Chapter 14: Ely on Whitehead’s God by Bernard M. Loomer

Process Philosophy and Christian Thought
by Delwin Brown, Ralph James, Gene Reeves (eds.)

Chapter 14: Ely on Whitehead’s God by Bernard M. Loomer

From The Journal of Religion, XXIV, 3 (July 1944). Used by permission of The University of Chicago Press and Bernard M. Loomer. Bernard M. Loomer was educated at the University of Chicago where he taught and was Dean for several years in the Divinity School. Now he teaches at Berkeley Baptist Divinity School.

This article is a discussion and evaluation of a recent book on Whitehead’s religious philosophy.1 It is hoped that some of the questions raised by the discussion will stimulate others to propose constructive solutions. The problems dealt with in Ely’s analysis are important for three reasons: first, because of the stature and increasing appeal of Whitehead’s general philosophic position; second, because the religious implications of this framework of thought are still in the pioneer stage; and, third, because of Ely’s conclusions in regard to the unsatisfactoriness of Whitehead’s religious philosophy. Ely’s book consists of a nontechnical exposition of Whitehead’s metaphysics and his philosophy of religion, together with a critical internal analysis of the latter.


The exposition, although limited to bare essentials and necessarily restricted for the most part to Process and Reality, is excellent. It probably contains the best summary statement of Whitehead’s general position now in print. Its definitiveness is qualified, however, by two basic errors, the implications of which would necessitate serious changes in Whitehead’s philosophy.

1. The first is his statement that "there are, strictly speaking, no external relations" (pp. 14-15). The grounds of Ely’s contention on this point are not clear, because assuredly Whitehead does hold to the notion that there are external relations. The first instance is found in the relations between mutually contemporaneous occasions. It is a doctrine continuously reiterated in Process and Reality and in the last half of Adventures of Ideas that contemporary events happen in causal independence of each other. (Science and the Modern World is ambiguous on this point.) The freedom of events is due partly to the external relatedness of contemporaneous events. Also this sort of external relation is exemplified in the distinction between nonsensuous perception ("causal efficacy") and sense perception (‘presentational immediacy"). The second example of external relation is found in the bearing of eternal objects upon events — although from the standpoint of the event the relation is an internal one. This doctrine is found in all his major works. A third case is the relation of the past to the present or the present to the future. As far as I know, this last is not an explicit doctrine in Whitehead’s system, but it seems to be a possible implication of the theory of "objective immortality." The past is externally related to what succeeds it in the sense that the past, as past, remains unalterably what it was. The concept of "negative prehensions" constitutes a fourth illustration of external relations.

2. In dealing with the arguments that underlie the primordial nature of God and/or the principle of concretion, Ely states that they are based "on a fundamental postulate of Whitehead’s — that the possible is prior to the actual, not only logically but metaphysically" (p. 14). This interpretation seems to be involved in the following statements:

Whence comes this order? It cannot be a metaphysical character of the underlying activity, for any type of order is too special, too arbitrary. . .Yet order must be in some sense prior to the events, for the events comply with it. We must therefore have recourse to a realm of possibility. . . . If then, there were order in the realm of possibility, . . . we should have a possible explanation of order in the active world [pp. 17-18].

Before any order could enter the world there must have been some mental power to accomplish a complete ordering of the entire realm of possibility. . . . God is the "aboriginal creature" of the underlying activity, because he must have been produced before any order could appear. This does not mean that God was created in time. God as "aboriginal" or "primordial" means that he is logically and metaphysically posterior to the underlying activity [p. 20].

As primordial, God is timeless and eternal. He is, however, not a mere ideal or a cosmic trend; he is a real fact, just as much as any event. The ultimate reasons for anything, says Whitehead, must be ultimately traceable to something in the actual make-up of a real existent, not to a mere unrealized ideal or to an abstract possibility. . . . This being is the Primordial Nature of God [p. 21].

Now the difficulties and ambiguities in these quotations may be due, in part at least, to the inadequacies of language — on the part both of Ely and of Whitehead. But if the priority of the possible over the actual is a fundamental postulate in Whitehead’s system, it is not obviously or explicitly so. Ely appears to be saying that, metaphysically speaking, we have creativity and then the primordial nature of God and lastly order. From Ely one gets the picture of a God who somehow (being uncreated in time) stands back of the order in the world — a primordial God who exists apart from the order and/or the ordered events which make up the actual world.

But such is not the case. God, seen purely as primordial, is not a real fact that has its being apart from the order that obtains between possibilities. God as primordial is the order between possibilities; he is a universal structure or pattern that has ingression in every event. He is a metaphysical order that is exemplified in all orders of less generality than its own. In a sense, God as primordial is the most inclusive eternal object that binds all other eternal objects together so as to make them relevant to every occasion. As such this primordial order has no reference to any particular or specific events whatsoever.2 In this sense, and in this sense only, possibility is prior to actuality. But, while the primordial nature of God has no reference to any specific creative processes, it has reference to whatever processes do and must occur. "The particularities of the actual world presuppose it, while it merely presupposes the general metaphysical character of creative advance, of which it is the primordial exemplification. The primordial nature of God actually is the acquirement by creativity of a primordial character."3 Stated otherwise, God "is not before all creation, but with all creation."4 This is to say that there is no such thing as creativity apart from a principle of concretion or limitation which conditions the creativity. Thus, "God is at once a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity."5 One could interpret "primordial" to mean "no matter when or where." Thus no matter when or where creativity occurs, it occurs under the most general condition or limitation which is the changeless structure or character of God. And this character of God (his primordial nature) is the most general order of the realm of possibility graded in relevance to any and all particular events that occur. The conclusion remains: even considering the primordial nature of God alone, possibility is not prior to actuality.

