Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Aletheia: Revue de formation philosophique, théologique & spirituelle, Ecole Saint-Jean, January 2005, 201-211.   The numbering of the fourteen notes restarted at the foot of each page of the printing, but I have numbered them serially and placed them at the end.

Anthony Flood

March 8, 2007



Whitehead and Existence as Participation in the Divine Life

Thomas Hosinski, C.S.C.

Religion in the Making is a very thought-provoking book for Christian philosophical theology.  In it Alfred North Whitehead offers a radically new way of thinking about God’s relation to the world and God’s action upon it.  It is radically new because of the novel metaphysics that Whitehead is working our and applying in his analysis of religious experience.  The metaphysics is compatible with relativity theory and quantum theory and the analysis of religion is both sympathetic to religion and challenging to traditional ways of understanding it.  Process theology has frequently stressed the radically new in Whitehead’s thought.  And yet in Religion in the Making and his later work Whitehead is also deeply faithful to some of the mast profound insights of the Christian theological tradition with regard to divine creativity. The one particular topic I would like to focus on here is the idea of finite being as a sharing or participation in the infinite being of God.


Existence as Participation in the Being of God

This idea of existence as participation in the being of God has a long history in Christian theology.  It can be traced back, in my judgment, to the implications of the central metaphor Jesus used to speak of God: God as father or parent.  We all know intuitively that our lives come from the lives of our parents.  In this sense we exist precisely because of and by our participation in the lives of our parents.  But we are other than our parents, free and autonomous centers of will and experience even when, as infants and young children, we are in total dependence on parental care.  To participate in the life of another does not imply either that these lives are identical or that one life controls the other.  Parents seek to guide and influence the development of children, but they cannot determine it.  They must accept and respect their children’s freedom, their autonomous agency, and in the end must accept what the children choose to make of themselves in their freedom. Parents give rise to and empower new life, but cannot control its otherness.  Our participation in the lives of our parents does not eliminate our individual freedom and autonomy, but actually empowers that freedom and autonomy.  This point is made in many of the parables attributed to Jesus, perhaps most clearly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

While the tradition had a strong inclination to think that God controls all events in nature and history (contrary to the implications of many of Jesus’ parables, including the Prodigal Son), it nevertheless affirmed the idea of existence as participation in the being of God.  The Augustinian tradition expressed this idea in the argument that limited or finite instances of virtue or any positive attribute could occur only by participating to one degree or another in the preexistent and infinite perfection of that attribute: the infinitely perfect God.  Anselm gave perhaps the clearest example of this analysis in his discussion of the divine nature and its attributes: if humans can be just or good only by participating to some degree in justness or goodness, and if the divine nature is supreme justness and supreme goodness, then every manifestation of value in the finite world can occur only through participation in the divine nature.1  Later in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas developed the idea that creatures are subsistent beings, existing by participating in God’s own being; and he even argued that God endows creatures with a share in God’s own creative power.2  Nicholas of Cusa taught that all finite beings “unfold” from the infinite being of God and are “enfolded” by that infinite being.3  Whitehead’s metaphysics expresses this same basic insight, but in a more dynamic sense than most of the tradition and with a different metaphysical vision of reality.  Nevertheless, in Whitehead’s metaphysics God creates by enabling or empowering creatures to participate in the divine life and creativity itself.

From the first time I read it, one sentence in Religion in the Making has haunted me.  Very near the end of the book, in the section entitled “The Nature of God”4, Whitehead wrote: “The world lives by its incarnation of God in itself.”This is a very powerful statement.  It affirms that the totality of actual entities, every agent in the entire history of the universe, lives out of God, participates in God’s own life, is able to exist only because it draws its life from the divine life. Because it thus “unfolds” from God (to use Nicholas of Cusa’s terminology), God is present in every actual entity, every agent in the universe, as its empowering ground.  In this sense every actual entity makes God present in the world: it is the creative life of God that empowers the creative lives of all actual entities.  From the side of God, creation is God sharing the divine life with the creature by empowering it to create itself.  From the side of the creature, creation is participating in the divine life, finding one’s ground in the divine life and receiving what is needed in each moment to make oneself, to determine one’s own reaction to the universe.  Whitehead never states this any more directly than in the above quotation, but it is a clear implication of his metaphysics.


