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Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion by Ian Barbour

Ian G. Barbour is Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Carleton College, Northefiled, Minnesota. He is the author of Myths, Models and Paradigms (a National Book Award), Issues in Science and Religion, and Science and Secularity, all published by HarperSanFrancisco. Published by Harper & Row, New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, London, 1976. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 8: The Christian Paradigm

In this chapter some of the specific characteristics of the Christian paradigm are briefly explored. This includes some distinctive features of the Christian tradition and its understanding of its determinative exemplar, Jesus Christ. Then is discussed several models of God which have been employed, particularly two which have recently been developed under the influence of philosophical thought: the agent model and the process model. The author intends these remarks only as illustrations of the methodological position of earlier chapters; He indicates a substantive account of models in the Christian tradition would require another volume.

I. The Historical Tradition

There can be complementary models within a paradigm, but paradigms are evidently not complementary; a person can fully share the outlook of only one tradition at a time. Religion, we have seen, is a way of life and not just a set of beliefs; it is an organic whole of which ideas are only one part. In becoming a member of a particular scientific or religious community, a person acknowledges its exemplars and comes to adopt its assumptions and expectations. Neither science nor religion is an individual enterprise; a person interprets his experience within a communal tradition. The concept of paradigm keeps before us the importance of a community of shared purposes, attitudes and presuppositions.

Participation in a corporate history is a striking feature of the practices of both Judaism and Christianity. Many aspects of congregational worship throughout the year are historical commemorations which portray the present life of individual and group in the light of the past. These communities are constituted not by isolated visions or mystical moments, but by a common life in response to historical events. God is identified not by metaphysical attributes but by historical relationships; he is ‘the God of Abraham’, ‘the Lord who delivered us from bondage in Egypt’, and ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. The chief forms of confession and creed are the recital of events rather than of general principles.

The covenant at Sinai is the central event in Israel’s memory. The formation of a people, ‘a holy nation’, was important because only a community could adopt a life of obedience and justice. The covenant is a living relationship in every present, the enduring center of the covenant community. Even the intense religious experience of individual prophets was always related to the ongoing life of the community. A recall to the covenant was a recall to the distinctive features of ethical monotheism: a God with moral purposes in history, who takes the initiative in judging and redeeming the life of a people and who is concerned with the total life of man because his purposes can be fulfilled only in the fabric of corporate life. Within this continuing community were particular individuals who served as exemplars in subsequent recollection: Abraham, Moses, David, the great prophets, priests and rabbis. Israel’s memory of these exemplars has continued to preserve her distinctive religious beliefs.

The center of the memory of the Christian community is of course the person of Christ. The disciples came to see Christ as both the fulfillment and the transformation of Israel’s expectations. Here, too, it was through response to events in history, not to theological ideas, that the community came into being, and recollection of these events serves to preserve its distinctive beliefs. Once again, God was understood to be at work not simply in the lives of individuals but in the life of a group; the Holy Spirit was God’s activity in the church, not in solitary religious experience. So great was the sense of mutual participation, and the dependence of each person on the life of the whole, that Paul could compare the church to a single organism (I Cor. 12.14). The church as a living community of forgiveness, mutual support and common memory is always the context of Christian life and thought.

But a tradition is dynamic and developing, not an unchanging legacy from the past. Like a living organism, it is historically continuous and yet always growing. A community can understand its exemplars and its historic origins in new ways and can adapt to new circumstances and new problems. There can thus be both diversity and novelty within a tradition as each generation looks at the present and the future in the light of the past. In modern times all the major religious traditions have gone through changes of unprecedented magnitude. As compared to scientific communities, religious communities are more dominated by the past and more reluctant to accept new ideas, but once again these are differences of degree rather than sharp contrasts.

In earlier chapters I have spoken of the interpretation of experience. Metaphors, I said, may momentarily encourage us to see patterns which we might not have noticed (the process which Black termed ‘construing as’), but models systematically suggest distinctive ways of looking at things (for which I proposed the term ‘interpreting as’ in preference to Hick’s phrase, ‘experiencing as’). In using religious models we find new patterns in the world around us and in our lives. We interpret the world as a creation, and view our individual and corporate lives as a continuing dialogue with the divine Thou. Moral choice is understood as responsibility to both God and neighbor. A given community can use a variety of models in such interpretation, but its paradigm tradition sets limits on the range of acceptable models and gives emphasis to those experiences whose Interpretation it considers most significant.

Within the Christian tradition, most of the types of experience which I have mentioned can be found in each historical period. Mystical awareness and numinous encounter can be illustrated from the writings of almost any century. One could cite a variety of examples in which there is reference to awe and reverence, moral obligation, interpersonal relationships, or order and creativity. But the experience of reorientation and reconciliation is perhaps most distinctive. Paul Tillich calls it ‘the transition from estrangement to reconciliation’.1 Our existence is estranged -- from our true selves, from other persons, from the ground of meaning. But reconciliation with our true selves is possible: self-acceptance, liberation from bondage to self-concern, and internal integration in place of conflict and division. So also reconciliation with other people can occur: acceptance of others in sensitivity and forgiveness, a new freedom in interpersonal relationships, an openness to new possibilities of authentic human existence. Healing, wholeness, and renewal take place between persons and in communities of acceptance. This is experienced fulfillment and grace.

