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Divine Immutability: The Catholic-Process Theological Dialogue

By Barry Whitney

The process philosophy inspired by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne has had only modest reaction from Catholic theologians, despite the rather daunting critique of the traditional understandings of God’s attributes, most notably divine omnipotence. I’ve dealt with that issue elsewhere; here, I wish to focus on the related issue of divine immutability, with reference to Charles Hartshorne’s radical revision of the traditional Thomist understanding of God’s relationship to the world. This issue has received more serious response from Catholic theologians and philosophers, leading many to explicate a more adequate interpretation of God’s relationship with the world by developing latent, unexplored resources in the writings of Aquinas.

I. Divine Immutability in Process Thought

Hartshorne argued that the traditional Christian interpretation of the doctrine of divine immutability (as formulated by St. Thomas and others) seems at odds with the Bible’s revelation of divine love and care for the world. An immutable God, being eternally and fully complete in Himself, for example, would remain the same whether or not the world was created, whether or not there was an Incarnation, whether or not we pray or suffer, and so on. How could such a God love us? How indeed could we love such a God? This, Hartshorne argued, is the paradox at the heart of medieval theism (Man’s Vision of God 156), for despite the Bible’s revelation of divine love, to say nothing of our continuing religious sensibilities,

[a] wholly absolute God derives nothing from the physical or indeed the entire created world; to study that world is to study something that contributes nothing to the actuality of deity to enrich that world is not to enrich the divine life, which is yet the measure of all value. A wholly absolute God is totally beyond tragedy, and his power operates uninfluenced by human freedom, hence presumably as infallibly determinative of all events. (Hartshorne, Divine Relativity 149-50)

For God’s interrelationship with the world to be conceptualized adequately, Hartshorne and other process writers insisted that we must acknowledge there is a real and mutual interdependence between God and the world. This, of course, does not imply that the interrelationship is between equals: God remains the supreme power, yet not the only power. Nor does this deny God’s absolute perfection: God remains the greatest conceivable being, yet His perfection is conceived not as a purely static, immutable essence but as the ability to respond to all contingencies in perfect love, justice, knowledge and power. It is, process theologians insist, erroneous to think of divine love, for example, as nothing but giving, for love (as far as human experience understands it) involves not only giving to another, but being responsive to that others love. A new era in religion, Hartshorne argued, may be predicted as soon as we grasp the idea that it is just as true that God is the supreme beneficiary or recipient of achievement, as that He is the supreme benefactor or source of achievement (Divine Relativity 58). In our everyday understanding, that being which is the most responsive to others is considered the most admirable and loving, a point which Hartshorne emphasized by the following analogy: if a poem were read before a glass of water, an ant, a dog, and human beings of varying degrees of sensitivity, we could expect it to have quite different effects -- none on the glass, a miniscule amount on the ant, more on the dog and much more on the men. We could expect, furthermore, that God (as the most perfect and loving being) would respond the most fully to the poem; yet the traditional formulation of divine immutability seems to imply that the poem would not affect God at all. Quite simply, it could not contribute in any way to God’s eternal, immutable completeness. Hartshorne’s complaint, accordingly, was that what seems to be a defect in other beings – the lack of full responsiveness -- has been made a perfection in God (Divine Relativity 48-49).

This traditional Thomist interpretation of divine immutability is seen in the writings of St. Anselm:

If thou [God] art passionless [nonrelative independent], thou dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched; but this it is to be compassionate. But if thou art not compassionate, whence cometh so great consolation to the wretched? . . . Truly thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, but thou art not so in terms of thine own. For, when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling (Proslogion 8, cited by Hartshorne, Divine Relativity 54.)

Anselm’s God, Hartshorne complained, can give us everything, everything except the right to believe that there is one who, with infinitely subtle and appropriate sensitivity, rejoices in all our joys and sorrows in all our sorrows (54) This supreme benefit which God and only God could give us is denied God by Anselm and most of traditional Christian theology. Yet if this really were the case, God would do less for us than the poorest of human creatures. For what we ask above all is the chance to contribute to the being of others:

To love, it has been said, is to wish to give rather than to receive; but in loving God we are, according to Anselm and thousands of other orthodox divines, forbidden to seek to give: for God, they say, is a totally impassive, nonreceptive, nonrelative being. Such guardians of the divine majesty in my judgment know not what they do. (55)

Hartshorne was aware, of course, that traditional Christian theologians have attempted to reconcile divine immutability with God’s knowing, caring and loving activity: the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity are important instances of this. Yet Hartshorne thought that the habit of traditional theology has been that of simply adding Jesus to an unreconstructed idea of a non-loving God (Man’s Vision of God 165), the mere juxtaposing of the idea of a self-sufficient and wholly absolute God to the vision of the perfect, tender love of Jesus. In this event, the Hellenization of the Gospels results in an unstable compound which weakens its religious force and philosophical viability. As with the Incarnation, so it is -- according to Hartshorne, -- with the doctrine of the Trinity which likewise leaves the reconciliation unresolved:

The Trinity is supposed to meet the requirements of giving God an object of love which yet agrees with his absolute self-sufficiency, and also an object of love worthy to be loved with so perfect a love as the divine. This is done by making the lover and the beloved identical -- yet not identical. But whatever be the truth of this idea-whose meaning seems to me just as problematic as its truth, for once more, nonsense is only nonsense, however you put a halo around it-it leaves the essential problem of divine love unsolved. For either God loves his creatures or he does not. If he does, then their interests contribute to his interests, for love means nothing more than this. If he does not, then the essence of religious belief in God is sacrificed, and one still has the question, how then is God related to the creature’s interests? (Man’s Vision of God 164)

II. Contemporary Catholic Revisions of Divine Immutability

I wish now to reference several contemporary Catholic theologians and philosophers who have taken up the challenge pressed by Hartshorne and his followers to reexamine the traditional Thomist doctrine of divine immutability. With only one or two exceptions, these have made explicit reference to process thought as that which alerted them to the urgency of this issue.

James Felt, S. J., agrees with process theologians that “it is time to revise our traditional metaphysics” (“Invitation to a Philosophical Revolution” 99) since “it is impossible to reconcile necessary conclusions of Thomas system [i.e., that Cod is immutable] with known facts of experience [i.e., that God loves us and responds to our love]” (108). The traditional Thomist formulation of the doctrine of divine immutability, he conceded, leads to the unacceptable conclusion that “it must literally be all the same to God whether we rejoice or sorrow, are saved or damned” (96). But does not God’s self-revelation in Christ, to say nothing of our religious sensibilities, contradict such a position?:

No lover in human experience, however altruistic and unselfish his love, is indifferent to a return of that love. We realize this profoundly, yet find ourselves forced by our traditional metaphysics to say that God is -- let us admit it -- indifferent to our return of love; otherwise our love, which only we can give, would be of some value to God. It is not our insights that are at fault here, but our inherited notions about God’s perfection. (104)

Felt, accordingly, invited us to a philosophic revolution in which contemporary scholastics must forge out a wider perspective whereby process philosophy and Thomism can be synthesized. The two systems may seem irreconcilable as they stand, yet Felt is convinced that a larger viewpoint can be found in which the fruitful conceptualizations of both Thomas and Whitehead may be found complementary rather than antithetical (102, 109). Felt, nevertheless, freely admitted that “Whitehead is able to describe a God much more like the God of revelation . . . than the God of Pure Act described by Thomas” (107); the only criticisms he offered of the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean metaphysical scheme seemed fairly innocuous (103).

Joseph Donceel, S. J., likewise conceded that “it is becoming more and more difficult for us to accept the implications of the traditional doctrine of divine immutability; the Thomist “doctrine of the nonreciprocity of relations needs a thorough reexamination” (“Second Thoughts on the Nature of God” 349):

some of the traditional teachings about God seem to contradict what we know about him from revelation, what we feel about him in our heart. The God for whom it makes, no difference whatsoever whether there is a Creation or Incarnation, the God who is totally unaffected by human suffering, does not look like the God of our faith. The God who, by becoming man, is not different at all from what he would have been if he had not become man, does not look like the God of the Bible (355).

Donceel acknowledged the important role process philosophy has played in its challenge of traditional Thomism, yet his own proposal is to continue along the lines ably begun by Hans Kung in seeking to amend some of the traditional formulations by means of Hegel’s philosophical scheme (367-70). Both Aquinas and Hegel, as Kung pointed out, “derived many of their ideas from Aristotle,” suggesting that perhaps “there is good hope that we shall rediscover, in this [proposed] rejuvenated philosophy, much of what we used to hold previously, bathed now in a new light, seen in a wider context” (360). That the implications of this may be rather startling is clearly admitted by Donceel: “We might have to proceed beyond him [Thomas] and to remove from his own conception of God those features which have become unacceptable to any modern theists” (360.)

Norris Clarke, S. J., expressed similar reservations about the traditional understanding of divine immutability: “the traditional doctrine of the God of [Thomistic] philosophy seems to many to be in clear conflict with the exigencies of the God of personal religion (“A New Look at the Immutability of God” 44).

