Chapter 9: Permanence and Perishing

The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 9: Permanence and Perishing

I suggested in the previous chapter that an aesthetic perspective on the cosmos is better able to support the religious view that all is ultimately cared for than are the usually employed ethical criteria for evaluating things. From our finite standpoint we are tempted to demand that the universe conform to our "high" standards of moral order. And when we find that neither we nor the other species in evolution are treated according to these standards we are inclined to indict the universe for its moral indifference. Thence we may be inclined to reject any intrinsic cosmic meaning and set up ourselves as superior to this uncaring world.

Such an indictment, I am arguing, comes prematurely (though understandably and forgivably). It is a judgment made on the basis of our limited moralistic apprehension of order with the implicit demand that the totality of cosmic reality conform to this particular order. A classic instance of the demand that the universe adjust itself to our human calculation of order may be found in Dostoevski’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. There Ivan rejects this universe since it does not fit the contours of his "Euclidean" reason, which Ivan takes to be the final measure of things. The simple fact that innocent children suffer, and therefore that the ethical value of justice is violated, is enough to prove the overall incongruity and absurdity of this universe. Hence Ivan would respectfully return his entrance ticket to this world rather than embrace it with its injustice.

In this and the following chapter I would like to expand on our aesthetic notion of cosmic purpose, keeping Ivan’s protest in mind. I shall be dealing, in other words, with the problem of evil, the so-called question of theodicy. Ultimately any discussion of cosmic purpose leads us into this problem. In the present chapter I shall ask whether it is possible to conceive of the universe as a context of care in spite of the most basic instance of evil, the fact that things perish. And in the following chapter I shall dig deeper into the notion of evil by relating it to the fact that our universe is not only a process in which everything perishes but a process in which novelty is continually entering onto the cosmic scene, causing the breakdown of previous orderly arrangements and bringing about suffering.

The most blatant evidence of the existence of evil is the plain and simple fact that things perish.1 Perishing means the loss of order, the collapse into disorder and indefiniteness. And where there is indefiniteness, there is nothingness. Perishing means loss, loss of actuality and value. Therefore, perishing is evil. Unless there is permanence, then, there can be no order or value. So if the universe is purposeful there would somehow have to be a solution to the fact of perishing. Something would have to save the stream of events from utter annihilation.

Adding poignancy to the fact that things perish is the fact that the most beautiful things are the most perishable of all. The more beautiful something is the more precarious it is. Genuine beauty entails such a fragile balance between the extremes of complexity and harmony that the slide into either confusion or triviality is more of a possibility than with those things or events that are closer to equilibrium. Entities whose aesthetic intensity stems from the contrasts that they integrate are not guaranteed an indefinite period of existence through time. There is always the possibility that their complexity will win out over their harmony. Both triviality and confusion are capable of enduring indefinitely, but harmonized complexity is exceedingly perishable. The phenomena of life and consciousness are perhaps our best illustrations of this truth.


Most religious and philosophical visions have intuited beyond or behind the transient flux of perishing events something or someone that preserves these events from utter loss and oblivion.2 These visions provide consolation even in the face of perishing. The anticipation of resurrection, eternal bliss, or simply the affirmation of a transcendent, eternal God gives comfort to countless people. Tennyson’s anguished lines from In Memoriam express the human longing for permanence in the face of perishing, and it is to such suffering as is expressed here that the religious perspectives of various peoples have been addressed:

Oh yet we trust that somehow good

Will be the final goal of ill,

To pangs of nature, sins of will,

Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;

That not one life shall be destroyed,

Or cast as rubbish to the void,

When God hath made the pile complete:

That not a worm is cloven in vain;

That not a moth with vain desire

Is shrivelled in a fruitless fire,

Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold we know not anything;

I can but trust that good shall fall

At last -- far off -- at last, to all,

And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?

An infant crying in the night:

An infant crying for the light:

And with no language but a cry.

O life as futile, then, as frail!

O for thy voice to soothe and bless!

