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The Resurrection, done differently or the Resurrection in Process theology


Jean-Marie de Bourqueney

Translation Sara MacVane

The history of Christian theology, or better yet Christian theologies, has often been characterized by the question of Christ’s divinity. Notably this was the fierce 4th century ‘battle’ at the Council of Nicaea. At that time, with the rise of Arianism (that original idea in Christian thought), people argued about Christ’s true nature even within families and local communities. Some people saw a man in touch with God, others saw God in the likeness of a man. There was an extraordinary bubbling-up of theology around that time, and in 325 the Council of Nicaea came up with an answer which became orthodox Christian theology, though the discussion continues even right up to today. In addition, the definition of Christ’s nature raises still other questions. If he was simply a man, how could he do miracles and how could he rise from the dead? If he was wholly God, how could he die on a cross? In our Protestant tradition this question about the physical resurrection of Christ was certainly one of the essential points of opposition between ‘orthodox’ and ‘liberal’ Protestants. These discussions, which are still very much alive, are expressed in a particular choice of words, according to a particular understanding of reality, the world, and humankind. Our classical discussions about the Resurrection are the product of a philosophical paradigm (way of thinking). Is it possible to change that? Is it possible to see, understand, and live things differently? I believe so, with the determining contribution from Process philosophy and theology.


The classic paradigm of Christianity


These disagreements I mentioned always start from the ‘nature’ of Christ, and so from a certain idea about reality which is characterized by a form of essentialism. According to this model of thought the human person is first of all a principle, an ‘essence’ which is then subject to the contingencies of the real world. The philosopher Plato (428/427 – 348/347 BCE) had a strong influence on the way we understand the world and on the questions we ask. The philosopher Plotinus (205 – 270 CE) developed Neoplatonism, which has had an important influence on Christian thought. Plotinus understood human beings as both the body, that is perishable and the source of suffering, and the soul, that is pure, eternal, and good. For him the body is the prison of the soul. This idea has had many consequences in the history of thought: for example our understanding of sin, or of sexuality as responsible for separating us from the ‘good’. The human essence therefore is to join another reality, to rise towards the good, towards the divine. We might even say that Christianity is a syncretic construction of Biblical texts and the Neoplatonic paradigm. Plotinus says that Plato held ‘the same dogma’. “Plato names the Father absolute Good. The Principle is higher than Intelligence and the Essence. In several passages he calls the Idea ‘Being’ and ‘Intelligence’. He teaches that Intelligence is born from the Good and that the Soul is born from Intelligence. This doctrine is nothing new. It has been around since ancient times, without ever being explicitly developed. I only wish to interpret the early thinkers and to show, with reference to Plato, that they held the same dogma that we


The body is secondary therefore and even devalued. We might be surprised by this devaluation of the body which does not have much to do with the Gospel texts, since they emphasize the bodily presence of the resurrected Christ. We remember the scene where Christ shows his wounds to Thomas (John 20. 24-29), which is actually the last story in John’s Gospel, except for the later addition of chapter 21. Some paintings of the risen Christ adhere to this ‘refusal of the body’ and show a sort of luminous ectoplasm, hardly a body at all. Others from different periods

‘re-humanize’ the risen Christ, but there are fewer of these. A good example is Caravaggio’s Thomas’ Disbelief (1603) where Thomas touches Christ’s body – a realistic oasis in an ocean of Christian kitsch…..


The Platonic or Neoplatonic paradigm rests therefore on a dualism of body and soul which influences our understanding of the resurrection, both Christ’s and our own. And in addition, this has added on to the Bible the idea of eternal life, even at the moment of death. From here on in, when someone dies, the body is perishable and the soul flies off towards other skies. This isn’t per force the idea of the authors of the Bible, but is has become our way of reading the texts. These inaccurate lenses have influenced our Christian thought and understanding. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because Neoplatonism is a coherent and brilliant construct, but we need to be aware of it, so that we can eventually choose to put on a different pair of glasses……


Undoubtedly the paradigm evolved over time. I will cite two important examples: Thomas Aquinas and Kierkegaard.

Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) revolutionized Western Christian thought by treating the real world as the source of knowledge. He reneged Neoplatonic dualism and refused to consider the body a prison of the soul. He refused the dualism of body/soul, and favored a closer connection between them.[2] He changed the paradigm, by adapting Aristotelian language and philosophy. He wrote: “Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu.” (“There is nothing in the intellect which wasn’t first in the senses”[3]) This phrase will become a principle of the scholastic tradition derived from Thomas Aquinas. In this tradition reality is taken seriously. We have to think about the real world, not just submit to it. This idea will influence not just Thomistic philosophy, but also other philosophies and theologies. We might even say that there is a loose symbolic relationship between Thomas Aquinas and the Process philosophers and theologians because they want to found their system on a new understanding of reality and so they also take the real world very seriously.


Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is considered a forerunner of existentialism and he adds another challenge to the classical paradigm: the uniqueness of each individual. We are what we become and not the incarnation of an eternal essence. His subtle and complex thought defines identity as ‘a permanent process of evolution’ between the past and the future. “The future hasn’t arrived yet, but for all that it is no less necessary than the past.”[4] This form of existentialism modifies our perception of ourselves as subject. A good example of this is the well-known, but often misunderstood, expression from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”[5] In other words, each one of us is in a state of evolution, and this, in turn, is part of our existence. We do not cross life, life itself constructs us.


Whitehead and changes in the paradigm


According to classical thought, the real world is conceived as the things and beings which make it up. These beings and things become the subjects of an action which they engender. Events are therefore secondary; they result from the existence of the subjects. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) up-ended this apparent logic. In his most important work, Process and Reality (1929), he inverts this view of reality. It is the events which create things and beings, not the inverse. Are we nothing more, each one of us, than the result of an event, the encounter of a male cell with a female cell? Each one of these cells is in fact the result of events which made their creation possible. All of reality is a flux of events which Whitehead called “actual entities”, in the sense of “acts”. Let’s take an example at random, any simple act: “I go to church on Sunday morning.” A series of actions, of actual entities, prior to this event are necessary in order for it to take place: the formation of a church community, the building of the church building, the training of a preacher, preparation of the liturgy and the sermon, the services of an organist, musically trained in his turn ……. It is also necessary that I have arrived in this place, and let’s not forget that I exist ……… We can multiply the list of actual entities which precede the event almost infinitely. The miracle, we might say, is that the combination (”concrescence”) of all these actual entities has engendered an action: “I go to church on Sunday morning”. This actual entity is by definition ephemeral, because the church service ends in one moment or another. In its turn then, it becomes an event in the past, a “given” (“datum”) which goes to join other data for some other action in the future, on Sunday afternoon or even later on, if, for example, the sermon offered me a completely new point of view ….. This outline of reality rests on the continuity of time, on the flux, on the “Process”. There have been attempts to translate this word into French, but without success. The English word “Process” doesn’t have a proper equivalent in French. Let’s take a look.


How can we think about the future if each present moment is only the combination of a past made up of multiple actions? Here Whitehead introduces the idea of “aims”. Let’s go back to our simple action: “I go to church on Sunday morning”. Why do I go there? To find God in solitary intimate prayer, or together with brothers and sister? In order to sleep-on rocked by the words and the music? To find friends? To find the courage and the faith I need to work for justice in the world[6]? The objectives may be more than one. The list is almost infinite. The objectives may be more or less good. “And God in all of this[7]?” As a philosopher, Whitehead introduces the hypothesis that God is the sum of possibilities for the objectives. God can have a preferential intention (“initial aim”) for each actual entity, but the entity remains free. Every individual may detach himself from this “initial aim” to have his own intentionality (“subjective aim”). In some sense, God proposes and man disposes. By integrating God into his understanding of reality as being the force of the proposition of intentions, Whitehead revolutionized our understanding of God’s intervention in the world. God isn’t simply in the “causality” of the real world, nor is he the “author” of actions, but is rather to be found in their finality. Whitehead uses a very nice word when he says that every actual entity aims for enjoyment, a jubilation, a creative event, a resurrection ……………..


New theological consequences:

a resurrection ever present


Several theologians grabbed hold of Whitehead’s intuitions and concepts. John Cobb (b. 1925) is surely the best known of these. To re-think our entire theological vocabulary on the basis of this new system of thought is a very large undertaking. It consists of nothing less than revising, or re-founding, all of our theological concepts. I won’t tackle all the questions here, but I will concentrate on the resurrection. If reality, life, is a constant flux of events aimed towards “jubilation”, we can affirm, in effect, that the resurrection is the paradigm itself of Process theology. It is at the heart of all the theology, spirituality, faith, and life, inspired by Process. Let’s go back to our basic example: “I go to church on Sunday”. The intelligence, enthusiasm and conviviality of the event “church” modify “I”. Or at least we can hope so…. If “I” leave church with a new understanding of the faith, with a real motivation to work for justice in the world, with a desire to provoke other “jubilations”, then “I” enter into a Process of successive resurrections which are going to (re)construct a new, creative, intense existence. But not everything turns out so well. I might leave church discouraged, or irritated, or with a painful question. Not everything is jubilation, and yet that must remain the long-term “aim” of existence. The resurrection is not “automatic”, and so it too passes through a “Process”. We can see this in the three examples from the Bible which follow.


