Openness to the New in Apocalyptic and in Process Theology

by William A. Beardslee

William A. Beardslee is Professor of Religion at Emory University.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 169-178, Vol. 3, Number 3, Fall, 1973. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Process thinking needs interaction with the field of imaginative exploration. The process perspective may serve to renew and reshape imaginative possibilities, so that we may refresh our vision of life as dramatic encounter and story.


"Openness to the New" is a very general pattern of response, and yet one which is not easy to understand. In this article we shall be looking for some structures of response which can be facilitated by apocalyptic and by process thought respectively, and which can illuminate our own situation and what it is to recognize the new and respond to it adequately. The "new" will be taken to include both the new which encounters us and the new actions which, as active subjects, we contribute to the process of life.

There are two ways of coming at the problem. One can ask: what kind of self is resilient enough to confront the new successfully? Or one can ask: what kind of vision of the world is likely to be able to incorporate the new into it? Clearly, these two approaches must converge, since self and world mutually constitute each other. Yet in short-run practical terms, these two lines of inquiry may go in quite conflicting directions. I shall comment briefly on this problem in conclusion, but the present paper will leave the question of the self aside and consider the sort of vision of the world which may be fruitfully open to the new.

The thesis is a simple one: there is an old way of perceiving the world which is sharply challenged today but which still remains the most fruitful and, I believe, the most hopeful option. The world-vision which can receive, and within which we can respond to the new, and ourselves create and work for novelty, is some sort of "narrative vision," in which we see ourselves in the world as part of a story. If we can see the new as, so to speak, an unexpected surprise in the plot of the story, or see our own work as making the story go in a new way, we can be open to it -- even though our anticipations are constantly challenged and transformed by the actual unfolding course of events.

What makes the narrative so fruitful as a vehicle for a world-vision is that a narrative vision can be something which we do not simply observe or listen to. We see ourselves as actors in a story; the "view" is not simply something which happens to us, but is also what we do, how we put our impress on the progressing story.

Now, narrative vision or seeing the world in the form of a story is out of fashion in our world. In fiction and drama and film the traditional forms of plot are being pressured out of shape in a way that has never happened since people began to tell stories. In theology, the narrative form of sacred history, as in Lucan theology, is under attack. There are good reasons for these attacks on traditional narrative vision. Nevertheless, we need to give fresh attention to this way of composing reality, for a new formulation of it is necessary if we are to be open to the new. Some attention to the story form in apocalyptic can show us some of the reasons why the narrative form is in trouble, while process theology has some fundamentally useful hints about how we may re-imagine the story, or grasp a new narrative vision of the world, which will enable us to set the new into a meaningful framework and respond to it with hope.

In the story or narrative the past, present, and future are held together in some kind of sequential connection. The heart of narrative is the power of memory to penetrate the future. That is, events still to come are correlated "as if" remembered. It is precisely this ability of narrative not merely to order the past but to run ahead of the present, to give us an expectation, which is the presupposition for the new to be recognized as new, as the surprise that changes the plot, or what Aristotle called the peripety, the unexpected change in fortune. It is only because we expected something else that we recognize the new as new. In a narrative world-vision, then, the future can be something in which there is room for anticipation and spontaneity. In narrative the future does not have to become an object to be manipulated, but rather is an arena for further outreach and participation.

Such a narrative vision can be contrasted with two other options which are much more popular theologically. One of these is the quest for being. Here, the matter of time and sequence recedes into the background, and one learns to be attentive to being, to why there is something rather than nothing. One thinks of Tillich in whom this motif was in tension with a more temporal perception of ultimate concern, and of Heidegger who has done so much to provide categories for modem theology. Suggestive as this way is, it does not by itself open an avenue to the new or to hope but rather to a world in which the difference between the new and old is irrelevant. The other world-vision which contrasts with narrative vision is that of the moment as carrying the total weight of meaning. Such a vision may indeed be open to the future, but it strongly discounts sequential or developmental tracts of experience, since it claims that the effort to relate moments to each other makes them objects which one strives to control.

