Chapter 1: Whitehead’s Pilgrimage to Process Theism

The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism
by Lewis S. Ford

Chapter 1: Whitehead’s Pilgrimage to Process Theism

In this book we shall be considering how the particular conceptuality of process theism can illuminate our understanding of biblical and Christian traditions. By process theism we largely mean the particular conception of God which the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead fashioned in later life. The understanding of God that he came to is sharply critical of many of our inherited notions, particularly concerning divine omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability. Whitehead’s thought suggests ways we might free ourselves from the problems and difficulties that have burdened theology for centuries, and even allows us some dimensions of the biblical message which we have neglected and have not really appreciated.

Before we embark on a theological appropriation of process theism, however, it will be instructive to see how Whitehead himself came to espouse it. He once wrote: ‘‘Aristotle found it necessary to complete his metaphysics by the introduction of a Prime Mover -- God. . . . in his consideration of this metaphysical question he was entirely dispassionate; and he is the last European metaphysician of first-rate importance for whom this claim can be made. After Aristotle, ethical and religious interests began to influence metaphysical conclusions."1 This same claim can be made in Whitehead’s case: he came to incorporate the existence of God within his system largely by philosophical reflections on the problem. William Ernest Hocking, one of Whitehead’s Harvard colleagues, reports that, concerning the idea of God, Whitehead told him, ‘‘I should never have included it, if it had not been strictly required for descriptive completeness. You must Set all your essentials into the foundation. It’s no use putting up a set of terms, and then remarking, ‘Oh, by the by, I believe there’s a God.’ "2

Whitehead was born in 1861, two years after Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published, on the Isle of Thanet, the easternmost tip of southern England. His father was an Anglican clergyman of the evangelical school. Whitehead studied at Sherborne which, while he was a student there, celebrated its thousandth anniversary. It had begun as a Benedictine monastery and then later became, under Edward VI, one of the public schools of England. During his senior year he lived in what was thought to have been the abbot’s cell, and became steeped in Anglican piety and tradition. Then he went up to Cambridge. Professionally, Whitehead studied and taught only mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge during his years there, from 1880 to 1910. As an undergraduate he talked openly and freely about his interest in religion, especially about foreign missions. "We may not know precisely what many of Jesus’ sayings mean," he is reported to have said, "but the commandment to go into all the world and preach the gospel is very clear." 3

Bertrand Russell reports that at one point "as a young man, he was almost converted to Roman Catholicism under the influence of Cardinal Newman."4 However, these early convictions faded and Whitehead became doubtful and uncertain. The cause for this may well have been the problem that faced many Victorians, the problem of God’s omnipotence and the presence of evil in the world. If God is all-powerful then he must be negligent in doing anything about evil. So Whitehead decided to take up the study of theology. Lucien Price records: "This study went on for years, eight of them, I think he said. When he had finished with the subject, for he had finished with it, he called in a Cambridge bookseller and asked him what he would give for the lot."5 He gave up the subject, sold all the books, and gave up on theology. The theologians failed to persuade him. Russell confirms this: "Throughout the time that I knew him well -- that is to say, roughly, from 1898 to 1912 -- he was very definitely and emphatically agnostic." 6

During all these years a revolution was occurring in physics. With the advent of Einstein’s relativity theories, both special and general, the foundations of physics to which Whitehead had grown accustomed were completely shattered. He belonged to the generation that really was convinced that physics was on a firm foundation, that practically everything in the discipline had been discovered. Its principles were set; they had been that way ever since the time of Newton -- and would remain that way. Now the whole theory was up for grabs. He said he was fooled once about the certainty of the foundation of physics and he was sure he would not be fooled again. Thus Whitehead’s thinking thereafter always had an element of tentativeness; he was painfully aware of the difficulties in discovering the final foundations of things.

He then undertook a series of studies on the foundations of natural science: An Inquiry into the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919), The Concept of Nature (1920), and The Principle of Relativity (1922). The last book is a critique of Einstein’s theory of relativity, proposing a comparable theory to put in its place. It has not received much of a hearing principally because his objections to Einstein are primarily philosophical. The book is written in three parts -- a philosophical introduction, a section on physics, and a section on mathematics, requiring expertise in all three areas. I doubt if many readers have really understood the work.

