What Is Process Theology? by Robert B. Mellert
Dr. Mellert is an assistant professor in the department of theological studies at the University of Dayton. Published by Paulist Press, New York, Paramus, Toronto, 1975. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: Creation, Grace, Glory and the Kingdom
When first published, Whiteheadís reflections about God were favorably received neither by his colleagues in the sciences nor by the religious thinkers who read his works. Scientists, who had come to know him for his careful empirical thinking, were confounded that he considered it important to include God as an essential part of his theoretical system. He seemed thereby to compromise their unspoken professional agnosticism and to mix religious matters with matters of fact. At the same time, he scandalized churchmen because his explanation seemed irreconcilable with their traditional understanding of God, and sometimes it even sounded blasphemous. God was no longer the unmoved mover, the Supreme Being, or the Creator of heaven and earth. There seemed precious little in Whiteheadís deity that could, by previous standards, even be recognized as divine.
As Whiteheadís thought became better understood among academic theologians and philosophers, it attracted a small but staunch group of followers who found his explanation of God to be both intellectually satisfying and religiously credible. Professor John Cobb, for example, says that Whiteheadís philosophy freed him to speak about God in a way that had been previously impossible for him.1 Others, too, have been persuaded, but for the most part they are members of the academic community interested in theology or philosophy. Whiteheadís insights are only gradually being filtered down for popular understanding and appraisal.
The most persuasive aspect of Whiteheadís God from a purely speculative point of view is that he can be integrally related to the world. Rather than the theologically tenuous points of contact between God and the world offered by most other theologies, process thought suggests that God is intimately a part of the world, and that the world is intimately a part of God. Indeed, for Whitehead, God is unthinkable without the world, and the world is unthinkable without God. God, no less than the world, is a relational term, because God must be the God of something to be a God at all. God needs a world in order to be God, just as the world needs God in order to be a world. Whiteheadís basic insight is that the need of each is completed only in its essential relation to the other.
There are two fundamental relationships between God and the world that every theology must consider. One is the relation of God to the world: the other is the relation of the world to God.
In Thomistic thought, the relation of God to the world is called a real relation. This is a technical phrase to describe that the relation constitutes the term of the relationship. That is to say, the term or object of the relation -- in this case, the world -- could not be what it is except for its relationship to the origin, or subject of the relation, namely, God. There are two ways in which this relation is expressed. In the first, God is related to the world as its creator, without whom the world would not exist. In the second, God is related to his people on earth in the order of grace, or supernatural life.
The first of these is the natural order. God is the Creator of all that exists, and he created all things ex nihilo (from nothing). His creatures are of many and differing kinds and species. Among them is man, who is unique in that he is composed of both matter and spirit. Manís body is formed from the dust of the earth, but the soul is created by an individual act of God, at which moment the new human person comes into being. The soul is the spiritual part of man that enables him to be receptive to a sharing in the divine life. The individual creation of the soul and the gift of grace which God offers to it illustrate the second, or supernatural way in which God is related to the world. This relationship is expressed by various concepts in Christian theology, such as grace, divine in-dwelling, participation in the divine life, reconciliation, justification, etc. It is a supernatural relationship because it refers to the disposition of manís soul without affecting what man is in his human nature. By it, the believer is constituted a child of God, as well as Godís creature.
The other relationship, that of the world to God, is in Thomistic theory a rational relation. This, again, is a technical phrase to designate that the relation only accidentally affects the term of the relation. That is to say, the relation simply adds something extrinsic to the object of the relation, without determining in any way what that object is in itself. In this context Thomistic thought often speaks about Godís extrinsic glory. It is the glory that the world gives to God by acknowledging his lordship in worship and obedience. It is distinguished from Godís intrinsic glory, which he has eternally in himself as Supreme Being, and to which his creatures can add nothing. At the end of the world the kingdom of God will be established such that God will receive the maximum external glory. The realization of the kingdom will in no way complete God or give him something of which he is in need, for Godís intrinsic glory is independent of the status of the kingdomís perfection. God cannot be affected by his creatures except in an extrinsic, accidental way.