A genuine narrative vision transcends this dichotomy of freedom in the moment on the one hand, and objectification and striving to control the future on the other. A story sustains the precariousness and openness of the situation until it reaches its end, and does so by virtue of that power of imagination, or what I called memory that penetrates the future, to envisage a stretch of time as both sequentially related and also developing through human opportunity, intention, decision, and being acted upon.

The problems of narrative form and narrative imagination have not received much attention from philosophers or theologians. Hans Frei is at work upon a book showing how both German idealism and British empiricism turned away from the story form, which has always been so important for Christian faith, to think about other ways of seeing reality. The new linguistic and phenomenological methods of interpretation do deal with narrative, but so far they have not done much to clarify the major narrative visions which are relevant for theology. Thus we shall have to venture some rather broad generalizations. Nevertheless, apocalyptic can show us what some of the roots of the problem are, and process theology can offer some hope for a new grasp of narrative form.

There are many kinds of stories, but for our purpose we need to consider just two. I will call them the little story and the big story. Fundamental to the narrative vision is the "story of my life," the life story or the little story. Despite the chaos and absurdity into which the story has fallen in fiction, we all try to make sense of our lives by seeing them as stories. Men have done this as far back as we can see, and they still do it today, however precariously. But the early forms of the life story or the little story were not open to the new. Quite to the contrary, as Mircea Eliade has so skillfully shown us, a major effort of the archaic narrative vision was precisely to exclude the new from the story. A principle function of archaic religion was to wash out or forgive all aberrant new things that happen in the life stories of archaic men, and to make their lives conform to one story or perhaps to a bundle of stories which cover all the situations that are recognized. Eliade has also documented the extreme persistence of this style of ordering life into a story which is not open to the new, in the rural cultures of Europe right down to the time of his own youth, and not only so, but he brilliantly predicted the resurgence of this kind of life story in the counterculture in a book which he wrote as long ago as the 1940’s.2

Another aspect of Eliade’s work points to the heart of our thesis: he shows the correlation which exists between the life story or the little story, and the cosmogonic story, the big story. In archaic religion each man finds meaning by repeating the creation, or to put it the other way about, he finds meaning by projecting the pattern of his own little story into the great story which explains not only his own little life but how things are. This correlation between little story and big story, between life story and the story of the universe, is fundamental to the whole storytelling enterprise as a way of giving meaning to man’s life.

For the Western world, the main alternative to the pattern of repetition of the foundation-story in the individual life story developed in the Hebrew and Christian vision of sequential, successive time, a time of historical struggle and openness, a time which did not wash out the unique, unrepeatable event, but dignified it by giving it its own place in the unrolling process. Without trying to unravel the complexities of this vision, we can turn again to Eliade who has seen the importance of apocalyptic for our topic. The narrative vision in which unique, unrepeatable things do take place is a difficult vision; its power of dignifying the unique event is threatened by the frequent inability of the community which shares this vision to correlate their actual historical experiences with the pattern of meaning provided by the vision. The apocalyptic literature represents just such a crisis of narrative vision. On the one hand, the great Jewish and Christian apocalypses retain the form of dramatic narrative. They recognize the "new" and in particular the future is awaited as the coming of the new. On the other hand, the hope for the end is a confession that the occurrence of new things cannot be tolerated indefinitely.

Thus, ancient apocalyptic brings into focus some of the issues that a narrative vision struggles with today. To see our existence as some kind of coherent story, we have to be able to relate it to a larger story -- our "little story" has to be fitted into a "big story" just as archaic men and ancient apocalyptists both saw. It is almost inevitable that the big story should, to some extent, be a mirror of the little story. But this is precisely the central point of the current crisis in narrative vision. The archaic vision offers a fairly clear parallel between microcosm and macrocosm, between the little story of my life and the overall foundational story on which "my" existence as an archaic man rested. But, once the story form is broken open to the new, the parallel between the little story and the big story is thrown into question. Apocalyptic is very instructive for us because it is so strongly torn at this point. The symbol of the end, on the one hand, opens up the life that lives in this vision toward the new, breaking away from repetition. The unique person and moment can be seen as unique because the story does not have to return to a certain point; but on the other hand, the end symbolizes closure, the cessation of the intolerable new, and the little story of the believer’s life is subjected to these same tensions that appear in the overall story.

