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 11: Immortality
The ultimate mystery of life is death. Science and philosophy can tell us a lot about life, but when the final moment of life has passed us by, they must abandon us to our faith. Death transcends the powers of reason and shrouds itself in ineffability. Despite this eternal verity, there is presently a surge of interest in death and in the speculation about what, if anything, occurs after death. Inter-disciplinary courses are being taught in colleges and numerous new books and articles are being published dealing with the topic. What makes this enterprise so fascinating is that there are no criteria for determining which opinions are right and which are wrong. Spiritualists and rationalists both contribute their evidence and compare notes, but in the final analysis the mystery always remains.
Traditionally the Church has answered this question for its faithful with its teaching on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. At the moment of death, each soul is called to a particular judgment by God. As a consequence of the way one lived on earth, the soul is then determined for a heaven of eternal happiness with God or a hell of everlasting fire. Since the presence of God is reserved only for the worthy, imperfections and lesser evils in one’s life have to be "worked off" before the beatific vision is possible. This intermediate state of purification is a place of temporary suffering, called purgatory. Finally, for those souls never officially admitted to membership and grace in the Church, a fourth place, called limbo, allows them the fullness of natural happiness, but without the vision of God.
There is, of course, no way to dispute the Church’s teaching, nor is there any way apart from faith that it can be proved. For many theologians today, however, the doctrine is too intertwined with ancient culture, tradition and myth to be literally credible. Their recent reflections on the subject have resulted in drawing together ideas from anthropology, psychology and philosophy, as well as theology, in order to profit from new insights regarding the counsel that reason can offer to faith in clarifying the issue for the individual believer.
In the absence of indisputable evidence, the theologian too must ultimately make up his mind about an issue according to what he believes. If he is honest with himself -- and hopefully most theologians are -- his belief will be formed from the best evidence he can muster. But in the matter of death and immortality, none of his evidence can be verified. It is not surprising, therefore, that theologians, even within a single school of thought such as process theology, will argue a variety of positions regarding death and immortality. In fact, among process theologians such a diversity does indeed exist.
Whitehead himself was somewhat ambiguous on the subject. He does deal with death in a way that is logical and coherent in his theoretical synthesis and in a way that is open to a variety of imagery for pastoral purposes. The question of the afterlife, however, is left unresolved. For Whitehead, dying (or to use his term "perishing") is the antithesis of emerging, and each is continually occurring in every moment in every bit of reality. Only in the constant ebb and flow of emerging and perishing is change and enrichment possible. Perishing, therefore, is just as essential to the world as emerging.
In his essay on "Immortality"1 Whitehead says that there are two abstract worlds, the "World of Value" and the "World of Activity." Neither is explainable except in terms of the other. Value can only be explained in terms of its realization in concrete actual occasions as they emerge and perish. Thus, "value" is always experienced as "values." Values are concrete, individual and unique contributions to future actualities. The realization of a particular moment of actuality is likewise the realization of a particular value, and this becomes part of the data for the succeeding moments of actuality. Values derived from the past are thus immanently incorporated into each emerging occasion. This is what Whitehead means by "immortality." Nothing that is of value is ultimately lost. Apart from such immanent incorporation, nothing could be preserved, and "value" itself would have no ultimate meaning.
This understanding of value is exactly parallel to Whitehead’s notion of God. God, like every actual entity, is di-polar, reflecting both the mental and the physical, both the World of Value and the World of Activity. These two aspects in the divinity are, as we have seen, called God’s primordial and consequent natures, lust as God, if he is to be actual, must be really related to the world and allow it to be incorporated into himself, so also the World of Value, if it is to be more than pure abstraction, must be realized in the World of Activity. That is why value, in its concrete reality, is none other than the concrete elements of process. God embodies this in himself in his consequent nature, and offers it back to the world in each emerging occasion. To put it another way, the world adds activity to God and God adds value to the world.
