A Response to Joseph Bracken’s "Prehending God in and through the World"

by Paul Lewis Cecil

Paul Lewis Cecil is a D. Phil candidate, University of Sussex, Academic Standards Officer, University of Brighton. Mithras House, Lewes Road, Brighton, England BN24AT. Email: P.L.Cecil@btan.ac.uk.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 358-364, Vol. 29, Number 2, Fall-Winter, 2000. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author responds to Joseph Bracken as one who is moving the central debate away from the notion of God as a metaphysical necessity. Refer to Joseph Bracken, Prehending God in and Through the World in www.religion-online.org.

In "Prehending God in and through the World" (Process Studies 29.1) Joseph Bracken comments on the recent discussion concerning the means by which finite actual entities might be able to prehend God. In this response my aim is not to add to the specifics of that debate, but rather to focus on aspects of Bracken’s own proposal. Specifically, I will reflect on the attention Bracken pays to the idea of a common field of activity. My reason for so doing is that I see Bracken as moving the central debate away from the notion of God as a metaphysical necessity (though he does indeed see God in such a way) and towards that of the functional nature of God in terms of the moral and religious implications of God for persons. Bracken states his purpose thus:

Hence, the task for contemporary Whiteheadians is to make whatever modest revisions are needed in . . . [Whitehead’s] scheme so as to justify Whitehead’s own non-systematic vision of God in dynamic interrelationship with the world as presented in the final pages of Process and Reality. (6)

If I understand his thesis correctly, Bracken argues that there is a general field of activity within which creative activity (and resultant actuality) takes place. He uses the notion of a field to allow the internal or subjective "feelings" of God for the world to permeate and inform determinate actualization. The ‘field’ is specifically related to a theory of Whiteheadian "societies":

In many books and articles over the years, I have argued that Whiteheadian societies, while not possessing agency in and of themselves, nevertheless possess objective ontological unity from moment to moment in virtue of the collective agency of their constituent actual occasions. The unity thus achieved is in my view the unity of an ongoing structured field of activity for successive generations of actual occasions undergoing concrescence within the field. (6)

The claim of "objectivity" suggests that unity is somehow external to the putative society as a component of actualization. In correspondence, Bracken has offered the clarification that "actual occasions by their intersubjective relationship constitute something objective." Thus his argument prioritizes subjectivity, and, in particular, subjective agency. It is through the internal relationship of the components of a society that its coherence emerges as object. This notion has implications for Bracken’s treatment of God as the decisive (and intentionally deciding) element in the coherent realization of determinate being A clear distinction is being drawn between the ontological ground and the divine agent. God is societally structured.

I suggest that Bracken is correct in his general thrust to impute a structural coherence to the societal "mass"; but I believe also that he is too defensive in treating such coherence as existing atomistically from "moment-to-moment." I would argue that the coherence implied by the idea of "society" is a necessary part of the beingness of the society qua society, and as such should be regarded as a category of the overarching, and continuing, event that is deemed societal.1

In Bracken’s words, a society is sustained by an "ongoing structured field." It is important to note that this suggests that the field (if we are treating it as in some way actual) enjoys what appears to be a state of continual concrescence.2 If, however, we limit our treatment of ongoingness to a description of potential prehensive grasp at the level of "wide vagueness" (i.e., the field is taken as a sufficiently determinate ground which pervades and extends across the narrow focus of what must be regarded as its actual content), we are moving much closer to a position that favors a normative conception of personhood and personal (continuing) identity. Either way, the maneuver side-steps at least some of the more intractable problems of subjective continuity within Whitehead’s scheme.

I said at the outset that the main focus of the article relates to religious conceptions of God, and by implication the problems of conceptualizing such a God within a Whiteheadian context. It is to this that I now turn my attention. Arguing against the invocation of the transmutational prehension of eternal objects as the means for effecting societal coherence (on the thoroughly reasonable grounds of unnecessary complexity, Bracken prefers the adequacy of the notion of conformal regard for the (ongoing) field itself I also prefer it. It is simple, and requires nothing outside the notion of the society in order to be effective: it is nothing more nor less than the conforming of successive entities to the overarching and achieved coherence of their predecessors. Well that’s not strictly true; it requires the field as the "stuff" to (or through) which the actual entities conform, a notion which itself introduces an additional "layer" of reality. Indeed this is highlighted by his suggestion that "one cars postulate that the universe or cosmic process is at any given moment an all-encompassing ‘structured society’ or structured field of activity for all the actual entities emergent within it" (7).

Unless I am mis-reading this, we have here a description close to that of the conventional Whiteheadian God, and it is precisely this that triggered the debate to which Bracken responds. The important additional factor within Bracken’s position is that there is within the field a potential for God’s agency, and that God’s agentive impulses are felt generally rather than prehended directly.

