Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

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

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

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) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

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

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Friday, October 6, 2017

Robert B. Mellert - What Is Process Theology: Chapters 11 & 12

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 11: Immortality

The ultimate mystery of life is death. Science and philosophy can tell us a lot about life, but when the final moment of life has passed us by, they must abandon us to our faith. Death transcends the powers of reason and shrouds itself in ineffability. Despite this eternal verity, there is presently a surge of interest in death and in the speculation about what, if anything, occurs after death. Inter-disciplinary courses are being taught in colleges and numerous new books and articles are being published dealing with the topic. What makes this enterprise so fascinating is that there are no criteria for determining which opinions are right and which are wrong. Spiritualists and rationalists both contribute their evidence and compare notes, but in the final analysis the mystery always remains.

Traditionally the Church has answered this question for its faithful with its teaching on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. At the moment of death, each soul is called to a particular judgment by God. As a consequence of the way one lived on earth, the soul is then determined for a heaven of eternal happiness with God or a hell of everlasting fire. Since the presence of God is reserved only for the worthy, imperfections and lesser evils in one’s life have to be “worked off” before the beatific vision is possible. This intermediate state of purification is a place of temporary suffering, called purgatory. Finally, for those souls never officially admitted to membership and grace in the Church, a fourth place, called limbo, allows them the fullness of natural happiness, but without the vision of God.

There is, of course, no way to dispute the Church’s teaching, nor is there any way apart from faith that it can be proved. For many theologians today, however, the doctrine is too intertwined with ancient culture, tradition and myth to be literally credible. Their recent reflections on the subject have resulted in drawing together ideas from anthropology, psychology and philosophy, as well as theology, in order to profit from new insights regarding the counsel that reason can offer to faith in clarifying the issue for the individual believer.

In the absence of indisputable evidence, the theologian too must ultimately make up his mind about an issue according to what he believes. If he is honest with himself — and hopefully most theologians are — his belief will be formed from the best evidence he can muster. But in the matter of death and immortality, none of his evidence can be verified. It is not surprising, therefore, that theologians, even within a single school of thought such as process theology, will argue a variety of positions regarding death and immortality. In fact, among process theologians such a diversity does indeed exist.

Whitehead himself was somewhat ambiguous on the subject. He does deal with death in a way that is logical and coherent in his theoretical synthesis and in a way that is open to a variety of imagery for pastoral purposes. The question of the afterlife, however, is left unresolved. For Whitehead, dying (or to use his term “perishing”) is the antithesis of emerging, and each is continually occurring in every moment in every bit of reality. Only in the constant ebb and flow of emerging and perishing is change and enrichment possible. Perishing, therefore, is just as essential to the world as emerging.

In his essay on “Immortality”1 Whitehead says that there are two abstract worlds, the “World of Value” and the “World of Activity.” Neither is explainable except in terms of the other. Value can only be explained in terms of its realization in concrete actual occasions as they emerge and perish. Thus, “value” is always experienced as “values.” Values are concrete, individual and unique contributions to future actualities. The realization of a particular moment of actuality is likewise the realization of a particular value, and this becomes part of the data for the succeeding moments of actuality. Values derived from the past are thus immanently incorporated into each emerging occasion. This is what Whitehead means by “immortality.” Nothing that is of value is ultimately lost. Apart from such immanent incorporation, nothing could be preserved, and “value” itself would have no ultimate meaning.

This understanding of value is exactly parallel to Whitehead’s notion of God. God, like every actual entity, is di-polar, reflecting both the mental and the physical, both the World of Value and the World of Activity. These two aspects in the divinity are, as we have seen, called God’s primordial and consequent natures, lust as God, if he is to be actual, must be really related to the world and allow it to be incorporated into himself, so also the World of Value, if it is to be more than pure abstraction, must be realized in the World of Activity. That is why value, in its concrete reality, is none other than the concrete elements of process. God embodies this in himself in his consequent nature, and offers it back to the world in each emerging occasion. To put it another way, the world adds activity to God and God adds value to the world.

The perishing of an actual occasion, therefore, need not be its extinction. Rather, it can be understood as a kind of switching of modes. Whereas in the emerging of an actual occasion God’s immanence is felt in the incorporation of value, in its perishing that actual occasion is felt immanently in God as a fuller realization of the divinity. In this way the occasion continues to be felt in the formation of the future. Death, then, is emphatically not a passing into nothingness. Instead, it is immanent incorporation into God, in whom each actuality is experienced everlastingly for its own uniqueness and individuality. In dying, one “gets out of the way” of the present in order to be available to the future in a new way.

Does this doctrine of immortality, which Whitehead calls “objective immortality,” correspond to the faith expectations of those who seek the reassurance of an afterlife, a place of eternal happiness, or a heaven? In some fundamental ways, at least, I think that it does. The basis for their belief is the impossibility of man’s conceiving of himself as not being. The one absolute and certain experience that endures throughout his entire life is the experience of being in the present, recalling the past, and anticipating a future. One experiences a profound continuity with oneself in space and time.

Everyone has moments of unconsciousness where his experience of the world around him is temporarily interrupted. The most common example is sleep. But one always awakes to find himself the same person he was when he slumbered. There is an experience of the continuity of the self as far back as the memory permits. To think of this continuity as being abruptly and completely terminated is almost impossible to imagine or accept. This is the reason why man so often seeks to find a place and a time for himself after his death. That place can be a paradise free from the evils and insecurities of earthly existence, or it may simply be a place in the records of history or the lives of one’s offspring. However he imagines it, it gives him some extension in time in which to maintain the continuity of self into the future.

This problem is acute in Western culture where one must reconcile death and immortality with lineal time. For lineal time, unlike cyclical time, implies an ending, termination or death, or at least a state of permanence, where time (and therefore change) is no more. Hence the common Western belief that once the final state of man has been reached, the world of activity is effectively excluded from his existence. This is just as true for those who believe that their personal extinction is permanent in death as it is for those who anticipate personal salvation in a heaven where suffering and sin are no more. In both cases, death is a permanent thing, and the forces of change are no longer relevant. The alternative to total annihilation for Western man is bare existence in an absolutely unchanging condition!