In such occurrences the reconciling power of love is at work. For a man to accept others he must know that he is accepted in a context wider than himself. Resources of healing and renewal must be grounded in the nature of the universe itself. The unforgiven is unable to forgive. In biblical terms, we can accept ourselves because God accepts us as we are; in the security of this relationship we are free to look at ourselves more honestly, released from guilt and self-hatred as well as from pride and self-righteousness. When a person is liberated from excessive self-concern and anxiety about his own status, he can forget about himself for a while and see the redemptive possibilities of reconciliation between man and man. These are the experiential dimensions of sin and salvation. For the Christian community such reorientation has occurred primarily through confrontation with the life of Christ. In that confrontation, renewal can be found, and at least in a fragmentary way, the power of reconciliation overcoming alienation, the healing of brokenness, the experience of release from guilt, anxiety and despair. In Christ’s life were revealed new possibilities for authentic human existence in freedom, love and openness.

Let us consider Christ, then, as exemplar in the Christian paradigm. Eliade has said that the stories of most religious traditions narrate actions in primordial or historic time which serve as ‘exemplars for emulation in the present’. As noted in Chapter 2, significant archetypal or historical events are understood to manifest the enduring structures of the cosmic order. Not an abstract ideal but a prototype for man’s imitation is provided, along with exemplary patterns for ritual, moral and practical behaviour. Christ could be considered first as an exemplar in this sense. His life provides an image ofauthentic human existence, a style of life, a norm ofintegrity and love, which shapes our own self-understanding and action.

A religious tradition, like a scientific tradition, is transmitted more by the memory of its exemplars than by a set of explicit principles. For the Christian community, many incidents in Christ’s life and the picture of him as a person have been influential. (For a scientific community, by contrast, a narrower range of incidents -- such as Newton’s experiments and ideas in mechanics, apart from his personal life -- serve to transmit the tradition.) But the person of Christ is central also because the community has come to know the power of reconciling love at work in his life and thereby in the present also. To the community, his life is revelatory; these particular events illuminate other events. To abandon this paradigm is to make a decision about the occurrence of revelation.

In the biblical view, history is the most significant medium through which God expresses himself. Knowledge of God through nature and through religious experience is not denied but is carried further by knowledge of him through history. Response to historical events brings concrete religious communities into being; the celebration of these events is a continuing source of corporate identity and personal renewal and an occasion of worship. For the community of Israel, the judgment and mercy of God are seen in the prophetic interpretation of the redemptive events of its history. For the Christian community, the life of Christ is the focal expression of God’s nature as sacrificial love. Christ is more than an exemplar for human emulation or a manifestation of the cosmic order, and we must give explicit attention to some of the ways in which he has been understood.

2. Christological Models

Consider first the proposal that there have been complementary models used in interpreting the person of Christ. William Austin asks whether humanity and divinity can be thought of as complementary models of Christ.2 Each model limits the use of the other (e.g. from Christ’s humanity we cannot make the inference of sinfulness, and from his divinity we cannot make the inference of omniscience). Historically, the presence of the model of divinity discouraged the adoptionist view of a purely human Christ, while the model of humanity discouraged the docetic view of a divine figure disguised as man but not really man. The church fathers also clearly rejected any ‘compromise model’ of Christ as an angelic or quasi-divine being, intermediate in status between God and man. The Chalcedonian ‘two natures’ formula prevented either model from being developed in a way which would exclude the other one, and yet no unified model was advanced.

But Austin raises a number of objections to the idea of considering divinity and humanity as complementary models of Christ. Our ideas of God and man may not be ‘clear, coherent, and definite enough to serve as models’. Again, our ideas of divinity and humanity are themselves influenced by our confrontation with the person of Christ. I would raise another objection: in the previous chapter I urged that the term ‘complementary’ be restricted to models which, like wave and particle, are on the same logical level. Divinity and humanity do not seem to satisfy this condition.

Austin’s proposal of Messiah and Logos as complementary christological models more nearly satisfies these conditions.3 Since both models combine divinity and humanity -- though in differing ways -- they are on essentially the same logical level. In the Old Testament, a Messiah was expected who would be a particular individual anointed by God to bring his Kingdom to fruition. This emphasis was carried on in the theology of Antioch, which insisted on Christ’s full manhood in body, mind and soul. The Alexandrian school, on the other hand, viewed him primarily as the incarnation of the Logos, which is at once the universal divine principle, the cosmic structure and the eternal word. Austin shows that the Council of Chalcedon tried to affirm both these models without jeopardizing the unity of the person of Christ, and there may be at least a few parallels which can be drawn with complementarity in physics.

An interesting study of christological models has been written by John McIntyre.4 The ‘two-natures model’ (which he takes as a single complex model involving both divine and human natures) has dominated Christian thought, but it has a number of limitations; it is tied to the Aristotelian categories of substance and attribute, and it tends to view the incarnation as the assumption of an abstract human nature rather than the personal individuality of a particular man. McIntyre holds that the ‘psychological model’ avoids these dangers and has been explored in the light of modern insights concerning selfhood; but it has usually ended with a merely human Christ. The ‘revelation model’ helps to restore the balance, using the dynamic categories of divine and human activity in place of the more static categories of substances and natures.