A theology based upon Whiteheadian thought differs radically from Thomistic theology in the way in which it describes the concepts of creation, grace, glory and the kingdom. But it can explain them coherently within its own philosophical system. This is what we shall now attempt to do. First, we shall consider the relation in which the two theologies are somewhat alike, that is, the relation of God to the world. This relation includes the concepts of grace and creation.
For Whitehead, as for Thomas, the relation of God to the world is a real, or constitutive relation. God is a formative element in the process or creativity. However, Whitehead rejects the mythical sense of creation in which God is an eternal Being who suddenly starts the time-clocks by an act of creating the material universe, including man. This account of creation, which holds that God created all things ex nihilo, does not explain whether or not God was a part of the nothingness out of which creation appeared. Whitehead wishes to avoid the controversy over whether there was before the beginning of things a Creator God who was and still is truly real and omnipotent. He rather affirms categorically that God is a real entity co-extensive in time with the reality of the universe, and that creativity is a way of understanding the whole process of reality, not the beginnings of reality. God, because he is real, corresponds to the categories of all reality by himself being an actual entity. Whether there was a first such entity and how it originated cannot be solved by pushing things back to the beginning, because the beginning of reality is ultimately unexplainable. The only explanation available to us comes from looking at the nature of process as a whole.
Whitehead thus demythologizes the notion of an original act of creation. He describes instead a moment-by-moment emergence of an infinite variety of actual occasions of experience, which he calls "creativity." This process of creativity is, as we have seen, one of the ultimate principles in his scheme of thought. The nature of all reality is that it becomes. The concrete actualization of each new occasion takes place when the actual entity of God contributes an initial subjective aim to the convergence of prehensions at the appropriate locus in time and space. Consequently, while it is problematic to say that God creates ex nihilo, there is no difficulty in saying that God is like all other actual entities in that he makes a contribution to the concrete emergence of each actual occasion.
There is another way in which God contributes to the world, and that is by offering himself as an actual entity to be prehended. Each emerging actual occasion must take account of God, either positively or negatively, because God is part of the data of its relevant past and the one who makes available all possibility. In prehending God, therefore, the emerging occasion prehends not only the totality of reality as envisaged from its own particular perspective, but also the totality of possibility that is relevant to its own unique becoming. Thus, there is an envisagement of both the real and the possible. This is how God lures the world on to more interesting harmonies and contrasts.
One might argue that in fact Godís contribution of an initial aim and his contribution of himself as a datum of prehension are one and the same. Surely they are part of the same general relationship of God to the world. However, an emerging occasion has no freedom regarding its initial aim, which is posited as Godís formative contribution to that occasion. It does have freedom regarding the way in which it prehends God; otherwise a divine determination would control everything and God would not be a "fellow sufferer who understands."2
If this is correct, then there is a ready parallel to traditional Christian belief. For there are ways in which Godís will is final for reality, such as the original act of creation and the individual creation of each manís soul. And there are ways in which Godís actions upon us still leave us free, such as our acceptance or rejection of grace.
We can conclude, then, that there is a correspondence between Whiteheadís ideas regarding Godís relation to the world and the Christian beliefs about creation and grace. Although Whitehead would not posit divine creation as an explanation of the temporal origin of reality, he does ascribe to God a creative function in the emergence of each actual occasion. This function, which is Godís giving of an initial aim to each new occasion, is more like the individual creation of each human soul than the single act by which matter was created. This is appropriate, because Whitehead finds the conceptual as well as the physical in every actual occasion and thus assigns an element of spirit and self-determination to each of them.
There is further correspondence in the doctrine of grace and Whiteheadís theory of prehensions. Each actual occasion must take account of God by prehending him positively or negatively. In other words, Godís grace is always available in each new moment of history. But the free choice of each historical moment or occasion determines to what extent the influence of God will be allowed to enter into the concrete process. How each occasion chooses so as to maximize the importance of divinity for its own becoming constitutes its moral imperative. This will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter.
