Toward a Process-Relational Christian Soteriology

by David L. Wheeler

David L. Wheeler is Associate Professor of Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, KS 66102. He is the author of A Relational View of the Atonement:(forthcoming, Peter Lang Press).

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 102-113, Vol.18, Number 2, Summer, 1989. 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.


Dr. Wheeler envisions from an evangelistic background, the transformation of humanity through relationship with Christ, as per Biblical tradition and Christian experience, in a process-relational mode.


Scholars such as John B. Cobb and David R. Griffin have developed the Christological implications of Whiteheadian process-relational thought in a number of widely read works in recent years.1 "Evangelical" Christians, holding the Christian scriptures to be the uniquely inspired and authoritative charter documents of their faith, and finding in these scriptures a Christ whose divine humanity defies explanation in terms of any general metaphysical scheme, have had for the most part little interest in or even contact with these process-relational Christologies.2 That revelation presents to us this Christ is sufficient warrant for believing him; his being is, at any rate, incommensurate with ours.

I myself, coming from an evangelical background, have longed to correlate this revealed and experienced Christ of the evangelicals with a coherent contemporary world view, so that faith might illuminate that world view, and that world view might provide an explanatory context for faith. Thus I have followed the Christological work of process-relational thinkers with great interest. Yet Christological thought is not an end in itself. Actual or would-be believers are interested in Christ’s way-of-being to the extent that it might stimulate or empower their own transformation. This is the "soteriological question," to use the relevant terminology from the Christian theological tradition, and it has not been treated with the same kind of fullness in the relevant literature as has the Christological question. The purpose of this paper is thus to examine -- with a frank apologetic agenda near at hand -- the possibilities for envisioning the transformation of humanity through relationship with Christ, as per Biblical tradition and Christian experience, in a process-relational mode. Following a brief interpretation of the structure of existence manifested in Jesus Christ (Christology) in process-relational terms, based largely on the thought of John Cobb, I will then attempt to describe in process categories how the expansion and reiteration of that structure of existence follows upon its manifestation in Christ.

Christology in a Process Mode

The typical line of thought in process-relational Christologies is something like this: God is the primordial reservoir of value existing coextensively with the world. As such, God provides the aim toward value to the occasions of experience which successively constitute the world. Since every occasion of experience on the Whiteheadian model, no matter how closely determined by its antecedents, has a margin of "subjectivity" by which it forms itself, is something "for itself," these occasions partially conform to and partially reject or distort the divine aims. Human occasions, in general, are those occasions most adequate in their heritage, their complexity, and the scope and range of their subjectivity, to exemplify divine aims in the world. "Exemplification" of divine aims here means not only conformity to them, but further reflective response which reproduces divine aims with some of the richness they have in God’s own life and character.3 The Christ of Christian faith, in particular, is that society of human occasions whose life is the paradigm of worldly exemplification of divine aim.

Now, the minor chord in this train of thought is that the very characteristics which make human beings potential paradigms of embodied divine aim in the world also give them greater scope for the persistent thwarting of divine aim.

Process thought typically roots the presence of sin and evil in the world in the refusal or deficient actualization of the divine aim offered to every self-realizing occasion. In less complex occasions, with a narrow range of potential response to their inherited data, conformity to that data and to the restricted ideal aim offered by God in view of their simplicity is rather massive; thus, for example, actualization of God’s aim for a molecular occasion in a silicon crystal is ideal. But, the possibilities for that occasion are, from the position of those who command more imaginative societies of occasions, appallingly limited. With the evolutionary emergence of complex, ordered societies of occasions serving the rich and imaginative experience of strands of "presiding occasions" which exhibit "personal order"4 and perhaps consciousness -- that is, animals and human beings, with their quicksilver brains and supple bodies -- opportunities expand exponentially and the risks of freedom expand correlatively.

