Is There a Process Eschatology? – December 2004

Question: Is there a process eschatology?

Publication Month: December 2004

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Yes there is. Whitehead and Hartshorne both had an eschatology, and insofar as process theology follows them, its adherents adopt that eschatology. However, as usual, qualifications are in order. First, there are several interpretations of this eschatology. Second, some process theologians emphasize other forms of eschatology. Third, if one means by eschatology something that brings an end to time, then there is no process eschatology.

Eschatology is usually defined as the doctrine of last things. “Last things” can be understood in a temporal sense as that beyond which there is nothing. Since process thought does not expect an end of the process of events, and since “time” is a function of this process, process theology does not have an eschatology in that sense. But if last things means things of ultimate importance to human beings, then process theology has an eschatology.

Both Whitehead and Hartshorne thought that the deepest threat to meaningful human existence was the idea that the passage of time sweeps everything into oblivion. Both felt that the sense of meaning depended on rejection of the idea that this disappearance into nothingness is the last word. Both affirmed that the divine experience is the answer. In that experience what passes into oblivion in the world lives on. The sense of importance of what we do is thus undergirded.

If we believe that what we are and do from moment to moment matters to God, and that what matters to God now matters to God forever, then what we are and do truly matters. We will not be tempted to be observers of meaningless show. We will be participants in the healing of the world.

But just how is the past is preserved in God is explained in more than one way by process theologians. Some describe this simply as God’s memory. Whereas past events are quickly forgotten in the world, God remembers them forever.

That is certainly not an erroneous interpretation of Hartshorne and Whitehead, but it does not capture the fullness of their belief. The word “memory” is a weak term to identify what Whitehead and Hartshorne mean. We use “memory” chiefly when we refer to remembering or recalling a relatively distant past. It can leave what is recalled quite objective and detached from the subjectivity it once enjoyed.

Even in human experience the past plays a deeper role in the present than that. Indeed, the present is largely constituted by the presence within it of the past. Whitehead even says that every past event is present in some way in every present experience. But in human experience the vast majority of past events are present only as “transmuted” into huge “societies.” In ordinary language we can say that we would not be exactly as we are now if the events occurring from the time of the Big Bang to the emergence of planet Earth had not occurred. But the particular character of the vast majority of these events makes no difference to us now. They affect us only through their collective character. And this is true also for the vast majority of events in historical time. This means that what they were individually in themselves is lost to us.

On the other hand, a few events live in the present in terms of their individual nature. For example, the event in which one hears the final chord in a musical phrase contains within it, with considerable vividness the experience in which the earlier chords in that phrase were heard. Otherwise, there would be no musical phrase, only discrete sounds. Whitehead says that we retain the “immediacy” of these experiences. In our experience even in these instances, not all of the previous experiences is retained in this way, and very soon the immediacy fades. Most of the past becomes something to be remembered or recalled in the usual sense. But we do have a sense of what it means for the fullness of the value of one occasion of experience to live on in the next.

Whitehead envisions God as not simply able to recall past events but as retaining the immediacy of all that has occurred. What restricts and prevents this in temporal occasions does not apply to God. And it is the understanding that all that we are continues to live on in God that undergirds its meaningfulness.

Sometimes this is belittled by pointing out that, even though Whitehead does not use the term in this context, the only creaturely immortality possible in Whitehead is what he calls “objective immortality.” In the analysis of the temporal process generally, Whitehead points out that in the moment of its occurrence an occasion is a subject of its own becoming. When it has attained its completion, what Whitehead calls “satisfaction,” it becomes a datum for all future occasions. In that role he describes it as objectively immortal.

There is no question but that in his philosophy, every occasion of experience is objectively immortal. One can then suggest that whereas in the world, what is objectively immortal affects most new occasions only slightly, and much of it plays no role at all, in God it is fully “prehended” and thus all elements in the occasion are preserved as objective data in God. Some respond to this by saying that this is great for God but of little value to them.

There are three responses to this dismissive formulation. One is that it expresses a highly self-centered point of view. We are called to love God with all our hearts. If we do so, we will find rich meaning in contributing to God both by what we are and through our effects on others. Hartshorne calls his ethics one of contributionism in contrast to one of seeking advantages for the self.

Secondly, the self-centered point of view is usually based on a mistaken metaphysics. It assumes that there is now a self-identical self who could benefit from future events. But process thought teaches that each occasion is ultimately a distinct subject. There is no underlying self. An occasion can enjoy itself and enjoy its sense of contributing to the future. It cannot expect to be present in that future as a subject.

Thirdly, the term “objective immortality” connotes chiefly that kind of relation of the past to the present in which the past is objectified and projected back in time, that is, the usual form of recall or memory. Whitehead distinguishes from that the preservation of immediacy of which I wrote above. When we listen to the last chord of the musical phrase, we do not recall the preceding moments as past. We experience them as richly included in the present.

Marjorie Suchocki carries the immediacy of the past in God one step further. She fears that if occasions simply life on forever, unchanged, in God’s life, this is no redemption for many of them. She believes that there is additional development of the occasions that constituted human life and are now constituting the divine life. There is a continuing process of their redemption. This goes beyond what Whitehead and Hartshorne envisioned, but it may be closer to it than just affirming what is usually meant by “objective immortality.” In any case, there is no reason for theologians influenced by Whitehead and Hartshorne to be strictly bound by the limitations of their imagination.

This general way of thinking of eschatology is close to Tillich. In the third volume of his systematic theology, he wrote of “essentialization” as the destiny of existing things. It is also close to Karl Barth. He understood eschatology as the actualization of the whole of what we have been. For Hartshorne and Whitehead this is going on continuously, always. For Barth it would happen only on the last day. But the idea that what has happened is not finally lost is the same in both cases.

For many people the question about eschatology is about what happens to individuals after death. The focus is on whether we exist subjectively and have additional experiences. There is nothing in process thought to exclude this possibility, and process theologians differ in their judgments about it. For example, whereas David Griffin followed Hartshorne in rejecting this idea in earlier years, his studies of parapsychology led him to the conclusion that those who have died have some kind of continued personal existence at least for a time. I also incline to this view.

Another questioner asked, based on the assumption that salvation refers to what happens after death, whether one’s eternal destiny is settled before death. There is, of course, no single process view of this, but I judge that it is far more consistent with process thought to suppose that as long as we exist, whether in this life or another, God will work graciously in us to heal us and help us to repent and grow. That God would abandon us at death seems contrary to New Testament thinking about God. There is the idea that Jesus descended into hell to preach to the lost souls there. We are told that even if we descend into Sheol, God is there.

Most of what I have said thus far has reflected quite individualistic ways of thinking of eschatology. This is reflected in the New Testament , but it is not primary there. Paul looked forward to the redemption and glorification of the whole universe. Jesus’ message was about the coming of the basileia theou, what we usually call the Kingdom of God. This is also as eschatological idea, even though the coming of the Kingdom of God would not entail the end of time. It is the idea that God’s will will be done on Earth. It means a new age will have dawned, one of peace and justice. That hope inspires many process theologians. I find myself especially caught up in this hope.