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From Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, Vol. 44, Philosophy and Christian Theology, 1970.  Section III: Process Philosophy, 141-151.  See also Robert Cummings Neville, The Impossibility of Whitehead's God in Christian Theology elsewhere on this site.


The Viability of Whitehead’s God 
for Christian Theology
Lewis S. Ford

From the standpoint of Christian concerns, Whitehead’s metaphysics is most distinctive in being a philosophy of creation which does not identify creative power exclusively with God.  Christian thinkers, interpreting the Biblical story of creation ontologically, rejected the Greek understanding of being as self-sufficient: all being, with the notable exception of God, is seen as contingent upon the act of creation.  Before there can be being, there must be the creative act of coming-into-being.  Whitehead agrees insofar as the ‘being’ of every actuality “is constituted by its ‘becoming,’” for “how an actuality becomes constitutes what that actual entity is.”1  Traditional theism, however, considers such ‘becoming’ to be the act of a transcendent creator, himself uncreated, while Whitehead regards every actuality, including God, to be at least partially self-created.  Being (ens) depends upon a creative act: for Aquinas, this is the act of being; for Tillich, the power of being;2 for Whitehead, the inherent exercise of creativity.  But for Aquinas and for Tillich, this power of creation is ultimately lodged in God, who is being-itself, while Whitehead’s God is an instance of creativity, like all other actualities, and cannot be identified with “creativity-itself.”  For traditional theism, creativity is unified and transcendent; for process theism, it is pluralized and wholly immanent.

While some theories (e.g. emanationism) have been proposed for creation as the act of a transcendent creator, this act is usually placed beyond the scope of philosophical scrutiny.  In its concrete detail immanent creativity shares this mystery of pure freedom, but the general nature of the process of becoming which renders such free creation possible can be described.

If being is unity, Whitehead reasons, becoming must be unification, and unification presupposes an antecedent multiplicity to be unified.  Thus creativity embodies the rhythm of the one and the many, whereby “the many become one, and are increased by one.”3  In the world the many occasions in the past of a given actual occasion are objectified for that occasion as the many efficient causal influences it unifies in its own actuality, whereby it becomes one more actuality in the world for future occasions.  In God the many occasions are unified by “the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization,”4 but this ideal unity becomes one more lure for physical realization in the actual world as the initial subjective aim of a newly emerging occasion.  In the exercise of creativity the many become one, physically in the world, conceptually in God, but in both cases the new unity contributes to a new multiplicity, and so on, ad infinitum.  Thus creativity is everlasting, without beginning or end, with the world contributing to God, and God to the world.

For classical theism, the most striking feature of process theism has been its insistence that God’s experience grows as it is enriched by the temporal achievements of the actual world.  This feature follows necessarily from Whitehead’s “principle of relativity,”5 the metaphysical generalization that every actuality causally influences every other actuality.  Yet it also meets the religious need that no actualized value be excluded from the life of God.  Were creativity and God identified, God would already include all actual values as the source of their being, and not be dependent upon their actualization by others.  God’s involvement with temporality may be the most striking feature of process theism, but it is a derivative feature following from God’s dependence upon the non-divine creativity inherent in the world.

It should be noted that this dependence is not vicious; it threatens neither God’s necessary existence nor his well-being, for no matter what happens God has the conceptual resources to achieve a final beauty in his experience.  He already possesses all abstract perfections, and depends upon the world solely for the enrichment of his experience in concrete content.  God is infinite in possibility and in the conceptual actualization of possibility: his physical actuality, however, is derivative from the world because all physical actualization is finite, selective, intolerant of alternatives, and ultimately somewhat arbitrary.

The non-identification of God with creativity or being-itself has many distinct advantages for Christian theism, some of which we may briefly enumerate:

1.     In creating itself, each creature is exercising a real freedom distinct from God’s.  Its freedom is not compromised by being also somehow God’s action, or by being already known as determinate in God’s foreknowledge.  Now a substance philosophy can argue that God only creates subjects which are then free to experience and act on their own, but this requires a necessary distinction between God’s creative and sustaining roles, and in any case cannot apply to a process view which envisages subjects as coming into existence through their own experiences and decision.  If the ultimate actualities of the world are events and not substances, these events must be either created by God or be self-created, and only the latter alternative fully preserves their freedom.