God as the Actual Source of “Subjective Immediacy”

There are several ways in which we can grasp that Whitehead’s cosmology expresses the idea of creation as the sharing of the divine life.  This idea is very clear in Whitehead’s discussion of “initial subjective aims” and the “subjective immediacy” of each temporal actual entity (which could also be called its “living immediacy”).  To understand this, I must remind the reader that Whitehead’s ontological theory gave rise to a set of problems because he adhered to what he called “the ontological principle:” that only actual entities can serve as ultimate “reasons” in metaphysical explanations.6  Among these problems, which collectively caused Whitehead to introduce God into his cosmology, is the question concerning the actual source of all “initial subjective aims.”  The “subjective aim” of a temporal actual entity is the developing center of that moment of experience. It is what drives the process of becoming (concrescence) and what is “decided” (determined) and “satisfied” by that process. This “subjective aim” at self-constitution really is the “living immediacy” of each actual entity in its process of becoming. Once it is given, it serves as its own “reason”; that is, we can appeal to this aim at constituting itself as the actual reason for the becoming of that actual entity.

The problem is to understand the actual source or ground of the initial subjective aim of each actual entity.  It cannot simply float into existence from nowhere; so from what actual entity does the initial subjective aim arise?  One is tempted to say that it must arise from past actual entities, most especially the one immediately preceding it in its social history (as my present moment of experience seems to arise in smooth continuity from my immediately past moments of experience).  But Whitehead’s ontological theory is “atomic”; he argues that each actual entity is a true “quantum” of experience, so that the immediacy of its aim is unique to each process of becoming and “perishes” or terminates when the aim has been satisfied and the process of becoming ends in being.  In short the immediacy of the aim at self-constitution does not carry over from one moment to the next; the past actual entity is an object for the present moment of experience, not a “living subject” in the process of becoming.  Life comes only from life. If the past is “dead” (that is, objective, but no longer subjective, “alive” in becoming), then the dead past cannot give rise to the living present.

The subjective aim is also the internal standard of value in every actual entity that guides and adjusts its reaction to the values inherent in the possibilities open to that actual entity in its process of becoming.  This subjective aim can be modified in the process of becoming and once given it is its own “reason.”  But again, from what actual entity does the initial standard of value (inherent in the initial subjective aim) arise?  Again, because each actual entity is a true quantum of becoming, no past actual entity can serve as its actual source.  What, then, accounts for the fact that each process of becoming is endowed with an aim at actualizing some value-possibility and an inherent standard of value to guide that process?  By the ontological principle, this cannot simply “float in out of the blue,” but must find its reason in some actual entity.  Yet no past actual entity can be the reason.

The ontological principle requires that the solution be an actual entity. But no temporal actual entity can be the reason since all temporal actual entities require their initial subjective aims for the very possibility of their occurrence. The solution, as all who know Whitehead are well aware, is God as the nontemporal actual entity, specifically the Primordial Nature of God, understood to be the unconditioned grasping and valuation of all possibilities. The actual source of all initial subjective aims is God, Whitehead affirms:

. . . the initial stage of its aim is an endowment which the subject inherits from the inevitable ordering of things, conceptually realized in the nature of God.  The immediacy of the concrescent subject is constituted by its living aim at its own self-constitution.  Thus the initial stage of the aim is rooted in the nature of God, and its completion depends on the self-causation of the subject-superject. . . . In this sense God is the principle of concretion; namely, he is that actual entity from which each temporal concrescence receives that initial aim from which its self-causation starts.7

Thus the “living immediacy” of each process of becoming (each actual entity) can come only from the “living immediacy” of God, who, as Whitehead says, is “in unison of becoming with every other creative act”8 and who endows each new actual entity with its initial aim at its own self-constitution.

But this is not some sort of divine determinism. This initial subjective aim, derived from God, includes in it the freedom of self-determination or self-causation.  It constitutes the becoming actual entity as an autonomous subject that will determine itself in its process of becoming.  Exactly how is this freedom and autonomy part of the “endowment” from God?

The organization and valuation of all possibilities in God’s Primordial Nature means that for every possible standpoint in the actual world God envisions all relevant possibilities and organizes them in a gradation of value.  Thus for any possible actual entity, all relevant possibilities are “graded” in an order of “preference” based on God’s valuation of them: there will be a possibility God values most highly, others that God values less highly, down to a possibility God values least (or, put negatively, a possibility God finds repellent or most ugly).9  The becoming actual entity, although it begins from an initial aim derived from God’s vision of possibility, which is also its initial standard of value, is endowed with all possibilities relevant to it and is free to actualize any of these possibilities.  It is free to alter both its aim and its valuation of the possibilities in the course of its becoming and can actualize even the possibility God values least.  Thus although the actual entity derives both its aim and its possibilities from God, it is finally free to constitute itself as it chooses (although we must remember that its freedom is limited by the situation in which it occurs and the deterministic influences of past actual entities upon it).  What it becomes is, within the limits of its freedom, self-caused and self-determined.

