Whitehead’s Natural Theology: The Implications of Order and Novelty

Alfred North Whitehead’s natural theology arises as the rational implication of his metaphysical questions concerning the ultimate ground of order and novelty. It blossoms into much more than this, in that Whitehead goes on to affirm speculatively a God who not only makes the universe possible but who also constantly saves it. Whitehead was led to this affirmation not by some prior theological agenda or personal religious commitment, but by his commitment to thinking empirically in working out his metaphysics and because of his respect—similar to that of William James—for the empirical fact of religious experience. His approach was in some ways rather traditional, despite the radical novelty of his metaphysical categories. But in other ways his cosmology produced a remarkably novel understanding of God’s nature and the dynamic interaction between God and the world. Whitehead himself did not pursue the theological implications of his natural theology very far; but he left a body of thought that has evoked and nurtured rich and diverse traditions of philosophical and theological reflection. In this essay I will summarize the problem of natural theology, how Whitehead developed his natural theology, and some of its implications for the understanding of God.[1]

1. The Problem of Natural Theology

From the time of Plato and Aristotle until the eighteenth century, philosophers and theologians in the West believed that by reason one could arrive at knowledge of a divine ground of the universe. The reasoning began with some feature of the universe as analyzed philosophically, asked what was ultimately necessary in order to make this feature intelligible, and concluded to the existence of the infinite divine, understood in different ways, as the necessary ground of the finite. For many centuries such arguments were regarded as proofs that any reasonable person would have to affirm.

In the history of Christian theology, such proofs (first in neo-Platonic and later also in Aristotelian forms) were universally accepted in the West until just prior to the Protestant Reformation when some theologians began to argue that our knowledge of God rests entirely on revelation. Until the twentieth century most Protestant and Reformed Christian theologians abandoned natural theology, while the Roman Catholic tradition continued to hold that one could know of God’s existence by reason alone. In the eighteenth century criticism of such arguments by David Hume and Immanuel Kant showed that they were not proofs in a strict sense and that each type entailed a leap to arrive at the Christian God. Kant, in his moral argument for belief in the existence of God, transformed natural theology into a statement of what one may reasonably assume to be true in order to account for our sense of moral obligation. The existence of God became a postulate of reason, a reasonable hypothesis, not a rationally proven conclusion.

The wider culture, however, ignored what Hume and Kant had shown. Supported by the new sciences at first, traditional forms of the argument for first cause and the argument from design in nature were supported by scientists such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. The argument from design in nature survived into the mid-nineteenth century in English-speaking countries. It was the gradual elimination of God as an acceptable cause in the empirical and natural sciences and the success of those sciences in explaining the universe that eventually led people to question the very possibility of natural theology. In biology, the last stronghold of classical natural theology, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution undercut both the assumptions and conclusion of the argument from design in nature. But the problem of the ultimate ground of order continued to linger in the background, even as many philosophers came to believe that metaphysics was no longer possible.

2. Whitehead’s Natural Theology

Whitehead’s natural theology, developed in an era when metaphysics was suspect, confronts this problem of order quite directly. Even though his metaphysics incorporates what he took to be the fundamental assumptions of quantum theory and relativity theory, he recognized that there was still a metaphysical question concerning the ultimate actual ground of order. He introduced God into his cosmological scheme because of his reflections on the nature of possibility and the rational need for an actual source of order. His arguments resemble the Kantian type of natural theology in the sense that Whitehead does not claim to prove the existence of God; instead, he postulates God as what we must rationally assume in order to understand the basis of possibility, value, novelty, and order. But his arguments are quite un-Kantian in their content. From another perspective, Whitehead has followed the traditional approach of natural theology: given his philosophical analysis of the universe, he asks what is necessary to make this universe, so understood, possible. This rational desire and hope for ultimate intelligibility is something Whitehead shares with the ancient Greeks and the medieval philosophers, however novel his analysis and his categories and however humble he is regarding the result.

