Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



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From The Modern Schoolman, LXII:4, May 1985, 293-303.


Whitehead and a New Direction for Christian Philosophical Theology

Thomas E. Hosinski, C.S.C.

On more than one occasion I have heard it said that process theology is forming a new scholasticism, a school of thought preoccupied with analyzing the philosophies of Whitehead or Hartshorne and attempting to answer every question in terms of their systems.  The unspoken criticism in this observation is that process theology is being controlled by adherence to Whitehead’s or Hartshorne’s philosophies, so that these philosophies become the fundamental criterion for reflection and judgment, which in turn results in a lack of openness to the contributions of other approaches and can even lead to a distortion, rather than a reinterpretation, of the Christian faith.  It may be that there is truth in this observation as it applies to the work of a few process theologians.  But any dialogue between those who employ the philosophies of Whitehead or Hartshorne in theological reflection and those taking other approaches must begin by recognizing that “process theology” is not a monolithic movement.  Even if there is such a thing as a Whiteheadian or a Hartshornian “scholasticism,” there are many more theologians who employ Whitehead’s or Hartshorne’s philosophies but who appropriate them critically and adapt them in sympathetic conversation with representatives of other approaches and movements in contemporary theology and philosophy.

In this paper I will focus on what I believe to be one of the major reasons why many of us, who by no stretch of the imagination could be called Whiteheadian or Hartshornian “scholastics,” are using Whitehead’s or Hartshorne’s philosophies in our theological reflection.  In the first section I will try to indicate briefly why many theologians from diverse backgrounds have become convinced that our time requires a new direction in Christian philosophical theology and a revised conception of God if Christian theology is to serve Christian faith and action more adequately than it has thus far. In the second section I will study Whitehead’s methodology in his discussion of God in order to show why many of us find his approach and his concept of God so attractive in the face of Christian theology’s present needs.



Over the past two decades, a number of theologians have been arguing in their own distinctive ways that one of the more pressing tasks for Christian theology in our time is the revision of the concept of God.  As we all know, this conviction has arisen not out of a trivial academic interest in having something new to say, but rather because the idea of God bequeathed to us by the Christian theological tradition has ceased being able to ground and motivate creative Christian thought and action in the world.  The transformations in modern Western culture have made the traditional idea of God unbelievable.  Moreover, these same transformations have eroded the authority of an appeal to revelation as the basis of our knowledge of God.  Thus Christian theology has begun to recognize the need for a revised concept of God and a new methodology for arriving at our idea of God.  This has been a major part of Christian theology’s search for some way of articulating the fundamental convictions of Christian faith so that they will be intelligible and credible to the modern Western mind.  Only if this can be accomplished will the Christian faith be able to continue serving human society with its critical, healing, and transforming message.

We are still in the midst of this crucial development in Christian theology.  I cannot hope to touch upon the many dimensions of this development or the diversity of the contributions to it.  but I will focus on what I believe to be the two closely related reason why many of us have come to employ the philosophy of Whitehead in response to the needs of Christian theology in our time.

It has long been argued that the most distinctive characteristic of Christianity’s understanding of God is its insistence on both the transcendence and the immanence of God.  While this double insistence originates in the religion and the theology of Judaism, it rises to a new level of intensity in Christianity’s distinctive doctrines of the incarnation, atonement, and the continued presence of Christ and the Spirit in the Church and the world.  However, as the history of Christianity and Christian theology show, it has been extremely difficult to hold the stress on God’s transcendence and God’s immanence in proper balance.  While Christian theology always verbally maintained that the idea of God must include both transcendence and immanence, the difficulty of finding a coherent way of unifying both in one idea of God is illustrated by the methodological split that Christian theology adopted in its discussion of God.

The dominant tradition emerging from medieval Christian theology approached the idea of God first by use of reason analyzing what we would today call our “general” or common human experience.  In reliance upon Aristotelian philosophy, this analysis arrived at the idea of the absolute, transcendent, unconditioned creator God.  The attributes of God as transcendent creator were worked out, again in reliance upon Aristotelian philosophy, in order to construct the idea of God.  Later in the theological system, by theological analysis of scripture and what we would call “special” religious experience, God was presented as the related, immanent, affected, redeemer God.  Here the doctrines of incarnation, atonement, providence, and the Spirit controlled the discussion.

