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Definition

A contemporary non-evangelical theology with a conception of God rooted in the natural world around us. A view of God that claims it is more accurate to reality and to Scripture than the Classical View of God, because its God, though not omnipotent, is said to be changeable and interactive with humanity, unlike the Classical God.

Summary

Stemming initially from Alfred N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality (published in 1929), Process Theology has gained widespread interest and acceptance among non-evangelical scholars in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some of the key figures in the movement beside Whitehead are Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, Schubert Ogden, Daniel Day Williams, etc. Process Theology sees all existing things, including God, as dipolar actual entities. Each actual entity has a primordial pole (which contains all the possible things that entity can become) and an actual pole (the physical thing in the world that the actual entity is). The Process God is finite, mutable, less than omnipotent, and via his physical pole suffers alongside of his creatures. This is not thought to be a defect but rather an asset as it allows God to identify with his creatures and experience what happens to them as it happens.

Background of Process Theology

Stemming initially from Alfred N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality (published in 1929), Process Theology has gained widespread interest and acceptance among non-evangelical scholars in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some of the key figures in the movement beside Whitehead are Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, David Ray Griffin, Schubert Ogden, Daniel Day Williams, etc.

At a time when non-evangelical theologians thought it impossible to craft a system of theology, in part because it seemed impossible to construct an internally consistent conceptual scheme that covered all of reality, Whitehead proposed a system of theology based on a different metaphysical understanding of the universe than the one underlying traditional Christian theism. Whereas Classical Christian theism seemed to necessitate that the world is filled with static and unmoving things, Whitehead’s metaphysic proposed the opposite. The universe is not made up of static entities, but rather is filled with things that are in the process of change and becoming. In fact, for Whitehead and his followers, everything is in flux.

Developments Behind Process Theology

There are several major developments behind the development of process theology. On the one hand, advances in science made it impossible to believe in Newtonian physics. Given quantum mechanics and relativity theory, it was concluded that the proper way to understand reality is that it is in a constant state of change. The Newtonian view that the world consists of static, inert, isolated things does not fit with contemporary scientific understanding of reality. As might also be expected, commitment to evolution does not fit with belief in isolated, unrelated things that make up the universe.

Developments in philosophy like the move to empiricism in metaphysics and epistemology and the religious climate of the times also contributed to the rise in acceptance of process thinking, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century. But it is also true that a major impetus behind the growing popularity of process thought was an attack on the classical Christian conception of theology in general and of God in particular. Belief in the miraculous simply cannot be sustained, and accounts of events like creation (Genesis 1-2) must be seen as myth.

Understanding Classical Christian Theology

While these anti-supernaturalist views are expected in the contemporary era, more than just a rejection of the miraculous stands behind process theology. In particular, process thinkers reject the Classical Christian notion of God as portrayed in the Bible and espoused by many Christians. Of special concern are the divine attributes of immutability and impassibility. Traditional Christian thinking says that God is absolutely immutable and cannot change in any way. Hence, biblical passages of God repenting of the evil he planned to do to Israel because of her unfaithfulness, and about God deciding, for example, not to destroy Nineveh after it responded to Jonah’s preaching cannot be taken as literally true if God cannot change in any way.

Moreover, according to divine impassibility, God cannot feel or express emotions. In addition, God cannot be moved to change his thinking or planned actions because of what his creatures do. If he feels compassion for people who are suffering, he has no way to express that, and so his creatures feel alone and helpless in a world filled with many dangers. Moreover, if God cannot be moved to change his plans, etc., there would seem to be no purpose to petitionary prayers.

All of this might be discouraging to a certain extent, and yet perhaps palatable, if God were as powerless to address challenges in our world as we are. However, the classical conception of God portrays him as having absolute power and control over everything. He is seen as a ruling monarch who always gets his way, regardless of what that might mean to any of his creatures. His creatures have little or no power to cope with the human condition, but the classical God is not obligated to help with their situation. Moreover, humans have only the limited freedom God gives them, but he is always free to override their freedom whenever he wants and for any reason he chooses.

The Contrast of Classical and Process Theology

Needless to say, Process thinkers find the Classical God to be totally inadequate, and they cannot see how anyone would want to worship and follow him. So, how do Process thinkers understand the nature of reality and of God? They claim that the simplest things the world is composed of are actual entities. Those entities make up everything that exists. All actual entities, and hence all of reality, is bi-polar or di-polar. The two poles are, on the one hand, the primordial, conceptual, abstract pole, and on the other, the consequent, concrete, physical pole. The primordial pole of anything is all the possible things the actual entity can become. Since none of these things as eternal, conceptual objects is something concrete, the contents of the primordial pole contain all the possible things an actual entity can become, but it actualizes none of them. The primordial pole is thus, the pole of pure possibilities. At any and every moment, these possible things present themselves to the actual pole to be prehended as an actual entity becomes something new (though perhaps not tremendously different from what the entity was before). The process of the actual entity choosing and taking into itself the new item from among the possibilities is known as the actual entity’s concrescence (i.e., the making of something conceptual, a possibility, into the tangible thing the actual entity is becoming).

