Adam Blatner

August 23, 2005    See also other papers on this website:    (1)  Why Process Thought is Relevant; (2) God Being Everything (December, 2006); (3) Poetic Theology  (January 30, 2007); Image-ing God ; and others!)
 The theological implications of the philosophical school called "Process Thought" could help resolve a number of the pervasive beliefs that hamper the development of a truly adaptive spirituality. It offers a revision of the image of God, the Divine purpose, and the way that God acts in the Cosmos. The field is not more widely known because much of its writing has been devoted to creating and refining a careful intellectual foundation, but current cultural trends indicate a need for process thought becoming more widely appreciated. To this end, its exponents should dare to present these ideas in a more poetic, mythological, story-like, "user-friendly" format that non-philosophers can relate to personally and communally.  (See links at the end for some examples.)

Process philosophy is a general category of work that is especially related to the writings of Alfred North Whitehead (1865-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1899-2001) (check dates), though some similar themes may be noticed in precursors such as Charles Sanders Peirce, etc. More recent major writers in this field include John Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin, and many others. (There's an international organization centered at the Claremont Graduate School of Theology in the Pomona College complex about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.)

The key concept in process philosophy is a shift from thinking about the world as an aggregate of things to thinking about it as a complex of events, constantly evolving, in process. Whitehead contemplated the essential nature of this process in a dense intellectual tome titled Process and Reality, written in the late 1920s. Late in that book he carefully deduced the existence of a non-Biblical concept of God–closer to what I would call "The Source of Valuing." Hartshorne, at one time Whitehead's assistant, but with a number of independent but related ideas, started from a different position: Assuming God's existence, but nothing else of classical theology, Hartshorne reviewed the necessary and possible qualities of Divinity, coming up with a concept that is intellectually rigorously developed. (I had the privilege of coming to know Professor Hartshorne in his later years and finding his ideas illuminating and coherent.)

Essentially, Process Philosophy, and especially its theology, presents a way of thinking about God that offers important alternatives to traditional concepts, in a number of ways:

1. Pan-psychism, or pan-experientialism. Everything–or more precisely, in process terms, every event–has an element of interiority, experience, mind (in its most general sense), however rudimentary. Another way to think of this is to consider that mind may be a dimension that interpenetrates all events, just as does time, energy, space, or matter.

The implications for this idea is that the mind field pervades all and operates at all levels, from the minutest event (e.g., an electron) to the most encompassing (e.g., God). The nature of mind is such that it can know other minds, and can operate holonomically, as the contemporary philosopher, Ken Wilber, describes it. That is, our minds can operate with freedom even though they are operating within and partaking of the Divine mind. A corollary is that elements of Divinity operate also within our being as "spirit," informing "soul," "ego," and "body" as successively more individuated manifestations of itself.

2. Pan-entheism. God is Everything (but if that were all, it would be mere pantheism) and More than Everything–, operating also beyond the limitations or boundaries of the physical universe – hence, pan-en-theism. God includes and transcends also the mental dimension. As noted with the comments above, in the dimensions of matter-space-time, as well as mind, this means that God is the whole of which you and each other event (Whitehead uses the term, "actual occasion") are a part. The corollary, God is not and cannot be apart from you; you are as much a part of God as any saint, holy mountain, historico-social institution (church or religion), butterfly, etc. If you feel separated from God, know that is your own illusion or limitation of consciousness, perhaps aided by a prevalent cultural misconception of God up there and you down here.)

3. The relationship of humans to God is better imagined not as the metaphor of children to a parent or subjects to a king, but rather the relationship of cells to an organism. (Indeed, Whitehead once described his ideas as a philosophy of organism.) Again, the implication here is that you are an integral part of the Divine Becoming, and as an analogy, a particular intimacy is suggested. You are beloved–not necessarily admired, but there is a deep concern for your fullest actualization–a mixture of both differentiation (celebrating your talents and other elements of your uniqueness) and also integration (learning to work optimally with the collective or at least for the longer term collective's benefit). All this runs counter to those religious doctrines that are fear-based, assuming a possibility of damnation, separation, abandonment, etc., and so offers a more intellectual foundation for a feeling of cosmic sustenance.

4. A key dynamic of God's activity–and the activity of every being, its process–is that of creativity. This is directly counter to the Aristotelian ideal of the "unmoved mover," and suggests that God is evolving, creating in all ways through all possible avenues and beings. It's a glorious enterprise, what Whitehead called "The Creative Advance." You are a part of this enterprise, and your efforts and experiences add to the overall experience of God. Whether or not there is an afterlife, a partial afterlife, a merging into the whole, reincarnation–these questions are not authoritatively answered in this philosophy–the key point is to not worry overmuch about your personal ego-bound experience. Much will be forgotten–perhaps all–but only by you. In a sense, God absorbs all of your existence into the unfolding of the cosmos. More, your positive contributions, even small acts of kindness, all resonate into the unfolding wholeness and becoming.

