Chapter 7: God as Recipient

Becoming and Belonging
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 7: God as Recipient

In the way of seeing things found in process thought, God is taken to be the chief causative agency in the creation. But he is not the only cause, since every ‘actual entity’, in Whitehead’s idiom -- or, as we might say, every occurrence, occasion, or energy-event -- has the capacity to exercise a certain creativity. That is only another way of affirming that each of these is able to make significant decisions, in the sense of adopting this possibility and rejecting that one. And a decision once made brings consequences which must be reckoned with. But God exercises a special kind of causative activity, to be sure, in that he is the source of all novelty through his offering lures or invitations for the creature’s decisions, and also the guarantor of the order or patterning which prevents the world from descending from significant and enriching contrast into meaningless and damaging conflict beyond hope of recovery.

But God is also the chief receptive agency in the creation. Whatever is done, and wherever or by what or whom it is done, makes a difference to God. For process thought, this is taken to mean that God is not only that One who effects things; he is also the One who is affected by things. He remains always God, to be sure. Nothing can surpass him, nothing can make him less than utterly adorable, nothing can diminish his divine nature with its faithfulness and its utterly loving concern in creative action. Yet the accomplishments of the created order are received by him into his own life, and to them he responds by making use of them for the furthering of his divine intention.

One way of affirming this is by speaking, as we have done, of the divine memory. Whitehead’s associate and interpreter Charles Hartshorne has used this concept; and their followers in the process way of thinking have found it a useful and illuminating idea to employ in understanding how God is affected by the world. Further, we have argued that the notion of divine memory enables us to say something helpful in our attempt to see how that which takes place in the world, and not least in human existence as we know it, can have an abiding value in God.

God’s receiving the world’s achievements into his own everlasting life; God’s remembering for ever that which is thus received; God’s using for further good the achievements which have taken place in the created order -- here are points which need to be emphasized when we begin to think of the worth or value of human existence. I quite realize the difficulty which some have found in the stress on the divine memory. Generalizing from our own experience, they say that memory is not a very secure basis for establishing that worth. Furthermore, they can easily parody the whole position so that (as one critic, a friend of mine who is not unsympathetic to the wider process conceptuality, has phrased it) talk about divine memory may be taken as nothing more than indicating God’s continually re-playing some old film or continually listening to some old soundtrack. But Old Testament writers had a very different and a much more profound understanding of memory in God, as indeed also of memory among us humans.

For an ancient Jew memory seems to have been given what may well be styled a certain causal efficacy. ‘To remember’ was to make some event in the past ‘come alive’ in the present. Obviously the Jew did not think that in some outlandish way the past was actually re-played nor did he believe that what had happened in that past was, by its ‘being remembered’, made in actual concrete fact a contemporary occurrence. What he did believe, we may say, is that the past could be made effectual, significant, and genuinely a causative agency in the present situation. But if that were the case with human memory, even more was this true in the divine memory. A good instance is the prayer of Nehemiah, who asks that his God ‘will remember him for good’. That is to say, Nehemiah is portrayed as believing that for God to have vividly before him, in its importance, something done in this world -- in Nehemiah’s case his dedication to the rebuilding and welfare of the city of Jerusalem; for God to have that as part of the divine memory was to establish the accomplishment for ever. It had become part of the divine life, so to say; it now and to the end of time would qualify that life. Thus God was indeed ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’. These patriarchs had lived, and fulfilled their vocation, had done that which God purposed for them to do; now they were unforgettable, not only in the trite and obvious sense that they were great men with great achievements to their credit, but in the much more serious sense that they had altered for ever ‘how things were to go’ between God and the world and between the world and God.

It is obvious, then, that my earlier phrase about the past ‘coming alive in the present’ was not lightly chosen. Consider present-day Jewish observance. When a contemporary member of the people of Israel observes the Seder at Passover time, he or she is explicitly ‘remembering’ what the religious tradition says took place in the exodus from Egypt, in the crossing of the ‘sea of reeds’ (as the Hebrew puts it, not ‘the Red Sea’) and in the hurriedly eaten meal of the Jews as they made their escape from the persecution of the Egyptian ruler. It is not at all -- for this devout modern Jew -- simply a reminiscence which it is helpful to bring to mind and about which there can be talk at that sacred meal. As the family group shares in the food, as the answer is given to the question put by a child there present as to just what this meal is intended to commemorate, something happens. The deliverance of those who later took themselves to be ‘the chosen people’ is re-enacted and made vividly contemporary. Those present at the Seder are made participant in the deliverance; it is they, quite as much as their ancestors in the remote past, who know and experience God’s arm as ‘mighty to save’.

