According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Robert B. Mellert - What Is Process Theology: Preface, Chapters 1 & 2



Introduction to Process Theology
by R.E. Slater


The "Process of Theology" is not the same as "Process Theology". In classical terms biblical hermeneutics has always been viewed as working from the original language of the Hebrew or Greek manuscripts outwards to an understanding of God resulting in a faith response from that spiritual understanding. Now, if the derived meaning of one's "understanding" or "interpretation" is "agreed upon" by enough people then religious Christian fellowships will work those thoughts into their teachings, creeds or dogmas of the bible - both biblically and systematically. From this "a faith-action of one kind or another" is subsequently undertaken. Practically speaking, such actions have been as good as they have been bad for humanity. Some actions have given us horrible religious inquisitions, tyrannies and oppression while others have provided a healing unity across societies. Telling us that it is as important to make sure of one's understanding of the spiritual before it is acted upon in resultant faith-actions.

Of course, a religious Christian group's faith-understanding/interpretation of God changes from one era to the next, from circumstance to circumstance, and from situation to situation. Thus identifying a common sense axiom telling us "There are as many variables which might affect a faith-belief as there are processes in which to effectuate that faith-belief." Which is why there are so many different kinds of Christian faiths reflected through thousands of faith-forms and worship-varieties within Christianity. Then, after a little while when some time has passed, some prophet or preacher, or body of "sanctioned interpreters", will come along and declare a past/present faith-understanding either  anathema to the faith or worthy of being followed either in its parts, or its whole, which action then incorporates itself into the hoary traditions of a Christian faith tradition. Some groups may "canonize their faith understanding" through "Catholic Encyclicals" while others may codify them into "Protestant Creedal Confessions." After which these adapted faith-understandings are embedded into the adopting fellowship's ways of thinking and behaving according to their belief systems.

Now with so many variants of Christianity a 21st century Christian might question how one might pick-and-choose between the many strains-and-forms of the Christian faith. Or ask why those forms area the way that they are in their structure-and-content. Or even whether or not those synchretized beliefs hold any validity for today's contemporary societies. As example, consider the commonly accepted orthodox teaching that "God never changes."  It's context can be found in the NT Church's grasp of the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) expressing Greek Hellenistic thought of who or what "The Divine" was or is in His Being.  Many centuries later it became the mantra of the early medieval church when faced with the unsettling ideas arising from science. Today it is used again to disavow any kind of display of humanity to the transgender, homosexual, gay or lesbian. Such rigorous fiats leave no room for interpretative disagreement or culturally benevolent engagement except to engage its declaration flatly in its form of solitary binary thinking common to Cartesian dualistic systems.

However, in deference to such flat fiats, one begins to wonder how older philosophical systems could so strongly "color" our thinking about the character of God as to cause Christian beliefs to react in assertive dogmatic statements with a finality that would bar no trespass to other ideas on this subject. Rightly we may ask, "Are such traditionally accepted faith expressions viable to the Christian faith?" Perhaps God does change. Or perhaps we change. Or perhaps we both change in relation to one another. At which point the "parsing" of God's character begins all over again as to who-is-right and who-is-wrong. In other words, competing religious bodies within Christian orthodoxy begin asking the question whether an understanding/interpretation of Scripture had been rightly understood and is being rightly applied? Or even, was it actually implied in the original autographs of the biblical record as claimed by the various prophets and priests of its day likewise influenced by the epochal philosophies of their day in which they thought and lived within the community's social/cultural restraints, mores and beliefs?

Process Theology then is a way of stepping out of all of this interpretive mileu to ask the larger philosophical questions of Divine engagement (i) with creation, (ii) in relationship to Jesus' Atonement and Reconciliation, and (iii) what Divine engagement might mean to our lives and societies today. It takes the entirety of the "process of theological interpretation outcome" to then rearrange that set of processes within a broader philosophical process known as "Process Theology." Hence, the former is a way of rearranging our understanding of God whereas the latter is a way of rearranging our understanding of our understanding of God.