In the meantime, after thirty years at Cambridge, Whitehead pulled up stakes and moved to London. Eventually he became Dean of the Faculty of Science at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and was very heavily involved in administration. As he was approaching retirement, after a lifetime of teaching mathematics, with publications in mathematics, the philosophy of nature, and logic, he was offered a chair in philosophy at Harvard. It was in this country that his metaphysics, and with it his philosophical theism, developed.

His first metaphysical synthesis was presented in the Lowell Lectures of February 1925, later incorporated in Science and the Modern World. These lectures are largely consonant with the philosophy of events that Whitehead had already developed in his philosophy of nature. These replaced the traditional elements of space, time, and matter with spatiotemporal volumes (events) having certain characteristics (objects). In this view we may conceive of anything material as a series of events having persistent characteristics that are constantly exemplified over a period of time. The material object is simply an expression of the stability and persistence of these characteristics exemplified in the events. Such events express the static repetition of the past, whereas any dynamic activity constitutes an ever-changing series of events.

These Lowell Lectures polemicize against the prevailing scientific materialism inherited from the seventeenth century, and propose an alternative "philosophy of organism" based upon events and objects ordered in terms of organic mechanism. Although the lectures examine the interaction of science and religion, they are quite neutral with respect to the existence of God. Yet when he came to publish these lectures in June of that same year, he included several additions, among which was a chapter on "God," arguing for God’s existence and describing his nature as Whitehead then conceived it. We must scrutinize these additions very closely for clues they might give to the development of his philosophical theism.

In his earlier philosophy of nature, and in the original Lowell Lectures, Whitehead conceived of actual events as being divisible into smaller events ad infinitum. However, in a section appended to his lecture on "Relativity," Whitehead changed his mind.7 On this atomic theory of events, there was a lowest threshold for actual events, below which it cannot be subdivided into smaller actual events. We are familiar with this in terms of atomic theories of matter in which it is argued that elementary particles cannot be actually subdivided, although they are extensive and hence mathematically (or potentially) divisible. Whitehead applied this argument, not to material particles but to events, atomic events which he henceforth called "actual occasions."

This has certain implications, such as the denial of determinism. The way the past persists into the present is the essence of efficient causation, and observes the regularity of scientific law. Scientific explanation seeks to account for the present event insofar as it can be understood in terms of its causal antecedents. The ideal of complete explanation, coupled with the assumption that only efficient causation is effective, necessarily yields causal determinism, a methodological postulate widespread among the more hardheaded practitioners of the social sciences, though now less prevalent among natural scientists, especially physicists. I find nothing to object to the ideal of complete explanation, even though it is unrealizable in practice, but I do question this exclusive attention to efficient causation.

Causal determinism follows naturally enough, to be sure, from our ordinary notion that the cause produces its effect. Here productive activity is vested in the antecedent cause, and its effect is merely a passive outcome. But if the event is atomic, it requires a lapse of time in order to become the event which it is. It does not instantaneously arise out of its antecedent causes. Yet, if these totally determine it, it should. This may well be a possible anticipation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, that the past conditions for any event only determine its outcome within certain parameters. Below those parameters the physicist sees only random action, that is, a determination not caused by the past conditions.

A second implication involves a reversal of our ordinary understanding that causes produce effects. The cause must precede its effect in time, yet it must be presently existent in order to be active in producing its effect. If, however, temporal atomicity requires a lapse of time in order to bring the effect into being, its causes are already past and gone before the effect arises. This generates a contradiction: the cause must precede the effect in order to be its cause, yet if it precedes the effect by any lapse of time, the cause can no longer be active or effective in producing the effect. The usual theory managed to bridge this gap by claiming that the cause is instantaneous with its effect, thus it is present with the effect while at the same time it precedes the effect. But if there is a lapse of time, then the cause is past and gone. Whitehead challenged customary thinking by reasoning that it is the event in the present that should be taken to be active. Instead of an active cause producing a passive effect, he argues that there is a present event producing itself out of its passive past causes.

We do have a model we might adopt for this sort of causation, which is perception. In perception the sensory impressions which we receive are objective causes in that they determine the character of what it is that we are perceiving. But the way in which we perceive things, the meaning we attach to them, the way we integrate these sensory impressions into a coherent whole involves, as Kant would say, the spontaneous activity of the mind organizing its sensations. Whitehead suggests that this model of perception can be generalized as our model for understanding all causation. Therefore, he takes the word "apprehension," a conscious taking account of other things, and deletes the prefix "ap-" to give us the word "prehension." Prehension is the opposite of the way we generally conceive causation. Therefore, if A causes B, B prehends A. B is constituted by the way in which it prehends A and all its other past causes.