We are here concerned about McIntyre’s methodology rather than the details of the three models he presents. He concludes that we should use them essentially independently of each other. He advises us not to mix models and not to transfer assumptions or categories from one to another. ‘The recognition of the relative independence of the models from one another is one condition of greater variety in christological expression.’5 In particular, the traditional ‘two-natures model’ should not be used as the norm for judging either the ‘psychological model’ of Christ’s selfhood or the ‘revelation model’ of Christ’s life revealing God to us. The future of each of these models ‘rests in the expansion of its own possibilities’. McIntyre’s thesis of the independence of models is indebted to Ian Ramsey’s writings, which he cites at length. I have maintained that there is a greater degree of interaction and mutual limitation between models than what Ramsey presents. Christological models, in short, are not independent of each other, even when they are not unified into a single model.

I am in agreement, however, with many of McIntyre’s remarks concerning the functions and status of christological models. He mentions their power in evoking commitment, trust and devotion; but he also points to their integrative function in coordinating beliefs, e.g., about ethics, the church and the world. He insists that models of Christ are interpretations of an historical figure, but he recognizes that there are no bare historical events devoid of interpretation. Again, the existential response of faith and obedience is a given in experience, but it is, likewise, by no means uninterpreted.6 Yet he does not claim the security of models directly revealed to us but acknowledges them as ‘partial insights’:

Whence do models derive? The answer that commends itself to my judgment is that the creation of models is part of the function which imagination fulfills in theological activity. . . . If models are deliverances of imagination, we shall be reluctant to claim for them immediately the sanctions of faith. They do not come to us with the authority of Christ himself.7

McIntyre outlines briefly several criteria for the evaluation of a christological model. (1) It ‘correlates a higher proportion of the biblical material concerning Christ and of the church’s witness to him’. (2) It sets these events in the widest possible context. (3) It ‘throws light on the areas of our religious thought and action and also ‘illumines areas to which it was not in the first place directed’. (4) It ‘leads to fresh commitment to Christ’, mediates forgiveness and renewal, and calls forth ‘our obedient and loving response’.8

A variety of analogies have been used to express the significance of Christ’s death. These images of the atonement seem to have been used in a more sustained fashion than metaphors, though perhaps they are not developed systematically enough to be called models. However, they have been so influential in the history of Christian thought, ever since Paul wrote Romans, that I will consider them briefly as complementary models of the atonement. First, the penal substitute model uses the images of a law court. The satisfaction of justice requires a penalty for our offences; Christ as substitute bears our punishment and we are acquitted. This view emphasizes the costliness of sin and the vindication of the moral order. For Anselm, who made extensive use of it, this model was based on a profound experience of guilt interpreted by means of legal analogies.9 Second, the sacrificial victim model uses the images of the temple sacrifice. Christ as both priest and victim (as in the letter to the Hebrews) provides expiation for man’s sin. But this is no propitiation of an angry God, since God himself has provided the means for man’s restoration.

Third, the liberator model draws its analogy from the redemption of a slave or the ransom of a prisoner. Here the Christian experience of release from bondage to guilt, self and legalism is compared to deliverance from slavery or captivity. Christ is the one who redeems us from bondage. Fourth, the moral example model puts even greater stress on man’s response to Christ’s life and death. Whereas the first two models sometimes seem to represent a mechanical and juridical transaction, the latter two stress personal and ethical dimensions, and the subjective side of man’s response as well as the objective side of God’s initiative. Perhaps also they emphasize God’s love more than his justice; at the cross, reconciliation overcomes alienation. If reconciliation is indeed the basic Christian experience, we would be justified in giving greater attention to the latter models (liberator and moral example) than the former (penal substitute and sacrificial victim).10

Now these models of Christ might be considered complementary. Their joint use might prevent exclusive emphasis on either God’s love or his justice, for example. A model which portrays divine initiative would limit the use of a model which portrays human response, and vice versa. But any model of Christ which makes reference to an attribute of God will today provide a problematical starting-point, since ideas of God are themselves in doubt for many people. It may be more helpful, therefore, to turn the problem around and ask whether the person of Christ may not be taken as a model of God.

3. Four Models of God

We shall now turn to some models of God which have been used in the Christian tradition. In this section I will mention (1) monarchial, (2) deistic, (3) dialogic and (4) agent models. God’s relation to the world is successively viewed as analogous to the relation between (1) a king and his kingdom, (2) a clockmaker and a clock, (3) one person and another person, and (4) an agent and his actions (or, in one version, a self and his body). In the subsequent section, a fifth model is presented, the social model of process philosophy, in which God’s relation to the world is thought of as analogous to the relation between an individual and a community. At that point we will consider Christ as model of God. In accordance with the conclusions of Chapter 5 above, models consonant with the Christian paradigm are predominantly personal, but we will have to take into account the experiences which have led to impersonal models.

We have seen that the Bible used a variety of personal metaphors and images for God as Shepherd, Husband, Father, Judge, King, etc. The monarchial model of God as King was developed systematically, both in Jewish thought (God as Lord and King of the Universe), in medieval Christian thought (with its emphasis on divine omnipotence) and in the Reformation (especially in Calvin’s insistence on God’s sovereignty). In the portrayal of God’s relation to the world, the dominant western historical model has been that of the absolute monarch ruling over his kingdom.

The biblical story of God’s mighty acts was elaborated into the classical doctrine of divine omnipotence. God, it was said, governs and rules the world in his providential wisdom. He is free to carry out his purposes; all events are totally subordinate to his will. Divine foreordination was said to involve not only foreknowledge but also predetermination of every event. Both medieval Thomism and Reformation Protestantism held that God intervenes as a direct cause of particular events, in addition to his more usual action working through secondary natural causes. There is a strictly asymmetrical, one-way relation: God affects the world, but the world does not affect a God who is eternal, unchanging and impassible.