The belief of permanency after death has always been one of the difficulties of the Christian doctrine of heaven. On the one hand, Christian tradition holds that at the moment of death the eternal fate of the person is irretrievably sealed. Heaven is eternal happiness and hell is eternal punishment. In traditional thought this is necessary, because if the happiness is to be perfect, it cannot be threatened by change. Since the possibility of change is itself the cause of insecurity, perfect happiness is realizable only in the state of total security and stability. So, the Christian believes in the permanence of his final state.

But what possible meaning can be assigned to experience if it does not involve change? To experience is to take account of things outside the self and to allow them to affect the self, and this implies undergoing some change in the self. What we experience becomes a part of us. This necessarily alters the reality of the continuity that is the self, and it implies an absence of certitude about the future. Consequently, when personal experiences are admitted as part of the belief in heaven, the belief in the absolute changelessness of the afterlife is put into serious question. Thus, the dilemma. Either personal experience is retained, in which case the series of actual occasions constituting the self continues, and change is still possible, or personal experience is abandoned in favor of permanency, in which case immortality can only consist in a completed and non-experiencing self, whose existence consists in being experienced by another as an objectively immortal actuality.

The openness of Whitehead’s thought on this point permits an explanation of the religious hereafter according to either possibility, and this is why process theologians often differ among themselves without abandoning their fidelity to the process system. We will begin with an explanation of the latter possibility, since this is a more direct application of Whitehead’s own doctrine of ‘‘objective immortality.’’ Here the emphasis is on permanency. What one was during life, especially during the final moments of life, determines what one is eternally. In this interpretation, the series of actual occasions that constitutes the continuity of the self throughout one’s personal history culminates in one final occasion in which that history is synthesized. The entire continuity, but especially this final synthetic occasion in the continuity, is experienced by God and becomes a part of the data of God’s own actuality. In this way each person is immortalized everlastingly in God, retaining permanently his own uniqueness and individuality, and contributing that uniqueness as data to a fuller appreciation of value and novelty for the future. However, this interpretation does not allow for any further subjective experiences or subjective change.

One can also argue for the possibility of “subjective immortality” using the thought of Whitehead.2 In this interpretation the series of actual occasions that constitutes the continuity of the self is not interrupted or terminated by death; it only changes the environment in which it does its experiencing. The ordinary environment for the experiencing self is the body. However, there is no necessary reason why the series of actual occasions that constitutes the self cannot continue in some other non-material environment. Hence, death can be understood as the detachment of that dominant series of actual occasions we recognize as the self from the many supportive material series which constitute the human body. The new environment is the consequent nature of God, where the serial reality of the self continues to experience and to change, but without any direct attachment to the material world.

Given the Whiteheadian frame of reference, both of these interpretations are philosophically consistent within themselves, even though they may not be reconcilable with each other. Therefore, the decision which to choose in articulating one’s belief depends upon the belief itself. This can actually be a significant advantage to the process theologian. Unlike other theological questions, which can be studied and discussed at leisure, the issue of immortality often arises in the context of a sudden personal tragedy. At such moments, the theologian would like to be able to provide an immediate, clear and definitive answer to comfort the dying or the bereaved. But in fact he must embarrassingly reply that there is no certain knowledge about what happens on the other side. There is only the assurance of one’s personal faith.

Even the assurance of faith, however, must demonstrate a certain credibility. This means that it must seem reasonable to the one who believes. At this point the theologian can perhaps be of some practical help. Even while not being able to offer certitude, he can suggest reasons why the faith of the believer is plausible, whether that faith be in the literal continuance of subjective experiencing in a heaven or hell, or in some kind of objective permanence in human history. Thus, in those cases where the person does not want a reaffirmation of the traditional symbols about life after death in his particular circumstances, the appropriate theological explanation is Whitehead’s “objective immortality.” This option can be illustrated by religious statements suggesting that a goodness is never lost, that the world is permanently enriched by the past, and that God himself is magnified because of the goodness of each human person. On the other hand, process theology can also assist one who is committed to a more literal belief in the traditional teachings. Since his major concern is an anxiety about the future, he can be offered some assurances about his personal continuity within the framework of “subjective immortality.” Here some possible religious statements may — with an underlying theological consistency — suggest that when a person dies he is taken up into God for an evaluation of his life, that he will be able to experience the effect that his life had on the world, and that he will have the opportunity to enjoy the good he helped to realize.

Is this a theological cop-out? Is it honest for a theologian simply to provide a set of reasons for whatever faith-option is proffered him? The answer to that question is both yes and no. Insofar as he attempts to be of service to human needs, the theologian may well decide that a moment of personal tragedy or crisis is not the moment to expose the differences between mystery and myth. In this capacity, the theologian is acting as minister, or as the scholarly aid to the minister. As such, he may in certain situations need to call upon theological reasons that are possibly not in accord with his own belief. The service function of the theologian, therefore, may include the formulating of a rationale for theological positions that he would not personally hold.

This need not compromise the theologian in his capacity as pure scholar. He can and should speak out honestly, in the ordinary course of his work, regarding the conclusions that he has come to in his quest for a theological understanding of the issue. The theologian, therefore, actually functions in two capacities: as a scholarly aid to the minister and as a ruthless seeker for truth. The advantage of process theology is that both functions can be adequately discharged in the matter of death and immortality from the single perspective of Whiteheadian thought.

The richness of process theology is such that it provides a solid philosophical framework for a great diversity of human experience and belief, and it is a helpful means of synthesizing them in interesting. creative new ways. It can account for, and indeed deepen, the thinking of traditionalist and liberal alike. Sometimes it can also be a useful instrument for translating between their different interpretations of their experiences of reality and their options of faith. These are the fundamental responsibilities of theology on behalf of faith: to understand, to support, and to deepen. For this task, process theology is very well suited.


1. Published in The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Arthur Schilipp, ed. (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1951), pp. 682-700.

2. Cf. David Griffin, “The Possibility of Subjective Immortality in Whitehead’s Philosophy,” University of Dayton Review. VIII, 3, pp. 43-56.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chapter 12: Theology and Relativity

For many theologians any talk of relativity as adding something significant to their work is immediately rejected as a professional “no-no.” Theology deals with what is most absolute in reality — God, man, and the eternal truths. If theology cannot offer man the absolutes of life, then no absolute standards of truth and morality are possible at all. Man is left hopelessly at sea, with neither rudder for direction nor a final port in which to drop anchor.

