Contemporary process thought originally set out to be a way of framing a unified concept of nature that does not undermine the only way we arrive at such a concept—through our experience* of nature, and in particular, our experience of nature as uncontainably flowing.**
American philosophers Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, John Dewey, William James and C. S. Peirce shared that concern. I think G. W. F. Hegel can also be regarded as a process thinker, but people dispute this. (Here’s an appealing interpretation.) Even the anti-theist Bertrand Russell seems to have been a sympathizer here.*** Ancient precursors of contemporary process thought include Heraclitus and some schools of Buddhism.
Some process thinkers (e.g., James, Peirce, Whitehead, but not Dewey or Russell) concluded that this could lead to reframing the concept of God in a way that does not need to make God, or peoples’ alleged experience of God, look unlikely either. We’ll come back to that.
Process thought uses lived experience to challenge the largely unquestioned prescientific assumption that constant-things-plus-constant-properties are all that can exist. This really is almost a dogma beyond question in most Western thought, including most accounts of the natural sciences, and it really is a prescientific assumption, not something one of the sciences “discovered.”
Instead, process thought views all things and persons and even properties as uncontainably flowing patterns in the uncontainable flow of reality as such, “eddies in the continuous flow of process.” That’s true of quarks, atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, planets, stars, galaxies, experiences, selves and whatever else there is, without exception. Why? Because it’s true to what is most constant in experience, namely, that constancy itself is experienced as an abstraction from experience’s constant flow. Every experience flows faster than we can track; what we can track, what shows up as more or less constant, are somewhat recurrent patterns (which are not holding completely still either). That applies to what I just said. “Every experience flows faster than we can track” is a somewhat recurrent pattern that never holds completely still, constantly true, but never true in exactly the same way.
Maybe you’ve never noticed this. Much of our everyday language downplays it, partly because it’s unsettling. We’re more comfortable with constant-things-plus-constant-properties. Many sciences ignore this, because they tend to limit themselves to what can be tracked—recurrent patterns abstracted from this uncontainable flow. But once you start to notice reality’s uncontainable flow, it becomes undeniable. We experience this before we even think about employing the humanly established methods of science or even logic, or the everyday categories of changeless properties attached in some inexplicable way to changeless things. Every experience, every thing or property experienced, flows faster than we can track. It can take a lifetime to appreciate the implications of this, and much of my spirituality is devoted to that. (Buddhists, I repeat, have for centuries formed their own spirituality around insights like these. But process thought is mostly a Western movement more open to some sort of God-talk than much of Buddhism cares to be.)
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 intimately dialogical relationships with the the uniquely all-inclusive reality (and with everything else along the way) are available to each of us. We’re all flowing uncontainably in the uncontainable flow of reality as such.
This makes oral cultures’ tendency to personify the forces in their surroundings look more insightful than moderns have tended to assume, because we all share so much liveliness in common even in our differences. The differences are as real and as great as we need them to be, but still somewhat relative. What we call lifeless or lively, mindless or mindful, impersonal, personal or interpersonal, becomes partly a matter of convention, of how we choose to see others—as competitors only, or as potential neighbors of endless variety.
When we make the eminently reasonable choice to see everything we experience in process terms, seeing varieties of liveliness everywhere, it makes good sense to interact with reality as such, the ultimately real, in lively terms—not only in impersonal terms but also in personal and interpersonal terms, provided that we pay due attention to the major differences involved. And that is where God-talk arises—where it seems to have arisen historically and where it seems to arise and get renewed today.
We can trace, for example, how the writers of the Bible, in a more animistic and anthropomorphic milieu, moved from thinking of God crudely as one of several temperamental, superhuman agencies in the world to thinking of God more contemplatively as the uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things (Romans 11:36—cited by almost every major Christian writer afterwards). The second half of Isaiah is one of the earliest texts to recognize this, and to recognize further that no terms could be applied to God literally. Instead the impersonal, personal and interpersonal terms used for lesser things had to be stretched and understood figuratively—metaphorically or analogically. By the time of Jesus and Rabbi Hillel and Philo, you could figuratively call God a rock, a fortress, a fire, a shepherd, a parent, a lover, or eventually even love itself (an interpersonal analogy) or reason itself (logos), as long as you remembered that you were evoking the majorly different beginning, way and end of all things, reality as such, the ultimately real. But these figurative expressions weren’t considered false. They really pointed, however inadequately, to the uncontainable liveliness of all things, and to the uncontainable liveliness of the beginning, way and end of all things, God. Or so many influential people of faith presumed.
There’s a major implication here that has only recently been recognized with any consistency. If all things flow uncontainably, not just the beginning, way and end of all things, then there’s no place for an all-controlling power. The uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things does not, and by definition cannot, contain the uncontainable, lively flow of anything else. So process thinkers who want to affirm God’s reality (i.e., “process theists”) avoid using words like “omnipotence,” when they speak of God. They view God, the uncontainable beginning, way and end of all things, as uncontainably powerful, but that’s not controllingly powerful. The process world is an unforeseeably creative world. Unforeseeable things, including unforeseeable conflicts and disasters, happen when all things flow uncontainably. Even uncontainable awareness cannot foresee them. They can be drawn into closer cooperation afterwards, but they are not preventable by any conceivable power, not even the uncontainably greatest power. With this recognition there’s no need to explain away disasters—they’re an inevitable byproduct of a multiply creative world, not part of any horrendous plan. I view that as a major selling point. But others see it as paying too high a price.
There are, in fact, both theists and atheists who insist that only an all-controlling being can be called God, and they will predictably object to the process theists’ version of God. But process theists reply that, to them (and to me), all-encompassing, all-attracting, non-controlling, uncontainable power is the only power worthy of worship and imitation in an uncontainably lively world. And Christian process theists point out that this is the power embodied in the canonical stories of Jesus of Nazareth. There, “power is made perfect in weakness,” in self-giving compassion, according to St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9; Philippians 2:5-11). Other theists, and their nontheistic critics, have trouble making room for such a statement, or the story behind it, because they start with the concept of an all-controlling God. Process theism starts with power made perfect in (apparent) weakness. All-encompassing, all-attracting, non-controlling, uncontainable power can look weak to the impatient, but it will always outlast and refashion whatever harm occurs.
Process thought insists, credibly, I maintain, that nothing we have discovered since ancient times counts against this ancient insight into the uncontainable liveliness of all things, and of the beginning, way and end of all things, God. This uncontainable liveliness can make room for any number of containable, mechanistic models popular in today’s sciences. As models (which are always somewhat figurative abstractions), they, too, really point, however inadequately, to the innumerable variety of recurrent patterns in the uncontainable liveliness that produces and adapts them. We are talking about something real when we speak somewhat mechanistically of fundamental particles, and we are talking about something equally real when we speak somewhat animistically of fundamental, lively moments of uncontainable flowing. There’s no inherent conflict in speaking both ways, as long as we notice how we are stretching ordinary words to point to the extraordinary—reality as such flowing uncontainably.
*“We seek the general notions which apply to nature, namely, to what we are aware of in perception … For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyse how these various elements of nature are connected … What we [seek] is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.”—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28-29, (online here.)
**“The immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence of nature. It is nature as an event present for sense-awareness, and essentially passing.”—Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 14 (online here.)
*** “What has been thought of as a particle will have to be thought of as a series of events. The series of events that replaces a particle has certain important physical properties, and therefore demands our attention; but it has no more substantiality than any other series of events that we might arbitrary single out. Thus ‘matter’ is not part of the ultimate material of the world, but merely a convenient way of collecting events into bundles … I think that both mind and matter are merely convenient ways of grouping events.”—Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (online here).