God in Four Questions
Is God a Principle or a Person?
To the claim that God is a principle, a primary objection would be that a principle is an abstraction. What seems to me one of Whitehead’s most unassailable insights states that only actualities can act.1 Abstractions simply have no agency. Can “creativity” create? Can “liberty” free anyone? Can “prosperity” put money in your pocket? Language shows its wisdom here, for there’s a word for this, reification, that means to treat an abstraction as if it concretely exists. “Creativity” creates only when instantiated in some actuality. If this analysis is correct, we can only conclude that God, as principle, cannot act.
God has an abstract essence, true, but as the word abstract implies, this essence is abstracted from God’s concrete actuality. The word “abstract” derives from two Latin roots that mean “to draw from, or separate.”
David Griffin puts it this way:
“The abstract essence of God is analogous to what we call the ‘character’ of a human being, meaning that set of characteristics that remains virtually the same day after day, month after month, while the person lives through millions of experiences, these occasions of experience being the ‘concrete states’ in which the abstract essence is exemplified now in this way, now in that. The difference, which is why we have here only an analogy, is that a human being’s personality can change whereas the abstract essence of God is strictly immutable. One attribute of God’s abstract essence, for example, is omniscience, the characteristic of knowing everything knowable at any given time. God’s concrete knowledge grows, insofar as new events happen which add new knowable things to the universe. But the abstract attribute of omniscience—the attribute of always knowing everything that is (then) knowable—is exemplified in every concrete state of the divine existence. In Hartshorne’s writings, ‘dipolar theism’ always refers to this distinction between the abstract essence and the concrete states of God, which provides a coherent way of distinguishing that aspect of God that does not change from that which does.”2
Hartshorne observes that the universe, thus far, has evolved no experience of wholeness, or integration on a complex level, that goes beyond that of personality3 or, in more precise terms, what he (and Whitehead) call a “living person.” Does this not suggest that person, suitably qualified, rather than principle, comes closer to the character of a God whom we feel to be loving, relational, and, above all, worshipful? What is there to worship in the icy absolute of an abstraction?
Indeed, it took fifteen billion years for God and the world to co-create the human “living person” so it must be of exceptional worth and precious value.
To say that God is a person does not mean that there is a point-to-point correspondence between human personhood and the personhood of God. Far from it. If we affirm that evolution really means creative advance, then human personhood is asymptotic to the personhood that God enjoys.4
Unlike pantheism, which says that God is everything, panentheism says that all things are in God and God is in all things. Following Saint Paul, who affirms that “we are members one of another,”5 and going even farther, I affirm that “mutual immanence is the universal theme.”6 We live in a universe that is deeply and inwardly relational. In the process view, our personal relationship with God is not only deep and inward, it is inextricable.
Moreover, if we are to enjoy an I-Thou relationship with God, especially in our deeply felt prayers, and if, like Jesus, we are to enjoy a relationship of such intimacy that we address God as Abba, or “Papa,” how can this be except in a personal relationship?
It would seem more accurate to say not that God is principle, but that God exemplifies principles. In a statement often quoted, Whitehead tells us that, “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification.”7
A final thought:
There is a type of reality that everlastingly exists and is the locus of all power in this universe, or in any other universe that could possibly exist. God is the unsurpassable, but self-surpassing, exemplification of this reality, but there are many others, including all the natural unities such as subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, living cells, animals, and the human soul, which is the most complex and powerful earthly exemplification of this reality. The One is never without the many; that is, although it may be in a state of maximal entropic disorder, God is never without a “universe” of some sort. The story of co-creation in Genesis begins not with God creating a world out of nothingness, but with an evocation that begins to draw order out of an already-existing chaos.
Does God Have a Future?
This question presents an ambiguity that reveals at least two questions, at one and the same time. The least interesting has to do with Nietzsche’s assertion that “God is dead,”8 a bold claim that summarily denies God any future—period! Far more interesting are the entwined questions of whether God is, in an important sense, temporal . . . and whether God is wholly, and without qualification, immutable.
For two thousand years or more the Holy Reality has been almost exclusively defined by all those icy Absolutes attributed to Her long ago by a stubborn masculine and patriarchal bias. When the “wheels of thought” run in deep ruts, it’s hard to get them going in a new direction.
In the divine cry of our time, Our Lady of Process, the new womanly God, who, through her boundless love, is as intimate with each one of us as mother with fetus, as Madonna and Child, calls out for a new name and a reattribution of all Her “yin” virtues.
