Immortality – June 1998

Question: I’ve just started reading C. Hartshorne’s Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. The one response I find least satisfactory is his observation on immortality. What are your views?

Publication Month: June 1998

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Christians have varied ideas about “immortality” and tend to cover up their differences with vague rhetoric. Behind that rhetoric I encounter three general views with lots of diversity within them.

Some reject any notion of a reality other than our actual experience here and now between birth and death. They think that affirming anything of that sort is religiously damaging, because it encourages dualistic and otherworldly thinking. They believe that it has disparaged and distorted the real values of life here and now. They also believe that there is no valid reason to suppose that any other reality exists. If there is any “immortality” it lies in the reabsorption of our bodies into the ongoing processes of nature and the influence of our lives, however slight, upon the future.

Some believe that the Christian faith holds out the promise that in the “end” all that has been still is in some fulfilled or perfected way. Tillich, Barth, and Pannenberg all seem to assert something like this. This belief is required to undergird the meaningfulness of our otherwise utterly transient existence individually and historically.

Others hold to the belief in continuing life after death either immediately or after the end of history. To them simply preserving what has been is quite unsatisfactory. Christian hope is for new life, a fulfilled and transformed life.

Process theologians can be found in all three camps. What may be thought of as “standard” process theology falls in the second one. This is Whitehead’s Consequent Nature of God and is the emphatic position of Hartshorne. Of course, process theology has the distinctive note that it is each occasion of human experience that is retained in God (along with nonhuman occasions), and that this immortality is immediate. Marjorie Suchocki has developed this notion in such a way that it incorporates many of the values of the third camp as well.

Although Whitehead’s emphasis falls here, he also recognizes that his metaphysics allows for continuing existence of primarily mental occasions after the death of the body. This is unusual in the history of philosophy, since most metaphysical systems have either demonstrated the necessary truth of personal immortality or shown its impossibility. In Religion in the Making Whitehead states that continuation of the life of the soul is a question to be settled empirically rather than metaphysically. Some process theologians believe that empirical evidence is favorable to this belief.

The question is also one of judgment as to the religious value of such beliefs. It is rare that those who do not see religious value in the hope for new life after physical death judge the evidence favorable or even examine it with much interest. Hence in fact the judgments of positive value and of factual likelihood tend to go together, although there may be some who would like to believe is such life but who think that to do so would be wishful thinking.

I count myself among those who think that belief in life after death can function positively today. I say this despite the extensive harm that it has done in the past, especially when salvation and damnation were defined in terms of such post-mortem existence. Today the danger to a proper valuation of human life here and now seems to arise more from the tendency to view people as simply what they appear to be, in terms of their social functions, or, even worse, reductionistically, as what they can be seen to be in the physical sciences. The doctrine of the soul, which once functioned to disparage the body may now be needed to preserve even the body from trivialization.

Because I think there is need for an understanding of the soul that indicates its partial transcendence of the body as scientifically understood, I am interested in the evidence for this transcendence including that of the soul’s continuation beyond physical death. But my attention to this matter has been sporadic. Anyone who is seriously concerned should read David Griffin. He has an excellent chapter on this topic in God and Religion in the Postmodern World.

As that chapter shows, there is a close connection among process thinkers between interest in parapsychological phenomena generally and concern about life after death. The former, if they occur, indicate a partial transcendence of the soul in relation to the physical body. It is this partial transcendence that makes the idea of the soul’s life apart from the present physical body conceivable. Griffin has written an entire book on parapsychology, the most thorough philosophical study of this topic in this generation.

Strictly speaking, the soul’s survival of death need not amount to “immortality.” Indeed, for process thought the notion of any form of creaturely existence enduring forever seems inherently implausible. The only immortality would seem to be in God, as both Whitehead and Hartshorne have emphasized.

My own way of speculating about these matters is to stress that personal identity is far from complete even in this life. Also, the Christian ideal is that we love others as we love ourselves. Really to do that would mean that our concern in each moment was for the whole future that we could influence, not focused on our personal future. One who has attained to that state will not be concerned about personal continuity beyond death.  But others are, and God may give us that continuity as long we need or want it. But that will not be forever.

One feature of Whitehead’s conceptuality is highlighted in discussion of this topic. It accents empirical inquiry and the diversity of faith perspectives. On most questions, therefore, it leaves open a variety of answers. Those of us who adopt his views still have to work out our own beliefs. But those beliefs will nevertheless be deeply affected by the fact that we view reality in terms of process.