John W. Lansing is Professor of Religion and Chairman of the Department at Central Methodist College, Fayette, Missouri.
The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 143-152, Vol. 3, Number 3, Fall, 1973. 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.
To Whitehead, the nature of God is primordial as a unified actual entity. As a result of God’s prehension of the world he is consequent as a unified actual entity. And as a unified actual entity, God is “superjective” in that he is present to and immanent in the world.
In Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead dealt extensively with God as an indispensable part of his metaphysical system, as that without which there would be no order or novelty and, hence, no world. He also insisted that God as an actual entity is not an exception to the metaphysical categories. God is actual by virtue of his being a whole actual entity rather than by virtue of any particular aspect of his nature. No aspect of God can exist apart from the whole which it characterizes. Nevertheless, Whitehead often dealt with God in terms of aspects abstracted from the concrete whole, frequently in isolation from one another. Thus, in a large portion of Process and Reality he speaks of God in terms of his "primordial nature," in the last ten pages discusses the "consequent nature," and in at least one place mentions the "superjective nature." This compartmentalized treatment and an occasional poor choice of words often results in the unintended suggestion that the various "natures" are genuinely separable and even independently actual. This problem has been noted by several commentators and even acknowledged by Whitehead.1
The idea that the primordial and consequent natures are separate actual entities, each existing in relative independence from the other, has been generally laid to rest by Whitehead scholars. There remains a further issue, however, which needs more discussion: Are the natures of God to be understood as distinguishable parts which, added together, make up the unified actual entity, God? Although each part must rely upon the whole of God for its existence, does each part have its own distinctive functions, operating with some degree of independence from the other parts? Is it appropriate to say, "The primordial nature of God does A and B, while the consequent nature is the component that does C and D"? Indeed, some quite competent Whitehead scholars have written as if the natures of God were distinguishable parts each with its own peculiar functions. We read, for example: "God’s primordial nature is but one half of his being -- the permanent side" (UW 56). "The actual entity that is needed to order the possibilities is called the primordial nature of God" (UW 101). And: ". . . these components of the actual entity God . . ." (WTR 59). Expressions such as, "X orders A," "A is a function of X," "X is responsible for A," "A is affected by X," "X is the active element," or "X is the passive component" imply that X is not itself a function or mode of functioning, but, instead, is that which does the functioning. This language seems to be based upon the model of the eyes, hands, and liver of a body, each of which is a distinguishable part and has its distinctive functions. The result tends to undermine the unity of God as an actual entity and, especially, the unity of God’s functioning.
In contrast to the foregoing, our contention will be that the "natures" of God can better be understood, not as distinguishable parts, but as ways of indicating various interdependent modes of functioning by the whole actual entity, God. The words "primordial nature," "consequent nature," and "superjective nature" should not be taken as nouns referring to different elements of God, each of which is an agent with its own distinctive functions. Instead, they should be treated as adjectives describing the character of how God as a whole functions in relation to the world and to the eternal objects. This modification, while it is at variance with some of Whitehead’s statements about God, nevertheless provides an understanding of God more in harmony with the fundamental insights of his system. It is in accord with Whitehead’s emphasis upon the subjective unity of an actual entity, that an entity acts as a whole, and with the indivisible unity of polar opposites, particularly God and the world. In order to show this we shall first describe the functions Whitehead assigned to the various natures and then see if they can perform those functions in relative independence of one another.
The primordial nature of God receives the greatest attention from Whitehead. It is "the unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects" (PR 46). This unity of conceptual feelings is "a free creative act, untrammeled by reference to any particular course of things" (PR 552). It is thus nontemporal in that it is truly universal, not defined by reference to any particular historical event.
Whitehead claims three functions for the primordial nature of God. First, it grades the eternal objects in terms of their relevance to one another. "The general relationships of eternal objects to each other, relationships of diversity and of pattern, are their relationships in God’s conceptual realization. Apart from this realization there is mere isolation indistinguishable from nonentity" (PR 392). Second, it grades the eternal objects in terms of their relevance for inclusion in particular actual occasions. "By reason of the actuality of this primordial valuation of pure potentials, each eternal object has a definite, effective relevance to each concrescent process" (PR 64). It is this ordering and relating of eternal objects to actual occasions Whitehead says, that constitutes the metaphysical stability of the universe and makes possible both order and novelty in the world (PR 64). Third, the primordial nature of God makes this graded relevance effective in the world through providing the initial aim for each concrescent occasion. Thus, the initial aim "is a direct derivative from God’s primordial nature" (PR 104).
