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Essays by Me

Essays by Others

The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism

Lewis S. Ford

Chapter 8:

Sources of Christian Hope 

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has been perhaps the most eloquent apostle of Christian hope in recent years, discerning in the evolutionary process an increasing convergence and complexification that will finally result in the Omega point, the consummation and terminus of history foreshadowed in Jesus as the Christ.  Yet how can we be certain that this final convergence will yield the full personalization of man instead of his collectivization or destruction?  Does God guarantee a final victory?  Can we have the confidence that God will finally bring about the triumph of good, no matter how badly we fail him?  If so, its coming is inevitable, and we need not strive to bring it about.  Then the risks of this world lose their seriousness, for there is no ultimate risk.  If the good triumphs no matter what, the sufferings that God allows us to endure on the way lose their meaning because he could have accomplished his purposes without them.

But what if, on the other hand, there is no final triumph of good, and we simply face the bleak prospect of more of the same?  It is all too easy to dismiss Teilhard as a facile optimist, without penetrating to the root of his desperate vision.  Teilhard was deeply sensitive to the growing hopelessness of modern man.  Without the assurance of tomorrow, can we go on living?  Hope releases the energies of man, and the lure of a better future is the only reason for any striving.  Individual, particular, proximate hopes, however, must be situated within an horizon of ultimate hope.  For all the hopes and strivings of man are unmasked as utter vanity if the final end of the universe is simply a wasting away into nothingness.

The logic of the situation seems inexorable: without hope, we are lost and still in our sins.  This hope requires an ultimate horizon which must be both real and good, for otherwise our hope is based on an illusion.  But an inevitable triumph of good undercuts the seriousness and risk of the human task, and gives the lie to its manifold sufferings.

Here metaphysics fails us.  Any metaphysical necessity that might be adduced to give us confidence in our future would be too heavy-handed.  We would simply be reduced to passive spectators before its inexorability.  As Paul wrote, “Hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom.  8:24).  That which we “see’’ by metaphysical insight should be included under this ban.  Hope means trust in a future which is to be acted out in our deeds and efforts.  Metaphysics may enable us to see whether this trust is reasonable, but it cannot be its basis.

Hence in this chapter we must leave metaphysical certainties and venture forth tentatively, sketching possible alternatives about which no final decisions can be made, exploring the bases of hope, first for ourselves, as grounded in the possible survival after death, and/or in the ongoing life of God, and then our hope for the future of the world.

In Whitehead’s philosophy the soul is a series of momentary events or actual occasions supported by the body (particularly the brain) and coordinating its activities.  It is not an enduring substance and does not necessarily survive the death of the body, as most have interpreted Plato to teach.  On the other hand, Whitehead’s metaphysics does not preclude such survival.  “It is entirely neutral on the question of immortality, or on the existence of purely spiritual beings other than God.” 1

Subsequent process theologians have been deeply divided on this point.  Charles Hartshorne2 in The Logic of Perfection and Schubert Ogden3 in “The Meaning of Christian Hope” have forcefully argued against any subjective immortality, holding that as objectively experienced by God our lives are wholly preserved and cherished forever.  Without denying this objective immortality, David Griffin has examined the possibility of subjective survival more positively,4 and John Cobb has speculated about the possible interpenetration of such souls in the hereafter in ways that overcome their possible self-centeredness.5 Marjorie Suchocki has also explored ways in which we may live on in God which are quite different from these conceptions of the immortality of the soul.6

I find disembodied survival questionable, simply because the soul is so dependent upon the body.  The body is its means for sensing and perceiving.  All of its action is expressed through the body it coordinates.  Quite probably all of its memory, and other subconscious activities, are provided for the soul by subordinate living occasions within the brain.  Bereft of all these capacities, the soul might still be able to exist, but in such an impoverished state that it hardly seems worthwhile.

