Reframing Practically Everything: Process Thought, Nature & God—Fr. Charles Allen

A Personal Note: I began to explore process thought in college. Back then I had recently become a theologically conservative evangelical (though politically left wing). When it came to God, what mattered to me most was what I took to be my experience of an intimate, empathic, interpersonal-like relationship with God. I say “interpersonal-like” because I was already convinced that the God St. Paul identified as the beginning, way and end of all things (Romans 11:36) had to be immeasurably different from a person like you or me, though still more like a “you” than an “it.” The thing is, I just didn’t know how to square that relationship (real or imagined) with the concept of an all-controlling first cause. How do you have a real relationship with that first cause if your side of the relationship is totally controlled by it? That’s what “omnipotence” almost always amounts to—if it’s not total control, it’s not really omnipotence in the traditional sense, and theologians who try to resist this by insisting that God’s totally “bringing about” your responses is not the same as totally controlling them are, I think, playing very deceptive word games. They typically argue that God’s bringing about your responses is on a totally different level from the past events that caused them, like an author writing a character’s responses to events in a story—an ingenious distinction, but if that’s not totally controlling, what is? Nor could I see how anybody could call this first cause “good,” if it caused bad things to take place just as much as good things. Some say that God causes the good things but only permits the bad things. But if God is really all-controlling, like the author of a story, there’s no real difference between causing and permitting, as John Calvin recognized (Institutes 1.18.1). He was OK with that kind of God; I wasn’t. (I’ll say a bit more about traditional “omni” attributes below.) Those problems kept nagging me, and by my senior year I had become convinced that, either there was no God I could care about, or else God was more like the all-interactive but non-controlling God of process theism (which ironically I had learned about when my pastor warned me against it). So my first explorations of process thought began with trying to be more consistent about what I took to be an intimate, empathic, interpersonal-like relationship with God. Along the way process thought also seemed to promise ways to be more consistent about lots of other important matters besides God, matters like you and me and the varieties of order in the world we all share. And thinking in process terms seemed to make the reality of God experientially inescapable, at least for me and many others. So I continue to explore its implications, to the point of getting downright wonky, as you’ll see if you read further. Anyway, while I definitely have not been an evangelical since my twenties, thinking in process terms I still find that younger evangelical’s all-important, interpersonal-like relationship to have as much claim to reality as any other experience. (By the way, there is what I would say amounts to an evangelical version of process theism pioneered by Thomas Jay Oord—more here.)

A Note about Terminology: I’ve tried to employ a fairly simplified terminology often adapted from Charles Hartshorne’s work. Alfred North Whitehead is the most famous process thinker, but much of his terminology is downright bizarre to the point that you can’t easily see why he thought it had anything to do with how we experience our world (though he claimed that every term came from analyzing everyday experience). I’ve never had that much of a problem with Hartshorne’s terminology, though I’m not completely satisfied with his terms either. And I don’t feel like defending everything Hartshorne or Whitehead said, some of which would be met with utter incredulity at first glance. Also, process thought is a much broader movement than the works of either Whitehead or Hartshorne, as you can see from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article. So I’m not following anybody else’s terminology exactly, and even my own terminology shifts sometimes (compare here, here and here), as I keep looking for more direct ways to communicate a way of seeing things that, while odd at first, doesn’t have to be forbiddingly complicated.

About Reframing: We don’t just experience reality, not without interpreting it, at least not by the time we can reflect on it. By then our experience is already framed in inherited patterns of thinking that emphasize absolute, fixed divisions over relational, flowing distinctions. To an extent those patterns work well, but only to an extent, and they also confuse and alienate us. Process thinkers are convinced that we are not stuck with these inherited patterns. We can reverse the emphasis and reframe the flow of experience in deeper, non-divisive ways that, over time, leave us less confused and alienated. Absolute, fixed divisions are seen to be partial outlines of relational, flowing distinctions, like depicting a whirlpool with a drawing of a spiral on a sheet of paper—it’s a true depiction as far as it goes, but it only goes so far. Experienced reality is always more fluid. This is a radical move, and at first it can seem disorienting and implausible. That’s why I’ve decided to start with an adaptation of a famous Zen Koan.