In this sense God is the principle of concretion; namely he is that actual entity from which each temporal concrescence receives that initial aim from which its self-causation starts. That aim determines the initial gradations of relevance of eternal objects for conceptual feeling; and constitutes the autonomous subject in its primary phase of feelings with its initial conceptual valuations, and with its initial physical purposes. (PR 374)
It is through these three functions that the primordial nature of God is manifested. As primordial, God is "the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality" guided by a subjective aim toward the maximal actualization of the entire realm of eternal objects (PR 521, 47).
The consequent nature of God is "the physical prehension by God of the actualities of the evolving universe" (PR 134). Since the primordial nature of God by itself is deficient in actuality, the consequent nature is "the completion of God’s nature into a fullness of physical feeling . . . derived from the objectification of the world in God" (PR 523). Two things are claimed of God’s consequent nature. First, God prehends every component of the satisfaction of every actual occasion; nothing in the domain of finite actuality is excluded. This Whitehead expresses in the image of "a tender care that nothing be lost" (PR 525). Second, the consequent nature weaves all these feelings of the actual world into one unity of feeling. Just as in all other actual entities, God’s concrescence is a process by which he brings a diversity of prehensions into one fully determinate unity. The achievement of every actual occasion in the antecedent universe is preserved by its integration into the harmony of God’s satisfaction. We read, for example, that the consequent nature is "the realization of the actual world in the unity of his nature, . . . the weaving of God’s physical feelings upon his primordial concepts" (PR 524). "The consequent nature of God is the fulfillment of his experience by his reception of the multiple freedom of actuality into the harmony of his own actualization" (PR 530). This "weaving" into a "unity" or "harmony" is not something that can be accomplished in the conformal phase of pure physical feelings alone, but requires the integrative activity of the supplemental phases. Of course, as we shall see later, there is some question whether Whitehead can consistently assign this function to the consequent nature alone, but at least he appears to make that claim.
Finally, almost as an afterthought, Whitehead introduces the superjective nature of God. This is mentioned only twice in Process and Reality and then quite briefly. "The ‘superjective’ nature of God is the character of the pragmatic value of his specific satisfaction qualifying the transcendent creativity in the various temporal instances" (PR 135). "The perfected actuality [God’s satisfaction] passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience" (PR 532). The second of these passages does not use the term "superjective nature," but it can be joined with the first since it clearly says the same thing: God’s satisfaction qualifies the temporal world. The superjective nature, then, is God exercising his objective immortality by laying down a datum which conditions the form of all subsequent creative acts. Whitehead then follows up this description with some puzzling words. He writes that the superjective nature is "the particular providence for particular occasions," but adds, "What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world" (PR 532). The first of these, indicating God’s persuasive guidance of each actual occasion, sounds like the function of the primordial nature in giving the initial aim. Yet the second statement, which indicates that God prehends the world and passes the result of that prehension back into the world, cannot refer to a primordial nature that is "untrammeled by reference to any particular course of things."
There is some question, then, about how the superjective nature is related to the primordial and consequent natures. At one point Whitehead seems to suggest that the primordial and consequent natures exercise their objective immortality separately: "Thus God has objective immortality in respect to his primordial nature and his consequent nature. The objective immortality of his consequent nature is considered later (cf. Part V); we are now concerned with his primordial nature" (PR 47). In what immediately follows, Whitehead writes of God’s urge toward the actualization of the eternal objects, an actualization which is effected by the giving of the initial aim. All this suggests, in a rather hazy way, that the primordial nature is objectively immortal in the giving of the initial aim while the consequent nature exercises its objective immortality in the superjective nature. Is God then objectified in two ways: in terms of his conceptual feelings and his physical feelings? Certainly the expression, "passes back" implies that the satisfaction of God is objectified at least partly in terms of his physical feelings of the world.
Whitehead’s precise understanding of the superjective nature is unclear and ambiguous at best. At any rate, the function that does seem relatively clear is that God conditions temporal actuality as a result of his prehension and harmonization of the antecedent world.
