The Emergent Paradigm and Divine Causation

by Nancy Frankenberry

Nancy Frankenberry is Assistant Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 202-217, Vol. 13, Number 3, Fall, 1983. 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.


This article suggests two critical emendations in the metaphysical description of God provided in Process and Reality: 1. An identification of “God” with the “totality” and the clarification of the meaning of the concreteness of that datum by assimilating it to the emergent paradigm in science; 2. An articulation of the physical roots of religion’s experience which intends to rectify the preoccupation among process philosophers with final causes to the neglect of efficient causes.

The question of the nature of religious experience and its critical interpretation has been an underlying issue in the ongoing effort to assess the religious adequacy of Whitehead’s conception of God. Relatively neglected in these discussions has been the question of the adequacy of the Whiteheadian conception of God to the more general methods and inquiry of religious naturalism itself, especially that form of empirical naturalism which contends that the fundamental data of religious experience are found in the qualitative aspects of our efficaciously causal bodily prehensions. On the assumption of the need for legitimate revisions in the Whiteheadian conception of God, this essay proposes two critical emendations in the metaphysical description of God provided in Process and Reality, both designed to explore a more emphatically naturalistic religious stance. The first revision calls for an identification of "God" with the "totality" and endeavors to clarify the meaning of the concreteness of that datum by assimilating it to the emergent paradigm in science. The second emendation attempts to articulate the physical roots of religion’s experience, and is intended to rectify the preoccupation among process philosophers with final causes to the neglect of efficient causes. Both revisions should be regarded as tentative hypotheses to be tested in the course of further analysis.

I. The Totality and the Logic of Emergence

The claim that God is experienced as an efficient cause rests upon an interpretive reading of Whitehead’s philosophy which will be broadly sketched in this section, and more systematically argued in the subsequent sections of the essay. The first step in elaborating such a claim involves the identification of the full actuality of God with what Whitehead speaks of as the "totality," and which he considers to be directly, though indistinctly, given in immediate experience. The development of the conception of the totality in a theistic direction entails exploiting what I regard as the single guiding presupposition of Whitehead’s entire writing from the period of his philosophy of science to his metaphysical interests. That presupposition is the general theory of physical relativity which offers a conception of the universe as a network of interconnected events which constitute an inexhaustible totality whose unity is implicated in any single selective abstraction from it. In The Principle of Relativity, published in 1922, Whitehead defines this totality as "the concreteness (or, embeddedness) of factors, and the concreteness of an inexhaustible relatedness among inexhaustible relata" (R 15). He concludes. "Thus an entity is an abstraction from the concrete which in its fullest sense means totality" (R 17). In Modes of Thought, his last publication this same axiom is at work as Whitehead assigns himself the task of examining "some of those general characterizations of our experience which are presupposed in the directed activities of mankind" (MT 1-2). The primary mode of experience, in Whitehead’s examination, is not only comprised of the two relata of the self and others (where "others" may refer simply to our own bodily events and their immediate environment), but also of a third relatum, "the totality of historic fact in respect to its essential unity" (MT 164). This totality is described as directly implicated in every experience of value as the basis of the discrimination into self and others. It is a "coordination of achievement," a "unified composition," a "unity in the universe, enjoying value and (by its immanence) sharing value" (MT 128, 128, 164). More metaphorically expressed, there are Whitehead’s references in Adventures of Ideas to a Unity of Adventure," a "Harmony of Harmonies, and "the Final Fact" (AI 381, 367, 381).

I take these passages to be susceptible to analysis in terms of the general theory of emergent evolution. The proposal to identify God with the totality, conceived as a complex, interrelated, emergent whole may be regarded as a metaphysical generalization of the logic of emergence whereby, as more complex systems are built up as organic structures in nature, new properties appear that are not foreshadowed in the parts. New wholes do not, of course, contain any mysterious entities in addition to their parts, but they do have distinctive principles of organization as systems. They therefore exhibit properties or activities or distinctive characters which the separate factors in isolation or in haphazard juxtaposition do not presage. If the story of life is really to be told as an account of increasingly complex organic structures, which form social patterns of greater or less unity, with each level of organization -- atom, molecule, cell, organ, organism, human being, ecosystem -- receiving from and in turn influencing the pattern of activity at other levels, can the logic of emergence also be extended metaphysically to apply to the totality? If so, it is possible to envision at the cosmic level the self-creative issue of a novel emergent unity which is formed from the diverse but interrelated multiplicity of the world and which comprises a "concreteness."

