Lewis S. Ford’s Theology: A Critical Appreciation

by Robert Neville

Robert Neville is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, College at Purchase, and on the Staff of the Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.18-33, Vol. 27, Number 1-2, Spring — Summer, 1998. 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.


Although the author disagrees at some points with Ford, at the same time he pays him high tribute: Ford is one of the most penetrating theologians of our time, Christian or not.

Lewis Ford stands at the head of the line of many distinguished philosophical theologians who find creative inspiration in the work of Alfred North Whitehead. This is a high compliment, because that list includes such thinkers as Charles Hartshorne, Lionel Thornton, Daniel Day Williams, Norman Pittenger, William Ernest Hocking, Henry Nelson Wieman, Schubert Ogden, John B. Cobb, Jr., Marjorie Suchocki, David Ray Griffin, Robert S. Brumbaugh, George Allan, Jorge Nobo, and many others. Each of these has made creative use of Whitehead, some such as Hartshorne by adopting most of the system and making a few decisive changes, others such as Thornton and Wieman by importing significant Whiteheadian themes into theologies with independent agendas. Ford has worked consistently within the Whiteheadian conceptuality to stretch it to meet the dialectical needs of the religious situation. In doing this he has modified and developed Whitehead’s thought more thoroughly and originally than the others, for which contribution he should be recognized as the most creative.1

Lewis Ford is best known for his very technical studies of Whiteheadian theology as well as of other topics in process philosophy; he is also known for his compositional analysis of Whitehead’s texts, using techniques of biblical studies to comprehend the layers of composition in Whitehead’s work.2 A later section of this paper will address his technical argument that God is best to be conceived as the future, a claim with which I have long had a disagreement. But this argument needs to be put in the context of a general discussion of Ford’s role as a theologian. The focus on Whitehead, his work with Process Studies, and the intimidating technical nature of most of his writings that are accessible only to scholarly Whiteheadians, have obscured the fact that he is one of the most penetrating Christian theologians of our time. Indeed, he is one of the most penetrating theologians of our time, Christian or not, and I aim to show this is so even while I urge him toward what I take to be a better view.

I. Ford as Christian Theologian: The Context

Ford’s direct and non-technical contribution to Christian theology is principally in The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism (LG), a book that generally has been neglected in the discussion of Ford’s theology. More unfortunate, it has been neglected in the larger discussion of contemporary Christian theology. On the assumption that not all readers of this philosophical journal are clued into the current state of Christian theology, permit me to sketch certain of the conditions of that larger discussion to which Ford’s work is relevant.

The most general condition, and still most problematic, is the challenge of the modern worldview to the worldview of European late antiquity in whose symbols and conceptualities Christian scriptures and creeds, communal polities, liturgies, spiritual practices, theologies, and other self-conceptions have been expressed. The specific contents of that challenge have shifted through the five centuries of modernity. But they all have required the scriptural, liturgical, and other traditional symbols of Christianity to be rethought in terms that can move the hearts of modern people whose plausibility conditions for commitment are, or at least seem to be, different from those of the ancients. (Other religious traditions whose core texts and motifs of worship, thought, and practical life were formed in the ancient world have analogous problems.)

The Protestant Reformation doubled the problem within Christianity, however. For, by insisting on the importance of the Bible and casting doubt upon the imagination of post-biblical periods, the Reformers made the biblical language with its ancient symbols the very stuff of Christian theology, the primary language of theology itself. Biblical language did not have such exclusive importance during either the Patristic period or the Middle Ages. Philosophic language, which might have mediated the shift to modern worldviews as it had the shift from Galilean to Hellenistic culture, again from that to late antiquity, and yet again from that to the intercultural richness of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim High Middle Ages, was cast under suspicion by Protestant reformers; perhaps philosophic reflection was too elitist for the project of making God accessible to anyone who can read or hear clearly the Bible. The Roman Catholic Counter-reformation responded with scholasticism and appeals to authority rather than imaginative new mediating theology, until it moved close to Protestant biblicism regarding theological language with Vatican II. The Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe were slow to relate thoroughly to the plausibility conditions of modernity.

