Chapter 8: Process Thought
We have traced successive levels of reality in subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, lower forms of life, animals, and human beings. We have asked how these levels were related to each other historically and how they are related to each other in organisms today. At each stage the philosophical and theological implications were explored. At this point our conclusions can be summarized by indicating some general characteristics of nature, which are evident in all its forms. We then consider the distinctive metaphysical categories that process philosophy proposes for the coherent interpretation of these varied phenomena. Finally, process theology is analyzed, preparing the way for the broader theological discussion in the concluding chapter. Process thought provides a systematic framework for bringing together these scientific, philosophical, and theological ideas.
I. Summary: A Multileveled Cosmos
The individual sciences encountered in previous chapters are diverse in the domains that they study and in the concepts and theories that they employ. Nevertheless, there has arisen a common evolutionary and ecological view that cuts across disciplinary lines. The change is so far reaching that it can be considered a paradigm shift. The older paradigm is still prevalent; we are in a period of competing paradigms (in Kuhn’s terms) or programs (in Lakatos’s). The new outlook stands out more clearly if it is compared with dominant Western assumptions in previous periods. I have elsewhere presented the medieval and Newtonian views of nature in their historical contexts.1 At the risk of oversimplification, I summarize them here in order to highlight the new features of contemporary thought.
1. Medieval and Newtonian Views
The medieval view of nature combined Greek and biblical ideas, reflecting the continuing influence of Plato and Aristotle as well as scripture (see fig. 4).
1. Nature was seen as a fixed order; there was change within it, and there was directionality in human history, but the basic forms were thought to be immutable.
2. It was teleological (purposeful) in that every creature expressed both the divine purposes and its own built-in goals. Phenomena were explained in terms of purposes.
3. It was substantive; the components were separate mental and material substances. A substance was taken to be independent and externally related, requiring nothing but itself (and God) in order to be.
4. The cosmos was hierarchical, with each lower form serving the higher (God/man/woman/animal/plant). Nature was a single coherent whole, a graded but unified order, with all parts working together for God’s purposes according to the divine plan. The institutions of church and society were also held to be fixed and hierarchical, integrated into the total cosmic order. The scheme was anthropocentric in holding that all creatures on earth were created for the benefit of humanity; an absolute distinction was assumed between humanity and other creatures. The earth was the center of the cosmos, surrounded by the celestial spheres and the eternal heavens.
5. The interpretive categories were dualistic, with fundamental contrasts between soul and body, between immaterial spirit and transitory matter, and between the perfect eternal forms and their imperfect embodiment in the material world. The purpose of the material was to serve the spiritual, and the goal of this life was to prepare for the next.
6. To summarize the medieval view, we might think of nature as a Kingdom, an ordered society with a sovereign Lord.
MEDIEVAL NEWTONIAN TWENTIETH-CENTURY
1. Fixed order Change as rearrangement Evolutionary, historical, emergent
2. Teleological Deterministic Law and chance, structure and openness
3. Substantive Atomistic Relational, ecological, interdependent
4. Hierarchical, anthropocentric Reductionistic Systems and wholes, organismic
5. Dualistic (spirit/matter) Dualistic (mind/body) Multi-leveled
6. Kingdom Machine Community
Fig. 4. Changing Views of Nature
The Newtonian view differed at each of these points.
1. It gave greater scope to change, but only to change as rearrangement of the unchanging components, the fundamental particles of nature. The basic forms were still thought to be fixed, with no genuine novelty or historical development in nature.
2. Nature was deterministic rather than teleological. Mechanical causes, not purposes, determined all natural events. Explanation consisted in the specification of such causes. It was asserted that the future could be predicted if we had complete knowledge of the past.
3. It was atomistic in taking separate particles rather than substances to be the basic reality of nature. The theory of knowledge (epistemology) was that of classical realism: the object can be known as it is in itself apart from the observer. The atomistic outlook was paralleled by an individualistic view of society (seen, for example, in ideas of economic competition and social contract theories of government).
4. The approach to nature was reductionistic and mechanistic rather than hierarchical, since the physical mechanisms and laws at the lowest levels were thought to determine all events (except those in the human mind).
5. It was dualistic, though the division differed from that of the Middle Ages. Newton accepted the Cartesian dualism of mind and body; God and human minds were the great exceptions in a mechanistic world. Human rationality was seen as the mark of our uniqueness, even if the earth was no longer at the center of the cosmic system. But the leaders of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment believed that humanity was also a part of the all-encompassing world machine, whose operation could be explained without reference to God. Such a materialistic world held no place for consciousness or inwardness except as subjective illusions. Moreover, if nature is a machine, it is an object that can appropriately be exploited for human uses.
6. The Newtonian view can be summarized in the image of nature as a machine.
2. The New View of Nature
Twentieth-century science, we have seen, departs significantly from the Newtonian conception of nature (see fig. 4, right column).
1. In place of immutable order, or change as rearrangement, nature is now understood to be evolutionary, dynamic, and emergent. Its basic forms have changed radically and new types of phenomena have appeared at successive levels in matter, life, mind, and culture. Historicity is a basic characteristic of nature, and science itself is historically conditioned.
2. In place of determinism, there is a complex combination of law and chance, in fields as diverse as quantum physics, thermodynamics, cosmology, and biological evolution. Nature is characterized by both structure and openness. The future cannot be predicted in detail from the past, either in principle or in practice.
3. Nature is understood to be relational, ecological, and interdependent. Reality is constituted by events and relationships rather than by separate substances or separate particles. In epistemology, classical realism now appears untenable; some interpreters advocate instrumentalism, but I have defended critical realism.
4. Reduction continues to be fruitful in the analysis of the separate components of systems, but attention is also given to systems and wholes themselves. Distinctive holistic concepts are used to explain the higher-level activities of systems, from organisms to ecosystems.
5. There is a hierarchy of levels within every organism (but not an extreme hierarchy of value among beings, as in the medieval view, which could be used to justify the exploitation of one group of beings by another). Mind/body dualism finds little support in science today. The contemporary scientific outlook is less anthropocentric; human beings have capacities not found elsewhere in nature, but they are products of evolution and parts of an interdependent natural order. Other creatures are valuable in themselves. Humanity is an integral part of nature. The human being is a psychosomatic unity -- a biological organism but also a responsible self.
6. Here we might propose as a summary the image of nature as a community -- a historical community of interdependent beings. I will suggest that process thought is particularly compatible with this iew of nature.
II. Process Philosophy
Process philosophy has developed a systematic metaphysics that is consistent with the evolutionary, many-leveled view of nature presented in previous chapters and summarized above. We look first at Whitehead’s basic metaphysical categories. The ways in which he applies these categories to diverse entities in the world, from particles to persons, are then examined. Finally, we will try to evaluate the adequacy of process philosophy from the viewpoint of science, postponing the theological issues until the subsequent section.