In support of such a contention, one can consult numerous sources since Whitehead’s time which suggest that the contemporary replacement of mechanical models by organic or holistic paradigms in physics and biology has signaled an epochal transformation in Western thinking about the nature of reality. David Bohm, for instance, asserts that "the inseparable quantum interconnectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality and . . . the relatively independently behaving parts are merely particular and contingent forms within this whole."1 As another theoretical physicist has described it, "the universe is thus experienced as a dynamic, inseparable whole" where "the traditional concepts of space and time, of isolated objects, and of cause and effect, lose their meaning."2 With the development of systems theory, biological ecology, and field analysis, it is becoming apparent that nothing is explained apart from the whole, and no whole is explained as a mere sum of its parts. In the new paradigm, emergent behavior means that togetherness in nature signifies a creative synthesis in which dynamic components enter into internal relations such that a genuinely novel unity emerges with characteristic capacities and properties. There is thus "more" in the effect than in the cause (s).

To the general logic of emergence the Whiteheadian model adds two crucial principles: the asymmetrical nature of internal relations and the dynamic processive character of these constitutive relations. The significance of the doctrine of asymmetrical relatedness is its demonstration of the way in which real internal relations among the "parts" within the "whole" do not compromise freedom. It is thus a doctrine which offers holism without determinism. The significance of the dynamic quality of the constitutive relations is its contribution of fluent energy actively transmitted in the emergent process. Emergence therefore denotes a novel surplusage of energy, a qualitative "more" which attends the processive interplay among the relational data comprising the field of interconnected events in nature. The dynamic quality of processive-relational events also obviates the need for the metaphysical notion of the universe as possessing a substantial foundation or conceptual "ground" by which the totality of phenomena can be explicated.

But the shift from substance modes of thought to organismic ones is not accomplished easily in our thought or language. One of the greatest problems in grasping the logic of emergent theory centers on the misleading metaphysical assumptions enshrined in the Indo-European subject-predicate form of grammar. When we use a verb, for instance, we automatically tend to assume that it must have a subject in front of it as the doer of the doing or the agent of the act. Nouns such as "creator" and "creation" function as though their referents were distinct and separable "things." This static quality of the noun dominates grammar so much so that Bergson complained that "our concepts have been formed on the logic of solids; . . . our logic is, preeminently, the logic of solids."3 Even Whitehead, having warned repeatedly of the inadequacy of the subject-predicate form of expression, falls into its trap when he writes of the consequent nature of God as "the reception into God’s nature" of "each actuality in the temporal world," or as "the realization of the actual world in the unity of his nature" (PR 350, 345). These expressions unintentionally suggest that there is a ready-made unity which receives the actualities of the world, as though the consequent nature is that which performs a prehensive activity, rather than that which emerges from the prehensive activity of relational occasions. But strictly speaking, there is no agent apart from the act-ing, no subject of change without the chang-ing, no unity apart from the process of unify-ing. The agent, the subject, and the unity are all to be conceived as emergent from the dynamic interrelatedness of antecedent physical events. It is the very relationality of the dynamic elements which creates a new subject of experience. An important implication of this analysis is that such nouns as power, freedom, and creativity should not be reified. According to the logic of emergence, there is no independent or self-existing power beyond that of individuals and societies existing in a relational matrix.

It is evident that for those who embrace it the emergent paradigm entails a fundamental shift in the former religio-metaphysical valuation of the real and reconstitutes in radical fashion the theological issue of the relation between God and the world. Whitehead’s conception of the consequent nature of God in Process and Reality, underdeveloped as it is, is a suggestive application of certain theological resources ingredient in the use of the emergent paradigm. But Whitehead’s own account of the consequent nature underplays the emergent power in God’s life. As described in Process and Reality, the consequent nature of God apparently consists only in the preservation and unification of the actual occasions of the world. God receives the objectified data of the world and evaluates and unifies that data in terms of the divine primordial envisagement, but in Whitehead’s doctrine there is no suggestion that God’s own subjectivity contains emergent determinate qualities arising out of free response to the creatures and thereby becoming available as new forms of efficient causality in the creative advance. It is true that creatures help create the concrete actuality of God in their role of being the relational data that God unifies. But the outcome of that process of divine creative unification whereby God’s physical and conceptual feelings are woven together seems to be only the production of novel possibilities, with their relevance graded now to the next region of the extensive continuum. Thus, on the usual account, what is temporally emergent from the ongoing synthesis of divine physical and conceptual feelings are specific forms of relevance, not new qualities of energy.

