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
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 7 & 8

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 7: Jesus

A recent survey revealed that among clergymen today the most perplexing theological question is: “What can we say about Jesus Christ?” It is an old question, one that dates back to Jesus’ own interrogation of his disciples. Curiously, it is being reasked by Christian clergymen at a time when so many others are unhesitatingly becoming part of the Jesus movement or returning to fundamentalist churches. Interest in the person of Jesus has perhaps never been greater, and the spectrum of opinion as to who he is and what he means to modern man has never been wider.

For the clergyman, the question of Jesus is not generally a crisis of faith or a skepticism about the world of Christianity or its message. It is rather the result of coming to grips with much new scholarship regarding both the biblical origins of the faith and new interpretations of tradition. From biblical scholarship alone, for example, we probably know more today about the life and times of Jesus than was known at any period since the second generation of Christians. Archeological explorations of the Holy Land and surrounding areas have given some important insights about the people of that period and their ways of thinking and writing. New insights into the language used by Jesus and the languages in which the Gospels were originally written have also added to a better understanding of the Christian message. In addition, advances in secular philosophy and literary criticism have enabled scholars to be much more accurate in the way in which they interpret the Gospels and other religious writings. Hermeneutics has become an important science in its own right.

At the same time there has been at the other extreme almost an unquestioning and uncritical acceptance of Jesus by many other Christians, especially among large groups of young people without any formal church affiliation. They accept Jesus literally as their personal Lord and Savior and do not in practice make a distinction between him and God. The Bible, the prayer meetings, and the witness of their fellow believers provide them with the support and direction they need in their lives. In some cases the commitment is so intense as to include an abandoning of their former life-style. For most of them, biblical scholarship and hermeneutics are not important. Jesus reveals his will to them through the readings of the Scriptures and in prayer, and doing his will is all that really matters. Intellectual distinctions and interpretations of doctrine are merely a curiosity of the rationalist, and not usually conducive to witnessing the faith. This neo-fundamentalism has been on the increase in recent years despite — or perhaps because of — all the new and complex scholarly information now available about the historical person of Jesus. It has created an ever-widening chasm between the new believer and the careful student of the Bible, among whom are many so-called “liberal” or “relevant” clergymen.

The problem is to reconcile the Jesus of the scholars with the Jesus of the believers in a way that genuinely profits from contemporary scholarship without compromising the credibility of Jesus as Lord and Savior. In other words, what can we say about Jesus that is faithful both to the historical Jesus and to the belief of his followers? It is fundamentally a question of finding a language suitable for describing the person of Jesus and his significance for today.

The problem of finding suitable language is not a new one in the history of Christianity. It first emerged shortly after the foundations of Christianity itself in a form very similar to today’s. The problem at that time was how to reconcile the humanity of Jesus with his followers’ profession of his divinity. It was not an easy problem to resolve, and it was immensely complicated by the fact that when the disciples of Jesus began preaching his message, they took the message westward, where they immediately encountered Greek philosophical thought. Thus, even before Christianity had a chance to define itself in terms of its own Hebrew origins, it was already being called upon to deal with an alien culture which had a level of philosophical sophistication higher than its own. The primitive faith in Jesus therefore had to be expressed accurately within the thought patterns of a second culture before it had the opportunity to mature adequately in its original culture.

The Hebrew understanding of Jesus is best represented by the Gospels and the non-Pauline epistles. It is filled with concrete images, models and stories, all characteristic of Hebrew literature. The title “Son of God” is an example. When we consider that the creedal formulation of the Trinity had probably not yet been conceived, we become aware that this title had quite a different connotation to the early Hebrew Christian, for whom it meant “privileged creature of God,” than it had to the later Greek Christian, who transposed it to the form “God the Son,” meaning the second person of the Trinity. The pre-Hellenic language about Jesus was not a denial of the divinity in him, but the use of a different, more mythical literary form. It was intended to affirm that the Hebrew believers did experience God at work in Jesus, and that in him they experienced the revelation of God’s own love. In this way it was quite different from Greek language which preferred a more philosophical literary form to interpret Jesus’ relation to God. Thus the Greek implication of metaphysical plurality in God as a result of the divinity of Jesus was a foreign idea to the Jews because of their strict monotheistic heritage.