1. An Ecological Metaphysics
Metaphysics is reflection on the most general characteristics of reality. Whitehead tried to formulate an inclusive conceptual scheme that would be sufficiently general to be applicable to all entities in the world. His goal was a coherent set of concepts in terms of which every element of experience could be systematically interpreted and organized. He wanted to construct a system of ideas which bring aesthetic, moral and religious interests into relation with those concepts of the world which have their origin in natural science."2 The formulation of his basic categories was an imaginative generalization from human experience, but it was also indebted to twentieth-century science.3
1. The Primacy of Time. The starting point of process philosophy is becoming rather than being. To Whitehead, transition and activity are more fundamental than permanence and substance. He pictures the basic components of reality as interrelated dynamic events. He rejects the atomist’s view of reality as unchanging particles that are merely externally rearranged. Whitehead was familiar with the new role of time in science, especially the replacement of material particles by vibratory patterns in quantum physics, and the unpredictable and historical character of evolution. The future is to some extent open and indeterminate; reality exhibits chance, creativity, and emergence. Genuine alternative possibilities exist, that is, potentialities that may or may not be actualized.
2. The Interconnection of Events. The world is a network of interactions. Events are interdependent; every event has an essential reference to other times and places. Every entity is initially constituted by its relationships. Nothing exists except by participation. Each occurrence in turn exerts an influence, which enters into the becoming of other occurrences. Whitehead points again to the new physics. Formerly we imagined independent, localized, self-contained particles bumping into each other externally and passively without themselves undergoing alteration. Today we talk about interpenetrating fields that extend throughout space and change continually. The biological world is a web of mutual dependencies. Whitehead extends these ideas into what may be called "an ecological view of reality."4
3. Reality As Organic Process. The word process implies temporal change and interconnected activity. Whitehead also calls his metaphysics "the philosophy of organism." The basic analogy for interpreting the world is not a machine but an organism, which is a highly integrated and dynamic pattern of interdependent events. The parts contribute to and are also modified by the unified activity of the whole. Each level of organization -- atom, molecule, cell, organ, organism, community -- receives from and in turn influences the patterns of activity at other levels. Every event occurs in a context, which affects it. This may also be called a "social view of reality," for in a society there is unity and interaction without loss of the individuality of the members. The world is a community of events.
4. The Self-Creation of Every Entity. Although Whitehead emphasizes the interdependence of events, he does not end with a monism in which the parts are swallowed up in the whole. An event is not just the intersection of lines of interaction; it is an entity in its own right with its own individuality. He maintains a genuine pluralism in which every entity is a unique synthesis of the influences upon it, a new unity formed from an initial diversity. Every entity takes account of other events and reacts and responds to them. During the moment when it is on its own, it is free to appropriate and integrate its relationships in its own way. Each entity is a center of spontaneity and self-creation, contributing distinctively to the world. Whitehead wants us to look at the world from the viewpoint of the entity itself, imagining it as an experiencing subject.
Reality thus consists of an interacting network of individual moments of experience. These integrated moments he calls "actual occasions" or "actual entities." We can call them "entities" (emphasizing their integration), or "events" (emphasizing their temporality), but we must always keep in mind both their wider relationships and their interiority as moments of experience.
Whitehead describes the self-creation of each new entity as an individual instant of experience under the guidance of its "subjective aim." Even the influence of the past on the present, which can be viewed externally as efficient causality, can also be considered the action of the present entity as a momentary subject conforming to the objectified past and reproducing or reenacting its pattern. Each such subject has at least a modicum of creative freedom in shaping the particular unity of experience into which its past inheritance is woven and integrated. During its brief existence it is autonomous, closed to any additional data, and on its own in making something of itself -- even if its activity essentially repeats that of its predecessors in a routine and "mechanical" fashion.
Efficient causality characterizes the transition between entities, while final causality dominates the momentary internal growth of the entity itself as it progressively actualizes its own synthesis, embodying a particular pattern of forms. The prototype of this process would be the way in which memory, feeling, bodily data, and sensory data are integrated actively, selectively, and with anticipation, in a moment of human experience. But a similar synthesis, in much simpler forms, can be postulated for the experience of any unified entity, though not for inanimate objects such as stones or aggregates such as plants, which lack a center of unified experience.
Summarizing Whitehead’s detailed discussion, we may say that causality is a complex process in which many strands are interwoven. (a) Every new entity is in part the product of efficient causation, which refers to the influence of previous entities on it. Objective "data" from the past are given to each present entity, to which it must conform, but it can do so in alternative ways. (b) There is thus an element of self-causation or self-creation, for an entity unifies its "data" in its own manner from its unique perspective on the universe. Every entity contributes something of its own in the way it appropriates its past, relates itself to various possibilities, and produces a novel synthesis that is not strictly deducible from the antecedents. (c) Thus a creative selection occurs from among alternative potentialities in terms of goals and aims, which is final causation. Causality thus includes many influences, none of which is coercive or strictly deterministic. The outcome is not predictable. In brief, every new occurrence can be looked on as a present response (self-cause) to past entities (efficient cause) in terms of potentialities grasped (final cause).
Whitehead ascribes the ordering of these potentialities to God. God as the primordial ground of order structures ‘potential forms of relationship before they are actualized. In this function God seems to be an abstract and impersonal principle. But Whitehead’s God also has specific purposes for the realization of maximum value, selecting particular possibilities for particular entities. God is the ground of novelty as well as of order, presenting new possibilities among which alternatives are left open. God elicits the self-creation of individual entities and thereby allows for novelty as well as structure. By valuing particular potentialities to which creatures can respond, God influences the world without determining it. God acts by being experienced by the world, affecting the development of successive moments. But God never determines the outcome of events or violates the self-creation of each being. Every entity is the joint product of past causes, divine purposes, and the new entity’s own activity.
2. Diverse Levels of Experience
Whitehead wants his basic categories to apply to all entities, but he proposes radical differences in the way these categories are exemplified in entities at different levels. There are great differences in degree and in the relative importance of the categories, which amount to differences in kind, and yet there is a continuity in evolutionary history and in ontological structure. There are no absolute lines of the sort which dualists defend. In chapter 6 we talked about levels of analysis and levels of organization and activity. A Whiteheadian scheme would also have to consider levels of experience.
An electron, as understood in quantum physics, has an episodic, transitory, and unpredictable character. On the other hand, an atom is more stable and unified, acting as a whole vibratory pattern whose component electrons cannot be distinguished. The atom essentially repeats the same pattern, with negligible opportunity for novelty. It is dominated by efficient causation, in which the influence of the past is passed on with no significant modification. Inanimate objects such as stones have no higher level of integration, and the indeterminacy of the atoms simply averages out statistically. A stone has no unified activity beyond the physical cohesion of the parts.5
A cell, by contrast, has considerable integration at a new level. It can act as a unit with at least a rudimentary kind of responsiveness. There is an opportunity for novelty, though it is minimal. If the cell is in a plant, little overall organization or integration is present. There is some coordination among plant cells, but plants have no higher center of experience. But invertebrates have an elementary sentience as centers of perception and action. The development of a nervous system made possible a higher level of unification of experience, the evolutionary function of which was to synthesize sensory data and coordinate appropriate motor responses. We discussed earlier the new forms of memory, learning, anticipation, and purposiveness in vertebrates. Consciousness, like sentience, was selected and intensified because it guided behavior that’ contributed to survival.
In human beings, the self is the highest level in which all of the lower levels are integrated. The human self may hold conscious aims and consider distant goals. Final causation and novelty in individual and cultural life predominate over genetic and biological determinants, though the self is always dependent on lower-level structures. Symbolic language, rational deliberation, creative imagination, and social interaction go beyond anything previously possible. Humans enjoy a far greater intensity and richness of experience than occurred previously.
