The Active Future as Divine
Lewis S. Ford
Ordinarily we think of
the future as a blank background on which we imaginatively project our
plans, hopes and fears. Or we may consider it as a receptacle, passively
registering the conditions the present and past lays upon it. Once all
these conditions are completed, it comes into being—only then it is no
longer future but present. As long as it is still future and still
indeterminate, we do not see how it could be active. How could the future
actively receive and respond to its world?
Besides the ordinary passive future we are
all familiar with, I wish to propose a notion of the future which can
serve as the appropriate mode of divine activity. First, I need to show
how an active future is possible. Then I must try to show that God can be
appropriately conceived as the activity of the future. In this account I
shall be relying heavily on the process philosophy of Alfred North
Whitehead, primarily as found in his main work, Process and Reality
(1929). In part I shall be presenting his ideas, while in part I shall be
building on them in ways he did not foresee.
The future is usually considered to be
exclusively passive because it lacks any discernible activity. Most deem
whatever discernible activity there is to be present, relegating to the
past whatever is no longer active. This makes good sense for those who
assume that world is constituted out of enduring substances, but it makes
less sense if the world is conceived in terms of events. Substances can
inhabit different temporal modalities, such as persisting from the past
into the present. Thus a substantial cause can lie in the past of the
substance it affects (thus being before its effect), and yet also be
present as actively causing. In an event theory, on the other hand, an
actual event must be present or past, but not both. Then a causal
transaction must be analyzed in terms of two events, only one of which is
present. Since the cause must be earlier than its effect, the event
serving as cause must lie in the past of the present event which is its
Most consider that the causes are active,
the effect its passive result. But if only the effect event can be
present, and only it is vested with activity, the conception of causation
needs to be reversed in the event theory. The effect actively appropriates
or prehends its causes. Whitehead’s coined the term ‘prehension’ from
‘comprehension’ or ‘apprehension’. The prefixes were omitted in order to
call attention to any taking account of another, whether or not this is
conscious. This is a generalization from perception, and so generalized,
it applies to causation as well.
Thus a present event prehends only past
objects. For something to be discernible, then, it must be objective, and
to be objective, it must be past. If so, then the discernible is not
active, and the active is not discernible. Thus there a fundamental shift
in the characterization of the temporal modes when we enter the context of
process philosophy, a shift which calls question the notion of a
‘Discernible activity’ ordinarily means the
perceptible changes we now experience as going on. But if nothing can be
both active and discernible, these perceptible changes must belong to the
immediate past. These discernible changes result from the indiscernible
activity of what just happened. Immediately past events, those deemed
present by most, are concretely determinate and have the same ontological
status as the more distant past.
The present then becomes the domain of
activity in terms of which determinate events come into being. In this
radical sense we experience the present only in terms of our own
subjective immediacy. Objective, discernible activity is then to be
understood as being derived from subjective, indiscernible becoming.
There are many acts of subjective becoming
taking place in the present. Yet the creative advance need not be
restricted to the present. It could extend into the future as well. This
future activity might be universal and one, first being pluralized in the
particular acts of the present.
Whether active or passive, the future is
more indeterminate than the present. A particular locus (e.g. November 18,
2056) could now be part of the active future, becoming present when all of
its conditions have come into being, receding into the past thereafter.
Each present event comes into being as a particularization of this future
If, as Whitehead argues, antecedent events
as past and determinate lack the inherent activity to be active causes,
present events must actively prehend and integrate their past. These
events bring themselves into being by receiving and integrating all these
causal factors. ‘Process’ in process philosophy is much more intense than
mere change. Though Whitehead rarely uses the term, it is really
‘creation,’ reconceived as a temporal, pluralistic, immanent activity. It
is not absolute creation ex nihilo, but the relative creation of
new events out of old ones.
God’s role for Whitehead is not that of
creator, but more a source of values by which the universe can be
partially ordered. Divine persuasion is the required conceptual bridge
between the traditional concept of God and the notion of a divinely active
future. For there can be very little connection between the ideas of
immutability, omniscience and omnipotence, and the active future.
Whitehead’s modifications of these concepts prepare us for theism
reconceived as the active future.
