Chapter 21: Process Cosmology and Theological Particularity by Ralph E. James, Jr.

Process Philosophy and Christian Thought
by Delwin Brown, Ralph James, Gene Reeves (eds.)

Chapter 21: Process Cosmology and Theological Particularity by Ralph E. James, Jr.

Ralph E. James, Jr. attended Emory and Drew Universities. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

Current theological interest in process philosophy sets the stage for a new confrontation between what might be called the cosmological perspective of philosophy and the historical perspective of theology. The cosmological perspective derives, at least in part, from the philosopher’s determination to be comprehensive; the historical perspective arises out of the theologian’s conviction that it is his task to elucidate and defend one unique particular, namely, the event of Jesus Christ. Of course the degree to which philosophies are cosmological and theologies historical, varies. The present confrontation is sharpened because process philosophy is highly cosmological in its perspective as is suggested by the title of Whitehead’s key work, Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology. Theological interest in this "essay in cosmology" comes at a time when theological writing is markedly historical in perspective. Ironically, the confrontation between process cosmology and theological historicity appears at a time when theologians are noticing the compatibility between process thought and historical thinking. Whitehead’s metaphysical system pictures dynamic occurrences, and historically minded theologians like to speak of dynamic events. The confrontation is, therefore, not over dynamics, change, or becoming. Rather, the confrontation is between the general cosmic process and one particular historical event.

Obviously the cosmological vision available to modern man transcends any one metaphysical description. Moreover, what is described is constantly enriched and "filled in." When Loren Eiseley describes the process of evolution of plant and animal life struggling through the hot, red winds of the young earth, and when space shots send back data from the Moon and Mars, our cosmic vision expands. Paleontological and astronomical findings daily stretch the horizons of human imagination beyond former boundaries. The term cosmos itself fails to be satisfactory as a way of describing recent findings. The original Greek word, kosmos, meant order of harmony and could hardly encompass the post-enlightenment discovery of oceans of cosmic dust and debris floating randomly in space. In the present discussion the term cosmology will signify not only Whitehead’s philosophical vision but a vision of a process enriched by very recent discoveries in the physical sciences.

Whitehead himself was quite explicit about cosmology: "The theme of Cosmology, which is the basis of all religions, is the story of the dynamic effort of the World passing into everlasting unity, and of the static majesty of God’s vision, accomplishing its purpose of completion by absorption of the World’s multiplicity of effort."1 In a sense, the "historical captivity" of Christianity means theology has abandoned cosmology as "the basis of all religions." Process theology may well provide a way to return theology to a cosmic basis: a modern cosmological theology, a post-historical theology, that is nevertheless aware "of the dynamic effort of the World passing into everlasting unity."

I think the present confrontation between Whiteheadian cosmology and Christian theology can be best focused in terms of the traditional problem of particularity. In this context the problem of particularity is two problems in one: it is the problem of the relationship between one historical event, the event of Jesus Christ, and all other particulars in the universe; it is also the question of the relationship between human history and the cosmic process in general. The latter form of the problem emerges with the space age; the former has surfaced before in the argument about "the two natures of Christ" and in the more recent "scandal of particularity" (it is scandalous to think God is uniquely incarnate in Jesus, but nevertheless true). The problem is renewed by theological appropriation of process philosophy because of theological interest in the preservation of the uniqueness of one historical particular in the general scheme of unique particulars. A process theology true to the cosmic scope of Whitehead’s philosophy must be a cosmological theology embracing both history and nature. Indeed, the distinction between history and nature as a methodological device loses force in process ontology. Rejection of the history/nature dichotomy ushers the question of the particularity of theology’s subject to the fore. Process theology assigns uniqueness to every finite particular but special uniqueness to none.

The practical importance of an inclusive cosmological theology for the future increases in proportion to growing cosmic awareness. Two thousand years of Christian history become decreasingly venerable when confronted by the findings of radioactivity dating techniques which date the hardened crust of the earth at three billion years. Even Professor Leakey’s recent extension of possible humanoid remains as far back as 2,000,000 B. C. leaves man (if this be man) with but a brief history compared to earth time, to say nothing of the general cosmic process. The relative size of the earth and the significance of the human race shrinks before extragalactic distances exceeding a billion light years. The reach of the cosmos now measurable by radio astronomy exceeds the wildest dreams of those who formulated traditional Christian beliefs in terms of the particularity of Christ and human history. In their way, for example in the logos theology of John, early Christians also attempted to relate Jesus to the cosmos, but the sheer scope of this undertaking is now vastly enlarged.

