David Pailin’s Theology of Divine Action

by Darren J.N. Middleton

Darren J.N. Middleton is a doctoral candidate in Theology and Literature at the University of Glasgow, G128QQ, Scotland. He is currently visiting lecturer in Theology and the Arts at Rhodes College, Memphis, TN. Specializing in Nikos Kazantzakis’ fiction and theological thought, he is to be co-editor (with Peter A. Bien) of a volume of essays devoted to Kazantzakis’ mythopoesis of Bergsonian doctrine.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 215-226, Vol. 22, Number 4, Winter, 1993. 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.


The author reports on David Pailin, Britain’s foremost exponent of process-relational thought. Pailin speaks of the divine agency as a general teleological purpose — a drive or intentional cosmic urge within the processes of reality.

Most process-relational theologians wish to claim that God ‘acts’ in the world by offering context-dependent vocations and persuasions. David Pailin, Britain’s foremost exponent of process-relational thought, has recently sought to avoid the traditional ‘aim and lure’ language by speaking of divine agency as a general teleological purpose: a drive or intentional cosmic urge within the processes of reality. In short, God ‘keeps the rules’ by setting the optimum logical limits to the creative advance in which creaturely choice takes place. Interestingly, this view of providence has taken root in the fields both of theology and literature. The Cretan novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, in his autobiography, Report to Greco, eloquently suggests that:

blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath -- a great Cry -- which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: "Away, let go of the earth, walk!" Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, "I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do! You are demanding the impossible!" But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, "Away, let go of the earth, walk!" It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated. Animals appeared -- worms -- making themselves at home in the water and mud. "We’re just fine here," they said, "We have peace and security; we’re not budging!" But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. "Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!" "We don’t want to! We can’t!" "You can’t, but I can, Stand up!" And lo! after thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs. The human being is a centaur; his equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but his body from the breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. He has been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw himself, like a sword, out of his animalistic scabbard. He is also fighting -- this is his new struggle -- to draw himself out of his human scabbard. Man calls in despair, "Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss." And the Cry answers, "I am beyond, Stand up!" (RG 291)

Kazantzakis’ grandiloquent account of the dynamic movement of the Cry shows remarkable similarities to Bergson’s élan vital, and to the understanding of divine agency proposed by David Pailin. Like Kazantzakis, Pailin believes divine agency to involve a ubiquitous providential call forward, an all-inclusive nisus which grounds and cherishes the creative advance. God’s general providence beckons nature, history, and humanity into an open, stochastic future, evoking creative responses from within and for the life of the world. God is supreme, yet indebted to all. God is absolute, yet related to all.

Pailin on Cosmogenesis: God, Creation and Evolution

In the words of Pailin, doctrines of creation are ‘principally concerned with divine creativity in relation to the on-going processes of cosmic and terrestrial evolution’ (GrPR 126). On the subject of ‘cosmic evolution,’ much traditional Western theology has sought to claim that the doctrine of God as Creator which satisfies the concept of God as sovereign is that of creatio ex nihilo. The doctrine itself affirms that the universe is not self-explanatory; that there is no ultimate dualism or pluralism in reality, for all things depend on God; that God is the ontologically, valuatively, and rationally ultimate; and that the cosmos is not an ‘emanation’ of the divine but, rather, is the purposive handiwork of an agential, intentional reality.

The intellectual support for this way of viewing the relationship between God and cosmogenesis is manifold. Indeed, according to Maurice Wiles, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is ‘philosophically and religiously essential. Creation is creation out of nothing or it is nothing’ (GAW 16). Pailin disagrees, principally on the grounds that how the aforementioned affirmations ‘are to be linked with the actual genesis of everything is profoundly obscure in the present state of human understanding’ (GrPR 126). Pailin remains skeptical about any ‘empirical fit’ between scientific and theological claims. Furthermore, Pailin conjectures that it may well be ‘theistically mistaken’ to argue for a beginning (and an ‘end’) to the creative advance. He insists that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does affirm the ontological independence of God, but only at the risk of rendering creativity a contingent state of the divine.2 Some Whiteheadian scholars happily see God as the first accidental product of primary ‘creativity.’ Pailin is more cautious and offers an alternative to the usual reading of the Whiteheadian texts -- namely that the actuality of the divine is the first consequence of the creative primacy of the divine. The concept of God as personal and ultimate in value entails that creativity must be understood as a necessary attribute of divine existence. It is only possible to be personal by becoming-in-relation-with-others, and so God must always have had ‘some’ world to relate to personally.

