Abstraction & the normativity of the transcendentals


If you’re not familiar with Process theology’s categories (in Hartshorne/Whitehead) regarding divine actuality and contingency, you may want to ignore this. But I want to post a few paragraphs from Greg Boyd (paragraphs from Trinity & Process [1994], pp. 211-217, pace Process) on the problem of abstraction in God and then comment at the end:

We earlier criticized Hartshorne’s theology of abstraction on the grounds that it cannot account for the normativity of transcendentals over concrete reality. If, as Hartshorne contends, abstractions are “contained in” the concrete, if they have no abiding reality in any sense independent of the concrete, then, it was argued, they can be descriptive only. They have no prescriptive (and thus explanatory) value whatsoever. They are simply the abstract feature which contingent reality happens to exemplify. But a priori truths, which constitute the highest level of abstraction, cannot be rendered intelligible in this fashion. They prescribe what reality must be, and thus cannot be contingent upon what contingent reality happens to be.

This problem becomes the most acute when we consider Hartshorne’s understanding of God’s abstract character. The problem, in a nutshell, is that there seems to be no way within Hartshorne’s system for rendering intelligible the necessity of God’s character. Character, we have already seen, is for Hartshorne merely the de facto abstract characteristics of the past spontaneity of a nexus of actual occasions. It is nothing in and of itself.

Our argument shall be that without the postulation of a necessary divine actuality, without the supposition that God’s essential actuality is identical with God’s “abstract” character, the a priori necessities which define God’s eternal character are unintelligible.

Whitehead, we believe, saw something which Hartshorne overlooked; he understood that the intelligibility of God’s stable character amidst God’s contingent interaction with the contingent world requires the view that God be, in some degree (at least), antecedently actual. What Hartshorne has understood as God’s “abstract” character, Whitehead took to be “God’s primordial pole.” And in Whitehead’s system, this “pole” is no mere abstraction. God’s subjective aim to be Godself concretely in response to the world is, pace Hartshorne, grounded in something: it is “wholly derivative from [God’s] all-inclusive primordial valuation.” The “perfection of this subjective aim” is not abstracted from the consequent nature of God, but rather issues from “the completeness of [God’s]…primordial nature.”

Unfortunately, however, Whitehead largely takes back with one hand what he gave with the other when he describes this primordial nature as being “actually deficient” and “unconscious.” For now the nature of God’s primordial “feeling,” “valuation,” and “action”—the very things which render intelligible God’s contingent feeling, valuation and action—are rendered problematic. The very “completeness” of the primordial pole which would have rendered the consequent nature of God intelligible itself becomes unintelligible when it is now described in terms which render it “less conscious” and “less actual” than the consequent nature it explains. Hence, all of the personal attributes and activities which Whitehead otherwise gives to this primordial pole, attributes and activities which would render his conception advantageous to rendering God’s contingent activity intelligible, are hereby qualified to an extent that they are rendered philosophically useless. It becomes, for example, extremely difficult to understand how God can make the decisions and valuations which God must make in this One’s primordial pole when God is, in this pole, unconscious.

Once the Process requirement that each occasion must creatively synthesize antecedent data is rejected, however, and once the Process view that an entity is nothing over and above an experience is rejected, we are, I believe, free to go all the way with Whitehead’s insight. The perfection of God, that which defines God’s self apart from all interaction with a non-divine reality (viz., is “unconditioned”) must be identical with a necessary and actually abiding reality. As to God’s necessary existence, God does not have the abstract features of goodness, love, awareness, etc. God is—actually—goodness, love, awareness, etc.

To use traditional terminology, God’s “abstract” essence is God’s necessary concrete existence. The a priori features which “abstractly” identify God as God constitute God’s essential actuality. God’s actuality is not, therefore, simply a contingent exemplification of divine attributes. The “abstract” attributes of God are, on this account, given an intelligible normative status over all of God’s contingent activity. The “absolutely fixed” and “ungenerated style” of God, the “law” of God’s concrete contingent activity, is simply the aseity of God’s eternal actuality. God’s necessary character is not paradoxically “contained in” God’s contingent actuality: it is, rather, identical with God’s eternal actuality.



