Reframing Practically Everything: Process Thought, Nature & God

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)

Process Thought's Unifying/Diversifying 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 immeasurable, as it never repeats entirely.)

Where's the evidence? Your every experience supports this: 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. 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.

This inevitably leads to a fuller statement (slow down and let it sink in—it's not as complicated as it first looks): Reality as such is the interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all interactive parts. And this too can be supported experientially.*

Reframing How We Think of Nature: This, the interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all interactive parts, accounts for what we call matter in some contexts and what we call mind in other contexts (more here and here.), for what we call universal causation in some contexts and what we call freedom in other contexts (more here), even for what we call things/substances in some contexts and what we call properties/attributes in other contexts. This also accounts for the evolution of complexity through natural selection. Natural selection results directly from the self-selective, interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all 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. And 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 interactive "parts" interacting ("dialoguing") with the likewise all-inclusively interactive whole of reality.** 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. The interaction is experienced as more "I/You-ish" than "I/It-ish," as Martin Buber might say. There is nothing unreasonable about this. It would instead be unreasonable to object to this.

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, at least as I am presenting it—God is the whole of reality understood as all-inclusively interactive. But process theists don't equate the whole of reality with the currently known universe (as Grigg does), and they don't like to be called pantheists. They prefer to be called panentheists, insisting that the whole (God) and the parts are dynamically 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 in calling Spinoza's (and Einstein's) pantheism "sexed-up atheism." And they would probably say the same thing about Richard 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). 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" (see Hempel's Dilemma). 

Reframing How We Think of Evil: Process theists do not attribute omnipotence to God, the all-inclusively interactive whole of reality, not even analogically, because omnipotence (total control) is not a version of being interactive on any level. God's power is immeasurably greater than any others', but it's still interactive, not monopolizing. The interactive relationship between the interactive whole and all interactive parts thus provides no guarantees against vast amounts and degrees of evil, that is, of purposeless conflict and suffering. Process theists don't ask, "Why is there so much purposeless conflict and suffering?" (they would be surprised if there weren't), nor do they attempt to attribute a single prior purpose to it. They instead respond to it empathically with the further purpose of denying it the last word, and so, analogically speaking, does God.**** (More here)

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" is to identify something that he has in common with every other human being (and non-human being too). 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 ("kenotic") 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 transforming the very terms in which all of us think of ourselves, of God, and of everybody and everything else.

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  


*"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. 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.

**"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. "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.

***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.

****"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