The perishing of an actual occasion, therefore, need not be its extinction. Rather, it can be understood as a kind of switching of modes. Whereas in the emerging of an actual occasion God’s immanence is felt in the incorporation of value, in its perishing that actual occasion is felt immanently in God as a fuller realization of the divinity. In this way the occasion continues to be felt in the formation of the future. Death, then, is emphatically not a passing into nothingness. Instead, it is immanent incorporation into God, in whom each actuality is experienced everlastingly for its own uniqueness and individuality. In dying, one "gets out of the way" of the present in order to be available to the future in a new way.
Does this doctrine of immortality, which Whitehead calls "objective immortality," correspond to the faith expectations of those who seek the reassurance of an afterlife, a place of eternal happiness, or a heaven? In some fundamental ways, at least, I think that it does. The basis for their belief is the impossibility of man’s conceiving of himself as not being. The one absolute and certain experience that endures throughout his entire life is the experience of being in the present, recalling the past, and anticipating a future. One experiences a profound continuity with oneself in space and time.
Everyone has moments of unconsciousness where his experience of the world around him is temporarily interrupted. The most common example is sleep. But one always awakes to find himself the same person he was when he slumbered. There is an experience of the continuity of the self as far back as the memory permits. To think of this continuity as being abruptly and completely terminated is almost impossible to imagine or accept. This is the reason why man so often seeks to find a place and a time for himself after his death. That place can be a paradise free from the evils and insecurities of earthly existence, or it may simply be a place in the records of history or the lives of one’s offspring. However he imagines it, it gives him some extension in time in which to maintain the continuity of self into the future.
This problem is acute in Western culture where one must reconcile death and immortality with lineal time. For lineal time, unlike cyclical time, implies an ending, termination or death, or at least a state of permanence, where time (and therefore change) is no more. Hence the common Western belief that once the final state of man has been reached, the world of activity is effectively excluded from his existence. This is just as true for those who believe that their personal extinction is permanent in death as it is for those who anticipate personal salvation in a heaven where suffering and sin are no more. In both cases, death is a permanent thing, and the forces of change are no longer relevant. The alternative to total annihilation for Western man is bare existence in an absolutely unchanging condition!
The belief of permanency after death has always been one of the difficulties of the Christian doctrine of heaven. On the one hand, Christian tradition holds that at the moment of death the eternal fate of the person is irretrievably sealed. Heaven is eternal happiness and hell is eternal punishment. In traditional thought this is necessary, because if the happiness is to be perfect, it cannot be threatened by change. Since the possibility of change is itself the cause of insecurity, perfect happiness is realizable only in the state of total security and stability. So, the Christian believes in the permanence of his final state.
But what possible meaning can be assigned to experience if it does not involve change? To experience is to take account of things outside the self and to allow them to affect the self, and this implies undergoing some change in the self. What we experience becomes a part of us. This necessarily alters the reality of the continuity that is the self, and it implies an absence of certitude about the future. Consequently, when personal experiences are admitted as part of the belief in heaven, the belief in the absolute changelessness of the afterlife is put into serious question. Thus, the dilemma. Either personal experience is retained, in which case the series of actual occasions constituting the self continues, and change is still possible, or personal experience is abandoned in favor of permanency, in which case immortality can only consist in a completed and non-experiencing self, whose existence consists in being experienced by another as an objectively immortal actuality.
The openness of Whitehead’s thought on this point permits an explanation of the religious hereafter according to either possibility, and this is why process theologians often differ among themselves without abandoning their fidelity to the process system. We will begin with an explanation of the latter possibility, since this is a more direct application of Whitehead’s own doctrine of ‘‘objective immortality.’’ Here the emphasis is on permanency. What one was during life, especially during the final moments of life, determines what one is eternally. In this interpretation, the series of actual occasions that constitutes the continuity of the self throughout one’s personal history culminates in one final occasion in which that history is synthesized. The entire continuity, but especially this final synthetic occasion in the continuity, is experienced by God and becomes a part of the data of God’s own actuality. In this way each person is immortalized everlastingly in God, retaining permanently his own uniqueness and individuality, and contributing that uniqueness as data to a fuller appreciation of value and novelty for the future. However, this interpretation does not allow for any further subjective experiences or subjective change.