Similarly, since aesthetic goodness determines the nature of the divine for God, in order for God to be loving, God’s love requires objects for the divine loving self-expression. God must always have had some or other ‘world’ which he has loved. And so:

while the current cosmic epoch may have a calculable first moment, the combination of everlastingness with love and aesthetic enjoyment as essential attributes of the divine imply that there can be no beginning and no end to divine creativity. (GrPR 126)

It is questionable, then, whether the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo really is philosophically and religiously essential. For, alternatively:

the need for a "beginning" to creation may be a consequence of our intellectual inability to achieve a satisfactory conception of an everlasting process -- as similarly may be our need for a sense of its ending -- rather than of a proper insight into the divine mode of active being. (GrPR 126-27)

The cosmological significance of the ultimacy of the divine is not, therefore, to be understood as grounded in this traditional way of understanding the work of God as Creator. Indeed, Pailin rejects the metaphysics of creatio ex nihilo as being critically implausible and theistically irrelevant. God’s ultimacy is understood by Pailin to be grounded in the divine ontological ultimacy and a doctrine of creatio continua. In other words, divine agency is not to be understood as a matter of starting and ending a series of events. but rather as a continual activity within the creative advance (GrPR 126-27).

How is it possible, though, in the light of these remarks, to explain the origin of the present cosmic order? Is the universe as we understand it the particular handiwork of God? Pailin follows Hartshorne and Peacocke in claiming that the fundamental structure of the cosmos, or what he calls the ‘cosmic constants,’ is not the result of the divine providential fiat, but is rather an outworking of the divine nature as necessarily creative. God may keep the rules by ensuring that:

the limits of the possibilities for change (and hence the fundamental structures of the cosmos) and the relative ranking of those possibilities are determined by the essential nature of the divine in which they have their reality as possibilities. (GrPR 126-27)

Pailin’s theology of creation seeks to provide a framework within which creation is shown to be capable of interacting with God in a way which does not threaten the divine transcendence. Obviously, men and women cannot establish the regularities which govern their own natures. God’s role, then, in our present cosmic epoch is the establishing of basic cosmic laws or ‘constants.’ Some thinkers have criticized Pailin on the grounds that when he uses the term ‘determined,’ he gives the compelling impression that God must act coercively to establish the basic cosmic laws. But such a criticism would be misleading. For the persuasion/coercion dichotomy doesn’t operate at this point. Indeed, if it were to operate at all levels of existence, then we must postulate some form of pan-psychic or pan-subjective account of reality. Classical process-relational thought has happily appropriated panpsychism. But Pailin regards this understanding of reality as critically implausible and modifies his thinking accordingly.

For Pailin, it is arguable that panpsychism, the view that all reality has a psychical character, is an incredible notion. Process-relational metaphysics happily affirms dipolarity as a characteristic of each concrescing occasion. Each actual occasion has a physical and a mental pole. This leads to panpsychism. All actual occasions are thus seen to be treated (at least metaphorically) as subjects able to ‘decide’ about possibilities and ‘respond’ to lures. This is where Pailin is skeptical. It may be possible to affirm that even at the level of atoms and sub-atomic particles there is some freedom, even in randomness, but is it reasonable to argue that they have a psychical reality? Although certain aspects of reality can be explained using this model, Pailin doubts whether all aspects of reality can.

Clearly, the persuasion/coercion dichotomy applies only to ‘higher order nexus.’ It makes no sense, then, to speak of God ‘coercing’ the inanimate. As a result, Pailin can still credibly affirm that God shapes or determines the cosmic constants which make an open world possible. Of course, there is still one difficulty: the fact that there is no clear borderline between the inanimate and the fully human. Hence it is not clear at what point in the complexity of evolution the possibility of ‘persuasion’ emerges. Perhaps, then, process-relational thinkers need to furnish us with a more lucid and helpful exposition of the distinction between persuasion and coercion.

