is called an enduring object in process philosophy in order to remind us of its composite and temporal nature. However, an enduring object is an abstraction from reality, and not the reality itself, which is the series of actual occasions.
Man is not the only kind of enduring object. Buildings, trees and planets also are series of actual occasions in historical patterns. The difference is that in man and the higher animals there is a unique coordination of many such occasions over a particular area called the body, and a unique inheritance of past occasions that is able consciously to identify a self through history. These coordinating occasions Constitute the personal living nexus of occasions by which a person is defined. There is, consequently, a basis for speaking about a body and a soul in Whiteheadian philosophy. It is, however, a very different kind of body and soul than is explained in traditional Christian doctrine. The distinction in process thought is not between the two component elements of matter and spirit conjoined to form a person, but between high-grade, or coordinating occasions, and low-grade occasions in a living nexus, each of which is its own reality.
Whitehead formulates his description of man on the basis of how we experience ourselves. For example, a man experiences his body as himself, and yet the self is also experienced as distinguishable from any particular part of the body. This explains why the "self" is not divided when one part of the body is severed from the rest. It also explains why experience always occurs through the mediation of the body. Actually, what a man experiences is a complex unity of happenings within a certain field that he identifies as the self. This complex unity is the coordinated functioning of the billions of cells that compose his body, thus suggesting that the body is a coordinated nexus of actual occasions in space and time. Many of these occasions also interact in specialized ways with each other, providing the internal functioning and the sense awareness of a living organism. They are all unified by a central occasion, probably located in the brain, by which the body considers itself one experiencing subject. This central occasion coordinates the various secondary centers which themselves coordinate and transmit what is happening in the various specialized functions of the body.
The actual occasions that constitute the body are truly identifiable with the self, but less so than is the central, or coordinating occasion by which the self is an experiencing subject. Nevertheless, the central occasion is never independent of the lower-grade occasions of the body, for it depends upon these for its data, its mood. and its every contact with the world outside. Beyond the body there are also occasions which are closely related to the central occasion, but which are not directly part of the body that it coordinates. These are mediated to the central occasion by the other occasions of the body. Ordinarily, this distinction between bodily occasions is easily made by the central occasion, or experiencing subject. For example, although I can speak of the instrument with which I am writing as my pen. I am intuitively aware that it is not a part of me in the same way in which my fingernails are. When we consider food or breath, however, the distinction is not as clear. At what point does a molecule of oxygen or a carbohydrate cease being what it is and begin to function as part of the body? The same problem exists in the psychological order when we try to define when an external event becomes an internalized emotion of the person. These examples simply illustrate the fact that the outer limits of the self cannot always be precisely established. Just as the self, or soul, seems to blend into the body, so too the body seems to blend into its immediate environment. Man is a difficult reality to isolate and define.
The body, therefore, is not principally that which identifies the self. It is that which links the self to the rest of reality. Or, to put it another way, the body is the way in which man is located in the world and made a part of it. Whiteheadís point is simply that there is a continuity of relationships from the central occasion that defines the self to the many remote occasions which the self cannot prehend. My body and my world are merely steps in these relationships by which all things are related in a total unity of reality.
The self, or coordinating occasion, is what corresponds most closely to the Christian concept of soul. Whitehead himself uses the term, but not with its religious connotation. He describes it vaguely as the life, or the mind of certain enduring objects; in man it is the experience of his own uniqueness.
