Chapter 4: God

What Is Process Theology?
by Robert B. Mellert

Chapter 4: God

Nearly a decade has passed since God made the cover of Time magazine when it asked rhetorically, "Is God Dead?" Although it did not pretend to give an answer to that question, it did shed much light on a discussion that was being carried on by some of America’s leading theologians. Today the subject is just about as dead as God was purported to be. But in its wake we have become much more conscious of how little we can truly say about God, and how careful we must be in saying it.

The "death of God" controversy was not a new phenomenon that suddenly arose in our generation. It was the result of a gradual realization that the way in which we thought and spoke about God was no longer appropriate for expressing those concepts in a particular culture. Indeed, it is an unanswerable question because no human concept or language is ever adequate for divine things. Nevertheless, we must say something about God, because a God about whom we say nothing is a rather useless deity for the religious needs of man.

Even an appeal to the Bible as a source of information about God is not the solution, because the writers of Scripture faced the same problem as secular thinkers when it came to putting on paper the way in which the deity manifested itself to them. They, too, had to resort to human language in the context of a particular human civilization. As a result, the biblical tradition itself raises some problems regarding its representations of God.

On the one hand, we read in the Bible about the Lord who takes sides in history, rewarding the Israelites for their fidelity and punishing their lapses into idolatry. He loves his people, suffers for them, and repeatedly extends to them his mercy and forgiveness. He provides for their needs in the desert, gives them a new land, and defends them from their enemies. He sends prophets to them to remind them of his covenant with them, and despite their hardness of heart, he sends his Son to redeem men from sin and restore them to divine favor. It is a story of God’s activity in history, his constant care and concern for his people, and his continual attempts to persuade them to turn from the allurements of the Evil One and to place their trust in his love.

On the other hand, though, the Bible also suggests an image of God as the Eternal One far removed from the petty conflicts of earth. He is Yahweh, "I am who am." His ways are inscrutable, and man has no control over the workings of his divine plan, because he is both unchanging and unchangeable. This side of the biblical God is unseen, unworldly and unknowable. Even his name is shrouded in mystery. Fidelity to him is purely a matter of faith. He is so unrepresentable that alien tribes could ask, "Where is their God?" To those with graven images and large molten idols, the Israelites surely appeared to be the atheists of their time. Before the early Christian Church could address itself to the problem of finding some theologically acceptable way of representing the biblical God, its rapid movement to the West occasioned its confrontation with a new set of ideas in Greek philosophy. Probably because they were intellectually unimpressed with the myths and deities of their own people, Greek thinkers reasoned to a kind of philosophical deity that was much more a God of eternity than a God of history, much more compatible with the biblical image of Yahweh than with the image of Lord. He was the unmoved mover, the first cause, and an existence unto himself. He was not a God of emotions and feelings, but of transcendence and ultimacy.

The attempt of the Fathers of the Church to reconcile Greek thought with the biblical tradition resulted in the choice of Yahweh over Lord, and this choice has shaped the Christian mind ever since. As a result, God is really not an intrinsic part of history, but one who intervenes from his position in eternity. Time is not real to God, because he knows every event -- past, present and future -- in a single all-knowing act. Furthermore, he is in his essence devoid of emotions and feelings. He permits evil, even though he does not cause it, and he is not personally engaged in the moment-by-moment struggle against it. He is the complete, self-contained God, fully perfect and without needs. Nothing in the world, or done by the world, can contribute to his intrinsic glory.

Even today much theological opinion prefers the God of philosophy to the God of history. Emotions, feelings and activities are considered accidental to what God is in himself and extrinsic to his divine nature. When applied to God in human discourse, they are simply anthropomorphic representations of him, necessary in order that man have a way of thinking and speaking about the deity. However, these modes of speaking do not tell us anything about the deity itself.

The difficulty is that this very intellectual representation of God never seems quite adequate for religious purposes. Prayer, for example, generally presumes that there is someone who hears and can act upon the merits of a request. God’s love for man is not very inspiring when it is stripped of its concreteness and raised to the abstract level of his divine will that all men be saved. The abstract God of the philosopher is not sufficiently consoling to the man of religion. He seeks a more concrete God who can be persuaded, who is personally concerned, and with whom he can talk as one man to another. Christian tradition has always recognized this kind of God, even though Christian thinkers have been loathe to theorize about him. The problem is to find a way to reconcile him with the exigencies of reason.

Is there a way to reconcile the concrete God of religion with the abstract God of philosophy? Can God have feelings and emotions and still be the unchangeable ground of all reality? If he changes, can he still be perfect? Is it possible for him to be a part of the history and structure of reality, and at the same time be the foundation upon which that history and structure are based? Can he be both temporal and eternal, loving and removed, personal and metaphysical, immanent to the world and transcendent of it?