For the Greeks, reconciling the divinity and the humanity in the single person of Jesus was not as impossible as it seemed for the Hebrews. Theirs was a polytheistic tradition, and plurality in God was not an insurmountable difficulty. What was essential to them, however, was to incorporate Jesus into the divinity in such a way as to raise him beyond the petty gods and goddesses of their tradition. Thus the affirmation of a single deity containing three persons, the second of whom was the eternal person of “God the Son,” was a clear and consistent theological explanation of the divinity of Jesus in the framework of their philosophy. This explanation, which seemed to express adequately the experience of the early Christians, has continued ever since to function as the authentic expression of the faith.

This Hellenic formulation of the Trinity in the creeds and the definitions of the Christological dogmas at Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon became the normative statements of Christian belief about Jesus. In other words, the criteria for determining orthodoxy shifted from the original experience of Jesus to statements about what that experience meant. And these normative statements were formulated in a particular philosophical frame of reference, phrased in its terminology, illustrated by its distinctions, and encased in its limitations.

In view of the fact that our knowledge of Jesus and his times is superior even to the knowledge of those early councils or creedal authors, there is a growing dissatisfaction with continuing to employ the traditional statements as theological norms. This is in no way a denial of the fact that these norms did serve as adequate expressions of the Christian faith for centuries of believers. But with the knowledge presently available to theology and with the vast change of philosophical perspective that has occurred since the first centuries of Christendom, tentative new formulations of the original Christian experience that are not always literally contained within the traditional normative statements are now being proposed by theologians from a variety of philosophical perspectives. Process theologians are among those making such tentative formulations.

Truly this work is tenuous, insofar as it depends a great deal upon both the findings of biblical scholars and a creative understanding of the tradition that it seeks to interpret. Furthermore, it must be carried on in dialogue among the biblical exegete, the historical theologian, and the contemporary interpreter. Each must refine and enrich the perspective of the others. Such a task is obviously beyond the scope of any one person or book. In this introduction to process thought, we can only hope to sketch out a possible understanding of the person of Jesus and his significance to our contemporary world based upon a very general familiarity with advances being made in biblical and hermeneutical studies. What we are doing, however, is very similar to what the Christians of the first few centuries did. We are attempting to explain the primitive Christian experience of Jesus in the language of a philosophical perspective of God and man to suggest how that perspective might deal with the inter-relation of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus, who is called the Christ.

Essentially, the primitive Christian experience is that Jesus claimed a unique relationship with God, and that his disciples experienced God at work in and through him. Furthermore, they accepted his teachings as ultimately normative for their own lives and for the world. In other words, in the person of Jesus the first disciples experienced God manifested to them in a unique and decisive way. Process theology is one attempt to offer a new, tentative explanation in modem terminology of how God was uniquely present in the person of Jesus and how that presence is still decisive for us today.

As an historical person, Jesus was human in exactly the same way we are human. The description of the humanity of Jesus, therefore, is the same as it is for every man. He was composed of body and soul, that is, of nexus of low-grade occasions coordinated by an ordered series of high-grade occasions, which traced his personal identity through his own, life-history. Each moment of that personal history was its own unique occasion, arising out of the series with its own particular initial aim, prehending the past of that series and the relevant environment, and freely arriving at its own synthesis before ceding its reality to the new occasion emerging from it. This philosophical pattern is the basis for explaining how it is possible for one man, namely Jesus, to have enjoyed a unique relationship with God, and how the consequences of that relationship are still important to us.

There are two ways in which we can argue that Jesus was a unique person. The first concerns the sequence of initial aims in the soul of Jesus; the second deals with the manner in which he prehended. We must remember that the source of every initial aim for each actual occasion is God himself. The convergence of the past into a new locus in space and time can be realized as a new actual occasion only when God contributes an initial aim. Therefore, God contributed the initial aim to each successive moment of Jesus’ life.

This alone might be sufficient theological basis for describing the divinity of Jesus. One can simply maintain that in Jesus the initial aim that God contributed was at each and every moment to be his Son, or, in more philosophical language, to realize the divinity at every occasion in the series. Jesus, responding to the promptings of these initial aims, freely chose to realize that divinity by directing the synthesis of each and every occasion of his life toward the fulfillment of that divine initiative. Every moment of his life was an acceptance and a reaffirmation of God’s special initiative on his behalf. In religious language, every moment was a moment of grace; he was like us in all things but sin.

