A Perspective From Process Theology

by William Stegall

Disclaimer: There are numerous ‘types’ of process theology and many divergent agendas for process theologians. Here we present a single, basic understanding of process theology as an example. The example is not meant to be all inclusive but it does illustrate many of the principles adopted by most process theologians.

  1. All reality is energy, being composed of a complex combination of energy events. There is no such thing as spiritual matter versus physical matter. God and our spirits are energy events, just as is everything else.
  2. The building blocks of the universe are bursts of energy, each coming into being and fading away in a split second. Whitehead calls them energy events or actual occasions of experience.
    1. Each energy event has a physical pole and a mental pole.
      1. The physical pole is that aspect of it which is purely a repeat of past energy events.
      2. The mental pole is an element of subjectivity and, therefore, of limited but genuine freedom that enables the energy event, in the process of becoming, to have some determination over the shape it will take, and to receive new possibilities from God, the initial aim (#4).
    2. Rock, water, flesh, air, are all incredibly complex combinations of these energy events (societies of occasions).
    3. God and our spirits or souls are each a series of these energy events that are highly developed in complexity, especially in regard to the mental pole.
  3. Process is the becoming (or “taking shape”) of energy events and is determined by three factors.
    1. Past energy events (cause and effect) influence present energy events (at the physical pole) as they take shape.
    2. God, through the giving of the initial aim, influences the shaping of present energy events at the mental pole, which is the pole that receives and considers novelty.
    3. The subjectivity (and therefore freedom or partial self- determination) of the mental pole of energy events in the process of becoming significantly effects the shapes these events takeThe result of these three factors is the emergence of the subjective aim (or guiding principle) of the energy event, which finally determines how the energy event in the process of becoming shall shape itself.
  4. God’s role in this continuing creation lies in God’s giving of the initial aim to each energy event as it begins to create itself.
    1. The initial aim is a series of eternal objects (or “possibilities”) presented in graded relevance, from the ideal at that given moment downward. (God offers novelty and also limits, thus making growing complexity possible). The ideal is that possibility for this energy event at this moment that will lead it (and reality as a whole) to greater complexity and intensity of feeling, which Whitehead defines as beauty or enjoyment.
    2. God is the One Who Calls, the energy event who calls all other energy events forward to greater complexity or beauty. Beauty equals variety and intensity. “The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the universe.”
  5. God never creates alone! Past energy events (cause and effect) and the subjectivity or freedom of present energy events in the process of becoming also effect the shape reality is taking.
  6. Therefore, there are limits on Divine power, as God has to work with what is given and is unable to exclusively determine the outcome at any given moment. God is the supreme, but not the exclusive factor, influencing the process or forward movement of reality.
    1. This is not a limitation God has chosen to place upon Godself in order to allow us to have some freedom.
    2. God’s limitation and our freedom are simply “givens” in the process of reality that neither God nor we asked for, but in fact find to be inherent in our situation.
  7. Consequently, God has no master plan that is slowly but surely being put into effect.
    1. The future is genuinely open, and neither God nor we nor anything else can know with definiteness what tomorrow will be like.
    2. But God, nevertheless, is always at work seeing to create greater beauty.
  8. It follows that God has a circumstantial will.
    1. That is, God must constantly readjust God’s will to meet the changing circumstances of the rest of reality, seeking at every moment to influence (through the initial aim) energy events to choose options that will lead reality toward greater beauty.
    2. In God, the physical pole is that aspect of God that is continually affected and influenced by the world.
    3. God’s mental pole is that aspect dealing with novel possibilities. God’s circumstantial will arises out of God’s mental pole, and is circumstantial because God’s physical pole is constantly being modified by the world, thus affecting God’s decision as to which possibilities are relevant at any given moment and place.
  9. Creation (including humankind) is never the absolute ideal, from God’s perspective, because God is often defied in the direction God desires energy events to take. Thus, reality at any given moment is simply the best possible situation (from God’s perspective) given the circumstances with which God has to work.
  10. The power of God is persuasion (calling energy events forward through the initial aim) and not force. And, because that persuasion has been able to bring forth this magnificent creation, it is evident that God has the necessary power to profoundly affect and shape the universe, and to inspire awe and worship in us.
  11. All energy events are subjects, with some measure of control over their own destinies. God and our spirits, as extremely complex energy events, are capable of self-consciousness and the emotions that accompany self-consciousness.
  12. Process always has been; meaning there never was a start, a creation from nothing. And, there is no final end to creation; it shall go on eternally.
  13. Given Whitehead’s thought, evolution can be seen as a helpful guide to understanding God. Some possible implications:
    1. It documents the growing complexity and richness. This points to some “power” that has introduced novelty (initial aim) and yet given limits (graded relevance of possibilities).
    2. The fact that the trend of evolution is toward the incredible complexity of self-consciousness would seem logically to point toward a God who is also self-conscious and calling as much of physical reality as possible to join God at that level of richness.
  14. There is ground for hope, because God is constantly at work seeking to lead all of reality toward a better tomorrow. But there is no room for sweeping optimism, for God’s will can be frustrated by the events of the rest of physical reality.

Reprinted from Creative Transformation (Autumn 1994), the quarterly magazine of Process & Faith.