One of the most original and fascinating insights of Whiteheadian philosophy is the way in which it makes this reconciliation. It is a new attempt, born more out of a philosophical need than from a religious concern. And yet, it has captured the imagination of both process philosophers and religious thinkers concerned with the availability of God. Unlike the Scholastic tradition, Whitehead rejects any notion of God as the philosophical ultimate who is self-sufficient and beyond the laws of nature. It is unfortunate. Whitehead maintains, that it was thought necessary to pay him metaphysical compliments. For Whitehead, God is not a last resort who stands outside the system and remains independent of it. Rather, God is an integral element in the whole and participates actively in its struggles and concerns.

The development of Whitehead’s idea of God occurred only gradually in his writings. At first he described God merely as the principle of limitation -- that principle by which a specific entity does not become other than it is. Here God’s function is to envisage the totality of possibility, and to make available to emerging occasions those possibilities that are relevant to its becoming. Limitation is essential to process because some reason must be given for the particularization of what in fact occurs. Without a principle of limitation, there could be no individual, novel actual occasions. In fact, there could be no actual occasions at all.

This position created a philosophical difficulty for Whitehead. If God’s function is to envisage possibilities, God has to be real. And the only realities are actual entities. Hence, to bridge the gap between pure possibilities and their real availability to process, God has to be an actual entity in which those possibilities are contained. Therefore, God is that actual entity who gives reality to eternal objects by including them within himself.

Because the ultimates in his system are abstractions from reality and because God is real, Whitehead could not include God in the category of ultimates. God is an actual entity. As an actual entity, he can be described in the same terms as every other actual entity. He is temporal; he prehends physically and conceptually; he has a subjective aim and seeks satisfaction. Furthermore, he is constantly increasing and is an integral part of the process of all reality. Although he is not perfect or ultimate in any absolute sense, he has a perfection and an ultimacy relative to all other things.

In his final statement about God Whitehead developed his theory of divine di-polarity. It is based upon his analysis of an actual entity as prehending both physically and conceptually. God, too, has aspects that allow for physical prehensions and conceptual prehensions. These are called his primordial nature and his consequent nature. The choice of terms is Whitehead’s and it may be somewhat confusing for the novice theologian, for we are dealing with a different kind of distinction from what is found in our theological traditions.

In the first place, the words "primordial" and "consequent" have no reference to the antecedent and consequent will of God in Thomistic theology. Thomas’ distinction was based upon the necessity for God to restructure the divine plan in the aftermath of man’s sin. Whitehead’s distinction has to do with the ways in which God is related to other actual entities. Secondly, the term "nature" must not be identified with the divine nature or the human nature of Scholastic theology. In the latter system of thought, nature separates levels of reality according to a hierarchical arrangement -- God, angels, man, animals, plants and inanimate matter. For Whitehead, nature is simply an abstract way of talking about how something relates to the rest of reality. Having two natures, therefore, does not imply any real duality since they are merely aspects of the one actual entity.

In other words, the primordial nature and the consequent nature of God are not two individual elements which, as joined together, form the deity. We cannot, at this point, make any meaningful analogies either to the union of the three persons in God (the doctrine of the Trinity) or to the two natures in Christ (the hypostatic union). We are speaking here simply of one God, who is represented as an actual entity and who manifests at least two ways in which his divinity is related to the world.

God’s primordial nature, Whitehead says, is independent from his commerce with particulars. It is the abstract side of God, or God "alone with himself."1 By virtue of his primordiality, God contains within himself the totality of possibility through his conceptual envisagement of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects. In his primordial nature God is without any temporal connotation and without any direction toward individual entities. It is the purely conceptual side of the divinity, without any actuality in itself. Rather, it is the basis of actuality, because it is the foundation for the actualization of possibilities.

As primordial, then, we understand God as the structure of possibility and the context in which actualization takes place. Whitehead uses the terms "ground" and "principle" to illustrate this side of the divinity. It is similar to, but not identical with Paul Tillich’s concept of God as "Ground of Being" or the medieval interpretation of "Supreme Being." The difference is that Whitehead is not trying to distinguish the Being of God from other beings, or isolate him into a distinct and unique classification. He is trying to relate God to the whole of reality. Even as primordial, he stresses that God is not before all creation, but with all creation. God’s primordiality is simply a way of talking about how God is related to the world as the context or structure from which all reality emerges.

The images used to describe the primordial nature of God have definite similarities to the God of philosophy and the biblical Yahweh outlined above. It is the impersonal and unknowable side of God, the side not engaged in particulars. In the consequent nature we find the God of history and the Lord of all things. It is the personal aspect of God, whereby he constantly feels what is happening in the world and is affected by the world.