The situation might be quite different if the ongoing life of God were to provide the support for these continuing occasions of the soul which it had been accustomed to receive from the body.  Whitehead briefly speculated on this possibility:

How far this soul finds a support for its existence beyond the body is: —another question.  The everlasting nature of God, which in a sense is non-temporal and in another sense is temporal, may establish with the soul a peculiarly intense relationship of mutual immanence.  Thus in some important sense the existence of the soul may be freed from its complete dependence upon the bodily organization.7

In that case God might mediate to the soul the memory of past experiences from his own experiences of those events, and possibly even his perception of present events.  God could also mediate the free actions of such souls to one another, taking care to harmonize any potential conflicts by means of conceptual supplementation, thus overcoming any evil consequent upon the free actions of many actualities acting in concert.  On earth these free actions are communicated directly to supervening occasions, creating the risk of conflict and evil.  But this freedom may well be possible within the perfect harmony of heaven, if God can neutralize the potential outcomes before they are able to produce any conflict.8

But is such subjective immortality needed?  There seem to be three factors which impel man to look for life beyond the grave: (1) the preservation of values achieved, (2) the redemption from evil and suffering, (3) and the non-acceptance of the extinction of the self.  Let us consider each of these factors in turn.

The first is the most insistent.  What is the point of it all if it all ends in nothing?  Our achievements may live on in the memories of others, but this is a very fragmentary and transient immortality.  Eventually they too shall perish, as well as all traces of our existence.  It is only a matter of time.  If we survive death, then what we have experienced and achieved will survive with us.  But to what extent?  Rilke suggests that such earthly experiences and achievements would be remembered like the discarded playthings of our childhood, if at all.  If, however, God perfectly remembers all that has happened, or better, is still experiencing in his ongoing, everlasting present whatever is past to us, the values we now cherish will be better preserved in the divine experience than they would be in any subjective immortality we might enjoy.  Our own personal immortality is not needed, if all our achieved values are objectively immortal as cherished within the divine everlasting experience.

The second reason, concerning redemption from evil, really has two aspects.  On the one hand, we may ask whether the guilty can be received by God; on the other, whether there can be any recompense for the suffering of the innocent.

Some interpret the saying that God’s experience “is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved”9 as meaning that God only preserves that which is good, discarding the evil as incapable of such preservation.  That interpretation ignores the very next sentence: ‘It is also the judgment of a wisdom which uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage.10 It also ignores the teaching of the apostle Paul, that we sinners are justified by grace, that we are accepted despite our unacceptability.  If only the good that we do is received into God’s experience, then most of what we are would be forever lost.  God experiences all that we are and do, even though much of that causes conflict, evil, and suffering, not only to others but also to God.

This is all possible within the divine experience because God has all the inexhaustible resources of conceptual possibility to heal the wounds inflicted by actuality.  Here we may gain a dim impression of Whitehead’s point by recourse to works of the imagination.  Art and poetry can transform the dull, ugly, irritating commonplaces of life into vibrant, meaningful realities by inserting them within fresh and unexpected contexts.  The dramatic insight of a Sophocles can suffuse the grossly evil deeds of Oedipus the king with high tragedy by skillfully weaving these actions with choric commentary into an artful whole.  These deeds would be horribly shocking to witness in actuality, yet in the drama this evil is transformed into tragic beauty.  Likewise, the disciplined imagination of speculative reason can surmount the interminable conflicts between man and nature, mind and body, freedom and determinism, religion and science, by assigning each its rightful place within a larger systematic framework.  The larger pattern, introduced conceptually, can bring harmony to discord by interrelating potentially disruptive elements in constructive ways.  Since God’s conceptual feelings as derived from his primordial nature are infinite, he has all the necessary resources to supplement his physical feelings perfectly, thereby achieving a maximum of intensity and harmony from every situation.

We may object that imagination is not enough.  Certainly it is not enough in our experience.  Our limited imaginations are easily overwhelmed by the insistent persistence of determinate actuality.  But such actuality is itself limited.  Could it not in turn be overcome and transformed by an infinite, inexhaustible, divine imagination?

This is a redemption that God experiences, but do we experience it?  We could, if there were an objective immortality of the consequent nature.11 Then it would be true that ‘‘the perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience.” 12 But God’s everlasting concrescence would have to be completed for it to pass back Into our world, and it is never complete.  Whitehead never attempted to resolve this problem, and it is not clear that it could ever be solved.13

In the closing chapter of Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead discusses the final ideal requisite for the perfection of life, “Peace.” It involves the tragic beauty that God creatively experiences in redeeming the world from evil, but it is not the direct experience of this redemption.  Peace “is primarily a trust in the efficacy of Beauty.” 14 We trust, without directly experiencing, this Beauty as that which ultimately makes it all worthwhile. 

