Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Exploring Process Eschatology: How is it Different from Traditional Views?

(Process eschatology is definitely not like this!)
In this post, I want to discuss Christian eschatology by comparing the way that process and traditional theologies commonly explain this doctrine.  I will primarily be drawing on Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition by John Cobb and David Ray Griffin (the standard process text), but will also make some reference to texts by Bob Mesle, Marjorie Suchocki, and A.N. Whitehead himself (as a side note, I have also read the collection of essays edited by Joseph Bracken on process eschatology called World Without End.  I recommend it only for those interested in a much more technical and comprehensive discussion, although Bracken himself has an interesting argument for a more orthodox form of process eschatology). I begin with a consideration of Christian views of eschatology by comparing three influential perspectives of contemporary biblical scholars. This will provide an interesting way to contrast traditional and process views of Christian eschatology before outlining a process eschatology.

Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet?
At the center of the Christian tradition is an emphasis on eschatology – the doctrine of ‘the last things.’ There is little doubt that this theme is derived from the New Testament itself. Although modern biblical scholars generally agree that the apostle Paul and early Christians expected a supernatural apocalypse within their lifetime, in which Christ would return, God would intervene to defeat the powers of evil, and the dead would be raised, biblical scholars continue to debate the nature of Jesus’ eschatology.  Some scholars like E.P. Sanders argue for an apocalyptic Jesus: like Paul, John the Baptist, and the early church, Jesus believed that God would literally intervene within a generation (Mark 13:30). As such, Jesus was wrong since this obviously never occurred. Depending on the interpreter, this illustrates the full humanity and perhaps the delusional apocalyptic views of Jesus as well.

Liberal vs. Orthodox Jesus Scholar
Other prominent biblical scholars like N.T. Wright agree that Jesus expected God to intervene to raise the dead and usher in the new creation, but they also argue that Jesus did not expect this to occur imminently. The Christian tradition has generally agreed with Wright. Most Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians have affirmed some sort of temporary life after death until the second coming of Jesus, the bodily resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the inauguration of the new creation in which the redeemed will live in communion with God forever. As we will see, this perspective is not affirmed by mainstream process theology, largely because of its dependence on an interventionist God.

Differing from Sanders, Wright, and the tradition, Marcus Borg argues that Jesus did not hold to apocalyptic expectations: no second coming or supernatural intervention by God. According to Borg, apocalyptic eschatology was probably affirmed by Paul and the early church, but not by Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, he places Jesus more firmly within the Jewish prophetic tradition, holding to a “participatory eschatology”: humans are called to participate in the ongoing work of God in history in hopeful anticipation of the future ‘kingdom of God’, an age of global justice and peace that has nothing to do with a supernatural intervention. Borg claims that although Jesus likely believed in life after death, this was not central to his gospel. It is this perspective on eschatology that Christian process theologians can most fully endorse (I should note that Cobb wrote most of his work all the way through the 90s with a view more like that of E.P. Sanders.  But he now finds Borg more persuasive).

Alfred North Whitehead
In what follows, I will summarize one major form of process eschatology. This will require a brief explanation of two metaphysical issues: a relational view of nature and of God (hang in there with me! I try to keep it simple). This will illustrate ways that Christian process theologians affirm life after death and the redemption of creation in a naturalistic, not supernatural way.

Process philosophy views nature as made up of actual occasions of experience. As Whitehead writes, “The actual temporal world can be analysed into a multiplicity of occasions of actualization. These are the primary actual units of which the temporal world is composed…each is a microcosm representing in itself the entire all-inclusive universe.” Process theologians thus affirm a kind of relational atomism in which momentary actual occasions are constituted by their relations as experiencing subjects and then perish to become an object for new becoming occasions. Everything that exists is ultimately made up of actual occasions, while the things we normally experience with our senses that endure through time (e.g., a dog, chair, mountain, etc.) are groupings of occasions – what Whitehead called “societies.” As such, material bodies and living souls are in fact different kinds of interrelated societies of actual occasions. Souls are not a special kind of substance, as much traditional theology affirmed, but an especially complex part of nature.

John B. Cobb, Jr.
With this in mind, we can understand what process theologians say about the immortality of the soul. As it turns out, there is nothing metaphysically implausible about an individual soul continuing to live on after the death of the body – although whether it will live forever is another question. While Whitehead is more neutral on life after death, arguing that it should be decided on “more special evidence”, Cobb and Griffin are more open to it as Christians who affirm the resurrection appearances of Jesus (as for an empty tomb, Cobb is open to it but does not think it is very plausible). Christians can thus affirm the real hope of life after death.  Note that process cannot be simply dismissed as Gnostic - it is nondual rather dualistic and thus does not place matter as an evil substance in opposition to the soul as a higher, spiritual substance - as the rest of the discussion will further illustrate, we are talking about very different ideas here!  Suchocki also takes the resurrection of Jesus seriously: “If we take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be a revelation of God for us, then the resurrection is a vital part of this revelation.” As such, many process theologians affirm the eschatological significance of the resurrection of Jesus, even though they do not agree with traditional theologians that it was a supernatural event that necessarily produced an empty tomb. But there is more to process eschatology than life after death.

For process theologians, the primary problem of existence to be overcome is not death but meaninglessness due to the perpetual perishing of occasions. Without some ground of permanence, our accomplishments would finally seem to be insignificant. It is ultimately God who is this ground of meaning, since process theologians see God as not only creative as the source of novelty but responsive to the world, eternally preserving every occasion that has ever existed in her own nature. As Mesle explains, “God shares the experience of becoming of the entire universe, and synthesizes it into God’s own, infinitely vast and complex experience.” This means that occasions are given objective (not subjective) immortality in the divine life, forever preserved in their immediacy and woven into an ideal and growing harmony. As Whitehead wrote, this is the kingdom of heaven, which “is not the isolation of good from evil. It is the overcoming of evil by good.” As such, the ultimate eschatological 'fact' is the redemption of all things in God.  Suchocki is one of the few process theologians to argue that this is subjective not just objective immortality.

Beyond the hope for subjective life after death of the soul and the objective redemption of creation (soul and body) in God, there is also an emphasis on historical eschatology in process thought that coheres with Borg’s view of Jesus. In cosmic history, there is no end to the process of creation or need for a final new creation, as in traditional eschatologies. The future is radically open, and God continuously creates by luring the world toward greater richness of experience and complexity. As Borg argued, this means that Christian eschatological hope in history takes the form of participation: we are co-creators with God for the future kingdom or “commonwealth." As we respond more positively to God’s lure, we participate in God’s ongoing work for justice and shalom in creation. Cobb and Griffin conclude, “There is no divine action apart from creaturely action, but equally the divine action is the principle of hope in the creaturely action…Trusting God is not assurance that whatever we do will work out well. It is instead confidence that God’s call is wise and good.”

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