Furthermore, by asking, as is done always at that meal, that God remember what was done in that past event, the Jews are expressing the conviction that in the never-failing memory of their God what was done at the first Passover is integrally part of what we might well style, in our own modern idiom, the divine experience. God is the God who has done these things; God is the God who has accepted his people in their covenant with him made after their deliverance; God is the God who can never be understood as existing save seen as related to, and worshipped as the One who is their God. What was done in the remote past, therefore, is alive in God; and it also ‘comes alive’ for God’s people as they, in their succeeding generations, bring it to remembrance. Things make a difference for God; they make a difference in God too. This is not to say, of course, that the divine becomes more divine: for the Jew God is always unsurpassably God. Yet God is the One who values and uses, because God incorporates into the divine life which is everlasting the good that takes place in the historical sequence; and God overrules or uses for good that which comes from the ‘vain imagination of foolish men’ in their sin and defection -- and, we may add, from anything else that is evil or wrong thanks to the free decisions made by the creatures in their divinely granted capacity to choose among relevant possibilities.

I find it impossible to understand how this view can be dismissed by some people as superficial or trivial. I take it to be something which, far from being of little value, is in truth of quite enormous value in our attempt to come to some understanding of God’s way of securing permanent validity for that which otherwise would be nothing other than an instance of the ‘perpetual perishing’ which patently marks the world as we know it. In particular, it seems to me that this way of looking at things helps to make sense of the talk about resurrection, both of Christ and of those who are ‘in Christ’. We might say that we have here an eminent instance of the ‘de-mythologizing’ of an ancient religious conviction; but along with that we have a re-statement of its point in an idiom which preserves its essential meaning but does not fall victim to the charge of Outlandish mythological portrayal.

Human existence comes to an end; the last word on the last page of the book of our life is written. But that is not the end of the story in an ultimate sense. It is indeed the end, so far as your and my subjective selfhood is concerned, with conscious awareness, with the capacity consciously to act and to choose, and with everything else that is found in our mundane world of space and time. Yet we have been able to find a way of asserting the abiding worth of our mortal span of years, such that our having existed at all can be said to have had dignity and value. In a profound sense there can be no end at all, since the God who has accepted, received, and responded to this is the One of whose days there is neither beginning nor ending. For God thus to remember -- to treasure and keep in his own everlasting life, as a process conceptuality will claim is done -- is for the data which are remembered to abide for ever. Or, in the language of resurrection, they have been ‘raised up into’ God’s life, just as through the initiating lures and the circumambient invitations upon which these creaturely events acted there was a ‘coming down’ or (if you will) an ‘incarnating’ activity of God.

To give such strong emphasis to the conception God as recipient requires, as we have seen, a radical change in the model which we use for understanding who God is. At this point I should like to quote from a recent book by John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Westminster Press 1976). In their introductory chapter or foreword, Cobb and Griffin speak of the models for God which to their mind must be rejected, to be replaced by a model which is more appropriate both for Christian faith and for a process conceptuality. There are five popular models which they reject. Here they are:

1. God as Cosmic Moralist. At its worst, this notion takes the form of the image of God as divine lawgiver and judge, who has proclaimed an arbitrary set of moral rules, who keeps records of offences, and who will punish offenders. In its more enlightened versions, the suggestion is retained that God’s most fundamental concern is the development of moral attitudes. This makes primary for God what is secondary for humane people, and limits the scope of intrinsic importance to human beings as the only beings capable of moral altitudes. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

2. God as the Unchanging and Passionless Absolute. The notion of ‘impassibility’ stressed that deity must be completely unaffected by any other reality and must lack all passion or emotional response. The notion that deity is the ‘Absolute’ has meant that God is not really related to the world. the God-world relationship is purely external to God. . . the world contributes nothing to God, and . . . Gods influence upon the world is in no way conditioned by divine responsiveness to unforseen self-determining activities of us worldly beings. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

3. God as Controlling Power. This notion suggests that God determines every detail of the world. . . Process theology denies the existence of this God.