2.     On this process view every actuality has ultimate significance as contributing to the experience of God.  Human striving is ultimately meaningful because it enriches that cosmic, everlasting, conscious appreciation.  Its striving has not been in vain, despite the ravages of time, for otherwise God’s experience would lack something it now possesses.  If God’s experience were complete and unchanging for all time, there seems no way in which our action could either add or detract from it and hence no way in which concrete meaning can be given to service for the sake of God’s glory.  Does this not merely mean that our service only affects God’s reputation among creatures, and not God himself?

3.     A plurality of self-creative acts introduces a measure of potential conflict and incompatibility, which is the mark of evil.  God is responsible for the ideals whereby the actions of the world might be co-ordinated, but the world is responsible for all physical actualization, for its good and for its evil.  Evil is not the result of the recalcitrance of some blind force of creativity, for Whitehead’s creativity is actual only in its instantiations as the self-creative acts of individual creatures deciding their own destinies.  Evil is not willed by God, actively or passively, for he is not merely allowing evil for the sake of fostering human freedom.  Rather, God can only create by persuading the creature to create himself. Creaturely freedom is not a gift bestowed in exceptional circumstances but the precondition for creation, and that pre-condition necessarily entails the risk of freedom.  Above all, the non-identification of God with creativity exempts God from the responsibility for evil.

4.     If both God and the world share in a common creativity, there is a mutual solidarity between them whereby God’s agency can be discerned in the activity of the world.  The doctrine of a transcendent creator can easily be put to one side by a scientific pre-occupation with worldly activity, to be treated first as a deistic hypothesis which becomes dispensable with the emergence of plausible mechanisms for evolution.  If the world is evolving, it was not created perfect in the first place, and God as the source of its being seems to be supporting indifferently both its advance and its degradation.  Process theism, however, can interpret the Biblical creation story cosmologically, for God’s “speech” is his self-expression in terms of lures for his creatures to actualize.  (Note that in Genesis 1: 11 it is the earth that is enjoined to bring forth vegetation.  God proposes, the world disposes.)  The ever-emergent growth of complexity and order in the world testifies to God’s infinite patience and resourcefulness in supplying the world with relevant possibilities for actualization, while the deadends, wastage, and accompanying degradation indicate creaturely willfulness and resistance.  The Biblical account of creation illuminates the process of evolution once it is understood as the gradual emergence of order out of chaos through divine guidance rather than as the ontological production of being out of non-being.

5.     If God and finite actualities are all alike instances of creativity such that God is also a being and not being-itself, then our knowledge of God can be metaphysically intelligible without recourse to the more desperate strategies of indirect predication.  God becomes no longer an exception to the metaphysical principles but their chief exemplification.6   God’s mystery is not thereby affronted, but discovered in its proper place, not so much at the limits of human intelligibility as in the depths of self-creative freedom.

6.     If as a result of non-divine creativity God’s experience is contingent upon worldly actualization, then this responsive action toward the world is also contingent.  God’s action necessarily exemplifies the metaphysical principles of his nature, but it is neither reducible to those principles nor deducible from them, for it is a free, creative response to the contingencies of each situation as it arises.  As long as all of God’s attributes and actions were regarded as necessary, nothing could be left to revelation which was not already in principle accessible to metaphysical reason, so reason had to be somehow artificially restricted to make room for revelation.  Process theism no longer places that Christian thinker under this constraint.  Reason ascertains all it can about God, but in recognizing that there must be contingent aspects in God, it knows that it cannot determine what these are in concrete fact.  Here we must appeal to the particularities of God’s action in history, to the records of the evolutionary process for God’s dealing with nature, and to the records of man’s encounter with God for his dealings with man in sacred scripture.  Philosophical inquiry and religious tradition complement each other in ascertaining the necessary and contingent dimensions of God, respectively.