Some process-relational thinkers have been aware of this need for some time. Barry Whitney, for instance, suggests that we only interpret God’s ‘cosmic constant establishing agency’ as coercive, and not his causal agency within these limits. In his view, that God exerts some coercive power to establish the laws of nature would seem essential for there to be a world at all in which a ‘golden mean’ between risk and opportunity is possible. But once the cosmic constants are divinely constructed, God limits Godself to non-coercive agency in order to allow creatures to make themselves (EPG 129). This viewpoint assumes a panpsychism which Pailin finds untenable. In addition, he may find it theistically mistaken on the grounds that if God were capable of coercion then God ought to display the divine power more often. But to the extent to which Pailin (and other process-relational thinkers) appears to support what Basinger calls the ‘moral’ and ‘utilitarian’ superiority of persuasive power (over and against coercion) by claiming that the process God would not coerce even if this were possible, such a suggestion is damaged (DPPT Ch. 2). Assuming, however, that for Pailin the universe -- as constituted by the cosmic constants -- is the field of divine activity, our task is now that of explicating how Pailin envisages the nature of the ongoing relationship between God and the evolutionary processes of reality.

According to Pailin, the evolutionary processes are only fully intelligible by reference to the divine. And in principle any adequate doctrine of divine creativity needs to be ‘conceptually coherent’; ‘scientifically tenable’; ‘metaphysically significant’; ‘theistically important’; and ‘rationally credible’ (GPR 124, 153). But in practice Pailin’s theology has always been ‘in process’; his views on the nature of the divine creativity in relation to the evolutionary processes are a test-case for Pailin’s attempt ceaselessly to strive for more adequate forms of his vision of God. His five criteria constitute a demanding requirement for any process-relational theism to satisfy. And it is because of this high standard that, over the years, Pailin has felt the need continually to revise his understanding of divine creativity. Illustrating how both searching criticisms and a rigorous concern for exactitude have nurtured the development of Pailin’s ideas from a specific to a general understanding of divine creativity should prove to be an illuminating exercise for our present purposes.

In an early article, ‘God and Creation: A Process View,’ Pailin claimed that process-relational thought could illuminate the nature of the supposed relationship between the divine and the evolutionary processes by offering at least seven ‘areas of insight’ (ER 72-86). Essential, for instance, to the ‘story’ offered by process-relational thought is the affirmation that all actuality is characterized by temporality. Now if God is the chief exemplification of all metaphysical truths, then God must be thought of as having eminent temporality, which is to say, that there never was a time and there never will be a ‘now’ which is devoid of the divine co-presence. God is the eminently temporal circumambient reality. And the dipolar conception of the divine, secondly, is especially perspicacious, for it

. . .replaces the concept of an "unmoved mover", a static absolute, with the concept of an ultimate being of which verbs of intention, response and action can be meaningfully predicated -- and hence, which can be thought of as actively creative. (ER 74)

Pailin’s process-relational doctrine of God as Creator speaks, therefore, of God’s all-embracing co-presence to the world. God is characterized, thirdly, by dual transcendence. In other words, God is both supremely passible and supremely incremental in experience. This notion itself refers to how everything in the temporal concrescence is experienced and embraced within the divine life. And it also refers to how the divine actively responds to what God experiences by ‘throwing back’ into the creative advance new possibilities, and evoking creative responses from the about-to-concresce world.

