Process Theism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) First published Thu Jul 29, 2004; substantive revision Mon Oct 6, 2008 Copyright © 2008 by Donald Viney - firstname.lastname@example.org
Process theism typically refers to a family of theological ideas originating in, inspired by, or in agreement with the metaphysical orientation of the English philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the American philosopher-ornithologist Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, it is an essential attribute of God to be fully involved in and affected by temporal processes. This idea contrasts neatly with traditional forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable,) and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theism does not deny that God is in some respects eternal, immutable, and impassible, but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible.
The views of Whitehead and Hartshorne should also be distinguished from those that affirm that the divine being, by an act of self-limitation, opens itself to influence from the world. Some neo-Thomists hold this view and a group of Evangelical Christian philosophers, calling themselves “open theists,” promote similar ideas. These forms of theism were influenced by process theism, but they deny its claim that God is essentially in a give-and-take relationship with the world. Moreover, process theism is a genuinely philosophical theology in the sense that it is not grounded in claims of special insight or revealed truth but in philosophical reflection. Specifically, process theism is a product of theorizing that takes the categories of becoming, change, and time as foundational for metaphysics. The metaphysical underpinning of process theism is often called process philosophy, a label suggested by the title of Whitehead's magnum opus, Process and Reality. In order to bring out this philosophy's emphasis on relatedness, many scholars follow Bernard Loomer in calling it process-relational philosophy. Whitehead's preferred expression for his metaphysical viewpoint is “the philosophy of organism.” This article concerns primarily the concept of God in process theism, although we shall conclude with a brief discussion of arguments for the existence of God in process thought and a note on the historical influences on process theism. [...]
Philosophers Speak of God demonstrates that Whitehead and Hartshorne are not the sole representatives of process theism, although they are its chief exponents. Buddhism, with its twin emphases on impermanence and dependent origination, is arguably the most sophisticated ancient form of process philosophy. Buddhist philosophers criticized the notion of a timeless absolute without, however, developing a form of process theism. Whitehead remarks that his concept of God has more richness than the Buddhist concept of nirvana and that his philosophy of religion could be viewed as an effort to “true up” the Buddhist idea (Johnson 1983, 8). Hartshorne maintains that aspects of process theism are in Plato's later writings—specifically, the Sophist, the Timaeus, and the Laws—but they are never brought together into a coherent theory. Hartshorne sees process theism as providing the needed coherence (cf. Dombrowski 2005 and Viney 2007a).
Because process theists reject the idea of a deity whose moral character is ever questionable, John Stuart Mill's essay, “Theism,” is not an anticipation of process theism. By parity of reasoning, Peter Forrest's proposal of a God that grows from pure power to pure love is not a version of theism that process theists would find appealing (Forrest 2007). Some of the central themes and arguments of process theism, however, are evident in less well-known thinkers scattered throughout history. One can mention the names of Levi ben Gerson (1288-1340), Fausto Socinus (1539-1604), Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling (1775-1854), Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887), Rowland Gibson Hazard (1801-1888), Jules Lequyer [or Lequier] (1814-1862), Lorenzo D. McCabe (1817-1897), and Otto Pfleiderer (1839-1908).
Some might count G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) as a forerunner of process theism, but his case is not clear. The idea of development is central to Hegel's thinking about the Absolute Spirit. On the other hand, his philosophy was more influential in ushering in what he himself called “the death of God” than in providing a clearly articulated theistic alternative to classical theism (cf. Küng 1980, 138-42). It is also ironic that it was much less in the positive influence of Hegelian idealism than in the negative reactions to it that process philosophy, and by implication process theism, matured in the twentieth century.
In the generation immediately preceding Whitehead, C. S. Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910) closely anticipated process theism and served as important influences on its development. There was also a cross fertilization of ideas from some of Whitehead's contemporaries: Henri Bergson (1859-1941), Samuel Alexander (1859-1938), and William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966)—Hocking was one of Hartshorne's teachers at Harvard.
Philosophers and religious thinkers who independently formulated aspects of process theism in the twentieth century include: Bernardino Varisco (1850-1933), Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938), Martin Buber (1878-1965), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), Edgar Sheffield Brightman (1884-1953), Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972).
Major figures who defended some variety of process theism informed by the works of Whitehead or Hartshorne include: Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975), Bernard Meland (1899-1993), Paul Weiss (1901-2002), Norman Pittenger (1905-1997), Daniel Day Williams (1910-1973), William L. Reese (b. 1921), John B. Cobb, Jr. (b. 1925), Schubert Ogden (b. 1928), Eugene H. Peters (1929-1983), Bowman Clarke (1927-1996), Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (b. 1933), Lewis S. Ford (b. 1933), Rem B. Edwards (b. 1934), David A. Pailin (b. 1936), David Ray Griffin (b. 1939), Jorge Luis Nobo (b. 1940), George W. Shields (b. 1951), and Daniel A. Dombrowski (b. 1953)—Williams, Reese, Cobb, Ogden, and Peters were Hartshorne's students at Chicago; Clarke and Edwards studied with him at Emory; Nobo was Hartshorne's student at Texas.