Chapter 1: Christian Faith

Becoming and Belonging
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 1: Christian Faith

The title of this book, Becoming and Belonging, indicates the two main points that I shall stress in its several chapters. The wider philosophical conceptuality that includes them is that one known today as Process Thought, with which I have been working for more than forty years of academic life. That wider conceptuality will be used here for Christian purposes. But the two points that I noted, becoming and belonging, are especially important for us: the former points to the "processive" or developmental nature of all reality; the latter to the communal or social quality in that reality. My concern is to show that in each of the several topics to be considered -- Christianity as an organic whole; the fact of evil known to every one of us; the meaning of human personality in itself, in its familial, and in its social aspects; and the religious community -- becoming and belonging must be taken with utmost seriousness.

I write as a Christian -- and as a priest of the Anglican church. Hence I believe that human existence is grounded in God who in Christian faith is seen as primal cause and final affect and whose "nature and name," in Charles Wesley’s words, is sheer Love. It is one of the tragedies of Christian theology that the divine Love has not always been made central. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it,

When the religious thought of the ancient world from Mesopotamia to Palestine, and from Palestine to Egypt, required terms to express that ultimate unity of direction in the universe, upon which all order depends, and which gives meaning to importance, they could find no better way to express themselves than by borrowing the characteristics of the touchy, vain, imperious tyrants who ruled the empires of the world. In the origins of civilized religion, gods are like dictators. Our modern rituals still retain the taint. The most emphatic repudiations of this archaic notion are to be found scattered in the doctrines of Buddhism and in the Christian gospels. (Modes of Thought, p. 49)

Whitehead’s reference to "the Christian gospels" brings to mind one of his finest utterances, which I shall have occasion to quote again in this chapter. He was speaking of "the supreme moment in religious history, according to Christianity," and he wrote:

The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The record is fragmentary, inconsistent, and uncertain. It is not necessary for me to express any opinion as to the proper reconstruction of the most likely tale of historic fact. . . . But there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. (Adventure of Ideas, pp. 170-71)

He then went on to ask, "Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Pilate divined in theory?" (pp. 170-71) By it, he believed "we are delivered from the kinds of theism which would portray God as the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover," since here the stress is on the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love. . . . Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals." (Process and Reality, pp. 520-21)

I have quoted these passages from Whitehead for two reasons: first, because he is the "founding father" of the Process conceptuality; and second, because what he says in them points to God as "pure unbounded Love" and to our own human existence as intended to be a creaturely love (doubtless imperfect and defective because finite and mortal). Their becoming and their belonging are part of that intended existence. And here is the main theme of this book.

To say this about God requires further discussion. To say it about us is very far from making human living simple and easy. On the contrary, it complicates matters, since it opens up possibilities for men and women that otherwise might be overlooked or neglected. It reveals that depths to which we humans may fall and the heights to which we may rise. And to speak of love both as the divine reality and as the clue to truly human existence is not to talk sentimentality or cheap emotionalism or easy toleration. Yet, as Sophocles in Oedipus in Colonus has the father say to the daughter, "One word frees us from all the weight and pain of life: that word is love." If a Greek tragedian could say this, surely a Christian who is committed to "the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" must affirm it all the more vigorously, with a deeper meaning and with stronger conviction -- recognizing, at the same moment, that to say, really to mean, and to intend to live by such an affirmation takes all there is of him or her.

In respect, then, to the human concerns that occupy our attention in these chapters, becoming and belonging, as characteristic of love-in-action, will be emphasized. The context for the entire treatment will be a consistent and coherent worldview that in my belief is appropriate to the Christian tradition of faith, worship, and life and that at the same time can make sense to men and women today in their desire for a meaningful interpretation of their existence, of the world in which that existence is found, and of the divine reality we call God. And we can profit these days from a vigorous emphasis on God as "Pure unbounded Love," to offset the all-too-frequent talk about deity in terms of sheer power or as a rigid moralist, not to mention the tendency to think of deity as the far-distant and unconcerned "first cause" of the world.