But is this enough?  Coupled with the refusal to accept the extinction of the self is our frequent craving for the direct experience of compensation for any Innocent suffering we have endured; if not now, at least in some life to come.  But is this not a sign of that “restless egotism” that Peace is designed to overcome?15

It might be thought a just precept that each one should suffer for his own sins.  This runs counter to the whole of Christian experience, however, rooted in the image of the suffering servant of the Lord depicted in Isaiah 53 as suffering on behalf of the sins of others.  It runs counter to the meaning of Jesus’ death as disclosing to us the depths of God’s solidarity with the world, that he suffers the pain and destruction caused by the evil we inflict.  Even though God is able to transform this suffering into joy by Imaginatively suffusing its evil with tragic beauty, the fact remains that his initial experience of the world involves all the pain and loss that the conflict of its many actualities produces.  God cannot ignore this conflict by blunting his perceptions, and he is acutely aware of the clash between what actually is and what might or ought to have been.

It might just be barely possible to insist upon this precept that each should suffer for the evil he inflicts, if the self endured to experience the result of its own actions and decisions.  But within a Whiteheadian cosmology built upon momentary occasions, this is not possible.  No occasion ever experiences the outcome of its own actions.  What it experiences is bequeathed to it by others, for good or ill, and the results of its decision affect subsequent occasions, never itself.  What we as momentary selves experience can never be that which we have done.

The quest for subjective immortality may simply be a disguised affirmation of the substantial, enduring self of traditional thought.  Whitehead’s meditation upon Peace combats this tendency.  It is the quest for a Harmony of Harmonies that can utterly transcend the limits of any self.  “It results in a wider sweep of conscious interest.  It enlarges the field of attention.  Thus Peace is self-control at its widest – at the width where the ‘self’ has been lost, and interest has been transferred to coordinations wider than personality.” 16 If every self is thoroughly bound up with the past world it experiences, and the coming world it affects, so that it is constantly drawn out of itself to the other, this widening of concern beyond the self is most salutary.  It cannot dwell exclusively on the intrinsic value it achieves for itself without introducing an arbitrary narrowness.  Only by transferring its concern to “coordinations wider than personality” can the self affirm the values it is inextricably bound up with.  Experience at its widest, its fullest, its deepest, its most adequate, is God’s.  It is that to which our concern should be directed, not to some future state of our own selfhood.

This line of reasoning is put forth tentatively, for on these questions there can be no final dogmatism.  Yet it should be emphasized that this argument does not merely seek to reconcile us with the secularity of contemporary experience which wishes to renounce all other-worldly concerns as distracting wishful thinking.  It is governed by a religious concern asking whether subjective immortality is ultimately desirable in the eyes of God.  If the prolongation of the self beyond the life of the body is ultimately restrictive, then we should lose it in order to find our lives merged within the life of God.  Perhaps in this transfer of concern from our own life to God’s we may discover this final Peace.

Prescinding now from questions of immortality and the life of God, what hope can we reasonably have for the overcoming of evil in this finite, temporal world of everyday experience?

The first thing that must be said is that this future is most risky and uncertain.  Classical theism, for all the difficulties it might have with present evil, can be serene in the confidence that someday God will wipe out all evil.  After all, he is all-powerful, and needs only to assume full control of the world to make it conform to his will.  Process theism, by relinquishing the claim that God could completely control the world in order to overcome the problem of present evil, cannot have this traditional assurance about the future.  We are faced with an ineluctable dilemma: Either God has the power to overcome evil unilaterally, and he should have already, or he does not, and we have no guarantee that he will ever be able to.  Process theism has chosen to embrace the second horn of this dilemma.  God cannot guarantee that evil will be overcome simply because he is not the sole agent determining the outcome of the world.  It is a joint enterprise involving a vast multiplicity of actualities responding to his cosmic purposes.  Since all these actualities are free to respond as they will, it is conceivable that most may all elect to frustrate the divine aim.  The world could possibly generate into near chaos.  There can be no metaphysical guarantee against such a catastrophe.

On the other hand, there is a strong pragmatic ground for hoping in God, and that lies in the evolutionary advance of the world during the observable past (that is to say, during the past eighteen billion years or so).  Up until now God seems to be able to elicit ever richer forms of complexity from the world, and there is all the reason to expect that he will be able to continue to do this in the future.

