Chapter 7: The Religious Understanding

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 7: The Religious Understanding

In the introductory chapter we spoke of the "secular" spirit of our age, with its insistence upon the recognition of human capacity and human responsibility and with its refusal to look to a deus ex machina who will intervene in the world to set things right when they go wrong and upon whose shoulders blame for that wrong can always be placed. But we also pointed out that the "religious" spirit is by no means absent today, although frequently it expresses itself in ways very different from older and more conventional religious attitudes and practices.

Many of us believe that the process conceptuality can make a significant and indeed invaluable contribution to the religious aspect of human existence. There are two reasons for this. First, since process thought concerns itself with the totality of human experience, it must necessarily take very seriously the fact of the religious vision and the claim of countless millions of people of every race and nation and age to have enjoyed some kind of contact with a reality greater than humankind or nature, through which refreshment and companionship have been given. Second, a consistent acceptance of process generalizations about how things go in the world can provide the material for the radical reconception, of what can be affirmed about that reality greater than humankind or nature -- about God, to use the traditional word for that reality. Certainly, new ways of speaking about God are needed today.

Since my readers are, like me, heirs of Western culture, I shall limit our discussion of religion to the ways in which that culture has usually portrayed the divine, and then attempt a process reconception of the situation. Others, more competent than I, could doubtless do the same for Eastern culture, whether it be Indian or Chinese or some other type. In our Western culture, which for at least nineteen hundred years has been profoundly affected by Christian thinking, great theologians have developed a conception of deity that most people probably regard as the one and only possible view. This conception was worked out in the first three centuries of the Christian era, given more precise shape in the Middle Ages, and has been more or less accommodated to the newer knowledge of modern times in recent years. With Professor Charles Hartshorne, we may call this conception of deity "classical theism." What does it include?

Primarily, it asserts that God is first mover or first cause of everything else. To say "first," of course, is not necessarily to speak in temporal terms; essentially it is to assert logical priority. However creation was accomplished, it is all the work of a deity who is the ultimate and finally responsible causative agent; secondary causation, such as we know in our own experience of the world, is derivative from and in every respect dependent upon the first cause. In a great deal of Western thought this has entailed a sort of omni-voluntarism, a belief that it is God’s will alone that is effective in the world. Human or creaturely acts do not modify or influence the working of that divine will but can only serve as its agents. Hence God is omnipotent. All power is really God’s. Whatever appearance of power is exercised elsewhere or otherwise can never deflect or affect the divine. Thus God is almighty in the obvious sense of being able to do anything -- or so the simpleminded have been led to think. More sophisticated theologians have qualified this outrageous notion by saying that God can do nothing which is irrational, such as make square circles, or which is contrary to God’s own nature and purpose, which are assumed to be good in some ultimate sense, and therefore that God cannot engage in genuinely evil acts. But, there is of course a great deal of evil in the world, and if God is indeed omnipotent, omni-competent, and omni-voluntarist, somehow God must be responsible for that evil either directly or -- as theologians have phrased it -- permissively. Then there arises the problem known as theodicy, the question of how to justify the goodness of God when God either directly brings about evil or at least appears to permit evil to exist.

This traditional Western conception of deity -- this classical theism -- also teaches that God exists from the divine and of the divine; aseity is taken to be the root attribute of the divine. God is not dependent in any sense upon anything else for divine perfection, and a relationship to anything else is not a necessity of God’s nature. So God is both self-existent and self-contained. Whatever relationships exist between God and what God creates are only on the side of the creation and in no fashion integral to God’s own divine existence. Thomas Aquinas was one of the architects of the Christian West’s conception of deity, and he was prepared to say that God’s relation to the world is simply logical: God is the logically necessary ground of, and the logical reason for, all contingency or creaturehood. But Aquinas also said that creation’s relationship to God is one of total dependence, that the world would not exist at all if God were not creator or cause.