But this is only half the picture. The same conclusion holds when we consider the "consequent nature" of God. Ely says that God as primordial is "an actually existing being" (p. 21). But God as primordial is not "an actually existing being"; he is a "real fact," but he is not as real "as any event." To say that he is, is to violate Whitehead’s "ontological principle" (which is one of the bases of his speculative empiricism, and helps to distinguish his philosophy from a formalistic or disembodied idealism). As eternal structure (i.e., as primordial), God is found in all events (because, as Ely states, every ideal aim is derived from God). But God’s concrete or physical nature is his consequent nature. Ely acutely points out a basic difference between Science and the Modern World and Process and Reality. In the former the realm of possibility is ordered (is a realm) in itself and apart from God as the orderer. But, in terms of Whitehead’s later thought, this theory violates the ontological principle which states that the ultimate reasons for things are found in actual events and their relations. There are no disembodied principles, explanations, or universals. So in Process and Reality Whitehead slates that the realm of possibilities is a realm because God envisages or feels these possibilities. But apparently Ely does not see that the ontological principle involves one further step, namely, that the ontological status of God as primordial is ultimately traceable to God as consequent, to God as concrete actuality. Unless this step is taken, the ontological principle is truncated.6

It might be objected that possibly Whitehead himself does not clearly see and assert this as an explicit doctrine. The vacillation on this point even in Process and Reality forces us to acknowledge the justice of the objection. There are grounds for Ely’s interpretation, but the interpretation given above seems to be the one that ties in most coherently with Whitehead’s basic philosophy, even though he may not have realized all its implications.

The conclusion of our interpretation is that possibility is not prior to actuality in Whitehead’s system because there is possibility only in reference to some actuality, and the basic concrete actuality is God as consequent. The fact that, in terms of explanation, God is logically subordinate to the category of creativity, does not weaken the contention that, if there is any creativity whatsoever, there is a consequent nature of God. Nor is this contention weakened by Whitehead’s statement that God’s experience originates from conceptual feelings while the experience of finite occasions originates from physical feelings. For God and the world, while contrasted opposites, are "mutual necessities." That is, there is no world of events without the primordial nature of God; but, conversely, there is no primordial order without God as physical — that is, without a world of events. (For the moment we are avoiding the problem whether God as physical or consequent is identical with the world of events.)

These considerations do not imply that the present consequent nature of God was inevitable. Rather, as Whitehead says: "In all philosophical theory there is an ultimate which is actual in virtue of it accidents. . . . In the philosophy of organism this ultimate is termed ‘creativity’; and God is its primordial, non-temporal accident."7 That is it may be necessary that there be a consequent nature of God, but it specific concrete nature is accidental: it could have been otherwise that what it in fact is. Just what will be the content of God’s physical nature is, in part at least, contingent upon the freedom of the particular creative events which constitute the world of process. But any contingent content of God’s nature will illustrate his primordial structure or nature. Thus there is no temporal or metaphysical interval between creativity and God, whether God be considered as primordial or consequent. And since the distinction within God is one of reason only (God’s two natures are not correlative), and in keeping with the ontological principle, there is no metaphysical interval between God’s two natures.

The question as to whether this whole conception necessarily implies the eternality (in the sense of "everlastingness") of time and the world, is perhaps debatable. Ely alludes to one reference wherein Whitehead speaks of the "everlasting — that is, consequent — nature of God, which in a sense is temporal."8 This seems to mean that God is temporal in the sense that he grows and nontemporal in the sense that he does not perish.


Ely’s general conclusion of his analysis is stated in this way:

The God that Whitehead derives from metaphysical analysis is not the God of religions. Whatever religious value Whitehead’s God may have depends on aspects of God that lie beyond reason — aspects that Whitehead either intuits, guesses at, or has faith in. And if this is the upshot, why should not religionists intuit, or guess at, or have faith in a God who is more of a God? [p. 57].

But, philosophically speaking, this situation leaves us in a predicament.

The only God that metaphysics can attain to has no religious value and presumably ought not to be called God, whereas the only Being who has a possible right to be called God can be reached only by religious and moral intuitions. Philosophers . . . have been taught to view such intuitions with a certain distrust [p. 56].

Ely’s more detailed analysis and discussion of the religious aspects of Whitehead’s God pertain to three central problems as they function in Whitehead’s thought: [1) the preservation of values (God’s consequent or concrete nature); (2) the transmutation of evil into good (which includes the problems of evil and God’s goodness); and (3) the problem of the relation of God’s goodness and the preservation of the individual as such. We shall deal with each of these problems in the order named.


All of Ely’s three criticisms either center in or stem from the concept of God’s consequent nature. Admittedly, this is one of the most complex and obscure aspects of Whitehead’s thought, delineated only in the last short chapter of Process and Reality. Yet this concept is one way of stating a basic distinction between religious humanism and religious theism. The issue between the humanists and the theists is not primarily concerned with God as some kind of abstract order. It has to do with God conceived as an actual concrete entity or process — whether God be considered as personal or impersonal.

To some readers of Whitehead, it may seem that the consequent nature of God is something of an addendum, something that was "stuck on" as an afterthought and which is not essential to his system. But Whitehead’s ontological principle should lead us to think otherwise, even though this aspect of God is not developed and clarified in his thought. Epistemologically speaking, the ontological principle emerges in the doctrine of "causal efficacy" whereby, Whitehead holds, we actually perceive individual and particular events. That is, we do not infer the existence of particular concrete individuals on the basis of our perception of universals or abstract qualities or essences. Rather, we actually perceive the former by means of the mediating function of the latter (the "relational character of eternal objects"). The eternal objects partly constitute the character of concrete existents. In terms of Whitehead’s concept of God, the primordial nature is the unchanging character or structure of an ontological concrete individual — God as consequent.

The problem of God’s consequent nature is, in one sense, the problem of the "concrete universal." It is the problem of God’s unity as a concrete individual. The problem of God’s unity as an abstract universal, as a principle, as a structure or character, is the problem of God’s primordial nature. God as consequent is God as one concrete physical process. There are two basic issues in this conception which should be considered.

