[This is for a group discussion on process theology at Pyre, a young adult collective supported by GraceUnlimited. There’s a more long-winded discussion here.]
In one sentence, what is process thought?
Reality continually engages us as a boundless ensemble of ways of newly interacting. That’s what things, properties and even we ultimately are—ways of newly interacting, variously combined. That’s process thought: “What we identify as things are no more than … patterns of stability in the surrounding flux, … eddies in the continuous flow of process”—John Dupre & Daniel J. Nicholson, Everything Flows (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 13. (More on process philosophy here)
Where’s the evidence? Sufficiently noted, every experience exemplifies this. Every experience is a continually newly interactive flow in and through which we discern patterns of stability. Take note.
Again in one sentence, how does process thought support process theism?*
Reality constantly engages us as a boundless ensemble of ways of newly interacting, one way being uniquely all-inclusive.
Where’s the evidence? Again, sufficiently noted, every experience exemplifies this. If you’re still skeptical, consider these questions: Are you aware of newly interacting with yourself? (I am, inescapably.) Are you aware of newly interacting with others? (I am, inescapably.) Are you aware of a more inclusive context in which you and others are newly interacting? (I am, inescapably.) Can you draw any boundaries (other than provisional ones) around this more inclusive context? (I can’t—every time I draw a boundary, it’s within a still-more-inclusive context.) How then can this context be less than all-inclusive? So every moment of your experience, noticed or not, is an experience of the all-inclusive happening of reality in and through yourself and others, and an experience of yourself and others in and through the all-inclusive happening of reality, all of which, remember, are ways of newly interacting.**
What’s “theistic” about that? You could argue that this isn’t theism, not without more clarification. There is ample room for disagreement about whether the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting can be appropriately designated as God. As one sort of process theist I am always happy to explain why I believe that designation is indeed appropriate. But I do not object to other designations, e.g., Brahman/Dao/Sunyata/Nature, etc. All such terms are inadequate gestures toward what exceeds every classification (even the fluid classifications of process thought).
So explain—why “God”? When I pray and meditate and worship sacramentally, I am at least dimly aware of myself as a less inclusive and partial way of newly interacting that is also intimately interacting (“dialoguing”) with the uniquely all-inclusive way. To me this uniquely all-inclusive way is what St. Anselm famously called “that than which a greater cannot be thought.” I analogically (metaphorically, symbolically …) attribute immeasurably greater versions of awareness, empathy, responsiveness, purposefulness, love, etc., to this all-inclusive way, because I take these to be among the most inclusive ways of newly interacting on my own level. I experience the interaction as oddly “I/You-ish,” even “I/Me-ish,” not just “I/It-ish,” as Martin Buber might say, and it is the oddly interpersonal-like character of this interaction, more than any other characteristic (like alleged omnipotence), that makes using the term “God” eminently fitting for me.
What does this “God” have to do with the God of the Bible? It doesn’t match every snapshot in the Bible, since the Bible portrays God in a variety of ways that don’t even match one another! (More here.) But it fits some really important ones, like these: “From God, through God, and in God are all things” (Romans 11:36). “God is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). “God is Love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). Even Genesis 1 uses the terms of an ancient worldview to say that from the very beginning God was in some sort of dialogical relationship with a vast, dark, shapeless, fluid mess, summoning it to become a luminous, shapely, creative community. God “spoke” to the chaos creatively, the chaos responded creatively, and that’s how we got this intricately interwoven community we call the world, with all its appealing and devastating surprises. (More here.)
Is the God of process thought conscious? I’ve already mentioned that “I analogically (metaphorically, symbolically …) attribute immeasurably greater versions of awareness … to this all-inclusive way.” So, yes, the God of process thought can be called conscious (to me “consciousness” and “awareness” are near-synonyms). Here’s a further explanation: In process thought, God, the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting, fully includes all other ways of newly interacting. This means that all conscious ways of newly interacting, human and non-human, are fully included in this all-inclusive way. God is fully consciousness-including. Now I intimately know one example that comes closest to what it would be like to be fully consciousness-including, namely, myself. When I am conscious of myself as conscious, I am intimately consciousness-including—not fully so, because I miss all sorts of details, and past moments of consciousness begin to fade, but intimately so. You know this of yourself too. And this comes closest to what it would be like to be fully consciousness-including—it’s most like my own and your own consciousness-including, only immeasurably more so. Maybe you could call it “transconscious,” to emphasize this immeasurable difference, but it’s not less than conscious.
Why not omnipotence? In process thought, the power “than which no greater can be conceived” is the power to be intimately influential with each and every other way of newly interacting. It’s mind boggling, immeasurable power. But it’s not control. God is responsible only for how God newly interacts with all other ways, not for how any other way newly interacts with God and others. So the answer to “Why did this happen?” is never just “Because God willed it.” When we speak of God’s will here, we should instead say that what makes anything happen is God’s will intersecting with countless other, often conflicting wills, so nobody is in control. And without that version of “omnipotence” there’s no “problem of evil.” Some process theists have argued that this is still a sort of omnipotence—God is “omni-influential.” (In fact, I’ve argued that in past years.) But I now think it’s more honest to drop the word.
