Process Theology

Chapter 9 of Theology Bluebook (University of Idaho, 3rd edition,

The process God is co-creative with all other creatures, including blooming flowers, singing whales, and insect architects. The source of power is ontologically distinct from God.  Both God and finite beings draw on the same source of creative energy.  This precludes the idea of God as the source of all power, and this gives finite beings and nature as a whole an independence and autonomy of their own.

There is no beginning to creation; God and the universe are co-eternally creative. Whitehead does, however, have a concept of cosmic epochs which appears compatible with an oscillating “big bang” cosmogony. Process creation is creation out of chaos, not the orthodox creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). There is precious little biblical support for the latter; but more importantly, the ultimate implication of creatio ex nihilo is the
imputation of all evil to God. (For more read THREE TYPES OF DIVINE POWER (

The process God does not have absolute coercive power but only has persuasive power. Although Alfred North Whitehead, the major source of process theology, was not a confessing Christian, he believed that the best expression of divine persuasion was found in the life and teachings of Jesus.  “The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly, but the deeper idolatry, of fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers was retained.  The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.” The traditional idea of divine power reflects a worship of raw power, the power of the state and of the authoritarian father.

The process God is omniscient but not omniprescience.  The process God knows all there is to know but will not know the future until it is actualized.  Traditional ideas of divine foreknowledge equivocate about the meaning of knowledge and close off the freedom of the future — i.e., as something not yet happened.  As Rem B. Edward argues: “Even from a divine point of view, the notion of the simultaneity of past, present, and future is nonsense. What is the difference between saying that God perceives the future as present and saying that God perceives the square as round?”2

In giving up the concept of unchanging substance, process theology avoids the concept of divine immutability that came with Greek substance metaphysics.  Like the God of the Bible the process God is dynamic, ever-changing, taking in new experience as the universe grows and develops in creative transformation.  The process God is dipolar: one pole is the changing aspect of God (Whitehead’s “consequent nature”), and the other pole is the unchanging aspect (Whitehead’s “primordial nature” [PN]).  As the “mind” of God, the PN contains the formal principles (eternal objects) which allow for order and structure in the universe.

The process God is strictly nonjudgmental. God’s consequent nature accepts
everything unconditionally. Although Whiteheadian Christians keep a moral will in God, some prefer to describe the divine nature in transmoral terms. “God as Cosmic Moralist; God as the Unchanging and Passionless Absolute; God as Controlling Power; God as Sanctioner of the Status Quo; God as Male;
Process theology denies the existence of this God.”3

Until recently American theology in the 20th century has been dominated by the continental thought of Barth and Bultmann, who, categorically rejected any natural theology, one which is based on “natural” reason rather than revelation.  This trend was quite in keeping with our Puritan fathers who propounded a strictly biblical theology, which definitely excluded an autonomous natural religion. This type of theology culminated in Jonathan Edwards and has continued in various forms until the present time.

The minor exception in our early history was a period of thirty to forty years just before and after the American Revolution.  George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Franklin were all religious liberals who were heavily influenced by the new science and rational philosophy of the European Enlightenment. These thinkers preferred general revelation over special revelation and insisted on a strict separation of religious doctrine and morality.  As theistic humanists, they believed in the autonomy of human reason and a morality based on these God-given faculties.  This meant that even an atheist could be moral.

Under the leadership of John B. Cobb, Daniel Day Williams, Lewis S. Ford, David R. Griffin, and Schubert M. Ogden, there has been a revival of an American natural theology under the name of “process theology.” The University of Chicago is the academic home of this new movement, as both Cobb and Williams took their degrees there.  The basic philosophical influence came from the Chicago philosopher Charles  Hartshorne, who was Whitehead’s post-doctoral assistant, the leading “process” philosopher of the 20th Century.

Whitehead and Hartshorne, like the Founding Fathers, are also disciples of the European Enlightenment, but they are philosophical and theological innovators as well. (They also have a very different view of the self.)  But Hartshorne and Whitehead differ significantly from the classical rationalists in that they reject the traditional divine attributes of omnipotence, omniprescience, and immutability.  Both thinkers also reject the Newtonian world-view, especially its mechanistic materialism, and Whitehead in particular incorporates modern physics into his speculative framework. They also reject the idea of the self as a self-contained, autonomous subject.

In contrast to Whitehead and Hartshorne, whose natural theologies do not contain any appeal to special revelation, the new process theologians are confessing Christians in the tradition of liberal theology.  (There are process theologians representing other traditions as well.) This liberalism is summed up succinctly by Cobb and David R. Griffin:  “We judge that Christian meaning can best be made alive today through a truly contemporary vision [viz., Whitehead’s philosophy] that is at the same time truly Christian.”4

With the appearance of the journal Process Studies and the establishment of the Center for Process Studies at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, the development of a systematic, Christian, process theology is well underway. The most important studies thus far are Cobb’s A Christian Natural Theology (1965) and Christ in a Pluralistic Age (1975); Lewis Ford’s The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism (1978); Griffin’s God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (1976) God and Religion in a Postmodern
(1989), and Evil Revisited (1991).

I shall consider some of the salient features of this process theology, i.e., the
Christian Whiteheadianism of Cobb and Griffin.  I shall offer my own criticisms and my own preferences for a theology from the process standpoint. Most introductory expositions of this theology attempt to avoid, or keep to a
minimum, Whitehead’s very difficult, and sometimes baffling, technical
terminology. I have never been very successful in doing this, and I therefore
accept the challenge (and also the risk) of introducing these new terms in a
summary way.

