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
Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - 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
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Friday, October 6, 2017

Robert B. Mellert - What Is Process Theology: Chapters 5 & 6

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.


(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.

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.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 5: Creation, Grace, Glory and the Kingdom

When first published, Whitehead’s reflections about God were favorably received neither by his colleagues in the sciences nor by the religious thinkers who read his works. Scientists, who had come to know him for his careful empirical thinking, were confounded that he considered it important to include God as an essential part of his theoretical system. He seemed thereby to compromise their unspoken professional agnosticism and to mix religious matters with matters of fact. At the same time, he scandalized churchmen because his explanation seemed irreconcilable with their traditional understanding of God, and sometimes it even sounded blasphemous. God was no longer the unmoved mover, the Supreme Being, or the Creator of heaven and earth. There seemed precious little in Whitehead’s deity that could, by previous standards, even be recognized as divine.

As Whitehead’s thought became better understood among academic theologians and philosophers, it attracted a small but staunch group of followers who found his explanation of God to be both intellectually satisfying and religiously credible. Professor John Cobb, for example, says that Whitehead’s philosophy freed him to speak about God in a way that had been previously impossible for him.1 Others, too, have been persuaded, but for the most part they are members of the academic community interested in theology or philosophy. Whitehead’s insights are only gradually being filtered down for popular understanding and appraisal.

The most persuasive aspect of Whitehead’s God from a purely speculative point of view is that he can be integrally related to the world. Rather than the theologically tenuous points of contact between God and the world offered by most other theologies, process thought suggests that God is intimately a part of the world, and that the world is intimately a part of God. Indeed, for Whitehead, God is unthinkable without the world, and the world is unthinkable without God. God, no less than the world, is a relational term, because God must be the God of something to be a God at all. God needs a world in order to be God, just as the world needs God in order to be a world. Whitehead’s basic insight is that the need of each is completed only in its essential relation to the other.

There are two fundamental relationships between God and the world that every theology must consider. One is the relation of God to the world: the other is the relation of the world to God.

In Thomistic thought, the relation of God to the world is called a real relation. This is a technical phrase to describe that the relation constitutes the term of the relationship. That is to say, the term or object of the relation — in this case, the world — could not be what it is except for its relationship to the origin, or subject of the relation, namely, God. There are two ways in which this relation is expressed. In the first, God is related to the world as its creator, without whom the world would not exist. In the second, God is related to his people on earth in the order of grace, or supernatural life.

The first of these is the natural order. God is the Creator of all that exists, and he created all things ex nihilo (from nothing). His creatures are of many and differing kinds and species. Among them is man, who is unique in that he is composed of both matter and spirit. Man’s body is formed from the dust of the earth, but the soul is created by an individual act of God, at which moment the new human person comes into being. The soul is the spiritual part of man that enables him to be receptive to a sharing in the divine life. The individual creation of the soul and the gift of grace which God offers to it illustrate the second, or supernatural way in which God is related to the world. This relationship is expressed by various concepts in Christian theology, such as grace, divine in-dwelling, participation in the divine life, reconciliation, justification, etc. It is a supernatural relationship because it refers to the disposition of man’s soul without affecting what man is in his human nature. By it, the believer is constituted a child of God, as well as God’s creature.

The other relationship, that of the world to God, is in Thomistic theory a rational relation. This, again, is a technical phrase to designate that the relation only accidentally affects the term of the relation. That is to say, the relation simply adds something extrinsic to the object of the relation, without determining in any way what that object is in itself. In this context Thomistic thought often speaks about God’s extrinsic glory. It is the glory that the world gives to God by acknowledging his lordship in worship and obedience. It is distinguished from God’s intrinsic glory, which he has eternally in himself as Supreme Being, and to which his creatures can add nothing. At the end of the world the kingdom of God will be established such that God will receive the maximum external glory. The realization of the kingdom will in no way complete God or give him something of which he is in need, for God’s intrinsic glory is independent of the status of the kingdom’s perfection. God cannot be affected by his creatures except in an extrinsic, accidental way.