John Cobb, in Christ in a Pluralistic Age, speaks of the relationship between the biblical, patristic "Logos," the Whiteheadian concept of the primordial nature of God, and Jesus who is called the Christ. He says:

The Logos is the cosmic principle of order, the ground of meaning, and the source of purpose. Whitehead has called this transcendent source of the aim at the new the principle of limitation, the organ for novelty, the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire, the divine Eros, and God in his Primordial Nature. (CPA 71)

In the typical structure of human existence, a war ranges between the lure of God, expressed through the Logos, and the vagrant impulses of our "fallen" nature (cf., Romans 7:15-24). But, continues Cobb,

In another possible structure of existence, the presence of the Logos would share in constituting selfhood; that is, it would be identical with the center or principle in terms of which other elements in experience are ordered. . . Thus God’s purpose for Christ was his purpose rather than being a threat to his purpose, as we often experience it. (CPA 139, 144)

Following this train of thought, Cobb attempts to construct a Christology which will be both realistic in intent as it addresses the public world of believers and nonbelievers, and at the same time will be a faithful restatement of Christian tradition. Cobb continues:

The emergence in Jesus of that structure of existence in which the human self coalesces with the immanent Logos is the recovery at a new level of the structure that predominates in all things apart from human beings . . His existence was like "pre-fallen" existence except that it took up into itself a history that is not only fall but also enrichment. (CPA 184-185)

So that Christ combines the imagination, spontaneity, and richness of experience which were God’s aims in drawing forth human beings, with the free obedience and loving communion with God which in a "fallen" world are otherwise approximated only by creatures of a "lower" order. (‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib, but Israel . . ." (Isaiah 1:3).)

New Testament images and concepts of human transformation such as justification (Rom. 3.24, 59, Lk. 18.1-14), reconciliation (Rom. 5.10, II Cor. 5.19), redemption (Rom. 3.24, Lk. 21.28, Eph. 1.7, 14, Col. 1.14), and sanctification (Phil. 3.1 3f) are each related to certain Greek roots in the New Testament text and, before that, to certain Old Testament antecedents, and each has a long history of interpretation, comparison, and interbreeding with the others. But, their commonality can be expressed in Whiteheadian fashion in terms of their common derivation from Jesus the Christ, who in his peculiar self-structure and divinely-prompted action is the overcomer of the divergence between divine aim and creaturely self-realization that we have mentioned above. The importance of Christ for us, and the interest in how his personal being is constituted, are absolutely linked to what he is perceived to have done, and to be doing, for and with the rest of humanity.

That Jesus as the Christ in fact manifested such a unity of purpose with God, as Cobb describes, is a matter which perhaps is certain only within the community of those who have opened themselves (been opened to) his continuing personal influence. But certainly the existence of the Christian Church, all of its ambiguous characteristics notwithstanding, and the impact of the Christ event upon all of human history, tell us that something extraordinary happened here. If we presuppose that Christ’s human relationship to God indeed has that paradigmatic quality which Cobb describes, then what is the relation of his life to persons who have lived and are living after him?

Soteriology And The Causal Efficacy Of Christ

We begin to answer this "soteriological" question by discussing, in a process-relational context, what happens when an ideal is fully and concretely realized in the world process. In his essay, "The Christology of the New Testament," Rudolf Bultmann runs through a catalogue of Christological images -- Messiah, Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Lord (Kurios), Word (Logos) -- and claims that none of them are new. Like the images of transformation we mentioned above, they all have antecedents in Hebrew and/or Hellenistic tradition, and their development can be traced. "The new element," he says, "was simply the fact that all these assertions were made about this specific historical man, about Jesus of Nazareth" (FU 265). The images and the hopes they embodied were not essentially altered, rather, occasion was given for believing in their reality. The messianic images were concretized, determined to a particular constellation of events, and thus gained a double efficacy in the subsequent human process. The divine ideals expressed in these images continue to inspire and stimulate us as ideals, conceptually felt, only with more power as they are gathered and transmuted into a single complex ideal through their exemplification in Jesus. Furthermore, precisely as paradigmatically exemplified in the life process of Jesus, they function as a physical datum, with direct causal efficacy, for all subsequent history.

