Three Responses to Neville’s Creativity and God

by Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb and Lewis Ford

Charles Hartshorne is retired from full-time teaching at the University of Texas. John B. Cobb, Jr., teaches at the School of Theology at Claremont and is Director of the Center for Process Studies. Lewis S. Ford, editor of this journal, teaches philosophy at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 93-109, Vol. 10, Numbers 3-4, Fall and Winter, 1980. 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.


Separate articles by Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb Jr., and Lewis S. Ford are presented each discussing Robert C. Neville’s Creativity and God. Neville’s insights are considered significant and helpful, but some subtle differences are analyzed by each author.

Editor’s note: This review article deals with Robert C. Neville’s recently published Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology (The Seabury Press, 1980; 156 pages).


I begin by acknowledging the considerable merits of Professor Neville’s book. His discussion of my philosophy in particular is well written, reasonably fair and accurate, and in some parts generous. I thank him for these qualities. One admires the ingenuity and flexibility of his thinking.

Some disagreements among philosophers concern little more than the choice of points to emphasize. Thus I find acceptable what Neville says about moral continuity in an individual’s career; but my lack of emphasis on the moral aspect of self-identity or continuity, in contrast to the identity or continuity with others, has led my critic to suppose that I deny the self-identity aspect. My essential contention against substance theories is that the self-identity is abstract compared to the concreteness of the momentary actualities, and my critic’s agreement with this, qualified by a "perhaps," suggests that we differ here only in emphasis. I am pleased to learn about the seven features of my thinking with which Neville largely agrees (p. 49-54).

We do disagree about "perishing." I hold that the satisfaction contains its process of becoming ("the being cannot be abstracted from the becoming"), so that to prehend a past satisfaction is to prehend the becoming, the subjective immediacy itself, of the past actuality. The past presentness, the past becoming (which did not prehend itself, it simply was itself) is now prehended. And I see Neville’s and others’ arguments against this as verbal confusions. Prehending is retrospective, and past process is what is given. Nothing is lost, with the qualification that all nondivine prehending is more or less indistinct (Whitehead’s "negative prehensions") so that, except for God, much of the past is dismissed as irrelevant and in this sense is indeed lost. But not for God, by whose adequate prehending actualities "live forevermore."

Neville thinks that even God has negative prehensions. But then Whitehead’s version of omniscience ("the truth itself is how all things are together in the Consequent Nature") must be given up, or else there must have been aspects of the past about which there is no truth. The idea of the past losing some of its quality (as in George Herbert Mead’s philosophy) seems acutely paradoxical. It is the past which must conform to the "excluded middle": such and such did happen or it did not happen. If it did happen, the "it" is still definite. If the immediacy was simply indefinite, then the loss of this negation is no definite loss.

That all the past is preserved in God does not mean that "no evil lasts forever." My critic here seems to forget that I believe, as Whitehead and Berdyaev did, in a suffering God. Although God, "with infinite resources," makes the best of what happens, it still is not entirely good that tragedies happened as they did. Something better could have happened, better for God, who has "lost" something, not in the sense of first having and then not having it, but in the sense of not acquiring a value God could have had. The divine suffering is still there. Existence is partly tragic, even for God.

Neville’s reasoning that God, being infinitely resourceful, must be able to persuade us to do exactly what God’s initial aim for us calls for, so that we are not free after all, assumes that the initial aim is as determinate as the final aim. But the final aim is the actuality itself. I say that the initial aim is only an abstract suggestion, an outline or sketch. God does not want us to merely duplicate the initial aim. The idea is meaningless or contradictory.

That metaphysical principles are in my view a priori (pp. 70-74) is correct, though this seems contradicted by what is said elsewhere (p. 46). Correctly formulated, the principles make sense; otherwise, they are more or less subtly incoherent or hopelessly vague. But since experience is pervasively, though in varying degrees, indistinct, and language is no absolute means of thinking clearly, we have only a fallible power of judging the coherence and clarity of our formulations. I grant that experience can "corroborate theological claims" if these are properly formulated. But I follow Popper in classing as a priori all statements such that no observation could disconfirm or falsify them. Whitehead’s category of the ultimate could not conceivably be falsified by any experiences. Neither could Neville’s idea of a creation of form by the wholly form less; but then it could not, so far as I see, be corroborated by any experience either. So how do we know what we are talking about with such a formula?

Concerning the necessity that worldly and divine prehending must ever continue to produce new actualities, I agree with Whitehead that it is part of the meaning of "event" to be destined to be prehended by subsequent events, this destiny constituting the very ‘being" of the event. Creativity as ultimate connotes this. I try to defend the view by putting the question, "What could make an event the last event?" I see no internal character of the event that could do this. (Some "black hole" enthusiast might dispute this.) Would there be mere nothingness "after" the event? I hold a general theory that mere unqualified "nothing" fails to make sense and could not make any statement true. Bergson in Creative Evolution makes this point neatly. All truths have some positive aspect, as Plato saw. The question, ‘Why is there not nothing?" is ill-formed. The alternative to something is something else, not absolute nothing.