So the conundrum remains today for Christians: how can the fundamental expressions of the faith make sense to a world whose plausibility conditions are different from those in which those expressions originated? "Making sense" is not a merely intellectual theological enterprise. In order for those fundamental expressions, those basic symbols, to be effective in transforming souls and creating a vital Body of Christ within which Christians are members, they must resonate with the deepest imaginative structures of individuals’ and communities’ lives. The authenticity of those symbols can be circumvented by bifurcating life into religious versus other domains, or by appealing to authority for religious identity so as to keep the force of the symbols at bay; but that is precisely to circumvent the authenticity of the Christian gospel and its embodiment in concrete life. Therefore the symbols must be mediated to the imaginations of modern people if they are to do what Christianity has claimed they do, and theology is thus a practical discipline.

Within Protestantism, there is a trajectory running from Hegel and Schleiermacher at the beginning of the 19th century to the present day to recover appropriate senses of philosophy for Christian theological purposes. This was perhaps best focused at the beginning of the 20th century in the work of Ernst Troeltsch, and criticized most severely in the work of Karl Barth and his Neo-orthodox followers. Barth revived biblical language for a generation through his use of it to criticize the Christian culture susceptible to Nazification, and a second generation of his insights developed the Yale School according to which Christianity is to be understood as a cultural-linguistic system organized rigorously through biblical language.3 Yet biblical language has been hard to sustain among critical educated people in the modern world.4 Much of the current debate in "religion and science" has taken the desperate form of trying to maintain a "classical" conception of God as agent, by which is meant a God who can be described with prima facie references of biblical language, in relation to modern science, showing how God can act in and on the world without abridging scientifically known laws.5 Much of the desperation comes from the fact that contemporary scientifically-shaped imagination is not receptive to prima facie non-metaphoric biblical language, even if explicit contradictions can be avoided. The religious problem is with the imaginative connection of late antiquity with late modernity, a problem concerning the power of the symbols to give religion life. Most theologians oriented primarily to biblical language are by no means fundamentalists or literalists; they appreciate biblical metaphors as such. Yet they want to assume conceptions of God as a personal agent who reigns over the world and thus treats the world as a moral field -- all difficult to imagine when the world is conceived as universally subject to meaningless standard measure.

The genius of Paul Tillich was to call attention directly to the problems of contemporary imagination. He developed the "method of correlation" explicitly to translate back and forth between the religious depth of the traditional texts and symbols and the religious depth of contemporary life. Yet his contemporary symbology, for instance speaking of God as the Ground of Being, was very far from biblical language and it has been accused of being less a translation than a replacement. Tillich’s treatment of such a central doctrine as the Trinity, for instance, is relegated to a little essay on symbolism si4ck between Parts IV and V of his Systematic Theology (ST3 283-294).

II. Ford’s Theological Strategy

The key to understanding Lewis Ford as a Christian theologian is the recognition that his graduate specializations were biblical studies and the thought of Paul Tillich with a late interest in Whitehead. His graduate school environment was the heated debate between the Barthians and Tillichians over the plausibility conditions for Christian theology, or the lack of need for them. His turn to Whitehead was in one sense an attempt to find a middle ground for the use of biblical language with a God who could be construed as finite and personal over against the world, interacting with the world in emotionally freighted evaluative ways. In another sense, it was a turn from the whole Christian insular theological tradition to take up the philosophical tradition of modernity about God. The Western European philosophical tradition, from Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Steward, Reid, and Kant down to Hegel and Schleiermacher was deeply formed by the impact of scientific ideas. There was no problem there of "science and religion" because the philosophers were all thinking abreast of science. Whitehead followed in this line. His Science and the Modern World is an excruciatingly beautiful engagement of that tradition of science-oriented philosophic thinking about God. That the tradition of Christian church theology had not engaged these philosophical geniuses was a tragically missed opportunity. With the rise of the bourgeois sense of moral responsibility for one’s beliefs in an age of science, church theology thus was in a hard place. But process philosophy offered an alternative. It has been a scientifically sophisticated and philosophically responsible, technical project to interpret a biblically friendly conception of God to the world of late modernity.

Ford has a complex view of the relation between theology and philosophy in the Western tradition.

In times past, from the Middle Ages down to Hegel and Kierkegaard, most philosophizing was written from within the Christian tradition, however much it sought to emancipate itself from the church. This, in turn, dictated much of the theologian’s apologetic method. He ferreted out these implicit Christian elements in the reigning philosophies and related them to the more historically conditioned symbols of the church’s faith. More and more, however, philosophy’s attempt to become radically secular, divorcing itself from all ties with Christian theism, has become successful, leaving fewer avenues of approach open to the theologian. As a result the theologian is forced to become his own philosopher. This need not interfere with the rigor he brings to the task, provided his speculative thinking subjects itself to the recognized philosophical canons. His theory must be both consistent and coherent in itself, and adequate and applicable to human experience. But it has meant that Christian philosophizing has become less and less the task of the professional philosopher and has been relegated more and more to the theologian. (LG ix-x)

Ford, I believe, primarily conceives himself as a Christian theologian doing the philosophizing appropriate to that task.