Once any occasion is a fait accompli, the process forever after is irremediably determined relative to that actual occasion. One may pretend It positively or negatively, with whatever subjective form they may, but it is there, objectifying itself for whoever or whatever there is to perceive it. In this sense, there is a finality about any and every actual occasion. But, if God’s luring of the world into reciprocity with Godself through the Logos proceeds until this reciprocity reaches the sort of perfection -- the divine-human unanimity -- which Cobb postulates in the case of Jesus Christ, then the God-World relationship is thenceforth qualitatively different, is fully self-conscious from both directions. This can happen, in the nature of the case, only once in our cosmic epoch, just as "life" can emerge from biological evolution only once. Forever after, come what may, this cosmos has entered the embrace of reciprocity with its divine ground. Once this "final" event has happened, the ideal it has exemplified gains a marvelous expansiveness in the ongoing process. It has this expansive power precisely because of the new "double-sidedness" -- it is now both an ideal and an empirical datum for subsequent experience -- which it has gained through being once completely and adequately embodied.

The ideal of perfect response to God’s luring, perfect openness to God’s will, linked to its historical actuality in Jesus, becomes a "proposition" (Whitehead) of unparalleled appeal, and brings with it power (causal efficacy) for its further actualization in those who open themselves to its appeal. To cite Cobb again: "‘Christ’ does not simply designate the Logos or God as the principle of order and novelty. It refers to the Logos as incarnate, hence as the process of creative transformation in and of the world" (CPA 76). Whether Jesus Christ’s divine-human unity is the sole member of its class, as evangelical Christians would typically claim (John 1.14, I Timothy 2.5), or a paradigmatic member of a class with multiple members, this unity can be construed as an example of a systemic change of the God-world relationship happening once in the history of humanity globally,5 and entering our cultural/religious awareness through Christ with the power and appeal described above.

As future events respond positively to the lure of the Christ "proposition," they themselves begin to mirror the process of self-constitution that was Christ’s. For them, as well, "the presence of the Logos . . . share[s] in constituting self-hood" and God’s purposes are experienced as their own purposes rather than as a threat to their purposes (cf. Cobb). Christ becomes progressively, expansively re-embodied in the world, and the biblical image of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12) can be seen as no mere metaphor, but as literal reality. The experience of the Christian believer, who is a "member" of Christ (I Cor. 12.12), differs, however, from Christ’s own experience in two important ways: (I) though it is real, it is incomplete and imperfect. The structure of a sinful world, and the remaining causal efficacy of a sinful self, form a hostile environment for Christ-like living. That Jesus as the Christ in this same hostile environment did live as he did is precisely a miracle, and the core of the graciousness of God’s saving work in Christ. The consummation of Christ’s embodiment in the world and the perfecting of Christ’s individual members await the new aeon with which "individual salvation" is indissolubly linked in biblical tradition (cf., Mark 1.15, Rom. 18-23, Rev. 21.1-4). (2) The Christian’s experience of coalescence of purpose with God’s purpose of "creative transformation," is always a derived, or "meditated" experience, inheriting from its prior actualization in Christ. The human dilemma is the dilemma of one who "has always already missed the existence that a heart he seeks" (TNT 227).

This is what scripture calls "the mystery of iniquity" (II Thess. 2.7), and it entails precisely the radical inability to find that elusive fulfillment. The Christian analysis of human experience as exemplifying a "mystery of iniquity," or a ubiquitous "missing" of the experience we most deeply seek and need, means that the explication of Christ’s transforming effect upon humanity will not involve merely a perfecting of our intrinsic capabilities, but an overcoming of human hostility to God’s aims, a healing of human deformation consequent to that hostility, and a reuniting of humanity with the God from whom we are estranged. Thus "salvation" from the Latin salvos (healing), "atonement" (at-one-meet), an Anglo-Saxon word traditional in British and American evangelicalism, or "redemption," expressing our release from the dominant causal efficacy of past sinful actions. Our fulfillment is always found, on the Christian model, beyond our own personal resources.

That it may be found is pure grace -- the miracle of true humanity actualized in the event of Jesus as the Christ, and thenceforth available (but always meditated, in view of our incapacity) through Christ in the manner we have been discussing. For Cobb, the apostle Paul’s experience is a paradigm of this meditated experience of unity with God through Christ. Paul speaks of having "the mind of Christ" (I Cor. 216), and of "Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2.20). "For Paul," says Cobb, "the co-constituting agent of his personal I was the salvation occurrence of Jesus Christ. Paul experienced himself as most fully what he wanted to be as conformation to Christ constituted his personal selfhood" (CPA 125).