There is an intimate connection between process philosophy and the revolution in modern physics.  Whitehead wrote his magnum opus, Process and Reality, on the basis of expert knowledge of relativity theory and quantum mechanics.  Indeed, it is the only major philosophy, with perhaps the exception of “general systems theory,” which has taken seriously the metaphysical implications of the new physics. In 1922 Whitehead published his own version of the theory of relativity, which attempted to account for the same phenomena without recourse to non-Euclidean geometry.  Some now say that Whitehead’s theory has finally been empirically disconfirmed, but this work is still a great tribute to Whitehead’s genius.

At the beginning of western philosophy in the pre-Socratics Greeks, we can find a process metaphysics in Heraclitus.  Whitehead maintains that Heraclitus’ concept of “the flux of things is the one ultimate generalization around which we must weave our philosophical system”; and that “mathematical physics translates the saying of Heraclitus, `All things flow,’ into its own language.  It then becomes, ‘all things are vectors.'”5

The physicist Werner Heisenberg agrees with Whitehead’s assessment of Heraclitus:  “Modern physics is in some way extremely near to the doctrines of Heraclitus.  If we replace the word ‘fire’ by the word ‘energy’ we can almost repeat his statements word for word from our modern point of view.  Energy is in fact that substance from which all elementary particles, all atoms and therefore all things are made.”6

But it was Parmenides who won the day among the ancients with his theory that the only true reality was an unchanging absolute.  Even though Plato and Aristotle rejected Parmenides’ absolute monism, they still accepted the axiom that the highest reality must be something unchanging.  Even Democritus, the father of modern atomic theory, held that atoms, although they moved in infinite space, were still indivisible, immutable bits of matter — small Parmenidean “ones.”

Aristotle’s concept of substance as the unchanging substrate of change dominated philosophy up until the time of Kant, and this “substance” metaphysics dominated physics until the early 1900s.  Then Rutherford discovered the electron and thereby completely undermined the theory that atoms were indivisible and immutable.  Since 1900 physicists have discovered over 200 subatomic particles, including the neutrino, which has no rest mass.  Many take this as a vindication of Heraclitus and they talk of a new process physics.

In the metaphysics of Process and Reality, Whitehead replaces the atoms of classical physics with entities he calls “actual occasions of experience” (AOs).  But it is a mistake to see Whitehead’s philosophical method as one based solely on the evidence of modern physics. In fact, the initial data for his metaphysics are psychological and not physical. Whitehead’s doctrine of “prehension,” the basic way that AOs apprehend (“or take account of”) one another, is drawn from a criticism of the great idealist philosopher, George Berkeley.  As Whitehead states:  “For Berkeley’s mind, I substitute a process of prehensive unification.”7 Prehension is a cosmic form of perception extrapolated from the data of human experience and consciousness. After this “phenomenological” starting point, Whitehead then finds it significant that his initial psychological considerations “agree absolutely with the general principles according to which the notions of modern physics are framed.”8

Following both the intuitions of the pre-Socratics and the tested theories of modern physics, Whitehead declares, in contrast to Democritian metaphysics, that there is no such thing as empty space:  the entire “extensive continuum” is “filled” with AOs coming into being momentarily and then “perishing.” The most helpful analogy that I have found is that of a fish tank, in which the AOs are like the air bubbles that start spontaneously from the bottom of the tank and rise to the top of the water and disappear.  (The limits of the analogy are reached as

we recognize that in reality AOs do not move and do not even take up space!)
This analogy indicates the discontinuous nature of reality.  Classical physics
and metaphysics insisted on a continuous, homogeneous substance which remained
the same as it underwent change, but modern physics and process philosophy
conceive of reality as discontinuous “quanta” of energy.  Whitehead calls it
“creativity,” again combining physics and psychology.

Even though the “life” of an AO
is discontinuous and momentary, this does not mean that it is unrelated to
other AOs.  In contrast to the classical view, in which the basic elements
were inert bits of matter externally related to one another, Whitehead’s AO’s
are internally related to each other.9 
Instead of the universe being analogous to a machine, it is now analogous to
an organism. The elements of an “organic” universe actively “take account” of
(“prehend”) their neighbors in the same way that parts of the human body take
account of other parts.  This means that even the hydrogen atom is an organism
in that the single proton takes account of the electron and vice versa.  The
atom is a miniature environment, an interrelated system, a “society” of AOs.
This organic analogy allows process thought to make important conceptual
contributions to the current ecological crisis.

Whitehead’s theory of internal
relations revives (and at the same time demystifies) the magical concept of a
sympathetic continuum. The pre-Socratics presupposed this principle as can be
witnessed in this statement from Hippocrates: “There is a common flow, one
common breathing (psyche), all things are in sympathy.” The sympathetic
continuum becomes Whitehead’s “extensive continuum,” the primordial stuff
becomes “creativity,” and its basic expression in the universe is “feeling” (prehension).
The extensive continuum is continually and completely atomized as AOs, which
can be seen as droplets of creative energy that behave according to the basic
ideas of quantum mechanics and which are related to each other in terms of
relativity theory.

The AO replaces the atom of modern physics with essential
qualifications:  (1) even the smallest subatomic particles are “societies” of
AOs, (2) each AO is a feeling (prehending) subject that has both an efficient
cause (a cause from its neighbors) and its own unique final cause (a telos or
cause of its own origin). This final cause, called the AO’s “subjective aim,”
leads to what Whitehead calls the AO’s “satisfaction,” a unique act of
appropriation (for most AOs very trivial) of the data of its surroundings.

While most modern scientists
still resist the idea of final cause, it is significant that Heisenberg called
for the revival of such a concept in his Physics and Philosophy.  By
conceiving of efficient causation as an actual incarnation of the cause in the
effect, Whitehead� has given us a way of integrating efficient and final
causation. Efficient causation had usually been conceived of as the collision
of billiard balls.  The balls moved as a result but they themselves
essentially remained isolated and externally related Parmenidean ones.