The monarchial model can be criticized for failing to allow adequately for human freedom. Predestination is incompatible with the existence of genuine alternatives in human choice; no subtleties in distinguishing foreknowledge from foreordination seem to be able to circumvent this basic contradiction. Man’s total dependence on and submission to an authoritarian God is also in tension with human responsibility and maturity; supernaturalism has too often resulted in the repression rather than the fulfillment of man’s natural vitalities. A further objection to the monarchial model is that it makes God responsible for evil and suffering. if all events are foreordained by God, is he not, inescapably, the author of evil? Finally, the doctrine of divine omnipotence runs counter to the idea of the lawfulness of nature which arose with the development of the scientific outlook.

With the growth of modern science in the seventeenth century, nature was increasingly viewed as a law-abiding machine. God was the divine clockmaker and the world was the clock -- an autonomous and self-sufficient mechanism. Newton’s contemporary, Robert Boyle, started by defending God’s freedom and sovereignty but ended by asserting that God in his wisdom has planned things so that he does not have to intervene. The unfailing rule of law, not miraculous intervention, is the evidence of his benevolence. Providence is expressed not by his action in particular events but by the total cosmic design, the over-all structure and order of the world. This was the inactive God of Deism, who started the mechanism and then let it run by itself. Nature was viewed as a self-contained system whose interactions are to be exhaustively accounted for in the purely natural terms of lawful cause-and-effect. By the eighteenth century, the prevalent model of God’s relation to nature was the clockmaker and the clock.

The third or dialogic model expresses the person-to-person character of God’s relation to man. This interpersonal model was present in biblical writings, especially in the image of God as Father, but was recovered in recent centuries, partly in response to the impersonal character of God’s relation to the world in Deism. The Methodist movement and later revivalism witnessed to the experience of reconciliation understood as person-to-person judgment, forgiveness and love. More recently, existentialist writers have depicted the dialogic character of the I-Thou encounter, the interaction of God and man in the present moment. The freedom of man, which was jeopardized in both the monarchial and deistic models, is here strongly defended.

But the dialogic model makes a sharper separation of man and nature than can be justified today. Evolutionary biology and ecology have shown us the continuities between the human and subhuman worlds. The existentialist dichotomy between the sphere of personal selfhood and the sphere of impersonal objects can be criticized equally on biblical grounds. The retreat to the realm of man’s inwardness leaves nature unrelated to God and devoid of enduring significance. The world becomes the impersonal stage for the drama of human life, if not an object to be exploited for man’s benefit. In the biblical view, by contrast, the natural world is no mere setting but part of the drama which is a single unified creative-redemptive work. Today we need a theology of nature as well as of human existence.

The fourth model, which I wish to discuss at greater length, does allow us to speak of God’s relation to nature, yet without the coercive or mechanical implications of the monarchial and deistic models. This is the agent model which has been developed under the influence of recent work in linguistic philosophy. To understand it, one must start from an analysis of language about human agents and their actions. An action is a succession of activities ordered towards an end. Its unity consists in an intention to realize a goal. An action differs from a bodily movement. A given bodily movement (for example, moving my arm outward in a particular way) may represent a variety of actions (such as mailing a letter, sowing seeds, or dealing cards). Conversely, a given action may be carried out through a variety of sequences of bodily movements. An action cannot be specified, then, by any set of bodily movements, but only by its purpose or intent.11

Analysis in terms of intentions does not preclude analysis in terms of scientific laws. The physiologist need not refer to my purposes when he explains my arm movement. In addition, intentions are never directly observable. An action may be difficult to identify without a larger context. Calling it an action involves an interpretation of its meaning and often requires observation over a considerable temporal span; it may, of course, be misinterpreted and wrongly identified. The unity is one of intentionality rather than of causality. The agent of an action is an embodied subject acting through, not on, his body. Instead of a mind-body dualism of two distinct substances, we have two ways of talking about a single set of events. An agent is his living body in action, not an invisible mind interacting with a visible body. Yet the agent transcends any single action and is never fully expressed in any series of actions.

Now human action may be taken as a model of divine action. If God’s action is identified in terms of his intentions, the cosmic drama can be interpreted as an expression of the divine purpose. God is understood to act in and through the structure and movement of nature and history. Gordon Kaufman suggests that the whole course of evolutionary development can be considered as one all-encompassing action unified by God’s intentions. Within this master action are various sub-actions -- the emergence of life, the advent of man, the growth of culture, etc. -- which are phases of a total action moving towards greater consciousness, freedom and community. Kaufman sees the history of Israel and the life of Christ as special sub-actions decisively expressing the divine intention.12

Divine intentions do not enter the scientific account of cosmic history any more than huiian intentions enter the physiological account of an arm movement. John Compton writes:

We can distinguish the causal development of events from the meaning of these events viewed as God’s action. Scientific analysis of physical nature and of human history has no more need of God as an explanatory factor than the physiologist needs my conscious intent to explain my bodily movements. Nor does God need to find a ‘gap’ in nature in order to act, any more than you or I need a similar interstice in our body chemistry. Each story has a complete cast of characters, without the need for interaction with the other story, but quite compatible with it. What happens is that the evolution of things is seen or read, in religious life -- as my arm’s movement is read in individual life -- as part of an action, as an expression of divine purpose, in addition to its being viewed as a naturalistic process.13

Further, we can maintain that God is not fully expressed in historical action even as a human agent is not fully expressed in any sequence of actions.