There is. however, a certain difficulty that some process theologians find with the above explanation. It is the positing of an arbitrary initiative on the part of God that applied solely to the person of Jesus. Such an arbitrariness still makes Jesus a somewhat artificial insertion into history. This raises the impossible question: Why only in Jesus? If God’s initial aim is totally free and arbitrary, why does he not call all of us to such a divine relationship with him by virtue of his universal love? One can, of course, simply consign the inquiry to the realm of mystery, but the theologian by profession must remain unsatisfied until he can be assured that there is no better way of dealing with the problem.

Perhaps indeed God would offer to each occasion an initial aim to realize the divinity, but because of inherent limitations that even God cannot circumvent, such an aim can only be expressed partially in most occasions. For example, the nature of the sequence of occasions that characterizes a stone does not allow for consciousness, simply because that mode of prehending is not available to an occasion in that series. God’s initial aim for such an occasion is consequently limited by the kinds of prehensions available in that nexus. In other words, in giving an initial aim, God himself is limited to the kinds of determinants out of which that occasion is emerging.

When God contributes an initial aim to a high-grade occasion in a personal series, he is likewise limited by the prior environmental factors that have been shaping that series, especially by the past occasions in the series itself. There is always a call to fuller realization of the divinity in each occasion, but for most occasions that realization cannot achieve the unlimited fullness that it achieved in Jesus. Thus, due to cultural familial and other environmental conditions, God was able to initiate the possibility of a full relationship with the person of Jesus from the beginning, and at every moment of his life Jesus freely chose to affirm and maximize the initiative that was his.

This latter explanation is more involved than the former, but it has the advantage of avoiding any arbitrariness on the part of God. Thus, it escapes the mythological pitfalls that beset explanations in which some human events can be described only in terms of special and distinctive interventions of God. A theological system in which God acts exactly the same way toward every occasion avoids the necessity of justifying certain divine actions or explaining the absence of others.

There is a second element in process thought that provides a further possibility to describe the uniqueness of the person of Jesus. This is the theory of prehensions. Each actual occasion is the result of many prehensions that are synthesized into one coherent whole. These prehensions are the relations of the occasion to its own past and to its relevant environment. One such prehension is necessarily the prehension of the divinity. It can focus upon that prehension and make it a significant component in its synthesis, or it can render it trivial. On most occasions, the prehension of the divinity is not significant in the final synthesis, but on some occasions, such as moments of prayer or spiritual enlightenment, it can be the dominant element.

To say that Jesus prehended the divinity in an intense way would imply that he maintained a stronger relation with God than is common to most men. It would not in itself, however, make him unique, because the same kind of explanation would describe the prophet or mystic. Nor can we say that Jesus prehended only the divinity, because this would place his humanity into question. Rather, we might suggest that Jesus prehended God at every moment of his life in such a way that his relation to God partially displaced his experience of self, so that in fact Jesus could have experienced himself as both human and divine. That is to say, the series of actual occasions that defined the person of Jesus were marked by prehensions of the deity according to the same mode that marked his prehensions of his own human past. Therefore, the self that Jesus experienced throughout his life was a moment by moment integration of the human and divine in his own person.

This is, of course, the maximal statement a process theologian can make about Jesus. Translated back into the traditional terminology of two natures in one person, it seems to conform quite adequately to what was proclaimed at Ephesus and Chalcedon. It is a clear reaffirmation of the divinity of Jesus and a strong basis for acknowledging him as Lord and Master, as do the Jesus movement and other fundamentalist groups today. At the same time, for the so-called liberal Christians to whom this may seem too much like philosophical mythology, the explanation of Jesus as simply a holy man with intense prehensions of the deity provides the description of a fully human person who was related to God in a very special way.

Thus, Jesus is unique either in the unique composition that he experienced as his “self” or in the fact that no other person has ever achieved such a total relation with God. Either way, process theology can accommodate the Christian seeking a philosophical explanation of the person of Jesus. This is a distinct advantage, because it enables process theology to reduce the differences among Christians to the way in which prehensions of the divinity can be posited in the person of Jesus.