As one can see from the previous chapters, the process theologian does not share this anxiety about relativity. Indeed, many of the concepts with which he works are based upon the assumption of relativity. This does not mean that everything is arbitrary and man can believe and act on his whim or fancy. The notion of relativity that process theology employs is that all reality is inter-related in space and time, and that no single real entity has a prior absoluteness that stands outside the process of reality as a whole. Relativity thus contrasts with absoluteness in that it rejects the availability of any privileged moment or point of view from which everything can be finally and objectively evaluated. For the relativist, there is no way to set up criteria by which one moment or perspective can be more objectively valid than any other. The closest we can get to such objectivity is the judgment of reality as a whole upon any one of its parts.

What makes a moment or perspective privileged, then, is not any intrinsically determinable superiority, but the wide acceptance of its claim to privileged status. If or when that acceptance is eroded, the special status is diminished at the same time. According to this interpretation, then, the basis of Christianity is not found in the absolute uniqueness of Jesus as second person of the Trinity, but in the acts of faith that Jesus inspired and has continued to inspire in his own person throughout the centuries. The significance of Jesus can only be understood in relation to his followers.

The same is true of God. If he is serious about the reality of God, the process theologian will want to explain how God and the world are inter-related and how the significance of God is derived from the world. Process theologians, therefore, generally hold that God is in some sense dependent upon the world and that in that sense he is subject to the changes that take place in the world. Hence, God, like the world, is temporal.

These are the two most important instances where process theology causes difficulty for the Christian believer. It seems to do violence both to his affirmation of the divinity of Jesus and to his belief in the absolute immutability of God. The reason for this difficulty, however, is probably more a question of philosophy than a difference of faith. The traditional Christian belief regarding both the divinity of Jesus and the immutability of God is formulated in a set of static, non-temporal categories that give the impression of a certain absoluteness about these matters which is heedless of their relation to the temporal. Jesus, if he is God, has to be God eternally, and God, if he is truly God, has to be perfect eternally. The philosophical presuppositions implied in these statements have come to be accepted with the same act of faith that affirms the reality of God and the importance of Jesus.

The underlying philosophical position of traditional theology and its difference from the presuppositions of process thought can perhaps best be illustrated when we analyze the meaning of “perfect” and see its application to the Christian idea of God. For ages of Greek-educated Western minds, “perfect” referred only to a being in which there was no further possibility of improvement. The perfect being was one that could not be surpassed in any way with regard to its perfection. Change was therefore antithetical to perfection. It was the admission that imperfection existed either before the change or after it. Thus, a being that changed could not be called perfect, because it had not reached the optimum of its perfection, or because it did not have the guarantee of the permanence of its perfection.

The difficulty with the traditional interpretation is that improvement and growth are also perfections. That is, something that can grow or improve is more perfect than one that cannot. If, therefore, something is perfect in the traditional sense of being unchangeable, then it has lost the perfections of growth and improvement. There are, in other words, processive perfections as well as static ones. If God is truly perfect, he must exemplify both kinds of perfection. This means that a God who can grow and improve upon himself is more perfect than a God who remains static and unchanging, while other elements of reality are growing and improving.

The incorporation into God of both the static perfections and the processive perfections is the great achievement of Charles Hartshorne. In his writings he distinguished between absolute perfection and relative perfection. The former is applied to a being that is “unsurpassable in conception or possibility even by itself”; the latter obtains when the being is “unsurpassable except by itself.”1 It is the latter concept that is important for process theologians. It means that, in addition to imperceptible perfections, which are static, there are also perfectible perfections, which are dynamic. Given the temporal frame of reference, relative perfections do not and need not imply imperfection, which is the absence of a perfection that should be present at that time. It simply means that something which reaches a perfection relative to the rest of reality in one moment of time can be further perfected at a future moment of time.

When we apply this distinction to God, we can describe him as perfect if he has absolute perfection and/or relative perfection in all respects, and imperfection in no respect. This is another way of saying that God is perfect at every given moment of time. There is never anything imperfect in him at any moment, and at no time is he ever surpassable by any other being. However, he is capable of improving upon and surpassing himself. This is the way in which he relates himself concretely to the world: the realization of its values increases the values in him. It is also the way in which the world can relate itself to God: it can call him a “living God” because he can love, suffer and change. What happens in the world does make a difference to God, but without gainsaying his perfection in the process.

Traditional theology has always had a difficulty reconciling this belief in the personal nature of God with its belief in his absolute otherness, precisely because persons are relational realities and never absolutely other. This has created a series of questions that are literally unanswerable in the philosophical framework of that theology. For example, how is an absolute or “Supreme Being” really able to love in a personal way? If God loves each of us individually, must he not share our helplessness and powerlessness to deal with the forces of evil with which we must struggle in our lives? Yet, if he is perfect, how can he really be affected by the consequences of the imperfections and evils of the world?

The contribution of process theology to Christian faith is that in its perception the Christian does not have to compromise his belief that God is personal and loving for the sake of his belief in the perfection of God. Because of its philosophical presuppositions, it can explain divine love in terms that are fully compatible with our human experience of love, and it can explain divine perfection in terms that correspond to our own experience of change and growth.

The process theologian sees God’s love as personal, extending to each actual entity individually and freely. God does not impose a particular destiny as a condition for proffering his love. Instead, by reason of his love, he offers the full range of possibilities without moral or religious imperatives, so that each entity can choose for itself what it will become. Freedom is essential to love, and when conditions are attached to the giving of love, they compromise the fullness of that love. God, as the perfect lover, does not attach any such conditions. Furthermore, genuine love not only wills the freedom of the beloved. It also accepts the consequences of that freedom It must be willing to suffer and rejoice, initiate and acquiesce, give and receive. It must allow itself to be changed by that love. The God who truly loves, therefore, is a God who must also suffer and rejoice, initiate and acquiesce, give and receive. He must allow himself to be changed by that love.

Traditional theology sometimes speaks of God as suffering, rejoicing, or interacting in other ways with his creatures. The use of such terms is justified as anthropomorphisms – man’s way of speaking about God in the absence of any language adequate to divine things. But while such language is tolerated, it is not applicable to God as he really is, because God cannot be affected by what happens in the world.

