Theology and Apologetics Roundtable: Alfred Whitehead and Process Theology

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Alfred Whitehead and Process Theology

Process theology is certainly one of the most dangerous heresies within the Christian faith. Some may even call it “finite godism”.[1] It introduces the belief that God is not infinite but limited in nature and power. Mainstream cults such as: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Unitarianism hold to this view. Process thought also advocates panentheism. Not to confuse this term with “pantheism”, panentheism best asserts that God includes the universe as a part but not the whole of His being.[2] Pantheism holds the position that God is the world and the world is God. Panentheism, for process thought, hold the position that God is finite and limited in nature and power and in continual process of change. God is viewed as having two poles; His actual temporal pole (immanence) and His potential eternal pole (transcendence). God is literally bipolar. Some would argue this dipolar (or bipolar) conception of God results in an untenable paradox.[3]
A liberation theology is very easily constructed in process thought. C. Robert Mesle, in his book Process Theology, outlines three aspects of a process theology of liberation:
1.     There is a relational character to the divine which allows God to experience both the joy and suffering of humanity. God suffers just as those who experience oppression and God seeks to actualize all positive and beautiful potentials. God must, therefore, be in solidarity with the oppressed and must also work for their liberation.
2.     God is not omnipotent in the classical sense and so God does not provide support for the status quo, but rather seeks the actualization of greater good.
3.     God exercises relational power and not unilateral control. In this way God cannot instantly end evil and oppression in the world. God works in relational ways to help guide persons to liberation.[4]

The roots of process thought can be traced back to the Greeks. In America, however, contemporary process thought is attributed to Alfred North Whitehead who is indebted to the philosophy of Plato. Although Plato was not a process philosopher, his thought can be reconciled with a process perspective. That is exactly what Whitehead did.[5]
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 depends upon a creative act: for Aquinas, this is the act of being; for Tillich, the power of being; 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.[6]



[1] "Table Talk: Process Theology and Finite Godism." IBA - Institute for Biblical Apologetics, Inc. 9 Mar. 2010 <http://www.ibainfo.org/tt/finite.html>
[2] "panentheism -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia." Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 9 Mar. 2010.             
[3] Barry L. Whitney. Evil and the Process God (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985), 84.
[4] C. Robert Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1993), 65-68, 75-80.
[5] Robert B. Mellert. What is process theology? (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), 12.
[6] “The Viability of Whitehead’s God for Christian Theology”, Lewis S. Ford, 2007, AnthonyFlood.com, 6 Apr. 2009 <http://www.anthonyflood.com/fordviabilityofwhiteheadsgod.htm