“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

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. 






5 responses to “Prayers to a Process-Relational God”

  1. Daryl Avatar

    Hi, Matt,

    I used to say that while Islam seems ontologically shy (thus curbing or precluding usefulness of even “metaphysical compliments” {do make your e an i there}), Judaism is epistemologically shy. So “not even God knows where we are going” would be out of bounds.

    Can’t “primordial” ordering among potentialities be such like, how about, “an offer you can’t refuse”? It’s not coercion maybe, but neither is it pure persuasion. Maybe ‘coercive’ and ‘persuasive’ are better terms.

    In Pharaonic Egypt apparently the concept of weightiness of heart was laudatory. In old Hebrew, which will have derived much from area civilizations, maybe this maybe not, the word for liver is related to the word for honour as it is also related to the word for heavy, all on the root K-V-D. So here’s bit of humour with which the Bible is replete, here I hope seasonally apt – it is Passover now. God repeatedly during the cycle of Plagues visited upon Egypt talks about making K-V-D the heart of Pharaoh. Is this not poking fun, if with grim yet staggering consequence, at all at least the Egyptian leadership (mis)took for being of highest importance? (‘Importance’ is for me a key Whitehedian word, from his lovely Modes of Thought, and a key to describing how idolatry, the ultimate wrongfulness, functions today. Maybe think also, “misplaced” you-know-what certain material of density metaphor…)

    There clearly is an active line of physical consequence implied. Pharaoh resolves about something then is made to change his mind (-heart). Would it be that “not even God knows” where that was going? Perhaps it comes down to degrees of freedom, if predictably a person is so steeped in perversity for whatever reason, it is fully unreasonable to expect self-extrication from further perverse actions. The exit door from idolatry, self-aggrandizement, may be always open; but whether that ever-present opportunity is apt to be seized, from in others’ circumstances to in grand world-changing ones, is beyond our ken. There is always that irreducible surd of incomprehensibility that makes for recourse to the Divine. Makes for epistemological shyness, too.

    A prime rabbinic paradigm for prayer is ChaNaH, who greatly upset at being childless (unable to act through this primal Creativity), standing before the central religious meeting place in ancient Israel, she is mistaken for a drunk by the priest seeing her moving her lips silently in her prayerful distress. Her spirit lifts. God “remembers” her (Z-K-R); she conceives. While there are times when rather physical imagery is used to describe Divine ingress (and I’ll not get into my Christian impressions although these would be formative for Whitehead, at least through his dad and brother), at other times we see things like “make heavy”/”harden” and “remember”. Inner organs are affected, in these examples centrally a heart(-mind) and a womb!

    No one can maintain that Judaic tradition is anything at all like a tidy system of sources. But I find that having Whiteheadian terms and Judaic traditional ones in juxtaposition by turns helps with puzzlement and increases same.

    This section about Hannah and Creativity (as I am having it) is traditionally read in the Jewish liturgical cycle on the Jewish New Year’s Day which is primarily a remembrance of Creation/Creativity itself. Hannah’s new world was “increased by one” through her new moment. Further interestingly, the main liturgical reading on that day actually recounts elderly Sarah’s being Divinely “remembered” (lame translations these; P-Q-D) converting her barrenness to bearing child. And an unlikely rabbinic empathy is referred to re this R’oSh Ha-ShaNaH with the mother of a killer enemy who has met his end (Sisera’s mom) who is said to have uttered as many cries at her evil son’s demise as we sound blasts on the ram’s horn in ritual that day. I’ll spare you an interweaving into all this of consequentiality and primordiality, but you see how one might find all this is most interesting to tease out and develop.

    Just some thoughts you provoked with your post. Glad you see too how James was so very influential for Whitehead.

  2. John Anngeister Avatar

    Matthew, your writing makes some sense in the context of my own prayer life, and my growing understanding of my role in it, and God’s.

    What you have suggested that is familiar to me is (1) the existence within each and every one of us “occasions” of a real participation-ground for intercourse with ultimate reality, and (2) that God’s action in this intersection of Being is characterized not as “hearing and responding” to our selfishly imagined needs but instead as constantly offering “everything” to us in the form of the possibilities of this very participation-moment (which we too often just don’t see and cannot use).