Now we have just spoken of the experience of a life conformed to God’s will as meditated through Christ. The vividness and power of Christ’s presence in the life of the believer suggests that there also may be a sense in which that presence itself is unmeditated, that is, not subject to the diminishment and deformation of two thousand years of continuous direct causal transmission. We cite Cobb again: "My belief is that Whitehead shows the possibility of the unmediated prehension by a present entity of other entities in the past, even the distant past, and that the experience of some Christians seems to involve this kind of experience of Jesus" (FC 148). Such an experience would root historically in the linked miracles of the Resurrection and Pentecost, and would be termed theologically the "spiritual presence" of Christ (cf., II Cor. 3.17), and metaphysically the "unmediated objectification" of conceptual feelings (PR 307-308/468-469). And it is correlated with faith, the only "condition" that God lays upon the impotent sinner (Eph. 2.8-9, Lk. 18.9-14). Cobb continues: "I would suggest that an attitude of expectancy, attention and belief would be likely to facilitate such prehension and to determine which element of the past should be prominent in this causal efficacy upon the present" (FC 154). It is just such expectancy, attention and belief directed toward Jesus that are characteristic of Christian worship, celebration of the sacraments, and prayer.

The Expansion of Christ

Now if humanity’s transformation through relationship to Christ truly depends upon the human response of faith, then the expansion of the effects of God’s redemptive presence in Christ will be processive in nature and have a time-space extension. We have mentioned the objectivity of every actual event for subsequent occasions of experience in the world. This is a systemic truth, descriptive of our relationships to clouds of gas in interstellar space, as well as to our friends and lovers. But, of course, the importance of actual events for the future and the compelling power they exert upon it may vary almost infinitely. In the case of the personal history of the Christ, at least two factors lend this history the immense importance it has for us. First, the simple fact that this structure of divine-human unity emerged at a time and place in history where the cultural, linguistic, political, and religious maturity and unity of a significant portion of humankind bode well for its apprehension is a major factor in its importance. For the Christian believer this coordination of Christos and kairos is no coincidence, but rather the outcome of divine providence.

For [God] has made known to us in wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Christ], things is heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1.9-10)

For a believer thinking in a process-relational mode, Christ is both act of God and emergent from the evolutionary process. (If God grounds the process, these are two ways of understanding the same fact.) Here, and in a number of places in the text below, we cite Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard is no Whiteheadian, to be sure. His God is the God of the classical metaphysics of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. But profoundly influenced by his understanding of evolutionary biology, he describes a world in process, and he makes just the sort of explicit connections between Christian soteriological images and description of a processive natural world that must characterize a "process-relational soteriology."

"Jesus on the Cross," writes Teilhard, "is both the symbol and the reality of the immense labor of the centuries which has little by little raised up the created spirit and brought it back to the depth of the divine context" (DM 79). Christ arisen, one might add, is the symbol and the reality of that labor’s having reached a new threshold, and having been planted whole, as it were, into the divine being which is the everlasting preservation of all worldly occasions, and the context for the world’s ongoingness. Resurrection is, on this model, the mediated divine ideal preserved in God’s "consequent nature," and thus, a determinant of the divine context out of which new ideals are offered to the world. Pentecost is that mediated ideal refracted and shining through a vast multiplicity of subsequent self-formations, and functioning to a greater or lesser degree as their root principle. For we have "the mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2.16) in us, forming and guiding our personal and corporate process.

Once this ultimate structure of divine-human communion has been actualized in the life of Christ, tried, purged, and refined in the crucible of the Way of the Cross, and given the double-sided efficacy to which we have referred subsequent to the events of Resurrection and Pentecost, the new aeon is present with a power and certainty as great as the size of God and the constancy of the divine love -- that is to say, as great as a process-relational model of real contingency in the divine-worldly ecosystem will allow, given God’s excellence and pre-eminence within that ecosystem. Thus, redemption is from this point onward a real and present reality within the human phenomenon. In the words of Bultmann, "the age of salvation has already dawned for the believer and the life of the future has become a present reality" (KM 20; cf., II Cor. 5.17, John 3.19, 5.24, 9.39, 12.31, I John 5.4).