Each AO is configured in loose
“nex�s” (singular: nexus) or more structured “societies.” “Empty” space is the
best example of a nonsocial nexus of AOs. Gases are also nexus, but each
molecule of gas is best seen as a structured society with subordinate
societies of atoms and subatomic particles.  A “subordinate” society is a
relative term depending on one’s focus. A human body
is a structured society of many different AOs that are arranged in many
subordinate societies of cells, free-floating molecules and sub�atomic
particles.  The difference between a structured society like a rock and one
like a human being is that the latter has a “dominant” society, a mind or
soul, which has principal control over the subordinate societies of the body.

With this emphasis on change
and discontinuity, one might think that there is no room for form, essence, or
permanent structure in process philosophy.  But the fact is that Whitehead is
usually criticized for reviving a Platonic essentialism by speaking of
“eternal objects” (EOs) as well as AOs.  Eternal objects are such qualities as
colors, numbers, logical and spatial relations that never change and in which
all AOs “participate” so that the universe is able to take on the order and
form that it does. Whitehead is not a Platonist, because he does not give EOs
separate ontological status:  the only reality is found in actuality, and EOs
are real only in so far as there are AOs in which they can be expressed.  This
means that the “realm of EOs” must have a “home” in a unique actual entity and
Whitehead calls such an entity “God.”


E. Dipolar Theism

Whitehead does not deal explicitly with the traditional arguments for
the existence of God, primarily because he believes that to talk of God
without first laying out a coherent and comprehensive cosmology is simply to
discourse in abstractions.  Nevertheless, one can see the outlines of the
traditional arguments as Whitehead develops his doctrine of God.  Charles
Hartshorne, whose work on the existence of God is some of the most respected
logical work of this century, emphasizes heavily the ontological argument, but
not to the exclusion of the other arguments.

In contrast Whitehead’s stress is on the cosmological and teleological
arguments.  There must be EOs, otherwise the universe would have no permanent
form or structure.  But EOs cannot simply be free-floating forms that
accidentally find expression here or there.  There must be an entity that is
not only the actual locus for these eternal possibilities, but that is also
the agent that orders the EOs and places them in a definite relationship to
one another.  This cosmic ordering agent is God and the aspect of God which
performs this function is called God’s “primordial nature” (PN).

The PN is one aspect of the divine nature in process theism which is
most compatible with traditional theology.  It is simply a version of what
happened very early in Christian thought:  Plato’s eternal forms were taken as
“ideas” in the divine mind.  Plato separated the realm of forms from the
creative agent (the demiurge).  (See Chapter 20-C.)
Although Whitehead’s God differs from other AOs in one significant, and as we
shall see, troublesome respect — it is an everlasting actual entity (it
cannot be an “occasion” unless it perishes) — it is like all other AOs in
that it is “dipolar.” It has “mental” pole and a “physical” pole.  The mental
pole of the divine entity is the PN and its physical pole is called the
“consequent nature” (CN).

It is here that Whitehead’s God breaks with tradition. For traditional
theology, following Plato and Aristotle, God essentially takes over the
characteristics of the Parmenidean one. God is an absolute unity, timeless,
motionless, immutable, and impassive. St. Anselm expresses this well: “Thou
art compassionate in terms of our experience and not compassionate in terms of
thy being.”10
The orthodox God is externally related to his creation, because nothing
which happens in the universe can affect his being — he is complete in
himself.  By contrast Whitehead’s God, by virtue of the CN, participates fully
and completely in the actuality of the universe. Furthermore, the CN serves as
a divine depository for everything that happens.

If we return to our fish tank analogy, the enclosed space above the
water symbolizes the CN of God; every “bubble” of experience “expires” in God
and God takes every AO into the CN so that it becomes objectively immortal.
Therefore the CN of God is continually in process, it grows and experiences
world as we experience it — in all of its value beauty as well as disvalue
and evil. Like a great artist God harmonizes all disvalue according to the
Platonic ideals of the One, the Good, and the Beautiful. This “Good,” I
believe, must be interpreted in terms of aspiration and excellence rather than
strict compliance with a moral rule or law.

Making God an internal agent, one subject to the same cosmic experience
as all other AOs, leads process theology to break with orthodox Christianity
on many points: God is limited in power and God suffers. This is the “patripassianism”
(lit. “father suffers”) that was condemned by the early Church. But
patripassian Whitehead insists that God “is the great companion — the
fellow-sufferer who understands.”11

For Whitehead God is not a supranatural being beyond space and time,
not a distant and impassive absolute, ontologically cut off from the world.
Process theism agrees with pantheism in that God is in the world, but
disagrees with pantheism in that it does not identify God and the world.
Whitehead’s philosophy is a metaphysics of real individuals and therefore
definitely precludes the dissolution of true individuality that occurs in
pantheistic systems. Hartshorne uses the term “panentheism” to stake out a
middle path between classical theism and pantheism.

God is transcendent, but not in the radical way envisioned by classical
theism.  The PN of God transcends the world in the same way that we, in our
mental activities, transcend our bodies and surroundings.  Completing the
analogy, the CN of God is always immanent:  the universe (in so far as it is
immediately past and not contemporary) is essentially the body of God.
Rem B. Edwards phrases this idea well: “Hartshorne conjectures that we
human beings are related to God in something like the way the cells of our
bodies are related to us. Our cells are themselves localized units of feeling
with some measure of autonomy.  We cannot willfully control their actions in
most cases, and they cannot willfully control our actions. But the whole and
the parts do interact and influence one another.  As the localized cells of my
body are injured and suffer, I suffer, and I enjoy their well-being….We are
all members of the body of God, autonomous parts of that divine whole in whom
we live and move and have our being….”12

The theological method of process theism is neither a via negativa,
in which God’s attributes are derived from the created world by negative
inference, nor is it a via analogia, in which, e.g., God’s love is to
its objects as our love is to its objects.  Both of these methods result in
equivocation and ultimately lead to the end of meaningful talk about God.