As such, Process Theology is not a new kind of biblical hermeneutic but rather circumscribes the entirety of theological interpretations from apprehension to outcome. In essence, it is a different way of bringing God into the human psyche of faith and faith-response by asking of our motivations and whether we had considered our living faith when set within a more subtler, more fundamental, process seemingly everywhere present around us except perhaps in our classically-held theologies. This is the value of difference, of questioning, of deconstructing, and reconstructing one's beliefs to be more in accordance with the bedrocks of the Christian faith we would teach rather than the accepted traditional norms of the Christian faith we choose to hold and believe. Process Theology is a philosophical outlook to the kind of theology we think we see in the bible telling us of God. If so, we should know what this kind of theology is and how it may be important to the Christian faith. Let us begin with Mellert's discussion of Process Theology.

Peace,

R.E. Slater
October 5, 2017

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What Is Process Theology?


Dr. Mellert is an assistant professor in the department of theological studies at the University of Dayton.

Published by Paulist Press, New York, Paramus, Toronto, 1975. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Summary

(ENTIRE BOOK) Dr. Meller writes about Whiteheadian thought, without the jargon and technical intricacies, so that the lay person might have better understanding of the thinking of the founder of process philosophy.

Chapters

Few libraries had any books on Whiteheadian thought in 1947 when he died. Today libraries of all sorts have shelves laden with books trying to explain, interpret and apply his thinking, but these authors are inclined to talk to each other. The author attempts to make process thought understandable to the rest of us.

The core of process thought: Rather than a “substance theology” based on static, spatial models, process thought “switches gears” to a concern with spatial-temporal models such as change in God, Christ becoming divine and the on-going process of revelation.

Some basic Whiteheadian concepts: becoming, actual occasions, eternal objects, prehensions.

The author contrasts Whitehead’s thought with traditional religions which start with proof of God. Whitehead inverts the process, starting with the experience of religion and grasping the truth that there is more at issue in the world than the world itself.

God is constantly changing as he includes more and more reality in his consequent nature. What we do on earth makes a difference in the very reality of God.

Dr. Mellert discusses the relations both of God to the world and the world to God.

Process thought is being compatible with the presumptions of Christian faith and is friendly with Christian ideas regarding body and soul.

Jesus is unique because in his humanity he presents a more perfect model of ideal humanity than has ever existed, or will ever exist. He is divine because of the realization of that divinity within him.

The Church is a process whereby individuals come to believe in Jesus and add the weight of their belief to the furtherance of the process that is the Church. The Church is not a stable, immutable institution that has existed since the time of Jesus.

In the process perspective, each sacramental action is both created by the community and creative of the community. Concrete experiences of the past contribute positively to the present and are immanently incorporated in what the present is becoming.

The new and the old morality are both inadequate. Process thought can make important contributions to the old and new because it is both metaphysical and flexible.

Process theology as a provider of a solid philosophical framework for a great diversity of human experience and belief. It therefore is helpful in synthesizing the diversity of interpretations of immortality.

The notion of relativity that process theology employs is discussed. All reality is inter-related in space and time, and no single real entity has a prior absoluteness that stands outside the process of reality as a whole.


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Preface

During the 1960’s a remarkable revival of the thought of the contemporary American process philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, took place in the studies and dens of graduate students in philosophy. It was remarkable because, although he died in 1947, Whitehead was only a few cards in the library catalogue until, during the past decade and continuing into the present, literally shelves of books have been written explaining his thought, interpreting it, and applying it to a variety of areas.

One of the most fruitful applications of Whiteheadian thought has been in the area of theology. In fact, the study of "process theology" in departments of religion and theology has perhaps equaled, if not exceeded, the study of process thought in departments of philosophy where it all started. This, despite the fact that Whitehead was no theologian, and indeed, after a short period of curiosity, he sold all his theology books and never returned to the subject.

Today every respectable graduate school of theology has its process theologian, or at least someone able to teach the subject adequately. And consequently, more and more people engaged in religious education — religion teachers, seminarians, catechetics coordinators, clergy, and interested laymen — have heard about process theology and perhaps have seen references to it. But a comfortable familiarity with what it is all about has, for most of them, been an elusive goal.

This little book is written as a reply to my many friends who have asked me, in the midst of conversations going in various directions. "What is process theology?" I have never really known how to respond to that question briefly and politely. Surely there is no way to reply adequately, short of three credit hours or a select bibliography. Now, at least, I can tell them where they might get started.