We must now return to the question, Are the natures of God distinguishable parts functioning with some degree of independence from the other parts? Can the various functions be consistently assigned to individual natures? As we noted, two functions are attributed to the consequent nature: in it God prehends every component of the satisfaction of every actual occasion and all these feelings of the actual world are woven into one unity of feeling. These functions, however are carried on with the help of functions attributed to the primordial nature. Temporal actual occasions are limited in their prehension of their antecedent worlds because of their limited capacity to integrate conflicting data. It is necessary for actual occasions to prehend much data negatively because they are unable to harmonize such data into their satisfactions. God, however, is not thus limited. His ability to integrate such a great diversity of feelings into one satisfaction is made possible by his primordial prehension of the "unlimited wealth of potentiality." The conceptual resources primordially available to God for the supplemental phases of his concrescence are boundless. Further, the all-inclusiveness of his physical feelings is made possible by this capacity for harmonization. If all can be integrated, nothing need be excluded by negative prehensions as occurs in actual occasions.
Another way in which the consequent nature in both its functions is wholly dependent upon functions of the primordial nature is in its need for subjective aim. God’s feelings, even in the conformal phase of physical feelings, must be guided by the subjective aim. As Whitehead points out, "this prehension into God of each creature is directed with the subjective aim, and clothed with the subjective form, wholly derivative from his all-inclusive primordial valuation" (PR 523). Thus, because God’s prehension and harmonization of the world necessarily involves functions attributed to the primordial nature, we cannot distinguish the activities of the two natures and treat them as separate agents in this respect.
As we turn to the functions of the primordial nature, we find that most of them are dependent upon functions of the consequent nature. We noted three functions: grading the eternal objects in terms of their relevance to one another, grading the eternal objects in terms of their relevance for inclusion in particular actual occasions, and providing the initial aim for each concrescent occasion. The first of these would involve only pure conceptual feelings and thus would not require physical feelings of an antecedent world. This first function, then, would not require the functions of the consequent nature except as they are needed to complete the actuality of the entity (God) to which the function belongs.2
The second function of the primordial nature, however, does require functions of the consequent nature in grading the relevance of the eternal objects for particular actual occasions. Some help in understanding why may be found in Whitehead’s distinction between "general potentiality" and "real potentiality." He writes:
Thus we have always to consider two meanings of potentiality: (a) the ‘general’ potentiality, which is the bundle of possibilities, mutually consistent or alternative, provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects, and (b) the ‘real’ potentiality, which is conditioned by the data provided by the actual world. General potentiality is absolute, and real potentiality is relative to some actual entity, taken as a standpoint whereby the actual world is defined. (PR 101f)
Thus, God’s grading of the eternal objects solely in terms of their relevance for one another provides general potentiality, while relevance for particular occasions constitutes real potentiality. General potentiality comprises the infinite number of ways that the eternal objects may be related to one another without regard to any specific historical entity, while real potentiality is that portion of general potentiality which is open to a specific historical entity, given the character of the actual world defined by its specific spatiotemporal locus. In other words, what has happened in the past of an actual occasion is of crucial significance in determining the specific relevance of eternal objects to its concrescence. Because, according to Whitehead, every actual entity has a degree of free self-determination, the future cannot be fully specified in advance. Therefore, God cannot grade the relevance of eternal objects for specific actual occasions in some absolute, non-world-prehending manner. Instead, at every stage of the creative process God must take account of the concrete world, a function normally attributed to the consequent nature.
The third function, providing the initial aim, also requires the functioning of the consequent nature. The only means provided for such transmission in Whitehead’s metaphysics is a hybrid physical prehension of God by the concrescent actual occasion. Since the initial aim is not just for any actual occasion, but for this actual occasion, it seems better to say that God is objectified by one of his propositional feelings than by one of his pure conceptual feelings. As John Cobb puts it:
God must entertain for each new occasion the aim for its ideal satisfaction. Such an aim is the feeling of a proposition of which the novel occasion is the logical subject and the appropriate eternal object is the predicate. The subjective form of the propositional feeling is appetition, that is, the desire for its realization.
If God entertains such a propositional feeling, we may conjecture that the new occasion prehends God in terms of this propositional feeling about itself and does so with a subjective form of appetition conformal to that of God. (CNT 156f)
A proposition refers to a specific logical subject but can do so only in relation to a concrete world.’ According to Whitehead, "This necessary indication of the logical subjects requires the actual world as a systematic environment. For there can be no definite position in pure abstraction" (PR 394). Thus, once more we return to the necessity of God’s prehending the temporal world in order to carry out a function attributed to the primordial nature.