A theology based upon Whiteheadian thought differs radically from Thomistic theology in the way in which it describes the concepts of creation, grace, glory and the kingdom. But it can explain them coherently within its own philosophical system. This is what we shall now attempt to do. First, we shall consider the relation in which the two theologies are somewhat alike, that is, the relation of God to the world. This relation includes the concepts of grace and creation.

For Whitehead, as for Thomas, the relation of God to the world is a real, or constitutive relation. God is a formative element in the process or creativity. However, Whitehead rejects the mythical sense of creation in which God is an eternal Being who suddenly starts the time-clocks by an act of creating the material universe, including man. This account of creation, which holds that God created all things ex nihilo, does not explain whether or not God was a part of the nothingness out of which creation appeared. Whitehead wishes to avoid the controversy over whether there was before the beginning of things a Creator God who was and still is truly real and omnipotent. He rather affirms categorically that God is a real entity co-extensive in time with the reality of the universe, and that creativity is a way of understanding the whole process of reality, not the beginnings of reality. God, because he is real, corresponds to the categories of all reality by himself being an actual entity. Whether there was a first such entity and how it originated cannot be solved by pushing things back to the beginning, because the beginning of reality is ultimately unexplainable. The only explanation available to us comes from looking at the nature of process as a whole.

Whitehead thus demythologizes the notion of an original act of creation. He describes instead a moment-by-moment emergence of an infinite variety of actual occasions of experience, which he calls “creativity.” This process of creativity is, as we have seen, one of the ultimate principles in his scheme of thought. The nature of all reality is that it becomes. The concrete actualization of each new occasion takes place when the actual entity of God contributes an initial subjective aim to the convergence of prehensions at the appropriate locus in time and space. Consequently, while it is problematic to say that God creates ex nihilo, there is no difficulty in saying that God is like all other actual entities in that he makes a contribution to the concrete emergence of each actual occasion.

There is another way in which God contributes to the world, and that is by offering himself as an actual entity to be prehended. Each emerging actual occasion must take account of God, either positively or negatively, because God is part of the data of its relevant past and the one who makes available all possibility. In prehending God, therefore, the emerging occasion prehends not only the totality of reality as envisaged from its own particular perspective, but also the totality of possibility that is relevant to its own unique becoming. Thus, there is an envisagement of both the real and the possible. This is how God lures the world on to more interesting harmonies and contrasts.

One might argue that in fact God’s contribution of an initial aim and his contribution of himself as a datum of prehension are one and the same. Surely they are part of the same general relationship of God to the world. However, an emerging occasion has no freedom regarding its initial aim, which is posited as God’s formative contribution to that occasion. It does have freedom regarding the way in which it prehends God; otherwise a divine determination would control everything and God would not be a “fellow sufferer who understands.”2

If this is correct, then there is a ready parallel to traditional Christian belief. For there are ways in which God’s will is final for reality, such as the original act of creation and the individual creation of each man’s soul. And there are ways in which God’s actions upon us still leave us free, such as our acceptance or rejection of grace.

We can conclude, then, that there is a correspondence between Whitehead’s ideas regarding God’s relation to the world and the Christian beliefs about creation and grace. Although Whitehead would not posit divine creation as an explanation of the temporal origin of reality, he does ascribe to God a creative function in the emergence of each actual occasion. This function, which is God’s giving of an initial aim to each new occasion, is more like the individual creation of each human soul than the single act by which matter was created. This is appropriate, because Whitehead finds the conceptual as well as the physical in every actual occasion and thus assigns an element of spirit and self-determination to each of them.

There is further correspondence in the doctrine of grace and Whitehead’s theory of prehensions. Each actual occasion must take account of God by prehending him positively or negatively. In other words, God’s grace is always available in each new moment of history. But the free choice of each historical moment or occasion determines to what extent the influence of God will be allowed to enter into the concrete process. How each occasion chooses so as to maximize the importance of divinity for its own becoming constitutes its moral imperative. This will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter.

While the relation of God to the world is similar in both Thomistic theology and process theology in that it is a real relation in both, there is a fundamental difference between the two theologies in explaining the relation of the world to God. For Thomists, as we have seen, this relation is a rational, or accidental relation. For Whiteheadians, it is a real, or constitutive relation.