4. God as Sanctioner of the Status Quo. This. . . characterizes a strong tendency in all religions. It is supported by the three previous notions. . . To be obedient to God is to preserve the status quo. Process theology denies the existence of this God.

5. God as Male. God is totally active, controlling, and independent, and wholly lacking in receptiveness and responsiveness . . . God seems to be the archetype of the dominant, inflexible, unemotional, completely independent (read ‘strong) male. Process theology denies the existence of this God (pp. 9-11).

To this listing, so well made by Cobb and Griffin, I should wish to add two other models which seem to me to be found in much of the conventional talk of deity. One of these is God as the remote creator, who once upon a time in the far distant past ‘created the world’ but since then has left it to go more or less on its own way, provided, of course, that it follows the laws which (as a hymn puts it) ‘never shall be broken’. We might call this the ‘Newtonian God’, whose only interference in the world, if those are the right words, occurs when God is required to set right a defect which develops in the functioning of the creation. The other model is God as the kind of sentimental love which makes no demands, has no requirements, bends to every pressure, and can become the ‘smothering love’ which precisely because of its ‘softness’ is subtly able to control and dominate others and to make any genuine assertive activity on the part of the creatures well-nigh impossible. This view of God has its parallel in the horrible spectacle of a mother or a father who has no firmness nor real integrity and who can ruin children by providing neither true dependability nor persisting purpose. Paradoxically, such a parent effectively denies to the child any genuine independence -- as many of us have so often seen in our own observation or experience.

Cobb and Griffin propose a quite different model for God, a model which is in entire agreement with what has been urged in this book and about which I have written more fully in my God: Models Old and New’ (to appear in 1981 from Pilgrim Press, New York). They call this model ‘God as Creative-Responsive Love’. I have called it the model of God as ‘the Cosmic Lover’; but I welcome these writers’ spelling it out in their speaking of that Lover as both ‘creative’ and ‘responsive’. My only addition would be the insistence that God is also ‘receptive’. Indeed Cobb and Griffin not only recognize this but insist upon it, although they do so in somewhat different terms. Their proposal is in accordance with all other representatives of process thought when employed by Christian theology.

The several false ways of thinking about God, to which we have just given attention, are in one sense only a projection from the human mind at its worst. As Voltaire said, the ideas of God which are entertained by people are images of what such people think to be highest or most worthy in their own experience: ‘God created man in his own image; and men have returned the compliment,’ said the French satirist. But the first part of the Voltairean saying, drawn of course from the Bible, also needs attention. What does it mean to speak of humans as ‘created in the image of God’? I believe that the basic meaning is that human existence reflects, or is believed to reflect, the essential nature of God. And if we are prepared to affirm that God’s essential nature is sheer love, then we can go on to say that human nature is potentially a reflection of that love, although inevitably in a finite and limited, and equally in a defective, fashion.

On the other hand, there is a sort of reflexive movement, so that when such love is seen as the potential reality of human existence, this then becomes also the quality which in human experience is more likely to be esteemed and expressed in action. To think of God as Love-in-act is to say that those who are ‘in the divine image’ are also intended by that God to be themselves lovers-in-action. But we can also see how the same procedure brings about less happy consequences with respect to the ‘models’ of God which, as I have urged, process theology must reject and which, as I have also said, the deepest insight of the Jewish-Christian tradition would also reject.

If God is conceived as cosmic dictator, this notion is a reflection of the human desire to control and manage. At the same time, the acceptance of such a picture augments even more strongly this human desire. So also if God is taken to be passionless and uninfluenced, we have a reflection of the human desire to exist without any influence from others and to abstain from the sympathetic participation in other lives which might bring pain and sorrow. Yet once God is conceived in that way, this human desire is strengthened, and men and women can think that such unfeeling Stoicism and such an unaffected attitude are right and proper for them. If God is taken to be the cosmic moralist, this is a projection from the human wish to judge and through such judgment to reward or punish in terms of the degree to which other persons ‘live up to’ our own ideas of what is correct. Once this notion of God is entertained, that judgmental stance then receives renewed strength in the lives of men and women.