When we consider both the initial aim and the prehensions of God by Jesus as factors in resolving the question of reconciling the humanity and divinity in Jesus, we must understand that the basis of the process explanation is the theory of immanence, namely, the divine immanence in Jesus. God is immanent to every actual occasion both in giving it its initial aim and in that occasion’s own prehensions of the deity. Jesus is unique because the immanence of God finds expression in him in a unique way. This is why his followers were amazed that he spoke with his own authority. With God’s immanence totally present to him at all times, Jesus did not need to appeal to the tradition or even to some private revelation. He spoke from the depths of the divinity that was in him, and in this way he persuaded his hearers both by what he was and by what he said.

What is decisive in Jesus and what makes him significant for all subsequent history is that in his person God reveals himself to us as immanent in our world. He is not merely the prime mover of Greek philosophy or the God of the covenant in the Old Testament. He is, as Augustine so succinctly stated, more intimate than I am to myself. God’s immanent presence to every man is made known in his presence in Jesus. This is the significance of the incarnation. God is immanently present in Jesus and in our world. Conversely, the significance of the death and resurrection is that Jesus is immanently present in God. God has taken what is human and worldly into himself in a complete and positive way. Man and his world are not alien to God or insignificant to him. We are indeed, moment by moment, likewise being taken up into the divine nature and “resurrected” into objective immortality where we become part of the prehendable data for future occasions. Great, admirable men of history, such as Socrates, Buddha and St. Francis, are examples of persons whose lives and inspirations are continually being resurrected from the past for the edification of emerging moments of history. In Jesus this resurrection was uniquely striking, because it was experienced by his followers immediately after his death, and it has continued to be a part of the Christian faith experience ever since.

The purpose of Jesus in history, therefore, and his continued significance for us today, is his redemptive function. The term “redemption” is perhaps somewhat misleading in this context. Literally, it means “buying back.” In the tradition of Irenaeus, Anselm and Thomas, this referred to God’s act in Jesus of buying us back from the consequences of original sin. Process theologians generally prefer the tradition of John Duns Scotus, which holds that God predestined the person of Jesus as the crowning of creation and as the total manifestation of his love, regardless of whether man sinned. In process theology Jesus is the primordial example of God’s immanence in the world and the world’s immanence in God. Redemption, consequently, states the fact that man need not slavishly move through life from occasion to occasion, merely creating each new synthesis from worldly data in pursuit of worldly satisfaction, but that he is freed to respond to the divine immanence within him and within the world, thus constantly striving, occasion by occasion, to maximize a realization of that divinity as best he can, within the limitations imposed by his history and his environment. In brief, redemption is the freedom to appeal to the immanent divinity in the self as a more perfect authority than the authority of history or environment alone.

We have not answered definitively the question of whether Jesus is an absolutely unique person and absolutely decisive for human history, or whether he is merely the primordial model of human existence. Is he different in kind, or only in quality? There are, as we have seen, ways in which process philosophy can be used to argue both positions. Christian tradition, until relatively recently, has been very careful to insist upon an absolute distinction between the person of Jesus and other human persons. Is this absolute a part of the original Christian experience, or is it rather the result of the Hellenic concept of God that underlay the Christological dogmas? To put the question in another way, is it necessary to hold Jesus’ absolute distinctiveness as divine if one’s philosophy does not hold God’s absolute distinctiveness from the world? Is it not accurate to say that the divinity of Jesus is represented more by the way in which he was really related to God than by the way in which he was unrelated to the world? And if his relation to God constitutes the ideal relation for every man (even though it may be impossible to realize this ideal in every successive occasion the way it was realized in Jesus), can we not say that what best characterizes the divinity of Jesus is precisely that he was ideally human?

This line of reasoning can put aside the old notion that uniqueness requires an absolute distinction from all other reality. Instead, it suggests that uniqueness can be a relative term, and that Jesus is in fact unique because in his humanity he is a more perfect model of ideal humanity than has ever existed, or, we may believe, will ever exist in the future. Since man is most ideally human when he responds to the immanence of God in every occasion of his continuity, both by the realization of God’s initial aim and by his positively prehending God. Jesus is most divine when he is most ideally human. He is divine not because of an absolute difference from other men, but because of the realization of divinity within him. For divinity does not :1 require such a difference; indeed it denies such a difference, since the God who is immanent in Jesus is the God in whose consequent nature the world is immanent. The very nature of God in process theology rejects such an absolute distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity, except as an abstract mode of speaking.

