The Problem with Process Theism


Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

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My first philosophical love is metaphysics, which attempts to discover the nature of being, of reality itself, and the philosophers to whom I am most attracted are those who build grand metaphysical systems: Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Gottfried Leibniz, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne. Whitehead and Hartshorne are among many process philosophers, who focus on relation more than on substance. They are not identical in their philosophies–Hartshorne has been heavily influenced by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, and has done work on arguments for the existence of God, such as the Ontological and Cosmological Arguments. A number of Christian theologians, such as John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, have used process philosophy as a way to understand the nature of God. Since their influence has come primarily through Whitehead, it is on Whitehead’s philosophy of God that I shall focus.

For Whitehead, God is intrinsically related to all actual occasions (bits of experience that are intertwined with one another and make up an interrelated web of reality). God chooses from among Eternal Objects (similar to Plato’s Forms) and offers them to actual occasions to accept or reject. He does not force any actual occasion or society of actual occasions (such as a human being) to accept his offer of positive value from the Eternal Objects. God is not as much a divine judge as “a fellow sufferer who understands” (Whitehead, Process and Reality). God is not a creator, for the universe has always been, and the universe is the body of God. God enriches other actual occasions who accept his offer of greater value, and other actual occasions also enrich the life of God (in God’s consequent, concrete nature, as opposed to God’s primordial, abstract nature). God is not guaranteed to overcome evil, but He works with other actual occasions to limit the damage evil causes and to bring the most good into the universe as he and his fellow actual occasions can.

The late Louis Mackey, one of my teachers during the year I spent at the University of Texas at Austin, was blunt in his opinions, a quality I still admire. I asked him what he thought about process theology, which adopts Whitehead’s (or Hartshorne’s similar view) of God and applies it to Christian theology. His response was something like this: “Well, you end up with a God who appreciates the small amount of help we can give him, and we appreciate the larger amount of help we can give us. God ends up being your favorite great uncle or some such sentimental bulls..t.” As he often did, he hit the nail on the head. A God who is not all-powerful in the traditional sense is unworthy of worship. He could be admired a great deal, but he is not as much God as a more powerful being of the same kind as we are. Such a God cannot guarantee that evil will be overcome–thus, it is possible that evil could triumph over good. We can have no ultimate confidence in such a God. J. B. Phillips once wrote a book entitled Your God is Too Small, and this is precisely the problem with the God of process theism.

“Cosmic Memory” and the Mind of God


Harvard University image of Whitehead, circa 1924

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There has been a great deal of talk about “cosmic memory,” “Akashic Records,” and so forth among both mainstream parapsychologists and New Agers. This is an old idea that was revived not only by Theosophists, but also by philosophers such as William James, and there are some affinities with Jung’s “collective unconscious.” Ervin Laszlo has written a great deal on “Akashic memory,” as Edgar Mitchell and Stanley Krippner accept some version of cosmic memory placed in the framework of contemporary physics.

Such views remind me of Alfred North Whitehead‘s notion of “objective immortality.” For Whitehead, like contemporary advocates of cosmic memory, every event in nature is interconnected. As events constantly flow into the past, they are recorded in the mind of God, where they are stored forever. Whitehead himself denies subjective immortality, the notion that individual humans, for example, will live forever. But he accepts the idea that God remembers every event, and in that sense everything is immortal. These memories enrich the life of God, and He can use them as He continually aids the world in enfolding toward greater enrichment of value. Thus, Whitehead accepts a theistic (specifically a panentheistic) view of cosmic memory as existing in the mind of God.

None of these positions would suit traditional Christianity–but there is a version of cosmic memory that can–that of St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, God eternally holds every object and event in His mind. Although that is not the same as something existing in re, in itself, in another sense existing in God’s mind is more real than existing in re. Now Aquinas believes in subjective immortality; that is, he believes that God will raise all humans from the dead, restoring their souls to new bodies that are in a real sense continuous with the old. While Aquinas’ version of the afterlife sounds boring (“the beatific vision of God,” in which the saved contemplate God forever), as the late Father Joseph Owens of The Medieval Institute of the University of Toronto has noted, such an afterlife need not be boring at all. If all events and all places, everything that has ever existed or happened, exist virtually in God’s mind, then a resurrected person could have an experience of walking through the fields of his childhood. This sounds like a George Berkeley-like view of Heaven, or perhaps H. H. Price’s image-world with God as a ground of stability. My one caveat would be that if I exist in such a world, I would want the animals I have loved to be really, not just virtually, present–with their conscious lives restored and intact. If all else is composed of images in the mind of God, what would be the practical difference between such a world and a material world? Does the substrate out of which solid material objects is made really make a difference? There would be still be, to use Christian terminology, a “New Heaven and a New Earth.” On this view, the Beatific Vision of God would mark the fulfillment of our materiality rather than its repudiation. And the full truth of cosmic memory would be fulfilled in the ultimate vision of God’s memory playing a role in the blessed life of the resurrected.