One might still claim, however, that although the primordial and consequent natures of God are interdependent, they are nevertheless distinguishable parts of God. A. H. Johnson, for example, identifies the primordial and consequent natures with the mental and physical poles of God (WTR 58). William Christian suggests a similar identification when he writes, "And God’s nature includes as its mental pole an envisagement of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects" (IWM 269). Such a division might seem to be implied by Whitehead’s comment, "In each actuality there are two concrescent poles of realization -- ‘enjoyment’ and ‘appetition,’ that is, the ‘physical’ and the ‘conceptual.’ For God the conceptual is prior to the physical, for the World the physical poles are prior to the conceptual poles" (PR 528). Elsewhere he writes, "Thus, analogously to all actual entities, the nature of God is dipolar . . . The primordial nature is conceptual, the consequent nature is the weaving of God’s physical feelings upon his primordial concepts" (PR 524). Whitehead seems to be saying that God’s primordial valuation of the eternal objects is his mental pole and his enjoyment of the world is his physical pole.
If this is what Whitehead means (the passages are not entirely clear) it results in several problems. On the one hand, God’s mental pole might be taken to be his pure conceptual feelings and his physical pole simple physical feelings. This, however, would not be in accord with Whitehead’s usual understanding of the two poles. That is, the physical pole is normally understood as the initial phase of conformal feelings that merely receives what is given to it, while the mental pole is normally understood as the supplemental phases comprising pure conceptual feelings would leave out the various propositional feelings Even if this were a correct understanding of the mental and physical poles, it would still be inadequate, for the two poles would not include all of God’s feelings. The restriction of the primordial nature to pure conceptual feelings would leave out the various propositional feelings that are required for relating the eternal objects to specific actual occasions and giving the initial aim.
On the other hand, God’s mental pole might be taken to include all the feelings of the supplemental phases. This division might work fairly well in regard to the primordial nature, but it is inadequate for dealing with the consequent nature. As we noted earlier, Whitehead claims the consequent nature of God does more than merely physically prehend the world. It must also weave these feelings into a unity and achieve a satisfaction. This can only be done in the supplemental phases or mental pole of God.
Thus the primordial and consequent natures of God cannot be seen as distinct parts by identifying them with the mental and physical poles. Nor is there any other way by which they may be clearly distinguished as parts. The identification of the two natures with distinct phases of God’s concrescence would fall under the same criticism as given above. Distinguishing the two natures on the basis of their being composed of different kinds of feelings would be equally problematic because both natures must make use of comparative feelings. Neither can they be distinguished on the basis of their constituent prehensions having different kinds of objective data, that is, either other feelings or eternal objects. The prehensions of the primordial nature would involve eternal objects as objective data, of course, but so would many of the prehensions of the consequent nature. These latter prehensions would involve eternal objects by conceptual valuation from God’s physical prehensions of the world or would bring in eternal objects in the later phases of his concrescence in order to attain the unity of God’s satisfaction. There appears to be no way in Whitehead’s metaphysics by which the two natures can be clearly distinguished as different parts.
Finally, we must turn to the superjective nature of God. Its function, we said, is God’s conditioning of temporal actuality as a result of his prehension and harmonization of the antecedent world. There was some question whether Whitehead holds that God exercises his objective immortality in two different ways and that the giving of the initial aim is quite distinct from the superjective nature. In our examination, however, we have seen that there is considerable overlapping of the functions attributed to the primordial and consequent natures. The giving of the initial aim necessarily involves God’s prehension of the temporal world. Since the giving of the initial aim is a result of both God’s primordial envisagement of the multiplicity of eternal objects and his prehensions of the temporal world, it can properly be said to be an aspect of, if riot the entirety of, God’s superjective character. It is God’s immanence, God’s conditioning of the world. The superjective nature, then, is not a distinct part of God. Instead, it is the objective side of the combined functions of the primordial and consequent natures.
Another way of arriving at the same conclusion is to note that Whitehead explicitly identifies the superjective nature as "the pragmatic value of his specific satisfaction qualifying the transcendent creativity in the various temporal instances" (PR 135). In the Categories of Explanation xxv and xxvii, however, Whitehead says that there is only one satisfaction for an actual entity and that it contains all the prehensions of that actual entity. If the primordial and consequent natures are composed of different prehensions, they cannot have separate satisfactions nor can only one of them have a satisfaction. We conclude, then, that the superjective nature is the objective immortality of God as a whole.
