Alfred North Whitehead was a scientist, mathematician, philosopher, and theologian, and followed a natural religion dictated by his own philosophy.(1) Here, I will use Whitehead to challenge Christian thinking on God's impassibility, immutability, and all-controlling sovereignty over human wills.
Rather than believing in an omnipotent, timeless God, Whitehead believed that the world contained God: "the world creates God and God creates the world."(2) He did believe that God was superior to the world, but also that God evolves with the world and becomes more and more superior over time.(3)
Furthermore, Whitehead believed that there are two aspects of God: the primordial and the consequent. The primordial aspect of God represents everything in his character that remains constant, the part of God that does not change. The consequent aspect of God is God's actual experience, which constantly changes and adapts to the world, because Whitehead believed that the world affects God. He also believed that God affects the world, that he is constantly trying to influence and persuade the world with his ideals so that he may accomplish them and "enhance harmony, beauty, and enjoyment."(4)
In this God-world relationship, Whitehead believed that God does not accomplish his ideals through coercion, meaning he does not force his plans into action. He did not believe that God possesses a dominating control over everyone and everything. He believed that everyone has "free will and self-determination and may comply with God's ideal or resist it."(5) Whitehead did believe in evil as well; he held that evil is what happens when humanity resists and rejects God's ideals, and he believed this causes God to suffer, because "God is enriched and impoverished by the world's responses to his persuasive influence."(6)
In order to assess what we can learn from A.N. Whitehead, I will examine his theology of God in regards to popular Christian understandings of God as impassible, immutable, and completely sovereign over all human action.
On these subjects, Gregory Boyd has observed that, "In Western philosophical tradition, emotional vulnerability is a weakness, so we have projected onto God the attribute of 'impassibility' (above suffering). All variability is thought to be an imperfection, so God must be 'immutable' (above any sort of change). Lack of control is also an imperfection, so God meticulously controls everything."(7) These flawed philosophical assumptions are the focus of this blog.
Does God Suffer?
Jürgen Moltmann has stated that, "The one who is capable of love is also capable of suffering, for he also opens himself up to the suffering which is involved in love, and yet remains superior to it by virtue of his love."(8)
Anyone who reads the prophets can see that God does indeed suffer. Terence Fretheim has noted that, in the prophets, the "grief of God is as current as the people's sin."(9) Indeed, "God is revealed not as one who remains coolly unaffected by the rejection of the people, but as one who is deeply wounded by the broken relationship."(10) Harold Knight goes as far as to say that God is "the greatest sufferer of all, because He alone . . . experiences the ultimate significance of every turn and phase of [the drama of human history] in the most intimate personal way."(11) This is due to the fact that "God relates at every level with the whole person of each individual."(12) Abraham Joshua Heschel observed in the prophets that God "is personally involved in, even stirred by, the conduct and fate of man. . . . man is a perpetual concern of God . . . a factor in the life of God."(13)
However, God's grief does not mean that he is in any way pathetic or powerless. Fretheim has added that, "while indicating that God is indeed a vulnerable God, touched and affected in the deepest possible way by what the people have done to the relationship, God's grief does not entail being emotionally overwhelmed or embittered by the barrage of rejection."(14)
God's suffering is in his passion. Walter Brueggeman has described this divine passion as "a propensity to suffer with and suffer for, to be in solidarity with Israel in its suffering, and by such solidarity to sustain a relationship that rightfully could be terminated."(15) God's passion is passion to the fullest extent possible: "Is Ephraim My dear son? . . . My heart (mē’eh) yearns (hāmâ) for him" (Jer. 31:20). The Hebrew words here indicate that the deepest part of God has been disturbed by a tremendous, tempestuous heartache brought about by his incomprehensible love, strong compassion, unending care and concern, and boundless empathy. This is the passion and, consequently, the suffering of God. In Jeremiah, God's sorrow over his people's rejection "is beyond healing" (8:18); he is broken for the brokenness of his people (v.21); "dismay has taken hold of [him]" (v.21), to the point where his eyes are a fountain of tears, weeping day and night (9:1).
Thus, Whitehead's understanding of God as one who is affected by the world and suffers when it rejects him is very biblical.
Does God Change?
"I, the LORD, do not change," says Malachi 3:6. And there is also James 1:17, which tells us that "there is no variation or shifting shadow" in the Father of Lights. But there are a multitude of instances in which God changed his mind (Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15:11, 35; 2 Sam. 24:16; 1 Kings 21:21-22, 28-29; 1 Chron. 21:15; 2 Chron. 12:5-8; Ps. 106:45; Jer. 7:5-7; 15:6; 18:8-10; 26:3,13,19; 42:10; Ezek. 20:5-22; Hos. 11:5-9; Amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2; Joel 2:13). So his mind can change; But does anything else about him change?
What about the incarnation? The Word became flesh (John 1:14). Jesus Christ, whose nature was that of God, emptied himself and became a servant whose nature was that of humanity (Phil 2:6-8). Christ became sin (2 Cor. 5:21); he became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). If that doesn't tell someone God can change, I don't know what will.(16)
So what do Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17 mean when they say that God does not change? I contend that Whitehead's understanding of the two aspects of God answers that very question. There is the aspect of God that is immutable (or, in Whitehead's terms, the primordial aspect of God). For example, God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). He is and always has been and always will be love. As Boyd says, "The cross reveals the immutability of God’s love."(16) There are many other parts of his nature as well that have never changed and will never change.