In a complex organism, downward causation from higher to lower levels can be present because, according to process philosophy, every entity is what it is by virtue of its relationships. Reality consists of interrelated events rather than unchanging particles. The atoms in a cell behave differently from the atoms in a stone. The cells in a brain behave differently from the cells in a plant. The sixteen cells in an animal embryo soon after conception will normally produce different parts of the animal; yet one of those cells alone, if separated from the others, will produce a whole animal. Every entity is influenced by is participation in a larger whole. Emergence arises in the modification of lower-level constituents in a new context. But causal interaction between levels is not total determination; there is some self-determination by entities at all levels.
The process view of the mind/body relation is a version of what I called a "multilevel theory." It can also be termed "nondualistic interactionism."6 Process thinkers agree with dualists that interaction Cakes place between the mind and the cells of the brain, but they reject the dualists’ claim that this is an interaction between two totally dissimilar entities. Between the mind and a brain cell there are enormous differences in characteristics, but not the absolute dissimilarity that makes interaction so difficult to imagine in dualism. Moreover, the mind/body relation is only one example of the relation between levels, not a problem unique to human and perhaps animal minds. The process view has much in common with two-language theories or a parallelism that takes mental and neural phenomena to be two aspects of the same events. But unlike these views, it can refer to interaction, downward causality, and the constraints that higher-level events exert on events at lower levels. At higher levels there are new events and entities and not just new relationships among lower-level events and entities.
Looking at diverse types of individuals, Whitehead attributes subjective experience in progressively more attenuated forms to persons, animals, lower organisms, and cells (and even, in principle, to atoms, though at that level it is effectively negligible), but not to stones or plants or other aggregates. David Griffin proposes that this should be called pan- experientialism rather than panpsychism, since for Whitehead mind and consciousness are found only at higher levels.7 Consciousness occurs only when there is a central nervous system. (Griffin suggests that Whitehead’s technical concepts of a "physical pole" and a "mental pole" in all entities might better have been called the "receptive" and "self-creative" phases of experience, since the latter is present even when there is no mind.8) Every entity is a subject for itself and becomes an object for others. But only in higher life forms is the data from brain cells integrated in the high-level stream of experience we call mind. Consciousness and mind are thus radically new emergents in cosmic history.
Whitehead thus does not attribute mind or mentality (as ordinarily understood) to lower-level entities, but he does attribute at least rudimentary forms of experience to unified entities at all levels, which runs against the assumptions of many scientists. What are the reasons for such attribution?
1. The Generality of Metaphysical Categories. In Whitehead’s view, a basic metaphysical category must be universally applicable to all entities. The diversity among the characteristics of entities must be accounted for by the diversity of the modes in which these basic categories are exemplified and by differences in their relative importance. The subjective aspects of atoms are vanishingly small and may for all practical purposes be considered absent, but they are postulated for the sake of metaphysical consistency and inclusiveness. Mechanical interactions can be viewed as very low-grade organismic events (since organisms always have mechanical features), whereas no extrapolation of mechanical concepts can yield the concepts needed to describe subjective experience. Starting with mechanical concepts, one either ends with materialism or one has to introduce a dualistic discontinuity.
2. Evolutionary and Ontological Continuity. There are no sharp lines between an amoeba and a human being, either in evolutionary history or among forms of life today. The universe is continuous and interrelated. Process thought is opposed to all forms of dualism: living and nonliving, human and non-human, mind and matter. Human experience is part of the order of nature. Mental events are a product of the evolutionary process and hence an important clue to the nature of reality. A single fertilized cell gradually develops into a human being with the capacity for thought. We cannot get mind from matter, either in evolutionary history or in embryological development, unless there are some intermediate stages or levels in between, and unless mind and matter share at least some characteristics in common.
3. Immediate Access to Human Experience. I know myself as an experiencing subject. Human experience, as an extreme case of an event in nature, is taken to exhibit the generic features of all events. We should then consider an organism as a center of experience, even though that interiority is not directly accessible to us. In order to give a unified account of the world, Whitehead employs categories (such as "self-creation" and "subjective aim") that in very attenuated forms can be said to characterize lower-level events, but that at the same time have at least some analogy to our awareness as experiencing subjects. Such a procedure might be defended on the ground that if we want to use a single set of categories, we should treat lower levels as simpler cases of complex experience, rather than trying to interpret our experience by concepts derived from the inanimate world or resorting to some form of dualism.
Whitehead’s categories are readily applicable to organisms with a middle range of complexity. Even for simpler organisms it is reasonable to speak of elementary forms of perception, memory, sentience, anticipation, purpose, and novelty. The distinctiveness of higher forms is maintained by treating consciousness, mind, and self-consciousness as irreducible emergents, which are not present in even rudimentary form at lower levels. But Whitehead’s analysis seems somewhat strained at the two ends of the spectrum.
At the upper end, his categories seem to me inadequate to express the continuing identity of the human self Whitehead holds that every actual entity is a discrete moment of experience, which in its self-creative phase is on its own, cut off from the world. Here Whitehead was influenced by quantum physics, in which interactions are discrete and transitory. He was also influenced by relativity, in which a finite time interval is required for the transmission of any effect form one point to another. In process thought, endurance is represented by the repetition of a pattern, not by an enduring substance. For Whitehead, the self comes into being only at the end of the brief moment of unification, by which time it is already perishing. I would question whether human experience has such a fragmentary and episodic character. Perhaps reality at higher levels is more like a continually flowing process, from which temporal moments are abstractions. This might allow for a continuing self-identity without reverting to static or substantive or dualistic categories.9
In dealing with the inanimate world, the Whiteheadian analysis does not present any direct inconsistency with contemporary science. Creativity is said to be either totally absent (in the case of stones and inanimate objects, which are aggregates without integration or unified experience) or so attenuated that it would escape detection (in the case of atoms). A vanishingly small novelty and self-determination in atoms is postulated only for the sake of metaphysical consistency and continuity. But does process philosophy allow adequately for the radical diversity among levels of activity in the world and the emergence of genuine novelty at all stages of evolutionary history? Could greater emphasis be given to emergence and the contrasts between events at various levels, while preserving the basic postulate of metaphysical continuity? I have stressed the hierarchical character of a multiplicity of levels in organisms and persons, whereas many process writers refer to only two levels at a time (the mind and the cells of the brain, for example, without reference to intermediate levels of organization). Other authors have said that intermediate levels of organization in an organism can be included in the framework of process philosophy.10 I believe that the Whiteheadian system could be modified in such directions without endangering its coherence.
3. Science and Metaphysics
There is in general a two-way relationship between science and metaphysics. In the first direction, science is one of the fields of inquiry from which metaphysics must draw. A metaphysical system must offer a plausible interpretation of the natural sciences, along with the data of other academic disciplines (psychology, history, religion, and so forth) and diverse types of human experience. In the reverse direction, metaphysical assumptions will, over a period of time, affect the kinds of phenomena that scientists study and the kinds of concepts they employ. Metaphysics will influence the broad conceptual frameworks that we earlier referred to as scientific paradigms.