Process theology takes a different position. As the late Daniel Day Williams has written,2 the very essence of love requires individuality, freedom, action, suffering and causality. The fact that biblical images attribute such love to God requires that Christians give them serious consideration as actual characteristics of God. Indeed, the biblical insight about God is precisely that he is more than an abstract, philosophical Being. He is the God of love, the God that Jesus called “Father.” To maintain that the essential qualities of love are merely anthropomorphic ways of speaking about God questions whether God’s love is truly love in any human understanding of the word.

If God is truly personal and living, his love for us must correspond to the way in which we understand love for each other. When a person takes on the personality of God, therefore, divine love is realized and incorporated into human affairs. This, as we have seen, is the explanation for the divinity of Jesus. Divine love had to grow and develop in him, much as it does in each of us. But unlike us, this love in Jesus continued to increase at every moment of his life, so that at every moment he was as perfect as he could be at that moment. He was like us in all things but sin.

In this context, it is not necessary to locate Jesus’ divinity in an eternal pre-existence with God. This doctrine was important to the Greek-oriented theologians and Church Fathers who were unable to explain the perfection of Jesus in any other way than absolute perfection. Their decision to dogmatize this teaching reflected their concern for the uniqueness of Jesus, not for a philosophical statement about the nature of perfection. Since that time, however, many new insights have been added to human thought. If, for example, we accept relativity as an appropriate explanation of reality, then God is related to the world as a changing Becoming, and Jesus is related to God as a changing, growing person. The divinity of Jesus is thus located in the fact that his change and growth always realized concretely the most complete incorporation of divine love in his life. Thus, he was always perfect: as a human person he was unsurpassable in divine perfection in conception or possibility, except by himself. That is, he had relative perfection in every respect.

Do we do violence to Church doctrine and our traditions when we interpret God and Jesus in this way? Are we not taking rather bold liberties with the pronouncements of popes and councils down through the ages? For many, the answer will undoubtedly be in the affirmative. And for this reason, they will reject process theology and its explanations of the faith. For others, however, fidelity to the Church and to its traditions is not attained by faith in formulae, or even by the exigency of reconciling new ideas with old formulae. For these latter, fidelity consists in adherence to the fundamental experience of the early Church about Jesus and the God he proclaimed. Expressions are indeed important, but they are never more than expressions. The faith of the Church is found in the souls of Christians who from time to time try to articulate what they believe in various expressive forms. The Spirit speaks to man’s soul, not to his verbiage. What man has written in the past as his Scriptures and as his dogmatic statements were expressions that more or less captured the experience of faith that was his at a particular moment in time. For this reason they are respected and reverenced, but they are not definitive expressions of the faith experience. The Spirit is always free to do what it will.

If our God is living, surely the Spirit is living also. It still speaks to the soul of man, but it speaks in new ways and with new words. This means that doctrine and tradition must be expected to grow, take on new forms, and find expression in new ideas. The discernment of spirits is not in the comparison of one set of words with another set of words, or even of oneidea with another idea. The manifestation of the Spirit is to human experience, not to human expression. Discernment, therefore, is in the comparison of one faith experience with another faith experience, and in the concrete way in which that faith manifests itself in living. By their fruits you shall know them.

The process experience of Christian faith is certainly not alien to the experience expressed in the tradition. It is basically the experience of the inter-relatedness of reality through time. God, Jesus, the Church, and the other elements of Christian theology are understood and interpreted in that perspective. Love is central to the process perspective, much as it has been for all Christians since the time of John the Evangelist. Significantly, love is itself a relational concept. Love is not possible, or even conceivable, in isolation. It requires relatedness. To say that God is Love, as John does, implies that his fundamental character is that of relation to the world. If God is Love, he can exist only with a world and in a world. He is not possible, or even conceivable, in isolation from the world. And if indeed God actively manifests himself to the world through a man or through a Church, that manifestation will be characterized by love and thus by relatedness. This is what Jesus is, and this is what, hopefully, the Church continues to become.

But this is not yet the end of the story. Life goes on. The Church is still living, just as we are and God is. Process is still operative, and the world is still in labor as it struggles to bring forth the Christ in new ways. We are, in our century, very much aware of that process and very committed to new ways. It is the spirit of our age. Perhaps it is also the Spirit inspiring our age. It is in this spirit that process theology is born and offers its contribution to a continuing and deepening understanding of our Christian faith.


1. Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1964), p. 7.

2. Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and Forms of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1968).

Robert B. Mellert - What Is Process Theology: Chapters 9 & 10

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.

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Chapter 9: Sacraments

While medieval theologians were wont to stress that man is a rational animal, contemporary theologians would probably prefer to say that man is a psychological animal. During this century we have become increasingly aware of the psychological dimension of man, and how his rationality is influenced and perhaps even conditioned by the world that surrounds him. Because he is psychological as well as logical, man is often persuaded by reasons that are not purely rational. He needs arguments that appeal to the heart as well as to the head. Emotions and feelings must be included in his theology as well as reasons and distinctions.

Although the full complexity of this aspect of man is only now being explored systematically, the basic truth about man’s psychological make-up has been a part of his religious intuition for centuries. There is much primitive psychology in religion, and Christianity’s sacramental system is a good example. It is hard to imagine how faith in Jesus could have lasted through the centuries without something more tangible than the New Testament and the abstract formulae of creeds and councils. In intuiting man’s psychological needs and providing its followers with something concrete in the administration of the sacraments, Christianity showed true genius. Despite alterations in form and number, its sacraments have endured as manifestations of the continuing faith of Christians in every age and place of Christendom.

Sacraments are ways of getting in touch with the Jesus-event. They recall concretely and symbolically the faith Jesus inspired in his followers, and they become themselves occasions of gathering the faithful for new, creative expressions of their belief. One might say that they serve to mediate the past to the present. By “celebrating” the Jesus-event for each succeeding age of Christians, they have enabled Christianity to maintain its effectiveness.