It is my hope that this volume will help to "bridge the gap" between the professional philosophers and theologians and the many other persons who are looking for a basic familiarity with process theology but who do not have the time to struggle with the complexities of the process system as a whole. There is, I feel, a great need for such a volume. Once process philosophers and theologians have mastered the jargon and technical intricacies of Whitehead’s thought, they generally prefer to share the intellectual excitement of their work with each other, rather than to attempt repeated explanations for the benefit of the uninitiated. Thus, journal articles abound since the early 1960’s, but only fleeting references are found in the more widely circulated religious magazines. Hopefully, the 1970’s will see a better dissemination of this mode of thought to a broader range of interested persons.

There are already indications that this is beginning to take place. Graduate students have received their degrees in Whiteheadian studies and are now teaching undergraduates. Institutes have been conducted to acquaint clergy and laity. And recently two volumes of collected writings have appeared in paperback: Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, edited by Delwin Brown, Ralph James and Gene Reeves,1 and Process Theology, edited by my friend and former teacher, Ewert Cousins.2

My own work here will attempt to simplify as best I can the foundations of process philosophy and to suggest ways in which I find it helpful for explaining Christian thought. My own orientation in Christianity has been in the Roman Catholic tradition, and this may in part determine the topics I choose and the ways in which I treat them. However, this should not dissuade readers of other Christian traditions because the differences are, for the most part, negligible for the beginner in process theology.

A greater danger lies in over-simplification and distortion, and I am very much aware that in "watering down" Whitehead for the popular palate, I may in fact destroy the real flavor of his philosophy. This would be a grave disservice both to Whitehead and to my own conviction that process thought has a very important contribution to make to our age of critical religious rethinking and reconstruction.

Nevertheless, process philosophers and theologians must not be allowed to talk only to each other. Others, too, must be initiated, and they must begin with simpler things. If this book, as a simple thing, spurs someone on toward the greater things, or if it simply convinces someone that there might be greater things than he had previously conceived of in his theology, then I shall have achieved the goal I have set for myself and my efforts will be adequately rewarded.

Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to the numerous persons who have helped me and encouraged me in this work. I wish to mention especially the University of Dayton’s Summer Research Institute, which provided me with a grant to begin this project; Rev. Matthew Kohmescher, S.M., my department chairman; and two personal friends. Sister Carol Gaeke, O.P., and Ellen Simonetti, who graciously read the manuscript and suggested many improvements.


Notes:

1. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

2. New York: Newman Press, 1971.

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Chapter 1: Why Something New?

The term “process philosophy” has taken on a special meaning in the past two decades of American thought. Although many philosophers in history have written from a process perspective, the term today is reserved for a particular school of thought centered around the works of Alfred North Whitehead, whose philosophical writings spanned the two decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the two countries of England and the United States. From its inception, but especially in the past fifteen years, Whitehead’s process philosophy has been attracting students and scholars at numerous universities to study and elaborate upon his basic insights. Recently a special institute and a professional journal have been established to aid the growth of Whiteheadian studies in this country and abroad.

What are the origins of Whitehead’s thought, and why is he attracting so much attention today? What is his value for theology in this age of radical thinking? Is Whitehead just one more passing fad, or does his philosophy provide a solid, durable basis for understanding and interpreting the Christian faith?

The roots of process thought, like most of Western philosophy, can be traced back to the Greeks. The most ancient of the specifically “process” thinkers is probably Heraclitus. Unfortunately, the ideas of Heraclitus and his contemporary Parmenides are available to us only in a few fragments, and these provide merely a hint of their thought. We are told that Heraclitus once observed that one could never step into the same river twice (because by the time one steps into it the second time the water has already moved downstream), and that the basis of reality was change and flux. This idea was in sharp contrast with Parmenides, who suggested in his poem about nature that “being” was prior to “becoming,” and that underlying every change was some more fundamental reality that endured. By a fateful choice of history, Parmenides became the father of metaphysics and the basis for later Greek philosophy, while Heraclitus was largely ignored. As a result, the thrust of Greek thought, and most of Western thought thereafter, was derived from the static concepts of “being,” “substance,” and “essence,” rather than the more dynamic concepts of “becoming,” “process,” and “evolution.”

Whitehead likewise acknowledged his indebtedness to the Greeks, especially to Plato. Indeed he once remarked that all of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. Although Plato is not a process philosopher, his thought can be reconciled with a process perspective. This is exactly what Whitehead did. How he reconciled them is not as important to us here as the knowledge that contemporary process thought, following Whitehead, is both processive in character and Platonic in spirit. When we discuss some of the basic concepts of Whiteheadian philosophy in the next chapter, the implications of these facts will become more clear.