In fundamental agreement with the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean critique, Clarke noted the following:

In the past Thomistic metaphysicians seem to have been content for the most part to assert and defend the absolute immutability of God and to relegate all change and diversity on the side of the creature. But they have not gone on to explain how He can enter into a truly interpersonal dialogue with created persons, how His loving of them and their response to Him in the particular contingent ways which are proper to a free exchange between persons can truly make a difference to Him, how He is not the completely impassive, indifferent metaphysical iceberg, or at least one-way unreceptive Giver, to whom my loving or not loving, my salvation or damnation, make no difference whatever, as Hartshorne and other process philosophers, have accused him of being. It does seem to me that they have a legitimate grievance against the way Thomists have handled, or failed to handle, this problem. (45)

Clarke’s proposal, accordingly, was to offer a “Thomistic adaptation” whereby he has drawn upon “the latent resources” of Thomas’ writings to develop a more coherent and acceptable understanding of divine immutability (46). He focuses upon the “hitherto very little exploited” Thomistic distinction between “real” and “intentional” being, contending that while God’s “real,” intrinsic nature is immutable, his “intentional” consciousness can be regarded as changing, without implying any imperfection in God (45).

Piet Schoonenberg, S.J., likewise acknowledged that “we have to learn from process philosophy . . . that our image of God must be dipolar” (“Process or History in God?” 316) and specifically, admit that God’s knowing the world implies a real change in God:

How can an action proceed from a being without becoming also a reality, an act of that being itself? That is why Gods outward activity looks to us like a real reality in God himself. It does not seem true either that the efficient cause as cause has no real, but only a logical relation to the effect. . . . We admit a real relation not only from effect to cause, but also from cause to effect, respectively a passive and an active relation. That is why we would like to call real not only the relation from creature to God but also the relation from God to creature. . . . God is not relative as opposed to absolute. But he is relational, involved, or better, still involving himself. In this way he really changes in his perfect outward activity and relation, without, however, any imperfection or dependence. God is unmoved with ceasing to be the Mover [in personal, transcendent causality] (Man and Sin 50).

Walter Stokes, S. J., in a number of writings, expressed his support for the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean challenge of the traditional interpretation of God’s immutability, citing Whitehead’s concern that “the notion that God is an immutable, infinitely perfect Being is a metaphysical scandal. How could it be a perfection for God not to be able to be other than he is?” (“Freedom as Perfection: Whitehead, Thomas and Augustine” 134, italics added). Stokes sought to amend the problem by means of a speculative study of the Augustinian doctrine of liberty and the analogy of the person. The Thomist doctrine of God, he suggested, can be greatly enriched by the Augustinian doctrines; “Both together [i.e., Thomas and Augustine] present a balance of emphases sorely needed. . . . Both together clear Thomism of the charge that its notion of God is that of a static, eminent reality” (140). Indeed,

From this new perspective of Augustinian liberty and analogy of person, it is possible to conceive of Gods relation to the world as real without thereby attributing any imperfection to Him. . . . In the Greek world of natures it is more perfect to be what you are by necessity than by spontaneity of any kind. In the Christian universe of personal freedom, it is no perfection to be what you are by necessity. It seems to be a fact that God is really related to this world in a way not demanded by the necessity of his nature. Historically, since He could have created another world or no world at all, God could be other than He is. (“Is God Really Related to the World?” 149-50)

Stokes emphasized the point: “Such a personal relation detracts only from a conception of God as a necessary nature in the Greek conception of the term, not at all from God’s perfection as a personal being” (150); or, as one interpreter put it, a reciprocal relation between God and the world “implies an imperfection in God only within a metaphysical system which treats subjects as if they were objects, persons as if they were not different from natures, a philosophy for which necessity contains more ontological perfection than spontaneity” (Donceel, “Second Thoughts on the Nature of God” 349).

William Hill, O. P., acknowledged the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean challenge. Insisting that Catholic thinkers cannot avoid the issue:

If God is indeed the Lord of History so that the human enterprise is somehow his project, and if that project in its genuine historicity and precariousness is contingent and can fail, then what the world is and becomes must of necessity affect God . . . in some sense our choices then seemingly determine God. (“Does the World Make a Difference to God?” 146)

Our concept of God “must embrace contingency and temporality, qualities heretofore understood as precisely non-divine” (146, italics added). Hill concedes that while Whitehead’s dipolar God is “at the very forefront of all contemporary efforts to come to grips with the problem, Catholic thinking on this issue has been at best clearly programmatic in kind, tentative probings toward solutions rather than definitive statements, leaving the question an open one” (147). Hill’s proposal seeks to defend Thomism by explicating the Thomistic “distinction between the entitative and the intentional orders, a distinction which is latent in the thought of St. Thomas, but entirely undeveloped there” (151). Hill’s speculative interpretation purports to secure both Gods absolute immutability and his changement in others: God “makes himself to be who (not what) he is relationally to others . . . in this sense God is determined by the community of human persons” (163). God freely chooses “on this ontological level of freedom and personhood to enter into relationship with his world, without any corresponding mutation or determination on the level of [his intrinsic] nature” (183):