While the relation of God to the world is similar in both Thomistic theology and process theology in that it is a real relation in both, there is a fundamental difference between the two theologies in explaining the relation of the world to God. For Thomists, as we have seen, this relation is a rational, or accidental relation. For Whiteheadians, it is a real, or constitutive relation.
If it is true to say that God is an integral element in the creative advance of the world by the ways in which he contributes himself to it, it is also true to say that the world contributes itself to the becoming of God. This is because every actual occasion, when it perishes, is added to the consequent nature of God, where it is everlastingly preserved in an objective state. The objectification of past actual occasions in the consequent nature constitutes the sum of Godís physical prehensions. Without them, God would not be an actual entity and hence devoid of reality. Because the world contributes what it is physically to the everlasting nature of God, there is a legitimate sense in which we can say that the world makes God real, and without a world, there could be no real God.
Furthermore, when God prehends the world and takes it into himself in his consequent nature, he is thereby changed. As a result, process theology can affirm that what happens in the world does make a difference in God. In this sense, man does "create" his God, as Sigmund Freud and others have suggested. When properly qualified, even the Christian can believe this, because without something from the world that redounds back upon God, the world in its totality would have no meaning at all. In Thomistic theology this is Godís extrinsic glory. It is the worldís contribution to God. But whereas the latter describes this glory as only accidental to what God is in himself, process theology affirms that this contribution changes God and causes his divine becoming. Indeed, process thought maintains that the very reality of Godís concrete nature is completely dependent upon what each actual occasion of experience contributes to it. Everything that man does changes what God is essentially, because the relation of the world to God is a real relation and is thus constitutive of the term of that relation. God becomes because the world becomes. In Whiteheadís paradoxical language, "It is as true to say that God creates the world as that the world creates God."3
The addition of each actual occasion in the consequent nature of God means that God must be understood as a multiplicity as well as a single entity. This multiplicity is God in his function as kingdom of heaven. As every actual occasion perishes, it is preserved everlastingly in the consequent nature of God and it is immortalized as part of the kingdom. For God loses nothing that is to be saved. He takes all things up into himself and thereby manifests his kingdom. The kingdom of heaven, then, is already with us, in what God is drawing to himself.
It would be difficult to decide which is the more poetic description of the kingdom -- Whiteheadís notion of the consequent nature of God or the traditional notion of heaven. There is surely a difference. For Whitehead, the kingdom includes more than merely rational beings. Each moment of creation finds its place in the divine reality, because each occasion manifests a conceptual as well as a physical aspect. Salvation is for all reality, because all reality has value for God and is saved by God. Everything ultimately contributes its own reality to the reality that is God.
This theme is already familiar to many Christians, especially to Catholics, in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For Teilhard, there is a culminative point in process, called the Omega Point, when all that emanated from God in creation returns to God in perfection. For Whitehead, there is no culminative point for the same reason that there is no beginning point. There is a cumulative effect as process continues. The many become one and are increased by one. The kingdom of God is always incomplete and always increasing. Indeed, God himself is incomplete and increasing, because the kingdom is identical with Godís own consequent nature. It is not outside of God, to be ultimately reconciled with him, but is rather an aspect of God himself and in constant reconciliation with him. Heaven is not merely seeing God face to face. It is being a part of God and sharing his divine life. The God who gives himself to us in grace is the God to whom we give ourselves in immortality. And just as our acceptance of God enables us to have supernatural life, so Godís acceptance of us enables him to have physical life.
Both Teilhard and Whitehead have been criticized on this point for suggesting that ultimately God includes the world in himself. Such a notion treads dangerously near pantheism, which has never been acceptable to Christian faith. Briefly, pantheism is the doctrine that God is nothing more nor less than the totality of reality, and that only the world deserves our worship because only it is divine. There is, however, a great difference between Whiteheadís description of God and the pantheistís description. In the former, God includes within himself the totality of reality, but he is not identical to that totality. God is a reality distinct from the collectivity of all other reality. This notion of God as including reality and yet being his own reality is called panentheism. Literally, it means "all in God." Unquestionably, it is a different description of God from that proposed by traditional theology, but it is not the same as the pantheism that Christian faith consistently has rejected.
