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Process Theology and God as Parent

by Susan Ford Wiltshire

Dr. Wiltshire is professor of classics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. This article appeared in the Christian Century October 5, 1977, p. 874. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


 “The metaphors,” says Robert Frost, “come from the life you’ve lived.” Images abound as one lives in close contact with small children, and as I entered into those relationships I began to reflect seriously on the significance of the biblical images of God as parent. My awed elation at the birth of my first child, for instance, made incarnate in a powerfully experiential way the meaning of grace: here was a person I loved infinitely, unqualifiedly, whom I hardly knew and who certainly had done nothing at all to deserve that love. Isaiah’s comparisons of God’s love with that of a mother (49:15; 66:13), Jesus’ longing to protect Jerusalem’s children as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34), the impact of the prodigal son’s return on the father -- all these took on new meaning.

Like any good image, however, this one incorporates more than one intuition. Largely within the context of process theology I have come to see that the experience of parenthood can significantly organize one’s understanding of God. At the same time, I believe that the five illustrations that follow serve to validate in a concrete way some of the major observations of the process theologians.

I insist at the outset on a prefatory disclaimer: that parenthood is finally a state of mind and spirit and not only of biology. I shall be reflecting largely from my own experience, as process thought enables and indeed requires us to do; but the nature of that experience is essentially that shared by all who nurture -- whether, for example, single social workers, middle-aged adoptive parents, teachers who care about their students or, I suspect, those artists and poets who cherish and give birth to the world.

A DipolarDeity

Central to process theology is the conception of a “dipolar” God -- that is, a God who is both absolute, abstract and eternal on the one hand and relative, concrete and growing on the other. Charles Hartshorne, working in part from the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, insists that only the God who changes, who responds to his creatures, who is affected by what they do, is the God of the Bible. The classical Christian idea of an aloof, immutable, independent God, representing simplicity and rest, he argues, has much more in common with certain philosophical abstractions inherited from the Greeks. Malcolm Diamond points out that in the experiences of our everyday lives we judge that which can change in a relationship to be superior to that which cannot. He gives the example of a person looking at a tree: the person is conscious of the tree and can change as a result of that consciousness; that person is thus superior to the tree, which has no such consciousness and therefore remains unchanged in the encounter.

From this perspective God is not wholly “other” as in classical theism, but includes both the absolute and the relative, both the infinite and the finite. Such a God both includes the passing flux of events and is influenced by them.

This understanding of the nature of God gave form to my growing uneasiness with a “monopolar” perception of God as parent. There are luminous moments in beholding a very young infant in which one is aware of an absolute, timeless, pervasive peace which stems in part from a consciousness that, at least for a very short while, it is within one’s power to meet every need of another human being. (A friend, who cared for her unconscious son for a year before his death, could speak, incredibly, of this same feeling of peace as she was able to provide the child’s every need.) These are moments of grace, and it is no surprise that such moments give us some notion of the infinite magnitude of God’s love for the world.

Responding in Freedom and Responsibility

There is nevertheless in that image an incompleteness, a flaw -- namely, that mature human relationships are not like relationships with a newborn child. Already with a two-year-old, and forever after in normal circumstances, parents are negotiating with their children, compromising, changing themselves as they effect change in their children. A mature relationship with God must surely include this same interdependence, this same capacity for responding to another person in the depths of one’s being.

This is not to say that one of these relationships supersedes the other. As long as my children and I live, I will feel for them the absolute, necessary, nonnegotiable love that I experience in those moments of grace. That love, however, will coexist with my mature relationships with them, in which we will be responding to one another in our freedom and responsibility.

Whitehead uses the terms “actual entities” or “actual occasions” to refer to the “real things of which the world is made up.” There is nothing behind the actual entities (of which God is one) that is more real than they are. It has become an axiom of process thought, following Whitehead’s formulation, that “no two actual occasions originate from an identical universe.” Contingent upon this notion is the radical individuality of each human being and, theologically, the radical uniqueness of God’s relationship with each creature.

One of my many naļveties before parenthood was wonderment at how children of the same family, emerging from presumably similar genetic and environmental conditions, could vary so profoundly from one another. The startling uniqueness of each of one’s children, however, sometimes perceived even in utero, provides for parents strong confirmation of the insistence on the differentiation of individuals and moments characteristic of process thought. If more than one child is born into a family, parents become aware that they themselves are different people at the time of each subsequent birth. In addition, the enormous influence of birth order and sibling configuration is just now making its way into popular literature and social psychology textbooks.

Concern for Individuals

I have had occasion to observe one mother, a strong person in her own right, as she relates to her four adult children of vastly differing professional, political, religious and personality orientations. With each one she becomes a different person as she enters into genuine relationship with that individual -- affirming, nurturing, celebrating the special qualities of each. Yet on another level she is the same person in each relationship, clearly maintaining her own integration. In the process, they grow and she grows. From considering her, I gain another glimpse into the image of God as parent: not an omnipotent authoritarian, sternly demanding one set of behaviors for acceptance or salvation, but rather a “divine persuader” who enhances life, creativity, attainment of the good in all its myriad of forms.