Sacraments have been described in different ways in Christian theology. Probably the most familiar description is that of St. Thomas, who borrows St. Augustine’s idea that sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ causing inward grace. In Thomistic theology sacraments are primarily signs, but they are not ordinary signs, because they also cause what they signify. What they cause is grace, and this takes place both because the sacrament is properly performed (ex opere operato) and because the recipient is of good disposition (ex opere operands).1 A sacrament is properly performed when one uses the correct matter (material symbols) and the correct form (formal symbols, i.e., language). The recipient is of good disposition when he approaches the sacrament in the spirit of faith, intending to benefit from its graces.

Implied in the Thomistic approach is that a distinct divine intervention takes place every time the sacramental rite is performed. Given the divine institution of the sacraments by Jesus and given the necessity of an individual divine intervention, exact adherence to the prescribed formula of administration became the guarantee that a sacrament was efficacious. This led to an excessive preoccupation with rubrical precision. The validity of a sacrament was judged only according to its fidelity to the prescribed rubrics and in no way according to the intensity it inspired in its recipients. The result was a certain quasi-magic. As long as the prescriptions were fulfilled, grace automatically resulted, and the faithful were automatically enriched. The “filling-station” approach to sacraments became the common attitude: one came to the sacraments periodically to “fill up” again on grace.

It would be unfair to Thomism to claim that it is responsible for the unsophisticated application of its theology described above. Nevertheless, a return to the Thomistic system is probably not the best solution because its language, its concepts, and even its presuppositions sound very strange to contemporary ears. An explanation of sacraments more in tune with the psychological dimension of man would better suit our present mentality, and this is certainly not one of the strengths of Thomistic theology.

In contrast, process theology provides an interesting alternative, because it can speak in terms of sign and cause while also being sensitive to the importance of human feelings and the psychological dimension of man. In the process perspective, each sacramental action is both created by the community and creative of the community. As created by the community it presumes the prior faith of Christians and their desire to renew that faith. This is the function of the sacrament ex opere operands: without the prior disposition of the believing community there can be no sacramental effect. As creative of the community, the sacrament leaves its influence on the faith of the believers and the process of the Church, whether it is performed well or poorly. This is its function ex opere operato; by the very performance of the sacrament the Church comes to grace (or dis-grace).

Sacraments can be described in Whiteheadian language as positive prehensions of the Jesus-event. Prehensions, as we have seen, are concrete “feelings” or “experiencings” of the past. Via prehensions the past contributes itself positively to the present and is immanently incorporated in what the present is becoming. As prehensions, then, sacraments not only remember Jesus and the faith of his followers. They also represent them concretely to the present. Technically, this is called “causal efficacy” in Whitehead’s philosophy. Applied to sacraments, it means that the Jesus-event is causally efficacious during those occasions when the sacraments are administered in his name.

By the same token, the occasions of sacramental encounter are efficacious in the lives of its participants. We have already noted how sacraments are occasions of gathering the faithful, as well as occasions of representing the Jesus-event. To the degree that the sacraments are performed well, i.e., they appealingly represent the Jesus-event to the faithful, they leave their positive impact upon those who have gathered. This is the sacrament’s causal efficacy upon the Church and the way in which the presence of Jesus is dynamically continued. Taken together, this twofold causal efficacy demonstrates how process theology, like Thomistic theology, can affirm that sacraments cause what they signify.

Sacraments are signs as well as causes. They are signs because they are a common ground between the past and the present and because they provide a correlation between them. When we perceive something, we perceive it both as the result of its historical continuity and in its present immediacy. If the latter is in fitting correlation with the historical continuity, we readily interpret a meaning to it. Sacraments are signs because they bring together certain important moments of history and a certain contemporaneous event, and present a definite correlation between them. That is, they suggest the continuity between the Jesus-event and the occasions of sacramental action. In a sacrament, therefore, we perceive both an action and a reference, and we interpret a meaning from them.

The sacramental action need not be a literal replay of particular episodes in the life of Jesus. Indeed, such a literal repetition would be unfaithful to the present moment. An exact translation of an event from one culture to another always betrays the true nature of the event. La traduction, c’est la trahaison! Nevertheless, there must be enough common ground, in the form of common eternal objects and perceivable continuity, so that the correlation can be readily grasped.

The construction of sacramental ritual, therefore, is achieved through a delicate balance between reiteration and creativity. If the sign is to be efficacious in representing the historical Jesus-event, it must reiterate. If it is to be efficacious of itself in intensifying the event it signifies in the lives of those gathered about, it must also be creative. Good liturgy thus depends upon both fidelity to tradition and sensitivity to the needs of those gathered to participate.

Fidelity to tradition is the concern of the entire Church. Since sacraments are the way in which the presence of Jesus is maintained in the Church as a whole, the Church’s future is dependent upon the way they are performed. If the Church is a process and sacraments are creative of that process, then the people of God have a vital concern in preserving their identifying characteristic through the administration of the sacraments. This is why a certain sameness is essential in liturgy, at least to the extent that liturgy celebrates in some way the importance of Jesus in the contemporary context. The survival dynamic of the Church depends upon this minimal fidelity to its tradition.

At the same time sensitivity to the needs of the faithful demands that liturgical celebrations be creative and meaningful. The events to be re-presented must have a purpose beyond the performance of the sacrament itself. The increasing use of themes in Masses and the construction of liturgies for particular community events are recent attempts to elicit more of the intensity dynamic in the Church. Ideally, such themes and liturgies should arise out of the needs and concerns of those gathered to perform the sacraments, since intensity can have its effect only to the extent that it touches them. This, of course, means that well-performed liturgy is well-prepared liturgy. Finding both the right medium and the right message for a particular group is a time-consuming undertaking. Abandonment of the “fillingstation” spirituality, however, makes such efforts imperative.

In the practice of most Christian churches, and especially in Roman Catholicism, there has been a certain reluctance to admit emotion into liturgical celebrations. Expressions of feeling seemed out of place in man’s dealings with God, because they were part of his lower nature and thus inferior to his intellect and will. The sterile liturgies that often resulted from this attitude seem to support the opinion of most modern psychologists that man cannot be so arbitrarily divided. The man who celebrates liturgy must celebrate it with his whole self, or he restricts the efficacy of the liturgy in his own life.

