Reframing Practically Everything: Process Thought, Nature, God & Evil

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, issuing in the "novel togetherness" that Alfred North Whitehead called "creativity" (Process and Reality [New York: Free Press, 1978 (1929)], p. 21). (Note: because novelty is everywhere, influence is always partial, never total, and while everywhere, novelty remains immeasurable.)

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. (Actually, the interactive whole of reality just is this all-interactive, unifying/diversifying relationship.) 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), 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, 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," i.e., the immeasurable novelty that is essential to being truly interactive (more here). Process thought reframes the supernatural as, let's say, the "ultranatural"—more intensely natural than the semi-repeatable patterns (measurable constancies, "un-novelties") we abstract from nature. 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 relationship with God (more herehere and here). In prayer and contemplation they are at least dimly aware of themselves as interactive parts interacting ("dialoguing") with the likewise 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. There is nothing unreasonable about this. It would instead be unreasonable to object to this.

Reframing How We Think of Evil: Process theists do not attribute omnipotence to God, the all-inclusive 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 provides no guarantees against vast amounts and degrees 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 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.****

Reframing How We Read Biblical Portrayals of God: The ancient testimonies of the Bible, while not considered infallible by process theists, historically shape our very ideas of God. They matter vitally, especially in communities, like mine, whose God-talk is not only shaped but awakened by them (more here). 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? Furthermore, Christian process theists, like me, find the power of the interactive whole of reality most decisively embodied, not in a sacred book, but in a common life whose embrace outlives and undoes utter rejection and devastation, and historically speaking they find that embodied common life begun, in human terms, with Jesus' story of life, death and all-embracingly risen life (Philippians 2:1-13). (Other religious figures or texts may embody complementary ideas—this doesn't have to be a competition.)

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, 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. "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. "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 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.