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God as the Power of the Future – January 2012

Question: How do you feel about understanding God as “the power of the future”?

Publication Month: January 2012

The idea that the future exercises power on the present appears and reappears on the fringes of science, philosophy, and theology. It can be associated with the denial of the full reality of time, but it can also be associated with strongly temporal doctrines. Lewis Ford has engaged in a revision of Whitehead’s thought so as to take account of this idea.

Some of those who think the future influences the present identify this influence or power with God.  This idea, at least in recent theology, has been associated especially with Wolfhart Pannenberg. His brilliant and comprehensive theology is built around the idea of God as “the power of the future.” And he attributes great power to the future.

So far as I can see, in contrast to Ford, one who follows Whitehead must reject this idea. On the other hand, there are ideas closely related to those of Pannenberg that we strongly affirm. Of all the great theologians of the post-Barthian era, Pannenberg is probably the closest conversation partner to process thought.  So I will begin with ideas on which we agree.

First, we agree with Pannenberg that what happens in each momentary occasion is not simply the result of all the causal forces of the past. We also agree that the reason these do not exhaustively determine the new occasion is that God also affects it. Furthermore, God’s participation in the occasion is not part of the effect of the past, and the presence of God in the occasion leads to its transcendence of the past. Pannenberg may ask, if God is not, then, affecting the occasion as part of the past, must not God be coming to it from the future?

But for process thought the ordered realm of potentiality in terms of which God affects us is itself nontemporal. It is primordial. Whitehead calls it the primordial nature of God. One can say either that it is both past and future as well as present or that it is neither past nor future – perhaps a kind of eternal present.

The difference simply at this level could be regarded as more terminological than substantive.  In Whitehead the potentials that are actualized in an occasion may never have been actualized before. To think of them as belonging of the future or as coming to the occasion as from the future is not much of a stretch. And if that were all that were meant by “the power of the future,” Whiteheadians could adopt the expression.

However, at least for Pannenberg, much more is meant. To understand this we can focus on anticipation. This certainly exists and plays an important part in our lives. We go to a friend’s home because we anticipate being welcomed there and enjoying conversation. We go to the dining room because we anticipate the availability of food. We go to the doctor because we anticipate help in keeping or getting well. Perhaps there is some element of anticipation in all occasions whatsoever. What then is the ontological status of what we anticipate?

We can agree with Pannenberg about the importance of anticipation. And he may agree with us that what is ordinarily anticipated has the status of a possibility, or a probability, or even a near certainty. The situation anticipated may be one that is almost certain to be actualized, but it is not yet actual. The cause of the anticipation, when it is a reasonable one, is found in the past together with our knowledge that the future largely grows out of the past. In cases of dementia it may be explained largely in terms of disturbances in the brain.

But for Pannenberg, underlying the whole structure of anticipation is a relation to a final outcome that is already settled. When this deep, underlying confidence is absent, life is utterly meaningless. Thus the anticipation of final fulfillment is central to life affirmation and is implicitly present wherever such affirmation exists. Christians have a clue to the nature of this final fulfillment in the resurrection of Jesus. The fulfillment is in the future, but it is the reality of the fulfillment that evokes the underlying anticipatory feeling. The future fulfillment is God and the power of the future is to give meaning and direction to life in the present.

There are close parallels in Whitehead. He, too, sees God as the ground of meaning in life. But for him the threat of meaningless arises more from the awareness of the transitory character of all attainment than the uncertainly about the outcome of history. No sooner has an occasion actualized some value in its coming into being, than it perishes. Some of the value it actualizes can be transmitted to its successors. But even so it fades quickly. If that is all there is to it, this cannot ground any sense of the importance of what we do. The conviction that what we do is important, that it really matters, is grounded, consciously or not, in the sense that what happens does not simply cease to be, that it is preserved in, or contributes to, an everlasting reality. This is evidence for the Consequent Nature of God.

Whereas Pannenberg looks for a resurrection at the end of time, Whitehead proposes a continuing resurrection of every event in God as soon as it has occurred. One can say that this usually unconsciously anticipated resurrection occurs in the immediate future and so, once again, justify the appropriation Pannenberg’s language of “the power of the future.” But given its meaning in Pannenberg, I do not favor such appropriate. It seems to me to be misleading.

Pannenberg’s assurance of a final positive culmination of history in a universal resurrection leads to a confidence in the deeper course of history. It makes contact with Teilhard’s vision of a world process moving toward fulfillment. Whitehead’s vision of God as continuously receiving the world and saving it in the divine experience leaves open the fate of human history and of the Earth itself. Since our actions may determine that fate, it adds to the importance of what we do. I am myself deeply distressed about the course of current events, which seem to be heading for total catastrophe. My Whiteheadian theism assures me that God is calling me and everyone else to pay attention to what we are doing and take a new direction. It also assures me that my efforts matter even when they fail. It leaves me recognizing that many hear louder voices that shout down the still small voice of God.

Because the theological and practical differences are important, I do not use Pannenberg’s language. It realistically and accurately expresses his convictions. I do not share those convictions.