I do not intend to argue that truth claims based upon historical particulars cannot logically be cosmic in scope. Rather, the issue is whether theology expressed in the particular form of one historical perspective is more convincing than a general cosmic perspective. Whitehead’s cosmological orientation seems to offer some hope as a way to pose a theological alternative to the historical tendency in Western theology just because it is not limited to one particular, though it may be found to do justice to that particular within a cosmic context. There are several areas for discussion in developing such an alternative:

History and Metaphysics. Since the Kierkegaardian and Nietzschian revolts against the Absolute with its component metaphysical difficulties, theologians have preferred the meaningfulness of personal subjective experience to abstract and dehumanizing metaphysics. Historical thinking has been distinguished from metaphysical thinking in order to preserve the personal and unique content of faith. Neo-reformation theologians (with the exception of Paul Tillich) have been particularly gratified by the belief that historical thinking somehow restored the uniqueness that had been so viciously attacked by nineteenth century skepticism, rationalism, liberalism and historicism. At least in the earlier decades of the twentieth century the split between theology and philosophy, the problem of hermeneutics and the problem of language, emerging from christological historical thinking, seemed a fair price to pay for protecting the uniqueness of the theological subject. But with the intensification of the later problems in the second half of this century the price of historical thinking has risen.2

It is against the background of increasingly costly historical thinking that process theology appears as a solution to current theological difficulties. Basically, it approaches the problems associated with historical thinking by rejecting the existential historical (and positivistic) attitude toward metaphysics that helped to bring these problems to their present form. An example of how one might employ the process rejection of the dichotomy between history and metaphysics can be found by looking at the methodology of the contemporary theologian, Friedrich Gogarten. Gogarten holds that the Christian faith is historical "and not to be harmonized with traditional metaphysical thinking — an impossible task!"3 Of course, process thinkers can agree with the rejection of traditional metaphysics. But Gogarten seems to imply that historical thinking somehow escapes being metaphysical in any sense. He argues that reality, experienced through faith, is "that to which man’s freedom for God and his independence toward the world correspond."4

Presumably such a claim about reality is not metaphysical, but is this true? Does knowledge of reality, whether experienced through faith or not, fail to give us a specific metaphysical description of reality? Describing Gogarten’s position, Theodore Runyon writes, "faith is itself a kind of relativity, man relative to God in every moment."5 Since the process theologian makes the definite claim that God is also relative to man, is it not true that this becomes an argument between two kinds of religious metaphysical positions?

Contrast Gogarten’s understanding of metaphysics with that of Charles Hartshorne who thinks of metaphysics as a "descriptive science" which, among other functions, aids one’s understanding of his participation in the love of God. Hartshorne’s understanding of God can be communicated through abstract, relatively nonhistorical metaphysical symbols. This does not mean such symbols do not characterize history. By rejecting such an understanding of metaphysics, Gogarten leaves himself at a strategic disadvantage in attempting to elucidate his theological subject. One suspects that Gogarten would more clearly see the problem of the particularity of his subject if he admitted that he takes a metaphysical position if only by implication. An implicit metaphysic is just as real as an explicit one, but its very implicit character hides metaphysical problems.

Wolfhart Pannenberg evidences more concern for the problem of the particularity of his theological subject by basing his theology in historical revelation as universal. (See Offenbarung als Geschichte.) But how universal is Pannenberg’s understanding of universal history when he speaks of "the Kingdom of God in which alone human destiny can find its ultimate fulfillment"?6 The test from the perspective of a Whiteheadian cosmology is how much such ultimate fulfillment is dependent upon one contingent historical event. This is the question of the relationship between the general cosmic process and one finite particular. Pannenberg’s answer to the crucial question is clear: "The eschatological event of the appearance of Christ is the summation of the universe from its end in that this event has consummating power in the fullness of time."7 I see no logical conflict between Pannenberg’s claim that one event is the summation of the universe and Whitehead’s metaphysics so long as existential language is employed, i.e. "consummating power," "fullness of time." The question is the ontological status of the finite particular upon which he bases his existentially worded case. If, in reality, all power is in one particular, all other particulars cease to have power. If not, how are we to take Pannenberg’s language?

Pannenberg’s failure to clarify the ontological status of the finite particular which he claims consummates the whole universe is only part of the problem. The deeper question is how intuitively convincing is this claim when confronted by the fact that the whole earth is one fleeting speck in the observable space-time continuum of the cosmic process? Is not Pannenberg’s universal history unnecessarily restricted by finite historical thinking centered in his desire for salvation through Jesus Christ? Certainly theology cannot escape finitude in its perspective, but I am convinced that it could now broaden its perspective (1) by admitting the metaphysical implications of its "historical" claims, (2) by thinking through the ontological status of the particular upon which it rests its case, and (3) by placing its historical thinking in cosmic perspective.

Anthropology and particularity. A second area that should be explored in the confrontation between Whiteheadian cosmology and historical particularity is the doctrine of man. Process theology is well known as a determined program to rethink the doctrine of God so that the understanding of God is not limited to ontological categories of being. Process theologians insist that God is dipolar; both eternal and temporal, absolute and relative, necessary and contingent. Since God is in part temporal, relative, and contingent, man can actually change reality through his finite decisions — his existence has ontological significance.