God creates each temporal actual entity, not by determining what it will be, but by providing all that it needs to create itself: its living immediacy, its initial subjective aim, its ability to be its own standard of value, its possibilities, and the freedom and autonomy to select what possibility it shall actualize in and for itself.  (“Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.” [Luke 15: 12])  In this sense each temporal actual entity lives by sharing or participating in the life of God.  “The world lives by its incarnation of God in itself.”  The living cannot be born from the dead; life comes only from life.  The “life” of every actual entity is derived from the “life” of God.  In his analysis of God as the actual source of all initial subjective aims, Whitehead affirms in his metaphysical terms what is meant metaphorically by the idea of creation as the sharing of the divine life. All actual entities exist as “living” processes of becoming by sharing or participating in the “life” (or becoming) of God.


Empowerment as Co-Creators

Further reflection on Whitehead’s metaphysics shows us another way in which existence can be understood as participation in the divine life.  God creates by empowering creatures (that is, all temporal actual entities) to be co-creators with God. As Thomas Aquinas affirmed, so can Whiteheadian metaphysics affirm that creatures share in the divine creative power.  This becomes clear when we consider how God creates in Whitehead’s cosmological vision.

God creates by organizing possibility, so that a course of actual events is made possible, and by presenting all relevant possibilities to each temporal actual entity as it begins its process of becoming. These relevant possibilities (including unactualized possibilities that “lure” the becoming toward novelty) are graded in the order of God’s preference, and the initial subjective aim is related to that preference, so that it is also the concrescing actual entity’s initial standard of value, enabling it to valuate the potentials open to it.  When one reflects on what this all means in Whitehead’s metaphysics, one can see that this, too, is a sharing of the divine life with each actual entity, because it enables and empowers each actual entity to do in a limited way what God does as Creator.

In the Primordial Nature God organizes all possibilities by selecting among them on the basis of God’s valuation of them, so that the ordering of possibility reflects God’s “preference.”  This order establishes the basic condition affecting the actual world, both limiting and making possible a course of actual events.  (Without this basic ordering of possibilities, all possibilities would be equally possible, which is a definition of philosophical chaos, the complete absence of order; and without order, there can be no actual universe at all.)

Likewise, because it is provided with its relevant possibilities and its initial subjective aim, every temporal actual entity is enabled to select from among a group of relevant possibilities on the basis of its valuation of them, so that what it becomes reflects its “preference.”  The actualization of this preference establishes a condition affecting future actual entities, both limiting them and perhaps opening the way for a novel course of events.  Every actual entity establishes conditions for the future actual world by how it reacts to the possibilities open to it.  In this way every actual entity is co-creator with God of the actual world because it is enabled to participate in God’s creative reaction to possibilities and enabled to set conditions on the course of actual events.  The creativity of every temporal actual entity, in a limited way, participates in and reflects God’s infinite creativity.


A Theological Revision of Whitehead’s Position on Creativity

There is a theological revision, or if one prefers, correction, of Whitehead’s own philosophy already implicit in my analysis above.  I have just said that the creativity of temporal actual entities participates in a limited way in the infinite creativity of God.  This way of speaking implies that the creativity of actual entities is derived from God’s creativity.  But as anyone acquainted with Whitehead’s cosmology knows, Whitehead rejected the idea that the creativity of temporal actual entities is derived from God.  In Whitehead’s philosophy creativity is treated as the ultimate metaphysical principle and is has a certain independence of God.10  It is the dynamism that drives all processes of becoming, the ultimate principle by which every actual entity, including God, becomes what it is.  Creativity has no actuality of its own, but is manifest in every actual entity.  The important point for the present discussion is that Whitehead regards creativity as inherent in all actualities and as transcending all actualities. Creativity and freedom are correlative concepts in Whitehead’s philosophy: although every temporal actual entity is constrained by the limits upon it, it has a limited freedom because of the creativity that drives its becoming.  If that creativity is inherent, this means that every actual entity has its freedom inherently; it is not free because God gives that freedom or allows it to be free.  In short, although there is a strong sense in Whitehead’s philosophy in which God is creator, for Whitehead God is not the source of creativity; God is not the reason that all temporal actual entities are creative and have some degree of freedom.  Instead, every temporal actual entity is creative in its own right and creativity transcends its every particular manifestation, including God. Both God and the world, Whitehead writes, “are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty.”11