Danial Day Williams in The Spirit and the Forms of Love (Harper & Row, 1968) lists individuality and taking account of the other as the first category necessary for love: “Love requires real individuals, unique beings, bringing to the relationship something which no other can bring. The individuals must be capable of taking account of one another in their unique individuality” (p. 114). Only by means of this concern for individuals, he argues, can the uniqueness and selfhood of both lover and beloved be maintained.

I have noted that honest parents are able to speak of loving their children in different ways even while loving all of them equally. Perhaps it is only by loving differently that we are able to love equally; otherwise a hierarchy of value would necessarily emerge. This, the process theologians would say, is the method of the biblical God, relating fully and interdependently with each human being. Only God, with an inexhaustible fund of loving concern, is capable of such identification with every person  -- thus becoming the “supremely social Being.”

The Unity of Mind and Body

As an antidualist Whitehead thoroughly rejects the Platonic notion that there exists somewhere a spiritual realm, immutable and superior to the world of body and matter. There is, he argues, “no one perfection of order.” Such an unchanging perfection would require a schism between mind and body that Whitehead is likewise unable to accept; it would also posit a God who operates in some way outside the “actual occasions” of reality.

As one raised on Plato’s dualism and, earlier, the Bible Belt Protestant version of it, I had already come to suspect the validity of this notion before the experience of childbirth erased the last trace. Those moments were marked by such an intense concinnity of mind and body, spirit and matter, that I cannot again conceive of those two poles of my experience as separate.

Alice Rossi in her thoughtful article “A Biosocial Perspective on Parenting” (Daedalus, Spring 1977) presents a brilliant challenge to the prevailing sociological dualism that tends to discount physiological factors in social systems and relationships. Her detailed study of the implications of research in endocrinology for bonding in human families and for the interactions between hormones and social behavior serves to put the “missing body” back into sociology in some profoundly important ways.

It is the process thinkers, however, who have developed the larger framework in which to perceive this unity of mind and body -- a unity validated in a limited, concrete way by the actual birth process but more inclusively by any act of the creative imagination.

A Succession of Occasions

One of the most compelling insights of process theology is the seriousness with which it takes the world and thus the seriousness with which it takes history. All reality is experienced in finite terms. Time, therefore, is real. In Whitehead’s definition it is not an undifferentiated continuum but a “succession of momentary occasions of experience.” The longing to move out of time (which involves change and so is “bad”) into a state of timeless permanence (which is therefore “good”) -- characteristic of most post-Aristotelian philosophy and much contemporary Christianity -- is thus seen to have more in common with Platonic dualism than with biblical witness.

This notion of time also clarifies the nature of our subjective freedom in the context of our past. John B. Cobb, Jr., formulates the issue thus: “Every occasion must come to terms with the whole of its past, but it is causally effected by nothing contemporary with it. In each new occasion we receive the past as inescapably given object and repeat or modify it in our selective subjectivity” (Religion in Life, Autumn 1961, p. 530). In The Structure of Christian Existence (Westminster, 1967) Cobb puts it another way: “The new structure is discontinuous with the old, although the process by which it came into being was continuous.” It is just this dynamism we see in the New Testament, in which Jesus continually reinterprets the law and brings subjectively new insights out of and into the objective tradition of which he is a part.

Once again, the experience of parents serves to confirm this understanding of growth and change. As with the drosophila flies, we can observe evolution in our children, so rapid are the stages of development. Frequently we are surprised by some innovation, but we learn to suspect that even it was precedented in some way not known to us. Thus parents, who are confronted every day by the visible development of their children, are perhaps less likely than others to hold qualitative denial of historical processes.

A Sense of Permanence

Although for human beings all things are changing and relative, the process theologians suggest to us a possibility of permanence in the mind of God. As Hartshorne says, “God is immortal, and whatever becomes an element in the life of God is therefore imperishable.” In A Christian Natural Theology (Westminster, 1965) Cobb develops this idea further:

Not only does God experience our experience and include it within his own, but also in him there is no transience or loss. The value that is attained is attained forever. In him, passage and change can mean only growth. Apart from God, time is perpetual perishing. Because of him, the achievements of the world are cumulative. It is this aspect of the vision of God which ultimately sustains us in the assurance that life is worth living and that our experience matters ultimately [pp. 219-220].

In a limited way something of this sense of permanence is accessible to the experience of parents. Often, as I look at my children, I am conscious of things I know about their past that they will never know. I will remember their birth, their nursing, their first achievements, and they will not. A woman in her 70s, who at the age of 15 was forced to give up the only child she ever had, once said to me: No matter how old they become, you will always think of them as babies.” She and I have memory, and that bestows permanence even on that which is changing.

God as parent has memory qualitatively superior to ours, for it alone includes all time, all history, all experience. And it is that memory which ascribes permanence and value to all of creation.

I have drawn several analogies between process theology and the experience of parenthood. These comparisons are fraught with problems, to be sure, not the least of which is the charge of anthropomorphism -- a charge which Hartshorne and Williams in particular among the process theologians take care to address.

I do not mean, however, finally to leave these observations as analogies, but rather as symbols, in the sense that the symbol contains within itself the presence of that which it symbolizes. For I believe that the processes of human life are divine, and that one way -- for me, a most compelling way -- to perceive that divine Reality is to think of God as parent.


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