Concerning Creativity and God: A Response

by Robert Neville

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

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.1-10, Vol. 11, Number 1, Spring , 1981. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Neville discusses criticisms of his thoughts by Hartshorne, Cobb and Ford. Freedom, Biblicism and dialogue are the main topics in which there is disagreement.

The generous critical attention Hartshorne, Cobb, and Ford have focused on my small book (CG) should be the envy of any author (PS 10:73-88). The greatest true respect one can pay an author’s work is to take it seriously enough to attempt to refute it. I tried to do this for the authors of process theology, and they have repaid that respect with a generosity that humbles while it flatters. John Cobb is surely right when he argues that all conceptual schemes are wanting in their own cogency and in need of sympathetic, frank criticism. Not only to have registered a critical response to process theology but to have evoked serious criticism in return is more than I had dared to hope.

There are too many points of debate raised by the papers to be taken up comprehensively. I can consider here only certain major themes, mainly those that are important to more than one of the critics, beginning with the technical interpretation of process theology and extending to those more generally problematic for the relation between philosophy, theology, tradition, and religious experience.

The first topic, technical in its formulation but at the heart of nearly all the other topics, is whether the subjective immediacy of an occasion’s coming-to-be perishes with the attainment of satisfaction. Over against Ford and me, Hartshorne and Cobb claim that the subjective immediacy does not perish and is available for being prehended by subsequent occasions. This continuity of immediacy is the license for what Cobb so nicely calls the "intimacy" between God and man, and my failure to accept that continuity accounts for the alienation I see between ourselves and Whitehead’s God. Whitehead himself would have rejected the claim of continuity, I suspect, because he was very concerned to articulate the special category of "hybrid physical prehensions." If subjective immediacy is continuous, then all physical prehensions would be hybrid physical prehensions, resulting in an extreme panpsychism embraced by Hartshorne more fully than by Whitehead. But as Ford can probably tell us, there must have been a season or two in which Whitehead did accept the doctrine of continuity of subjective immediacy.

Of course we are not bound by Whitehead, and it is a matter of fundamental philosophical strategy which principles to make basic and which to make derivative. To declare continuity of immediacy to be basic, with Hartshorne and Cobb, secures the advantages mentioned for process theism. But it abandons what I take to be Whitehead’s greatest metaphysical contribution, namely his sharp distinction between genetic and coordinate analysis. Genetic analysis attends to the subjective coming-to-be of an occasion, arising from past physical things and finding satisfaction in a definiteness that itself takes up or makes a new physical position. Coordinate analysis attends to the objective orders within which finished occasions fall. Whitehead’s monumental construction of post-Cartesian philosophy, articulating the full and total integrity of intentionality through genetic analysis and the frill and total integrity of scientific order through coordinate analysis, depends entirely on allowing that the satisfaction aimed at by subjective coming-to-be is identical with objective physical fact available for subsequent prehension. If the satisfaction, once attained, is not wholly physical and objective, then the genetic and coordinate domains are either sundered or the distinction between them ignored. The latter would happen if subjective immediacy were continuous from one occasion to another. This seems to me a retrogression to a pre-Whiteheadian vitalism. I prefer many metaphysical advantages which come from distinguishing the genetic from the coordinate, with its consequence that subjective immediacy is the existential heart of each new moment, to the theological advantages of continuity with its vitalistic implications.

As for Hartshorne’s argument "that the satisfaction contains its process of becoming (‘the being cannot be abstracted from the becoming’), so that to prehend a past satisfaction is to prehend the becoming," I simply do not see how this can be so on anything like Whiteheadian grounds. Becoming is a process of making indefinite things definite, and when they are all definite, there is no more becoming, only being, the satisfaction. Becoming cannot be a term in a relation so as to be contained in a subsequent prehension because it has no existence except in its satisfaction, which is no longer becoming. To prehend a becoming might be possible on a vitalist’s view in which an occasion becomes from its earlier to later temporal phases; this is to make becoming a matter of coordinate disposition, an Aristotelian and pre-Whiteheadian supposition.

Whitehead’s distinction between genetic and coordinate analysis rests on the conceptual innovation that becoming is from nothing but past finished data to the whole finished occasion with its temporal stretch, constituting the occasion’s earlier and later temporal phases in the outcome, not as a frame for the becoming itself. Because becoming has such importance for me as self-creative, and is not to be construed merely as volatile being, it is apparent why my own view of God requires divine presence in the fount of becoming, not only in data prehended (cf. CC).