What hope of answer, or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil.3

In often quoted lines Whitehead beautifully describes the essence of the religious vision, and he does so in a manner that correlates it with Tennyson’s outburst over the loss of his close friend. Religion, Whitehead says,

. . . is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.4

And, Whitehead continues, though it ". . . has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination . . ." nevertheless religion

. . . is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.5

Whitehead is deeply sensitive to our human experience of loss. In fact for this philosopher of process the primary metaphysical question is that of how to hold together the sense of permanence with that of perishing.6 Is the religious vision of something that abides and that saves the world consistent with the fabric of reality as we know it from science and naive experience?

The Ground of Permanence

A contemporary of Tennyson, Arthur Hugh Clough, wrote:

It fortifies my soul to know,

That, though I perish, Truth is so

Even though every concrete thing or person is eventually lost, still its loss is not final or absolute. Charles Hartshorne explains how we may make sense of Clough’s intuition:

According to the view I adopt, there was once

no such individual as myself, even as

something that was "going to exist." But

centuries after my death, there will have been

that very individual which I am.8

In other words it will always and forever remain true that I have existed. Nothing can obliterate this fact. I shall die, but my perishing will not be a return to utter nothingness. Though I perish, the truth of my having existed will remain eternally.

What is there in the nature of things that guarantees that my having existed will never become a falsehood, and that I can never perish in any absolute way? Why will it be just as true two million years from now as it is today that I have lived on this earth? While I am certainly destructible, why is it that "my having existed" is indestructible? I suspect that many readers will find this kind of questioning either strange or inconsequential. But I would ask them to bear with me as I attempt to carry these peculiar probings further, and as I offer a suggestion as to how we may respond to them.

I think we must recognize that there is after all an aspect of permanence to the universe. If it is just as true today as it was a century ago that, for example, Darwin lived, then it follows that there is some kind of continuity, coherence and imperishability in the very structure of occurrences. Though Darwin has perished, the fact that Darwin once lived has not perished, nor will it ever. It is a present fact that Darwin lived. Hence there must be something about reality that upholds this truth and preserves it from lapsing. There is some guarantee, some rock-solid foundation to experiences that prevents their absolute annihilation after they have happened. If these experiences perished in an absolute sense we would not even be able to talk about them. They would be nothing and therefore could not be referred to. And yet we continually make reference to events, lives and experiences of the past. In some way, then, they must still be.9

It is not sufficient to argue, in objection to what I have just stated, that the full reality of Darwin’s life and experience depends now, for whatever present existence it has, on our own thinking about or remembering it. For the very foundation of historical remembrance and historical science is that we must conform our thinking to the shape of past experiences and not superimpose our own biases and arbitrary wishes upon the past (even though this may be difficult to avoid). The ideal of historical reporting is to be as faithful to the facts of the past as possible. This ideal is based on a tacit faith that a past event’s having occurred in a definite way is just as true today as it was when it happened, and that its occurrence is at least in principle accessible to our own fact-oriented inquiry today. The universe is not so capricious that it ever allows a past event to lose its character of having happened in a definite way. And for this we should be grateful.

But what is it about reality that insures the everlastingness of truth? Bergson gives us a partial clue in his analysis of duration:

. . . our duration is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never be anything but the present -- no prolonging of the past into the actual, no evolution, no concrete duration. Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. And as the past grows without ceasing, so also there is no limit to its preservation. . . . In reality, the past is preserved by itself, automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside. . . . Our past, then, as a whole, is made manifest to us in its impulse; it is felt in the form of tendency, although a small part of it only is known in the form of idea.10

Whitehead’s philosophy expands upon Bergson’s insight that all of our past experiences remain present to us and continually influence us. It shows even more explicitly than Bergson’s that the preservation of the past in the present applies to the whole of cosmic reality and not merely to our own human memory. It maintains that it is of the very essence of physical reality, and not only of consciousness, that whatever has happened in the past still abides in the present. We may briefly recall how Whitehead’s thought allows for this aspect of permanence within flux.