2.1. The Problem of Possibility and Actuality

It is important to note that Whitehead is led to his affirmation of God because of his commitment to formulating an empirical metaphysics. This commitment is reflected in his “ontological principle,” which means that only actual entities have the power of agency in Whitehead’s philosophy.[2] In metaphysical explanations, any “reason” must be referred somehow to an actual entity as its “vehicle.” As Whitehead put it, “there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere.” (PR 244)

We live in an ordered universe characterized by the continual emergence of novelty. In his ontology Whitehead analyzes this experience in terms of actual entities receiving the influences of other actual entities in their first phase of becoming, which establishes the ordered situation of the present moment. Then, in their second phase of becoming, they encounter the potentials or possibilities open to the present moment, one of which they actualize in their third (and final) phase of becoming. Novelty occurs because actual entities are capable of actualizing new possibilities in the context of order. Given this analysis and the peculiar nature of possibility, and in light of the ontological principle, several questions concerning possibility and order arise:

(1) Possibilities are real, in the sense that they are objects of our experience and we deal with them all the time; but in themselves, as mere abstract possibilities, they are by definition not actual. Since they are not actual entities, they cannot serve as their own reasons. Since all the temporal actual entities constituting the universe require this general potentiality in order to occur, none of them, not even all of them together, can serve as its actual source. One can ask what the ultimate actual source of this general potentiality of the universe is.[3] What is the ultimate actual ground of novelty?

(2) Moreover, since abstract possibilities are by definition not actual, they cannot have the power of agency. How, then, can they interact with actual entities in the process of becoming?

(3) Totally abstract possibility is infinite. Because of the limitations of the situation in which it occurs, only a relatively small number of possibilities will be relevant to an actual entity. It has only a minute fraction of a second to complete its process of becoming and cannot search through infinite possibility to identify the set relevant for it. By what agency, then, are relevant possibilities made present to each actual entity in its process of becoming?[4]

(4) In order for there to be a universe, possibilities must be organized or ordered. If all possibilities are equally possible at each moment, then we would have absolute chaos (in the philosophical sense)—the complete absence of order. But organization imposes a limitation within abstract possibility and such a limitation can only be understood as due to the agency of some actual entity. Yet all temporal actual entities require this organization of possibility in order to occur. What, then, is the ultimate actual ground of the order necessary for there to be any universe at all?[5]

(5) Every temporal actual entity reacts to the value of the possibilities open to it in its becoming. But value can be connected with possibility only if there is some restriction within abstract possibility that establishes contrasts, gradations, and oppositions. And such a restriction or limitation can only be understood as due to the agency of some actual entity. Yet since possibilities are given to temporal actual entities as already inherently attractive or repulsive, it is clear that no temporal actual entity can be the reason for this inherent connection of possibility and value. What, then, is the ultimate actual ground of value?[6]

(6) A sixth problem arises from Whitehead’s ontology because of the ontological principle, one that concerns the “subjective aim” of each actual entity, its drive to make something of itself. Once the subjective aim is given, it is its own reason; that is, we can appeal to this aim as the actual reason for the becoming of the actual entity. The problem is to understand the actual ground or source of this subjective aim: from what actual entity does the “initial subjective aim” arise?[7] One is tempted to say that the aim must arise from past actual entities, most especially the one immediately preceding it in its social history: for example, this moment of my experience originates by taking its aim from the immediately past moment of my experience. But Whitehead argues for the true atomicity of each actual entity as a quantum of experience, so that the immediacy of its aim is unique to each process of becoming and “perishes” when the aim has been satisfied (by the actualization of a possible form). The “living 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, not a “living subject” in the process of becoming. Thus no past actual entity can be the actual source of the “living immediacy” that characterizes the process of becoming in the present.[8]

These six metaphysical problems are all interrelated and together they pose a major problem for Whitehead’s cosmology: if they cannot be answered or resolved, the philosophy is ultimately incoherent. To find the solution, Whitehead followed the procedure known as “heuristic method” in mathematics: the nature of the problems gives the clues to the characteristics of the solution. The ontological principle requires that the solution be an actual entity. But no temporal actual entity can be the solution because all temporal actual entities require exactly what these six questions point to for the very possibility of their occurrence. Since these six problems are all related, one actual entity can serve as the solution to them all, but it must be a non-temporal actual entity. This non-temporal actual entity must be the reservoir of all possibilities; by its agency it must mediate between possibilities and the temporal actual entities of the universe; it must be the agency by which the relevant possibilities are made present to each process of becoming; it must be the reason for the fundamental organization or ordering of possibilities; its organization of possibilities must also constitute the ultimate standard of value; and it must be the actual source of all initial subjective aims.