Process theology has an important corrective to suggest here. The way in which man gets in touch with the past is through his prehensions of the past. Now prehensions are fundamentally “feelings” or “experiencings” that re-create the past in one’s present moment of existence. Feelings of this fundamental kind are, therefore, a necessary condition for fidelity to one’s tradition. To abstract from the prehension or feeling of the past only its intellectual component is to strip the tradition of its very reality. We have a feel for tradition because feelings do come to us from tradition. Sacraments, which put us in touch with tradition, are the means whereby we recapture its fullness and allow it to fill us with new life.

Sacraments are privileged moments in the Church because they establish a privileged relation to Jesus. They are important moments to the believer because they collapse the time between him and the origins of his faith in order that that faith can be re-created in the new occasion in which the sacrament is performed. That is why it is imperative that sacraments be adequate signs and full expressions of what they represent.

The sense of the term “sacrament” as we have been using it here obviously can extend beyond the range of the seven official sacraments of Roman Catholicism. Any occasion that gathers two or more together to re-present and re-create the Jesus event and to renew the faith of those gathered is, in the wide sense, sacramental. A sermon, some moments of common prayer, or even a simple conversation that inspires can be sacramental in this sense. Liturgical worship is, of course, especially designed to be sacramental. The primordial sacrament for us is the Eucharist, because it is the most frequently used and most effective means of re-presenting the Jesus-event in a meaningful way. In the last few paragraphs of this chapter we shall attempt to explain the Eucharist, and the sacrament of baptism by which it is preceded, according to the spirit of process theology.

Thomistic philosophy defined the Eucharist in terms of the substances of bread and wine. At the moment when the words of consecration were correctly completed, the substances of bread and wine were “transubstantiated” into the body and blood of Jesus. The problem with this explanation in our age is that it is difficult to reconcile with our scientific sophistication. Upon scientific analysis, the so-called substance of bread is merely a mixture of carbohydrates, proteins and other elements, none of which can be properly called bread. Wine is just as much of a problem to identify substantially. If there is no substance of bread or wine, how can that substance change into the body and blood of Jesus?

Some contemporary theologians, using insights of existential philosophy and phenomenology, have suggested that the underlying reality of bread and wine is not substance, but meaning. Bread is bread because man has agreed to call a certain combination of baked elements “bread.” When the words of consecration are repeated, this combination of baked elements is re-moved from the level of ordinary bread and assigned a new meaning in faith, according to the promise made by Jesus at the institution of the sacrament. This explanation of the Eucharist has been called “transignification” or “transfinalization.”

In process philosophy there is no underlying reality of bread and wine that can be transubstantiated or transfinalized. The only realities are actual occasions, which are temporal as well as spatial. The best description of the Eucharist, then, is in terms of an event. What is transformed is not the substance or meaning of bread and wine, but the action that is performed. Jesus is made present again, or re-presented, by a sacramental event that corresponds to the Jesus-event. Except for the sacramental action there can be no Eucharist. Corresponding to the common expressions of the early Christians, the Eucharist is the “breaking of the bread” and the “sharing of the cup,” not simply the bread and wine by themselves. It is the re-presentation of the Last Supper event in the new event of the Mass. The community, in causing the actions of the Mass to become sacramental, is itself transformed by that sacramental action to live at a new intensity and to continue the process of the Church.

Baptism is the event whereby a new member is incorporated into the community of faith. That is why the new liturgy of baptism in the Roman Catholic rite insists upon the presence of a representative group of the community. The person is becoming a member of the community, and a new relation is being established. The sacramental effect of the baptism event is therefore important both to the person and to the community. The community assures the person of its support in faith, and the person pledges his support in faith to the other members of the community. Jesus’ own action of incorporating new members into the first Christian community is thus re-presented in the rite of baptism. The sign of the sacrament causes what it signifies. Through it the process of the Church continues to create and be created.

A description of the other sacraments would follow the same pattern, to a greater or lesser degree. A number of other liturgical or para-liturgical actions could also be explained in a similar manner. The number of sacraments has not been constant in the history of the Church, and there is no reason to believe that even the seven so defined as sacraments are to be considered as equally important. A clue in this regard comes from our Protestant brothers in Jesus. For most Protestants, baptism and the Eucharist have been retained, even while the other sacraments have been abandoned or restructured. The fact that in many segments of Roman Catholicism this same phenomenon is occurring suggests that perhaps there is something more fundamental and important in these two sacramental events than in the others. But on this subject process theology has nothing unique to contribute. It is content to observe the new developments in order to understand better the shape that the process we call the Church is taking in our time.


1. Although this distinction, to the best of my knowledge, does not appear as such in the writings of St. Thomas, it is suggested by a similar distinction in the Summa Theologica, III, 62, 1 and 4. Nevertheless, it has been popularized in this form in the commonly used high school religion texts during the past generation. Thus it has become the accepted Thomistic teaching on the Subject for most American Catholics.

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Chapter 10: Morality

The new morality has been around for quite a while now, but it still manages to generate plenty of heated discussion, especially when the participants are parents and their adolescent children. No changes in our society have caused more fear and anxiety to the older generation than the numerous challenges to traditional moral standards. Contrary to what they had formerly been taught, moral standards do seem to change, and in fact have changed radically in one generation. Or, in the interests of precision, we might say that what has changed is the understanding of morality. While it is evidently not true to say that young people are less moral than their parents, it is quite true to say that what they understand morality to include or exclude is often very different.

The so-called new morality is quite simple in the minds of most young people. They hold two fundamental principles: (1) nothing can be decided unless you are in a concrete situation, and (2) it’s O.K. as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. By this standard Vietnam was wrong because it was a concrete situation where people were being hurt and killed, and no abstract strategies of American foreign policy could justify it. Likewise, extra-marital sex cannot be condemned in itself; when both parties agree, there is no wrong because it is a pleasure that does not hurt anybody. In such a perspective the just-war theory of Augustine and the sexual restrictions of the Roman Catholic Church are equally unpersuasive, and, indeed, are themselves immoral!

In contrast, we generally hear the older generation arguing in the traditional way. Morality comes ultimately from God, according to his eternal law. When that law is revealed to us, or when it has been deduced by reason, we are constrained to obey its prescriptions. To live morally, one is not so much concerned with the situation as with the law. The situation is important only insofar as it enables one to know which law is applicable. The task of teaching us the law and helping us to apply it is the function of the state and the Church, and one can expect his reward or punishment in this life or in eternity, according to his obedience to civil and divine law respectively.