    What I mean is: this Process-Relational God has not ceased to be unchanging, but what is constant is that he is always offering us Being-as-love in boundless measure (as divinely and fully as the given moment can bear it). Trouble is, we don’t realize any participation in this abundance until we discover the necessary (sometimes radical) self-adjustment which ought to be the goal of every prayerful “occasion” anyway (but too often is not).

    This constantly over-flowing “well” of (untapped) spiritual response (if opened) would be adequate to every possible actual spiritual need – but these are the kinds of “needs” of which many of us are simply unconscious, because we are too busy turning to this ground impulsively for material-identified good instead of spirit-identified reality (ie., we don’t ask for more Truth, more Goodness, more Beauty).

    “God’s power is the worship he inspires.”

    This is the kind of mature worship which doesn’t seek to change God but instead seeks the key to participation in and with this constant loving source, which always must come in the form of the next practical adjustment of the mortal mind in the direction of whole Being.

  3. Joel Avatar

    Matthew thanks for your inspiring writing.

    Yes, pray to God is a state of communing with the creative source. No asking for something. The creative source has not human nature. The humanity has prayed for centuries asking for something like peace on earth or provide food… and where we are now?
    The results today for such prayers show that God is not a kind of “St. Claus” to ask for something or privilege my status because I am clever enough to “talk to god”

    Religion exit because in the development of our human brain the function “time” start to “work” and trapped in time.

    We as humans need to create a linear conceptualisation (like religion and the codes of right behaviour) of something that is timeless or empty.

    Imagine the status of humanity eliminating only the time function (keeping the rest as it is now) the world will change radically. I do not think change on terms of better or worst but different.

    Take care and sty safe.

  4. Daryl Avatar

    Joel’s remarks are perplexing (and with a telling typo, ‘exit’ for ‘exist’…). [forgive any possible duplicate posts I’ll rely on moderator to remove as I labour with dial up internet]

    “No asking for something” – why not something desired granted even if specifically asked for, if and only if (but even that logical condition is going too far) one’s heart-mind state is well aligned prayerfully (and otherwise)? Then the “concrete” result is definitely connectible to the prayerful act, see the Hannah episode I bring in prior comment. Not that she asks for something or is severely bothered by something per se leads to its provision/cure, but that during this state some heart-mind state is achieved that “works”, actually works in the world that she, we, see.

    “The creative source has not human nature.”

    But why not the creative (and otherwise qualified, there are many religious names for Deity) source is the paradigm for human natural betterment? A kind of imitatio Dei that, as parents know but are still satisfied at the growth in attempting, like children – child-like adults being the key as I see it -; an imitation, a prompting after feeling, prehending, from Divine source, a better graded valuation…

    “asking for something like peace on earth or provide food… and where we are now?” – indeed, yet this is no evidence at all that the burden falls on the inefficacity of concrete longings in a beautuiful world, but might merely suggest that there is always failure written into the scheme, but that the attempt nevertheless must be made, and always with reference to some desired concrescence – otherwise it might imply escape(-ism) and thus denial of the beauty of the world, without getting that the freedoms afforded can require that beauty be inexcricably allied to or engendering of demise and, well, bad stuff (as seen from our angle).

    The ’emptiness’ Joel refers to I believe can function as a bridge for understanding among world religions/spiritualities. In its Judaic context I think a useful entry point is as mentioned, re having nothing B-LeV but being ‘aL Lev, no heart adhesions, as it were and so difficult that it is, impeding Source-receptivity, but being above it yet ever of it.

    “Sty [sic] safe” – what is going on now indeed, as the fortuitous typo invites allusion, is a demonstration of radical evil as people now the world over are being grossly wrongfully subject to confinement as if to sties. An act of hegemonic maintenance – hardened-heartedness (see prior comment example; although I think more instructive is the Biblical Babel story with adjunct interpretation from other traditional lore)- has
    yoked public health and the entire public in its embrace, in an attempt to stave off its collapse and to force segue into another technomanic financialized regime. Recognition of how pressingly utter evil demands open eyes to identify it and words and actions to stop it and to maybe merit its stoppage prayerful heart states; this recognition implies full engagement and appreciation of our very time-boundedness – the bound being the very beauty (‘satisfaction’) itself and its ‘superjection’.

    1. Matthew T. Segall Avatar

      Thanks for this delightful and fascinating comment, Daryl. You’ve got me wondering about the best way to imagine divine omniscience from a Whiteheadian perspective.

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