Whitehead calls the required non-temporal actual entity “God” and initially introduces the concept of God into his cosmology because, in his judgment, it is necessary to resolve the problems I have just summarized. In pursuing the implications of conceiving of God as an actual entity, Whitehead’s philosophy of God developed beyond those characteristics necessary to resolve these problems and discovered other aspects of God’s relation to the universe. Before briefly summarizing his philosophy of God, I want to note that Whitehead’s understanding of God is analogical; that is, he works out an understanding of God by analogy with the structure of actual entities. We must not forget that the ontological understanding of actual entities is itself the product of speculative philosophy and that its application to understanding God is also speculative. Whitehead does not present this philosophy of God with any claims for certainty. Rather he presents it with humility and regards it as a set of suggestions for how our understanding of God and God’s relation to the universe might be transformed in light of his metaphysical analysis of reality.[9]

2.2. The Primordial Nature of God

One major aspect of God’s relation to the universe in Whitehead’s philosophy concerns the resolution of the six problems I discussed above. Whitehead refers to this aspect as the “Primordial Nature” of God and defines it as “the unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects” (PR 31). Translated from Whitehead’s technical vocabulary, this conceives of the Primordial Nature of God as God’s unconditioned grasping and valuation of all possibilities. This aspect of God is analogous to the second phase of the process of becoming of all temporal actual entities, in which they encounter and react to the possibilities open to them. The Primordial Nature of God differs, however, in that God grasps all possibilities and is absolutely free in how God valuates them, whereas any temporal actual entity grasps only a limited set of possibilities and its valuation of them is conditioned or influenced in several ways. Because God grasps all possibilities, God is the primordial actual source of the general potentiality of the universe and is thus the ultimate actual ground of possibility and novelty.

It is through the agency of God that possibilities can interact with the temporal actual entities of the universe and that the relevant possibilities are made present to each actual entity in its process of becoming. Because of the unity of God as an actual entity, God’s grasping and valuation of the possibilities organizes them, relates them to each other (thus forming the basis for all possible worlds), and invests them with value (relative to God’s subjective aim). This implies that the general order of the universe is an aesthetic order, an order of potential beauty and goodness derived from God’s valuation of all possibilities. God’s “vision” of possibility is thus the ultimate standard of value and is the reason why possibilities are experienced as having value inherent in them. In short, the Primordial Nature of God is the ultimate actual ground of both order and value,[10] as well as of possibility and novelty.

The Primordial Nature of God is also the actual ground of all initial subjective aims. We saw above that the “living immediacy” of the process of becoming cannot come from past actual entities, which have become “objects” and in which the “living immediacy” of becoming has “perished.” To put it metaphorically, the living cannot be born from the dead; life comes only from life.[11] 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” (PR 345) 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. 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. Although every actual entity derives both its aim and its relevant possibilities from God, it is free to select any of these possibilities. What it becomes is, within the limits of its freedom, self-caused and self-determined.

The Primordial Nature of God, then, is the ultimate actual ground or source of both possibility and actuality. God is the ground of the universe in ordering possibility so as to make a universe really possible; without this organization of possibilities, establishing the fundamental metaphysical conditions, there could be no course of actual events. God also 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 aim, its ability to be its own standard of value, its possibilities, and its freedom and autonomy to select what possibility it shall actualize in and for itself. In this sense each temporal actual entity lives by sharing or participating in the life of God. Whitehead says in one of his most memorable lines, “The world lives by its incarnation of God in itself” (RM 156).