God with a creation and God without it are not entirely the same thing, and it appears overly facile to dismiss this as exclusively on the side of the creature. . . . God does freely determine himself to know and love this actual world rather than any other infinite number of possible worlds . . . [this] involves the specifying of an act of divine love which is not the case in Gods knowledge of possibilities. Ultimately, God is choosing, in unqualified freedom, to so specify himself. But the point is that there occurs a determination within God as knowing and loving, on which basis he is other, relatively speaking, than he would be had he determined himself in some other way. (157)

John Wright, S.J., made reference to the fact that process thinkers “have been challenging . . . [Catholic thinkers] to choose between a timeless, absolute, unrelated God, described as the God of traditional theism, and a temporal, growing, relative God, characterized by perpetual self-surpassing”; the traditional “God of immutable essence . . . may well be able to exercise absolute initiative, but it is inconceivable how he would respond to a free human response” (“Divine Knowledge and Human Freedom” 450). Wright is very much aware of the need to reexamine the traditional teachings (452). His proposal is to argue for a third position beyond that of process philosophy (which, as I shall argue later, Wright has misrepresented) and the process philosophers’ understanding of traditional theism. He argues that God must be understood as “supremely active,” that is, both absolutely free and genuinely responsive to his creatures (451). “God the creator is different from what He would have been had He chosen not to create; the difference is neither just a fiction of the human mind and a matter of extrinsic denomination nor is it an increase or modification of the divine reality in itself, but it is an objective difference in intentionality, in objectively intelligible relations” (458).

In creating us, God freely chose to communicate his love. The world affects God to this extent, that God has created this particular world rather than any of the other infinitely possible worlds. Wright is happy to call Gods relationship with the world a “true” relation, “for the divine knowledge, love, and power are truly extended to creatures”; Wright has no hesitation in referring to it as a “real” relation, yet only if it is clearly understood that “such relations of God to creatures do not condition the existence of the divine perfection but only its communication” (460-61).

Anthony Kelly, C.SS.R., explicitly acknowledged the value of the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean critique and admits that the traditional Thomist formulation of divine immutability requires further explanation: “It seems that traditional Catholic theology, from the Middle Ages on, has left the reality of God too abstract, not sufficiently involved as an actual, free Presence in human affairs” (“God: How Near a Relation?” 193). “The traditional idea of God as Pure Act, static, impassive, immutable, must be supplanted by an idea of the Divine Reality that is more viable for the modern mind . . . . A purely external relation of reason cannot be sufficient; God must be related to the world with a real internal relatedness” 194-95). Kelly warned that “the danger here for the doughty Scholastic, is to weigh in and thoroughly refute this theory point for point,” yet in doing so he would “overlook completely the acute theological and philosophical perception that is evinced throughout. In that way, one could fail completely to see the openings that are provided for a presentation of the classic and Thomistic theism more in accordance with contemporary thought and values” (198). Kelly’s proposal is “to reactualize some of the true riches of the classic and Thomistic affirmation of God” in a defense of the viability of Thomism (203). He works to show that “the ‘relatio rationis’ as applied to God in his relationship with the universe is not as extrinsic or existentially unappealing as it might seem” (228): God is absolutely immutable, yet since he has freely chosen to relate to us, to this particular world rather than another, we do -- in this sense -- affect God’s reality: “God has eternally chosen to be our kind of God; he has qualified himself in this way. In this perspective it is hardly a daring statement to say that God is freely and totally related to man, even though the term relation of reason remains valid on its own level” (220).

Martin D’Arcy, S.J., agreed that “It is high time that God’s immutability be reexamined (“The Immutability of God” 19). D’Arcy, to my knowledge, has not acknowledged the process philosophers critique, yet he seemed to hold to somewhat similar criticisms of the traditional formulation of God’s interrelationship, or lack of it, with the world. He contended that “St. Thomas . . . is hampered . . . by Aristotle’s impersonal, metaphysical framework . . . for the Greek idea of personality was immature, and as a consequence our idea of Gods immutability has suffered (20). Aristotle and traditional Thomism have not exhausted the idea of divine perfection, he insists, though a hint of a more adequate doctrine is implicit “in the Aristotelian and Thomist description of knowledge as ‘quodammodo omnia,’ all things in a certain way”; a viable interpretation of God’s infinite perfection requires that “we consider the perfection of a person instead of a thing . . . the person becomes properly a person, by reaching beyond himself and communicating with others” (21). “For a lover to be detached is a limitation, not a mark of preeminence” (22). D’Arcy then directed us to consider the doctrine of the Trinity wherein we have a clear presentation of God’s outgoing, agapeistic love:

The doctrine of the Trinity enables us to loosen the too tight conceptions of divine immutability by providing new possibilities. . . [since] the divine internal distinctions have their source and meaning in agape, may not a free Agape of such unique power make God also really concerned with man and his creation? What can prevent love which is of its nature a pure giving from embracing all finite loveliness? (23)

God’s “freedom does not make a whit of difference to his immutability. No necessity of his nature can prevent him from loving his creation infinitely more than a Father or a Mother loves the first-born child.” D’Arcy admits, nevertheless, that how God’s “compassion and immutability are compatible is ultimately beyond human comprehension” (24-25).