But if God is all-inclusive, doesn’t that mean God includes evil? In one sense, yes, but including is not the same as approving. God includes all that is happening, the evil as well as the good, but that very inclusion lures all that is happening away from evil and toward good, away from conflict and toward reconciliation. In a way, the inclusion is itself already the lure. It exerts a resistible pressure, whether noticed or not, toward reconciliation, mutuality, symbiosis, etc. I’d also say that this pressure toward reconciliation is where the voice of conscience ultimately originates. Yes, Durkheim may be right that conscience is the internalizing of societal pressure, but process thought says that all of reality is a social process (that’s even the title of a book by Charles Hartshorne—Reality As Social Process). Local societal pressure simply reflects the universal societal pressure of the all-inclusive way of newly interacting. It explains why many of us feel accountable to something beyond ourselves, our own groups, our own species, even our own planet.
So does prayer accomplish anything? Prayer opens us and God and the world to more ways of newly interacting—ways that might never have been open without that specific prayer. (Of course, the effort of any being does this, whether consciously directed at God or not.) So yes, prayer does accomplish things, not just in our inner feelings but in the world around us. But note well, God’s “answer” weaves together efforts and aspirations of all creatures, not just yours or mine. So the outcome is unpredictable, and it won’t prevent bad things from ever happening. People typically want more than that from prayer, but we have to ask ourselves if that’s consistent with loving our neighbors as ourselves. Do you really want God to ignore everybody but you? Would a “God” who did that even deserve the name? Prayer does accomplish at least one other crucial thing—it strengthens our already inescapable connection with God, and thereby with everybody and everything else. That’s always a good thing, whether or not we get anything requested in addition to that.
What about Jesus? For process theists, every person anywhere, indeed every moment, embodies (“incarnates”) God, the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting, in some way or other. Everything is some sort of enfleshed “Logos.” So in process thought, simply to call Jesus the enfleshed Logos (John 1:14) is to identify something that he has in common with every other human being (and non-human being too). That alone does not make Jesus unique. But Christian process theists, like me, nevertheless discern something unsurpassably unique in Jesus, not in the bare 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 consistently lives out the utterly self-giving (literally, “self-emptying”) life of God, 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 even pretending to “surpass” Judaism, and without putting down other religious figures or texts, Christian process theists want this unique storyline to keep reframing the very terms in which all of us think of ourselves, of God, and of everybody and everything else.
What happens when I die? Your whole life up to your death will abide in God’s ongoing present even more intimately than your whole life up to now abides in your ongoing present (as well as God’s). What ends at death is not life in and with God but your life’s present ability to diverge from God’s. God’s endless life reconcilingly continues the differing projects of every ended life, which means that no life is ever totally ended.*** (Evidence? This is a direct implication of our experience of the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting as indeed all-inclusive.)
*By “theism” here I simply mean acknowledging any sort of God as ultimate. So pantheism, panentheism and deism all count as versions of theism. (Polytheism acknowledges non-ultimate gods, so I’m not including it here.) Acknowledging God as personal, impersonal or transpersonal also count, as do naturalistic and supernaturalistic versions. Often people say they aren’t theists when they really mean they aren’t one sort of theist (usually the invisible, external controller sort). Process theism has usually been classified as a version of panentheism, though it’s also called neoclassical theism.
**“The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged to details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted … 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 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 ), pp. 109-110 (online here) “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. “When all things and persons are seen as flowing, uncontainable patterns in the uncontainable flow of reality as such, it’s easy to see how empathic, intimate relationships with the ultimately real (and with everything else along the way) are available to each of us. We’re all flowing uncontainably in the uncontainable flow of the ultimately real, reality as such.”—Fr. Charles Allen, “God-Talk in an Uncontainable World” (online here).
***“Each actuality … has its reception into God’s nature. The corresponding element in God’s nature is … the transmutation of that … actuality into a living, ever-present fact. An enduring personality … is a route of occasions in which the successors with some peculiar completeness sum up their predecessors. The correlate fact in God’s nature is an even more complete unity of life in a chain of elements for which succession does not mean loss of immediate unison. Thus in the sense in which the present occasion is the person now, and yet with his own past, so the counterpart in God is that person in God … in which the many are one everlastingly, without the qualification of any loss either of individual identity or of completeness of unity. … In this way, the insistent craving is justified—the insistent craving that zest for existence be refreshed by the ever-present, unfading importance of our immediate actions, which perish and yet live for evermore.”—Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978 ), pp. 350-351.