In the first place, Whitehead has never clearly stated in what sense and how God is an organic unity or a concrete individual. Is he one concrete individual among others, or is he a "compound individual" inclusive of all other concrete existents? Is "the one" in whom "the many" inhere of such a nature that "the many" refers to all or only some of the component individuals? As an organic unity, as "the one," God is always in the past, the immediate past. (Does this include all of the remote past?) This unity does not include the present processes of becoming because of the mutual independence of contemporaries. If God is all of the past, both immediate and remote, how is the past as one known? How is the past as one distinguished from its component parts? As the whole is distinguished from its parts? The difficulty in Whitehead’s undeveloped theology is that he never speaks of knowledge of God as consequent. God appears to be perceived by means of "hybrid physical feelings," never by "pure physical feelings." In Whitehead’s system a physical feeling is the perception of a past event as distinguished from a "conceptual feeling" which is the entertainment of an eternal object. A hybrid physical feeling is the perception of an actual entity by means of that entity’s projected conceptual feelings. Apparently, this latter type of feeling can apply equally to our perception of God and also lesser individuals. But the two situations are not quite analogous because we can check our hybrid perceptions of lesser occasions with our pure physical perceptions of them, while in the case of God we have only our hybrid feelings of him.

This distinction appears to be necessary in Whitehead’s system (as it now stands) because we must conform to what we physically feel. In Whitehead’s emphasis, God is almost exclusively defined as final cause and not as efficient cause; he is conceived of as love or persuasion or lure. This emphasis is more characteristic of God as primordial, of God as form, structure, order, and vision. God is not felt physically in the pure sense because (apparently) many of our conformable physical feelings are not compatible with our ideal aims which are derived from God as primordial. That is, we know God in terms of his vision (his ordering of relevant possibilities), and this ordering or vision is constituted by the conceptual or mental feelings of a physical process.

But the point is that, while we must conform to what is already achieved and settled (i.e., the past as physically inherited), we can reject more or less the "lure" of God’s vision. We can refuse to be persuaded. Apparently, God will not coerce us to conform to his purpose. Yet, if God is physical, he must exert efficient power over us. This efficient action on us should be compatible with God’s persuasive lure unless God is a "split personality." It may be that Whitehead’s weakness in regard to the consequent nature of God stems from his implicit assumption that God is identical with all of creativity (all of the past). On this view, and because of the fact that much of our past molds us in ways that are not consonant with the vision of God, Whitehead may be forced to emphasize only the primordial nature of Gad. But the consequence is that Whitehead is not able to justify the concrete nature of God. Actually, on this view God as consequent seems to be an inference and not a perceivable actuality. Further, it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish the creativity of the past as one from the creativity of the past as many. Of course, each event feels the past as one, but this involves perspectives of the past.

One possible solution would consist in breaking down Whitehead’s concrete monism into a concrete pluralism whereby God as consequent is not identical with all of the immediate past or with all of the concrete processes of the world. God as concrete would be that process whose efficient causation is compatible with his primordial order and vision. Furthermore, God as concrete could be perceived physically and not merely inferred.

The second related problem has to do with the "saving function" of God, or the preservation of all values. Ely claims that this function of God, while it has great religious significance, is not deducible from Whitehead’s principles and cannot be attained by metaphysical analysis; this attribute of God, especially, is what Whitehead "either intuits, guesses at, or has faith in." Others would say that the question of the preservation of values is the chief argument for the existence of God.

On the one hand, Ely seems to imply that the whole notion of God as consequent is unjustified. Yet he admits that in Whitehead’s system it is necessary that God have a consequent nature, even though he feels that the preservation of all values does not logically or empirically follow from this admission. Ely’s qualification may be true; but, if God is to be concrete at all, he must preserve some values, because, for one reason, in Whitehead’s system contemporary actualities do not form a concrete unity. Therefore, and to this extent at least, God’s "saving function" is deducible from Whitehead’s principles. Even though one does not establish the concept of the preservation of all values, one has not thereby disproved the validity of the idea of a God who is in some sense concrete and consequent — even though this God may not be Whitehead’s.

Of course, the basic issue is whether Whitehead’s consequent God is identical with all of the past, whether God is ultimately synonymous with creativity as such or whether God is one kind of creativity. These statements merely restate the problem of the saving of all values. If God as concrete is constituted by all of the past, both immediate and remote, then it might be argued that God preserves all values (although some would deny the empirical and logical validity of this implication). One of God’s functions is the preservation of values already achieved in the actual world. But lesser individuals also preserve some values insofar as the present is partly constituted by the past. Therefore, one version of this problem concerns the question as to what God does over and above what is accomplished by these lesser temporal processes. Some statements in Whitehead seem to imply that God as consequent is not free and is a mere recipient of the experiences of other processes. As a recipient he may preserve all values but still lack efficacious power to realize other possible values.

But the solution to the problem of whether the preservation of all values is a logical implicate of Whitehead’s principles (and whether the idea is empirically valid) is at least partly dependent on the answers that are given to these concepts: (A) "elimination" (which involves "negative prehensions"); (B) "objective immortality"; and (C) the "incompatibility of values." We shall deal with each in turn.