Whitehead’s increasing importance today in America can be attributed to the fact that his philosophy arises out of the Hellenic tradition and emerges in an age of rapid change. Because he is thoroughly a part of our Western tradition, his insights are not alien to our cultural presuppositions. For all the difficulty of understanding his thought, he can be more readily grasped and appreciated by Western man than can, for example, Oriental thought, because Whitehead’s thought is built upon what is already familiar to us in our own Western culture and tradition.

But today there is developing a certain discontent with our culture and its tradition, and a certain suspicion regarding its capacity for radical change. There is the feeling that our institutions, both civil and ecclesiastical, and even the thinking that inspired them, are inadequate and insufficient to meet the future. Doubts of this kind are fundamentally philosophical doubts about the ability of our philosophies to deal with change as a fundamental category of reality. Our philosophical heritage is being questioned in the light of a rapidly changing culture.

One of the reasons for this radical questioning is that the very way in which we perceive reality has been changing. Until very recent times we were quite content and intellectually satisfied with the way Parmenides viewed the universe. There was an underlying stability to our institutions, our culture, and our lives. But in recent years we are being confronted more forcefully with the fact of change, and with the fact that the rate of change is itself increasing.

All of this rapid changing has created for us a new perception of reality. No longer is reality fundamentally stable, with change being merely an accidental alteration of its makeup. Today reality itself is experienced as being in constant flux, so that the basic category of reality is process, not stability. In a more sophisticated way we have returned to the insight of Heraclitus: we cannot step into the same river twice because our world is not the same world twice. Reality is a process.

There is also another way in which our perception of reality has been changing. Because of new means of communication and rapid methods of transportation the world seems much smaller to us now than it did just a couple of generations ago. Today, a political event in the Middle East has instant repercussions on the stock market in New York. thus changing the financial plans of people around the world. Our astronauts, relying on the precision technology of a team of scientists, can travel to the moon and back in half the time it took our grandparents to cross the Atlantic to settle in this country, and the event is seen live on television sets around the world. We experience more than ever before the interrelatedness of the people and things in our universe and the interdependence of reality as a whole.

We experience this relational character of reality also in our heightened sensitivity to the natural environment and to the historical context out of which things emerge. Knowing whether a child comes from the suburbs or the ghetto, from a loving family or a broken home, gives us certain insights into his conduct and suggests certain methods of helping him mature. Or, to use a different example, we learn to understand and interpret certain events in history or expressions in literature according to the context in which they arose. To know something requires knowledge of its environment and context, because nothing exists in isolation. Every bit of reality is essentially related to the totality of reality in its own unique way, and it depends upon the rest of reality for its origin, meaning and value.

Whitehead was very conscious of this interrelatedness of reality, and it is an essential part of his philosophical theory. In fact, he chose to call his philosophy the “philosophy of organism” because he based it upon a theory of the real relatedness of things. That is why his thinking tends toward integrating and synthesizing, rather than individualizing and classifying. Reality is first of all a complex unity, or organism, and each element in that unity is itself an organismic unity. One of his purposes for doing philosophy is to suggest how they all interrelate. The concept of organism provides the model for understanding this relatedness and integration of all reality.

Because Whitehead is a part of Western tradition and takes it into account in the development of his own thought, and because he gives us a philosophical system that is essentially processive in character and relational in structure, his philosophy of process and organism seems more relevant to contemporary needs than any of the “substance philosophies” that are more common in this tradition. This is the basic advantage of Whitehead. Whereas most of Western thought is formulated in static, individuating and non-temporal concepts, Whitehead adds the temporal and integrative dimensions that make his system dynamic, holistic and four-dimensional. This is the reason why he finds it necessary to invent a new vocabulary to explain his philosophical concepts. The next chapter will be devoted to defining and explaining some of the most significant Whiteheadian terms.

The reasons that make Whiteheadian thought important for philosophy also make it relevant for theology. No institutions are more tied to their respective traditions than religious institutions, and nowhere has the accelerating rate of change been more upsetting and misunderstood than in the Christian churches of the last two decades. This has been particularly true in the Catholic Church, which has guarded its individuality more tenaciously than its Protestant brethren, and which is still in the throes of the radical (and reactionary) renovation that Vatican Council II was supposed to have resolved.