As we have seen in Chapter
Four-B, Whitehead’s theological method is a via eminentia in which
terms about the divine nature are used univocally.  God is an actual entity
just like any other, and therefore its being is defined by the same EOs as all
other AOs.  But since it is the most powerful being in the universe, it is
able to fulfill “predicates” and express qualities in an eminent way.

We suffer in a very limited way compared to the suffering of God’s CN,
which must participate in every thing that happens in the universe.  God’s
knowledge is also of temperal events, except that this again is an eminent
knowledge based on a universal comprehension of everything that happens.  But
like human beings, God does not know the future.  God knows it as possible in a
way that is beyond us, but true knowledge is always based on actual states of
affairs.  For process theologians God is omniscient in the full sense that God
knows all that can be known.

Process thinker Lewis S. Ford explains:  “God knows all there is to know,
but if the future is genuinely open-ended, awaiting contingent, creaturely
actualization, it is not yet `there’ to be known.  God knows all actualities as
actual and all possibilities as possible, but to `know’ a future possibility as
if it were already actual would be to know something which is not the case and
this would be to know it falsely.”13

Recent Revisions of Whitehead’s Views

It should be obvious why many liberal Christians find process metaphysics
an attractive alternative at a time when the pressures for a reconciliation
between science and religion are greater than ever.  These Christians are also
sensitive to the great number of philosophers of religion who hold that the
traditional Christian God fails to satisfy certain fundamental problems,
particularly the problems of evil and human freedom.
But it is also clear that a simple, unqualified affirmation of Whitehead’s
philosophy cannot serve as a satisfactory framework for Christian doctrine, even
in its most liberal formulation.  Some have thought that an insurmountable
barrier for Christians is the fact that Whitehead’s God is not a person.  I
believe that this is both a misunderstanding of Whitehead and of the concept of

Boethius defined a person as a “rational being,” and this definition has
been fully incorporated in Western law, philosophy, and theology.  (For more on
“personhood” see Chapter 18-C.) With its
primordial nature Whitehead’s God is definitely a rational being and therefore a
person.  More recent definitions of personhood requires social awareness and
interaction.  Again the process God qualifies in an eminent way.  We have
already seen Hartshorne’s statement that God is total social awareness.
In terms of orthodox theology, this is a point at which
trinitarian formulas have an advantage over unitarian
positions.  If one insists on social interaction as a necessary criterion for
personhood, then the unitarian God before creation could not be a person.  The
trinitarian God would always have the social interaction of the three persons.
But there is no “before creation” in process theology; therefore, social
interaction has always taken place.

Whitehead and Hartshorne have therefore been unfairly criticized for
eliminating the idea of a personal deity.  Indeed, some Christian Whiteheadians
have gone beyond Whitehead in enriching the personality of the process God.
Cobb, Griffin, and others are convinced that Whitehead was wrong in making God a
single, everlasting actual entity.  This causes problems for Whitehead’s system
that are not at all related to its application to Christianity.

The most crucial problem with God as an ever�lasting entity is that it,
unlike other AOs, never reaches satisfaction; it is never able to bring its
divine prehension to completion.  For most Christian Whiteheadians this stands
as a serious error in Whitehead’s doctrine of God.  Since an AO cannot have any
effect on another AO until it reaches satisfaction, it follows that God cannot
be an object of prehension and its influence in the world would be severely
compromised. Another problem is that Whitehead
sometimes implies that the ordering of EOs and the decision about initial aims
was a “primordial envisagement” that happened once and for all.  If this is so,
then this also limits the communication between God’s primordial nature and the

It appears to leave the divine mind in a state that is reminiscent of
Aristotle’s God:  the PN is forever in a static and non-reciprocal state of
self-contemplation, while the CN is completely passive in its incorporation of
the events of the on-going cosmos.  In short, meaningful divine action in the
universe is seriously undermined. In response, Cobb
and others are persuaded that Whitehead’s doctrine of God can be salvaged only
by making God a “personal society” of AOs.  Just as there is “temporal
perishing” in the world, there is, in an eminent way, the same activity in God’s

I do not have the space (nor is
my reader equipped) for the complex technical discussion that explains this
transformation of Whitehead’s single entity into a personal society.
Let me suffice with the following summary:  (1) God’s primordial
envisagement of EOs applies only to the general natural laws of the present
“cosmic epoch.” God could have chosen another cosmos very different from the
present one based on electronic and protonic AOs. (2)
On the basis of “information” gained from the CN, the PN can evaluate what is
going on in the cosmos and thereby give each and every AO that comes into being
an appropriate (i.e., “up-to-date”) initial aim.  This is the ideal satisfaction
that God offers for each AO.

For most of the AOs in the cosmos, this initial aim is simply an urge for
constant repetition or alteration that is absolutely necessary if the cosmos is
to continue as the ordered society that it is.  Some initial aims, very few in
comparison, are designed for “dominant” societies of AOs like our human minds,
and call for free-will, change, novelty, and progress.

(3) Finally, God’s own satisfaction as a divine subject, his
harmonizing of all the data in the cosmos, serves as a universal ideal for all
satisfaction. In this way God serves as a “lure” for the greatest possible
maximization of value and novelty.

If we return to our fish tank analogy, we can now add an aerator
on the side of the tank to symbolize God’s PN. God’s primordial ordering of EOs
can be seen in the aerator’s function of controlling the basic size, shape, and
speed of all the air bubbles. God’s initial aims, seen as vectors coming in from
the side and connecting to each ascending bubble, would determine the location
of the bubble in the bottom of the tank and serve as an ideal guide for the
bubble’s path to the top.