These six points deserve further elaboration and supplementation, but that is not our task here.7 Before these advantages can be realized, Whitehead’s concept of God must prove to be “viable.” We must show how it can meet and surmount those objections which proponents of the identification of God with creativity (or being-itself) consider “fatal” to the theory of their non-identification. This is the task to which we wish to address ourselves, taking up the main objections seriatim.

1. Such a God is not omnipotent. If the world is constituted by a plurality of self-creative acts, God does not control its destiny. This does not mean, however, that he is limited in the exercise of the power appropriate to his nature, namely, divine persuasion. We must distinguish between two kinds of power, coercive and persuasive. Coercive influences are those we must take into account in actualization. In practical affairs we regard any measure as coercive if non-compliance threatens our lives, our well-being, our careers, our liberty or our families, yet theoretically we are still free to disregard them if we are prepared to pay the price. Strictly speaking, then, only efficient causation is completely coercive, for no actualization can occur which does not embody its efficient causes. The coercive power of efficient causation results from the physical actualization of finite events, which create stubborn realities with which the future must cope. The causal past is coercive precisely because it is finite; it is only a limited selection of what might have been, and that limitation restricts the present in what it can become. Divine actualization, on the other hand, is conceptual rather than physical, resulting in the presentation of lures for future realization. Instead of making himself into a finite, stubborn actuality, coercively impinging upon the world, God unifies the various finite actualities of the world into a conceptual whole by means of his infinite supply of ideal possibilities. While God thus provides each occasion in the process of coming-to-be the best possibility for the unification of its efficient causal influences, that ideal is persuasive rather than coercive since one possibility does not exclude relevant alternative possibilities. Others are equally capable of realization and give measure to the occasion’s freedom.

2. Such a God is finite. Whitehead is emphatic “that all actualization is finite”8 for “every occasion of actuality is in its own nature finite. There is no totality which is the harmony of all perfections. Whatever is realized in any one occasion of experience necessarily excludes the unbounded welter of contrary possibilities. There are always ‘others,’ which might have been and are not.”9  Since every actuality excludes others, there is an intrinsic incompatibility among possibilities with respect to their realization, but “this notion of incompatibility has never been applied to ideals in the Divine realization. We must conceive the Divine Eros as the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realizations, each in its due season. Thus a process must be inherent in God’s nature whereby his infinity is acquiring realization.”10

Whitehead here denies that God is actually infinite in the sense of being the complete actualization of all possible ideals, for such actualizations are incompatible with one another. Rather, such finite physical actualization belongs to the occasions of the world, from which God acquires his measure of finite concreteness. Yet “the conceptual entertainment of incompatibilities is possible, and so is their conceptual comparison.”11  Thus the infinitude of all possible ideals may be present within God’s conceptual entertainment, seeking their finite actualization in the world. In this way the world receives a task it can perform for God without merely reduplicating what is already present within God. Whitehead specifies that the actualization of each possibility should be in its due season, for every individual possibility is good in itself,12 though its incompatibilities with other actualities may produce evil. “Insistence on birth at the wrong season is the trick of evil.”13 If only actualized with its proper fellows, every possibility would produce good and not evil, and God’s unlimited appetition for the physical realization of all possibilities does not mean that he seeks indifferently the evil with the good.

While physical actualization is finite and such finitude is being temporally absorbed into God, this does not mean that God should be conceived as finite. “It belongs to the nature of physical experience that it is finite,” but “conceptual experience can be infinite.”14  To be sure, his consequent nature is finite and ever-growing as God  receives into his experience the finite achievements of the world. But God’s actuality is fundamentally a conceptual one, infinite, yet complete, capable of absorbing into itself an everlasting succession of physical feelings without disturbing its essentially non-temporal unity. Whitehead’s God is finite only if we apply the inappropriate standard of physical actualization, ignoring God’s conceptual actualization creating the structure of possibility capable of embracing all actuality. Such “unfettered conceptual valuation, ‘infinite’ in Spinoza’s sense of that term, is only possible once in the universe,”15 but that is sufficient. Whitehead always affirms God’s infinity, but wisely recognizes that this applies to conceptual possibility rather than to physical actuality.