If it is true to say that God is an integral element in the creative advance of the world by the ways in which he contributes himself to it, it is also true to say that the world contributes itself to the becoming of God. This is because every actual occasion, when it perishes, is added to the consequent nature of God, where it is everlastingly preserved in an objective state. The objectification of past actual occasions in the consequent nature constitutes the sum of God’s physical prehensions. Without them, God would not be an actual entity and hence devoid of reality. Because the world contributes what it is physically to the everlasting nature of God, there is a legitimate sense in which we can say that the world makes God real, and without a world, there could be no real God.

Furthermore, when God prehends the world and takes it into himself in his consequent nature, he is thereby changed. As a result, process theology can affirm that what happens in the world does make a difference in God. In this sense, man does “create” his God, as Sigmund Freud and others have suggested. When properly qualified, even the Christian can believe this, because without something from the world that redounds back upon God, the world in its totality would have no meaning at all. In Thomistic theology this is God’s extrinsic glory. It is the world’s contribution to God. But whereas the latter describes this glory as only accidental to what God is in himself, process theology affirms that this contribution changes God and causes his divine becoming. Indeed, process thought maintains that the very reality of God’s concrete nature is completely dependent upon what each actual occasion of experience contributes to it. Everything that man does changes what God is essentially, because the relation of the world to God is a real relation and is thus constitutive of the term of that relation. God becomes because the world becomes. In Whitehead’s paradoxical language, “It is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God.”3

The addition of each actual occasion in the consequent nature of God means that God must be understood as a multiplicity as well as a single entity. This multiplicity is God in his function as kingdom of heaven. As every actual occasion perishes, it is preserved everlastingly in the consequent nature of God and it is immortalized as part of the kingdom. For God loses nothing that is to be saved. He takes all things up into himself and thereby manifests his kingdom. The kingdom of heaven, then, is already with us, in what God is drawing to himself.

It would be difficult to decide which is the more poetic description of the kingdom — Whitehead’s notion of the consequent nature of God or the traditional notion of heaven. There is surely a difference. For Whitehead, the kingdom includes more than merely rational beings. Each moment of creation finds its place in the divine reality, because each occasion manifests a conceptual as well as a physical aspect. Salvation is for all reality, because all reality has value for God and is saved by God. Everything ultimately contributes its own reality to the reality that is God.

This theme is already familiar to many Christians, especially to Catholics, in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For Teilhard, there is a culminative point in process, called the Omega Point, when all that emanated from God in creation returns to God in perfection. For Whitehead, there is no culminative point for the same reason that there is no beginning point. There is a cumulative effect as process continues. The many become one and are increased by one. The kingdom of God is always incomplete and always increasing. Indeed, God himself is incomplete and increasing, because the kingdom is identical with God’s own consequent nature. It is not outside of God, to be ultimately reconciled with him, but is rather an aspect of God himself and in constant reconciliation with him. Heaven is not merely seeing God face to face. It is being a part of God and sharing his divine life. The God who gives himself to us in grace is the God to whom we give ourselves in immortality. And just as our acceptance of God enables us to have supernatural life, so God’s acceptance of us enables him to have physical life.

Both Teilhard and Whitehead have been criticized on this point for suggesting that ultimately God includes the world in himself. Such a notion treads dangerously near pantheism, which has never been acceptable to Christian faith. Briefly, pantheism is the doctrine that God is nothing more nor less than the totality of reality, and that only the world deserves our worship because only it is divine. There is, however, a great difference between Whitehead’s description of God and the pantheist’s description. In the former, God includes within himself the totality of reality, but he is not identical to that totality. God is a reality distinct from the collectivity of all other reality. This notion of God as including reality and yet being his own reality is called panentheism. Literally, it means “all in God.” Unquestionably, it is a different description of God from that proposed by traditional theology, but it is not the same as the pantheism that Christian faith consistently has rejected.

