God & Change Pt. 2 – July 2001

Question: Moving from a static concept of God to a process understanding, is there not the danger to limit God to the process and therefore getting a static understanding again?

Publication Month: July 2001

Dr. Cobb’s Response

There is often a problem with short questions from a person whose thought one does not know. One may easily misunderstand and not really respond to the concern. But the topic here is important, and I’ve decided to take my chances on responding to the wrong question.

One meaning of limiting god to “the process” would be identifying God with “the process.” That would be pantheism. Bernard Loomer, in his later years, moved in that direction. And I do believe that pantheism tends in a static direction, although Loomer certainly would not have agreed. The problem as I see it is that there is no longer any organ of novelty for the world. If this is what the questioner has in mind, then I agree that there is such a danger. But most process theology strongly eschews pantheism.

There are other forms of process thought that locate God within “the process.” I would put Henry Nelson Wieman in this category. “The process” here means cosmic process, and in the case of Wieman’s later writings, it means “the human process.” Wieman understakes to describe that process in which human good grows. That process he calls “God.” So far as I can tell, “God” then must name either the many concrete processes that fit his description or the form they share in common. The latter, of course, is abstract, and the abstract is certainly static.

Wieman thought that the future of faith depended on freeing it from any dependence on speculation. That is why he located God so completely within the process. He believed, and I think he was correct, that when one fully understands what he is saying, it is hard to doubt the reality of God.  There are processes in which human good grows, and I believe Wieman has correctly identified the pattern they exemplify. Of course, that takes a lot of explanation, and alternative descriptions and analyses are possible.  Phenomenological descriptions are not in fact independent of perspective.  Hence, in my view, noone is completely free from the influence of speculative beliefs.

Whitehead calls his philosophy speculative. He does not limit God to “the process” in the sense Wieman does. The totality consists of “God and the world.” Of course, God is an instance of process, but God is an instance that is quite distinct from the instances that make up the world. But I do not see that that leads to the idea that God is static.

The preceding paragraph might cause one who is unfamiliar with process thought to think that God and the world are separate. Quite the contrary, each is constituted largely, though certainly not wholly, by its inclusion of the other. God is in the world, and the world is in God. Each continually provides novelty to the other. Their mutual immanence is the reason that neither becomes static. The immanence of the world in God is the reason that, indeed, God is a process rather than a static being, as God would be if there were no Consequent Nature.

How to think of God as a process has divided process theologians.  Whitehead distinguished two types of processes, microscopic and macroscopic. Microscopic processes are the concrescences of individual actual entities. Macroscopic  processes are the successions of occasions.  Whitehead thought of God as a single everlasting concrescence, hence, as
more like the microscopic processes he described in such detail.  Hartshorne thought of God as a personally ordered society of such concrescences, hence, as a macroscopic process, more like a human person.

There are strengths and weaknesses in both approaches, and the debate continues. But I do not see that either leads to a static view of God.