A "Process Zen Koan": Before learning process terms, mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers, you and I are you and I, and God is God; while first learning process terms, mountains are not mountains, rivers are not rivers, you and I are not you and I, and God is not God; after learning and living process terms, mountains are really mountains, rivers are really rivers, you and I are really you and I, and God is really God (compare here). Like Zen, process thought seems to take away everything familiar, but then it gives it all back on different terms.

Process Thought's Central Theme: To be real is to be interactive—newly influenced by others and newly influencing others, exemplifying the "novel togetherness" that Alfred North Whitehead called "creativity" (Process and Reality [New York: Free Press, 1978 (1929)], p. 21). (Note: a) here "interactive" always means "newly interactive"—if nothing new happens there's no real interaction, just an illusion of interaction; b) because novelty is everywhere, influence is always partial, never total; c) while everywhere, novelty remains immeasurably fluid, as it never repeats entirely.)

Where's the evidence? Your every experience supports this. “Novel togetherness” is experientially inescapable. There's always something new about the way others are influencing you, and there's always something new about the way you are influencing others—always. And there’s always something new about the situation you and those others are in, about how it’s being influenced by you and them and about the influence it’s having on you and them. Since we never experience an exception to this, process thinkers dare to argue that even to imagine an exception anywhere would be ungrounded speculation. This is also at least arguably consistent with everything else we know about reality through the natural sciences (more here, here and here). So the simplest presumption, based on our every experience, is that to be real anywhere is to be interactive—newly interactive.

This naturally leads to a fuller statement, though it’s regrettably long-winded (slow down and let it sink in—it's not as complicated as it first looks): Reality as such is the interactive relationship involving the all-inclusively interactive whole and all less inclusively interactive parts. (Actually, less inclusively interactive parts are also wholes of some sort, but not the whole.) Again, it's not that complicated: think of the whole of reality; think of the parts of reality; think of all as interacting—newly interacting. Got it? And this too can be supported experientially. As Whitehead noted, we don't just construct or infer the whole of reality from the parts—our every experience involves awareness of “the whole occurrence” of reality, “dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, 'The Whole,' 'That Other,' and 'This-My-Self.'"[1] To put this yet another way: Every experience involves differing ways of newly interacting, one way being all-inclusive.

Reframing How We Think of Nature: This thoroughly interactive understanding of reality accounts for what we call matter in some contexts and what we call mind in other contexts (more below), for what we call causation in some contexts and what we call freedom in other contexts (more below), even for what we call things/substances in some contexts and what we call properties in other contexts (things and properties are somewhat repeatable ways of interacting—"eddies in the constant flux of process"). This also accounts for the evolution of complexity through natural selection. Natural selection results directly from the self-selective, interactive relationship involving the all-inclusively interactive whole and all less inclusively interactive parts. There is no need for an external designer, nothing beyond this self-selective interactivity, since interactivity is, you could say, already beyond itself. There are no gaps either. But there is a version of what Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called the "beyond in the midst of our life" (more here). Bonhoeffer was speaking of God. But in process thought, with or without mentioning God, this ever-present "beyond" involves all that is concretely right here, right now, which is always immeasurably more than the abstract, semi-repeatable patterns popularly equated with nature. As Catherine Keller would say, nature itself is "apophatically entangled." Transcendence is everywhere, without exception, naturally.

Reframing How We Think of God: This also accounts for what is happening when past and present God-worshipers (like me) speak of their experienced, interpersonal-like relationship with God (more hereherehere and here). In prayer and contemplation they are at least dimly aware of themselves as less inclusively interactive "parts" intimately interacting ("dialoguing") with the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality.[2] They analogically attribute immeasurably greater versions of awareness, empathy, responsiveness, purposefulness, love, etc., to the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality, because these are taken to be among the most inclusive versions of being interactive on the worshipers' level. (I say “analogically” where others say “metaphorically” or “symbolically” because there’s no complete consensus on what the differences among these terms are supposed to be. As the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged in 1215CE, any analogy for God says more about what God isn’t like than what God is like, though the similarity, however different, is still experienced as somehow real. How is that different from a metaphor or symbol?)[3] The interaction is experienced as somehow "I/You-ish," not just "I/It-ish," as Martin Buber might say, and it is the interpersonal-like character of this interaction, more than any other characteristic (like alleged omnipotence), that makes using the term “God” eminently fitting. There is nothing unreasonable about this, not if to be real is to be interactive. It would instead be unreasonable to object to this. But note: The God reportedly experienced by process theists has nothing to do with an uncaused, all-controlling being “outside” the universe. They regard the very idea of such a being as incoherent and thus not even an hypothesis we could consistently entertain, much lest test. In a way, then, they go further than Richard Dawkins’s claim that there “almost certainly” is no such being. [See Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).] If to be real is to be interactive, then belief in such a being is not “almost certainly” false, but necessarily false. But that alleged being is not the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality that process theists claim to experience intimately in interpersonal-like terms.