There are implications here about the hopes for personal "salvation," and the call to the right understanding of duty that will be elaborated after the next few points are made.

5. The activity of God is revised in this philosophy. Traditionally, God works through mere will, and magically, will produces complete effects. God can "create" a tree, poof, just like that. Wow, what a miracle. We're so impressed. But in Process Thought, the creative process is far more natural, evolutionary, lasting for billions of years, and the more we learn about science, the more complex it all becomes. In that sense, the creative process becomes far more wonder-filled, mysterious, miraculous, and glorious. How does God do it?

A key concept, perhaps one of the most important, is that God works through lure rather than force. God doesn't "make" things happen, and thus cannot– can not!–make you get a B on the exam that you didn't study for. Consequences proceed in spite of sincere and childish pleas to the contrary. Many people hate this idea; they want to be rescued; they want to be able to pray and hope for miracles. The idea that such goals are fundamentally childish is inconceivable to them. (It's difficult if not impossible to explain to a child–and have the child "understand"--that the child's desires or difficulty in coping with the realities of cause and effect are "childish.")

What? God is not omnipotent? Horrors! Wait, Hartshorne notes that, well, compared to any other force in the cosmos, including the gravity that binds whole galaxies together, and clumps of galaxies, the subtle, almost imperceptible lure of intrinsic value is yet more powerful! It works in every event, from the life of the electron to the evolution of galaxies. This concept of lure solves so many conundrums generated by the misleading concept of God's "omnipotence."

God's lure is with you in every moment, operating at many levels, drawing you towards your highest values, as you can conceive of them, relate to them at your own personal level, and as operating within your own socio-historical context. The good news is that it is one of the ways that you can experience the Divine within. The bad news is that God can't make you behave well or think straight. It gives hints, is the "still small voice within," and occasionally, perhaps, a vivid dream, inspirational phrase or melody, feeding and supporting creativity in all ways. But there are layers upon layers of culture, fear, shame, guilt, low-consciousness habits such as obsessing on revenge, and scores of other barriers to higher consciousness. God can't make you wake up, but can gently nudge.

The bad and good news is that you are therefore more responsible! You are called on to think more clearly, learn, study, re-evaluate, create, improvise, discover, understand, empathize, widen your circle of compassion, mature, seek wisdom, love, live faithfully, exert will and courage, and a host of other noble behaviors. It's bad news for those who use religion as a crutch to support their complacency: They believe God will make it all better when the Messiah comes. Heaven to them is a place of permanent vacation, with no more work or worry. Process philosophy thus attracts only those who are willing to open their minds to a more mature way to be human in a changing world.

6. The re-visioning of God with a primary value of creativity has the further benefit (and challenge) of calling us all to seek creativity in all areas of life. This has become a sub-field of individual, social, and cultural psychology in the last few decades. (One of my other influences, the psychiatrist Jacob Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama–which is one of my other areas of interest–was almost unique in the field in his interest in helping clients to become more creative in the way they deal with their problems. He further considered the suppression or avoidance of creativity to be one of the major compounding factors in personal and cultural difficulties.)


This mouthful of a term refers to the need to present these concepts not merely as intellectual ideas, finely coordinated, but as metaphors, images, even songs, poetry, stories and dramas. I believe the aforementioned concepts to be the foundation of a new trans-denominational type of spirituality, and that it complements a number of other trends, such as those suggested by Walsh (1999), Wilber (2004), and others.

In other words, one might well ask, "If these ideas are so wonderful, so powerful and moving, why don't more people know about them?"

The first reason is that almost all of the writing about Process Philosophy is relatively intellectually dense. Most of the sub-field's discourse seems to be written as articles and papers to be delivered to others in the general areas of theology and philosophy, as if to consolidate the fine points of theoretical coherence. I think they've done this enough and it's time to dare to move towards popularization.

Another reason was alluded to above: Many people find this complex of ideas to be incompatible with standard religious doctrine, as concepts of original sin and redemption or salvation through belief are irrelevant. Related to this, there are intellectuals in fields of theology who are still blinded by their bias, don't want to give up the promise of conventional asking-for-miracles prayer, nor their own status as upholding a Biblical religion.

Interestingly, many Process Theologians find that this approach is compatible with Christianity, but I suspect that their connection is mainly through "preferred imagery." Had they grown up with Krishna or Buddha or some other strong connection to Divinity, and had this been reinforced by parents, peers, community, foods, smells, and deep familiarity with the images, their connectedness might resonate through a different set of multi-modal images. I've found that few Christian process thinkers adhere closely to conservative or orthodox doctrine. Rather, they are "working from inside," so to speak, hoping to modernize the church in light of more contemporary ideas and circumstances.

Other related papers on this website reflect my image-associations to this theory:
      1. Image-ing God
      2. Poetic Theology (1/30/07)
      3. God Actively Being Everything (12 / 06)
      4.  Myths for Today
      5.  A Psychiatrist's view of Process Philosophy   (1998/2002)