We should note how rare this is. Contemporary theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann or Robert Jensen are preoccupied with Christian symbols, especially biblical language. Yet they have very little philosophy to make those symbols plausible to the late modern imagination. Others such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and David Tracy speak powerfully of the importance of philosophy, yet avail themselves only of borrowed goods. Ford is surely right that theology needs to work out its philosophy for itself and from within. Tillich, the most philosophical and original of the 20th century theological giants, focused on existentialist philosophic concerns rather than the philosophy of nature which is needed to address the scientific imagination of late modernity. Ford notes accurately that philosophy of nature ought to be central to the theological task in our time. Yet the 20th century German schools of theology, influenced by Kant’s argument that nature is to be studied by empirical scientists only and that philosophy is limited to transcendental reflection on the conditions for science (philosophy of science), are inhibited to engage philosophy of nature and are limited to existential or hermeneutical philosophies.6 So Whitehead’s process philosophy is an obvious source for creative Christian theology. At the very least it gives the lie to the Kantian claim that we simply cannot do philosophy of nature and naturalistic metaphysics any more, by doing it. Whereas Kantian fideism rigorously separated the ancient religious and modern scientific imaginations, making religion irrelevant to the extent the scientific imagination forms the soul, process philosophy makes possible their integration.

The problem with process theology, according to Ford, is that it is a mere metaphysics. He says that "much of what has been written as "process theology" is really simply philosophy written within the context of a Christian perspective. It is a sustained reflection upon the generic features of experience, taking seriously those dimensions of experience most fully apparent within the religious life" (LG ix). "As a result, however, the distinctively theological task has been comparatively neglected. This study [The Lure of God] seeks to redress the balance" (LG x). Hence, Ford the church theologian.

If the challenge of the modern worldview to that of the ancient is the general condition of the contemporary theological discussion, Ford has a specific interpretation of where that discussion lies now. Neo-orthodoxy has collapsed, he says, and "theologians are recognizing the need for an increasingly wider conceptuality which frees theology from the ghetto of sacred history and places it within the whole sweep of human and natural history" (LG ix). "The ghetto of sacred history" is strong language for what has been a dominant theological motif of our time.7 But in light of the late-modern imagination, that is exactly the right phrase.

III. Ford’s Theological Contribution

According to Ford, the Bible gives particular, historical specificity to the general metaphysical picture provided by process philosophy. The general process conception is that God acts on the world through persuasion, not on just the human world but the whole world. Ford writes:

God’s general, everlasting purpose is everywhere one and the same: the elicitation of the maximum richness of existence in every situation. Yet because creaturely response varies, the achievement of this good is highly uneven and follows many different routes. In biological evolution many other lines were tried -- amphibians, reptiles, marsupials -- before mammals emerged, and of the mammals only certain primates were responsive to the call to become human. Among men the response to God varied considerably, and even when that response was intense, God’s address must be radically different depending upon their particular circumstances. The Word addressed to Abraham was not the same as the Word addressed to Ikhnaton or Gautama or Lao-Tzu. (LG 25)

This is a powerful logos doctrine that embraces the non-human world and the whole of humankind, including other religions; it does not require other religions to be anonymous versions of Christianity because what would elicit maximum richness of existence differs, depending on the situation. This doctrine honors differences among religions.

Yet at the same time it provides the rationale for the specificity of the religions of the biblical tradition, which otherwise might seem so arbitrary. Precisely because Abraham was different from Ikhnaton, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, revealed in the lures defining that people, is different from the God of the Egyptians. We should not expect it any other way, says Ford, and should thus look to the specifics of our history and current situation to interpret and bring to consciousness the content of divine persuasion for us.