Another way of getting at what is at issue is to say that apocalyptic narrative is instructive for us because it shows the difficulty of working both God and man into the same story. The apocalyptic story breaks man’s life open to the new, but it does not do this for God. The determinism of so many apocalyptic narratives serves to assure the believer that, despite all appearance to the contrary, all these new things that are happening are not out of God’s hand. God is still in control, and the new that finally occurs will be fulfillment rather than destruction. But this confident faith that God is in control may serve to stultify or weaken precisely that openness to the new which we called at the start the ability to respond to and interact with the new. Apocalyptic has often stimulated quietism though it can also be the impetus to intense activity. Clearly there is a large sociological component in the choice between these alternatives. But another aspect is precisely the question of how God and man can fit into the same story. When God’s infinity or totality swallows up man’s spontaneity, apocalyptic adopts a passive, waiting stance toward the future. This literature comes from people who find life nearly intolerable. Insofar as apocalyptic is open to the new, it is not because its authors "liked" the new, but because they could not tolerate the existing world. The inherited models by which men saw their lives as meaningful were breaking down simply because their lives were not fitting those patterns. The hope for the near end arose among those who were outsiders in society, among those subject to discrimination and persecution. In these circumstances, the eye of apocalyptic faith perhaps paradoxically does not look for a compromise or partial resolution, but looks forward to a total resolution of the conflict. Our imagination requires that stories come to an end, but normally in order that, with the resolution of one particular series of events, the way be cleared for the beginning of a new story. With respect to the life story, this is most obviously the case as one generation follows another. But the projection of this pattern of resolution in an end into the great historical and cosmic story serves the purpose of magnifying the incommensurability of God. The big story, despite its obvious dramatic aspects in the great apocalypses, tends to become, at least in its ending, wholly the story of God, who becomes the all-absorbing totality. God will be all in all, as Paul puts it, the one who brings the story to an end.

Thus the apocalyptic story, with its vision of an all-encompassing end, tends to shift the new from being a surprise in the plot to being a final cessation of new occurrence at all. When the present is almost totally alienated, the narrative vision, it seems, can be endured only temporarily. It is only a short step from this to the breakdown of narrative vision altogether, which happens in gnosticism. In this kind of faith stories will still be told. Gnosticism is full of stories, but these stories have lost the significance of the unique and irreversible event, and instead look, in what happens, for a step-by-step approach to reabsorption in totality. The question of narrative in gnosticism is complex. Instead of analyzing ancient gnosticism, let me quote from a term paper which was submitted recently. In it a girl named Mary envisages an indefinitely large number of worlds in each of which there exists a Mary. She says:

"For each decision I have to make, some other Mary on another earth makes an opposite choice. At the end of our corporate lives all the Marys fuse into their energy sources, the great X out of which everything comes. At that time all the Marys will fuse into one being (not physical) who is complete in every way because she has done all, seen all, known all." In this modern vision, as in ancient gnosticism, the decline of real narrative has gone hand in hand with a blurring of the dialogical or event-character of man’s existence and of the relation between God and Man. The end becomes a totality, an infinite inclusiveness, and anticipation of the end blurs the uniqueness of each new occurrence; for everything she does another Mary does the opposite. The great apocalyptic narratives do not go this far, although they prepare the way for this breakdown of narrative by their announcement of the end. Anticipation of the end in which God will be the sole actor discounts the participation of man in the present which makes it possible to recognize the present moment as unique. The result is that men cannot be satisfied with finite occurrences and long to lose themselves in the infinite.