There is in many Christian, and especially Catholic circles today a tendency to blame theology for the confusion and to demand a simple, unquestioning act of faith. According to such thinking, any attempt to formulate a theological perspective according to Whiteheadian — or any — thought is to continue the confusion and frustrate the return to a peaceful Christian orthodoxy. But an appeal to faith is not a solution to intellectual problems, and an appeal to orthodoxy is simply an appeal to the expression of faith of the Christians of another era who formulated that orthodoxy. Faith is not a substitute for thought, and orthodoxy is not a substitute for either. Rather, faith is the immediate occasion for challenging and developing thought so that it can better integrate itself with reality as a whole. This is precisely the function of theology. According to the old Latin expression, theology is fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Although this expression goes back to the early traditions of Christian theology, it is still applicable today. Faith does seek understanding; it does not replace understanding. And the understanding it seeks must be discovered in conjunction with the most enlightened perception of reality available to it in a particular historical epoch.

Whitehead is becoming important for Christian theology because he provides us with such an enlightened perception of reality. He sees reality in a way that makes sense to our contemporary mind. Those who, like Whitehead, see reality in terms of process and organism, and who likewise believe in a special revelation that comes to man in the Christian tradition, will seek to integrate what they believe with what they see. This is precisely what Augustine did with the philosophy of Plato and what Thomas Aquinas did with the philosophy of Aristotle. Each sought to integrate his Christian faith with the best available understanding of reality as a whole. This is the fundamental task of theology. It is the immediate task of any believer who thinks about what he believes, and who lives on the basis of his beliefs.

To suggest that we ought to return to the “original faith” and ignore theology is to reject any attempt to think about our faith in our contemporary context or to integrate what we believe with how we live in our contemporary world. To suggest that we ought to return to “orthodoxy” is to suggest that we can best express our faith today by disregarding the development of human philosophy subsequent to the original, or “orthodox” expression of that faith. Such suggestions are blind to the processive and contextual character of reality as a whole, where faith must ultimately find its meaning.

What process theologians are attempting to do is essentially the same as what Augustine and Thomas did: to express their Christian faith in the conceptual language of a philosophy that makes sense to their age. But can process theologians actually write a theology in the sense that Augustine and Thomas did? That is, can they truly integrate their philosophy with the beliefs of the Christian community and provide those beliefs with a credible foundation in reason?

To answer such questions, we must do some reflection on what we expect of a theology. First, it must be based upon a conviction that a particular person, event or tradition has a special revelatory significance for man. For Christian theology, that event is the person of Jesus and the tradition that has developed in his Spirit. Second, it must seek to understand that conviction in a coherent, consistent and relevant way. Here the Christian is free to choose whatever philosophical perspective can best integrate his faith with his view of reality as a whole. The perspective that he chooses will determine the way in which he expresses his faith. That is, his choice about a philosophy will determine the shape of his theology. Consequently, there can be many theologies endeavoring to explain the one faith. Unity in faith comes from a common belief in the revelatory significance of Jesus; plurality in theology comes from differing views regarding the nature of reality into which that faith must be integrated.

Process theology is a theology that uses processive and organismic models to explain the faith of Christians in the person of Jesus and the events and traditions that he has inspired. It is still theology in the traditional sense of “faith seeking understanding.” But it is different from traditional theology in that it uses the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (instead of Plato or Aristotle) to express and integrate that belief into our contemporary perception of reality — a perception which is increasingly sensitive to integration and change as the fundamental reality.

It is indeed a difficult task to “switch gears” from a theology based on static, spatial models alone, such as the essence of God, the natures of Christ, and the substance of bread and wine, to a theology that is concerned with spatio-temporal models, such as change in God, Christ becoming divine, and the on-going process of revelation. It is also difficult to change from an analytic approach, where one is constantly distinguishing among essentially different kinds of reality and the individual “beings” in each level of reality, to a more synthetic approach, where everything, including God, is ultimately explainable with one set of categories and is integrated with the reality of the whole. And yet, such concepts are not so strange to one who believes that God is alive and that religion ought to integrate and influence the dynamics of human living. Both Scripture and tradition contain much data to support the use of process models in the development of a Christian theology. Whether such a theology will ultimately find more acceptance among scholars and believers than the “substance theologies” of the past can only be tested by the passage of time.