I believe that Whitehead adopted this position at least in part because it offers a persuasive solution to the classic problem of evil. If God does not determine which possibilities actual entities will actualize, and if the creativity driving all processes of becoming is inherent in them and not derived from God, then the disharmonies, conflicts, mutual obstructions, and destructive decisions of actual entities in the universe cannot be attributed to God. God is neither the source of the freedom and the creativity that ceaselessly drive the processes of the universe, nor can God control how they are exercised. There is, in short, a limitation on God’s power “built into” the metaphysical foundation of things, so to speak. Therefore the suffering and tragedy of the universe cannot be laid at God’s feet, despite the fact that God makes a universe, a course of events, possible. God is only one element at the foundation of existence, not the sole soutce of it all. Moreover, in God’s Consequent Nature God does all God can do to heal the world’s ills and to overcome the “natural evils” due to temporal finitude - the “perpetual perishing” that Whitehead says is “deeper than any specific evil.” 12

This solution works, I acknowledge. But it seems clear to me that Christian theology cannot accept such an analysis of God’s limitations.  To separate creativity from God, as Whitehead has done, compromises the basic intentions of the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (even if one were to revise it in order to express its intentions in a relational and process cosmology). If God is understood not to be the sole source of all that is, but merely one element among several (God, “eternal objects” and creativity) which together form the basis of the universe, then this compromises the strict monotheism that Christianity has traditionally seen as central to its faith.13  There would be other “ultimates” alongside God at the foundation of the universe, and Christianity from the beginning rejected such a view (in rejecting the co-eternity of God and prime matter in Greek metaphysics). Moreover, in regarding creativity and its correlate of freedom as simply “there” in actual entities inherently, and not because of God’s sharing of the divine creativity and freedom, Whitehead seems to subvert his own insight that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself.” To accept Whitehead’s position on creativity and God would compromise, or at least render ambiguous, the understanding of the process of becoming as participation in the divine life.

For these reasons, I agree with a revision of Whitehead’s treatment of creativity initially proposed by Langdon Gilkey.14  Gilkey argues that in order to utilize Whitehead’s philosophy, Christian theology must understand creativity to be the divine life itself. This enables us to formulate an understanding of creatio ex nihilo in process terms and, most importantly for my present point, it enables us to understand the freedom and creativity present in the universe as the universe’s participation in God’s own life.  Creativity and freedom are present in each actual entity as a gift from God, who freely shares the creativity and freedom of the divine life with the creatures God makes possible.  This position does not compromise the genuine autonomy of the actual entities of the universe, which Whitehead sought to defend by separating creativity from God, because the autonomy is inherent in the gift.  That is, the creativity and freedom shared by God carry with them genuine autonomy (though not to the degree that God alone possesses in God’s Primordial Nature). God’s creative activity makes possible free and creative creatures that reflect the freedom and creativity of God and participate even in God’s own autonomy.

Such an interpretation of God and creativity is compatible with much of Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil once one reflects on the implications of conceiving of creation as a sharing of God’s own life.  If God freely choose to create a universe in which creatures share in God’s own freedom and creativity, then God must freely choose to limit God’s power in order to create room for the universe to exercise its own freedom and creativity.  There is, in fact, a limitation on the divine power, but it is not a limitation “given” for God as part of the metaphysical situation; instead, it is a divine self-limitation, freely chosen.  This preserves the traditional theological insistence on God’s absolute freedom in creating. But the practical result is much the same as in Whitehead’s analysis: God can act by empowering temporal actual entities to co-create themselves; God can act by trying to “lure” or persuade the freedom of temporal actual entities toward the best possibilities; but God cannot determine outcomes, absolutely control events, or coerce the free decisions of temporal actual entities.  To determine, absolutely control, or coerce those creatures would violate God’s own character, God’s free creative decision and intention to share the freedom, creativity, and autonomy of the divine life with creatures.  It would destroy what God freely chose to create; it would be God at odds with Godself.

Likewise, if creatures are to be truly free, God cannot eliminate possibilities for evil.  The genuine autonomy and freedom of the universe require openness to tragic and evil possibilities as well as good, for these are linked to each other.  The necessary consequence of God’s free decision to create a universe that participates in God’s own life is that God must put Godself, so to” speak, in the hands of the world and must risk the possibilities for evil, tragedy, and suffering.  But is this not the very portrait of God that the revelation of God in the cross of Jesus Christ delivers to us?  If the crucified Christ is the deepest revelation of God’s character, then revelation teaches us that God’s creative choice involves a correlative choice to share in the sufferings, the evil consequences of free decisions, and all the tragedies or “natural evils” of our world. If God were to act in any other way, then God would compromise God’s own character and cease being the God revealed in the crucified Christ.