The air collected at the top (the CN of God) is then recirculated
through the aerator (the PN of God), which symbolized God’s own series of divine
satisfactions, which become models for all satisfaction whatever.  The initial
aim comes in from the side of the tank in order to stress that each AO is
self-determining and that the initial aim is, so to speak, a “recommendation”

G. A
Process Christology

Although Whitehead himself was not a confessing Christian, he nonetheless
placed great emphasis on the importance of the historical Jesus and his
teachings. He believed that the essence of Christ’s teaching was that God’s
power is persuasive (not coercive) and that this divine power was revealed in
the tenderness and subtleties of creative and responsive love. Jesus’ message
dwelt upon the “tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness
operate by love.”14
Whiteheadians believe that Jesus was one of the supreme historical
expressions of the Platonic idea of persuasive creativity.  (The other major
expression is found in the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism.) In the
Plato wrote that “reason has need to persuade her [the primordial
stuff, hypodoch] not having unlimited power to compel.” Early
Christianity made the fatal error in not incorporating this concept into its
systematic theology.  As Cobb and Griffin state: “If we truly love others, we do
not seek to control them.”15

Whiteheadian Christians simply apply these basic insights about Jesus to
the doctrine of God outlined above.  Jesus Christ is God in the sense of
“creative love” or, to use the Greek Christian term, logos.  As we have
seen, one of the basic meanings of the verbal infinitive of the Greek lego
is “to put together,” which is much more compatible with Christ as Logos than
the later analytical meanings of our modern logic. (For more
on synthetic reason see this article.)
love is indeed a synthetic process, not only in the sense of the order and
structure that the PN of God imposes on an otherwise unruly creativity, but also
in terms of the ideal satisfaction that God urges each AO to reach. The presence
of Christ as Logos in most events will simply mean that order and structure are
maintained. Only in human beings does the presence of Christ take on the
significance of meaningful response and free decision, with of course the risk
of a decision against Christ.

Since the power of Christ is persuasive only (except for the obvious case
of physical laws), human beings can and do choose otherwise — rejecting initial
aims which are ultimately designed for the maximization of creative
transformation and love. But this is not to say that the best response to Christ
is passive conformation to existing ethical and social norms.  The historical
Jesus was definitely an ethical revolutionary in his rejection of some Jewish
law, his view of the Kingdom of God, his view of love and forgiveness, and his
view on the role of women.

Whiteheadian Christians believe that the static moralism of conservative
Christianity is counter to the spirit of Christ, which they view in metaphysical
terms as the PN of God, which is definitely not a protector of the status quo,
but an ever ongoing urge to new creation, novelty,
and intensity of life and value.  Ethically this must be expressed as a
challenge to every human being to meet new configurations of events (e.g.,
homosexuality, feminism, third-world problems, and the ecological crisis) with
utmost tolerance, openness, and sensitivity. As
liberals, process theists do not take the ethics of the Bible as the final and
ultimate Word of God, but as time-bound customs and institutions which require
revision and creative transformation in our contemporary age.  Whitehead
summarizes this view eloquently and succinctly:  “The pure conservative is
fighting against the essence of the universe.”16

As all creative love and transformation require tremendous effort, Christ
as the Logos makes exacting demands upon us, basically ones that challenge us to
engage fully the problems of contemporary life.  But Christ is God also in the
CN, and here Christ is totally forgiving and receptive as responsive
love. Recall that the CN of God must objectify and
immortalize every actuality, no matter now poorly it has achieved the ideals of
the initial aim and the basic challenges of Christ.
Ironically, within the conceptual subtleties of this highly technical
philosophy, one finds the basis for a powerful religion of unconditional grace.
This is Christ as universal savior, as suffering servant, the one who takes on
all the burdens and sins of the world.  Process theology appears to give a far
superior metaphysical basis for this central Christian doctrine than orthodox
theology. Christ is that divine power that urges us on
to ever greater syntheses, ideals, and achievements, but he is at the same time
the Christ that totally accepts us for what we do in fact accomplish.  The
dialectic of Law and Gospel finds brilliant contemporary expression among these
Whiteheadian Christians.  We are never freed from the law (Logos), but our
actions within it always take place under a canopy of unconditional grace.

Process Christology is faced with a problematic relation between the
cosmic Christ and the historical Jesus.  Christian Whiteheadians are convinced
that traditional formulations have ultimately denied the full humanity and
historicity of Jesus.  They believe that Whitehead’s concept of
spatial inclusion“–that
all AOs include all other
AOs in their becoming, including the AOs of God allows
us to achieve an optimal conceptualization of what Incarnation really means.

Therefore, Jesus is not unique in that God was incarnate in him.
Ontologically, God is present in Jesus in the same way that he is present in all
creatures.  The New Testament account of Jesus’ life, however, shows that Jesus
had a unique relationship to God that made the divine incarnation a special case
with him.

All of us, whatever our beliefs and attitudes, have God as an object in
our lives.  As the New Testament indicates, all of us are “sons of God” and will
ultimately be confirmed or disconfirmed in that sonship.  But each of us have
different attitudes, Whitehead called them “subjective forms,” about this
incarnation of the divine in our lives. Most human
beings regard this divine presence as something “other” than their ego, which is
usually spoken of as conscience.  But in Jesus the divine call and the ego are
fused into one.  In other words, God’s initial aims for the society of AOs
called Jesus of Nazareth were completely fulfilled in his ministry, passion, and

Personally, I do not believe that the Christian Whiteheadians have been
successful in merging their cosmic Christ with the historical Jesus.  When I
left Claremont in 1970, I assumed that process Christology was moving in the
direction of the “adoptionism” summarized in the last paragraph.  This
adoptionism has a strong biblical basis and was strong in the early church.
But the Claremont theologians have now gone beyond adoptionism by
actually naming God “Christ” in his consequent and primordial natures.  Although
confessing Christians, Cobb and Griffin do not claim
their revelation as supreme, so Buddhists or Hindus may call the CN of God
“Buddha” or “Krishna,” respectively.

