Chapter 4: Christian Faith and Process Philosophy by Bernard M. Loomer
From The Journal of Religion, XXIX, 3 (July 1949). Used by permission of The University of Chicago Press and Bernard M. Loomer. Bernard M. Loomer was educated at the University of Chicago where he taught and was Dean for several years in the Divinity School. Now he teaches at Berkeley Baptist Divinity School.
One of the genuine alternatives in our time to the "dialectical" or "Continental" theology as a constructive advance upon liberalism is the mode of theological thinking which seeks to reinterpret the force and meaning of the Christian faith within the new intellectual framework that is being provided by modern metaphysics. The dominant motif of the new metaphysics is process, since the creative character of events is seen to be a fundamental notion; hence the point of view has come to be referred to as process philosophy.
Any effort to restate the insights of the Christian faith within a philosophical framework is bound to awaken protest among many Protestant thinkers for the reason that Protestant theologians have tended to dissociate faith from any consciously conceived rational structure. Such criticisms have been frequently made against efforts within process philosophy to relate faith and philosophy. These objections purport to invalidate from the outset the fitness of process philosophy to be a proper framework within which to interpret the Christian faith. By "process philosophy" I have reference in this case to the general Whiteheadian orientation, although the details of this system are not necessarily subscribed to nor are they of primary importance from the point of view of this discussion. My purpose in this paper is to state and discuss several criticisms of process philosophy that are raised or that can be raised from the standpoint of Christian faith.1
It should be noticed that these criticisms apply also to liberalism whether old or new in so far as liberalism attempts to arrive at some rational understanding of the world of our experience. Rationalism, in the widest sense, involves some kind of system; it emphasizes primarily continuity of explanation. This factor causes it to be suspect from the vantage point of faith. Furthermore, I am inclined to think that these objections constitute several variations of one recurrent theme.
The first general and less specific criticism would hold that a philosophical interpretation of Christian faith almost inevitably tends to be inadequate. The explanation for this inadequacy is inherent in the nature of the philosophic enterprise itself. A system of metaphysical categories is concerned with every type of experience at all levels of existence. Therefore, it cannot do full justice to any particular kind of experience or to any specialized inquiry or quest. Continuity takes precedence over discontinuity. Particularity and individuality are swallowed up in universality. The unique is reduced to the common and identical. This is especially true in the relationship between philosophy and a historical religion such as Christianity. Faith is in danger of being resolved, either prematurely or maturely, into reason. The tension that must necessarily exist between faith and reason is broken. System predominates over the adventurous and unsystematic outreaches of faith. The sovereign God of faith is reduced to a manageable idol trapped or caged within a system. The temptation of the philosopher is to treat his system as a constant and the faith as a variable. The result is that he discards all those aspects of the faith which do not fit nicely into the system which he has constructed primarily from sources and data outside the faith.
Whenever theology has become too philosophical in its interpretation, the criticism continues, a reformation has been necessary as well as forthcoming. Theology has had to declare its autonomy from philosophy, and faith has had to assert its independence of reason. These reformations have also been carried out in the interests of rational understanding itself. Furthermore, while the Christian faith has been associated (and even identified) with several philosophical systems, it has outlived them all because it has transcended them all. This association (and identification) has been too often detrimental to the vitality and purity of the faith.
Therefore, what would cause one to think that process philosophy is an exception to these considerations? There is evidence, indeed, that would lead one to the opposite conclusion. For example, the language of process thought is derived primarily from scientific disciplines, and this impersonal language is ill suited for religious purposes. "How can one pray to a process? One can pray only to a person, or a conscious personality, or a living and loving father." Furthermore, its use of a rational-empirical methodology for deriving and testing knowledge motivates it to adopt the procedure of standing outside the Christian faith and evaluating that faith in terms of a so-called "objective criterion." But by what marks are its method and criterion of truth to be established as true? The Christian faith is given, and process philosophy must come to terms with this givenness. This faith can be understood only from a standpoint within itself. This faith cannot be "validated" by means of criteria external to itself. There is no "faith in general." Therefore, to stand outside the Christian faith, and to attempt to ascertain its truth-value by measuring it with objective norms, is to judge the Christian faith in terms of another faith. The adequacy of process philosophy as a standpoint for interpreting the Christian faith will be determined, at least in part, by the willingness of process thought to accept the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the central clue for its metaphysical outlook.
In reply to this criticism one must grant the point that a metaphysical account of experience, taken by itself, does not and cannot give a fully adequate description of the nature of man, especially of man in his religious dimension. This is so because metaphysical categories will only be illustrated in the several sciences and disciplines. Metaphysical categories, if true, are applicable to all individuals at all levels of existence. But they exhaust the total content and structure of no one individual or type of individual at any level. The several more specialized inquiries are needed to supply the more specific knowledge of various types of individuals. It follows, therefore, that the resources of metaphysics are not sufficient in themselves to exhaust the meaning and profundity of the Christian faith and the nature of man and God as interpreted in the light of that faith. This is true even if the metaphysical description should include the results of a philosophy of religion with its persistent concern for value as a category of all experience.
This being the case, what is the relevance of metaphysics for the task of interpreting the Christian faith, for our day or any day? Its relevance and significance, at least in part, are that of a world view in relation to a specialized inquiry. The fact is that all disciplines, intellectual or practical, scientific or religious, presuppose in one form or another some sort of world view, explicit or implicit, total or partial, systematically or incoherently perceived and formulated. This world view is our philosophy.2 We see with eyes and minds that are, in part at least, colored and shaped by this explicit or implicit philosophic background. Our very language testifies to this fact. The religious interpretations of man and God vary, among other reasons, because of changing world views. It is important, therefore, that we make this larger perspective explicit so that it may be criticized. These world views, criticized or uncriticized, guide our inquiries, be they intellectual or practical.
This critical function of a world view is important further because it enables us to evaluate more adequately the interpretation of man and his world that emerges from any specialized inquiry, such as theology or the Christian life itself. Thus, one function of metaphysics is to evaluate the possible pretensions of restricted modes of thinking and behavior. Stated differently, one function of a metaphysical system is to free us from bondage to systems or structures of thought of less generality than itself. In this regard, Whitehead has underscored the relevance of metaphysics for science. Faith and theology are no necessary exceptions to the evils that befell science.
These considerations are especially pertinent to the problem of interpreting the Christian faith in view of the fact that in some circles a purely kerygmatic theology is said to be possible. This type of theology attempts to state and interpret the fundamental Christian message in dissociation from any philosophical framework. But even if this goal were desirable, it could not be achieved. An approach to this ideal limit might be made, but some philosophic assumptions and implications would be inherent in the interpretation. They might be hidden and obscured, but they would be there. As hidden they may unduly restrict or even corrupt the meaning of the Christian message itself. As a matter of fact, one of the chief difficulties that confronts the Christian theological world today concerns interpretations of the Christian faith which contain hidden and uncriticized philosophical assumptions that operate under the guise of being essential ingredients of the faith. Part of the task of evaluating interpretations of Christian faith consists in the criticism of the philosophical predilections that inevitably accompany these theologies, either as substance or as shadow. This is as true of the biblical interpretation of faith as it is of all later portrayals.
Therefore, the implicit suggestion that the Christian community should distrust equally all philosophic systems of thought because they in turn are restrictive and even corrupting in their religious effects is basically idolatrous in character. To be sure, metaphysics is no guaranty against idolatry or even narrowness of outlook and practice. But a persistent and pervasive distrust of all systems is either only another system in itself or the effort is self-defeating. Incurably we are creatures of meanings, and meanings can be grasped fully only in the context of their relationships. An adequate religious life is impossible apart from some degree of interrelated reflective thought. Philosophy is simply the systematization of this kind of thinking and acting.
