Chapter 3: A Whiteheadian Concept of God: Defining God and Worship

Whiteheadian Thought as a Basis for a Philosophy of Religion
by Forrest Wood, Jr.

Chapter 3: A Whiteheadian Concept of God: Defining God and Worship

A. Defining God and Worship

One must begin a discussion of God with the question, "What do you mean by ‘God’?" Philosophers are rightly accused of speaking of a god whom ordinary religious people feel is not God at all. What kind of criteria can we set to determine our evaluation of god talk? Charles Hartshorne, the most gifted interpreter of Whitehead and the leading philosopher/theologian of process theology, asks in A Natural Theology for Our Time, "What is the religious sense of god?" He answers, "In theistic religions God is the One Who is Worshiped."1 I believe that Hartshorne’s definition adequately expresses the religious sense of God. If so, whatever philosophers or theologians (the group includes all of us when we ponder the ultimate) attribute to God must be consistent with "the One who is worshiped." The god who is described must be worthy of worship. By worthy of worship I mean both that he is a being who has such value that it is appropriate to worship him and that he is a being who can be a participant in (or object of) worship. And by being a participant, I mean that he must be able to respond in some way. A god unable to hear prayers and sympathize with the worshiper, or incapable of love is hardly an appropriate participant in worship.

If we are to define God as the object of worship, we must be clear about the nature of worship. The traditional concept of worship has been that worship is glorifying God. But glorifying, meaning adoration and awe, is a response to worship not its essential core. The inadequacy of the concept of glorifying can be seen when extended to other areas of life. Note Robert Neville’s comment, ". . .it is just better to glorify him than not, since that is what human betterment is, to give glory to God."2 Defining human betterment as glorifying God neither tells us much, nor does it leave much intrinsic value to mankind.

A far better view is found in Hartshorne’s suggestion: "Worship is the integrating of all one’s thoughts and purposes, all valuations and meanings, all perceptions and conceptions."3 Worship is a consciously unitary response to life. And God, the object of worship, is ". . .the wholeness of the world, correlative to the wholeness of every sound individual dealing with the world."4 The term "individual" in his comment applies not only to people but to any entity whatsoever: "Any sentient individual in any world experiences and acts as one. . ."5 These ideas of Hartshorne’s do not stand in isolation; rather they are part of a Whiteheadian world-view in which each individual entity is an integration of parts into a whole. Whitehead’s principle is "The many become one, and are increased by one." (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, ed. Griffin & Sherburne, New York: The Free Press, 1978, 21)

Hartshorne makes another major contribution to our understanding of worshiping and serving God. The insight is a surprising one. Hartshorne argues that people (and other things) contribute ". . .value to God which he would otherwise lack."6 God is a real recipient of our actions. This notion is consistent with the Whiteheadian metaphysic that each entity contributes value to other entities. Each entity in the universe (including God) is internally related to other entities. That people (and other things) contribute value to God gives real meaning to the lives of people and the events of the world.

We need to explain how these claims are true and of how they function as a part of an integrated system of thought. Whitehead has a distinctive view of the world and of God. His views have a major impact on contemporary theology. In order to understand his views on God, it is necessary to trace the development of his concept of God.



1. Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time, (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1967), p. 3.

2. Robert C. Neville. "Neoclassical Metaphysics and Christianity: A Critical Study of Ogden’s Reality of God," International Philosophical Quarterly, IX (1969), 605.624 on p. 615.

3. Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time, pp. 4-5.

4. Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time, p. 6.

5. Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time, p. 6.

6. Charles Hartshorne, "The Dipolar Conception of Deity" in The Review of Metaphysics, XXI (1967) 273-289 on p. 274.