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 8: The Church
Institutions are not having a very happy time of it these days, and the Church, despite its long and venerable tradition, is no exception. Like the other parts of the so-called "establishment," the Church is now suspect of being inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of a rapidly changing twentieth century. Furthermore, since its ultimate claim to existence is rooted more in the events of the past than in contemporary social problems, it has even a more conservative image than political and economic institutions. As a result, many today have abandoned their ties to organized Christian churches and replaced them with more personal forms of religious beliefs.1
A Christian church that is not in some way related to human concerns has lost the spirit of its foundation in Jesus and has little to recommend it to the world at large. Mindful of this fact, Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council for the purpose of making necessary reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. The history of the Council is now well known, and its repercussions have been felt by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Its spirit continues in the Church into our own time, even though the old concerns have given way to new ones. Because it focused internally upon reform and adaptation, and externally upon dialogue and interaction with other churches, its thrust can best be described as forward and outward. Fidelity to the Council thus implies not merely a repetition of its formulae or even a restudying of its documents. We are no longer afforded the luxury of looking backward for security and stability. There is no longer any reprieve from the task of continuing to build the Church of the future. The Vatican II Catholic, therefore, is one who is willing to think beyond the Council and to engage in the creative process that ought to characterize the Church.
The key to understanding Vatican II can perhaps best be expressed in two phrases that characterized it. They are the description of the Church as semper reformanda (always in need of reform) and as populi Dei (the people of God). These expressions characterize a new self-image of the Church that began to emerge at the Council. They suggest a replacement of the old model of the Church as a monolithic, unchanging institution to a new model that uses evolutionary and relational modes of thought.
The old model of the Church was a faithful reflection of the old substance mode of philosophy that had characterized the Church since the fourth century. It was a stable, definable institution established by Jesus and transmitted in its total essence throughout the ages. It was infallible and indefectible, and change affected it only accidently. Those who could acknowledge in faith its claim to possessing the eternal truths could become members of the institution by baptism. In a certain sense, however, the Church was self-sufficient by virtue of its divine foundation, and even its members were extraneous to its essential nature and structure. It was, Catholics were taught, a "perfect society," i.e., complete unto itself in its purposes and the adequate means of attaining them.
The two expressions referred to above suggest that the model of the Church has changed considerably since Vatican II. The new model has not yet been fully formulated either theoretically or operationally. But the spirit of the Council and the events in the Church subsequent to it suggest that the new model is heavily imbued with processive and organismic patterns of thought.
The processive nature of the Church is implied in the expression Ecclesia semper reformanda. In its origin, the Church was the society that developed when followers of Jesus made an act of faith in him, Its continued existence has depended upon others reiterating that act of faith in Jesus throughout its entire history. Apart from that faith, the Church is nothing at all. Dogmas, creeds, and doctrines, as well as structures, hierarchies and authorities, are merely the ways and means whereby the faithful can articulate and organize their belief. They do not define or constitute the Church itself. They simply express how that faith has been integrated into the various moments of history.
The Church, then, is a process. More specifically, it is the process whereby individuals come to believe in Jesus and add the weight of their belief to the furtherance of the process that is the Church. In this view the Church is not a stable, immutable institution that has existed since the time of Jesus, founded by him and protected by him from the changes of the world. The Church is the consequence of its first members’ faith in Jesus and the subsequent faith that it inspired. In its dialogue with the world that faith takes new shapes, thus giving new shapes to the Church. In this sense, then, the Church is constantly changing and readapting according to the exigencies of the world. Because the world changes, the Church must change, too. Change is therefore not something merely to be tolerated, but something to be encouraged as important to the vitality and continuity of the Church. Fidelity does not consist in mere repetition. The Church can be faithful to the spirit of Jesus only within the process of each succeeding moment of history.
The Church as a process is also the Church as an organism in society. It is the consequence of the followers of Jesus related to each other by their faith in him. As the Church moves through history and increases its membership, the number of these faith-relations increases. The reality of the Church is always found in the faith-relation of its believers, in continuity with the faith-relation of believers at every moment in the Church’s history. This is what Vatican II implies when it speaks of the Church as the people of God. Apart from its people, the Church is nothing at all.