The necessity of system or coherence is grounded in the intellectual and religious demand for integrity, for unity, for an undivided self. We cannot worship our sovereign Lord if we are divided and compartmentalized selves. Integrity both presupposes and brings about self-consciousness, that is, the awareness of who one is, where one stands and why he stands there, and what God one commits himself to. But we cannot be sufficiently self-conscious without having probed the depths of our cultural and religious presuppositions. We cannot worship the true God unless we are conscious of the extent to which we define the meaning of life in terms of the cultural gods that surround us. We cannot realize the limitations of our cultural gods unless we know the true God. The circle is complete. But philosophic inquiry is one of the means for the achievement of self-consciousness, for the enlargement of the circle. It constitutes one resource for escaping the tyranny of idolatrous viewpoints.
The demand for integrity does not imply that a philosophical system is to be superimposed on studies of lesser scope and generality. Metaphysical generalizations may be derived from any specialized field of inquiry. For example, Whitehead generalized the quantum and relativity theories of physical science into universal propositions. Furthermore, the adequacy of metaphysical categories is ascertained by reference to other specialized disciplines, including the discipline of the Christian faith. The categorial system is derived from and tested by the various areas of specialized inquiry. Thus, the relations between metaphysics and these areas are mutual and interdependent. Consequently, each specialized discipline has a kind of autonomy in that each is free to contribute its basic concepts and insights to the over-all generalized description which is metaphysics. Both the categorical system and the structure of thought of each specialized inquiry are variables, although the former is usually more constant than the latter in the nature of the relationship. Each is modifiable by the other.
This general methodological principle is applicable to the problem of the relationship between philosophy and the interpretation of the Christian faith. Both are variables. It is true that philosophers have treated their own systems as constants and the Christian faith as the variable. It is also true that process thought has probably not been sufficiently informed and modified in terms of basic Christian insights. The difficulty here is that of philosophically generalizing these religious insights so as to make them relevant to other categorial concepts and applicable to other specialized disciplines, without devitalizing the content of these insights. Yet it must be granted that Whitehead’s general orientation has been considerably and consciously shaped in terms of Christian insights, even though much of his general thought has been constructed from the data of science.
Furthermore, this general principle implies that the "givenness" of the Christian faith must be qualified. However this faith is to be interpreted, neither the faith nor its interpretation is simply "given" in the sense that it is given as a constant. Nor is either given as an unalloyed datum. The faith comes to us structured with the matchless wisdom of many prophets and saints. But it also comes to us burdened down with the barnacles of superstition and error. If this faith is given to us as self-evidently true and if it contains its own creative criteria of warranty, it is so and does so only because it has been tested and not found wanting by countless generations of inquiring hearts and minds.
But from the point of view of Christian faith, another dimension must be added to the search for integrity and maturity. True integrity must be realized and lived under "tension." This added quality can be stated in terms of the difference between religious and intellectual integrity or in terms of the relation between faith and reason. Faith is trust, and a mature trust must adventure beyond reason and beyond evidence. An adequate faith must be rooted in evidence, but faith in a God who is wholly evidential is trust in one’s own self-sufficiency. Faith is prior to reason, logically, biologically, and religiously.
In stating this point, it is important to consider the fact that a true tension exists between two things only when they are internally and mutually related. A tension does not exist between two externally related elements. There is only dichotomy or compartmentalization. Too often faith and reason have been defined in terms of external relations, so that the tension between them has been broken and not merely resolved, But if a tension exists between faith and reason, then each must modify the other and be modified in turn. As one’s intellectual understanding develops, his faith must change accordingly. As one’s faith deepens and matures, his understanding must reflect this added penetration.
This means that Christian faith and process philosophy are codependents. They should be in close relationship. In fact, they must be. It also means that they must be held in tension if faith is to remain true to its own genius and insights. Faith and reason are not synonymous. Philosophy is the attempt to arrive at one intellectual world as defined by the systematic relationship of the categories of its system. Christian faith is a giving of one’s self to that reality which is held to be sovereign over even that one intellectual world. The mutual dependence is intimate, but the tension is abiding.
The second criticism is a more specific application of the first. It runs to the effect that process philosophy, being a type of naturalism and consequently predisposed in favor of continuity of explanation, neglects the discontinuous qualities of existence. More particularly, it does an injustice to that which is peculiarly human, especially to that which is fundamental from the standpoint of Christian faith: man’s capacity to sin. In attempting to avoid a metaphysical dualism by showing how a man is an integral child of nature, it vitiates man’s understanding of himself.
A frankly dualistic philosophy, the objection states, has certain advantages over a monistic outlook that tries to find analogous elements in man and the sub-human levels. If man is a child of nature, he is a very strange child who hardly can be recognized by his parents. Nature knows of a will to live, but only man knows of a will to power. Nature knows of sex and hunger drives, but in nature these compulsions operate within limits, and satiety has its appointed level. Only man is capable of defining the total meaning of existence in terms of one of these natural needs. Nature knows of a hierarchy of weaker and stronger, but only man is an imperialist who wants to subjugate all others to his own purposes. Nature knows of consciousness; but only man is self-conscious, with the capacity to make himself into his own object. Nature knows of security in terms of biological fulfilment and parental care and protection, but only man is anxious about his status in the universe. Nature knows of death, but only man knows that he is finite and fears death. Only man desires to be infinite; only man has moral, intellectual, and religious pride. Nature knows of animal intelligence, but only man speculates and constructs alternative mathematical and logical systems. Only man can transcend himself. Nature knows of an animal’s separation from its mate or children or parents, but only man is cosmically lonely. Nature knows of the order of the seasons, but only man worships. Nature knows of physical satisfaction, but only man knows peace in the midst of tragedy. Nature knows of sacrifice, but only man knows of justice, mercy, and forgiveness. Only man carries a cross. Nature knows of deception, but only man lies and is insincere. Only man tries to fool himself, and only man knows that he cannot really deceive himself. Nature, in other words, is governed by necessity, but only man is free — free to affirm, deny, obey, rebel, corrupt, tyrannize, worship, deify, laugh, suffer, pervert, repress, sublimate, wonder, to doubt and to transcend his doubts. Only man is made in the image of God, and only man can be demonic and love his own demonic usurpations. Nature knows of animal leaders, the strong who can lead a herd to safety. Only man can be a saint or a messiah.
This criticism is akin to another which contends that all philosophies, in the interests of simplicity and system, tend to deify one aspect of man, either his reason, or his will, or his emotions. This tendency to deify one aspect of man to the neglect of his other essential qualities is an instance of the fallacy of "misplaced concreteness." This inevitable procedure of systematic thought not only breaks down because of its own inadequacy and because of its failure in helping us to understand ourselves but in the long run results in idolatry. We conclude our system by constructing a God in our own image and of our own choosing. Is not this form of the criticism obviously applicable to process philosophy? Does it not subsume everything under "feelings" or "emotions"? How, then, can it give an honest reading of the facts of Christian experience? Does it not become subject to the same criticisms that Niebuhr, for example, has leveled against rationalism, romanticism, and early forms of naturalism?
In answer to this objection, it should be admitted at once that there are discontinuities between the human and the subhuman levels. There are discontinuities between all levels of existence, at least as seen by process philosophy. There are properties or qualities at any designated level of existence which apparently are characteristic of that level alone. A whole is more than the sum of its parts, and there are novel and emergent wholes. Furthermore, the parts of a whole at one level of existence are different from these analogous parts as they function at lower levels. When Whitehead attributes "feeling" and "mind" to the subhuman levels, he does not mean that they are the same as human feelings and human reason. Similarly, time and space cannot be completely the same for the subhuman as they are for us.