It is through the presentation of all relevant possibilities, including those never before actualized, to each moment of becoming that God “lures” the creative advance of the universe. Temporal actual entities are not fated to the repetition of the same possibilities but can actualize new forms, develop new types of order, and can make of themselves and their societies something new in the universe. God creates not just by making every temporal actual entity really possible, but also by luring the actualities of the universe toward novel possibilities, new accomplishments transcending the “stubborn facts” of the past. Order and novelty, Whitehead says, “are but the instruments of [God’s] subjective aim,” luring the universe into a continual creative advance (PR 88).

This interaction between God as ground of actuality and possibility and the freedom of the temporal actual entities of the universe results in a universe characterized by order but also by flexibility and creativity, so that it is constantly changing and developing in new ways while relying on the underlying basis of order and stability. God and temporal actual entities in their interaction are co-creators of the actual universe.

2.3. The Consequent Nature of God

But Whitehead’s natural theology does not end with this analysis of God as the ground of order and possibility. If God is to be conceived as an actual entity, then the Primordial Nature of God cannot be the entirety of God’s relation to the universe.[12] In Whitehead’s analysis all actual entities not only grasp and valuate possibilities, they also must receive into themselves the influences of completed actual entities. The Primordial Nature of God is God’s grasping and valuation of all possibilities. But if we are to understand God by analogy with temporal actual entities, then God must also receive into God’s experience the temporal actual entities of the universe as they complete themselves. Moreover, there must also be a third, integrative phase in God’s becoming, just as in temporal actual entities, in which the first two phases (the encounter with possibilities and the experience of actualities) are integrated and synthesized. This, too, is part of Whitehead’s natural theology, because it arises from his rational reflection on the implications of conceiving of God as an actual entity.[13]

Whitehead calls the reception of temporal actual entities into God’s experience and the integration of them with God’s primordial vision of value the “Consequent Nature” of God.[14] It is called “consequent” because this aspect of God’s interaction with the universe follows upon the interaction of the Primordial Nature of God and the temporal actual entities of the universe. Every actual entity occurs, so to speak, between these two aspects of God’s interaction with the universe: the Primordial Nature of God makes each temporal actual entity possible; the temporal actual entities create themselves on that divinely-given ground (and also in relation to the influence of past actual entities); and then the completed actual entities are taken into God’s everlasting experience (the Consequent Nature). As is evident from the analogy with actual entities, this implies that God is to be understood as a process of becoming, at each moment dynamically interacting with the universe of the immediate past and the universe about to be, receiving completed actual entities into God’s experience and making possible the new actual entities beginning their processes of becoming.

God’s reception of the completed actual entities is perfect: God not only receives all newly-completed actual entities, but receives them completely in their “stubbornness”—that is, they are received exactly as they are. But as God integrates these temporal actual entities with God’s own “vision” of possibility and value in the third phase of God’s becoming, they are unified, transformed and harmonized in the unity and harmony of God’s own experience. This is analogous to the way in which each temporal actual entity unifies and transforms what it inherits from the universe as it integrates its own experience. The difference is that God’s reception and transformation of all past actual entities is perfect, not characterized by the limitations of perspective and elimination that mark the process of becoming in the actual world. Thus Whitehead says that the Consequent Nature of God “is the realization of the actual world in the unity of [God’s] nature, and through the transformation of [God’s] wisdom” (PR 345).

Whitehead thus distinguishes two quite different aspects of God’s interaction with the universe. The Primordial Nature of God makes the universe and each actual entity within it possible. The Consequent Nature of God receives into God’s own experience what the universe and each actual entity within it has done with the possibilities God presented and transforms, unifies, and harmonizes these actual entities in the unity of God’s own experience. Recognizing these distinct aspects of God’s interaction with the universe has direct implications for understanding God’s attributes.[15]