The intentions of an agent are never directly observable and may be difficult to guess from events in a limited span of time. In the case of religion, a paradigm tradition provides a vision of a wider context within which the pattern is interpreted. There is indeed a strong biblical precedent for talking about God in terms of his intentions and purposes in history. And today the linguistic approach would encourage us to treat the language of divine action as an alternative to scientific language, not a competitor with it. It would provide a model of God as agent, stressing intentionality rather than causality. The relation of a human agent to his acts would be taken as an analogy for the relation of God to cosmic history.

But a major objection may be raised concerning this analogy. We can identify a human agent by his body, even if we distinguish actions from bodily movements. But how can we identify God? Kai Nielsen claims that we can have no idea of bodiless spirit, since we have found nothing like it in our experience.14 Is some reference to the body required in the language of action? There are two possible answers.

One might argue that no bodily reference is required in talking about intentions. Robert King reminds us that we do not have to observe our own bodily behaviour to know our intentions. Even the intentions of another person, he insists, are not read off directly, but involve a context of interpretation and the agent’s testimony, the revelation of his intentions in word and act. Furthermore, says King, bodily reference is not required in order to identify God. Bodily continuity helps us distinguish among human agents, but God is distinguished from other agents by the universal scope of his action and by the perfect freedom and love made known in Christ.15

The second alternative would be to look on the world as God’s body. As Compton points out, our bodies do have a measure of independence and autonomy as self-regulating systems. There is a ‘wisdom of the body’, apart from our conscious intentions. Without reverting to a mind-body dualism, we could point to the Occasions on which the body is not merely the passive instrument of the will. So, too, world has a limited independence over against God. ‘Not everything that occurs in nature is an act of God’, says Compton, ‘any more than everything that occurs in (or to) me is my act.’ In Compton’s view, God is not an absolutely controlling agent. ‘He is, as we are, in fact incomplete, incomplete in knowledge of and control over natural bodily history.’16 But Compton acknowledges that this model does not allow sufficiently for the independence of God and the world.

A number of other limitations in the analogy of the world as God’s body can be listed. The world does not overtly display the degree of unity which a human body possesses. To be sure, the mystical tradition has testified to an underlying unity, and has sometimes referred to God as the world-soul; but usually mystics speak of an undifferentiated identity wherein distinctions are obliterated -- which is very different from the organized integration of cooperatively interacting parts that characterizes the unity of a body. A body has an external environment, whereas all interactions would be internal to the cosmic organism. We have not created our bodies, whereas the biblical tradition has held that God created the world. But the most serious objection is that the agent model does not preserve the independence and freedom of creatures in the world. Even if God is not an absolutely controlling agent, his relation to evil in the world remains problematical. God’s relation to other agents seems to require a social or interpersonal analogy in which a plurality of centers of initiative are present. The biblical model of Father, after all, allowed for the presence of many agents, rather than concentrating on the divine agent alone. We will see that in the process model more than one agent may influence a given event, so that both God’s action and that of other agents can be represented.

4. The Process Model

Four models of God’s relation to the world have been mentioned, patterned respectively after an absolute monarch and his kingdom, a clockmaker and a clock, a dialogue between two persons, and an agent and his actions. In the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead, a fifth model is presented: a society of which one member is pre-eminent but not absolute. The universe is pictured as a community of interacting beings, rather than as a monarchy, a machine, an interpersonal dialogue or a cosmic organism.17

The process view of reality is social in that a plurality of centers of activity is envisaged. It could also be called ecological in that it starts from a network of relationships between interdependent beings, rather than from separate beings or dialogic pairs. Neither God nor man can be considered in isolation from the total process. Instead of the one-way action of God on the world, there is reciprocal interaction; giving and receiving, God and the world affect each other. The God of process thought is not immutable and independent, but changing and never completed, even though his essential nature does not change. Temporality and becoming characterize all participants in the community of being.18

Between God and the world there is interdependence and reciprocity, in the process view, but the relationship is not fully symmetrical. God is affected by the world, but he alone is everlasting and does not perish. God is not self-sufficient or impassible, for he is involved in time and history, but he is not totally within the temporal order. Events make a difference to him, but his purposes are unchanging. Divine immanence is thus more strongly emphasized than transcendence, yet God’s freedom and relative independence are defended, along with his priority in status (though not priority in time). For nothing comes into being apart from God. Within the cosmic community, God has a unique and direct relationship to each member.

God’s power is the power of persuasion rather than of coercion, of love rather than of compulsion. It is the lure of ideals which must be actualized by other beings. Whitehead rejects the image of God as the omnipotent monarch, the imperial ruler, in favor of what he calls ‘the Galilean vision of humility’, the idea of God as ‘the fellow-sufferer who understands’.19 God is like a wise parent whose educational influence on a growing child occurs through the love and respect he elicits and the ideals he holds up to the child. The power of love is its ability to evoke a response while respecting the integrity of the other.

In the Whiteheadian scheme every entity must respond for itself, and nothing that happens is God’s act alone. God does not act directly but rather influences the creatures to act. Each entity has considerable independence and its response is genuinely its own. Process thinkers reject both omnipotence and predestination. If there is genuine freedom and novelty in the world, then even God cannot know the fixture until decisions have been made by individual agents. Time is not the unrolling of a scroll on which everything is already recorded; alternative possibilities are open until choices are made at many centers of responsibility. God interacts with the world in time, rather than determining it in his eternal decree. He respects the freedom of his creatures.