Hartshorne also argues that "it is part of the meaning of ‘event’ to be destined to be prehended by subsequent events, this destiny constituting the very ‘being’ of the event." Now strictly speaking, the "being" of an event is its objectivity or availability to be prehended by subsequent events. "Destiny" is too strong a term for the event’s being, because it requires, beyond the being of the event, the continued applicability of the category of the ultimate. That is, there must be subsequent events for the earlier event to have a destiny, and those subsequent events must have their own existential coming-to-be in order to take up the being of prior events to give them a destiny. Hartshorne has shown better than anyone that the set of past events by itself does not produce its new integration in another event. But this removes the weight of ontology -- why there is something rather than nothing -- from the being of occasions to the category of the ultimate, creativity producing new ones out of manys.

If the category of the ultimate should fail to operate, then there could easily be a last moment, followed by the everlasting availability of finished occasions to be prehended with no emerging occasions to prehend them. The importance of the category of the ultimate cannot overlooked or translated into the mere momentum of becoming. For creativity not only integrates past occasions into a new occasion but also constitutes a fundamental ontological togetherness wherein the subjective creativity of emergent occasions is relevant to the facts of past occasions. The genius of Whitehead’s defense of novelty was to see that occasions have their own existence by which they take up and tie themselves to their neighbors. The togetherness involved in being mutually relevant at the ontological level cannot be reduced to the mere conditioning which the later occasion has from the past. The ontological togetherness of mutual relevance itself makes possible the conditioning of the later by the earlier through prehension. This is why Whitehead gave the category of the ultimate its honorific title and analyzed it as many, one, and creativity rather than many, one, and unification.

This brings us to the point made most acutely by Cobb, namely the thesis that "every plurality cries aloud for explanation in terms of a unity." Although he attributes this thesis to me, I agree with him in rejecting it, for many reasons. If a unity lies behind the plurality of earlier and later, there is no novelty. If two things are unified by a third, they must be unified with the third by a fourth and fifth, ad infinitum. And experientially, I agree with Cobb that any fact of definiteness requires a plurality of other definite things. I even go so far as to say that the category of the ultimate itself, having one, many, and creativity, is a plurality, not a self-evident, self-explaining, or self-sustaining unity.

What may have led Cobb to attribute love of unity to me is my advocacy of Whitehead’s ontological principle, namely, that any plurality cries aloud for explanation in terms of decisions. The decisions are what put complex pluralities together in mutual relevance with one another. Decisions have no more unity to them than is contained in what they decide, the togetherness in their products.

Cosmological schemes like Whitehead’s indicate where to look for the various decisions determining actual entities. But what decisions account for the complexity in the categoreal scheme? In particular, what decision makes there be the category of the ultimate? I agree with Cobb that the category of the ultimate, or "creativity" taken as shorthand for that, expresses the most basic "what is" of things. But according to the ontological principle, that "what is," being complex, must be the result of some decision. The decision is not another being, and it has no determinate character other than what it decides; but following the ontological tradition in the West and my own religious experience I still can call it divine. The category of the ultimate, and even the ontological principle, therefore, must be elements in the primordial created fact, in the dyad, the second hypostasis, themselves created. To this sensibility, and in light of this argument, even the most self-surpassing of actual entities is a pallid candidate for divinity.

To avoid my consequence it is necessary to cut off the ontological principle from application to ultimate matters, as Whitehead was willing himself to do. This seems to me sheer arbitrariness. Hartshorne finds my extension of the principle "subtly ambiguous." He argues that "contingency is not in definite complexity but in particular complexity, like the complexity and determinateness of two apples." This allows him to say that the pair of apples are created but that pairedness is not. But this begs the question, from my standpoint. The decisions resulting in the two apples are to be found in concrete past occasions, as well as in their own existence. The decisions resulting in eternal objects or truths cannot be of that sort.

But this does not prove that they do not result from decision. Even Whitehead extended the ontological principle so far as to say that any relational quality of eternal objects had to result from divine decision; prior to that decision eternal objects are indeterminate with respect to each other so that a pair would be neither greater nor less than a one or three. On my view, and Whitehead’s, it is not particularity that wants a decision but definiteness, and definiteness applies to the universal and necessary as well as to the particular and temporally contingent.

Even granting Hartshorne’s claim that metaphysical principles are a priori, incapable of falsification, the requirement of a decision still holds. For, the question is not how these metaphysical principles could be otherwise, which might indeed be inconceivable, but rather why there is this definiteness rather than no definiteness. To conceive that definiteness results from decision does not require conceiving some positive, pure indefiniteness; in fact, given the created intelligibles, we cannot help but think that this definiteness exists and testifies to its founding decision.

