From Nothing—Part 2

011Moving on, the immediately next section of Ian McFarland’s Intro (see Part 1 in the immediately preceding post) summarizes the contemporary challenge to creation from nothing posed by process theology.

In response to these problems, proponents of process theology have argued that Christians would do better to abandon the doctrine of creation from nothing. Working with the metaphysics introduced by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, process theologians effectively reclaim the doctrine of creation proposed by Hermogenes, arguing that creation ex nihilo creates insuperable problems for Christian theodicy and defending instead a mode of creation from chaos, in which God’s role is that of bringing order to reality. Going beyond what we know of Hermogenes’ theological commitments, they also object to the model of divine omnipotence associated with creation from nothing as morally problematic (since it renders God’s decisions to intervene in some situations rather than others arbitrary), scientifically incredible (since it makes no sense to suppose that a God who could bring into existence any state of affairs immediately would instead take billions of years to do so by means of the slow processes of cosmic and biological evolution), and incompatible with creaturely freedom (since a God who effects all states of affairs is necessarily the only free agent).

Especially given some process theologians’ enthusiasm for Hermogenes’ cosmology, it is tempting to view them as latter-day Platonists. But although Whitehead was a great admirer of Plato (he famously characterized the whole of the Western philosophical tradition as a series of footnotes to the latter’s work), process thought also makes a break with Platonist metaphysics. For as much as process theologians endorse the model of creation from chaos, their underlying metaphysical framework is different from Plato’s. In all its various forms, Platonism is marked by a sharp distinction between the eternal, changeless world of Being and the temporal, mutable realm of Becoming. Especially for the later forms of Platonism that influenced early Christians like Justin, God belongs squarely in the realm of Being and is for that reason precluded from direct engagement with the material sphere of Becoming. As we have seen, one of the theologically appealing features of creation from nothing for thinkers like Theophilus and Irenaeus was that it raised no such metaphysical barriers to God’s interacting with the world: because matter is God’s own creation, its difference from God does not imply a distance from God, the crossing of which would compromise the immutable perfection of divine Being.

Process theologians, too, highlight God’s ability to interact with matter. Whereas proponents of creation from nothing make this point by stressing God’s absolute sovereignty over the material realm, however, process thinkers stress rather the interdependence of God and creation. Behind this process understanding of God lies a rejection of the classical Platonist dichotomy between Being and Becoming in favor of a metaphysic in which reality is defined as Becoming (“process”), in relation to which the idea of a changeless realm of Being is an unreal abstraction. Becoming is not conceived as a defective form of existence that at best can only approximate the timeless and immutable perfection of Being, but rather as the most metaphysically fundamental principle, such that in process thought an entity is constituted by its becoming, not by a changeless substrate that underlines and is unaffected by the process of becoming. And because becoming means change, every entity can be characterized in terms of two dimensions (or “poles”) that condition the change it undergoes at any given moment: the accumulated effects of its past history (the “physical pole”) and its openness to new possibilities (the “conceptual pole”). Both are necessary since absent a physical pole, there is no identifiable entity of which “becoming” can be predicated, and without a conceptual pole an entity is incapable of becoming (i.e., of moving beyond its past) and so ceases to exist. This framework, in turn, highlights the fundamentally relational character of process metaphysics. Where becoming is central, an entity’s being is defined by its relationships with other entities. The physical pole is the precipitate of past relationships, while the conceptual pole encapsulates an entity’s sphere of freedom for new relationships. Becoming is the result of the interaction of these two poles from moment to moment, as present possibility builds on past history to produce a new configuration that, in turn, generates a new set of possibilities for further development.

intro-to-process-theology-evil-9-728This dipolar metaphysics constitutes a significant shift from classical Platonist understandings of God and matter alike. On the one hand, matter is no longer the purely passive object of external forces, but possesses its own irreducible integrity as a locus of spontaneous activity—although the scope of freedom exhibited by any particular material entity will vary enormously depending on its organizational complexity (so that, for example, a dog has a much wider range of possibilities associated with its conceptual pole than does an electron). On the other hand, God is not defined by contrast with the realm of becoming as an utterly impassive being who exists independently of all external relationships, but rather as that entity whose range and richness of relationships is unsurpassable. In this way, God is not an exception to, but the supreme exemplification of, the metaphysics of becoming, immediately related to all other entities in the universe, knowing their past histories and present possibilities with a depth that goes beyond the bare facts of their existence to include their experience of joy and pain. This radical intimacy with all other entities makes God supremely responsive to them, seeking at every point to influence their becoming in a way that maximizes the flourishing of all.