A related general process conception is that the freedom of every agent lies in its self-creativity given the actual potentials at hand and the real possibilities. Hence the well-known process defense of the goodness of God through the claim that people and other creatures have the freedom to reject or distort the divine lure, choosing the worse rather than the better. Ford relates this specifically to the history of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. As the prophets so often argued, the people often chose the worse and this amounted to a rejection of God, not just a bad choice. At this point, Ford contrasts the process philosophical conception of God with that of "classical theism." Because the latter believes that God controls everything, it has to say that people get what they deserve, which runs contrary to obvious fact. The tortuous writhings of the prophets to make it seem as if God runs a tight ship cannot be sustained. As Ford says:

According to the historian of Kings, Manasseh was one of the worst kings to sit on the throne of Judah, and Josiah one of the very best. Yet Manasseh had a long and peaceful reign of some fifty-five years, and Josiah is cut down in battle before he was yet forty, despite Huldah’s word from the Lord that he would die in peace (2 Kings 22,20; cf. 23,29). Jeremiah and Habakkuk questioned the justice of God, as did many of those exiled in Babylon. Why should they be required to pay for the sins of their forefathers, particularly in the light of the emerging realization that each man should be answerable for his own sins? (Jer. 31:27-30; Ezek. 18:1-4). ... It is a commonplace to observe that Job undercuts the easy assumptions of the wisdom school or of the Deuteronomic historian. It is not equally realized that it undercuts the basis for the whole prophetic interpretation of history. Amos and Hosea could threaten doom upon Israel in the confidence that this was God’s just punishment for its sin. If in fact there is no correlation between conduct and consequence, the nerve of this sort of interpretation of history is severed. (LG 132)

According to process theology, there is no strict correlation between conduct and consequence: God proposes, and creatures dispose for better or worse. And then God has to make the next best offer. Sacred history is a ghetto not only because it assumes too central a place for human history but also because what happens reveals as much the character of the human actors as it does of God: God can only make the best of things.

Without defending classical theism’s claim that God is both external and controlling (as process philosophers interpret it, though that might be a bad rap), I want to register a theological alternative to Ford’s view here. A standard criticism of process theology is that we simply do not know the lures of God in every actual occasion. Ford writes eloquently of the religious geniuses who are able to discern from history and their circumstances the large social patterns of justice and beauty that elicit increased value (LG ch. 2). But I would say that this discernment of the divine Word should not be viewed as a generalization of lures ingressed in actual occasions as initial aims, the standard process account, but rather exclusively as a reading of the differential value inherent in possibilities offered by the future. That there is this aesthetic envisionment of value-laden possibilities is also integral to process philosophy, and Ford makes much of it in his theory of God as the power of the future, Human discernment does not require the standard process claim that God constitutes an initial aim for us, only that the future is alluring.8 The significance of this qualification will appear shortly.

IV. Ford on God

The central theme of Christian theology, of course, is God and how God relates to the world, human history, Jesus Christ, and salvation. The acknowledged contribution of process theology is its conception of God. I want here to detail Ford’s special version of this, associated with his claim that God is the power of the future.

Apart from the world God has neither past nor future, but is pure presence. Nontemporal, he creates himself as the envisagement of the infinitude of all pure possibilities. Just as the world acquires a future from God, so God acquires a past from the world. Each individual creature receives its past from the other creatures of the world, and its future ultimately from God, and out of these creates a new present. God’s presence is internal to himself, derived from his nontemporality, but out of that and the past which he receives from the world he creates a new future, as he transforms his pure possibilities into real possibilities, that is, realizable possibilities under the conditions of the world. Thus we do not say that God is a future reality which does not yet exist. Most properly, he is a nontemporal actuality who influences us by the future he now creates; by means of the real possibilities he persuades the world to actualize. (LG 40)

The first thing to note about Ford’s conception is that it includes attributing a positive reality to God apart from the world, "pure presence." This stands in sharp contrast to many process theologians following Hartshorne for whom only the abstract elements of God exist apart from the world and hence could not exist at all. For Ford, apart from the world God nontemporally creates himself by envisioning "the infinitude of pure possibilities." This is a very strong creationist theme, atypical of process philosophers, and it puts Ford in close conversation with Thomists such as W. Norris Clarke, S.J.9 Ford’s emphasis on non-temporality was characteristic of his early work, for instance the (1973) essay "The Non-Temporality of Whitehead’s God" (194-195) which made much of Whitehead’s notion of divine envisagement of possibilities as the primordial created f act.10 By the time (1987) of his "Creativity in a Future Key," he could hope to assimilate the nontemporal to the temporal by means of an enriched notion of the future. The point here is that in his explicitly theological work, The Lure of God, in 1978, he could insist upon self-creativity in God apart from the world, a self-creativity according to which God creates the primordial part of the divine nature. In this, Ford sides with the Scotists against the Thomists in making the divine will prior to the divine nature, which is consequent on the creative will. It seems to me confusing to call the nontemporal "presence, because presence is a temporal notion connected to past and future, and what Ford means is that which is not in that connection. That confusion also sets one up for an anti-presence onto-theo-logo Heideggerian blast quite unnecessarily.