At the same time, Christian tradition affirms the reality of an "eschatological pause" (T. F. Torrance), a "time between the times" (Karl Barth), in which the atonement consummated "once for all" in Christ truly becomes the possession, in time, of an ever greater portion of humanity. Christ’s exemplification of the divine will progressively seeds and empowers our exemplification of the divine will, and the divine Logos embodied in Christ becomes the principle of our subjective aim. And this brings us to the second of the two factors we pledged to identify with respect to the "importance" of the Christ event for us, namely the supreme attractiveness of Christ the embodied divine ideal, luring and constraining us. By his exemplification of the divine will which presents the best of all aims to every worldly occasion, Christ exercises a supreme attraction upon humanity, and by his entire preservation in God’s everlastingness, without the dilution of "negative prehension," his vision is ever with us as God is ever with us. And Christ’s love of God, and every creature rooted in God, from "the least of these my brethren" to the sparrows in the marketplace, becomes our love, both to receive and pass on. New Testament scholars have endlessly debated the effect of the "delay of the parousia" -- the expected ultimate triumph of God’s reign initiated by a return to earth of the glorified Christ -- upon the life and doctrine of the early church. But that supposed stumbling-block for the faith of first-century Christians, set in the context of a human history now understood to comprise millions of years, and a cosmic history comprising thousands of millions of years, can now furnish a key for the unification of Christian eschatology and the evolutionary thought which is so characteristic of modernity, and of which process-relational thought is a particular philosophical/theological version. Subsequent to the emergence of humanity’s ultimate principle of unification, God grants a real time and space for the operation of that principle within history.

Christ present in his Holy Spirit is, in the captivating simile of P. T. Forsyth, like a poet of supreme originality, creating his audience, molding and making over souls so that we might have the capacity to respond to him (WC 18). Of course Christ’s continual efficacy here described presupposes the original reception of the historical Jesus by a tiny but significant minority of his contemporaries, who thereby constituted the original Christian church. The emergence of a new vision of reality, no matter how we analyze it, always has a miraculous, serendipitous character. "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you . . ." (Matt. 16.17). Thenceforth, the church functions as the "leading shoot" of humanity, to use Teilhard s phrase, anticipating and promoting that unity with Christ and the resulting newness of life which are God’s will for all humanity. The church is in the most literal sense "a royal priesthood," constituted "that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (I Peter 2.9). When we speak of the double efficacy of the risen Christ as ideal and as objective datum for present becoming, we might do better to speak of a "triple efficacy" of the love of Christ, for that faith, love, and communion with God which are Christ’s find innumerable, if only partial, echoes in the lives of individual believers and in that system of relationships which they comprise within the world.

Thus, the church constantly re-presents Christ to the world, and insofar as it is faithful to him, multiplies his influence manyfold. Christians and non-Christians alike often dwell upon the church’ s defects and the inglorious chapters in its history. And yet its basic vision of an Ultimate Reality that is by nature suffering servanthood, its incurable idealism, and its purposefully inclusive nature have endured and been involved in mutually transforming relationships with myriad cultures over two millenia.

The church also represents humanity before God. It is, as Karl Barth says, "the provisional representation of the whole world of humanity justified in [Christ]" (CD 4:1 643). One might say in process-relational terminology that the church is the whole world "under the perspective" of the atonement actualized and offered in Christ, and certainly its telos is no less than actual unification of the whole world under that perspective.