It was, of course, a major problem to reconcile the transcendent, unconditioned God to which the philosophical analysis concluded with the immanent, affected God to which the theological analysis concluded. Ultimately it was necessary to appeal to the distinction between the natural and the supernatural (worlds, truths, and knowledge) in order to overcome the apparent contradiction and incoherence: what natural reason can arrive at must be supplemented by what can be known through revelation and the supernatural gift of faith.  So long as the distinction between the natural and the supernatural was believable, this appeal to the higher order of supernatural revelation and faith proved satisfactory.  But even so, the two different understandings of God lived together in great tension, for no effort was made to unify these different understandings in one coherent idea of god.  The characteristics of the idea of God as derived from the philosophical analysis were not modified in light of what was revealed by the theological analysis of scripture and religious experience.  This is what led Pascal, in a later era, to remark that the God of the philosophers was not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Contemporary Christian theology must find some way of resolving this basic incoherence in the idea of God.  Moreover, it must do so without reliance on the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, since that distinction has lost all meaning and legitimacy for the modern mind.  In the judgment of several theologians of diverse backgrounds and approaches, the methodological key to overcoming the incoherence in the idea of God seems to lie in a collaboration between the philosophical analysis of our common human experience and the theological analysis of our “special” religious experience.

Bernard Lonergan, for example, has argued that the philosophy of God ought not to be separated from theological reflection on religious experience.[1] Lonergan called for collaboration between the two because in his view all the questions of God arise in the unity of the human subject and thus our attempts to answer these questions ought to be unified a well.  But, as Lonergan never fully realized, this means that the characteristics of God concluded to by a philosophical attempt to meet the cognitional questions of God must be completed and modified by what the theological analysis of religious experience discovers concerning the characteristics of God.  This is because, as Lonergan showed so well, the religious question of God occurs at the level of the “existential subject,” the “rationally self-conscious” subject, and it sublates the strictly philosophical questions of God that arise from the three cognitional levels of the human subject.[2] Thus the answers to the cognitional or philosophical questions of God are in an important way incomplete until they have been complemented and completed by theological analysis of religious experience.  If the idea of God is to be complete and coherent, it must emerge from a collaboration between philosophical and theological analysis; but for the purposes of Christian theology, what is known about God through religious experience ought to predominate.

Langdon Gilkey has argued for the same basic point in showing that the Christian idea of God is not fully articulated until we have dealt not only with “general” or common human experience, but also with the testimony of “special” religious experience, particularly what is revealed about God in the person and “event” of Jesus Christ; and he has shown how such analysis must modify the traditional idea of God.[3]  Gordon Kaufman likewise has argued that the idea of God is deeply affected when theology takes Jesus Christ as the fundamental criterion in terms of which to construct the idea of God.[4]

What all of these theologians—and many more besides—are calling for is a new direction in Christian philosophical theology.  This direction must not ignore Christian religious experience and it must be able to form an idea of god in which transcendence and immanence are coherently related.  In other words, there must be an essential contribution from theological reflection on religious experience in the idea of God, a contribution which modifies and completes what is learned from philosophical analysis of common human experience.  For an idea of God formed only by strictly philosophical reflection on common human experience is bound to be incomplete and—from the point of view of Christian theology—a dangerous half-truth.

I will turn now to an analysis of Alfred North Whitehead’s methodology in his discussion of God.  This will show why, in view of the problems and requirements I have so briefly summarized above, many theologians find Whitehead’s approach attractive, even if some critical emendations of Whitehead’s idea of God seem to be required.



It is not often recognized that part of Whitehead’s doctrine of God is formed in a very traditional way.  The novelty of Whitehead’s ontology together with the way he wrote Process and Reality combine to obscure this point.  But is we carefully examine how Whitehead arrived at the notion of the “primordial nature” of God, we can see that he has actually followed a time-honored approach.[5]

Whitehead’s philosophical analysis of human experience, generalized into an ontology, eventually gives rise to three important and closely related problems.  The resolution of each of these problems is crucial for the intelligibility of his theory of concrescence and for the coherence of his metaphysical interpretation.  These problems concern the ultimate ground or source of the “initial subjective aim” which forms the living subjective immediacy of each actual occasion; and the ultimate ground of source of order and value, both of which require some limitation or restriction in order to be possible.  These three problems define the ultimate conditions which are necessary in order for experience, as Whitehead has analyzed it, to occur.  By Whitehead’s “ontological principle” each of these problems requires reference to an actuality for its solution, and yet it cannot be a temporal actuality since all temporal actualities require these very conditions for their occurrence.  Thus Whitehead is led to introduce the concept of the “primordial nature” of God, the nontemporal actual entity which is the “reservoir” of all possibility, the ultimate ground of order and standard of value, and the ultimate source of all initial subjective aims.  It is important to note that the characteristics of the “primordial nature” of God in Whitehead’s philosophy are virtually identical with many of the characteristics idea of God.[6] The “primordial nature” of God is eternal, infinite, transcendent, unconditioned, absolute, and unchanging.

