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Process Theology


The core of process theology centers upon the understanding of God derived from the philosophies of A. N. whitehead and C. hartshorne. In this philosophy God is not a casual adjunct introduced for reasons of religious apologetics, but is necessary for its overall coherence. At the same time this philosophy is thoroughly conversant with contemporary science, for it was originally conceived as an effort to do justice to the revolution in physics occasioned by Einstein's special theory of relativity. Whitehead, then an agnostic sharing Bertrand Russell's religious opinions, first came to appreciate that temporal presentness could not be adequately explained in terms of the purely objective categories of nature, and later concluded that the origins of subjectivity required an appeal to God.

Process theism is also significant for its challenge to classical theism, a challenge that may well further contemporary efforts at de-Hellenizing the Christian faith. Whitehead was particularly troubled by the problem of evil. If God wills or allows all that is, having the omnipotence to change whatever is, then He may be faulted for the evil that exists. Even if God permits our evil decisions for the sake of fostering human freedom, He could prevent or ameliorate their consequence. But need omnipotence be understood in this fashion? It cannot mean the monopoly of all power, for then we would have no power, and power is essential for freedom. Hartshorne argues that perfect power means all the power appropriate to a divinely perfect being that is consistently conceivable with creaturely power. If God does not compete with creatures for power, his power must be persuasive, not coercive.

Whitehead's reinterpretation of causality leads to similar conclusions. Instead of causes producing their effects, the effects produce themselves out of their causes, guided by the lures received from God. Without the ordering possibilities of divine persuasion, finite occasions would simply be random combinations of their causal pasts, quickly degenerating into chaos. The occasion freely modifies and actualizes the divine aim. This is its self-creativity. It is free from the causal determinism of the past insofar as it selectively appropriates from that past according to the divine aim, but it is also free from divine determinism insofar as it allows that aim to be modified by the past it appropriates.

Now a plurality of free decisions, insofar as they are uncoordinated, will inevitably (though not necessarily) lead to conflict, which is the source of evil. Divine coordination prevents total chaos, but it can achieve total harmony only to the extent to which creaturely occasions freely actualize divine aims.

On this view freedom is ontologically basic. It is not as if God can create some creatures with freedom and some without, for any lacking freedom would be merely intentional objects of the divine imagination, having no separate reality. In place of the traditional dualism of an uncreated creator and creatures that cannot create, all actualities are self-creative. God's creative activity is exercised in guiding each creature in its self-creation.

Because each finite actuality requires a past to appropriate, there is an infinite chain of causal pasts. The world is seen as having no beginning. Hartshorne argues that the existence of the world, like God, is abstractly necessary, though the concrete character it assumes is contingent. For him the metaphysical principles (which entail, among other things, the necessary existence of some world or other) have no consistent alternative, and hence are determined by no one, not even God. For Whitehead, God's primordial envisagement determining all possibilities thereby also determines the metaphysical principles. He is not explicit on the point, but if the existence of God without a world is a valid metaphysical alternative, then God in determining the metaphysical principles would be in effect determining whether to create or not to create. But this is nontemporal decision, applicable to all times, including the infinite past.

Hartshorne and Others. Hartshorne's The Divine Relativity is sharply critical of the Thomistic claim that God in knowing creation is not really related to creatures. Generally, in knowing one's knowledge is affected and largely determined by the existence and character of what is known, and it would seem inconsistent to make an exception in God's case. That exception is made to protect God's immutability. Hartshorne argues that though God's formal attributes are abstractly necessary, their concrete content is contingent. God as the perfect being is necessarily all-loving, but what God loves is dependent upon whatever there is to love. Far from being absolute and immutable, God is supremely relative, sensitively responding to every change in the world. Our actions thus contribute to the enrichment of the divine experience, and find their ultimate meaning in being cherished by God forever.

Many have resisted this argument because it entails that God's experience is (partially) caused by the world. This objection derives its force from the traditional axiom that the cause is superior to its effect, which implies a hierarchy of causes culminating in God as first cause. If Whitehead's reinterpretation of causality is correct, however, the effect is superior as the creative, novel unification of its many causes. Thus God is supreme as the effect of the world as well as the ultimate source of all its final causes.