Despite these restrictions, a way may be open for extending Whitehead’s discussion of the consequent nature to embrace even greater emergent freedom and power in God’s life. The problem of the consequent nature as it relates to the emergent paradigm raises two basic questions. The first concerns the sense in which the divine physical experience of worldly events is unified as an organic whole which is more than the sum of its parts. The second concerns the sense in which God’s subjective experience becomes a datum for the world’s experience. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that Whitehead clearly holds that God conditions temporal actuality as a result of the divine prehension and synthesis of the world (PR 32, 38, 351). In this discussion, the concreteness of God is not to be identified simply with the consequent nature as constituted by God’s physical prehensions of the world. Whitehead ambiguously understands the consequent nature as both the totality of divine physical feeling and as its integration with divine conceptual feelings. He twice speaks of the consequent nature as "God as hilly actual" (PR 524, 530) and once refers to "the objective immortality of [God’s] consequent nature" (PR 47). But all references to the consequent nature or to any functions assigned to it need to be viewed as integrated with the primordial nature, and vice versa.4 Recognizing this indissoluable unity, the question then concerns the way in which God as a whole conditions the world. Is it simply as a "principle of limitation" and "organ of novelty"? Or is it also as an emergent source of creative energy? Does Whitehead’s insight that "the many become one, and are increased by one" apply to God’s own concrescent experience in such a way that the integration of the consequent nature and the primordial nature can be said to achieve successive determinate satisfactions?

The emergent paradigm offers a way of supporting the speculative notion that the interrelatedness of dynamic entities in the world, in their moment-to-moment togetherness, produces a series of temporally emergent concrete qualities in the divine life, each of which becomes objectively past for any present creature here and now in the making. The speculative extension of the emergent paradigm to this level of generality entails a more resolutely temporalistic interpretation of the divine life than Whitehead himself makes explicit. It also encourages an emphasis compatible with Charles Hartshorne’s rejection of any nontemporal actuality and his preference for the societal, rather than entitative, view of God’s nature. Philosophical theologians who have followed Hartshorne conceive of God as eminently temporal and as having physical prehensions of the world, leading to a series of divine temporal unifications. The salient feature of the emergent paradigm in this context is its provision for a processive and organismic way of speaking about freedom, of which self-creativity is one qualitative expression. But there is no self-creativity, no freedom, no transcendence of any sort apart from the relational energy-events whose integration Issues in a new emergent unity. The more complex the process of integration, the greater the freedom, and the greater the possibility of qualitatively higher forms of emergent activity. In an infinitely complex process of integration such as God’s, new emergent qualities may be expected to appear, where emergence signifies that something has been added beyond the content of the objective data. On the basis of such an account, then, God’s qualitative life, the divine "how" of feeling, will be seen to include more than has been received from the world, which comprises the "what" of the consequent nature. As a result, God cannot be identified with all actuality simpliciter. Each concrete state of the ongoing divine life will be seen to emerge as partially spontaneous and transcendent of what it has inherited, and as partially determined by the prior states and contributions of the world. Just as the wetness of water and the smell of ammonia cannot be deduced from the individual properties of the atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, or nitrogen, nor by their mere addition, so the particular qualitative emergent state of God cannot be completely deduced from the constituent prehensions of the consequent nature.

If the possibility of such emergent freedom is granted, a way is opened also for articulating a version of process theology which affirms the felt presence of God by way of the direct objectification of the divine temporal experience in one of its determinate totalizations. This would mean that the most concrete way in which God is experienced is as the emergent quality of the unifying synthesis of the world as actual now, a quality that is objectified to subsequent occasions in the creative advance. Those diverse occasions will themselves become objectified data for another unifying synthesis, and this synthesis in turn will be the momentary "whole," summing up the antecedent "parts." Such rhythmic interplay of pluralized unity and unified plurality forms the ontological matrix, the very web of life, which comprises in Whitehead’s words "the concreteness (Or, embedded-ness) of factors, and the concreteness of an inexhaustible relatedness among inexhaustible relata" (B 15).

Although ordinary language indeed limps here, the emergent paradigm may enable us to see that in the creative advance of nature, whose fleeting now is ever swallowed by the past, the totality is, in Whitehead’s phrase, a "unity of adventure," its concrete shape emerging as it is transfigured or disfigured with the qualitative experiences of temporal agents which contribute their acts to the whole. Not the agents, which are perishable, but their determinate acts enter into the emergent whole and form its never-finished image. At stake in this process is nothing less than the totality’s own destiny, which in turn has its resonance in ours. Qualities of frustration or of fulfillment, of alienation or communion, feelings of oppressive containment or liberating enlargement, are signs in their own way of the shared sympathy by way of which the totality communicates its emergent state in the lives of individuals, or in the pervading cultural and historical mood of whole generations. In the course of the transformation undergone in the synthesis of the world’s data into a new whole, the brooding face of the totality may appear as judge, redeemer, or, perhaps, even goddess of mischief (PR 351).