Karl Rahner, S.J., also addressed the issue of divine immutability, yet without explicitly acknowledging the process theological critique of the traditional formulation. Rahner distinguishes between God as he is in himself and God as he changes in another: “God can become something, he who is unchanging in himself can himself become subject to change in something else” (Theological Investigations IV 113-14). Indeed, “in and in spite of his immutability he can truly become something. He himself, he, in time” (114). While for some interpreters this is but a vague and cryptic paradox (see, for example, D’Arcy, “The Immutability of God” 19), for others Rahner’s proposal is applauded for its having maintained God’s immutability while rejecting the Scholastic way of reconciling it with the fact that God became man: “Rahner no longer seems to accept the scholastic doctrine which claims that the only change occurring in the Incarnation happens in the assumed humanity of Christ” (Donceel, “Second Thoughts on the Nature of God” 350).

III. Analysis

Most of the Catholic philosophers and theologians referred to above, in direct response to the criticisms of process philosophy, have felt challenged to reexamine and further explicate the traditional Thomist understanding of divine immutability. Most of these writers claim that latent, implicit aspect of the writings of St. Thomas can be exploited in defense of a reconstructed and viable Thomism. To date, however, the Thomistic proposals seem rather rigid and tentative probings, rather than definitive statements. While more explicit proposals are in order, my concern in this paper is to further the dialogue by addressing some of the misrepresentations of various aspects of process metaphysics and theology which can be found in these proposals..

The Catholic proposals point out that the world does affect God, in the sense that God has eternally chosen to relate to this particular world, rather than to another of an infinite number of possible worlds. And yet, God remains immutable insofar as His intrinsic nature is in no way affected beyond the fact that he has chosen to create this particular world. In one sense this seems quite similar to the proposal of process theology that God’s “primordial nature” (Whitehead), His abstract essence (Hartshonre) remains immutable in its love, knowledge, power, etc., while God’s “consequent nature” (Whitehead) , His relative experiences (Hartshorne) is in continual process as He continually experiences contingent experience, currently, the contingencies of the universe. These contingent acts do not add to nor detract from God’s immutable primordial nature; they do not alter His perfect love, knowledge, power, etc. Rather, God’s experiences of the world’s contingent events should be seen to provide a concrete expression of His immutable qualities. All of this needs further explanation.

Where process theologians and Catholic (Thomist) theologians apparently differ centers about the question as to whether the contingent acts of creatures are genuinely new for God, whether they make a difference to God as such. Felt expressed this clearly, noting that for traditional Thomism, an immutably full and complete

God does not know creatures because they are present to Him in their finite existence; rather, they exist because He knows them. He recognizes within His own essence all the possibilities for existence; and He also, by the same act, is aware of His own creative decrees. This is conjectured since God’s creative participation of existence, His knowing, and His willing, are all thought identical with His own existing. God thus knows actual, contingent events, as distinguished from pure possibles, entirely by being aware of His own nature, including His creative decisions. . . . What Thomas seems to offer me is the assurance that God does not know this contingent me in my factual existence, but only me as a possibility which He has decreed should be fulfilled. (“Invitation to a Philosophic Revolution” 98-99)

By willing this particular world to be, the God of traditional Thomism eternally knows all of its acts from that first moment in (before?) time. This particular world affects God to the extent that He has created it rather than another world. But the question at issue is whether the world’s contingent acts affect God in any way besides the fact that He has chosen to create them. If not, it is difficult to say that the acts of creatures are free, novel or indeed contingent. They seem necessary and predetermined, rather, since they have been predecided by God’s primordial act of creation. God, as immutable perfection, cannot be enriched by these acts; they cannot contain any real novelty for Him since He is their sole, creative source. All of this needs to be explained more clearly for it to be accepted.

Some contemporary Thomists have addressed this and it is instructive to consider Norris Clarke’s proposal. Rather than holding that creaturely acts enrich God, Clarke defends a logic of “delimitation”:

a superior agent freely offers its indeterminate abundance of power to a lower agent, allowing the latter to channel, or determine -- which means here to delimit (partially negate-the flow of the formers power along lines determined by the lesser agent, to help him execute his own limited operation. In this case the determination contributed by the lower agent does not add any new being to the power of the higher agent. It adds on only a partial negation or delimitation of the higher plenitude, hence does not introduce any change in, or addition to, the real being of the higher agent (“A New Look at the Immutability of God” 68).