I grant to Plato and Neville that there are eternal norms or ideals, and I have no quarrel with Plato’s Good as more than mere being. There is an eternal divine purpose. My difficulty with "eternal objects" is that I think the purely eternal is too abstract or indefinite to include a particular hue and shade of color or other definite quality of feeling. I also think there are emergent as well as eternal norms and universals. On this issue I am a Peircean.

Neville’s dictum that "determinate complexity" requires an explanation, so that only the wholly indeterminate is ultimate and uncreated, I find subtly ambiguous. The whole numbers are definite, and in that sense determinate, but are they created? Any particular pair of things has been created; but it is another question whether pairedness has been created. My view is that there have always been pairs and could not be. Contingency is not in definite complexity but in particular complexity, like the complexity and determinateness of two apples. The most abstract definiteness or complexity I regard as necessary, for contingency just is the freedom of creativity to produce this or that instead. But the abstract essence of creativity as such, well characterized by Whitehead, is not produceable. It eternally is. It is determinate in its extremely abstract definiteness but is not determinate in the sense of having been de novo determined. God, the eternal abstractor, necessarily and always envisages it as an aspect of any and every concrete actuality. It has not been determined in the sense of having been made but is the identity of making as such. Experience in the generic sense as creative synthesizing of antecedent instances of itself is the implicit or explicit subject matter of all thought that understands itself.

Theistic proofs are cogent only for those who find their conclusion credible. If not they will reject the premises or the mode of inference. For me it is credible that creativity, just in itself, has a necessary duality of unsurpassable and surpassable forms. This duality is the supreme contrast. Implicitly, usually without distinct consciousness of this, any instance of the surpassable or nondivine kind of experiencing refers to the unsurpassable or divine kind, which I hold is eternally individual as well as universal and which is the measure of all else than itself. Not mere creativity, but divine-nondivine creativity, is what guarantees the ongoing of the creative advance. It carries its own eternal norm and necessity in itself.

"The abstract is in the concrete" means not only that a painful experience instances pain, but that an unrealized purpose is real if some actuality does so purpose or intend. Universals express similarities of concrete realities, but they are also entertained as ideas or ideals. Over and above all the actualities, with their qualities, purposes, and ideas, there need be nothing further. "The concrete and the abstract" is no more than the concrete as exemplifying, experiencing, intending, abstracting, the abstract.

Similarly, "God and the world" is no more than God as prehending the world. The inclusive reality is the worshipful reality. This is Whitehead’s idea as I interpret it, although I emphasize more than he did the divine inclusiveness. The problem of the unity of the divine personal society is for me the most difficult one. A wholly simple, formless deity presents a very different but not necessarily less formidable problem.

A Jewish hymn contains the lines:

Formless, all lovely forms

Thy loveliness declare.

One could read a similar idea into the Buddhist notion of sunyata or emptiness. This is the attempt to make the wholly abstract yield the concrete, the less produce the more. Creativity as envisaged in process philosophy is the passage from an actuality to a greater and, in a sense, more richly concrete actuality; however, the description of this transition involves a kind of complexity that is not an empirical or particular complexity but the a priori, utterly general or abstract complexity, complexity as such, one might say. To abstract even from that is indeed to arrive at the empty. Is this emptiness the worshipful reality? Merleau-Ponty writes about a "negative philosophy," analogous to the negative theology, to characterize the mysterious ground or source of subject and object. It is not positively describable. A related idea is that of Karl Jaspers’ "the encompassing." My position is that subjects as such explain their own relation to objects (Whitehead’s "feeling of feeling") and need no more ultimate ground. Subjects encompass objects. Similarly the complexity of subjectivity as free synthesis of previous instances of such synthesizing explains everything, including itself, since it is the principle of subjectivity whose concrete objects are also subjects, the rest being abstractions from and by subjects.

According to a Japanese Buddhist friend, the foregoing view is too dualistic; according to Neville, it is not dualistic enough. There is too little contrast. According to my agile-minded critic the contrast between preservation and final loss is missing. But then on his view many contrasts are finally lost, as their terms drop out of perception or memory. I admit that there are contrasts between (relative) order and (relative) disorder, but what absolute disorder can be I do not know. There is an optimal ordering in the divine synthesizing of the creatures. I do not reject the contrast between joy and sorrow, even as valid for God. As Whitehead declares, "the attribution of mere happiness to God is a profanation," a magnificent saying to be taken together with, "God is the fellow sufferer who understands." The cross symbolizes an ultimate aspect of existence. Universal creaturely freedom means risk of frustration, suffering, in which God, the ideal Sensitivity, ever after fully participates.