Classically, perfection has been
understood in terms of completion. A perfect being must therefore be
immutable, for any change would undercut the completion already achieved.
The Greeks conceived such perfection to be finite, but the basic argument
was retained to affirm divine infinity. Absolute infinity could be
conceived as that which allows nothing to be added to it.
Immutability and divine subjectivity were
identified with each other, even though this could not be rationally
justified. God was immutable on grounds of Greek ideals of perfection, but
deemed to be personal because of the authority of Bible and church. When
examined in terms of rational critique, as by Spinoza or the Enlightenment
deists, immutability excluded divine subjectivity.
Whitehead has proposed what may be the
first rational justification of divine subjectivity. A person may be
understood as a dynamic, responsive source of values. In that sense God is
personal, prehending each situation for what it is, responding to that
situation in terms of that which will contribute the richest value if
actualized, and providing each event with its initial value or aim. The
event may, or may not, actualize that aim, or actualize it only partially.
Such actualization contributes to the contingency of the world, which only
imperfectly reflects the divine order. In order for God to be thus
dynamically responsive, God must be temporal, or more precisely,
everlasting. An eternal personal God is a contradiction; an eternal God
can only be apparently responsive.
Classical omniscience is a way of
preserving immutability by rendering the future wholly determinate so that
it could be (divinely) known, all appearances to the contrary
notwithstanding. Immutabilist omniscience considers what a perfect,
unchanging being must know. Process omniscience, on the other hand,
conceives of perfect knowing as perfectly contoured to its object. Thus
the actual is known as determinate, and the possible as indeterminate.
This means that divine knowledge grows with present actualization, and
that it is dependent upon worldly contingency for its content. This means
that God is not a perfect being, although God could be perfect becoming.
Divine persuasion replaces omnipotence.
Creation is not bringing the world into existence ex nihilo, but
the introduction of greater and greater levels of complexity.
Actualization is the joint activity of God and particular events. Left to
their own devices, these events would be free to actualize themselves in
any way consonant with their past conditions. If so, individual freedom
will often lead to conflict and disorder. Traditional theism confronts the
problem of evil, because omnipotence ought to be able to establish perfect
order. But there is a corresponding problem of good if the divine is
omitted entirely. Why should there be any order in the world, and why is
there increasing complexity of order over time? Divine persuasion can
explain the partial order we encounter in the world.
Despite these strengths, there are some
weaknesses in Whitehead’s theology which can be remedied by an appeal to
an active future:
(a) Creativity empowers each event’s
activity, yet it cannot be handed on to occasions. It is too indeterminate
to be prehended. In any case, the event must first be empowered by
creativity before it can prehend anything. If we relax the rule that only
that which is prehensible can be derived, it could receive its creativity
from a future universal creativity. Then the present would receive from
the future the power whereby it prehends the past.
(b) Whitehead holds God to have two
natures, a primordial or nontemporal nature -envisaging all possibilities,
and a consequent nature experiencing all actualities as they arise in the
world. This second nature is everlasting, never coming to determinate
closure. It cannot be prehended, since it cannot be objectified. That in
itself would be no problem, for it simply means that God is a Pure Thou.
But Whitehead makes the further assumption that only that which can be
prehended can be effective. Then the consequent nature can have no
influence in the world. On the other hand, if there were an active future,
its particular response to each situation could inform the creativity it
could bequeath to each nascent event.
(c) Whitehead has two different ways of
understanding actuality, acting and being concretely determinate. Both
have a long history in philosophy. They are united in being features of an
actuality: acting pertains to its process of coming into being, and
concrete determinateness to the being so achieved. Thus the actual is
ontologically primary in the present as (particular) activity, while it is
ontologically primary in the past as concrete determinateness.
The rule that there is only one genus of
actuality (PR 110) needs to be qualified to mean that there be only one
genus in any temporal mode. The rule was adopted avoid the arbitrary
disjunction of two kinds of (present) actualities might introduce. This is
not a problem here, however, since the temporal modes are interdependent.
Past determinateness requires some present act of determination, while
present determina-tion requires many past determinates to integrate
The nature of present actuality gives us a
clue as to future actuality. Since the present is finite particular
activity, it could be universal activity, an infinite activity which could
be the source of present acting, and which as informed by aim could
influence it in terms of divine persuasion.