Reframing How We think of "Proofs" for God: While not interested in familiar proofs for an uncaused, all-controlling being outside the universe, process theists have offered their own arguments for God's reality, including Hartshorne's reframed version of Anselm's ontological argument: when understood as all-inclusively interactive, the reality of "that than which no greater can be conceived" cannot be coherently denied in practice, although “fools” (Anselm’s label) may incoherently deny this in theory (more here). But note that this "proof" is actually an experiential claim, as Hartshorne himself points out (here): "All those who accepted the ontological argument held that among the implications of the reasoning was the view that in thinking God we in a fashion also experience [God], so that the argument [is] ... experiential." This applies to any other arguments—theistic arguments work only to the extent that they help us articulate what we inescapably experience. As I say elsewhere, they're not inferences to something absent, like Russell's teapot, but articulations of the ever-present. I suggest that the central, experiential claim of process theism is this: When we experience all things as differing ways of newly interacting, as we do in every waking moment, we also experience the all-inclusive way of newly interacting—God. And if we deny this, process theists claim, we're just not paying enough attention. Or maybe we're repressing the experience, just as many repress how nothing in experience ever remains exactly the same. There's always room for dispute about this, of course. And whether appealing  to arguments or to experience, one thing process theists can't do is say, with Aquinas, "and this all people call God." Not all people call this God. But a significant number do.

Reframing How We think of Pantheism & Its Alternatives: Pantheism "equates God directly with the whole of reality" [Richard Grigg, Beyond the God Delusion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 68]. In its own way, so does process theism—God is equated with the whole of reality understood as all-inclusively interactive. With that understanding, you could say that, in a way, nature is God. Even Protestant Reformer John Calvin grudgingly recognized this, though not on process terms—“I admit, indeed that the expressions ‘Nature is God’, may be piously used” (Institutes 1.5.5). Or you could say that, in another way, God is more than nature (that’s what Calvin recommended). It all depends on how inclusively, or not, we use "nature." In any case, process theists don't equate the whole of reality with the physically measurable universe (as Grigg does), and they don't like to be called pantheists. They prefer to be called neoclassical theists, dipolar theists or panentheists, insisting that the whole (God) and the parts are creatively both in and beyond one another. Maybe that's quibbling. Charles Hartshorne did at first call his process theism a "new pantheism" before deciding the term was misleading (more here). The reason he changed his mind is that too many people equate pantheism with Spinoza's pantheism. For Spinoza the whole of reality is totally active, while its parts are totally passive, so there is no true interaction—when parts of reality appear to interact with each other, they are actually passively expressing the one and only activity of the whole of reality. Process thought and process theism reject this—both the parts of reality (all of them) and the whole of reality truly interact, and nothing is totally active or totally passive. The whole of reality influences the parts but does not control them, and the parts of reality influence but do not control the whole. This means, again, that we, as "parts," can have an intimate, dialogical, interpersonal-like relationship with the whole of reality, something Spinoza could never entertain with his commitment to monism and total determinism. Process theists would tend to agree, fairly or not, with Richard Dawkins (p. 40) in calling Spinoza's (and Einstein's) pantheism "sexed-up atheism." And they would probably say the same thing about Grigg's pantheism, which equates God, the whole of reality, with a "closed system of purely physical cause and effect" (p. 55). Process thinkers find no evidence for a totally closed system anywhere. There is ample evidence for partly closed systems (and to that extent they illustrate the laws of thermodynamics), but never for totally closed systems (and to that extent such laws don't apply). (The data pointing to "the Big Bang" do not prove that our universe is totally closed, because cosmologists continue to disagree over what the data mean—more here, pp. 144-147, 401-407). And process theists don't feel obliged to regard interactive systems of cause and effect as "purely physical," since the meaning of "physical" seems to change over time just as much as the meaning of "mental," "spiritual" or "divine" (more here and here). 