Such an emphasis upon the role of man with the rejection of the monopolar classical understanding of God, means that process theology has much in common with the theological intention of Thomas J. J. Altizer’s radical theology. Process theology differs sharply, however, from radical theology’s solution to the problem of God and its eschatological and apocalyptic view of man. Altizer writes, "A new humanity is created by the death of God in Jesus, a humanity that is a direct contrary of the natural man who is isolated in his own selfhood and imprisoned by the brute contingency of time."8 In effect, such a new humanity involves movement from contingency to noncontingency so that noncontingency (God is all in all) becomes the triumphal status. Radical theology’s "new forms of faith may be seen to have an apocalyptic form: the new humanity that they proclaim dawns only at the end of all that we have known as history; its triumph is inseparable from the disintegration of the cosmos created by historical man, and it calls for the reversal of all moral law and the collapse of all historical religion."9

Again, process theology can applaud "disintegration of the cosmos created by historical man." Certainly process theology is open to a possible reversal of moral law, perhaps even the collapse of historical religions. But noncontingent existence in the time of triumph for the new man is another matter. Eschatological visions (such as Altizer’s) are challenged by the question of the meaning of basic beliefs such as non-contingent times of triumph, which seems to require the end of cosmic process. A few years ago a bitterly satirical movie, The Victors, suggested the hollowness of the meaning of military victory in modern warfare. The notion of victory in warfare, like the ideas of an apocalyptic triumph, seems to have meaning only within the historical contexts which produce them. Thus, it is not surprising to find apocalyptic thinking decreasingly adequate for modern life. This becomes especially evident as the doctrine of the second coming of Christ continually wanes as a cultural force. The interim before the Kingdom, the time of triumph proclaimed by Jesus, stretches itself until the ongoing process becomes more meaningful than the postponed Kingdom.

Apocalyptic thought implies an epoch, a period of time, before the triumph. What then? Perhaps this is an unfair question because "then" is a time word. Nevertheless, what if the universe as an ongoing process will continue forever? Without giving up its doctrine of God or man, process theology appears to imply that the process simply continues as both necessary and contingent in different respects. The notion of an expected future eschaton gives way to the satisfactions of particular occasions before an immediate vision of God. The reference point of satisfaction is not necessarily tied to one past holy event pointing to human salvation. Releasing a tradition or a man from a particular reference point in time may well have a salutary effect upon that tradition or individual. The process alternative seems better equipped to accomplish such a release from human particularity, indeed, Whitehead once defined religion as that which "is directed to the end of stretching individual interest beyond its self-defeating particularity."10

Evolution and God. A third area in which the confrontation between process cosmology and theological particularity arises is the relationship between evolution and God. Largely due to the influence of Teilhard de Chardin, Catholic theologians have recently done considerable work in this area.11 Under the influence of Whitehead, process theology holds out a parallel promise within but not limited to Protestantism or even Christianity. One can make a historical case that Whitehead’s metaphysic is in some sense a systematic metaphysical description of evolution. Whitehead’s philosophy would certainly be less intelligible if the idea of evolution were not generally known and accepted. Of course this does not mean that non-Whiteheadian concepts such as determinism, sometimes associated with evolution, are required by process philosophy.

One reason process theology harmonizes well with evolution is that in process theology God himself evolves in one aspect of his nature. Being in one respect relative, contingent and free, God can relate to and include the universe in process. Emphasis upon history in recent theology salvaged something of evolving process, but failure to work out the ontological relationship between history and God has been a serious problem. Theologians have attempted to protect the special uniqueness of one historical event, but have not satisfactorily shown how that event relates to general evolution or to God. Process theology offers an alternative by insisting on real process in God. This means that every particular contributes its uniqueness (not special uniqueness) to the becoming of cosmic evolution. Evolving particulars become the dynamic events of time. God is literally "timeful."

Process and Hope. In proposing a Christian theology of hope Jurgen Moltmann agrees that theology cannot live with the Parmenidean god of being who renders the reality of time empty. "The contemplation of this god does not make a meaningful experience of history possible, but only the meaningful negation of history. The logos of this being liberates and raises us out of the power of history into the eternal present."12 Moltmann sees that the loss of an open future removes the basis of hope. From the perspectives of both Whitehead and Moltmann one can notice more than casual connections between Greek philosophy of being and the Greek sense of tragedy, despair and fate.