Usually we reckon time to flow in only one
direction, from the earlier to the later. Usually the earlier is
understood to be that which is completely determinate (i.e. past), while
the later, particularly if later than the present, is (passively)
indeterminate. In terms of determinateness, time flows from the past
towards the future, but in terms of the process of determination, there is
the opposite flow from the indeterminate future to the determinate past.
Whitehead analyses the present as a process
of determination. My proposal extends this process of subjective becoming
to the future. The earliest phases of becoming are the most indeterminate,
according to Whitehead, but they could draw upon an even more
indeterminate future activity. The future never becomes determinate like
the past, but pluralizes itself into the many present finite acts of
becoming, which then become past.
There have been two basic ways in which the
divine has been conceived: as an individual God or as an impersonal
ultimate all actualities participate in. The latter approach often seeks
the divine within oneself. Thus in Hinduism ultimately the highest soul
can be identified with the ultimate power of brahman. In Buddhism an
emptiness is sought, overcoming all particular self-centeredness. In this
emptiness the sacred void is present. Both types of eastern disciplines
can be understood as efforts to get behind the various phases of present
becoming, to experience the interface between the active future and the
present. At this interface the divine leaves off and the finite present
The predominantly Western approach
proclaims the will of a transcendent personal God known in revelation.
This revelation is historical and contingent; it could have happened
otherwise. The Israelites were saved out of Egyptian bondage and entered
into covenant with the Lord their savior at Sinai. Through the sacrifice
of Jesus God in Christ became the savior of others as well. Through the
revelation of the Qur’an Muslims have submitted themselves to God. Even
the creation of the world is held to be a contingent act, one which God
need not have performed.
Creation is understood somewhat differently
in process thought. It is not the calling into being of that which had no
being, but the divine persuasion urging the world toward greater
complexity, an increase in order, first of matter and then of life. Divine
persuasion by means of aim is the way novelty can be introduced into the
world. It depends, to be sure, upon the mentality of the creatures to be
affected by possibilities God provides, for only thus can any novelty
emerge. Mentality is required for the actualization of anything really
new. This need not mean, however, as Whitehead thought, that every present
actuality must have some degree of mentality. Insofar as actualities
repeat successful forms over and over, substituting the form of past
actualities as the form for the present, ignoring any divine persuasion as
to any variation thereof, actualities may lose their sensitivity.
Repetition can dull mentality, so that in time the mentality which used to
be active in their predecessors becomes purely vestigial, if at all.
Much of the world, its weather,
earthquakes, atoms and inorganic molecules may now be impervious to divine
influence, however important it may have been in their initial emergence.
Aim is communicated by means of form. God
prehends the world just as finite actualities do, only from a future
standpoint. Thus as each event is on the verge of actualizing it, God
prehends the world it is about to experience as a part of the total divine
experience. God responds to that determinate situation in terms a
specific, temporally emergent value. This value is passed on to the
nascent event as the particular ideal it ought to actualize. As the event
decides for itself how this ideal shall be actualized, it becomes
ontologically detached from the divine. In this way, the world separates
itself from God.
It is one of the goals of ecumenical
inquiry to provide a common model for the ultimate in terms of which the
great world religions might recognize their concerns. Whitehead’s concept
of God provides a good way of conceptualizing Western theism. His notion
of creativity goes a long way towards accommodating many forms of Hinduism
and Buddhism. But in Whitehead’s own philosophy God cannot be conceived as
the source of creativity, nor can creativity be seen as unambiguously
good. But insofar as creativity is future, it can be purely good if evil
first comes into being by finite acts of present creativity. Also if
future creativity pluralizes itself in the present, it can be the inner
source of creativity within the self which Hindu and Buddhist disciplines
All present events enjoy subjectivity
according to Whitehead. Subjectivity may be understood as the
individualization of creativity. This comes about for finite events as
they are particularized. Ordinarily a divine creativity in which all
creatures participate would lack any subjectivity of its own, because its
creativity would be used up by these particular creatures. Yet if that
creativity were first future, it would have a universality of its own. The
individualization of this universal creativity would constitute a cosmic
subjectivity appropriate to Western theism.