Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 2

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Fr Aidan has a nice review of the (Thomistic) classical position on God’s relatedness to the world. I’d like to pick out a portion of it for comment. He summarizes:

Of every being and of the universe as a whole we may ask why? but of the One who is the answer to that question, why? may not be asked. It may not be asked because God can only be the answer if he lacks all the features of finite being that raises the question to begin with. And that, I think, is what actus purus effectively means. God is the infinite plenitude, fullness, and perfection of being and thus the ultimate and final explanation for why finite beings exist. He does not contain potentiality, because that potentiality would in turn evoke the metaphysical question. Potentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment. A rubber ball cannot realize its potency to bounce unless someone throws it against a wall; a stick of butter cannot realize its melting potential unless someone spreads it on a hot slice of toast. “Potency does not raise itself to act,” explains Thomas; “it must be raised to act by something that is in act” (SCG I.16.4). If God were not the infinite actualization of existence, then not only would we find ourselves wondering “Why does God exist instead of nothing?” but so would God! We might even imagine Deity as enduring an eternal existential crisis: “Why do I have all of this unfulfilled potential?”

There’s a lot to agree with here. I like the explanatory approach centered on asking ‘why?’ and seeking answers that explain our actual experience (including our finitude, temporal becoming, aesthetic appetite, consciousness, etc.). ‘Why’ is an intuitive and clarifying question, and Aquinas understood (as did all Christian thinkers before him) that neither any particular thing in the universe, nor the material cosmos as a whole, is sufficient to account for why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Given the nature of created becoming, some explanation is required – some reality that is its own reason for being, not requiring an explanation for its existence from outside itself, a self-sufficiently transcendent reality that explains both itself and all else – i.e., God.

We can and must ask ourselves ‘why?’ of God as well. But with God we get a different answer because a God capable of answering why the material-sentient universe exists without begging the question of his own existence is unlike the universe in profound ways. Where the ‘why?’ question asked of the universe derives its answer outside itself, God – properly understood – is the answer to his own ‘why?’. In this sense every sane theist agrees with Aquinas. It is a point I have urged open theists to explore at greater depth with seriousness and an open mind.

compassionOne could (and probably ought to) for the sake of argument ask whether the cosmos itself can be its own explanation. After all, if theists can posit God as uncreated and self-sustaining, let’s just suppose (as Carl Sagan asked us to) that the universe is self-sustaining and exists necessarily. Why multiply explanations beyond necessity?

By all means, one ought to explore this option. We won’t do that here, but it’s been done at great length by others, and we agree the cosmos does not give evidence of being self-sufficient/self-sustaining. My comments here are directed to theists who already grant this and who agree that God is the world’s transcendent creator.

The question that continues to be debated today by some, and which we here are most interested in, is: What sort of relations might a transcendently self-sufficient God have with the world he creates and knows? Certainly there would be a certain asymmetrical relation. That’s already entailed in God’s being the end-of-the-line sort of answer to our question ‘why?’. God explains why there is anything at all rather than nothing. Creation does not, however, explain why there is a God. Obviously, a non-mutual relation obtains: God creates and sustains the world, gives it being, and explains why it is at all. The world cannot explain God in any such respect.

For some, this is all there is to say about the manner of relations that might obtain between God and the world. However, while divine aseity (as self-sufficient transcendence) is true and essential, many don’t feel that it follows that God “does not contain [any conceivable] potentiality.” The reason some, like me, think this doesn’t follow is because it doesn’t seem that all potentiality evokes the specter of a mover other than the agent. We can imagine the realization of unrealized potential in God which does not require that God, like created beings grounded in him, “be moved” by a power outside himself. In our view it is false, as Fr Aidan argues (following Aquinas), that “[all p]otentiality requires the action of another agent to bring it to fulfillment.” That rule would follow for created beings certainly, but it’s conceivable, we think, that some potentialities (namely, divine potentialities) may be self-sufficiently motivated and actualized from within, freely and contingently.

Examples that demonstrate Aquinas point with respect to creatures are innumerable. Fr Aidan describes a few – rubber balls, sticks of butter, etc. With respect to created entities, Aquinas has to be right when he says “Potency does not raise itself to act; it must be raised to act by something that is in act.” But does it follow that a self-sufficient reality (God) – a reality whose essence is self-sufficient act – cannot be thought to have any unfulfilled potentiality since it must them be dependent upon something outside itself to raise any supposed potency to actuality?

It depends on the potency. If we mean a self-constituting potential, then God would require some reality already in act to bring his potential to fulfillment, and obviously we do not want to say that. But not all unfulfilled potentiality need be self-constituting. Potential may be self-expressive and not self-constituting. We think there are good reasons to suppose, given the existence of the kind of world we live in, that God is more than necessary (i.e., God transcends his own necessity), and as such his essential, antecedent, triune actuality both determines the scope and nature of his potential for self-expressive acts and that this antecedent actuality is the only realized ‘act’ we need to reference in explaining the movement of such potentiality to actuality.

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Such contingency in God would be of a peculiar kind. It would realize self-expressive, not self-constitutive, potential, and it would do so unlike created potentialities which require ‘being moved’ by some actuality other than God. There seems no a priori reason to suppose that a God self-sufficient to explain why the world is at all could not himself possess unrealized potentialities for a contingent expression extrinsic to the necessary plenitude of his essential triune act, and that these potentialities would require nothing outside this plenitude to raise them to actuality. Like the classical tradition, God would not be subject to finite, created becoming (he would not become a mere ‘god’ who requires a mover other than himself), but unlike the classical tradition God would possess potential for duration without loss, duration that includes contingent, gracious, wholly self-expressive relations.