Because all entities have range of freedom that is irreducible to past determination and thus escapes external control, God cannot guarantee that they will follow the divine lead. The God of process thought is therefore not omnipotent. All things do not yield to God’s will; indeed, in important respects God’s will is determined by creaturely willing. For although God’s goodness means that God always wills all creature’ maximum enjoyment, the fact that creatures’ decisions are not under God’s control means that the particular content of God’s will (i.e., the concrete possibilities that God presents to creatures for their actualization at any given moment) constantly shifts to reflect changing circumstances, in which the decisions creatures make (decisions God’s power can neither predict nor prevent) open up new possibilities and preclude others. Because the conceptual pole of every individual entity is fundamental, God’s power is not absolute and controlling, but relative and persuasive. It is both present to and directly affects all other entities, but does not determine their future, which thus remains radically open—for good or for ill.

With its stress on God’s intimacy with every creature, process thought thus shares, with the doctrine of creation from nothing, a refusal to distance God from the world. Yet process theologians do not simply view their perspective as a neutral alternative to creation from nothing, but as superior to it. One important reason for this judgment is exegetical: process theologians claim that their model of creation from chaos more accurately reflects biblical depictions of God’s creative activity. As already noted, however, they also cite a range of other reasons for the superiority of their position, all of which are correlates of process theology’s rejection of divine omnipotence. While these objections include concerns about theodicy, human freedom, and scientific credibility, they share a common core: the claim that creation from nothing renders God arbitrary. An omnipotent God could prevent evil but doesn’t, could have made creation perfect but didn’t, could bring everyone to glory but won’t. Even the worry that the model of divine omnipotence underlying creatio ex nihilo is inconsistent with human beings reduces to that of a puppet-master and thus lacks the basic conditions of personal relationship. In short, history under ex nihilo lacks the possibility of genuine drama and reduces to a capricious, and thus ultimately lifeless, game of divine charades.


McFarland’s review of process thought is good. I imagine that given his own purposes, he couldn’t get into all the shades of grey and the various competing views within process thought which have developed since Whitehead’s day. For example, all process theologians do not speak of creation out of “chaos.” Some speak of creation “out of God” or “out of divine love.” Nor is it the case the process theism is a “Christian” project at all, though some Christians seek to accommodate biblical faith to a process framework. So also do some non-Christian theists (Muhammad Iqbal is a Muslim example that comes to mind). Process thought didn’t begin with Whitehead as, nor did it evolve with his student Charles Hartshorne into, a “Christian” theology. It is a purely rational, a priori philosophical project. But it has captured the minds of many who grew up within Christianity (within traditional Protestantism at least, though Joseph Bracken is a Catholic theologian who works in process terms, though without denying creation ex nihilo or the Trinity). In the end, it’s nearly impossible to get process thinkers to define a set of non-negotiable doctrines essential to process theology.

2 comments on “From Nothing—Part 2

  1. I’m most sympathetic with Bracken’s approach, somewhat with Neville’s neo-Whiteheadian take, and very interested in Jack Haught’s aesthetic teleology. Alas, I don’t have a metaphysic, but have fashioned an ontologically neutral conception of omnipotence:

    That power, which is utterly efficacious, soteriologically – both temporally & proleptically as well as eternally & eschatologically – as kerygmatically proclaimed, greater than which could not be conceived without otherwise falling into the logical inconsistencies & ontological absurdities that might ensue, e.g from ignoring any necessary logical & ontological constraints, whether essential, extrinsic or kenotic.

    Liked by 1 person

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