This hope, however, need not be especially comforting to the human race.  Many, if not most, species have become extinct in the course of this evolutionary advance, and there is good reason to anticipate that this may be our fate as well.  Then we would be defeated, though not God.  The human experiment would have failed, but God could continue on his quest for more intensive forms of existence, if not on this planet, then elsewhere in the universe.  Earlier in the history of mankind this danger of extinction was not so evident, but it threatens our generation on every side, particularly in terms of nuclear annihilation or ecological suicide.

In the face of these dangers, can we have any confidence in the power of God to sustain the human enterprise?  Here I think we can find renewed meaning in the death and resurrection of Jesus as a profound symbol of hope.  If our analysis of Jesus’ death is correct, this event signified a defeat for God by the forces of evil, so much so that God was not able to comfort Jesus in the hour of his deepest need on the cross.  That experience of despair wrung from Jesus’ lips the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The forces of evil conspired to defeat God, but he was able to triumph over evil in the end by raising up Jesus as the Christ.  This resurrection of Christ can be the basis of our hope in God for a human future.  The forces of evil could conceivably overwhelm God.  Against that there is no metaphysical guarantee.  But against such attacks God has hitherto emerged victorious, and what he has already done he can do again.  Because we remember Christ’s resurrection we can reasonably put our trust and hope in God for our future.

Note that this hope based on the resurrection is quite different from the traditional hope in subjective immortality.  Many, following Paul, have argued that if Christ be raised from the dead, we shall be also.  The cogency of that argument depends wholly upon the first-century expectation of the general resurrection of the dead in terms of which Paul and the early Christians interpreted their experience of the risen Christ.  That expectation also had to interpret Christ’s singular resurrection as a preliminary manifestation of the general resurrection very shortly to follow.  This keenly anticipated event never took place.  Hence we have used a very different framework of interpretation, that of evolutionary emergence, in order to interpret Paul’s experience of the risen Christ.

This interpretation of the risen Christ does not rest upon any concept of a disembodied soul.  It is precisely because the risen Christ has a body constituted by his disciples that he can live and act.  Our interpretation is entirely neutral on the question whether there can be any subjective immortality for us, since the resurrection of Jesus as Christ with his church was such a singular event, and did not necessarily require subjective immortality as generally understood.  It is most unfortunate that the question of personal immortality became so inextricably bound up with the question of the resurrection of Christ, because as immortality has become questionable in our age, so has Christ’s resurrection.  But the two issues stand on very different logical grounds.  Whether there be subjective immortality or not is peripheral to the Christian faith.  Insofar as resurrection is understood in terms of immortality, it is perhaps an optional belief for the Christian faith.  But the resurrection of Christ as the emergence of the church is hardly optional.  It is the heart of the New Testament proclamation and the basis for our life in Christ.  It may well be also the grounds for our hope in the future of mankind.


1.  RM, pp110-11

2.  Charles Hartshorne, “Time, Death, and Everlasting Life,” The Logic of Perfection (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962), pp.  245-62.

3.  Schubert Ogden, ‘The Meaning of Christian Hope,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 30 (1975), 153-64. 

4. David Griffin, ‘‘The Possibility of Subjective Immortality in Whitehead’s Philosophy,” The Modern Schoolman 53/1 (November 1975), 39-57.

5.  John Cobb, “What Is the Future?  A Process Perspective,” in Hope and the Future of Man, ed.  Ewert H.  Cousins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pp.  1-14.

6.  Marjorie Suchocki, “The Question of Immortality,” Journal of Religion 57/3 (July 1977), 288-306.  See also our joint essay on ‘‘A Whiteheadian Reflection on Subjective Immortality” in Process Studies 7/1 (Spring 1977), 1-13, showing that the way God experiences through me (by means of the subjective form of my satisfaction) may be the same as my experiencing in God.

7.  Al, p.  267.

8.  The technical details of this proposal need to be worked out in terms of Whitehead’s principles.  This may prove to be impossible, for they seem to require a direct objectification of God’s temporal experience which, unlike his nontemporal experience and the experience of actual occasions, never reaches the completion required for objectification. 

9.  PR, p.  525. 

10.  Ibid., italics added

11.  Cf.  Ibid., p.47.

12.  Ibid., p.  532.

13.  See A. H. Johnson’s report, ‘‘Whitehead as Teacher and Philosopher,” Philosophy and Pheno-menological Research 29 (1968-69), 373.

14.  Al, p.  367.

15.  ibid.

16.  Ibid., p.  368.


Posted June 13, 2007


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