Whitehead and Moltmann are in agreement in assigning ontological primacy to temporal history instead of eternal being; each accepts the basic premise of evolution in God. But even when there is agreement that hope requires an open future, the question of the basis for hope remains unsettled. For Whitehead hope is grounded in the continuing process of reality toward its potentialities in God. Such process includes human history but includes also the dim past studied by the paleontologist and the distant space of the astronomer. Dinosaurs, men, and stars participate in the cosmic process as the basis of life and hope for creatures in all possible limes and galaxies. Moltmann, on the other hand, insists that the only basis of true hope for the future is a particular event in history: ‘This realm of the future which lies before us cannot be turned into mere ‘futurity’ by reflecting solely on its relation to existence, but it is the future of Jesus Christ and can therefore be inferred only from the knowledge and recognition of that historic event of the resurrection of Christ which is the making of history and the key to it."13 Utilizing this particular event as the criterion of all true hope, Moltmann rejects romantic and Marxist utopian ideas for attempting to establish hope in human community. These, he thinks, are false hopes. Process theology can, however, produce a doctrine of hope that avoids both romantic and Marxist utopianism and the problem produced by founding hope in one particular historical event. Whitehead’s metaphysic could describe a third kind of utopia, just as one can declare one event in human history final for the universe. Nevertheless, in process theology, it is not necessary to take either of these steps in order to have a useful doctrine of hope. Hope can be based upon components of process itself: (1) the generally available vision of God; (2) the openness of the future; (3) the everlastingness of the past in the memory of God; (4) freedom to create novel experience at all levels of the cosmic process; (5) aesthetic enjoyment of existence, and (6) the possibility of a better society through intelligent use of the first five elements.

Obviously, because of the reality of freedom, these elements can also function to produce evil and despair. In the sense that process theology may not operate under the "necessity" of hope founded by the Christ event, it is less hopeful than the theology of hope. But in the sense in which it is more universal, and not necessarily tied to a particular event, it is more hopeful. If world society is ever to evolve, and social evolution is at least as important to man as biological, it will require a common base such as "being-before-the-cosmos," i.e., a cosmic common denominator. Social evolution, like biological evolution, is checked by the compartmentalization of traditions. Recent research on the human brain indicates how much more adequately the flexible young brain is able to cope with problems than the more compartmentalized older one.14 Similarly, transcending traditional compartmentalization with the cosmic vision may be just what is required to give fresh life to human society. What Whitehead might call adventure may be reborn just because evolution speeds out of its present forms, forms inadequate for the novelty of the future.

Hope for the future includes but does not depend upon one event or one tradition alone. A vision of cosmic process raises human horizons above traditional divisions based in the particulars of history, and above divisions based in the absolutization of many kinds of particulars in addition to theological ones. In this vision, hope begins with a declaration that men are immediately together before one unifying vision and potentially brothers in a future that is really open. I think such a vision will endure beyond the epochs of revised traditional theology through which we are now rapidly passing. Just as Copernicus lifted us out of Ptolemaic anthropocentricism, process cosmology may help us beyond the particularity of the religious traditions of our time. It is especially well equipped to do this as A Natural Theology for Our Time (Hartshorne);15 it will take much longer as A Christian Natural Theology (Cobb).16 Our hope lies in the general cosmic process Hartshorne described when he wrote, "God is the cosmic ‘adventure’ (Whitehead) integrating all real adventures as they occur, without ever failing in readiness to realize new states out of the divine potency.. . ."17



1. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 529-530.

2. One series of volumes particularly relevant to the problem of history is New Frontiers in Theology, Discussions Among Continental and American Theologians, Vol. I; The Later Heidegger and Theology (1963), Vol. II; The New Hermeneutic (1964), Vol. III; Theology as History (1967). Edited by James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row). The latter volume focuses most sharply upon the present discussion, but the first two volumes illuminate the development of the problem of history in recant theology.

3. The Reality of Faith, trans. Carl Michalson and others. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 24. The significance of this distinction between historical and metaphysical thinking in Gogarten’s theology of secularization is glimpsed in its influence on the theologies of Harvey Cox, Carl Michalson, Gehard Ebeling, and Ernest Fuchs. See Larry Shiner, The Secularization of History, An Introduction to the Theology of Friedrich Gogarten. (Nashville and New York: Abingdon, 1966), 18-19.

4. The Reality of Faith, 111.

5. Gogarten, A Handbook of Christian Theologians. eds. Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman (Cleveland and New York: World, 1965), 430-431.

6. Jesus — God and Man. trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane Priebe (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968) 377.

7. Ibid., 388.

8. The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 72.

9. "Theology and the Contemporary Sensibility," America and the Future of Theology, ed. William A. Beardslee (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), 23.

10. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 8.

11. See , for example, Christopher F. Mooney, Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ. (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

12. Theology of Hope, On the Ground and the Implication of a Christian Eschatology (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 29.

13. Ibid.

14. Eric H. Lenneberg, Biological Foundations of Language (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1967), 142ff.

15. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1966.

16. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965.

17. Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (New York: Harper & Row, 1951; Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964).