The chief difference from traditional Christian thought is that Whiteheadís soul is not a substantial form that endures through time and into eternity. It is rather the succession of coordinating occasions that define the self. Whitehead refers to the soul as the "coordinated stream of personal experiences," and as "the thread of life."1 Clearly, these images are not interchangeable with those found in the Christian tradition. A second important difference from the tradition is that this soul does not distinguish man from other forms of creation because the soul is found in the more complex animals as well as in man. It exists in any enduring object where there is a single center of experience that coordinates the functioning of the organism as a whole. Having a soul is thus a matter of degree. Higher organisms have a higher-grade soul than lower organisms because they are constituted by a series of higher-grade actual occasions. Presumably, even among men there is a difference in soul. It is thus not a question of having a soul or not. As Whitehead puts the question, it is, "How much, if any?"2
If the soul is a series of actual occasions in a coordinating role vis-à-vis the total organism, how can it account for a manís identity through time? The implications of this question are very important, because if there is no way of making such an accounting, then there is no way that a manís past actions can be imputed to his present self. Without the same person enduring through time, there is no logical basis for accountability for the past or responsibility for what has been done.
The common assumption of every civilization is that such an accountability for the past can and ought to be made. This assumption is based on the premise that we are in fact the same person we were yesterday and even last year, despite the interval of time and the variety of new experiences that have intervened. And yet, change and the freedom to change also are generally assumed. The old man is no longer the child. He has changed both physically and psychically. In addition, there are moments in which a person may choose to reorient his life, sometimes in a very fundamental way. This kind of change is the basis for a metanoia, or conversion, whereby a person renounces the direction his life took in the past and determines on a new course of action. These changes, too, are changes in the self, and they likewise must be accounted for in any description of manís soul. Therefore, a philosophy of man must be able to explain both the freedom of the present moment and the responsibility for the past if it wishes to be in accord with what civilizations generally presume.
The process philosopher has less difficulty in accounting for changes in the soul than he does in explaining its continuity. Change occurs as each occasion becomes its own unique synthesis of its past and its relevant environment. At every moment some change takes place, because every moment is a new synthesis. At some moments the change is great enough to be perceptible to the self and perhaps even to others. Such a moment occurs when a particular experience triggers a reorientation of relevant data and causes a metanoia. At any particular moment or occasion of its series, the soul is free to do this, because no occasion is fully determined in its own synthesis by the occasions that preceded it. Hence, there is always the freedom to initiate novelty and bring about a conversion.
Even after such a conversion, one still experiences himself in a continuity with his past, albeit a redirected past. How can this very strong sense of oneness over time be described in process terminology?
The basic continuity of the human soul through time -- indeed the continuity of any enduring object through time -- is the result of a continuous prehending of its own enduring past. A prehension, we must remember, is not merely an extrinsic influence of one entity upon another. It is the incorporation or inclusion of the former entity in the latter. The former is, therefore, an ultimately real feature of the latter, and thus is a real continuity of the enduring object through time. In addition, the environment within which the new occasion emerges is not that much different from the way its predecessor synthesized that reality. Change is always possible, and in fact is always occurring, at least in small ways, but radical change is the exception and ought never to be presumed.
Prehensions, therefore, explain the relation between one actual entity and its immediate predecessor in a series, and this relation is so intimate that the successive occasions do form, in reality, one enduring object. We might use the model of human memory to illustrate the relation, although it is not adequate as an explanation. When a person remembers something that took place in the past, that past event is re-presented, or made present once again. There is a return of the past to the present in a picture or concept which represents that past event. In this way the past is rendered immanent to the present by means of what is remembered. The weakness of this illustration in describing Whiteheadís theory of prehensions is that in memory only pictures or concepts are brought into the present. In prehensive activity, the experience itself is re-presented, and that experience is the reality. The past is immanently incorporated into the present, and becomes part of the present. There is a "peculiar completeness"3 in each present moment that can only be explained in terms of its inclusion of the past. Because the present is the peculiar completeness of the past, it identifies itself with its past. Thus, in a personal series of actual occasions the present actual occasion can be imputed with responsibility for the past in a limited way.
Imputing responsibility has always posed a problem for civilized man. On the one hand, some degree of responsibility for oneís personal past has been almost universally presumed. In some civilizations, responsibility has also been extended to oneís ancestral past, so that the wrongs of the parents or grandparents could also properly be attributed to the offspring. On the other hand, however, many civilizations, especially the more liberal ones of the present epoch, have been painstakingly careful to acknowledge the possibility of a personal change of heart and to enable the person to escape the more painful consequences of his own past behavior provided he is genuinely repentant.