The move is deliberate, and relevant. God in Bracken’s scheme must be more — much more, in the experiential realization of a human religious imperative — than the ground upon which existence rests, and he is wise to steer clear of the implicit notion that God is definitionally the summative expression of actualizing reality. That is, Bracken draws a careful distinction in his model between God as a relational participant of human religious concern and a common, if broader, process conception of God as the ultimate expression of unified unity. An alternative way of looking at this is to say that the move reconfigures God as an epochally resonant ground: it is neither necessary in and of itself, nor absolute. It is simply an accident (or condition) of this present mode of being. The result of Bracken’s argument is that God qua God is brought inside the metaphysical ground. God qua ground is relegated in functional and relational significance.

If God (in the sense prioritized by Bracken) is to be meaningful to persons (and if not meaningful to persons, then "why God?"), then God must be worthy of worship, or effective as a purposeful and responsive agent. God must therefore be prehensible, and must be capable of at least a degree of intentional agency with regard to finite entities. Bracken writes:

The concrescing actual occasion, however, does need to prehend God’s feelings toward that objective order of things in order to initiate its own appropriate feeling-level response to that situation. If it fails to note, or in any case fails to heed, God’s feelings toward its existential context, then the actual occasion is likely by its own self-constituting decision to extend further or even aggravate an already disordered state of affairs which it has inherited. (7)

This prioritizing of God as the agent and arbiter of ordered and maximally valued existence is explicit within Bracken’s model, as "only God fully knows and understands" how the potential and possible are most appropriately brought Into connection within the consequent and primordial natures of God.

The underlying assumption upon which the above depends attributes a maximal purpose and teleology to existence-in-general, but removes any grasp of such understanding from the field of human experience. The position is almost certainly necessary to a (Christian) religious conceptualisation, but nonetheless is open to criticism in the very assumption of directive purpose. The general coherence of reality (which this aspect of God is intended intentionally to support) might alternatively be treated as a function of societal integration via the mutual relationship of micro-fields of identitive societies. The standard notion of conformity should be adequate to support such a position, and the need for ultimacy in purpose or understanding accordingly obviated.

A second assumption is that the mode of transmission of the divine understanding is indirect, and is "felt" via a commonality of field rather than as an appreciation of an other. That is, "God shares a common field of activity with finite actual entities." This latter statement treats God fully as a co-traveler in experience, and enables (at least in principle) the primary type of interaction which characterizes religious worship. Taken together, the two elements provide a context through which God’s private understanding remains an aspect of a private subjectivity, whilst God’s agentive relationship with the human is enacted within the mutuality of creaturely activity. For a position claiming relevance to God-human relations, this has much to commend it. My difficulty with the overall construction is in the implication of God’s purposefulness and (partial) transcendence. If we put this element to one side, the description becomes one capable of bearing intersubjectivity irrespective of the ontological status of the related entities. It is in prioritizing God as ontologically distinct (i.e., as being relational although not actualized), that, I would argue, the system breaks down.

I referred above to the intentional support that God is presumed to offer to the world, something which impacts directly on issues concerning the status of God. As Bracken points out, the normative position within Whitehead’s scheme is that God is "ever-concrescing," and thus it is difficult to present a mode whereby God could achieve adequate determinateness in order to relate internally or externally to the world. Bracken’s proposed solution is intriguing in that it evades the need for a divine "satisfaction" and posits

that a finite actual occasion does not directly prehend the objective integration of the primordial and consequent natures within God hut only the results of that integration, namely, God’s feelings toward itself as mediated in and through the occasion’s prehension of the objective structure of the world within which it is concrescing. (8)

If this is indeed so, a case is being put forward for the relativization of private subjectivity: the implication is that God’s internal self-constituting is referenced 3 by the societal field of general experience and is thus available for mediated prehension. Whether such a position can obtain within the constraints of Whitehead’s treatment of subjectivity is questionable, but it is precisely in dealing with the subject-object relationship that Whitehead tends to betray a substantialist psychology which undermines his intention to move wholly to an event ontology.4 What is to be welcomed in the proposition before us is that it enables us to begin to grasp the means through which non-physical attributes might be capable of effective agency in what is generally understood to be a physical world. In particular, it provides a basis for the broadening of our understanding of inter-subjective relationship and for the prioritizing of ethical and aesthetical concerns.5

Establishing inter-subjective relationship is clearly essential to Bracken’s purpose, but his solution that "God’s influence" should be considered "simply in terms of divine feelings vis-à-vis objective possibilities already present in the world as a common field of activity" is almost certainly inadequate. He does refer to Judith Jones’ notion of subjective transmission as explored in her book Intensity, but rejects that thesis (if not its intention). However, his own solution is rather less plausible than Jones’ in that it requires the treatment of the "possible" as objective. The only means for so doing (within the scheme being offered) would be to introduce a notion of divine priority in deciding and actualizing those possibles, but it has already been argued that there can be no such direct reach into the subjectivity of God. The mediated reach of the divine intention is just that: mediated and (relatively) indeterminate; a feeling rather than a form.