So what has Christian faith to tell Us? First of all, God is seen as supremely Love-in-act. Since God is this, God must be in real, not merely logical, relation with the created order. God both gives and receives. And the clue to the divine nature is always to be found in the divine activity: "a thing is what it does," as Whitehead said in a different but not unconnected respect. If God is really actively engaged with and in the world, adapting the divine intention to it, taking into the divine life what occurs there, and hence seriously affected by it quite as much as sustaining it creatively and working within it to accomplish an enduring purpose, then indeed God must be understood in a fashion that is most suitably symbolized by what we know of relationship at the human level -- granted, of course, that we say this with an O altitudo, to use Sir Thomas Browne’s phrase. Thus, God transcends yet also undergirds the creation, works in it, and receives from it.

An extended quotation from Prof. Keith Ward’s recent book, Rational Theology and the Creativity of God, is relevant here. He writes:

We might think of God . . . as exercising three sorts of causality. . . . He posits a finite world, setting the powers of finite creatures, and thereby realizing new sorts of actual good, which modify his own states by his appreciation of them. . . . Then, in accordance with the necessary schema of all possible worlds and values.. he sets the final goal of the world. He is the archetypal ideal which draws it towards the fullness of its distinctive perfection. One may thus see the world as an emergent autonomous unity, developing . . . partly at random and always influenced by the exemplary "Ideal," which itself is continually modified in detail as the world develops, to articulate it in more specific particularity. Finally, as God appreciates and responds to his world, he plays a changing, modifying role within it, bringing creatures to share in his goodness in specific ways. His action [is] an immanent dynamic process, shaping and guiding events to actualize specific values, while allowing creaturely autonomy its proper exercise. This mode of divine action is modified both by individual characteristics in the finite world and by the sorts of response which sentient beings make to it. God continually and universally acts to shape many varied images of his own being out of what stands at the greatest remove from himself, without compromising the freedom of the creatures to build their own self-generated response to their vision of perfection. (pp. 222-33)

Probably Professor Ward would not call himself a Process philosopher or theologian, yet clearly his argument here is in close agreement with the Process understanding I am urging upon the reader. He is prepared to say, in the same discussion, that we can call God nothing other than "self-giving Love." What is more, he sees that to talk in the fashion in which he has done is intimately tied in with a picture of deity that is both biblically responsible and in accordance with what our contemporary knowledge has to tell us about the way things appear to us through observation and investigation.

If (as I like to do) we use Whiteheadian language, we properly make important distinctions when we speak of deity. We can say that, as primordial, God is the continuum of all possibilities, the treasure-house of potentiality to be applied to the creation; that, as consequent (or as affected by that creation), God is the recipient of all value of good achieved in the creative advance; and that, as superjective, God "pours back into the world" (as Whitehead once put it) that which has thus been received from it but is now harmonized within the divine life that is "the Harmony of harmonies."

In Charles Hartshorne’s way of saying it, God is eternally and absolutely Love-in-act and is utterly faithful to righteous and caring purposes. Yet God in the concrete and divine existence is always related to the world in such a way that there is divine self-identification with and openness to affect from the world. God is committed to the creation and, therefore, cannot be taken as statically timeless but rather as eminently "time-full" -- from the past, in the present, toward the future. And in accomplishing the divine purpose, there is complete respect for, and a valuing and employment of, the creation’s own dignity and freedom, its responsibility for decisions, and its capacity to act as a genuine cause in the total advance.

God is disclosed in some degree or manner everywhere throughout the creation, and this is always in terms of the divine activity or what God is doing with it, for it, and in it. But there are some points or places where there may be a more "important" disclosure. The creation is not "uniformitarian" but varied, aesthetically contrasting the now with the then, the here with the there. In this fashion, a particular event or occasion may be taken as our best clue to or symbol of what, so to say. God is "up to" all the time and everywhere. And God is both active and passive; he or she initiates possibility, lures towards realization, and is therefore "modified" (as Keith Ward puts it) by that movement and its results. God both acts and is acted upon, a position that much "classical theism" has refused to take. But since this is the case with God, we can speak meaningfully of a divine enrichment by accomplished good in creation, and we can also allow for what might be styled a divine sadness because of wrong creaturely decisions and what they bring about. God shares in the anguish of the world; God suffers with the world without being overcome by the wrong in it: in Whitehead’s fine phrase, God is "the fellow-sufferer who understands."