In a process-relational world, fourthly, it would be intrinsically incoherent to speak of a being with a monopoly of power. We must assert, rather, that power is relational, and therefore a metaphysically significant doctrine of divine creativity will speak of God persuasively nurturing autonomous beings. But how, fifthly, might we understand the nature of divine providence? In the words of Pailin:

God...ensures that each entity is succeeded by another: without him [sic] the whole creative process would come to an end. In this respect the process view of theism upholds the doctrine of the sustaining providence of God. (ER 81)

God is the principle of concretion. In addition, and this is early Pailinian theology, God acts specifically within the evolutionary processes, for:

God… sets before each entity the range of possibilities which are open to it and, in particular, highlights one initial subjective aim which, if actualized by the entity, will produce the greatest satisfaction for it that is compatible with the greatest satisfaction of all other entities. (ER 83)

God proffers specific initial aims for subjective becoming, and these are ‘highlighted’ through, sixthly, God’s use of the divine persuasive power. In Pailin’s own words:

. . .process views of theism understand God’s creative activity not as an irresistible force, compelling and coercing conformation to its wishes, but as the luring influence of love which respects the integrity of the creature.... It is possible that this model of lure allows the notion of God’s activity in relation to the creative advance to be developed in a way that does not impinge upon the relative autonomy of the creature. God may seek in love to "draw" the creature to ever higher states of aesthetic richness but there is no compulsion. (ER 83)

This is a highly specific view of divine agency. A similar understanding appears in an article Pailin published in an edited collection of essays on Whitehead’s philosophy (WIP 273-99). Pailin, however, no longer subscribes to the viewpoint expressed in either essay. Maurice Wiles pushed Pailin to consider the plausibility of language about God’s specific luring at the level of human existence (of which we have some intimate experience), rather than at the level of the orders of natural experience where we can only infer (GAW 77). On realizing that the language of ‘lure’ was not obviously valid at the level of human existence (in spite of religious claims about ‘vocation’ etc.), Pailin revised his views on the activity of God as in his Jaspers lecture on ‘History, Humanity and the Activity of God,’ and then, finding the revision comfortable in relation to the historical realm, made appropriate modifications to his understanding of the natural (RS 23).

Barry Whitney has recently suggested that the ‘aim and lure’ language can be retained without the theological and religious shortcomings which Pailin and Wiles have highlighted. In Whiteheadian parlance, initial aims are eternally distinct and definite possibilities, and are therefore ‘specific routes’ envisaged by the divine for men and women. But Whitney challenges the opinion that this is the only way ‘initial aims’ are conceivable. He suggests that initial aims be comprehended as ‘loosely structured ranges of potentiality.’ In other words, God providentially offers men and women a general continuum of potentiality, which is more or less structured as to its particular relevance, and which is made determinate by creaturely choice (SJP 79: 133-43). But is this really an alternative to what can now be seen as an incredible and inappropriate understanding of (specific) divine agency within the processes of history? If God is ‘structuring’ the reservoir of potentiality according to contextual relevance, does this not still appear to suggest specific divine agency? At best Whitney’s thesis merits a detailed response, and at worst he can be charged with performing a little ‘theological sleight-of-hand.’

What, however, is the goal that directs the divine activity? Is it a final consummation of the historical and creative processes envisaged as some form of material state? Pailin does not think so. He suggests, seventhly, that the ultimate telos of creativity is not a material goal (as meaning the opposite of ‘formal’) state, for this would signify the end of everything, including God. If God is necessarily creative, then God never has, and never will be, without some world. God as Creator always has and always will have a creation to relate to and unceasingly love. As a result, the ultimate goal of divine activity is the formal one of an ‘unending process of aesthetic enrichment.’ God’s action is a relentless search to find and draw out from all instances further advances in aesthetic enrichment. Keith Ward has recently criticized Pailin on the grounds that the restriction of the formal divine goal to the proliferation of aesthetic value seems ‘unduly parsimonious’ (DA 23). On the contrary, it would seem that it is Ward who possesses too narrow a view of ‘aesthetic.’ Pailin sees ‘beauty’ as intrinsically good and as that which ought to be sought as such. Instrumental goods lead ineluctably to the actualization of aesthetic goods. Ward’s basic error is to view Pailin’s use of the term ‘aesthetic’ in too narrow terms as referring to aesthetic beauty in a restricted way. In fact, Pailin would be of the opinion that ‘aesthetic creativity’ is a broad ‘umbrella’ concept covering a wide array of actions, thoughts, and dispositions. And all these many actualizations are, in Tillichian parlance, like ‘symbols’ which participate in the Reality which grounds them.