The other pole is the consequent, concrete, physical pole. This pole chooses from among all the possibilities (the primordial pole) the specific thing(s) the actual entity can use as it continues to change. As those possibilities are chosen, they become part of the actual thing being produced through this process of becoming. The result is that the physical, concrete object in the world adds the new quality or entity to the actual entity. This ongoing process means that at any given moment the actual entity is not identical to any earlier or later stage of its development. That does not mean, however, that from prehending a new item to the existing entity the actual entity is dramatically different from its former stage. So far as anyone can observe, this process of moving an item from the conceptual pole to the physical pole continues indefinitely.

Summary of Process Theology

Whitehead and his followers affirm that nothing that exists fails to be an actual entity of the sort noted. That includes God. According to process theists, God is bi-polar. His primordial, conceptual pole is the totality of all possibilities that actual entities can become. In Whitehead’s work, this was taken to mean one of two different things. One conception of his primordial nature is that it is merely the perceiving and ordering of all the possibilities. Of course, this view does not include any thing that does the ordering, so it is not clear how on this view the eternal entities get ordered. According to the second view of God’s primordial nature, it is just the eternal objects/all the possibilities ordered by God. But are these eternal objects anything more than abstract generalities from the concrete world (and hence, not actual entities themselves)? And whatever they are, where are they? However one conceives of the primordial pole, these possibilities are the unchanging, the constant elements in Whitehead’s metaphysics.

God also has a consequent, physical pole. It is the world/universe in which we live. Though this sounds like pantheism, process theists insist that it is not. God’s being is not the world. Rather it interpenetrates and contains the world without becoming identical to it. As physical, God’s consequent pole contains the physical universe, but it is not always easy to tell where the physical nature of God’s consequent pole ends and the physicality of the world begins, and vice versa. Nonetheless, this distinction is required if process theology is to avoid being nothing more than pantheism. It should also be clear that it is God’s consequent pole that is changing, so that not only is the world always becoming something new, but so is God. This is not seen as a defect in God, because only a God who can change can be responsive to and interactive with the changing things his creatures are experiencing. In fact, with the world being God’s consequent pole, whatever happens to it happens to God. He is not merely sympathetic to our trials and troubles; he experiences them just as we do. These factors about his nature make him a relational God in contrast to the static, unchanging God of Classical Theism.

But, how can an actual entity, including God, act in the world? All entities except God act by prehending (grasping) some of the possible things that an entity of their kind can incorporate into its being? The new possibility concresces with the actual entity, i.e. it joins with it to make something concrete that is new. Once this happens, the actual entity prehends another possible to produce yet another new actual entity. This process of becoming continues indefinitely.

In contrast to all other actual entities, God does not prehend new possibilities, because his primordial pole already contains everything possible and his concresent nature just is everything the physical pole contains. So, how does God act? He acts by presenting to actual entities his primordial nature from which the entities can prehend some new possibility to become a new actual entity. Process thinkers claim that God does more than this. Each actual entity is pointed toward what it can become. That is, each actual entity has a subjective aim. Though many possibilities would not be ideal should the actual entity choose them, God knows which possible(s) would best move the entity toward its ideal aim. Part of what God does in acting is to point out the ideal aim from among the possibilities confronting the entity. God will try to persuade the entity to choose a possible that will move it towards its ideal, but God will not disrupt or annul the actual entity’s freedom to choose what it pleases.

Because of God’s consequent/physical pole, he is changeable, he can feel and express emotions, and he does more than merely sympathize with our plight. He actually experiences it as we do. He suffers along with us when we suffer and he rejoices when we are happy. Though he is not omnipotent so that he cannot always rescue us from harm and evil, Process thinkers claim that he is superior to the Classical God because he actually responds to our prayers and sympathizes with us in ways that we can know and feel. All in all, Process thinkers believe that their God is much more religiously adequate, someone to whom contemporary people can relate because he really cares for them and can make them know that this is so.

Further Reading

Works Promoting / Affirming Process Theology:

  • John B. Cobb, Jr., “A Whiteheadian Doctrine of God,” in Brown, James, and Reeves, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971).
  • Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven, Conn: Yale, 1948).
  • Schubert Ogden, “Toward A New Theism,” in Brown, James, and Reeves, eds., Process Philosophy and Christian Thought (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971).
  • Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929).
  • ________________, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926)
  • ________________, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925)

Works Critiquing Process Theology:

  • John S. Feinberg, “Process Theology,” in John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004).

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.