Reframing How We Think of Evil: Again, process theists generally do not attribute omnipotence to God, the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality, not even analogically, because omnipotence (unless drastically redefined) is not a version of being interactive on any level. God's “omni” power is “omni-interactive,” immeasurably greater than any others', but it's still interactive, not monopolizing. (Again, I’ll say a bit more about this below.) The interactive relationship involving the interactive whole and all interactive parts thus provides no guarantees against vast amounts and degrees of evil, that is, of conflict and suffering. Process theists don't ask, "Why is there so much conflict and suffering?" (they would be surprised if there weren't), nor do they see it as part of some pre-designed purpose. They instead respond to it empathically with the further purpose of denying it the last word, and so, analogically speaking, does God.[4] (More here)

Reframing How We Think of God’s “Omni” Attributes: God has traditionally been understood to be omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere) and omnibenevolent (all-“goodwilling”). (I’ll say more about some other traditional “absolute” attributes below.) It’s easy to see how the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality exemplifies traditional attributes like omnipresence and omnibenevolence. But as I’ve said, most process theists, like me, avoid calling God omnipotent or omniscient. Still, people who are really in love with those two attributes could hold on to them by redefining them in terms of all-inclusive interactivity. [That’s basically what Keith Ward does, following Richard Swinburne, in God: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Oneworld, 2002), 221-228.] I tried out that strategy myself in a 1997 lecture (online here). So there’s a way to hold on to these attributes, defined in a certain technical way: Analogically speaking, God does all that one can conceivably do with all newly interactive others, and God knows all that one can conceivably know of all newly interactive others. But when all others are indeed newly interactive, there’s so much that one can’t unilaterally do with them and can’t totally foreknow of them that I find it too misleading to speak of omnipotence or omniscience here. 

Reframing How We Think of Absolutes: As I’ve said, process thinkers reframe experience in ways that emphasize relational, flowing distinctions over absolute, fixed divisions. This need not imply relativism, however. In fact, many process thinkers insist that there are still statements, principles, etc., that are true always and everywhere, and if those aren’t absolutes I’m not sure what would be. The obvious example here, of course, is process thought’s starting point: To be real is to be newly interactive. That’s supposed to be true always and everywhere. But it’s crucial to recognize that, even if we accept that it’s abstractly somehow true always and everywhere, it tells us very little about how it’s concretely true here and now. As I hinted earlier, absolutely stated truths, if indeed true, are abstract, partial outlines of the relational, flowing distinctions we concretely experience. That doesn’t make them untrue, just incomplete. (I sometimes suggest that we think of such abstractions as rubber bands. You can stretch and twist them to fit all kinds of shapes, and they do have some pull on whatever they fit, but there’s no way to predict how they’ll fit or how much pull they’ll have.) One perhaps surprising consequence is that this way of reframing how we think of absolutes allows many process theists, like Schubert Ogden, to retain a few more traditional attributes of of God like immutability and eternity (though again these are radically reframed): “There is a sense in which God may be appropriately characterized by the classical attributes. Since his sociality or relativity to others is itself relative to nothing, it is quite properly spoken of as absolute. God, one may say, is absolutely relative. Likewise, the one thing about God which is never-changing, and so in the strictest sense immutable, is that he never ceases to change in his real relations of love with his whole creation. Precisely as eminently temporal, God is also of necessity strictly eternal or everlasting. But, important as it is to acknowledge this continuity with the older theism, there is no mistaking the radical difference. Although all the classical attributes contain an element of truth, they are neither the whole truth about God’s nature nor the surest clue to discerning it. That clue, rather, is to be found in the ancient religious insight that the very principle of all being is love, in the sense of the mutual giving and receiving whereby each of us becomes himself only in genuine interdependence with his fellows. If to be even the least of things is somehow to be related to others and dependent on them, then the One ‘than whom none greater can be conceived’ can only be the supreme instance of such social relatedness, the One who as the unbounded love of others is the end no less than the beginning of all that either is or can ever be.” (This incidentally was written in 1966, when the use of male pronouns went mostly unquestioned. Ogden no longer writes that way.)