There are many features of contemporary science with which process metaphysics is very congenial. Temporality, indeterminacy, and holism are characteristics of the microworld as understood by contemporary physics, a world that can be known only through observational interaction. Process thought rejects determinism, allows for alternative potentialities, and accepts the presence of chance as well as lawful relationships among events. In biology, especially in molecular biology, reductionistic and mechanistic approaches remain fruitful, but I have argued that there are irreducible properties of higher-level wholes, as process philosophy asserts. We have seen that information is contextual in character, whether it is transmitted by genes, by memory in brains, by symbolic language, or by cultural artifacts and institutions. Information is an improbable configuration, which is a message only when it is read off in relation to a wider context.
Process thought shares with evolutionary biology the assumption of historical continuity, including the continuity of non-human and human life. The process understanding of the psychosomatic unity of the human being and the social character of selfhood is consonant with the evidence from many fields of science. Process thought shares with ecology the themes of relationality and mutual interdependence. To both, nature is a community and not a machine.
Process categories can make an important contribution to environmental ethics. Human and non-human life are not separated by any absolute line. If other creatures are centers of experience, they too are of intrinsic value and not just of instrumental value to humanity. Yet there is a great difference between the richness of experience of a person and that of a mosquito, so they are not of equal intrinsic value. Another process theme with environmental implications is the idea of interdependence. Moreover, process thought leads to an emphasis on divine immanence in nature rather than the traditional emphasis on transcendence; this also encourages respect for nature. These issues in environmental ethics are taken up in the subsequent volume.
Strong parallels exist between systems theory and process philosophy. Whitehead’s thought may be compared with Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory and Ervin Laszlo’s systems philosophy. 11 A common theme is hierarchical ordering of levels of organization. The context and the larger whole constrain the parts. Wholes possess a degree of autonomy, especially at higher levels; freedom increases with complexity and organization. In systems theory, information is context-dependent and expresses a limitation of possibilities. James Huchingson suggests that a Whiteheadian "actual entity" is like an information processing system selecting from among possibilities. Moreover, he proposes, we could think of God and the world as a coupled system with rich feedback loops. It is an open system, not a predetermined order. Cybernetics leads to flexible, provisional action and continual relevant adjustment, not the effecting of a detailed preset plan.12 These all seem to me to be legitimate parallels, providing that we acknowledge the importance of feelings and purposes as well as conceptual information in process thought. Systems theory has had only limited success in representing the personal characteristics of human life.
Several questions might be raised about process thought in relation to science. Is the subjective experience of an entity, which is postulated in process metaphysics, accessible to scientific investigation? Does not science have to start from objective data, excluding anything subjective in the object of inquiry? Whitehead sometimes stresses the selectivity of science and the abstractive character of its concepts. It is "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" to take scientific concepts as an exhaustive description of the real world. "Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature; science can find no aim in nature; science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science; they are inherent in its methodology." 13 On this reading, we must accept the limitations of science and supplement it by including it in a wider metaphysical synthesis, which integrates diverse kinds of experience. This would also limit the contribution that process metaphysics might make to science.
Griffin has pointed out other passages in which Whitehead says that more adequate metaphysical categories are in the interest of science itself and that scientific concepts are reformable.14 Griffin suggests that if every entity is for itself a moment of experience, one would expect this to be reflected in observable behavior. We have noted the inadequacy of psychological behaviorism, which tries to avoid all reference to mental events. Ethnologists use explanatory concepts referring to the mental life of animals. In an earlier chapter we noted that a group of organisms may first adopt a novel and adaptive pattern of behavior; at a later time, mutations that facilitate this behavior may be selected. In such a case, the initiative and creativity of the organisms, rather than a random mutation, was the primary factor in initiating an evolutionary change. As we consider lower levels, how can we draw a sharp line at any point? Conversely, scientists adopting a process metaphysics might sometimes redirect research to problems formerly neglected and might propose new concepts and hypotheses to be tested against observations.
Scientists have been understandably wary of concepts of purpose. The idea of divine purpose in nature, especially the assumption of a precise design or plan, has sometimes cut short the search for natural causes. Reference to the purposes held by natural agents has at times hindered the progress of science. Aristotle, for example, said that falling bodies seek their natural resting place and that an oak seed seeks to become an oak. But process thinkers avoid these pitfalls. They hold that the behavior of inanimate objects can be explained entirely by efficient causation. They do argue that concepts of anticipation and purposeful behavior can in attenuated form be extended far down the scale of life, but this does not exclude the presence of efficient causes. The resistance of some biologists to any reference to purposes may be partly a legacy of atomistic and materialistic assumptions of the past. There are, to be sure, dangers in the anthropomorphic extension of human qualities to the non-human sphere, but there are also dangers in "mechanomorphic" attempts to explain everything with the concepts of physics and chemistry. On balance, then, process philosophy seems to be a promising attempt to provide a coherent system of concepts for interpreting a wide variety of phenomena in the world.
III. Process Theology
In looking at the theological significance of process thought we must first consider the writings of its most influential exponents, Whitehead and Hartshorne. We will then consider some Christian theologians who have explicitly used process categories. Last, we will examine the treatment of the problem of evil and suffering by process theologians.
1. The Role of God
In Whitehead’s metaphysics, God has a threefold role in the unfolding of every event. 15 First, God is the primordial ground of order. God envisages the potential forms of relationships that are not chaotic but orderly, even before they are actualized. This aspect of God is an answer to the question Why does the world have the particular type of order it has rather than some other type? This function of God seems to be automatic, passive, and unchanging; God would only be an abstract metaphysical principle, the impersonal structure of the world, "the inevitable ordering of things conceptually realized in the nature of God." But Whitehead’s God selects possibilities for the "initial subjective aims" of particular entities. Such relevance presupposes God’s knowledge of and responsiveness to the world.
Second, God is the ground of novelty. Here the question is, Why do new kinds of things come into existence (in evolutionary history, for instance) rather than merely repeat the patterns of their predecessors? "Apart from God," Whitehead writes, "there would be nothing new in the world, and no order in the world." 16 God presents novel possibilities, but there are many of these, so alternatives are left open. God elicits the self-creation of individual entities and thus allows for freedom as well as structure and directionality. By valuing particular potentialities to which creatures respond, God influences the world without determining it. New possibilities are open even for inanimate atoms, as their evolution into animate beings has disclosed. On the level of humanity, God’s influence is the lure of ideals to be actualized, the persuasive vision of the good. God’s goal is the harmonious achievement of value.