Panentheism is actually a middle position between the transcendent, immutable God of Scholastic theology and the deification of the world in pantheism. It posits the individuality and uniqueness of God in a way that is not possible for pantheism. In Whiteheadian theology, for example, God is a unique, individual entity in at least two ways. First of all, he is the macrocosmic unity of all reality. Because in a philosophy of organism such as Whitehead’s, the whole is more than the mere sum of its parts, the unity of reality is more than the collection of all reality. The macrocosmic unity is itself an actual entity with its own reality in addition to the totality of reality that constitutes it. In this way, then, God is at the same time both the totality of reality and the actual entity that is this totality. Secondly, this unique actual entity, or organism, is the context or structure in which all the rest of reality becomes, because it includes both the totality of the past and the totality of possibility. In this way, too, God is an entity distinct from reality taken as a whole. Hence, the process theologian can talk about God as a real entity in his own right and yet maintain that all things are incorporated into God where they form his kingdom everlastingly.

The process theologian’s God, therefore, is both similar to and different from traditional theism and pantheism. It agrees with traditional theism and differs from pantheism in maintaining God’s individuality — that he is more than the structure and totality of the cosmos and that he is in one sense distinct from it. It agrees with pantheism and differs from traditional theism in maintaining God’s immanence to the world — that he is in all reality and that all reality is in him. In this sense reality is identifiable with the deity, for God’s reality cannot be less or other than all-inclusive of the structure and totality of reality in the cosmos. This is the middle way of panentheism. It is a way never formally considered by the Christian faith, and its ultimate acceptance or rejection will be determined only by whether it can persuade Christians that it is a more suitable explanation of what they believe about God than the traditional explanations.

The chief advantage of panentheism over traditional theism is that it more adequately describes the divine immanence in the world without compromising the divine transcendence. The latter is manifest in the fact that God is a unique actual entity, different from any other entity that has existed or can exist. And yet the function of that entity — indeed that which makes him unique — is to be immanent to the world and to take the world immanently into himself. This is the result of describing the relations of God to the world and the world to God as both being real relations. God is comprehensible only because of the world, and the world is comprehensible only because of God.

Traditional theology has always been faced with a certain ambiguity on this issue. On the one hand, God is seen as transcendent, other-worldly, and self-sufficient. He is essentially an outsider who created all things in the beginning and occasionally reaches back into the world in order to influence the process of events by his grace. But that process in no way influences the eternal Being of God. To the extent that traditional theology speaks about God in himself, he is transcendent; to the extent that it speaks about God’s grace, he is immanent. But how the transcendent God bridges the gap to become immanent, and why his grace touches some events and not others, are left to the realm of mystery.

Process theology, on the contrary, provides the believer with a God who is equally immanent and transcendent. In fact, given the process philosophical perspective, the difficulty does not even arise. God is really in the world, an integral part of its process. He touches each actual entity, not from the outside, but from within the process itself. He is constantly contributing himself to the whole of reality through the prehensive activity of all other actual entities. Each moment becomes what it is because of God’s contribution both of an initial aim and of himself as datum for the emergence of the new occasion. God touches all things because he is really a part of all things. He is his own self, and thus transcendent, but he is also within and indeed woven into the very tissue of each actual occasion in a most intimate way.

At the same time all things are immanent to God and touch him in his consequent nature. They touch God immanently because they are really a part of God as constitutive elements of that nature. Immanence, therefore, is a mutual relationship between God and the world. Indeed, mutuality is the condition for a genuine Immanence. This is why process theology holds that the relations both of God to the world and the world to God are real relations, and why it rejects the Scholastic notion that there can be a rational, or accidental relation of the world to God.


1. Cf., for example, his two books, A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965) and God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969).

2. Process and Reality, op. cit., p.413.

3. Ibid., p.410.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 6: Man

Besides being the age of science, the twentieth century has also been the age of man. Volumes have been written interpreting the human phenomenon from a variety of perspectives. In fact, entire sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology, have been developed into scholarly curricula for study and investigation at universities around the world. Some of the newly developed theories tend to support what Christians have traditionally believed about man, while others have challenged those beliefs. As a result, Christians have had to rethink and reformulate their opinions about the nature of man, while endeavoring to keep within the general tradition of their faith.