H. A
Process Anthropology

One of the greatest advantages of process theology is that by revising
the concepts of divine power and knowledge, two of the most inveterate problems
in the philosophy of religion, freedom and evil, can be solved on a rational
basis. Each AO is causa sui and therefore determines itself within the
limits set by the initial aim. Most AOs fall short of
achieving the ideal that God sets for it, and it is in this falling short that
the basic ontological meaning of “sin” is to be found.  The ethical implications
of the general failure of ideal satisfaction are found of course only in human
beings, who are offered the most freedom to choose, but more importantly, are
aware of the choices they make.  As Cobb states: “Every agent [AO] is free but
not every agent has consciousness.”17

In contrast to traditional theology, in which God’s will is conceived as
truly and definitely being done, process theism’s persuasive God can only urge
his creature to fulfill the conditions of creative love. To put it another way,
the process theologians agree with the existentialists that human existence
precedes any preordained human essence, and therefore the future is open for
what Whitehead called the “creative advance” into new forms of experience and
human interaction.

Human freedom in process theology is not as radical as that which
we find in existentialism. It is not ex nihilo
and not hostile to the past nor to natural and social limits. I have called the
process doctrine of free-will a “teleological compatibilism,” a view which holds
that determinism and free-will are compatible if we see efficient causation as
an incarnation of the cause in an effect which is a self-determining agent. Each
concrescing AO is inescapably a product of its past and surroundings, but it is
also able to synthesize that data according to a telos of its own.

In another important divergence from traditional theological
anthropology, process theology rejects the dualism of immaterial soul and
material body. Most biblical scholars now agree that this dualism, as well as
the tripartite theory of spirit, soul, and body, is not compatible with the
original Hebrew notion of nephesh as a psycho-physical unity.  With their
idea of the resurrection of the flesh, the early Christians never did completely
convert to Greek dualism.

    Whitehead is not the
only 20th Century philosopher to reject the dualism of mind and matter —
Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Ludwig Wittgenstein are others — but again it is
Whitehead’s superior theoretical framework that gives us a new understanding of
psycho-physical monism. Whereas the ancient Hebrew concept of nephesh,
like the pre-classical Greek psyche, appears to be nothing but a naive
materialism, Whitehead’s doctrine of the soul can be best termed a “neutral

A one-time neutral monist
Bertrand Russell explains: “The theory of neutral monism maintains that the
distinction between the mental and the physical is entirely an affair of
arrangement, that the actual material arranged is exactly the same in the case
of the mental as it is in the case of the physical, but they differ merely in
the fact that when you take a thing as belonging in the same context with
certain other things, it will belong to psychology, while when you take it in a
certain other context with other things, it will belong to physics.”18  Whitehead would add that the kind of arrangement (type of society of AOs)
and degree of complexity also play an important role.

Another expression of Russell’s
neutral monism is the following: “To assimilate the physical world to the world
of perceptions, and to assimilate the world of perception to the physical world.
Physics must be interpreted in a way which tends towards idealism, and
perception in a way which tends toward materialism. I believe that matter is
less material, and mind less mental, than is commonly supposed.”19
Whitehead phrases it this way: “Mere existence [either purely mental or
physical] has never entered into the consciousness of man, except as the remote
terminus of an abstraction in thought. Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum is
wrongly translated. It is never bare thought or bare [physical] existence that
we are aware of. I find myself as essentially a unity of emotions, alternatives,
decisions — all of them subjective reactions to the environment as active in my

Whitehead, therefore, rejects all previous alternatives to the mind-body
problem–materialism, mentalism, and dualism–as defective to the core. Each of
these options is based on an illegitimate abstraction: either matter or mind or
a combination of the two. Experience never gives us anything that we can call
pure matter; neither does it give us anything like pure mind.  An experience
like pain is instructive:  is it mental or is it physical? Whitehead declares
that it is neither and holds that all experience is made up of configurations of
a neutral, creative energy.

With its physical and mental pole, each AO can be seen as a single
psycho-physical monad, that together with other AOs, make up the various bodies
in the universe.  Those things which appear as solid and material are simply
societies of AOs that are arranged primarily in terms of their physical poles
and function principally out of those poles.  The mind or soul is a society of
AOs that is primarily arranged in terms of the activity of the mental poles.

Karl Popper offers two criticisms of neutral monism. He too believes that
it is really a form of idealism, for Whitehead, just like Berkeley, begins with
human sensations and perceptions. As Popper states: “Its allegedly neutral
elements are only called `neutral’: they are, unavoidable, mental…. Thus
`neutral’ monism is so only in name. In fact, it is a subjective idealism, very
much in the Berkeleian manner.”21
Although this theory might be a plausible solution to the mind-body
problem, it does not satisfy the traditional Christian promise of everlasting
life.  This concept again is probably more Greek or Persian than Hebrew; but in
any event, the objective immortalization of the “life” of every AO in the CN of
God is process theology’s substitute for the orthodox Heaven. (Griffin is now
supporting a more orthodox view of the afterlife. See Chapter 6 of God and
Religion in the Postmodern World
.) For Whitehead
everything of value is retained forever in the divine nature, and what we do in
our present lives will have some definite effect for future lives.  This is
partially compatible with what the ancient Hebrews believed.  At death everyone
goes to Sheol, but one’s memory lives on in the family line. This is the Hebrew
idea of “corporate” personality and this is the reason why genealogies were so
important for them.