I am not interested in explicating here the specific meaning of these problems or of the “primordial nature” of God in Whitehead’s metaphysics.  My concern, rather, is with his methodology.  When we abstract from the novelty of Whitehead’s ontology and language, it is not hard to see that this aspect of Whitehead’s approach to the question of God is not so novel.  Philosophically he has asked the ultimate questions concerning what makes our experience and our world possible.  In the face of these limit questions, Whitehead discovers that only in the concept of God can we find the ultimate ground of these structures and so satisfy our desire and hope for intelligibility.  All ultimate questions concerning what makes experience possible find their answers in the concept of God’s primordial nature.  In a general way, this is quite similar to the traditional philosophical approach to the idea of God.

But Whitehead recognized that this is not the end of reflection on the topic of God.  There are further questions, more anxiously asked, about the meaning of experience, about its purpose, about what it all comes to in the end.  These are the final metaphysical questions, asking for the final interpretation of the cosmology.[7]  These “anxious” metaphysical questions merge with the strictly religious questions of God, for they ask what experience means relative to the divine ground that makes it possible; that is, they ask about the character of the divine ground.  Thus in the final chapter of cosmology, in Whitehead’s view, the concerns of metaphysics and religion merge: in order to understand the meaning of experience, God’s character must be discovered.

What is more, Whitehead recognized that in response to these questions metaphysics must depend upon the evidence or data provided by particular religious intuitions.  This is because the character of something or someone can be discovered and known only through encounter with it in particular experiences; it cannot be discovered by abstract reason.  This truth, so familiar to us from our human relationships, must also apply to the question of God.[8]  Thus metaphysics must rely on particular religious intuitions for the evidence required to answer its final questions.

At this point, two major difficulties confronted Whitehead.  First, the particular religious intuitions of the great religious traditions conflict with each other in important respects.  Moreover, the interpretations of these particular intuitions and experiences as preserved and developed in the religious traditions often seem to be at great variance with the founding experiences and intuitions themselves.[9]  If the religious evidence is controverted and ambiguous, how is metaphysics to proceed?

Whitehead’s solution seems to be the correct one from the point of view of philosophy.  He depends upon the principles and criteria of his metaphysics in order to make what deductions he can from his theoretic system.  These deductions have the methodological status of predictions, which are to be tested against what Whitehead takes to be the most profound of the particular religious intuitions.  This confrontation between theoretical deductions and concrete religious intuitions fills out and supports the philosophical interpretation of God’s character.  But Whitehead is careful to state the limitations of this approach.

Apart from any reference to existing religions as they are, or as they ought to be, we must investigate dispassionately what the metaphysical principles, here developed, require on these points, as to the nature of God.  There is nothing here in the nature of proof.  There is merely the confrontation of the theoretic system with a certain rendering of the facts.  But the unsystematized report upon the facts is itself highly controversial, and the system is confessedly inadequate.  The deductions from it in this particular sphere of thought cannot be looked upon as more than suggestions as to how the problem is transformed in the light of that system. . . . Any cogency of argument entirely depends upon elucidation of somewhat exceptional elements in our conscious experience—those elements which may roughly be classed together as religious and moral intuitions.[10]

Just before this passage, Whitehead revealed the particular religious intuitions upon which he will depend: those manifest in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth (as Whitehead understands them).[11]

Whitehead’s attempt to make deductions or predictions concerning God’s character on the basis of his metaphysical principles actually takes the form of asking what is required concerning God if God is conceived as a subject in terms of Whitehead’s philosophy, that is, as an actual entity.  This question immediately reveals that thus far God has been conceived as only a truncated subject.  The “primordial nature” of God alone offers no way of conceiving of God’s knowledge or God’s love.[12] This is because the “primordial nature” of God has been described as consisting of purely “conceptual feeling,” whereas Whitehead’s ontology has shown that all subjects are composed of integrations of “conceptual” and “physical feelings.”  Thus taking his clue from the established understanding of subjectivity and working with his earlier conclusion that God must be an actual entity, Whitehead predicts that God must have another aspect which has been ignored until now.  God must be “dipolar” as are all actual entities, the subject of physical feelings as well as conceptual feelings.  This other aspect of God is what Whitehead calls God’s “consequent nature."[13]