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Chapter 2 Some Basic Concepts
http://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/chapter-2-some-basic-concepts/

Alfred North Whitehead was a man of many interests and many talents. Born in England in 1861, he entered the intellectual life before the deluge of scientific knowledge and the age of specialization. As a result, he was able to pursue and develop an expertise in several fields in a way that is perhaps no longer possible for anyone today. His interests first took him into the realm of science, and he made important contributions in both physics and mathematics. Only later did he turn his attention to philosophy. Throughout his life he maintained a lively interest in the literary and the fine arts. In addition, he was always an avid student of history.

Such a broad range of interests gives Whiteheadian philosophy a rare richness. But this richness is the cause of difficulty for the reader of a narrower ken. To master Whitehead is a long, arduous task. Even a comfortable acquaintance can be difficult because of the new terminology that Whitehead formulates and the new meanings he sometimes gives to old terms. Without these precisions of vocabulary, however, his unique insights are in danger of being lost.1

Whitehead’s basic insight is that reality is a series of interrelated becomings. How a thing becomes constitutes what a thing is. The process of becoming is more fundamental than the being that is achieved, and thus it is more important for philosophical study. It is perhaps interesting to note that the term “being” is actually a form of the verb, even though most philosophers use it as a substantive noun. To say that something is a “being” or has “being” is to attribute to it more than static reality. It is to infer a continuous existence in that reality through time. It is a being because it is being. Because this temporal connotation has been lost in speaking philosophically about “beings,” Whitehead prefers to speak philosophically about “becomings.” In this way he wishes to emphasize the fundamental processive character of reality.

This insistence on the temporal dimension of reality requires that Whitehead formulate a vocabulary that can lure us out of our static representations of reality. If, for example, someone were asked to identify the smallest unit of reality, he would probably say “the tiniest bit of matter, an atom, or perhaps an electron.” The problem with this answer is we not generally think of tiny bits of matter as becomings; we think of them as beings. Hence, to use bits of matter as the model for our philosophical understanding of the fundamental elements of reality is to freeze us into a static pattern of philosophical thought. Whitehead frees us from this kind of thinking by coining a new term: the fundamental elements of reality are actual occasions (which he sometimes calls actual entities or occasions of experience).

To enable us to understand what he means by this new term, Whitehead suggests a new model. Instead of bits of matter, we might better think of the basic units of reality as moments of experience. Moments of experience provide a more suitable model for understanding these fundamental elements of reality because they have a temporal thickness to them which bits of matter do not have. Thus, when we think of reality as consisting of moments of experience, we are conscious that reality is always becoming.

Another advantage of the “experience” model is that it demonstrates the essential interrelatedness of reality. A moment of experience cannot be thought of in isolation or as an independent entity. It is always an experience by someone of something, and it always requires antecedent experiences to give it meaning and relative importance. A moment of experience necessarily implies a reference to the world around it. Both process and interrelation are thus built into this model of reality, whereas they were only accidental to the old “bit of matter” model.

The concept of actual occasion is the central notion of Whiteheadian thought. Actual occasions, or “drops of experience,” are the final real things of which the world is made, and there is no going behind them to find anything more real. All of reality, from God to the most trivial puff of existence, is explainable in terms of actual entities, and only in these terms. They are the reasons for things. Outside of actual entities, there is nothing at all.

One clarification may be needed at this point. For Whitehead, experience need not be conscious experience. The latter belongs only to certain kinds of actual entities. Everything experiences: the balloon experiences relative air pressures; rock experiences the earth upon which it rests. Experience is basic to all real things. It is the reason why reality is interrelated as well as processive in character.

The other fundamental type of entity in Whitehead’s philosophy is called the eternal object. Eternal objects are pure possibilities. They are similar to Aristotle’s universals or Plato’s forms in that they are abstract. But they differ because they do have a real mode of existence in actual entities. They likewise have a reference to other eternal objects, because relatedness is a condition of organism even at the level of abstraction. Examples of eternal objects are colors, sounds, scents and geometric characters. They are required for nature but they do not emerge from it the way actual entities do. They appear and disappear in many different contexts, and yet whenever they appear they are always the same. However, they do not have an independent or ideal existence apart from the actualities in which they are manifested. They are merely possibilities available for actualization. Whitehead defines them as pure potentials for the specific determination of fact.

