God and Creativity

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I recently ran across a posting in an evangelical Christian blog that described process theology as believing that "God is neither omnipotent nor directly active in his creation. " This statement is only half right; while it is true that process theology rejects omnipotence, it certainly conceives of God as having a critically active role in creation. Many who do not understand process theology seem to confuse it with Deism, perhaps incorrectly equating a lack of omnipotence with being passive or indifferent. However, according to process theology, it is God who offers creative novelty to the evolving universe; without God, the universe would never have arrived at its present state.

An illustration of the importance of creativity to the God of process theology was brought to mind by Benjamin Myers' blog review of Neil MacDonald's book Metaphysics and the God of Israel. I have not read MacDonald's book and am otherwise unfamiliar with his theology, but as I understand it based on the review, his conception of God is one who made himself present in the universe but who otherwise made no difference in the creation or evolution of the world. According to this strange theology, God "determined himself" to be the world's creator without having actually created it. He just sort of went along with the ride and named himself creator anyway. The result is, according to MacDonald's theology, that

If God had not determined himself to be this world’s creator, the world would nevertheless be exactly the same, except that it would not be identified as God’s creature.
This is starkly different from the God of process theology, in which God plays a crucial creative role in the evolution of the universe. According to process theology, without God, the universe would definitely not be the same as it actually turned out to be.

What MacDonald's theology may possibly share with process theology (and other forms of panentheism) is the value of God's presence in the universe. I don't know if MacDonald believes in God playing a sympathetic role as one who fully shares in our experiences; certainly, this is very important to process thought--the notion that God fully understands our pains and joys. It seems like, in MacDonald's theology, having taken away the creative role, there would otherwise not be a lot that God has left to offer us.

Ultimately, I think that a theology in which creativity plays an important role, both in the divine and in the world's relationship to the divine, is more interesting than a theology in which God takes credit for creating a world that he actually didn't create.

7 comments:

Chris said...

Mystical,

What is the appeal of process theism apart from being nonconformist (in taking Becoming rather than Being as its basic principle)? I've never understood why people adhere to process theism.

I've also always been a little dubious as to whether process theism is really distinct from deism. I understand that God is said to "persuade", which suggests an active role for God. But I've also frequently seen this phrased in terms of God "offering possibilities". In this formulation, it sounds like God is merely being reduced to a sort of mystical principle from which arises the multiplicity of possible futures. In Deism there exists a multiplicity of possible futures despite God's inactivity. So what is the functional difference between the two, apart from God's having been inserted into different "gaps" in human understanding?

I hope that question made sense.

-Chris

Mystical Seeker said...

Chris,

Good questions. Let me give you my own answer. You don't have to agree or accept my own position on this, but this is my take on it.

For me one of the appeals of process theology is that it solves the conundrum of theodicy; it was only when I found a viable alternative to omnipotence that I was able to begin believing in God again, and theodicy was a huge issue behind that. Also I see it as consistent with science (because it doesn't posit God as intervening radically against the everyday laws of nature). I also find appealing the image of God as a co-creator of the universe, and I like the panentheistic idea of God as directly experiencing what we experience.

The possibilities in a world under a Deistic God are settled when God winds up the universal clock and then sits back and does nothing. I don't really see the role of free will in such a scenario (maybe there is some sort of free-will variant of Deism that I am unaware of.) But under process theology, the future possibilities remain undetermined at each instant. Each possible future is only settled in the immediate case at each moment in time, which in turn creates new possible futures that remain to be resolved until they are decided. Thus there is a continuous process of uncertainty that involved Divine participation to keep things moving. Divine participation is essential to this process.

To me, there is a huge difference between a Deistic God who sets up a clockwork world and sits back and does nothing after that, and a process God who participates in each event with an uncertain future and offers creative novelty, based on the current state of the universe at each instant. Each new event creates new possibilities and thus requires new creative input based on changing conditions; thus God is always adjusting what he/she offers to the world based on what immediately transpired. This is thus a God of continuous activity in the world, constantly offering new possibilities and responding to the world as it changes.

In addition to offering possibilities, though, process theology sees God as using those possibilities as a creative lure, in the sense that God beckons the world towards the choices that God prefers. Thus God is always seeking to evolve the universe towards possibilities that will enhance the experience of the universe's participants. Divine love plays a crucial role, since the possibilities that God offers are grounded in the highest, most loving possibilities; and because God shares in the experiences of the universe, God acts as a kind of perfect companion to us.

So I think a huge difference between Deism and process theology is that the God of Deism is not present in each moment, while the God of process theology is; and also, each event under process theology is rooted in a freedom and uncertainty, which requires God to participate at each moment in order for the universe to be lured in a certain direction. If the God of process theology suddenly sat back and did nothing, the universe would stagnate; but the God of Deism doesn't have to do anything because the course of events was preordained when that God omnipotently created the initial conditions and set things in motion.

To me, the God of Deism is cold and distant, while the God of process theology is loving and involved with us and perfectly empathetic with all our joys and sorrows.

Chris said...

Thanks, Mystic, that does help somewhat. Does God offer possibilities to the universe at large, or only to humans? In other words, is it safe to say that the natural parts of the world are determined, whereas human choices are "free"? Or are elements of the natural world "free" as well?

Mystical Seeker said...

Chris,

Process theology believes that God offers possibilities to the entire universe, not just to humans. The "how" of this is where things get pretty metaphysical. The natural world is quite obviously not conscious as we are, so it is important to make clear that process theology does not believe that rocks and sticks are conscious beings who make decisions in the way that we do. But the idea is that free will didn't just spring up out of nothingness when conscious animals evolved; instead, the natural world has contained within it already a measure of subjectivity, from which free will derives. Not consciousness, mind you, but subjectivity. Every event, in Whiteheadian process philosophy, is an "occasion of experience" (to borrow a term from Whitehead) that involves the incorporation of past events combined with the possibilities offered by God, and a sort of "decision" to complete the event. This is where the "process" part of process philosophy/theology comes into play.

For most of the universe, Whitehead describes the outcomes of these events as essentially habits of behavior. Atoms, photons, stars, planets, all behave according to what we call the laws of physics but which Whitehead might instead say are habitual responses to the inputs that are fed into each event and the subsequent "decisions" by those processes to go in certain habitual ways.

Where there is wiggle room within those habitual habits of behavior, God can lure the universe forward. My take on this--and this is strictly my own, and perhaps seriously academic process theologians would say something different than I would--is that this is how God played a creative role in the evolving universe. Perhaps I could imagine that God lured the universe at the time of the Big Bang to develop those habitual patterns of behavior that we now consider the laws of physics. And maybe those "random" mutations in evolution were the result of a Divine lure within the cells of plants and animals. This is my own speculative riff on how this all takes place.

I hope this helps. Again, I understand that you might not accept or agree with this take on it. But at least I can explain my own understanding of it and why I find it interesting as a philosophical and theological perspective.

DKblog said...

Mystical,

Thanks for pointing me to your blog and this interesting exchange about Process Theology. Peace.

Mystical Seeker said...

DKBlog,

You're welcome!

bud johnston said...

MacDonald does not ever write:

If God had not determined himself to be this world’s creator, the world would nevertheless be exactly the same, except that it would not be identified as God’s creature.

Were you to read the book you would have to entertain quite nuanced counterfactual analysis. Clearly MacDonald holds that God is the creator of all things - so it is not a strange theology but quite straightforward really. The universe - this very universe - could have come into existence without God. But it didnt - according to the Christian confession.