Continuing to work with his established understanding of subjectivity, Whitehead predicts that in this “consequent nature” God experiences the actualities of the world and integrates this “physical” experience with the eternal “conceptual” experience of the “primordial nature."[14]  This makes it possible to conceive of God’s knowledge of the world.  It further enables Whitehead to predict that God is in an everlasting creative advance, a concrescence with the world.[15]

The characteristics of God’s consequent nature are deductions from the theoretic system.  As such they have the methodological status of predictions concerning the character of God as the answer to the final metaphysical questions.  But in explaining how this deduced consequent nature of God answers the final metaphysical questions, Whitehead begins to speak in images that are clearly an appeal to the testimony of particular religious intuitions.[16]  The rest of Whitehead’s discussion depends upon these intuitions, because only by reference to such intuitions does cosmology gain assurance that its theoretic deductions have some confirmation in the facts of experience.  The possibility of this aspect of God can be predicted from the theoretic system, but these mere deductions can gain cogency only from factual encounter, from the testimony of religious experience.  The metaphysical deductions concerning God’s character have an abstraction and a “lifelessness” about them and, were they to remain alone, they would have the status of untested hopes.  When they find some confirmation in particular religious intuitions, they take on the evocative power of the “living God” because they draw on the character of God as experienced in religious intuitions.

Thus Whitehead weaves together these particular religious intuitions and his metaphysical deductions as he attempts to describe the consequent nature of God more thoroughly.  This allows him to speak of God’s wisdom, God’s tender care that nothing be lost, God’s judgment, and god’s patience in leading the world by the divine “vision of truth, beauty, and goodness."[17] For many of us who have read and pondered it, this is a powerfully evocative description of God.  It compels, precisely because of its dual foundation: the faithful and careful rationality of the theoretic system which led to the metaphysical deductions; and the force, the emotion, and the attraction of the images, born of encounter in religious experience and declaring their truth in such encounter.  It may be that more needs to be said and that some particular points of interpretation need emendation, but Whitehead’s idea of God is a magnificent religious vision and its magnificence is in great part due to its tapping of the depths of religious feeling.

Many process theologians speak only of God’s primordial and consequent natures, but this is not yet Whitehead’s complete doctrine of God.  For in terms of Whitehead’s metaphysical system, the consequent nature of God remains God’s “private” experience; Whitehead has not yet shown how it is possible for the world to experience this aspect of God.  And yet there must be some way in which this occurs, since the religious intuitions upon which Whitehead has depended for evidence testifying to God’s consequent nature would have to be experiences of this aspect of God’s actuality.  We cannot know anything at all of God’s consequent nature unless we somehow experience it.  Thus Whitehead proceeds to show how it is possible to experience God’s consequent nature.  He does this by invoking the metaphysical principle of relativity and by appealing once again to particular religious intuitions.

But the principle of universal relativity is not to be stopped at the consequent nature of God.  This nature itself passes into the temporal world. . . . [T]he perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience.  For the kingdom of heaven is with us today.  The action of the fourth phase is the love of God for the world.  It is the particular providence for particular occasions.  What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world.  By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world.  In this sense, God is the great companion—the fellow sufferer who understands.[18]

This is a description of what Whitehead has earlier called the “superjective nature” of God,[19] and with it he reaches the conclusion of his doctrine of God and the conclusion of Process and Reality.

Having seen Whitehead’s procedure and something of the resulting idea of God, let me try to state more clearly why Whitehead’s approach and his idea of God are attractive to many of us today.

There is, first of all, the fact that Whitehead’s approach to the topic of God makes such a strong appeal to religious experience for its development and completion.  Whitehead’s idea of God is not based solely on philosophical analysis of “general” or common human experience.  Instead, the idea of God as it emerges from his philosophy includes within it the testimony of “special” religious experience.  Moreover, the idea of God in Whitehead’s philosophy is modified in light of the testimony of religious experience.  This is in great contrast with, say, the Thomist idea of God.  Because the notion of God worked out in order to answer the philosophical questions concerning what makes experience possible does not answer the final cosmological and religious questions concerning the meaning of experience, and because the original notion of God conceptualizes God as a truncated subject, Whitehead pursues the implications of conceiving of God as a subject.  He sees the necessity of appealing to religious experience in order to ground this inquiry.  And the idea of God which results is a profound modification of the idea of God which emerged form the more traditional philosophical approach.

