Summary thoughts on process theology

Last night I finished Cobb and Griffin’s introduction to process theology, so I wanted to get some thoughts down on the general Whiteheadian perspective. I think the expanded name sometimes used – process-relational theology – is actually more helpful because both elements, process and relation, are key to understanding what this school of thought is trying to say.

First, let’s talk about process. For Whitehead, the basic constituents of reality are not things (“substances” in much traditional philosophical parlance), but moments, or occasions, of experience. The things we encounter in the world–rocks, trees, birds, people–are actually collections of occasions spread out in space and extended through time. Each occasion is an event in which influences of past experience are incorporated and synthesized into a new moment of experience (Whitehead calls this a concrescence). So, instead of thinking of myself as a thing (whether it be a body or a soul, or some combination) that has experiences, I am a series of experiences, each of which has a “mental” and “physical” pole, with no underlying substratum needed.

Whitehead’s view differs from that of, say, David Hume (who similarly characterized the human self as a series of experiences) in a few ways. First, unlike much classic empiricism, Whitehead’s view is that experience comes to us already value-laden. The elements of the past which are incorporated in each new occasion of experience come with certain affective or emotional tones. Second, the act whereby these elements are incorporated into a new occasion involves a genuine element of novelty or creative synthesis. Cobb and Griffin call this creative transformation. The present is influenced, but not determined, by the past; each occasion is an opportunity for synthesizing elements of the past into a higher harmony that reconciles seemingly opposed values into something new. In Whitehead’s terminology, each occasion prehends its environment, which is comprised of past occasions, and synthesizes the elements of that environment in light of its subjective aim of coordinating those elements into a genuinely new moment of experience. Reality consists of these ongoing processes of incorporating the past and creating novelty.

Turning to relational, the important point here is that, because what we have, according to Whitehead, is not a world of independent substances bumping up against each other, but a world of porous occasions of experience, relationships are fundamentally constitutive of the entities that make up reality. Each occasion is influenced by, and in fact incorporates influences from, prior occasions. Not only is there no bright boundary between “me” and “my body” (because my soul and body are both streams of mutually influencing occasions), but there is similarly no bright boundary between “me” and “you” or “me” and “the environment.” (As has often been pointed out, Whitehead’s thought has affinities with Buddhism.) Because of the thorough-going relational character of existence, no one entity is able to exert unilateral unconditional power over others; we are all interpenetrated and influenced by everything else, at least to some extent.

Which brings us to theology. According to Whitehead, although God plays a special role in the world, God is not exempt from the general metaphysical principles exemplified by other entities. This puts him at odds with a lot of theology, which has placed God beyond all human categories and conceptualizations. For Whitehead, God is the ground of order in the world and of novelty. This happens through God’s persuasive “lure” of occasions into new and better forms of creative synthesis. Whitehead calls this God’s initial aim, which correlates to the subjective aims of creatures. God contains in God’s eternal nature all conceptual possibilities; by presenting these to the world, God influences occasions into realizing new forms of existing.

Cobb and Griffin describe the process of creation as God enticing very primitive elements into higher and more complex forms, eventually resulting in the long evolutionary development of the cosmos. Because God’s power is exercised in this persuasive fashion, it is also limited. Even God can’t unilaterally determine the outcome of events, a fact which plays a pivotal role in process thought’s response to the problem of evil. Nevertheless, God is present in each moment, as the lure that calls each occasion to higher forms of harmony and intensity of experience.

According to process thought, God, like all other existents, is related to everything else that is and is genuinely affected by it. Contrary to the tradition, which holds God to be impassible, or unaffected by anything that happens in the world, process thinkers sees God as experiencing what creatures experience. Whiteheadian theism is sometimes referred to as “dipolar” because it sees God as having two aspects: an eternal aspect that Whitehead refers to as God’s primordial nature (and which, as mentioned above, includes God’s eternal apprehension of all the possibilities that can be realized in existence) and a temporal aspect that he calls God’s consequent nature. This consequent aspect is comprised of God’s experience of what happens in the world. As creatures realize new and higher forms of creativity, God’s life is enriched. As a corollary, as creatures suffer or inflict suffering, God suffers. (God is the “fellow-sufferer who understands” to use Whitehead’s oft-quoted phrase.)

It’s difficult to assess Whitehead’s thought because it constitutes a unique metaphysical perspective, comparable in scope to Platonism or Aristotelianism. And I’m not familiar enough with the Whitehead corpus (particularly his magnum opus Process and Reality) to provide a particularly informed critique. But I think I can say a few things about its appeal and some possible limitations.

First, Whitehead’s perspective allows us to see the universe as a unitary whole of interrelated and mutually influencing entities. This is more consistent with contemporary evolutionary and ecological thought than much traditional metaphysics and theology. It’s no coincidence that process theologians, and those influenced by process thought, have been at the forefront of the science-religion dialogue and the promotion of environmental consciousness in Christian theology. Second, the view of God propounded by process thought avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional forms of theism, particularly with respect to the problem of evil. And this view portrays a God whose character is in some ways more consistent with the God of the Bible, particularly in God’s nature as “creative-responsive love.” This resonance of process thought with the biblical view of God is the response of process theologians to accuastions that they’re more philosophical than theological. And Whitehead himself saw the life of Jesus as one of the pivotal events in history revealing a God of persuasive love rather than domineering power.

As far as weaknesses go, two stand out to me. First, the Whiteheadian system, with its forbidding jargon and abstruse speculations, can be difficult for outsiders to penetrate, and one wonders about the usefulness of yoking Christian theology to a seemingly esoteric form of metaphysics. Second, the process-relational model of God has elements that seem to clash with what many have taken to be essential points of Christian orthodoxy. Primarily these are in relation to its views of divine power and passibility. Critics have wondered, for example, if the process God has the resources to ensure the ultimate triumph of God’s purposes–a victory that is indicated by the Bible and the consensus of Christian tradition.

I’m not sure either of these weaknesses is fatal to the process-relational project, though. Regarding the first, it is possible to incorporate Whiteheadian insights without adopting wholesale process thought’s metaphysical apparatus. For example, the scholar of science and religion Ian Barbour has been influenced by process thought, but largely avoids the Whiteheadian jargon in offering a metaphysical description of the universe as an evolutionary process characterized by emerging levels of complexity and the interplay of necessity and creativity. Similarly, Keith Ward has incorporated elements of dipolar theism into his conceptualization of God, such as passibility and God’s responsiveness to what occurs in the world, without accepting in its entirety the process view of God’s power. In sum, I’d say that process thought has provided a helpful and necessary impetus to re-thinking inherited notions about God and God’s power and relationship to the universe, a necessity also imposed by developments in modern thought that theology hasn’t always been willing to seriously grapple with.


Ian G. Barbour, Science and Religion

John Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition

Keith Ward, Pascal’s Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas

Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making

“Process Theism” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


2 thoughts on “Summary thoughts on process theology

  1. Pingback: A God of life « A Thinking Reed

  2. Pingback: Praying with Marjorie Suchocki | A Thinking Reed

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