In summary, the natures of God are not distinct parts, each with its particular functions. We have seen that the functions normally attributed to the various natures overlap considerably and that the natures cannot be distinguished as parts in any clear way. What is called for, then, is a clarification of our language about God. Perhaps it would be helpful to speak of the primordial, consequent, and superjective ways in which God relates to the world. That is, we should use these words as adjectives rather than nouns. Strictly speaking, it would be inaccurate and improper to say, "The primordial nature does this and the consequent nature does that." It would be better to say, "God does this and that." We should emphasize the unity of God and see the "natures" as abstractions, descriptions from particular viewpoints of how God as a whole functions in relation to the world and to the eternal objects.
This emphasis upon the unity of God as agent is very much in line with Whitehead’s emphasis upon the unity of an actual entity. As he writes in Category of Explanation xxii: "An actual entity by functioning in respect to itself plays diverse roles in self-formation without losing its self-identity. It is self-creative; and in its process of creation transforms its diversity of roles into one coherent role" (PR 38). Applied to God as an actual entity, this means that although God performs various roles, it is God as a unified actual entity that does the performing. The subjective aim leads toward one unified satisfaction, and it is this aim which gives an identity or center of agency to God’s functioning.
Are distinctions between the three "natures" then useless? By no means. They are still helpful when we wish to focus our attention upon the ways in which God is related to the world. The theme of the polarity of God and the world runs prominently throughout the concluding chapter of Process and Reality and crystallizes in the antitheses on page 528. With this relational emphasis in mind, we can take a fresh look at the "natures" of God. The term "primordial" is frequently used by Whitehead in the sense of "underived" or "presupposed," while consequent carries the connotation of "derived" or "resultant." (See, for example, PR 523, 529.) "Primordial" is contrasted with "derived" and even applied to both God and the world in the same context (PR 529). The relational character of this terminology helps to illuminate that key passage in which Whitehead compares the threefold character of an actual entity with the threefold character of God (PR 134f). Both God and other actual entities are characterized in terms of their relations to the transcendent world or creative activity. An actual entity has the character which is derived from its past world, the subjective character which is original or underived from its world, and the superjective character by which it influences the future world. In a parallel manner, "consequent nature" refers to the sense in which God’s character is derived from the world which he prehends. "Primordial nature" focuses upon the sense of originality or underivativeness in God. It emphasizes the fact that God is both independent of and presupposed by the world. "Superjective" refers to the way in which God affects the world. The three "natures," then, indicate that God is dependent upon the world, independent of the world, and affects the world.
This view of the "natures" of God may be summed up by saying that they indicate ways in which God functions in relation to the world. That is, we may speak of God as primordial in that, as a unified actual entity, he eternally and independently provides the entire realm of potentiality which makes possible order and novelty in the world. We may speak of God as consequent in that, as a unified actual entity, he preserves, unifies, and purifies the accomplishments of the world and, as a result of his prehension of the world, achieves his own satisfaction. We may speak of God as superjective in that, as a unified actual entity, he is present to and immanent in the world, luring it toward greater intensity of experience.
Although Whitehead does not mention the three natures of God in Modes of Thought, his description of God found there encompasses all three relations with the world. He is independent, affected, and affecting.
The notion of a supreme being must apply to an actuality in process of composition, an actuality not confined to the data of any special epoch in the historic field. Its actuality is founded on the infinitude of its conceptual appetition, and its form of process is derived from the fusion of this appetition with the data received from the world-process. Its function in the world is to sustain the aim at vivid experience. It is the reservoir of potentiality and the coordination of achievement. The form of its process is relevant to the data from which the process is initiated. The issue is the unified composition which assumes its function as a datum operative in the future historic world. (MT 128)
CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965.
IWM -- William A. Christian. An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.
UW -- Victor Lowe. Understanding Whitehead. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962.
WTR -- A. H. Johnson. Whitehead’s Theory of Reality. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.
WM -- Ivor Leclerc. Whitehead’s Metaphysics. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958.
1See for example, CNT 177 ff., WTR 59, and WM 203. For Whitehead’s acknowledgement see WTR 214, 218.
2This function would also be dependent upon the functions of the consequent nature if God were considered to be a personally ordered society of actual entities rather than a single actual entity. In that case, an actual entity of God would prehend the multiplicity of eternal objects through hybrid prehensions of his antecedent actual entity. Since such an antecedent actual entity would be part of the actual world of the subsequent actual entity, the prehension would be part of the consequent nature’s taking account of the world.
3If the logical subject is a future actual occasion, it must be anticipated on the basis of the feeling of the objective immortality inherent in immediate fact (PR 425).