Process Theology

In complete contrast to Barth's approach, an important strand in twentieth-century thinking about God, especially in the United States, is process theology. It represents a development from a Hegelian view, together with new insights derived from mathematical physics. Its originator was A.N. Whitehead (18611947), a mathematical physicist who wrote Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. Among theologians, the work of Charles Hartshorne and David Griffin is representative of the school.

Process theology begins by rejecting the notion of substance, as a permanent substratum of changing properties. Reality is composed of 'events' or 'actual occasions', linked together in a temporal process which is without beginning or end. Each actual occasion 'prehends', or is causally affected by, every other actual occasion in its immediate past. It organizes all these data from its own point of view, and in an act of creative synthesis, it continues the temporal pattern they form into the immediate future. As it does so, it perishes, giving rise to a new set of actual occasions in the process. This scheme derives from Leibniz's Monadology, with its infinite monads all reflecting the others from their own viewpoint. It differs from Leibniz by the stress laid on the transient and instantaneous nature of the actual occasions, and on the creativity of the temporal flow. Whereas Leibniz saw monads as substances, containing all their possible properties, and only appearing to be temporal, Whitehead reduced them to events and made temporality their essential property.

For Whitehead, actual occasions are layered in hierarchies of greater and less complexity. More complex actual occasions 'include' less complex ones-as the human mind includes all the actual occasions which make up the cells of the body, for instance. God is defined as the all-inclusive actual occasion, or infinite process of all actual occasions, forming one organic unity. Thus God includes all reality within his own being. God literally prehends every actual occasion, and so knows everything that any being can know. However, God does not know the future, since it is yet to come into being, as a result of an infinite number of creative acts by actual occasions. Since these acts are truly creative, and are not determined by the past or by God or existent in some supra-temporal sense, even God cannot know what will happen in future.

Similarly, God is not omnipotent, in the sense that God can do anything, or that he is the ultimate cause of everything that happens. On the contrary, the actual occasions are the real causes of what happens, and God must simply prehend their activity; he cannot compel it. According to this view, God is not an all-determining monarch; he is 'the fellow-sufferer who understands' (Whitehead 1929:532). He literally shares all experiences. Like all other beings, he is in continual temporal process. Yet God, unlike all other beings, is not wholly confined to the temporal process.

A crucial doctrine of process thought is that God is dipolar; he has a twofold nature. First, he has a 'primordial nature', which is, says Whitehead, abstract, without consciousness and 'deficiently actual' (ibid.: 521). It is a sort of sum total of all possibilities or 'abstract objects', always deficient inasmuch as it contains a 'yearning after concrete fact—no particular facts, but after some actuality' (ibid.: 50). God is, in a sense, the realm of Platonic Forms, 'the ultimate conceptual realisation of the absolute wealth of potentiality' (ibid.: 521). In that respect, God is changeless and eternal. But he is also lacking in concrete reality, for the real must be the concrete and particular, not just the abstract and universal.

This primordial nature of God contains all possible futures. The second pole of the Divine nature is the 'consequential nature', by which God prehends all actual occasions, including their experiences, at every time. At any particular time, God prehends what is the case. From his primordial nature, he then provides each actual occasion with an 'initial aim', which is its best, most creative, possibility. In this sense, he is 'the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire', 'the poet of the world' (ibid.: 522). He does not compel things to happen; but he persuades, by his primordial nature, towards the best. However, actual occasions may not be persuaded; and God must simply prehend whatever they freely decide to do. Whatever they do, however, God, who is infinitely patient, is finally able to harmonize their choices into the all-inclusive harmony of his own experience. Thereby things obtain an 'objective immortality' (not conceived as a real, independently enduring existence) by being taken into the unitary experience of God. In this sense, 'God is completed by the individual, fluent satisfactions of finite fact, and the temporal occasions are completed by their everlasting union with their transformed selves, purged into conformation with the eternal order' (ibid.: 527).

God necessarily seeks some concrete temporal expression of his primordial nature; so the world is necessary to God. The world is a real temporal order in which creativity is an essential feature, which even God cannot obliterate. God can, however, 'lure' actual occasions towards the good. Having endless time at his disposal, he will in the end increase the beauty and harmony of the world. In any case, the experience of God will be completed by taking the temporal process into his own being and giving it there, in an ever-extending creative pattern, an eternal satisfaction.

Whitehead's philosophy picks up many elements of Hegelian thought— the stress on the necessity of the world; the stress on temporality; the idea of God as including all finite reality. He develops from it, however, a radically new metaphysical system, in which God has an important place. God is not, however, the impassible, non-temporal, simple Infinite of Thomism. Being dipolar, God does have such a nature, a primordial nature. But that nature is necessarily expressed in his consequential nature, which introduces passibility, temporality and complexity into the Divine Being. To put it bluntly, the process God is not omnipotent or omniscient, and cannot ensure that his purposes will be realized, since he is limited to persuasion. He is a temporal God, who shares in the travails of the world, seeks to lure it towards greater good, and includes it, as so far completed, in the eternal memory of his own awareness.

Building on Whitehead's scheme, there are many possible variants of process theology, but they all share the general features of attributing to God dipolarity, all-inclusive infinity, temporality, creativity and persuasive action. They usually deny or re-interpret the notions of omnipotence and omniscience. They tend to see creation, not as a freely willed act of God, but as a necessary concretization of the abstract primordial nature of God, which endlessly proceeds by the free creative acts of many 'atomic' acts of actual occasions, not by direct Divine ordinance. Process philosophy is a difficult, ambitious and total metaphysical system, which is enough to make it suspect for many. Its stress on Divine temporality, passibility and persuasive action has influenced many theologians who might be suspicious of its general claims. In these respects it seems to show more affinity with the God of ordinary Christian belief than with the God of classical theism, who is never affected by the world and who therefore never really responds to free creaturely actions or is able to do anything radically new. The idea that God becomes human, suffers on the cross, responds creatively to prayer and seeks to persuade by love seems to fit quite well with the idea of an incarnate God. However, most theologians have difficulty with limiting the Divine power and knowledge, with accepting that God can never create a perfect heaven and earth by his own free decision, and with the denial of individual resurrection or life after death.

Creativity and sensitivity are often thought to be qualities a perfect being should have; but it is not so clear that a perfect being should be conceived as being essentially dependent upon the world for actuality, as being limited in power and knowledge, or as being constantly developing and improving. The process concept of God remains controversial among theologians. It has, however, raised a challenge to the classical theistic position on a number of fronts. It is possible that the basic idea of Divine dipolarity, with its associated place for temporality and passibility in God, may survive dissociation from general process metaphysics, and may contribute to further discussion of the proper attributes of a being 'than which no greater can be conceived'.

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