Process theology has sometimes been accused of not being Biblical, or not Biblical enough. I wish to make three points here:


The idea of Biblical theology in the singular is contrary to the spirit of the Bible, which overflows with different approaches from different periods, with different styles and sensibilities. Even the New Testament includes differences: the theology of the Letter to the Romans is not the same as the theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. And despite attempts to harmonize them, we still have four Gospels, not just one.[8] That is the richness of the Bible which encourages us to interpret each one of the Gospels for our own time.


We have seen how, without knowing it, we read most of our Bible texts through “Neoplatonic glasses” which interpret the text in a particular way. The dualism of body and soul which I have mentioned does not belong to the authors of these texts. In other words, we per force use, most often unconsciously, a philosophical system which causes us to read the world and Bible texts in a certain way. This is a given of our education.


Process theology however offers us a new pair of glasses. The choice is only partial and therefore fallible. And yet, I am convinced that we can look at the Biblical texts in a new way without distorting the art of those who wrote them. Let’s look at three examples: the story of the creation in 6 days, the story of Joseph, and the empty tomb.


Genesis 1:

from chaos to resurrection


In chapter one Genesis offers us a cosmogony, that is to say, a myth about origins, but it goes beyond origins. As a spiritual text, this story becomes a parable about the structure of existence as a whole, about the universe and the place of human beings in it, but also about the individual place of each and every one of us. If we use the Process reading grid, this chapter speaks about every moment of our life, every “actual entity”. Everything begins in primordial chaos, in a magma without aim, without a past or a future. We might say that it is a sort of eternal present, a present death, inertia. And then symbolically, day after day, an intentionality, a Word comes to create by organizing the elements (data), giving them a sense, an orientation, a project. These elements create a global harmony which is first of all a distinction (God “separates”), then the relationship of the elements amongst themselves (the creatures must “produce”). Then too, each day includes the affirmation “and God saw that it was good”. The intention directed through time and through reality aims towards the Good (“TOV” in Hebrew), or better still, something close to the enjoyment which Whitehead evokes in Process and Reality. Process philosophy and theology affirm that everything in the world, from mineral substance to humankind is constituted by a flow of events. Differences are due to the complexity of events, which is evidently greater in a human being than in a pebble. All existence however aims towards a “Good”.


If we re-read this text then as relevant to our human condition, we can see a permanent tension between chaos and “re-creation”. This creative dynamism makes us move constantly from chaos toward the light. Though the chaos is never definitively over-come; it may return. You might also note that in this story, a certain time passes between chaos and creation. Nothing is automatic; there is no instantaneous magic wand. And so it is in our own lives, the moments of suffering require time before they become new creations. This latent time, these six days in the story, invite us to look at our own existence less naively. The virtue of hope in a possible resurrection is also the virtue of patience. Divine intention is presented as a project of resurrection, a permanent re-creation which requires time.


Genesis 50: from human evil to the resurrection


The story of Joseph is also a parable of resurrection, understood in Process theology as a dynamic re-creation. Joseph is one of Jacob’s twelve sons. His older brothers sell him into slavery. His life tips over into “chaos”. Through a series of events, of actual entities, he becomes vice pharaoh, an important person. He receives his brothers, who initially don’t recognize him. Then when he reveals his identity, they are the ones in a “chaos” created by their deep sense of guilt about the past. Joseph however is going to speak a resurrection word which will transform the chaos into light: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good….[9] This story suggests two ideas about the resurrection: the human intention (aim) is evil. Joseph’s brothers are responsible for the event which threw him into chaos. Divine intention is not here defined as a test of Joseph’s submission to God’s will. God has the ability rather to transform a chaotic event into a new positive intention. He wished to make something good of it. In this story then, God does not create the evil event. He isn’t responsible for it, but, using it as a given, he can open other doors to new possibilities. This too is a resurrection, a transformation of intention. For example, who can say that God desires a dramatic event, a tragedy, a death? But the chaotic event may be transformed into a new positive intention. Let’s take a concrete example: if you know someone who has committed suicide, you may remain in the chaos of an unjustifiable loss. God didn’t call your friend “to himself”, as we say far too often. But at the heart of the dramatic incident, in the chaos, you might also become more sensitive to the problem of suicide and decide therefore to help others. The resurrection is a question: what do we do about the events which come upon us?

