The Problem with Process Theism

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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

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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.

Academia: A Diamond-Filled Cesspool

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Such a title may appear strange coming from an academic. I enjoy academic, and my undergraduate and graduate school training changed my life, I believe, for the better. Through my education, I learned how to critically think beyond my childhood Fundamentalism without giving up Christian orthodoxy. I learned the wonderful field of philosophy and experienced reading some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world: Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Alfred North Whitehead, and many others. Sadly, if a young person were to talk to me about going to college or university, I would tell him, “Go, but remember that academia is a cesspool, and sometimes you have to dip your hands in s..t to gather up the diamonds.

What damaged the integrity of academia was the radicalism of the 1960s. The history of such radicalism has been documented by David Horowitz and Robert Bork, so I will only give the broadest details. After the 1962 Port Huron Meeting, in which the Students for a Democratic Society were radicalized under the leadership of Tom Hayden, they began to work toward revolutionizing higher education. Influenced by the Frankfurt School, especially the thought of Herbert Marcuse, they desired to bring about a Marxist society by changing the culture, rather than by changing the government. After the student protests of the 1960s and the early 1970s, many of these radicals attended graduate school and got their Ph.D.s. They believed that race, class, and gender (what some have called “the unholy trinity”) determine one’s identity. The Humanities became dominated by such thought, especially English departments. At a conference on Southern literature at which I presented a paper, I believe that my paper (on Wendell Berry) was the only one that did not focus on race, class, and/or gender. A young lady presented a paper that espoused relativism based on the unholy trinity. In the question and answer session I pointed out the contradictions with any kind of relativism, and she readily admitted their existence. When I talked privately with her, I found her to be a traditionalist and a Christian. When I asked her why she presented a paper presenting views with which she did not agree, she said, “I must do what is necessary to get a job.”

To use another term found in discussions of academia, these “tenured radicals” gained control of many departments of English, History, and even Music—they were not as successful in philosophy departments. Once they gained control, they hired only clones of themselves. As a result, many students are exposed to a distorted view of English literature or American History. Instead of focusing on the classic core of literature, for example, Shakespeare is often not even required for an English degree. “Underrepresented writers” replace the great writers of the past. The reason Shakespeare and other writers are in the core curriculum is their ability to express universal meaning through the particularities of their literature. The purging of the classics affects libraries, as they rush to order books to gain the proper balance of “race, class, and gender” and discard classics.

Class discussion is poisoned. Female students are taught to focus on grievances, and men are often portrayed as evil, greedy, and lecherous—to the point that even consensual sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is portrayed as a man raping a woman. Racial differences are emphasized, and minority races are taught to focus on how the majority society has mistreated them. Traditional religion is mocked, especially traditional Christianity, which is portrayed as a tool of the ruling class to keep down women, minorities, and the poor. “Multiculturalism” and “diversity” are code words—they do not refer to teaching about other cultures such as India or China—they are code words for “black and Hispanic.” This kind of multiculturalism distorts the rich cultural diversity found in different black and Hispanic communities. It also promotes a naïve relativism that claims that no one culture is better than another. Such a view poisons moral discourse because if relativism is true, the Stalinist Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia could not be morally censured. If a student questions the radicalism of the professor, oftentimes the student’s grade will suffer.

How can a student find the diamonds within the cesspool of academia? First, he should, to the best of his ability, choose his teachers carefully. Choose teachers who are willing to hear both sides of an issue, no matter what the teacher’s political views might be. Avoid professors who are known to push their agenda and who punish students for politically incorrect speech. Speaking of which, many colleges and universities have adopted “speech codes” to control politically incorrect speech. Now if such speech referred to truly offensive and insulting speech against a group of people, I could at least understand why a speech code was adopted. But speech codes can be used to censure politically or religiously conservative talk. If a student is punished for breaking a speech code, for example, by defending the position that practicing homosexuality is morally wrong, that student should fight that conviction, in court if necessary. Students should be willing—and be strong enough—to speak up and defend their own positions.

A student can also take elective courses on the classics, such as an elective course on Shakespeare. A student might orient his term paper around a classic work of literature, philosophy, or around a major historical event. Many classics are now online, and some students might be interested in reading them in their spare time. I know of a few students who read classic texts and who do not buy into the radical left’s understanding of human history in terms of the unholy trinity. Of course math and science courses have not, for the most part, been politicized, at least in terms of a strong left-right split.

If anyone teaches a course in Classical Rhetoric, a student should take it. The skills taught in that course are seldom taught today—and they aid both in grammar and in logical reasoning. Taking logic is also something that would benefit students.

I make this next suggestion with some concern that today’s students may not have the discipline to handle classical languages, but students should learn at least Latin, and ideally Greek as well. This teaches not only English grammar, but discipline, and opens up the world of the classics in their original tongues to students.

It is possible to find gold nuggets in the cesspool of academia. The main task for parents is to be aware and do their own homework in finding a school that will encourage a person to think, that will not indoctrinate students, and which focuses on a classic core of literary and philosophical works.