Process thought has its own interpretation of what man is. It differs in important ways from the traditional understanding of man, as well as from some of the more important new theories, such as existentialism and behaviorism. It is a philosophical interpretation, formulated in the difficult process terminology with which we have already become somewhat familiar. It is important to us not only because of its insights about man, but also because of its contributions to Christology, morality and immortality, which will be the subjects of later chapters.

As one might suspect from the preceding chapters, the human person is a very complex concept in Whiteheadian thought, raising many new and interesting questions never confronted by traditional philosophy. Man, like all other realities, is described in terms of actual occasions, not in terms of a single underlying substance. These actual occasions are in a serial order, so that the history of an individual man is traced out and defined by their continuity or historical route through time. What traditional philosophy called the individual substance of a man is called an enduring object in process philosophy in order to remind us of its composite and temporal nature. However, an enduring object is an abstraction from reality, and not the reality itself, which is the series of actual occasions.

Man is not the only kind of enduring object. Buildings, trees and planets also are series of actual occasions in historical patterns. The difference is that in man and the higher animals there is a unique coordination of many such occasions over a particular area called the body, and a unique inheritance of past occasions that is able consciously to identify a self through history. These coordinating occasions Constitute the personal living nexus of occasions by which a person is defined. There is, consequently, a basis for speaking about a body and a soul in Whiteheadian philosophy. It is, however, a very different kind of body and soul than is explained in traditional Christian doctrine. The distinction in process thought is not between the two component elements of matter and spirit conjoined to form a person, but between high-grade, or coordinating occasions, and low-grade occasions in a living nexus, each of which is its own reality.

Whitehead formulates his description of man on the basis of how we experience ourselves. For example, a man experiences his body as himself, and yet the self is also experienced as distinguishable from any particular part of the body. This explains why the “self” is not divided when one part of the body is severed from the rest. It also explains why experience always occurs through the mediation of the body. Actually, what a man experiences is a complex unity of happenings within a certain field that he identifies as the self. This complex unity is the coordinated functioning of the billions of cells that compose his body, thus suggesting that the body is a coordinated nexus of actual occasions in space and time. Many of these occasions also interact in specialized ways with each other, providing the internal functioning and the sense awareness of a living organism. They are all unified by a central occasion, probably located in the brain, by which the body considers itself one experiencing subject. This central occasion coordinates the various secondary centers which themselves coordinate and transmit what is happening in the various specialized functions of the body.

The actual occasions that constitute the body are truly identifiable with the self, but less so than is the central, or coordinating occasion by which the self is an experiencing subject. Nevertheless, the central occasion is never independent of the lower-grade occasions of the body, for it depends upon these for its data, its mood. and its every contact with the world outside. Beyond the body there are also occasions which are closely related to the central occasion, but which are not directly part of the body that it coordinates. These are mediated to the central occasion by the other occasions of the body. Ordinarily, this distinction between bodily occasions is easily made by the central occasion, or experiencing subject. For example, although I can speak of the instrument with which I am writing as my pen. I am intuitively aware that it is not a part of me in the same way in which my fingernails are. When we consider food or breath, however, the distinction is not as clear. At what point does a molecule of oxygen or a carbohydrate cease being what it is and begin to function as part of the body? The same problem exists in the psychological order when we try to define when an external event becomes an internalized emotion of the person. These examples simply illustrate the fact that the outer limits of the self cannot always be precisely established. Just as the self, or soul, seems to blend into the body, so too the body seems to blend into its immediate environment. Man is a difficult reality to isolate and define.

The body, therefore, is not principally that which identifies the self. It is that which links the self to the rest of reality. Or, to put it another way, the body is the way in which man is located in the world and made a part of it. Whitehead’s point is simply that there is a continuity of relationships from the central occasion that defines the self to the many remote occasions which the self cannot prehend. My body and my world are merely steps in these relationships by which all things are related in a total unity of reality.

The self, or coordinating occasion, is what corresponds most closely to the Christian concept of soul. Whitehead himself uses the term, but not with its religious connotation. He describes it vaguely as the life, or the mind of certain enduring objects; in man it is the experience of his own uniqueness.