A. One interpretation of "elimination" supports Ely’s claim that all values are not preserved and seems to involve Whitehead in a contradiction; and, also, God becomes an exception to metaphysical first principles. Finite individuals perceive or feel the past in terms of perspectives or abstractions. Some elements in our past are eliminated because of the very nature of actuality itself. "In the temporal world, it is the empirical fact that process entails loss: the past is present under an abstraction."9 Of course, the whole point involved in the contradiction centers around the meaning of the words "abstraction" and "elimination." Both of these terms have to do with the fact of negative prehensions. One of the basic questions in regard to the problem of negative prehensions has to do with the further question as to whether they exclude only eternal objects, or feelings as well. In this interpretation of "elimination" we are assuming that negative prehensions refer to the exclusion of feelings as well as eternal objects. Whitehead seems to mean that finite individuals preserve only some of the values of the past. Others are lost or discarded. This is "the empirical fact." But, continues Whitehead, "there is no reason, of any ultimate metaphysical generality, why this should be the whole story."10 Therefore in God there is no loss of values. This would seem to imply that God does not perceive in terms of perspectives or abstractions. (Of course, God does not know the present events as present anyway.) Yet, in elucidating the consequent nature of God, Whitehead states that God "inherits from the temporal counterpart according to the same principle as in the temporal world the future inherits from the past. Thus in the sense in which the present occasion is the person now, and yet with his own past, so the counterpart in God is that person in God."11 The contradiction involved here consists in holding that there is a loss of values and that there is not a loss of values — when God is supposed to have his past incorporated into his present according to the same principle by which finite individuals inherit their pasts. The contradiction is denied, on this interpretation, only by exempting God from those principles by means of which we can attain any knowledge of him in the first place. On this interpretation we would have to agree with Ely that Whitehead’s concept of the consequent nature of God as saving all values is not justified in terms of the system.

This interpretation of "elimination" has been questioned. An alternative view would hold that elimination does not mean sheer obliteration but rather that an individual feels all of his past with greater or less intensity or vividness. Those aspects of his past which are very dimly and vaguely felt might be said to be insignificantly present, or irrelevant to an almost absolute degree, and thus "eliminated" for all "practical" purposes. That is, relevance and elimination would be end-points on the dimension of vivid experience. Then there would be no loss except in terms of intensity of feelings. And God as consequent would be that individual for whom there is full vividness of all values or feelings. As a cosmic individual he would not be subject to perceptual abstractions in our sense because a perspective is a characteristic only of local individuals. As a matter of fact, finite individuals would not be subject to perspectives in the sense that some feelings in their pasts had been forgotten or that some actualities in their pasts had been forgotten. They would remember all of their pasts, but mostly subconsciously.

However, this latter interpretation is contrary to many explicit passages in Whitehead. Also, it makes unclear the reasons for his doctrine of the "divisible" character of individual existents (whereby "causation is the transfer of a feeling and not of a total satisfaction"), and his discussion of the "medium." Furthermore, this interpretation lacks empirical support. Psychoanalysis has shown that we preserve more past values than we are conscious of, but this is still a matter of degree.

B. On the other hand, Whitehead’s conception of the consequent nature of God seems to be theoretically supported by his discussion of the larger context of the problem which centers around the concept of "objective immortality." This idea is both epistemological and religious in its scope. Epistemologically, it means that the past as past remains what it was — unchangeably so; that the present does not alter what the past was when the past was present. This is the past as "stubborn fact" making the present partially conform to what the past is as past. This theory may be only an unverifiable inference considered from the point of view of a "perspective" theory of knowledge ("objective relativism"), since we can know the past only through the eyes of the present. It may be trying to know the "thing-in-itself" when a thing is known only by means of its relations. Yet the alternative view, that the past as past actually changes, seems to raise havoc with our notions of time. If one accepts Whitehead’s definition of time as "the conformation of state to state, the later to the earlier," and if one assumes that the past really changes, then we would have no conception of time because there would be nothing definite or determinate for the present to conform to.12 The distinction between the past and the future seems to be at least partly defined in terms of determinateness and indeterminateness. God, as preserving the past in its unalterable state, becomes the "measure of reality"; that is, by preserving the past "as it actually happened" (whatever that might mean), God makes possible our various perspectives and interpretations of it.

Ely interprets Whitehead as saying that evil disappears as far as God is concerned. But Whitehead’s concept of objective immortality renders this interpretation invalid. (Ely’s criticism will be treated more fully later on, but the groundwork of our reply to it can be set forth here.) Now it is true that Ely can cite references which seem to assert or imply that evil is nonexistent for God. At times, Whitehead’s consequent God seems to refer to some completely transcendent realm where all evil is transmuted into good in spite of the enduring stubbornness of evil in the concrete world. It is true that Whitehead does not seem to have developed fully the relations between the concepts of God and objective immortality. The reason for this seeming transmutation of evil into good in another-worldly consequent God lies in the fact that Whitehead has not really developed the idea of God as efficient cause. This development would result in an explicit formulation of the idea of transmutation and redemption as processes which occur in the concrete world of events. But in fairness to Ely it must be recognized that there is ambiguity in Whitehead on this point.

At least one interpretation of the concept of objective immortality does not break down the distinction between good and evil but rather acts as its preservative. The immortality of the past includes the preservation of past evil as evil. The fact that future developments may take what is now an undeniable evil and utilize it for the creation of some good does not alter its character as a present evil. It is evil now because it obstructs the realization of a greater good than is being realized. At a future time the present evil will still be an evil (in spite of the fact that it will then be an aspect of some good) precisely because greater possibilities of good could have been realized in the present and would have been realized in the future.

The present character of an evil (that is, its mutual obstructiveness) endures, and this is its objective immortality. If evils were not preserved as such, we would not be subject to their continuing destructive influences. It is the means by which we still recognize a past evil as evil. The fact that some good may have come out of the first World War does not alter the other present fact that the war was evil and that it is still recognized as evil because it involved elements of mutual obstructiveness. Whitehead’s doctrine of objective immortality means that the evil endures as evil and the good as good, that present achievements do not alter a past evil as past and as the past lives in the present and makes the present conform to it. To say that evil endures everlastingly as evil means that a present good is less valuable than it might have been if the past evil had been less evil. However, this does not make a present good any less valuable than it actually is in relation to possible lesser goods that might have been actualized.