The use of perception to understand causation means that we are now able to bring into one account both causation and perception. Thereby we can overcome the usual dualism by which causation is regarded as a feature of the realm of matter, while perception is conceived as belonging only to mind. It also involves a transformation of our understanding of subjectivity and objectivity. If all (efficient) causes are past, as past they are also objective. They form the data of prehensions. They suggest that what we mean by subjectivity is simply present immediacy. The shift from object to subject is essentially one of temporal terms: that which is objective is past, and what is subjective is what is immediately present to us.

This means, among other things, that subjectivity has nothing particularly to do with human consciousness or mentality. The reason we regularly associate subjectivity with human awareness and consciousness is that this is the only subjectivity of which we are immediately aware. We only know ourselves subjectively. We infer that other persons also enjoy subjectivity, but this we do not know directly. Whitehead argues that if subjectivity is really another way of talking about the felt sense of present immediacy, as opposed to what is past to us, then this is a feature of all events. All events without exception have their own interiority, their own subjectivity. Therefore the language which we should use to describe the coming into being or the emergence of individual events should be subjectivistic language, purged of its associations with human existence, with consciousness, and with mentality. This is really the project that Whitehead undertakes in his major work, Process and Reality (1929).

If one purges the notions of mentality and physicality of their associations with subject and object, one comes to a different understanding of them; at least Whitehead did. He came to hold that what we mean by the physical is simply the repetitive, the reiterated, the habitual. The character of molecules reveals them to be most conservative. They can continue to reiterate the same patterns of existence for billions of years. Mentality, on the other hand, is coordination directed toward novel intensity. Insofar as events differ meaningfully from their past, not simply reiterating that which they have inherited, they display some degree of mentality. As for consciousness, Whitehead is not suggesting that there is any more consciousness in the world than we ordinarily assume. This is basically an empirical matter to determine. But it is not necessary for an entity to have either mentality or consciousness for it to be subjective. All enjoy subjectivity in their present immediacy, with varying degrees of physicality and mentality, depending upon how they repeat, or revise, their inherited past. Only a few have any degree of consciousness.

Now, if events produce themselves out of their causes rather than causes produce events as passive effects, then there is an element of self-production in every event which may be understood in terms of spontaneity and freedom. For there is no necessity that a given set of causes must be unified by the event in exactly the same way in each case. Rather there is an influx of a great many causal factors which the occasion in coming into being uses to unify itself. It makes its own actuality out of these causal factors. Whitehead speaks of decision as the mark of actuality, because the occasion decides or cuts off the alternative possibilities of Integrating the past in order to become the one single actuality that it is.

This means that there is a place for purpose and for value in the process of actualization. For if one argues that past causes produce the effect, this purports to be a total explanation. One simply has to exhibit what the past causes are in order to explain the present event. If, on the other hand, the present event creates itself by the way it decides how to unify its past, then it is necessary also to introduce purpose to explain how possibilities influence the process. There are real possibilities as to what that particular event can become. These possibilities are valued in that some are better than others with respect to actualization in this event.

Now, it finally developed in Whitehead’s thinking that God is the ultimate source of these possibilities. He provides the possibilities for each event, the values in terms of which it can become what it is. To put this argument another way, we can say that God’s role is to provide the origin of the occasion’s subjectivity. This is a question, I think, that has been rarely faced by philosophy. Philosophers fail to explain how subjects come into being. For example, in Kant’s philosophy there is a great deal of discussion concerning the nature of subjectivity. Every rational being uses certain capacities, the categories and the forms of intuition, by which he experiences and orders the world. Very little is said as to how these come into being. If we take a biological account, somehow our subjectivity or consciousness emerges somewhere around the ages of one and two. We cannot remember back in our subjectivity any further than that. Where this subjectivity comes from is just an inexplicable mystery.

Whitehead was faced with this problem acutely because each event enjoys its own subjectivity. How does it acquire this subjectivity? How does it have the capacity to feel or prehend its various causal data and bring them into unity? Whitehead proposes that it begins with an ideal of what it can become, given its particular circumstances. This ideal is what it receives from God, and it achieves its own actualization by the way in which it fuses together all of its efficient causes by means of this ideal of itself. The event is not determined by God because it is capable of using the past causes it inherits to modify that aim. Nor is it determined by its past because it can also use that aim to modify and to influence the way in which it will appropriate the past. Thus both can be played against one another to secure its own spontaneity or freedom.