Up to now Ford has likely agreed with most of my claims about the perishing of immediacy, the individual integrity of occasions, and the dependency of all definiteness upon decision, however he would modify them. But he would say that God is not the creator defining the category of the ultimate or any such, but in his modification of Whitehead’s theology claim that God is the future. This is a radical reversal of the usual line of process theology. For Ford the future is a dynamic field in which abstract possibilities are continually readjusted to the changes of present actualities so as to produce immediately relevant concrete potentialities. God’s divine mind is the creative adjusting here, and God’s reality is the always unfinished concrescence of that dynamic future field. God is deficient in concrete actuality, as Whitehead said, because every time the adjusting of abstract possibilities to concrete events butts up against complete definiteness, the existence that makes the final decision shifts from God to the presently emerging creatures. Whereas Ford’s novel theory deserves deep consideration in its own right, for present purposes I can consider it only with respect to the special advantages he claims for it.

First, it allows him to say creatures’ freedom is distinct from God’s freedom, because the decisions they make are different. Note, however, that the very independence of the existential acts of God and creatures underscores the need to which I called attention earlier for a deeper decision making present and future mutually relevant. For if God is the future with its own existential decisive acts and if creature’s existential acts, being present, are different, how do the possibilities get from God to the creatures? Not by the existential acts of either God or creatures but by a prior or deeper establishment of them in mutual relation. Whereas Whitehead could define past and future by reference to decisive existential events which are present by definition, Ford defines at least the future by reference to possibilities whose careers must pass from one decisive agent to another.

Even supposing that the problem of mutual relevance of present and future were solved, I doubt this still would allow the kind of freedom process theologians want in creatures. For, instead of having creatures create their own possibilities within the limitations of the fixed past, Ford would have God arrange the possibilities down to the last step before definiteness. Admittedly the final decisive act is the creature’s, but if God has circumscribed the possibilities down to the next to last decision, the creatures can do hardly more than ratify God’s set up. Human freedom requires not only that the decision be identified as the person’s own reality but that the decision have a free range over significant options.

Ford’s view shares the difficulty I find in Cobb’s view, namely that God’s input, even if vague enough to be altered or made more determinate by the creature, is an external imposition magnified to divine proportions. It is a separate issue whether God’s lures (for Cobb) or arranged potentialities (for Ford) are loving addresses calling forth loving responses. The issue here is the sufficiency of independence to make a responsible response. It seems to me that Ford as well as his colleagues hands human freedom a stacked deck, more stacked than experience indicates.

Ford’s second advantage for his view is that it allows every occasion to contribute to the divine experience. But this is so only insofar as God adjusts possibilities. God as future has no actual experience because that would require God to be past and therefore finished with respect to some later occasion.

The third advantage is that although God is responsible for potential coordination of the world, evil and conflict arise because creatures make the final decisions. But if evil is a way among others of finally resolving the possibilities God offers, is not God responsible for evil just to the degree, and in the same way, that God is responsible for good? On Ford’s view, God is responsible or the possibilities alone, and creatures for all actuality, and he should admit that evil, like good, is possible before actual.

The fourth advantage is that God and the world are represented in a mutual solidarity whereby God elicits order out of the relatively chaotic. But on Ford s account, the chaotic side cannot be in the world but must be in the relatively abstract possibilities, brought to greater determination by divine adjustment to the world. God, on Ford’s view, elicits nothing from the world but rather only presents the world with something, limits within which the world must respond. This is not divine guidance but quasi-fiat, the very thing that limits freedom.

The fifth advantage is that in responding to the world, God as future has contingent aspects that cannot be known philosophically. Of course on a creationist view like my own, anything contingent in the world is a contingent creation. But to say that God is influenced by independent actualities requires solving the problem mentioned above of making God and the world mutually relevant.

The sixth advantage of Ford’s new theory is that God is not said to be a being but always a becoming, and as such still exemplifies the categories. But then if God is always a becoming, there is never a divine being that can be prehended by creatures. God would have to be only the potentiality for a creature’s becoming a subject, never an object; and this is far from the biblical view Ford wants to support.

Let me now turn finally to three general topics concerning which my own view is criticized by Hartshorne, Cobb, and Ford. The topics are freedom, Biblicism, and dialogue.