The Whiteheadian perspective seems quite adequate to deal with this dilemma. It acknowledges that a personís inheritance does have a causal influence over him, and that in a very minimal degree he may appropriately take on certain responsibilities from his ancestors and enjoy certain kinds of inheritances from them, because he is really related to them. A person is much more responsible for his own past actions, because they are a part of the direct personal series of occasions that constitute the self. If a wrong has been committed, he is held responsible for its commission and for restitution, if necessary. And yet, as in Christian belief, there is a possibility for metanoia and forgiveness, and a person who has genuinely repented for his past need not be permanently treated as a transgressor, because in one sense he is different from the person he was formerly.
The problem is to identify genuine repentance. And here again Whiteheadian philosophy follows closely the common human experience. There is in each new occasion always some change from the previous occasion in that series. However, because its primary prehension is of its own preceding occasion and because its other prehensive activity is of an environment greatly similar to its predecessor, the possibility for radical change is slight. The factors that were contributory to the preceding occasions are, for the most part, still in existence and reinforcing of a continuance of a similar occasion. Therefore, applied to the person, there is always a possibility that a genuine repentance and metanoia can occur, but the presumption is always against any fundamental change. Hence, genuine conversion -- the condition for a mitigation of responsibility -- must be demonstrably present before it can be assumed. This is true regardless of the quality that might be attributed to the behavior. The immanence of the past on the present and its inclusion in the emerging occasion is just as operative for evil as for good.
With respect to human freedom and responsibility, the interpretation of man in process thought is very compatible with the presumptions of Christian faith. Man is free to construct what he will become from the data available to him. Granted, he is not free with respect to the composition of that data, but he is free regarding what he does with it. He is also responsible, for what he chooses to do will provide the data for the future. Furthermore, he will be held accountable for that choice in his own personal future because his decision will be immediately included in and determinative of what he will be in the future. For the future self is in direct succession with the present self. He will not, of course, be exactly the same person, and consequently he will feel less responsibility for the past than he will feel for maximizing the present momentís contribution to the future. But, in the absence of a fundamental reevaluation of the past in a moment of genuine metanoia, he will remain accountable to himself for that past in all of its ramifications, since it will continue to live on in him. In this way, man continues to experience a freedom with respect to the present and a responsibility with respect to the past and the future. This position corresponds to Christian belief as well as to the practices of most civilizations.
In conclusion, can we say that the explanations of process theology are generally compatible with Christian beliefs regarding body and soul? This is a more formidable task than can be properly undertaken here. Let it suffice to note that the traditional body-soul distinction generally associated with Christian belief is more a Hellenic distinction than a biblical one. The Scriptures do speak of the body, but more as a living entity than a material one. And they do speak of the spirit, or breath, which symbolizes the life of the body. The Greek distinction between matter and form, technically called the hylomorphic theory, seemed for ages of Christians an adequate way of speaking about man and explaining the basic insight of the Bible. This distinction is the basis for the theory that man is a composite of matter (called the body) and an informing principle of life (called the soul). But this explanation does not exclude the possibility of other distinctions which also shed light upon the biblical revelation about man and which may give rise to other theories, such as the Whiteheadian one we have described.
In an age when our experience of change and process is more fundamental than our experience of a static or stable matter and form, some theory other than that of the Greeks may prove to be more helpful for developing a contemporary understanding of man. In other words, it may be necessary to reformulate our interpretation of the Scriptures from the hylomorphic concepts to more expansive, evolutionary concepts, in order to correspond better to our fundamental experience of a changing man in a changing reality.
1. Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Macmillan Company, Free Press Paperback edition, 1968), p. 161.
2. Adventures of Ideas, op. cit., p. 208.
3. Process and Reality, op. cit., p. 187 and p. 413.