In another recent article, ‘Process Theology and Evolution,’ (ECEP 170-89) Pailin expands on the process ‘story,’ highlighting how this vision of reality claims that God creates the fundamental cosmic constants, setting up the logical limits in which creaturely choice can be made. The significance of life, furthermore, is found in the ceaseless quest for aesthetic creativity and novel expressions of human flourishing. God acts ‘as a localized lure exerting an opposite pull to the move towards increasing entropy’ (the implication of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) (ECEP 179). Any change which does occur in the creative advance is a result of the creative self-determining actions of concrescing entities. And, to complete the ‘story,’ God ‘as creator is necessarily limited in the influence that can be exerted over individual decisions’ (ECEP 181). It cannot be overestimated how the publication of this paper marks a shift in Pailin’s thinking. He becomes more direct and penetrating in his criticisms, claiming, as he does, that the ‘story told by process theology about evolution may seem to have a number of attractive features, especially so long as it stays at the level of generalities’ (ECEP 181).

Pailin is sharply critical in this paper of the specificity involved in some process-relational accounts of divine agency. Human biology, for instance, confirms that DNA and RNA macromolecules are constituted by nucleotides which themselves provide the necessary information patterns for genetic development.

Problems arise, however, in the process-relational accounts of specific divine agency when one begins to consider how God might be held to influence a nucleotide to change its structure in the DNA chain. In practice this aspect of the process-relational story’ is ‘too ineffective and too wasteful to be theologically acceptable’ (ECEP 185). In graphic language Pailin contends that such a specific view of God’s action in the world yields a model of the divine in which

the resulting picture of God bears more resemblance to a pathetic park-keeper feebly whistling at a barking, scrabbling, fighting, rampaging horde of dogs to get them to come to heel...than to the intentional agency of the proper object of worship (ECEP 185).

If God cannot credibly be held to be directly active in spontaneously and persuasively influencing specific evolutionary changes, then how do such changes Occur? According to Pailin:

it is the view that at the level of the DNA particular evolutionary changes happen by chance as DNA molecules are very occasionally accidentally altered in ways that turn out to be fruitful (or, at least, not self-destructive) (ECEP 185).

Evolutionary changes, then, occur through the dynamic interplay between chance and order. If this is so, do theological claims about divine creativity carry any substance to them? Yes, but it is because of the difficulties in the traditional process-relational ‘story’ that Pailin claims that such talk is ‘much more general than that implied by the traditional religious understanding of God as creator’ (GPR 46). Indeed, it is not at all clear what is to be attributed to God in that process beyond a general urge to creative complexification in the combination of the basic constituents of actuality (GPR 146).

We can now see how Pailin’s understanding of divine agency displays some remarkable similarities to Kazantzakis’ poetic description of God’s immanent and persistent ‘Cry’ forward toward relational transformation. Pailin’s distinctive claim is that God’s action is the divine self-constitution as the circumambient reality; God panentheistically embraces the creative advance, persistently swaying the world toward further combination, complexification, and change which ‘acts in a counter way to the effects recognized by the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- the so-called ‘Law of Entropy’ -- and results in localized centers of energy which we observe within the cosmos (GW: 5).

God as creator allows the potentialities of the universe to develop in a novel and random manner within the structures of the cosmic constants. God as creator:

establishes the structure within which actual occasions are drawn into increasingly complex nexus by chance interactions within an overall order of natural laws.... God’s creative activity...is to be conceived as ensuring that the constituents of reality belong to a process which combines stability with an appropriate degree of openness to novelty, and which contains an intrinsic urge towards combination in increasingly complex patterns.... God is not to be thought of as attempting to direct, lure, or persuade the evolutionary process to develop any specific forms.... Having determined that the process has a bias towards complexification, God may be regarded as enjoying the value of whatever emerges from the process.... God appreciates and preserves the value of all that thereby comes into being. (ECEP 186)

The unfolding universe is the field of divine activity; the total environment in which everything is grounded in God, and where God confers worth upon everything in the overall temporal concrescence. Such a view has not gone unchallenged. Paul Fiddes, for instance, is unconvinced by this Hartshornean view of God’s creative agency:

I do not think that it leaves God as creator with sufficient initiative to do new things himself. It severely limits God’s activity in the world, and especially his ability to react to the response of his creation to him. He can, it seems, influence us only by the beauty of a being which is rich in experience, and cannot create new qualities and ideals to inspire us, for example, in the face of suffering. (CSG 96-7)

Clearly, Pailin’s doctrine of divine creativity may well be theologically unacceptable to those thinkers who seek to say more about God’s specific and constant will and activity. But Pailin resolutely insists that the notion of God acting specifically behind the scenes of the world-stage makes a mockery of our real freedom.3 And as a consequent, theism collapses and intellectually we fall into determinism. In Pailin’s defense, we might say that his doctrine of divine agency does render God ‘inactive’ (in terms of unilaterally willing and changing states of affairs), but God is far from indolent. This is because God’s love is a cherishing, embracing, perfect, ‘worth-conferring’ love. Clearly, God’s love does not have to be an intervening love for it to be ‘active.’


In the divine panentheistic embracing of the creative processes of reality, God can be said to be aware

that the in-built tendency of the structure of reality will eventually produce some kinds of higher-order nexus which are self-conscious, free, significantly autonomous, and capable of contributing to the divine experience corresponding degrees of aesthetic enrichment. Human being is the highest order of such nexus of which we are aware. (GPR 153)

Pailin, however, is suspicious of any understanding of providence in history which applies to human being the same conception of ‘divine influencing’ that he criticizes when it is used in understanding providence within the evolutionary advance. For, while the problems of using psychical notions of ‘lure’ and ‘persuasion’ for non-human entities do not immediately surface when speaking of conscious entities, Pailin questions whether references to such forms of influencing have any real substance. Envisaging God’s action, for instance, to be that of the divine provision of initial aims is religiously unsatisfactory since it is an activity which men and women are largely unconscious of, and so struggle to perceive and harmonize within any one context (GPR l57)4.

Faith in God as the living, dynamic and intentional agent has, traditionally, convinced the believer that -- in principle -- God can miraculously intervene in the historical process. In practice, however, a thoughtful approach to the nature of human experience and sensitive moral consideration suggests that God is not to be identified as so acting, and that traditional views of divine agency are, as a consequence, misguided. At the same time, specific divine luring is rarely, if ever, perceived and grasped as such in the experience of men and women.

A difficulty attends this account, however, for some theologians insist that if God does not entertain particular initiatives and responses to each individual event, then God is -- in practice -- utterly ineffective. As a consequence, it is thought that the historical process is unable to be divinely grounded, and so can only be purposeless. For Pailin, however, the theistic meaningfulness of history need not rest on notions of specific divine agency. In his own words:

It may not be justified to hold that God tries to lure each individual along an optimum route, adjusting the particular aim for each individual each moment.... Particular divine activities are not the only basis for establishing the directivity of history. (GPR 171)

And, furthermore, the rejection of specific divine agency, God’s seeking persuasively to sway men and women with ‘context-dependent material goals’ does not, necessarily, entail that history is ‘an ultimately aimless process, lacking an intentional goal’ (GPR 172). Rather,

it may be that individuals find that they are always faced by possibilities for enriching their experience through novel syntheses and disturbed by pressure to take them up. To the extent that the possibilities and pressure are held to be grounded in the reality of God they may be held to be evidence of divine activity in history. (GPR 171)

It is God who is the basic source of unrest in the universe. Divine providence is the ground of the dissatisfaction which men and women feel as they evaluate their previous achievements, become aware of novel, intrinsically good possibilities, and strive to actualize them. God does not seek to offer specific routes for men and women to take up and make their own. But God is at work in the world. For it is the divine who stirs humanity with a broad vision of possible aesthetic values, and wills that men and women strive to instantiate them. Divine agency is "an overall influence which stirs people with a general dissatisfaction at what has already been achieved and, as its obverse, a perpetual desire for what is enrichingly novel" (GPR 172).