Second, the basic significance of the creation is to be found in its contribution to the divine life, for the enrichment of that life. The world has its own integrity, its own capacity to act causatively, its own creative power; it is not like a puppet that God pulls by a string. Yet it is open to the divine action upon it, and thanks to that action and its own creativity, it may move toward its own proper good and thus find self-fulfillment. Hence, God’s purpose for the creature and the creature’s self-realization are not contradictory one of the other; they are different ways of seeing and speaking about the same enterprise. God’s inescapable "secular function" is precisely here: guiding, luring, and attracting. Thus, the initiating possibility can become a genuine actualization. Nor is this confined to the human or historical level, as some theologies seem to assume, but is found everywhere, although obviously not always recognized and named for what it is. In a word, the divine activity is cosmic in scope, including in its concern the natural order and what goes on there.

In the third place, human existence (about which we shall have much more to say at a later stage) is itself a creaturely movement intended to reflect and serve instrumentally for the divine goodness. To move toward actualizing human possibility, in full integrity of body, mind, will, affection, and always in social belonging, is to become human. To fall away from it is to fail the human goal and at the same time to fail the cosmic process and the God who is the basic thrust or drive in that process, Our deepest human problem is to know and use, through decision, this capacity to develop toward fulfillment. Our deepest human tragedy is that easily attainable ends and a self-centered achievement may be chosen by us. Then human existence is frustrated, trivialized, and degraded. What is more, the fact of our human sociality is such that wrongness in one place infects the whole enterprise, just as rightness has its wide influence and its good consequences for others of our race. Something of the same sort may be said, by analogy, of other ranges of the creation.

Lastly, evil -- which will be discussed at some length in the next chapter -- is a reality we humans all experience, observe, and do. Yet it is not willed by God, either directly or permissively, as if things might have been otherwise, but God allows evil to happen. Only insofar as there is a world at all, with its necessary freedom, can God be said thus to be responsible. But God’s limitation, as Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne have insisted, is sheer goodness. In that goodness God grants freedom to the creation, with the result that decisions, conscious or unconscious, may and in fact do produce evil that God neither wills nor wants. We cannot be cheerfully optimistic about the world or about ourselves; neither need we be entirely pessimistic, as if nothing could be done about the matter. Instead, we should be realistic, facing the fact of evil in all its forms but ready also to see that the infinite resourcefulness of the divine Love-in-act can find ways of handling such evil, so that a positive good may result in the end. We humans are invited to join in the struggle to overcome evil and to further good. About this more will also be said in the chapter that follows.

Perhaps I have indicated sufficiently how a Christian Process Theology sees God, the world, and human existence. Let us now turn to some specifically Christian affirmations, and here I must be selective since far too many aspects of Christian faith might be discussed. I have chosen for first attention the area known as Christology: "the doctrine of Christ," as it is called in theological textbooks. I shall then say something again about human existence in the light of Christology; and I shall conclude with the question of human destiny. I hope that what is said about these topics will illustrate the fashion in which other aspects of Christian thought would be handled by one who accepts the Process way of seeing things.

We can have no doubt that in Christian faith the event of Jesus Christ is central and decisive. As Whitehead once put it, "Buddhism and Christianity find their origins in two inspired moments of history, the life of the Buddha and the life of Christ. The Buddha gave his doctrine to enlighten the world; Christ gave his life. It is for Christians to discern the doctrine" (Religion in the Making, p. 55). Unquestionably, Whitehead was right in this observation, and a large part of Christian theology has sought to do precisely this: "discern the doctrine." But the fact of the event comes first.

