Process theists have been accused of domesticating transcendence. In fact, that’s the charge of a very instructive work by William C. Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996):

“God is not one of the things in the world, to be analyzed and compared with categories appropriate to the other things in the world.… Something we can understand and adequately account for in terms of our human categories is not God. And therefore, the deity of process thought who, in Whitehead’s words, ‘is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles’ but as ‘their chief exemplification’ is not the God of Christian faith. Transcendence that fits our categories has been domesticated” (p. 10).

On many topics, I remain a huge fan of Placher’s work, especially his Narratives of a Vulnerable God, and I have quite a bit of sympathy for his concerns about transcendence. I agree that much of modern thinking about God went wrong. I’m inclined to agree that “transcendence that fits our categories has been domesticated.” And as his quote from Whitehead shows, I think process theists often write, unfortunately, as if we could fit transcendence into our categories.

That is why I think it crucial to insist that process categories and concepts, even at their most abstract and literal-looking, are nevertheless an effort to articulate how the concrete here-and-now will never “fit into our categories,” be they physical or metaphysical. As I have said, “our concrete experience of ourselves, of our surroundings, and of the all-inclusively real is constantly transcending any anonymous, abstract formulas and concepts and has as much claim to reality as any abstraction.” The transcendence engaging us in the concrete here-and-now remains undomesticated.

Again, I don’t think this point gets emphasized enough by many process theists. Indeed, maybe they haven’t noticed, which is why they understandably get accused of domesticating transcendence. But one of my favorite process theists is Catherine Keller, who does emphasize the point consistently: “I have found that the apophatic infinity of a pre-modern mystical panentheism actually energizes the postmodern panentheism of open-ended process” (p. 10). For her process thought is an acknowledgment of what she calls apophatic entanglement, “a full ontological relationalism [wherein] uncertainty, the apophatic, the unknowable [is] built into the elemental fabric of the universe” (p. 14).

The point is, however, in this sort of apophatically entangled process thinking, it is not simply God who must not be domesticated—it’s everything, concretely speaking, in the here-and-now, where God and our world continually engage us dialogically.

And it seems to me that this is a point that Placher (at least in Domestication) and other theists like him ultimately fail to honor. They do try to argue that their version of God’s transcendence in no way competes with or denies our “worldly” versions of transcendence, but I think their attempt ultimately fails. They end up denying any real transcendence to anything that isn’t God. 

Placher argues that, for example, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin would say both, “X was the result of human decision, or natural force, or accident,” and “X was fully the result of God‘s will” (p. 112, emphasis added). In other words, “the picture involves two quite different orders of causal efficacy, and, for Luther as for Aquinas and Calvin, it confuses everything if we think of God as an agent operating at the same level as other agents” (p. 119). Placher and company think this allows them to deny that God ever coerces anybody or anything. “What God wills people [or other creatures] to do voluntarily, they indeed do voluntarily, but they did not do it in a way that challenges God’s control of all things” (p. 125).

This way of arguing has a long-standing and current pedigree among highly respected thinkers. (Herbert McCabe provides another contemporary example.) Nevertheless, it strikes me as little more than a verbal slight-of-hand.

Placher offers an analogy that to me reveals both what may be initially appealing but finally appalling about this two-tiered approach. We should think of God’s relation to everybody and everything else in terms of an author’s relation to their characters (p. 125).

So let’s take an example from The Lord of the Rings, after Frodo has been paralyzed by the venom of a giant spider and Sam borrows Frodo’s ring. In one “order of causal efficacy,” we can say that Sam borrowed the ring to keep the orcs from getting it, but in another “order of causal efficacy,” we can say that Sam did this because that’s how Tolkien wrote the story. Both are true enough, but in utterly different senses that must not be confused. If a professor asked you on a quiz why Sam borrowed the ring (to see if you had read the assignment) you had better NOT answer, “Because Tolkien wrote it that way”!