A third characteristic is that God is influenced by events in the world (Whitehead calls this "the consequent nature of God"). The central categories of process philosophy (temporality, interaction, mutual relatedness) apply also to God. God is temporal in the sense that the divine experience changes in receiving from the world and contributing to it. God’s purposes and character are eternal, but God’s knowledge of events changes as those events occur. God influences the creatures by being part of the data to which they respond. God is supremely sensitive to the world, supplementing its accomplishments by seeing them in relation to the infinite resources of potential forms and reflecting back to the world a specific and relevant influence. Whitehead occasionally uses personal images as well as more abstract principles to portray this action:
But the principle of universal relativity is not to be stopped at the consequent nature of God. This nature itself passes into the temporal world according to its gradation of relevance to the various concrescent occasions. . . . For the perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience. For the kingdom of heaven is with us today. The action of the fourth phase is the love of God for the world. It is the particular providence for particular occasions. What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world. In this sense, God is the great companion -- the fellow-sufferer who understands. 17
Charles Hartshorne was strongly influenced by Whitehead, but he uses a more familiar terminology and occasionally differs in emphasis. He maintains that classical Christianity attributed a one-sided perfection to God in exalting permanence over change, being over becoming, eternity over temporality, necessity over contingency, self-sufficiency over relatedness. He advocates dipolar theism, the view that God is both eternal and temporal (but in differing ways, so there is no contradiction in asserting both). God is eternal in character and purpose but changing in the content of experience. God’s essential nature is not dependent on any particular world. God will always exist and be perfect in love, goodness, and wisdom. God is omniscient in knowing all reality -- though not the future, which is undecided and hence inherently unknowable. Even aspects of the divine that change have a perfection of their own. God is not merely influenced by the world; God is "infinitely sensitive" and "ideally responsive." Divine love is supremely sympathetic participation in the world process. 18
As compared to traditional theologians, Hartshorne does indeed qualify God’s sovereignty over nature. God participates in the self-creation of other beings, but they have effective power too. Yet God is adequate to all needs, including the need of the creatures to make their own decisions. God does all that it would be good for God to do, but not all that it would be good for us in our freedom to do. God has power sufficient to influence the universe in the best way consistent with the divine purposes. The risks of evil might have been reduced by eliminating freedom, but positive opportunities for creative value would have been lost. God accepts the risks that are inescapably linked to the opportunities. Hartshorne holds that the world is in God (panentheism), a view that neither identifies God with the world (pantheism) nor separates God from the world (theism). "God includes the world but is more than the world."19 In the next chapter we will look at Hartshorne’s analogy of the world as God’s body.
2. God’s Action in the World
Between God and the world there is interdependence and reciprocity, according to Whitehead, but the relationship is not symmetrical. God is affected by the world, but God alone is everlasting and does not perish. ‘Though not self-sufficient or impassible, God is not totally within the temporal order, and God’s basic purposes are unchanging. Divine immanence is thus more strongly emphasized than transcendence, yet God’s freedom and relative independence are defended, along with priority in status. For nothing comes into being apart from God. Within the cosmic community, God has a unique and direct relationship to each member. God is omnipresent, a universal influence, one who experiences all actualities and preserves their achievements eternally.20
Whitehead portrays God’s activity as more akin to persuasion than to compulsion. God does not determine the outcome of events or violate the self-creation of all beings. God is never the sole cause of an event but is one influence among others. Divine love, like love between human beings, is a significant influence which is causally effective, making a difference in the activity of other beings but not sacrificing their freedom. The power of love consists in its ability to evoke a response while yet respecting the integrity of the other. Thus causality within interpersonal relationships, rather than mechanical force, seems to provide the basic analogy for God’s relation to the world. Whitehead strongly rejects the coercive element he finds in traditional theism. The rejection appears to be partly based on moral grounds (coercion is on a lower ethical plane than persuasion) and partly on metaphysical grounds (divine determination is incompatible with creaturely freedom).
For Whitehead, God’s action is the evocation of response. Since human capacity for response far exceeds that of other beings, it is in human life that God’s influence can be most effective. God’s ability to engender creative change in lower beings seems to be limited. God is always one factor among others, and particularly with respect to low-level beings, in which experience is rudimentary and creativity is minimal, this power seems to be negligible. Insofar as natural agents exercise causal efficacy, God’s ability to compel change is thereby restricted. But we must remember that God is not absent from events that monotonously repeat their past, for God is the ground of order as well as novelty. At low levels, God’s novel action may be beyond detection, though signs of it may be present in the long sweep of cosmic history and emergent evolution. Even in contributing to novelty, God always acts along with other causes. The Whiteheadian analysis allows for the actions of a multiplicity of agents.
Whitehead modifies the traditional view of God as creator, but he does not totally repudiate it. He disavows creation out of nothing in an act of absolute origination but offers a version of continuous creation. No entity comes into being apart from God, and no materials are given to God from some other source. "He is not before all creation but with all creation."21 Whitehead suggests that there may have been many cosmic epochs with differing forms of order. God always acts along with other causes, and yet everything depends on God for its existence. God provides all initial aims, and "in this sense he can be termed the creator of each temporal actual entity."22 God evokes new subjects into being and preserves their achievements and is thus both the source and conserver of all finite values. While creativity is universally present in the self-creation of every entity, God is the primary instance of creativity and is active in all its instances.
In Whitehead’s view, God has priority of status over all else, though not absolute temporal priority. God was never without a universe, and in every moment there is given to God a world that has to some extent determined itself. But this does not represent an ultimate dualism; this is not Plato’s God struggling to impose form on recalcitrant matter. Whitehead attributes to God the all-decisive role in the creation of each new occasion, namely provision of its initial aim. Every occasion is dependent on God for its existence as well as for the order of possibilities it can actualize.
Does the role of God in process thought conflict with the assumptions of science? In the past, God has been invoked to explain a variety of phenomena for which no scientific explanation was available. "The God of the gaps" has, of course, been a losing proposition, as one gap after another was filled by new scientific advances. In the Whiteheadian view, however, God does not intervene at discrete points but is present in all events in a role different from that of natural causes. God is the source of order and novelty, an answer to a different sort of question than the questions that science answers. We can speak of God acting, but God always acts with and through other entities rather than by acting alone as a substitute for their actions.
Whereas some theologians identify God’s role with order, and others with violations of order, for Whitehead God is involved in both order and novelty. Order arises from God’s structuring of possibilities and from the entity’s conformation to its past. Novelty arises from God’s offering of alternative possibilities and from the entity’s self-creation. This means that no event can be attributed solely to God. God’s role in the world is not readily detectable. The process theologian Daniel Williams writes,
God’s causality is exercised in, through, and with all other causes operating. There is no demand here to factor out what God is adding to the stream of events apart from those events. But there is the assignment of specific functions to God’s causality. . . . Every "act of God" is presented to us in, through, and with the complex of human nature and life in which we are. When we say God elected Israel, or that he sends his rain on the just and the unjust, we must not ignore the complex analysis of assignable causes and factors in Israel’s history or in the cosmic record of rainfall. We have no way of extricating the acts of God from their involvement in the activities of the world. To assign any particular historical event to God’s specific action in the world is to risk ultimate judgment on our assertions. Faith leads us to take the risk.23
At lower levels, especially in the inanimate world, God’s action is almost entirely confined to the maintenance of the order whose regularities are precisely those studied by the scientist. God’s purpose for low-level beings is that they be orderly; God’s gift is the structuredness of the possibilities they exemplify. At lower levels, where law predominates over creativity and efficient causes are more important than final causes, God’s novel action is beyond detection. Moreover, even when there is novelty at higher levels, God always acts along with other causes, qualifying but not abrogating their operation. This seems to limit God’s power severely, as compared to traditional ideas of omnipotence. But it is consistent with our understanding of evolution as a long, slow, gradual process over billions of years. Each stage is built on previous stages and supports the next stage. Complex forms presuppose simple ones. Life had to await appropriate conditions. Cosmic history resembles a long trial-and-error experiment more than a detailed predetermined plan. Process thought holds that God works patiently, gently, and unobtrusively.