To say as I do that human freedom is at once divine creativity can be taken to be a contradiction; worse, a monstrous view, both sadistic and masochistic, as Hartshorne acutely calls it. This surely would be the case if God is construed as an agent like a person, only separate and bigger and overwhelming. But what are the issues here? The first is whether the activities in question are genuinely the person’s, so that the choices between options are not forced by circumstances but rather constitute the person’s own decision-making. In my book The Cosmology of Freedom (CF) I believe I have shown how these questions about the identification of freedom and decision-making are cosmological matters to be understood in terms of the self-determining acts of things and their relations.

The second issue is whether God’s decisive acts interfere with human freedom. There is serious divine interference on the views that God provides either subjective aim in initial data or the prefigured possibilities, but God on my view does neither. Rather, God on my view creates the spontaneous features within a person’s decisions; the decisions are the person created, and since they are the person’s resolving of indefiniteness, they are that person’s responsibility. No other agent is responsible except the decision-maker. Similarly, God is the creator of spontaneous features in all past decisive occasions, and future ones as well, and therefore is the creator of all things, considering their mutual determination through the modes of time. This is the way God is the ground of mutual relevance of existentially independent yet conditioned things. But at no time does God s decision displace or modify what the creature’s decision otherwise would be. God in a local existent is the creature deciding in mutual relevance to the conditions for decision. In an ontological sense, of course, God is given responsibility for all decisions; yet God is not a separate being for which responsibility is an attribute. If the world is a mixture of evil and good, then God is as much responsible for the one as for the other -- or as little responsible. God is the empty creator of the full world, of whatever it is.

Cobb points out that my view is not at the center of the biblical tradition, that its antecedents are mystics like Meister Eckhardt, and that the dominant tradition is to worship "One who is good and loving and whose character is manifest in the efforts to overcome injustice rather than in inflicting it." To sustain the dominant biblical view Cobb wants to insist on the difference between such a God and creativity. Now the Bible as I read it has God both good and terrible at once. We can understand in some dim way why Israel thought that. But the centuries between biblical times and our own many times have changed the conditions for seeing God. Through the medieval period and the scientific renaissance in Europe goodness and terror were experienced together in a God who was a providential and benevolent tyrant, finally the watchmaker who made a good watch and left it. The assertion of individual freedom in the modern period, however, led to the inability to experience the tyrant as God, and Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God the Terrible. Whitehead and others thought they found a way to have God the Good without Terror and Tyranny by making God a definite Other, like persons subject to creativity.

But can this be experienced as God today? Certainly not by me. It is very difficult, if not foolish, and surely arrogant, to tell other people what they experience. But it seems to me that the contemporary experience of God as Good is just a projection of human altruism. Without the Terror it is not experienced as a real God. The genuine experience of the lure of goodness need not be projected onto an imagined fellow sufferer but can be grasped as God’s creative deciding of our ownmost possibilities and the divine grace that wells up spontaneously each moment to give us an absolutely real and fresh start, ever again.

Furthermore, I agree with my colleague Altizer that, far from experiencing God in the old ways of biblical, medieval, or modern times, the epiphany of God in our day in the West takes the form of total presence of divinity (TP). God is not experienced as a being who is present to us other beings, but as the reality of all things existing as mutually relevant, including us and all our perspectives without our alienating self-consciousness of ego. God is not experienced as good and others as evil, but as the wholly present mixture of goods and evils, orders and chaos. God is not experienced as the interactions of things, pantheistically, but as the creative ground in things interacting, creating them as mutually relevant. God is not experienced as God, sacred rather than profane, but as the total presence of things, indistinguishably sacred and profane at once.

As to dialogue between the world’s religions, it seems to me the issue is not whether two religions are about the same religious object. Here I agree with Cobb. But neither is it the question of finding a conceptual context in which mainstream biblical Christians can talk with mainstream Buddhists bent on Emptiness. This formulation of the question, seems to ignore a crucial dimension of the historicity of religious belief. Authentic heirs of the biblical tradition could not have the ancient biblical faith today except as nostalgia, because times have changed. One of the chief cultural transformations has been the growth of individual freedom, as the process tradition itself has emphasized. A contemporary Christian must find a contemporary way of experiencing God. I presume that a contemporary Buddhist would stand in a similarly problematic relation to the ancient Buddhist tradition.

The question of dialogue, I suggest, is how or whether heirs to the biblical tradition experience divinity in ways that bear upon the ways heirs of the Buddhist tradition experience matters of ultimacy. In a strict sense, the issue of whether there is one ultimate or two should be subsequent to whether either side or both experience anything worth religious discourse. In addressing the primary question, I suspect that the context of dialogue would make it possible for people to become heirs of both traditions in selective ways.