The idea of our freedom being identical with God’s freedom recalls Royce’s view that our volitions are simply our share of the Absolute Will’s volitions. God decides how we and he suffer, which I find both sadistic and masochistic.

I interpret the book of Job differently from Neville. Job has not made a world and was not there when the world was made, so he is not entitled to make the inference from the occurrence of an evil to the conclusion that God has deliberately chosen that evil. "Omnipotence is too problematic a notion to serve as premise of argument. I take Whitehead and Peirce, preceded by Cournot and Boutroux, to have come closer to giving us a viable concept of divine creating than anyone had in the time of the writing of Job. God makes possible, but does not determine, the decisions of creatures. God does decide the kind of laws that are to obtain in a cosmic epoch. Not the Primordial but the Consequent Nature does this, for the laws are contingent and noneternal.

Another way to put the main issue is the old one of the analogical nature of theological concepts. Divine prehending and being prehended, and hence being influenced and influencing, are analogous to ordinary prehending and being prehended, and so have a meaning from experience; but sheer formless ground of formed actualities seems to break any analogy available from experience.

The issue is subtle and Neville is to be congratulated for having focused upon it so sharply.


Robert Neville’s book is indeed what its subtitle states, a challenge to process theology. The challenge is sensitive, informed, and serious. It is consciously directed toward process theology from a perspective that is quite different and fully self-conscious. Neville’s evaluation of the importance of process theology and the continuing contribution of process cosmology is generous. My first and last words to Neville are words of appreciation. In between, of course, there will be’ criticism.

Neville’s basic thesis is that whereas Whitehead’s cosmology is of great and continuing value, his doctrine of God, and those of process theologians influenced by him, "cannot be sustained in critical scrutiny" (p. 146). Nevertheless, his concluding sentence is: "The philosophical cosmology of which process theology is a part is a rich enough matrix to nurture other and perhaps more viable conceptions of God" (ibid.). My disagreement with Neville here is moderate. I agree that neither Whitehead nor any one else in this tradition has provided a problem-free doctrine of God. Despite many points at which I cannot accept Neville’s formulations, I find much to accept in his criticisms both of Ford’s theories of genetic succession and of Hartshorne’s societal view of God (which I followed in A Christian Natural Theology [Westminster, 1965]). I agree that Whitehead’s philosophical cosmology is a rich enough matrix to nurture other and more viable conceptions.

The disagreements are nevertheless important. For me the recognition that no extant process formulation is free from difficulties calls for continued reflection within the tradition of process theism. For Neville it supports a position which has other roots. Neville implies that this quite different doctrine has fewer conceptual problems, and there, too, I disagree. But these disagreements would be difficult to adjudicate. Two other disagreements are more important.

First, we disagree about the importance of a conceptually perfected doctrine. The lack of such a doctrine in the process tradition would distress me if other traditions had achieved such doctrines. But I know of no doctrine of God in any tradition that is not beset with problems, and I am impressed by the ability of process theology to deal more adequately than others do with many of these problems. The lack of a perfected doctrine of God in any tradition would distress me if I found a perfected account of reality in some atheistic tradition. But on the whole I find the study of atheism quite reassuring as to the advantages of theism. I might still find the lack of a fully consistent doctrine of God distressing if I thought that this lack distinguished reflection about God from reflection on other topics. But I find no fully consistent doctrine of human beings, of subatomic particles, of evolution, of economics, or of the status of mathematical objects. The lack of satisfactory theories in these areas does not lead me to total skepticism. On the contrary, some theories seem sufficiently strong to give appropriate guidance to life or thought. I see doctrines about God in the same way.

The question about process theism for me, then, is not whether it is problem free but whether it is sufficiently cogent and fruitful to warrant continuing work within this tradition. Although we will never solve all conceptual problems, we may work past some of those that are now most troublesome. My own judgment, informed by Marjorie Suchocki, is that we need to reflect more radically on the undeveloped insights of Whitehead about the profound difference between the one nontemporal actual entity which originates conceptually and the many temporal actual occasions which originate physically. The process of weaving physical feelings upon the matrix of conceptual feelings is surely quite different from the genetic phases of conceptual supplementation of initially physical feelings. Despite the dictum that God is not an exception to metaphysical principles, we can not apply to such an everlasting process in the divine life the speculative account of concrescence applicable to temporal occasions. In some respects the everlasting concrescence of God must resemble temporal succession as well as genetic succession, and in some respects it must be profoundly different from both. How far speculations about this unique divine process can take us toward conceptual clarity, and how far, if they did, this would indicate their accuracy, I do not know. It seems to me unlikely that human thinking is well adapted to understanding the inner life of God.