Our argument is handicapped by the fact that Whitehead characteristically uses “actuality” and “actualization” as restricted only to finite, physical realization, as in the quotations above.16  Thus the primordial nature, taken in abstraction from the full actuality of God is “actually deficient”17 inasmuch as it lacks concreteness of physical prehension. On the other hand, God as primordial is “the presupposed actuality of conceptual operation, in unison of becoming with every other creative act.”18  The question at hand is whether we can appropriately speak of both temporal and non-temporal actuality, and this depends on how we understand actuality. For Whitehead, ‘decision’ “constitutes the very meaning of actuality . . . . ‘Actuality’ is the decision amid ‘potentiality.’ It represents stubborn fact which cannot be evaded.”19 Now the primordial envisagement of all possibility is a “created fact,”20 conditioning all actual occasions, the outcome of a divine non-temporal decision ordering the eternal objects in terms of their relevance for actualization in the world. Apart from that decision, the eternal objects are wholly ineffective, not properly either possible or impossible. The act whereby they are rendered possible also determines what is metaphysically impossible, and by the ontological principle the reason for this determination must be found in some actuality. This actuality must necessarily be non-temporal, since the structure of possibility and impossibility conditions the world at all times. As the determination of what is metaphysically impossible, God’s primordial envisagement is “an actual efficient fact” constraining the character of physical actualization in the world,21 but the limits of impossibility also afford the creature with the freedom of possibility; the two go hand in hand. Since God thus non-temporally decides, it is appropriate to speak of God’s infinite conceptual actualization in contrast to finite physical actualizations. From a temporal point of view, this “non-temporal act of all-inclusive valuations is … always in concrescence and never in the past,”22 continually being rendered concrete through the inclusion of finite achievement.

3. Such a God is subordinate to the metaphysical principles. Paul Tillich writes: “The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude.”23  Langdon Gilkey adds: “Thus a philosophical use of the symbol “God” makes sense only if that symbol thematizes or has reference to the ground of ultimate coherence which the philosophy itself presupposes, if God is explicated as the source of that coherence rather than merely as a finite exemplification of it.” He applies this objection explicitly to Whitehead, “whose god is subordinate to the larger process and so to the metaphysical categories explicative of that process.”24  Yet is it true that God must be conceived either as “the ground of ultimate coherence” or as the “chief exemplification of rational principles”? What Gilkey’s argument overlooks is that God was initially introduced into Whitehead’s philosophy as “the ground of rationality,”25 and this role is never abandoned.

God is metaphysically intelligible because he exemplifies the metaphysical principles, yet he also creates them. As we have already seen, God’s non-temporal envisagement orders all eternal objects in terms of possibility and impossibility. Now the boundary between possibility and impossibility is determined by what is metaphysically necessary; every possibility must exemplify these metaphysical principles to be possible, while every impossibility is impossible because it cannot exemplify those principles. Thus “the ideal realization of potentialities in a primordial actual entity constitutes the metaphysical stability whereby the actual process exemplifies general principles of metaphysics.”26  The ontological principle enjoins us to look to “the nature of God for reasons of the highest absoluteness,”27 for his own self-actualization is the source for ultimate rationality. We tend to think of the primordial nature of God as uncreated, yet God as exemplifying creativity must be conceived as self-created. The primordial envisagement of God is his act of self-creation, which creates the metaphysical principles which both he and the world exemplify. “His conceptual actuality at once exemplifies and establishes the categoreal conditions.”28

4. Such a God is not free either to create or not to create. The very nature of creativity requires that God at least create himself, for otherwise he could not exist. Yet what usually is intended by this objection concerns the necessary existence of the world. On Whitehead’s principles, there can be no temporal origin to the world, for every actual occasion depends upon the efficient causality of antecedent actual occasions. Moreover, the metaphysical principles God exemplifies necessarily require the concommitant existence of the world. For without the world, God would be deficient in physical actuality.

Consider the alternative. Were our metaphysical principles such that God’s experience would be equally fulfilled whether or not the world existed, then the existence of the world would be wholly gratuitous, devoid of any ultimate significance from the divine perspective. Unless the world positively enriches the divine experience which otherwise would be impoverished, the world might just as well not have been for all the ultimate difference it makes. God’s freedom within any set of metaphysical principles destroys whatever significance the world might have for God.