After discussing how, in Oriental thought, the great Tao is often compared to water, Charles Hartshorne makes a revealing observation: that it is a typically Western idea to exalt “masculine mastery, power, stability, control, being, absoluteness, while depreciating the feminine: yielding, passive, fluid—that is, becoming and relativity.”9
What is it to say that someone is “relative”? In a process world, it is merely to say that he or she is “rich in relations.” God, then, as the great example, not the great exception, to metaphysical principles, is said to be surrelative: supremely relative and wondrously rich in relations, both giving and receiving influence to and from all actualities throughout the vast universe. This supports the perennial intuition that God is love—love in the most fundamental sense, that is, a sympathetic love that shares and feels the feelings of others: rejoicing in their joys and sorrowing with them in their sorrows. This is a rejection of the purely impassive God of medieval theology and Aristotle’s so-called “Unmoved Mover,” to whom the apocalyptic suffering of the Jewish Holocaust would cause not so much as a single blip on the Divine Sonar.
One of our great mystic poets suggests that, far from being unmoved by our suffering, God is the best- and the most-moved mover:
O! he gives to us his joy
That our grief he may destroy;
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.10
And stop for a moment and reflect on what has been called the two most moving words in the Gospels: Jesus wept.11
Did God Create Once and for All?
During the 300-year reign of science over which the analytical spirit of Sir Isaac Newton presided, the universe was viewed as a gigantic clockwork machine, ticking away in timeless perfection, a perfection created once and for all by God, who then stepped back, according to that view, to dispassionately contemplate his handiwork for all eternity.12
The world the scientist looked out upon was, in essence, a fixed world, a changeless world, governed by immutable laws. It was a predictable world of force and matter, ruled by a rigid determinism, a mechanical world of billiard-ball cause and effect. And back of it all, a changeless God—Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.
With the publication in 1859 of his book On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin tossed a monkey-wrench in that colossal machine, for he hypothesized the evolution of organic life on this planet.13 And evolution presupposes not only change, but creative change.
On the macrocosmic level, Newton’s “machine” was effectively dismantled with the appearance of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, and, on the microcosmic level of atoms and subatomic particles, with the later development of Quantum Theory.
But Newton’s well-oiled machine did not really grind to a halt until a new cosmology was conceived. This revolutionary new cosmology sees the universe not as a clockwork machine, but as organic. The entire universe is throbbing with life, a life that expresses as continuous creative advance in the vast evolutionary saga.
Did you ever stop and wonder why God chose to create the universe by the long, long way of evolution (15 billion years and counting), rather than creating it once and for all?14 If this could have been accomplished in a shorter period of time, or even by a simple unilateral divine fiat (Let there be!), then why didn’t God take the shorter route? The process answer is that evolution, guided not by coercion but by persuasive love, is the shortest route that is metaphysically possible, even for God. This is no diminishment of God, or God’s power, but rather his exaltation as “poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”15 Whitehead sums it up in a soul-stirring epiphany: “The power of God is the worship he inspires.”16
To create once and for all would be to create a completed product, a static universe, a clockwork universe, a mechanical universe—the very universe, in fact, that Newton described. “May God us keep from Single vision & Newton’s sleep!” cried out another Englishman, the great mystic William Blake.17
Another reason for the long, long way is what may be called the order of actualization. Chimpanzees cannot evolve directly from cockroaches, or Einstein could not have suddenly showed up among the ancient Sumerians. The technology of the aerospace industry presupposes many other more basic technologies that must precede the advent of airplanes or space shuttles.18 Far from our possibilities being unlimited or infinite, we humans are constrained within the limits of this order of actualization. What even God can accomplish in any new moment is largely, but not completely, determined by what has been accomplished in preceding moments. This does not mean that great, wonderful, and even astonishing things cannot happen; what it does mean is that a certain level of continuity seems to be the general rule. Process thought does allow for what are called “saltations” (or “big jumps”) in evolutionary theory, in the history of ideas, in personal transformation, and in healing. But analysis will reveal an underlying continuity even here so as to avoid any suggestion of “supernatural” events.
And so . . . creation continues—forevermore!
How Can God Change and Not Change?
Process proposes what at first glance may appear to be an apparent paradox: that God both changes and does not change. Can any sense be made of this paradoxical proposal? The process answer is that a coherent explanation can be made by conceiving God as dipolar.
Indeed, if dipolarity is a fundamental principle,19 and if Whitehead is correct in holding that God can be no exception to such principles, then the divine nature must be dipolar. Moreover, not only is God conceived as dipolar, but as doubly dipolar.
One dipolarity is in terms of a distinction between two aspects of God: God’s concrete actuality and God’s abstract essence. God’s abstract essence does not change, is timeless, necessary . . . in fact, all the mostly negative characteristics attributed to God by classical theism. But as a concrete actuality, God does change, through increase of experience and value, and is temporal, contingent, and relative.
In sharp distinction to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, God is also dipolar in how God relates to the world: both exerting influence upon, and receiving influence from.