Schubert Ogden has forcefully developed Hartshorne's thesis that the meaningfulness of life can only be justified by its enrichment of the divine experience. John Cobb, in addition to writing some foundational studies, has explored some important ways in which process thought has enriched our understanding of, among other things, world religions, evolutionary biology, economics, ecology, and political theology. Bernard Loomer and Bernard Meland have examined the more empirical dimensions of Whitehead's thought, seeking to describe as sensitively as possible the impingement of divine activity upon human experience. Daniel Day Williams has attempted the first full-scale process theology centered on the interpretation of love. These theologians, together with Peter Hamilton, Norman Pittenger, David Pailin, and David Griffin, have been exploring the contours of a process Christology. Others have considered its implications for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Catholic Interest. Catholic interest in process theology has been increasing since Vatican II, as the static categories of the natural and supernatural have given way to more dynamic, biblical categories. Whitehead may well provide the philosophical foundations for teilhard de chardin's vision, even though there is a major conflict with respect to the nature of the future. Teilhard de Chardin, faithful to the biblical witness, looks forward to the final consummation of all things in God; while Whitehead, attuned to the unending advance of creative freedom, insists that there is no one perfection capable of embracing all other perfections within itself. God seeks the actualization of all perfections, each in due season.

Joseph Bracken, SJ has sought to interpret Catholic theology in process terms, especially with respect to the Trinity as three persons in interaction. There has been particular interest in correlating Whitehead with St. Thomas Aquinas, as evidenced by recent work by James W. Felt, SJ, and Stephen T. Franklin. Norris Clarke, SJ gives an excellent Catholic assessment of process theism in the book cited below.

God in Process Theism. For process theism, God is both abstract and concrete, necessary and contingent, unchanging and changing, independent and dependent upon the world. These contrasting predicates can be applied to the same individual, provided they apply to diverse aspects: God is abstract, necessary, unchanging with respect to metaphysical attributes, but concrete, contingent, and changing in the experience of the world. Insofar as God is held to be radically simple, excluding all but nominal distinctions, this logic is inapplicable. But Whitehead agrees with Duns Scotus in affirming formal distinctions. As the subjective unity of a multiplicity of prehensions, God experiences many distinct objective data, but these prehensions are not separable because of the indivisible unity, even simplicity, of their subject.

The use of formal distinctions grounded in prehensive unity obviates one need for analogy. Analogy would also be needed to speak about God if our experience were only sensory. Whitehead, however, defends our nonsensuous experience of divine purposing. In this he is reviving a version of Augustinian illumination, yet in a context that takes full cognizance of the role of efficientcausality as developed in contemporary science. Nevertheless, the analogy of being plays a role in process thought: every instance of creativity is thoroughly analogous with every other, having with respect to creativity no univocal elements in common.

Because God is constantly being enriched by the experience of novel events in the world, many have assumed that the God of process theism must be finite. But God's contemplation of all pure possibilities is necessarily infinite, and God's actual experience of the past must also be infinite if the world has no beginning. The mathematical concept of the potential infinite (for any x, x + 1) applies to God more accurately than the notion of an actual infinite (which cannot be enriched). Although Whitehead holds all determinate being to be finite, God is by contrast infinitely becoming, constantly in process of determination.

Bibliography: e. h. cousins, ed., Process Theology (New York 1971). d. brown, r. e. james, and g. reeves, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (Indianapolis, Ind. 1971). c. hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven, Conn. 1948). a.n. whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York 1926; repr.1996). j. b. cobb, jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia 1975). j. b. cobb, jr., and c. birch, The Liberation of Life (Cambridge 1981). s. m. ogden, The Reality of God (New York 1966). d. d. williams, The Spirit and Forms of Love (New York 1968). b. e. meland, The Realities of Faith (New York 1962). p. hamilton, The Living God and the Modern World (London 1967). n. pittenger, Process Thought and Christian Faith (New York 1968). j. a. bracken, Society and Spirit: A Trinitarian Cosmology (London and Toronto 1991). j. a. bracken and m. h. suchocki, eds., Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God (New York 1997). w. n. clarke, The Philosophical Approach to God: A Neo-Thomist Perspective (Winston-Salem, N.C. 1979).

[l. s. ford]

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