The intimate union with a multitude of other individuals that such a unification implies would not resemble the common mystical image of a drop of water merged again in the all-encompassing sea. On the contrary, as Teilhard says, "union differentiates," for the individual becomes even more surely what he or she is through continual, vivid interaction with a variety of others (PM 262). And, insofar as we actualize a unity of outlook and purpose with our peers through our common appreciation of the Christ-image, and our appropriation of this image as the guiding principle of our lives, we realize ever more perfectly that mutual inherence in one another and in God that is at the same time present actuality and (in its perfection) goal for every actual occasion. The church, in its expansive self-realization (and all humanity in virtue of the church’s representation of it), thus moves toward the exemplification par excellence of the Whiteheadian notion of a society -- a togetherness of actual occasions characterized by their mutual positive apprehension of a common element of form (see PR 34/50-51).

What cultural and religious forms this unification might take, we cannot predict. When Jesus says, "I am the way, and truth and the life . . . ." (John 14.6), we Christians of evangelical heritage and loyalties are quick to make this "way" and this "truth" into a cognitive, doctrinal litmus test for inclusion in the sphere of God’s grace. We are challenged today at this point by the cultural and doctrinal exuberance of indigenous third-world expressions of Christianity, not to mention unprecedented contact with other world religious traditions on their own terms. But if Christian experience of genuine exemplification of divine aim among us through Jesus Christ is valid at all as I have described it, this unification and transformation of humanity will exhibit striking coherence from the perspective of the historical Jesus, and congruence with him, and will manifest the "truth" of Christian faith in a way that is deeper than mere doctrine.

Faith-union with Christ and vividly experienced mutual inherence with one another are positively correlated in the experience of the believers. Teilhard, in his remarks upon the future of humanity in The Future of Man says:

. . . if Man organizes himself gradually on a global scale in a sort of closed circuit, within which each thinking element is intellectually and affectively connected with every other, he will attain to a maximum of individual mastery by participating in a certain ultimate clarity of vision and extreme warmth of sympathy proper to the system as a whole. (FM 278)

As we speak of the representative nature of the church and the expansiveness of atonement, we say explicitly with P. T. Forsyth: "Any theology of atonement must be adjusted to the indubitable fact that Christ’s forgiveness may and does reach personal cases apart from conscious reliance on His atoning work, or grasp of its theology" (CC 81). Process-relational theology, as a "natural theology," differentiates between the images of its traditions – "Jesus as the Christ" included-and the structures of reality to which they refer. That one arrives by God’s grace at that condition of self-surrender which is the opportunity for the transforming power of atonement to be actualized in one’s life is thus not necessarily a result of explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ, but the possibility of such a transformation rests upon the costly self-involvement of God in the world of which Christ is paradigm. The "missionary" enterprise on this model thus becomes an identifying, a naming, and an explication of the structure of grace so as to facilitate its greater actualization in the lives of persons with all sorts of relations to the "Christian phylum" (Teilhard).

Christ and the Building of God’s Body

Teilhard makes it clear in his epilogue to The Phenomenon of Men, entitled "The Christian Phenomenon," that he sees the church as the prototype of that movement which is the universal movement of the world, toward and by means of that ultimate point of attraction and unifying principle, the immanent-transcendent Christ. This Christ functions in Teilhard’s scenario much like the Logos does in Cobb’s; here he is designated "Omega," signifying the telos of the cosmic process according to God’s plan (cf. ms from the church’s traditional soteriological agenda.

First, notice that in Teilhard’s scenario, and in Cobb’s as well, the fate of the individual is bound up in the present movement and future state of the total cosmos. The incarnate Logos (Cobb) and Omega (Teilhard) are structuring elements of the world as such, and their effects upon the individual are part of a total effect. This appears to contradict the pie-eminent emphasis on individual salvation so characteristic of Christianity, in general, and American evangelical Christianity, in particular. But Jesus himself did not come preaching "God wants to save you," but, rather, "The time is fulfilled and the reign of God is at hand; repent and believe . . ." (Mark 1.15). His call to individual decision was in the context of the ultimate state of affairs that God was bringing about.

Second, the naturalistic flavor of a process-relational soteriology tends toward a kind of "necessity" to God’s saving action which traditional Christianity would question. Whitehead speaks of God’s "tender care that nothing be lost" (PR 346/525). St. Paul, in contrast, asks the question, "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction . . ." (Rom. 8.22). The Catholic tradition speaks of the "unexactedness" of our salvation, and of the divinely ordained consummation. Whiteheadian process thinkers, much more than Teilhard, put a major emphasis upon the contingency of the God-world process in terms of its content, but impose a formal uniformity upon God’s actions which traditional Christianity would not accept. St. Paul, again: "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?"