Much more important to me than the question as to whether God can at once establish and exemplify the metaphysical principles are questions about how God is related to the world. For now I will leave it to others to argue about the strictly metaphysical issues, but I cannot forbear to enter the argument where Neville’s formulations of Whitehead’s position undercut what seem to me matters of much greater importance for process theology. I will limit myself to two points dealing specifically with Whitehead’s view of God’s relation to the world, trusting that others will respond to the criticisms of Ford, Hartshorne, Ogden, and Winquist.

Neville thinks that in Whitehead’s doctrine God limits human freedom (p. 9). To me it is of utmost theological importance to think of God as the giver, the creator, of human freedom. I have learned how that is so from Whitehead, although some of Whitehead’s formulations and some formulations by Whiteheadians can lead to the disastrous impression on which Neville builds his case against Whitehead.

My Whiteheadian understanding of the relation of God and freedom is a response to the question, "How is freedom possible at all?" The dominant response in the ordinary language and analytic literature is that, in any radical sense, freedom is not possible. There are hard determinists and there are soft determinists and there are even some indeterminists, but there is very little that supports the Christian view of radical personal responsibility. The reason, I think, is that it is generally assumed that insofar as what happens now can be explained at all, it must be explained in terms of what has happened previously. If it is not so explained, it is simply random.

The alternative to this, provided by Whitehead, is that an occasion is affected not only by the causal efficacy of the past but also by the lure of relevant possibilities. This lure enables it to become something more than the determined outcome of the past. Further, the possibilities are not random but ordered in terms of degrees to which an occasion may appropriately transcend its given situation. One is not merely given an abstractly open future but also invited to realize that possibility which will be best both for the immediate present and for the relevant future. The occasion is thus called to decide. The decision may be self-damning or heroically responsive. It is usually somewhere in between. Without that call there would be no free decision, for there would be nothing to decide about. I find this view quite different from both Neville’s own proposal and his caricature of Whitehead. I find it much more fruitful for continuing reflection about grace, freedom, and sin then either.

A second point of interpretation of Whitehead’s understanding of God’s relation to the world has to do with the intimacy of this relation (p. 18 and passim). Neville insists that for Whitehead this relation is fundamentally external and objective, failing to do justice to the religious need for intimacy. I agree that there is a religious need for intimacy, and I believe that clarifying how that need is met is one of Whitehead’s great strengths. If the picture communicated by Neville were accurate, I would indeed be distressed.

Neville is committed to an intimacy of the relation of God to the inner subjectivity of human experience which is satisfied for him only by a carefully qualified identity. He criticizes Whitehead for representing God as a mere datum of experience, and he pictures the relation of God to actual occasions as external to their subjectivity.

It is true that Whitehead is at pains to establish the nonidentity of actual occasions with God. The intimacy he describes is one of communion rather than union. Hence the particular kind of intimacy Neville favors is rejected. But in contrasting the intimacy he favors with Whitehead’s position, Neville distorts the latter. He neglects to make clear that the data of an occasion, the many, are constitutive of the occasion. The concrescence of the occasion is nothing other than the many becoming one. God is, in Whitehead’s words, incarnate in every occasion. This is a strong sense of incarnate.

Neville also stresses that for Whitehead God knows us only in our objective condition, not in our subjective immediacy. This is likely to suggest to the reader that God knows us as we might know a fact or an object of vision. Of course, Neville knows better than that. His point is that God knows occasions only as they are satisfied, and he interprets this, as many Whiteheadians do, to mean that the immediacy of an occasion is alien to God. This is not however, the way the texts read.

For Whitehead, the way in which one moment of my experience flows into its successor is not denuded of immediacy by the fact that it has attained satisfaction. What is felt by the later occasion are the feelings of the earlier occasions. It is true that modifications are introduced into the later occasion and that in the temporal flow the immediacy of the earlier feelings fades. Whitehead’s intuition is that in God this immediacy does not fade.

My point is that for those whose religious needs are not for identity with deity, however qualified, one can hardly imagine a doctrine that more fully expresses the intimacy of grace than does Whitehead’s. As one for whom the radical nonidentity of temporal creatures with God is of great religious importance, I greatly prefer Whitehead’s approach.

In explaining why I do not agree with Neville’s presentation of Whitehead on freedom and immediacy I have already indicated the importance of the religious questions one brings to bear on the doctrine of God. This is the second area of disagreement between us. Even when we agree in our interpretation of Whitehead, we disagree in our evaluation. Neville agrees that the religious question is more important than the conceptual one (p. 3).

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 inflicting it. Both themes are found in the Bible and in the three great traditions that stem from it. Neville identifies with "the religious feeling that God’s moral character is revealed in events, for better or worse" (p. 11). I belong to the group who cannot worship that reality whose moral character is even partially revealed in the Holocaust or in the torturing of a single innocent child. Of course, I do not agree with Neville that "the price of this move is to make the actual course of events irrelevant to God’s moral character" (ibid.). But for me, and for most Christians, some events are far more revelatory of God’s character than are others. And process theology explains how and why this is so.