Since the relationship of faith about which we are speaking is essentially a belief in Jesus, the entire structure of the Church is obviously larger than simply those who are card-carrying (or basket-contributing) members of a particular Christian sect. Furthermore, insofar as the meaning of that faith can be expressed in non-Christian ways by people of other backgrounds and cultures, they too can be included in a still larger concept of the people of God. The Church in its widest sense, then, is the entire community of men as related by the faith in God to which Christianity aspires in the name of the Lord Jesus. These levels of identification describe the Church as an organism.
A new model of the Church as processive and organismic would be difficult to define with dictionary precision. Its history is the manifestation of the spirit of Jesus in all of its variety and unpredictability throughout the Christian epoch. It is not the succession of the papacy or the formulation of creeds and dogmas. And its present moment is not lived only in church buildings. The Church is wherever two or more are gathered in faith to reiterate and reinterpret the importance of Jesus according to the inspiration of his spirit.
In Whiteheadian philosophy, the processive and relational aspects of reality are described in terms of nexus of actual occasions. We have already defined a nexus as a set of actual occasions related to each other in time and space. The Church, then, is a nexus of its individual members in time and space. As a nexus, these individual elements are joined together in a single fabric, called the Church, or assembly of the people of God.
A nexus in which the component actual occasions are ordered among themselves in a certain way is called a "society." A nexus is a society when a certain identifying characteristic is a contributory component of each of the elements in that society. It is not sufficient that a class name can be applied to each element of the society. It is necessary that each element also incorporate within itself the same identifying characteristic as the other elements within that nexus. That is, each actual occasion of the nexus must prehend positively that characteristic which identifies the society as a whole.
The Church is a society as well as a nexus. Its claim to being a society rests upon the prehension of the importance of Jesus in each of its members. The Church is not merely the class name of all those who believe in the importance of Jesus. It is rather the consequence of that importance being prehended in each moment or occasion of its history. That is, the Church is a society in the technical Whiteheadian sense because its members prehend that importance from past members of the society and incorporate that importance into themselves. In this way the spirit of Jesus literally lives on in each of the members. Therefore, the Church, as a society, is a creative force in the environment, because its past is always the data for further becoming in faith. This further becoming occurs both in new members and in new understandings.
No society exists alone. Each is set in the context of a wider society which constitutes its environment. Without the wider context there could be no identifiable characteristic. The Church, therefore, is always in relation to what is not the Church. This interaction is the basis of its ecumenical interests and its pastoral mission. Both of these imply movement and change within the Church. The Whiteheadian model of inter-relatedness and process provides a convenient framework to explain the incorporation of new insights and the resultant growth within the Church, and the Church’s influence on the world in general. In its ideal form, the evolution of the Church is an illustration of the evolution of reality: the many become one and are increased by one.
The identity of the Church according to the model we have been suggesting is not found in an essential definition of its nature as an institution, but in the function of its evolution. The Church is primarily a process, not a structure. That process has an identifying characteristic, but that characteristic is not a definition of the Church. This may seem like a small point to stress so frequently, but its implications for ecclesiology are vast. It spells the difference between looking at the Church as a substantial, structural reality which contains members who believe, and viewing the Church as an event moving through history, constantly evolving in its very make-up according to the shape that the belief of its members takes at a given moment in history and according to the way in which that belief finds expression in relation to the larger environment or culture where it is found.
The identifying characteristic is a way of conceptualizing what is important in the society, but it does not define the reality of the society. Its function lies not in the fact that it is conceptualized for purposes of an abstract definition, but in the fact that it is successively incorporated in an immanent way into the actual occasions that constitute the society. In other words, being a Christian makes a difference because belief in the importance of Jesus enters into the very composition of the actual occasions that constitute the life of a Christian. The Church is the consequence of their being Christians. One does not become a Christian by joining a Church.