Whitehead’s social model of reality is developed in a detailed metaphysical system; I can comment here on only a few features relevant to our discussion. He uses a set of very general categories which with suitable modifications can be applied to all kinds of entity. He thinks of every entity as a series of events, each of which is to be considered as a moment of experience that takes account of other events and responds to them. Causality, in Whiteheadian thought, is a complex process in which three strands are interwoven. Every new event is in part the product of efficient causation, that is, the influence of previous occurrences upon it. There is also an element of self-causation or self-creation, since every event unifies what is given to it by the past in its own manner from its unique perspective on the world. It contributes something of its own in the way it appropriates its past, relates itself to various possibilities, and produces a novel synthesis that is not strictly deducible from its antecedents. There is a creative selection from among alternative potentialities in terms of goals and aims, which is final causation. Every new occurrence can, in short, be looked on as a present response to past events in terms of potentialities grasped.

Now Whitehead ascribes the ordering of these potentialities to God. God as the primordial ground of order structures the potential forms of relationship before they are actualized. In this function God seems to be an abstract and impersonal metaphysical principle. But Whitehead’s God also has specific purposes for the realization of maximum value. He selects particular possibilities for particular entities. He is the ground of novelty as well as of order. He presents new possibilities, among which there are alternatives left open. He elicits the self-creation of individual entities and thereby allows for freedom as well as structure. By valuing particular potentialities to which creatures respond, God influences the world without determining it. God acts by being experienced by the world, affecting the development of successive moments, participating in the unfolding of every event. But he never determines the outcome of events or violates the self-creation of each being. Every event is the joint product of past causes, divine purposes, and the emerging entity’s own activity.

For Whitehead, God’s action is the evocation of response. Since man’s capacity for response far exceeds that of other beings, it is in human life that God’s influence can be most effective. God’s ability to engender creative change in lower beings seems to be very limited. He is always one factor among many, and particularly with respect to low-level beings, in which experience is rudimentary and creativity is minimal, his power seems to be negligible. Insofar as natural agents exercise causal efficacy, God’s ability to compel change is thereby restricted. But we must remember that God is not absent from events that monotonously repeat their past, for he is the ground of order. At low levels, God’s novel action may be beyond detection, though perhaps in cosmic history and emergent evolution there are signs of his creativity in the inanimate. Even when God does contribute to novelty he always acts along with other causes. We can never extricate the ‘acts of God’ from their involvement in the complex of processes through which he works. The Whiteheadian model thus leads to a metaphysical analysis which allows for the actions of a multiplicity of agents.

Charles Hartshorne follows Whitehead closely in his social model of reality but portrays a greater unity in the cosmic process. He holds that the world is in God (panentheism), a view which neither identifies God with the world (pantheism) nor separates him from it (theism). ‘God includes the world, but is more than the world.20 Hartshorne is willing to say that ‘the world is in a sense the body of God’.21 We are cells in the divine organism. The world-soul is immanent in the dynamic unity of the world, as man’s mind is immanent in his body. This view gives less scope than Whitehead’s does for the integrity and freedom of a plurality of individual agents. The objections to the analogy of the world as God’s body, advanced in the preceding section, seem to hold even if we grant that a cell in the body has considerable independence and ‘a life of its own’.

John Cobb, on the other hand, thinks that it would be compatible with Whiteheadian thought to speak of God as a ‘person’ in interaction with other beings. Whitehead himself ascribes personal qualities to God (consciousness, purpose, freedom, and creativity); his God is by no means an impersonal principle, as some of his critics have claimed. But Whitehead does refrain from calling God a ‘person’, which he thinks of as a succession of moments of experience with a special continuity. He allows for real becoming in God, and yet wants to treat God’s existence throughout time as a single occasion, since it involves complete self-identity and no loss of what is past. Cobb argues that it would be consistent with Whitehead’s own understanding of God’s becoming, as well as with the biblical tradition, to consider God a ‘living person’, an infinite succession of occasions.22 God would be the pre-eminent person in a community of interacting beings. Cobb’s writings develop the pluralism and personalism of the process model.

5. Models, Paradigms and Metaphysics

In previous chapters it has been suggested that the basic assumptions of a paradigm community influence its choice of models. It has been shown that models have important non-cognitive functions, especially in the expression and evocation of attitudes. In addition, it has been argued that models lead to beliefs which can be evaluated by criteria that are at least partially independent of particular paradigms, including simplicity, conformity to experience, coherence and comprehensiveness. I can indicate in only the briefest way how these considerations might be applied to the five models discussed above.

The priority of the monarchial model seems to be supported by the centrality of numinous experience and worship in the Christian tradition. But serious questions can be raised as to whether the doctrine of omnipotence to which it has led is compatible with the example of Christ the exemplar, on the one hand, or with human experience, especially with regard to human freedom and the existence of evil, on the other. The dialogic model does not encounter these difficulties, and is particularly suitable for interpreting the Christian experience of reconciliation overcoming estrangement, and the more personal dimensions of guilt and forgiveness. But neither the monarchial nor the dialogic model illuminates the relation of God and man to nature as understood by modem science, which a sufficiently comprehensive model must take into account.