God makes a difference to the historical process. As we have seen, the experience of men and women attests to a ‘restlessness that agitates authentic being’ (GPR 172). Men and women do strive for human flourishing. And this willingness to be in step with the rhythmic nature of interdependence is understood by Pailin to be grounded in God, the Supremely Social Reality whose own ‘Musical Offering’ to the world is the ‘ceaseless quest for the realization of novel experiences of aesthetic good’ (GPR 172). To complete the divine-world symphony, God receives into Godself the creative actualization of men and women. The divine then positively or negatively prehends the actions of men and women, taking perfected actuality and ‘throwing it back,’ through the divine superjective character, into the world in order to evoke new creative responses on the part of men and women. God’s activity ‘is experienced by people as a ferment for flourishing that persistently disturbs those who are alive’ (GPR 167)5. History and nature, as can be seen, are not ultimately purposeless. Rather,

The relation of God’s activity to those processes does not require the divine to act in a particularized manner for reality to be theistically meaningful. All that is required is that the divine be aware of all and generally disturbing all with the urge to novel forms of aesthetic joy. (GPR 173)

And so God’s action is rather like that of a courageous playgroup leader, who uses his or her enabling power to stimulate and excite children to realize their potential and work creatively (GPR 174).

Now Pailin’s doctrine of ‘objective immortality’ would appear to be, at least, existentially fruitful. But is there an argument for its being religiously ineffectual? Indeed, what is the religious value and theistic importance of a God who is said to preserve values which appear to be so thoroughly destroyed in our own experience? A related question focuses on the ‘divine receptivity’ and ‘God’s superjective character.’ In Pailin’s understanding of divine agency, these are the twin moments of God’s salvific agency. But it would appear that the divine memory could only be relevant for our salvation insofar as what God receives into Godself makes a difference to the initial aims God offers back to the world in each new present. But Pailin has ruled out all talk of ‘aims and lures’ as incredible. And so while the doctrine of the divine receptivity and God’s superjective character have an intuitive rightness, we do need a more lucid and helpful exposition of how these two aspects of God are related, and how they are immanent in the world.6



CSG -- Paul S. Fiddes. The Creative Suffering of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

DA -- Keith Ward. Divine Action. London: Collins, 1990.

DPPT -- David Basinger. Divine Power in Process Theism: a Philosophical Critique. New York: State University of New York Press, 1984.

ECEP -- David A. Pailin. "Process Theology and Evolution." Evolution and Creation: A European Perspective. Eds. Sven Anderson and Arthur Peacocke. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1987.

EPG -- Barry Whitney. Evil and the Process God. Toronto and New York: Edwin Melin Press, 1985.

ER -- David A. Pailin. "God and Creation: A Process View. Epworth Review, January 1982.

GAW -- Maurice Wiles. God’s Action in the World. London: SCM Press, 1986.

GPR -- David A. Pailin. God and the Processes of Reality: Foundations for a Credible Theism. London: Routledge, 1989.

GrPR -- David A. Pailin. Groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion. London: Epworth, 1986.

GW -- David A. Pailin. "God and the World: Religious Belief and Natural Science; Creation, Evolution and Miracle." From a private aide-memoire. The University of Manchester, 1989.

RG -- Nikos Kazantzakis. Report to Greco. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.

R523 -- David Pailin. "History, Humanity and the Activity of God." Religious Studies, 23/3.

SIP -- Barry Whitney. "Process Theism: Does a Persuasive God Coerce?" The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 1979.

WIP -- David Pailin. "God as Creator in a Whiteheadian Understanding." Whitehead and the Idea of Process. Eds. Harold Holz and Ernest Wolf-Gazo. Karl Alber: Munich, 1984.



11n evaluating Pailin’s understanding of divine agency, I have decided to concentrate on two themes in his writings. Firstly, the issue of the action of God, cosmogenesis and evolution -- a theme which, as I attempt to show, has been treated by Pailin in different ways at various stages in his career. And secondly, the question of God’s so-called ‘special providence in history.’ Unfortunately, it has proved too ambitious to discuss either the significance of incarnational claims in Pailin’s thought, or the ways in which his own process-relational thought may contribute to the development of a credible christology. I wish to acknowledge my appreciation to David Pailin for writing encouragingly to me and for his helpful comments on this paper. And I would mention in particular Betsy Flowers at the University of Texas at Austin, whose friendship, patience and support have meant a very great deal to me.