Neville’s preference for what he regards as a more classical doctrine of God is grounded more in this religious preference than in the doubtful claim that he can provide a formulation on that basis that has fewer conceptual problems than the formulations of process theologians. My preference for a Whiteheadian theism, similarly, is grounded in my religious preference even more than in my conviction that its conceptual problems will progressively yield to further reflection.

A closely related difference appears conceptual but is in fact existential or, in Neville’s terms, a matter of sensibility (p. 46). For Neville every plurality cries aloud for explanation in terms of a unity. Those who live and think by this intuition and need for unity will certainly not be satisfied with Whitehead’s philosophy. It explodes at every point into pluralities of entities, principles, and categories which are complexly interrelated. No one thing explains or grounds everything else. Different questions lead to different multiplicities and pluralities. I like this. It has for me the feel of reality. It conforms to my conviction that adequacy to the facts is more important than conceptual consistency and integration, but I can understand that others find this exasperating and wish to impose upon it a hierarchical order.

For Neville, the central theological question is to "account for the existence of the complex world." He wrongly supposes that Whitehead intended to answer this question by reference to creativity (p. 38). I agree with Neville that Whitehead gives no such explanation of the existence of the world as a whole. Like the Buddhists he regards this as an unprofitable question. It would be a great accomplishment to explain why particular events have the character they do while sharpening our intuition as to what, at bottom, is going on. For Neville this is utterly unsatisfactory. For him the question is about the unitary reality responsible for their being anything at all. He is far from the first to ask such a question, and indeed such continuity as his doctrine of God has with the Western theological tradition depends on this partly shared question.

Neville thinks that the only alternative to his "empiricist" sensibility is a "rationalist" one (pp. 46ff). According to this sensibility, creativity can only be an empirical generalization. In contrast, I see Whitehead as avoiding both of Neville’s alternatives. Creativity is neither an empirical generalization about what is going on nor the efficient cause of the being of things. It is instead the answer to the question as to what the being of things is. It is an answer that resembles to a remarkable degree the results of Heidegger’s quest for the being that has been forgotten when Western philosophy chooses between the alternatives proposed by Neville. But like Whitehead, Heidegger knows that the answer to this question is not the Biblical God.

Ultimate religious and existential p references are hard to debate. Fortunately, however,- Neville and I have shared concerns, particularly for interreligious understanding; and one of his claims, specifically against me, is that his doctrine of God is more supportive of dialog between the religions than a process doctrine can be. Further, the issue on which his claim hinges is that of the Whiteheadian distinction of God from creativity, which the title of the book highlights as his primary object of attack. Neville argues that this distinction should be rejected, whereas I have increasingly found it vindicated by its fruitfulness for dialog, especially between Christians and Buddhists.

Neville points out that in The Structure of Christian Existence (Westminster, 1967) I deal with the plurality of cultures and religions only anthropologically. He is correct. He asserts that subsequently I have recognized "that the conception of God, defined by process theism, is incompatible with the Buddhist perspective, not a common ground for potential dialog" (p. 136). Here he is partly correct, since I agree it is not a common ground, but he is chiefly wrong. What I wrote in the passage to which he refers was as follows: "What Buddhists see is, with unknowable limitations and qualifications, there to be seen. What they see seems inconsistent with what Christians see, but it is my conviction that ultimately it is not inconsistent, and that we can understand how both Christian theism and Buddhist atheism are true" (JCTP 154).

My intention here is not to quibble about Neville’s accuracy in representing my position but to debate the advantage of distinguishing God and creativity, an advantage I affirm and he denies. His argument here is that the affirmation of God distinguished from creativity introduces an element incompatible with Buddhism. This would indeed be an obstacle to the kind of interaction both Neville and I want to see between Buddhism and Christianity. Hence it is important to reiterate that I do not believe the two positions are ultimately incompatible, even though I stress their pro found differences. I regret that Neville did not take into account my essay on "Buddhist Emptiness and the Christian God", for if he had, our discussion could begin with fewer misunderstandings. Also, if he had consulted Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Westminster, 1975), he would have seen that I continued to deal with themes which he treats exclusively from my earlier book and would have avoided criticizing me for positions I have not held for a decade.

Neville’s positions on the unity and self-identity of the ultimate and on the prerequisites of dialog cohere well with one another and stand in the main tradition of both metaphysics and dialog theory. I believe that this theory of dialog has brought the practice of dialog near to a dead end -- at least in Japan, where the dialog is most advanced and where I have had some chance to study it. Hence I do not think that the fact that Neville’s metaphysics would have a better chance of providing a common ground for dialog, even if it were true, would commend it. On the contrary encouraging the search for this sort of common ground only confirms the present impasse.