2.4. The Divine Attributes

In the foundational aspect of God’s relation to the universe (the Primordial Nature) God is completely unaffected by the actual course of events, because God presupposes only creativity, while the actual course of events presupposes the Primordial Nature of God.[16] Thus the Primordial Nature of God is infinite, complete, unconditioned, absolutely free, eternal, unchanging, and impassible. Since the Primordial Nature of God grasps the entire infinity of possibilities, it is infinite and complete. Because the very possibility of any universe depends on God’s organization and valuation of possibilities, the universe can in no way condition or limit this aspect of God; thus in this respect God is unconditioned and absolutely free. Again, since the very possibility of any universe depends on this fundamental organization and valuation of possibilities, the Primordial Nature of God must be eternal, transcending all temporal relation and limitation. Likewise it must be unchanging, since change is a measure of the difference between actual entities over time and thus is possible only in relation to an actual course of events. Since the Primordial Nature of God is required for there to be any actual course of events, God’s eternal “vision” of possibility cannot change. One can even say that the Primordial Nature of God is impassible (incapable of suffering or being affected by anything other than God): Whitehead writes that because the Primordial Nature of God presupposes no actual world, “it is deflected neither by love, nor by hatred, for what in fact comes to pass” (PR 344). It is important to note that all these attributes of the Primordial Nature of God are identical with the traditional attributes of God in Christian theology.

Whitehead’s metaphysics of God differs from traditional Christian metaphysics, however, in the recognition that there is another, quite different aspect of God’s interaction with the universe: God also receives into God’s experience what all the actual entities of the universe have done with the possibilities and aims God presented to them. In this aspect God is affected by the actual course of events. Thus the Consequent Nature of God is finite, incomplete, conditioned, partially determined, everlasting, developing, and passible (capable of suffering and being affected). It is most unusual to attribute these characteristics to God, especially when their opposites have already been affirmed as divine attributes. But the implications of Whitehead’s metaphysics require that these “opposite” attributes also be affirmed of God, for the following reasons.

Because the Consequent Nature God must receive what the temporal actual entities of the universe have actually made of themselves, this aspect of God is dependent on these actual entities and is therefore conditioned and determined (initially) by them. The Consequent Nature of God is incomplete and finite because at any moment God can receive only those actual entities that have thus far completed their becoming. As long as there is a universe and a future, there will always be more actual entities to receive.[17] The Consequent Nature of God is everlasting, including all temporal relations. Whitehead conceives of God’s process of becoming as spanning all of time, including all temporal actual entities in the “living immediacy” of God’s own becoming. Time is real for God, even though God is not subject to time in God’s own becoming. The Consequent Nature of God is constantly developing. Technically this is not change, since Whitehead holds that no actual entity changes. Change is a measure of the difference between actual entities. Since God is a single actual entity, the development in God’s Consequent Nature does not constitute change within God. But God experiences change in the differences between all the temporal actual entities that constitute the data of God’s Consequent Nature. God is continually developing in an everlastingly present immediacy.[18] Thus Whitehead’s metaphysics implies a process concept of immutability, quite different from the traditional concept.

Finally, the Consequent Nature of God is passible, capable of being affected, capable of feeling, and capable of suffering. God suffers in two different ways. First, because God receives all temporal actual entities with perfect sympathy, God experiences directly the sufferings of all temporal creatures. God’s perfection here implies a sympathy infinitely transcending all sympathy with which we are familiar. But God must also suffer in God’s own right because of the difference between God’s eternal vision of what is possible in the universe and God’s experience of what actually occurs. As God integrates the actual entities of the universe with God’s Primordial Nature, God feels the difference between the beauty and goodness that might have been and the tragedies and evils that have actually occurred. God redeems and overcomes the evil so that it is not final; but this does not eliminate the fact of suffering and tragedy in God’s own experience.

Because it is developed by analogy with the structure of actual entities, this metaphysical understanding of the distinct aspects of God’s relation to the universe and of the different attributes of God in each aspect forms a consistent and coherent metaphysical understanding of God. We can say both that God is infinite and finite, unconditioned and conditioned, absolutely free and partially determined, impassible and passible, and so on, because we can specify which attribute applies to which aspect of God’s relation to the universe. Whitehead’s metaphysics can show quite precisely, in a way Nicholas of Cusa’s could not, how it is possible for God to be the “coincidence of opposites.”