Lewis Ford, a leading process philosopher, noted that Clarke’s logic of delimitation implies that all these determinations (including those excluded) are already fully present in the initial indeterminate abundance of power, and all that has happened is the singling out of one for its appearance on the temporal stage of the world (“The Immutable God of Father Clarke” 193). This granted, Ford questioned whether this really permits us to conclude that our acts are free: since God “always knows the creature as part of himself, how can that intentional content be in anyway new?” (194). “[I]t is clear, his argument continues, that the contents of God’s intentional consciousness are not derived from the external world. . . . These contingent contents must then derive from God’s own inner being” (194). Acts that seem novel and free to us, accordingly, are not novel or free from God’s ultimate perspective. God already knows and loves the highest possible fullness of being and goodness, His own self. Any further knowledge of a finite being will not be a passage to a higher fullness of knowing, but only an inner determination, or limitation of its focus (Clarke, “A New Look at the Immutability of God” 48).

Process theology, on the other hand, does seem to account for the freedom, novelty, and true contingency of the world’s creatures. All reality is creative, to some degree, in its ability to synthesize past data and novel possibilities into new experiences. In humanity, this creativity has become a full-fledged freedom and moral responsibility for our actions (within limits, to be sure): God’s role is not to pre-decide all things, but to lure creatures to the best ideals (the so-called eternal objects) which are possible at each moment. The future is open, even for God, awaiting creaturely decisions to decide its details. God knows what is possible, and indeed what is probable, but free creatures, however slight this freedom may be when considered individually and with respect to God, affect the final determination of events. This does not deny God’s absolute perfection, process thinkers insist, since an absolute determinism -- whether by the worlds causality or by God -- is unthinkable: such a doctrine would destroy the rational coherency of the world by making causes indistinguishable from their effects and by obliterating temporal succession and freedom. Such is Hartshorne’s argument:

But then since [according to determinism] everything is thus logically contained in everything else all distinction of ground and consequence, of fundamental and non-fundamental, of universal and particular, of logical relations in general -- as Mr. Bradley honestly conceded -- vanishes. Nothing can be more essential or comprehensive or eternal than anything else in a system in which all things necessarily enter into the being of all things. . . . Thus, as Peirce was never weary of pointing out, absolute determinism applied to the entire cosmos amounts to sheer nominalism, the denial of all difference between general and individual, as well as between possible and real. (“Contingency and the New Era in Metaphysics” 458)

No event is caused in the sense that the cause is the necessary and sufficient reason for the event. There is always an element of creativity in the creature to be acknowledged:

every event is caused, that is to say, it issues out of a restricted or real potentiality; but also, every event occurs by chance, that is to say, it is more determinate than its proximate real potentiality, and just to that extent is unpredictable, undeducible from its causes and causal laws. (Hartshorne, Reality as Social Process 88-89)

What seems to be at issue here is that while process thinkers believe that the contingent acts of creatures contribute to God’s experience in a real sense (though not necessarily to God’s intrinsic, immutable essence) since the acts contain genuine novelty, Thomists contend that these acts affect God in a quite different sense: God has eternally willed them to be, rather than some other possible acts. But in this case, can we say that creaturely acts would be contingent, free or novel? Is the essential problem of the creature’s real value to God then unresolved? More attention to this problem is needed.

Perhaps the most prevalent misrepresentation of the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean position among its Catholic (and Protestant) critics is the persistence in interpreting the process God as a finite, limited, purely immanent, and pantheistic. Donceel, for example, expressed his worry about this pantheistic threat in Whitehead (as in Hegel) (“Second Thoughts on the Nature of God” 359). In response, nevertheless, a process philosopher would probably agree that Hegel’s theism finally reduces either to meaningless paradox or an unacceptable pantheism, and yet that process theism escapes this fate. The latter’s God is not solely immanent, finite or relative, but is, in fact, both immanent and transcendent, finite and infinite, relative and absolute. It is one thing to fail to accept the detailed and readily available arguments of process theologians for this conclusion, yet to ignore them is a serious ignoratio elenchi.

Many Catholic writers, nevertheless, continue to interpret process theism in this way. Norris Clarke, for example, finds its God too finite and attributes this inadequacy to the fact that process writers have not made clear enough the distinction between real and intentional being-though, to be sure, Clarke admits that this distinction has been hitherto very little exploited with respect to God by Thomists as well (45). I am, however, not convinced that process philosophers and theologians have not explicated this principle, or something very like it -- though not in Thomistic terminology. Hartshorne’s distinction between God’s relative nature and his abstract nature seems to me to encompass what Clarke has in mind, and without succumbing to the problems Clarke’s proposal does (see For, “The Immutable God of Father Clarke” 189-99). God’s abstract nature remains immutable, in a very real sense, while his relative nature responds to the world’s contingencies, thereby giving them both present and lasting value and significance.