In adopting a field-oriented approach with overlapping fields building into ever more complex and related societies, we are, despite the problems articulated above, presented with a view offering a good deal of explicative power in terms of our personhood. The relationship with God, Bracken says, is

effected, not directly through the finite actual entity’s objective prehension of the ongoing integration between the primordial and consequent natures within God, but indirectly through the transmission of feeling from God to that same actual entity about its social location within the cosmic process and its possibilities for self-construction. (10)

I am not clear that such a mechanism can deal fully with the problem of "objective possibles," but it does enable us to define an actual entity in terms of its social location; that is, via its boundaries. In so doing the high level abstraction of atomistic thinking is significantly reduced, and reality is more closely bound to its effective relationships without needing to find absolute physical or temporal location. The notion of social location is inherently more flexible than either of the traditional locational concepts of space and time. As Bracken puts it, the effect is to side-step the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean debate concerning continuity and seriality in God. With regard to the mediating field he adds: "Only God’s feelings . . . re-mediated to the actual entity through the field of activity common to both of them" (10). The argument is essentially that the "common field" is capable of transmitting subjectivity equally as well as it transmits determinateness.

In closing his paper, Bracken returns to the relationship between societies and fields, and argues that "the divine field of activity… is the principle of continuity within the divine being." This is equated with an "enduring intentional field of activity for successive moments of consciousness" (11) within humans. The theory is filled out by the notion of the overlapping of the intentional fields of societies and the structural field of activity "proper to the universe"(l 1). The positing of a system of layers of related activity that inform but don’t wholly contain each other is extremely helpful. Notably, it enables a blurring of boundaries, and suggests that reality can be taken as inter-dependently active on otherwise discrete levels. In other words, it allows us to consider a multi-dimensional matrix of relationship within which each specified entity may participate in more than one dimension (or mode) concurrently. Our difficulty in conceptualizing this type of multi-modality is reflected in the persistent reversion of much of our common thinking to substantialist models, and specifically (in the specialist arena) in our difficulty in identifying actuality in mental occasions.6

There is much to commend in the position set out by Bracken, particularly with regard to his use of field-theory to effect a mediation between the metaphysical and cosmological aspects of the divine.7 By moving the debate away from the serial-continuous nature of God, Bracken enables us to focus attention on the effective agency of God in terms of the God-human relationship. My sense is that more work needs to be carried out if the field-theory is to succeed, because by treating the field as distinct from the activity within it we are left with an at least partial dependence on a metaphysical transcendent. There is also a high degree of complexity in the idea of the inter-relational fields through which feeling is transmitted and prehended. It may well be that detailed exploration of these will reveal difficulties, in terms of Whitehead’s system, similar to those precipitated by our more usual focus on the entities within those fields. I am thus wary that the path proposed might lead to a re-capitulation of the problems of continuity but on another level of abstraction. Nonetheless, the attempt is likely also to provide new perspectives on these problems, and in so doing offer new lines of thought for analysis. My guess is that these will impact on the question of intersubjective relationship in its most general terms.

I will admit to having no ready solutions, and will therefore put forward no more than an idea which others may embrace or reject as they see fit. It occurs to me that if we carry forward the idea of overlapping fields of activity, but regard them as functions of different thicknesses of actuality, then there may yet be scope to develop a coherent field theory that is genuinely self-perpetuating and sustaining. The field will perhaps be contingent on actual occasions (or societies of occasions, or mental occasions), but actualized in a mode of embracement. And just possibly, the different modes of actualization will impact on the atomism of temporal relationship, thereby circumventing the very real problem of continuity implicit in Whitehead’s broader theory. If we can achieve this, then the concept of personalist constructions of deity, and of our mutual enjoyment of independence within interactional relationship, might well be brought into sharper — and more agentively effective — focus.



1. I am aware that buried within my treatment of societies are significant issues concerning temporality and concrescence. They are too complex to explore in detail here, but in essence I am treating time as simply a category expressed within subjective experience. In addition, I am adopting a relativist treatment of subject and object that posits a notion of sufficiency in actualization and objectification. In this, I am clearly at odds with the mainstream of Whiteheadian thought.

2. Alternatively, we can treat the field as a function of a society, but if we choose such a route it is rather more difficult to claim "objective ontological unity." My discussion focuses on Bracken’s position, though my inclination is to develop a relativist approach.

3. 1 use the term "referenced" to suggest no more than that the field of general experience develops some form of "index" of the subjective content of its constituents. In itself this index is passive, but it provides some general notion of the more private intention of the originating subject.

4. There are a number of possible criticisms of Whitehead’s position, but Judith Jones expresses part of the debate well when she writes: "Adopting the Cartesian distinction between "formal and objective reality" undermines Whitehead’s repudiation of the Cartesian definition of the individuality of existents, and leads to an inability to define individuality coherently within the organic atomism being advanced" (26).

5. See Robert C Neville, Recovery of the Measure. passim.

6. See Robert Neville, Reconstruction of Thinking 73-75 for a discussion on the relationship between mental and physical occasions.

7. The distinction here reflects Robert Neville’s work in this area.


Works Cited

Bracken, Joseph, A. "Prehending God in and through the World." Process Studies 29.1 (2000): 4-15.

Jones, Judith. Intensity: An Essay in Whiteheadian Ontology. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1998.

Neville, Robert C. Recovery of the Measure. Albany: State U of New York P, 1989.

____Reconstruction of Thinking Albany: State U of New York P, 1981.