Reframing How We Think of Prayer: As the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality, God is always interacting all-inclusively with all the efforts and aspirations of every interactive "part," including you and me. This means (again, analogically speaking) that God is constantly hearing and answering every conscious and unconscious prayer in ways that promote wholeness (increasingly inclusive interactivity) among all, what Christians have called God's kingdom or reign. But promoting wholeness is not guaranteeing it, because (again) God's power is interactive, not controlling. And unwholesome efforts and aspirations are never promoted, even though they are not preventable. For both these reasons, many prayers are not answered the way we might want. Why pray, then? Praying deepens and reinforces our constant interaction with God. It can open us to the wholeness God is promoting and transform our efforts and aspirations accordingly. It can itself contribute to the wholeness God is offering not just to us but to all others. (More here and here)

Reframing How You Think of Yourself: In process thought, what makes you uniquely yourself, distinguishable from all others, is actually a direct line of succession of momentary selves. (This sounds a lot like some schools of Buddhist thought—more here.) When you are aware of yourself, your self isn’t holding still. Instead, your present self is aware of its own immediately preceding self. It's a relationship with an other, but not just any other, because there's always a direct line of succession involved. Still, there's a kind of altruism intrinsically involved in simply being yourself. The novel union that your present self preserves with your past self involves both self-love and love of another—an "other you." And it opens you to loving others who do not directly share your line of succession when you recognize them as "other yous." Another twist: in process theism God, the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality, directly shares your and all others' direct lines of self-succession in God's own direct line of self-succession, which further undoes any stark opposition between egoism and altruism. It also involves everyone in a kind of self-transcending immortality in God—your whole life up to death will abide in God's present just as directly as your whole life up to now abides in your present (as well as God’s). What ends at death is not your life in and with God but your life’s present ability to diverge from God’s. God’s endless life unifies and continues the differing projects of every ended life, which means that no life is ever totally ended.  

Reframing How We Think of Biblical Portrayals of God: The ancient testimonies of the Bible matter vitally to most process theists, especially in communities, like mine, whose God-talk is not only shaped but awakened by listening to them (more here and here). These testimonies are not considered infallible, but they're still considered crucial. Some passages in the Bible have been interpreted to say that God is all-controlling, but process theists argue that on the whole the all-interacting, non-controlling God is a better match for the God referred to in the Bible and addressed in prayer. Starting with Genesis 1, the God portrayed in the Bible has been, and still is, persistently summoning the world from chaos into multiply creative community—over and over and over (more here). Defenders of the all-controlling idea of God, like Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, etc., got around this by arguing that, even though the vast majority of biblical passages seem to make God look non-controlling, these should be taken more figuratively than the rarer passages that made God look all-controlling. Process theists turn the tables on that argument: if some biblical portrayals of God should be taken more figuratively than others, why not take the all-controlling-looking portrayals more figuratively? 

Reframing How We Think of Jesus: For process theists, every person anywhere, indeed every moment, embodies ("incarnates") God, the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality, in some way. Everything is some sort of "Word made flesh." So in process thought, to call Jesus "the Word made flesh" (John 1:14) is to identify something that he has in common with every other human being (and non-human being too). That alone does not make Jesus unique. But Christian process theists, like me, nevertheless discern something unsurpassably unique in Jesus, not in the fact that he somehow embodies God, but in the specific story of how he embodies God. For us the story of Jesus' life is best summarized in Philippians 2:5-11: Jesus lives an utterly self-giving (literally, "self-emptying") life whose embrace outlives and undoes utter rejection and devastation, and this gives rise to a community ("the body of Christ") animated by this utterly self-giving, all-embracing life, the life of God-with-us. Without putting down other religious figures or texts, Christian process theists want this unique storyline to keep reframing the very terms in which all of us think of ourselves, of God, and of everybody and everything else. (Incidentally, all of this can be squared with the underlying themes of the Nicene Creed, as I have explained more fully here.)