Therefore, the metaphysical attempt to find similarity of structures at different levels of existence does not deny the fact of discontinuity. It does not account for the higher in terms of the lower (in a reductionistic sense) It is concerned to see discontinuities in terms of continuous patterns of structure. These patterns of structure can be defined in terms of the categorial elements that constitute a metaphysical system. They are the factors which are present in all experiences of all individuals. Categories are concepts which refer to factors which cause us to exist, not to those things whereby we are peculiarly human. They refer to those things without which existence as we know it would be impossible. Within this total picture of those elements which all individuals share in common in order to exist at all, discontinuities are possible. But discontinuities are qualitative differences along a continuous dimension. For example, metaphysics as such is not concerned with sin. Yet a metaphysics does attempt to show how sin is possible in terms of organic functionings and mechanisms which are shared in common (in varying degrees, to be sure) by all levels of life. In other words, the fact of discontinuity does not necessarily imply a dualistic philosophic outlook.
Process philosophy does generalize metaphysically the concept of feeling (or prehension). But there is nothing particularly one-sided or psychological about the meaning that is intended. The term "feeling" is attributed to all levels of existence because of Whitehead’s insistence that there is no such thing as "vacuous actuality." All events are individuals which become something definite by means of integrating into one unit the several data which are received from other past events. This process of appropriation, which is the self-enjoyment involved in being an actual event, is called "feeling." But the term is devoid of any suggestion of consciousness or of representative perception. Thus "feeling" is an inclusive term that is indicative of the basic feature (i.e., "process") which all events share.
All processes (or processes of appropriation) exemplify two basic kinds of feelings: physical or bodily feelings and conceptual feelings (mentality). Emotions are primarily types of the "how" of feelings, especially of physical feelings. Existence is dipolar. This means that there are no substances which are purely mental or purely physical. Body and mind are inseparable components of each actual entity. Mentality is correlative with form or structure. Therefore, mentality is inherent in nature because there is no process apart from some form or structure illustrated in the process. One function of form or structure (and thus mentality) is to individualize or channelize the fluid and unbounded character of feelings. This function of form is to achieve definiteness and particularity on the part of events. One must be a specific and definite something in order to exist at all. This does not mean that inorganic processes can think (in the human sense), but it does mean that all events are selective. It means that order (in the general sense) is intrinsic to all events.
In saying that body and mind are inseparable in each actual entity, I mean to emphasize also the physical basis of all things. "Physical" means extension and causal efficacy. It connotes habit and compulsion, vitality and process. We are earth-bound, and we are subject to analogous drives, limitations, and necessities that characterize all organic life. We experience our world primarily by means of our bodies. All our ideas are primarily either reflections of or derivations from bodily behavior. It is true that ideas can be derived from other ideas, but in each process mentality originates by a conceptual reproduction of a bodily feeling. Man is a materialist, in the best sense. Our ideas and aspirations, our yearnings, joys and tragedies, are imbedded in and carry the marks of our earthly frames. We are never as free and uncoerced as we like to think we are; our ideas are never as general and unprejudiced as we innocently imagine; and our actions are never as pure and untainted as we pretend.
The basis of life is physical and emotional, blind desire or appetition if you will. But the blindness is not unrelieved, and life is not wholly compulsive in character. There is freedom, novelty. This quality of existence is possible because of another function of mentality whereby we have the power to produce abstractions. Forms and structures can be abstracted from their physical matrix. At the human level, ideas can be lifted out of their emotional rootage. Novel structures and ideas can be envisaged. In process philosophy the factor of form is necessary to account for the fact of abstraction wherein we have the ability to isolate one thing from another. There is freedom, novelty, and abstraction because there is mentality or conceptual feeling. The forms or the "bows" of conceptual feelings, as contrasted with the forms of physical feelings, possess an autonomy whereby novel conceptual reactions are possible. (This is the category of "conceptual reversion.") The "how" of a conceptual reaction is not completely determined by the "what" of its object. This is the continuous dimension along which the discontinuities of different levels appear.
The whole evolutionary process has been looked at in terms of a scale defined in terms of increasing complexity or specialization. From the standpoint of process thought, this evolutionary development can be interpreted along a dimensional scale of increasing conceptual autonomy or abstractiveness. The higher up we go on the evolutionary ladder, the greater the complexity of the physical organism, the more conceptual autonomy we find. Or, alternatively, the greater capacity do we find for abstracting forms from their physical or emotional base. At the inorganic level, the ability to seize upon forms of behavior very different from what has been is practically nonexistent. Causal efficacy is paramount. Thus the greater predictability in the physical sciences. There is tedious sameness and monotony. There is a minimum of freedom.
At the human level the degree of conceptual autonomy is such that it seems to be a difference in kind. The power to abstract forms from concrete processes is so great that mentality emerges into reason. We now have speculations and alternative geometrical systems. Sense perception, which we share with some of the subhuman species, is itself evidence of this increased capacity for abstraction. Consciousness, which we also share, is likewise an indication of greater conceptual autonomy. Conceptual feelings are abstracted from physical feelings, and consequently reintegrated, in such fashion that finer and more complex contrasts result. Consciousness develops in this kind of process of abstraction and reintegration.
This capacity for greater conceptual autonomy not only makes consciousness possible. It is the same factor which is the basis of our self-consciousness. It is the means whereby we can transcend ourselves and make ourselves our own object. Not only can we abstract a structure from its event-context, but we can abstract ourselves from ourselves.
It is important to note that the process of abstraction takes place in a context of internal relations wherein the presence of our fellow-men furnishes us the data for greater contrasts. The fact of a supporting community or environment makes possible a greater available contrast whereby a greater conceptual autonomy (and thus a more complete self-consciousness) may be realized. And this autonomy makes it possible for us to set ourselves over against our fellows. Here we find the grounds of tyranny, pride, imperialism, demonry, the corruption of natural vitalities and the disruption of natural harmonies. Here is our greater freedom for good or ill.
Conceptual autonomy in itself, however, does not constitute freedom or the misuse of freedom. Conceptual autonomy or increased abstractive capacity means, negatively, that the form of our conceptual feelings (the "how") is not completely deductible from what we physically feel by way of concrete events. Positively, it means that novel forms or structures can be integrated and reintegrated (at levels of increasing complexity) with physical feelings in such a way that the complexity, intensity, inclusiveness, and direction of these feelings can be altered. The realization of freedom is a bodily achievement in which conceptual thought is a necessary but not a sufficient ingredient. There must be the appropriate physical basis for the attainment of freedom. The same qualification applies to the fact of self-consciousness. Thus, freedom is correlative but not strictly synonymous with conceptual autonomy. Freedom is not wholly the product of reason.
In this account, autonomy is dependent upon community; our abstractive capacity is supported by internal relations. The fact of community forms the basis, the material, whereby greater compatible contrasts are possible which may issue in greater conceptual autonomy. One must have a rich background from which to abstract, else the abstraction is thin, unfertile, and impoverished. Conversely, the autonomy must feed back into the community from which it sprang in order to be meaningful and fruitful. The autonomous conceptual feelings must reintegrate themselves with relevant and supporting physical feelings, else the realized novelty and freedom will not endure. True freedom consists in a sensitive balance between autonomy and dependence. The misuse of freedom consists in autonomy’s denial of its dependence upon community. Thus sin, or idolatrous autonomy, is a denial of or a rebellion against community.