II. The Causal Efficacy of God

Pressing the implications of this interpretation further, I will apply in this section the central features of Whitehead’s doctrine of perception in the mode of causal efficacy to specify the way in which the concrete actuality of God is a physical datum of religious experience. My argument is that (1) the densely textured totality of vital energies and emergent values comprises the actual process which is God; and (2) Whitehead’s own habit of conceiving the exercise of divine causation as restricted to but one mode, that of final causality, can be shown to permit an equal and balancing emphasis on the mode of God’s efficient causality, in order to do justice to those "somewhat exceptional elements in our conscious experience . . . which may roughly be classed together as religious and moral intuitions" (PR 343). The identification of God with the power of the past, operative as transitional creativity, will thus serve to minimize, but not entirely to collapse, Whitehead’s ontological distinction between God and creativity.5

1. Utilizing the emergent paradigm sketched earlier, the first point to note is that it is the causal efficacy of God, inclusive of all actualized finite entities, which is the sole efficient power given to each concrescing occasion at its inception. This is the "totality," or "the whole," or the sense of "Externality" as "one," which Whitehead distinguishes from the externality which forms the immediate historic environment for each new creation in the temporal process. This totality of relational data constitutes the stream of experience, the creative flux in which and out of which events have their becoming and perishing. It provides an elemental base in human experience for designating the most deeply creative transformations associated with religion. As an emergent structure, the totality is not reducible to "self" and "others," but neither is it given apart from them. At base, the primary mode of experiencing is a perspective squeezed out, as it were, from an infinite field of relational "others" in whose creative and sustaining powers it is embedded. Discrimination of the environing others as distinct from the totality is a product of the more complex supplemental stages of concrescence. Whitehead can be interpreted as giving support to this contention when he says that "an entity is an abstraction from the concrete which in its fullest sense means totality" (R 17) and "the details are a reaction of the totality . . . what is original is the vague totality" (MT 148f.). Moreover, the totality as a datum for feeling can be equated with what Whitehead distinguishes as the "superjective nature of God" defined as "the character of the pragmatic value of his specific satisfaction qualifying the transcendent creativity in the various temporal instances" (PR 88). Assuming that the superjective nature of God is founded on strict analogy with the superjective character of other actual entities, it refers to the efficient causality whereby God enjoys objective immortality of influence in future occasions. Therefore, on the interpretation which I am advancing, the mode of causal influence by which the "kingdom of heaven with us today," "the particular providence for particular occasions," and the "love of God" are felt to "flood back again into the world" is through efficient, as well as final, causality (cf. PR 351).

2. According to this analysis, God is prehended directly in terms of pure physical feelings in the primary, or dative, phase of concrescence. In a pure physical feeling, the actual entity which is the datum (in this case God) is objectified by one of its own physical feelings. On the part of the percipient, this would permit a causal feeling of the emergent satisfaction of the totality, in one of its moment-to-moment determinate totalizations. As an instance of the transmission of energy pertinent to pure physical feeling, this would posit divine power as the primal activity constituting the initial phase of an entity’s becoming. Such an analysis is neo-Whiteheadian in that it (1) ascribes religious importance to the processive reality of transitive relationships, those strands, trajectories, and thrusts of vital energy, whose novel increments of emergent quality are absorbed by pure physical feelings, and (2) attributes to God this mode of efficient causality. The effect of this interpretation is to dissolve the rather artificial dichotomy which appears in some process theology between "coercive and "persuasive models of divine power, and to deny that all instances of efficient causality are necessarily coercive in the pernicious sense. There are further meanings of efficient causality which pertain to productive, enabling, sustaining, and supportive power. But in order to account for those dynamic aspects of religious experience which directly discern the productive, enabling, sustaining, or supportive presence of God, something more is required than Whitehead’s characteristic doctrine of the divine presence as felt by way of a persuasive initial aim, acquired through "hybrid" physical prehension. Technically defined, in a hybrid physical prehension the actual entity which is the datum is objectified by one of its own conceptual feelings. So, whereas a hybrid feeling may be recognized as a physical feeling, it is not a feeling of a physical feeling. That is to say, how it is felt may be characterized in terms of the vectorial and conformal subjective forms of all other physical feelings in general. But what is felt as the objective datum in a hybrid prehension is the conceptual feeling of that entity rather than, as in pure physical prehension, one of the datum’s own physical feelings. Among process theologians, Whitehead’s account of hybrid prehension of God has been creatively modified according to the proposal that God is objectified by one of the divine propositional feelings rather than by a pure conceptual feeling.6 Since the logical subjects of these divine propositional feelings are all the indicated actual occasions that constitute the past actual world of the nascent occasion, this emphasis roots the initial aim in a concrete past. But even allowing for this systematic extension of Whitehead’s doctrine, it means that God’s "particular providence for particular occasions" is simply final causality particularized, not efficient causality.7 This marks an important but religiously deficient feature of the process conception of God’s freedom and power in nature. It means that the distinctive influence exerted by God is on the "aim" of the subject, the end toward which it determines itself, but not on the active power by which it determines itself and on which it feels itself to depend. The image of God as the divine Eros urging the world toward new forms of enjoyment offers an impetus for creative becoming, to be sure. However, it is an impetus of a particular sort, felt as relevant lure, appetitional ideal, specific possibility. This is transmitted as final causality, in contrast to the sort of impetus which can be said to impart efficient causality. Consequently, the initial aim of a concrescence does not so much supply an additional source of energy inherited along relational routes of pure physical feeling as it diverts, up or down, the flow of energy becoming newly unified. Experientially, the initial aim is felt more as an aspiration toward actualization than as an actualizing act, more by way of felt anticipation than by insistent power. Furthermore, there is only a diluted sense in which the hybrid physical feeling is felt as a direct experience of God qua concrete actuality. For the most part, the affirmation of God as the source of initial aim is an inference derived from the ontological principle. The limitations of this Whiteheadian emphasis should be evident, particularly with respect to the system’s adequacy to religious data scattered widely throughout human history. By contrast, a neo-Whiteheadian account which affirms God’s living presence through pure physical feelings is able to account for God’s felt presence as relational transforming power, as well as relevant possibility. Here the accent falls on the experience of God as the (partial) source of the act of existence, not simply the source of the definiteness of existence.