This theory is only barely hinted at in Science and the Modern World, and receives its first full expression in Process and Reality. At first God was conceived merely as the principle of limitation or selection, selecting among the infinity of possibilities which otherwise would become available for each occasion. As such he was one of the formative elements of the world, and not an actuality like the actual occasions enjoying his own subjective immediacy. But, as Whitehead saw it, some such principle of limitation was required.

While God’s existence was first philosophically required in the revision of Whitehead’s first metaphysical synthesis which he appended to his Lowell Lectures of 1925, it would be presumptuous of us to claim that these reflections first caused Whitehead to become a theist once again. Such personal shifts are gradual, often imperceptible. It is unlikely that he remained the emphatic agnostic that Russell knew after the war. In fact, Russell thinks that the death of Whitehead’s younger son, Eric, in air combat in 1918, significantly shifted his views: ‘‘The pain of this loss had a great deal to do with turning his thoughts, to philosophy and with causing him to seek ways of escaping from belief in a merely mechanistic universe." 8 Some sense of this may be gleaned from the dedication of The Principles of Natural Knowledge to Eric’s memory: "Killed in action over the Forêt de Gobain giving himself that the city of his vision may not perish. The music of his life was without discord, perfect in its beauty."

Moreover, we must remember that the flower of English manhood, including many whom Whitehead taught at Cambridge and London, also perished in this war. Apart from religion, Whitehead was to write, "human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience." 9

"Religion and Science," originally delivered as an address in the Phillips Brooks House at Harvard on Sunday, April 5, 1925, immediately before his discovery of temporal atomism, gives no hint of the philosophical theism Whitehead came to espouse in his chapter on "God." Yet it shows a very high appreciation for religion, defined as ‘‘the reaction of human nature to its search for God." 10 "It is the one element in human experience which persistently shows an upward trend. It fades and then recurs. But when it renews its force, it recurs with an added richness and purity of content. The fact of the religious vision, and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism.’’11 Yet this is the search for God, a search whose goal is most elusive. "Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest." 12

At the same time, Whitehead notes that ‘‘there has been a gradual decay of religious influence in European civilization."13 He predicts that ‘‘religion will not regain its own power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science." 14 For science, "a clash of doctrines is not a disaster -- it is an opportunity." 15 Conflicting theories, often buttressed by fresh evidence, provide the opportunity for the expansion, revision, or qualification of existing theories for their improvement. So likewise the expression of religious principles requires continual development, so as to be hospitable to new sensibilities nourished on this scientific advance. At the time, Whitehead appears to have no such revision of our concept of God to offer, although he was shortly to have one. He seems then to be most sympathetic to the religious quest, perhaps himself participating in it, but relegating it primarily to theological concerns. In any case it did not have any place in philosophy, unless strictly required by its fundamental principles.

The notion of God as the principle of the limitation of possibility was the first version that Whitehead developed as to the nature of God, but this concept was considerably modified over the course of the next three or four years. For example, by March 1926, in Religion in the Making, Whitehead had come to the conclusion that God could be conceived either as a principle or as a person. Conceived as a principle, God really is very much like Plato’s Form of the Good, that is, the principle of order or value in terms of which all the possibilities are organized. Alternatively, one could conceive of God as a personal being who "thinks on thinking," to use the Aristotelian phrase. That is, Whitehead conceived of God during this period in either Platonic or Aristotelian terms. Ultimately, he argued, it did not make any difference. Therefore, he proposed the questionable thesis that all civilized religions really center around the same basic point, namely, that there is a permanent rightness at the center of things. These religions primarily differ as to whether this is to be described in personalistic language as God, or an impersonal language as Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao.

Insofar as God is conceived as personal, God is alone with himself, thinking his own thoughts, apart from the world. In classical Christianity, Aristotle’s ideas were taken over, but characteristically modified. In that tradition, instead of thinking of God as a persuasive power who acts as a kind of lure toward which things move, which was Aristotle’s conception, Aquinas and others adopted the understanding that God creates by being the ultimate efficient cause for the world. Thus God knows the world by the way in which he creates it. God becomes the ultimate efficient cause, the primary cause of things, separate from the world with all of its secondary causal processes.