I am not convinced, furthermore, that Schoonenberg’s understanding of this issue is correct: he argues that the process God includes finitude instead of infinitude and hence mutability instead of immutability (“Process or History in God?” 305, italics added). This “either-or” position is not an accurate representation of the process position. Wright’s understanding of the process God as solely temporal, growing, relative (450) seems equally invalid, as does Stokes’ description of the process God as solely immanent, changing, finite (7).

To even begin to appreciate the process understanding of God, one must be aware of its direct relationship to the process thinkers’ understanding of the nature of reality itself. In close affinity with modern physics, process thinkers argue that the basic reals which constitute all life (the Whiteheadian actual entities, whose counterpart in physics would be sheer energy) are microscopic and momentary experiences, various groupings of which constitute the manifold macrocosmic) objects of our physical senses. These entities are experienced (“prehended”) by other entities such that the former internally affect the latter (though not vice versa). All life, nevertheless, is not to be understood as mere flux: process thinkers reject the Buddhist doctrines of anatta (no soul) and anicca (impermanence). Continuity of character and personal identity are accounted for insofar as certain mental and physical patterns repeat themselves in the processive sequences of individual creatures. All beings, as such, are not only processive but dipolar, for besides their everchanging, contingent reality, there remains a more constant, abstract essence which gives functional unity to the sequences. It is not so obvious, as Hill would have it, that “the person is lost in a sea of pure process” (151). Nor indeed need we deny that the process God has an enduring personal identity: God’s reality is conceived as the chief exemplification of the metaphysical categories and, thus, as both processive and dipolar. The divine person -- at least as far as we can fathom this incomprehensible mystery -- is thought to consist of an eternal sequence of experiences in which God perfectly prehends and responds to the contingent happenings of the world’s creatures, internalizing these events as part of His own reality. Yet God’s nature is not to be defined solely as this unending sequence of experiences, for He has an eternal essence which remains immutable (the traditional actus purus) and which is beyond any and all contingencies. Process theologians believe that the mistake of traditional theism has been to interpret God’s reality solely as this immutable essence; their position, in contradistinction, is to conceive God’s intrinsic nature as an abstraction which is not to be understood as that which is necessary in all of God’s experiences of the world; His love, knowledge, power, and His a priori necessary existence itself. I cannot accept Hill’s criticism that this is not an actual infinity at all (139), though I do admit it is not an easy doctrine to appreciate at first blush. It is, quite obviously, a major source of critical concern and misunderstanding.

Another closely related criticism of the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean God centers about the relationship between God and creativity. Hill voiced the concerns of many critics who understand process thought as implying that “creativity” seems to be “prior to and more ultimate” than God himself in the process metaphysical scheme, thereby implying the invalid “subordination of God to Pure Creativity” (155). Now, while I can appreciate the problems which arise from this (and they are problems for some within the circle of process thought as well as for some without), I do not find them insurmountable. The process God is not the Creator ex nihilo, but rather is the eminent exemplification of creativity. God can exemplify creativity without that creativity being considered a thing in its own right. Creativity is not prior to or more ultimate than God; it simply exemplifies God’s acts and freedom as the ultimate creative force. All creatures share some degree of this creative power, though God -- via the initial subjective aims with which He lures creatures continually -- is its ultimate exemplification.

Yet another issue concerns creation. Process theologians suggest that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo may not be as essential to Christian theology as it is generally supposed. They seek to describe reality as it is experienced: what is experienced is a freely creative, processive realm of creatures which synthesize (“concresce”) both past causal data and God’s lure to novelty in the continual creation of new experiences. That this process began by a divine decree ex nihilo is beyond our experience and knowledge; process theologians, accordingly, generally refuse to speculate about it. It would seem to be just as speculative to hold to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo as it would be to adhere to the doctrine of an infinite regress of causes. Evidence for neither is conclusive. This is, nonetheless, an issue that demands more attention.

What may be more problematic is the Whiteheadian-Hartshornean contention that God needs some world: the issue is whether this denies His freedom in lovingly choosing to create this particular world? (see Hill, “Does the World Make a Difference to God?” 154-55; also Felt, “Invitation to a Philosophic Revolution” 103). The rationale behind the process position is, in part, the contention that God must have some object to love: “it remains to be shown that a loving God apart from some creation is thinkable” (see John C. Robertson, Jr., “Rahner and Ogden: Man’s Knowledge of God” 403). “Can love-without-relation be love at all? If, as far as we can discover, self-relatedness is essential to love, then by what right do we use the same word to designate [in God] a complete lack of self-relatedness?” “Must we not seriously ask ourselves whether we are using language responsibly in denying such love in God?” (Felt 106). For process theologians and philosophers hold that it may be necessary that God have some world to love, this need not be thought to negate the divine freedom. “God would exist even if every detail in the world had been otherwise. . . . Something in God may depend upon the creatures without his very existence or eternal essence being thus dependent (Hartshorne, Aquinas to Whitehead 9, 12). God is free in choosing which particular world of an infinite number of possible worlds has come to be, and He is free also in the sense that His love for this world is His own free act, and not one which was forced upon Him by some external force (Robertson 406).