Some critics charge that the God of process theism is not transcendent enough. To this charge Hartshorne has made a sagaciously witty reply: he said that the God of process is twice as transcendent as the God of classical theism. He was able to make this reply through his doctrine of dual transcendence. By dual transcendence, Hartshorne means that only God has uniquely excellent ways of being both absolute and relative, necessary and contingent, immutable and capable of change, and so on.
1. This is Whitehead’s Ontological Principle.
2. David Ray Griffin, Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion, 158-59.
3. Over his long life, philosopher Charles Hartshorne consistently presented a case for God not as impersonal or the unmoved mover but as the Personality most rich in relations. He liked to quote Rabbi Heschel that “God is the most moved mover.” Even as early as his Harvard dissertation, he was saying, “Person as a legal concept is a highly abstract term, but personality in the end is the richest and most concrete of all ideas.” And then in his autobiography, The Darkness and the Light, 67 years later: “I held that the idea of a personal God was not simply an illusion, that personality is our best sample of reality and value and could not be simply set aside in trying to conceive the cosmic, universal, and supreme form of existence.”
4. In his book, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, page155, Hartshorne writes, “Brunner, I think, has suggested or implied that it is God who is unqualifiedly personal, and human beings are only imperfect, fragmentary pointers towards true personality.”
5. Ephesians 4:25.
6. This quote is from my poem, “Process and Presence,” and is the concluding sentence of this verse:
Every new moment, in a twinkling of eyes,
Numberless minds perish, and as quickly arise.
Fresh in the flow of this interweaving stream,
Mutual immanence is the universal theme.
The complete poem can be found at the end of “An Introduction to Process Thought in Five Easy Pieces.”
7. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected edition edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, 343.
8. The divine death sentence, “God is dead!” reverberates in two of Nietzsche’s books, The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the passages wherein both occur can be found in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann, on pages 95 and 202.
9. Hartshorne, Anselm’s Discovery, 147.
10. William Blake, Songs of Innocence.
11. John 11:35.
12. James Joyce describes it nicely: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 252.
13. One of several “decentering” episodes in our history: Before Copernicus, people thought the Earth was the center of the universe. Before Darwin, people thought that humankind was a special creation, somehow set apart from the rest of animal life. Before Freud, people thought that they were the conscious masters of their own personal lives.
14. A perspective on our place in the cosmic scheme of things can be gained by reflecting on how late we showed up in the evolutionary timeline. In The Universe Story, by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, the authors state that Homo sapiens, our species, made their first appearance a mere two hundred thousands years ago. Given that the physicists now place the age of universe at 15 billion years, the ratio that shows the proportional amount of time we’ve been here is:
The equivalent of this in decimal expression is:
To scale this to the dimension of a single day, we first multiply 24 times 60 times 60 to get the number of seconds in a day, or:
And, secondly, multiplying 86,400 by .0000133 gives us the proportional amount of time, on this scale, that we, as a species, have been here, or:
Or, if you have a scientific calculator on your computer, you can do it in three remarkably swift steps and come up with a slightly more precise figure, which is: 1.152—but it still boils down to approximately one second. And is there not a wonderful, a radical humility, in knowing that, if the 15-billion-year history of the universe is scaled down to the dimension of a single day, we, Homo sapiens, arrived on the scene at one second before midnight? One second! On this scale, Creation has been going on for 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds—and we show up only during the last second.
15. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.
16. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.
17. This exclamation is the final sentence in a poem that Blake included in a letter he wrote to Thomas Butts on November 22, 1802. One source for this letter is Selected Poetry and Prose of Blake, edited with an Introduction by Northrop Frye, 417-20.
18. Even great ideas have developmental steps. For example, the theory of evolution didn’t suddenly appear full bloom in the mind of Darwin. The germ of the idea is present at least as early as the writings of Plotinus (205-270) with his notion of the great hierarchy of being. But Plotinus conceived this hierarchy in essentially static terms, as if given all at once. It was left for Leibniz (1646-1716) to add a temporal dimension and to see the great hierarchy as developing over vast stretches of time. As Ken Wilber points out, “Plotinus temporalized = evolution.”
19. One feature that Whitehead found in his analysis of experience was its essential dipolarity.
Imagine pausing for a moment to look at yourself in a mirror, and become aware of the double perspective—you see your body as others see you, but you are also aware of your own inner experience. Your body, from without, is what you are as you appear to the sensory perception of others. Your mind, or inner experience, are what you are for yourself. David Griffin reminds us that this provides the basis for a distinction between mind and matter: “What we call matter is then the outer appearance of something that is, from within, analogous to our own experience.”
The French paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin said that “coextensive with their Without, there is a Within of things.” And physicist David Bohm is thinking along the same lines in his distinction of two orders in nature: the implicate and the explicate.
Whitehead called these two aspects of experience the mental pole and the physical pole; hence, the word “dipolar.”
He then generalized this dipolarity to be ingredient in all actualities all the way down to the most fundamental units of nature.