For process Christians the distinctive feature of Christian anthropology
is not its doctrine of soul, of sin, or of the afterlife, but its doctrine of
love. Both Cobb and Daniel Day Williams have made significant contributions to
the concept of Christian love. In The Structure of Christian Existence
Cobb outlines the development of human awareness from primitive existence,
through civilized existence, up to the “axial” existence of the Hindus, the
Buddhists, the Greeks, the Hebrews, and the Christians.
Preaching against a Hebrew ethical code that had been ossified by the
Pharisees, Jesus exhorted us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. To put
it a little differently, the love of the other must be as great as the love of
self. This idea that true altruism is based on genuine self-love establishes a
clean break with Buddhist compassion, which requires total selflessness.
Significantly enough, it also diverges radically from the evangelical position
of John Scott, who also holds that Christian love demands total denial of self.22

But Cobb disagrees and again finds Whitehead’s metaphysics a fruitful
framework for his doctrine of Christian love. Every AO is inherently selfish; it
would be metaphysically impossible for it not to strive for some type of
self-determined satisfaction. Ironically enough, the AO’s selfishness expresses
one of traditional Christianity’s greatest sins: concupiscence.  Paul Tillich
defines concupiscence as the “unlimited desire to draw the whole of reality into
one’s self,”23
and this is precisely what every AO attempts to do.

Because all AOs are internally related in an organic universe, the most
prudent choice for an individual in such an environment will be one in which
self-interest and other-interest coincide.  Such choices, however, would be in
principle impossible in a non-theistic system, in which finite creatures would
lack the necessary knowledge and experience to harmonize such optimal choices.
In process theism, however, the creative love of God, embodied in its initial
aim for each and every AO, offers ideals of self-interest that maximize the
interest of others.24
As Cobb states:  “When a person acts on behalf of someone who has won his
sympathy, the welfare of the other person has become his interest — it is a new
self-interest altered by the genuine concern for the welfare of the other.
Self-interest and altruism merge unproblematically.” Cobb appears to be
reaffirming a central point of Kantian ethics:  “I must adopt the ends of the
other person as my own end as well, if the concept of persons as
end-in-themselves is to have meaning.” Kant’s categorical imperative also
strives for the coincidence of self-interest and other-interest.

Cobb defines love as “any mode of relating to an object as a positive
value, in which conscious psychic activity is decisively involved.”25
The genius of Whitehead’s system is that it is organic and holistic but at the
same time gives ultimate value to individuals: every AO is a center of positive,
intrinsic value. Neither Buddhism nor evangelical Christianity can offer such a
view. Cobb concludes: “In Christian love, we are free
from bondage to ourselves without ceasing to be self-transcending selves of
spiritual existence. Lover and loved retain their full personal, responsible
autonomy. Love imposes no demand on the one loved; it seeks, rather, his
freedom. There is no merging of self and other, as in the love of desire and

Some Problems in Christian Process Theology

We cannot leave this chapter without pointing out some of the problems
that a Christian process theology faces.  First and foremost, there are
multitudes of Christians, in and out of academe, who are deeply committed to the
idea of an omnipotent and omniprescient God.  Unfortunately, this commitment is
not at all shaken when the problems of free-will and evil are duly pointed out.
Typical responses are the following:  God is not God unless he does have a
monopoly on power and is able to make his will be done; or God is not God if he
cannot prevent a cosmic catastrophe.

Second, many Christians are still suspicious of philosophical theology,
and this applies to the general public as well as to those academics trained in
the neo-orthodox traditions of Barth and Bultmann.  Ironically, philosophy is
suspect even though all of us operate with hidden philosophical assumptions,
most of which would not hold up under close rational scrutiny.

Third, many are outright hostile to what they perceive as process
theism’s pantheism.  But panentheism is not a form, strictly speaking, of
pantheism. The latter holds that the reality of the world is divine being. As we
have seen, process philosophy believes that the world has its own being.
Panentheism and pantheism are similar only in that they both believe in divine
immanence. Although all Christians are deeply committed to the idea of divine
immanence at a pre-reflective level (indeed, it is the very foundation of common
devotion and piety), they have been taught to consciously react negatively to
any view that appears pantheistic.

These are problems that process theologians face, but they are not
justified criticisms.  There are, however, many legitimate criticisms, and the
process theologians are the first to admit that some of the criticisms are
challenging.  Some of them center around the compatibility of process theism
with traditional doctrines like Creation, the Last Judgment, and the Trinity.
The Whiteheadian God is definitely dipolar and not trinitarian and no
amount of revision will make it otherwise.  Although there are some brilliant
dimensions to process Christology, the fact remains that the historical Jesus is
not God in the process view; he remains a distinct society of AOs that has the
unique position of having completely fulfilled God’s initial aims. The
creative-responsive love of God is called “Christ,” but Jesus the man is not
identical with this dipolar deity. 

The process theologians also readily admit that Whitehead’s metaphysics
does not allow for any sudden end of the world (at least God does not plan on
it) or judgment of God as the Bible envisions it. I once mentioned this
criticism in a graduate paper and in a marginal note process theologian Lewis
Ford said: “So much the worse for biblical eschatology!”

The criticism that the process doctrine of creation is unbiblical
is misguided, because a careful reading of Gen. 1:1 shows that God creates out
of something, not ex nihilo. But the process God does not create the
universe at one point in time, but continuously throughout all time. Whitehead’s
cosmology is definitely one of the leading examples of “theistic evolution.”

Whitehead’s terminology, even for those most sympathetic to process
thought, is cumbersome, and for some sounds outright un-Christian.  Words like
“enjoyment,” “satisfaction,” “creative advance,” and “novelty” are not ones we
learned in Sunday school or even in divinity school.  These are terms drawn not
from ethics or religion, but from aesthetics.