In a sense, then, Whitehead has already, from the philosophical side, engaged in the collaboration between philosophical reflection on common experience and reflection on religious experience that Bernard Lonergan called for in the discussion of God.  To be sure, Whitehead has pursued this collaboration as a philosopher would, not as a theologian.  However, the novelty of Whitehead’s philosophy of God lies largely in the fact that it includes and is grounded in an appeal to the testimony of religious experience.

Secondly, the idea of God which results from this novel approach manages to relate God’s transcendence and God’s immanence coherently in one idea of God without depending on the distinction between the natural and supernatural.  In fact the transcendence and the immanence of God are displayed in both the “primordial” and the “consequent” natures of God.  The primordial nature of God is transcendent in a classic sense: it is infinite, eternal, and absolutely unconditioned.  But it is also immanent in the sense that this ultimate ground of order and possibility must necessarily be present to each actual occasion in order for there to be any course of actual events at all.  The consequent nature of God is transcendent in the sense that it is God’s “private” harmonization and transformation of the actualities of the world in relation to the perfection of the divine eternal vision (the “primordial nature”).  But the doctrine of God’s “superjective nature” shows that the consequent nature is also immanent, the flooding of God’s love into the world.

This novel and coherent understanding of the relation between God’s transcendence and immanence is the result of two things.  First, it is the result of conceiving of God as a subject in terms of how subjectivity has been analyzed and understood in Whitehead’s philosophy.  It thus allows Whitehead to speak of God, human subjects, and nature in terms of only one world, which makes this vision quite attractive in our time.  Secondly, this novel and coherent understanding of the relation between God’s transcendence and immanence is the result of taking the testimony of religious experience seriously and including it within the philosophical idea of God.  Given Christian theology’s present needs, this approach and the resulting idea of God are quite attractive to many of us.

This is not to say that Christian theology need merely adopt Whitehead’s philosophy of God whole.  I believe that Christian theology may require some revision and emendation of Whitehead’s views.  For example, I agree entirely with Langdon Gilkey’s argument that the independent status of the category of creativity in Whitehead’s philosophy must be revised so that creativity is seen as originating in God, thus enabling us to conceive of creatio ex nihilo in process terms.[20]  Yet whatever revisions might be required, the approach Whitehead took to the idea of God, and much of his understanding of God, seem to me to indicate the direction that is necessary if Christian philosophical theology is to resolve the age-old incoherence in the idea of God and produce an interpretation of God able to ground creative Christian social thought and action in our world.


[1] See Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Philosophy of God, and Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), pp. 52, 58.

[2] See ibid., pp. 50-58, and Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, 2nd ed. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1973), pp. 14-16, 27-55; and idem., A Second Collection, William F. J. Ryan and Bernard J. Tyrell eds. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), pp. 79-84.

[3] See Langdon Gilkey, Message and Existence: An Introduction to Christian Theology (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), Parts II and III; and idem., Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), Chapters 5, 10, and 12.

[4] See Gordon Kaufman, The Theological Imagination: Constructing the Concept of God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), Part II, especially pp. 114-17, 130-37, 188-91.

[5] Because of the way Whitehead wrote, no single reference includes the whole of his approach to the primordial nature of God.  For a systematic discussion of how Whitehead arrives at the primordial nature of God, see Thomas E. Hosinski, “Process, Insight, and Empirical Method: An Argument for the Compatibility of the Philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Bernard J. F. Lonergan,” 2 vols., Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of Chicago Press, 1983, 2: 484-512.

[6] I have shown this in a comparison of Whitehead’s “primordial nature” of God with Bernard Lonergan’s idea of God; see ibid., 2: 615-21.

[7] For the specific form these questions take in Whitehead’s cosmology, see Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected Edition, David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, eds. (New York: Free Press, 1978), pp. 337-41.

[8] For example, see Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1926), p. 257: “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason.  What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis.”

[9] See Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 342-43.

[10] Ibid. p. 343.

[11] See ibid.

[12] See ibid., pp. 343-44.

[13] See ibid., pp. 344-51, and Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1960), pp. 143-54 passim.

[14] See Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 345.

[15] See ibid., p. 346.

[16] This begins in the second paragraph of ibid.

[17] See ibid.

[18] Ibid. pp. 350, 351.

[19] See ibid.

[20] See Gilkey, Reaping the Whirlwind, chapters 5 and 12.


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