Another confusion lurks here, however. Ford is clear that what is created is God as envisioner. The eternal objects, ungraded and irrelevant to one another, are aboriginal and uncreated, according to Whitehead. Yet how could they exist, without vacuous actuality, in an unenvisioned state? They could not, and so they are said to be nontemporally, i.e., eternally, envisioned. But isn’t the only nontemporal creativity possible to God the actual creating of the eternal objects as envisioned, which is the same as creating God as envisioner? I think so: for eternal objects to exist they must be envisioned and this means that they are created as envisioned. But this is a big slip down the slope to creation ex nihilo, which Ford wants to avoid, and for this reason he has attempted to minimize the nontemporal aspects of factual creation.

Ford says, in the passage just quoted, that a finite creature receives its past from other creatures of the world, its future from God, and creates a new present (itself) out of these. This is a decisive abandonment of another typical process claim already noted, namely, that a creature’s past includes a hybridly prehended lure from God; for Whitehead, God’s lure constitutes an initial aim which is not future but among the data prehended. Ford’s modification is to locate the lure in the future possibilities. Because for him God is the creativity shaping the future real possibilities, all of the creature’s possible being derives from God -- a powerful doctrine of creation. But the future real possibility is always a little indeterminate or vague -- otherwise it would be actual! So the creature makes the final decisions as to how that vague lure shall be actualized, and thus has a free responsibility over against God with which it is possible to sin or at least choose stupidly. "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life that you and your descendants may live" (Deut. 30:19).

God, by contrast, receives the world from the past into the nontemporal present and creates the future for the world by transforming the pure possibilities into real ones relevant to decisions of finite actual entities. The readiness of real proximate future possibilities to be realized is what motivates a finite actual occasion to become (CFK 188-189). But exactly how that finite occasion becomes, within the limits of the possibility, is its own choice. No matter how you cut it, a process God, Whitehead’s, Hartshorne’s, or Ford’s, is not very much like a finite actual occasion. In Ford’s case, the future has its actual residence -- that which makes it a non-vacuous reality -- in God. The future cannot be actual on its own, for the future is precisely that which is not yet actual and is too indeterminate to be so. Nor can it be resident in the becoming of the present, because the present has its own creative act separate from the creativity of the future. This means that God cannot be in present time if God is the actuality of the future and the present and future have different temporal acts. Of course the future cannot be actual in the past. So the future is actual in no time at all, rather in eternity or in the peculiar time of God which combines past data with non-temporality. God’s peculiar time cannot be the present, for Ford, as most other process theologians would say, because present time has a different act of concrescing from the reality that would hold future possibilities.

Ford’s originality can be understood in part in the temporal implication of his view of God as the power of the future, namely, that the future and past are as real in their ways as the present. Although Whitehead himself was not clear on this, most process theologians say that the past is unreal except as objectively prehended in some present concrescing actual occasion, and that the future is unreal except as anticipated in superjection by a present concrescing actual occasion. For most process theologians, the flow of time, transition, is from one present moment to the next present moment, not from future to present to past.11 For them, the past and future are real as different from the present only within the mind of God through remembrance and anticipation, and for them God too (at least for the Hartshorneans) is actual only in the present. For Ford, the future is not to be reduced to the present in anticipation, not even to some divine present (in which it would still have to be anticipation). Rather, the future’s possibilities are real, the locus of the divine contribution to finite process.

However anomalous Ford’s position on this is to his fellow process theologians, it is quite comfortable to me, a creation ex nihilo theologian with a deep appreciation of eternity. Agreeing with process thinkers that "actuality" means "actualized in time," I would not say that the future is actual in any sense. Nor is God actual in the nontemporal or eternal aspects. But the future is real. What Ford has shown with his claim that God is the creativity of the future is that the flow of time involves not only change in the present but the constantly shifting contours of real possibilities, and that these are necessarily connected. If the future were only projected, anticipated, or superjected, as process philosophers sometimes say, it would not be real and the becomings of present actual occasions would be miracles each time. Ford should also say that the past does not cease to exist except insofar as objectified in some present actuality, as some process thinkers say, but that the flow of time from present to past involves a similar shift in temporal modalities with the past being as real in its way as the present.