Finally, with regard to the “natural evils” due to temporal finitude the fact of death in human and animal experience, the constant perishing of all things and achievements in time—it is true that God is in a sense “responsible” for these “natural evils,” because God, as ultimate ground of all possibility, makes a temporal course of actual events possible. But what could God conceivably do to eliminate these sorts of “natural evils” from the temporal world?  The possibility of a universe of temporal actual entities carries with it the conditions of finitude and decay and perishing in time.  If there is to be a temporal world, it will be bound by the conditions of temporal finitude.

This is analogous to the way in which human parents, by giving their children life, are in a sense “responsible” for the fact that their children will inevitably suffer and die.  Does it make any sense to blame parents for this?  They can do nothing to change the fact that all living things suffer and die; and yet their love compels them to share the gift of life with their children.  Analogously, God’s love compels God to give the gift of life to the universe, despite the inevitability of suffering, tragedy, and death.  But unlike human parents, God can overcome the limitations of finitude by taking all things into God’s own unending life: God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).  The creative love of God shares the divine life with creatures; the salvific love of God does all that can be done to heal, transform, and overcome every kind of suffering and evil.

In the end, then, Whitehead’s cosmology (with the revision for which I have argued) expresses an understanding of God that is quite compatible with the tradition’s profound intuition that existence is participation in the divine being.  More like Nicholas of Cusa’s dynamic version of this insight, in Whitehead’s cosmology the agents of the universe continually “unfold” from God and are continually “enfolded” by God, so that God is “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).  God gives life to the world and the world gives the tragic beauty of actualized values to God.  God shares the divine creativity, freedom and autonomy with creatures and saves the passing actual entities by incorporating them in the everlasting divine life from which they arose.  “The world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” and God lives by the continual empowerment of the world and the continual enfolding of the world in God.  Creation and salvation are the twin dynamic movements of the divine life, the mutual sharing of the divine life, the participation of God in the world and the world in God.



1 See Anselm, Monologion, 3, 6, 16.

2 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 22, a. 3 and Ia, q. 103, a. 6 and ad 2.

3 See Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia), especially II, 3-5.

4 Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making [Hereafter cited as RM.] (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., Meridian Books, 1960), IV.A.

5 RM, p. 149.

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition, David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, eds. (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 18-19, 24, 40, 43, 244, and passim. [Hereafter cited as PR.] For an analysis of how these problems led Whitehead to affirm God in his cosmology, see Thomas E. Hosinski, Stubborn Fact and Creative Advance: An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993), p. 156-176.

7 PR, p. 244.

8 PR, p. 345.

9 See PR, p. 164,207; RM, p. 147,150.

10 See Hosinski, Stubborn Fact, pp. 207-15, where I summarize the role of the category of creativity in Whitehead’s system; pp. 215-18, where I summarize the importance of creativity’s independence of God in Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil; and pp. 144-46, where I discuss why Christian theology finds it necessary to revise this aspect of Whitehead’s metaphysics.

11 PR, p. 349.

12 PR, p. 340.

13 See Langdon Gilkey, Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Seabury, 1976), pp. 248-51. Robert C. Neville, Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology (New York: Seabury, 1980), has made similar criticisms of Whitehead’s separation of God and creativity, but on philosophical rather than strictly theological grounds.  See also Robert C. Neville, “Whitehead on the One and the Many,” and Lewis S. Ford, “Neville’s Interpretation of Creativity,” both in Lewis S. Ford and George L. Kline, eds., Explorations in Whitehead’s Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 1983), pp. 257-271 and 272-279 respectively.

14 See Gilkey, Reaping the Whirlwind, p. 248-251, 304-305, 414 n.34.  Gilkey supports his revision by arguing that Whitehead’s treatment of creativity is incoherent by Whitehead’s own ontological principle.  Since creativity is in itself not actual, it cannot be its own “reason” or serve as its own actual ground.  The ontological principle would seem to require that creativity be referred to some actual entity primordially.  Since all temporal actual entities require creativity to become, none of them can serve as its ultimate ontological ground.  If creativity is to be present in the universe at all, the ontological principle seems to require that it have an ultimate actual ground; and the only actual entity that could serve as such is God.  Gilkey’s suggestion that creativity must be understood to be the divine life itself is undoubtedly influenced by Paul Tillich’s argument that “the divine life and the divine creativity are not different.”  Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 volumes in 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 1: 252.

Posted March 8, 2007