Jesus is really related to God, and really related to man, just as God is really related to man. The mode of Jesus’ relation to God, however, is such that God is experienced as uniquely present in him. This relation, which constitutes his divinity, in no way renders him different from us, but more an intimate part of us. He is divine because he is the primordial exemplification of God’s immanence in the world, and our ultimate immanence in God. In him we are freed to discover the divinity in each new occasion of life. Jesus is thus the primordial model of human life lived in freedom and love. In him man can find both his meaning and his Savior.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 8: The Church

Institutions are not having a very happy time of it these days, and the Church, despite its long and venerable tradition, is no exception. Like the other parts of the so-called “establishment,” the Church is now suspect of being inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of a rapidly changing twentieth century. Furthermore, since its ultimate claim to existence is rooted more in the events of the past than in contemporary social problems, it has even a more conservative image than political and economic institutions. As a result, many today have abandoned their ties to organized Christian churches and replaced them with more personal forms of religious beliefs.1

A Christian church that is not in some way related to human concerns has lost the spirit of its foundation in Jesus and has little to recommend it to the world at large. Mindful of this fact, Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council for the purpose of making necessary reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. The history of the Council is now well known, and its repercussions have been felt by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Its spirit continues in the Church into our own time, even though the old concerns have given way to new ones. Because it focused internally upon reform and adaptation, and externally upon dialogue and interaction with other churches, its thrust can best be described as forward and outward. Fidelity to the Council thus implies not merely a repetition of its formulae or even a restudying of its documents. We are no longer afforded the luxury of looking backward for security and stability. There is no longer any reprieve from the task of continuing to build the Church of the future. The Vatican II Catholic, therefore, is one who is willing to think beyond the Council and to engage in the creative process that ought to characterize the Church.

The key to understanding Vatican II can perhaps best be expressed in two phrases that characterized it. They are the description of the Church as semper reformanda (always in need of reform) and as populi Dei (the people of God). These expressions characterize a new self-image of the Church that began to emerge at the Council. They suggest a replacement of the old model of the Church as a monolithic, unchanging institution to a new model that uses evolutionary and relational modes of thought.

The old model of the Church was a faithful reflection of the old substance mode of philosophy that had characterized the Church since the fourth century. It was a stable, definable institution established by Jesus and transmitted in its total essence throughout the ages. It was infallible and indefectible, and change affected it only accidently. Those who could acknowledge in faith its claim to possessing the eternal truths could become members of the institution by baptism. In a certain sense, however, the Church was self-sufficient by virtue of its divine foundation, and even its members were extraneous to its essential nature and structure. It was, Catholics were taught, a “perfect society,” i.e., complete unto itself in its purposes and the adequate means of attaining them.

The two expressions referred to above suggest that the model of the Church has changed considerably since Vatican II. The new model has not yet been fully formulated either theoretically or operationally. But the spirit of the Council and the events in the Church subsequent to it suggest that the new model is heavily imbued with processive and organismic patterns of thought.

The processive nature of the Church is implied in the expression Ecclesia semper reformanda. In its origin, the Church was the society that developed when followers of Jesus made an act of faith in him, Its continued existence has depended upon others reiterating that act of faith in Jesus throughout its entire history. Apart from that faith, the Church is nothing at all. Dogmas, creeds, and doctrines, as well as structures, hierarchies and authorities, are merely the ways and means whereby the faithful can articulate and organize their belief. They do not define or constitute the Church itself. They simply express how that faith has been integrated into the various moments of history.

The Church, then, is a process. More specifically, it is the 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. In this view the Church is not a stable, immutable institution that has existed since the time of Jesus, founded by him and protected by him from the changes of the world. The Church is the consequence of its first members’ faith in Jesus and the subsequent faith that it inspired. In its dialogue with the world that faith takes new shapes, thus giving new shapes to the Church. In this sense, then, the Church is constantly changing and readapting according to the exigencies of the world. Because the world changes, the Church must change, too. Change is therefore not something merely to be tolerated, but something to be encouraged as important to the vitality and continuity of the Church. Fidelity does not consist in mere repetition. The Church can be faithful to the spirit of Jesus only within the process of each succeeding moment of history.