While these two descriptions may be oversimplified, they are detailed enough to illustrate the major strengths and weaknesses of each approach to morality. The new morality is more flexible and less confining. It permits one to reach reasonable decisions even where the law indicates otherwise. Responsibility rests upon the person who makes the decision; he cannot blame the law or the authorities for making him do what he did.

There are also weaknesses in the new morality. If no decision is valid outside of the concrete situation, what is it about the concreteness of the situation that suddenly enables one to choose wisely? It is precisely in moments of crisis where a decision is demanded that one often is unable to mobilize his powers of reflection to make a prudent choice. What his personal values are prior to the crisis and what previous reflection he can draw upon are always important determinative components in any decision. But if we admit the importance of pre-determined personal values in making a critical decision, does not this imply that one has some aim or purpose that gives meaning to those values and that directs his moral behavior? For what makes something a value is that it is seen to have more worth than something else, which is judged to have a lesser value, according to the overall aim or purpose one has chosen to pursue. So “leaving it up to the concrete situation” really doesn’t suffice. Some guidelines are necessary for dealing with the situation, and these guidelines are precisely the abstract values, ideals, aims and purposes that are not, and can never be situational. Some kind of ethical standard will be at work in deciding how to handle a particular situation. To refuse to reflect seriously about that ethical standard until one finds himself in the concrete situation does not lead to purity of decision; it merely means that impulse will have a greater share than reason in the final outcome.

The other problem with the new morality is the principle that one must not hurt anybody. It sounds innocent enough, but as ethical principle it is too minimal to be of much use. For one thing, it is stated negatively and doesn’t suggest any positive aims or directions one ought to strive for. Secondly, “anybody” presumably means “any human being.” But an ethic that is limited to human beings is going to be somewhat inadequate in this age of ecological crisis. There has to be a way of judging the hurt we inflict on other things. This is a difficult problem, because we must continue to eat, to build homes, and to warm our bodies. Since every action ultimately affects and often hurts something, we cannot extend this principle to say, “as long as it doesn’t hurt anything.“ Some more sophisticated way of determining what kinds of hurts are tolerable, and what kinds are not tolerable must be found. Some of the hurts will be to man, at least in the form of fewer conveniences or luxuries. But we have passed the age where humanism can be the sole ethical criterion. We are too intertwined with nature as a whole, and too dependent upon it. New ethical theories must be sensitive to that fact.

On the other hand, the old morality is just as defective, and perhaps even more so. Its weaknesses have been so frequently subjected to the scrutiny of the new moralists that it will not be necessary to repeat them here, except in summary form. The new moralists argue that the old morality is too rigid and inflexible. It tends to enslave man to the law, rather than liberate him to act creatively in society. In the name of stability it often causes stagnation and immobility. Because it is centered on law, it has become the refuge of traditionalists seeking to preserve the status quo. Observance of the law is the final justification for conformity. As Whitehead once put it, “The defense of morals is the battle-cry which best rallies stupidity against change.”1

However, the old morality cannot be discarded out of hand. Any system that has served for so many centuries must have something to say for itself. ‘What it teaches is that we cannot get along without some ethical guidelines. Perhaps, in a quickly changing world where law always loiters behind the moral conscience of people, it is no longer right to judge the morality of actions exclusively according to the prescriptions of the law. But if the moral laws of the past can be understood in a new way, not as prescriptions to be followed but as values that the wisdom of history provides, then perhaps the old moralists can still teach the new moralists some important things.

The point of convergence between traditional morality and situational morality is in their attempts to articulate a set of values that can offer guidance in the task of building the future. Laws, when interpreted as principles or guidelines, can warn us about what we ought to avoid. The concrete situation can focus upon the immediate facts. But something more is needed. Our projections of the future demand some assessment regarding what kinds of things — given the new possibilities for science and technology — we really want to promote for the ages ahead. A philosophy of values, enriched by a dialogue among diverse ethical theorists, is thus indispensable for any ethics in the twentieth century. Process thought, because it is both metaphysical and flexible, can make an important contribution to this discussion.

“Value,” says Whitehead, “is the outcome of limitation.”2 Limitation is the result of the selection by which an actual occasion is ultimately shaped. Only as a result of how it prehends its relevant past and gives it new focus does a new concrete occasion come into existence. Value is the intrinsic reality of the occasion, insofar as its own synthesis is unique and will have an impact upon further process.

Value, therefore, is always concrete and never realized except in individual actual occasions. It is the consequence of the particularity that emerges and then contributes itself as new data to the world. We can, of course, abstract from concrete values to speak of value systems and value hierarchies. These are simply ways in which the human mind operates to understand and coordinate what is happening in reality and to decide what is truly important.

Morality is “the control of process so as to maximize importance.”3 “Importance” is another technical word in the Whiteheadian vocabulary. Briefly, it occurs when the intensity of feeling leads to publicity of expression.4 In the context of morality, it means that there must be a constant transcending of the present moment toward public novelty and interest. It is the greatness of experience that goes beyond itself. Occasions that contribute greatness of experience to the on-going process of the universe achieve greatness of value. That is, each occasion should aim at new and interesting possibilities, unique harmonies and contrasts. An occasion’s contribution to the future consists in how it makes new data available. The future is the final judge of whether it achieved success. In the words of Whitehead, “The effect of the present on the future is the business of morals.”5

There is no question that the major impetus of Whitehead’s ideas on morality are future-oriented. A less obvious but equally important dimension to his ethical thinking arises from the inter-relational character of reality. Morality is inseparably linked with our position in the whole. It is never a private affair, done in isolation from the rest of reality. Every moral decision has some impact on the whole and bears the weight of that responsibility. Therefore, the general good and the individual good can never be in conflict, because both share a common world and a common future. Individual interests must always be harmonized with the more general interests. This is a significant implication to his statement that morality consists in maximizing importance. Importance is always determined by the individual occasion’s impact upon the future taken as a whole. For in the literal sense, an occasion has no future except insofar as it is integrated into wider perspectives and newer horizons.