2.5. The Complementarity of God and the World

Whitehead’s cosmological vision conceives of God and the universe in a dynamic relationship of complementarity. Although God and the temporal actual entities of the universe all illustrate the same ontological principles, they are “opposites” complementing each other, each incorporating the other and completing the other. God is the infinite and eternal ground of possibility, order, novelty, and value that is necessary for there to be any actual course of events at all. This aspect of God makes the universe possible, but, we should note, is an eternal vision of merely possible beauty and value. The temporal actual entities of the universe, finite and passing, incorporate this aspect of God in receiving their initial aims and possibilities. In turn, these temporal actual entities give to God something God cannot otherwise acquire: actualized beauty and value. It is only through the agency of the temporal actual entities of the universe that the possibilities of God’s eternal vision are gradually actualized.

But temporal actual entities lack permanence. They constantly “perish,” swiftly completing their processes of becoming and losing their immediacy. Some beauties and values endure through the societies actual entities create in their relationships, but eventually these societies decay and their achievements vanish into the past. Moreover, the competing aims of the actual entities and societies of the universe produce discord, lack of harmony, suffering, evil, tragedy, and disunity. Here, in the other aspect of God’s relation to the universe, God provides what the passing world cannot otherwise achieve: permanence, harmony, unity, healing, and peace. God receives into God’s everlasting becoming every temporal actual entity in the universe and through the integration of these with God’s eternal vision in the unity of God’s experience, the universe obtains unity, harmony, and healing in the unity and harmony of God’s own experience.[19] This is God saving the world as God takes it into the immediacy and unity of God’s own life.

3. Brief History of Scholarship on
Whitehead’s Natural Theology

The history of scholarship on Whitehead’s philosophical theology is quite extensive and I can do no more here than indicate a few of the major developments having theological implications.[20]

Charles Hartshorne (1948, 1972) was one the earliest commentators on and revisers of Whitehead’s philosophy of God, noted mainly for conceiving of God as a society of actual entities instead of a single actual entity and for developing the modal logic of perfection implicit in Whitehead’s philosophy. John Cobb (1965) produced one of the first lengthy analyses of Whitehead’s natural theology that had much influence on process theologians. Several scholars have argued that Whitehead’s separation of “creativity” from God, one of his ways of resolving the problem of evil, is problematic and needs to be revised. Langdon Gilkey (1976), Robert Neville (1980), and Lewis Ford (2000) have addressed this issue in different ways. David Ray Griffin (1976) related Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil to the history of western thought on this topic.

Lewis Ford, in a host of articles and three books has produced many technical studies analyzing and revising Whitehead’s metaphysics. He connected Whitehead’s philosophy of God to the biblical tradition (1978); applied the methods of biblical criticism to a textual study of Whitehead’s writings disclosing the development of Whitehead’s ideas about God and his metaphysics more generally (1984); and developed a major transformation of Whiteheadian process theism (2000). The latter work argues for conceiving of God’s causal and creative activity as action from the future, thus relating process theism to the eschatological theologies of Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. John F. Haught (2000) has similarly interpreted Whitehead’s thought in relation to eschatological theology and thinks of God as acting from the future, seeing this as the metaphysical ground of hope.

Many scholars have attempted to relate Whitehead’s philosophy of God to the Christological and Trinitarian concerns of Christian theology. David Ray Griffin (1973) and John Cobb (1975) developed early process Christologies. Joseph Bracken, S.J. (1985, 1991) has related Whitehead to the Trinitarian tradition of Christian theology and developed a process Trinitarian theology by utilizing Whitehead’s notion of a “society,” but revising his philosophy in important ways. He, along with Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, has edited a collection of essays on Trinitarian theology from a process perspective that illustrates the diverse directions pursued by different process theologians (1997).

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki applied Whitehead’s philosophical theology very practically to the central concerns of Christian theology (1982). She also argued that Whitehead’s philosophy can support the idea of “subjective immortality” and analyzed how his philosophy can address some of the major concerns of Christian eschatology (1988).