The ancient apocalyptic story thus shows a real tension in its narrative vision. On the one hand, it strives to hold things together in a story in which there is dramatic encounter and human participation be-cause the end has not yet been reached. The future is not just a repetition of the past (despite the large element of repetition and return to the origin in apocalyptic stories). The most striking instance of the concrete new taken into an apocalyptic story so that it becomes the peripety or surprise in the plot would be the adaptation of the apocalyptic story by the early Christians to the new which they saw in Christ. They reversed the trend of apocalyptic narrative: instead of thrusting the decisive change out of the plot into the consummation, they brought the symbols of the end into the midst of the crisis of the story by applying them to Jesus. The result was that the early Christians themselves were released for a vigorous participation in the story they found themselves in. But this would not be the only example, for apocalyptic also served to stimulate the revolutionary action of the Zealots. Both early Christian apocalyptic and Zealot apocalyptic drew on the openness of this form of world-vision to the new, to make possible a meaningful participation of the believer in the "big story" to which he found that he was contributing as it moved forward to its end. This power to enable participation, so that the new is not only what comes to us but a new reality which we ourselves make as we express our own creativity and purpose, is one of the great functions of narrative vision, and it must be an aspect of any future-oriented vision which is really open to the new.

At the same time, the struggle to avert chaos in ancient apocalyptic pushed it also in the direction of devaluing the concrete new event by absorbing the whole into the final totality. Thus the end threatened to be no more than a reenactment of the primordial, unformed beginning. Apocalyptic was, indeed, one of the principal ways in which a preoccupation with totality or infinity was opened for Western consciousness, and as this preoccupation with infinity developed, its gnostic and mystical forms have been singularly unfriendly to the new and, also, to the narrative or story vision of existence, a point well illustrated by the citation from the term paper quoted above.

Thus the narrative vision, which in archaic religion located men in a stable and unchanging story which their little story could repeat, came to be open to the new and unique events and situations in which men struggled with their creativity and their God -- a shift particularly clear in the Jewish and Christian visions of existence. But in apocalyptic the effort to affirm God’s power in the face of chaotic and unresolved experience threatened the dramatic, narrative view both by the determinism of apocalyptic stories and more especially by the way in which the infinity of God tended to swallow up all differentiation in the final consummation, a trend which came to be all the more prominent in gnosticism.

The modern crisis of narrative vision has much in common with the apocalyptic crisis. In both cases there are important sociological aspects, which we bypass to concentrate on possibilities of understanding. The modern crisis of narrative is very different from the ancient one in that we are here dealing with artful stories, with "literature." Without trying to clarify this difference, we will proceed at once to show that the tension between concrete event as unique and a decisive bearer of meaning and the infinity in which the definite is overwhelmed is very much an issue today. We could illustrate from stories like Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins that are apocalyptic in the narrow sense; these would raise the question, as old as Hebrew prophecy, of the paradoxical tension between threat of inevitable destruction and summons to new, creative action. But even more fundamental for our purposes are writers who are not explicitly concerned with a narrative of the end, but who express the collapse of narrative form. Kafka, for instance, in whose works the characters struggle vainly through some kind of never-understood hindrance for some end which they never reach. Beckett carries this mode of presentation to what are perhaps its limits, in long narratives in which nothing ever happens. A writer more concerned with surface structure, like Robbe-Grillet, makes the same point. The surface detail is almost unbearably complex, but there is no conventional plot. In all of these writers we find, as we read in Beckett’s Watt, "incidents of great formal brilliance and of indeterminate purport."’ In all of them, multiplication of detail is the essence of their style. New elements which are infinitely rich and sharp in profile are constantly introduced, but they do not add up.4