3. Pure physical feelings of God introduce vectorial and conformal qualities. The vectorial quality of God’s efficient causality means that the prehending subject feels its own creativity as derived, initially, from God. The conformal quality of the pure physical prehension of God means that how the subject physically feels is determined, at its inception, by the quality of God’s own objectifications. From this follow two important theological conclusions. The first is that the sense of objectivity and empowering presence which is found in religious experience is contributed by the vector quality which carries the energy beyond the immediacy of the moment. But on this account, the objectivity is that of a felt physical presence, not only of ideal aims, and the empowerment consists of productive efficient causality, not only of particularized final causality. Secondly, there is a vague distinction between experiencing subject and datum of experience. This distinctness is a felt quality of the subject whose physical feelings inherit the evidence of their origin. The divine physical feeling which is conformally reproduced by the creature is a reenaction of God’s own feeling, under a perspective. That feeling is inseparable from its subject, for there is no feeling without a subject. Therefore, the divine cause is objectively present in the creaturely effect. When the datum occasion is felt conformally, the subjective form of the physical feeling of the prehending subject conforms to the subjective form (the how of feeling) of the datum’s feeling and thus guarantees the effective transfer of energy from God to the creature. It is an act of creation in process, as happening and not as completed. Recalling Whitehead’s definition of prehension as "a transition effecting a concrescence should help to obviate the standard criticisms of psychologism charged against other interpretations of religious experience. If God’s concreteness is a quality of energy in relational entities, then this creativity, whether under the guise of void or enemy or companion, operates in, through, and with the objectified past data and the self-creating impulse of the subject in its processive immediacy. This bodily feeling of the energy of a cocreator is one way of construing the Pauline-Augustinian perception of the "I but not I" character of God’s presence. The particular qualitative forms which this energy assumes, religiously expressed in terms of symbols of judgment, mercy, forgiveness, and so forth, are further perspectives under which the totality is objectified.

4. This implies no mysticism of identity between God and the self, although it does entail a doctrine of internal relatedness. On the process view of selfhood, in which the internal relation between God and the self is asymmetrical, the prehending entity (the emerging subject) is never identical with the datum of prehension (God), but that datum does become part of the real internal constitution of the subject. No greater intimacy than this between creator and creature is either possible or desirable if a metaphysical pluralism is to be upheld and combined consistently with a thesis of universal relativity and a principle of novelty. Some measure of metaphysical solitude is irreducible. It is the price of freedom.8

5. Neither is there any abrogation of creaturely freedom as a result of God’s efficient causality. For the very heart of the process of subjective immediacy is the act of deciding how the causally efficacious data of the conformal stage of concrescence are to be ordered. This is the function of the causa sui power of the subject itself, conditioned but not altogether determined by God. More specifically, the self-creative character of the concrescence is to be understood to consist in how it responds to what it receives, where the what is the divine creative energy together with that of the past actual world. Finite acts channel and determine the flow of creative power from the past, but always in a way which produces a genuinely new emergent. The freedom of the concrescing subject cannot be characterized by reducing it to those ingredients constituting it because the subject, as such, constitutes itself. Nor can the fully determinate satisfaction be analyzed exhaustively by looking to its antecedent determinants because, finally, it is its own reason for what it becomes. Emergent freedom is thus a quality of the total organismic individual, and is not simply a function of the autonomous character of the subjective forms of the individual’s conceptual feelings or abstractive activity. Creaturely freedom is just as much a physical urge as it is a conceptual appetition, once it is seen as rooted in the freedom of God as physically felt.