Ian Barbour (1997), John F. Haught (2000), and David Ray Griffin (2000), among others, have employed Whitehead’s metaphysics and philosophy of God to address many difficult problems in the contemporary science and religion dialogue.

Finally, John Cobb (1982, 1999) has been instrumental in using Whitehead’s philosophy to foster inter-religious dialogue, particularly with Buddhism.

4. A Personal Assessment

Whitehead’s philosophical theology offers many riches for Christian theological reflection. His cosmological vision is neither monist nor dualist, but pluralist, in which the whole is understood as a complementarity of opposites and God is understood as a coincidence of opposites that both makes possible and saves the passing temporal actual entities of the universe.[21] Every actual entity is related to all other actual entities; Whitehead says, “no two actualities can be torn apart: each is all in all” (PR 348). While this is true of all actual entities, it is God as “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) that ultimately both grounds and saves the universe.

In a way, Whitehead’s philosophy blurs the line between natural theology and revealed theology; or, perhaps better, it shows their relation. In Whitehead, rational reflection on the concept of God as an actual entity arrives not just at God as the necessary ground of the universe, but also predicts God’s receptive and redemptive role in relation to the universe. This prediction must appeal to religious experience for its empirical support. In this way Whitehead shows that reasoning about God finds its empirical support in faith and that faith feels what reason suspects or must postulate. This, it seems to me, is a more satisfying understanding of the relation between reason and faith than thinking of them as separated, opposed or even conflicting ways of dealing with our experience.

Whitehead’s cosmological vision expresses a panentheism, a vision of God as the all-inclusive actuality. This is not pantheism, because God is at once transcendent to and inclusive of the universe. And although every actual entity transcends the universe given to it (“The many become one, and are increased by one” [PR 21]), God’s transcendence has an ultimacy that no temporal actual entity has. God’s transcendence can be respected without denying God’s dynamic immanence in and interaction with the universe. In my judgment this metaphysical vision, far better than any other option of which I am aware, enables us to develop a consistent, coherent and unified understanding of God and the universe that accepts and respects both the testimony of science and of Christian faith.

Much of the scholarly study of Whitehead to this point has stressed the radically novel in his thought. Much of the theology produced on this basis has seemed to many mainstream Christian theologians to depart too radically from the tradition to be accepted. But Whitehead’s philosophy can also be interpreted in ways that have more regard for the tradition. Whitehead’s philosophy offers Christian theology a powerful tool for expressing its central doctrinal convictions in a new way that might resolve some ancient tensions between Christian religious experience and the assumptions of classical metaphysics. Whitehead’s philosophy may need to be revised to make it useful to Christian theology, as many scholars have suggested. But it offers theology a rich resource for the development of doctrine.


[1] For a more thorough discussion of Whitehead’s natural theology, see Hosinski 1993, 155-250.

[2] See PR 19, 24, 40.

[3] See PR 46.

[4] See PR 32, 40, 88, 164, 207.

[5] See PR 40, 257, 344, 349; also SMW 250, 256-57.

[6] See PR 244, 344; also SMW 256.

[7] See PR 67, 108, 189, 224, 244, 283, 344.

[8] This is connected with the experience of value as well. The “subjective aim” also functions as the internal standard of value in every actual entity that guides and adjusts its reactions to the values inherent in the possibilities open to that process of becoming. Thus the initial subjective aim is also the initial standard of value, and the question concerns its actual source.

[9] See PR 343; also xiv.

[10] See PR 32, 40, 87-88, 247, 257, 344, 349; also RM, 103-05, 119-20, 153-54.

[11] See PR xii-xiv for the use of these terms; see also PR 244.

[12] There is an important methodological move here. Whitehead writes: “In the first place, God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. [God] is their chief exemplification” (PR 343). Thus God is to be understood by analogy with the structure of actual entities and God’s perfection will be understood as residing in God’s perfect exemplification of the metaphysical principles (rather than being an exception to them). If we do not approach the topic with a pre-commitment to the Greek assumptions concerning perfection, then we may be able to discover that in different aspects of God’s relation to the universe God exhibits different attributes. Not every function of God must be collapsed back into the eternal, unchanging being of God (as in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas and, indeed, most theologians of the Christian tradition). This methodological move in conjunction with his ontology enables Whitehead to conceive of God as a “coincidence of opposites” in a consistent and coherent way, as I will discuss below.