In the story of Joseph, Joseph is transformed, to the point that his brothers do not recognize him. In other words, the subject of the story has become the consequence of the events, not who set them off.[10] Joseph arises into a new identity. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir’s formula, we might say, “One is not born Joseph, but becomes him.” This reality is also pertinent to each one of us.


Mark 16: we see our tombs


For all Christian thought about resurrection, the absolute paradigm remains the resurrection of Christ. We could discuss the corporal or symbolic reality of this resurrection for a very long time. However, if we use the paradigm of Process theology, we can think about this event in another way, precisely as an event, as an “actual entity”. As we have already seen, this theology begins from a flux of events which move from chaos to re-creation. We can think of Christ as this flux of events. His particularity then might be a perfect equivalency between divine intention and human intention. Or if we want to say it in the manner of Process theologians, in Jesus there is a perfect identity between the “initial aim” (God’s will for an actual entity) and the subjective aim (the choice of a human construct for this aim). So the question isn’t really about Jesus’ “nature” (is he God, or man, or both?), but about his existence, or more precisely about “the structure of his existence”. The wager of faith is that the will of Jesus is anchored in the will of God. “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”[11]


But this is does not come about automatically; there is a latent possibility (as we saw in Genesis 1). In the Gospel thirty-six hours pass between the death of Jesus and the discovery that the tomb is…… empty. Death is chaos in the absolute, the destruction of an existence, and in this also the human desire to destroy the divine in the world, to submit the divine to chaos. Here again we pass from darkness into the light. The time of silence, the time of Holy Saturday, represents that latent possibility which dynamically becomes a new creation.


There on a small scale we may see a way of understanding all chaos and the possibility of transforming that into something new. Process theologians speak of “christic” events, or events which have the power to transform. What transformation could be greater than that from death to life? That then becomes a paradigm for the condition of living between chaos and light.


We could stop right there in front of the empty tomb and become tomb adorers. One more. But that would be to ignore the flux of events which continue beyond the christic event of Easter. In Mark’s Gospel a “young man” without an identity or a function, is there in the open tomb. The women look inside where the body was. In other words they look back, they look at the past, at the chaos, at that necrosis which stops time. But the young man tells them to leave, to look elsewhere, to look towards the light. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee,”[12] that is to say far ahead, toward an existence rendered new. To force the point a bit, we might say that the young man in the story is the first Process theologian.


For Process theology, the resurrection is at the heart of philosophical and theological thought. It is our way of understanding the nature of the world and the depth of existence. We may look at a work of art with this capacity to allow ourselves to be transformed; we may observe nature with this dynamic, permanent enjoyment; we can live our lives with this vision of transformation; we can read Bible texts and say our prayers with this belief in a dynamic re-creator. We can exist, just that. Process theology is a system of thought, but it is also the art of living in and for the resurrection.


Some words from the past in order to go forward


In France when we speak, or think, or live trying to incarnate this dynamic re-creation initiated by Process theology, we are able to do that thanks to an event, an actual entity: a book by André Gounelle which introduced this idea to French speaking Europe in the 1980s. This was called Le dynamism créateur de Dieu and was first published as a special edition of the magazine Etudes Théologiques et Religieuses ( the periodical of L’Institut Protestant de Théologie). It was completed and reedited later on.[13] No thought is without consequence. It’s up to you make this thought live on …….


Translated from the French by Sara MacVane






[1] Plotinus Enneads V,[10], 8

[2] The term is ‘hylomorphism’ derived from Aristotle who distinguishes between matter and form, but without dualism’s opposites. The soul is the ‘form’ of the body which is the ‘matter’.

[3] Thomas Aquinas De veritate, questio 2, art. 3, arg. 19

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments.

[5] Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe 1, Gallimard, 1949, p. 285-6

[6] I‘ll just say that ALL of these motivations were expressed by parishioners….

[7] A personal homage to Jacques Chancel, who died in December 2014 .

[8] These attempts to merge the Gospels into a single text are called « Gospel harmonies » and they have existed since the 2nd century. Today they abound in esoteric and sectarian groups;

[9] Genesis 50. 20a ; translation – NRSV.

[10] For this reason in Process and Reality Whitehead uses the term “super-jet” (super-jectus) rather than “subject” (sub-jectus) to signify the identity which results from the act.

[11] Luke 22. 42b ; Jesus’ words in Gethsemane. Translation – NRSV.

[12] Mark 16. 7 ; translation NRSV.

[13] André Gounelle, Le dynamism créateur de Dieu. Essai sur la théologie du Process.Van Dieren, Paris, 2000 (new edition) 235 pages.


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