Reframing How We Think of Mind & Matter: One of the most astonishing tendencies among process thinkers is how nonchalantly most of them seem to embrace some form of panpsychism or panexperientialism—the claim that every interaction is mental, experiential, spiritual, subjective, etc. (more here and here). There are of course prominent figures in the natural sciences who embrace panpsychism (more here), but most prefer physicalism (or materialism)—the claim that every interaction is physical, material, etc. (more here). Now I'm rather fond of panpsychism myself, but I have to admit that I still cringe a bit when process thinkers write as if panpsychism were obviously more defensible than physicalism, or when they make God-talk dependent on first embracing panpsychism wholeheartedly. I think a better term for the process approach to the mind/matter binary is "interactive nondualism"—"mind" and "matter" are terms that can be used to emphasize different aspects involved in every interaction. "Mind" emphasizes the active, novel aspects, while "matter" emphasizes the passive, semi-repeatable aspects. I have quite a bit more to say about that here. The upshot is that in process terms you can call yourself at least one sort of panpsychist, but you don't have to. And you can also call yourself at least one sort of physicalist, but you don't have to. What you can't do is insist that your preferred label is the only reasonable one.  

Reframing How We Think of Freedom & Determinism: To reiterate, in process thought, things, properties and even the most universal of natural regularities are somewhat repeatable ways of newly interacting, "eddies in the constant flux of process." No matter how stable or fixed they look, they never fully describe the novelty involved in every concrete interaction. This radically reframes how we approach the usual debates about determinism and human freedom. Process thinkers don’t equate freedom (creativity) with sheer indeterminacy or unpredictability (how are you free if you have no idea what you’ll do next?). While there are always relatively indeterminate and unpredictable aspects, there are also determinate and predictable aspects involved in what Whitehead called “the production of novel togetherness” (see above), the newly influenced capacity to be newly influential. On these terms, we’re no longer asking how to fit creativity into an otherwise fixed system of causes and effects. Seemingly fixed systems of any sort are abstractions from unfixed “eddies in the constant flux of process.” They're not just constructions or projections, as some versions of postmodernism allege. They outline real influences, but they're still abstractions. No matter how widely they apply, they never exhaust all that is creatively happening, whether on a human level, a quantum level or any other level. Representing the Stanford School in philosophy of science, John Dupre (who seems only recently to have discovered his affinities with Whitehead) makes a similar case: "Few, if any, situations have a complete causal truth to be told about them. Causal regularity is a much rarer feature of the world than is generally supposed. And the real solution to the problem of freedom of the will ... is to recognize that humans, far from being putative exceptions to an otherwise seamless web of causal connection, are in fact dense concentrations of causal power in a world where [causal regularity] is in short supply. The solution to the problem of human autonomy that I propose, then, is a complete reversal of traditional ... approaches." (online here)

Reframing How We Think of Spacetime: If, as process thinkers insist, reality as such is newly interacting, this means that some sort of temporality is ultimately real. (You can't have novelty without some sort of temporality.) Many noteworthy physicists and cosmologists and writers in popular science disagree, claiming that our experience of temporality is an illusion, and process thinkers say they're wrong (more here). How dare they! But they do dare. This should come as no surprise. If seemingly static things and properties are reinterpreted as somewhat repeatable ways of newly interacting, why not do the same with the equally static “block universe” of popular cosmologists? Process thinkers argue that timeless, block universe cosmologies result from unwittingly importing unexamined philosophical assumptions (Platonism, for example) into equations that actually allow multiple interpretations. And they find further support for this from other cosmologists like George EllisTim MaudlinLee Smolin and Richard Muller. But basically their insistence comes from their commitment to a thoroughly experiential methodology: we should prefer cosmologies and worldviews that do not deny what seems experientially inescapable, and newly interacting seems as experientially inescapable as anything else.  