6. Divine and creaturely freedom are therefore polar elements, presupposing each other ontologically, existentially, and conceptually. Viewed independently, they are abstractions from any single act of becoming. In the full reality of the becoming of experience there is no divine power that is not creatively appropriated, however marginal the degree of creativity. Likewise, there is no self-creativity which escapes the profound weight of the power of the past, as the source and lure of its present becoming. The same act of experience is thus felt as simultaneously divinely determined and as self-determined. No coherent articulation of this aspect of religious experience can be offered on the basis of a substantialistic conception of selfhood. But the use of Whitehead’s genetic analysis of the process of concrescence, with its "initial" conformal, responsive phase and its ‘later" supplemental phases, culminating in the satisfaction, allows for a nonparadoxical account of the polar balance between efficient and final causality, physical and conceptual feelings, public and private, determinism and autonomy.9

7. Finally, it should be noted that the actual world is different for each subject. This-actual-world-now includes different objectifications of God for different individuals. In some cases, God’s objectified conceptual feelings may be prehended with greater emphasis than the objectified physical feelings with which they are given, leading that subject to an apprehension of God’s presence chiefly in terms of novel possibilities which draw one forward. In other cases, it may be God’s objectified pure physical feelings which are felt more effectively than any of their interwoven conceptual counterparts. In all cases, the inextricable interweaving of physical and conceptual prehensions, both as objectified and as concrescing, blurs the perceptual field in incalculable ways.

To these points several important qualifications need to be entered. First, abstractive objectification is always involved in any physical prehension. No subject can be physically sensitive to the totality qua totality. Secondly, the individuality of the emerging occasion would be destroyed if its feeling were completely conformal to its data. The physically given data need to be harmonized by the prehending occasion with its own emerging subjectivity, for otherwise the subject’s creativity could not function. This harmonizing requires the subject negatively to prehend or ignore those aspects of the object which are incompatible with its own aim, thus preserving the unity of the subject. That is why Whitehead distinguishes between the initial data, the totality as it exists independently of the subject, and the objective data, or the perspective under which the initial data are objectified.

The problems of perception in discerning the physical presence of God in religious experience are enormous. As there is only, at best, a marginal degree of consciousness in the mode of causal efficacy, discrimination of the multiple vectors given in experience is always an ambiguous undertaking. This ambiguity arises from the fact that, as Whitehead says, "what we want to know about, from the point of view of curiosity or of technology, chiefly resides in those aspects of the world disclosed in causal efficacy: but . . . what we can distinctly register is chiefly to be found among the percepta in the mode of presentational immediacy" (PR 169). Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy, or sense perception, is a way of abstracting from initial complexity and the basic, only semi-conscious, awareness of real forces encountered and impinging. In ordinary perception, the sensa function by reference to the things or complex situations from which they have been abstracted. "When human experience is in question," Whitehead says, "‘perception’ almost means ‘perception in the mixed mode of symbolic reference’" (PR 168). But in symbolic functioning, the possibility of error is admitted. The information gained in complex causal experience, when it involves phases of symbolic reference, may be mistaken. There is no guarantee of correct referring. What was basically felt does not, and cannot, rise into consciousness as a total complex. For what is wholly concrete is not as such recognizable, since recognition involves discrimination and presupposes at least some abstraction.

While it may be the case that the relationship between perception in the mode of causal efficacy and presentational immediacy may be varied so as to effect in some subjects a more vivid apprehension of the causal relationships carried in the flux of process, and a corresponding deemphasis of the immediate domination by the show of sensa, complete ideal purity of perceptive experience, devoid of any symbolic reference, is in practice unobtainable for either perceptive mode (S 54)10 Therefore, conscious claims to have discerned particular vectors of God’s efficient causality involve a degree of abstraction which, in the nature of the case, may be erroneous. Forms of inauthenticity bad faith, self-delusion, and repression may also accompany the interpretative device of symbolic reference.

Further difficulties of distinguishing, perceptually, the creative power of God from that of one’s environing past actual world are due to the fact that God is no less present in all the data of one’s objectified world as in any one element. If each occasion at its inception inherits the massive concrete structure of efficient power which is the life of God, and from which it squeezes out its own individuality, then each occasion as it perishes bears traces, however faint, of its own experience of God. Any newly emerging occasion will therefore have given to it the complex interrelated field of relationships which defines the concrete nature of God, inclusive of past data which have themselves inherited the causal efficacy of God. The limits of human perception preclude anything more than a highly tentative and marginal discrimination of the elements within this complex field.

This is not simply due to the limitations of human conscious awareness. The ambiguity roots even more radically in the fact that concrete existence is cast in a vast energetic field of physical inter-relatedness. If at a fundamental level of analysis it is extremely difficult to discern, as Whitehead points out, where one’s body ends and the external environment begins, it is even more difficult to distinguish empirically the creative power of God from that of past actual occasions, or the freedom of God from that of the self. It is precisely this perception of the depth and range of physical relationships which contributes to religious experience, even as it impedes its articulation.

III. Remaining Issues

The speculative hypothesis sketched in this article is one which is open to the gravest objections on three fronts. From the point of view of relativity physics, of orthodox Whiteheadian interpretation, and of religious adequacy, the notion of an emergent whole taken to this level of metaphysical generality is notoriously full of difficulties.