Greg approaches the point and works through the implications in a way I generally like. Briefly, Greg is arguing that the transcendentals (Goodness, Beauty, Truth, to begin with) cannot be merely “abstract” perfections. They must be viewed as fully “concrete,” as God’s own essential, concrete actuality. God doesn’t “have” the abstract features of goodness, love, truth, beauty, etc. God “is” these things, and he is this in the undivided fullness of his actuality. That’s a mouthful, but it’s an important thing to say.

Whitehead agreed (pace Hartshorne). Well, to an extent. The divine perfections (Goodness, Truth, Beauty as such) must be independent of the world (since they prescribe for the world what its end/purpose is. In Process terms, they constitute the “lure” to which the world is drawn). That said, notice Greg’s criticism of Whitehead for holding this antecedent divine actuality (i.e., those transcendental perfections which are antecedent to and the ground of creation) to be “unconscious.” Why would Whitehead say such a thing? Because despite seeing the logic of requiring the transcendentals to be world-independent, Whitehead couldn’t posit any divine “actuality” that is not shaped or determined by Creation. For Greg (1994), an “unconscious” divine actuality is a problem, because the concrete actuality which is God’s existence as “love” cannot be unconscious or dormant, i.e., it cannot have or possess its essential, necessary being as an unrealized potential. God’s antecedent character as “love” (the diversified truth of which we name the transcendentals Goodness, Beauty, and Truth) can only be the concrete, lived experience of God, the fully determinate plenitude of the triune experience.

Prayer: Open my eyes, God, to the unchanging, fully realized beauty that you are. May its healing powers restore my fallen heart to you.

God and red carpets


“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2)

Part of Luke’s point here is just to locate the beginnings of the story of Jesus. When and where did it begin? When this guy was in charge. What that guy was High Priest. But there’s more here than that. There’s something here to see about who God talks to, who God shares himself with.

Begin with the Who’s Who from the first-century, a red carpet line up of Israel’s power-brokers, influencers, cultural and religious authorities. Her shakers and movers.

– Tiberius Caesar – ruler of the world,
– Pontius Pilate, in charge of Caesar’s occupation of Palestine,
– Herod, son of King Herod (member of a powerful ruling family, favored by Rome), in charge of Galilee,
– Philip, Herod’s brother, and Lysanias, each holding a political position of his own.
– Lastly, Annas and Caiaphas, in charge of the Temple and managers of its power.

That’s the ‘who’. Now for the ‘what’. There’s an event here, and occurrence of cosmic proportions not to be missed. Luke describes it: “The word of God came.” God spoke, just not to whom one might expect. So while the naming of known leaders is just a way to locate the story. On the other hand Luke’s drive-by tells us something about God.

Surely the word of God would come to one of the established power-brokers. Surely if God had something to say to the whole world, he’d get his message to and through Caesar or Pilate. They’re the political powers of the day. They control the news media. But if not them, surely the God of Israel would go to Annas or Caiaphas, Israel’s religious leaders. They are the gatekeepers. They own the synagogues, run the houses of Scripture, control the seminaries, write the curricula, control the process of ordination and decide what the religious publishing houses put out. Managing and distributing “the word of God” is their business. It’s their whole reason for being. So surely “the word of God” would come to them. But God doesn’t talk to them either. He passes by the high priest. What about the elite, the rich and the famous, and the celebrities of the day? Surely God would consult Forbes, or People Magazine, or US Weekly; surely he’d ride the wave of popular personalities who are listened to and followed by millions. Makes sense—get your word out through the most connected people on the planet, right? Only the best for God. No. God passes them all by.

Who’s the word of God come to? It comes to “John the Son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

You should be laughing. You’re meant to laugh. Everybody else laughed.