The organic relation between physical and conceptual feelings, together with the autonomy of the latter, makes possible the sin of sensuality as well as that of pride. Because of his greater autonomy, man is able to subordinate his whole being to an aspect of himself and to define the total meaning of life in terms of this corrupted vitality. The sin of sensuality is a denial of the community which is the individual’s whole being or self. The characteristic of man whereby he can transcend himself, and subordinate all others to his own desires, is the same fundamental quality whereby he can define his destiny in terms of his biological necessities. This quality is rooted in the fact of conceptual autonomy and the capacity for abstraction.
I suggest that this process of the reintegration (at levels of increasing complexity) of conceptual and physical feelings resulting in self-consciousness is equivalent to Niebuhr’s concept of "spirit," which he apparently conceives of as something more than body and mind. It is the recognition of this factor which he thinks was the contribution of biblical Christianity to the understanding of the nature of man. For Niebuhr, spirit is the ingredient in man whereby man transcends nature and himself, whereby man is free to corrupt nature as well as himself, and whereby man sets himself over against his fellow-men and the God who is the true author of his being. I suggest further that this analysis of man’s freedom, of his spirit, has one advantage over Niebuhr’s use of the term "spirit": it attempts to locate the "mechanism" of spirit and to relate spirit inherently to organic functioning. This description attempts to tie together body, mind, and spirit and tells of their interdependence.
Therefore, and in summary, process philosophy does try to take account of the discontinuities of existence, and it does not try to explain all of life in terms of one dimension or category of experience.
The two following criticisms are in reality two aspects of one basic objection. They should be treated as one unit. The division can be justified only on grounds of convenience of presentation.
The third criticism states that the God of Christian faith cannot be equated with any natural process or vitality, because every natural process is ethically and religiously ambiguous. There is no perfection or absolute to be found within nature or history as such. Christian faith is a trust in the perfect and unambiguous incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Here the Christian finds the absolute ethical and religious norm in terms of which history is both judged and yet found meaningful. Apart from Christ, there is no adequate ethical and religious norm because history exemplifies only the inextricable intermingling of good and evil. The created world and the creatures who live within it are good because God created them. But man is also a sinner because in his freedom he rebels against his creator, and there is no pure goodness in nature itself. In terms of nature and history alone, there is no resolution of the tension between good and evil. Good and evil are so intertwined in experience that (except by a process of abstraction which does not result in our dealing with a concrete reality) we cannot single out one process and call it the source of human good. Therefore, no natural process can be fully trusted, and no human vitality is adequate to man’s ethical and religious needs and insights. The goodness and the perfect love of God revealed in Jesus Christ transcend the norms and ethical tensions of history. Faith in this God is not even justified with reference to historical consequences. The Christian God is a transcendent being who became immanent and took on human form, and no naturalistic account can do justice to this reality revealed in Christian experience.
Another version of this objection to process philosophy from the standpoint of Christian faith concludes that God cannot be identified with any natural process, because man can make any natural vitality subservient to his own ends. All mundane forces are ultimately manageable by man because of his freedom. This does not mean that man can control all natural phenomena or that man is not bound by natural necessities. It means, rather, that man can use any wholly immanental force or process in such a way that he constructs a god in his own image whose nature is subject to man’s own wilful and sinful self. In other words, man can create false idols from all kinds of earthy materials. But these idols are no better than their creators. Since man is not adequate for himself (else why the idols before whom he bows?), these created gods lead to man’s misunderstanding of himself. Naturalism, therefore, leads to frustration and despair because man in his freedom (whereby he transcends nature) must commit himself to something greater than himself. The God in Christ is not a "natural" God.
In reply to this criticism, it should be noted, first of all, that there seem to be two assumptions involved in this outlook, both of which are incompatible with process philosophy. (a) Nature is interpreted as being essentially uncreative, lifeless, and nonredemptive. At least history and nature are regarded as quite discontinuous. For process thought, "nature" includes the total experienced and experienceable world; it comprises the whole natural order with its power of creating, recreating, and redeeming the human person. (b) There is posited, either by inference, conjecture, or faith, a transcendent absolute which obviously cannot be identified with the natural world. There is this assumption, it seems to me, even though it is asserted that this God has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The fundamental nature of this transcendent God is that of absolute sacrificial love. Since man is made in the image of God, absolute love becomes obligatory for man. Process philosophy knows of no God who is fundamentally transcendent in the epistemological or metaphysical sense. From its point of view, the limits of knowledge are defined in terms of the limits of what is experienceable. The limits of the experienceable are defined in terms of the limits of relationship. This is its world of nature, describable in terms of the categorial system. "Beyond" this world is the unknowable, and "the unknowable is unknown."
A comment may be interjected at this point to the effect that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is transcendent but not primarily in the sense described in the assumption. The God revealed in Christ is religiously and ethically transcendent. Any transcendence of a metaphysical character that is to be ascribed to God is a derivation from this prior type of transcendence. Therefore, the basic meaning of transcendence is concerned with the problem of perfection.
Let us accept the point of this interjection for the moment. What is the understanding of perfection that is to be derived from process philosophy? In the first place, one basic principle of process thought is that all realization is finite. Actuality may be defined as a process of selection. Since not all possibilities can be realized at once, realization of concrete things therefore involves limitation. In this sense, "definition is the soul of actuality."
Second, the process of realization involves selection because of the fact of incompatibility. Selection, limitation, and exclusion are relevant notions for the understanding of perfection because not all things are compossible as contemporaries. Some possibilities are mutually contradictory. The principle of harmony must be exemplified in all actual processes to a greater or lesser degree if there are to be any definite and specific actualities at all. Order is intrinsic in events. Harmony means, in one respect, that contrasts may border on chaos but that they should not reach the stage of mutual destructiveness or incompatibility. Possibilities which may not be mutually realizable as contemporaries because of their incompatibility may be related as past and future events. Because of these considerations it can be seen that the process of realization has a "seasonal" character. ("Insistence on birth at the wrong season is the trick of evil.") This means that process is inherent in the very nature of God. Time is one of his necessary attributes. He is a temporal being with an eternal or changeless character.
Third, the primordial nature of God is the conceptual ordering of all eternal objects and possibilities such that a graded scale of relevance is established between each possibility and each actual entity. Because of this unchanging order in the world, each possibility has a different relevance or significance for each actuality. This ordering of all possibilities constitutes the abstract and not the concrete nature of God. This is Whitehead’s "principle of concretion." If the term "absolute" is applied to God, it can refer only to his abstract character.
But some possibilities are "abstract" possibilities, and some are "real" possibilities. That is, some possibilities are not sufficiently relevant to the actual course of history to be considered live options for us. In this sense, "perfection" means the "best possible," where "possible" has reference to live options. There is no abstract perfection in terms of abstract possibilities which have no real relevance to the concrete world of events. God may be conceived of as absolute or as abstractly perfect, but this is abstract and not concrete perfection. Concrete or actual perfection has reference to the actual state of affairs now going on. God does not operate in a vacuum. He works in terms of the conditions which define our temporal existence. Therefore, concrete perfection must be understood in relation to these conditions. "God does the best he can, given that impasse." Perfection is a concept the understanding of which involves such notions as limitation, relevance, and community.