All of these writers are found in modern discussions of the apocalyptic theme, and with good reason. Ancient apocalyptic represented a crisis in which it was a question whether the narrative vision could survive, and now, in the world of imaginative writing, it is equally or even more questionable whether narrative vision can survive. The collapse of what I called the big story has raised the question whether there is any sense in talking about the span of man’s life as a little story, and with the collapse of the little story it is a severe question whether the new does not become noise rather than information. The superabundance of the new has destroyed its original meaning, and all the detail, if it has a religious meaning, represents not the weight of the definite event, but to the contrary, the reemergence of the indefinite infinite, the infinite field in which everything is the same, which commands the imagination in a directionless time. There is no longer any significance to any particular concrete new thing, but there is significance in the fact that there is so much quantity of the new. The very unmanageableness of the quantity of new things happening or described is the only frame of reference left. Much has happened between the emergence of the sequential narrative vision running through a history which offered genuinely new occasions, and the situation of the writers we have so briefly described. These writers react not only to the political-social breakup of a world, as did the ancient apocalyptists, but also to the intellectual reduction of reality in modern thought. Still, the comparison has weight, since in both cases the loss of narrative vision is a form of loss of anchorage in the world. But in both cases a hard-won and precarious narrative vision is threatened because it is an oversimplification and because it promises more than people can experience in it, and in both cases the loss or threatened loss of narrative vision exposes and brings to the surface an archaic vision, an unformed totality which offers itself instead of the sequential story-like vision.

Let us now consider what light process thought can cast on this situation. Process thought tells us that the fundamental unit of reality is the experience. This insight opens the way to a fresh look at that harsh separation of the world into an outer world in which objects interact inexorably by cause and effect, and an inner world in which we experience ourselves as active agents. Each moment of experience in the process way of viewing it, as it comes into being, has its freedom (within limits) to create itself. It is genuinely indetermined, within the limits set by the past. Once it has come into being, it becomes a fixed datum, an object, a cause for the events to follow.

Thus in process theology, the fundamental unit is not the story but the occasion. Reality is atomic. The occasions of experience are the ultimately real units. But these infinitely recurring moments of experience are given direction and form; they are not just random. In large part the form is dictated by the past, but God, as the lure to more intense and massive experience, offers each occasion an aim at its highest potential. The occasion, in turn, may modify this lure to achievement given it by God.

First we note three blind alleys. One might think that one way to rehabilitate the story would be to regard each unit of experience, each occasion, as a microscopic story. But this will not do. Though we virtually have to use narrative language, the language of sequential time, to analyze what we mean by an occasion, we must recognize that the basic unit of experience is not a story which can be analyzed into separate sub-events, but a solid unit in its own right, a droplet of time which does not admit further dissection into a story line. Whatever else a narrative is, it is, so to speak, strung together from the separate beads or droplets, the occasions which make it up.

Furthermore, the particular kind of sequential enrichment of experience which is so central for our narrative vision is not necessarily a fundamental characteristic of reality as such. There are occasions which are not sequentially related in any significant way, and although Whitehead did not believe that in the reality we know these occasions could achieve significant intensity, none the less they exist. Though sequential ordering is a prerequisite for the main way of building up significance in the cosmos as we know it, it is not ontologically necessary that things be that way.

In the third place, the final end, and with it the total unified meaning of the whole of experience, that has played so large a role in apocalyptic symbolization, does not have any place in a process system. Though Pannenberg and Teilhard de Chardin, for instance, make much of this aspect of New Testament apocalyptic, the weight and mystery associated with the final end will have to be reinterpreted in a process system. A return to narrative vision via process theology will not give us an end to the "big story" which will, in a process vision, have to be without beginning and end.

What these qualifications mean is that process theology does not open the way of reestablishing one single, unified and to-be-completed story as the framework of existence. Nevertheless, process has been singularly aware of the requirement of being open to the new, and it does offer several important possibilities for a new narrative vision.