If God does not act unilaterally but only through the responses of other beings, we would expect the divine influence to be more effective at higher levels where creativity and purposeful goals are more prominent. It is not surprising that the rate of evolutionary change accelerated in early human and then cultural history. In human life, in religious experience, and in the rise of the major religious traditions -- especially in the biblical tradition and the person of Christ -- God’s influence and human response could occur in unprecedented ways. The Whiteheadian understanding of God, in short, is consistent with what we know about biological and human history. But is it consistent with the biblical tradition?
3. Christian Process Theology
Whitehead and Hartshorne were primarily philosophers, though both were influenced by Christian ideas. A number of theologians have used process categories in reformulating specifically Christian beliefs in the contemporary world. Cobb and Griffin express the dipolar character of process theism by speaking of God as creative-responsive love. God as creative is the primordial source of order and novelty, which can be identified with the biblical concept of logos as rational principle and divine Word. God as responsive is temporal and affected by the world. These qualities are particularly evident in the message and life of Christ and in the idea of the Holy Spirit as God’s presence in nature and in the community.24
The process view does allow for particular divine initiatives. If God supplies distinctive initial aims to each new entity, no event is wholly an act of God, but every event is an act of God to some extent. There is thus a structural similarity between God’s actions in non-human and human life, but there are also important differences. God’s basic modus operandi is the same throughout, but the consequences will vary widely between levels of being.
In the human sphere, God builds on the past, including existing cultural traditions, and depends on the free responses of individuals and communities. God loves all equally, yet that love may be revealed more decisively in one tradition or person than another. God calls all, but people respond in diverse ways. Some experiences of God’s grace may be felt with exceptional power, and an individual may have an unusual commitment to the fulfillment of God’s will. In process theology we can discuss God’s action in nature, in religious experience, and in Christ, using a common set of concepts while recognizing the distinctive features of each. Continuing creation and redemption are brought within a single framework.
Cobb and Griffin can thus speak of Christ as God’s supreme act. In Israel there was already a tradition of divine initiative and human response, which could be carried further. Christ’s message and life were rooted in this past and in God’s new aims for him, and he powerfully expressed God’s purposes and love. Christ can be taken as incarnation of the logos, the universal source of order, novelty, and creative transformation wherever they occur. In Christ we see a specific and crucial instance of a more general divine action. But Christ’s free decision and faithful response were also needed to actualize God’s aims for him, so the full humanity of Christ was not compromised. Here the character of God as persuasive and vulnerable love is evident. Christ was subject to the same conditions and limitations as were other persons but was unique in the content of God’s aims for him and in his actualization of those aims. This was not a discontinuous and coercive intrusion from outside, but the decisive instance of God’s creative presence throughout the world; he is thus our clue to that wider presence. If we see Christ’s life and his vision of God as revealing the nature of reality, we can be open to the power of creative transformation in our own lives.25
Here the importance of revelation in history is evident. Lewis Ford points out that in the process view God’s action in the world is contingent on what happens in the world. If God has interacted historically, we can learn about this only from the particularities of history and not from the general structures of reality, which metaphysics studies.26 Because historical events are unique and unpredictable, they cannot be deduced from universal principles, as we saw in chapter 3. But the particular work of God as redeemer must be consistent with the broader work of God as creator. As Paul Sponheim puts it, our metaphysics must "provide structural possibilities for the illumination of God’s particular activity."27
I submit that it is in the biblical idea of the Spirit that we find the closest parallels to the process understanding of God’s presence in the world and in Christ. We have seen that in the Bible the Spirit was associated with the initial creation and with the continuing creation of the creatures: "When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created." The Spirit inspires the prophets (for example, Isa. 42:1) and is present in worship and prayer: "Take not thy holy Spirit from me" (Ps. 51:11). Christ received the Spirit at his baptism (Mark 1:10), and the early community received it at Pentecost (Acts 2). In the previous chapter, I cited Lampe’s argument for understanding Christ as inspired by the Spirit. This would allow us to acknowledge God’s particular activity in Christ within the context of God’s activity in nature, in religious experience, and in other religious traditions. In each case grace operates through and within natural structures rather than by replacing or superseding them.
Let us look at some implications of process theology for religious life. Marjorie Suchocki has used process categories to understand and express the Christian experience of sin and redemption. After setting forth a social and relational view of reality, she defines sin as the violation of relationships. It is an absolutizing of the self and a denial of interdependence. Sin is experienced, not only in individual alienation from God and other people, but also in social structures of injustice and exploitation. Suchocki holds that redemption is release from the prison of the detached self. God’s love is also a judgment on the structures that isolate us from each other. In Christ’s life, God’s love was embodied and expressed. In him we see at work a transformative power stronger than death, a power that can bring reconciliation into our lives.28
In the process framework, the goal of prayer is openness and responsiveness to the divine call. It involves conforming one’s decisions to the possibilities offered by God, or, in traditional terms, "doing the will of God." God’s will here is the achievement of value and harmony among all beings, the realization of inclusive love. Such love may sometimes be identified with traditional teachings and church authorities, but it may sometimes require us to question these teachings and authorities. The Spirit leads us in unexpected ways in healing our brokenness as individuals and as a society. Prayer can also be an occasion of wonder and gratitude for life as a gift and a time of self-examination and confession of our failure to respond to the call of inclusive love.29
The Jewish existentialist Martin Buber urges us to look on our lives as a dialogue with God in which we respond with our actions. In every event we are addressed by God. This does not mean that everything that happens is God’s will or is a result of God’s action alone. But we can ask ourselves what God might be saying to us in every event. Our response occurs in "the speech of our lives" and not just in our words. Buber seeks the sanctification of everyday life, through which we are in dialogue with the Eternal Thou.30 It seems to me that this theme in Buber’s writing is consistent with the process understanding of living in God’s presence.
A significant contribution of process thought is a concept of responsible selfhood, which avoids a soul/body dualism. The previous chapter referred to the spirit/matter and soul/body dualisms in medieval Christianity, which seem to have been more indebted to Greek than to biblical sources. The Christian tradition has too often encouraged a negative asceticism, an alienation from the body, and a concern only for the salvation of the soul. More recently, many people in Western culture have reacted against the repression of the body and have sought an uncontrolled sensuality. The process view avoids both these extremes. It acknowledges our embodiment and asserts that bodily events enter into each moment of experience. Process writers encourage respect for the body but also assert human freedom, self-determination, and the power of personal and social goals beyond bodily gratification. Responsible selfhood is a holistic concept that includes but transcends the body.
Process thought makes common cause with feminism in rejecting the dualisms that have led to hierarchical domination. Feminists have pointed to the links between three forms of dualism: man/woman, mind/body, and humanity/nature. The first term of each pair has in the past been assumed to be superior to the second. The three dualisms support each other because the first terms (man, mind, humanity) have been associated together, as are the second set of terms (woman, body, nature). Feminists usually agree with process thinkers, not only in rejecting these dualisms, but in replacing them with a holistic relationality and an inclusive mutuality. They also agree in insisting on openness and creativity in human self-determination and in seeking freedom from the hierarchical roles of the past. Feminists bring an active commitment to social change and human liberation, which may be more influential than the abstract writings of some process theologians.51
Feminists and process writers also agree in criticizing the patriarchal and monarchical view of God expressed in traditional ideas of omnipotence. Feminists value the caring and nurturing aspects of both human nature and the divine. Whitehead explicitly rejected the image of God as an imperial ruler and spoke of God’s "tender care that nothing be lost" and "the Galilean vision of humility." God’s consequent nature is receptive and empathetic as well as active. One reason for developing a theology of the Holy Spirit today is that the Spirit has few associations with masculine imagery. Process thought thus has important implications for both theological formulation and religious life.