This means that the "best possible" for any individual cannot be defined as though the individual were an isolated and self-sufficient unit. The individual exists only in a community or "society" of individuals. Existence is fundamentally social in character. The individual is sustained by some supporting community of his fellows, even though in certain respects he also transcends this community. Therefore, certain possibilities are relevant for any individual, relative to that community of which he is a part. All individuals and all communities have specific characters, and they have specific substantial histories. Relevant possibilities are possibilities which are relevant to the specific characters and histories of definite individuals and groups. Chaos and disintegration ensue if we attempt to actualize possibilities which we are not prepared to realize. What may be abstractly possible for any individual considered apart from his context is qualified when that context is taken into account. Possibilities have an order of relevance appropriate to each individual event considered in its context with its mixture of good and evil. The creative process can aim, at most, only at that realization which is best for that individual event, relative to those forces and conditions which have brought it into being.
The "common good" means that, relative to every particular individual in a specific community or other particular individuals, the creative process offers relevant and novel possibilities for that individual’s deepened and enriched fulfilment. The possibilities relevant for that individual are also relevant and relative to other novel possibilities which in turn are relevant to the other individuals in that community. This is the possible common good, relative to that context. The ideal or greatest possible good for any individual would consist of his realization of the greatest number of diverse and mutually enriching potentialities relevant to his character and history, relative to his community. The best possible communal good is obtained when the several individuals achieve their fullest development in the most mutually sustaining and enhancing community, when "development" and "community" are contextualistically defined. This ideal or perfect good that is offered to us at every moment of our existence is the structure of the creative process. This is at least part of the character of the goodness of God. In this sense God is perfect or absolute, because this pattern of relationships among possibilities relevant to actualities is unchangingly applicable to all events.
This perhaps overlong explanation has been thought necessary in order to emphasize that "perfection" is a relative and seasonal concept. We have no meaning to attach to the idea of absolute perfection in the concrete sense. Whatever perfection may mean, it cannot mean that the course of history is to be evaluated solely in terms of the realm of abstract ideal potentiality. Perfection must be viewed in the context of specific conditions, attitudes, and relevant possibilities. Time, relevance, and community are of the essence in this regard. And, granted the unlimited wealth of potentiality, "there is no perfection beyond which there is no greater perfection."
The "perfect will of God" is synonymous with the "best possible." It is a transcendent demand upon man because relevant perfection represents an enduring standard in terms of which man is continually judged. This basic structure, which is the foundational order of existence, is transcendent because it is autonomous. The fulfillment of man is dependent upon conformity to this autonomous and primordial order — an order descriptive of increased mutuality in due season, an order which is efficacious because it is the structure of the process of creative growth. It is an order of autonomous valuation which is binding on man. That is, Whitehead’s primordial nature of God expresses the divine lure, the divine persuasion of order, harmony, and enriched mutuality. But this structure is not merely an ideal or a pretty picture which we may disregard as irrelevant. It is a structure which is a stubborn and unyielding fact that must be taken into account because it is the character of a process of efficient causality.
This structure is autonomous in that man did not create it. Certainly man, if left to his own wilful desires, would not choose it. It is autonomous in the sense that apparently it is uncreated. No matter where or when we look, we find this order impressing itself upon us. God as primordial "is not before all creation but with all creation." This order partly accounts for our common world. It is the conceptual basis of mutuality and the conceptual criterion of ethics. This structure is also apparently fixed and unalterable. Thus the path of human fulfilment is a narrow one. God is transcendent also in the sense that his is the final autonomy which measures all other types of autonomy, and beyond which there is no appeal.
The unyieldingness of this order is needed to protect man from himself, from his demonic distortions and his defensive escapes and denials. It is needed to coerce man to face himself and to recognize himself for what he is. At the same time, the sometimes gentle working involved in the restructuring of our minds and hearts in faith is necessary to release those burdened down with oppressive pasts. Man in his freedom can attempt to disregard this inevitable presence. But we always encounter this structured process, either as companion or as tormentor, "either in fellowship or in wrath."
God is accessible, but he is not manageable. We cannot twist this order to suit our purposes. We cannot try, with impunity, to domesticate or emasculate this process. God is as much transcendent as man can endure. He is as much immanent as man can gaze upon and not be blinded,
This unmanageable structure is a transcendent and abiding demand. It is the criterion of the best possible. It is the relevant ideal standard. But this obviously is not the whole story of the human situation, for we refuse to be persuaded of the necessity and the rightness of a divine order. Or if some are persuaded at times, others rebel. In either case we realize much less than the best possible. We are sinners, even though we may not sin in every occasion of our experience. We will not realize ourselves sacrificially; that is, we will not allow ourselves to be fulfilled through yielding ourselves to that process which works for the mutual good of all. Or if we will at times, others will not. We try to fulfil ourselves, to find ourselves, by holding to ourselves, by centering attention on ourselves. We will not sacrifice our present selves and values for greater selves and values. We fear the losing of ourselves. Or if at times some do not so fear, others do. We refuse to believe that sacrificial love is that peculiar means necessary to the achievement of the richest mutuality wherein each individual receives his greatest possible maturity. Or if at times we do not, others do. In either case the inevitable result is tragic. It might have been otherwise.
The failure to realize the best possible is the measure of our sin. But the desire on the part of some to realize the perfect will of God in a great social situation may be politically unseasonal and ethically ineffective or even irresponsible; hence the ubiquitous presence of the fact of compromise. Many times ("at all times," some would say) our only relevant political or social choice is that between the lesser of two evils. This decision frequently involves the use of coercion. At best it is a tragic choice. We attempt oft-times to realize a greater good in one respect at the price of greater evil in another respect. The result, however, many times is better than no community at all.
I mention the fact of compromise in order to distinguish it from the "best possible." Compromise is a lower level of achievement than that involved in the transcendent criterion. Compromise represents the sacrifice of some values peculiar to the concerns of the several conflicting interests in order to realize some values which can be shared by all.
Let us assume, someone may interpose, that this autonomous order does constitute (in a sense) an unambiguous working. Even so, can this conception do justice to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? Christian faith conceives of God as absolute love, as self-sacrificing, as merciful and forgiving as well as judge, as suffering Father, as providential redeemer. Where is the agape of God as seen in the context of process philosophy?
The answer, it seems to me, lies in the nature of experience itself. The fact appears to be that reality is fundamentally and intrinsically social in character. We cannot realize ourselves apart from the realization of others. Others cannot be fulfilled if we are not. Also, because we are sinners against both God and our fellow-men, we cannot realize ourselves unless others forgive our sins by restoring our relationship to them. Others cannot be re-created unless we forgive them. But we cannot forgive the sins of others unless we take the sins of others into ourselves. We must sympathetically identify ourselves with them and take into ourselves their burdens. We must suffer with them. We cannot be merciful if we hold ourselves apart from others as though we were self-sufficient and independent beings. Feeling the feelings of others, even their sins, is necessary for our fulfilment.
God, according to the categories of process philosophy, cannot realize himself apart from the fulfilment of his creatures. God and the world are mutually dependent. Therefore, if the finite creatures are to be fulfilled, and if God is to achieve his purpose through his self-realization and the realization of his creatures, God must forgive our sins. In forgiving us, he takes our sins unto himself and identifies himself with our sins. This is the suffering of God. This is also the mercy of God, even though mercy involves more than just the fact of suffering. Mercy indicates the restoration of a broken relationship.
The "sacrifice" of God means that God gives himself to us for his own, as well as our, realization. He fulfils himself through his creatures, even his sinful creatures. God forgives and re-creates us out of his mercy, but this re-creation of us out of God’s mercy is necessary for God’s own self-fulfilment. Therefore, forgiveness, love, mercy, and redemption are not accidental qualities of God. These are inherent in his very being. The fundamental character of existence is mercy. God’s forgiveness of us is different from our forgiveness of others in that God always forgives us, whereas we rarely forgive others. Furthermore, not only should we forgive others because God restores us, but we are motivated to forgive because God forgives. Finally, we should forgive because we ourselves need to be forgiven.