The way in which every actual occasion is the subject of experiences brings us to the third important concept, prehension. At first glance, this term may look like a misspelling of “apprehension.” The similarity is not accidental. Both are derived from the Latin, meaning “to take.” The word “apprehension” connotes “taking hold of” something, understanding it, and finding its meaning. It is the action of a subject perceiving an object and evaluating its import for the future. However, before a subject can take hold of and understand an object in this sense, it must be relate to that object. The fact of being related to something is more fundamental than a subjective perception of an object. Prehensions, says Whitehead, are the concrete facts of relatedness.

The fact of relatedness has a further implication that is not contained in the word “apprehension,” but which is essential to Whitehead’s notion of “prehension.” A child is related to his parents differently from the way in which his parents are related to him. Whereas parents are only externally influenced by their children, a child’s very existence, his genetic inheritance, and parental influences during early childhood all help to determine how he is to mature and grow. He “takes” from his parents his very reality as an individual person. An emerging entity is similarly related to eternal objects and past actual entities in that these are the elements out of which the new entity is to become. Prehension, therefore, also indicates that the relatedness of these elements to the emerging actual entity is determinative because the relatedness constitutes the entire data available to that entity in its process of becoming. In the language of the Scholastic philosophers, a prehension would be roughly equivalent to a “real relation.” That is, the relation of the things prehended to the subject prehending determines what that subject will become.

Another way of understanding “prehension” is in terms of “feeling.” As an actual occasion or moment of experience emerges, it “feels” all the data available to it in its own universe. These are its prehensions. They can be of two kinds, physical or conceptual. Physical prehensions relate the emerging entity to the actual occasions of the immediate past that are within its scope and enable it to “feel” them. Conceptual prehensions are “feelings” of relevant eternal objects.

Every actual occasion prehends both physically and conceptually during the formation of its own unique synthesis. The more it prehends physically, the more it tends to repeat what it feels from the past; the more it prehends conceptually, the more novelty is introduced. It is important to emphasize again in this context that because a prehension is a determinative relationship, these “feelings” are not accidental additions or modifications of the actual entity (as “apprehension” would imply), but constitutive of it. An actual entity is what it feels.

Because an actual occasion is merely a drop of experience, we are generally conscious only of groups of actual occasions, or nexus (plural of nexus). A nexus is a set of actual occasions experienced as related to each other. Sometimes it is called a society of occasions. The human body is a society of this type because the actual occasions of each part of the body are experienced as being spatially connected in the formation of a single body. An illustration of this kind of nexus might be a loosely crocheted garment, where the knots constitute the actual occasions and the connecting threads their relatedness. Man is, in addition, a serial nexus, i.e., a series of actual occasions, or a stream of personal experiences that can be traced through a definite period of history. A serial nexus might be described as a “motion picture” film, in which a rapid series of individual occasions of experience project movement.

The nexus is the way in which Whitehead explains the real connections of things in space and time. Moments of experience are intrinsically related to each other by prehensions to form nexus. It is the real connections of things that we perceive, not the individual actual occasions. Our experience of reality is in terms of networks and patterns. Nothing is experienced alone. Each nexus is perceived in the context of a wider nexus, just as each element of a nexus emerges out of the environment of that nexus. Every part of reality is as we perceive it — a part of a larger whole.

These four terms — actual occasions, eternal objects, prehensions and nexus — are the most important terms in the Whiteheadian vocabulary. We are now ready to explain how they fit together to form a philosophical perception of reality. The explanation will require the introduction of still more new terminology, but the new terms will be of lesser importance and will be more easily defined.

Each actual occasion emerges at a particular locus in time and space when that locus becomes the center of converging feelings, or prehensions. As it emerges it has its own particular subjective form, which controls the becoming of that subject. This subjective aim is directed toward the particular satisfaction that the actual occasion seeks to achieve. An emerging occasion prehends its relevant data according to its subjective aim and gives it focus according to that satisfaction.

The key to how an actual occasion becomes lies in the interaction that takes place between the subject (actual occasion) prehending and the data (past occasions and/or eternal objects) being prehended. How this interaction takes place is determined by the subjective form, which is the particular mood or attitude by which the subject prehends a particular datum. There are many species of subjective forms. Examples are emotions, valuations, purposes, aversions, aversions and consciousness. While an actual occasion can have only one subjective aim, the subjective forms depend upon its prehensions. One occasion, therefore, can involve a number of subjective forms.