In contrast to both Ford and most other process theologians I say that the open-ended flow of time requires God to create all the temporal modes together, not "at once," which is a temporal expression, but eternally together.12 Within the divine creative act, every date of every temporal thing’s existence is constantly shifting like a future kaleidoscope as the time of its becoming nears, every date has its decisive moment of becoming, and every date fits into a past that extends ever more remotely as time marches on. Whereas in the line of temporal flow there is a singular order such that at any present date some things are all past and others are all future, in the divine life lies an eternal dynamism in which all futures are constantly shifting, all presents are happening, and all pasts are actually exhibiting their achieved value. Temporal things are stretched out in time, eternal in their full identity within the singular divine creative act.

Against this, Ford and most process theologians would object that the integrated divine creation of future, present, and past eternally together for all things in the moving flow of time ruins the strategy of separating divine and creaturely acts of self-creation and hence different loci of responsibility. True, I have to say that God’s creative act is responsible for everything in one sense. But responsibility in the relevant moral sense has to do with temporal decisions, decisions within time.13 God is not within time, and only the finite creatures are. For the latter, the future is open to some extent, and Ford’s analysis of partly indeterminate real possibilities applies. God, however, does not know or determine things in advance because God occupies no temporal place in advance of anything, on my theory. So, to my mind, the difference between the singular eternal act of creating which issues in and contains the whole of time’s flow and the limited temporal nature of responsibility in finite creatures is sufficient to locate human responsibility solidly in humans. The sense in which God is responsible for the whole, including its dark side and evil, is very different from human responsibility, and resonates with deep religious sensibilities on its own. The point for morality is to locate human agential responsibility in people and prevent the scapegoating of God. The point for the dark side of creation, and for the transformative bliss of blessing God with gratitude for the life that contains indifference of scale, suffering, evil, and death within it -- an integral part of many people’s Christian spirituality, including mine -- is not registered by Ford or any other process theologian. There might be a disagreement of basic intuitions or sensibilities here. But let us not acquiesce in differences in intuition yet.

The defense of different metaphysical views is very complicated and both Ford and I have given many that cannot be reviewed here. But I would like to raise here the question of the unity of the temporal modes, at least those of the present and future, in temporal flow. Ford’s hypothesis is that creativity, not God, is the integrating connector of things future, present, and past. This is the only way to preserve the separation of the divine exercise of responsibility and that of humans. Yet creativity has no character of its own save in its exercise in specific actualizations. Even if God creates future possibilities to be relevant from the future’s standpoint to concrescing actual occasions, there is nothing in that to make the possibilities relevant from the standpoint of the concrescence which is not real until it happens. It was for this reason that Whitehead and others placed the divine lures in the past or actual world of concrescing occasions; for them, future possibilities are not relevant for concrescence save insofar as anticipation in conscious beings might shape a superject through them. But lures from the past are not enough ontologically if contemporary concrescences are required jointly to specify a common future with a field character, as surely they must; Ford rightly recognizes that the future has to be real, not mere anticipation, even divine anticipation. Creativity, featureless as it is, cannot manage transition through the modes of time, future, present, and past, if the acts of creativity are modally different, one (divine) for the future, another for the (finite) present. Far better it is to say that one eternal divine creative act creates temporal things in their flow with all the modes working together in the shifts from one present moment to the next (oversimplifying here the problems of simultaneity, etc.). Only a creative act that is eternal, embracing the various activities and shifts of the temporal modes together and not itself in any temporal mode, can make the temporal modes relevant to one another, specifically, make the real possibilities relevant from the standpoint of emerging concrescent occasions.

V. Ford on Christology

Setting aside our disputes about time and eternity, and the differences about the philosophical models of God, I want to point out some further theological aspects of Ford’s theory. In Christology, he holds plainly that the Christian commitment is to Jesus as the incarnation of the logos for the human situation, and perhaps not for the whole of the human situation but for that interpretable within the history of Israel and the expanding cultures of Christianity (LG 63ff). For Ford, "salvation is the application of God’s creative purpose to intelligent life" (LG 64). Not all intelligent life could make much of Jesus. But we need to ask, for the intelligent life that can, what salvation in Jesus would mean.

