Prayers to a Process-Relational God

In Whitehead’s scheme there is no equivalence with regard to the temporal ontology of past and future. There is no space-time block. There are multiple timelines in Whitehead’s relativistic pluriverse. His metaphysical scheme is perspectival, meaning that any statement about the cosmos must be situated in some actual occasion (this is Whitehead’s “Ontological Principle”). There is no view from nowhere. Each actual occasion brings forth its own space and time. Each occasion has its own world-line (to use the Einsteinian term), and these lineages or historical routes of becoming are complexly interwoven with one another. There is no “cosmic now” that moves like a sheet of glass out of a single past into a single future. There is no cosmic calendar that tracks the linear progression of a single system from beginning to end. Whitehead’s is a chaotic or nonlinear dynamical cosmogenesis rather than a closed mechanical universe.

Each occasion is individual, self-creating, atomically arising out of its past and launching itself into its future. Each occasion must appropriate time for itself, and it must do so in relation to every other occasion’s appropriations. We become individually without being divided, and we need divine help to do so, even though not even God knows where we are going. There is an eternal intention, a perfect “real potentiality” forming a virtual continuum and granting spatiotemporal solidarity between all occasions (Whitehead calls it “the extensive continuum” on PR 286), but this continuum’s holy character is always incomplete and forever in process, jointly realized by the decisions of the democracy of creaturely occasions composing the pluriverse, rather than being imposed upon them from beyond. The single, unified whole is never finished but is continually made whole again and again with each concrescent pulse of creativity occurring within it.

We can try to understand ourselves by looking backward at our origin, “downward” into bodily perception in search of its efficient causal essence. Whitehead pursued this vector and at the ground of physical becoming discovered God’s primordial nature, the real potentiality informing every actuality. But we can also partake in God’s consequent vector, in the final cause of this our cosmogenesis, realizing the divine future ideal as though it were already, eternally, present.

To make this all perhaps a bit more concrete, here is William James (perhaps Whitehead’s most important philosophical influence) speaking to the efficacy of prayer:

“The religious phenomenon, studied as in Inner fact, and apart from ecclesiastical or theological complications, has shown itself to consist everywhere, and at all its stages, in the consciousness which individuals have of an intercourse between themselves and higher powers with which they feel themselves to be related. This intercourse is realized at the time as being both active and mutual.  If it be not effective; if it be not a give and take relation; if nothing be really transacted while it lasts; if the world is in no whit different for its having taken place; then prayer, taken in this wide meaning of a sense that SOMETHING IS TRANSACTING, is of course a feeling of what is illusory, and religion must on the whole be classed, not simply as containing elements of delusion–these undoubtedly everywhere exist–but as being rooted in delusion altogether, just as materialists and atheists have always said it was.  At most there might remain, when the direct experiences of prayer were ruled out as false witnesses, some inferential belief that the whole order of existence must have a divine cause.  But this way of contemplating nature, pleasing as it would doubtless be to persons of a pious taste, would leave to them but the spectators’ part at a play, whereas in experimental religion and the prayerful life, we seem ourselves to be actors, and not in a play, but in a very serious reality.“

Varieties of Religious Experience

I hope bringing James’ statement about prayer into the fold makes the metaphysical problem Whitehead is trying to address that much more concrete and close to home. Unless we finite creatures can have some form of transaction with God,—unless God is receptive, moved, by what happens to us,—then what’s the point of religion? 

God’s reversal of the polarity of experience is, I think, both one of Whitehead’s most ingenious moves as well as one of his most enigmatic. He is emphatic that he does not want his process theology to succumb to the age old habit of paying metaphysical compliments to God as the supremely exceptional being that breaks all the rules governing the rest of reality. The reversal of polarity (such that the mental pole is first, followed by the physical) is the one exception he grants to God.

But is this really exceptional? After all, are not we as human metaphysicians somehow also partaking in this reversal when we contemplate the divine nature? I think we are! 

This is the deeply participatory dimension of Whitehead’s thought that he does not always explicitly foreground. His theologizing is in this way a lot like the theurgizing of the Neoplatonists. When we think Whitehead’s God, we are in effect uniting with God, partaking of the divine nature, experiencing infinitely rather than finitely (with the mental pole first). 

Of course, in Whitehead’s view, religion, prayer, and God-thinking/talking are not about petitioning God for miracles. “God’s power is the worship God inspires.” Rather, prayer is more about learning to shut up to listen for God, sensitizing ourselves to the prime feeling or initial Eros that shepherds cosmic becoming.