Moreover, in this Western theistic tradition, or in classical theism, God is said to be perfect in the sense that God is complete in God’s own self, subsisting eternally without temporality or time sequence as part of the divine being. God’s perfection is seen in the divine changelessness, immutability, impassability, and eternity. There is no "becoming" in God; God simply is. Nothing changes in God or for God. God is not genuinely affected by what goes on in creation; nothing that happens in the world can influence God one way or another. God is above and beyond suffering, too, since suffering in all its forms is taken to be the mark of imperfection, creatureliness, alteration, or contingency. Thus in the divine essential being, God is absolute. This sort of interpretation of perfection, adopted very early in the development of classical theism, has its origin in the insistence of Greek philosophy that perfection simply means changelessness or immutability. Any other notion of perfection was ruled out from the start.

This conception of God is basically Hellenistic in origin, but with it Christian theologians have sought to combine the Jewish emphasis upon God as righteous moral will. That is to say, they wanted to bring the ethical insight of the Jewish tradition, found preeminently in the Hebrew prophets, into the Hellenistic insistence on changelessness, immutability, and impassability. The marriage was not easy to accomplish, but nonetheless it was finally brought about in such a way that it stood up for a long period, indeed, from about the third century onward to the end of the nineteenth. And God’s righteous moral will was interpreted after the Jewish view that God had given commandments, which were to be accepted and obeyed without question. If they were thus obeyed, rewards would be given to the creatures; if they were not obeyed, punishment would be meted out. But in all cases, God was not affected by what went on in the world.

Again, we may notice that the model used to picture God in much popular religious talk, and in some theological talk too, was borrowed, as Whitehead noted in his Modes of Thought (Free Press, 1968, p. 49), from "the characteristics of the touchy, vain, imperious tyrants who ruled the empires of the world." Consequently, the notion of God is as of a dictator; and "our modern rituals," as Whitehead goes on to say in the same passage, "still retain this taint." Yet, as we shall see below, the four Gospels (along with some Buddhist teaching) contain what the same writer rightly styled "the most emphatic repudiations of this archaic notion."

Thus the traditional conception of deity, which we have received from our past, puts its main stress on divine absoluteness or aseity; on divine causative agency as the explanation of everything that occurs whether by direct divine willing or by indirect divine permission with respect to evil done in the world; on divine self-containedness and hence lack of necessary relationship with anything else; on divine impassability, which makes any suffering impossible for God; and on divine moral perfection, with the giving of laws in accordance with which everything should be ordered. Even up to this point, it is not entirely consistent. But the theologians who worked out this conception were also devoted Christians who centered their own religious faith upon Jesus of Nazareth, for them the very incarnation of God in human existence. They believed that Jesus had come as God in human form and that by his coming, and above all by his suffering, death, and resurrection, he had saved God’s children from their unfortunate condition of sin and their resultant alienation from God. In so doing they were convinced that God had disclosed or manifested the innermost divine character, nature, and purpose.

That introduced still another contradictory factor. For the insight of Christian faith, centered in Jesus, is that because in this man God was active for human redemption, God was revealed for what God is. As 1 John puts it, "God is love." Therefore, in some fashion love must also be an element in the divine reality; indeed, it must be the central element, or else the significance of the life of Jesus, his death, and his renewed life in resurrection would be denied. Right here, then, we come to the further and very strange contradiction that runs through traditional Christian versions of classical theism. On the one hand, we have a conception of deity as absolute, immutable, impassible, without essential relationships, self-existent and self-contained. On the other hand, we have a conception of God as both morally righteous and supremely loving. It might have been possible to affirm moral righteousness along with Hellenistic absoluteness; after all, it is not beyond our imagining that a kind of moral tyranny, with a calculus of rewards and punishments, could be ascribed to an entirely absolute being. But when it comes to love, things are very different. Love is relationship; it knows anguish as well as joy; it enters into and participates in the life of the beloved; it is even, as Whitehead once put it, "a little oblivious as to morals." Certainly it can never be entirely self-contained. Love depends on those whom it loves; it is influenced by them and always affected by them, although if it is true love it never falters in its faithfulness in loving.