The New Testament represents the time-space extension of the atonement as working toward a definite and conclusive climax. Teilhard interprets the manifold apocalyptic images of the New Testament witness in terms of his image of the immanent Christ slowly unifying the world about himself.

One day. . . the tension gradually accumulating between humanity and God will touch the limits prescribed by the possibilities of the world. And then will come the end. Then the presence of Christ, which has been silently accruing in all things, will suddenly be revealed like a flash of light from pole to pole. (DM 133)

He presents us with two alternative models for the consummation of the temporal-spatial extension of redemption. Either there would be a "final convergence" in unanimous affirmation of the ideal of Omega (Phil. 2.9-Il), in which evil, disease, and discord should diminish to a vanishing point in a "heaven and earth" which are essentially "new" (cf., Rev. 21: 1), or a "final ramification" in which evil grows beside good, its equally capacitated shadow side in the evolutionary advance, until the ultimate paroxysm in which the good receives absolute vindication and the evil is self-excluded from Omega’s consummation (PM 288; cf. Matt. 25.41-46).

Whiteheadian thinkers, typically less bound to scriptural and ecclesiastical traditions than Teilhard, make no bones about the universal nature of the atoning process. God, the "supremely relative" one in Charles Hartshorne’s phrase (DR 70ff), prehends the totality of the world’s creative advance. Its concreteness Is therefore taken into God’s ongoing self-formation, and thereby enriches God’s own actuality. God’s "consequent nature" (Whitehead) is thus "the weaving of God’s physical feelings upon his primordial concepts" (PR 345/524). Thus, in Lewis Ford’s words, "God’s supreme activity lies in his creation of himself . . . ." He continues:

. . . by means of the conceptual richness of his inexhaustible pure possibilities God is able to absorb into himself the multifariousness of the world, overcoming the evil of its destructive conflicts through the higher harmonies this infinite imagination provides. (LG 40-41)

Christ on the cross is a concrete exemplification of this divine "size" as he cries out in the face of his tormentors, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23.34). Thus, in a very real sense, on a process model, God "atones" Godself as well as us. And we might conceive of the entire progressively redeemed world as "God’s body," in and through which God’s primordial conceptual richness is actualized and experienced in an open-ended process.

This open-endedness of Whiteheadian thought is, of course, in seeming conflict with the terminal nature of Teilhard’s vision, not to mention the thought of that vast number of Christian thinkers, contemporary as well as past, for whom an evolutionary/ processive view of Christian doctrine in general is not viable. We shall return to this issue in our concluding sentences. But, continuing with the thought of God’s self-embodiment in a redeemed world, do we not find a striking parallel with the biblical image of the church as the "Body of Christ" (I Cor. 12)? Teilhard envisions that the processive realization in history of the atonement actualized in Christ will proceed to a threshold of sudden change, much like the "quantum leap" in which life first emerged on earth, and there will emerge a total humanity newly unified into an "organism" about Christ, the center of centers (PM 288ff.). If the world is related to God in some sense as our bodies are related to us, that is, as a "field" of occasions unified in purpose via their mutually observed route of presiding occasions, and so organized as to inform and enrich that route of presiding occasions by the deliverances of their experience, then the organization of the world about Christ (the divine Logos incarnate) as the outcome of atonement would be precisely the perfecting of the world as God’s body.

We should add at this point that even as the earth shares in the ruin attendance upon the sin of humanity (cf. Gen. 3.17-18), so the world "waits" for the apotheosis of humanity in which it too shall be renewed and glorified (cf., Rom. 8.19-21, Is. 11.6-9). It beggars our imagination to speak of Christ and terrestrial humanity with respect to the "universe." But if God’s character and manner of relating are consistent through the length and breadth of this cosmic epoch, then God must be known as an embodied and atoning God by the free, sentient creatures that are the outcome and the focus of cosmos as we have experienced it wherever and whenever they occur, "in the fullness of time" relative to each community of responsive creatures.