It is frequently said that Christianity is "a historical religion." In one sense this is certainly true since it comes to us through a long historical tradition or social process whose origin is found in something that is believed to have happened factually in the distant past. On the other hand, if "historical" implies that we possess material that gives us an entirely accurate and completely reliable account of the life and work of Jesus, such as we might have about Julius Caesar or Napoleon, it is an inexact and misleading phrase. After a long period of literary, historical, and form-critical study of the New Testament, along with more recent work on the "redaction" of its several books in the light of the motives that led their authors to select and arrange the material then available to them, it is clear that any claim to "simple historicity" is false.

Whitehead was no biblical scholar, but he noted, in the same context as the quotation I have just given from him, that "we do not possess a systematic detailed record of the life of Christ." He went on to say that what we do possess is "a peculiarly vivid record of the first response to it in the minds of the first group of disciples after the lapse of some years, with their recollections, interpretations, and incipient formulations." That is to say, we have in the New Testament a very early -- almost a primitive -- witness to the impact or impression made by Jesus Christ. This is a witness that is given to us "from faith to faith" -- from the faith of those who in early days committed themselves in response to it and with the intention of awakening faith in others.

In a recent essay by Leslie Houlden, which appears in the symposium Alternative Approaches to New Testament Study (edited by A. E. Harvey), the point is well made:

It is an over-simplification, yet far from being a falsehood or a gross distortion, to say that the Christian faith began with the impact of the career of Jesus (whether perceived as a whole or in terms of some part of it). . . . The fact of substantial immediate impact, unrivalled among Jewish contemporaries who can be put forward for comparison, is undeniable. . . . What is available to us as wholly incontrovertible and objective is . . . the fact of his impact. (p. 134)

Houlden goes on to tell us that there is diversity in the reporting of how this impact occurred: yet he rejects the claim, sometimes made by highly skeptical scholars, "that no intelligible picture can emerge and no statement, of greater or lesser probability, concerning the Jesus whose impact those who gave the early witness experienced, can be made" (p. 134).

If fundamentalist Christians look at the scriptural material as generally inerrant, many more liberal Christians have all too often thought that by proper analysis it is possible to acquire information about the so-called Jesus of history and then to speak with confidence about what he said and did and even about what he believed about himself and his vocation. But this will not really do. Everything that we "know" about Jesus comes to us through the apostolic witness, as this has been handed down in the living tradition of the Christian community of faith, worship, and life. The New Testament is part of that tradition, not separated from it; therefore, its significance is in reporting the earliest ways, so far as we can recover them, in which Jesus was understood by men and women who themselves were caught up in that tradition and who found (as Houlden notes) "an experience of salvation, of new well-being in relation to God" in their response to the event about which the witness spoke (p. 135). In the community that "remembered Jesus," to use John Knox’s phrase, the primitive experience found that this same Jesus was made available to them "in the Spirit," which animated the fellowship and which seemed to them decisive for human existence under God.

There is also a further point to be made here. This has to do with what nowadays is styled the cultural relativism that marks any report of events in the past. Far too frequently an appeal is made to some biblical passage or series of passages, or to ancient Christian thinkers, as if this would readily settle whatever question is under discussion. But we must recognize that a difference of outlook makes our own situation unlike that of any given period in the past, Even in the Bible itself there is an enormous diversity of view so that no single position can be called "biblical" without qualification. Here some words of Leonard Hodgson are worth quoting: "As one who has been a professional teacher of theology for forty years, I now publicly declare my hope that no pupil of mine will ever be guilty of using the expression ‘The Bible says’" (For Faith and Freedom, vol. 2, p. 12). With respect also to earlier Christian thinkers and their various statements, there is Hodgson’s further remark -- which those of us who were his students vividly recall -- that we must always ask something like this: "What must the truth be for us now, if people like that" -- he was referring both to biblical writers and theologians in the past history of the Church -- ’ ‘put it in the way they did?" Here as everywhere Hodgson’s honesty was apparent. He saw that "new occasions" not only "teach new duties" but that they also "make ancient good uncouth" and that our responsibility, granted the relativism that attaches to all our experience and our statement, is to think afresh, on the basis of the general apostolic witness and with due regard for earlier Christian teaching, as well as in the light of our own experience of "newness of life," so that what we have to say is nove (newly said) and often is also nove (the saying of new things). I am using here the famous words of Vincent of Lerins, a Christian scholar of the early Church. Only by this sort of approach can we hope to be faithful to the living tradition that by that very "aliveness" makes archaeological theologizing incredible and intolerable. Like every social process, the Christian community has its own identity in the direction or routing that it takes from the past, in the present, and toward the future; but we dare not stop it, if we could, at some given point that happens to be attractive to us with our own special predilections and prejudices.