We can see in many of the greatest Christian thinkers just this ambiguity or contradiction. In Origen, the Alexandrian theologian of the third century, there is found both Hellenistic or Platonizing thought and deep Christian faith in God’s love. So also with Augustine, the North African whose writings have been more influential than those of any other ancient writer in subsequent Western theology. Thomas Aquinas tried to combine an acceptance of Aristotelian concepts with equally profound Christian conviction. In Luther, the philosophical aspect is in principle rejected, or at least deposed from its central place; but it remains implicit in his double stress on the mysterious will of the "terrible" God (God’s opus alienum, "strange work," in a world of evil and sin) and God’s "gracious" will (God’s opus proprium, personal action in love). In Calvin, voluntarism gets the upper hand; God is conceived as absolute will, and yet God is also said to love and care for humankind.

This long discussion of so-called classical theism in its Christian version will have served its purpose if it helps us to understand the reason for the violent antitheistic movements of recent times and to see why some serious thinkers have even said that God is dead. The antitheistic movement is directed against the conception of God that may be styled roughly as metaphysical absolutism. The death-of-God school tells us that the picture of God we have just outlined, save for its inclusion of love and moral justice when modified by love, has died on those who have discovered the reality of human freedom, the human capacity to act significantly, and the responsibility we have for acting in freedom.

The process thinkers of our time who have turned their attention to the religious question -- the process theologians, as they are usually called -- are sure, however, that there is another and sounder conception of God, one which makes love the clue to the divine nature and manner of working in the world and one which is also in accordance with what we know to be going on in that world.

Thus, instead of emphasizing aseity, or self-containedness as well as sheer self-existence, as God’s essential nature, such theologians give the central place to love-in-action, which presupposes and entails relationships. Instead of perfection as unchangeableness or immutability, they speak of perfection as love in its highest and fullest degree, adapting itself unceasingly to concrete situations. Instead of impassability or absence of suffering, they point to Calvary as a disclosure of God as "suffering love." Instead of an absolute being uninfluenced by anything else, they stress God’s relationship with the world. Instead of making "being itself" their final description of God, they recognize a dynamic "becoming" as integral to the divine nature. They do not interpret the divine righteousness in starkly moralistic terms; rather, they see that righteousness is also a mode of God’s love, a love whose faithfulness and persistence are shown in the adamant way in which the lover wants the very best, and only that, from those who are loved.

It ought to be apparent that in most respects this conception of God, which Charles Hartshorne has called "neoclassical theism" or "the di-polar conception of God," is a natural consequence of the more general process way of seeing things or looking at the world. In Whitehead’s words, God is taken to be not "the great exception" to everything else but the "chief exemplification" of whatever the necessary interpretative principles for everything are. Dynamism, interrelationship, "energetic activity" and "emotional intensity," a working toward the actualizing of aims or goals, and a striving to use what the past offers in order to achieve fulfillment, which includes overcoming twistings, backwaters, lags, and selfishly made decisions in the creation we know -- this is how the world goes. And this provides a context for a conception of God in which God is seen as supreme persuasion working for "victory over force," as love in its self-giving, its self-identifying, and its receptivity. The freedom for decision in the creation makes those who are created causative agents also, so that God is the chief causative agency not the only one, whose action makes possible, and also is affected by, the creaturely decisions that (in Whitehead’s phrase) "matter and have consequences."

This conception of God can readily find a place for the disclosure of God in the event of Christ. In a way, as Professor A.H. Johnson has suggested, it is nothing other than a generalization from that event, a generalization applied to the rest of experience and to the world where we live. "Supernaturalism," in the sense of God’s making known the divine only by divine intrusions from outside in occasional miraculous acts, is rejected; a picture of deity as remote and inaccessible is refuted; and the condemnation of secular activities as a blasphemous denial of the divine prerogative is entirely ruled out. So also is worship or prayer when these are regarded as a "pestering of the deity," in Dean Inge’s biting words, or as primarily a cringing submission to an absolute will. Nor is moral behavior seen as simple conformity to external rules imposed from above without regard for those upon whom they are imposed. Instead of all these, we have a portrayal of deity as organically related to the world, indeed, supremely related, because God is supremely the cosmic Lover. And we have an interpretation of human existence as a movement toward love, accepted willingly or rejected selfishly with the inevitable consequences of human fulfillment or nonfulfillment. We have a moral vision in which humankind is called to respond to the lure of the divine love under human conditions, a vision about which we have had much to say earlier.