In his consequent nature God is intrinsically related to physical reality. He prehends all of the actual occasions of the physical world as they emerge. Every actual occasion that occurs is thus taken into God and adds its reality to the reality of God. This is why God has a temporal aspect. He is constantly changing as he includes more and more reality in his consequent nature. Indeed, he is constantly being changed by that reality. What we do on earth makes a difference to the very reality of God. What we are and how we become affects what God is and how he is to become. God prehends other actualities in the same way that actual entities prehend each other. There is a physical prehension of the datum according to a particular subjective form. And there are also conceptual prehensions of possibilities in the incorporation of that datum into a new occasion. Because God prehends all actual entities and all eternal objects, every prehension of an actual entity involves both what that actual entity is and what it might have been. In this way God sees the ideal while prehending the actual. Because of his vision, and because of his concern and care for what is happening in reality, he is constantly luring reality on to newer and greater things. Whitehead describes this aspect of God as the "poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness."2

But God is not an all-powerful, arbitrary ruler of the earth. In fact, he is powerless before the freedom of each individual moment. For in this sense he is no different from every other actual entity. He knows more. because he envisages more. He suffers more, because he knows more. He is, says Whitehead. "the great companion -- the fellow sufferer who understands."3

One important way in which God is different from other actual entities is that he is an everlasting entity. He does not emerge and perish, only to be succeeded by another occasion, as is the case with the rest of reality. He continues through time as the one enduring reality, prehending all things. As a result, nothing is ever lost, because everything that has ever been is incorporated into the consequent nature of God by virtue of God’s prehending it. God is the fullness of all actuality, in whom all actuality is preserved everlastingly. Every actual occasion thus achieves objective immortality in the consequent nature of God and is thus made available as datum for further process in the world.

The consequent nature of God is, therefore, the composite nature of all the actualities of the world, each having obtained its unique representation in the divine nature. We have already seen that each actuality is an organismic unity, whether it be the unity of prehensions in an actual occasion, the unity of a nexus of actual occasions, or even the unity of many nexus. God in his consequent nature is the organism in which all other organisms are prehended and contained. Everything is thus immortalized in the consequent nature of God.

In sum, God is that actual entity that is both the structure or context in which reality emerges (primordial nature) and the totality of that reality (consequent nature). This is because he prehends fully both the totality of possibility (primordial nature) and the totality of actuality (consequent nature). He is both abstract and concrete, eternal and temporal, transcendent and immanent. He can be identified as the God of philosophy as well as the God of history, and he can serve man’s metaphysical needs as well as his religious ones. To him we can apply the images both of Yahweh and of Lord.

There is one final thing to say about the God of process philosophy before we can move to the next chapter, where we will consider the implications of God for the world. In several passages of his major work, Process and Reality, Whitehead refers to the "superjective nature" of God. It is not entirely clear how this concept fits into his overall schema, but he does describe what he means by the term.

We have just discussed how every actual entity that has ever emerged is taken into God in his consequent nature. God is thus the repository of all reality because he is the unique subject that prehends every actual occasion. But just as this reality contributes to the reality of God, so also is it the data for all further development in the future. In this sense, therefore, God contains the data out of which the world is continuously being renewed. The fact that God contributes what he is in his consequent nature to the on-going process of reality is the meaning of his "superjective nature." This contribution is unique in that God passes back to the world not only the stubborn facts of history, but a sense of what perfected actuality might have been. God can do this because, in addition to prehending the totality of actuality, he also prehends the totality of possibility. In his superjective nature, then, God offers back to the world everything that is of value from the past for the formation of the future.

Is the superjective nature a third nature of God? Considering Whitehead’s infrequent reference to it and recalling the number of times he refers only to the primordial and consequent natures, it appears unlikely. It seems instead to be a casual use of the word "nature." perhaps with the specific purpose of warning his readers against employing that word too categorically. The superjective nature might thus best be explained as an aspect of the consequent nature. That is, when considered in its fullest sense, the consequent nature not only gathers into itself all actual occasions that have emerged and perished, but it also makes those occasions available once more to the world in God’s own loving way.

This, in brief, is Whitehead’s description of God in his philosophical system. It is his way of speaking about the unspeakable. There are many important differences between Whitehead’s God and the deity as described in other philosophies. There are even more important differences from the God of religious men. A Christian, for example, may well have some serious reservations about whether this description of God can be harmonized with what he has learned from his tradition.

And yet, despite the difficulties and doubts, there are some significant advantages in Whitehead’s explanation. First, he suggests to us a God that comes more from the exigencies of reason than from the psychological needs of man or the uncharted beginnings of his varied traditions. As such, his God is less vulnerable to the attacks of skeptical rationalists. Furthermore, Whitehead’s God is concretely alive and active in the world as one who comforts, loves and understands. He is not a candidate for inclusion as an obituary in Time magazine. Finally, Whitehead’s notion of God does seem to be an adequate way of understanding and explaining the biblical images of God, and perhaps it is even more suitable for this task than the God of Plato or Aristotle, Augustine or Thomas. For the Christian, this may be the most persuasive reason of all.



I. Process and Reality. op. cit., p. 39.

2. Ibid., p. 408.

3. Ibid., p.413.