However, these connections between Whitehead’s concepts of the consequent nature of God and objective immortality should be noted. If every actual entity is objectively (not subjectively) immortal (and immortal in terms of its concrete objective individuality or totality, and not merely in terms of some of its aspects or feelings), then God as consequent would save every value. God would not feel the world in terms of perspectives. There would be no negative prehensions in God’s consequent nature (regardless of whether negative prehensions apply only to rejected eternal objects or to rejected feelings as well). Then, in order to make God consistent with other concrete individuals or vice versa (a principle which Whitehead is committed to, with one basic and necessary exception), these lesser individuals must also feel and preserve all of their pasts. And the perceptual abstractions of these lesser individuals will consist in feeling most of their pasts very dimly (and subconsciously). In their feelings of the past, negative prehensions could refer only to rejected eternal objects and not to feelings.

On the other hand, if these lesser individuals do not preserve all of their pasts but really feel in terms of selected abstractions, and if God feels the world in a like manner (as he would have to in order to be consistent with our first principles), then he will not save all values. In this case, not all values would be objectively immortal. God would still be consequent or concrete, but it would be a different God than if all values were saved. Then the question would be: On what basis are some values preserved and others lost? Also, what becomes of the objective immortality of "forgotten" or lost events? Is I it possible for events of the past to be lost and yet "condition" or "be present in" the immediate present? Is it necessary to distinguish between (1) the idea that all of the past inheres in the present because the present is what it is because of what the past was, and (2) the preservation of all "values"? Is the unchangeableness of the past synonymous with the preservation of all values?

C. The problem in regard to the incompatibility of ideals is directly related to the preceding. Whitehead has said that some incompatible ideals or values cannot coexist in one individual. This notion is grounded in the doctrine that all actualities are aesthetic syntheses. Finitude is a necessary qualification of actuality, and all realization of the good involves aesthetic limitation. The basis of tragedy lies in the fact that all ideals are not mutually compatible. God as primordial envisages all ideals, even incompatible ones, but he is "the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season. Thus a process must be inherent in God’s nature, whereby his infinity is acquiring realization."13 Various incompatibilities may be transcended in the process of development, but this higher inclusion must occur at the proper time. "Insistence on birth at the wrong season is the trick of evil."14 And evil in a positive sense denotes the presence of mutually obstructing elements. Thus the process is necessary to God as well as man if good is to be achieved.

But these metaphysical principles appear to be transcended in the notion that God as consequent preserves all values. If some ideals are incompatible, how can God feel them all in a living immediacy? Why is the principle of a value’s realization different from that of its preservation in God? One answer to this question would be that values which are not compossible as contemporaries may be compossible as earlier and later. But since values which are compossible as earlier and later are felt in God’s immediacy, that is, as contemporaries, one might ask why they were not compossible as contemporaries in the first place. One answer might be that the experiencing of values first in temporal sequence and then in immediate togetherness adds to the richness of the values experienced.


Ely’s second basic objection to Whitehead’s God centers around God’s complementary function whereby actual evils are confronted with their "ideal complements" and actual values are enhanced by their complements.

Ely is right in holding that the "complementary" function of God is a necessary deduction from Whitehead’s principles. But Ely’s implications are not necessarily deducible. His interpretation of Whitehead’s concept of transmutation reduces Whitehead’s theology to an absurdity. Ely states that God is not good because he "integrates the achieved evils of the world with their ideal complements in a system in which the evil character disappears as far as God is concerned" (p. 39). He says that God perceives the evils of the world not as final but as transient, because "he sees them in such a setting that what is itself evil performs a good function and hence helps to make up a valuable whole" (p. 38). Ely seems to be saying that, in preserving the past everlastingly, God automatically turns evil into good, black into white, the incomplete good into the perfect and complete good. Yet Ely also states that "the evil is not really transcended in the world, for what is done is done, and God cannot unmake the past" (p. 38).

Now, ultimately, Ely cannot have it both ways: if God cannot unmake the past, then it is not true, in any simple sense, that God causes the evil to disappear by changing it into a good. Ely’s interpretation implicitly presupposes, as we noticed before, that the consequent nature of God is some kind of a nontemporal transcendent being for whom every evil is seen as a good. And there is ambiguity on this point in Whitehead’s writings. For example, the following would seem to support Ely’s contention: "The perfection of God’s subjective aim, derived from the completeness of his primordial nature, issues into the character of his consequent nature. . . . The wisdom of subjective aim prehends every actuality for what it can be in such a perfected system."15 We suggest that this ambiguity is caused by the failure to develop the notion of God as creative power, and to relate more coherently this notion with the concepts of objective immortality and efficient causation. "God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the over-powering rationality of his conceptual harmonization"16 Thus at times Whitehead appears to say, as Ely contends, that evil remains evil in the world of events ("God cannot unmake the past") but that in God’s experience evil is transmuted into goodness. This results in a basic and inexplicable dichotomy whereby transmutation and redemption are regarded as nontemporal achievements.17 But if transmutation is a fact, and if God as consequent is a concrete actuality, transmutation must be a temporal affair — even though it has a nontemporal element.

If Ely’s interpretation were the true one, it would mean that (for Whitehead) it would not make any difference to God how we acted. If all evil is seen as good in God’s eyes, what’s the difference what we do? This is nothing but value-chaos where good and evil are indistinguishable. But this contradicts Whitehead’s whole conception of God as process, as growth of values. Ultimately, it destroys the unchanging character of God. God then becomes (as Ely says) a cosmic fiend whose delight consists in devising new tortures for man to endure, because for man the evil is really evil. God would then have a "Diabolic Nature."

But this is not the case. Rather, as Ely points out, God’s primordial nature gives him a vision of how an evil event can be turned to good account. But this can only mean that God does the best he can with what he has — under the circumstances. "The initial aim is the best for that impasse."18 His primordial nature is such that evil events can be related to other events in such a way that some value can result. In one sense, this constitutes the "forgiveness" (unmerited "grace") of the love of God in traditional theology. God forgives the sinner not in the sense that the sinner’s past is changed, not in the sense that the consequences of his sin (to himself and others including God) are obliterated and past evils are no longer evils, but in the sense that possibilities for good are ever present in spite of the evils.