However, recognition of this inescapable relativism does not mean that we have no grounds for a faith that is in genuine continuity with what has gone before. By what Whitehead styled "the appeal to the direct intuition of special occasions -- " he was referring to the primitive days of the Church in which Jesus’ impact was known as a reality -- we may possess, and Christian conviction affirms that we do possess, a key or clue "of universal validity, to be applied by faith to the ordering of all experience." What this signifies for Christian theology is the need to produce some formulation ("doctrine"); but the important thing is not the exact details of such formulations, nor even the formulations themselves, but the reality with which they seek to deal. The definitions, whatever they may be, are inevitably tied in with the worldview they presuppose. Changing circumstances, new conditions, and differing ways of seeing things are a fact; they require of us some attempt at reconception. For a "dogma," in the sense of a precise statement or formulation, can never be final; it can only be "adequate" to the period in which it has been worked out. On the other hand, as Whitehead went on to say, "the great instantaneous conviction behind the dogma" is indeed the "good news or gospel" that is basic to the community’s identity, and the community is enabled "to maintain its integrity by its recurrence to the inspired simplicity of its origin."

How then can we today interpret this event we indicate when we say ‘Jesus"? First, it is imperative for us to see the originating event in its totality: to study the preparation for it reported in the Old Testament, which sums up Jewish religious conviction in all its diversity and complexity; to note what the early witness tells us about the person at its center and how that person was received": and to discern what has happened in consequence during succeeding centuries. In this totality there is, of course, included the story of Jesus’ remembered teaching, acts, and relationships, as well as his death and the way in which through death he was believed to have been "let loose into the world" (as John Masefield once put it) as he was also believed to have been "raised from the dead" and received by God into the divine life. For Christian faith there is here "the supreme moment in history," as Whitehead said. Nowhere has this been more beautifully described than by Whitehead in the passage quoted earlier:

The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world. The record is fragmentary, inconsistent, and uncertain. . . . But there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature: the mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory. (Adventure in Ideas, pp. 170-71)

We observed that Whitehead went on to ask, "Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory?" And what did Plato -- and many others in various religions and cultures, each in his or her own fashion -- thus "divine in theory"? The answer is plain, and Whitehead phrases it simply: "The divine element in the world is to be conceived as a persuasive agency and not as a coercive agency." In other words, the basic insight of Christian faith, in the context of the other world religions, is that "God is Love." Love active in creation and Love the essential character of God.

What is known as Christology is the effort to make sense of all this, not in abstraction from the experience of Christian people but as a consequence of that continuing experience. In the past this task has been undertaken by way of talk about two "substances" (one divine, one human) united in one person" or talk about two wills (again one divine and one human) in one person or talk about two "consciousnesses" thus united. Over the years such talk seems to me to have shown its inadequacy and indeed its impossibility for us. I urge that our best approach is to take with great seriousness the primacy and centrality of love -- in this case, God’s prevenient or initiative Love as this is responded to in obedient human love. When Theodore of Mopsuestia, an Antiochene theologian in the age of the Christian Fathers, spoke of sunapheia (or deep union) and eudokia (or divine goodwill) as helping us here, he was right. These provide a clue to the way in which Jesus Christ may be interpreted as that One in whom God’s activity in Love and as Love and a genuine responsive human movement in love were brought together in a union that was neither incidental nor accidental but enduring.

Yet we need to remember that such a position cannot be demonstrated by appeal to this or that detail of Jesus’ life, since we do not have the information that would make that appeal valid. What can be done, however, is to refer to the early apostolic witness, seen in the context of the living Christian tradition, and to the manner in which that witness stressed both the centrality of the figure of Jesus and the enormous impact he had made. The conclusion of the matter is plainly stated in I John: "Herein is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his Son that we might live through him.