The chief difference from traditional Christian thought is that Whitehead’s soul is not a substantial form that endures through time and into eternity. It is rather the succession of coordinating occasions that define the self. Whitehead refers to the soul as the “coordinated stream of personal experiences,” and as “the thread of life.”1 Clearly, these images are not interchangeable with those found in the Christian tradition. A second important difference from the tradition is that this soul does not distinguish man from other forms of creation because the soul is found in the more complex animals as well as in man. It exists in any enduring object where there is a single center of experience that coordinates the functioning of the organism as a whole. Having a soul is thus a matter of degree. Higher organisms have a higher-grade soul than lower organisms because they are constituted by a series of higher-grade actual occasions. Presumably, even among men there is a difference in soul. It is thus not a question of having a soul or not. As Whitehead puts the question, it is, “How much, if any?”2

If the soul is a series of actual occasions in a coordinating role vis-à-vis the total organism, how can it account for a man’s identity through time? The implications of this question are very important, because if there is no way of making such an accounting, then there is no way that a man’s past actions can be imputed to his present self. Without the same person enduring through time, there is no logical basis for accountability for the past or responsibility for what has been done.

The common assumption of every civilization is that such an accountability for the past can and ought to be made. This assumption is based on the premise that we are in fact the same person we were yesterday and even last year, despite the interval of time and the variety of new experiences that have intervened. And yet, change and the freedom to change also are generally assumed. The old man is no longer the child. He has changed both physically and psychically. In addition, there are moments in which a person may choose to reorient his life, sometimes in a very fundamental way. This kind of change is the basis for a metanoia, or conversion, whereby a person renounces the direction his life took in the past and determines on a new course of action. These changes, too, are changes in the self, and they likewise must be accounted for in any description of man’s soul. Therefore, a philosophy of man must be able to explain both the freedom of the present moment and the responsibility for the past if it wishes to be in accord with what civilizations generally presume.

The process philosopher has less difficulty in accounting for changes in the soul than he does in explaining its continuity. Change occurs as each occasion becomes its own unique synthesis of its past and its relevant environment. At every moment some change takes place, because every moment is a new synthesis. At some moments the change is great enough to be perceptible to the self and perhaps even to others. Such a moment occurs when a particular experience triggers a reorientation of relevant data and causes a metanoia. At any particular moment or occasion of its series, the soul is free to do this, because no occasion is fully determined in its own synthesis by the occasions that preceded it. Hence, there is always the freedom to initiate novelty and bring about a conversion.

Even after such a conversion, one still experiences himself in a continuity with his past, albeit a redirected past. How can this very strong sense of oneness over time be described in process terminology?

The basic continuity of the human soul through time — indeed the continuity of any enduring object through time — is the result of a continuous prehending of its own enduring past. A prehension, we must remember, is not merely an extrinsic influence of one entity upon another. It is the incorporation or inclusion of the former entity in the latter. The former is, therefore, an ultimately real feature of the latter, and thus is a real continuity of the enduring object through time. In addition, the environment within which the new occasion emerges is not that much different from the way its predecessor synthesized that reality. Change is always possible, and in fact is always occurring, at least in small ways, but radical change is the exception and ought never to be presumed.

Prehensions, therefore, explain the relation between one actual entity and its immediate predecessor in a series, and this relation is so intimate that the successive occasions do form, in reality, one enduring object. We might use the model of human memory to illustrate the relation, although it is not adequate as an explanation. When a person remembers something that took place in the past, that past event is re-presented, or made present once again. There is a return of the past to the present in a picture or concept which represents that past event. In this way the past is rendered immanent to the present by means of what is remembered. The weakness of this illustration in describing Whitehead’s theory of prehensions is that in memory only pictures or concepts are brought into the present. In prehensive activity, the experience itself is re-presented, and that experience is the reality. The past is immanently incorporated into the present, and becomes part of the present. There is a “peculiar completeness”3 in each present moment that can only be explained in terms of its inclusion of the past. Because the present is the peculiar completeness of the past, it identifies itself with its past. Thus, in a personal series of actual occasions the present actual occasion can be imputed with responsibility for the past in a limited way.

