It’s all Process, Baby, all the way down

180px-Whitehead_anHaving located the center of “classical” theism as the belief that God is actus purus, that is, the belief that there is no potentiality in God, now would be a fitting time to race to the other end of the spectrum and try to find the center of that theism most unlike the classical view. That opposing view is Process theism.

Process theology grew out of the Process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) whose views are explained in his Process and Reality (1929), though when you read it you might prefer “encrypted” to “explained.” Whitehead’s cosmology was further developed and expanded by Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Today there exists a good deal of diversity among Process theists, but it’s safe to say that in essentials they all agree. And while it is always risky to boil down something as sophisticated and intricate as Process metaphysics to a few key points, as we move forward our conversation will require us to have on hand the belief or beliefs that form the center around which other Process convictions revolve.

Process theology has been experiencing somewhat of a revival. There are many online summaries and several book surveys that are far more user-friendly than Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Bob Cornwall has a nice brief summary here. Check out all you can. And in the meantime, allow us to post a short summary of our own:

Points of Process —

  • The most fundamental thing about reality is that it is a process of becoming, a process the smallest constituents of which (called “actual occasions”) are events (or “drops”) of experience.
  • Every “actual occasion” is in some minimal sense free, creative and self-determining.
  • God’s role in the process of the world’s becoming is to define the optimal outcome for every actual occasion with an initial aim. This aim is that occasion’s highest value, its most beautiful version of itself possible in that particular moment.
  • God “lures” or “persuades” (never coercing or determining) every occasion toward this aim.
  • God, like all existing entities, is in a process of becoming. God takes into his experience all the process of the universe, defining the aims and perfection of all entities and assimilating the increasing diversity of the world’s becoming. Thus God’s actuality (his actual experience) is co-constituted with the world and is improved upon (i.e., made more ‘valuable’, for value grows with increasing diversity) as God harmonizes the world’s growing complexity.
  • The God-world relation is a necessary and essential one. The material universe (or some universe[s]) exists eternally in God.

duchampdescendingThere is much more to Process that we cannot here discuss. But perhaps we could boil this down with a famous comment of Whitehead’s that reveals what we think is as good a candidate for being the defining center of Process as actus purus is for classical theism. Whitehead commented, “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse; he is their chief exemplification.” In other words, God and world together constitute a single ontology between them, a single “order of content and explication.” No ontological distinction between divine and created being per se, no categorical transcendence of creation, no “analogical moment” for David Hart. There is instead only a singular ‘being’ possessed by both God and the world.

If “classical” theism’s center is actus purus, a view which holds God’s self-constituting perfections to be utterly free and independent of creation, a God in whom there is no unfulfilled potential and thus no “process” whatsoever to speak of, we can say Process theism makes the opposite claim — that God’s existence and perfections are thoroughly historicized, constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe, a relationship which is as consequential for God as it is for the world.

Consequences follow from such a view just as inevitably as from classical theism, chiefly regarding the triune nature of God (Process doesn’t require a trinity and struggles to account for its necessity where it is affirmed), Christology, and eschatology. But these points will require more attention as the discussion moves on..

(Pictures here and here.)

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9 comments on “It’s all Process, Baby, all the way down

  1. kurtkjohnson says:

    title… nice spin on a postmodern maxim.

    So, what’s Processes ‘original substance’? 🙂 Creation as a fourth member of the Trinity… ugh.

    This idea of a ‘interventionist’ God who ‘steps in’ and does stuff. That doesn’t sit well with me. Open Theism holds to the divine option of unilateral control… Process rejects this and posits influence only, but I think they’re both missing something here. I don’t know what it is yet…

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    • tgbelt says:

      How about a God who doesn’t need to intervene because he’s already fully present, relaxing in your living room on the sofa but who can kick the furniture over when necessary? Resurrection from the grave on the predicted day seems an unlikely candidate for ‘persuasion’. ;o)

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  2. Shane says:

    So is this the best place to ask for a response to classicalists’ (e.g., Thomists’) charges that open theists are hampered by a univocal metaphysics or something too close to such? It’s been awhile since I’ve read much of metaphysics or open theistic argumentation, so it’s quite possible I actually knew an OV response to this at one time and have just forgotten it. 🙂 Either way, I’d appreciate your thoughts. And feel free to hold off until a later, more fitting post, or even refer me elsewhere.