There is tragedy in God even though it be a tragic peace. The redemption of evil through suffering includes the suffering of God (even though the fact of suffering in itself is not sufficient to produce redemption — a more creative element is needed). Considering only the primordial character of God, evil can be transformed into good because of God’s vision — because of his conception of the ideal whole. But evil is real and endures because the actualized "whole" would have been different if the evils had not been evils. The fact that a whole is valuable does not entirely validate the character of the parts because there are good wholes and there are better wholes. God does not love sinners because they are sinners but in spite of the fact. The transformation of a past evil into a good does not change the character of the past evil as past. It changes the direction of a tendency whereby a greater good (or a lesser evil) may result than will be the case if the tendency persists in its evil ways.

If Whitehead had developed the efficient and creative aspect of God, we would be able to see more clearly that the transformation of evil, as conceptually seen by God and apart from the transformation as it occurs in the actual world, is only a possibility for realization. God feels the past world as it occurred with whatever character it possesses. But he feels it also through the eyes of his "perfect vision"; that is, he sees the past as surrounded with relevant possibilities for a greater realization of value. The past, as felt by God, is reflected back into the world. Thus the present is conditioned by the past with the past’s character (the past, as felt by God and by the present, remains unchanged), but the basic unchanging character of creativity is such that the past as evil has possibilities of resulting in some good. The past as good has possibilities of enhancement. This is the initial aim which may be more or less blocked. But the freedom of events, both good and evil, is a necessary character of their being.

The "superjective nature" of God (another distinction of reason within the concept of God) refers to God’s efficacious power whereby what is felt by God conditions the world of becoming. Whitehead speaks of the past as felt by God in terms of "perfected actuality" which qualifies the temporal world of process.19 And Ely seems to give a value connotation to this term:

The actualities of the world are received into God, where they are purified and perfected (as far as possible) by God’s vision of an ideal complement. But this integration, though it takes place only in God’s mind, is itself a perfectly definite fact of the universe [p. 42].

But Whitehead’s own statements seem to carry a different meaning. "Perfected actuality" is attained when "the many are one everlastingly, without the qualification of any loss either of individual identity or of completeness of unity."20 In other words, the phrase is synonymous with "everlastingness" wherein "immediacy is reconciled with objective immortality."21 Everlastingness has reference to the preservation of values, but it does not necessarily mean that evils are automatically transmuted into goods. And by means of the living immediacy, the past is felt by God and as potent with possibilities of greater value is passed back into and qualifies the world of living experience. In other words, God never presents a past evil to us as final and incorrigible. Therefore, the nontemporal element in the process of transmutation is the eternal (in the sense of "unchanging") character of God whereby possibilities of growth are relevant to both good and evil events. This is transmutation as an ever present characteristic of God’s nature, of his ordering of possibilities. Whitehead’s "kingdom of heaven" is a conceptual, not a physical, fact. But transmutation as an accomplished fact is the product of the present events’ reactions to the objective creative world of the past as it is qualified by God’s ordering of possibilities. This is God functioning both as lure and as creative compulsion. And evils remain and endure as evils because of the stubbornness of the past and the "great refusal" of the present.

But the ambiguity in our interpretation persists. Because we try to discuss God as creative power, and not only as persuasion, and because Whitehead seems to identify God and creativity, we appear to be saying that God is responsible for the endurance of evil as well as presenting to us persuasive lures of greater value. This basic difficulty has been implicit in our whole discussion. The solution may reside in a distinction between creativity as such and creativity which refers to God as propulsive in accordance with his unchanging structure.

But Ely says there is another reason why Whitehead’s God is not good. The "tremendous doubt" that plagues us in his writings is the notion that God’s values may not be our values. We cannot be sure that "what God considers a greater good would be so in my standard of values" (pp. 44-45). And while God may not will what is evil from his point of view, he may will what is evil from man’s point of view. Therefore, Whitehead has not shown that God is good "in any sense resembling that in which a man is good" (p. 47). In God’s vision of the whole, everything (no matter how ugly or evil) can assume a good function because of the nature of the whole. What appears as an evil to us may be beautiful to God by virtue of its inherent contrast with something else. "Perhaps World Wars are the black spots necessary for the perfection of the divine painting" (p. 51). Thus Ely says that Whitehead’s theory of evil "is a variant of the old conception that evil is an illusion of our shortsightedness; given . . . God’s view . . .what seems to us evil is really not evil" (p. 51).

This criticism is organically related to and partly dependent upon Ely’s interpretation of transmutation, To the extent of dependence, this criticism is negated by the previous discussion, But there is more involved.

It would seem that a meaningful theism must avoid the extremes of humanism and complete transcendence on this question. If God’s standard of value bears no relation to our own, then God’s function in man’s life is unknown and unknowable — and it can be dispensed with. On the other hand, if God’s goodness is identical with our own, what is the function of God? If God merely symbolizes or echoes our present or even our ideal notions of goodness, why not forget God and keep the ideals? Nothing important will have been left out. Nor would we find anything worthy of worship or commitment except man’s ideals. If there is to be a God in any meaningful sense of the term, he must transcend at least to some degree human ideals of goodness. Ely seems to imply that the most important problem in theology is to justify the ways of God to man. This is essential, but it is just as important and perhaps more so to justify the ways of man to God.

If Whitehead’s God were completely transcendent, there might be some grounds for doubting whether God wills what is good for man. But Whitehead’s God is a naturalistic one, meaning that he exemplifies our first principles. Thus we have some basis for thinking that God’s standard of value is compatible with our own — in principle. This standard of value is defined by the concept of the primordial nature of God, a structure which is exemplified to a greater or less degree in every kind of experience. This structure is the secular equivalent of the religious concept of "love." This structure or standard may be roughly described as the greatest diversity, contrast, and intensity consonant with the greatest unity. Or, again, that the various feelings within one actual occasion or the activities of several occasions are so related that they intensify one another by means of compatible contrasts. "What is inexorable in God, is valuation as an aim towards order’; and ‘order’ means ‘society’ permissive of actualities with patterned intensity of feeling arising from adjusted contrasts."22 God attempts to avoid both the obstructiveness of chaos and the triviality and deadness of monotony.