Imputing responsibility has always posed a problem for civilized man. On the one hand, some degree of responsibility for one’s personal past has been almost universally presumed. In some civilizations, responsibility has also been extended to one’s ancestral past, so that the wrongs of the parents or grandparents could also properly be attributed to the offspring. On the other hand, however, many civilizations, especially the more liberal ones of the present epoch, have been painstakingly careful to acknowledge the possibility of a personal change of heart and to enable the person to escape the more painful consequences of his own past behavior provided he is genuinely repentant.

The Whiteheadian perspective seems quite adequate to deal with this dilemma. It acknowledges that a person’s inheritance does have a causal influence over him, and that in a very minimal degree he may appropriately take on certain responsibilities from his ancestors and enjoy certain kinds of inheritances from them, because he is really related to them. A person is much more responsible for his own past actions, because they are a part of the direct personal series of occasions that constitute the self. If a wrong has been committed, he is held responsible for its commission and for restitution, if necessary. And yet, as in Christian belief, there is a possibility for metanoia and forgiveness, and a person who has genuinely repented for his past need not be permanently treated as a transgressor, because in one sense he is different from the person he was formerly.

The problem is to identify genuine repentance. And here again Whiteheadian philosophy follows closely the common human experience. There is in each new occasion always some change from the previous occasion in that series. However, because its primary prehension is of its own preceding occasion and because its other prehensive activity is of an environment greatly similar to its predecessor, the possibility for radical change is slight. The factors that were contributory to the preceding occasions are, for the most part, still in existence and reinforcing of a continuance of a similar occasion. Therefore, applied to the person, there is always a possibility that a genuine repentance and metanoia can occur, but the presumption is always against any fundamental change. Hence, genuine conversion — the condition for a mitigation of responsibility — must be demonstrably present before it can be assumed. This is true regardless of the quality that might be attributed to the behavior. The immanence of the past on the present and its inclusion in the emerging occasion is just as operative for evil as for good.

With respect to human freedom and responsibility, the interpretation of man in process thought is very compatible with the presumptions of Christian faith. Man is free to construct what he will become from the data available to him. Granted, he is not free with respect to the composition of that data, but he is free regarding what he does with it. He is also responsible, for what he chooses to do will provide the data for the future. Furthermore, he will be held accountable for that choice in his own personal future because his decision will be immediately included in and determinative of what he will be in the future. For the future self is in direct succession with the present self. He will not, of course, be exactly the same person, and consequently he will feel less responsibility for the past than he will feel for maximizing the present moment’s contribution to the future. But, in the absence of a fundamental reevaluation of the past in a moment of genuine metanoia, he will remain accountable to himself for that past in all of its ramifications, since it will continue to live on in him. In this way, man continues to experience a freedom with respect to the present and a responsibility with respect to the past and the future. This position corresponds to Christian belief as well as to the practices of most civilizations.

In conclusion, can we say that the explanations of process theology are generally compatible with Christian beliefs regarding body and soul? This is a more formidable task than can be properly undertaken here. Let it suffice to note that the traditional body-soul distinction generally associated with Christian belief is more a Hellenic distinction than a biblical one. The Scriptures do speak of the body, but more as a living entity than a material one. And they do speak of the spirit, or breath, which symbolizes the life of the body. The Greek distinction between matter and form, technically called the hylomorphic theory, seemed for ages of Christians an adequate way of speaking about man and explaining the basic insight of the Bible. This distinction is the basis for the theory that man is a composite of matter (called the body) and an informing principle of life (called the soul). But this explanation does not exclude the possibility of other distinctions which also shed light upon the biblical revelation about man and which may give rise to other theories, such as the Whiteheadian one we have described.

In an age when our experience of change and process is more fundamental than our experience of a static or stable matter and form, some theory other than that of the Greeks may prove to be more helpful for developing a contemporary understanding of man. In other words, it may be necessary to reformulate our interpretation of the Scriptures from the hylomorphic concepts to more expansive, evolutionary concepts, in order to correspond better to our fundamental experience of a changing man in a changing reality.


1. Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Macmillan Company, Free Press Paperback edition, 1968), p. 161.

2. Adventures of Ideas, op. cit., p. 208.

3. Process and Reality, op. cit., p. 187 and p. 413.

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