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    • tgbelt says:

      Hi Shane. I think classical folk have a point. Open theists all, as far as I can tell, adopt the core Process belief (which is actually a methodology) in a single metaphysics that embraces both God and creation univocally. There are some unsavory consequences of this for open theists, i.e., no real sense of transcendence and so no ‘healthy’ apophaticism. It’s not like open theists are concerned with this. They pretty much own not wanting any kind of apophaticism. If you have the time and interest, though, Shane, you’d enjoy reading Denys Turner (his Silence and the Word). Some good insights about transcendence and apophaticism.

      I suppose the classical theist would then ask me why, if I don’t buy Process’ methodological assumption of a univocal metaphysic that embraces both divine and created being, am I still an open theist? That’s part of what we’ll get to here as we roll on. But the quick answer is even if we move our descriptions of God from the purely univocal to the analogical, one STILL has to make the case analogically that God knows the future in the traditional sense. Going ‘analogical’ is a methodology. It doesn’t get you EDF automatically.

      There is also some truth to the Process objections to actus purus. So the trick is affirming the best of both and avoiding the weaknesses of each, and it’s there where we think an open theist could claim that the future’s being (ontologically speaking) open and indeterminate (which the EO will agree to) has implications for any knowledge of it. Apophaticism means know where to admit when human language and concepts have gone as far as they can. But that itself doesn’t buy you the traditional view of foreknowledge. In other words, what positions warrant an apophatic pass (so to speak) have to be established on THIS side of rationality. So transcendence doesn’t entail EDF. It might be that the more proper apophatic stance is that which qualifies how a transcendent God competently knows and relates to an open future. That’s kinda where we’re going.

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      • Shane says:

        Thanks for the reply here, Tom, and for the book recommendation. Sorry it’s taken me a few days to get back to the discussion. On to some of your comments…

        T: “Open theists all, as far as I can tell, adopt the core Process belief (which is actually a methodology) in a single metaphysics…I suppose the classical theist would then ask me why, if I don’t buy Process’ methodological assumption of a univocal metaphysic that embraces both divine and created being, am I still an open theist?”

        S: Ya lost me here. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you. Your comments pre- and post-ellipses here seem contrary. You do or don’t embrace a univocal metaphysic or approach?

        T: “There are some unsavory consequences of this for open theists, i.e., no real sense of transcendence and so no ‘healthy’ apophaticism.”

        S: Are real and healthy the important qualifiers here? 😉 “Transcendence” is definitely a problem for an OT if one equates the term with Pure Act or requires complete apophaticism (which might be semantically stacking the deck). I definitely agree that transcendence doesn’t get you EDF (unless you assume or link transcendence with pure actuality, of course, which as far as I know would entail unqualified divine atemporality). I also agree with your comment about seeking the strengths of the Pure Act and Process metaphysics/approaches without the respective weaknesses. Amen and amen to that! Though any compromise or collaboration whatsoever might entail falling under the Process umbrella. 🙂 (Perhaps the relationality entailed by analogical reference requires dynamic process?)

        T: “…when human language and concepts have gone as far as they can.”

        S: How far our terms can really/accurately go has particularly bugged me in appeals to analogy. I find myself wanting to put our referential options on a continuum, with Univocal (maximum sameness) on one end, Equivocal (maximum difference) on the other, and Analogical (some presence of and differentiated relationship between sameness and difference) in the middle, with possible degrees of sameness/difference as one slides one way or the other from center. (And perhaps this begs the question by even putting them all on the same continuum. I don’t know. Hey, it’s a heuristic!)

        Theologians throughout history, of course, have thought that both equivocity and univocity in theological language are problematic, particularly since they’re conceived in absolute black and white terms. And analogy would presumably be the only other option, but appeals to analogy, even when I was immersed in Thomism back in the day and wanted to defend it with objectors, have long left me wondering where (on the continuum, so to speak) certain presumably analogical terms should fall, or where the limits of sameness or difference stop.

        When it comes to at least some terms (e.g., a Pure Act’s freely choosing), I found myself thinking that the relevant classicalists had evacuated so much of the sameness (e.g., genuine ontic possibilities/options, a shift in intentional stance toward the chosen option, …) as to be effectively meaningless (i.e., as good as equivocal). If absolute univocity is “+10” on the continuum and absolute equivocity “-10” (so to speak), I kind of felt like they/we were “punting” and trying to let the term fall somewhere short of -10 on that end of the continuum, as long as it conveniently safeguards the “transcendent”/difference from being too “immanent”/same. (Am I making any sense at all here? I honestly don’t get to kick this stuff around much these days…and I’ve reeeeally been missing it…so I might be saying nothing, saying something ridiculous, or repackaging the obvious.)