It is in relating God to nature that the deistic and agent models purport to be most helpful. But the mechanistic view of nature in deism can itself be challenged, as we will see, from the standpoint of post-Newtonian science. The clockmaker God, who leaves the world-machine to run on its own, is neither an object of worship nor a participant in human experience, and bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible. The agent model is closer to the biblical tradition when it identifies God by his actions and intentions. The language of intentions need not conflict with the language of scientific law in describing either human or divine action. But most expositions of the agent model offer the analogy of the world as God’s body, which seems to jeopardize the independence of other agents and the freedom of man.

It appears that the strength of the dialogic model lies in its ability to depict God’s relation to man, whereas the agent model is most valuable in depicting God’s relation to nature. It might be proposed that these two models should be treated as complementary; the strengths of one seem to be precisely the weaknesses of the other. But I will propose instead that, if the process model is given priority, then nature, man and God can all be coherently represented; the other models would then serve secondary roles in thinking about particular interactions within the more inclusive process model.

I have maintained that one of the principal functions of religious language is the interpretation of religious experience and corporate history. The context of religious discourse is the worshipping community. Writings in process philosophy, by contrast, seem abstract and speculative. The God of metaphysics seems to serve quite different functions from the God of worship. He is described in philosophical and ontological categories, rather than the historical and personal categories of the Bible. But this criticism is less impressive if we look at the theological use of these philosophical categories in the interpretation of the experiences which the paradigm community considers most significant. I submit that the idea of a God of persuasion is particularly appropriate to the experience of reconciliation and to the historical person of Christ.

A number of authors have made use of process categories in the expression of Christian theology.23 The process model leads to an emphasis on certain biblical themes which were minimized in later Christian thought, such as God’s participation in temporal process and the vulnerability of suffering love. Process theology abandons the model of the absolute monarch but retains a personal model of God and his role in the cosmic society. In the last analysis, the most central Christian model for God is not a king or a clockmaker but the person of Christ himself In that person it is love, even more than Justice or power, which is manifest. Process theology reiterates on a cosmic scale the motif of the cross, the power of a love which accepts suffering.

To the Christian community, then, Christ is more than a historical exemplar; he is a model for God. But process thought, by envisaging the Christ-model within the larger model of the cosmic society, can preserve a number of features of the other models expounded above. In portraying God’s relationship to man, the interpersonal character of the dialogic model can be retained, without neglecting other beings or the social context within which such dialogue occurs. In portraying God’s relationship to nature, there is represented both the interdependence of all beings and their significant independence, which the agent model tends to compromise.

But could one worship the God of process theology? In a widely reprinted essay, J. N. Findlay claimed that only a necessary being is a fitting object of worship.24 In a recent book, H. P. Owen contends that worship, adoration and self-commitment can only be given to a God who is self-existent and ‘sovereign over all that exists’. ‘We cannot validly commit ourselves without reservation to God’s loving providence unless all things are completely subject to his power’.25 In reply, one might cite an article in which Peter Appleby concludes that the religious attitudes of trust, love, awe, gratitude and repentance presuppose a personal deity, but not a necessary or omnipotent being.26 Process theologians have held that it is God’s goodness, not his power, which justifies reverence and worship, though presumably a totally impotent deity would evoke pity more than respect. In any case, the process God, though not omnipotent, is not dependent on the world as the world is dependent on him; his ideal purposes are not contingent on events in the world. Every being is indebted to God for its existence as well as for the order of possibilities it can actualize. In Whitehead’s words, ‘God is not before all creation but with all creation.’ Such a God is surely worthy of worship.

Next, it should not be overlooked that any model of God’s relation to nature reflects a particular view of nature. In the Newtonian view, which prevailed until the last century, nature was essentially static, with all things presumed to have been created in their present forms. Nature was deterministic, its future in principle predictable from knowledge of the present. The model of clock and clockmaker seemed entirely appropriate. But today nature is seen as a dynamic process of becoming, always changing and developing, radically temporal in character; this is an incomplete cosmos still coming into being. Nature is unpredictable, especially at the level of quantum physics; the billiard-ball model is outdated. Evolution is a creative process whose outcome is not predictable. It is just this combination of order and creativity which process thought seeks to interpret. Considerable scientific evidence supporting the unity of man and nature could also be adduced.

Process thought provides distinctive analyses of the problems of freedom and evil. The ways in which freedom is built into process metaphysics from the outset have already been indicated. If the classical ideas of omnipotence and predestination are given up, God is exonerated of responsibility for natural evil. If no event is the product of God’s agency alone, he works with a world, given to him in every moment, which never fully embodies his will. The creatures, and above all man, are free to reject the higher vision. Suffer in is inevitable in a world of beings with conflicting goals. Pain is part of the price of consciousness and intensity of feeling. In an evolutionary world, struggle is integral to the realization of greater value. As Teilhard de Chardin maintained, evil is intrinsic to an evolving cosmos as it would not be to an instantaneous creation. Suffering and death are not punishments for sin but structural concomitants of what he called ‘the immense travail’ of a world in birth.27

The ethical implications of process thought should also be considered if indeed the evocation of attitudes is an important function of religious language. Process theology pictures a teleological universe in which love is central and man has an important role. Too often in the past we have viewed God as the authoritarian judge, the represser of human vitalities. Process thought sees him as the fulfiller of man, calling forth our capacities for a more fully human existence. Our own responsibility is enhanced if we believe that God does nothing by himself. We are co-creators in an unfinished universe, participants in God’s continuing work. God calls us to love, freedom and justice. Time, history and nature are to be affirmed, for it is here that God’s everlasting purposes can be carried forward.