One of the greatest strengths of process theology, as it is of process philosophy generally, is its consistent sensitivity to the difference the abstractness of concepts and the concreteness of experience and to the ways by which each side influences the other without supplanting it. This sensitivity is a significant hedge against dogmatism, and I could not agree more with Cobb’s remarks about the fallibility of theological systems. I confess that all this sensitivity, however, still leaves me at a loss to know how to respond to fundamental differences in basic intuitions about life tutored by life itself.

The arguments of Hartshorne and Cobb have moved me a short way down the path toward seeing how the postulated ability of God to prehend subjective becoming allows for divine intimacy with us. But that kind of intimacy between different societies of actual occasions, one of which is scaled up to the divine level, seem counter-intuitive. That is not how I experience what I think is divinity; it seems rather to be what I feel as wish-projection in myself and others. Yet despite my profound feeling that this is a category mistake with horrible existential consequences, I have known many people, particularly Roman Catholic religious, who have indeed oriented themselves to God in the place of friends and have experienced even the deepest relations between people as but a vestige of divinity, or a sign of a more intimate relation with God.

An even deeper gulf of sensibility separates Hartshorne and me regarding evil, nonbeing, and emptiness. His view that creativity "is the passage from an actuality to a greater and, in a sense, more richly concrete actuality" expresses a wholly positive intuition of reality and the stuff of human affairs. Yet my experience is that the space of freedom lies precariously between chaos and ideal unity.

Let me switch my approach now toward an imagery that conveys this experience. Human affairs take place in an arena that is itself a mixture of the relatively more fragmented and the relatively more ordered. Every thing, every component of process, is a harmony of other things. As a harmony it lasts as long as conditions reinforce or at least tolerate it, and no longer, however much it is contained in later things. The forces of chaos ground the terror we rightly have about the sheer fact of existence. Not that the destruction of a particular harmony is necessarily evil, for the harmony itself might be bad. Morality is concerned with which potential harmonies ought to be actualized and which actual and potential ones ought to be avoided, modified, or set in other contexts. Chaos presents us with a religious terror at the sheer contingency of existence as harmony, a terror that clutches at symbols like the polarity of life and death, the creative dance of Shiva the Destroyer, the Pit.

Chaos is not pure disorder, of course; rather it is the relative disorder of what things would be if some particular harmony were taken away. Our lives make sense, when they do, because of a fine and fragile texture organizing the sea of underlying forces. And when we locate one of those underlying forces -- an economic drive, a blind libido -- with a clarity that allows us to let go our overt harmonies and relate directly to their components, those components themselves in turn begin to dissolve into thin films covering even more alien vortices of strange harmonies. Life is made of fragile mixtures because all mixtures are just mixtures.

The religious burden of freedom is acceptance of the terror of chaos and the importance of the ideal. There is a religious temptation to hide both terror and importance by dramatizing the relative chaos, making it a divine struggle, salvation history, the dialectic of benign creation’s unfolding. That is whistling in the dark. It is better than running inside from the dark but not as direct as simply doing what needs to be done in our none-too-well-lit world. Our responsibilities are local, often unexpected, usually undramatic and frustrating, but they are the only important loci of our existence in the middle space. This is a dualistic intuition of reality balanced between the positive and the negative. To change the metaphor of darkness and light: perhaps the light of the world a p pears in insignificant places, faces basic choices in dingy gardens, fails to be effective beyond a few fainthearted friends, and shines but a short season. That is, however, the light the world has.

A wholly positive conceptual scheme contradicts this intuition, this nontriumphantalist post-modern vision. If the intuitive vision itself contradicts other intuitive visions, after all the clarifications and siftings of dialogue have been run through, I do not know where to turn but to acknowledge diversity in the ultimate decisions whose apocalyptic force gives content to religion. Does this mean, as Cobb would urge, that there are different ultimates? If so, then it is impossible to understand how they could be related to one another enough so as to be different. Or does it mean that the divine creative act giving existence to all things encompasses the negativity and disjunction of chaos as well as the lure of order?



CF -- Robert Neville, The Cosmology of Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.

CC -- Robert Neville, Creativity and God. New York: The Seabury Press, 1980.

GC -- Robert Neville, God the Creator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

TP -- Thomas J. J. Altizer, Total Presence. New York: The Seabury Press, 1980.