There’s a certain appeal to this analogy. But despite how you should answer the quiz, what it shows is how a decent storyteller gets us to identify imaginatively with the actions of a character who turns out to have been totally made up. I am not by any means discounting how our imagination can show us things about reality that we couldn’t see any other way. (That’s a rich topic for another occasion.) But the fact remains that we don’t really think of Sam as an agent who makes decisions and acts on them. We presume that the only real agents involved here are the author and the readers in the same “order of causal efficacy.” We think of Sam’s “order of causal efficacy” as a simulated order. That’s why, even when our favorite characters die horribly or undergo some tragedy (think of The Game of Thrones), we may be deeply disappointed and highly sympathetic, but we get over that quickly in a way that we don’t and shouldn’t get over it too quickly when we are dealing with real people in our lives. We console ourselves by reminding ourselves that it didn’t really happen.

So if we think of ourselves as characters in a story somebody else has written, we can’t help thinking of our own experience of agency, of self-transcendence, as ultimately an illusion. It’s not really happening.

But perhaps the ultimate irony with this analogy is that it makes God totally irrelevant, just as it seems to make any sort of dialogical communion with God utterly impossible. From Sam’s point of view, there is simply no reason even to consider what Tolkien might want to happen. There is simply no reason even to ask what Tolkien might be up to. And there is certainly no reason for Sam to address Tolkien. True, there is an intimate connection between Tolkien and Sam, at least from Tolkein’s and our point of view. We could say, like St. Augustine, that Tolkien is “nearer to Sam than Sam is to himself.” But from Sam’s point of view that nearness is utterly irrelevant. Tolkien does not engage Sam dialogically, nor vice versa. In fact, if Sam were to suddenly ask Tolkien what he should do with the ring, we readers would find that an unwelcome intrusion into the story. There’s just no room for such a dialogical relationship in this sort of story. (Yes, there are stories, like the movie, Stranger Than Fiction, that playfully try to imagine that sort of dialogical relationship, but that’s the sort of story Placher would not have chosen to make his point.)

There are of course many theists for whom God’s total control is prized more highly than any sort of dialogical relationship. They see a dialogical relationship as more domesticated than the monological relationship between the author and their characters. But for me, a dialogical relationship is non-negotiable. Besides, since when was a genuinely dialogical relationship ever domesticated? Read Buber, for YHWH’s sake!

There is, however, another version of the author/characters analogy that I do find appealing, because it is in fact dialogical. It’s important to think of the relationship, not in terms of a finished product already published and available for purchase. Instead, consider the relationship many authors report with their characters while they are writing.*

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, wrote a series of four novels about a charlatan preacher and the unlikely friendships that resulted. He had only planned to write one novel, but he reports, “When I wrote the last sentence of [the first novel], I had thought I had finished with [all my characters] for good but soon found out that they were not finished with me. And so it was with the succeeding volumes, at the end of each of which I rang the curtain down only to find that, after a brief intermission, they’d rung it up again” (The Book of Bebb [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979], p. viii). So he wrote the remaining three novels to find out what happened to his characters, without ever sacrificing his unique role as the author. He did manage to include them in a delightful storyline that was ultimately his, but what they did along the way continued to surprise him. It would be misleading to say that he controlled them.

So here is an intimately dialogical relationship where the author is not simply another character in the story but nevertheless is not, and did not finally want to be, in total control of the characters. By imagining his characters so vividly, it seems that Buechner shared some of his own creativity with them, to the point where they could actually surprise him. This is closer to the undomesticated transcendence, the dialogical transcendence engaging us in the concrete here-and-now, that process thought suggests, and that I find non-negotiable. It suggests that, in whatever sense God is the author of your and my stories, God is just as much the reader responding to the liveliness invested in every character. This author/reader is intimately all-enlivening, all-sustaining, and all-embracing, but definitely not all-controlling. I think this analogy fits Placher’s earlier work (Narratives) pretty well, but I’m not sure there’s any place for it in Domestication.

Some might argue that this only shows how a human author is so much less than the all-knowing, all-controlling divine author who never has to find out what happens to any character. But really, who is the more creative, less domesticated author—the one whose characters conform exactly to the author’s purposes, or the one whose characters take on a life of their own, a shared creativity, and start to run away with a story that still manages to include them? Which kind of author would you rather be if you were going to be one? If there’s nothing to discover in the process, one might as well not write anything.

Fr. Charles

*While I’m sticking with the Buechner example above, I later came across a similar example from J. R. R. Tolkien writing about his own surprises as his trilogy unfolded. Since I also used him as an example, I thought I should at least include this in a note: “I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.”—J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter to W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955.