If this were today, it might include bits and pieces of this:

– When Barak Obama was President of the most powerful nation on earth,
– When Bill Gates was the richest man in the world,
– When Donald Trump was buying his way to a seat of international power,
– When Eminem was shocking the world with his raps,
– Adele was singing “Hello!” and Drake was “Summer Sixteen,”
– Justin Bieber ‘never said never’ and Lady Gaga was singing her own “Applause,”
– Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon,
– Albert Einstein redefined what the Moon was,
– Pope Francis and Oprah were the spiritual authorities of the day—
– the word of God came to ___________ .

Put your name in.

“Dear friends, remember what you were when God chose you. Not many of you were wise by human standards. Not many of you were powerful or influential, and not many of you came from important families. But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important. God did all this to keep anyone from bragging.” (1Corinthians 1:26-29)

Prayer: Father, let me hear your voice. Plant your word in my heart. Involve me in your work. Employ me in your service.

The liturgy of life

Three+Faiths+One+God+compos - CopyI was asked, “Would you or have you as a Christian prayed in a mosque?”

My reply was/is of course! How could I not? Prayer is not an activity separable from the mundane, something I do only in some places and at some times. My very existence is an act of prayer, a liturgy of rising, eating, working, playing, loving, and sleeping in and as an act of worship to the God in whom I am. To not pray in a mosque would require never entering a mosque, since wherever I am I am prayer. And why should I never enter a mosque if the God to whom my very existence is a liturgy of prayer is everywhere? Why should I refuse to go where God does not refuse to be?


Prayer: Father of all heavenly lights, illuminate it all.  Let it all be a burning bush for you. Fill the earth with the knowledge of your glory as the waters cover the sea. And if I can help, tell me how.

For God the future becomes the present


I might be crazy. Just thinking out loud.

What would ‘past’ and ‘future’ be for someone whose ‘present’ experience was existentially satisfied in every self-constituting way (that is, in every way important to and definitive for personal identity and existential fulfillment)? The ‘past’ couldn’t be remembered with any sense of regret, longing, or pinning for what was or what might have been. It would cast no shadow upon the present, nor could it suggest any correction or alternative to it. Whatever the past would be to the present, however one’s ‘memory’ might figure into the satisfaction of the present, it would not define the present by means of contrasting it to unfulfilled desire or counterfactual reasoning (what ‘might have’ been but is not). (Rom 8.18 comes to mind.)

Likewise the future could not interpose itself into the satisfaction of the present by casting upon its bliss any expectation or desire for a satisfaction not present. The future (so far as it might be conceived in the present) would be entirely the product of present bliss, a realm of possibilities that express (but do not constitute an improvement upon) the present. The future would become the present, as opposed to the present becoming the future.

I think of God’s relationship to ‘time’ along such lines. Where time constitutes a kind of metaphysical presupposition for our existence (we’re temporal in a prerequisite sort of way), God (being necessary) could not sustain that kind of relationship to time. There are no metaphysical presuppositions to uncreated being. That goes without saying. In that sense time flows from God.

On a similar note, consider God’s relationship to ‘space’, which is the relation of an undivided mind to divided points or spatial locations. God’s experience of the world couldn’t be spatial in the way ours is. My conscious experience is spatially finite, located at some points in space but not at other points in space. But God is not so located. All locations are equally present to him in the undivided unity of his being. All God is is present to all spatial locations, and all spatial locations are equally present to God. There is no distance in God between any spatial location and another. This is all I take omnipresence to be. Though God perfectly apprehends the distinctions between spatial locations (i.e., being omnipresent doesn’t collapse all spatial locations in one spatial location for God), God is not collapsible to the distance between location and location as we are.

Prayer: Teach me, God, to rest my weary wanderings (and my wonderings) in your present presence. Keep me always mindful of the unchanging truth that no matter where or how far from you I run, I run in you, that all that you are is the world in which I travel.

(Cartoon here.)