[An Optional Aside on Paul Tillich: Paul Tillich is also a panentheist who seems to understand God (being-itself) and all others interactively: “To call God transcendent … does not mean that one must establish a ‘super world’ of divine objects. It does mean that, within itself, the finite world points beyond itself. In other words, it is self transcendent ... The finitude of the finite points to the infinitude of the infinite. It goes beyond itself in order to return to itself in a new dimension”—Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 7-8. Process theists agree. Nevertheless, process theists generally disagree with Tillich on several points. 1) They don't think it limits God to say that God exists. They think Tillich is using "exists" in too restricted a sense. For Tillich, "existence" is a narrower category than "being" or "reality." But process thinkers, like most English speaking philosophers and the general public, use "existence" to cover whatever "being" or "reality" covers. They do agree with Tillich that God's way of existing is unsurpassably unique and immeasurably different from any other way of existing. God's way of existing is both necessary in some respects and contingent in others, while all others' ways of existing are simply contingent. But God's unsurpassable way of existing is still existing. 2) They don't think it limits God to call God a being or an individual. The all-inclusively interactive whole of reality is the one and only concrete reality where individuality and universality coincide, where a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind, "the individual with strictly universal functions" (Hartshorne, p. 36). "Individuality and universality ordinarily are opposed ... What Tillich overlooks, however, is that this seemingly inevitable contrast between universality and individuality is one of the very rules to which God as worshipful or unsurpassable must be an exception. [God's] uniqueness must consist precisely in being both reality as such and an individual reality, insofar comparable to other individuals" (Hartshorne, pp. 34-35). 3) They don't think God is the answer to the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" They find the question itself too confused to need answering. For them "nothing" is not a conceivable alternative to "something," so there's no "rather than" to ponder. "Nothing," they claim, is a relative term that always presumes the existence of something else, as in "There's nothing in the fridge" (there's still the fridge, and there's still plenty in the fridge—shelves, air, electro-magnetic waves, etc.—just nothing edible). In fact many process thinkers (Hartshorne, Ogden, Gamwell) insist that "Something exists" is necessarily true, making "Nothing exists" necessarily false. For them the astonishment of existence is better expressed in Blaise Pascal's astonishment "at being here rather than there … now rather than then" (Pensees, 205).]

[Another Optional Aside on Gordon Kaufman: Gordon Kaufman has come to identify God “as the creativity manifest throughout the cosmos”—In the Beginning ... Creativity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 48. This certainly converges with many themes in process theism. But Kaufman does not identify God as the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality. For him God is simply the novel interactivity (creativity) with which the imagined whole and all parts of reality are continually involved. We may be intimately interactive with local manifestations of creativity, which is itself fraught with mystery, but for Kaufman there is no reason to think that we or these local manifestations are intimately interactive with the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality. That is because for him, as best I can tell, the whole of reality may indeed be newly interactive to some extent, but not all-inclusively so, not directly interactive with every likewise interactive part no matter how minuscule, as process theists maintain. So Kaufman thinks that “it would certainly be a mistake to argue that cosmic creativity always manifests love for all the creatures involved” (p. 63). Process theists, however, see no mistake here, because love simply is among the best human approximations of the all-inclusively interactive wholeness that distinguishes God from everything else. Yes, this is speaking analogically or metaphorically or symbolically (take your pick), but for process theists the similarity is real, experientially real, no matter how great the dissimilarity. Kaufman’s reluctance here may also stem from his take on religious experience in general: “I seem to be ‘tone deaf’ with respect to so-called religious experience. When others speak of their ‘experience of God’ or of ‘God’s presence’, or the profound experience of ‘the holy’ or of ‘sacredness’, I simply do not know what they are talking about” (pp. 109-110). Process theists do not consider themselves tone deaf to these experiences. Doubtless one reason Kaufman finds himself tone deaf to such experiences that he seems to equate experience with direct perception of an object (see An Essay on Theological Method, Third Edition [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995], p. 29). Anything else is an imaginative construct added to our perceptions of objects, maybe unavoidably added, but never experienced as intimately as objects are. But for process thinkers, as we’ve seen, objects are themselves abstractions from an intimate awareness of “the whole occurrence” of reality, and that whole occurrence is not added—it’s experienced as inescapably as any object. To most process thinkers, Kaufman has managed to reframe many things in light of the creativity he has found here and there, but he has stopped short of reframing practically everything.] 

To sum up: Process thought basically does an end run around all sorts of traditional oppositons—unity vs. diversity, self vs. others, absoluteness vs. relativity, matter vs. mind, causality vs. freedom, things vs. properties, fact vs. value, immanence vs. transcendence, natural vs. supernatural, secular vs. sacred, nature vs. God, evil vs. providence, individuality vs. universality, etc. Distinctions remain, but these are no longer competitive alternatives, and that's a major part of its appeal. "To be real is to be interactive" reframes practically everything. Try it.