God’s ultimate freedom, however, resides in that self-creative act whereby the metaphysical principles are established. Given the metaphysical principles which do exist, the world is necessary, but these principles could have been otherwise had God so created them. God’s primordial envisagement could have so determined possibility and impossibility that his own act of concrescence would completely exhaust all creativity, permitting him to exist in solitary splendour. In that sense God could have existed without the world, for God is free to create the conditions rendering the world either necessary or impossible, though not contingent. For what God cannot do, by the nature of creativity, is create a world distinct from himself which lacks the power of self-creation. For insofar as God creates, he creates himself, and for there to be an actuality distinct from God, it must be able to create itself.

5. Such a God is subordinate to creativity. Creativity, together with ‘many’ and ‘one’ are the “ultimate notions” completing the Category of the Ultimate,29 while God is introduced under the heading, “Some Derivative Notions.”30  “‘Creativity’ is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact.”31  “It is that ultimate notion of highest generality at the base of actuality.”32  God is “a creature of creativity,”33  “its primordial, non-temporal accident.”34  Such statements seem to suggest that God is subject to a power greater than himself. Both God and the World “are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty.”35

More generally, Carl G. Vaught has recently summarized four objections drawn largely from Tillich against conceiving God as a being rather than as being-itself or creativity: (a) “The concept of a being is incompatible with the concepts of ultimacy and absoluteness, and hence incompatible with the concept of perfection itself…. If God were defined as a being, he would be distinguishable from the being he might possess. As a being, he would presuppose the being which he had. Being would then become the basic notion rather than God as the being who possessed it.” (b) God must be regarded as self-caused, presupposing nothing other than himself. (c) “Worship requires that its ‘object’ be infinite. But if God is to be assigned a place within the framework of beings, he is limited by contrast with them, and hence a finite being in a larger whole.” (d) “An individual entity, as individualized, is deficient in the manner in which it participates in the reality of beings other than itself.” The concept of a perfect being “mistakenly presupposes that an individual entity, really distinct from other beings, can participate with perfect adequacy in the reality of beings other than itself.”36

Creativity is clearly metaphysically ultimate for Whitehead, but that does not make it religiously ultimate. It is metaphysically ultimate in the sense that all actuality must exemplify it, but it is nothing apart from those exemplifications. “Creativity is without a character of its own,”37 indifferent alike to its exemplifications, whether great or small, good or evil. It is too indeterminate to be worshipped, while its exemplifications are too diverse to warrant indiscriminate devotion. Only its supreme exemplification, God, deserves worship. That which is religiously ultimate must be actual, yet creativity is actual only insofar as it is actualized in its exemplifications. Again, God must be unified to be God, an instance of creative unification, while creativity in itself is wholly indeterminate, neither one nor many. Whitehead’s principles will not permit the ascription of existence, unity, or actuality to creativity as such which would be necessary in order to make the religious ultimacy of creativity plausible. In their absence, nothing could be more religiously ultimate than God as the supreme instance of creativity.

God is a “creature of creativity,” but this means precisely that he is self-created, not receiving his being from another. God presupposes creativity, because it signifies just that inherent, intrinsic act of becoming whereby each actuality, including God, constitutes itself. Much of the objection to creativity as a notion distinct from God loses its force once it is appreciated that creativity cannot be extrinsic to any actuality. Each actuality has its own creativity because it is self-created. This plurality of self-creation, moreover, means that there cannot be one, single, all-inclusive act of creativity. Creativity is an analogical notion, inherently diverse in all its instantiations, even though each is an act of self-unification. God is “its primordial, non-temporal accident” because he is the one, infinite act of non-temporal conceptual self-unification, the accident of creativity because its character does not derive from the inherent character of creativity but from the freedom of the divine decision. That God is “in the grip of” the creative advance simply means that God is always in the act of self-creation, unifying that which he receives of the world’s novelty, always in becoming, never being limited simply to his being.