Of these, I believe the scientific objections to be the most daunting. The need to correlate metaphysics and physics in our time is a formidable and neglected task. The full metaphysical development of the hypothesis presented here should be carried out in concert with relativity physics and quantum theory. But in talking about the totality as an organic whole which feels, and which, moreover, concresces its feelings into a complex unity which becomes objectified as a datum for physical feeling in future temporal occasions, one implies a kind of absolute simultaneity which clashes with the theory of relativity. The difficulties that a temporalistic concept of God have in coping with the theory of relativity have been pointed out by John T. Wilcox, systematically explored by Paul Fitzgerald, and ingeniously addressed by Lewis Ford.11 For the time being, it may be that the model which comes closest to preserving the principle of the causal independence of contemporaries while at the same time being compatible with a spatiotemporal mode of divine unification is best described in Paul Fitzgerald’s version of the "God of Infinitely Interlaced Personalities."12 The "faint odor of polytheism" he detects in this model need not deter process theists from exploring its advantages.

A second and related issue, underlying the problem of divine spatiotemporal unification, engages the whole controversy between those who agree with Whitehead in describing God as a single nontemporal actual entity and those who favor a more resolutely temporalistic or societal view of the divine actuality. From the former perspective, the objection which is certain to be made to the thesis of this essay is that it ignores Whitehead’s own stipulation that there is a "reversal of poles" between God and the world, such that God’s own physical feelings are simply not available as a datum for feeling. In that case, the whole notion that religious experience includes the reception of God’s physical feelings by way of vector feeling tones from then-there to here-now can be dismissed in the manner of Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland: "There’s no there there." Lewis Ford, for example, argues that God’s primordial nature may be objectifiable, but not temporally relevant, and that the ongoing temporal consequent experience is never completely unified, and thus is never directly prehensible by creatures.13

However, the success of Ford’s entitative view of God’s actuality rests heavily on making good the chum that a "nontemporal activity" or an atemporal unity"14 is an intelligible concept -- a defense which, as far as I know, has yet to appear. At last until this notion can be shown to be something other than a mere verbal formula, I submit that the societal view, modeled after the emergent paradigm, is to be preferred, on the grounds that it is better able (1) to show that God is not an exception to metaphysical first principles, and (2) to account, with the modifications proposed here, for the dynamic aspect of religious experience which directly discerns a causally efficacious objectification of God’s temporally emergent experience. The larger question at stake is whether we are to be governed by the formal requirements and possibilities defined by process metaphysics, or whether that very system itself is to be judged in part for its adequacy to forms of religious experience in which a concrete, causally efficacious presence is disclosed. But this latter claim requires independent documentation not attempted here.

The third issue concerns the religious adequacy of the thesis proposed in this essay, particularly with respect to the moral character of the totality. The philosophical problems involved in this question are many and complex, but they may be traced to even more fundamental religious value judgments. As John Cobb has noted:

Religiously there are those for whom it is essential that God be understood as the cause of everything that happens as it happens. There are others for whom it is essential that worship be directed to One who is good and loving and whose character is manifest in the efforts to overcome injustice rather than in injustice.15

Among those for whom Biblical faith is primary, two reasons are usually advanced against the religious adequacy of identifying God with the totality. In the first place, it is assumed, the totality is devoid of form, beyond good and evil, and thus not religiously ultimate. The totality as such is regarded as an abstraction, neither a creator nor an actuality. In the second place, it is argued by Whiteheadians, God (the religious ultimate), is, like all actualities, an instance of creativity (the metaphysical ultimate), but the two are categorically distinct. The historic identification of the ultimate of metaphysics with the ultimate principle of rightness is thus to be dissolved, and worship, so it is claimed, is to be directed only to the principle of rightness.

Both of these objections, it seems to me, are less than decisive against the model of the totality conceived in terms of the emergent paradigm. If what worship requires is an ultimate which is unified, determinate, and actual, then the totality understood as a dynamic, ever-new, emergent whole meets the requirements. But it is not evident that this One to whom worship is directed is also experienced as "One who is good and loving and whose character is manifest in the efforts to overcome injustice rather than in injustice." 16 Here the existence of fundamentally different religious perceptions must be acknowledged. As there is no known way to resolve disagreements over the character of authentic religious experience, the task of justifying the religious adequacy of any particular conception of ultimacy remains a relative one. The criterion for assessing religious adequacy is precisely what in each case is assumed to be religiously adequate. Although this essay has not attempted to furnish criteria for adjudicating questions of religious adequacy, the issues raised may yet serve as a preliminary scale for weighing the religious availability of a neo-Whiteheadian conception of God.



1David Bohm and B. Hiley, "On the Intuitive Understanding of Nonlocality as Implied by Quantum Theory," Foundations of Physics, vol.5 (1975), p. 102.