However, there is also the aspect of God that adapts to the world (the consequent aspect). We can see throughout the Old and New Testaments that God adapts to the cultures of his people. Though it is safe to say that God does not approve of slavery, he put up with it in order to communicate himself to the cultures that engaged in it. Though it is safe to say that God's ideal for marriage is monogamy, he put up with men who had several wives and concubines. H. Wheeler Robinson observes that in the divine purpose, "we see the unchanging will of God, and in that sense He is the unchanging One." However, he adds that changes "are involved in the working-out of that purpose."(18) It is not that his ideals change or that his nature changes, but he does adapt to humanity in order to communicate himself to us.(19) Is this not what he did in Christ?
Thus, Whitehead's understanding of the primordial and the consequent aspects of God is also quite biblical.
Does God Control Everything?
In 2 Samuel 24, it is written that God's anger drove him to incite David to take a census of Israel and Judah (v.1). In verse 10, David is grief-stricken and convicted because taking the census was apparently a sin, so he begged the Lord to take away his guilt for being so foolish. In 1 Chronicles 21, the same story is recorded. Except, in verse 1, it says that Satan incited David to take the census! And in verse 8 David begs God to take away his guilt for listening to Satan.
I think what we see here is a change of theology. According to Heschel, "Evil was accepted because it came from God. Then people began to wonder whether it was right to hold God responsible for all misfortunes that happen to man."(20) They realized that the evil in the world could not be contributed to God, but that there was a free agent of chaos trying to kill, steal and destroy God's creation. They realized that God does not control everything, because there is evil in this world, of which God in all his goodness is not the source.
We can see throughout Scripture that God clearly does not control everything. One proof of this can be seen in the fact that God experiences opposition with his people. He suffers and is angered by their rejection of him. He often asks his people 'Why?'.
"All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people" (Isa. 65:2; Rom. 10:21)If God is controlling everything and everyone, why does he face opposition? Why does he cause people to reject him, only to experience suffering and anger? Why would he ask 'Why?'? If he was in control of everyone's actions, he could make them do whatever he wanted them to do. He would never face opposition or rejection. Furthermore, if God controlled everyone and everything, why would he ask, "Why?"? It simply would not make sense, for he would be asking himself the question. He would not need to ask why if he was the one behind people's actions.
"Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ez. 33:11)
"Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ez. 18:31)
"Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return." (Jer. 8:5)
"Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?" (Jer. 8:19)
In the New Testament as well, we see people rejecting God and resisting the Holy Spirit.
"Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves" (Lk. 7:30)And then there are the words of Jesus himself, who said:
"You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!" (Acts 7:51)
Jerusalem . . . how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Matt. 23:37)If God controlled everyone and everything, there would not be anyone rejecting his purpose for them or resisting his Holy Spirit. If God controlled everything, why on earth would Jesus say "you were not willing," as if the person was not controlled by his Father? If God controlled everything, to say such things would be absolutely absurd!
Thus, it is entirely biblical to believe like Whitehead that God does not coerce anyone because everyone has free will and self-determination; he can only be as persuasive as he possibly can.
Whitehead is also accurate in his depiction of God always trying to influence the world with his ideals. This is basically the mission of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are forever trying to draw all of humanity to their wonderful embrace. They seek to reconcile the world to themselves so that they can restore all people to the images of God that they were intended to be. They are fighting to restore peace and "enhance harmony, beauty, and enjoyment."
So you can see that there is plenty we can learn from Whitehead's theology of God. Though he did offer some ideas that are not compatible with Scripture (for such was not his concern), he emphasized a lot of ideas that, though are unusual in many Christian circles, are entirely biblical. We have seen yet again that an unorthodox theologian can challenge ideas we have that may not be biblical (and in this case, are not) and can even cause our theology to evolve into a more Scriptural, more reasonable philosophy.
(1) See Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 600-601.
(2) Ibid., 600.
(6) Ibid., 601.
(7) Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 36. For a further study on this, see Jürgen Moltmann, "The apatheia of God and the freedom of man," in The Crucified God, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 267-270.
(8) Moltmann, 230. Also, see H. Wheeler Robinson, Suffering, Human and Divine (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1940), 176: "Let us wheel and attack the doctrine of divine impassibility by asking what meaning there can be in a love which is not costly to the lover?"(9) Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 111. This is a fabulous work on the subject of God's suffering and passion.
(10) Ibid., 123.
(11) Harold Knight, The Hebrew Prophetic Consciousness (London: Lutterworth Press, 1947), 138.
(12) Fretheim, 123.
(13) Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), 289, 292. This is another absolutely essential work on God's passion and suffering. Heschel refers to it as God's pathos.
(14) Fretheim, 111.
(15) Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1997), 299.
(16) I owe these insights to Greg Boyd. See Is God to Blame?, 36.
(17) Gregory A. Boyd, Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God (Baker Books, 2004), 168.
(18) Robinson, 173. For a fantastic challenge of the Christian understanding of God's immutability and impassibility, see his chapter "The Suffering of God," 158-182.
(19) I would also add that God's omniscience is also adapting with the world. As Nelson Pike states, "God is immutable with respect to His omniscience, but the specific content of God's knowledge might change. It might change as the objects and circumstances that are the objects of His knowledge change." Quoted in Linwood Urban, A Short History of Christian Thought. Rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 188-189.
(20) Heschel, 376.