Now insofar as we have found that this value pattern has resulted in human satisfaction and good, we have empirical grounds for trusting God’s standard of value. In fact, some would say that there is no human value or goodness unless this value pattern is exemplified in our activities; that the capacity to realize this structure of relations in our lives (to a greater extent than can the other animals) is what largely constitutes our humanity. God’s willing evil from man’s point of view could only mean (in Whitehead’s system) that man was unwilling to realize a growth in value experience. The willingness to commit one’s self to a process which exemplifies this value structure (on the grounds that greater human values would be achieved thereby) is what constitutes faith in God. Only if it can be shown that human values exemplify a basically different structure from that defined by the primordial nature of God is it true that Whitehead’s God is irreconcilable with human goodness.

This does not mean that God’s goodness is identical with our own. It does not mean that some particular situation which certain men at a given time hold to be good would necessarily be "acceptable to God." Nor does it mean that some particular situation which certain men at a given time hold to be evil would necessarily be as evil from God’s point of view. In Whitehead’s system there really is no problem of justifying the ways of God to man because whatever God wills for man would be recognized by man as good if man (in the most inclusive sense) were to realize his greatest potentialities. If one accepts as valid Whitehead’s general criterion of value, and if one defines God as the most inclusive generalization of this value pattern (as Whitehead does), then how could God will evil for man? What was "really" good for man, from man’s highest interest, could not be an evil for God. God’s self-interest and his altruism coincide by virtue of the dependence of God on the world as his internal parts. God is supreme value for man. God’s will might seem evil to us in our baser moments; it often does. But commitment to God defined as supreme worthfulness for all men implies a faith which trusts that a finer approximation to God’s goodness on the part of men in general will result in a situation that men will call good. If the attainment of God’s will involves the destruction of my present standard of values, it means that my criterion of goodness is inadequate to the best interests of myself and others.

Is this a blind and irrational faith, an ultimate prejudice that is unsupported? In the history of Western culture we have usually defined God in terms of supreme value. Even when God has been pictured as a wholly transcendent being whose goodness was as superior to ours as the reach of the zenith, the implication was not that God’s goodness would be evil from man’s highest standpoint. God judged man and found him evil in terms of man’s own implicit standard of goodness. Men have thought themselves to be good, and God has called them evil because of their inhumanity to man — and thus of their unhumanity to God. In Western culture it has usually been the case that even those who defined God in terms of the greatest power thought of this power as being consonant with or identical to the greatest good.

Ely’s criticism is really ambiguous: "If God’s values are not my values, I shall not rejoice at finding God’s love ‘flooding back again into the world’" (p. 45). Does Ely mean by "my values" those values I cherish now, or those I cherished as a child, or those values I cherish when I am most sensitive to my fellow-men and try to take the "role of the other"? Or does he mean more than just myself? If so, whom and how many? Or does he refer to the value pattern on the basis of which I try to decide whether a given situation is good or evil? Even though (in some instances at least) a parent knows what is better for the child than the child himself knows, and even though the parent acts accordingly, the child may not rejoice. People conflict and war with one another because both their standards of value and their sensitivities differ. Those whose standard includes what is involved in "the century of the common man" and those whose standard extends only to the perpetuation and furtherance of existing inequalities and injustices constitute a case in point. If God’s standard of value corresponds more with the former’s than with the latter’s and if the former’s prevails, the latter will not rejoice, and they will define the situation as evil. And from their viewpoint the latter will say that God willed "what is evil to humanity."

Ely claims that Whitehead’s God is not good because he "does not will the good. He wills the beautiful" (p. 52). Ely seems to interpret Whitehead’s concept of beauty as meaning that which is indifferent to goodness. But Whitehead is not talking about God as an amoral aesthete. Whitehead does speak of that kind of love which "is a little oblivious as to morals,"23 and of perspectives of the universe to which morality, logic, art, and religion are irrelevant. But they are irrelevant in contrast to "importance" or "worth" conceived of in terms that transcend narrow arid conventional categories. That which transcends does not thereby and necessarily deny — in the small sense. That which transcends can also include and improve. It is the denial of certain moral standards in the interest of a more sensitive morality or a finer beauty. Certain kinds of love transcend the bounds of justice, but can one thereby say that a finer and nobler beauty or goodness has not been attained? Ultimately, Ely’s criticism loses its force in the light of a different interpretation of the fact of transmutation.


Ely’s third basic objection to Whitehead’s God centers in the problem of the preservation of the individual and his values. Ely complains that even if God triumphs over the evil of "perpetual perishing" (which is the "ultimate evil in the actual world"), the ultimate evil is still ultimate for us humans because we do perish as individuals. Even if God does preserve my values, but does not preserve me, I receive no benefit; the final enjoyment is God’s and God’s only. Even if God can see how an evil can be transmuted into a good, and can see how my suffering can be redeemed, all this does not help me in my evil and suffering. Furthermore, the individuality of finite things does not count because they are all merely transient instruments for God’s enjoyment — and even God, in preserving my individual values, preserves and enjoys them only as parts of a system. Therefore, even for God their individuality has perished. These considerations suck "all the vital juices from Whitehead’s basic metaphysical contention that every actuality is something for its own sake" (p. 50). And so again: "Whitehead does not give a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil because he has not shown that God is good in the important sense that he cherishes individuals and their values" (p. 50).

Some of Ely’s criticisms of Whitehead’s God, in this connection lose some of their relevance in the light of the foregoing analysis. For example, the concept of objective immortality does furnish some basis for believing that God preserves an individual’s values for whatever worth they may be and yield. But this need not include the preservation of the individual as such.