2 Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Boulder, Co1orado: Shambhala Pub. Co., 1975), p. 81.

3 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, tr. by Arthur Mitchell (Modern Library, Inc., 1944), p. xix.

4For a careful development of this claim, see John Lansing, "The ‘Natures’ of Whitehead’s God," PS 3/3 (Fall, 1973), 143-52.

5 I am assuming in this discussion the argument I developed in a previous essay, "The Power of the Past," PS 13/2 (Summer, 1983).

6 See John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), pp. 155ff., 179-83, 189; and Lewis S. Ford, "The Non-Temporality of Whitehead’s God," International Philosophical Quarterly 13/3 (September, 1973), 351f. For Ford, this propositional feeling is the only divine feeling that the nascent occasion can prehend. Cobb, however, speculates that the prehensive objectification of God need not be restricted to the initial aim, for "there might be more physical feelings of God as well as hybrid feelings, or hybrid feelings other than the initial aim" ("A Whiteheadian Christology," in Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. by D. Brown, R. James, G. Reeves [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971], p. 388). It is the first of Cobb’s options, in favor of pure physical feelings of God, which I am exploring here. My conclusion is close to Cobb’s contention that God is the reason that each new occasion becomes, even if what it becomes is explained by that occasion, its past, and God together (CNT 203-14).

7This is the outcome of Lewis Ford’s analysis in The Lure of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), esp. pp.83-86, 104f., 110n.8.

8 The elaboration of this point would, I believe, serve to answer Robert Neville’s criticism of Whitehead for representing the relation of God to actual occasions as external to their subjectivity, thereby failing to do justice to the religious need for intimacy. See his Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology (Seabury Press, 1980).

9There is a more general problem with the intelligibility of the notion of "genetic successiveness," but surely as an attempt to rescue Bergson’s la durée from the charge of anti-intellectualism (PR xii), Whitehead’s intellectual analysis of phases of concrescence, which are not in physical time, goes a long way toward showing how self-causation can be made intelligible as a doctrine of emergent freedom. Furthermore, the genetic analysis of the process of concrescence, coupled with the epochal theory of time, is able to do justice to certain claims about the nature of religious experience which otherwise sound paradoxical on the assumption of a substance conception of selfhood.

10 It can be argued that certain meditational techniques, as developed, for instance, in forms of Zen Buddhism, aim at precisely this adjustment of the perceptual modes so as to loosen the hold of presentational immediacy (or maya) and to allow the awareness of causal efficacy to become more dominant. Surely both the claims and the actual practice of Eastern religious experience need to be taken into account in assessing the capabilities and the limits of human perception. A significant illustration of what may well be the overwhelming fixation of Western life on the level of presentational immediacy occurs in Whitehead’s mention of William Pitt, the Prime Minister of England, who was heard on his death bed to murmur: "What shades we are, what shades we pursue." Whitehead points out that the exhausted Pitt had lost perception in the mode of causal efficacy, and was grasping the world only as the meaningless repetition of barren sensa (S 48f).

11 Cf. John T. Wilcox, "A Question from Physics for Certain Theists," The Journal of Religion 40/4 (October, 1961), 239-300; Paul Fitzgerald, "Relativity Physics and the God of Process Philosophy," PS 2/4 (Winter, 1972), 251-76; Lewis S. Ford, "Is Process Theism Compatible with Relativity Physics?" The Journal of Religion 48/2 (April, 1968), 131-34. More recently, Charles Hartshorne has called attention to the work of Henry Pierce Stapp, whose generalized version of J. S. Bell’s theorem holds some promise for process theism. See H. P. Stapp, "Quantum Mechanics, Local Causality, and Process Philosophy," edited by William B. Jones, PS 7/3 (Fall, 1977), 173-82; Charles Hartshorne, "Bell’s Theorem and Stapp’s Revised View of Space Time," PS 7/3 (Fall, 1977), 183-91; and William B. Jones, "Bell’s Theorem, H. P. Stapp, and Process Theism," PS 7/4 (Winter, 1977), 250-61.

12 Fitzgerald, p. 273.

13 See Ford’s "The Non-Temporality of Whitehead’s God," esp. pp. 350-53. Bowman L. Clarke also supports the conception of God as a single nontemporal everlasting actual entity; cf. his "God and Time in Whitehead," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 48/4 (December, 1980), 563-79.

14 See especially The Lure of God, p. 105, where Ford employs these puzzling expressions in making the claim that "the nontemporal activity must result in some sort of definite atemporal unity, while the primordial nature most be the outcome of some sort of nontemporal activity."

15 John B. Cobb, Jr., "Three Responses to Neville," PS 10/3-4 (Fall-Winter, 1980), 100. Cf. also Cobb’s "Buddhist Emptiness and the Christian God," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45/1 (1977), 11-25.

16 Ibid.