Ford directly bases his answer to that on the resurrection of Jesus. How should we interpret the New Testament witness to the resurrection? Ford cites Pannenberg’s claim that both Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of resurrection for Christians are to be interpreted in light of an apocalyptic general resurrection, He then cites Gordon Kaufman’s claim that if the apocalyptic expectation is disregarded, as Ford himself wants to do, then the resurrection experiences of the early church were hallucinations, Kaufman concludes that the hallucinations were fortunate, for they led the early Christians to found the church, the body of Christ. Ford distinguishes, however, among hallucinations, which are merely subjective, veridical perceptions, which did not happen in the case of the resurrection appearances, and visions. Visions have a subjective shape like hallucinations, but objective reference to non-perceptible realities (LG 71- 74).14 What is the non-perceptible reality referred to in the case of the experiences of the resurrected Jesus? Ford suggests that it is the spirit of Jesus that animates the church. This is to say, the logos incarnate in Jesus is apprehended in the love of the disciples so that it animates the community. The resurrected Jesus is literally the church as the Body of Christ, for Ford, a very high Christology and ecclesiology indeed.15

According to the tradition reported by Paul and the Gospel writers, Peter encountered Jesus as Lord and Christ on the third day after his death. In what form Christ appeared to Peter we do not know; nor is it important, for we regard it as an hallucinatory accompaniment to the actual encounter. Peter experienced the Spirit of Christ, a nonperceptible reality proposing aims for guiding the actions of Peter directly analogous to the nonperceptible reality of the human mind as guiding the actions of the body. Peter encountered a Spirit he knew to be one with the extraordinary life of the Master he had followed, a Spirit to whom he could now fully dedicate himself in the confidence that the aims and directives it mediated served God’s purposes, just as Jesus had served those purposes during his lifetime. Moreover, this Spirit was living, dynamic, responsive to growing circumstance. As others encountered this same reality, they too became the instrumentalities of its will, as they became knit together into that common life we know as the body of Christ. Peter and the others experienced this dynamic presence in their midst as shaping their common activities; they remembered Jesus’ life and death and could interpret this phenomenon in only one way, proclaimed by Peter at Pentecost. This Jesus, whom you crucified, God has raised up and made both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:23-24, 36). (LG 78)

The spirit of Jesus animating the church is not some vapid liberal "team spirit" for Ford. "This transformed human community forms a living organism, a biological phenomenon which we conceive to be the next stage in the emergent evolution of the world, and the incarnation of the divine Word" (LG 74). Thus the general divine purpose of eliciting value in intensity of experience is made specific for the present situation of humankind. The kind of human community the church is supposed to be, and ideally is as animated by the mind of Christ, is a new level of biological evolution for intelligent beings, claims Ford. It could not have happened without the readiness of the disciples through the history of Israel, nor without the life of Jesus; and it is contingent upon the continuing inspiration of the church community.

But how does this redeeming community work? Jesus’ encouragement of his disciples to get along with one another in love during his life was spectacularly unsuccessful. Ford’s answer is that reconciliation comes through the cross, which makes resurrection possible. "Evil lies in the mutual obstruction of things; their conflict and disharmony engender suffering and loss" (LG 93). God’s infinite conceptuality allows any conflict to be taken up into a higher pattern of harmony. Whitehead said that the appreciation of this fact is what gives rise to Peace. But most of us do not have that Peace and cannot be reconciled by an intellectual hypothesis. Ford points out that this Peace is exactly what Jesus lost on the cross when he cried that God had forsaken him. "Jesus did not die a ‘good’ death, with the serene nobility of a Socrates, but in the painful awareness that the intimate presence of God had been withdrawn in the ultimate hour, and that he had been abandoned as one rejected" (LG 93). Yet Jesus continued to love God, and to commit his spirit to God. This pain and love make sense to us, so that we can participate in the living resurrected Body of Christ as reconciled.

All this leads Ford to a version of Christian trinitarianism: "the divine creative act nontemporally generating the primordial nature, from which proceeds the consequent nature as implicated in the Whiteheadian ‘categorial conditions’ established by the primordial envisagement" (LG 110). The Father (the nontemporal creative act) generates the Son (the primordial nature) from which the Spirit (the consequent nature) proceeds. Unlike the Patristic formulation, God does not exist in total independence of the world, for Ford; indeed, the consequent nature requires the prehension of the world and the divine address to the world. So, Ford’s doctrine of the spirit essentially relates to the world. But unlike what process philosophers call the neo-classical conception of God, Ford’s position does not conceive the world to be wholly dependent on God but partially transcendent so that finite things are responsible far their own exercise of creativity, and God is thus essentially relational regarding the world as well as in the internal persons.