Every act of prehending has its subjective form, but not every prehension contributes its datum to the emerging occasion. This is the reason for distinguishing between positive and negative prehensions. A prehension whose datum is included as a constitutive aspect of the occasion is a positive prehension; one in which the datum is eliminated from feeling is called a negative prehension. This is why the new actual occasion is constituted by its prehensions of the past but it is not necessarily a mere repetition of the past. It can be constituted into a new and novel synthesis because it can prehend the elements of its past in different ways. In one sense, then, the past determines the present moment of experience, in that it is the only data available for the present; in another sense, the present moment of experience is free to determine how it is to become.

And yet, nothing of the past is ever really lost. Every actual occasion lives on, contributing its reality to the occasions that succeed it. This is the meaning of objective immortality. After the actual occasion achieves its subjective aim and reaches its own particular satisfaction, it perishes. That is. it can experience no longer. But it is not lost or annihilated, because it can still be experienced. It becomes an objective datum for future occasions to take account of, positively or negatively, in the continuance of process. As it is prehended, it is immortalized as a constitutive element of the nexus of occasions that continue to “feel” its impact on history.

Because each actual occasion is its own unique synthesis of its past, each contributes its own actualization to the totality of reality. Each becomes part of the many, and adds itself to the complex environment that gives rise to a new occasion. The new occasion emerges by the unique way in which it objectifies, immortalizes and brings to a new unity the elements of its relevant past. When it achieves that satisfaction, it, too, perishes, clearing the way for the process to continue. In Whitehead’s succinct phrase, “The many become one and are increased by one.”2

This is what Whitehead means by creativity. It is the ultimate principle by which the multiplicity of relevant data become one actual occasion, illustrating the fact that it is the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity. The three ultimate notions, then, are creativity, many, and one.

The above description of the process by which an actual entity becomes explains both the processive character of reality and the essential integration of reality as a whole. It should be noted that at every level of Whiteheadian thought we are dealing with unities of pluralities in dynamic inter-relation. In the above analysis of actual occasions as moments of experience, we have been discussing reality at its smallest, or microscopic level. Even at ‘this level the actual occasion, which is the smallest reality considered in process thought, is the unity of many prehensions. That is why actual occasions must themselves be understood as organisms.

In this point Whitehead’s thought is essentially different from those philosophical traditions where the miscroscopic elements are bits of matter. The presupposition in the latter is that every unity can be further broken down into its components, which are also real. One finally arrives at an ultimate unit of reality — an electron, for example — which can then be described abstractly in terms of locus, function, quality and quantity, etc. For Whitehead, there are no such fundamental units of reality because reality is composed of moments of experience and not bits of matter. When a moment of experience is analyzed into its components, these components (prehensions) are not real apart from the moment of experience, or actual occasion itself, even though they contribute reality to that occasion. Actual occasions, which are the final real things of the universe, are thus unities, not units of reality. Hence, ultimate reality is organismic reality. It cannot be broken down for further analysis except by forsaking the realm of real things for the realm of abstraction.

By analogy, nexus, or societies of actual occasions, are also organisms, because they are unities of more fundamental elements. Larger organisms are complex unities of smaller organisms. At the largest, or macroscopic level of reality the same pattern obtains. Reality as a whole is a complex unity of pluralities. Here, too. Whitehead’s central notion is manifested. The many become one and are increased by one. Each group of smaller unities that occasions the emergence of a larger, more comprehensive unity adds to the total sum of organisms in reality and thus adds to reality itself. For this reason, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts because the whole is itself a new reality beyond the parts. Therefore, both in its processive character and in its relational structure, creativity is achieved when multiplicities give rise to new unities and are thereby increased by those unities.

This, in very brief outline, is the basic structure of Whitehead’s thought. There are many other terms and concepts which have been purposely eliminated for the sake of simplicity. There are also many controversies regarding various aspects of the interpretation presented here, and these, too, have been set aside. Our main purpose has been merely to introduce the reader to what is fundamental in process philosophy so that the theological chapters which follow can be more fully and positively prehended.


Notes:

1. The discussion in this chapter is based upon Whitehead’s “Categorial Scheme.” as outlined in Process and Reality (New York: The Macmillan Company, Free Press Paperback edition, 1969), pp. 22-35.

2. Ibid., p. 26.


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