With this as a background for understanding, one might say that the "sacrifice" of God is somewhat metaphorical. It cannot mean that mercy is optional with God. Surely it cannot mean that the self-giving of God revealed in Jesus Christ consisted in God’s becoming "incarnate," as an act of condescension, as though God as he is in himself is a being who basically exists apart from the world of process (and thereby fundamentally transcends history), and who out of mercy became immanent and took on human form. As a matter of fact, the doctrine of the incarnation is likewise metaphorical in nature. Surely it cannot mean that God was not always "incarnate." From the perspective of process philosophy, the Word never "became" flesh; God never "became" incarnate or embodied. The world always embodies this divine ordering and this creative process. To speak of God’s becoming incarnate in a human person would mean that in Jesus Christ the basic and most intimate attributes of God and existence itself were revealed: the mercy and love of God. By faith in this love we are justified. The idea of historical or special revelation means, it seems to me, not only that God acts in history but also that there is a history of the acts of disclosure of God whereby the character of existence is progressively revealed to man. The disclosure of God in Jesus Christ revealed most fully that the qualities of mercy and sacrificial love are necessary if the living of life is to have its justification.
The revelation of God in Jesus Christ indicates that the path of sacrificial love is the "law of life." God offers himself to us according to the transcendent structure that we have previously discussed. But the cross of Christ also reveals our failure to respond to sacrificial love in like manner. If we had the gratitude, the love, and the courage to respond, the faith to endure, and the wisdom to understand the implications of this love, the fuller workings of this divine order could be realized among us. But we possess neither the love, the faith, nor the wisdom to a sufficient degree. To this extent and for this reason, the fulfilment of this law of life is impossible. However, this does not mean that this transcendent standard is irrelevant.
In the first place, the agape of man, deriving as it does from the agape of God, does not necessarily mean that "the best possible" is realizable only if an individual or a group literally and biologically gives up its existence. To be sure, this possibility is sometimes the only option or consequence. But the exemplification of sacrificial love should not be so conceived that the "sacrificing" individual does not count for one. The realization of the mutually enhancing community involved in the actualization of "the best possible" includes, normally, the greater good of the "sacrificing" individual. The fact that the individual realizes a greater good because of his "sacrifice" does not necessarily make his act less sacrificial. The cross of sacrificial love usually does not and cannot mean the cross of physical death. Existence is not synonymous with sin. Nor is existence equivalent to the will to power. The pervasiveness, the depth, the subtlety, and the power of sin and evil in human life are not denied. Rather I am insisting on the situational nature of the best possible~ the perfect will of God. Even though one finds his life by losing it, by letting go of his present self, and even though one cannot realize his greater fulfilment by attempting to control the process of creative mutuality for his own purposes or by concentrating his attention upon his forthcoming reward, surely the vision of perfect love of man cannot be conceived normatively in terms of extinction.
I do not mean to water down the meaning of the sacrificial love of the cross to the point where human compromise is equated with divine and creative mutuality. I am not consciously equating political and divine possibility. I am trying to recognize the place of sacrificial love and at the same time to avoid the dangers of an absolutely transcendent ethic. There is sin with its destructiveness. There is the cross of Christ which is the price of redemption over sin and spiritual death. There is the brokenness of the self in sin. There is the renewal of the new self in faith and forgiveness. In attempting to live the life of sacrificial love, we cannot set limits to the degree of the brokenness of the old self that may be required of us. We cannot say: only so far will we yield now. But the brokenness, the yielding, and the renewal, like perfection itself, are relative factors. Usually we are not broken completely, and certainly we are renewed (sanctified) only relatively and relevantly. The grace may be absolute in terms of justification, in terms of forgiveness, but our rebirth is always relative to a context. It cannot be otherwise.
These statements may appear to be too cautious, too calculated in tone and intent, too qualified, restricted, and prudential to do justice to the apparent unboundedness and selflessness of Christian love. But I trust that this appearance is due to an attempt to avoid what I think is an excessiveness in other presentations. One need not deny the value of martyrdom in certain instances, or the selflessness of sacrificial death that is sometimes involved in trying to live a life of love, or even at times of pacifism (as a strategy, without believing in it as an absolute principle). The point is that these concrete acts are not necessarily normative. The problem of how far we can realize "the best possible" in any given situation, and the problem of the means to be employed, are partly matters of judgment. In any case, either in the short or in the long run, our act is one of faith. The faithful shall live by his faithfulness.
Second, this divine criterion and self-giving is our inexorable judge. The order of creative mutual love is the law of life, and by that law we are condemned as sinners. We know that we are sinners. It is our measure, our "natural" norm. Without it we would become our own judges and find ourselves innocent, even though the marks of our anxiety, pride, and tyranny would belie our words. The divine order is relevant and needed, in other words, to protect us from ourselves, to prevent us from trying to escape from ourselves. The degree of its relevance as well as its transcendence is measured by the extent to which we rebel against it and flee from it and by the failure of our rebellion and our flight.
Third, this criterion is relevant because this creative process works in us in spite of our sin. It is the ground of our redemption and fulfilment. The work of God is not exhausted by the ethical striving of man. Over and above, and sometimes in spite of the efforts and sins of men, this process moves in its own determined way. Man is sometimes fulfilled in spite of himself. The working of this process is evidenced in the experience of grace and man’s re-creation, in the frustration of sin and its accompanying anxiety, and in the destructiveness visited to man if he attempts to stop the inexorableness of its march.
In summary, then, the reply to this third criticism has involved the thesis that there is an ethically and religiously unambiguous order within nature and that this structure is not corruptible by man. It should be noted that this thesis has involved reference not only to an order or structure but also to a creative process which embodies this structure. The more detailed characterization of this process has been omitted. A discussion of the possible difficulties involved in the "concreteness" of this process are here postponed for a future occasion.
It is quite conceivable that this thesis will not stand examination. It may well be that the ambiguity of the described structure within nature remains. Those who claim that all natural processes are ethically and religiously ambiguous presuppose that there is an unambiguous working of God in history and that this work is to be seen primarily in the revelation of God in Christ. But if there is this unambiguous working of God in history, the character of this working should be identifiable and, I would add, empirically identifiable. If this character or structure is not identifiable, then the solid basis of this view vanishes. If, on the other hand, this structure is identifiable, why is it not available for the general outlook of process thought?
If we start, as many insist we should, with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the basic datum, then the notion of an essentially transcendent God who became immanent in the incarnation is an interpretation that is not necessarily warranted by the datum itself (complex though it be). The theologian ends up with a transcendental, nonnatural or nonprocess God (with reference to the datum of Christ) only if he begins there. This is presupposition and not fact. This assertion does not in itself establish the validity or the adequacy of process philosophy as a framework within which to interpret Christian faith. But it purports to point up the idea that the nature of the transcendence of the God revealed in Christ is a matter for inquiry.
The fourth objection to process philosophy makes explicit the other elements that were implicit in the third objection. This criticism states that the system of process thought is an inadequate framework within which to understand the Christian faith because history and nature are not self-redeemable. Admittedly "nature" (within which "history" is lived and made) constitutes the total resources available to process philosophy. The world of nature is not self-explanatory and self-sufficient. This is true, so the criticism asserts, because in the orientation of process thinking there is no final resolution of the conflict between good and evil. History and the processes of nature do not issue in victory, in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. The paradoxes and ambiguities of life are not finally resolved. In terms of this system history is ultimately meaningless.