Panentheism is actually a middle position between the transcendent, immutable God of Scholastic theology and the deification of the world in pantheism. It posits the individuality and uniqueness of God in a way that is not possible for pantheism. In Whiteheadian theology, for example, God is a unique, individual entity in at least two ways. First of all, he is the macrocosmic unity of all reality. Because in a philosophy of organism such as Whiteheadís, the whole is more than the mere sum of its parts, the unity of reality is more than the collection of all reality. The macrocosmic unity is itself an actual entity with its own reality in addition to the totality of reality that constitutes it. In this way, then, God is at the same time both the totality of reality and the actual entity that is this totality. Secondly, this unique actual entity, or organism, is the context or structure in which all the rest of reality becomes, because it includes both the totality of the past and the totality of possibility. In this way, too, God is an entity distinct from reality taken as a whole. Hence, the process theologian can talk about God as a real entity in his own right and yet maintain that all things are incorporated into God where they form his kingdom everlastingly.
The process theologianís God, therefore, is both similar to and different from traditional theism and pantheism. It agrees with traditional theism and differs from pantheism in maintaining Godís individuality -- that he is more than the structure and totality of the cosmos and that he is in one sense distinct from it. It agrees with pantheism and differs from traditional theism in maintaining Godís immanence to the world -- that he is in all reality and that all reality is in him. In this sense reality is identifiable with the deity, for Godís reality cannot be less or other than all-inclusive of the structure and totality of reality in the cosmos. This is the middle way of panentheism. It is a way never formally considered by the Christian faith, and its ultimate acceptance or rejection will be determined only by whether it can persuade Christians that it is a more suitable explanation of what they believe about God than the traditional explanations.
The chief advantage of panentheism over traditional theism is that it more adequately describes the divine immanence in the world without compromising the divine transcendence. The latter is manifest in the fact that God is a unique actual entity, different from any other entity that has existed or can exist. And yet the function of that entity -- indeed that which makes him unique -- is to be immanent to the world and to take the world immanently into himself. This is the result of describing the relations of God to the world and the world to God as both being real relations. God is comprehensible only because of the world, and the world is comprehensible only because of God.
Traditional theology has always been faced with a certain ambiguity on this issue. On the one hand, God is seen as transcendent, other-worldly, and self-sufficient. He is essentially an outsider who created all things in the beginning and occasionally reaches back into the world in order to influence the process of events by his grace. But that process in no way influences the eternal Being of God. To the extent that traditional theology speaks about God in himself, he is transcendent; to the extent that it speaks about Godís grace, he is immanent. But how the transcendent God bridges the gap to become immanent, and why his grace touches some events and not others, are left to the realm of mystery.
Process theology, on the contrary, provides the believer with a God who is equally immanent and transcendent. In fact, given the process philosophical perspective, the difficulty does not even arise. God is really in the world, an integral part of its process. He touches each actual entity, not from the outside, but from within the process itself. He is constantly contributing himself to the whole of reality through the prehensive activity of all other actual entities. Each moment becomes what it is because of Godís contribution both of an initial aim and of himself as datum for the emergence of the new occasion. God touches all things because he is really a part of all things. He is his own self, and thus transcendent, but he is also within and indeed woven into the very tissue of each actual occasion in a most intimate way.
At the same time all things are immanent to God and touch him in his consequent nature. They touch God immanently because they are really a part of God as constitutive elements of that nature. Immanence, therefore, is a mutual relationship between God and the world. Indeed, mutuality is the condition for a genuine Immanence. This is why process theology holds that the relations both of God to the world and the world to God are real relations, and why it rejects the Scholastic notion that there can be a rational, or accidental relation of the world to God.
1. Cf., for example, his two books, A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965) and God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969).
2. Process and Reality, op. cit., p.413.
3. Ibid., p.410.