One can also argue for the possibility of "subjective immortality" using the thought of Whitehead.2 In this interpretation the series of actual occasions that constitutes the continuity of the self is not interrupted or terminated by death; it only changes the environment in which it does its experiencing. The ordinary environment for the experiencing self is the body. However, there is no necessary reason why the series of actual occasions that constitutes the self cannot continue in some other non-material environment. Hence, death can be understood as the detachment of that dominant series of actual occasions we recognize as the self from the many supportive material series which constitute the human body. The new environment is the consequent nature of God, where the serial reality of the self continues to experience and to change, but without any direct attachment to the material world.
Given the Whiteheadian frame of reference, both of these interpretations are philosophically consistent within themselves, even though they may not be reconcilable with each other. Therefore, the decision which to choose in articulating one’s belief depends upon the belief itself. This can actually be a significant advantage to the process theologian. Unlike other theological questions, which can be studied and discussed at leisure, the issue of immortality often arises in the context of a sudden personal tragedy. At such moments, the theologian would like to be able to provide an immediate, clear and definitive answer to comfort the dying or the bereaved. But in fact he must embarrassingly reply that there is no certain knowledge about what happens on the other side. There is only the assurance of one’s personal faith.
Even the assurance of faith, however, must demonstrate a certain credibility. This means that it must seem reasonable to the one who believes. At this point the theologian can perhaps be of some practical help. Even while not being able to offer certitude, he can suggest reasons why the faith of the believer is plausible, whether that faith be in the literal continuance of subjective experiencing in a heaven or hell, or in some kind of objective permanence in human history. Thus, in those cases where the person does not want a reaffirmation of the traditional symbols about life after death in his particular circumstances, the appropriate theological explanation is Whitehead’s "objective immortality." This option can be illustrated by religious statements suggesting that a goodness is never lost, that the world is permanently enriched by the past, and that God himself is magnified because of the goodness of each human person. On the other hand, process theology can also assist one who is committed to a more literal belief in the traditional teachings. Since his major concern is an anxiety about the future, he can be offered some assurances about his personal continuity within the framework of "subjective immortality." Here some possible religious statements may -- with an underlying theological consistency -- suggest that when a person dies he is taken up into God for an evaluation of his life, that he will be able to experience the effect that his life had on the world, and that he will have the opportunity to enjoy the good he helped to realize.
Is this a theological cop-out? Is it honest for a theologian simply to provide a set of reasons for whatever faith-option is proffered him? The answer to that question is both yes and no. Insofar as he attempts to be of service to human needs, the theologian may well decide that a moment of personal tragedy or crisis is not the moment to expose the differences between mystery and myth. In this capacity, the theologian is acting as minister, or as the scholarly aid to the minister. As such, he may in certain situations need to call upon theological reasons that are possibly not in accord with his own belief. The service function of the theologian, therefore, may include the formulating of a rationale for theological positions that he would not personally hold.
This need not compromise the theologian in his capacity as pure scholar. He can and should speak out honestly, in the ordinary course of his work, regarding the conclusions that he has come to in his quest for a theological understanding of the issue. The theologian, therefore, actually functions in two capacities: as a scholarly aid to the minister and as a ruthless seeker for truth. The advantage of process theology is that both functions can be adequately discharged in the matter of death and immortality from the single perspective of Whiteheadian thought.
The richness of process theology is such that it provides a solid philosophical framework for a great diversity of human experience and belief, and it is a helpful means of synthesizing them in interesting. creative new ways. It can account for, and indeed deepen, the thinking of traditionalist and liberal alike. Sometimes it can also be a useful instrument for translating between their different interpretations of their experiences of reality and their options of faith. These are the fundamental responsibilities of theology on behalf of faith: to understand, to support, and to deepen. For this task, process theology is very well suited.
1. Published in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Arthur Schilipp, ed. (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1951), pp. 682-700.
2. Cf. David Griffin, "The Possibility of Subjective Immortality in Whitehead’s Philosophy," University of Dayton Review. VIII, 3, pp. 43-56.