In the first place, and I believe that from the point of view of a religious interpretation of narrative this is exceedingly important, process thinking opens the way for a new grasp of infinity or totality as a religious concept. We have seen that in ancient apocalyptic the pressure of the "all" threatened to swallow up the concrete new. Against this infinite field nothing significantly new can happen, as infinity is experienced in many religious forms. But, this does not have to be the way we are grasped by the totality or the infinity that was associated with God. There is, indeed, an infinity of possibilities but it does not have to be confronted all at once. Quite to the contrary, the very infinity of possibility provides the inexhaustible source for an unending supply of new possibilities, once we grant that these possibilities are offered to us in some kind of structured way. And the infinite unification of reality, which the apocalyptist longs for in the end, can be recognized as real, in a limited way, in each moment’s limited unification in its relevant data, and as an object of religious awe in God’s recurrent unification of reality in his experience. But this unification in God is never finished; rather it is constantly enriched by the actual experience of the world.5

Viewed this way, the infinite is, so to speak, separated into two parts: on the one hand, the infinity of possibility which offers an inexhaustible supply of the new, bit by bit, and on the other, God’s infinite unification of experience moment by moment. This way of being open to infinity or totality ceases to be threatening to the new and to hope.

This is an infinite which expresses itself in a narrative vision, not a predetermined narrative nor one which intends to include only a particular kind of people or a particular reality, but a story which is much more open than the old story used to be -- a story, indeed, with many strands rather than with one, and a story which is not going to any predetermined place but which is constantly open to the best possibility that is relevant for it. Also, we must add, a many-stranded story which includes the loss, frustration, and tragedy which actually take place and which includes them not only as our experience but as experience shared by God.

In the second place process thinking opens the way to a re-actualization in our imagination of man’s freedom. The correlative of the fact that there is no predetermined end is that there is real freedom, limited though it is, and limited as the choices are which we are able to make, they are really free and open. Sociological conditions may indeed limit or even often virtually exclude the effective exercise of freedom, but nevertheless it is a constant possibility -- contrary to what many think today; thus the "new" can be not only something we encounter but something to which we contribute. This conviction indeed can be powerfully liberating and can contribute to the actualization of possibilities of the exercise of freedom which otherwise would be ignored.

Times of pressure bring to clarity the quest for the infinite grounding of human existence. Much of the current interpretation of apocalyptic, though not often cast in those terms, appropriates it positively precisely because it does expose the believer to the infinite. This interpretation joins in that positive appropriation, but calls for a renewal and reshaping of the forms in which we make imaginative contact with the infinite. Apocalyptic is only a step from, and points toward, forms of perception in which the indefinite infinite swallows up the concrete act or person. Much of the modern imagination comes close to such a vision, though in consciously secular terms and often without quite knowing it. Further, the way of coping with the new which concentrates on building a self with sufficient strength and resiliency to face the new often moves in the same direction, for the techniques of meditation which are widely practiced today often function in this way.

Much process thinking has been carried out without much interaction with this field of imaginative exploration. This paper holds that the process perspective may serve to renew and reshape what we take to be imaginative possibilities, so that we may refresh our vision of life as dramatic encounter and story. The new story will be more open and will renounce the powerful image of complete unification as the goal. But the process vision of the "big story" can provide a setting within which the widespread new interest in "my story" can honestly develop in the conviction that my story is not just a private exploration but resonates with the reality within which we find ourselves. Thus the new, both as what we expect and as what we set for a goal, will not have to be thought of as either illusory or ephemeral. The people who have gotten things done have almost always had a narrative vision of self-understanding. Process thought can undergird such a vision even in the complexities and uncertainties of today.



1An earlier version of this article was given as the Ernest Cadman Colwell lecture at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, in March, 1972. The author expresses his appreciation to the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, Collegeville, Minnesota, for providing the setting and stimulation within which it was revised.

2 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959. The French version appeared in 1949.

3 Samuel Beckett, Watt, New York: Grove Press, 1959, p. 74.

4 On the apocalyptic motifs in contemporary literature, see Frank Kermode. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

5 I have explored this theme in another setting in William A. Beardslee, A House for Hope, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.