The Church as a process is also the Church as an organism in society. It is the consequence of the followers of Jesus related to each other by their faith in him. As the Church moves through history and increases its membership, the number of these faith-relations increases. The reality of the Church is always found in the faith-relation of its believers, in continuity with the faith-relation of believers at every moment in the Church’s history. This is what Vatican II implies when it speaks of the Church as the people of God. Apart from its people, the Church is nothing at all.

Since the relationship of faith about which we are speaking is essentially a belief in Jesus, the entire structure of the Church is obviously larger than simply those who are card-carrying (or basket-contributing) members of a particular Christian sect. Furthermore, insofar as the meaning of that faith can be expressed in non-Christian ways by people of other backgrounds and cultures, they too can be included in a still larger concept of the people of God. The Church in its widest sense, then, is the entire community of men as related by the faith in God to which Christianity aspires in the name of the Lord Jesus. These levels of identification describe the Church as an organism.

A new model of the Church as processive and organismic would be difficult to define with dictionary precision. Its history is the manifestation of the spirit of Jesus in all of its variety and unpredictability throughout the Christian epoch. It is not the succession of the papacy or the formulation of creeds and dogmas. And its present moment is not lived only in church buildings. The Church is wherever two or more are gathered in faith to reiterate and reinterpret the importance of Jesus according to the inspiration of his spirit.

In Whiteheadian philosophy, the processive and relational aspects of reality are described in terms of nexus of actual occasions. We have already defined a nexus as a set of actual occasions related to each other in time and space. The Church, then, is a nexus of its individual members in time and space. As a nexus, these individual elements are joined together in a single fabric, called the Church, or assembly of the people of God.

A nexus in which the component actual occasions are ordered among themselves in a certain way is called a “society.” A nexus is a society when a certain identifying characteristic is a contributory component of each of the elements in that society. It is not sufficient that a class name can be applied to each element of the society. It is necessary that each element also incorporate within itself the same identifying characteristic as the other elements within that nexus. That is, each actual occasion of the nexus must prehend positively that characteristic which identifies the society as a whole.

The Church is a society as well as a nexus. Its claim to being a society rests upon the prehension of the importance of Jesus in each of its members. The Church is not merely the class name of all those who believe in the importance of Jesus. It is rather the consequence of that importance being prehended in each moment or occasion of its history. That is, the Church is a society in the technical Whiteheadian sense because its members prehend that importance from past members of the society and incorporate that importance into themselves. In this way the spirit of Jesus literally lives on in each of the members. Therefore, the Church, as a society, is a creative force in the environment, because its past is always the data for further becoming in faith. This further becoming occurs both in new members and in new understandings.

No society exists alone. Each is set in the context of a wider society which constitutes its environment. Without the wider context there could be no identifiable characteristic. The Church, therefore, is always in relation to what is not the Church. This interaction is the basis of its ecumenical interests and its pastoral mission. Both of these imply movement and change within the Church. The Whiteheadian model of inter-relatedness and process provides a convenient framework to explain the incorporation of new insights and the resultant growth within the Church, and the Church’s influence on the world in general. In its ideal form, the evolution of the Church is an illustration of the evolution of reality: the many become one and are increased by one.

The identity of the Church according to the model we have been suggesting is not found in an essential definition of its nature as an institution, but in the function of its evolution. The Church is primarily a process, not a structure. That process has an identifying characteristic, but that characteristic is not a definition of the Church. This may seem like a small point to stress so frequently, but its implications for ecclesiology are vast. It spells the difference between looking at the Church as a substantial, structural reality which contains members who believe, and viewing the Church as an event moving through history, constantly evolving in its very make-up according to the shape that the belief of its members takes at a given moment in history and according to the way in which that belief finds expression in relation to the larger environment or culture where it is found.

The identifying characteristic is a way of conceptualizing what is important in the society, but it does not define the reality of the society. Its function lies not in the fact that it is conceptualized for purposes of an abstract definition, but in the fact that it is successively incorporated in an immanent way into the actual occasions that constitute the society. In other words, being a Christian makes a difference because belief in the importance of Jesus enters into the very composition of the actual occasions that constitute the life of a Christian. The Church is the consequence of their being Christians. One does not become a Christian by joining a Church.