For this new theism, the significance of Jesus is found first in his providing the classical instance of what is always and everywhere operative, although it is working against serious obstacles that yet cannot defeat the cosmic thrust toward loving and sharing. Second, in Jesus there is also the special focusing of the persuasive activity of cosmic Love to work in the world to redeem it, or bring it to its intended fulfillment. And that world can now be understood as the field for Love’s action. Thus, the process theologian can agree with W.H. Auden that space is the "where" and time the "when" in which we can learn to love. If this conception of deity is accepted, then a radical reconception of many aspects of the inherited Christian theological scheme is demanded. Contemporary process theologians are now concerning themselves with this task.

To a large degree, these theologians have followed Whitehead’s thought, but they have also used the thought of Charles Hartshorne, the contemporary American philosopher whom I have quoted earlier and who has developed Whiteheadian themes and added some of his own. With a dozen books to his credit, Hartshorne has devoted most of his attention to the exposition of what he calls a "di-polar" view of deity. In one sense, he says, God is absolute and perfect, since God is always loving, always faithful, always Love; but in another sense, God is relative, since the divine absolute perfection consists precisely in God’s never-failing adaptation of self-giving to and self-identifying with the world and in God’s ceaseless receptivity from that world. This entails a complete reinterpretation of the meaning of absoluteness and perfection, to be sure, but certainly we need not suppose that the Hellenistic identification of these with immutability and impassability is a final definition.

In such books as Beyond Humanism, Man’s Vision of God, A Natural Theology for Our Time, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, and The Logic of Perfection, Hartshorne has been indefatigable in the presentation of this "di-polar" position. He has given process theologians a body of work that along with Whitehead’s writings provides them with a clearly argued and lucidly stated philosophical basis for theological reconstruction.

This is not the place to list fully the many books that have been written by process theologians, most of them in North America but some in Britain, the continent of Europe, and Australia. Many are listed in the bibliography appended to my Process Thought and Christian Faith (Nisbet, 1968), and an almost complete list is given in Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (Bobbs-Merrill, 1971). But I must mention especially a work by the late Daniel Day Williams called The Spirit and the Forms of Love (Nisbet, 1968); this is a full-length presentation of a process-theology systematic, soundly argued, eminently readable, and deeply Christian in tone.

It has sometimes been said that process theology is only a passing fad which will make no lasting contribution to the Christian world. But the mere fact that so many thinkers have written so many books on the subject shows that this criticism is invalid. What is more, for well over thirty years process theology has been a vigorous Christian movement. First in the United States, then in France, Italy, Spain, and Latin America, more recently in Holland, Belgium, and Germany, and now at last in Great Britain, serious attention is being paid to its work, not least among Roman Catholics who are impatient with the older Thomism, which for so long has been quasi-official in that communion, and who are looking for a conceptuality which will be comprehensive in its sweep, open to newer knowledge and science, and available for Christian use. This they believe they have found in the writings of Whitehead and to a lesser degree in those of Hartshorne.

If it be true, as John A.T. Robinson urged a decade ago in Honest to God, that we must have a new image of God, then it may well be that process thinking will give us what we need. Robinson himself has found this to be the case, as his more recent books Exploration into God and The Human Face of God demonstrate. A conception of God as "in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in and around us," as Whitehead put it toward the end of his life, is the starting place for any viable revision of the divine image. Scientific understanding, humane appreciation, existentialist self-awareness, history as cumulative experience, psychological insight, and respectful regard for what religious people have to tell us about their experience -- all are needed for and capable of inclusion in this new perspective.

Mother Julian of Norwich, that remarkable English mystic of the Middle Ages, tells us she heard God saying these words to her, and they sum up much of what in less beautiful idiom we have just been urging:

See! I am God. See! I am in all thing. See! I do all thing. See! I never lift my hands off my works, nor ever shall, without end. See! I lead all thing to the end I ordained it from without beginning, by the same might, wisdom, and love whereby I made it.

This would seem a remarkable anticipation of process theology’s vision of God, which will be presented in detail in Part Two