But why should God’s goodness be correlative to or dependent upon the preservation of individuals as such, that is, on immortality? Or why is the redeeming of my suffering and tragedy and the transformation of my evil into a good meaningful only if I am present to share in the redemption and transformation? To hold these two ideas as inseparable is to cling to a type of "reward" theology which implies that there is no such thing as altruism or a disinterested love for God. This means that at best there is only an enlightened self-interest. Humanism, in order to maintain a respectable ethic, must insist on the notion of altruism. The inclusion of God in the picture by the theists does not change the fundamental principle involved. Whether God alone is the ultimate benefactor of my suffering, or whether its redemption is shared by later finite individuals like myself (and perhaps including myself), the issue at stake is the same. If the humanists can find it meaningful to suffer for the sake of a finer society which they may never share, why cannot theists suffer for "the glory of God" which they may never fully inherit? Ely’s position is really ironical: he implies that it would be religiously justifiable for God to serve man and his values and to preserve them both indefinitely but that the saving of our values by God for his own enjoyment would be evidence of God’s ultimate selfishness. This is equivalent to remonstrating with God for his being God. The difference between God’s "selfishness" and our own is that in God’s nature his selfishness and his altruism coincide for the reason previously given. This relationship between self-interest and altruism does not seem to hold necessarily for lesser individuals.

Ely might ask: Why could not both man and God together enjoy man’s achieved values indefinitely? Why should an individual’s span of existence be finite? If God really loves individuals and shares with them their sufferings and triumphs, why does not his love extend to the preservation of these individuals as well as to their values? Whitehead might reply that creativity (as distinguished from God) holds the answers. If Whitehead’s God had created the world and all its conditions, these questions would be relevant. But such is not Whitehead’s God, for, as Ely says God "cannot repeal fundamental metaphysical laws." The perishing of individuals in their immediate subjectivity appears to be a condition necessitated by a world of process. In this respect Whitehead’s "event philosophy" differs from the more traditional "substance philosophies." The indefinite or everlasting prolongation of an individual might add to the monotony of the world and thereby decrease value. Old age is not synonymous with adventure and increase of novelty. In this sense it is true to say that God’s abstract or primordial nature has no regard for specific individuals. It is concerned with any individuals who can add to the growth of value — both for themselves and for God.

Furthermore, Ely’s statement that ‘the very notion of ‘redemption through suffering’ implies a divorce between suffering as a means and as an end" and his contention that the individuality of finite things does not count are both denied in Whitehead’s system by the notion that the meaning of existence is "now — for God and man. (And both of Ely’s statements rest upon an incorrect version of the fact of transmutation.) Ely’s statements really imply that the only real end is a final, perfect, and complete state. But, as Whitehead says, there is no one far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves. There is no perfection beyond which there is no greater perfection. We are not merely means to the end of God’s enjoyment. We are means for his enjoyment, yes, but we are also ends for God and ends for ourselves. Every means is an end and every end is a means — for God and men. If I have hope that my sufferings can lead to the increase of another’s value, this present hope of a future eventuality qualifies my present suffering. If I do not have that hope, my suffering is all the more tragic. In either case my suffering, whether qualified or not, is at that time my end, my meaning. It is my suffering as an end (whether later redeemed or not, but especially when not) which helps to make evil so tragic, because it could have been otherwise.

Therefore, every actuality is something for its own sake in two senses, First my experience, whether of good or ill, is all that I have. It is its own reward. And for that reason it then becomes a "stubborn fact" for all future actualities (including my own future states and God’s future states). It becomes a fact which must be reckoned with. For in a sense God can only enjoy what lesser temporal actualities give him to enjoy. If we experience suffering, so does he; if we experience tragedy, so does he; if we benefit by someone else’s suffering, so does he; and if some later individuals reap the reward of our sufferings now, so does God. For God has only his present experience, which includes his memories and his anticipations. The future may contain more of value than the past or the present, but in any event Whitehead’s God lives in terms of adventure. And since there is no final end, is it not true that "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive"? Since there is no final arriving, the meaning of the adventure for Whitehead’s God is ‘now."


Our conclusion is that Ely’s interpretation of Whitehead’s theology brings out into the open the basic ambiguity existing in his God-concept. But the ground of the ambiguity does not consist in the idea that Whitehead’s theological doctrines are false; rather the whole position is not fully developed in terms of coherently interrelated religious categories. In other words, Ely has not been sufficiently just to the richness of Whitehead’s thought. There is a more positive and constructive interpretation and development of Whitehead’s religious philosophy that can be made. This pioneer work is one of the tasks for the present philosophic and religious generation.



1. Stephen Lee Ely, The Religious Availability of Whitehead’s God: A Critical Analysis (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1942). All references will be from this book unless otherwise stated.

2. Ely says that God as primordial is religiously inadequate because he "is not only unconscious and impersonal, but he has no concern for us as individuals" (p. 31).

3. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 522.

4. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 521.

5. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 47.

6. There is no conception of God as concrete in Science and the Modern World. In fact, this notion is explicitly denied: "God is not concrete, but he is the ground for concrete actuality" (p. 257).

7. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 10-11.

8. Adventures of Ideas 267.

9. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 517. It should be kept in mind that the loss involved in "abstraction" is not identical with the loss involved in "perpetual perishing." The latter concept refers to the death of the individual as a subject enjoying its component experiences. The former concept refers to the preservation of those values which the individual achieved and enjoyed.

10. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 517.

11. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 531-532.

12. 0f course, one could take the middle ground which may be the position of objective relativism and say that the question whether the past changes is a meaningless question because we have no way of verifying the proposition.

13. Adventures of Ideas 357.

14. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 341.

15. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 524-525.

16. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 525-526. Whitehead says that the primary action of God on the world is defined by God’s primordial nature. The creative and more compulsive power of God as a concrete process is not emphasized (see ibid., p. 523).

17. Ely expresses this negatively by saying that "evil is not really transcended in the world." This seeming transcendentalism is the basis for Ely’s later point that Whitehead’s God may will what is evil for man.

18. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 373.

19. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 532.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 373-374.

23. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology 521.