I now turn to speak fairly briefly about what it means to be human, although in later chapters this will be discussed at length. We have seen that each of us is a living process, not a static "it" that was once created and now continues without change. Each of us is a "becoming" whose existence is toward making actual the initial possibilities given to us; we move toward, or away from, that realization. Each of us is a particular "himself" or "herself." Compounded of body, mind, emotion, and possessed of a striving after goals, we are grasped by, and we grasp, one or other of the many lures that come to us: we make our decisions, often insignificant but sometimes very decisive. We are a "becoming," we are also a "belonging," since we share in the common human life -- "no man is an island entire unto itself," said John Donne in a famous passage -- and what we decide affects others and also affects God. Our human possibility, therefore, is to move toward "the image of God" who is Love-in-act. Hence, we are to become "lovers-in-the-making" in all our shared finitude, obvious mortality, and patent defectiveness.

We share also in the accumulated wrong in our world, not only through our own wrong choices but because we inherit a distorted situation thanks to millennia of wrong choices in the history of which we are part. Our moral judgments, both in respect to ourselves and to others, must therefore be made in terms of the general direction in which we are moving. The significance of particular incidents is to be found in their indication of that direction, whether toward true humanness or toward a debasing of our humanity. God treats us as sons and daughters, providing attractions from his or her circumambient love and usually under creaturely incognitos (including above all our fellow humans), which can save us from ourselves and set us on the path toward fuller shared existence here and now, with the promise that our achievements, when they are for good, will be received by God. When they are not for good they may still be taken by God and be transformed into occasions for the better. But we dare not "run to Daddy" to set things right when, through our own errors and wrongdoings, things have gone badly. God "redeems us" but not by denying our own freedom and accountability, Redemption is by God’s taking us now for what we have it in us to become and for what (through our commitment in faith in that same God) is already intimated and even experienced in some degree.

Finally, we may ask about human destiny. In the Process conceptuality, as also in the biblical material, God is seen as affected by what happens in the creation. What happens makes a difference to God and in God, although God remains always the supreme, worshipful, dependable, and unsurpassable one, "than whom nothing greater can be conceived." Once received by God, no accomplished good can be "lost." Charles Hartshorne has spoken of "the divine memory as unfailing both in its retention and in its employment of what has been received. This is "objective immortality," in Whitehead’s phrasing; by virtue of it, creaturely "perishing" does not mean total annihilation but rather participation in the divine existence. All this can be seen as a valid Christian interpretation of our destiny as men and women.

But is such participation also "subjective," so that the human agent has a conscious awareness of it? Here there is a difference of opinion among Process theologians. Many would affirm some sort of subjective immortality: others would say that subjective immortality, while conceivable, is not a requirement of Christian faith. I agree with the latter group because I take seriously the theo-centrism or "God-centeredness" of that faith and the obvious fact of human finitude. Yet, on the other hand, for a Christian, death cannot mean the "total annihilation" mentioned above. It does indeed mark the end of our finite existence; but it is an end that has its terminus in God, and hence it cannot be utter annihilation. If God receives and remembers, infallibly and unfailingly, nothing is really "lost"; it persists in God who is never lost. Achieved good, accomplished justice, truth in its fullness: all these are forever "safe" in God, to whom alone (as a biblical text puts it) belongs immortality. Whatever that may include, all is ad dei gloriam -- in the deepest sense of those splendid Latin words.

In a recent book (After Death: Life in God, SCM Press) I have argued that what has just been said is a proper "demythologizing" of traditional Christian talk about death, judgment, resurrection, and eternal life. I have also urged that all these have their existential significance for our living here and now. In any event, we need to remember the saying of St. Francis de Sales: "We are to seek the God of consolations, not the consolations of God." To be "raised" from death into the life of God is the glorious fulfillment of all human aspiration. struggle, and desire, both for ourselves and for those whom we hold dear.