Process theologians could argue, furthermore, that God must be at least as complex as his creatures, and since we creatures exist by continually synthesizing physical data and conceptual possibilities into new experiences, we can assume that God’s conceptual envisagement of the realm of eternal possibilities is supplemented by some physical data. For Whitehead, consciousness is defined as the result of the comparison of mental and physical data (Sherburne A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality 67-68), and if we are, accordingly, to conceive God as conscious (versus an Unmoved Mover, conscious only of himself) we can assume he needs some world, though not necessarily this particular one.

Note: Earlier versions of this article can be found in Barry Whitney's Evil and the Process God (New York: Mellen, 1985) and "Divine Immutability in Process Philosophy and Contemporary Thomism," Horizons, Journal of the College Theology Society 7 (1980). The task remains to update the dialogue. One of the most interesting responses to the Horizons article is that of David Burrell, C.S.C., "Does Process Theology Rest on a Mistake?" Theological Studies 43 (1982). Burrell suggested two additional references to those cited in Barry Whitney's article: William Hill's "Two Gods of Love: Aquinas and Whitehead," Listening 14 (1976), and Norris Clarke's The Philosophical Approach to God, Winston-Salem: Wake Forrest University Press, 1979). Burrell stated (without substantiation) that Hartshorne caricatured classical thiesm and yet that he struck a chord by shedding light on a widespread theological shortcoming within classical theism. While he commends the authors I've cited, for displaying a command of traditional categores, theological and philosophical, as well as a scrupulous ear for dialgoue, saying that "The tenor of their appreciation and critique of process thought regarding divinity shows how this debate can touch issues utterly central to both disciplines." Nonetheless, Burrell claims that process thought misrepresents classical theism, that it is not a superior philosophical synthesis for Christian faith, that its capacity for illuminating central features of the Christian tradition are deficient, and that its conceptual scheme diverges considerably from that accepted by practicing theologians. I am not aware of a direct published response to Burrell's assessment, but the issues he raises have been addressed by various process writers in various places (David Griffin, in Evil Revisited, for example). In any event, the debate about immutability has been important for the clarification of traditional Thomism. My appreciation for Hartshorne's "neoclassical metaphysics" has been its pressing for clarifications in various key aspects of classical theism. I assume many classical theists would agree that this has been an important task.

Works Cited

Clarke, Norris W. “A New Look at the Immutability of God,” in R.J. Roth, ed. God Knowable and Unknowable. New York: Fordham University Press, 1973.
D’Arcy, Martin, “The Immutability of God,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 41 (1967).
Donceel, Joseph, “Second Thoughts on the Nature of God,” Thought 46 (1971).
Felt, James W. “Invitation to a Philosophic Revolution,” New Scholasticism 45 (1971).
Ford, Lewis S. “The Immutable God of Father Clarke,” New Scholasticism 47 (1973).
Hartshorne, Charles. Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism. Chicago: Willet, Clark and Co., 1941.
---. The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.
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---. “Contingency and the New Era in Metaphysics,” Journal of Philosophy 29 (1932).
---. Aquinas to Whitehead: Seven Centuries of Metaphysics. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1976.
Hill, WIliam. “Does the World Make a Difference to God?” The Thomist 38 (1974).
Kelly, Anthony J. “God: How Near a Relation?” The Thomist 34 (1970).
Rahner, Karl, Theological Investigations IV. Baltimore: Helicon, 1966.
Robertson, John C. “Rahner and Ogden: Man’s Knowledge of God,” Harvard Theological Review 63 (1970).
Schoonenberg, Piet, “Process or History in God?” Louvain Studies 4 (1973).
---. Man and Sin. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965.
Stokes, Walter, “Freedom as Perfection: Whitehead, Thomas and Augustine,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 36 (1962).
---. “Is God Really Related to the World?” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 39 (1965).
Wright, John. “Divine Knowledge and Human Freedom: The God Who Dialogues,” Theological Studies 38 (1977).

Author Information: Barry Whitney was Professor of Christian Theology and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Windsor, Canada. He was also Editor of the journal, Process Studies, for 14 years. He is now retired and living in Ottawa, Canada, continuing his research and other projects.

© BARRY WHITNEY, 2007. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination. An earlier version of this article was published in Horizons, Journal of hte College Theology Society, 1980.