Paul Tillich finally comes out as an “eschatological” panentheist at the very end of his three-volume Systematic Theology: “Eternal Life is life in the eternal, life in God. This … agrees with the Pauline vision that in ultimate fulfillment God shall be everything in (or for) everything. One could call this symbol ‘eschatological pan-en-theism’. … In this view the world process means something for God. He is not a separated self-sufficient entity who, driven by a whim, creates what he wants and saves whom he wants. Rather, the eternal act of creation is driven by a love which finds fulfillment only through the other one who has the freedom to reject and accept love … A world which is only external to God and not also internal to Him, in the last consideration, is a divine play of no essential concern for God. This is certainly not the biblical view which emphasizes in many ways God’s infinite concern for his creation” (Systematic Theology, vol. 3 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963], pp. 420-422).

Process theists agree. Nevertheless, some prominent process theists, especially those most indebted to Charles Hartshorne, disagree with Tillich on several points.

1) They don’t think it limits God to say that God exists. They think Tillich is using “exists” in too restricted a sense. For Tillich, “existence” is a narrower category than “being” or “reality.” But process thinkers, like most English-speaking philosophers and the general public, use “existence” to cover whatever “being” or “reality” covers. They do agree with Tillich that God’s way of existing is unsurpassably unique and immeasurably different from any other way of existing. God’s way of existing is both necessary in some respects and contingent in others, while all others’ ways of existing are simply contingent. But God’s unsurpassable way of existing is still existing.

2) They don’t think it limits God to call God a being or an individual. But note that “individual“ is being redefined in a highly technical way. For Hartshorne and his followers, an individual is, literally, a unifying, self-inclusive series of “happenings” (i.e., ways of newly interacting). That’s what you and I basically are as individuals. It’s also what a microorganism basically is. It’s even what an electron basically is. But for Hartshorne that’s also what God basically is. What makes God different from all others is that God is the uniquely all-unifying, fully self-inclusive series of happenings. So for Hartshorne and his followers God is quite literally “the individual with strictly universal functions” (Hartshorne, p. 36). It’s the “strictly universal functions” that make God unimaginably different from any other individual you and I have ever encountered. But God is still literally an individual.“Individuality and universality ordinarily are opposed … What Tillich overlooks, however, is that this seemingly inevitable contrast between universality and individuality is one of the very rules to which God as worshipful or unsurpassable must be an exception. [God’s] uniqueness must consist precisely in being both reality as such and an individual reality, insofar comparable to other individuals” (Hartshorne, pp. 34-35).

3) They don’t think God is the answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” They find the question itself too confused to need answering. For them “nothing” is not a conceivable alternative to “something,” so there’s no “rather than” to ponder. “Nothing,” they claim, is a relative term that always presumes the existence of something else, as in “There’s nothing in the fridge” (there’s still the fridge, and there’s still plenty in the fridge—shelves, air, electro-magnetic waves, etc.—just nothing edible). In fact process thinkers in the “Hartshornean” tradition insist that “Something exists” is necessarily true, making “Nothing exists” necessarily false. For them the astonishment of existence is better expressed in Blaise Pascal’s astonishment “at being here rather than there … now rather than then” (Pensees, 205).

I have to say that I’m not particularly interested in taking sides in this disagreement. I believe the way Tillich phrases things is, at the very least, defensible, though at times misleading. But I would say the same thing of these “literalist” process theists—defensible, though at times misleading. (There’s a very helpful comparison that describes in more detail how Hartshorne and Tillich often argue past each other. I recommend it, though I suspect it’s not very easy to follow unless you have read both of them extensively.)

I suspect that much of their mutual misunderstanding stems from different styles of doing philosophy. Tillich’s Germanic philosophical heritage is deeply influenced by G. W. F. Hegel even when it claims to reject him. Hartshorne‘s American philosophical heritage is deeply influenced by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Sanders Peirce (the original Pragmatist philosopher), though he was also trying to argue by the standards set by the most anti-Hegelian strands of analytic philosophy (for example, Rudolph Carnap).

But probably their biggest difference is that Hartshorne and his followers insist that we must be able to describe God literally, not just symbolically or metaphorically. Tillich at the very least waffles on this point.

For a time, in response to criticism, Tillich agreed that we must be able to say something literal about God. At first, he said, “The statement that God is being-itself is a nonsymbolic statement … It means what it says directly and properly” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951], p. 238). But later he seems to have backtracked: “If we say that God is the infinite, or the unconditional, or being-itself … these terms precisely designate the boundary line at which both the symbolic and the non-symbolic coincide” (Systematic Theology, vol. 2 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957], p. 10). So it seems that even if we say that God is being-itself, we have not stopped speaking symbolically altogether. And when we speak symbolically we are stretching language in the same way that Sallie McFague says of metaphor: “A religious symbol uses the material of ordinary experience in speaking of God, but in such a way that the ordinary meaning of the material used is both affirmed and denied“ (p. 9).

As I’ve said in my comments on McFague, I don’t think we have to be able to show that our language for God, or for reality as such, is literal. Figurative language can say something recognizably real without being first translated into literal or “univocal” concepts. So I suppose I side more with Tillich on that point. What matters is using language that can awaken us to to a dialogical, continually renewing communion with the all-inclusively real.