The criticism, stated somewhat differently, contends that the God of Christian faith and history, as seen through the eyes of process philosophy, is not truly sovereign. He is trapped and domesticated by the system itself. Admittedly the ultimate of ultimates, in this outlook, is creativity and not God. God cannot transcend this frame of reference because he is at the mercy of the conditions inherent in the categorial system. In other words, the sovereignty of the God of Christian faith is given up because the freedom of God is too restricted. The freedom of God as exemplified in his mighty acts, as these are recorded in the Old and New Testaments, does not find a ready place in this system of thought.
Another version of this same fundamental objection states that process thought does not do justice to the eschatological elements of New Testament faith. The fact of the resurrection is central and determinative for our thinking about the meaning of Christian faith. In the resurrection the power of God triumphed over sin and death. (For some "death" means physical death, such that there is the hope of resurrection and not just an "intimation of immortality.") On the basis of the fact of the resurrection, there is ground for trust in the "second coming." The "second coming" is a somewhat "mythical" or metaphorical concept used to indicate the New Testament faith in the power of God (manifested in the resurrection) to conquer the conditions that now define our earthly existence, particularly the condition of man’s sinfulness. The "point beyond history" is also a "mythical" concept (to be taken not literally but nonetheless seriously) which connotes the Christian’s faith that the power and goodness of God can be made even more manifest in the hearts and minds of men. The "point beyond history" need not connote a nonhistorical and transcendental type of existence. It can refer to a form of historical life wherein the conditions of existence would be radically altered. In this state of affairs, the paradoxes and ambiguities of life would be resolved, man would not be a sinner, the meaning of life would be completely realized, and man would know even as now he is known.
This kind of criticism is an illustration of what some theologians mean when they insist that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the central fact that should furnish the basis for Christian theology. All else is a derivation from this fundamental datum. In biblical faith God is the creator of all that exists. He is sovereign over the whole physical universe. But there are no "arguments" in support of this notion. The idea of God as creator, God as philosophically sovereign, seems to be derived from the faith that he is religiously sovereign. The God who has done such wondrous things for the people of Israel, the God who is the rock of our salvation and a very present help in time of trouble, the God who has given his people such sure promises and who has fulfilled them, the God who is our judge and our redeemer, who spoke to prophets, who conquered sin and death in the figure of Christ — surely the power and goodness of this God are such that he is also creator of heaven and earth. Niebuhr, for example, argues that the centrality of the figure of Christ implies the logically absurd doctrine of creation ex nihilo. But this doctrine is not clearly biblical in content. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is hardly adequate and certain support for Niebuhr’s contention.
It is clear, however, that the biblical God is creator. This would seem to mean that God is responsible for the conditions that define and limit our existence. All creatures and all conditions are subject to his control. God is also the origin and source of man’s freedom. Therefore, all of nature and history testify to God’s power and goodness. He transcends his created world and is therefore not to be identified with it, although the created world does reveal the nature of his work. God’s freedom is not exhausted by the laws that govern his creation. He reveals himself as he chooses and in his own time. God is not subject to alien forces and material which he did not create. Therefore God is creator, judge, and redeemer. What God has created he judges. What he judges he also redeems in mercy. The paradoxes and ambiguities which baffle us will be ultimately resolved because, in a sense, they are resolved now in the very being of God. He is Lord over even the contradictions and the evil which beset us. We do not see how all this is so, to be sure. We see as through a glass darkly. But for Christian faith the power and love of God manifested in Jesus Christ are the evidence of things not seen, the assurance of things hoped for.
Now in process philosophy, process itself or creativity is the ultimate category. That is, the fact of process cannot be explained in terms of anything more fundamental. It simply is. It is given. Yet process is not possible apart from the primordial structure which is part of God’s nature. In a sense this order or structure is the ground of being. Creativity is not possible apart from certain conditions, and the primordial order is the fundamental condition. Likewise this order does not exist apart from the world of creativity. There is a world because there is this order which is the principle of concretion. But the principle does not exist as disembodied. It "exists" only as exemplified in concrete events.
In terms of process philosophy, therefore, in one sense God is not responsible for the character of the conditions through which creativity works. The freedom of man, for example, is a gift of creativity. It is inherent in created things. The creativeness or the energy whereby there is creation is inherent in created events. They are self-creative, and they give rise to other events. The incompatibility of certain possibilities is inherent in the nature of possibility itself. Therefore, process itself is inherent in the being of God if incompatibility is to be surmounted. Furthermore, in process thought God is not (or should not be) an exception to the categorial system. The denial of this principle involves the price of erecting an unknowable God before whom all our honest strivings and seekings are as nothing. The world of our experience, which is what a categorial system defines, would then be a world of illusion, of mere appearance. In this sense God is responsible for at least some of the conditions that define our world. God’s primordial nature "at once exemplifies and establishes the categorial conditions."
There is also chance in the world of process thought. There is chance involved in the fact of selection or inclusion. There is adventure, and the outcome is not predetermined. In the realization of some values We exclude the realization of other possible values. Many times these excluded values appear to have been as potentially enriching as the values we actually chose. There are general possibilities, and there are possibilities relevant only to specific individuals at specific moments of history. If those possibilities are not realized by those individuals at those specific moments, they are gone forever. We are filled with the haunting sense of what might have been but never can be. We seemingly illustrate an arbitrariness and an element of chance within the very nature of things. We feel less sure of the justice or the wisdom of our election to our appointed tasks. We reflect an uneasiness within ourselves at being tossed up or down by accidental elements. We wonder. The tormenting sense of vast alternatives is abiding.
God is religiously sovereign. He is the source of good in the sense that the realization of the good is dependent on him. Creation is good because without God there could be no creation. Also we sin in our freedom. God is our judge and the source of our redemption. But beyond this what can we say in regard to the power of God to transcend the conditions of existence that now obtain? What are some of the difficulties?
In the first place, historical experience does not support the claim that evil is gradually being eliminated. On the contrary, there is much evidence that the increase of good increases the possibility for greater evil. The higher good results in a greater sensitivity which in turn offers greater opportunity for the evil of demonic powers. The more far-reaching the brotherhood, the greater the communicability of disease and prejudice. The more delicately balanced the organism, the closer attention it requires. The tension between good and evil seems to be abiding.
Second, creation (in process philosophy) occurs in terms of the emergence of the higher from the lower. This is not reductionistic evolution but emergent evolution. This is the long, arduous, and halting struggle upward. According to process philosophy, God works and labors in terms of this evolutionary development. One of the most remarkable features of much of so-called "neo-orthodox" theological thought is its explicit or implicit attitude that the fact (or the theory) of evolution is not relevant to religious reflection about the nature of God or the meaning of Christian faith. Apparently, evolution is accepted as a scientific fact. But equally apparently this fact has no implications for Christian faith. I find this attitude to be not only remarkable but somewhat fantastic. For Christian faith, God is the creator of the physical and biological world. Surely one implication of this doctrine is that Christian faith and science cannot be dichotomized into separate compartments.
Third, there is the theory of the second law of thermodynamics having to do with the running-down of the available energy of the universe to a dead level. What are the implications of the theory for Christian faith, especially for the doctrine of the sovereignty of God? If one holds to the idea of the complete sovereignty of God, does he say that this physical theory is not true, that it cannot be true, or that it will be found to be false when more evidence is accumulated? But suppose for the sake of the discussion that the theory comes to assume the proportions of a valid hypothesis? Would not this fact seriously qualify the power of God to alter radically the conditions of existence?