Since my position is unusual, I must explain it. One question is that of the conditions of fruitful dialog among religious traditions, in this case, Buddhism and Christianity. The general assumption has been that since they are two religions, they can engage in dialog because ultimately they are about the same task -- relating people properly to one and the same ultimate reality. Having the same task, each can explain its approach to the other. The result, on this theory, should be that mutual appreciation is enhanced and perhaps that each can learn something from the other.

But what happens? As long as it is assumed that the Christian God and Buddhist emptiness are two ways of understanding one and the same reality, two responses are possible. There can be argument as to which understanding is superior, and there can be a quest for overlaps of understanding in the tradition. The first option, argument, rarely proves fruitful. The second, the quest for overlaps, usually leads to the common ground of mysticism. In the most extreme Western mystics, especially Meister Eckhart, Christians find in our tradition a view of ultimate reality that makes contact with Buddhists. There can be a comfortable dialog between followers of Meister Eckhart and Buddhists. Neville may recognize that his proposal cuts in this direction.

Is this what we want? It is not what seems most important to me. After the followers of Eckhart and the Buddhists have come to mutual understanding, what about the 99 per cent of Christians who worship the God of the Bible instead of realizing their identity with Eckhart’s Godhead? Surely we are the ones who most need to be in dialog. But how is this dialog to be managed? Are we back to arguing whether Yahweh or Emptiness is a better conceptualization of the same reality?

To me it seems a great gain when this argument is abandoned. But it can truly be abandoned only if we can genuinely recognize that Buddhists and Christians have both been on the right track in their respective affirmations. In view of the profound differences involved, this moves us toward the view that Buddhists and Christians have been attending to different features of experience and of what is experienced. Only so can the affirmations of both be true without profoundly contradicting the truth of the other.

I am denying, then, that common ground in Neville’s sense, which is the conventional sense, is desirable for Buddhist-Christian dialog. Of course, there must be some "common ground." There must be mutual respect and willingness to listen and enough overlap of language world to provide starting points for conversation. But the most interesting and valuable dialogs occur between people who have explored different spheres and who can inform one another about these regions. Buddhist-Christian dialog enters a new and more promising era when Buddhists really want to know about Yahweh and the Father to whom Jesus prayed and about how belief in this God structures life and society, and when Christians really want to learn about Emptiness and about what it means existentially to realize Emptiness.

A major obstacle to entering this new phase of relations is the continuing assumption that ultimate reality must have one particular character, or lack of character. Whitehead, on the other hand, with quite different concerns in mind, distinguished creativity as the ultimate from the Biblical God, who is also, in a different sense, ultimate. I suggest that creativity is ultimate reality and that God is the ultimate actuality. I am convinced that what Whitehead meant by creativity is what Buddhists have called dependent origination or Emptiness and that Whiteheadians have much to learn about this poorly developed aspect of Whitehead’s thought from the living Buddhist tradition. Christian openness to learning this will move the dialog forward.

We have much to learn also about the relation of creativity and God. Whitehead’s intuitions here were profound and illuminating, but certainly not exhaustive and definitive. Whitehead knew that beyond some quite abstract matters, what more is to be said of God is to be learned from global religious experience. If he had recognized the independent religious importance of creativity, he would surely have said the same of it and of the relation of God and creativity as well. The global dialog of world faiths will surely not leave this discussion where Whitehead dropped it, but the dialog could move much more freely, much faster, and much further if it took advantage of his insights.

Since I take seriously the Whiteheadian view that religious insight and experience is metaphysically important, I have become more willing to use the word God in a way Whitehead did not. For many Christians the kind of ultimacy that is attributable to creativity belongs to what they worship, although the active! responsive! directive/ gracious character of what Whitehead called God is even more important. Reading Whitehead with this sensibility, I was struck by his statement that in God, the otherwise characterless creativity acquires a primordial character. This suggested to me that what many Christians worship as God the Father is creativity as primordially characterized by truth and grace. Perhaps what Whitehead calls God could better be called the Word.

I have another reason for rejecting Neville’s alternative. I have explained why it would not be an advantage for dialog even if Neville’s doctrine helped provide common ground. But it is also important to recognize that it does not provide such ground. He himself recognizes this in passages other than the one in which he is criticizing process theism for failing to provide such ground. He knows that his God is not Yahweh or the Father of Jesus Christ (p. 142). He knows also that his thinking is alien to Buddhism at least in the Theravada form (p. 8). I believe it is equally alien to all forms of Buddhism.

The question that leads Neville to God as ontological creativity is a metaphysical radicalization of the Western question about a creator ex nihilo, whereas Buddhist thought rejects all search for a metaphysical unity grounding diversity. For Buddhists such questions are unprofitable and fail to recognize the actual human situation. Like Whitehead, they seek to understand the concreteness of experience and the factors that jointly constitute it. Indeed, they are much less willing than Whitehead to reason from the immediate to the partly autonomous nature of the factors constituting immediacy. Neville s ontological creativity cannot serve as common ground for a discussion between Christians and Buddhists because it is not acceptable to either.

