Whitehead on theological revisionism

I don’t know why I’ve suddenly been interested in reading Whitehead, but after Adventures of Ideas I turned to an earlier work–Religion in the Making. Here you can see the germs of a “Whiteheadian” doctrine of God, particularly in his critique of traditional notions of omnipotence and transcendence:

This worship of glory arising from power is not only dangerous: it arises from a barbaric conception of God. I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the bones of those slaughtered because of men intoxicated by its attraction. This view of the universe, in the guise of an Eastern empire ruled by a glorious tyrant, may have served its purpose. In its historical setting, it marks a religious ascent. The psalm quoted [Ps. 24] gives us its noblest expression. The other side comes out in the psalms expressing hate, now generally withdrawn from public worship. The glorification of power has broken more hearts than it has healed. (p. 55)

And another passage on the notion of a completely “transcendent” God, which Whitehead refers to as the “Semitic” concept of God:

The main difficulties which the Semitic concept has to struggle with are two in number. One of them is that it leaves God completely outside metaphysical rationalization. We know, according to it, that He is such a being as to design and create this universe, and there our knowledge stops. If we mean by his goodness that He is the one self-existent, complete entity, then He is good. But such goodness must not be confused with the ordinary goodness of daily life. He is undeniably useful, because anything baffling can be ascribed to his direct decree.

The second difficulty of the concept is to get itself proved. The only possible proof would appear to be the “ontological proof” devised by Anselm, and revived by Descartes. According to this proof, the mere concept of such an entity allows us to infer its existence. Most philosophers and theologians reject this proof…. (pp. 70-71)

Interestingly, Whitehead argues that Christianity has modified the pure “Semitic” concept of God by introducing a degree of genuine immanence in the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity. The logos is a principle of God’s immanent presence in the world. “The Semitic God is omniscient; but, in addition to that, the Christian God is a factor in the universe” (p. 73).

However, he says, the transcendent, omnipotent God gradually became Christian orthodoxy, albeit modified by “tri-personality.” He suggests that a more thorough rethinking of the concept of God is necessary, one that’s consistent with our best science and our best metaphysics.

I think we see Whitehead struggling here to find a conception of God that is both intelligible and moral. (I read something suggesting that Whitehead’s loss of his son in World War I was one cause of his struggle with notions of omnipotence.) A God of absolute power and inscrutable will no longer makes sense to him.

As it happens, Marvin recently posted on Gordon Kaufman’s revisionist theological project, which takes a subtly different course from Whitehead’s. Kaufman argues against a personal, creator God, on the grounds that it doesn’t seem to fit with a scientific understanding of the nature of the universe or our experience of evil. By contrast, theologians working in the Whiteheadian tradition have picked up on the latter’s critique of omnipotence and transcendence (criticisms echoed by the other most important “process” philosopher, Charles Hartshorne) and developed it into an influential school of Christian theology.

It seems that Kaufman leans toward a more impersonal “ground-of-being” type of theism that is willing to jettison God’s personal and moral character, while process theologians sacrifice omnipotence and transcendence to uphold God’s nature as “creative-responsive love” (to use John Cobb and David Griffin’s term from their introduction to process theology). Granted, more traditionally minded theologians have tried to preserve God’s transcendence, omnipotence, and personal-moral nature, but they have a harder time dealing with the problem of evil. Maybe the best conclusion we can come to is that these are all avenues worth exploring, since it’s far from clear which is right–if any.


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