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.

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