From Experience to Process Thought to Process Theism—Fr. Charles Allen

First,* experience:

In every experience a) you experience yourself; b) you experience others, some occasionally very like you, most others not so much; c) and if you pay enough attention you experience all as newly interacting in various ways.

Now to process thought: 

Most of our inherited ways of thinking have started out by assuming that constant selves or others (or both) are the ultimate realities, and only then try to describe or explain how they interact and change.

Process thought reverses this tendency, claiming that these continually experienced ways of newly interacting are the ultimate realities that offer the most economical and yet generous way to describe and account for everything else, including more or less constant selves and others.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it ... While process philosophers insist that all within and about reality is continuously going on and coming about, they do not deny that there are temporally stable and reliably recurrent aspects of reality. But they take such aspects of persistence to be the regular behavior of dynamic organizations that arise due to the continuously ongoing interaction of processes.”

Here’s how it works:

You are a very recurrent way of newly interacting, and so are others like and unlike you, from fundamental particles to galaxies (constant=very recurring).

Different levels of recurrence in ways of newly interacting are what enable all sorts of ways of generalizing in the sciences and other disciplines (including process thought’s ways of generalizing), but these ways, no matter how widely applicable, never fully capture the novelty involved in every way of interacting, no matter how recurrent. They simply outline shareable ways of newly interacting. Thus we can make and appreciate all sorts of reliable predictions without assuming determinism. Ways of generalizing are similarly appropriate in similar circumstances, but no two circumstances are ever exactly the same.

You and others like you are not only very recurrent but very inclusive ways of newly interacting. (Your way of newly interacting includes your body’s ways of newly interacting, which include your organs’ ways of newly interacting, which include your cells’ ways of newly interacting, which include your molecules’ ways of newly interacting, and so on; it also includes wider social and environmental ways of newly interacting.) 

It’s this high level of inclusiveness that accounts for experiencing yourself and others like you as subjects, not just objects (though of course you are objects too).

Furthermore, this high level of inclusiveness means that you are not neutral subjects, but highly involved and entangled subjects engaging others and yourself in aesthetic and moral and other evaluative terms. You and others are not simply here or there, as a mere matter of fact, but engagedly and engagingly here and there, as a matter of value. Thus, while distinguishing “facts” from “values” is contextually possible, they are never completely disentangled.

So regarding anything and everything as differing ways of newly interacting, more or less recurrent, more or less shareable, more or less inclusive, entitles you to be as scientific as you want to be, and as arts and humanities centered as you want to be, without discounting any of these ways of understanding and celebrating our world and ourselves.

Now to process theism (more here):

Process theism takes process thought one step further, or deeper, but it doesn’t claim to go beyond what we continually experience.

(So if a skeptic asks, “Where’s the evidence?” the process theist answers, “Right here and now, if you pay more attention.” Maybe that sounds arrogant, but why not be honest?)

Process theists claim that, sufficiently noted, every experience involves not just various ways of newly interacting but also the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, and (appealing to ancient and current precedents) they identify this all-inclusive way with God.

They recognize room for debate about whether “God” is a suitable term for the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, but without excluding other terms they are convinced of this one’s suitability for the following reasons, among others. 

For one thing, it fits the way St. Paul and his early followers thought of God (at least sometimes):  "From God, through God, and into God are all things" (Romans 11:36). "God is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:6). "God is not far from each of us, for in God we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28).

As the all-inclusive way of newly interacting, God is newly interacting all-inclusively, and thus directly, with everything from fundamental particles to galaxies, which of course includes you and me and others like us.

And this exceedingly highest level of inclusiveness entitles us to speak of God as the uniquely all-inclusive subject, not just another object.

And this also entitles us to regard our continual way of newly interacting with God as an exceedingly different sort of interpersonal dialogue, of which we can become more aware through prayer and contemplation.

This means that contemplative people over the centuries and across cultures who have reported experience of interpersonal-like communion with the divine were not always deluding themselves, although they usually did not express this in terms of process thinking, and delusions did of course happen. (For examples click here and here).

This also entitles us to speak of God’s all-inclusive way of newly interacting as providential, as long as we are clear about what this does and does not mean.

It does not mean controlling, enforcing some pre-established pattern, because ways of newly interacting are by definition beyond total control, even where one way is all-inclusively influential. Instead it means intimately influencing all ways of newly interacting toward increasingly inclusive ways.  Whether we call this a purpose or just a tendency depends on how comfortable we are with interpersonal-like analogies for our interactions with the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. Process theists call it a purpose, because they find interpersonal-like analogies indispensable.

For the same reason, providence does not mean preventing conflict and resultant suffering or denying their reality. Instead it means (again) influencing conflicting ways to move beyond conflict toward increasingly inclusive ways of newly interacting. This will continue to happen everywhere, even if our species manages to destroy itself (which is quite possible). There will still be countless ways of newly interacting drawn toward increasingly inclusive ways by the all-inclusive way.

This all-inclusive influence toward such increasingly inclusive ways is not only consistent with what we have come to know about natural selection but actually requires it—ways of newly interacting become recurrent to the extent that they support and are supported by more inclusive ways (like ecosystems).

So for process theists, embracing natural selection, like embracing other generalizations in the sciences, does not in any way cast doubt on experiencing a transformative, interpersonal-like communion with the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. Nor is doubt cast when life’s occurrences devastate us. We can still awaken to this transformative, interpersonal-like, endless communion, even in the face of inevitable loss and death, and move on.

If you’re still wondering about this, try these practices here.

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*A technical aside: Some people object to starting with experience because, they point out, we can’t really isolate experiences from the languages we use to speak of them or even think about them. Point taken, but with others who grant this point, I’m not trying to isolate anything or place it beyond question, as I argued at length several decades ago, and I still see experience, however linguistically permeated, as a good place to start from and return to, again and again. In other words, I’m happy to grant that my experiences are already interpretations, but they are interpretations that form me anew, before, during and after any interpretations I intentionally devise, and I want all these interpretations to get along with one another.