4. The Problem of Evil and Suffering
The problem of evil and suffering is so important theologically that we should consider alternative responses to it before looking at the distinctive position of process theologians. The classical question of theodicy is, Why would an all-good and all-powerful God allow widespread evil and suffering? We have seen that pain, conflict, and death are pervasive in evolutionary history and in non-human nature today. Suffering, violence, and tragic evil have been present throughout human history. The suffering of innocent children is a particular challenge to religious faith, as seen in several poignant scenes in modern literature. Ivan in Dostoevski’s Brothers Karamazov, Elie Wiesel in his autobiographical novel Night, and Dr. Rieux in Camus’s The Plague all protest the agonizing death of an innocent child. Father Paneloux says to Rieux, "Perhaps we should love what we cannot understand," and Rieux replies, "No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture."32 The death of six million Jews in Nazi extermination camps presents the starkest example of unmitigated evil and suffering, and it challenges the ideas of God’s justice and providential care, which both the Jewish and Christian traditions have held.
The problem does not arise in Buddhism or Hinduism, for in those traditions all suffering is deserved. According to the impersonal law of karma, all souls are reborn (reincarnated) in human or animal forms according to their just deserts. Any suffering in this life is merited by actions in previous lives. There is no purposeful creator God on whom our suffering might be blamed. Moreover, in Hinduism suffering belongs to the phenomenal world of maya (illusion), which is not ultimately real. Suffering can be escaped when we realize the identity of the soul (atman) with the all-inclusive One (Brahman). In Buddhism, suffering is a product of our egocentric attachments and desires, and it is overcome in nonattachment and the dissolution of the self that occurs in enlightenment.33
The most influential Christian position was formulated by Augustine, who held that all evil and suffering are the consequences of human sin in Adam and his successors. Sin is misused freedom and cannot be blamed on God. Nature and humanity were created perfect but were corrupted by Adam’s fall, through which death and disharmony entered the world. Human suffering is not unjust, according to Augustine, for we all deserve punishment for sin, even if some are by God’s grace spared such punishment. Moreover, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked punished in a future life, vindicating God’s justice in the long run. Similar views can be found earlier in the writings of Paul and later (with some variations) in Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and other classical theologians. I have suggested, however, that neither a primeval state of perfection nor a historical fall are credible today. I argued that the story of Adam should be taken as a symbolic statement of the estrangement of each of us from God, neighbor, self, and nature. Death and suffering were inescapable features of an evolutionary process long before the appearance of humanity.
Some theodicies minimize the reality of evil by interpreting it as a discipline or a test of faith. Evil would then be a temporary means to good ends. "Everything works for good for those who love God." Other writers defend the reality of evil and the omnipotence of God, and they end by compromising the goodness of God. If everything that happens is God’s will, then God is responsible for evil. In a more sophisticated version, if God is the source of all that is, then evil as well as good must in some sense be present in God. Hegel, Berdyaev, and Tillich are among the authors who have spoken of positivity and negativity within the Godhead. Still others have asserted all three components of the classical theodicy problem and have concluded that there is no rational solution. It is a mystery that we do not understand but that we should accept in faith and submission to God.
Most Christian theodicies have continued to defend God’s goodness and the reality of evil but have in some way qualified God’s power. The most extreme limitation of God’s power would be the existence of a cosmic principle of evil. Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, for example, pictured a cosmic struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, but the church fathers rejected such an ultimate dualism. (Satan was said to be a fallen angel who is no permanent threat to God.)
Many modern Christian theodicies have asserted God’s voluntary self-limitation in order to effect three goals:
1. Human Freedom. Augustine said that sin in Adam and his successors was freely chosen. However, human freedom is difficult to reconcile with Augustinian ideas of original sin and predestination. Later interpreters held that freedom requires a genuine choice of good or evil, and therefore God had to allow the possibility that individuals would choose evil. In a world of mutual interdependence, those choices could hurt other individuals (even on the scale of the Holocaust). But could God not have created beings who were free to sin but would never do so? No, according to the "free-will defense," for virtues come into being only in the moral struggle of real decisions, not ready-made by divine fiat. Further, God wants our free response of love, not actions to which we have no alternatives.34
2. Laws of Nature. There must be dependable regularities in the world if we are to make responsible decisions about the consequences of our actions. An orderly world reflects God’s rationality and dependability. Moreover, the growth of human knowledge would be impossible without the existence of such regularities. Neither moral character nor scientific knowledge would be possible if God intervened frequently to save us from suffering. Earthquake disasters and cancer are products of such natural laws, not the result of divine punishment. Animal pain was an inescapable concomitant of increased sentience, and it facilitated the avoidance of danger, which contributed to evolutionary survival.
3. Moral Growth. Suffering often has an educational value. The trials of ancient Israel were seen as "the furnace of affliction" in which, as with a precious metal, refinement could occur. Paul said that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Rom. 5:3). Sometimes undeserved suffering can have a redemptive effect on others, as in the suffering servant passages of Isaiah and the Christian understanding of the cross. More generally, moral courage would be impossible without danger, temptation, and struggle. The suffering of others also calls forth our sympathy and love.
John Hick has developed this idea of moral growth. He traces his view back to Irenaeus in the second century, who said that humanity was not created perfect but imperfect with an opportunity for moral development. Irenaeus held that perfection could lie only in the future, not in the past. Hick sees this as consistent with an evolutionary view in which animal instinct develops into early human aggression and then into greater human maturity, moral insight, and capacity for love. The world is a place of "soul-making," an appropriate environment for moral action. In a pain-free world our decisions would have no harmful consequences. Moral virtues have to be acquired in the long hard struggle of life. Only in a world of challenge and response can the higher potentialities of personality be realized. Hick recognizes that growth is not completed in this life, and he holds that it will continue in the afterlife. In the end, all people will be won over by the infinite love of God. A limitless good beyond this world is adequate justification for the painful process of preparing for it.35
Hick’s view qualifies God’s power in practice but not in principle. God’s power is infinite, but it is voluntarily self-limited for the sake of human growth. Hick’s theodicy deals only with human suffering and says nothing about subhuman pain or the waste of billions of years preparing for humanity. Could these not have been avoided, if God is omnipotent? Again, does moral growth require the intensity and pervasiveness of evil and suffering we see around us? Some people may be strengthened by suffering, but others are broken and embittered by it. The world may be a moral gymnasium or a school for character, but some people seem to have little chance of succeeding in it. Hick has minimized the destructiveness of evil to justify its presence. He also has to invoke the afterlife to justify the injustices in this life.