Many questions remain concerning whether this trinitarianism can be worked out. On the metaphysical level, I have argued that it is not possible for God to prehend the world, and vice versa.16 On the Christological level, Ford’s is what Wesley J. Wildman would call a "modest Christology" which better than the Patristic creedal ideas captures what was authentic in biblical views of Jesus and what is plausible and transformative today.17 Much work remains to be done to study Ford’s views as Christian theology and to put them in perspective with those of, say, Schubert Ogden, John B. Cobb, Jr., and Marjorie Suchocki. I hope I have shown enough of his view here, however, to make that work attractive and to indicate my enormous respect.



CFK Lewis S. Ford, "Creativity in a Future Key," New Essays in Metaphysics, edited by Robert C. Neville. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987.

LG Lewis S. Ford, The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism. Philadelphia, PA, Westminster, 1978.

NTWG Lewis S. Ford, "The Non-temporality of Whitehead’s God," International Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1973).

ST3 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume 3. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1963.



1 I am privileged to have begun learning from Ford back in graduate school when we held detailed and technical discussions of Whitehead and Tillich, and he attempted with only moderate success to cure me of my errors. Our latest exchange in print continues his attempt to help me with his essay, "Creation and Concrescence," and my "Reply," in Critical Studies in the Thought of Robert C. Neville, edited by J. Harley Chapman and Nancy Frankenberry (Albany: State University of New York Press, forthcoming 1999). In the meantime, there have been sets of published debate and many conversations. For instance, see The Southern Journal of Philosophy 7 (1969-1970) with his "On Genetic Successiveness" and my "White-head on the One and the Many;" and his response, "Neville’s Interpretation of Creativity," his Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy, edited with George L. Kline (New York: Fordham University Press, 1983). My Creativity and God (New York. The Seabury Press, 1980; new edition: State University of New York Press, 1995) discussed his philosophical theology extensively to which he responded (with Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb, Jr.) in "Thee Responses to Neville’s Creativity and God" in Process Studies 10(1980), 33-34, and to which I came back in "Concerning Creativity and God: A Response" in Process Studies 11(1981), 1-10. Moreover, those fortunate enough to be Ford’s correspondents know the treasure of his long, detailed letters chock full of arguments and citations and totally devoid of ego.

2His best-known work in the last genre is The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. 1925-1929 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984).

3See, for instance, George A. Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984)

4See Hans Frei’s lament of this in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1974).

5See, for instance, the extraordinarily well structured set of debates in Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, edited by W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman (New York: Routledge, 1996).

6 See Herman Deuser’s brilliant analysis of the differences between continental theology, with its exclusion of philosophy of nature, and American theology influenced by process and pragmatic thought, in "Neville’s Theology of Creation, Covenant, and Trinity," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 18 (1997), 215-237.

7See, for instance, Oscar Cullmann’s Christ and Time, translated by Floyd V. Filson (Revised edition: Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1964).

8 I have argued this complicated alternative to process theology in my thee-volume Axiology of Thinking, consisting of Reconstruction of Thinking (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1981), Recovery of the Measure (Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 1989), and Normative Cultures (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).

9 See, for instance, his discussion of this point in "Creativity in a Future Key," New Essays in Metaphysics, edited by Robert C. Neville (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987), 179-197, especially 194-195.

10Whitehead’s point begins chapter 3 of part 1 of Process and Reality "The primordial created fact is the unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects. This is the ‘primordial nature’ of God." Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), 31. Ford discusses God as the creativity of the future in many places beyond those discussed here. See for instance "The Divine Activity of the Future," Process Studies 11 (1981), 169-179

11The subtlest discussion of this is Jorge Luis Nobo’s in Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Extension and Solidarity (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986). Ford believes that Nobo’s account is right about a view of time’s passage that Whitehead subsequently gave up (an argument within Ford’s compositional analysis). I think that Whitehead was mistaken to give that view up, coming as close as process philosophy can to acknowledging real transition within the flow of time, and that Nobo’s theory is the best attempt to save Whitehead.

12 I have argued this at length in Eternity and Times flow (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993); see also my "Time, Temporality, and Ontology," The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, Library of Living Philosophers, edited by Lewis Edwin Hahn (La Salle, IL, Open Court, 1991).

13See my The Cosmology of Freedom (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1974; new edition: Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 1995).

14 My own The Truth of Broken Symbols (Albany, NY, State University of New York Press, 1996) defends this point.

15 See Ford’s subtle discussion of New Testament terms for the physical and spiritual bodies of resurrected persons, including Jesus, at The Lure of God, 74 ff.

16 See my Creativity and God (new edition: Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995).

17 See his Fidelity with Plausibility: Modest Christologies in the Twentieth Century (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).