Fr. Charles Allen  

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[1]"The immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence of nature. It is nature as an event present for sense-awareness, and essentially passing."—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, p. 14 (online here). Note: if the whole occurrence of nature is "essentially passing," that means it's also essentially arriving—passing and arriving are complementary ways of describing any occurrence. At this stage in his thinking, Whitehead had not yet realized that he was also talking about God. "The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged to details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted. The details are a reaction to the totality. ... They are interpretive and not originative. What is [experientially] original is the vague totality. ... The primitive stage of discrimination … is the vague grasp of reality, dissecting it into a threefold scheme, namely, 'The Whole,' 'That Other,' and 'This-My-Self.' ... This is primarily a dim division. … There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. ... There is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence. ... We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), pp. 109-110 (online here). Although Whitehead occasionally speaks of "the totality," as the most prominent process thinker he clearly does not mean a fixed totality. "Any relation in which some more or less determinate reality is understood discriminates that object from the rest of the cosmos, contrasts just this part with every other actual and possible reality. Subjects of understanding are aware of reality as such; they are related, at least implicitly, to a representation of the all-inclusive context in which they are set."—Franklin I. Gamwell, Democracy on Purpose: Justice and the Reality of God (Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2002), p. 33.

[2]"The unity of a transcendent universe, and the multiplicity of realized actualities, both enter into our experience by [the] sense of Deity ... We owe to the sense of deity the obviousness of the many actualities of the world, and the obviousness of the unity of the world."—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968 [1938]), p. 102 (online here). "Worship is a consciously unitary response to life. It lifts to the level of explicit awareness the integrity of an individual responding to reality.  … [In worshipping God] the conscious wholeness of the individual is correlative to an inclusive wholeness in the world of which the individual is aware, and this wholeness is deity.  … God is the wholeness of the world, correlative to the wholeness of every sound individual dealing with the world."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 5-6, online here. "I hold that the primary use or function of 'God' is to refer to the objective ground in reality itself of our ineradicable confidence in the final worth of our existence. It lies in the nature of this basic confidence to affirm that the real whole of which we experience ourselves to be parts is such as to be worthy of, and thus to evoke, that very confidence."—Schubert M. Ogden, The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1977 [1966]), p. 37.

[3]Others would call this sort of attribution metaphorical or symbolic. All agree that language is being stretched immeasurably but nevertheless somehow fittingly. According to Aquinas, "a term is predicated analogically of creatures and of God when we know from creatures that it must be true of God too, but also know that how it is true of God must be beyond our comprehension."—Denys Turner, Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 211. In speaking analogically of God, "there cannot be a likeness so great that the unlikeness is not greater."—Fourth Lateran Council of the Roman Catholic Church, Canon 2, 1215 CE). "Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap."—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, (New York: Free Press, 1978 [1929]), p. 4. "To assert truly, albeit symbolically, that God is boundless love ... we must be able to assert not only truly but also literally that ultimate reality is a distinct center of universal interaction that, being acted on by all things as well as acting on them, is their sole final end as well as their only primal source."—Schubert Ogden, The Point of Christology (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 145. Ogden provocatively dares to think he is speaking literally when he refers to ultimate reality as "a distinct center of universal interaction." That is certainly speaking less anthropomorphically, but others (including Whitehead!) would question whether this is or needs to be literal.

[4]"To the question, Why ... the partial disorder and evils in the world? [process theism] has essentially but one answer. It holds that it is not God alone who acts in the world; every individual acts. There is no single producer of the actual series of events; one producer, to be sure, is uniquely universal, unsurpassably influential. Nevertheless, what happens is in no case the product of his creative acts alone. Countless choices, including the universally influential choices, intersect to make a world, and how, concretely, they intersect is not chosen by anyone, nor could it be. A multiplicity of choosers means that what concretely happens is never simply chosen; rather, it just happens. Purpose, in multiple form, and chance are not mutually exclusive but complementary; neither makes sense alone ... Concrete evils and goods simply happen, they are never in their full particularity chosen. Hence to ask, Why did God choose to inflict this or that evil upon us? is to ask a pseudo-question."—Charles Hartshorne, A Natural Theology for Our Time (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1967), pp. 58-59, online here