Process theologians share many of Hick’s ideas but go further in the limitation of God’s power. Griffin rejects creation ex nihilo and speaks of the continuing creation of order out of chaos. Evolution is a long, slow, step-by-step process. Inescapable struggle and conflict have taken place because there has always been a multiplicity of beings with at least some power of their own. There were also inescapable correlations in evolutionary advance. With greater intensity of experience came a greater capacity for enjoyment, but at the same time a greater capacity for suffering. Greater power of self-determination goes hand-in-hand with greater power to be affected by others. Interdependence allows us to benefit from others but also to be harmed by them. These are metaphysically necessary correlations, which would obtain in any world. Even God could not escape them, though these are principles that belong to the divine essence and are not external conditions imposed on God.36
Griffin maintains that in relation to low-grade entities God’s influence is very limited, and changes occur only over a long period of evolutionary history. God cannot stop the bullet speeding toward your head, because a bullet is an aggregate and not a unified occasion of experience susceptible to God’s persuasion. Human beings can change more rapidly, but they can also deviate more dramatically from God’s aims. Griffin argues that God is not morally blameworthy or directly responsible for particular evils, which arise from the powers of the creatures. The world never fully embodies God’s will, which is for the good alone. But there is no ultimate dualism. Evil and suffering could have keen avoided only by refraining from creating, which is contrary to the divine nature; in that sense, God is ultimately responsible for evil. The positive opportunities, however, were worth the risks that went with them.
Process thought can contribute not only to the theoretical explanation of the existence of suffering but also to the practical question of how we respond to it. One theme in traditional Christian thought is that God shares in our suffering and stands with us in it. One meaning of the cross is that God participates in human suffering. Many Christians have felt that God was especially near in times of suffering. Classical theology, however, has said that God is impassible, unaffected by us, and incapable of suffering. At this point the process understanding of God’s consequent nature allows a stronger assertion that God suffers with us in our suffering. God is with us and for us, empowering us in our present lives.
But process thinkers also defend immortality in one of two forms. Objective immortality is our participation in God’s consequent nature, whereby God’s life is permanently enriched. Our lives are meaningful because they are preserved everlastingly in God’s experience, in which evil is transmuted and the good is saved and woven into the harmony of the larger whole. God’s goal is not the completed achievement of a static final realm, but rather a continuing advance toward richer and more harmonious relationships. Other process writers defend subjective immortality, in which the human self continues as a center of experience in a radically different environment but amid continuing change rather than a changeless eternity. (Whitehead said that this would be consistent with his metaphysics, though he himself accepted only objective immortality.) Cobb speculates that we might picture a future life, neither as absorption into God nor as the survival of individuals in isolation, but as a new kind of community transcending individuality.37
Process thought is consistent with recent themes in science. It also offers some distinctive insights to theology. A final evaluation of its theological adequacy must await a comparison with some current theological alternatives in the final chapter.
1. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion, chaps. 2 and 3. See also N. Max Wildiers, The Theologian and His Universe (New York: Seabury, 1982).
2. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. vi.
3. An introduction to process metaphysics is given in John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introduction (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), chap. 1. The basic sources are Alfred North Whitehead, Science amid the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925) and Process amid Reality. Systematic expositions art given in William Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), and Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New York: Macmillan, 1958). See Issues in Science and Religion, pp. 128-31, 344-47. I have tried to present Whitehead’s ideas with a minimal use of his technical terms.
4. Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Lift (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
5. Charles Hartshorne, Reality as Social Process (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1953), chap. 1, and Time Logic of Perfection (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1962), chap. 7.
6. I am indebted here to David Ray Griffin, "On Ian Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion," Zygon 23 (1988): 57-81.
7. David Ray Griffin, "Some Whiteheadian Comments," in Mind in Nature: Essays on the Interface of Science and Philosophy, eds. John Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1977).
8. David Ray Griffin, "Of Minds and Molecules: Postmodern Medicine in a Psychosomatic Universe," in The Re-enchantment of Science, ed. D. Griffin (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 154.
9. See David Pailin, "God as Creator in a Whiteheadian Understanding," in Whitehead and the Idea of Process, eds. H. Holz and E. Wolf-Gazo (Freiburg and München, Germany: Karl Alber Verlag, 1984); Frank Kirkpatrick, "Process or Agent: Two Models for Self and God," in Philosophy of Religion and Theology, ed. David Ray Griffin (Chambersburg, PA: American Academy of Religion, 1971); Paul Sponheim, Faith and Process: The Significance of Process Thought for Christian Thought (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979), pp. 90-98.
10. William Gallagher, "Whitehead’s Psychological Physiology: A Third View," Process Studies 4 (1974): 263 -74; Joseph Earley, "Self-Organization and Agency in Chemistry and in Process Philosophy," Process Studies 11 (1981): 242-58.
11. Mark Davidson, Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Father of General Systems Theory (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1983); Ervin Laszlo, An Introduction to Systems Philosophy (New York: Gordon & Breach, 1972).
12. James Huchingson, "Organization and Process: Systems Philosophy and Whiteheadian Metaphysics," Zygon 11 (1981); 226-41.
13. Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), p. 211.
14. Griffin, "On Ian Barbour’s Issues," p. 57.
15. See Issues in Science and Religion, pp. 440-42.
16. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 377.
17. Ibid., p. 532.
18. Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), and Reality as Social Process; Charles Hartshorne and William L. Rees, Philosophers Speak of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).
19. Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity, p. 90.
20. See William Christian, Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics; Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics.
21. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 521.
22. Ibid., p. 343.
23. Daniel Williams, "How Does God Act? An Essay in Whitehead’s Metaphysics," in Process and Divinity, eds. W. L. Reese and E. Freeman (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1964).
24. Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology, chap. 3.
25. Ibid., chap. 6; David Ray Griffin, A Process Christology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973); John B. Cobb, Jr., "A Whiteheadian Christology," in Process Philosophy and
Christian Thought, eds. D. Brown, R. E. James, and G. Reeves (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill Company, 1971). A more recent version is his "Christ Beyond Creative Transformation," in Encountering Jesus: A Debate on Christology, ed. Stephen Davis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).
26. Lewis Ford,’ "The Power of God and the Christ," in Religious Experience amid Process Theology, eds. Harry James Cargas and Bernard Lee (New York: Paulist Press, 1976).
27. Sponheim, Faith amid Process, p. 49.
28. Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God, Christ, Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1982).
29. John B. Cobb, Jr., "Spiritual Discernment in a Whiteheadian Perspective," in Religious Experience and Process Theology, eds. Cargas and Lee.
30. Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (London: Macmillan, 1947), pp. 10-11, 15-16.
31. Suchocki, "Openness and Mutuality," in Feminism and Process Thought, ed. Sheila Greeve Davaney (New York and Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1978).
32. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Modern Library, 1948), p. 196.
33. See Ronald Green, "Theodicy," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987).
34. See Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), chaps. 5 and 6; also God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).
35. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 2d ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); "An Irenaean Theodicy," in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, ed. Stephen T. Davis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981).
36. David Ray Griffin, God, Power, amid Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976); "Creation Out of Chaos and the Problem of Evil," in Encountering Evil, ed. Davis. Hartshorne’s theodicy is discussed in Barry L. Whitney, Evil and the Process God (Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985).
37. John B. Cobb, Jr., "What is the Future? A Process Perspective," in Hope and the Future of Man, ed. Ewert Cousins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). See also Robert Mellert, "A Pastoral on Death and Immortality," in Religious Experience amid Process Theology, eds. Cargas and Lee.