We may observe also that process thought encourages attitudes towards nature conducive to ecological awareness. It stresses the interdependence of man and nature, instead of treating nature as an object alien to man. Its theme of divine immanence would engender respect for the natural world. Process thinkers have offered a theology of nature -- a topic sadly neglected in neo-orthodoxy, existentialism, and most other twentieth-century schools of Christian thought -- and it would strongly support an environmental ethic.28

Finally, an evaluation of process theology would have to assess the wider system of process metaphysics according to the criteria presented in Chapter 7 above. It could be shown to rate highly in coherence (internal consistency and systematic interrelatedness) and comprehensiveness (the ordering of diverse types of experience). Does it adequately represent the diversity of experience? I have said that metaphysical systems tend to distort the pluralism and variety of experience; in the interests of coherence and comprehensiveness they tend to impose a set of categories from one domain as the key to the interpretation of all domains. Fidelity to experience, I have urged, comes before simplicity and comprehensiveness. In particular, the ‘panpsychist’ theme in process thought can be criticized for failing to distinguish sufficiently between animate and inanimate beings. It should be noted, however, that Whitehead does allow great diversity in the ways in which his fundamental categories are applied to different levels of being; he does not, for instance, ascribe consciousness to lower-level organisms, much less to inanimate objects. With regard to the higher levels, it may be questioned whether Whitehead’s account of the continuity and identity of the human self is satisfactory.

I have maintained that the use of metaphysical categories in theology is inescapable, but that the theologian should be cautious about identifying religious beliefs with any closed metaphysical system. All theologians use metaphysical categories, especially in discussing God’s relation to nature; Augustine was indebted to Plato, Aquinas to Aristotle, Barth to Kant (despite his disclaimers). Christianity cannot be equated with any particular philosophical synthesis, and the absolute claims for a metaphysical system which characterized medieval Christendom should be avoided. The theologian must adapt, not adopt, a metaphysics; many of the process insights can be accepted without accepting the total Whiteheadian scheme. These insights can lead to the modification of classical religious models so that they more accurately reflect the experience of the Christian community. I hope to explore these substantive questions in another volume. In this chapter I have referred to them only as an illustration of relationships between models, paradigms, and experience.


1. Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, pp. 162 ff.; also Systematic Theology, vol. II.

2. William Austin, ‘Waves, Particles and Paradoxes’, Rice University Studies, vol. 53, 1967, pp. 85 ff.

3. Ibid., p.90.

4. John McIntyre, The Shape of Christology, SCM Press and Westminster Press 1966.

5. Ibid., p.173.

6. Ibid., pp. 73 ff.

7. Ibid., pp. 173, 175.

8. Ibid., pp.79-81.

9. See Ewart Cousins, ‘Models and the Future of Theology’, Continuum, vol.7, 1969, p.84.

10. Some of these atonement models are discussed in Ramsey, Christian Discourse, chap. 2.

11. See Alan R. White (ed.), The Philosophy of Action, Oxford University Press 1968; Norman Care and Charles Landesman, Readings in the Theory of Action, Indiana University Press 1968.

12. Gordon Kaufman, ‘On the Meaning of "Act of God"’, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 61, 1968, p.175.

13. John J. Compton, ‘Science and God’s Action in Nature’, in Ian G. Barbour (ed.), Earth Might Be Fair; Reflections on Ethics, Religion and Ecology, Prentice-Hall 1972, p.39.

14. Kai Nielsen, Contemporary of Religion, chap. 6; cf. Paul Edwards, ‘Difficulties in the Idea of God’, and reply by Donald Evans, in E. H. Madden, R. Handy and M. Farber (eds.), The Idea of God, Charles Thomas 1968.

15. Robert King, ‘The Conceivability of God’, Religious Studies, vol. 9, 1973, p.39; see also his The Meaning of God, Fortress Press 1973.

16. Compton, op. cit., pp. 42, 47.

17. I have discussed process thought at greater length in Issues in Science and Religion, chap. 13, and Science and Secularity, pp. 46-57.

18. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Allen & Unwin and Macmillan 1929; Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics, Macmillan 1958; William Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics, Yale University Press 1959.

19. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 532.

20. Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity, Yale University Press 1948, p.90.

21. Charles Hartshorne, Reality as Social Process, The Free Press 1953, p. 142; also The Logic of Perfection, Open Court Publishing Co. 1962, chap. 7 and Man’s Vision of God, Willett, Clark & Co. 1941, chap. 5.

22. Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology, p.189.

23. For example, John B. Cobb, God and the World, Westminster Press 1969; Eugene Peters, The Creative Advance, Bethany Press 1966; Peter Hamilton, The Living God and the Modern World, Hodder & Stoughton and Pilgrim Press 1967; Norman Pittenger, Alfred North Whitehead, John Knox Press 1969.

24. J. N. Findlay, ‘Can God’s Existence Be Disproved?’ in Flew and MacIntyre (eds.), New Essays.

25. H. P. Owen, Concepts of Deity, Macmillan 1971, p. 57.

26. Peter Appleby, ‘On Religious Attitudes’, Religious Studies, vol. 6, 1970, p.359.

27. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man trans. N. Denny, Collins and Harper & Row 1964, p.90.

28. See Ian G. Barbour, ‘Attitudes toward Nature and Technology’, in Barbour (ed.), Earth Might Be Fair; also John B. Cobb, Is It Too Late? Bruce Publishing Co. 1972.

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