Process Philosophy and the Creative Temporality of God
I have been speaking of physical determinism and finite rational agency. These points may seem not to implicate God, but they do. For if it is important to rational agency that agents should make their own choices between alternative futures and not be compelled, however willingly, to do so by prior determining causes, then determination by God is also ruled out. That means God must leave some alternatives to be decided by creatures. If that is so, then what God does next will have to be a response to a decision made in time by someone other than God. God will be temporal, in doing some things after, and in response to, others.
For the classical religious traditions, this idea was unthinkable. Would it not make God vulnerable to all the imperfections of time? It is only in comparatively recent times—since the end of the eighteenth century— that the classical idea of God has been revised so as to make temporality a perfection and not an imperfection. As I have suggested, this is partly due to the influence of science, which made the particular and the temporal of greater value than the purely universal and the eternal.
Today, a temporalist view of God is most often associated with the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, who was himself a mathematician deeply interested in relativity. He developed a view of God as having a threefold nature. First, there is God's primordial nature—including "all eternal objects," which function as "relevant lures of feeling" for all realizable conditions. Then, there is God's consequential nature—"the physical prehension by God of the actualization of the evolving universe." Third, there is God's superjective nature—the divine nature as "qualifying the transcendent creativity in the various temporal instances" (1978, 87—88; see also part 5, chapter 2).
If I may translate, the primordial nature is like that of the classical God. It timelessly encompasses all possibilities as archetypes of possible worlds. But, unlike the classical God, in itself it is relatively abstract or incomplete. Real, as opposed to conceptual, content is given by the consequential nature, within which the whole universe is encompassed as in a perfect "divine memory" but in a way that is without discord or frustration—"the dynamic effort of the world passing into everlasting unity" (Whitehead 1978, 349). Finally, the superjective nature is the influence God, both primordial and consequential, has upon the further temporal development of the universe, luring or urging it toward the Good or at least the Better. In the work of many process philosophers, the superjective nature tends to get subsumed under the primordial and consequential natures as their joint influence on the actual entities of the universe. But Whitehead himself may have had a more active influencing action of God in mind.
Nevertheless, for Whitehead, God is not the all-determining source of the universe. On the contrary, the universe consists of an infinite number of "actual occasions" or point-instant events, each of which "prehends" or is causally affected by the events that precede it in time, and creatively projects a new possibility or set of possibilities into the future. Primary causality belongs to these events, and God is the abstract ground of their possibility, the "enjoyer" (or "sufferer") of their self-accomplished reality, and the ultimate final cause that enters, as just one influencing factor, into their creation of the open future.
This God, who seems to some critics to be reduced to being a spectator of and a weak influence upon the causal process, is rather a long way from the all-determining God of Aquinas. Whitehead says, "God does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness" (1978, 346). God is not sovereign; like the world, God is "in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty" (349).
For this reason, process philosophy has rarely been perceived by the-ists as providing an adequate description of the God they worship. But the philosophy has, nevertheless, had great influence in making ideas of the suffering, changeability, and temporal creativity of God more acceptable. After all, it may be said, scriptural ideas, no matter how metaphorical or symbolic they are, do speak of God as passionately responding to human actions, as conversing with prophets, responding to prayers, and even, for Christians, becoming incarnate in history. Perhaps the classical theologians were a little too dismissive of the implications of such beliefs.
The process view of God can, with very small adjustments, be reconciled with something much more like the classical view. God's primordial nature does not have to be "actually deficient and unconscious" (Whitehead 1978, 345). It can be a fully conscious selection of timeless perfections, something that every consciousness would choose if it could. The events that form the universe could be created, brought into being by God, but given their own autonomy. God's "inclusion" of the universe could involve a fully personal response to and interaction with "other" truly personal agents, while sharing in the joys and sufferings of such agents. And God could direct the universe to a final and inexorable goal, without overruling human freedom and its consequences.
In this way, the concerns of the classical view that God is perfect in actuality, that God creates all things, that God is other than finite agents, and that God will ensure the realization of the divine purpose could be combined with the process concern that God acts in a new way and has new forms of experience in creating the universe, that God does not overrule or determine the wills of finite agents, that God is responsive to the acts of finite agents, and that God will take such acts into account in creatively realizing the divine purpose for the universe.
Creativity and relationship are values that presuppose some form of temporality and change. If they are genuine values, then God will realize them, though in a higher and more perfect manner. This means that the past will not be lost but will be perfectly preserved in the Divine Mind, its evils mitigated and transformed. The present will not be a relentless pressure to move on but will be a combination of rest and free creative movement. The future will not be either threateningly empty or boringly repetitive. It will be be an unbounded space and time for new creative acts and forms of relationship, in which good purposes will be assured of realization.
Or so it will be if God is indeed, as God is classically said to be, "that than which nothing greater [of greater value] can be conceived." Post-scientific views of perfection or value often posit creativity and time, relationship and particularity, otherness and cooperation as positive goods. Postscientific views of what is real argue that particular spatially and temporally locatable particulars are more real than abstract universals. Adherents of these views find it difficult, as medievals did not, to think of timeless self-contemplation as the greatest of goods (though there may remain a place for contemplation of timeless perfection in every life).