Would those relations with the world be “real”? If ‘real’ relations are defined as relations that affect or determine what a thing is essentially, then I’m happy to say God is not so affected by his relations with the world, because I do not suppose God to be essentially affected by us. But if ‘real’ relations are defined simply as relations one truly has (i.e., relations that involve one in acts of mind and will vis-à-vis what one is related to) but which remain extrinsic to what one is essentially, then I’m fine with positing God’s real relations with the world. Does this commit me to a notion of divine simplicity unacceptable to classical theists? I’d be surprised if it did not. I know these terms (“real” for example) have long established meanings and many are loath to adjust/expand meanings and vocabulary to accommodate new insights. I don’t have any pretenses about affecting the conversation at that significant a level. I confess, I’m more interested in working out my own salvation with fear and trembling.

Jesus, Savior, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Living, moving, and having being in God—Part 1

insidegodsheartii2074pxI’m just thinking through the metaphysics of being and becoming. It’s not something I’ll ever finish (pun intended). For the moment I’d like to express temporal becoming in Process terms because I think in some respects PT articulates ‘becoming’ fairly well (even if Process has no real concept of transcendence).

We (irreducibly temporal creatures that we are) ‘become’ in that we possess our being and existence as an unending process of negotiating between the perceived data of past occasions (memory) and the perceived possibilities of the future. That determination, our present experience, is a “creative synthesis” (Hartshorne) between past occasions and future possibilities. In PT these future possibilities are God-given. They are “divine subjective aims” (Whitehead) for things – their ideal states of becoming. God provides all things (from the small, simplest ‘actual occasion’ to larger societies of occasions) an ideal state in light of which it freely determines itself. This process continues without end. (To briefly stand on the classical side of this conversation, Dwayne and I agree that God cannot be a subject of such becoming.)

Several thoughts come to mind.

(1) For beings that ‘become’ temporally in this way, as classical theism observes, their ‘essence’ is not their ‘existence’. That is, the actual existence of temporal beings is always changing. We are always a ‘becoming’ toward some end, whereas our ‘essence’ (to the extent process theists posit an ‘essence’ to things) is just an abstraction that supervenes upon the ever-changing process of becoming.

(2) Since the possibilities that ground our becoming are God’s “subjective aims” and do not derive from the actualities for which they are ‘ends’, in an important sense temporal becoming is asymmetrically related to God. Our existence as such, even the possibility of our becoming, are “given” to us. We do not generate or constitute the possibility of our existence, however free we are to determine ourselves within the range of God-given possibilities we enjoy. For us ‘possibility’ and ‘actuality’ are distinct, however inseparable they are.

(3) This distinction, in an important sense, cannot be the case for God as it is with us. Any necessary being has in some sense to be his own possibility and that possibility is convertible with an essential-necessary actuality. For God, the possibility of his existence and his actual, essential existence are identical, since (a) God is possible, (b) God is actual, and (c) God is self-sufficiently necessary. It follows that nothing other than God can give God the possibility of his own necessary existence. God’s essential actuality is not another instance of a temporal ‘process’ of becoming.

(4) We must, then, posit some antecedent necessary actuality (call it the divine ‘essence’) which is convertible with God’s essential existence, some divine experience not the subject of temporal becoming, not a process of creative synthesis which negotiates between its own past occasions and its perceived possibilities of becoming in the future what it presently is not. God cannot be reduced to such a process of temporal becoming, for there are no candidate possibilities for God to consider outside his own actuality which would fill the necessary role of “subjective aims” to define his future possibilities. Every act of ‘becoming’ requires a telos, and every telos is grounded in some actuality which does not itself become in this created sense. We’ve discussed before (from Greg’s Trinity & Process) why Whitehead & Hartshorne’s view of God failed in this sense – neither posited an antecedent divine actuality as the ground of the divine perfections, perfections which on their view were simply logically assumed abstractions that supervened upon the divine actuality (entirely a process of becoming).

ingod(5) Even if we posit a necessary God-world relationship in PT fashion, or even a necessary God-series/of/worlds relationship as Oord does (though his ‘series’ reduces to a single world), it’s still the case that non-divine reality cannot provide God subjective aims for God’s becoming, nor can a God who is irreducibly temporal provide himself his own subjective aims for his own future, for possibilities by definition are what a thing is not yet but which it may become. Thought through consistently, it follows that not only can nothing other than God provide an irreducibly temporal God of becoming the “subjective aims” or “end” for his own becoming, but neither can such a God be his own subjective aim, for no merely temporal God can be in the present an actuality sufficient to offer itself possibilities to become what it is not.

If God, like created things, is essentially subject to temporal becoming, then he determines himself in the present in light of past occasions and future possibilities, possibilities guided by subjective aims which, on Process terms, have no antecedent actuality in God. Whence these possibilities for divine becoming? Who or what can offer God the “aims” for his idea states of becoming? It seems that neither any created being nor God’s own process of becoming at any given ‘present’ moment of becoming can define the perfections in light of which God determines himself as creative synthesis. I’m being brief and to the point, but as our Christmas gift to those reading, we’ll just say that the Process view of God doesn’t make it to the end of the runway. God must in some essential sense be an antecedent actuality that is not subject to becoming. In this essential sense, we have to say God’s necessary essence and his essential actuality are one and the same.

(6) This brings up the most interesting question – What about contingency in God with respect to his knowledge of and relations to the contingent world he creates and sustains? If there can be no contingency intrinsic to a necessary being’s essential actuality, is it possible to conceive of God as capable of freely expressing himself in ways that are not constitutive of him essentially-intrinsically but merely expressive of him contingently, extrinsically?

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.)