2Pailin’s current train of thought on the relationship of God to the cosmic constants is especially illuminating. In personal correspondence, dated 9 November 1992, he remarked to me:

I suspect I used to say that God established them to give God some primary creative activity/responsibility and later said that they were products of the divine reality -- kind of necessary expressions of the divine -- again to leave God some creationist status. I now wonder how these constants did emerge. Were they determined by God prior to or in the initial hot big bang or did they emerge as the fundamental relationships of what emerged in that primary gravitational quantum flux -- if that was what it was? I am far from clear that we can tell with any confidence although I now tend to incline towards the latter. I expect my problem is how to relate what cosmologists tell us with any significant theological assertions. I battle on with this issue but I probably get more sense of the profundity of the puzzle than of possible solutions at present.

31n supplementing my point here about specific providence affecting our freedom, one calls to mind one of Hartshorne’s recurring themes: the power of God is in the worship he inspires. Pailin seemingly concurs. He recently remarked, in the same correspondence cited above:

The problem with divine activity in the world is not just that it makes a mockery of human freedom (this could be reconciled on the basis that God’s power is used in a controlled way) but that it leaves an enormous problem of evil, for a God who could act and did not act in specific ways to prevent horrendous evils in areas where no personal (human) freedom was threatened by such action would seem to be a monster rather than a proper object of worship.

4lt may be plausible to claim God is efficaciously at work in our human struggle to create a just and peaceful world. But it seems religiously ruinous to claim that, say, Martin Luther King, Jr. was ‘unconsciously influenced’ to step out onto the balcony of his Memphis hotel on April 4th, 1968, in order to meet an untimely death, however much his assassination, in time, effected an attitudinal transformation amongst whites and blacks across America. Our experience testifies to what Pailin has called ‘the difficulty of reaching specific apprehensions of the contingent aspects of divine agency’ (GPR 157). In the light of these remarks perhaps we are resigned to wondering just how far the theologian can credibly transcend the general conviction that God somehow influences human actions whilst, for the most part, men and women are very unclear about the character, goals and effectiveness of such specific persuasive influences.

5This emphasis upon the divine receptivity is crucial for understanding Pailin’s doctrine of divine agency. In personal correspondence, dated 27 March 1990, Pailin remarked to me:

I appreciate your question about the identity of God’s activity. Unfortunately I cannot currently find more to say that is credible -- the more God is held to be individually active, the greater the resultant problem of evil. I see God as active in a very general way -- grace or providence as a general ambience in which the processes of reality develop -- rather than as a planner or manufacturer with specific goals. At present the consequent, receptive, appreciative aspect of the divine reality seems more important -- and it is awareness of that which fosters and promotes our own activity. I grant that theists would like to say much more about God’s activity: at present I do not know how it can be done in a theologically and rationally credible manner.

See especially David A. Pailin, "The Poet of Salvation," in Freedom and Grace, edited by Ivor H. Jones and Kenneth B. Wilson, Epworth, London, 1988 for his understanding of the divine receptivity and the superjective character of God as twin moments of the divine salvific agency within a relational world.

6 I ought to remark that the closing points of this article now represent a position which Pailin would want to qualify in important respects. His most recent work, A Gentle Touch: From a theology of handicap to a theology of human being, London, SPCK, 1992. was published in order to revise radically the view of salvation implied in earlier works. It is impossible to do justice to this impressive piece of theological reflection here, but my question concerning the salvific activity of the divine and the possibility of subjective immortality still stands. Clearly, it is difficult to speculate on the precise fate of human beings. Perhaps there will be some form of subjective immortality. Alternatively, there may be some form of objective immortality where our lives are forever cherished by God in the divine perfect awareness. But, given the torment endured by physically and mentally challenged men and women, is it enough to place our ultimate significance firmly (only?) in God’s worth-conferring love?