Neville begins and ends his book with words of high praise for Whitehead and for process theology. In between he proves himself an astute critic, the best that process theology has had. I am following a similar format in reply. He invites process theologians to disengage their doctrines of God from Whitehead’s insights on this topic. I would like to invite him, instead to contribute his considerable talent to helping us in what he himself regards as a possible task -- that of working out "other and perhaps more viable conceptions of God" in the rich matrix of "the philosophical cosmology of which process theology is a part" (p. 146).



JCTP -- John Cobb’s Theology in Process, ed. by David Ray Griffin and Thomas J.J. Altizer. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.


In God the Creator (University of Chicago Press, 1968), Neville proposed that God is in himself completely indeterminate, rendering himself determinate only in terms of whatever world he chooses to create. Since God is thus free to create any world (and hence any metaphysical system) he wills, Neville’s theology is compatible with any cosmology whatever, so long as that cosmology makes no attempt to characterize the divine. The cosmology Neville has adopted is largely Whitehead’s, so he finds it necessary to criticize Whitehead’s conception of God in order to make room for his own. Whitehead in turn rejects just this sort of external creator who lies beyond the categoreal principles he creates (SMW 134f, RM 86f, PR 521).

Neville thus has a privileged vantage-point from which to criticize the whole enterprise of process theology. This book draws together his critical studies of process theologians over the past decade or so, examining the writings of Ford, Hartshorne, Ogden, Windquist, and Cobb. A dominant theme, reflected in the title, is that process theism is fundamentally misguided in its effort to reject the widespread identification of God and creativity.

This is clearly a basic issue. Instead of postulating a wholly external creation by a transcendent Creator, as many traditional thinkers do, Whitehead envisages many acts of partial self-creation, of which God’s is chief. Creativity, the name he gives to this activity of self-creation, is not exclusively identified with God but is shared with all actual entities. This nonidentification has at least these seven advantages:

1. In creating itself, each creature is exercising a real freedom distinct from God’s. Its freedom is not compromised by being also somehow God’s action, or by being already known as determinate by God’s foreknowledge.

2. On this process view every actuality has ultimate significance as contributing to the experience of God. Human striving is ultimately meaningful because it enriches that cosmic, everlasting, conscious appreciation. Since God does not create everything, what we create enriches what he has created.

3. A plurality of self-creative acts introduces a measure of potential conflict and incompatibility, which is the mark of evil. God is responsible for the ideals whereby the actions of the world might be coordinated, but the world is responsible for all physical actualization, for its good and for its evil. Above all, the nonidentification of God with creativity exempts God from the responsibility for evil.

4. If both God and the world share in a common creativity, there is a mutual solidarity between them whereby God’s agency can be discerned in the activity of the world. The Biblical account of creation illuminates the process of evolution once creation is understood to be the gradual emergence of order out of chaos through divine guidance instead of being the ontological production of being out of nothing.

5. Nondivine creativity insures that God’s experience, and also his responsive action, be contingent upon the world’s actions. This means that there are nonnecessary aspects of God which cannot, even in principle, be known philosophically. The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Religious people have known this a long time, but now there is a good philosophical reason why the philosophers should know it as well.

6. If God and finite actualities are all alike instances of creativity, such that God is also a being and not being-itself, then God becomes metaphysically intelligible as the chief exemplification of the categories.

7. The advantages of distinguishing God and creativity for the purposes of relating Christian theism with Buddhist emptiness are amply presented by Cobb in his response.

Despite these reasons, many of which look quite impressive to the process theist, Neville, with many others, champions the identification of God and creativity. They have at least these three reasons for objecting to their nonidentification:

1. Unless my creativity is derived from God, he is not the source of my being. Such a God is not ontologically ultimate.

2. If my exercise of creativity is distinct from God’s, then God cannot penetrate to my innermost being. The mysticism of identity, to which many mystics have testified, would then be impossible.

3. Monotheism insists upon a single ultimate. If we have two, the rightful claims of each will be subordinated to the supremacy of the other, or the two will simply be left uncoordinated. These difficulties could be avoided by identifying the two in a single ultimate.

Neville champions this side of the debate; Whitehead, the other. Rather than enter the lists on the side of Whitehead, as I have done several times in the past, I would like to propose a way of modifying his philosophy so as to surmount this particular division and thus reap many of the advantages of both positions.

On the face of it, such a proposal looks preposterous. How can creativity both be identical with God, and yet also not identical? That sounds like Hegelian obfuscation, abhorrent to univocally minded Whiteheadians. If we make some temporal distinctions, however, univocity can be recovered. God may be identical with the whole of future creativity, while yet being entirely distinct from the present creativity we exercise.