In a recent interview Hartshorne said:  “The most universal value
is aesthetic value — not moral nor intellectual, and what I mean by that is
that every animal is sensitive to aesthetic values and disvalues, but is not
sensitive to moral values and disvalues or to intellectual values and
disvalues.  Aesthetic values are universal; they apply to all life — and they
apply to God.  God enjoys the beauty of the world — I agree one hundred per
cent with Whitehead on that.  The value of the world is its beauty for God.”27

The orthodox God is the ground of ethical order, but the process God is
the ground of novelty, creative transformation, contrast, harmony, and the
intensification of enjoyment.  One must keep in mind that this is not hedonistic
enjoyment, but simply a term for the general process of self-determination.
In short, the process God’s goal in the universe is not justice, but
beauty. If God’s task is to aid in the fulfillment of every possible telos
(all enjoyment aims at a purpose), then it is clear that God’s role cannot
possibly be one of a judge.  For example, God must simultaneously supply initial
aims to the Nile River fluke and the Egyptian peasant, even though the former
has a devastating effect on the health of the latter.
If God’s role were primarily ethical and judicial, then he would be paralyzed in
his actions as the preeminent cosmic agent. (This of course raises the question
of whether Whitehead’s God is nonmoral, a topic much discussed among
Whiteheadians.) Returning to our previous etymological point, God as Logos is a
synthetic agent, not an analytic one.  His task is neither logical analysis nor
judicial analysis.

If Christian theology is to be judged in terms of how well it expresses
biblical doctrines, then process theology fares very well with regard to the
soul, creation out of chaos, and most importantly, a doctrine of grace and
forgiveness that has rational, philosophical grounds.
On the other hand, it does not do justice to traditional doctrines like the Last
Judgment, Heaven, and the Trinity (if indeed this is a biblical doctrine). In
his book The Lure of God, Lewis Ford admits that although God as
persuasive power is present in the Bible, God as coercive power clearly
dominates the Old Testament in the acts of Yahweh.

Because process Christians view the Bible as a human, and therefore
culture-bound, record of certain historical acts of God, they do not feel that
Christian theology necessarily fails if it is not fully biblical. God’s
revelation in the universe goes far beyond one piece of scripture and one
historical-cultural period. Far more important for
these Christians is the fact that Whitehead’s metaphysics gives the best
possible theistic account of the universe, given our present knowledge in the
natural sciences.  At the same time it serves as a theological framework for a
non-dualistic, somatic soul, and a profound doctrine of God’s love, forgiveness,
and grace, which is really the essence of the Christian faith.  Therefore Cobb
and Griffin’s liberal goal appears to be met:  “A truly contemporary vision that
is at the same time truly Christian.”

Furthermore, process theology offers, with its innovative view of God’s
power and knowledge, cogent solutions to the problems of
free-will and evil
.  Finally, it supports the ultimate reality and intrinsic
value of individuals.  If, as some orthodox Christians claim, God is ultimately
the sole source of value in the universe, then how can we possibly be praised
for the value that some of us apparently create in our lives?
In the orthodox view, it seems that God gets all the credit for the good
that happens, but we are left unfortunately with all the responsibility for evil
(even for natural disasters which are supposed to be God’s punishment for our
sin.)  This is simply a disguised form of a divine totalitarianism which no
self-respecting, rational human being should accept.  Such a God is not truly
God, but simply a projection of a form of social and political authoritarianism.

As natural theologicians, process theologians place great weight on God’s
general revelation in nature.  This includes not only the marvelous order and
structure of external nature, but also the fantastic workings of “inner” nature,
culminating in the human mind and its use of reason. God did not give human
beings a rational faculty in vain; he surely did not mean for us to reject our
most unique possession in an irrationalist betrayal of creation itself.

Therefore if human reason is to be truly liberated in theological
thinking, it must ultimately reject “God as Cosmic Moralist…God as Unchanging
and Passionless Absolute….God as Controlling Power….God as Sanctioner of the
Status Quo….God as Male….Process theology denies the existence of this God.”28



 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
(New York:  Macmillan, 1929), p. 519.

 Edwards, Reason and Religion, p. 203.

 John B. Cobb and David R. Griffin, Process
Theology: An Introductory Exposition
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
1976), pp. 8-9.

 Ibid., p. 96.

 Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 317,

 Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy
(New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 63.

 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
(New York: Macmillan, 1925), p. 102.

 Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 177.

 If A is externally related to B, then B can stand
on its own and A makes no difference to the being of
B.  If A is internally related to B, then A does make a difference for B and B
cannot exist without A.

 Anselm, Proslogium, VII.

 Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 532.

 Edwards, op. cit., p. 211.

 Lewis S. Ford, “Biblical Recital and Process
Philosophy,” Interpretation 26 (April, 1972), p. 208.

 Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 520.

 Cobb and Griffin, op. cit., p. 53.

 Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas (Glencove,
N.Y.: Free Press, 1933), p. 354.

 Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology
(Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1965), p. 97.

 Bertrand Russell, “Logical Atomism” in
Contemporary British Philosophy
, ed. J. H. Muirhead (New York: Macmillan,
1924), p. 359.

 Bertrand Russell, Analysis of Matter (New
York, 1927), p. 7.

 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: Free
Press, 1938), p. 165-66.

 Popper & Eccles, The Self and Its Brain
(New York: Springer International, 1977), p. 199.

 John Stott, Basic Christianity (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 44-5.

 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1957), Vol. 2, p. 52.

 John B. Cobb, The Structure of Christian
(Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1967), p. 133.

 Ibid., p. 127.

 Ibid., p. 136.

 Interview with Charles Hartshorne, Unitarian
Universalist World
(November 15, 1982), p. 1.

 Cobb and Griffin, cit., pp. 8-9.

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