Where process thought goes beyond the humanistic ethics that have been so popular in our time is in its concern not only for the unity of mankind, but for the integration of all reality. There is an essential inter-relatedness about all of nature that transcends the needs of the human species, and there can be no separation of the latter from the former at any step of ethical deliberation. The concern of morality is reality, not merely man. For man is not his own end. He dies, and his civilizations die. Were man the ultimate purpose of the universe, creation would have to be judged woefully inefficient. Clearly, something more is at stake, even in this age of environmental pollution, than the survival of man. In the final analysis, the survival of the universe is a value of greater importance, because from it the processes at work in reality can continue to create a history.

In light of this ethical perspective, what can we abstract from the concrete values we are given in each emerging occasion of reality? Can we suggest some abstract values and aims that are truly worthy of human efforts?

Whitehead suggests that the aims of a civilized society are a “fineness of feeling” and a “generality of understanding.”6 We might note that these aims are intrinsic to the process and do not define values apart from the process itself. Both are expressions of what process, as process, is about. The first aim of morality, then, is the continuance of process in its maximal effect. This occurs at the level both of individuality and of society. Each individual occasion contributes its fineness of feeling, and the whole achieves a generality of understanding. For process thought, the individual and the totality are equally of value. Therefore, morality is compromised when there is the totalitarianism of the whole over the parts or when there is the anarchy of the parts with respect to the whole. Morality never chooses between the welfare of the particular or of the communal. It must always strive toward their integration in a way that values both the uniqueness of individuality and the harmony of generality.

While the first business of morals is to safeguard experience and to continue the process, Whitehead does make some suggestions about the qualities that ought to be furthered by process, and here we see especially the Platonic character of his thought. In his book Adventures of Ideas he lists five eternal objects: truth, beauty, adventure, art and peace. Curiously, good and right are not included in his list. The main reason is simply that these terms are so overworked that their meanings have become quite imprecise. Instead he chooses these five as qualities which do have meaning, and which are sufficiently clear and comprehensive so as to include in a general way what man actually finds valuable in process.

Whitehead defines truth much like Thomas Aquinas. It is the conformation of appearance to reality.7 A truth relation is constituted when the content of two connected facts participate in the same general pattern. There can be many kinds of truth relations, thus justifying the use of the term both for art and mathematics, as well as for concrete impressions and abstract speculations. Sense perception is the primary way of attaining truth, because from it appearances are usually derived clearly and distinctly, despite occasional failures or interferences. Thus the things we perceive provide steady values, and these are incorporated into the subjective form of the prehending occasion and become part of the data out of which new occasions emerge.

Beauty goes beyond truth in the spontaneous adaptations of some of the factors prehended by an occasion of experience. The adaptations arise in pursuit of a certain aim, in which intensity of feeling and conformity to a common pattern combine for the attainment of harmony. That is, there is the perfection of the subjective form arising out of the variety of prehensions in such a way that the component feelings do not inhibit each other from achieving their ideal inter-relation. Beauty is thus wider and more fundamental than truth, because it deals not only with the conformation of appearance to reality, but also with the perfection of the subjective forms that are shaped by their interrelation.

Art is the purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality. The achievement of art thus depends upon the perfection of man, as he has been shaped by beauty. But perfection is not a static concept. Like civilization itself, it must always promote novelty and originality. When these cease to be important, civilization dies. Thus, Whitehead includes adventure as a necessary quality, lest inspiration yield to mere repetition. Finally, peace, the harmony of harmonies, is a call to go beyond limitations and beyond the self, without denying the self. Peace thus seeks to achieve the integration of order and love. It is the positive quality that crowns the “life and motion” of the soul.8

The final question we must ask is whether there is in the universe any general drive toward the realization and perfection of these five qualities. Is there a greater and more perfect conformity of appearance and reality revealed in the movement of history? In other words, is a constant progress inherent in the nature of process? For process thinkers of a Whiteheadian bent, the answer to these questions is less optimistic than it is for the disciples of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Process is a metaphysical principle of reality, but there is no corresponding principle of progress. Thus, there is no guarantee of improvement in history.

Whiteheadians generally eschew the claim of inherent progress. First, it would be difficult to establish absolute norms of progress, and norms that might seem sufficient for the best self-interests of man may not necessarily serve the best interests of reality as a whole. To absolutize human norms simply because they are human seems rather presumptuous in the wider perspective of things. Another reason is that our experience does not indicate that even on the human level process has resulted in progress. By human standards, scientific and technological advances can probably be called progress, and yet there do not seem to be any similar advances in moral living. Man is just as likely to occasion discord as harmony, selfishness as love.

What our experience tells us is that change is not necessarily improvement, and that in the moral order every new possibility for good is simultaneously a possibility for evil. The size of good and evil grow apace. Scientists and technologists have enabled us to understand the finitude of our world and our essential interdependence with the forces that constitute it. But they have not — and cannot — provide us with the resolve to integrate ourselves into it. This is the domain of morals. It is today a frightening domain because of our knowledge. In our individual occasions of experience we are collectively deciding the very fate of process on this planet, and the size of this moral predicament is truly overwhelming. It is perhaps so overwhelming that it is beyond the scope of any one of us to comprehend.

That is why the new morality and the old morality, taken individually or together, are inadequate. More is at stake than can be answered by a situational analysis and an appeal to past wisdom. What is also needed is a vision of the future as an integrated totality and a sensitivity for the values that will get us there. This will not come from a commitment to seek out the evil and overcome it. Perhaps now more than ever, the Don Quixotes are irrelevant because of the magnitude of evil and the increasing number of evil possibilities. Nor will it come from an attempt to isolate evil and reject it, situation by situation, as one threads his way through the choices of life. No corporate good of any size can be achieved by such piecemeal, individualized efforts. Instead we must ask the question: How can we collectively look evil in the eye, accept its reality, and undertake to incorporate it into a larger good? Process is made up of everything in the past, however it is judged morally. If quality and size are to be squeezed from the relentless cadence of process, we must harness evil into our service. This is possible only when the good toward which we strive is truly large enough, important enough, and holy enough to lure us enthusiastically into the enterprise.


1. Adventures of Ideas. op. cit., p.268.

2. Science and the Modern World, op. cit.. p. 94.

3. Modes of Thought, op. cit., pp. 13-14.

4. Ibid., p. 8.

5. Adventures of Ideas. op. cit., p. 269.

6. Ibid.. p. 282.

7. Ibid., p. 241.

8. Ibid., p. 285.