The incorporation of the identifying characteristic in the elements of the society has two functions. It is the basis both for its survival as a society and for the intensity that it achieves. The art of survival, Whitehead suggests, is to be a rock.2 It exists in its environment simply, continually reiterating the past to the present. Bare survival contributes a passivity and a sameness to a society. In contrast, intensity requires complexity, not simplicity. Elements are continually molded and kneaded into new shapes and forms. There is an active and creative appropriation of the past and of the immediate environment for the purpose of building the future. Intensity is the zest and flavor of life, and this is also an important ingredient for a society. Both survival and intensity are necessary in an organism, whether it be an actual occasion, a society of occasions, or the entire cosmos. Survival and intensity, reiteration and novelty — these are the dual elements in Jesus’ own statement that upon a rock he would build the Church.

One might argue that a belief merely in the importance of Jesus is inadequate to be the identifying characteristic of the Church, and that a statement about the divinity of Jesus would be a better expression of what that importance means in the Christian tradition. The problem is precisely that such a statement is an expression, not a prehension. It states how Christians have traditionally expressed Jesus’ importance, whereas the former deals with how they originally intuited the person of Jesus. Surely the divinity statement adds a new intensity to the faith. But as a statement it tends to generate other statements, which together take on a normative and exclusive character. A more simple description of the experience, without regard for how that experience has been expressed, promotes the survival dynamic by not limiting the possible expressions of that experience. Minimal statements expand the range of inclusion; maximal statements increase the depth. When the latter become the normative statements, exclusion inevitably results. The identifying characteristic of the Church with an eye to its survival mechanism should therefore be painted with a wide sweep of the brush, allowing the precisions of intensity to fill in the narrower, more aesthetically pleasing lines.

There is often a tendency for intensity to view survival with disdain. When intensity wins out at the expense of survival, rather than in harmony with it, definitions and statements of exclusion narrow the scope of the society. Such definitions and statements, issued in the interests of preserving internal purity, cause the society gradually to lose touch with the wider, “impure” environment in which it is located. Since no society can long remain independent of its surroundings, the demands of preserving purity can also effect societal suffocation.

The difficulty with the substance model of the Church is that intensity is generally won at the expense of survival. Dogmas, creeds and doctrines within the context of structure, hierarchy and authority express the intensity of the Church. These sometimes tend to cut the Church off from its environment, because they become the essential definition of the Church and the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion. A process-relational model of the Church also recognizes these elements as necessary for the Church’s intensity factor, but the intensity factor serves as a characteristic, not as a definition of the Church. The definition of the Church, if indeed it can be defined at all, is always the people of the Church in the act of creating the Church. What they are creating is shaped by a common characteristic — their prehension of the importance of Jesus. Survival is not threatened by the variety of ways in which expressions of that faith introduce novelty into the process. In this way, survival is enhanced by intensity and novelty.

The process-relational model of the Church does not tend to isolate the Church from what is going on around it. It is ecumenical in the widest sense of the term. Just as no society exists in isolation from its environment, so also the Church always finds itself temporally and spatially in the wider context of the world and essentially inter-related with it. Because of this relatedness, the Church contributes itself to the world and the world contributes itself to the Church.

The mode of contribution is always via the elements that constitute it. The Church as a society does not contribute apart from the elements that constitute it, although the weight of the elements working together may outweigh the collection of individual contributions. Rather, the Church contributes to the world because, and merely because, its members contribute to it. This is because the Church is a society of the faith of the people of God. Apart from its people, there can be no faith and no society.

The above describes how the Church contributes to the wider environment. What it contributes is its in-touch-ness with the importance of Jesus today. Therefore, the Church can never entertain a conflict between relevancy and tradition. This is always a false dilemma. The Church’s relevance is its tradition. Just as an irrelevant Church is ultimately unfaithful to the spirit of its foundation in Jesus, so also a Church disinterested in its tradition is ultimately undermining the basis of its faith. But the Church tradition is not a static, stable past fact, repeated from epoch to epoch. It is past data still shaping and forming the present by virtue of its real inclusion in it.


1. For a fuller explanation of some of the ideas in this and the following chapter, see Bernard Lee’s The Becoming of the Church (New York: Newman Press, 1974).

2. Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p.4.

No comments:

Post a Comment