As actively feeling, inheriting and synthesizing the past, perished occasions, the actual occasions which are the ultimate constituents of the present universe preserve the past as an intrinsic aspect of their own "enjoyment." And leaving themselves open, after perishing, to being experienced by subsequent occasions, they pass on the past to their successors. We cannot overemphasize that every occasion is at root experiential. And the data that it experiences is the past. This past includes not only the immediate one, but also, in a vague sense at least, that of the entire universe. Thus nothing is ever totally lost. In perishing, the occasions of experience are not relegated to absolute nothingness but instead are assigned an "objective immortality" in the experience of subsequent occasions. The transition of things does not entail loss but preservation. In their perishing, cosmic events hand themselves over to assimilation by the present and thus are allowed to persist "immortally" as causally influential moment after moment. This objective immortality through which each event is "saved" by being deposited in the experience of subsequent events is the basis for the truth of the statement that "Darwin lived."11

The Loss of Immediacy

Still, our anxiety in the face of perishing will not be allayed by these cosmological considerations alone. For though we may concede the plausibility of an "objective immortality" we may still be troubled by the obvious loss of immediacy of enjoyment that characterizes all experience, ours included. Is there any sense in which such immediacy does not fade?

Whitehead himself considers this question to be perhaps the most important one that philosophy and religion have to deal with:

The world . . . is haunted by terror at the loss of the past, with its familiarities and its loved ones. It seeks escape from time in its character of ‘perpetually perishing.’

This is the problem which gradually shapes itself as religion reaches its higher phases in civilized communities. The most general formulation of the religious problem is the question whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities, bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss.12

The incursion of novelty into the world means that the present has to give way, has to perish. And this fading of the present into the past, and then the fading of the past itself is the "ultimate evil in the temporal world."13 It is this loss of immediacy that calls forth our most anguished questioning.

The present fact has not the past fact with it in any full immediacy. The process of time veils the past below distinctive feeling. There is a unison of becoming among things in the present. Why should there not be novelty without loss of this direct unison of immediacy among things?14

Paul Tillich interprets this anxiety about the loss of the present into an irretrievable past in terms of our own mortality. What makes us anxious about our having to die, he says, is not simply the possibility of our ceasing to be. Even more, it is the "anxiety of being eternally forgotten."15 The possible fading of our memory into complete oblivion where no traces of our having existed remain is what terrorizes us. Tillich maintains that humans were never able to bear the thought of having their experience thrust into a past where it would be totally lost. And this is the reason why they have always sought in diverse ways to erect obstacles to the diminishment of their memory.

. . . the Greeks spoke of glory as the conquest of being forgotten. Today, the same thing is called "historical significance." If one can, one builds memorial foundations. It is consoling to think that we might be remembered for a certain time beyond death not only by those who loved us or hated us or admired us, but also by those who never knew us except now by name. Some names are remembered for centuries. Hope is expressed in the poet’s proud assertion that "the traces of his earthly days cannot vanish in eons." But those traces, which unquestionably exist in the physical world, are not we ourselves, and they don’t bear our name. They do not keep us from being forgotten.16

So perennially people have asked: "Is there anything that can keep us from being forgotten?" Is there anything that might guarantee that nothing real is ever totally pushed into the past?17 Affirmation of purpose has always required some positive answer to these questions. Unless perishing is not absolute, unless transience is somehow compensated, it is extremely difficult to imagine how anything could be imbued with lasting significance. And unless our experience of having lived and suffered and enjoyed is somehow salvaged in its immediacy we will probably remain with our anxiety about death.

William James has written with deep feeling concerning the inability of a materialist philosophy of nature to prevent the complete fading of present enjoyments. Our longing for a permanence within the stream of passing events is destined for frustration if the universe is anything like that portrayed by scientific materialism:

That is the sting of it, that in the vast driftings of the cosmic weather, though many a jewelled shore appears, and many an enchanted cloud-bank floats away, long lingering ere it be dissolved -- even as our world now lingers for our joy -- yet when these transient products are gone, nothing, absolutely nothing remains, to represent those particular qualities, those elements of preciousness which they may have enshrined. Dead and gone are they, gone utterly from the very sphere and room of being. Without an echo; without a memory; without an influence on aught that may come after, to make it care for similar ideals. This utter final wreck and tragedy is of the essence of scientific materialism as at present understood.18

God and Perishing

It is in response to this pessimism about perishing that Whitehead’s cosmological speculations turn into theological ones.19 He interprets the religious intuition of divine care as one in which the immediacy of our experience is contained in God’s experience without fading, without the loss that we feel in our own temporal perishing. The religious symbolization of such divine care can be observed in numerous places: for example, Jesus’ belief that the very hairs of our head are numbered, that the lilies of the field are clothed by God’s grace; or the psalmist’s cry: "Thou hast entered my lament in thy book, my tears are put in thy flask" (Ps 56:8). We could give countless examples of this religious intimation that somehow every experience is salvaged and preserved eternally in its full experiential immediacy. But I think Tillich’s words capture this religious optimism as well as any:

Nothing truly real is forgotten eternally, because everything real comes from eternity and goes to eternity. And I speak now of all individual men and not solely of man. Nothing in the universe is unknown, nothing real is ultimately forgotten. The atom that moves in an immeasurable path today and the atom that moved in an immeasurable path billions of years ago are rooted in the eternal ground. There is no absolute, no completely forgotten past, because the past, like the future, is rooted in the divine life. Nothing is completely pushed into the past. Nothing real is absolutely lost and forgotten. We are together with everything real in the divine life.20

Whitehead’s thought elaborates on the possibility of God’s preserving the past in such a way that its original immediacy of enjoyment does not fade. There is an aspect of God’s being (called God’s Consequent Nature) by which God feels or experiences everything that occurs.21 God is understood here as the ultimate recipient of all the experiences that make up the cosmic process. God retains in increasingly intense aesthetic feeling all of the vividness of immediate feeling that makes up each actual entity. God is, therefore, the feeling of all feelings, transcending the latter and gathering them together in an ever expanding pattern of beauty. Even though each momentary occasion may have lost its subjective sense of present vividness, God’s own feeling preserves it in its full immediacy. Divine care also weaves into itself all of the local contradictions in cosmic experience, transforming them into a harmony of contrasts, into an unfathomable beauty. It is in this sense that the aesthetic perspective surpasses the ethical in providing a scheme for understanding divine purposiveness.

Thus God’s own experience salvages what from our perspective is considered to be loss. God ". . . saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own experience."22 Each experience adds a dimension of novelty and contrast and is, therefore, eternally rescued by its "relation to the completed whole."23 It is in God’s own experiential vulnerability to the cosmic process that the problem of chance in evolution also receives at least one aspect of a response. Whatever from our perspective appears to be an irremediable loss or an unintelligible deviation from cosmic order is felt by God’s own feeling and transformed into contrast contributing intensity and beauty to the "wider vision." God is ". . . a tender care that nothing be lost" 24 including the vagrancy of random occurrences.


In God’s feeling of the world the uniqueness and individuality of each aspect of reality is preserved as such. (As far as humans are concerned, there is no reason for us to reject the possibility of some sort of subjective survival beyond death as well as an objective immortality in God’s own feeling.)25 The universality of the aesthetic purposiveness of the cosmos does not diminish the value of each individual occasion by allowing it to be dissolved into the totality. The universal harmony that Dostoevski’s Ivan Karamazov loathed because of its insensitivity to particular sufferings is foreign to this teleological vision (as I shall show in more detail in the following chapter). God’s sensitivity to the particular feelings of every entity is unfading even while giving it a wider meaning than it can itself comprehend.

Nevertheless, the vision of God as sensitive to and preservative of all the world’s experiences does not respond to an irrepressible question: granted that God empathetically embraces our joys and sufferings with everlasting immediacy, why would God allow suffering to happen in the first place? We shall now turn our attention to this issue.


1. For Whitehead’s discussion of "perishing" see especially Process and Reality, pp. 340-41; 346-51.

2. See Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp.

191 -- 92; and Alfred North Whitehead, "Immortality," in Paul A. Schillp, ed., The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1941), pp.

682 -- 700.


3. Alfred Lord Tennyson, "In Memoriam" (from Stanzas

54 and 56).

4. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, pp. 191-92.

o. Ibid., p. 192.

6. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 318.

7. Arthur Hugh Clough, "It Fortifies My Soul to Know."

8. Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection (Lasalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1962), p. 250.

9. Cf. ibid., pp. 245-62.

10. Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. 5.

11. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 29, 60, 81-82, 846-


12. Ibid., p. 340.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), p. 33.

16. Ibid., p. 34.

17. Ibid.

18. William James, Pragmatism (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, Meridian Books, 1964), p. 76.

19. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 337-51, and "Immortality," pp. 682-700.

20. Tillich, The Eternal Now, p. 35.

21. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 345-51.

22. Ibid., p. 346.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. See John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology. An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 123f.