Whitehead, however, remains true to the original Aristotelian conception that God acts in terms of final causes, because God’s function is to provide the lures for the individual occasions to actualize. Within two years, however, Whitehead saw that the actuality of God also requires that he be influenced and enriched by the world. One of the reasons he came to this conclusion was his insistence that God ought to exemplify the same principles that other actualities in the world have. As he writes in Process and Reality, "God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification." 16

A second reason stems from Whitehead’s claim that every actual occasion has two different kinds of prehensions. It possesses a set of physical prehensions, the way by which it prehends other past actualities which causally influence it. It also has conceptual prehensions which provide the way by which it is influenced by values, ideals, possibilities, and concepts. It needs the latter in order to be oriented toward the future, and the former in order to be oriented toward the past. So every occasion is seen as the fusion of these two types. Yet God was conceived as a being which had an infinite number of prehensions of ideals, possibilities, and values, but did not experience the world in any sense. Aristotle was perfectly content with this. He argued that God couldn’t care less about knowing the world, for the world was too mundane, too inferior. It wasn’t worth knowing. Therefore, God simply contemplates his own thoughts in solitary splendor.

Whitehead became convinced that in order to render his metaphysics coherent, conceiving of God as one actual entity among other actual entities, God would also have physical prehensions. If so, he also directly experiences the world. Therefore, in this vision, God and the world form an ecosystem, wherein both contribute to each other. God provides each event with its aim or lure toward which it moves. The event actualizes itself, influenced by the possibilities that God has provided, but also becoming something in its self-production by appropriating elements Out of its past. This result is then experienced by God. In this way, the world enriches God.17

In the classical view, God is what he is quite apart from whether the world exists or not. God’s perfections are complete whether or not there is a world. If that is true, the world has no ultimate significance. For process theism, the world ultimately has its significance because of the way in which it enriches the divine experience. The classical view conceives of God as immutable and unchanging. It is based on the Greek idea that any change in a perfect being leads to corruption. Whitehead’s argument, rather, is that the perfect is that which is capable of indefinite enrichment, capable of being enriched by that which is emerging.

We need also consider the matter of omniscience. In the classical view, God knows the future in detail. For him it is all mapped out. The problem always was to ascertain in what sense then we are free. We may be free in the sense that we are not compelled to act the way we do, but it remains an illusion to think that we could really act in an alternative way if God already knows the way we will act. There is only one way we can go. Whitehead argues that God does know everything there is to know, but he challenges the notion that the future can be known as if it were already actual. To know the future in the concrete detail which it will become is to know what is possible as if it were already actual. This is to know a contradiction. So God is always in process of experiencing what is new for him, namely, the course of the world as it fully actualizes its possibilities.

Even more drastically, process theism revises our understanding of divine power. Classically, God’s power is seen in terms of omnipotence, and God is creator as the sole primary efficient cause of the world. In process theism God is primarily persuasive, creating more indirectly by providing the lure for each occasion whereby it can create itself.

It might seem, at first glance, that such modifications of God’s knowledge and power are quite foreign to the biblical tradition. This may be, however, because we have grown accustomed to interpreting its message exclusively in classical categories. Process theism may provide a revised hermeneutic enabling us to understand and appropriate that message in a new and living way. As a philosopher, Whitehead was not overly concerned with this task, but for our purpose in providing an application of his thought to Christian theology, it is basic and central. Hence in the next two chapters we shall sketch some of the ways in which our understanding of the Bible can be enriched by the conceptuality of process theism, starting with selected themes from the Old Testament.



I. SMW, p. 249.

2. Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on His Philosophy, ed. George L. Kline (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 16.

3. See Victor Lowe, Understanding Whitehead (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), P. 231.

4. Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956), p. 96.

5. Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954), p. 151.

6. Letter to Victor Lowe of September 26, 1959, as recorded in Understanding Whitehead, p. 232.

7. For the nature of the original Lowell Lectures (1925) and Whitehead’s appended material on the character of time see my study, "Whitehead’s First Metaphysical Synthesis," International Philosophical Quarterly 17/3, (September 1977), pp. 251-64.

8. Russell, Portraits from Memory, p. 93. Frederic R. Crownfield argues that Whitehead’s revised rationalism, based upon his own reflections on Paul Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent, gradually led him out of his earlier agnosticism. "Whitehead: From Agnostic to Rationalist," The Journal of Religion 57/4 (October 1977), 376-85.

9. SMW, p. 275.

10. Ibid., p. 274.

11. Ibid., p. 275.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 269.

14. Ibid., p. 270.

15. Ibid., p. 266.

16. PR, p. 521.

17. Ibid., p. 532.