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  3. tgbelt says:

    S: Ya lost me here. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you. Your comments pre- and post-ellipses here seem contrary. You do or don’t embrace a univocal metaphysic or approach?

    T: Sorry to be unclear. I don’t embrace (as does Process and do all open theists I know) a univocal metaphysic.

    ————————

    S: “Transcendence” is definitely a problem for an OT if one equates the term with Pure Act or requires complete apophaticism.

    T: Right. I think either version of an ‘all-or-nothing’ understanding sacrifices transcendence.

    T: “…when human language and concepts have gone as far as they can.”

    S: How far our terms can really/accurately go has particularly bugged me in appeals to analogy. I find myself wanting to put our referential options on a continuum, with Univocal (maximum sameness) on one end, Equivocal (maximum difference) on the other, and Analogical (some presence of and differentiated relationship between sameness and difference) in the middle.

    Tom: I think the Orthodox (well, Hart at least) would see univocal and equivocal as a single continuum and analogical as nowhere on THAT continuum; i.e., analogical isn’t a certain combination of the two. It’s something else.

    I think you’d love Denys Turner (Silence and the word). I’ll send you something by him.

    ————————-

    S: I honestly don’t get to kick this stuff around much these days…and I’ve reeeeally been missing it…so I might be saying nothing, saying something ridiculous, or repackaging the obvious.

    T: Sound like great questions to me! I think understanding how our language can and can’t function in describing God is huge. I’m not sure I’m in a settled view myself, except that I don’t think Process’ univocal approach works.

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  4. Shane says:

    T: Right. I think either version of an ‘all-or-nothing’ understanding sacrifices transcendence.

    S: Interesting. Do you think transcendence perhaps implies some kind of relation or relationship between the transcending and transcended grounded in their being similar-but-different? Is your take something you could unpack a bit more here, or is that forthcoming in another post?

    T: I think the Orthodox (well, Hart at least) would see univocal and equivocal as a single continuum and analogical as nowhere on THAT continuum; i.e., analogical isn’t a certain combination of the two. It’s something else.

    S: Hmmm. I have a hard time conceiving (as you say Hart might) of U and E being on their own continuum without analogy bridging them, at least if they respectively represent absolute sameness and difference. As far as analogical being “something else”—the concept seems to me to imply a “similar-but-different” relation or relationship of some kind. If so, I can see where he might want to separate it from U and E, in that each of those is full-blown and, thus, perhaps can’t enter into real relation with the other. But I don’t know. Care to flesh Hart out more on that?
    And some of this raises a similar question for me that my own continuum actually raised for me. When thinking of how I was construing the continuum, I wondered if true U and E could even be on that continuum if their denotations respectively involve absolute sameness and absolute differentness. As such, perhaps they can’t share in whatever substrate (to speak loosely) might constitute or be represented by the whole continuum. I wondered if it would be better to represent analogy as its own line segment, perhaps with U and E being solitary points just past the end of each terminus. I wondered if I was “cheating” and sneaking in a univocal substrate by even having them on the same continuum. But then analogies illustrate; they don’t demonstrate. And maybe the continuum is better thought of as a line (extending infinitely in each direction), or maybe a ray, than a line segment. And I might just be thinking harder than I need to be. 🙂

    T: Sound like great questions to me! I think understanding how our language can and can’t function in describing God is huge. I’m not sure I’m in a settled view myself, except that I don’t think Process’ univocal approach works.

    S: So you know where you don’t land. Any sense of where (or approximately where) you do land? Or find yourself approaching?

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    • tgbelt says:

      Shane, we’ll definitely get around to describing what we think a doctrine of transcendence ought to do. I’ve got two concerns—the implications of a univocal ontology (of God and world comprising between them a single ‘being’) on the one hand, and how Hart’s ‘analogical interval’ (or any analogical approach) is used to distinguish between true and false claims about God.

      I was gonna send you a chapter of Denys Turner but forgot. I’ll fire it off right now!

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  5. Shane says:

    Thanks, boss. Lookin’ forward to the chapter and to future posts here.

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