God’s act of creative self-unification is distinct from all finite acts of self-unification, but does this mean he is limited by contrast to them? As we have seen, that divine act, as conceptual and non-temporal, is infinite and capable of including within itself the achievements of all the finite acts. Unlike physical actualization, which maintains its individuality by only partially absorbing its world into itself through deficient participation, conceptual actualization achieves its own individuality through complete participation, because the conceptual supplementation of patterned contrast permits every element to retain its own distinct individuality in the divine unification. In the world, the many become one, losing their manyness, but God prehends every actuality “into the harmony of the universal feeling, which is always immediate, always many, always one.”38 “Thus the consequent nature of God is composed of a multiplicity of elements with individual self-realization. It is just as much a multiplicity as it is a unity.”39  For the multiplicity of finite self-decisions are included within the unity of the divine self-decision, without disturbing that unity. As achievement, all is included in God. As activity, creaturely activity is distinct from divine activity, for an all-inclusive divine activity would exclude all other activity. Either God does everything, or he is enriched by the activities of others. Whitehead adopts the second alternative as making more sense of our world.

6. Such a God cannot penetrate to the innermost being of man. For God’s creative action cannot be identified with man’s exercise of creativity, which is his innermost being. Man’s decisions contribute to the life of God, but they involve acts of self-creation distinct from God’s activity, which God prehends as already achieved. God cannot do the creature’s decision-making for it without it losing its own freedom.

This assumption that God can only penetrate to the innermost being of man by becoming identified with his creativity is too restrictive, for there are other meanings to interpenetration. In particular, there are specially intimate ways in which God and creature may share in each other’s lives in Whitehead’s view. God “shares with every new creation its actual world,”40 which means he shares the same initial spatiotemporal standpoint with which the creature initiates its becoming. God is not prehended as “out there,” as simply one more item in its experience, but as “in here,” as the ideal unity of all that which the occasion is seeking to unify. The initial subjective aim, which is really God present to the creature’s physical actualization, is the central core of the creature prompting its own concrescence, and all that the occasion does is immediately taken up into the divine life. Such interpenetration permits all the intimacy between God and man that could possibly be desired by a mysticism of union. At the same time, Whitehead’s conceptuality keeps clear the respective roles of God and man, providing an adequate safeguard against any mysticism of identity, in accordance with the Christian tradition generally. A mysticism of identity erodes the I/Thou encounter between God and man which this tradition, particularly in its Biblical form, has sought to affirm. Unless God and creativity are sharply distinguished, there will be a constant temptation for Christian thinkers to drift toward a mysticism of identity, thereby betraying the original genius of the tradition.


1 Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 34f. Hereafter cited as PR.

2 On the relation between esse and the power of being, cf. Lewis S. Ford, “Tillich and Thomas: The Analogy of Being,” Journal of Religion, XLVI (1966), 229–245.

3 PR 32.

4 PR 256.

5 PR 33.

6 PR 521.

7 Some of these themes are developed in my essay, “Divine Persuasion and the Triumph of Good,” The Christian Scholar, L (1967), 235–250. See also Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948) and John B. Cobb, Jr., God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969).

8. Whitehead, Adventures in Ideas (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 333. Hereafter cited as AI.

9 AI 356.

10 AI 357.

11 AI 357.

12 Whitehead, Religion in the Making (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 95.

13 PR 341.

14 PR 524.

15 PR 378.

16 AI 333, 356.

17 PR 524.

18 PR 523. See also PR 64: The primordial nature “combines the actuality of what is temporal with the timelessness of what is potential.”

19 PR 68.

20 PR 46.

21 PR 48.

22 PR 47.

23 Systematic Theology, Volume I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 235.

24 Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), pp. 442, 443.

25 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 257.

26 PR 64.

27 PR 28.

28 PR 522.

29 PR 31.

30 PR 46–50.

31 PR 31.

32 PR 47.

33 PR 47.

34 PR 11.

35 PR 529.

36 “Being and God,” Essays in Metaphysics, edited by Carl G. Vaught, (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press), pp. 216f.

37 PR 47.

38 PR 525.

39 PR 531.

40 PR 523.

Posted April 15, 2007


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