Again, when God is pictured as the guarantor of the validity of things as they are (in Cobb’s and Griffin’s words, the status quo), we can readily see how this is tied in with the kind of reactionary conservatism which, as Whitehead once remarked, is fighting ‘against the cosmic process’. It is indeed a kind of defense used by such people to protect their own interests and refuse all change. Yet when God is interpreted in this fashion, the consequence is that such a negative attitude towards novelty and change is given augmented power and those who think in this way consider their own established interests divinely approved and heavenly sanction given to their own rejection of developments which would call these interests in question. Once more, the idea that God is to be modeled exclusively after so-called masculine characteristics is readily seen to be the way in which males who are fearful of, or threatened by, more feminine qualities protect themselves. God then becomes the supreme instance of machismo. When this happens, the aggressively masculine stance and the dislike of women’s having their part and place in the affairs of the world -- and in religious communities, the refusal to give women a full share in the communities’ life and in their ordained ministry -- are taken to be supported by the cosmic order and hence given a divine force in human affairs.

It is likewise in respect to the two concepts which I have added to those mentioned by Cobb and Griffin -- the remote creator in time past and the ‘smothering’ or sentimental kind of so-called (but mis-called) love. The God who created in the past and then left things to go on on their own, save for occasional remedial acts, well represents the way in which some men and women prefer to stand aside from others, yet insist on making occasional (and often disastrous) intrusions into the life of those others. That picture, once accepted, gives greater vigor to the human attitude in question. On the other hand, the notion of God as sentimental niceness -- what I have called ‘smothering love’ -- springs from the wish of many people to be so completely tolerant that they are unwilling or unable to take a stand on anything. If God is taken to be like that, it then follows that human love itself is interpreted as being ‘Pollyanna-ish’ sentimentality, prepared to accept whatever happens, tolerant of anything, however vicious, and utterly lacking in vertebrate strength. And as I urged above in first speaking of this particular picture, the paradoxical consequence is that it is in precisely this kind of spineless attitude that we find a vicious control and possession of others, particularly of those nearest and dearest to the sentimentalist.

I have engaged in this lengthy discussion of ‘models of God’ for one reason. What sort of God is it, we must inquire, about whom we are talking when we speak of a relationship which will give value and worth to human existence? The concepts which have been rejected cannot do this, for they seem all to place that existence in a position where it is acted upon but can never react to deity. There is no dignity, no importance, no genuine contribution made by the created being; hence relationship with God must be purely one-sided, entirely external. God could not then receive into himself, and make part of the divine life, the creatures which are so much outside that life that they are indeed not worthy and not valued.

It is different when we think of God as the cosmic Lover who is receptive and responsive. It is different also when we take for one of our analogies the way in which the mind works in and upon the body and the body acts with and for the mind. When such a picture of God is central to our thinking, we are able readily to appreciate how the divine can receive and give a place to the human. We can also readily appreciate how the divine can work with the human and how the human can work with the divine, in what is in fact a common life or fellowship. Men and women are then seen to be ‘co-creators’ with God, as Whitehead put it; and as such they are both the creatures of God’s love and the sharers in God’s ongoing purpose of good in the creative advance.

Rupert Brooke, the English poet of the early years of this century, spoke of his belief in this worth, value, and dignity. He was writing, in the now largely forgotten sonnet ‘The Soldier’, about his own feeling concerning death in ‘a foreign land’. And he said that he would hope that he might be ‘a pulse in the eternal Mind’. Now to some this will appear a very unsatisfactory sort of statement. It will appear minimal, at the best. And so it would be, if the ‘eternal Mind’ were simply some vast and characterless cosmic ‘thought’. But if this ‘eternal Mind’ is the rich, pulsating, loving, living, faithful, yearning, compassionate reality which our talk of the creative-receptive-responsive cosmic Lover has indicated, the story is quite different. To be so much participant in that Mind that one is, as it were, a pulse’ in its vibrant life would be a destiny wonderfully appealing.

When to this we add what has been said in the preceding chapter about the ‘risen life’ in God, made specifically available to men and women through their participation in Jesus Christ ‘risen from the dead’, we have a ‘de-mythologized’ portrayal of what ‘happens after death’ which speaks deeply to authentically Christian faith. God does that which is best; he can be trusted to do just this. And what could be better than the assurance of acceptance by God, in the fullness of what we have been and done, and granted a place in God’s life where our human accomplishments are safely preserved for ever?