The Fate of the Body: Christ and the Eschaton

Now the interpretation of the perfecting of the human/word process, leading to a threshold of radical change, is both in keeping with the pattern of evolutionary change evidenced in the natural world, and the biblical concept of the eschaton as the threshold of the new aeon, and the total transformation of humanity and cosmos. However, a cosmology based strictly on the thought of Whitehead seems to have no place for a true end (finis) or beginning; the world is an endless process of becoming, and there is no being that is not becoming. The biblical witness, on the contrary, is pervaded throughout its length and breadth with the concept of a movement of God’s grace toward an end that is both telos and finis. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea [the symbol of restlessness and change] was no more" (Rev. 21.1). Process thinker Francis G. Baur has suggested that the concept of "thresholds" of change beyond which a phenomenon is new in ways that transcend and fulfill its antecedents, but does not cease thereby to be in process towards other previously unimaginable dimensions of being, might mediate at this point between biblical eschatology and process-relational cosmology.6 After all, the eschaton is the completion of God’s will for this cosmic epoch, but it is not implied in scripture that there is no life beyond eschaton.

We affirm that the universal and fully realized extension of God’s unifying purpose cannot, in the nature of the case, be attained in this our historical time-space. This is the epoch of self-realization through those elements of contrast and struggle which are as such the "fall" from innocence and undisturbed unity with God. We move toward the coincidence of "radical proximity" and "radical independence" with respect to God (TI 157) which will be, as such -- in its extension from Christ as center through the length and breadth of the world -- the eschaton, and thus the transformation of "history" into a different sort of process. In the meantime, the presence of the spirit of Christ and the "Christian phylum" (Teilhard) in this history make history, as such, always influenced by the partial realization of atonement, and the vision of fully realized divine-human unanimity which history approaches as a limit.



CC -- P. T. Forsyth. The Cruciality of the Cross. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1909.

CPA -- John B. Cobb, Jr. Christ in a Pluralistic Age. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 1975.

CR -- W. Norman Pittenger. Christology Reconsidered. London: SCM Press, 1970.

CWM -- Schubert M. Ogden. Christ Without Myth. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

DM -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Divine Milieu. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

DR -- Charles Hartshorne. The Divine Relativity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

FC -- John B. Cobb, Jr. "The Finality of Christ." The Finality of Christ. Ed. Dow Kirkpatrick. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966.

FM -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Future of Man. London: William Collins’ Sons, 1964.

FU -- Rudolf Bultmann. Faith and Understanding. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

KM -- Rudolf Bultmann. Kerygma and Myth. Ed. Hans Werner Bartsch. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

LG -- Lewis Ford. The Lure of God. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

PC -- David R. Griffin. A Process Christology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973.

PM -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper and Row, 1954.

PT -- Process Theology. Ed. Ronald H. Nash. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book. 1987.

TI -- Karl Rahner. Theological Investigations, I. Cited in Gerald A. McCool, A Rahner Reader. New York: The Seabury Press, 1975.

TNT -- Rudolf Bultmann. Theology of the New Testament. Vol. I. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.

WC -- P. T. Forsyth. The Work of Christ. New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.

WI -- W. Norman Pittenger. The Word Incarnate: A Study of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959.


1See, for instance, CPA, PC, CWM, CR, and WI.

2See PT for a rare. serious look -- albeit almost entirely negative -- at process thought from an evangelical perspective.

3 See PC 212ff. Griffin’s description of Christ as a "special act" of God is the same point that I am making by speaking of Christ’s and humanity’s "exemplification" of divine aim.

4 For Whitehead, a ‘society" of occasions enjoys "personal order" "when the genetic relatedness of its members orders these members serially. This type of order is exemplified, of course, by conscious beings, but not only by them. For the above, and also for Whitehead’s technical definition of a "society," see PR 34/50-51.

5 Compare biological life. "blooming" once on earth with myriad living things involved relatively instantaneously. And representing in its blooming a unified systemic change of the earth. Cf. Also PM.

6From a conversation between Francis G. Baur and the author, February 24, 1982.