To be sure, the theory of entropy does not account for the fact of "upward" evolution. But where is the evidence that the upwardness of evolutionary development will necessarily continue? From the point of view of process philosophy, the actual realization of entropy would mean the end of creativity itself. There would still remain some kind of order, but the power of God would be reduced to practical negligibility. In process thought the universe is actually "in the making," and God is incomplete in his concrete nature. If there should come a time when there would be no more "making," then the adventure of God would be at an end. The only escape from this conclusion seems to be in terms of a basically transcendental God. This alternative is categorically denied by process philosophy.
One might reply to these questions by stating that for those whose faith is biblical in orientation the fact of the resurrection is supreme over even these difficulties. The weight to be assigned to this consideration depends upon what is meant by "the fact" of the resurrection. In this sphere particularly there is no such thing as a bare uninterpreted fact. The nature of the alleged fact presupposes a whole philosophic orientation. If "resurrection" means the physical resurrection of the human Jesus (even though one adds "the human-divine Christ"), then indeed this miracle might well outweigh the difficulties mentioned above. Then indeed God is Lord not only over sin but physical death as well. Physical entropy then becomes a possibly surmountable obstacle. But if this is what "resurrection" means, then philosophy (at least process philosophy) has nothing to say to faith. Actually in this case there is no "tension" between faith and reason; there is only the complete absence of any relationship. Nothing in the world of either science or philosophy need cause any uneasiness in the devout soul. But the implication of this meaning of "resurrection" is that with this interpretation one has chosen the (or "a") biblical world view in preference to a modern world view. Further, the grounds for this choice need not and may well not be primarily religious in nature.
But if by "the fact of the resurrection" one means not the physical resurrection of the man Jesus but the resurgence of the power of God in Jesus even when evil and death had seemingly triumphed, then this "fact" is not necessarily determinative in regard to the difficulties mentioned even though it is a "fact" of tremendous importance. It is evidence of the power of God and his love over spiritual death, but it is hardly evidence of God’s sovereignty over physical death. God would still seem to be subject to conditions that define our world.
Now it could be asserted that these difficulties may concern what I have called the "philosophical" sovereignty of God but not his "religious" sovereignty. One might hold that these conditions of the natural world need not be determinative in regard to God’s power is make his love more manifest in the hearts and minds of men. Let us assume, for the moment, that Christian faith in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ implies the trust that God will conquer sin to such a extent that the kingdom of God will be fully realized. Will this state affairs apply only to those generations then living? Or are all the pat generations to inherit the kingdom? If the latter, does not this involve the resurrection of the dead of ages past? If so, can one then divide the sovereignty of God into compartments? Are not then the condition of physical nature relevant considerations?
Why does the full meaningfulness of life and history necessarily demand that good will ultimately triumph over sin and evil so that sin will no longer be a condition of our being? Why must all the paradoxes and ambiguities of life be resolved? Why must every purpose have its completion in order to be a purpose at all? Why is tragedy meaningful and "really redeemed" only if there is a faith that there is a kingdom coming wherein there will be no more tragedy?
One answer is that this is the wrong kind of question. These are not just demands and cravings of our souls which must be satisfied We have faith in these eschatological eventualities because of the power and love of God revealed in Christ. His love for us is so all-encompassing and his power is so great that neither life, nor death, no; the principalities and powers of this world can separate us from him It is God in Christ who has brought meaning into history. It is God in Christ who will return to complete this meaning.
Possibly so. Yet we Christians hold that the revelation of God in Christ disclosed the "final" attribute of God: his mercy. In a sense our fulfilment is always broken and incomplete. We sin. We die. But is not the final fulfilment and the ultimate relationship to be found in the peace of forgiveness? Is a more intimate relationship possible? Would participation in a kingdom without the presence of sin make more manifest the love of God?
One might reply that the love and power of God are inseparable. One cannot limit too severely the freedom of God’s sovereignty over man. In the history of God’s free acts of self-disclosure, culminating in Christ, one finds evidence that God’s power over sin increased so that in Christ the power of sin over man was decisively broken. Also there is no reason to assume that God’s work is now finished. Wieman, for example, has stated that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ was such as to assure us of the victory of good over evil — much as the victory of Stalingrad assured the Russians of their eventual victory over the Germans. Not that Stalingrad made further fighting unnecessary but that Stalingrad decisively determined the final outcome of the war. I would agree. But this analogy does not rule out the possibility of other wars. The victory of Christ may mean that evil can never be completely victorious, but the victory of good over evil and of God over sin does not necessarily imply the total elimination of evil. In other words, in terms of process thought, there is no end. There are only more battles and more victories to be won. Tragedy is abiding, and forgiveness is a perennial necessity.
In such a world is the life of sacrificial love justified? If the meaning of "justified" in this connection has reference to the final elimination of evil, or the historical and metaphysical permanence of this kind of love, then the answer is "in the making." If "justified" has reference to the validity of sacrificial love, its intrinsic value and goodness, its beneficial consequences (both to the loved and to the lover), its meaningfulness, then the answer is in the affirmative. Socrates’ statements about suffering injustice rather than inflicting injustice, Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s elaborations, and Luther’s classic description of the power of the Christian life, to name but a few, are sufficient testimony for those who have the eyes and hearts to see. And the justification is now.
Yet it is true that, although we cannot answer the unanswerable questions, or even know whether they are proper questions, nonetheless we cannot down our wonder. The sense of life’s twisted ironies, its unexpected turnings and unlooked-for delights of mind and heart, its vengeful and sometimes unbearable cruelty, its moments of sheer beauty and joy, its hours of stark and soul-shriveling loneliness, its occasions of shared love and community when the heart has almost burst because it could hardly contain its exultation, its times of unappreciated sacrifice and undeserved blessings — these and many other kindred experiences cause us to lift our eyes beyond death. Whitehead has said that one of the deepest longings of the human heart is to experience the new and at the same time to maintain the old. He conceives of the past as preserved in "living immediacy" in the present. Further, all values are saved in their fulness. Possibly so. At least this is the cry of the soul.
But this yearning of the heart cannot be made into a qualification of our faith. We cannot demand its satisfaction as a condition of our self-giving or as a price for our services. The goodness of God is its own value. Its present fulfilment of its own promise is its own benediction.
The meaning of life, the justification of sacrificial love, the redemption of tragedy, the meaningfulness of history, and the resolution of whatever paradoxes there be, are "now." The meaning of life, for good or ill, for those enriched or impoverished, defeated or victorious, just or unjust, slave or free, is here and now. History builds on its past and points to its future. But only the present, which contains the past and envisages the future, is holy ground. Each life is its own reward. Its recompense is in terms of the things, people, and causes it has loved or hated, its feelings of countless qualitative meanings, its joys and sorrows, its defeats and victories, and the God it has known. It has seen God as empty nothingness, or as unbending judge, or as merciful redeemer. Respectively, the experience has contained its own hollow laughter, or its own cry of anguish and rebellion, or its own benediction of religious peace.
1. I have made no effort to identify the specific sources of the criticisms with which I shall deal, since they are general in character and have come from a variety of writings and discussions. In this article I have in mind particularly certain questions raised by Niebuhr in his writings and statements made by some of my colleagues in the Federated Theological Faculty with whom I have had frequent discussions on this problem. The formulation of the criticisms in each instance, however, is my own and represents a composite statement of specific objections which have seemed to me important and relevant.
2. In this discussion I am using the terms "philosophy" and "metaphysics" synonymously.