This view conceives of God, self, and the world indexically, as the future, the present, and the past, respectively. The past world is the totality of concrete determinations which have already been achieved. The self is the immediately present concrescent occasion, striving to unify the world it receives. For it no other occasions as yet exist. God also influences the self, Whitehead teaches, by providing the possibilities as to how that past world can be unified. Since contemporaries cannot influence each other, God appears to be part of this past which influences the self. But we may modify Whitehead by conceiving of God as a future activity objectified for us as these possibilities which constitute our initial aim.

Whitehead distinguishes between becoming and being. The becoming of an actuality is its own activity of self-creation, important to itself, quite private and inaccessible to others. Its being is its public side, how it affects others. The being of occasions consists in concrete determinations. We are not told in what God’s being consists, but I propose it consists of possibility -- not just of abstract, nontemporal possibility, but of the real specific possibility serviceable to nascent occasions. The specific possibility the newborn occasion needs is just how to unify the world it confronts.

This possibility is specific to just that region of the extensive continuum. It is also a way of unifying the past. In fact, it represents the maximum way that past can be unified for that particular region short of introducing the arbitrary determinations actualization entails. If this specific possibility which becomes the subjective aim is the way God is objectified for that occasion, and it is specific just to that nascent region, we may conceive of it as the result of God’s self-creative activity in just that region.

On this view each occasion, as it becomes concretely determinate, immediately affects, to a greater or lesser extent, its entire future. Thus everywhere in God its impact is felt. At every particular region within God these influences from the past are being actively unified in terms of those possibilities which would bring them together by concrete occasions. At the point when they are completely unified as far as they can be by divine activity, these regions are atomized into individual present concrescences. Complete unification requires concrete determination, but concrete determination, arbitrarily deciding for this rather than that, requires the pluralization of creativity. Creativity, which is one in the future, exercised solely by God, becomes many in the present, as exercised by us.

This activity of the future, which we have assigned to God, is not the same as future activity. It is not some activity which will happen by and by. Rather we have to conceive of the entire spatiotemporal continuum, apart from the past, as being dynamically altered by each determinate event. God is in unison of becoming with every concrescent occasion. But this is the becoming of the future, not the present, in that it affects those regions of the extensive continuum which have not yet become present. God is in unison of becoming with the present, but his being, the result of this activity, constitutes future possibility.

This theory obviously requires fuller justification, particularly with respect to its modification of Whitehead. I hope to provide one in due course. Here, however, I would like to use the theory in commenting on the three advantages proposed for identifying God and creativity:

1. God is the source of my creative activity, if the activity of the future simply becomes the activity of the present. The creativity of that particular spatiotemporal region is first God’s, now mine. God directs himself into the many occasions of the present, but is not diminished thereby, since the future is inexhaustible.

2. Insofar as my creativity has its source in God, the mystic may experience identity with God in terms of creativity. On the other hand, what God achieves in terms of the possibilities he creates in creating himself remain forever distinct from the achievements of finite occasions. This is basic to the experience of Western monotheism which permits at best a mysticism of union.

3. God as the creativity of the future is a single ultimate which may be experienced either as the source of creative possibilities for occasions or as the source of their creativity. The identification of God with present creativity eliminates God’s role as the source of creative possibilities. This the nonidentification strategy has sought to preserve, but it can be preserved without the need for postulating two ultimates.

If God is the creativity of the future, then, we have the advantages proposed for the identification of God and creativity. The arguments for the nonidentification of the two, however, primarily have in mind God and present creativity. If we recognize that finite occasions exercise creativity in the present, whereas God’s creativity is always exercised with respect to the future, it is never the case that God and the concrescent occasion are each acting in the same place at the same time. Rather God has already provided the possibilities by which the concrescent occasion now acts. The creativity is derived from God, but God’s and the occasion’s exercise of that creativity is distinct. As long as the creature’s exercise of creativity is distinct from God’s, the first five reasons for the nonidentification can be affirmed of our modified theory.

Our sixth reason states that if God is a being and not creativity-itself, then he is the chief exemplification of the categories. But if God is the creativity of the future, it is questionable whether he is a being. Beings are present concrescences, which perish by becoming past. God never perishes; he never becomes past by becoming something determinate. If he is the creativity of the future, which is forever future, he passes on his creativity to present occasions to fully unify and objectifies himself not as determinate actuality, but as definite possibility. In this way God is never a being but always a becoming.

This does not mean, however, that God is not a concrescence, just because that concrescence does not terminate in determinate actuality. As sheer becoming, God still exemplifies the categories Whitehead has devised, for these are really categories of becoming, unlike the categories of other philosophies, which are categories of being.

Finally, I agree with John Cobb that these two senses of ultimacy must both be cherished: ultimacy as the source of our creativity, and ultimacy as the source of our own creative possibilities. Neither should be judged or rejected in the name of the other. On the other hand, in the absence of any overarching theory of how these two may be united, we have the continuing problem of the conflict of ultimates. Hopefully the theory of God as the creativity of the future may provide just such a resolution.