The incorporation of the identifying characteristic in the elements of the society has two functions. It is the basis both for its survival as a society and for the intensity that it achieves. The art of survival, Whitehead suggests, is to be a rock.2 It exists in its environment simply, continually reiterating the past to the present. Bare survival contributes a passivity and a sameness to a society. In contrast, intensity requires complexity, not simplicity. Elements are continually molded and kneaded into new shapes and forms. There is an active and creative appropriation of the past and of the immediate environment for the purpose of building the future. Intensity is the zest and flavor of life, and this is also an important ingredient for a society. Both survival and intensity are necessary in an organism, whether it be an actual occasion, a society of occasions, or the entire cosmos. Survival and intensity, reiteration and novelty -- these are the dual elements in Jesus’ own statement that upon a rock he would build the Church.
One might argue that a belief merely in the importance of Jesus is inadequate to be the identifying characteristic of the Church, and that a statement about the divinity of Jesus would be a better expression of what that importance means in the Christian tradition. The problem is precisely that such a statement is an expression, not a prehension. It states how Christians have traditionally expressed Jesus’ importance, whereas the former deals with how they originally intuited the person of Jesus. Surely the divinity statement adds a new intensity to the faith. But as a statement it tends to generate other statements, which together take on a normative and exclusive character. A more simple description of the experience, without regard for how that experience has been expressed, promotes the survival dynamic by not limiting the possible expressions of that experience. Minimal statements expand the range of inclusion; maximal statements increase the depth. When the latter become the normative statements, exclusion inevitably results. The identifying characteristic of the Church with an eye to its survival mechanism should therefore be painted with a wide sweep of the brush, allowing the precisions of intensity to fill in the narrower, more aesthetically pleasing lines.
There is often a tendency for intensity to view survival with disdain. When intensity wins out at the expense of survival, rather than in harmony with it, definitions and statements of exclusion narrow the scope of the society. Such definitions and statements, issued in the interests of preserving internal purity, cause the society gradually to lose touch with the wider, "impure" environment in which it is located. Since no society can long remain independent of its surroundings, the demands of preserving purity can also effect societal suffocation.
The difficulty with the substance model of the Church is that intensity is generally won at the expense of survival. Dogmas, creeds and doctrines within the context of structure, hierarchy and authority express the intensity of the Church. These sometimes tend to cut the Church off from its environment, because they become the essential definition of the Church and the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion. A process-relational model of the Church also recognizes these elements as necessary for the Church’s intensity factor, but the intensity factor serves as a characteristic, not as a definition of the Church. The definition of the Church, if indeed it can be defined at all, is always the people of the Church in the act of creating the Church. What they are creating is shaped by a common characteristic -- their prehension of the importance of Jesus. Survival is not threatened by the variety of ways in which expressions of that faith introduce novelty into the process. In this way, survival is enhanced by intensity and novelty.
The process-relational model of the Church does not tend to isolate the Church from what is going on around it. It is ecumenical in the widest sense of the term. Just as no society exists in isolation from its environment, so also the Church always finds itself temporally and spatially in the wider context of the world and essentially inter-related with it. Because of this relatedness, the Church contributes itself to the world and the world contributes itself to the Church.
The mode of contribution is always via the elements that constitute it. The Church as a society does not contribute apart from the elements that constitute it, although the weight of the elements working together may outweigh the collection of individual contributions. Rather, the Church contributes to the world because, and merely because, its members contribute to it. This is because the Church is a society of the faith of the people of God. Apart from its people, there can be no faith and no society.
The above describes how the Church contributes to the wider environment. What it contributes is its in-touch-ness with the importance of Jesus today. Therefore, the Church can never entertain a conflict between relevancy and tradition. This is always a false dilemma. The Church’s relevance is its tradition. Just as an irrelevant Church is ultimately unfaithful to the spirit of its foundation in Jesus, so also a Church disinterested in its tradition is ultimately undermining the basis of its faith. But the Church tradition is not a static, stable past fact, repeated from epoch to epoch. It is past data still shaping and forming the present by virtue of its real inclusion in it.
1. For a fuller explanation of some of the ideas in this and the following chapter, see Bernard Lee’s The Becoming of the Church (New York: Newman Press, 1974).
2. Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p.4.