[13] Methodologically, Whitehead arrives at the Consequent Nature of God by analyzing the implications of conceiving of God as an actual entity. But he must appeal to religious experience for evidence of this aspect of God. See Hosinski 1993, 181-87, 197-98 for a discussion of this point.

[14] For a more thorough discussion of the Consequent Nature of God and why and how Whitehead developed this idea, see Hosinski 1993, 181-206.

[15] See PR 343-45.

[16] “[The Primordial Nature of God] is a free creative act, untrammeled by reference to any particular course of things[…]. The particularities of the actual world presuppose it; while it merely presupposes the general metaphysical character of creative advance, of which it is the primordial exemplification” (PR 344).

[17] One should note that this incompleteness is a function of the character of the universe and is not an imperfection in God (as it would be in classical metaphysics).

[18] There is a problem in understanding how development is possible without temporal succession, especially since Whitehead understands God’s becoming to extend over all time. But this problem is analogous to the problem of understanding how the development of a temporal actual entity occurs without temporal succession in its phases of becoming. In short, although there is a problem for understanding here, it is not an inconsistency. This attribute of God’s Consequent Nature exemplifies the same principle Whitehead affirms of all actual entities.

[19] See PR 345-51.

[20] I have deliberately omitted reference to works mainly aimed at developing Whitehead’s philosophy but which have few or no implications for theology.

[21] It is for this reason that Wolfhart Pannenberg’s characterization of Whitehead’s understanding of God and the world as “dualistic” is, in my judgment, erroneous (1994, 2-15).

Works Cited and Further Readings

Barbour, Ian G. 1997. Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (New York, Harper Collins).

Bracken, S.J., Joseph A. 1985. The Trinue Symbol: Person, Process and Community (Lanham MD, University Press of America).

Bracken, S.J., Joseph A. 1991. Society and Spirit: A Trinitarian Cosmology (Cranbury NJ, Associated University Presses).

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1965. A Christian Natural Theology, Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1975. Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1982. Beyond Dialogue: Toward a Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism (Philadelphia, Fortress Press).

Cobb, Jr., John B. 1999. Transforming Christianity and the World: A Way Beyond Absolutism and Relativism, edited and introduced by Paul F. Knitter (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis).

Ford, Lewis S. 1978. The Lure of God: A Biblical Background for Process Theism, (Philadelphia, Fortress Press).

Ford, Lewis S. 1984. The Emergence of Whitehead’s Metaphysics: 1925-1929 (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Ford, Lewis S. 2000. Transforming Process Theism (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Gilkey, Langdon B. 1976. Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (New York, Seabury Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 1973. A Process Christology (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 1976. God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia, Westminster Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 2000. Religion and Scientific Naturalism: Overcoming the Conflicts (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1948. The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1972. Whitehead’s Philosophy: Selected Essays, 1935-1970 (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press).

Haught, John A. 2000. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Boulder CO, Westview Press).

Hosinski, Thomas E. (1993). Stubborn Fact and Creative Advance: An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead (Lanham MD, Rowman & Littlefield).

Neville, Robert C. 1980. Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology (New York, Seabury Press).

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. 1994. Systematic Theology, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids MI, Eerdmans).

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. 1982. God-Christ-Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology (New York, Crossroad).

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. 1988. The End of Evil: Process Eschatology in Historical Context (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt (with Joseph A. Bracken, S.J.), ed. 1997. Trinity in Process: A Relational Theology of God (New York, Continuum).

Author Information

Thomas E. Hosinski, C.S.C.
Department of Theology
University of Portland, Portland, OR 97203

How to Cite this Article

Hosinski, Thomas E., “Whitehead’s Natural Theology: The Implications of Order and Novelty”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/thematic/theology-and-religion/whiteheads-natural-theology/>.